Friday, September 28, 2007

The Solar System

John W. Campbell, Jr., long-time editor at Astounding, later Analog, wrote an series of essays in 1937 on the Solar System. Way out of date in terms of science, it is still a good model of science writing (and has been brought out of the dustbins).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Final Cut

While we wait for the release of the five-disc ultimate-fanboy-edition of Blade Runner, BoingBoing has posted a link to an interview with director Ridley Scott on the "final" version of the film. Final? We shall see!

Addendum (September 30, 2007): Fred Kaplan, at The New York Times, on the restored edition. Here there be spoilers.
Mars: Updates from the Red Planet (and Earth)

Opportunity has dipped its toes into Victoria Crater, stopping at a band of bright bedrock partway down the slope of the crater. The rover will bring its suite of instruments to bear as soon as mission managers are sure that safety checks (needed because of the 25 degree tilt of the rover) are working.

"This will be the first of several stops within this band of rock," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the science payloads on Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit. "By sampling it at several different levels in the crater, we're hoping to figure out the processes that led to its formation and its very distinctive appearance."

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, Spirit is exploring the top surface of a plateau called "Home Plate," where rocks hold evidence about an explosive combination of water and volcanism.

Now that Spirit has lasted longer on the surface of Mars than the venerable Viking 2 lander, it is time to take another look at highlights from this mission that just won't quit! And: bet you'd love to see this help-wanted ad in your local paper..."Mars Rover Driver Wanted!"

In orbit around Mars, the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft is returning to normal operations after going into "safe mode" recently. The orbiter has sent back images of what appears to be possible cave "skylights" in seven areas on the surface of Mars. Some hope that these windows into the geology of the planet or even potential underground habitats. Odyssey is also allowing scientists to map ground ice under the surface of Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seems to have fully recovered from a camera problem earlier this year; pictures returned recently have not conclusively proved, one way or the other, visible signs of the presence of flowing water on the surface of Mars.

The Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to be launched in 2010...2011...2012... (take your pick), has been the subject of some controversy recently. Depending on how you look at it, NASA is either trying to keep costs under control and make people stick to a budget or NASA is acting "weird".

From Europe, comes word that instruments similar to those used on the failed Beagle-2 probe (previously announced as going to Mars thanks to NASA, although NASA did not seem to have agreed on the addition!) are now...strangely...going to Mars on another NASA mission. Even stranger...NASA again doesn't seem to know anything about it. The European Space Agency is testing out a "life chip" that might make the journey to Mars on its planned ExoMars rover (scheduled for a 2013 launch).

And some news on (simulated) human missions to the Red Planet. Readers in Canada can see a mini-series and a multi-part documentary on a mission to Mars (no word yet on where else this will be seen). Various government and private groups have wrapped up another season on a Mars-like part of the Arctic. Russia is running a simulation of a mission to Mars; let's hope it goes better than a previous one.
Dawn on Thursday

There's nothing like waking up and watching a successful rocket launch! After a relatively minor hold, the Dawn spacecraft was launched from Florida this morning on its journey to Ceres and Vesta (and possibly a few smaller encounters). Next up for the mission are a series of system "wakeups" and a slow "throttling up" of the vehicle's ion engines (for the earlier posting on Dawn, please see this entry).

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Strange Invasion!

We've been invaded by Moties! On the way in to work I saw a woman who was smoking a cigarette, talking on her cellphone, drinking a cup of coffee and driving the car. All at the same time. How many hands would that be?

