What I'm Reading: Stargate (1976), by Stephen Robinett

The "Gate" could open the way to distant galaxies—
or destroy the whole Universe…!

Saw the cover in a tumblr SF feed, and the title and summary caught my eye.

Despite the year, it's a pretty current story of corporate engineering management. The engineer, Robert Collins (a newbie in way over his skill level), and the company "lawyer"/gun thug/investigator Scarlyn Smith (basically Mike from Breaking Bad), try to figure out why the former chief engineer Norton was vanished from his funeral and turns up in pieces throughout LA. Collins manages to spare time from playing detective to do his job and build the Gate…

Spoiler discussion hereafter.

So the "one fictional science idea" of this book is a matter transporter. Originally somewhat short-ranged, but it allows you to build: Instant teleports across the world, or up to orbit (how conservation of motion is handled is not addressed; jumping to a space station moving 100x faster than the surface should plaster your bits on the wall), or to make a drone ship move FTL by transporting itself forward over and over (apparently biology can't handle the slight deviations in many ports, but electrically-driven starships can).

The Gate is just a giant transporter, with a reach measured in thousands of light years. In its first operational test it targets Tau Ceti, 12 light years away, and rips an asteroid-sized chunk of matter from a planet, including plant life. There's a few sentences about Collins having moral qualms about this. The villain's plan is rather more ambitious, but insane.

Even with just the "normal" application, this is a horrific device. Interstellar war? Just tear the enemy's planet apart from the comfort of your own orbit. You can use it to instantly travel across the Galaxy, or… the plot has another application for it.

There's an adage from Larry Niven's Known Space series, the efficiency of a star drive is directly proportional to its value as a weapon; there meaning that fusion drives, laser sail launchers, and interstellar laser comms make weapons as good as any main cannon. But this is far beyond that. Instant travel means you can kill a planet or a solar system instantly.

Not a particularly well-written or interesting book as literature, but piecing together the dangers of this thing, especially from the crazy scientist who shouts about "the crab!", gives it more value.


Atheism Reading Assignment

The things that deconverted me as a child:

  • National Geographic Concise History of Religions: Either one of these is right, and it's not yours, or none of them are right. I'm particularly fond of the Aztecs, since they believed at a depth no rational person can comprehend… and were just totally wrong. Huitzilopochtli didn't end the world when the sacrifices stopped.
  • Carl Sagan's Cosmos, book (most importantly) and TV series (often streaming online, or get the boxed set). Explains the scientific method, and how we have learned what we know. I don't recommend Neil Degrasse Tyson's version, which is much more pop-culture.
  • Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible: Explains where the Bible came from and how it was written, and why.


The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

Excellent volume. Massively annotated, 1/3 sidebar is almost always full of red text. Mentioned people, places, and artworks are shown inline.

First volume covered mostly more popular stories (arbitrarily chosen as ones mentioning Arkham), but this has most of his Dream Quest, and "The Outsider", one of my favorite of his stories.

It's a big improvement over S.T. Joshi's fandom-oriented books, which had some blurry photos half-assed shoved in the text, no index, in one volume no table of contents!

"Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them"
—H.P. Lovecraft, "The Tomb" (1917)

The man himself was troubling, but he's long dead and the shadow of his writing has happily darkened the entire 20th & 21st Centuries.

I don't know why, but I'm really getting in the mood of endless Halloween this year, and a steady diet of horror helps.

Modern C 2.0

Fantastic book about C as actually used in modern code-bases. Interesting structure of levels 0-3, each of which covers a cross-section of topics at an understanding level. If you know everything in the summary already, you can just skip ahead to the parts you do want detail on.

Design Patterns

It is sometimes suggested by well-meaning language enthusiasts that "My language is complete and powerful, so design patterns don't apply here!" Sadly, they are incorrect.

Design patterns happen in every language. The "Gang of Four" Design Patterns book just collected the ones observed in Smalltalk, and ported them to C++, later rewrites to Java, etc. These are not recipes to blindly follow, but examples meant to show you how to find and regularize the ones in your code.

It's somewhat difficult to see them unless you've read Christopher Alexander's books, and written a lot of programs in some language, and specifically looked for the places where you repeat a structure for livability's sake. Just as it's hard for an architect to make a path where people will want it, unless they first observe how people live and get around that space, and then convert the ad-hoc trails people follow into paths.

Smalltalk is an extremely expressive language (it failed in the market because every ST program is IDE-specific), it has closures, allows you to very trivially make new control structures; it doesn't need a hack like macros because the entire language is that freeform. And this is where the GoF authors observed these paths being made by themselves and other developers, not just in limited BDSM languages like Java.

So, a little light reading:

Harry Potter Contains Actual Curses and Spells, Says Local Idiot

"These books present magic as both good and evil,
which is not true, but in fact a clever deception.
The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells;
which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits
into the presence of the person reading the text"
—Dan Reehil, soi-disant "reverend"

This is a thing an adult Human, supposedly in charge of "educating" children, wrote in the 21st Century. This person actually believes that magic and evil spirits exist, that a series of children's books actually let you violate physics and produce effects with no cause by waving around a stick and saying some Latin doggerel. Which is at least consistent if stupid, since Catholic doctrine is that saying Latin doggerel over wheat crackers and wine turns them into manflesh and blood. If his lunatic premise was correct, we would be in the middle of a magical apocalypse the likes of which the Book of Revelation would say is "too much, man". Any child in this idiot's care is being misinformed and mentally abused.

