Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Search Of... Ghosts

Every day was Halloween on the show In Search Of.., which was hosted by none other than Leonard Nimoy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dumarest: The Jester at Scar (1970)

Dumarest travels have brought him to Scar, a wet planet with "no rotation at all" where a "year is ninety days long" and on which the natural vegetation is all fungoid. He is dwelling with a woman named Selene in Lowtown, the slum that is home to destitute transients who are tended to by Brother Glee. He has to defend himself against a mutant cat-man and accomplice who seem intent on getting the ring that Kalin gave him in the last book. Scar is a lawless planet whose only industry is annual harvest of exotic fungus. It's dangerous work as a stray spore settling on skin or lodging in the lungs can mean a slow, painful death. Dumarest leaves Selene and goes up to Hightown to plan for the coming harvest and to meet with Del Meoud, the local guild factor.

Meanwhile, Jocelyn, King of Jest, is traveling home in his private ship accompanied by his new bride, Adrienne. He's a fatalistic and superstitious man who believes in destiny. His wife, and arrogant short tempered woman, has little use for such things. It is in large part a marriage of convenience, a chance for more power on her part and the boon of a large dowry for Jocelyn. Part of that dowry includes Yeon the cyber. Because of an interstellar storm the king finds his ship midway between Jest and Scar. He flips a coin to decides which course to take, and as a result goes to Scar where he and his retinue will cross paths with Dumarest.

I haven't said much about the characterization in this books, so let me comment about that. For the most part Tubb handles it well, although because of the brevity of these books most of the characters lack any real depth. The plot moves along well enough, although like the last few books it end with Dumarest gather people in a room in order to expose the wrongdoer. It's a scene that would be more at home in a drawing room murder mystery aside from the fact that Dumarest has a habit of killing the criminal out of hand.

Dumarest definitely has a Brock Sampson vibe going on including the fact that the knife is his weapon of choice. And thankfully this is the first time in this series that's there's been no mention of pinching carotids. That's almost a silly as the current ridiculous pop-culture trend of giving an enemy's head a sharp twist to snap their neck. I hope Tubb has dumped it for good.

In my review of the previous book I pointed out the similarities between the Universal Brotherhood and the Cyclan. In this book, Adrienne makes a similar observation, noting the only difference is that Cyclan are never found among the poor.

The planet Scar with it's constant rains and strange fungal growths reminds me of the pulp sf depictions of Venus, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum's "Parasite Planet". While Dumarest's confrontations with the Cyclan are becoming a little repetitive, the exotic landscapes on which they take place have been inventive enough. It will be interesting to see what strange world Dumarest travels to next.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Happy Birthday Ursula K. Le Guin

Happy belated birthday to Ursula K. Le Guin. I'm always so busy getting in the Halloween spirit each year that I usually forget to send my best wishes, and if it hadn't been for SF Signal I would have missed it again. Which is really inexcusable, because not only is she a Grand Master of the genre but she's written some of the best sf novels of all time. Her most famous and popular series are the Earthsea fantasy books that, while written for children, hold strong appeal for adult readers as well.

Even more highly regarded is her Hainish Cycle of sf novels interrogating in a nuanced fashion questions of race, gender and politics. Especially the three most famous, award-winning books of the cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Word for World is Forest (1972), and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974).

And if that weren't enough, she even added to the lexicon of sf by coining the name "ansible" to refer to an FTL transceiver. So happy birthday Ursula K. Le Guin, and may you have many more.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Mummy

by Clark Ashton Smith

From out the light of many a mightier day,
From Pharaonic splendour, Memphian gloom,
And from the night aeonian of the tomb
They brought him forth, to meet the modern ray,—
Upon his brow the unbroken seal of clay,
While gods have gone to a forgotten doom,
And desolation and the dust assume
Temple and cot immingling in decay.

From out the everlasting womb sublime
Of cyclopean death, within a land
Of tombs and cities rotting in the sun,
He is reborn to mock the might of time,
While kings have built against Oblivion
With walls and columns of the windy sand.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hellsing Ultimate 8 trailer

Wasn't the next installment of Hellsing Ultimate supposed to be out by now? It's almost Halloween and there's still no sign of it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dumarest: Kalin (1969)

The book opens with the ship Dumarest is traveling on making a stopover on Logis, a planet celebrating its own extreme version of Saturnalia called Bloodtime during which social norms are suspended and for three days people can murder with impunity. When he sees an angry mob chasing a beautiful young woman he risks his life to rush to her defense. He pays the price of her passage in order to get her to the safety of the ship. Her name is Kalin and she has precognitive abilities, or as Tubb describes her, she's "a clairvoyant".