There is something decidedly odd looking about somebody roughly my age with multiple (visible, never mind what else is there!) body piercings. For one thing, the older attempts are still visible as puckered dimples that are clearly not the result of nature or accident, but purposeful changes by a person. Add in purposefully "distressed" clothing and you get a not so authentic image!
The Ship and Her Crew

Jack let her pay off until the flurry was over, and then, as he began to bring her back, his hands strong on the spokes,so he came into direct contact with the living essence of the sloop: the vibration beneath his palm, something between a sound and a flow, came straight up from her rudder, and it joined with the innumerable rhythms, the creak and humming of her hull and rigging. The keen clear wind swept in on his left cheek, and as he bore on the helm so the Sophie answered, quicker and more nervous than he had expected. Closer and closer to the wind. The were all staring up and forward: at last, in spite of the fiddle-tight bowline, the foretopgallantsail shivered, and Jack eased off.

(Patrick O'Brian, Master & Commander)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spider Man

"Was bitten on the cheek by a spider. Do not appear to be able to climb walls or have any kind of extrasensory abilities yet. So far I've just got a spider bite on my cheek. Seems deeply unfair, really."

(Neil Gaiman)
Conspiracy Theory

Heard about the mysterious meteor in Peru? Sometimes a conspiracy theory is a lot more fun than the truth.

American Spy Satellite Downed In Peru As US Nuclear Attack On Iran Thwarted

By: Sorcha Faal, and as reported to her Western Subscribers

Russian Military Intelligence Analysts are reporting today that one of the United States most secretive spy satellites, the KH-13, targeting Iran was 'destroyed in its orbit' with its main power generator powered by the radioactive isotope Pu-238 surviving re-entry and crashing in a remote region of the South American Nation of Peru, and where hundreds are reported to be ill from radiation poisoning.

Western media reports are stating that the US spy satellite debris hitting Peru was caused by a meteor, but which, according to these reports, would be 'impossible' as the size of 30-meter crater, if caused by a meteorite, would have hit the ground with about as much energy as 1 kiloton tactical nuclear weapon, and which would have been recorded by the seismic stations around the World.

Most astonishing about these reports, however, are that they state that it was the Americans themselves who destroyed their own spy satellite with the attack upon it being made by the United States Air Force's 30th Space Wing located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

This incident further fuels the intrigue involving the United States War Leaders plans to attack Iran in their attempt to engulf the entire Middle East in Total War, but, against which, according to Russian Military Intelligence Analysts, a 'high ranking and significant' faction of the American Military Establishment is opposed to.

This can be further evidenced by this past few weeks unprecedented announcement by the United States Air Force that 6 nuclear armed cruise missiles were removed, without authorization, from their secure holding facility, located in North Dakota at the Minot Air Force Base, and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base, located in Louisiana, where they were left 'unattended' for 'nearly 10 hours'.

It is interesting to note, too, that Barksdale Air Force Base is where the United States President was 'ordered' to report to on September 11, 2001 by the United States Air Force Strategic Command prior to his being 'transferred' under 'armed escort' to Offutt Air Force Base Strategic Command Center near Omaha, Nebraska, where the first 'truce' between Americas War Leaders and its Military Forces was 'negotiated' by billionaire Warren Buffett as intermediary between the rival power blocs.

Though the rival American power blocs do seem to have maintained their uneasy truce, and which have, to date, prevented further attacks within the United States itself, these latest events, according to these reports, appear to show that this truce is now breaking down over threats and planning by the American War Leaders to attack Iran, and which Russia has warned would be 'catastrophic'.

What remains unknown to us, at this time, is what counter-planning the American War Leaders have in store for furthering their war aims against Iran as the United States Military have 'clearly signaled' that it will not allow nuclear weapons to be used, even to the extent of denying to their War Leaders one of their most prized spy satellites used to guide their nuclear cruise missiles to their intended Iranian targets.

As the American peoples desire for war appears to be exhausted, and with new polls showing their President and Congress' approval ratings at 'record lows', these reports paint a frightening picture of an American War Leadership determined to engulf the entire World in Total War in order to perpetuate their hegemony.

Not since last century's German Nazi and Japanese Empire's has the World seen such naked aggression towards the capture of the Earth's resources, and which caused the deaths of nearly 100 million people, but which the United States and its Western Allies now seem determined to see through to its brutal, and bloody end.

c. September 20, 2007 EU and US all rights reserved.

