More Mini-Reviews: 1st Men in the Moon and Slan

mad scientist41 out of 116 down! 

In Sci Fi, as in the real world, there’s bad science, and there’s anti-science. Bad science is Star Wars (and, frankly, Star Trek) and, oh, say, Psychology . Anti-science is X-Men and Sociology. Star Wars and Psychology mis-use aspects of science or introduce mountains of handwavium in the service of another end – most excellent entertainment, in the case of Star Wars, getting tenure and grants in the case of psychology. Anti-science, on the other hand, pretends to be science but in reality undermines and contradicts the basic principles of science. X-Men is built on the idea that Eeevolution ™ ‘leaps forward’ in a remarkably directed way. Eeevolution cares about us! And knows which direction is ‘forward’. Sociology puts on a lab coat in order to give some sort of coat-tail legitimacy to the program of remaking society into a Marxist fantasy land.

Many a great story has been built on Bad Science, mostly, I presume, in a completely innocent manner – the goal is to create a gripping, mind-bending story, not give a science lecture. Even more understandable are the old stories that extrapolated from what people thought they knew at the time – what was perfectly hard speculation in 1890 looks utterly silly, scientifically speaking, in 2015. So bad science in stories is OK, you just have to run with it unapologetically (*cough* midicloririans *cough*) and readers will be OK with it. In fact, it’s fun in and of itself to read old stories just to see the state of science at the time from which the authors jump off.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil the daylights out of Slan. First Men in the Moon, not so much.

The First Men in the Moon is just such a story. Since it was first published in 1901, H.G. Wells was unencumbered by too much information about the moon – it was still a blank slate of mystery upon which his imagination could pour out. But first, he’s got to get his men there.

A lone eccentric scientific genius named Cavor is puttering around in the English countryside, trying to formulate a material that is impervious to gravity waves. Bedford, a dissolute neighbor and the narrator of the story, joins him. Cavor’s first successful experiment results in a sudden tornado-like disaster, as his sheet of gravity-proof ‘Cavorite’ causes all the air above it, now immune to the effects of the earth’s gravity, to blast off into space at high speeds (why? I guess the aether moves it or the air exists in some other absolute frame of reference). The resulting rush of surrounding air into the low pressure area creates a suction that destroys nearby building and, thankfully, blows the sheet of Cavorite right off the earth before the entire atmosphere is launched into space.

Bedford and Cavor proceed to build a space ship – a metal and glass sphere with smaller pieces of Cavorite arranged behind shutters. The shutters can be opened and closed, creating repulsion or attraction as needed.(1) They decide to take a test flight to the moon, packing up stuff just as if they are a couple English gentlemen going on safari.

The moon, while not made of cheese, nonetheless reminds one of a block of Swiss, with highly-adapted insect-like aliens filling all the holes. Well’s idea of a frozen atmosphere that thaws during the two-week day and refreezes at night is wonderful. The whole ecology of the moon’s surface springs up with the dawn and crumbles to dust with the night.

But his interest is clearly in the rationally-organized aliens, who are trained and physically altered to suit the tasks their society needs done, so that no one is unhappy with his lot in life. In his audience with the Grand Lunar, Cavor presents human war as necessary to the culling of the species, as people are all mostly alike and many are dreadfully unhappy with their lot and would otherwise make trouble if they weren’t periodically out killing each other. Otherwise, Cavor is presented as a kind-hearted and optimistic humanitarian. Wonder what Well’s monsters would sound like?

Otherwise, a fun ride, wonderful imagination. This is the story that inspired C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Slan is a great story all but ruined, for me at least, by the ending. You may have read here about my aversion to Way Cool Mind Powers. WCMP are a bump in the road for me, a good enough story can get me past it pretty easily. Slan succeeds well in this respect, as it is a grippingly told adventure story where the WCMP are, for the most part, essential and well-integrated. It’s that other thing….

Jommy Cross (2) is aa 8-year old boy whose father, a great scientist and a Slan, was murdered by base-edition humans some time before the story opens. He and his mother, also Slans, are walking in Centropolis, the world capital some centuries in the future. She is reminding him of his duty to recover his father’s work when he turns 15, and his duty to stay alive as the police close in on them. He narrowly escapes as his mother is gunned down.

What is a Slan? A post-human who is way smarter, way stronger, tougher and longer-lived, than the base human stock – us – among whom they live. They also have WCMP – they can read base human’s minds, and, with permission, each other’s as well. Jommy can also exert a bit of ‘hypnotism’ over humans, wherein he takes complete control of their wills. Slans have golden tendrils sticking up out of their heads that enable their telepathy – and make them easy to spot.