But two of the other passengers are up to no good, and their actions leave Dumarest and Kalin stranded in space. They are rescued by a passing ship only to discover it's a slaver. Dumarest is forced to pay through his teeth to buy their freedom. The slaver's destination is Chron, a planet being mined by a federation of companies using slave labor. Dumarest and Kalin, romance growing between them, find themselves stranded on this bleak world. Their only hope of earning the price of a passage off planet is to hunt the dangerous zardles in the hope of finding the valuable zerd stones that sometimes grow in the beast's heads.

Meanwhile, across space, other events are transpiring. Brother Jerome, High Monk of the Church of Universal Brotherhood headquartered on the planet Hope is approached by the suspicious Centon Frenchi. He hopes to enlist the Brotherhood's network of monks that span the galaxy to help him locate his long lost daughter, who he claims is the last of his line. And on the planet Solis, Kramm, the Master of Klieg, has accepted the assistance of Cyber Mede to help him avoid the financial ruin facing him due to the expenses of caring for his comatose sister, Keelan. But what are the cyber's real plans?

The plot of this novel isn't as cohesive as it could be. Some events seem a bit contrived, and other plots points are treated as red herrings, as if this were a detective yarn. The scenes on Chron are handled well enough, and since that's where most of the action takes place the novel holds up. There's also a clever image at the end of the novel that may serve as foreshadowing of events to come.

One notable detail is the use of the "truglow" light "which showed things as they really were, devoid of artifice and optical trickery." Another is that when Dumarest pays off the slaver he uses "instant banking facilities" that involves sticking his arm in a machine.
Clamps seized the limb; electronic devices scanned the metallic inks of the tattoo set invisibly below the skin.
A forgery would have resulted in a gush of incinerating flame.
When those gadgets malfunction it must be messy. It will be interesting to see if this unusual form of credit transfer shows up in later installments.

This is also our first glimpse into the Church of Universal Brotherhood, which seems to be the only religion in the galaxy. In many ways it appears as the mirror image of the Cyclan. Like the cybers the monks all wear hooded robes; they share the habit of tucking their hands in the sleeves of their robes; they're both patriarchal organizations without female members; they both abstain from the pleasures of the flesh; and they both have vast networks of agents throughout the galaxy. These twin organizations only differ qualitatively, in that the monks are one and all paragons of virtue while the cybers are uniformly heartless villains. As Dumarest continues his quest we're bound to see more clashes between them.

The Wonderful Visit

The Wonderful Visit (1895) by H. G. Wells

"On the Night of the Strange Bird, many people at Sidderton (and some nearer) saw a Glare on the Sidderford moor. But no one in Sidderford saw it, for most of Sidderford was abed."

Produced by Malcolm Farmer, Martin Pettit and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nine Men in Time

"Nine Men in Time" by Noel Loomis

"The idea of sending a man back in time to re-do a job he's botched, so that a deadline can still be met—added to the thought of duplicating a man so there'll be two doing the same work at the same time—adds up to a production-manager's dream. But any dream can suddenly shift into a nightmare...."

Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Old Friends Are the Best

"Old Friends Are the Best" by Jack Sharkey

"Are you one of those people who save the best things for the last ... who eat all the chocolate sundae away from under the maraschino cherry? If so, you are very like the Peter W. Merrill Moonplant."

Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

The Wave

The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath (1916) by Algernon Blackwood

"Since childhood days he had been haunted by a Wave."

Produced by Lionel Sear

Monday, October 18, 2010


"Suzy" by Watson Parker

"Her voice was his only link with sanity. It was a beautiful voice. He never really thought what she might be."

Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Multinauts

THE MULTINAUTS- Episode One "Flashback" from Multinauts on Vimeo.

The Multinauts

Generations after the wars of Cancelation, a dark tyranny grips the Multiverse under the rule of Corporate Warlord, Oysters Rockafeller. Xanthor, Gigs, and Centari, three unlikely heroes from three very different dimensions, are transported aboard Tetra, a sentient starship infused with the wisdom of an ancient civilization. Moved by Tetra's plea to restore peace, the trio embarks on a noble quest to save the Multiverse by taking on Oysters Rockafeller in a post-apocalyptic showdown.

If you dug Saul of the Mole Men you'll like The Multinauts.