[Ed. Note: The United States government actively seeks to find, and silence, any and all opinions about the United States except those coming from authorized government and/or affiliated sources, of which we are not one. No interviews are granted and very little personal information is given about our contributors, or their sources, to protect their safety.]
Intellectual Property

Somebody want to explain to me how an ISBN—a number assigned to a book by an outside organization, which helps to catalog the book—can be the "intellectual property" of a bookstore?

You see, I use those numbers as part of the database I have on my own books, so I don't want to be stepping on on the toes of that fine Haaarrrvaarrrd bookstore!

It wouldn't have to do anything, in reality, with (sssshhhhh!) competition and free markets would it?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Visiting the Neighbor

Japan launched its first probe to the Moon, Kaguya (or "Selene"), since its successful Hiten-Hagomoro probe in 1993. Relatively quiet since the 1960's, except for the occasional visitor such as a flyby of the Jupiter-bound Galileo, the orbital invasion began again in earnest in the 1990's with Hiten-Hagomoro, as well as Clementine, Lunar Prospector and the ESA's SMART-1.

And this return by Japan is only the beginning. Later this year should see China's Chang'e 1 (which may or may not be the start of human exploration by China, it depends on which set of tea leaves you read). Next year should see India's first attempt to achieve lunar orbit with Chandrayaan-1. The United States plans to support the Vision for Space Exploration with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter next year, to be followed (possibly) by a mission to return samples from the Aiken Basin at the Moon's south pole.

(Russia? Good question. The folks that make the rockets also make big promises. The folks that have the money are sounding quite a bit more restrained and conservative in their plans. The fact that sometimes these are the same folks makes you confused!)

Been there! Done that! Why are we going back?

There are many reasons. For some countries, it is as much for the science as for the prestige. Only a handful has reached the Moon, only one has landed humans there. As with climbing Mount Everest, racing to reach the Poles, or flying the first airplane showing that you have the technological knowledge and the national will to get to the Moon will still send a powerful message to other nations.

And, a bare handful of men walked on the Moon (only one a geologist), exploring (briefly) a handful of areas. Can we really say that we "know" all there is to know about the Moon? Lunar scientists have designated many areas of interest on the Moon, places we've never explored before as well as places we touched in the past. Is there ice at the poles? Evidence of past (or even "recent") volcanic action? Do the so-called transient lunar phenomena exist? Many questions abound!

The Moon could be useful as a place for other science. The bulk of the Moon could act as a shield against our ever increasingly "noisy" (in a electromagnetic sense) planet, with craters providing a natural shape for radio telescopes (much in the same way that the Arecibo Observatory took advantage of a natural formation in its telescope dish.

Just as the International Space Station could be seen as an engineering project to teach us how to build large structures in space and a place to learn how to manage long-term missions, the moon could be seen as a school for exploration. It can be a place to hone our skills, see how far people can work in harsh conditions but still offer a relatively short ride home in case something happens.

In the meantime...if you think you have what it takes, NASA is looking for candidates to fly their planned Orion vehicle to the Moon. NASA is running a contest to help design habitats for the surface of the Moon. You can see what the original astronauts felt in a new movie.

And then there's Google. From the folks that brought us Google Earth, have extended their reach out to the Moon. Google Moon allows one to explore the a virtual sense.

Google isn't stopping there. They are helping to fund the Ansari Lunar X-Prize. Google is offering $20 million to the first private company that can land a robotic rover onto the lunar surface where it will move about and beam back information.

Maybe private industry will beat all the governments back to the Moon!
Institutionalizing Reincarnation

China has decided that it is going to regulate reincarnation. It seems the Dalai Lama (who hasn't done the Chinese any favors by shutting up on how they are destroying the land of Tibet) has stated he won't be reincarnated in Tibet as long as the Chinese are in Tibet. by doing this, doesn't the Chinese government legitimize religion, the afterlife, Buddist philosophy, etc.?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Latest in a series of overpriced items. How about $150,000 for a stereo? From Steinway (as in pianos)?
Paging Larry Niven!

