Category Archives: Reading

Arthur C. Clarke: Three Early Novels

Cover of An Arthur C. Clarke Second OmnibusAll human communities, wherever they may be in space, follow the same pattern. People were getting born, being cremated (with careful conservation of phosphorus and nitrates), rushing in and out of marriage, moving out of town, suing their neighbours, having parties, holding protest meetings, getting involved in astonishing accidents, writing Letters to the Editor, changing jobs…. Yes, it was just like Earth. That was a somewhat depressing thought.

Arthur C. Clarke, Earthlight (1955)

I was just about to write that Arthur C. Clarke required no introduction, but these days he perhaps does—a generation has reached maturity in the time since the publication of his last solo novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, in 1997.

Clarke was for decades one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers (the others were Asimov and Heinlein), and was the only one of that trio I’d have been eager to dine with. I’d certainly have given Asimov a go, if invited; but I’d have travelled long distances to avoid Heinlein. There was a constant gentle humanity to Clarke’s writings, largely missing from the brash Asimov’s and the deeply self-satisfied Heinlein’s.

Clarke’s heyday was probably from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties—from the time he cooperated with Stanley Kubrick in the production of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) through to the publication of The Songs Of Distant Earth (1986). That period saw the publication of his classic novels Rendezvous With Rama (1973) and The Fountains Of Paradise (1979). In later years, he moved on to co-authoring novels with other writers. Some of these cooperations were successful, like his work with Stephen Baxter; some less so, like the execrable Rama sequels penned with Gentry Lee.

Clarke has also left us a legacy of stunning short stories: “The Sentinel” (1951), “The Star” (1956), “The Nine Billion Names Of God” (1953) and “Sunjammer” (1964) being only the first four that came to mind as I was typing this paragraph.

The three novels I’m going to write about here date from the same period as those classic short stories: The Sands Of Mars, Earthlight and A Fall Of Moondust. My own copies are collected in a Sidgwick & Jackson hardback edition from 1968—the clumsily titled An Arthur C. Clarke Second Omnibus.* But all are readily and cheaply available in e-book form. They’re of interest (to me at least) because they’re Clarke’s take on the future exploration of the Moon and Mars, written before or during the very early days of spaceflight, years before humans had actually set foot on the Moon.

For reasons best known to themselves, Sidgwick & Jackson arranged the novels in reverse order of original publication, but I’ll review them in chronological order.

The Sands Of Mars (1951) follows science-fiction writer Martin Gibson as he travels from Earth to Mars on the inaugural voyage of the passenger vessel Ares. Gibson is the only passenger for the trip, acting as what would now be called an embedded journalist. Otherwise, Ares is operated by a small shakedown crew, who view Gibson with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. Amusement, because Gibson’s early science-fiction writings about space travel in general, and Mars in particular, have now been overtaken by reality; suspicion, because they’re not sure what sort of story Gibson will write about his voyage. Clarke develops the flawed character of Gibson with a real warmth and humour.

Almost a hundred pages elapse before Gibson actually gets to his destination, the small Martian colony of Port Lowell. During those early pages, Clarke plays amusingly with Gibson’s anxieties and embarrassments as he finally participates in the reality of spaceflight, which is rather different from what he had imagined in his writings twenty years previously. There’s very definitely a knowing wink from Clarke in this section, as if to say, “Yes, and of course I’m pretending I know how it will really be. But what sort of things am I getting wrong, right now?”

The dynamic between the crew and Gibson becomes particularly amusing when the crew realize that the Ares has been pierced by a tiny meteor, no larger than a grain of sand, which has produced a very slow leak of air. This is an entirely routine event for them—but unfortunately the hole is in Gibson’s cabin. Fearing the dramatic spin Gibson would put on such an event, the crew come up with a distraction for him (a spacewalk), so that they can swiftly put a rivet into the tiny hole without Gibson ever knowing what happened.

But there are also characteristic Clarkean “sense of wonder” passages during the space flight:

The Ares was not, unfortunately, passing very close to the Moon, but even so it was more than ten times as large as Gibson had ever seen it from the Earth […] And surely—Gibson bent suddenly forward, wondering if his eyes had tricked him. Yet there was no doubt of it; down in the midst of that cold and faintly gleaming land, waiting for the dawn that was still many days away, minute sparks of light were burning like fireflies in the dusk. They had not been there fifty years ago; they were the lights of the first lunar cities, telling the stars that life had come at last to the Moon after a billion years of waiting.

When the story finally reaches Mars, it begins to show its age, since this is Mars as understood in the 1940s—with a denser atmosphere than we now know it has, and plant life on its surface. Gibson has various adventures, and gradually comes to respect and admire the resourceful Martian colonists. There’s a plane crash and a rescue, a benign conspiracy, a surprising discovery, and even a romance. It’s all rather satisfying, in a low-key sort of way, but it spends a lot more time on the nuts and bolts of space travel than would any contemporary novel.

And there is always Clarke’s eye for quirky detail. Here’s his description of the little domed Martian colony (which grandly names its few narrow streets after famous streets on Earth):

With its rows of uniform metal houses and few public buildings it was more of a military camp than a city, though the inhabitants had done their best to brighten it up with terrestrial flowers. Some of these had grown to impressive sizes under the low gravity, and Oxford Circus was now ablaze with sunflowers thrice the height of a man. Though they were getting rather a nuisance no one had the heart to suggest their removal: if they continued at their present rate of growth in would soon take a skilled lumberjack to fell them without endangering the port hospital.

Earthlight (1955) is set on the Moon in the twenty-second century. Colonies on the Moon and inner planets are well established, and there is a human presence in space out as far as Saturn. A resource war is brewing between the Earth-Moon system on the one hand, and the planetary colonies on the other. The action takes place in and around an astronomical observatory in Plato crater, a lunar settlement called Central City, and a secret research base in the Mare Imbrium. The main point-of-view character is Bertram Sadler, a counter-espionage agent assigned to hunt down a spy among the staff of the Plato observatory.

This one, too, was written before the dawn of the Space Age, and Clarke spends more time describing the nuts and bolts of lunar colonization than a modern author would feel necessary. But Clarke, of course, always has his own unique take on things:

The view was now rather disappointing, as it usually is when one descends to the lunar lowlands. The horizon is so near—only two or three kilometres away—that it gives a sense of confinement and restraint. It is almost as if the small circle of rock surrounding one is all that exists. The illusion can be so strong that men have been known to drive more slowly than necessary, as if subconsciously afraid that they may fall off the edge of that uncannily near horizon.

The first half of the book is largely devoted to Sadler’s efforts to identify the spy, combined with a sort of guided tour of lunar life and installations. The second half revs up into a series of set pieces—a battle between space-borne forces and a lunar fortress; the rescue of the crew of a damaged spacecraft; and the final, long-delayed unmasking of the spy.

In particular, the story is distinguished by the earliest dramatic introduction of one of Clarke’s narrative preoccupations—that fact that human beings can survive brief exposure to the vacuum of space. In Earthlight, Clarke gets a few things wrong—he has his characters hyperventilate with oxygen before their exposure to vacuum, which would do essentially nothing to prolong their survival; and his characters stay conscious for far longer than would be possible once they undergo decompression. He would revisit the topic in a very short story entitle “Take A Deep Breath” in 1957, and then again in the novel and film of 2001: A Space Odyssey (by which time he was correctly assuming a time of useful consciousness of only ten to fifteen seconds during vacuum exposure).

There’s also a fraught encounter with a lunar “dust bowl”—a concept that Clarke would later use as the basis for his novel A Fall Of Moondust.

There are, as ever, failures of prediction. In this one, Clarke assumes we’ll still be developing photographs in a darkroom in the twenty-second century, and there’s a certain irony in the way he describes the situation:

Jamieson was still wiping developer from his hands when he arrived. After more than 300 years, certain aspects of photography were quite unchanged. Wheeler, who thought that everything could be done by electronics, regarded many of his older friend’s activities as survivals from the age of alchemy.

And the role of women in Clarke’s vision of the Moon is limited, to say the least:

It was merely to be expected that all six of the girls in computing, after some weeks in a largely male community, now had reputations that could only be described as fragile.

