Sunday, March 13, 2016

Finally! Some genuine Science Fiction

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space flight, space aliens

John Campbell's recipe for a good short story (SF or not, but especially SF): "Pose a problem, and then solve it." The corollary for writing a novel: Do it 25 times. There was a period of a few years that I read a science fiction book, either novel or collection, almost every day. Then the genre began to change, and eventually even Isaac Asimov began to write more about sex than about science. "Hard SF" of the kind that characterized the Golden Age vanished. Fortunately, that couldn't last forever. For the past couple of decades, even as the library shelves formerly filled with speculative fiction were being taken over by sword-and-sorcery fantasies and post-apocalyptic dystopias, a few writers have been returning to imaginative technology as fodder for their work. I am thinking of post-1990 books by Stephen Baxter, Catherine Asaro and Ben Bova, for example.

This week I made acquaintance with work by an author new to me, John Sandford, and his collaborator, Ctein. The book is Saturn Run, and it is full of good ideas that are backed up by good science. I'll leave it to others to comment on how well the geopolitical US/China conflict is depicted. Geopolitics runs along a dimension I cannot "see". Among the new ideas, these stood out to me:

  • A type of ion engine called VASIMR, VAriable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, has been on the drawing board for a while, and small ones were tested some time ago. Scale 'em up from a few watts to a few GW per ion beam, and you have a way to slowly thrust a vessel weighing a few hundred tons up to the kind of speed that can cross 1.4 billion km in a year or less. Let's see, 1.4 billion km / 31.6 million seconds = 41 km/s average. The authors ramp up to about 140 km/s and back down again, covering the distance in more like nine months. The "Variable" part is the genius of the engine. High velocity exhaust = high specific impulse, but has a poor momentum-to-energy ratio for accelerating from a stop to the "lower" velocities, less than a few km/s. So you get more oomph at the low end when starting out, and better high-end acceleration by ramping up the exhaust velocity as the ship accelerates.
  • Conversion of electrical energy to thrust is stated as "not quite 50% efficient". Maybe by the year 2066 they'll be able to do better than the thermodynamics of Sadi Carnot, which fix a limit of 40% efficiency for any thermal-to-thrust system. Anyway, if you are using 8 or 9 GW to thrust the ship, you have another 9 GW or so of waste heat to dissipate.  In space, radiating heat away is the only option. A phase-change liquid-metal scheme, and certain ancillary tricks, serve to make a radiator that runs at 600 degrees and is "only" the size of a couple of football pitches, rather than the size of Chicago.
  • First Contact is not with the aliens themselves, but with a conversational AI that can proctor certain trade deals to allow humans to obtain a limited amount of alien technology. This includes methods of making and safely storing usable amounts of antimatter for the next spaceship generation. Interestingly, the galactic civilization the authors present bases contact between species on proctored trade deals, strictly avoiding interspecies contact. It seems they learned the lesson that we have yet to learn from our own history of inter-cultural contact!
I did find myself wondering how much plutonium they'd have to carry to run a 20 GW nuclear reactor for a couple of years. The words "nuclear waste" never appear, but I suppose it was wise to put that issue off to a very different kind of novel.

Of course, science fiction is not just about purely technical matters. People are immensely variable, and authors play characters off one another regardless of genre. I was particularly impressed with the well rounded characters in Saturn Run. Sanderson and Ctein created characters that a reader cares about and feels for. I admire this in a writer. I've tried to write fiction, and found I have no proper feel for creating characters that are believable, likable, or that can induce empathy in a reader. The most sympathetic, at least to me, is a central character, Sandy Darlington, a paradoxical and hiddenly broken man, who manages to think of things nobody else remembered to take account of.

If I go on any more, I'll introduce spoilers. If you like SF that emphasizes science, yet with eminently human characters (even the AI!), this is for you.

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