Via Geekpress, a report of a real-life droud.

(As the technovelgy entry on "droud" notes, this is not actually the application Niven envisioned.)
Free as the Air

The New York Times has given up on its premium service and set vast amounts of information free. A vast number of articles are now available in the archives; no longer will you have to scrabble to find an article to link to because it is being locked behind a wall. What will you find? Here's one example, a review by Samuel R. Delany from 1968!

More ads, but they finally realized they were being left in the dust (no matter how they "officially" dress it up).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

September 19

Just a friendly reminder to dust off that stuffed parrot tomorrow.

Over at The Gunroom, the list member known as Phil the Badger contributed the following...

Gather round, Lads and Lasses, gather round, while I tell 'ee how ye may hold yer heads up high on National Talk Like a Pirate Day.

'Tis simple; read The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser, and ye'll not only be eddicated (1) by the powers, but entertained likewise; an' ye may lay to that, wi' a wanion, else.

'Tis a tale of adventure,derring do, treachery and loyalty, a quest for fabulous treasure and true lovers parted and reunited, that ranges from Whitehall to the Spanish Main via the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, the Isle of Aves and Tortuga wi' a colourful cast of characters; videlicet:

The Pyrates:-

Calico Jack Rackham: a square jawed, clean-cut, gallant pirate Ann Bonney: his flame-haired voluptuous light o' love. (Phwooaaar!) Firebeard: a crazy pirate. Black Bilbo: a dandy pirate and deadly blade (2) who has never yet met his match. Happy Dan Pew: a mad Frog (3) obsessed with French irregular verbs. Akbar the Damned: a Barbary Rover(4). (The Sallee in our galley) Black Sheba: six foot of Armani-clad, Gucci accessoried deadly ebon beauty. (Phw . . .) (5)

Their Opponents (most of the time; with some infighting):-

Captain Benjamin (Long Ben) Avery: our square-jawed, clean-cut hero; seeking to clear his name from foul calumny. Thos. Blood (Colonel, cashiered): An Irish rogue(6). Ben's reluctant (7) sidekick. Admiral Rooke: a Bluff seadog. (Not the sharpest cutlass in the arms locker)(8) Vanity (aka Golden Vanity, Glodden Vantitty, etc.) his daughter; enamoured of Ben and determined to make him her own. Donna Melliflua Etcetera, 16-year-old Spanish hidalgo whistlebait; also enamoured of Ben, although she is betrothed to: Don Lardo Baluna del Lobby y Corridor, the monstrous, evil, and monstrously cruel Governor of Cartagena.

With supporting cast of:

Sam Pepys;King CHarleezz II; dwarfs; pawnbrokers; mad gardeners; dim English soldiery; hearty British Tars; pirates; Dons; dagoes; native tribesmen; slavers; pagan priestesses and Cobbleigh, U.T.


The fearsome Octopodes (thank 'ee, Ben) of Octopus Rock


ERIK WOLFGANG KORNGOLD in a cameo role as"The Trumpeter"

(1) Discover the secrets of the dreaded maguay plant;know true nature of the camisadoe; learn which buccaneer became Archbishop of York.

(2) Wi' stoccata and imbroccata and punta rinversa, sa-ha!

(3) But hist! All is not as it seems.

(4) Educated Eton and Oxford (Balliol College; First in Greats).

(5) I was going to write "Phwooaaar! with knobs on"; but that would be crude, so I won't.

(6) The same who lifted the Crown Jewels, but was caught by chance before he could leave the Tower. Sought a private interview with King Charles, got it, and came away with a free pardon and a hatful of gold.

(7) He keeps trying to join the pirate, but they won't let him.