Humans, of course, fear and hate Slans, and blame them for several centuries of increased monstrous human births, murders, and trying to rule the world and enslave base humanity. Humans believe the Slans possess some sort of machine that is used on pregnant women to cause them to give birth to Slans, but that most of the time, the result is the birth of monstrosities. Thus, Jommy and his family have lived in hiding all their lives. Other Slans are presumed to exist – the government claims to be finding and killing them off regularly – but Jommy’s family has never managed to find any.

The story alternates sections that deal with Jommy’s attempt to survive, find and ultimately use his father’s inventions to save whatever remaining Slans are out there, with sections that follow Kathleen, a young Slan captured by the government and living under the watchful eyes of Kier Gray, the world dictator, a brilliant and formidable man.

Jommy does find his father’s notes and invention – an atomic-powered hand-held weapon that can dissolve regular matter into nothing. He manages to set up a secret lab out in the country, where he develops lots of cool toys – a indestructible flying car, a anti-gravity/atomic powered spaceship, a crystal gadget that greatly aides his ‘hypnotism’, and lots of weapons.

Jommy also finds Kathleen, who has likewise grown up and made a daring escape – and who is promptly murdered by the evil head of the state police, but not before they have fallen madly in love.

There are evil conspiracies, space battles, daring escapes, a trip to Mars, multiple major reveals and plot twists – it’s all kinds of fun. Then comes the end, where we find out what’s really going on.

What’s going on is the X-Men. See, evolution – I hereby coin the term Hegelution for the kind of intelligent, willful process that makes ‘leaps’ in order to better or supplant the species – so Hegelution has decided, after the manner in which all mindless, mechanical natural processes make decisions, to kick the human species up a couple notches. Thus, by otherwise perfectly natural causes (!?!) Slans arise. Kier Gray turns out to be a Slan, and he and a team of Slans have been running the world’s human government for ages. They created the new subspecies of tendrilless Slans, who can easily hide among humans, but lack the mind-reading ability of true Slans. Tendrilless Slans hide in plain sight, and have developed all sorts of way cool technology, including anti-grav propulsion and interplanetary travel. But for reasons too twisty to get into here, the true Slans made it so the tendrilless hate and fear them. Hegelution under Slan management will eventually return the tendrils to the tendrilless in a few generations, and the Slans can then be one big happy family of world-dominating super-beings who treat humans as, at best, annoying pets.

So we have humans, who truly are threatened by the Slans, tendrilless Slans who hold humans in contempt and true Slans in fear; and true Slans who are, in fact, manipulating things so that they will end up running the planet and solar system. True Slans do, in fact, commit and allow all kinds of murder and mayhem in the name of the Coming Glorious People’s Slan Paradise – they make Machiavelli look like an old softy. Glorious enough ends justify any means; the connection between the means employed and the ends targeted is so well understood that no unintended consequences need be considered. Slans are real, real smart, after all, and should be in charge. Intelligent management is all the world really needs.

And they’re the heroes. And Sci Fi fans quickly adopted ‘Fans are Slans’ as a motto – if anyone were paying attention, that would not make many friends among non-fans.

Anyway, anti-science. It’s not just that evolution doesn’t work like that – it’s more a description of what has happened, and in no way a cause of what has happened – it’s that Hegelution undermines the very idea of science. As the medieval philosophers noted, natural philosophy is an attempt to discover and understand the secondary causes of nature without recourse to constant divine intervention – that ‘God did it’ is both true and trivial, and does nothing to explain any particular case, or, indeed to distinguish between natural phenomena and miracles.

But Hegelution is a cause, both here and in the despair-inducing X-Men. Not only is it a cause, but an intelligent one, that somehow foresees or guesses what kinds of mutations might be helpful.

Slan is a rollicking good time, provided you buy the idea that heaven on earth is a socialist paradise run by really smart guys. If not, it’s still an adventure story well told.

One more minor point: Slan foreshadows future stories by normalizing the idea that total Slan hunks like Jommy will of course bang away like rabbits on willing Slan women – for the betterment of the species and all. When we get to Star Trek in 30 years, all that’s missing is that ‘for the betterment of the species’ nonsense – and any children that might thereby arise and complicate things.

  1. Sounds like a good bit of calculus would be needed to figure out how to get anywhere in this thing…
  2. Minor curiosity: In this story, women and girls have normal, traditional names, like Kathleen, while men have rare or made up names like Kier and Jommy.

