Friday, December 10, 2010

The other is a mirror to ourselves

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, far future fiction, space aliens

I thought long and hard about how much to reveal of Echo, Jack McDevitt's latest space opera. Humanity has been in space 8,000 years, traveling hundreds of light years takes less time than driving from Florida to California, and a moderately wealthy antiquities dealer named Alex Benedict can afford his own starship. In eight millennia of looking, only one sentient alien species has been discovered, and they are called the Mutes, for reasons never detailed in this novel. Beyond that, I'll come down on the side of dealing in ideas, not in story plots.

The central thought is expressed by a comment made by a minor character. Faced with a cosmos nearly empty of Others, humanity is faced with only the "echo of themselves". And Echo is the name chosen for a stellar system upon which a mystery rests. Suppose we achieve star travel, look everywhere, and find that we truly are alone. Then what? The question that informs this tale is, yes, one other alien civilization has been found, but no others: Now what? Does that make our existential angst worse or better?

To the quintessential businessman, everything is business. A travel agency CEO becomes the villain of the piece, but like my thoughts on, "Does the Devil know he is evil?", author McDevitt has a quote opening one chapter that begins, "Truly evil persons do not recognize their own malevolence." It is attributed to Tao Min-wa, whom I cannot verify, so it may be a "future quote", as several are in the chapter headings. But I like finding an author whose thoughts echo my own.

Throughout the book's quest, Alex and his assistant Chase are dogged by the attentions of a hired killer. Chase becomes the hero who eventually thwarts the assassin, just as she is nearly the first victim. I was reminded of old "Assassin's Guild" cornball routines. This requires a digression.

When I was in college, forming a non-lethal Assassin's Guild was a popular pastime. People would think up creative ways to do someone in, then act them out with harmless props, like a pillow instead of an anvil to be dropped on someone's head. One of the spy series that was popular on TV at the time took up the theme in one episode, which opened with someone actually getting killed in an AG sort of way: a cartridge had been secreted into a telephone handset, which went off when a tuning fork of a certain pitch was struck, killing the person who'd answered the phone. The creativity theme was carried along for a while, but when it came time to bump off the hero of the series, all these creative people grabbed pistols and began running around almost like a Keystone Kops version of guerrilla fighters. It was hilarious!

That is how I felt here. The killer's first attempt was overly elaborate, and requires readers who don't know any science: A lovely artifact arrives in the mail. It is stated as being the size of Chase's forearm, so it's no more than a cubit in length, about half a meter. When she sets it upright, lights come on inside, but then she begins to suffocate. Turns out it is sucking the oxygen out of the room. She gets rescued of course. But an explanation is offered that ruins it. The object is said to be filled with powdered magnesium and there is also a battery-operated cooling device. When the magnesium gets cold, it quickly absorbs oxygen.

There is a limit to the amount of disbelief I can suspend. I know enough chemistry to realize you can't get cold magnesium to absorb anything. It is a flammable metal, and the oxidation of the metal is ferociously hot (I've done it). A magnesium flare is the brightest one there is! Chase would have run for her life, not stayed around long enough for the oxygen level to drop. Further, there is more oxygen in a room than one might imagine, plus, Chase is told the device removed the oxygen from the whole floor of the house.

Let's do a little math. Under ordinary conditions, near the temperature and pressure a scientist calls STP (the S is for standard), air weighs about 1.28 grams per liter (g/l). Twenty percent is oxygen, or 0.256 g/l. An ordinary living room contains about 50 cubic meters, or 50,000 liters. The oxygen in that volume weighs 12.8 kg. A magnesium atom combines with one oxygen atom, but weighs 1.52 times as much, so absorbing 12.8 kg of oxygen requires 19.5 kg of the metal powder. That is upwards of forty pounds, something Chase is unlikely to be able to lift with one hand. And what about that bit that the whole floor of the building was deoxygenated? A modest house's first floor has a volume greater than 200 cubic meters, contains 50-60 kg of oxygen, which would require 75-90 kg of magnesium. So, that's two strikes against this idea. The chemistry won't work, and the mass of reactive metal would be much too great.

The other brainstorms attributed to the hired killer are at least remotely plausible. And in the end, a "proton cannon" is used. The range of energetic protons in air is about a meter, so you have to get the cannon rather close to its target. In this story, it seems to have a greater range... Oh, well, just like in the spy story, when you really gotta kill someone, may as well use a gun.

Businessman plus hired killer. That's one element. There is the true believer, an explorer who spent more than a century looking for aliens and didn't find any. There are two people who, added to Alex and Chase, make this a double love story. And Alex and Chase themselves, what drives them? They are two faces of an ultimate realist, one who wants to know the truth, regardless, one who wants to get it right.

Now I must back off and say I really enjoyed the book. The author is a compelling writer, and the basic ideas kept me thinking throughout. I tend to swing back and forth between Fermi's question, "Where is everybody?" and, "When we get out there, they'll be everywhere." Maybe civilizations are rare "out there", but I can't imagine they are so rare that we are the only one in our Galaxy (we have little hope of ever communicating with anybody in another galaxy). The question asked by this book is, "But what if we are?"

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