Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book review: Divine Endurance

Divine Endurance is a weird book. It is well worth a read; if you haven't, do that first, because any explanation will tend to spoil it. If you don't like books in which much is unexplained, or in which things only become slowly clear, then find something else. Having said that, the flaws are more obvious on a second reading. And it isn't quite clear where Flowerdust fits in; just an episode, I think.

The attraction of the book is largely in it's tone; and to some extent it shares this with White Queen. Elegaic, unruffled, unhurried, tolerant of people and of disaster.

But ah the downsides: and here I shall wax philosophical; bear with me, it is worth it, I think. I've been reading Popper recently; The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx. And Popper is strongly critical of what he calls "historicism" or in Marx's case "historical prophecy": in essence, the idea that history has it's own meaning, it's own destiny; teleology, perhaps. And if you hear that, you begin to see the backbone of a lot of sci-fi novels; perhaps a lot of novels in general. And this one in particular: much of the beauty is in the characters learning to accept their "destiny"; the long slow downwards slope of their world into death. But it is all nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that; and (as I said before) all too common.

Update: reading GJ's article on the book at her website, it is clear that she thinks the book is about something else. But as the author she is in some ways blind to what it actually says, because of course she knows what she meant it to say. So take, for example, the way the dolls "know" that they shouldn't fixup various "surface" problems because the humans don't want those problems fixed. Like Derveet's fatal illness. Then stop and think: how does that make sense? It doesn't, except in the all-is-predestined manner that I've already pointed out is Bad.

But I should add something positive: which is that the view of society, and the bizarre sexuality in which essentially all important people are homosexual, just makes perfect sense and all fits together; is very well done.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Town bumps: afterthoughts

See-also: Town bumps, day 0; day 1.

This year's bumps were a disappointment. I don't think I can put a happy gloss on them. To some extent we were unlucky in our opposition: there were no easy targets this year, and the boats behind us were fast. But that is excuse making. We could and should have been better.

The bright spots were holding off Tabs 3 on day 2: they were a fast crew, and closed to near overlap by first Post, but we held them off all the way to the Railway bridge; and we held them off on Day 3 until somewhere around Grassy, when Nines 2 took them out.

That rather brings up the less bright spots. On day 4 we were moderately sure we were going to be bumped by Nines 2, and we duly were, and that was rather dispiriting. It is hard to do anything in that situation. We made it past First Post, and we told ourselves that was our aim; but in a way we might as well not have bothered even to start (though no-one, including me, would even consider suggesting such a thing; after all, you never know what might happen and we did claw a little back from City 2).

And so on to day 1, which I think is my biggest regret: we should have done better against City 2. And this is all the in retrospect stuff, which is so worthless: we should have gone off faster, and so on. Never mind. That's all too late.

The important stuff, though, is the stuffed-up pre-bumps preparation, starting with changing the rig to strokeside. Am I going to write this down in public? I haven't decided yet :-)