How Colonizing Space Requires a Cathedral Builder’s Heart

On the esteemed John C. Wright’s blog, a discussion of colonizing Mars and space in general has broken out, to no one’s surprise. The commentariat has beaten up the various issues. The two general poles of the discussion perhaps can be represented thus: Man is an exploring animal, we will colonize space because it, like Everest, is there! Versus: hey, ya know, keeping people alive in places as hostile to human life as Mars, the moon and space in general is really, really, hard, and we haven’t made much headway in figuring it all out. Given the current state of things, space colonies are a pipe dream.

Anybody with an imagination wants Man to colonize space. We want there to be space aliens, or at least planets humans can live on. What could be cooler? I think most Sci Fi fans of a more scientific inclination recognize, however, that unless we happen across a very earth-like planet, AND figure out a way to get there that human being can survive, we’re way far away from setting up colonies in space. It’s just hoping against the evidence (or lack thereof) that if we just dig big enough holes or build fancy enough structures, that problems with human physiology, radiation, maintaining breathable air, and growing enough food in a closed environment will just get solved.

I’d like to believe that they will. Show me.(1)

But this is mere preamble. The biggest thing I think is lacking in any push to colonize space is generational patience. It’s not something that we’ll do in a lifetime. We humans are really bad at thinking past tomorrow, yet terraforming, even in the very limited sense of making some small area of, say, Mars, suitable for human life (within domes, with caverns down below, that sort of thing), will almost certainly take a long time.

Terraforming a whole planet is likely to take centuries, at least.(2)

Current state of the art: Space X launch. The closest thing to Flynn’s Plancks we’ve seen.

The modern world has produced hundreds of millions of people with the attention span of fruit flies and the patience of toddlers. American culture reflects this. And that’s not the half of it – few of us are able to make and stick to plans that go out past the end of the month. The idea that people like modern Americans could plan and execute something that takes generations would seem preposterous.

Old photo of the cathedral before completion shows the east end finished and roofed, while other parts of the building are in various stages of construction.
Cologne Cathedral under construction. Begun in 1248, work stopped in 1473 with a usable portion of the building complete but not the main facade and towers. Work continued off and on for a couple centuries, then took a couple centuries off, then commenced again in 1842, was completed in 1880, got blown up by allied bombers in WWII, and was rebuild. Finishing touches were completed in 2005. So, here’s a project that took about six and a half centuries to complete. Now your talkin’!

But there’s hope, after a fashion. There have been cases where large groups of people have enthusiastically supported and executed projects that took a century or more to complete: the building of the great Gothic cathedrals. These typically involved a complete commitment of the community (towns of hardly more than a few thousand people built some of these churches!), and took, more often than not, over a century to complete.

So: what remains for us to do if we seriously want to colonize the stars is to recapture whatever it was that motivated people to begin such huge, expensive projects knowing that they, themselves, would never live to see them completed. In fact, those involved early on might get to see the foundation laid; their grand kids might see the columns and buttresses go up; the grand kids of those grand kids might see the roof go on and the glass put in. Some distant descendant might get to see the towers and facade go up.

But all, or at least enough, saw building the Gothic church as a worthy thing, even if they, themselves, never got to enjoy the completed structure.

So, we must find men who will launch the hollowed-out asteroids with atomic ion drives toward the future colonies, and upon arrival set up the comet-shepherding lasers that nudges water-rich objects into decaying orbits around the target planets. As the planets begin to acquire atmosphere and liquid water, green algae is released. Perhaps shuttle craft visit nearby gas giants to mine oxygen, which is deposited on the worlds.

The grandchildren of the asteroid pilots release selected flora and fauna once their survival thresholds are met. The goal is to position the water-bearing comets so that they don’t collide with the planets, but rather are captured in orbits such that the atmosphere has a chance to burn them mostly up. But there will be some impacts, so the transplanted earth life must be tough and diffuse.

Once life is established, the gas mining targets creating an atmosphere with the proper greenhouse characteristics for the particular planet at its particular location in the Goldilocks zone.

By now, a couple centuries (at least!) in, the first colonists are ready to leave earth for the 250 earth year journey. The main deceleration laser needs to be completed and the Dyson power array deployed, ready to slow incoming starliners. More and more sophisticated animals and plants are seeded.

Finally, centuries later, the fist colonists arrive, greeted by the miners and pilots descended through many generations from those who first began the project. The planets are still rough, but tough-minded settlers can survive, and, by their actions, improve conditions.

So, what’s going to motivate all those people to do all that work, when they know they will die before they ever set foot on a livable extraterrestrial planet?

