Sunday, February 23, 2014

Consideration of Works Past: Immortality, Inc

(Picture from here.)

I just spent the weekend at Boskone. Great fun. But after one of the panels I was asked who were my significant influences.

I quickly rattled of my personal mantra: Robert Heinlein, Clifford Simak, Cordwainer Smith, Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, Phillip K Dick, Alfred Bester. Anybody who's discussed writing with me more than five minutes will get that particular list.

Then, later, I was down in the dealer's room and looking over NESFA's table.

I've been looking for a particular work from my childhood. A book that I barely remembered that, somehow, involved life after death of a yacht designer. It had suicide booths in it. And there, on the NESFA table, I found in the short novels of Robert Sheckly, Immortality, Inc.

It looks like I have to add Robert Sheckley to the list.

BTW: If any of you are interested in classic works by Roger Zelazny or Hal Clement or Zenna Henderson or, really, almost anybody that has fallen out of print or cries out to be collected, check out the fine people of NESFA Press. This is a small press publisher that is bringing together reprints of works in hardcover. They have, for example, three very good books by my special hero, Cordwainer Smith: Norstrilia, The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith and the Concordance to Cordwainer Smith. I keep them in my office and hold them close, whispering "my precious." Go look at their catalog here.

Sheckley had a truly skewed view of the world. In terms of sensibility he was more over in the Phillip K Dick side of SF. SF was a mechanism to open up the clockworks of life and examine them. Immortality, Inc is, in part, an examination of our fascination with death.

The plot is straightforward. Tom Blaine is a Junior Yacht Designer in a New York Firm. On the way home from his vacation cabin he has a car accident and dies. He awakes to find himself in a new body in the year 150 years in the future. In this world, life after death is well known and scientifically verified. Anyone who can afford it can get a treatment guaranteed to let them live after death. Most don't survive the "death trauma"-- a lovely wink towards Freud's "birth trauma."

But the plot is just a means by which Sheckley can use this new world as a means to skewer the one where he lives. I'm reluctant to start listing all of the lovely things in the book for fear I'll spoil it for people who have not read it. But here's a couple.

There's "transplanting": the means by which you can share or operate someone else's body. Initially, as normal science fiction uses the idea, it's mostly sold as titillation. But later it is presented as a force for revolution. As the freedom to be anyone you want to be-- held down by those that would oppress us. And there are suicide booths-- I have no doubt the suicide booths in Futurama are a direct homage to Sheckley.

The book is more absurdist than funny. More thought than laugh provoking. It is a satire-- a subgroup of SF that is sadly underrepresented. All good satires are intended to twist your head a bit. Sheckley managed that in all of his work. Immortality, Inc is no exception.

Most of the writers I consider seminal I read everything they wrote. For whatever reason, though he had a strong effect on me, I didn't do that with Sheckley. It might be that there were just too few opportunities to read him. The period I ripped through most of the books is started when I was eleven and went on through college. I was in Alabama for much of that time. No SF bookstores. No conventions I knew of. The SF book club was available-- indeed, that's where I got Sheckley's Mindswap-- but I had to husband my money. Most of my reading came from the library. Unlike Heinlein prior to 1960 or Asimov or other, like, writers, Sheckley was always a bit subversive. Possibly beyond the tastes of those southern librarians.

Imagine my delight when I looked at the NESFA Sheckley collection and found not one. Not two. But three books by Sheckley I'd never managed to read.

Sheckley novels to read:

Other good SF satires

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sherlock vs. Sherlock

Left: Johnny Lee Miller, Elementary
Right: Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock
Middle: Sherlock Holmes

I'll say up front: I'm not a Sherlock fundamentalist. I like the original series fine but it's not written in stone or anything. I've enjoyed many of the Sherlock adaptations, the further from the original the better-- They Might Be Giants, for example.

So I've been watching the BBC's Sherlock and NBC's Elementary. I've been struck by a couple of interesting things. I call this the Batman vs. Superman effect.

For those who have been living under a rock, Superman was born on Krypton and once reaching Earth developed god like powers intrinsic to his nature. This is important. He is born with the capacity for these powers. It only takes the power of Earth's yellow sun to bring them out.

Batman is completely different. He is traumatized by a childhood event and through his own determination and endurance trains himself up to near superhuman physical and mental abilities.

