What I'm Not Watching: Another Life

New Netflix UFO first contact series. It's rare that a show flunks out with me as fast as this one has. Maybe I'm unfair, maybe I have impossible standards of mediocre TV. Certainly my tolerance for bullshit like FTL, non-functional starships, and implausible human social structures in SF decreases asymptotically with the newness of the work; I ignore or even enjoy it in pre-'60s SF (H. Beam Piper and Robert A. Heinlein can do no wrong), tolerate it in '60s-70s (Star Trek TOS & TAS are cool, even if it's technical nonsense), eyeroll in '80s-90s (TNG is not cool; I tried rewatching recently and made it 8 episodes in before going insane. Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 were competent and avoided most of my technical and social complaints), and just say "fuck that" in the 21st C.

So, this. Starts off badly with vapid people oohing and ahhing at maybe the shittiest CGI spaceship ever drawn, an overhead drone shot with fisheye lens for no reason, a shitty CGI impact & Photoshop crystals growing, and lens flares everywhere. Yeah, this is gonna be a chore to look at, isn't it?

Then the main character, Astronaut Niko (Vic from Longmire) & her trivial other are introduced and start "As You Know Bob"-ing each other. With an iPad with shitty plastic prosthetics on it so it doesn't look like an iPad. Apparently this is the distant future, not the present like the previous scenes and the lame Midwest honky fashion suggests?

Next scene she has a shitty CGI starship which makes no structural sense the size of a… tanker? The ring suggests it rotates for pseudo-gravity, but is so thin this thing would have to be city-sized instead. And it'd be vulnerable to radiation, especially when they cruise right up to a giant bright star like Sirius A (8.6 LY away). Rough estimate from on-screen size of the ring is 1mm thick, 10cm across, which would put a 20m thick ring around 20km wide & 30-40km long starship. So something is very wrong here.

She said she'd be gone 3 months each way to Pi Canis Majoris, 96 LY away. They have FTL, but haven't gone anywhere with it? So why does she have to go into what seems to be cryogenic sleep? You'd use cryo for a STL ship that would take centuries to get there, not for magic FTL.

Immediately we're informed that the star isn't where they thought (what, no) and there's a "dark cloud" in the way. And her first concern is maybe they'd hit a planet. OH FUCK YOU. Space is fucking huge; hitting a planet in light years of cloud would be like hitting a BB in the ocean, if you were a microbe.

Making a pit stop at Sirius to get to Pi Canis is like making a pit stop at Barstow on the way from LA to Poughkeepsie, New York; yeah, it's thataway (they are in the same direction from Earth), but you've barely started. The star map shown is ludicrously wrong in scale.

Now there's a black man hologram who's apparently the ship's AI. It's paranoid about the aliens being hostile, and is inexplicably Human-behaving. I loathe machines pretending they're people, and presenting your AI slave as black is some nasty shit.

The crew apparently don't know each other and have to introduce themselves, except they don't finish the introductions so the audience is left in the dark; there was no on-Earth briefing or training, they were just loaded aboard in cold-storage? They say spaceships haven't had uniforms in decades, which I find even less plausible. Shitty space teenager has to lounge in a sofa and text her parents during debriefing; so they have FTL comms, but decentralized command like an isolated exploration ship?

Everyone talks over everyone else, finishes their sentences, which would be fine if it was witty Howard Hawks banter but instead it's lame technobabble and bad leadership. The writers for this have never spent a minute in an engineering or military organization.

Now trivial other, left behind with the annoying child (best decision yet; I'm annoyed they're ever on screen), has gone crazy and is trying to use bird sounds to talk to the shitty CGI UFO, and explains this in a "Holo-Call", which is two actors sitting in the same room with some shitty CGI static to suggest they're light-years apart.

This is 20 minutes in and my hate for the incompetent writers and filmmakers could set fire to the planet. I'm done, stopping. Fuck this.

☆☆☆☆☆ I award you no points

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.

Expanse Plot Holes

I forgot about these when writing What I'm Watching: Expanse S3, but these annoyed me to no end:

During high-G maneuvers, Prax's suit hose gets cut, and he immediately can't breathe. Amos unplugs his suit and gets up, spends 2 minutes crawling over to him and plugging it back in. Why can't Prax's suit hold 2 minutes of air? Also Amos is apparently such a badass he can hold his weight at maybe 3-10G by the fingertips. Don't arm-wrestle that dude.

Just before they rescue the kids, a scene establishes that Bobbie Draper's power armor is just about out of thruster fuel, and Holden says they have no hydrazine, they ironically don't need rocket fuel. Bobbie then spends the next 30 minutes flying up shafts and across vast expanses of open Ionian sky.