  1. The closest I’ve seen to showing how it could be done might be Mike Flynn’s Firestar series (which I will finish and review someday soon!). It’s as hard as hard Sci Fi gets, but there’s still some little leaps that I’d like to see bridged. A year or so on a space station, a couple hundred miles up and still within the magnetosphere creates physiological problems in human physical specimens in extraordinarily good shape taking extraordinary steps to keep fit. How bout we throw a station out at a Lagrange point for a decade, stick some people on it, see how that goes? I’d love to be convinced, but I’m not.
  2. Cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae-like stuff that is supposed to have first produced free oxygen on earth, took millions of years to create a breathable atmosphere. First, enough oxygen must be produced to saturate all the oxygen reacting stuff on the planet’s surface – all the exposed iron will rust, for example. Only then can significant oxygen build up in the air. After that, as a side effect, as the methane atmosphere was converted to an oxygen atmosphere, the greenhouse effect was reduced – plunging the planet into a 100 million year ice age. Maybe we can speed that up some, but the idea that one would just dump green plants onto a more promising and temperate Venus and wait for breathable air will most likely require quite a bit of waiting.

Sci Fi Reading and Writing: It’s Good to Read the Classics

This project of reading the Sci Fi classics has been very enjoyable and helpful. Got 39 of the 116 stories and novels read so far. Right now, I’m in the middle of four novels at once – Slan, The First Men in the Moon, Skylark of Space, and Dune – where I pick up whichever strikes my fancy at the moment. With any luck, should be done with all four in the next few days. 58 is half-way through! Considering that there are still a lot of shorter works in there left to read, I’ll be there in no time! Woohoo!

Oh, look! It’s Cthulhu! (you can’t see my fingers wiggling menacingly – darn!) 

Couple things have struck me so far:

  1. This is pure fun. I needed some pure fun in my life.
  2. I can see now, if I didn’t already, that it would be hard to come up with something truly original to hang a story on. Minor stuff, sure, but not Mad Scientist, Creature turns on Creator, Alien Invaders, Intelligences Beyond Human Comprehension, Misunderstood and Persecuted Geniuses, Psychohistory – that sort of thing.
  3. I’ve thought how cool it would be to create some sort of diagram of the Great Ideas of Science Fiction, and map out who came up with it, how subsequent great works pick it up and modify it, and what the state of that idea is today. Shelly did both Mad Scientist and Creature Turns on Creator, and you can trace it all the way to Blackie and Skynet. Verne does Billionaire Genius Recluse, which is Batman and dozens of other stories. It’d be cool to take a wall in my house, draw vertical lines for time, and then map out who, when and what, and then show descent through a sort of horizontal family tree…
  4. While I (still! alas!) have made almost no progress on the couple things I’m writing, the gears are turning: reading these books provides all kinds of guidance and inspiration. I love the way the characters and political environment are set up in Slan, for example – the first part of my Moldering Epic ™ has, in the basic layout, something of the same dynamic as Slan’s opening. Cool to see how somebody who knows what they’re doing handles it.

Still have a few things left to do at my late sister’s house before we can hand it off to the realtor. But at least the reading has been fun lately!

Science! And Antiquated Notions!

This is a little on the nit-picky side, but illustrative of a larger and more substantial issue. From today’s Google news science feed:

Stunning new Pluto photos: Could we have imagined this 50 years ago?

First it was towering mountains of ice and a surprisingly crater-free plain. Now it’s icy terrain with a snakeskin vibe and a section of the plain covered in tiny dimples, giving it a texture resembling a cantaloupe.

With the release Thursday of several new images from New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto-Charon system in July, Pluto continues to amaze.

For William McKinnon, a planetary geologist on the New Horizons team who has been studying the formation and evolution of icy moons in the outer solar system for more than 30 years, the landscape the new images reveal is “unique and perplexing.”

First off: good job, Science! Way cool stuff here. Great pictures, wonderfully successful mission. More, please!  But to the point:

When planetary geologist Geoffrey Collins needs an informal gauge of how much progress has been made, he thumbs through a children’s book about planets published in the 1960s.

“I keep it on my shelf in my office at home … just to remind me of what people knew” back then…


“I’m always sobered by these kinds of discoveries,” he (Scott Kenyon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) says. “We make very complicated models for exoplanets that we can’t see. And we make statements that are very confident. But we’re continually surprised because the universe is varied on scales we sometimes fail to understand.”

The more general problem here: we humans love our stories, scientists no less than anybody else. But we tend to make them up as soon as we know anything at all, and then invest them with way more weight than they deserve. Then, we get a closer look and new information, and it turns out our ideas are all wrong. Are we humbled? Do we propose new, less ambitious and more cautious theories to account for what we now know? Have you been reading this blog very long?