(8) More the thickest plank in the bulwark.
Best Spam Ever!

Well, maybe not best ever, but up there. If you're going to try to spam me by claiming that my PayPal account has been accessed by unauthorized users, maybe you should use a spoof address that appears to be from PayPal? And not, say, from the Internal Revenue Service?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Paging D.D. Harriman...

Is Peter Diamandis the real-life Harriman?

Thanks to Google, there's now a $25-30 million X-prize available to the team that lands a privately-funded rover on the moon by the end of 2012, takes some pictures, and moves at least 500 meters on the lunar surface. Details here. And here. And here. And here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No Quitters!

When we last took a look at Mars, things looked bad for the Mars Rovers. A global dust storm threatened their power-generating capabilities. Was this the end of Spirit and Opportunity?

Amazingly, no! The rovers survived the dust storm, are starting to gather power again and are ready to continue the mission! Skies are brightening and winds have even helped by scrubbing some of the accumulated dust from the solar arrays.

What next, once mission managers check the health of the rovers? Spirit has climbed onto a rock formation known as Home Plate, a plateau that might be volcanic in origin. Spirit will investigate at least three areas on the formation, to get a wide sample of the materials there.

On the other side of Mars, Opportunity is getting ready for what might be its final mission. It is poised on the edge of Victoria Crater, where we might get a peek at the ancient past of the martian surface. On September 11, Opportunity took a small test drive into Victoria, "dipping" four meters into the crater to see how well the rover will work on the slope. The rover then backed out, and the mission managers are deciding on the next step of the mission.

We're ready for our descent into Victoria Crater!

In other news, the Phoenix Mars Lander is in good shape on its way to Mars. As part of a recent series of checks, it took a picture of the scoop on its robotic arm.

Science, a lot of science, is still going on around Mars. The 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter has been gathering data since it entered martian orbit over 2,000 days ago. Its instruments, such as the THermal EMission Imaging System (THEMIS) has been busy looking the landing site candidates for an upcoming rover mission, the Mars Science Laboratory (scheduled for a 2009 launch). Candidate areas include the Melmas Chasma, a slice of the vast Valles Marineris canyon system. For spectacular scenary potential, there might not be a better place on Mars!

The European Space Agency's Mars Express is into its second mission extension. Among the results from this mission are new topographic maps of Mars, a better understanding of how the surface has evolved, and even the discovery that Mars has auroras!

Finally, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the newest addition to the orbital parade, is sending back the closest orbital looks of Mars yet. Here, for example, is a pit on the flank of the Arsia Mons volanco that actually cuts through the lava flow. Here is further evidence of the work of liquids on the surface of Mars (click on the images for spectacular large-sized views, but be warned these files are big!). Amazing stuff!

Monday, September 10, 2007

On Music

Stephen had been put to sleep in his usual room, far from children and noise, away in that corner of the house which looked down to the orchard and the bowling-green, and in spite of his long absence it was so familiar to him that when he woke about three he made his way to the window almost as quickly as if dawn had already broken, opened it and walked out on to the balcony. The moon had set: there was barely a star to be seen. The still air was delightfully fresh with falling dew, and a late nightingale, in indifferent voice, was uttering a routine jug-jug far down in Jack's plantations; closer at hand, and more agreeable by far, nightjars churred in the orchard, two of them, or perhaps three, the sound rising and falling, intertwining so that the source could not be made out for sure. There were few birds he preferred to nightjars, but it was not that they had brought him out of bed: he stood leaning on the balcony rail and presently Jack Aubrey, in a summer-house by the bowling-green, began again, playing very gently in the darkness, improvising wholly for himself, dreaming away on his violin with a mastery that Stephen had never heard equalled, though they had played together for years and years.