[via Jeff's Gameblog]

The Celestial Omnibus

The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911) by E. M. Forster

"Tickets on this line," said the driver, "whether single or return, can be purchased by coinage from no terrene mint."

Produced by Marc D'Hooghe

Saturday, October 16, 2010

La Planète Sauvage trailer

This 1973 French/Czech film by René Laloux and Roland Topor was released in the USA as Fantastic Planet. It's possibly the most surreal sf movie ever made.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chant to Sirius

by Clark Ashton Smith

What nights retard thee, O Sirius!
Thy light is as a spear,
And thou penetratest them
As a warrior that stabbeth his foe
Even to the center of his life.
Thy rays reach farther than the gulfs;
They form a bridge thereover
That shall endure till the links of the universe
Are unfastened, and drop apart,
And all the gulfs are one,
Dissevered by suns no longer.

How strong art thou in thy place!
Thou stridest thine orbit,
And the darkness shakes beneath thee,
As a road that is trodden by an army.
Thou art a god
In thy temple that is hollowed with light
In the night of infinitude,
And whose floor is the lower void;
Thy worlds are as priests and ministers therein.
Thou furrowest space,
Even as an husbandman,
And sowest it with alien seed;
It beareth alien fruits,
And these are thy testimony,
Even as the crops of his fields
Are the testimony of an husbandman.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Moonbase 3

Moonbase 3 was a 1973 British TV show by Doctor Who alums Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. It only lasted six episodes but it was an interesting attempt at hard sf before Star Wars revived space opera with a vengeance.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dumarest: Toyman (1969)

"A bad time on a bad planet, thought Dumarest." He and a fellow combatant, Legrain, are on the losing side of a combat using ancient weapons staged for the entertainment of the Toymaster, Groshen. He's the autocratic ruler of the plutocracy of Toy, a "corporate society" in which only the hereditary black-skinned shareholders have rights. On this planet, the market rules, even the slave market. The dispossessed don't even have the option of debtor's prison, they're sent straight to the auction block. Dumarest has come to Toy to consult The Library, a massive super-computer that may hold the location of Earth. However, travelers arriving on Toy are faced with a Morton's Fork: "show the cost of a double High passage or stand trial, be convicted and sentenced to a year of forced labor as a vagrant. That or agree to enlist for one engagement." The two-fisted Dumarest naturally chooses the latter. If he can survive and escape, it will only be to a mainland embroiled in the schemes of the powerful. Stockholder Leon Hurl, who has the sympathy of the Toymaster's beautiful sister, Quara, hopes to wrest power from the increasingly despotic ruler. Worse, Groshen has taken to consorting with the cyber Creel. Dumarest must once more defeat the schemes of his hated Cyclan foes if he hopes to gain the secret of his homeworld's location.

The world building in this novel is a step above the last two, and there's a bit more action as well. Or at least more violence. As a virile man of action Dumarest has plenty of occasion to display his martial prowess. And once again there are passages about attacking someone by pinching their carotid arteries. I've never seen so many references to pinching carotids. It's happened in every book so far.

The parallels between the Cyclan and the two-dimensional Commie villains of old spy thrillers are amplified in this book. Before it was implied by their centralized organization and red robes, but now with the Cyclan trying to wreck the economy of Toy it becomes more overt. In fact, despite the sf flourishes the underlying plot of this book is boilerplate Cold War thriller. This red under the bed mentality rings in a screed delivered by Dumarest.

They spread, touching world after world, insinuating their way into a position of power. Oh, they don't rule, not openly, but where you find a cyber you find the power of the Cyclan. And they have power. Subtle, unnoticed, but very real.

Dumarest's visceral hatred of the "spreading red slime" is beginning to reach a pathological intensity.

Once again I can't resist noting the similarities between this book and other sf contemporary books. In this case it's Mack Reynolds' Joe Mauser novels. Toy is somewhat reminiscent of the society depicted in Reylnolds' books, although Tubb puts his own spin on things. And another thing worth commenting on is when someone counts his wealth in precious gems. Even today diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds can be easily synthesized. I doubt they could be considered valuable in a society capable of interstellar travel. But this is space opera after all.

Dumarest triumphs by the end of the book, as he must, but it's a Pyrrhic victory. His quest continues.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

She Knew He Was Coming

"She Knew He Was Coming" by Kris Neville

"Mary might have learned a more ladylike trade, but one thing is certain: she had a shining faith in that space guy from Earth. Now, about that cake she baked ..."