So, where'd the fuel come from? First, even an advanced Martian fusion torch spaceship probably would have hydrazine or some equivalent for maneuvering thrusters, and all the spacesuits have thrusters with kind of ridiculous amounts of thrust and range. Second, it's easy to make hydrazine with common chemicals, it's the easy part of rocket science (also drug manufacture). But there's no scene of them refueling Bobbie's armor.

What I'm Watching: The Expanse S3

So, I read these when they came out, some years ago. They ("James S.A. Corey" is a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck; I don't know why they didn't just use both their names) wrote a good hard SF STL setting, then there's an unfortunate "space zombies" episode, and then they kind of blow that up for a more traditional space opera thing.

The first season was great, but took a lot from the 1st & 2nd books; the second season was the rest of the first two books. Minor improvement in not having space zombies, but so much of the books are skipped for more standing around talking time.

So finally S3 is free with 'Zon Prime. Well.

The space battles and gunfights are generally very good, when you can see them; about half the time you can't see anything happen except on a tactical scanner, which is "realistic" in that there's no camera handy, but dull storytelling. The "Prax tries to rescue his daughter, but he's a botanist which isn't very useful" story works well.

Unfortunately, this is a politics-heavy season, and Earth politics are incredibly dull and preachy, and have maybe the most annoying character ever introduced since Jar-Jar Binks, Preacher Anna Volovodov (also, shitty translation, it should be Volovodova), blonde bimbo savior. Every scene she's in is a Boomer ex-hippie preaching about love and peace and ideals, or how scared everyone is but it's OK because "god" is with them. Ugh. She contributes nothing, has no real useful skills (supposedly she's a nurse but in the two times that matters, she doesn't do anything but "comfort" people; no medical skills exhibited) but fills about 30% of the screen time of the season. All her Earth scenes are created for the show, they have nothing to do with the books.

Once the politics are resolved, maybe we'll get rid of Preacher Anna? No, she shows up at the Big Dumb Object for no reason (which is where she comes in in the books), and preaches about how "There are things in the Universe much bigger than we are", but none of them are her god, so it's utterly pointless. The military characters try to ship her off with the other civilians, and she finds a way to stay just to annoy me.

I'm impressed that there's two full-on mutinies and lunatic captains shooting their own people rather than the "enemy". In real navies you don't get that kind of action too often, because nobody that insane is ever given control of a multi-billion-dollar vessel. Actual military people at upper ranks tend to be selected for calmness and sucking up to hierarchy, any rebellion is beaten out of them when they're cadets, but here we get a traitor and an actual space pirate deciding who walks the plank.

Bobby Draper is still very cute, and keeps showing what dicks the Martians are. Earth people are assholes with no redeeming traits, Belters are piratical but generally fun, but the Martians are like the Mitchell & Webb Nazi sketch, but none of them realize they're the baddies.

Finally a dumbass Belter, a girl hopped up on drugs screaming for "vengeance", two annoying paparazzi, James "What the Fuck Have You Done Now" Holden, and a hallucination of Joe Miller's Stupid Hat turn on the Big Dumb Object and go have the magic space opera part of this season. Most of this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, physics-wise or in Human psychology. But it turns on the Plot Device so they can go explore 1300 star systems next season.

★★★☆☆ but I fast-forwarded over a lot of Preacher Anna's preachin', I'd probably give it ★☆☆☆☆ if I had to sit thru all of it.

What I'm Watching: Dark

(Needed a little break from EVA which brings up both happy and terribly sad memories for me… So something "dark" instead)

Dark is a German Twin Peaks/12 Monkeys/La Jetée/Stranger Things/The Caves of Time CYOA mashup.

Kids go missing in the woods around a nuclear power plant.

Terrible English dubbing, often gravelly old people for the kids. But I find German harder to tolerate for long periods than most languages, even Dutch or Finnish, so I'm doing both dub and subtitles; the two are often hilariously unalike.

Is everyone in Germany supposed to be terminally depressed, or just this town? It's shot bleaker than any Scandinavian drama, everyone just stands around crying or staring blankly, with bursts of aggressive activity.

Guy leaves an office with, "Do you ever wonder where we took a wrong turn?" Dramatic non-sequiters abound.

Also wow these are some unattractive people. They've never seen the Sun, most are lined or lumpy before their apparent age, nasty looking hair. Cinéma Vérité is one thing, but this is going too far.

Senile old physicist doing the Log Lady routine. Drug dealing kid like Bobby in Twin Peaks. But there's nobody with any charisma or good looks.

Music ranges from '80s pop to some sorta dark atmospheric, both of which I love, to very gloomy, whiny incidental music which I could do without.