Like many other sailors Jack Aubrey had long dreamed of lying in his warm bed all night long; yet although he could now do so with a clear conscience he often rose at un-Christian hours, particularly if he were moved by strong emotion, and crept from his bedroom in a watch-coat, to walk about the house or into the stables or to pace the bowling-green. Sometimes he took his fiddle with him. He was in fact a better player than Stephen, and now that he was using his precious Guarnieri rather than a robust sea-going fiddle the difference was still more evident: but the Guarnieri did not account for the whole of it, nor anything like. Jack certainly concealed his excellence when they were playing together, keeping to Stephen's mediocre level: this had become perfectly clear when Stephen's hands were at last recovered from the thumbscrews and other implements applied by French counterintelligence officers in Minorca; but on reflexion Stephen thought it had been the case much earlier, since quite apart from his delicacy at that period, Jack hated showing away.

Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea-officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them (except perhaps his surviving opponents in battle) and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating. So utterly unlike his limited vocabulary in words, at times verging upon the inarticulate.

'My hands have now regained the moderate ability they possessed before I was captured,' observed Maturin, 'but his have gone on to a point I never thought he could reach: his hands and his mind. I am amazed. In his own way he is the secret man of the world; but I wish his music were happier.'

(Patrick O'Brian, The Commodore)
On Friendship

When he came back he found Jack arranging the score of their next duet on their music stands. Like many other heavy men Jack could be as sensitive as a cat on occasion: he knew that he had touched on some painful area—that in any case Stephen hated questions—and he was particularly attentive in laying out the sheets, pouring Stephen another glass of wine, and when they began, in so playing that his violin helped the 'cello, yielding to it in those minute ways perceptible to those who are deep in their music if to few others.

(Patrick O'Brian, The Wine-Dark Sea)
The Panda's Thumb

The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History; Stephen Jay Gould (Norton, 1980, ISBN 0-393-30819-7. Cover design by Marek Antoniak.).

As with my last read of Gould's enjoyable essays, this book is a collection of his essays that first appeared in the American Museum of Natural History's magazine. (I wonder if they publish anything like this these days?)

Subject matter wanders far and wide, from aspects of Darwin's life and work to a lot of evolutionary theory and even the occasional reference to baseball. Highly recommended.

Made up of: Prologue; Perfection and Imperfection—A Trilogy on a Panda's Thumb: The Panda's Thumb; Senseless Signs of History; Double Trouble. Darwinia: Natural Selection and the Human Brain: Darwin vs. Wallace; Darwin's Middle Road; Death Before Brith, or a Mite's Nunc Dimittis; Shades of Lamarck; Caring Groups and Selfish Genes. Human Evolution: A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse; Piltdown Revisited; Our Greatest Evolutionary Step; In the Midst of Life... Science and Politics of Human Differences: Wide Hats and Narrow Minds; Women's Brains; Dr. Downs Syndrome; Flaws in a Victorian Veil. The Pace of Change: The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change; Return of the Hopeful Monster; The Great Scablands Debate; A Quahog is a Quahog. Early Life: An Early Start; Crazy Old Randolph Kirkpatrick; Bathybius and Eozoon; Might We Fit Inside a Sponge's Cell. They Were Despised and Rejected: Were Dinosaurs Dumb?; The Telltale Wishbone; Nature's Odd Couple; Sticking Up for Marsupials. Size and Time: Our Alloted lifetimes; Natural Attraction; Bacteria, The Birds and The Bees; Time's Vastness.

Counts as thirty-three (33) entries in the 2007 Short Story Project.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Time, Space and Origin

Manifold: Time; Stephen Baxter (Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-43075-1, 2000).

Manifold: Space; Stephen Baxter (Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-43077-8, 2001).

Manifold: Origin; Stephen Baxter (Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-43079-4, 2002).

For the associated collection, Phase Space, see this previous review.

These books grew out of a series of short stories that Baxter started working out relatively early in his career (for Baxter's own recollections see this link). Some were incorporated into the novels, some were collected in Phase Space. As with the short story collection, the novels deal with Baxter's thoughts on the Fermi Paradox: If aliens are everywhere, why can't we find evidence of them?

