Ask Aunty Agonistes

Welcome to the only problems page which tackles the embarrassing personal difficulties of SF readers. Ashamed of your vast John Norman collection? Afraid to admit that you break out in a disfiguring groin rash when trying to read sentences by Samuel R. Delany? Or are you secretly Piers Anthony? Share your SF worries with Aunty Agonistes and receive detailed, sympathetic personal advice (unless you are Piers Anthony).

I am a hard-SF fan who likes to do the sums. Recently I read this chapter of Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer where scientists are babbling calculations in less time than it takes any scientist I know to find his calculator's ON button. They're going on about the impact energy of a huge great comet, which they say -- twice -- would be enough to boil sixty million cubic kilometres of ocean where it hits. When I work it out using their figures, I get an answer of only 1000 or so. Why is their figure sixty thousand times bigger? What have I done wrong?

You have suffered a lapse of faith. Jerry Pournelle, PhD, is always right. In fact he is further to the right than you could imagine. Look at it this way: agreement to within five orders of magnitude is pretty good for SF science.

Please help. My friend says this book was by John Norman but I think it was Robert Heinlein's Friday. All that either of us can remember about it is a jacket quote from Harlan Ellison, saying: "If Le Carré had made it with Le Guin, their mutant offspring would have written this dandy novel."

It was The Spy Who Came In From The Left Hand of Darkness.

I've been puzzling over the plot logic of Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven. The Ringworld is an enormous artificial structure built from 2 x 1024 tonnes of an incredibly strong substance which is totally unknown to science. An exploration party goes off there hoping to find the matter transmutation gadget which produced this amazing construction material. Instead of finding it, they end up convinced that it never existed and never could have. This makes my brain hurt. Where did the stuff come from?

You must not underestimate subtle, literary authors like Niven. We are being told between the lines that the Ringworld is impossible since it's built of stuff that cannot be made. Any well-read SF fan should catch the reference to James Blish's A Case of Conscience, which proposes that a logically or theologically impossible world might still exist as a satanic illusion. It is to be hoped that before the fundamentalists catch on and start burning his books on general principles, Niven will publish the third of the trilogy, Ringworld Exorcists.

In a recent column you warned against overindulgence in Stephen R.Donaldson. Please lucubrate that I, argute with beneficent mansuetude and analystic refulgence, have made my preterite way eight times through all six sapid, clinquant volumes of the fulvous "Thomas Covenant" agglomeration without ill effects, not even surquedry or caducity. You are just an exigent cynosure of unambergrised malison. Despite your hurling that flinching warning like a bayamo-sped jerid, my lambent prose style is finer than ever: aneled, gelid, knurred, roborant and telic!

Hellfire! I can't argue with that.

I am a life-long fan of Anne McCaffrey, but am having treatment. Could you settle an argument about the flamethrowers in her dragon books? In Dragonflight some clever chap discovers that for purposes of mass fungicide, spraying this stuff called agenothree (you know, HNO3, nitric acid) is even better than flame. But Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, set 900 years earlier, long before this discovery, goes on about flamethrowers whose tanks are filled with agenothree. Nitric acid is a lousy flammable fuel....

Something in your tone hints that you unjustly suspect McCaffrey of having forgotten details of her own world in between novels. Shame on you. This is what really happened. Long before even the time of Moreta, a group of retired dragonriders called F'nord, B'arf and H'cup took the advice of the Masteraccountant and set up Trans-Pern Enterprises Inc, manufacturing a wide range of products under the AgenothreeTM brand name ... including not only dragon polish, haemorrhoid cream and saccharine but also napalm and fuming nitric acid. Always trust the author.


The answer is of course Algis Budrys.

Barbara Hambly's The Time of the Dark has this line about a "spatchcocked landscape". I got a mental crash of gears on reading this and had to look it up. Exactly how do you visualize a landscape that, according to the dictionary, looks like a dead chicken that's been split down the back and grilled?

Nobody likes a smartass. There is an alternate meaning of "spatchcock" which Hambly must have had in mind: it's a verb meaning to interpolate words into a sentence or narrative, especially inappropriate ones. Yes indeed.

Why do all SF fans misquote A.E. Housman's lines --

What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

-- as "What shall I do or write ..."?

Because SF fans don't read A.E. Housman's verse. Instead they read introductions to Arthur C. Clarke novellas, where Clarke has been perpetuating this one since 1967 (it's the same in the new edition of 1991).

Speaking of Against the Fall of Night, here's a poser for you. The new edition contains quite a nifty sequel to the original story, by Greg Benford. But one of the unforgettable reversals in both Clarke's original and its expansion The City and the Stars is the discovery that the ancient fortress of Shalmirane wasn't built for war. It had been used to destroy the Moon, whose decaying orbit threatened Earth. In Benford's follow-up, the missing Moon is (without explanation) back again. How come?

As a doctor I can easily identify this as a simple case of amnesia auctoris, or typing error. "Moon" is easily typed instead of "loon", a bird, which is similarly seen in the sky. I know Benford also describes this bird as terraformed, jungled, and possessed of bodies of open water, but for a scientist he has a very poetic imagination.

I would like to write SF myself but feel editors would be prejudiced because I have no heartbeat or respiration and pieces are falling off me. Is there any hope?

Don't despair. You are dead, but according to Messrs Dick, Hubbard and Tolkien of the Erstwhile Authors' Support Group this can actually increase your SF/fantasy productivity! (You also sound as though you would fit in well at conventions.)

Aunty Agonistes will be solving more of your problems next issue. [Not if I can help it ... Ed.]