The actual plot so far—non-spoiler, this is all in the first couple episodes—seems to be someone using kids as guinea pigs for a time machine. But they do this in the most hamfisted way possible, creepy dude grabbing local kids instead of, say, taking strays in Berlin back to the Secret Underground Lab.

There's enough good parts, and more enough downbeat but interesting parts, that I'm still going in it, but I wouldn't call any of this compelling.

★★★☆☆

Project UFO

Which one is correct? Let's think about this from the other direction. Could we buzz another planet, today, in a way that makes "UFO sightings are ALIENS!" make any kind of sense?

Premise 1: It is incredibly unlikely that any "intelligent" species, having recently developed from hunter-gatherers to agriculture to technology in the span of a few thousand years, is smart enough to reach that technological stage without making their planet uninhabitable as we have, or discovering nuclear weapons and waging primitive tribal warfare with them. Even if anyone survives this century, or we colonize Mars, it may be centuries before we have this amount of available energy and economy again.

Therefore 1: Any "UFO" is probably from someone like us, just barely capable of doing it before going extinct. A last fireworks show before the Long Night.

This is going to take a while to work out. Get a coffee.

The nearest star is Proxima Centauri, 4.3 Light Years (272K AU, or 40.7 trillion km) away, and there is a potentially habitable planet.

If we stopped having wars (as if!), we'd have a few trillion dollar surplus; but I'll just suppose we redirect no more than half our military budget. You could easily recruit volunteers for a life-long mission.

A spaceship capable of keeping people alive to get there would be, as a minimum, the size and complexity of a nuclear submarine, 6800 tons displacement, 128 crew, and maybe 100x the cost: $150 billion. Let's handwave away with hydroponics and recycling that a real sub has to surface for supplies every 3 months, and the reactor lasts 30 years before it needs a refuel from recently-processed uranium. Neither are insurmountable engineering, the ship's going to be unpleasant to live in but it's about the best we can do.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy can lift 22.2 tons to orbit, displacement isn't exactly dry weight but close enough for an estimate so that's 300 launches at $100M+ each ($30 billion!) and then somehow assemble it in orbit.

Assembly would be easier if we had a space colony, with a giant machine shop, or even could still run the Space Shuttle (the space truck finally useful for something!), but that'll cost even more money and time to set up. At least another $1 billion on moving enough workers through ISS to finish the thing.

Now we need a space drive. Here we're kinda screwed.

As reference, see Atomic Rockets, menu at the bottom of the front page is where all the interesting stuff is, and in particular Slower Than Light. And a lot of the systems given there don't work in reality, or we don't have yet.

The "ALIENS!" enthusiasts are gonna say magic spacedrive, or fusion torch, or whatever, but we can't make any of those, and fuel's still not adequate for constant burn. You can't magic up extra fuel. There is no such thing as faster than light travel. And see premise 2 later.

Bussard Ramjets would be perfect, even with the 0.12 C speed limit they would actually have… but we aren't within decades of making one.

The nuclear reactor could power an ion drive, which we know how to make and fuel, very very low thrust but constant acceleration, scratch pad shows decades to reach halfway and start decelerating, except we can't carry enough reaction mass and there's none in deep space. Great for in-system maneuvering if you're patient, useless for interstellar travel.

Orion drive, firing nuclear bombs at a heavy plate under your ass, is an act of war in our own Solar System, and a giant whiplash and cancer machine for the crew. 100% buildable, but nobody's that stupid.

Charles Pellegrino's Flying to Valhalla has a reasonable proposal for a sorta clean antimatter drive that'd get there in about 5 years, we just need to plate Mercury in solar cells to power particle colliders to make the shit. Avatar is a stupid, terrible, stupid movie, but Pellegrino designed the starship in it, which is perfectly reasonable. So, that's a century or two off. No good.

Solar sails and laser launchers should work, and we can make these. We'll know for sure in a couple weeks. Making them big enough for a huge ship (1000 km across!) is a challenge, but this is a matter of engineering, not fundamental science. This would take 20 years to reach halfway and 20 years to slow down, but some original crew and their kids could get there.

The lasers are the infinitely expensive part, where you can just sink all money forever into and not be done, but good news is A) they stay put in the Solar System, B) you can build and launch them one at a time over years as a satellite array zapping a lens which projects onto the sail, and C) they're useful anti-asteroid tools (not by burning, but put another sail on an asteroid, and you can push it out of harmful orbits). The bad news is D) the people back home may be dead/forget about you/not be able/be unwilling to continue running them in 20+ years, and E) lasers in orbit can be turned against ground targets, almost literally a lightning bolt from "god" striking down your enemies. Quis custodiet…

Worst case is the lasers go quiet, and the laser sail ship becomes a much slower solar sail ship, which has to make a couple of slowdown passes at AC. If our recycling is good enough, maybe that works, maybe we die alone in the cold of space.