If Superman is one end of the scale and Batman is the other, where does Holmes fall?

Well, of course, that depends on the work describing him.

I'd say Doyle's original Holmes, and many of the adaptations, fall towards the Batman side of the scale though not terribly far. Holmes had trained himself to be who he was, to the exclusion of all else.. Things such as human pleasantries, the state of astronomy and possibly bathing were considered superfluous unless it was in the service of fighting crime.

(As a side note, the obsession with fighting "crime" has always seemed an odd preoccupation. I mean, didn't Superman and Batman want to fix the world? Crime's a small part of that.The original Superman comics did but then he got into more interesting material. I suppose that's the reason for all those super villains. Nothing else to do on a Saturday night but get drunk.)

Later adaptations, like that of Basil Rathbone and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also BBC) seemed to stay more or less in the same range. Though very intelligent, Holmes is not Superman-- though, in some material, when contrasted with Watson he seemed to be.

Fast forward to Sherlock and Elementary.

Sherlock seems to fall squarely on the Superman side of the equation. There's all the fun lettering over things to show us what Sherlock sees or thinks-- at its level best when he's drunk. Chair: soft sqiggly thing. There's even been a couple of conversations between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft about their difficult childhood trying to fit in with normal, ungifted, people. This is contrasted to normal Watson. A nice guy who's almost always at sea with Sherlock but pursues him out of plucky friendship.

Elementary falls solidly towards Batman. The cops are a varied bunch. Some stupid. Some definitely not stupid. They recognize Holmes' "gift" for what it is-- a useful tool in police work. And Watson, though lacking training and monomaniacal dedication of Holmes, is every bit as smart-- a fact Holmes readily and repeatedly acknowledges.

Smarter, in fact. Consider Sherlock. Could Holmes and Watson ever change places? I submit that in the context of the show, Sherlock could have become as good a physician as Watson but Watson can never be the detective Holmes is.

In Elementary it's a very different game. Watson was a cardiologist-- pretty much one of the top medical professions in the country. Further, she was one of the best cardiologists. That she messed it up and left the profession is not important. She messed it up for personal, not professional, reasons. The intellectual demands on a cardiac surgeon are every bit as rigorous as being a detective-- even the best of the best, like Holmes. She left that to become a sober companion. She's left that to become a detective. A very good detective. A detective so good that she's outguessed Holmes a few times.

Contrast this with Holmes. He's a monomaniac in detection. He's very very good at that. And he has some other skills that are quite good. Yet, Watson is coming up close behind him. I suggest that Holmes could not become the cardiologist Watson was. Yet, Watson is in the process of becoming as good a detective as Holmes.

The difference between the two approaches is quite stark. It's the difference between avatar and buddha. Between attaining divinity by birth or by effort. Between aristocracy and meritocracy. Between Star Wars and Star Trek.

Hero stories often fall along this same path. As in Young Frankenstein:
No escaping that for me!
No escaping that for me!
(cue dancing girls)
Okay. You caught me. There were no dancing girls in Young Frankenstein. But the image of a can-can being performed by Terry Garr and Madeleine Kahn still haunts me.

Anakin Skywalker is "destined" to bring balance to the force. Prophecies. Oracles. Etc. Or, you can have people of strength that are brought to greatness not by destiny but by their own efforts.

Or you can blend them. Then, it gets interesting.

Parzifal is destined to be great. His heritage is greatness. His strength is unmatched. His courage indomitable. His skill without peer. But he fails. Fails miserably. Fails spectacularly. Fails because he is controlled by rules instead of his compassion.

Destiny shuts him out. You only get one chance.

Parzifal refuses to accept that. And by his efforts creates a second chance where he is redeemed.

In The Stars My Destination, Gully Foyle has strength and intelligence and isn't the least bit interested in advancing himself. But then he is left for dead and the urge for payback transforms him.

It will be interesting how these two shows proceed. People seem to like the ubermensch. For my own part, I like Elementary better than Sherlock.

I've always been more fond of Batman than Superman.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Science of Interest

I follow a lot of science feeds. Among these are, Nobel Intent and Science Daily. Io9 is a surprisingly good first step for good and exciting science. In addition, I have a Google alert service for various topics and a couple of individual blogs. I highly recommend John Hawks' blog, for example.