While I've read these (a review of Manifold: Origin will be coming later) in their order of publication, they can be read in any order. Baxter uses Michael Moorcock's concept of the multiverse, there are shared characters, some shared incidents, but we are dealing with three separate plot lines and three separate timelines and universes. For example, while Reid Malenfant's wife plays a role in Time and Origin, she does not appear in Space (having died of cancer before the start of the book).

In Manifold: Time Reid Malefant is persuaded to send an expedition to a near-Earth asteroid that appears to be connected to a signal from our future. A good chunk of this novel is found in the long tale Sheena Five, which can be found online here. After an initial success, Malefant and several others travel to the asteroid where they find a gateway. Successive scenes take place further and further into the future. Baxter does a good job of depicting the immense jumps of deep time that the characters experience and even loops the story around in a nifty way. Where are they aliens? We have met the enemy and they is us.

In Manifold: Space, Reid Malefant is present when an alien presence is detected in our own solar system. He travels to the solar focus, about 75 light-hours out towards Alpha Centauri. There he discovers a jump gate, and starts a journey from system to system, in the presence of the mysterious aliens, the Gaijjin. Meanwhile, back in our system, the Gaijjin make their presence increasingly known, mining the asteroids, studying humans, landing on Venus, etc. Baxter echoes both Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon with his vision of people traveling vast stretches of both time and space.

Both books were excellent, overall. There are parts that dragged (one sequence on Earth in the later part of Manifold: Time moved especially slow), and some of the bits that were originally short stories don't feel completely integrated into the story. The cosmic view, the wide scope of space and time, however, make up for any shortfalls.

These books have inspired some spin-off reading, as I hinted at in this earlier posting. For these, I've looked into the anthropic principle, the Carter Catastrophe, all sorts of stuff about astroengineering, the Kardashev scale, and more. All of this, naturally enough, leads to more book purchases!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Monthly Cycle

(Let's try posting this a third time!)

It's that time of the month again. The time for Dave Langford to illuminate the field of science fiction with Issue #242 of Ansible.

And, as always, it is interesting to see how those outside look at the field:

Arthur C. Clarke gets short shrift in Crunch Time: How Everyday Life is Killing the Future (2007) by Mike Hanley and Adrian Monck. 'Here in spades is the incurable optimism of the science fiction writer,' they write, and then quote 'Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Technology', including 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Our reporter John Bark wonders whether Professor Monck (Head of the Faculty of Journalism and Publishing at City University, London) teaches his students that 'Any sufficiently famous Science Fiction writer is indistinguishable from any other.'

Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods is not sf, because: 'I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace and Margaret Atwood, are great. They take on science because it's crucial to our world, and they use language to give energy to ideas. Others just borrow from science and it ends up like the emperor's new clothes, with no understanding of the material. But you shouldn't fake it because science is too important, it's the basis for our lives. I expect a lot more science in fiction because science is so rich.' (New Scientist, 25 August) What is so particularly non-sciencefictional about this science novel? From The Bookseller: 'Billie Crusoe flees an authoritarian society in the company of a highly evolved robot of the species Robo sapiens, to join the perilous voyage to a new Blue Planet, a pristine place of apparently infinite possibilities. [...] Another part of the book is set in Wreck City, a no-go zone peopled by outcasts and casualties post 3-War, a conflict which has ravaged the world.' Winterson explains: 'This part of the book is far from fantasy [...] Everything in that part of the book has been written about scientifically already, it's very near.' [MKS via CB] Her next book will be equally unsciencefictional: 'It's called Robot Love and it's for kids. A girl builds a multi-gendered robot, which then kills her parents because it sees them mistreat her, so they both go on the run. I'm fascinated by artificial intelligence and where it will lead. These robots couldn't build anything as bad as us -- so why would they keep us?' [YH] What sf author could have imagined such novel concepts?