A Fall Of Moondust (1961) is based on an idea, briefly explored in Earthlight, that was a real source of concern for early spaceflight engineers—the possibility that the smooth, flat areas of the lunar “seas” might represent accumulations of extremely fine dust; dust so fine that it would flow like liquid in the hard vacuum at the lunar surface, and simply engulf any spacecraft that landed on it.

Clarke’s story, set on the Moon after human settlement there, features a “dust-cruiser”—a vehicle that floats on a lake of such dust, moving around with the aid of submerged propellers. The dust-cruiser Selene, taking a group of tourists sight-seeing on the fictional Sea of Thirst, is struck by an earthquake which cases it to “sink”—falling into a transient hollow in the dust surface, which then fills and flows over the vehicle, leaving it buried fifteen metres deep. The story then unfolds in two strands: below ground, the plight of the 22 buried passengers and crew; above ground, the efforts to locate the missing Selene and then to rescue its personnel before their air runs out. It is, in essence, a science-fiction “disaster movie”, vaguely reminiscent of Airport ’77.

It has a lot of what were now becoming the usual Clarke ingredients. He messes with his readership’s expectations of how the future should be, for instance when he gives the reason the Selene‘s captain is keen to call his craft a “boat”:

When he used that word, no one would mistake him for the skipper of a space-ship—and space-ship captains were, of course, two a penny.

Another example of Clarkeish subversion occurs when he allows the story of one of the trapped passengers, an Australian scientist named McKenzie, to continue for some time before he reveals that the character is a full-blooded Aborigine. Those of us who remember the casual racism of the 1960s will be able to appreciate what a startling effect that achieved, back when it was first published.

Then there is Clarke’s trademark wry humour. Here, he teases those over-wrought space artists who had depicted the lunar surface dotted with cliffs and towering mountains:

There was not a single lunar crater whose ramparts soared as abruptly as the streets of San Francisco, and there were very few that would provide a serious obstacle to a determined cyclist.

Cover of Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke(Perhaps Clarke was later amused to see exactly the wrong kind of lunar mountains depicted on the cover of the Pan paperback edition of Earthlight.)

Elsewhere, he describes the annoyance of the television-camera operator who is obliged to use electronic trickery to add visible stars to the lunar daytime sky, because the public on Earth expect to see them—despite the fact that the bright reflected light from the lunar surface makes them invisible to either human eye or camera lens. Remember, Clarke was writing this before anyone had ever set foot on the Moon—but he presciently spotted the ignorant “Where are the stars?” question beloved of those who, in the teeth of the evidence, imagine that the Apollo landings were faked.

There are the usual incongruities for those of us living sixty years after Clarke wrote this story. In Clarke’s future, people are happily smoking inside lunar habitats and stomach ulcers are still an intractable medical problem. And the female characters fare little better than the “girls in computing” of Earthlight—in this one, they are either wives, fretful old maids, or pretty stewardesses.

These are all good fun—full of incident, plot twists and wry observation of the foibles of humanity. The Sands Of Mars certainly has the most humour, but is the most dated. A Fall Of Moondust is genuinely tense in places. But all are worth (re)reading for the glimpse they give of a clever and kind man, speculating on humanity’s future in space.

* I wrote about the first Arthur C. Clarke Omnibus when I reviewed his novel Childhood’s End (1953).

Clarke previously mentioned a person surviving vacuum exposure in The Sands Of Mars; but given that the person is a fictional character in Gibson’s early writing, it’s not clear if we are meant to take this as a serious proposition.
I‘ve previously written about the physics and physiology of vacuum exposure. See my posts Human Exposure To Vacuum Part 1 and Part 2 for a full discussion of the underlying science.)

Benjamin Dreyer: Dreyer’s English

Cover of Dreyer's English by Benjamin DreyerThis book [… is] my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Benjamin Dreyer was a copy editor at Random House, though he has now risen to occupy several more exalted positions in that publishing company. Copy editors are the people who police the text of an author’s work before it gets to the printers. They sort out errors of grammar and usage, and apply the “house style” of the publisher to things like hyphens and quotation marks; but they also tweak sentences to make their meaning clearer, remove redundant verbiage, and otherwise convert the author’s prose into a shinier version of itself.

I’ve been in awe of good copy editors ever since I first encountered their work, during a brief period when I wrote little columns about natural phenomena for the Scotsman newspaper. The sub-editor who copy-edited my work would often need to trim a line or two off what I felt was a pretty tightly written piece, so as to make space on the newspaper page for something else. These lines would disappear from my text, but everything I wrote was still there, and still recognizably in my style. And in fact it was usually clearer than what I’d written. Done well, copy editing is a skill that verges on magic. Done badly (and I’ve had experience of that, too) it’s at best a challenge to authorial equanimity, and at worst a way of finding your name at the bottom of a piece of text which utterly misrepresents what you originally wrote.

So this book, Dreyer’s first, is essentially about how to do copy editing well—it’s a guide to good writing. Dreyer’s English was published in the USA at the start of 2019; I’m reviewing the UK edition, which was published later the same year. There are, of course, many differences between American and British written English (I occasionally write about them in this blog), and it’s  thoughtful and thorough for Dreyer to have produced two slightly different books for two slightly different markets.

The subtitle is An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style—a tongue-in-cheek characterization that neatly skewers the pretensions of the prescriptivist school of style guides. It also encapsulates two things about Dreyer’s writing—he has a distinctly polemical approach, and he is given to gentle mockery. As here, in a discussion of Shakespeare’s writing:

Also, if you haven’t been dead for four hundred years and are planning on using the word ‘methinks’ in the spirit of roguish cleverness, please don’t.

Or here, writing about the old custom of typing a double space after a full stop:

Some older folk I’ve encountered are furiously insistent about the eternal propriety of sentence-dividing double spaces. Likely, they also advocate for the retention of the long s, and I wish them much ſucceſs. If you’re a younger person who’s only ever typed on a computer keyboard, odds are good you were not taught the double-space thing, so feel free to slide past this subject altogether with the head-shaking insouciance of your generation.

And here, writing about the differences in American and British spelling, in particular the -er and -re endings.

Some Americans dig their heels in re ‘theatre’, often insisting that plays are performed in theatres, but movies are shown in theaters […], or that a building is a theater but the theatrical art is theatre. And to them I say: You know you’re doing it because you think that the ‘-re’ spelling is fancier, and I’d like you to stop.

So he’s good fun, and he tells you a lot of good stuff.

The book covers the usual range of style-guide topics—punctuation, spelling and grammar—but adds a wealth of other material. Dreyer writes cogently about how to tighten up your writing, cutting out verbiage and constructing sentences that are unambiguous and easy to read. There’s a section on confusable words, a section on proper nouns that are often misspelled, and a section on words that are often misused (“enormity”, “fulsome”). And every now and then Dreyer launches into a pet peeve of his own—I don’t imagine many other style books deal with the misapplication of the phrase “Immaculate Conception”.*

Even when you disagree with Dreyer (and I don’t share his enthusiasm for the Oxford comma), it’s good to read what he has to say on the topic, because he has always put a lot of thought into arriving at his opinion.

And there are some jokes and funny stories.

Having read it through in a single sitting, I’d say it’s not the kind of book to read in a single sitting. One reason for this is the sheer amount of information that demands to be assimilated. Another is that, as Dreyer sweeps through a list of (for instance) words that annoy him, his pointed wit turns into something of an onslaught—I occasionally found myself wishing that he’d just shut up and let me concentrate. So I’d say the longer, slower sections on grammar and punctuation can be browsed and enjoyed for the big educational picture they provide; whereas the shorter, quick-fire sections on common errors are probably best dipped in and out of, aided by the book’s excellent index.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Dreyer. Concluding a short dissertation on the orthography of Star Wars, he winds up with an example that has annoyed me ever since I first saw it in 1977:

[…] ‘A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away….’ ends with a full stop and three ellipsis points, even though it is a fragment and not a complete sentence, because that’s how the Star Wars people like it. And if you challenge them on any of these points, they’ll cut your hand off. True story.

* Oh, well, since you ask—the Immaculate Conception is a theological doctrine that correctly applies to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not to Jesus himself. She is said to have been conceived untainted by Original Sin, so as to provide a suitably pure vessel for Jesus.

