Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Universe Next Door, from New Scientist magazine

I've been reading a non-fiction science-fiction book! It's called The Universe Next Door and it consists of about sixty short "what if?" articles collated from the files of New Scientist magazine, covering a vast range of topics.

Titles such as: What if Earth didn't have a Moon? What if the dinosaurs weren't wiped out? What would a world without fossil fuels look like? What if we could redesign the planet? Could we save the world by going vegetarian? Is there an alternative to countries? Will genetically engineered people conquer the World? What if we don't need bodies?

There are enough ideas in here to fuel scores of SF stories. I'll focus on just one of them, by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, which particularly caught my interest: what if the invention of electric motors had pre-empted  the age of steam, and thereby supplanted it in powering the industrial revolution?

This article starts with a review of scientific knowledge in the 18th century. Scientists thought of electricity and magnetism as totally separate phenomena. It wasn't until the 1820s that Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère had shown that an electric current moving through a wire generated a magnetic field around it. Michael Faraday followed this up in 1831 by demonstrating the reverse effect – that moving a wire through a magnetic field created an electric current in the wire. He went on to draw the conclusion that electricity and magnetism were effectively two aspects of the same phenomenon, and recognised the technological implications. The use of an electric current to generate a magnetic field became the basis of the electric motor, and the use of magnetic fields to create an electric current became the basis of the electric generator.

The author makes the point that these developments occurred when they did for several reasons, one being a search by scientists for connections between phenomena, another being the invention of the battery. However, there was no fundamental reason why these developments could not have happened a century earlier, and he goes on to outline some of the implications.

In the author's alternate timeline, the electric motor would have become available in around 1740, when steam power was in its infancy. Primitive electric motors are so simple, compact, reliable and inexpensive that they would probably have dominated most applications, giving steam power little chance of becoming established. But where would the power to drive generators come from? That was already available in the form of waterwheels or windmills; waterwheels were the principal means of driving textile and other industrial machinery in the pre-steam age. Existing factories were therefore already located close to a reliable supply of fast-flowing water.

A significant implication of electric motors rather than steam power would have been the lack of the need to concentrate industry to the same degree. Steam engines were large and fuel-hungry, requiring a steady flow of coal, and it made economic sense to centralise the coal supply lines and hence build very large factories (leading in due course to large new cities). Electric motors were far more scalable, and could usefully provide power to existing small workshops.

There would also be implications for the electricity distribution system. The one which historically developed, in imitation of the complex coal-based gas supply system developed earlier, was on a similar scale, focused on large centralised power plants. If the electricity supply had developed in isolation a more decentralised system might well have evolved. Clearly, fossil fuel generation plants would have to be used to meet the demand for power, but these would probably be a lot smaller and more local, plugging into existing networks, with wind and water power likely to have remained in use alongside.

Electric road vehicles, which historically were competing with internal combustion-engined rivals early in the 20th century, would have enjoyed a considerable lead, and rail transport would of course have been entirely electric from the start. The internal combustion engine might mainly have prospered as an aircraft power plant, for which there was (and still is) no obvious alternative.

I am reminded of a separate article which appeared some months ago in the New Scientist concerning battery-powered electric buses. These were developed and in service in London in the early 1900s, getting over the range limitation by having interchangeable battery packs, which could be winched into place at the depot. They were much more popular with users than the contemporary noisy, and very smelly, petrol-engined kind, but sadly the organisation which introduced them became mired in legal issues and collapsed. Another "what if"! It is not difficult to imagine that if electric vehicles were fully developed and in use long before the first IC engine appeared, the latter might have failed to "gain traction" (sorry!) and might well have been banned from urban areas due to its noise and air pollution.

Finally, this all dovetails quite well with some thoughts of my own concerning the development of energy supplies in the UK. These would have to be based largely on coal, since that was the one fuel in the country that was available in vast quantities. However, in my alternative world all coal would be processed to produce gas and smokeless solid fuel but, instead of being distributed, the gas would be burned on-site to generate electricity; the gas distribution networks would not be developed. The smokeless fuel would be formed into various shapes depending on its purpose, with small "marbles" being suited to bulk handling by equipment like the Archimedean screw. This would automate fuel handling in ships, instead of having hordes of men heaving sacks of coal on board, followed by shovelling coal by hand into the boiler furnaces. 