Produced by Greg Weeks, Dianna Adair and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Ask a Foolish Question

"Ask a Foolish Question" by Robert Sheckley

"It's well established now that the way you put a question often determines not only the answer you'll get, but the type of answer possible. So ... a mechanical answerer, geared to produce the ultimate revelations in reference to anything you want to know, might have unsuspected limitations."

Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Slizzers

"The Slizzers" by Jerome Bixby

"The main trouble is that you'd never suspect anything was wrong; you'd enjoy associating with slizzers, so long as you didn't know...."

Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Alien's View of the Solar System

This simulation of the Kuiper Belt from Goddard Space Flight Center shows what alien astronomers might see if they were looking for planets around our sun. You never seem to see the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud in Hollywood movies. Thinking about them always reminds me of that unusual passage in Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth (1975) where an astronomer who has been receiving strange signals from outer space engages in some speculation that could have come from H.P. Lovecraft.

"My calculations all point to a source--or sources--at about a tenth of a light-year from the Sun. Only a fortieth of the way to Alpha Centauri, but two hundred times the distance of Pluto...No man's land--the edge of the wilderness between the stars. But that's exactly where the comets are born, in a great, invisible shell surrounding the Solar System. There's enough material out there for a trillion of those strange objects, orbiting in a cosmic freezer.
"What's going on, in those huge clouds of hydrogen and helium and all the other elements? There's not much energy--but there may be enough. And where there's matter and energy--and Time--sooner or later there's organization.
"Call them Star Beasts. Would they be alive? No--that word doesn't apply. Let's just say--'Organized systems.' They'd be hundreds or thousands of kilometers across, and they might live--I mean, maintain their individual identity--for millions of years.
"That's a thought. The comets that we observe are they the corpses of Star Beasts, sent sunward for cremation? Or executed criminals? I'm being ridiculously anthropomorphic--but what else can I be?
"And are they intelligent? What does that word mean? Are ants intelligent--are the cells of the human body intelligent? Do all the Star Beasts surrounding the Solar System make a single entity--and does It know about us? Or does It care?
"Perhaps the Sun keeps them at bay, as in ancient times the campfire kept off the wolves and saber-toothed tigers. But we are already a long way from the Sun, and sooner or later we will meet them. The More we learn, the better.
"And there's one question I'm almost afraid to think about. Are they gods? OR ARE THEY EATERS OF GODS?"

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Episode One

Leiji Matsumoto's famous Space Pirate Captain Harlock anime is on the web.

The year is 2977. Mankind has become complacent and stagnant. All work is done by machines, while humans spend all their time on entertainment. But when a mysterious invader from the stars catches Earth unawares, only the legendary space pirate Captain Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia have the will to stand against them.

Subbed, not dubbed, which is cool except that the translations are a bit iffy and have the characters saying things like, "Venture out!" And it's polluted with commercials, but not too many.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Dumarest: Derai (1968)

It's seven planets since The Winds of Gath and Dumarest is on Kyle working in a carnival along with Nada, who has designs on him. But the Festival on Kyle is coming to an end, so he accepts a job from the Guild factor to escort the runaway, fey aristocrat, Lady Derai of the House of Caldor, to her home on Hive. They travel High on a small ship where they cross paths with the gambler, Sar Eldon. During the trip Dumarest learns that Derai is telepathic even as they fall in love with one another. Arriving at Hive he finds it's a primitive world dominated by the eleven feudal Houses that maintain a peace under an age old Pact. The only valuable export is ambrosaira, the royal jelly of large, mutant bees which has geriatric properties. In addition to Deari's love, Dumarest also hopes to find a clue to Earth's location here. He encounters an enterprising Hausi merchant, Yamay Mbombo, and soon becomes caught up in the intrigues of House Caldor, and their scheming Cyclan, Regor.

In Derai we get a closer look at space travel in this universe. For the most part it isn't described in detail. It's part of the background, just a means for characters to get from place to place. As we saw in the previous book, ships travel using the Erhaft drive, and a cup of the thick broth Basic is the main shipboard meal. It's implied that space travel takes a great deal of time, so passengers traveling High all dose themselves with the drug Quick Time, which slows the metabolism so that subjectively time passes much more quickly. This is the counterpart of the drug Slow Time, which as the opposite effect and which featured prominently in the dénouement of the last book. These time altering drugs underscore a feeling of the mutability of time in these books. At one point in the novel, Dumarest unexpectedly runs into Nada again, and reflects.

There had been time during the long journey to Hive, the longer one to Folgone, for the carnival to have traveled on its circuit. To him it had been only a matter of days. To her it would have been weeks or months.