No, the next round of theories – stories – will be every bit as strongly stated and certain sounding as the recently discredited ones. Once we land probes on some of these outer moons and planetoids, we’ll once again be shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover that we were all wrong about a bunch of stuff, and that, for example, Mars is more like the moon than the earth, that the major moons of the gas giants are not just balls of rock and ice, but are geologically active and complex, and so on – like in the kid’s book mentioned above, I recall reading about space as a kid versus what is said now. Big differences.

It’s similar in other fields as well. As more information came in, dinosaurs went from these ponderous, slow, thick beasts to something more like giant chickens. Early man went from mate-clubbing imbeciles to remarkably sophisticated social animals. Commercial nuclear fusion went from something 10 years out 50 years ago to something 10 years out today.

Now, there’s very little harm in getting a bit dogmatic in one’s speculations about planets, dinosaurs and early man. Whether Pluto is as smooth as a cue-ball or cratered like the moon or – as it turns out – way more geologically complex is not going to change the lives of 99.999% of people. Similarly, it just doesn’t make any difference to the rest of us if dinosaurs are slow-moving and stupid or bird-like and relatively intelligent, or if early man had a cultural life or not.

But other sciency-sounding theories do have practical implications. Those are the ones of which one must be cautious. We must ask: how would we *know* that? Have we seen it clearly? Have we successfully applied the theory – the story – to real life? Does it match what we do see?

Now, some things, such as electricity, chemistry and a lot of nuclear physics, are largely immune to such overreaching speculation, because of the practical technologies that depend on them. People did have all sorts of crazy theories about electrical essences and phlogiston and little indivisible atoms, but these gradually fell aside once people began to *use* their understanding to make stuff like electric lights, chemical dyes and microprocessors. But wherever that time-tested technological usefulness isn’t fully embodied in products, there remains plenty of room for stories that go too far – stories that will be shown to be wrong when we get a closer look at things.

Grain of salt, people.

Important Paleoanthropological Find: An Old Astro-Fab Brochure

(We are here straining the limits of the randomness that defines (note: that’s a joke, there) this here blog. You’ve been warned.)

The joy associated with emptying my late sister’s house was increased dramatically by the discovery of an ancient brochure put together for my dad’s business. Step aside, H. naledi – I got your earth-shaking find right here.

Love the stylized fabrication/engineering icons on the right. In case it’s not clear, from top to bottom: roll-forming a sheet of metal; (guessing) grinding wheel; welding; punch; die-forming in a brake press, engineering.

In 1962, my dad, Sid Moore, started a sheet metal fabrication company he named, in the spirit of Sputnik and Mercury, Astro-Fab:

Astro-Fab 1
The brochure scanned so poorly I’ve been reduced to iPhone pictures – thus the skew. There seem to be *2* Nash Ramblers parked up against the building – for the life of me, I can’t remember anyone driving a Nash.

I love the groovy name coupled with the Old West typeface – don’t know what, if any, thought went into that, but it’s weirdly cool.

My first real job, at age 11 or 12, was sweeping that building every Saturday. Armed with a push broom, a trash barrel, and a bucket of that dust-suppressing oily sawdust stuff, you worked your way through the paint area, shipping and receiving, material storage, welding, shearing, forming/brake press area, to layout and fabrication – 8 hours later, the floor was pretty clean, for a building housing a bunch of oily, spattery machines run by a bunch of sweaty guys.

Astro-Fab 3
That’s a lot of floors to sweep, there.

At a buck an hour, I was probably wildly overpaid – but I worked hard, and, to this day, have some serious sweeping chops, even though my hands have gone soft – no more callouses on my palms. Over Saturdays and summers through age 19, ended up learning how to do most of the manual stuff – never did layout or welding (except for spot-welding, which is different), but most everything else – punch press, fabricator, shears, brake-press, grinding, painting. And lots of sweeping up and getting rid of the scrap metal (which might be the most dangerous job in the shop – that stuff is sharp and pointy!).

Astro-Fab 6
Representative stuff we made.

The real hardship, such as it was, was the lack of insulation. Inside that building it was often well over 100F in the summer, and it took a long time to warm up in the winter. As hard as it is to believe and contrary to the received mythology, it can get down near freezing in SoCal. When it did, that building stayed cold for most of the day. Working with your hands when they’re numb is not a lot of fun. Yea, yea, uphill both ways.