The end result of these changes could have been a much cleaner, quieter and healthier environment in place of the "dark satanic mills" and the noise and fumes associated with combustion engines.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

A couple of months ago, this book arrived in the post. That was something of a surprise, as I had not ordered it, had in fact never heard of it, but as it is labelled "Advance Reader's Copy: Not for Resale" I assume that the publisher's marketing people had spotted this blog and sent it on the off-chance of a favourable review. I must stress that I do not encourage this and usually decline any such offers (the British Library's Classic SF reprints being a worthy exception). So I put it to one side and forgot about it, until I decided to trawl though my unread pile for something different, and found this one. It had the immediate attraction of being very short by modern standards (less than 200 pages) so at least it wouldn't waste much of my time.

On the face of it, the plot sounds unpromising. It is set in 1986 and starts with the narrator, a 15 year old boy called Nick Hayes, receiving the news that he has leukaemia, with about a 50% chance of surviving the next five years. His illness forms the backdrop to the tale, with unsparing details of the chemotherapy and its effect on him, while he is trying to live a normal life (which outside school largely consists of playing Dungeons and Dragons with a small group of friends). The author's depiction of adolescent life is good enough to make me wince in recognition every now and then (although I have to admit that Nick is a more admirable person that I recollect being at that age). He meets a girl who seems to like him, although as he attends a boys' school he hasn't a clue what to do about her (been there, done that!). He also falls foul of some nasty drug pushers and has other worries about a mysterious man who seems to be taking a close interest in him – a man who becomes the key to the rest of the tale, the focus of the SF element of the story, and the reason why the very law-abiding group of friends find themselves involved in breaking and entering while trying to avoid a homicidal nutcase. The friends discover the hard way that, just as in D&D, there are some real-life situations which cannot be escaped without a sacrifice.

The plot might not sound compelling, but I really enjoyed the writing. There are many authors whose writing and/or story-telling ability (not at all the same thing) impress me, but only very occasionally do I find an author who writes in a way which I would love to be able to emulate. Mark Lawrence has just joined that select group, and this story dragged me in, pinned me down and wouldn't let go until I had finished.

The writing style has the kind of dry, dark humour that I enjoy. A couple of examples, the first on chemotherapy:

They used to poison you if you got syphilis. I have my mother to thank for this little nugget of information. There aren't many boys of fifteen who can say that. Not so long before my blood turned sour, but a sufficient number of decades to take you back before World War II and the use of penicillin, the only effective treatment for syphilis was to dose the victim with arsenic. The logic being that although arsenic is a deadly poison it is more deadly to the bacteria that cause the disease and, with careful judgement, the doctor can kill one of you without killing the other. Chemotherapy is much the same. The chemicals used may not be such well-known favourites of celebrated poisoners, but the idea remained unchanged. The aim was to make my blood into a soup toxic enough to kill the cancer cells while allowing the rest of me to struggle on.

And the second, somewhat lighter, quote concerns the best way of buying alcoholic drinks when you are obviously too young:

The place for a teenager to buy beer was the supermarket. But you had to pad your basket out sufficiently to prove you were there on parents' orders. For best results, take a shopping list on which the beers are written, and sandwich them between a bag of frozen peas and some fish fingers. The true artist invests in some female sanitary products, too.

I see that the author has previously written three trilogies: The Broken Empire, Red Queen's War, and Book of the Ancestor. I will definitely be investigating these.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Songs of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

My reading of Clarke has been somewhat patchy, as I absorbed all I could find in the 1960s and into the 1970s, but not a lot thereafter. So while Rendezvous with Rama remains one of my all-time favourites (and the book I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering what classic SF is all about) I did not read The Songs of Distant Earth when it emerged in 1986.