Time is a very elastic and relative thing for these travelers.

Another interesting detail is that money in this universe seems to exclusively take the form of coins. Exactly what these coins are minted from isn't mentioned, but it's noteworthy that there's no sign of banks or banknotes. It's as though the feudal politics of this universe are accompanied by a medieval economic system.

Again, it's hard to ignore the parallels between elements of this novel and Frank Herbert's more famous Dune series. The eleven Houses of Hive held in check by the Pact recalls Herbert's Great Houses restrained by the Great Convention, and ambrosaira is clearly an analog of melange. Tubb clearly wasn't shy about taking inspiration from his peers to fuel his space opera adventures. He weaves a well crafted tale here that take Dumarest further down the long road to Earth.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

By Earthlight

"By Earthlight" by Bryce Walton

"We all have to die sometime, but it's more the manner of our going, and the reason why we must die when we do that's the rub."

Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

The Natives

"The Natives" by Katherine MacLean

"Sometimes worlds can meet without the inhabitants of either realizing...."

Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Thomas Edison's 1903 film, àpropos of Doc 40 today. Welsh rarebit was such a fad at the begining of the last century that it inspired a comic strip, Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, a book, Harle Owen Cummins' Welsh Rabbit Tales (1902), and earned an entry in Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary.

RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad in the hole is really not a toad, and that ris de veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she-banker.

Meanwhile, in the past...

Algernon Blithers, the Doctor's forgotten companion, was having a deuce of a time fighting off those prototype Daleks.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Problem on Balak

"Problem on Balak" by Roger Dee

"Sometimes you can solve your problem by running out on it!"

Produced by Robert Cicconetti, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dumarest: The Winds of Gath (1967)

In memory of the passing of E.C. Tubb I'm going to review his famous Dumarest of Terra series in its entirety. I've read many of these novels before, but never all of them in sequence. I won't give the whole story away, but there are some minor spoilers in this review.

He woke counting seconds, rising through interminable strata of ebony chill to warmth, light and a growing awareness. At thirty-two the eddy currents had warmed him back to normal. At fifty-eight his heart began beating under its own power. At seventy-three the pulmotor ceased helping his lungs. At two hundred and fifteen the lid swung open with a pneumatic hiss.

He lay enjoying the euphoria of resurrection.

That's how we are first introduced to our protagonist, Earl Dumarest, in The Winds of Gath (1967) as he emerges from cryogenic storage in the belly of a starship. He is a rugged man and a traveler, one of those vagabonds who voyage from planet to planet stopping only long enough to earn the fare for their next passage. Usually they travel Low, frozen along with the livestock and pets. It's a dangerous way to travel with a 15% mortality rate.

Dumarest finds that the ship has changed destination. After he entered cold-sleep, the Matriarch of Kund chartered the ship to take her to the ribbon world (though Tubb dosn't use that term) Gath. It's a backwater planet with no stable society on which he stands little chance of earning his next fare. The only thing resembling an authority is Piers Quentin, resident factor of the Guild, and the only attraction the planet has to offer are the regular storms which are are said to allow tourists to hear the music of the spheres.

In the shantytown near the landing field he reunites with Megan, a fellow traveler and old friend. There he also finds the cowled monks of the Universal Brotherhood, a Judeo-Christian monastic order that ministers to these poor souls providing them with sustenance on the condition that they confess before the hypnotic benediction light that conditions them against violence. Although Dumarest is sympathetic to the monks he has never gone under the light, so his killer instincts are un-dulled. Eventually he becomes involved with Gloria, the Matriarch of Kund and her ward, Seena Thoth, who is in danger of assassination. They are accompanied by the red-robed, Dyne, a member of the Cyclan, emotionless human computers who act as neutral advisers throughout the galaxy. Secretly, the Cyclan have implants that allow them to enter into a hive mind, joining with the central intelligence of linked, disembodied brains "pulsing in their nutrient fluid" that are hidden deep beneath the surface of "a lonely planet." Complicating matters are the cruel and sybaritic Prince of Emmened, who has his eye set on Seena, and the strange man, Sime, who carries his dead wife in a coffin on his back.

In the course of events it comes out that Dumarest is seeking the location of his birthplace, the planet Earth. It's considered to be nothing but a legend, and people also scoff at the notion humanity originated on a single planet. This brings him into conflict with the Cyclan, as Earth seems to be the location of their secret central intelligence.