Richard A. Lupoff: The Twin Planets Novels

Covers of Twin Planets novels by Richard A. LupoffAnything is possible. Everything is possible. Somewhere in God’s infinite universe there may be a system of planets sharp-edged and square-faced as ice cubes. There may be a solar system where worlds are hollow and illuminated by tiny interior suns. There may even be a family of spherical planets as solid as baseballs! Who can say? All we know is that there’s no reason to assume the planets of other suns are flattened toroids just because our sun’s planets are so formed. Think of it! Somewhere, an earth like our earth, complete with a Minnesota and a Morocco, a Pennsylvania and a Peru, an Emperor of Australia and a President of Japan. And yet that world is as round and solid as a baseball! Everything is possible.

Richard A. Lupoff, Circumpolar! (1984)

Richard A. Lupoff published this pair of novels in the 1980s, in the middle of a writing career that has spanned six decades so far. He started out editing a science fiction fanzine, Xero, during the early 1960s; he published an autobiography, Where Memory Hides, in 2016. Between-times, he produced a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a series of detective novels, stories set in the worlds of Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, mysteries, police procedurals, pastiches of various science-fiction authors written under the pen-name Ova Hamlet, and a not-inconsiderable output of science fiction / fantasy novels and short stories. Lupoff’s writing style is protean, shifting in tone from novel to novel, and gleefully adopting the tropes of other writers when it suits his purposes. And he clearly relishes originality, seldom doing the same thing twice. Both these traits have counted against him in developing a loyal readership for his multifarious science fiction and fantasy works—Robert Silverberg has described Lupoff as one of the most underrated writers in science fiction. The problem has been compounded because Lupoff kept running into difficulty with publishers (through no fault of his own), which has led to many of his books going quickly out of print. That situation has to some extent been remedied by Gollancz’s SF Gateway, which has now made many of his works available in e-book form at very reasonable prices.

The Twin Planets novels are complex pastiches, channelling the rollicking “planetary romance” stories of the 1920s and ’30s, with a cliff-hanger or a surprise at the end of every chapter. There’s more than a little Burroughs in there, certainly; but there’s a hint of Edgar Allan Poe, too, some E.E. “Doc” Smith, and a perhaps even a bit of W.E. Johns’s “Biggles” novels. At times the stories are reminiscent of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, if that film had taken itself entirely seriously throughout.

My first encounter with Lupoff came in 1984, when I read Circumpolar! I was amazed—I had never read anything quite so madly inventive, and (apart from its sequel Countersolar!) I’ve never read anything remotely like it since.

The books could be superficially classified as Alternate History—featuring a world like our own, with characters who are recognizable personalities from our own history, but for whom historical events have taken a different course. In the case of Twin Planets, the Jonbar Point, the moment of critical difference, occurs when presidential candidate Howard Taft is killed when he falls from a mule into the Grand Canyon. This clears the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s run for re-election as president in 1912, when he defeats Woodrow Wilson. The appointment of a president given to overseas intervention pressures Kaiser Wilhelm II into starting a war in Europe in 1912, before Germany is fully prepared. Roosevelt immediately throws US forces into the fray, and Germany is defeated in 1913, after what is called the One Year War. The Communist Revolution then fails. In 1927, when Circumpolar! opens, Europe still has a kaiser in Germany (but not Wilhelm), a tsar in Russia and an emperor in Austria-Hungary.

So far, so good. But in another respect, this alternate Earth is not like our planet Earth at all—it is disc-shaped. (I know, I know.) One side of the disc has the same geography as our Earth, albeit necessarily distorted by the reprojection from sphere to plane. The other side of the disc is, as the first novel opens, terra incognita. People from “our” side of the disc can, in principle, access the other side by two routes—either by travelling around the edge of the disc, which is blocked by an apparently impenetrable barrier of ice corresponding to the location of our own Antarctica; or by passing through a hole in the middle of the Arctic Ocean where the north pole should be (I know, I know). So Lupoff’s world is shaped a bit like a vinyl record, with our Earth and almost all its history reproduced on the A side, and somewhere else on the B side*. The moon, planets and asteroids are all similarly flat.

The Earth of Circumpolar! by Richard A. Lupoff
Click to enlarge
(Sketch by The Oikofuge using an original base map here)

Just let all that rattle around your head for a bit, and then the quotation at the head of this post may begin to make a little sense. Lupoff inserts these words at the start of Circumpolar!, and attributes them to “Stanley Grauman Weinbaum, December 14, 1946”. In the real world, Weinbaum was a science fiction author who died tragically young, in 1935.

Circumpolar! is the story of a circumpolar air race, with a prize of $50,000 offered by Victoria Woodhull Martin. The winner must complete a circumnavigation of the disc, passing through the Arctic hole, across the other side of the disc, around the Antarctic rim and back to the starting point (or follow the same route in reverse). The north polar hole is referred to as “Symmes’ Hole”, a reference to the Hollow Earth “theory” of John Symmes, who in Lupoff’s world is a visionary thinker rather than a fantasist.

The American team of aviators consists of Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, flying an aircraft called Spirit of San Diego. The opposing team is formed by German air ace Manfred von Richthofen and his brother Lothar, along with a Russian princess, Irina Lvova, who has no counterpart in reality—her in-narrative father, Georgy Lvov, was childless in the real world. The Americans are (of course) fair-playing, resourceful adventurers who are handy in a fist-fight; the Germans are (of course) superlative aviators, but will cheat and kill if they feel it is required in order to win the race. The Russian alternates between haughty ice-maiden and superstitious coward, and her role in the story eventually peters out. The Americans cross the southern ice, and encounter a race who call themselves the Muiaians—apparently descendants of a South American civilization who fled the conquistadors, arriving on the other side of the disc after descending through a lake bed. They are benign and scientifically advanced, and the Americans infer that they have some connection to the story of the Lost Continent of Mu, retailed by James Churchward.

The Germans pass through Symmes’ Hole, and find themselves in Svartalheim, which has a mixed Nordic/Germanic population who are (of course) warlike and intent on World Domination on their side of the disc. (Although Lupoff doesn’t say as much, there’s a clear connection to the Svartalfheim underworld of Norse mythology.)

So conflict ensues. There are fist-fights and sword-fights and dog-fights, paralysing rays, levitating platforms, what seems to be some actual magic, and nuclear-powered, robotic, flying horses piloted by Valkyries. (I know, I know.) It all rattles along, and it’s probably giving nothing away if I tell you that good old American pluck and know-how triumphs after many vicissitudes and hair-breadth escapes.

Countersolar! features another race, but of a different sort. In this one, two spacecraft travel across the solar system to investigate a planet that orbits on exactly the opposite side of the sun from Earth. This Counter-Earth theme has a long history outside Lupoff’s work. In Countersolar! Lupoff’s characters attribute the Counter-Earth hypothesis to someone called Charlie Avison—apparently a reference to the hero of an obscure short story from 1916, written by Edison Tesla Marshall: “Who Is Charles Avison?” You can read it here. (Lupoff’s work is in fact full of references to the work of other authors.)

One team consists of Albert Einstein, the aircraft designer Jack Northrop, and two American athletes, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Josh Gibson. The opposition comes in the form of German aircraft designer Reimar Horten, Argentinian soldier Juan Perón and his partner Eva “Evita” Duarte, and the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The race this time is a political one—the American expedition is attempting to thwart their opponents’ effort to form an alliance with fascist elements on the Counter-Earth.

The Counter-Earth turns out to have been identical with the Earth of Circumpolar! until 1912 (for reasons too mind-mangling to relay here), after which their histories diverged. A fascist government is now in place in Counter-Earth America, under the presidency of William Dudley Pelley, allied with the Aryan supremacists of Svartalheim. The story plays out as the members of the two expeditions seek out their counterparts on the Counter-Earth, and form alliances with either the American fascists or the resistance movement led by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s impossible to do justice to the detail of Lupoff’s imaginings, here. The story is populated with so many historical characters, playing out slightly distorted versions of their real lives. There’s a side-plot involving a race of ancient Egyptians who have withdrawn to the asteroid Ceres (I know, I know). More connections are drawn between the peoples of the Other Side and mythological or fictional “lost lands” of our own world, including a nod to the Yu-Atlanchi of Abraham Merritt’s 1931 fantasy novel The Face In The Abyss (which you can read on Project Gutenberg here). And there are passages of disconcerting magic realism, when Evita seems to merge with the goddess Isis, when Einstein glimpses God, and in the distinctly strange denouement of the novel.