The setting is a little complicated: astrophysicists discover early in the 21st century that the sun will go nova in only 1,500 years time, wiping out all life on Earth. This prompts a vast seeding project starting 500 years later, in which seedships, travelling at sub-light speeds, are sent to promising planets discovered around various other stars. They have no crew but contain everything necessary to regenerate plant and animal life and to rear and educate people. It was assumed that this would be the only method of survival available, and Earth's population was steadily wound down in preparation for the end. However, only a couple of centuries before the nova, a quantum drive was developed which made manned starships feasible. Just before the nova, the starship Magellan duly takes off with hundreds of thousands of frozen people, aiming for a planet with the potential to support life, but needing some drastic terraforming. On the way it stops off at another planet, named Thalassa, seeded seven centuries earlier, in order to take on board enough material to continue its journey. A hundred or so members of the crew are thawed out in order to deal with this – a process expected to take two years. The story is all about the relationship between the starship crew and the Thalassans.

There is very little land on this ocean world, just a couple of islands, so the population is carefully controlled and, given the very favourable climate, has evolved a relaxed and appealing lifestyle, without a lot of use for technology. Romantic relationships develop between some of the locals and the crew members, as might be expected, and some crew members decide they would rather remain on Thalassa than continue to their goal. There is also a sub-plot concerning giant crustaceans which show signs of organisation. As far as the plot goes, that's about it.

What stands out are the author's views on politics and religion, which are expressed with some force. The president of Thalassa (a largely ceremonial post) is chosen by lot from almost the entire adult population, apart from a few obvious exclusions, plus a less obvious one – anyone who tries to be selected is automatically barred as inherently unsuitable! Although some seedships had been sent out by followers of the few surviving faiths, religion was largely regarded as obsolete by the time the seedships were dispatched. Religious belief had been  assessed long ago as being not worth the trouble it caused, so all mention of it had been carefully excluded from the educational programmes and library resources available to the Thalassans. As Clarke puts it: "they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds". Not just religion, but histories, art and literature were ruthlessly purged of "everything that concerned war, crime, violence and the destructive passions" (probably not a very big library remained!). The Thalassans are accordingly portrayed as a tolerant and friendly people without any hang-ups. Whether or not this approach would have the desired effect is questionable, as is the concept of the first generation of settlers being cared for and educated by AI systems.

By the time I reached the end, I found myself rather confused. Somehow, the story doesn't seem to hang together as a coherent narrative; it has the feel of of something cobbled together from various different elements which do not sit that comfortably together. Even the title doesn't seem to fit the story, giving the impression the author used it just because he liked the sound of it. In a note at the beginning of the book, Clarke comments that the novel was based on a short story written thirty years previously, with the plot modified to make the science more realistic. I haven't read the short story, but I suspect that a degree of dramatic focus was lost in the expanded tale.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Screen time

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

I know, I know, but I couldn't resist Yamato! One of my main interests apart from SFF is 20th century military technology, especially of World War 2. So I really had to see an SF film featuring a futuristic version of the greatest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato (to appease the pedants I should also mention that she had a sister-ship, the Musashi).

In terms of its iconography and overall ambience, the film is a kind of blend of Star Wars and Star Trek, with a uniquely Japanese flavour – which means rather more in the way of dramatic formal attitudes and gestures than Hollywood might produce. I did wonder, before I saw it, if the plot involved salvaging the actual Yamato from her watery grave and kitting her out with all of the systems she would require to become a spacecraft, but it wasn't quite that dotty – she was a purpose-designed space ship that just looked remarkably like her WW2 ancestor.

Anyhow, the plot (if it matters) takes place in 2199 and involves superior alien spacecraft systematically destroying the Earth defences and sowing the surface with radioactivity, forcing the dwindling remnants of humanity to take refuge underground. When all seems lost, a message capsule is received containing information about building a warp drive able to cross interstellar space, plus giving the coordinates of a distant planet. The Yamato, fitted out with the warp drive and associated warp gun at t'other end – sets sail (to use a slight anachronism), but discovers some surprises on arrival.

There is the obligatory pairing of a hot-headed but highly-skilled young officer in conflict with his apparently staid but worthy captain, and an attractive young female pilot who is at first hostile to the handsome hot-head but…. well, I don't really need to go on. The climax of the film is classically Japanese, which is to say not how Hollywood usually does it.