The novel is written in a serviceable manner, somewhat along the lines of a conventional thriller, with Dumarest taking a leading role in events and unmasking the nefarious plot. It sets the stage for the series, introducing recurring factions, like the Cyclan, the Brotherhood, and the Guild. Tubb draws on many influences in forging this tale. Dumarest himself is an homage to Leigh Brackett's famous character, Eric John Stark, and the setting of the stories, with no sentient aliens present, evokes both Issac Asimov's Trantorian Empire and Frank Herbert's Dune series. More specifically, the skepticism expressed toward the idea that humanity stems from a single world recalls a central plot element of Asimov's Pebble in the Sky (1950), and the prevalence of aristocratic intrigues and the Cylan, who strongly resemble Mentats, echo Herbert's books. More noticeable are the Nietzschean overtones of the book. This is most pronounced in the contrast between the Dionysian Dumarest with his earthy passions and the Apollonian Cyclan with their emotionless logic. While not explored with any depth it nonetheless forms the underlying dynamic animating this series, of which The Winds of Gath is just the first installment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ribbon World Zarmina

The recent discovery of a rocky planet three times the mass of Earth orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581 just 20.5 LY away suggests that Earth-like planets may be rather common throughout the galaxy. It was found by a team of planet hunters led by astronomers at the UCSC, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington and principal investigator Dr. Steven Vogt calls the planet "Zarmina's world" after his wife.

As the always interesting Technovelgy has pointed out, the planet is an example of what Issac Asimov called a ribbon world, a planet that is tidally locked with one side of the planet always facing the sun.

It was a ribbon world – of which the Galaxy boasts sufficient, but among which, the inhabited variety is a rarity for the physical requirements are difficult to meet. It was a world, in other words, where the two halves face the monotonous extremes of heat and cold, while the region of possible life is the girdling ribbon of the twilight zone. (Foundation and Empire, 1952)

Dr. Vogt was interviewed about the discovery on Science Friday: A 'Goldilocks' Planet?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stross' Space Pirates

I was checking out SF Signal today and followed the link to Charles Stross' post "Books I will not write #4: Space Pirates of KPMG."  It's as entertaining and thoughtful as usual, but it also contained a couple of  really big mistaken assumptions regarding FTL travel and interstellar commerce. I didn't read through all of the 90+ comments to the post, so maybe someone already pointed this out, but here goes anyway.

So Stross is describing his idea for an "ACME General-Purpose Space Opera Universe™" (lol) and notes that "faster than light travel would appear to be a necessary precondition to writing wide-screen space opera." He then repeats the conventional wisdom about FTL travel.

But if you permit violations of special relativity, you're also implicitly permitting global causality violation — time travel. (Go read a physics textbook if you're not sure why.)

This is the well known "Pick any two, special relativity, FTL, or causality" saying, and I've seen it referred to in other places recently. While true in general, it ignores the recent theories of physicist Miguel Alcubierre which allow for FTL travel without violating causality. As John G. Cramer explained in an old article for Analog,

The possibilities for FTL travel or communication implicit in the Alcubierre drive raise the possibility of causality violations and "timelike loops", i.e., back-in-time communication and time travel. Alcubierre points out that his metric contains no such closed causal loops, and so is free of their paradoxes. However, he speculates that it would probably be possible to construct a metric similar to the one he presented which would contain such loops. [emphasis added]

So while Alcubierre's drive is highly speculative it nevertheless shows that it is theoretically possible to have FTL travel without violating causality.

The second boner Stross pulls is in regard to the economics of his proposed space opera setting. While he gives the cliché of the space pirate an amusingly original twist it's still based on the mistaken assumption that capitalism can just be scaled up to interstellar distances. This is an idea author and game designer Greg Costikyan challenged in his 1982 essay "The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine," and in his non-fiction book Space Travel even arch-capitalist Ben Bova admits that interstellar trade in materials "seems doubtful."

Interstellar trade would most likely be in intangibles -- poetry, literature, art, philosophy. (pg. 214)

In other words, the scientific advances necessary to bridge interstellar distances will also be accompanied by economic advances.

Stross restates the truism that most space opera is just terrestrial imperialism projected into space. As his post shows, any attempt at making it realistic is going to come into conflict with the fundamentally unrealistic basis of the genre.

Krenkel & Kaluta

Golden Age Comic Book Stories is a great place to see classic sf and comic book art. Today it features some great work by Roy G. Krenkel and Michael W. Kaluta done for one of Lin Carter's ERB pastiches.