I've been having a bit of trouble talking about science lately. It's not because there's any lack of interesting things; it's because there's so much of it that it's hard to settle on one theme.

So I'll just go over the feeds a little bit.

Formula 1 Racing Embraces 'Green' Technology: This is interesting on so many levels. The people the determine the rules have downgraded the allowed size of the engine to a 1.6 L V6 engine from a much larger V8. There are also fuel consumption rules intended to result in a competition not only for speed but for efficiency. Recall that many innovations in automobiles are given proof of concept opportunities at these races. But it's also interesting at a technical. The energy/torque ratio for a gasoline motor is non-linear. More energy doesn't always get proportionally torque. DC electric motors are different. As more energy is applied more torque is achieved linearly. This could be the first step towards a much faster Formula 1 racing car. One wonders what will happen when, as has happened in flight, the speed of events exceeds the human operator.

Solar Wind and Space Dust Make Water: Airless space bodies in this solar system are bombarded continuously by both space dust and solar wind. Solar wind consists, in part, as high energy single protons. Think of them as hydrogen atoms with the electrons stripped off. The space dust is often composed of silicates: compounds made of silicon, oxygen and hydrogen along with a few metals. So the raw material of water, hydrogen and oxygen, is present. This study was able to show water forming on a silicate surface that derives from the impact of the high energy protons. Not only does this suggest a long term source of water on the surface of places such as the moon, it also gives one more mechanism for the ubiquitous presence of water molecules in the universe.

Which dovetails nicely with finding water plumes from the dwarf planet Ceres showing Ceres has surface ice and something like an atmosphere. We should know more when the Dawn spacecreaft reaches Ceres next year.

Development of an energy dense sugar fuel cell is extremely encouraging, Not only does sugar have the benefit of using a material that doesn't explode, it's very easy to obtain. In a few years you might be powering your laptops and cell phones with honey. But, not to trivialize this, sugar is what powers your body and pretty much every other living thing in the world. It's very energy dense-- it's been used for solid rocket fuel. It could potentially circumvent the energy storage issue of fuel cells.

From Nobel Intent:
Antarctic Neutrino Detector Comes Of Age: Down under they did something very cool. They put detectors down in the ice. In effect, they are using a 1 kilometer block of ice as the experimental field. Neutrinos come in all sorts of flavors. What they're looking for are high energy neutrinos. Those particles created in massive stellar events like supernovas. Not the mere humdrum weak neutrinos that are generated in the thousands of fusion bomb equivalents every second in the heart of the sun. So far they've found 30. Not many but considering these are barely even blips, that's very cool. Now they're trying to find out where they came from.

Ball Lightning on Video: For the longest time ball lightning was considered a myth. People reported it but nobody had photographed it or figured out what it was made of. Well, that changed this year. A video of ball lightning was captured along with a spectrograph of it. It turns out that the constituents of ball lightning were the same as found in nearby soil. The current hypothesis is that lightning strikes the ground and causes a plasma of these materials that then take some time to dissipate. That was born out by the spectroscopic analysis of the video. 

I'm going to depart briefly from reporting on the different feeds to a specific article. This one comes from They were kind enough to report on the many interesting wrinkles in human evolution that were discovered or determined in 2013. The existence of the human hand was pushed back to 1.4 million years ago. Neanderthals probably buried their dead. And, which I've talked about before, humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred quite a bit.

Which brings us to the this article from Science Daily:

Neanderthal sunlight adaptation found in 65% of East Asian population: Forget a piddling 6.5 or 3.2 or whatever percent of the modern human genome came from Neanderthals. The adaptation to UV found in the gene Hyal2 is found in a whopping 65% of those in Japan or China. Further, it looks like this particular gene adaptation was lost when humans came out of Africa and then regained from interbreeding with Neanderthals. People have been saying there is evidence that the Neanderthal genes were strongly selected for. You bet. Not only did we dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, we got something to take home from the experience.

And, finally, one from Io9:

Music derived from Voyager 1 & 2: Voyager 2 managed to escape the solar system. Voyager 1 isn't far behind. Domenico Vicinanza works on managing the network that handles Cern and the LHC. He took 320k measurements from the two spacecraft and used them as input to generate quite a good piece of music. Go read about it and enjoy.

Heck, go enjoy all of this stuff.