I love these stories for their mad imaginings and stacked weirdness, though they’re pretty evidently not to everyone’s taste. And there are occasional wobbles when it feels like Lupoff might just, for a moment or two, have been puzzled about how to move the story forward.

If you’re at all favourably disposed to Lupoff after reading my reviews here, I’d suggest you take a look at his 1996 short story collection Before 12:01 And After, which is cheaply available as an e-book from SF Gateway. It gives a broad sample of his styles and themes, and contains an insightful introduction by Robert Silverberg, together with biographical and story notes from Lupoff himself.

* Well, actually, Lupoff’s world is like a flattened torus with a small central opening—narrow around its central hole and rim, thicker in the region that would correspond to our Earth’s equator. In cross-section it would look something like this, to judge from some figures given in Circumpolar!:

Cross section of Earth disc from Circumpolar! by Richard A. Lupoff

Robert Sheckley: The AAA Ace Stories

Cover of The Mask Of Mañana, by Robert Sheckley
[Gregor] pushed the list aside, found a pack of tattered cards, and laid out a hopeless solitaire of his own devising.
Minutes later, Arnold stepped jauntily in.
Gregor looked at his partner with suspicion. When the little chemist walked with that peculiar bouncing step, his round face beaming happily, it usually mean trouble for AAA Ace.

Robert Sheckley “The Necessary Thing” (1955)


Robert Sheckley was certainly a forerunner to, if not a direct inspiration for, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Indeed, when asked what the difference between himself and Sheckley was, Adams is reported to have said, “Sheckley writes better.” Adams notoriously found writing arduous; Sheckley, in his heyday, seemed to have found it easy, pouring out humorous short science fiction in the 1950s and humorous novels in the 1960s. But then he ran into a chronic period of writer’s block spanning the next two decades, only hitting his prolific stride again in the 1990s.

I’ve hunted around for a way to impart some sense of Sheckley’s particular style, and I can’t actually come up with anything better than the Publishers Weekly squib for his novel collection, Dimensions Of Sheckley (2002):

Brains get swapped, spots in heaven must be purchased, cities can think, and a squat ambulatory ‘shrub’ infects passersby with paralyzing metaphysical doubt …

Add to that a delight in invented words, an approach to plotting which involves the stacking of startlements one atop the other, and explanations that are simultaneous ludicrous and engaging—Sheckley in his pomp was a humorous force of nature.

In all the short fiction he wrote, he produced only one series—the eight stories of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Seven were written in a creative burst between 1954 and 1956; the last appeared in 1991, as he began to return to form.

The first six stories appeared in quick succession in Galaxy Science Fiction, and the seventh appeared soon after in the short-lived Fantastic Universe magazine. This is good news, since all the relevant issues are now freely available on-line, at the Internet Archive. I’ll give you links to each story as we go along.

In 1991, Pulphouse started to produce five volumes of The Collected Short Fiction Of Robert Sheckley, and the newly revitalized Sheckley placed his final AAA Ace story straight into the fifth volume of that collection.

Prior to Collected Short Fiction, the AAA Ace stories were only sporadically anthologized. Five of them appeared in two early collections of Sheckley’s short fiction: Pilgrimage To Earth (1957) and The People Trap (1968). Both of these were reprinted several times during the ’60s and ’70s, which is how I first encountered the AAA Ace stories in my local public library. Although they cry out to be collected in a dedicated single volume, this seems to have happened only in an Italian edition, Spettro V: AAA Asso Interplanetaria (1971), which of course lacks the final story. As far as I know, they weren’t all gathered together in a single volume until 2005, when the excellent NESFA Press produced a collection of Sheckley’s short fiction, under the odd title The Masque Of Mañana.

The AAA Ace stories record the misadventures of Richard Gregor and Frank Arnold, who are the owners and entire staff of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Despite having chosen a company name so as to place themselves first in the telephone directory (remember them?), they are doing very little business. Sheckley’s universe operates very much like the 1950s, except it is possible for two guys with a spaceship and some rented equipment to fly across the galaxy and “fix” a planet for their client—eliminating troublesome wildlife or chemical contaminants, altering the climate, or creating some new continents to order.

The stories are generated from two kinds of plot line—either Arnold accepts an ill-considered job that goes horribly wrong, or Arnold buys a cheap exotic machine from Joe the Interstellar Junkman, with unanticipated consequences. Gregor suffers through all of it grimly, while playing endless rounds of elaborate solitaire in the office between jobs:

Richard Gregor was playing a new form of solitaire. It involved three packs of cards, six jokers, a set of dice, and a slide rule. The game was extremely complicated, maddeningly difficult, and it always came out if you persisted long enough.

That, right there, is simultaneously a metaphor for Gregor’s life with Arnold, and for the sort of plots Sheckley constructs around the hapless pair.

In the brief synopses below, the links associated with each story will take you to the magazine copies held on the Internet Archive.

Milk Run” was the first story published, in September 1954, a month before “Ghost V“—but since “Milk Run” briefly refers to the events of “Ghost V”, we must assume that the editorial staff at Galaxy jumbled the order of the stories. In “Ghost V” Gregor and Arnold are hired to exorcise a haunted planet—and have to work out the origin of these supposed “hauntings” while being terrorized by products of their own imagination. In “Milk Run”, they try to make some money by agreeing to transport three different kinds of alien animal in a single spacecraft, piloted by Gregor. The habitat requirements for the three species turn out to be wildly incompatible with each other (and with Gregor’s own requirements) such that Gregor barely survives the journey. (As a side note, the woolly, snowball-shaped and eternally reproducing Queel of the story look very much like the inspiration of Star Trek‘s tribbles, to me.)

The Laxian Key” followed in November 1954, featuring the first of Arnold’s fatuous purchases—a Meldgen Free Producer which, once activated, continuously manufactures tangreese, “the basic foodstuff of the Meldgen people”. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a viable market for tangreese … or a way to turn the machine off again.

Squirrel Cage” (January 1955) is my personal favourite. AAA Ace are hired for a simple extermination job, but the client neglects to mention that the pests to be eliminated are invisible. Sheckley stacks up a teetering tower of successive complications for his heroes to sort out, some of which made me laugh aloud just because of their sheer unexpectedness.

In “The Lifeboat Mutiny“, (April 1955) Gregor and Arnold buy a second-hand intelligent lifeboat from Joe the Interstellar Junkman:

Not that Joe was dishonest; far from it. The flotsam he collected from anywhere in the inhabited Universe worked. But the ancient machines often had their own ideas of how a job should be done. They tended to grow peevish when forced into another routine.

So things go wrong. And the frantic bargaining that ensues between Gregor and Arnold and their self-willed lifeboat is reminiscent of the conversation between Doolittle and the philosophical Bomb #20 in the film Dark Star.

The Necessary Thing” (June 1955) is another of Arnold’s purchases, this time a Configurator, which can instantly manufacture any desired object. Only when they have to rely on it in an emergency do our heroes discover that it gets bored easily, and is only prepared to manufacture one example of any given category of object.

The Skag Castle” (March 1956) is a fairly conventional comic mystery, in which Gregor and Arnold have to figure out who is attempting to frighten a young woman into abandoning the home (and small planet) she recently inherited.

By the time he came to write “Sarkanger” (1991) Sheckley had moved into a more absurdist and satirical mode of writing. The story is a tight little exercise (only six pages long), in which AAA Ace are contracted to exterminate vermin again—but these “vermin” turn out to have reasoned arguments as to why they should not be exterminated. The tone is different, and the action so condensed that Gregor and Arnold are more tools of the plot than characters within it. Of the AAA Ace stories, certainly the one I enjoyed least.

For me, the three stories from 1955 mark the peak of AAA Ace; the three preceding stories are fine things in themselves, but not quite up to the highest standard; and a decline sets in with the last two stories. But there’s no need to take my word for anything—click on a link and see what you think yourself.

Edgar Pangborn: The Darkening World Cycle

Covers of Edgar Pangborn's Darkening World cycle
Click to enlarge

And still I persist in wondering whether folly must always be our nemesis.

Edgar Pangborn, “My Brother Leopold” (1973)

Edgar Pangborn had a great name—not enough people mention that, I feel. He’s the latest author to feature in my intermittent project of rereading classic-but-not-now-famous science-fiction stories from my formative years—the sort of stories that some people recall fondly without recollecting the author’s name, or without knowing that there are more stories set in the same imagined world.