Now we're cruising slowly thru the system, find a habitable planet. We can't land the ship, but have a complement of drones that can fly into atmosphere. An unmanned drone could maneuver faster than any aircraft, and would even be hard for primitive radar to spot, just like our UFO stories.

But is there anyone there? Humans have existed for ~1 million years, about 5,000 of that civilized enough to be worth talking to, 100 years capable of radio, before probable nuclear or environmental extinction. Out of 3.5 billion years of Earth being a life-bearing planet so far, and maybe 6.6 billion years ahead where life can exist, that's a 1 in 2 million chance of there being anyone to talk to.

The ship would be very visible, with sails out decelerating in, it'd be the brightest object in the sky. If the autochthons have radio, they can be called; but we'd have already heard their broadcasts here on Earth. Maybe blinking lights to talk to a more primitive culture? Land a drone and talk over a radio speaker?

There's no easy way to land, abduct redneck autochthons, probe their cloaca-like entries, and return. Even if there was space for a couple Falcons as landers (strapped to the sides as maneuvering thrusters?), they'd need fuel to get back up. It may be possible to do a one-time water landing of the spaceship without killing everyone.

The only reason we would ever have gone there is to meet them and share information, tell them about our home and what we're like. Show them Pulp Fiction and The Ramones and Heinlein's The Green Hills of Earth. We wouldn't be trying to keep it a secret, even aside from the physical impossibility of hiding the spaceship. Nor would the aliens cover it up; no matter what they are, we'd be the most important new source of science, technology, and entertainment.

But landing presents political problems even with public disclosure, they might go to war over who "gets the Earthers", and possession is 9/10ths of interstellar law. Hopefully there's some competent diplomats. There's a lot more ways first contact can go wrong than anything in the flight. Really think very carefully before landing.

Colonization is difficult anyway, the atmosphere's not likely to be the mix we need, the native life may be digestible into basic materials (most life is probably CHON ) but will lack any vitamins; we'll need to keep eating hydroponics. We'd be immune to local viruses but might have no immune reaction to local bacteria & fungi equivalents, nor would any native life to ours. Staying in orbit or colonizing a barren rock is safer.

There will be no alien hybrids, no half-Vulcan Mr Spocks, and the aliens won't look anything like a Human with a latex mask. First, do you consider mating with chimps, crocodiles, squids, tulips, or…? No, stop, I don't wanna know! Baka! Ecchi!! But those are genetically related to us and yet no offspring is possible because we don't have enough compatible genes. If panspermia is real, actual aliens would be more distantly related than fungi, and if not then it would be like screwing a rubber toy.

Conclusion 1: Any plausible alien spaceship scenario is going to look almost nothing like the UFO contact stories. We'd see them coming. They'd have to talk to us on the radio. No secret bases. No abductions. They'd be weird alien pop stars with agoraphobia and unused to gravity, constantly on PR tours and eating alien food because ours is useless.

Premise 2: So Pellegrino's matter-antimatter drive? The point of Flying to Valhalla was that a near-C space drive is a one-shot planet-killing weapon. You'd briefly see an X-ray burst, then the ship's front shield would shatter like a shotgun shell so you can't just redirect it, then the planet would explode, in the space of hours or minutes as the ship chases up behind its light. And you could set one up with a deadman switch to kill whoever killed your planet.

Therefore 2: We're not dead yet, and nobody's contacted us to say "listen up, these are the rules!" Mutual assured destruction means they have to assume we'll do it to them. They don't have to fire first, just make sure we know the threat exists.

Conclusion 2: Nobody within 50 light years of us has advanced technology and has heard our radio signals (50 years there, 50 years for the weapon to come kill us).

Any other scenario isn't science, isn't even science fiction, it's just fantasy. I like fantasy as much as the next guy who isn't wearing a My Little Pony shirt, but it's not real.

What I'm Watching: I Am Mother

13,000 days since extinction event, a single robot Mother raises a young girl (Clara Rugaard) in an advanced complex, the first to repopulate the Earth. Everyone outside is presumed dead from plague. Until a stranger shows up.

Most of the plot is based on who is lying or just deluded, and it turns out everyone, all the time.

The sets are great, sterile industrial Terminator vibe to everything.

I was going to complain about the origin of the stranger, and then it's resolved. I was going to complain about various robot cliches, and then the film does the right thing instead.

Just a perfect actual science fiction film.

★★★★★

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.

★★★★★