The brochure is from around when I started working there, maybe 1970. Astro-Fab had moved to this location a few years earlier, after it had outgrown the original shop. At home, it was just known as ‘the Shop’, as in: dad’s going to the Shop. It was located a couple blocks into Pico Rivera from Whittier, right off Whittier Blvd, in LA county.

Displaying IMG_2068.JPG
I look remarkably like the Old Man. I think it’s the haircut…

Astro-Fab meant that we went from a family of 9 kids getting by on the wages of a sheet metal worker (certainly doable, but as much fun as it sounds) to living pretty well, in the working-class idea of what that means. by 1970, there was a nice house where the kids (mostly) had a bedroom to themselves, new cars every few years, a one-week vacation usually to the mountains or beach, and my dad could write a check to send me to college (it was a lot cheaper back then, but still). I am grateful. Certainly, my older siblings got very little of that.

Anyway, here’s to Astro-Fab, the American Way, and hard work. These are not myths, but reality. They are certainly not the only things or most important things, but they are real.

Sci Fi Reading Project: Updates & Mini-Reviews 09/21/2015

Got a chance to read a few more from the list:

  1. Lovecraft: The three stories on the list are

 ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

‘A Whisperer in Darkness’

‘Shadow Out of Time’

Two comments: Lovecraft is a very good writer, and these stories are properly classed as Sci Fi. The Universe he builds is much like Star Trek’s, if the Borg and the Q were having a very bad space-time-continuum unit. There are bad guys, then there are BAD guys.

All are told in as first-person recollections by men who have touched, somehow, eldritch horrors from outside our time and world. Each narrator is presented as just the sort of serious-minded gentleman that wouldn’t possibly make this sort of thing up. In fact, they might as well all be the same guy, from a character-development perspective.

The technique is to have the narrator repeat at regular intervals how unbelievable their tale is, how they themselves don’t believe it, but yet…. Eventually, there comes a climax in which we learn, like Brandon in Galaxy Quest, that it’s all true.

Won’t give any details of the stories themselves because it wouldn’t take much to spoil them, except to say that The Call of Cthulhu introduces the idea of an ancient lurking evil that is hinted at in all the old stories and cults around the world; A Whisperer in Darkness has got something unnatural living in your rugged, creepy and isolated Vermont mountains and valleys; and The Shadow Out of Time has got body-snatching and amnesia. Don’t know if these things are original with Lovecraft, but he certainly gives them a run.

While I admire the writing, and Lovecraft’s ability to build toward a climax, I’m not into horror, and did not find these stories scary. Except for this passage from The Shadow Out of Time:

The Great Race seemed to form a single loosely knit nation or league, with major institutions in common, though there were four definite divisions. The political and economic system of each unit was a sort of fascistic socialism, with major resources rationally distributed, and power delegated to a small governing board elected by the votes of all able to pass certain educational and psychological tests.

Chilling. Hard to sleep thinking the Universe could be peopled by such creatures!

2. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

This story has a bit of unavoidable failure of the suspension of disbelief, because the plot hangs on biological and mental assumptions that, today, just won’s fly. Yet, it is a good enough story to suck you in anyway, and, hey, it’s Sci Fi, it doesn’t need to make perfect sense.

More first person narrative, more ‘nobody will believe this’, more remarkably serious and sober witness to the unbelievable. There is an isolated tropical island, a unbalanced genius, his dissolute assistant, and the unfortunate cast-away. And lots of creepy animal-things. Things go Horribly Wrong.

It was good. I’ve heard enough about it over the years that nothing was too surprising. Wells has a much lighter touch than Lovecraft, and makes room for a little humor. More to my taste.

Working on Dune (hard to get into) and Wells’ The First Men in the Moon now. As a side note: my beloved wife, who read a ton of Sci Fi in her youth, but found school and then motherhood took all her time, picked up Slan off the pile – and read it all the way through. She liked it.

Hunger, Jean Valjean and Horse Thieves

In the Old West of Legend, legend has it that horse thieves got hanged. The logic ran as follows: your horse-owning cowpoke depended on his horse to make a living. He, and his, if he had any, might just die if you stole his horse. Therefore, stealing a man’s horse was akin to attempted murder.

Sometimes, a punishment may seem excessive if one has no context, but in context, it makes more sense.