It is totally absurd from start to finish, to the degree that there is no point in trying to analyse the plot, but I have to confess that I parked my critical faculties and actually quite enjoyed it. It certainly stands comparison with some of the lesser Star Trek/Wars output.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

This also has a Japanese link, as it is based on a manga series of that name dating back to 1989, and there have already been various screen treatments. Cue lots of criticism of the film for not being faithful to the original, and for having a westerner (Scarlett Johansson) playing the lead role. Since I was unaware of this background until after I had watched the film, that did not spoil my enjoyment at all.

As far as the film is concerned the story begins with the creation of an ideal warrior by transferring a human brain into an artificial body to create a cyborg. The plot follows the adventures of Mira Killian, the cyborg, as she enforces law'n'order by killing lots of people, very efficiently. But then she meets her supposed enemy who causes her to question her role, and ultimately to find out the truth of her own, human origin.

This is not a great film but it's not bad either and the CGI is spectacular, with a rather Blade-Runner feel to the futuristic/grotty urban setting. Worth seeing if you like this kind of action movie.

 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Also known as Star Wars: Episode VIII, this is the second movie in the post-Star Wars reboot, and the sequel to The Force Awakens (2015 – reviewed on this blog in June 2016). The start is the worst part of it, with the evil Supreme Leader Snoke making melodramatic threats against the heroic Resistance, in a scene apparently pitched at the comprehension level of a rather dim-witted eight-year-old. Of course, we knew that Snoke was a bad guy before he said a word because he is incredibly ugly, so in compliance with all such movies he must be bad, right? It would clearly shake something fundamental in the conventions of such movies for the bad guys to be handsome or beautiful and the good guys rather ugly, for once.  How did virtue become so firmly asssociated with good looks?

The film doesn't get much better as it goes along, being careful to press the nostalgia button to appeal to those who fondly recall the original trilogy, so it's just more of the same, really. There is one scene which stands out from the rest (and doesn't really fit in with it) when Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the planet where Luke Skywalker has sought refuge, and falls into an underground space which has surfaces which reflect her image apparently to infinity. This looked interesting and for a moment I hoped the plot would be heading off in an intriguing new direction, but sadly it led nowhere, like the rest of the story.

Jumanji (1995)

I first saw Jumanji quite a long time ago and recalled it as a fun, family, light entertainment. Having seen the favourable reviews of the much-delayed sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I decided to see the original again as a warm-up for the new film.

Jumanji focuses on a mysterious board game of that name, found by a young lad in 1969. The boy starts to play but is sucked into the world of the game – a wild jungle. Some 25 years later the game is rediscovered by two children who start to play only to discover that they have released from the game the long-lost boy, now a man in his 30s (Robin Williams). He tells them that to escape from the game they must finish playing it. So they continue rolling the dice, despite the fact that each move results in some new disaster – huge, stinging insects, a horde of destructive monkeys, a fast-growing man-eating plant (eat your hearts out, triffids!), and a stampede of African big game, all happening in their home town. Naturally, everything ends up as it should, with the good guys on top and the villain getting his just desserts.

I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. The original plot makes a very refreshing change from the current take on heroic fantasy films, far too many of which can be summed up in four words: superheroes beat up antiheroes.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

This long-delayed sequel features the same magical game only this time it upgrades itself to a virtual reality version into which a quartet of youngsters are accidentally uploaded, finding themselves in something like the Amazonian jungle. As before, completing the game is the only way to escape from it; this requires returning a large jewel to the statue it was stolen from. This is made more complex by the opposition of the heavily-armed gang who stole it.

The twist – and the source of much humour – is that the youngsters do not appear as themselves, but as the avatars they have hastily chosen. So the weakling nerd finds himself portrayed by Dwayne Johnson while the massive football jock becomes a very small man (Kevin Hart), the painfully shy girl appears as a red-hot martial arts expert (Karen Gillan), and (best of all) the self-absorbed beauty becomes an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black). Cue lots of gender-change jokes as the youngsters try to get used to their avatars. Each of these avatars has certain strengths and weaknesses, and this assorted bunch has to learn to work together to finish the game. Each has three lives – after which they are dead for real.

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.