Pangborn was a New Yorker, with a background that included musical training and farming. He wrote in a number of genres—his courtroom drama The Trial Of Callista Blake (1961) and historical novel Wilderness Of Spring (1958) are both out of copyright and available as free downloads from Project Gutenberg, as are his first science fiction novel, West Of The Sun (1953), and three of his early short stories (one of which I’ll return to later).

Here, though, I’m going to write about his Darkening World cycle—three novels and ten short stories, written between 1962 and 1975, set in the aftermath of a near-extinction event for humanity, and spanning seven centuries of “future history”. I’m calling this set of stories a “cycle” because they’re not really a series, in the sense of tracking the stories of a particular set of characters, and they’re not even a sequence, since successive stories do not follow any internal chronological order. But Pangborn quite consciously constructed them as a set of interlinked legends—most overtly in The Judgment of Eve, “The Legend Of Hombas” and “Tiger Boy”. So by analogy with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or the Ring Cycle, I’m going for the Darkening World Cycle.

In Pangborn’s imagined world the Twenty Minute War (a brief nuclear exchange, which goes by different names in different stories) occurs in 1993. Those who survive in rural areas and bomb-shelters begin to rebuild civilization, but are visited by a sequence of devastating plagues. The few who live through that then find that they can bear few healthy children—mutations caused by radiation and disease are common in their offspring.

Within a couple of centuries, the surviving humans inhabit a resource-poor mediaeval world—living in stockaded villages, oppressed by fundamentalist religion and superstition, and hemmed in by rising seas* and encroaching wilderness. All but one of the stories is set in the much-altered landscape of New England and the flooded Hudson River valley (now the Hudson Sea). The area becomes balkanized into tiny warring territories and city states. Over later centuries a renaissance of sorts takes place, aided by access to the few books that have survived a long period of destruction, loss, neglect and religious suppression. But the potential for recovery is limited by the much-depleted natural resources accessible to future humanity.

It’s a feature of Pangborn’s writing that his stories are fundamentally about flawed humans who are trying their best to get by in an uncertain world. The science-fictional setting is  interesting, and provides anchor-points from which to hang his narratives—but some short stories, such as “The Night Wind” and “The Legend Of Hombas”, could have been told without any sort of science-fiction setting at all.

Pangborn’s central characters are often middle-aged men, oppressed in some way, but cynically and wittily observant of the foibles of others, and of themselves. Failing such a character, Pangborn’s own narrative voice often provides a similar viewpoint. Here, for instance, is an observation from “Harper Conan And Singer David”:

Councilman Oren of Donsil remarked, during those first three days when David of Maplestock visited Donsil alone, that when this young man was singing a person dying in agony of a mortal wound or illness would hold off death until the song ended. The Councilman was an honest old fellow not thought to be very imaginative, and since at that time he was suffering an illness that did prove mortal, his words were remembered with a bit of keenness.

And on a lighter note, the narrator of “Mam Sola’s House” makes his views clear when describing a particularly ugly frieze of painted cherubs:

The late husband of the landlady Mam Gebler had paid 300 Penn dollars, pre-Convention value, inciting a journeyman artist to commit those cherubs.

He is also adept at introducing his characters with a few telling words. Here, for instance, he describes Demetrios, the story-teller protagonist of The Company Of Glory:

His gray hair, lightly silvered, fell straight to his shoulders. He was sixty, not old but seasoned, like his walnut stick, like a wine held long enough in the cask to have ripened in a way that might not suit everyone.

And here are two men encountered in the wilderness, in The Judgment Of Eve:

[…] the boy’s face had the sweet-sickly, poisonous quality of one who found pleasure in cruelty and boredom in everything else. The black-bearded man’s voice was strong but with the suggestion of a whine, as though he were carrying on some unappeasable quarrel with himself […]

Pangborn loves words and lightly turned phrases, and enjoys gathering them together into sharp little observations. Sometimes he seems to relish this almost too much, which has irritated some of his readers (but delighted many others). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction even goes so far as to accuse him of “not infrequent descents into uneasy bombast”, which seems harsh—Pangborn’s bombast is never uneasy, and usually entertaining.

He also seems to enjoy complicated narrative structures, which appear in all three novels. I first encountered Pangborn’s writing in his last novel, The Company Of Glory, and was delighted by the audacity with which the narrator simply leaned into the story from time to time to inject a little personal note. Here, for instance, we receive an update on a minor character whose contribution to the story has just ended:

—Here I who wrote this book must intrude an instant—no more than an instant I promise you and then I’m gone, out of sight—to say that this woman is no fiction (O stars in daytime, what is fiction?)—indeed, I stayed a day or two at her house on my last return to Nuber, and wasn’t she full of peace and quiet and pregnant again, wouldn’t you know it? Real, yes, but sensitive, does not wish her name to be used. Now I’m gone—

The Judgment Of Eve has an omniscient narrator who nevertheless seems to be a future historian, who intrudes from time to time to discuss the sources on which his narrative is based. He is snarkily dismissive of the work of other historians, but coy about how he could possibly have come to know the intimate thoughts of his protagonists.

And Davy takes the form of a Bildungsroman, with the eponymous character as narrator. But the 35-year-old Davy who is telling us the story of his formative years is distractable, intruding from time to time to relay the circumstances under which he is writing. And his friends, acting as proof-readers, also add their own views in occasional footnotes.

There are recurring themes throughout the stories. At a physical level, almost all the narratives at least make reference to “brown tigers” roaming the wilderness; sometimes (as in “Tiger Boy” and Davy) they have a major role to play. These, we are told, are Manchurian tigers descended from a pair released from the Chicago Zoo at the time of the Twenty Minute War—but they are clearly symbolic of the resurgent wilderness that threatens humanity, simultaneously alluring and deadly. A primitive clay idol also appears in several stories, to the fascination of the characters who handle it. Here, it’s described in “The World Is A Sphere”:

[…] a crude two-faced image of blackened stonelike substance, probably clay, male on one side, female on the other, which surely belonged to some period earlier than the Age of Sorcerers, although the mere notion was heresy.

It always seems to be associated with acts of transgression or subversion, though its specific significance eludes me.

Also, at a philosophically level, Pangborn returns again and again to certain themes. Firstly, to the power of music—building on his own background, he writes movingly about his characters’ relationships with musical instruments. He also comes back repeatedly to themes of religious intolerance and oppression, using his fictional Abramite religion as a stand-in that nevertheless bears a remarkable resemblance to Christianity. And finally, there’s love. Pangborn’s characters strive to love each other, despite their flaws, and struggle to suppress jealousy. Polyamorous relationships are common. Homosexuality is treated as entirely unexceptional—common enough in today’s writing, but it’s remarkable to see the topic treated without any kind of fuss or fanfare in the 1970s.

So why did I decide to reread Pangborn? I enjoy his use of language, I enjoy his sly humour, I enjoy his elaborate and eccentric narrative style. There’s a deep human warmth to his stories, although often suffused with melancholia. And then there’s the game of working out the geography of his future world. Pangborn’s place-names are often distorted versions of present-day locations, so there’s a puzzle involving words and maps that I find irresistible (as you might well have guessed, if you’ve visited this blog regularly).

If you like plots with heroes and villains and problem-solving and no loose ends, then Pangborn is not for you. Stuff happens in his stories, characters share their thoughts, Pangborn makes his weary, gentle points … and then the story finishes, often with a sort of half-grasped potentiality rather than a dénouement. Of the novels, I rate The Company Of Glory most highly, for its interesting characters and satisfying trajectory. The Judgment Of Eve is fascinating, with a semi-mythic construction, irascible narrator and knowing nods to Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm, but it does feel a little stilted compared to his other works. And Davy, though perhaps Pangborn’s most popular novel, only works for me about 75% of the time—there’s some splendid dialogue and humour, but the picaresque Davy and his homespun wisdom could sometimes do with a bit of a slap, in my opinion. And Pangborn also stumbles unpleasantly with Davy’s jack-the-lad attitude to sex, which is precisely the opposite of endearing.

You can pick up second-hand physical copies of all the novels fairly cheaply. The Company Of Glory is available as an e-book from Gollancz’s increasingly impressive Gateway collection; they also distributes a Pangborn omnibus that includes Davy.

