|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #94, August 2002|
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A terrible secret of those vast SF and fantasy reference books you find in libraries is that someone has to research them, and often it's me. Just now I'm recovering from swotting up the complete works of Brian Stableford, Robert Holdstock, Terry Pratchett and Anne McCaffrey. My brain hurts.
McCaffrey the Dragon Lady insists she writes SF, not fantasy. This column has already mentioned her very science-fictional deployment of suction cups in vacuum. Similarly, they track spaceships with sonar in her Acorna's World, but maybe co-author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough was to blame. Instead let's savour a splendid moment of space navigation from McCaffrey's solo The Tower and the Hive: "Captain Vandermeer, if you will please initiate a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn of the Washington, we'll begin the long journey home."
Yes, it's time for more naughty scientific nitpicking. Mere scientists believe that in ultra-high gravity, only the tiniest life forms could exist, but Colin Wilson disagrees: "On this planet, the force of gravity was so immense – a hundred times greater than that of earth – that a man on its surface would have weighed ten tons and been unable to lift his eyelids. Under these conditions, the only intelligent life form to develop consisted of giant globular creatures, which on earth would have been called vegetables." (From Spider World: The Magician.) The Sapient Swedes of Saturn!
Frank Herbert has a new spin on cryogenics in Heretics of Dune: "His dart throwers had been sealed and 'washed' against snoopers, then maintained at minus 340° Kelvin in a radiation bath for five SY to make them proof against snoopers." Er, that's about 67 degrees below Absolute Zero. [Oops! Langford has Thogged himself! See below....]
Another SF notable, Gregory Benford, offers cruel and unusual geography in The Martian Race: "Columbus never set foot on the continent that bore his name." Which reminds me that Sue Lawley of Radio 4 remarked about J.K. Rowling, "She has sold forty million copies in as many countries." My atlas must be out of date.
Revisionist astronomy features in Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels, taking us back to a pre-Copernican solar system: "The lurid light was as bright as the day of a planet circled by a red sun." Adam Roberts's Salt topples the old theory of hydrogen-fuelled suns: "Sodium is what stars are made of." And the 2002 update of John A. Keel's 1975 UFO cult book The Mothman Prophecies still rejects modern astronomers' claims: "... there is not the slightest bit of evidence that even a single planet exists in any other star system."
Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon suggested a surprising mathematical project for codebreakers: "... if the entire world were to become a police state obsessed with recovering old secrets, then vast resources might be thrown at the problem of factoring large prime numbers." This was quietly fixed for the mass-market paperback, by changing "prime" to "composite".
Next! In Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships there's a fragment of unexpected microbiology: "'... Did men have goals in common, in your day, save to keep on breathing, eating and reproducing?' / I grunted. 'Goals shared with the lowest bacillus.'" An alternate timeline where bacteria have lungs....
Looking back to the deep past, Ancient Ones by Kirk Mitchell sets up a temporal double-take: "... century piled upon century in which this jumble of now articulated bones had lain forgotten in the volcanic silt of John Day Canyon. They had been ancient already when Christ reportedly spun fishes and loaves from thin air. Older still when Moses allegedly parted the Red Sea."
Want to live even longer than that? Terence Haile shows how in his deservedly forgotten Galaxies Ahead, when someone announces, "Peters, we are over a million years old!" How can this be? "When we were caught up in that double-sun explosion, we must have been carried along in its giddy orbit for over a million years! We were kept alive simply because we were in an air-locked compartment and did not do anything but sleep for most of the time, thus conserving our energy and our bodies to allow us to behave now as if we were normal men." Sleep late, and live forever.
But you can't argue with D.F.Jones's description of less well-preserved people in Colossus: "They were both roughly the same age, in their very early fifties, though a hundred years earlier they would have appeared much younger." Absolutely.
David Langford is keeping very, very quiet about the science in his own fiction.
– Not to mention his nonfiction. I have nobly resisted the temptation to edit the Herbert quibble above, to read something like "Er, the Kelvin scale actually starts at Absolute Zero, and there are no negative temperatures. Even if Herbert meant Celsius degrees rather than kelvins, that would still be around 67 degrees below the ultimate, unattainable low point of temperature." Oh the embarrassment! Being dead tired while writing this one is no excuse, and I can only point to the eternal truth of the great John Bangsund's principle that nitpicking corrections are generally doomed to contain some error of their own. John calls this Muphry's Law. Thog, meet Muphry. Muphry, meet Thog....
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