In the 1780’s, Pestalozzi – remember him? – started a school on a farm in order to try to feed a bunch of orphans and abandoned children. A series of wars had raged across what is now southeastern France, northern Switzerland and Austria (and much of the rest of Europe) for decades (well, centuries, really), and left in their wakes many destitute and starving people. Only in our modern times and in Western nations have armies been entirely provisioned by the state – everywhere else, and at all other times, armies generally ‘lived off the land’ – pillaged the farms and villages along their routes. (1)

Recall also that, until the last couple of centuries, populations everywhere in the world were ‘harvest sensitive’ – if the amount of food raised locally in one year fell below sustenance levels, people there starved. Thus, when wars raged, people in those areas tended strongly to starve – their pigs and cows and crops and anything else the soldiers could lift were stolen. Often their farms were the battle grounds, torn up and mangled, so their ability to replant was damaged (if the peasants even survived). Also recall that the 10% or so of people who were not farmers were now also liable to starvation, since they also got their food from the surrounding farms.

Thus Pestalozzi attempted to gather the large numbers of starving orphans and abandoned children onto a farm, both so that they could have enough food to survive and that they could learn farming, so that they could survive once grown. For these efforts, he is correctly recognized as a great humanitarian.

We saw a very good amateur production of Les Miserables recently. The plot centers on the fate of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for 19 years – 5 for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family, and the other 14 for resisting arrest and attempted escape. To modern audiences, this punishment seems insanely and cruelly excessive – but we can walk down to the local supermarket and buy loaves and loaves of bread for the typical hourly wage. In 1815, in Europe devastated by decades of war, stealing that bread could have very well meant that some other family got to starve. It might take a day’s wages to buy that bread, and there might be not nearly enough bread to go around. Just as stealing a horse had very serious consequences in the Old West, stealing bread in Jean Valjean’s time was no trivial matter. Just imagine the social breakdown in a time of famine if stealing bread when there isn’t enough to go around was not punished harshly.

But we can hardly believe this. Victor Hugo drives the point home by having the bishop who feeds Valjean upon his release from prison go hungry – a bishop might not even have enough to eat. (2) Valjean is a tragic character, but it is not his punishment that makes the tragedy, it is the wars and subsequent social upheavals that makes such punishments reasonable.

  1. Here’s a nice bit from Wikipedia: “During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The larger armies of the period required increased and regular supplies of quality food. Limited food availability was among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months.” It took decades for canning to be developed and spread enough to make much of a difference – everybody still relied on locally-produced food for their survival: “Throughout the mid-19th century, canned food became a status symbol amongst middle-class households in Europe, being something of a frivolous novelty.”  The ability to go to a local store and buy food from around the world all year round is entirely modern.
  2. Read somewhere that some of Hugo’s contemporaries were appalled that he made a bishop into a hero, as he was a well-known critic of the church. He is said to have responded that he wished to shame the real bishops of France by having his fictional bishop practice what he preached.

Mini-Reviews & Sci Fi 50 Progress Report: 9/15/2015

Making a little progress reading my way through John C. Wrights’  Sci Fi 50 and the First 20 Hugo Award Winning Novels:

5. E.M. Forster ‘The Machine Stops’

Good story. I’m going to need to think about this one a bit.

  1. Tom Godwin ‘The Cold Equations’

Nobody engineers a ship that tight. No sane man doesn’t find 100 lbs of something else to throw off the ship to save the girl. Premise fail.

32. Harlan Ellison ‘Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’

Eh. Funny in places, the writing is gimmicky as all hell. It was OK.

45. Larry Niven RINGWORLD

Excellent book. The characters are well-drawn and hilarious. It was hard not to read the kzin in Worf’s voice. The Pierson’s Puppeteers are brilliant. Bred for luck – ha!

The major Sci Fi devise – that different civilizations could go down different scientific paths, each discovering and failing to discover important stuff the other failed to find or did discover – is interesting enough, but is it really plausible? I mean, sure, for a decade or a century, maybe, but for longer than that? We are exploring the same objective universe, after all… Also, is there anyone who didn’t figure out the Fist of God the first time it is described?

Loved the book, rollicking good time and all, but sometimes I tire of the relentless drumbeat of just about everything written in that era of how the real advance in the future will be everybody getting as much consequence-free sex as they can stand. Star Trek, Stranger in a Strange Land, on and on

Currently working on Flatland and Dune (there’s a contrast for ya! Actually, pointing out the similarities would be more fun…) .

Book Review: Nethereal

In a nutshell: I enjoyed this book, the writing is good, the characters memorable, the images and ideas suitably fantastic for space opera. It’s only $4.99 for the Kindle, what are you waiting for?