The Darkening World short stories were distributed across numerous science fiction anthologies, most notably some of the early Universe collections by Terry Carr, and Roger Elwood’s Continuum series. Seven of them were collected and prepared for publication by Pangborn shortly before he died, and published in a posthumous collection entitled Still I Persist In Wondering, with an insightful and moving foreword by Spider Robinson. (The title refers to the quotation with which I opened this post.) This one is also available as an e-book from Gateway, which offers the immense advantage that you will never have to look at the truly hellish cover illustration of the original paperback. (Even in the seventies, a decade renowned for its hellish covers, Dell really pushed the hellish-cover boat out on that one.)

The three omitted Darkening World stories are “The World Is A Sphere”, which is the only story set outside Pangborn’s core territory around the Hudson valley, and two light and humorous pieces, “Mam Sola’s House” and “The Freshman Angle”, which do not sit well with the tone of the other works. (They also try just a bit too hard with their arch polysyllabic wit, in my opinion—a little of that stuff goes a long way.) The Internet Speculative Fiction Database provides a useful Darkening World bibliography and publication history for those trying to track down copies of these outlying stories.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Pangborn’s short story “The Music Master Of Babylon” is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. It predates the Darkening World stories by nearly a decade, and is not set in quite the same world, but it prefigures many of the ideas that Pangborn would work out more thoroughly in the Darkening World. If that story appeals, then I’d suggest finding a copy of The Company Of Glory, and taking it from there.

Here’s a full list of the stories in order of their internal chronology, with elapsed years since the Twenty Minute War in brackets:

The Judgment of Eve (26)
Three men arrive at an isolated farmhouse, inhabited by a young woman (Eve), her blind mother, and a young man with learning difficulties. All the men fall in love with Eve in a single night, and Eve sets them a task to complete in order to prove their worthiness.

“The Children’s Crusade” (30)
The Prophet Abraham leads a group of children on a hazardous journey, ending in martyrdom.

The Company Of Glory (47)
Driven out of their home town by religious persecution, an ill-assorted group heads westwards into the unknown.

“The Legend Of Hombas” (~100-200)
A tribal elder encounters a blind bear that he believes to be the embodiment of Death.

“Harper Conan And Singer David” (>200)
A blind harper and a singer go in search of a cure for blindness, visiting a group who are striving to recover lost medical knowledge.

“The Witches Of Nupal” (266)
An ecclesiastic recalls his teenage years, when a make-believe witches’ coven turns into something nasty.

“The Night Wind” (~300?)
A young man, running away from his village, encounters a bed-bound woman in an isolated cottage.

“The World Is A Sphere” (chronology difficult—~300??)
A government official in the empire of Misipa buys an artefact dating from before the Twenty Minute War—a globe of the Earth, which contradicts the official teaching that the Earth is flat.

Davy (317-339)
Thirty-five-year-old Davy looks back on his teenage years spent roaming both sides of the Hudson Sea, first as a runaway and then as a member of a group of travelling entertainers, and explains how he now comes to be sailing into exile in the Azores.

“My Brother Leopold” (427-465)
The story of a man burned at the stake for heresy, only to be later beatified as a saint.

“Tiger Boy” (488)
A mythic story about a mute poet who encounters a boy who roams the forest in the company of a tiger.

“Mam Sola’s House” (635)
Two academics and a carpenter try to settle a bet in a brothel. (Pangborn has something of a thing about cheerful and fulfilled prostitutes—this is the most egregious example.)

“The Freshman Angle” (713)
A freshman student attempts to write a history of the 20th Century in 2000 words.

* Pangborn, writing in the early 1960s, was already worrying about the ice-caps melting.
The novel Davy was assembled from two novelettes, “The Golden Horn” and “A War Of No Consequence”, both previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1962, marking the genesis of Darkening World.
Continuum was a nice idea that never took off. Elwood recruited eight science fiction authors who each undertook to write four linked stories to appear in four Continuum volumes. Patrick Woodroffe produced a series of covers featuring characters from the stories, which linked together into a sort of frieze if the books were placed side by side.

Relativistic Ringworlds

Cover of Xeelee Redemption by Stephen BaxterNo matter how many times he considered it, Jophiel shivered with awe. It was obviously an artefact, a made thing two light years in diameter. A ring around a supermassive black hole.

Stephen Baxter, Xeelee: Redemption (2018)


I’ve written about rotating space habitats in the past, and I’ve written about relativistic starships, so I guess it was almost inevitable I’d end up writing about the effect of relativity on space habitats that rotate really, really rapidly.

What inspired this post was my recent reading of Stephen Baxter’s novel Xeelee: Redemption. I’ve written about Baxter before—he specializes in huge vistas of space and time, exotic physics, and giant mysterious alien artefacts. This novel is part of his increasingly complicated Xeelee sequence, which I won’t even attempt to summarize for you. What intrigued me on this occasion was Baxter’s invocation of a relativistic ringworld, briefly described in the quotation above.

Ringworlds are science fiction’s big rotating space habitats, originally proposed by Larry Niven in his novel Ringworld (1970). Instead of spinning a structure a few tens of metres in diameter to produce centrifugal gravity, like the space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Niven imagined one that circled a star, with a radius comparable to Earth’s distance from the sun. Spin one of those so that it rotates once every nine days or so, and you have Earthlike centrifugal gravity on its inner, sun-facing surface.

If we stipulate that we want one Earth gravity (henceforth, 1g), then there are simple scaling laws to these things—the bigger they are, the longer it takes for them to rotate, but the faster the structure moves. The 11-metre diameter centrifuge in 2001: A Space Odyssey would have needed to rotate 13 times a minute, with a rim speed of 7m/s, to generate 1g.

Estimates vary for the “real” size of the space station in the same movie, but if we take the diameter of “300 yards” from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, it would need to rotate once every 23.5 seconds, with a rim speed of 37m/s.

Space Station V from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Niven’s Ringworld takes nine days to revolve, but has a rim speed of over a 1000 kilometres per second.

Image by Hill, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

You get the picture. For any given level of centrifugal gravity, the rotation period and the rotation speed both vary with the square root of the radius.

So what Baxter noticed is that if you make a ringworld with a radius of one light-year, and rotate it with a rim speed equal to the speed of light, it will produce a radial acceleration of 1g.* In a sense, he pushed the ringworld concept to its extreme conclusion, since nothing can move faster than light. Indeed, nothing can move at the speed of light—so Baxter’s ring is just a hair slower. By my estimate, from figures given in the novel, the lowest “deck” of his complicated ringworld is moving at 99.999999999998% of light speed (that’s thirteen nines).

And this truly fabulous velocity is to a large extent the point. Clocks moving at close to the speed of light run slow, when checked by a stationary observer. This effect becomes more extreme with increasing velocity. The usual symbol for velocity when given as a fraction of the speed of light is β (beta), and from beta we can calculate the time dilation factor γ (gamma):

Formula for relativistic gamma

Here’s a graph of how gamma behaves with increasing beta—it hangs about very close to one for a long time, and then starts to rocket towards infinity as velocity approaches lightspeed (beta approaches one).

Relationship between relativistic beta and gamma
Click to enlarge

Plugging the mad velocity I derived above into this equation, we find that anyone inhabiting the lowest deck of Baxter’s giant alien ringworld would experience time dilation by a factor of five million—for every year spent in this extreme habitat, five million years would elapse in the outside world. This ability to “time travel into the far future” is a key plot element.

But there’s a problem. Quite a big one, actually.

The quantity gamma has wide relevance to relativistic transformations (even though I managed to write four posts about relativistic optics without mentioning it). As I’ve already said, it appears in the context of time dilation, but it is also the conversion factor for that other well-known relativistic transformation, length contraction. Objects moving at close to the speed of light are shortened (in the direction of travel) when measured by an observer at rest. A moving metre stick, aligned with its direction of flight, will measure only 1/γ metres to a stationary observer. Baxter also incorporates this into his story, telling us that the inhabitants of his relativistic ringworld measure its circumference to be much greater than what’s apparent to an outside observer.

So far so good. But acceleration is also affected by gamma, for fairly obvious reasons. It’s measured in metres per second squared, and those metres and seconds are subject to length contraction and time dilation. An acceleration in the line of flight (for instance, a relativistic rocket boosting to even higher velocity) will take place using shorter metres and longer seconds, according to an unaccelerated observer nearby. So there is a transformation involving gamma cubed, between the moving and stationary reference frames, with the stationary observer always measuring lower acceleration than the moving observer. A rocket accelerating at a steady 1g (according to those aboard) will accelerate less and less as it approaches lightspeed, according to outside observers. The acceleration in the stationary reference frame decays steadily towards zero, the faster the rocket moves—which is why you can’t ever reach the speed of light simply by using a big rocket for a long time.