Stop treating this nonsense as if it's a valid opinion. End religion. Ban the Bible, or at least replace it with Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Read more fantasy novels with the understanding that they're fiction.

What I'm Reading: Space Prison, by Tom Godwin

More commonly known for his short story "The Cold Equations", which has been infuriating people who think life is fair and kind for 65 years, he wrote a number of other novels and short stories. I've read this probably 20-30 years ago, but not as a single piece since then.

Spoilers ahead, go read the book, it's VERY short, a novella by modern standards.

Earth is being blockaded by an alien empire called the Gern, a colony ship of 8000 is sent to a newly-discovered planet Athena with rich resources which can be used to make weapons protecting Earth. They're defeated and half the population are set down on an inhospitable high-gravity planet Ragnarok, the other half taken as slaves to Athena to work for the Gern.

The Gern (derived from Hugo Gernsback?) caricature is, uh, problematic:

"The were big, dark men, with powerful, bulging muscles. They surveyed her and the room with a quick sweep of eyes that were like glittering obsidian, their mouths thin, cruel slashes in the flat, brutal planes of their faces."
… (much later) …
"Narth, like all the Gerns, was different from what they had expected. It was true the Gerns had strode into their town with an attempt at arrogance but they were harmless in appearance, soft of face and belly, and the snarling of the red-faced Narth was like the bluster of a cornered scavenger-rodent."

Well. And none of the Earth people are described in any racial way, except one Germanic psychopath.

As for the Humans, most of the "rejects" left on Ragnarok die in the first few days and are whittled down over years to 49, before the new generations acclimated to the gravity and atmosphere, harsh conditions, and carnivorous diet increase back up to 6000+ over another 200 years, which requires a rather high birth rate and low death rate; I don't think it's quite plausible.

It's notable that the first viewpoint character is a woman. She doesn't last long, and after that few women even get to speak, only one about anything except babies, and most of them die young. The final state of the Ragnarok barbarians is a totalitarian tribal society where women and children hide in caves, men go fight; the women are physically and mentally competent, as shown in one animal fight scene late in the book, but not consulted in war.

The transmission of knowledge, in a handful of books somehow written and preserved by these not-quite-paleolithic barbarians, is exceedingly implausible. They make technical and scientific leaps which would be extraordinary in societies of billions, let alone a few thousand. Meanwhile neither Earth nor the Gern make any technical progress in the 200 year course of the book, allowing ancient written knowledge of their blasters and ship systems to help 10th generation barbarians.

I'm not going to criticize a book from the '50s for having FTL drives and communications, but I roll my eyes at it anyway, especially when they propose building spaceships and FTL communicators with stone knives & prowler-skins, as it were.

Native life of Ragnarok consists of: Prowlers (wolf/big cat type hunters), Unicorns (psychotic bison with one horn), Wood Goats, a few species of small and large scavengers, and Mockers (telepathic squirrels), and plants not dissimilar to Earth. It's not much of an ecosystem, and is never explained sufficiently. To some extent, Godwin didn't understand the ecological energy pyramid. I have an untested, almost unsupported hypothesis that the erratic orbits of Ragnarok and its suns may be a post-apocalyptic situation, where these are the few survivors of a more complex ecosystem; that would help explain the intelligence of the few survivors.

They have a series of strong male leaders, willing and able to execute anyone who doesn't share everything with the group, are incorruptible, and single-minded on survival and the long-term ideal of defeating the Gerns. This is, to be blunt, maybe the least plausible thing. I can buy one or two such leaders, but getting a third is beyond impossible. Humans fuck everything up with politics and religion, there's no way they wouldn't.

The barbarians do make good use of all their resources, despite an almost total lack of metals on the planet. And yet at no point are cannibalism or hierarchical resource distribution discussed, which are the usual Human solutions to extremely tight resources. The Aztecs would be very disappointed in Ragnarok.

The rapidity of them adapting to spaceship technology and developing a new tactic against an ancient spacefaring empire is very unlikely; ridiculous, even.

And here's the thing, most of this I can criticize as unrealistic. But the idea of a Hell world breeding up super-soldiers who then seize power from the civilized and establishing their own Empire, that's an idea that appears in many other places.

Historically, the Spartans tried to make this work, despite being in one of the most fertile and pleasant places on Earth, and did make superior warriors… at a cost of crippling their economy and culture, and eventually twice being defeated by coalitions of everyone else in the region who hated them for it.

Germanic barbarians lived in much more difficult environments and had more meat-heavy diets than the Romans, and were physically more powerful; but that generally didn't help them win wars against civilized people until Rome started collapsing for internal reasons (maybe lead pipes, but just as much the abandonment of military traditions by filthy ignorant Christians).