Brian Niemeier’s first book, Nethereal, is the story of the adventures of 4 friends, two humans and two not-so-humans, who live as pirates in a world ruled by the evil Steersman’s Guild. Jaren, the half human, half Gen captain, seeks revenge on the Guild that exterminated his race, but has been forced to live as a pirate on the fringes of the Middle Stratum; Nakvin is a human-looking renegade Lady Steersman of unknown origin who pilots Jaren’s ships and took in Jaren as a boy over 100 years ago. She is now his best, perhaps only, friend; Teg, quick-witted muscle-for-hire who, despite his professional aloofness from the causes he is hired to protect, has become devoted to Jaren’s quixotic adventures, and Deim, a young Steersman being trained by Nakvin. Together, they adventure around the Middle Stratum and to Hell and back.

Nethereal is an exercise not so much in world-building as in universe-building. Niemeier creates a universe only superficially related to ours, and then explores the differences. This universe is laid out with great care throughout the book, so I won’t spoil it by describing it here – part of the fun here is not knowing what is going on until later events reveal it. The Nethereal universe is intricate and imaginative, and provides an engaging backdrop against which the drama and personalities unfold.

After much travail and derring-do, the story’s climactic battle is mind-blowing – and a good set up for the next book in the series. Nethereal is well worth the read.

A couple caveats: I suspect I’m not exactly the target audience for this book. I’ll confess I’m not much for super-cool mind powers, which abound here. The advanced enough science/indistinguishable from magic deal seems like so much hand-waving when what you really want are Merlin-equivalents in your sci fi. This is just a personal quirk, traceable, perhaps, to my never having played RPGs – an obvious shortcoming on my part. I know many people enjoy this kind of stuff, but for me it takes some getting past. But given that, the magic/technology is well done.

One other curiosity, also just a personal thing: much of the action takes place in a Hell unique to the Nethereal Universe, but roughly structured after the Nine Circles in Dante’s Inferno. Now, I’m as big a Dante-freak as you’re likely to find outside a university Dante department, so, naturally, I’m mapping Dante’s Hell against the Nethereal Hell – and, I ended up reading the book three times, and couldn’t make sense of it. Sure, there are points of contact and shared imagery, but I ended up thinking it was just for drama and color – I could not find any of Dante’s sophisticated sense of morality, which is the true structure of his Hell, in Nethereal’s weird and evocative afterlife. But again, rare is the reader who will find this an issue.

So, all in all, a fun read. Go buy and read this book!

The Most Scientific Thing I’ve Read in Ages…

National Geographic published an article on a remarkable find, unlike anything I’ve ever heard of – a remote and barely accessible cavern in South Africa that contains piles of the bones of some presumed early hominid – and very little else. It’s as if bodies were dumped there – an almost inconceivable feat, considering that, at least today, that would require dragging the body through two insanely narrow passages and up one wall in terror-inducing darkness. It is not unknown to find piles of bones in a cave, where some unfortunate animals fell through some hidden hole on the surface. In such cases, you’d find a variety of creatures – a fox here, a rabbit there – not just one species.

And what a species it is. These ape-people or people-apes look more like us than like chimps, but had comparatively tiny brains. The bones reveal a wonderful mix of ancient and modern features. And because of the unique location and conditions, dating is proving very hard: no layers of ash or known formations above and below the find, just a pile of old bones in the bottom of cave, covered in the dust time has peeled off the walls.

But that’s normal science, as cool as it is. What caught my eye was a paleoanthropologist opining thus:

“What naledi says to me is that you may think the record is complete enough to make up stories, and it’s not,” said Stony Brook’s Fred Grine.

That is so, so Scientific! I *love* it! 40+ years ago, when I first got into paleoanthropology (see here for details), I remember somebody mentioning that all the bones from all the human-ish pre-homo sapiens specimens found to date (the date at the time being something like 1970) would fit nicely on a kitchen table. Yet, storms, typhoons, even, of furious arguments over stuff one could not possibly determine based on the physical evidence were a constant feature of paleoanthropological discussions. This species, known from bones you could hold in one hand, *must* or *can’t* be a human ancestor! Humans must have developed *here* and not *there*!  And on and on – friendships and careers were made or ruined over this kind of crap.

So when I see a man in this profession simple state what is baldly true – that we just don’t have enough information to do anything more than speculate by making up stories, my heart rejoices. There’s nothing wrong with admitting ignorance; there’s plenty wrong with assuming knowledge you don’t have.

The author of the essay also mentions:

The purpose of the meeting was to try to come to some consensus over the confounding record of early Homo, without grandstanding or rancor—two vices endemic to paleoanthropology.

If I were a paleoanthropologist and had two dogs that followed me everywhere, I’d name them Grandstanding and Rancor. Wonder if anyone would get it?