That’s not relevant to Baxter’s ringworld, which is spinning at constant speed. But the centripetal acceleration, experienced by those aboard the ringworld as “centrifugal gravity”, also undergoes a conversion between the moving and stationary reference frames. Because this acceleration is always transverse to the direction of movement of the ringworld “floor” at any given moment, it’s unaffected by length contraction, which only happens in the direction of movement. But things that occurs in one second of external time will occur in less than a second of time-dilated ringworld time—the ringworld inhabitants will experience an acceleration greater than that observed from outside, by a factor of gamma squared.

So the 1g centripetal acceleration required in order to keep something moving in a circle at close to lightspeed would be crushingly greater for anyone actually moving around that circle. In Baxter’s extreme case, with a gamma of five million, his “1g” habitat would experience 25 trillion gravities. Which is quite a lot.

To get the time-travel advantage of γ=5,000,000 without being catastrophically crushed to a monomolecular layer of goo, we need to make the relativistic ringworld a lot bigger. For a 1g internal environment, it needs to rotate to generate only one 25-trillionth of a gravity as measured by a stationary external observer. Keeping the floor velocity the same (to keep gamma the same), that means it has to be 25 trillion times bigger. Which is a radius of 25 trillion light-years, or 500 times the size of the observable Universe.

Even by Baxter’s standards, that would be … ambitious.

* This neat correspondence between light-years, light speed and one Earth gravity is a remarkable coincidence, born of the fact that a year is approximately 30,000,000 seconds, light moves at approximately 300,000,000 metres per second, and the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity is about 10 metres per second squared. Divide light-speed by the length of Earth’s year, and you have Earth’s gravity; the units match. This correspondence was a significant plot element in T.J. Bass’s excellent novel Half Past Human (1971).

Baxter’s novel is full of plot homages to Niven’s original Ringworld, including a giant mountain with a surprise at the top.

As Baxter also notes, this mismatch between the radius and circumference of a rapidly rotating object generates a fruitful problem in relativity called the Ehrenfest Paradox.

Rebekah Higgitt (Ed.): Maskelyne

Cover of Maskelyne, Rebekah Higgitt

[D]espite Maskelyne being portrayed in popular literature as a self-seeking academic astronomer with a less-than-personable style, the stories of his interaction with the Nautical Almanac [human] computers reveals that he went to some lengths to provide stop-gap employment to mathematically inclined people, as well as providing long-term stable employment for those with families to support. However, as David Kinnebrook’s story and that of other Royal Observatory assistants show, Maskelyne was a hard taskmaster who did not suffer those he considered fools gladly.

Mary Croarken, “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers” in Maskelyne (2014)

I’ve mentioned Rebekah Higgitt here before, when I reviewed Finding Longitude (2014), a book she co-authored with Richard Dunn. In that review, I described Finding Longitude as a sort of antidote to the historical distortions of Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995).*

Higgitt is the editor of this essay collection, Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal, which, among other things, serves to correct Sobel’s depiction of Nevil Maskelyne as nothing more than a self-serving, privileged, academic villain, bent on thwarting her put-upon working-class hero, clockmaker John Harrison.

The collection consists of eight essays, by eight authors, illustrating aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times, interleaved with an introduction and seven “case studies” by Higgitt. I’m not sure what makes them “case studies”, since they’re essentially another seven essays dealing with another seven aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times.

Higgitt’s introduction provides a brief biography—an early interest in mathematics; a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge; membership of the Royal Society; an expedition to the island of St Helena to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, during which voyage he carried out early tests on the “lunar distance” method of finding longitude; and election to the post of Astronomer Royal, which he held for more than four decades.

The first chapter, written by Higgitt, is entitled “Revisiting And Revising Maskelyne’s Reputation”, in which she sets out the source material that’s available to allow us to make a rounded judgement of Maskelyne’s character and contributions to science in general and the “Longitude Problem” in particular. She also tracks down the origin of Sobel’s peculiarly one-dimensional take on Maskelyne—a 1993 Harvard conference marking the tercentenary of John Harrison’s birth, which Sobel attended as a science journalist. Held to honour a clock-maker, this was primarily a horologist’s conference, and its content reflected that particular focus. The book of conference papers, The Quest For Longitude (1996), therefore contained little information about the astronomical methods of finding longitude (in which Maskelyne was expert), and portrayed Maskelyne largely as an impediment to the adoption of chronometers as a means of finding longitude. (I’ve dealt with the “Longitude Problem” and Maskelyne’s troubled relationship with Harrison in my review of Higgitt’s Finding Longitude, so I’ll refer you to that if you want more detail.)

In the next chapter, Jim Bennett gives a biography of Maskelyne’s one-time associate Robert Waddington, giving an insight into the career opportunities available to someone of mathematical bent at that time. Nicky Reeves’s “Maskelyne The Manager” lets us see how Maskelyne was instrumental in establishing the Greenwich Observatory’s national and international reputation—introducing a routine of testing and maintaining its instruments, and ensuring that the data the Observatory produced were made publicly available. (Previous Astronomers Royal had tended to look on their data as private property.) This segues nicely into Mary Croarken’s “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers”, which deals with the huge coordinated effort Maskelyne organized to allow the timely production of the Nautical Almanac. Using teams of “computers” to calculate the position of the moon years in advance (and to cross-check each other’s results), Maskelyne was able to publish tables that allowed mariners to find their longitude using astronomical observations and about half-an-hour of calculation. From his correspondence, it’s also evident that Maskelyne was genuinely solicitous of the welfare of his team of computers.

Rory McEvoy then provides a chapter dealing with Maskelyne’s relationship with clocks—indispensable instruments for astronomical observation, for which Maskelyne seems to have had great respect, but a certain cluelessness about their appropriate care and maintenance. This combination was probably at the root of his problems with horologists seeking the Longitude Prize—he understood better than the clock-makers what was needed to make a timekeeping device into a useful navigational aid, but he wasn’t very good at looking after exceedingly delicate devices left in his care. So while he manage to incur the undying enmity of John Harrison, we also see Maskelyne championing the more robust and reliable marine chronometers later produced by Thomas Earnshaw.

Alexi Baker describes how Maskelyne steered the Board of Longitude on to a more professional footing; Caitlin Homes deals with the tempestuous relationship between Maskelyne and the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks; and Amy Miller sifts through Maskelyne’s personal records to provide an insight into his home life with his wife and daughter.

Higgitt’s interspersed “case studies” deal with the nature of science and astronomy in Maskelyne’s time; the interdependent roles of the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society and the skilled instrument-makers who sought their patronage; and the artefacts relating to Maskelyne and his family which have been preserved at the Greenwich museums. So a lot of ground is covered—the only significant omission, from my point of view, is any account of Maskelyne’s 1774 gravitational experiments on the mountain Schiehallion, in Scotland.

The whole book is illustrated with relevant images of documents, instruments and paintings. Although it’s necessarily an episodic presentation, with some repetition between chapters, it adds up to a useful survey of Maskelyne’s important role in the advancement of science, particularly the science of navigation. His correspondence shows him to have been both conscientious and kind. He carried out his own very significant work on the Longitude Problem as a public service, without seeking reward, and seems to have borne the occasional enmity of horologists with quiet forbearance.

The brief uncredited coda to the book, summing up his legacy, takes its title from the text of Maskelyne’s memorial tablet: “A Life Well Lived”.

* See, for instance, Davida Charney’s critique of Sobel’s book in her article, “Lone Geniuses in Popular Science” (210KB pdf).

Three Books About The Franklin Expedition

Covers of three books about the Franklin ExpeditionThe riddle of the last Franklin expedition has all of the elements required to elicit and maintain widespread interest—struggle, shipwreck, murder, massacre, cannibalism and controversy. The story of the lost expedition has become a magnet for speculative historians, a mystery that far outstrips the contrived unfolding of fiction, and an inviting field for those who search for the elusive key, the unnoticed coincidence, or the overlooked connection which solves the problem and illuminates the truth.