The Zulu Empire rose with Shaka Zulu and his Spartan-like ideals, and almost immediate collapse after his murder by his idiot brother. South Africa ranges from Hell world to some of the most fertile places on Earth, so there wasn't an environmental pressure, only one strong leader.

So the reality of this idea does not work.

In Dune, obviously, with both the Fremen and Sardaukar. The Fremen women, unlike the Ragnarok barbarians, fight like the men do, and Leto II's Fish Speakers, descended from both Fremen and Sardaukar, are all women. Herbert revisits this in The Dosadi Experiment, though the Dosadi survivors are more politically treacherous than superhumanly dangerous.

Harry Harrison's Deathworld series has easily the most dangerous planet, vaguely habitable but every form of life trying to kill invaders, but the successful colonists adapt to the environment, rather than trying to fight and control it.

I honestly don't know how to rate this. It's a very enjoyable read, but there are so many cultural, literary, political, ecological, and technical things I object to that it shouldn't pass.

★★☆☆☆ / ★★★★☆ depending on how I think about it.

There's a sequel, The Barbarians, which I'll likely read soon, and see if that addresses anything or makes it worse.

What I'm Reading: Lord of the Fantastic: Stories in Honor of Roger Zelazny

"I took it with equanimity, however: I've long known that fortune's a whore and life itself a kind of stupid muddle. I am not a religious man. Far from it. I hold, if anything, a belief which I believe was once ascribed to the Gnostic: that Satan won out over God, not the other way around, and the Dark Prince runs things in the dismal and disastrous way that suits his nature. I knew that everything was just chance and bad luck, in a universe in which things were stacked against us and even our ruling deity hated us."
—Robert Sheckley, "The Eryx"

Great little anthology, Walter Jon Williams' "Lethe" in particular hits a Zelazny note (not the first time; his Ace Double "Elegy for Angels and Dogs" sequel to Zelazny's "The Graveyard Heart" is fantastic), "The Eryx" is the kind of wiseass story Sheckley told in all his work, with a little Zelazny mysticism. Some of these are more poetic fantasy than I'm really into, but that was also Zelazny's thing.

  • Lethe, by Walter Jon Williams
  • The Story Roger Never Told, by Jack Williamson
  • The Somehow Not Yet Dead, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
  • Calling Pittsburgh, by Steven Brust
  • If I Take the Wings of Morning, by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
  • Ki'rin and the Blue and White Tiger, by Jane M. Lindskold
  • The Eryx, by Robert Sheckley
  • Southern Discomfort, by Jack C. Haldeman II
  • Suicide Kings, by John J. Miller
  • Changing of the Guard, by Robert Wayne McCoy and Thomas F. Monteleone
  • The Flying Dutchman, by John Varley
  • Ninekiller and the Neterw, by William Sanders
  • Call Me Titan, by Robert Silverberg
  • The Outling, by Andre Norton
  • Arroyo De Oro, by Pati Nagle
  • Back in "The Real World", by Bradley H. Sinor
  • Mad Jack, by Jennifer Roberson
  • Movers and Shakers, by Paul Dellinger
  • The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness, by William Browning Spencer
  • Only the End of the World Again, by Neil Gaiman
  • Slow Symphonies of Mass and Time, by Gregory Benford
  • Asgard Unlimited, by Michael A. Stackpole
  • Wherefore the Rest Is Silence, by Gerald Hausman

What I'm Reading: Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

Here's your light summer reading!

Cosmic catastrophe, in this case a close fly-by of a black hole Taraxippus, has long-term consequences for Earth's climate, and people on a rickety fish-farming ship try to survive and make the best use of it.

It's hard not to directly compare this to Neal Stephenson's SevenEves, which was terrible: That had ludicrously bad physics (hint: planets in collisions don't work like concrete hit by bullets, but more like water balloons), then ludicrously bad planning, then ludicrously bad genetics leading into full-on magical fairy tales. But what it also reminds me of is Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, an excellent book from back when he could write a tight story about science and then let an editor edit the manuscript.

Perihelion Summer, on the other hand, is written by someone who can do math and science. So the means of tracking the black hole makes sense, the physics of the catastrophe make sense.

It's also mercifully short, though that sometimes comes at a cost. The initial crew of the Mandjet (one of the ancient Egyptian names for the ship of the Sun) is small, but poorly described; and having both Arun and Aaron in the crew is a little confusing. Egan's never been strong at dialogue, does his characterization through actions and scientific discovery, which needs more page count. The action moves forward in time rapidly, letting us deal with the consequences now rather than in hundreds of pages.

Matt said, “Let me start by saying that if we end up in prison, I promise to install ceiling insulation and double glazing in all of your cells.”

The coming apocalypse and the migrations necessary to survive, are what this is all about. Part of this is Egan's perspective in the Southern hemisphere, which already has a terrible temperature gradient and Australia's genocidal immigration policies; if that gets worse, billions die. And not entirely off-page like so many other catastrophe books.

“But however vast the fleet, however crowded the decks and holds of every fleeing vessel, they would always be outnumbered by the ones they’d left behind.”

The American solution to some of the problems isn't the Southern solution, which changes the tone quite a few times.

The ending's a bit abrupt. I'm still very pleased with it.


Functional Thinking Books