David C. Woodman Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015)


Reading Michael Palin’s Erebus (which I reviewed here) inspired me to do a little more reading around the topic of Franklin’s lost expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. These are the three, very different, books I’ve been reading lately.

Gillian Hutchinson’s Sir John Franklin’s Erebus And Terror Expedition (2017) is subtitled Lost And Found—signalling that it was published in the aftermath of the discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks. It is published on behalf of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and is copiously illustrated with maps, drawings, paintings, and photographs of Erebus and Terror artefacts from their collection, making it the most visually pleasing of these three books. With the exception, that is, of the cover. I have previously complained about the erroneous sail plan of the ship depicted on the cover of Michael Palin’s book, Erebus, and there’s a similar problem here. The cover of this one reproduces Musin’s 1846 painting H.M.S. Erebus In The Ice, in which the artist mistakenly equipped the barque-rigged Erebus with a square mizzen topsail. Indeed, this painting may be the source of the erroneous ship depiction on Palin’s book, which not only has a square mizzen topsail but an erroneous spritsail—the jib sail sagging over the bowsprit in Musin’s painting could easily be mistaken for a spritsail. And, as with Palin, Musin’s Erebus seems to be recklessly battering under full sail into a narrow channel between jagged icebergs.

But, moving on from my personal grievances … this is a fairly short book, with its many well-reproduced illustrations occupying almost as much space as the text. Initial chapters introduce the background—the nature of the Northwest Passage; the biography of Sir John Franklin and his officers, and what’s known of his crew; the design of his two ships, Erebus and Terror. The use of contemporary maps is a great help when it comes to understanding why particular potential routes through the Arctic archipelago were chosen, and how a succession of expeditions by land and sea were slowly building a coherent cartography of the area—with Franklin and his men disappearing into one of the final blank spots.

There’s also a vivid description of what life would have been like aboard ship, including the following gem:

The quantity of tobacco taken on the voyage was almost double that of soap, which may give an idea of the atmosphere below deck […]

The second half of the book deals with the various expeditions sent in Franklin’s wake—at first with the intention of mounting a rescue; latterly to discover the fate of men who were presumed dead. Over the course of years, remains and artefacts were found scattered all around the shore of King William Island and the Adelaide Peninsula. A reproduction of  Gould’s 1927 chart of find-sites is particularly useful in getting one’s head around the complexities of the evidence. And at this point I was struck by the ingenuity of the rescuers’ attempts to communicate with the lost expedition—Arctic foxes trapped and then released wearing message collars; hydrogen balloons launched into the prevailing wind, carrying slow-burning fuses that dropped message capsules one by one.

The story is brought up to date with a chapter dealing with the recent discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks, and the book closes with a short list of “answers and questions”—what do we now know about the fate of Franklin’s expedition, and what puzzles remain?

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the story (and mystery) of Franklin’s lost expedition.

William Battersby was a Franklin researcher, who has previously tracked down the most likely source of the high lead levels found in the bodies of Franklin expedition sailors—you can take a look at his analysis here (350KB pdf).

His book James Fitzjames (2010) is a biography of Captain Fitzjames of the Erebus who, along with Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror, led the doomed escape attempt towards Back’s Great Fish River. The subtitle The Mystery Man Of The Franklin Expedition refers to the difficulty previous researchers have encountered in tracing records of Fitzjames’s birth, upbringing and early career—indeed, Fitzjames seems to have worked hard both to conceal the details of his birth and to obfuscate some of his early history with the Royal Navy. Battersby, digging through naval records and private correspondence, finally managed to tease out the truth. Fitzjames was the illegitimate son of the diplomat Sir James Gambier, who lived from 1772 to 1844, and is not to be confused with two slightly more famous James Gambiers (his father and his cousin) who served in the Royal Navy. (At that time, sons born out of wedlock were frequently given a surname formed from “Fitz-” and the father’s given name.) The identify of Fitzjames’s mother is unknown; he was raised in the family of the Reverend Robert Coningham, whom he addressed as “uncle”. Coningham’s son, William, was a lifelong friend of Fitzjames’s.

Fitzjames was determined to enter the Royal Navy, and his connection to the Gambier family (which seems to have been something of an open secret among naval captains of the time) got him an “in”—in 1825, at the age of 12, he was entered on to the books of HMS Pyramus as a Volunteer Second Class, serving under Captain Robert Gambier. His subsequent trajectory through the midshipman grade was complicated, and Fitzjames actually managed to pass his lieutenant’s examinations without having served the necessary time in approved posts—the reason he felt the need to slightly tweak his CV in later life.

But Fitzjames seems to have been almost an ideal navy man of the era—competent and energetic, given to saving the lives of drowning men, fluent in several languages and engaged with the technology of the day. Battersby follows him through his association with Chesney’s rather madcap Euphrates Expedition (from which Fitzjames emerged with more credit than Chesney), and the Anglo-Chinese Opium War.

Fitzjames then gained amazingly rapid promotion to Captain, apparently as a result of the patronage of Sir John Barrow, the hugely influential Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Battersby’s other great research coup is to have worked out why Fitzjames was so favoured by Barrow—details are hazy, and only hinted at in Fitzjames’s letters, but he appears to have helped Barrow’s son George out of some sort of potentially scandalous problem.

And it was Barrow’s patronage that led to Fitzjames’s fatal placement with the Franklin expedition, though Barrow would die before he could know that he’d signed Fitzjames’s death warrant rather than done him a career-advancing favour.

So this one isn’t so much about the Franklin Expedition—but Fitzjames’s story gives a vivid insight into the geopolitical situation that led Britain and its Royal Navy to embark on that Arctic adventure, and into the sort of plucky and capable individuals who sought to be a part of it.

David C. Woodman’s Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015) is subtitled Inuit Testimony, but it’s about a great deal more than that—Woodman attempts to weave together the physical evidence and the testimony of Inuit witnesses to produce a coherent narrative of the fate of Franklin’s men after they evacuated their ships and stepped ashore on King William Island. Although this is the second edition of a book originally published in 1991, it’s essentially a reprint with a new preface by the author, taking into account the discovery of the Erebus wreck in 2014, but obviously written in ignorance of the nature of the Terror wreck, discovered in 2016.

Woodman sets the scene using the reports of previous explorers in the area. Here is James Ross’s chilling description of the crushing power of the ice in the strait where Franklin’s ships were later beset:

[…] the lighter floes had been thrown up, on some parts of the coast, in a most extraordinary manner; turning up large quantities of the shingle before them, and, in some places, having travelled as much as half a mile beyond the limits of the highest tide mark.

Woodman then deals with the reliability of Inuit testimony, using their reports of known historical circumstances (for instance, their memories of Martin Frobisher’s activities in the Canadian Arctic) to illustrate how accurate such testimony can be. He also discusses the confused stories of the Greenlandic Inuit interpreter, Adam Beck, who has long been branded a liar—Woodman believes he has tracked down the second-hand stories about other expeditions which Beck had mistakenly woven together and recounted in the honest belief they related to the Franklin expedition. There are other difficulties, which Woodman summarizes adeptly—the earliest interviews with Inuit witnesses were carried out by men who knew little Inuktitut, using interpreters who knew little English; direct translation of some Inuit vocabulary, such as “mainland”, is problematic; Inuit people used multiple names during their lives, which were spelled in different ways by contemporary transcribers; Inuit renderings of British names sometimes bore little resemblance to the originals; and the Inuit often assigned their own names to British sailors, which were reused for multiple people.

Woodman now proceeds on two assumptions—firstly, that the Inuit testimony is true, unless there is evident reason for a mistake or prevarication; secondly, that Crozier’s men were not mad or stupid, and narratives that depend on madness or stupidity are likely to be mistaken narratives.

It’s a difficult read, at two levels—firstly, because so many people and places have so many different names, while some names apply to multiple people and places; secondly, because the narrative that emerges from Woodman’s research is even grimmer than the “standard reading” of the Franklin story. Instead of a the single escape attempt recorded in Crozier and Fitzjames’s famous Victory Point note, Woodman makes a case for some survivors returning to and reoccupying the ships. One ship, which we now know to be the Erebus, drifted or was sailed south with a few survivors on board, before sinking off the Adelaide Peninsula. Other survivors seem to have scattered across King William Island, some resorting to cannibalism. There are tantalizing hints of clues yet to be found—Inuit reports of papers being buried ashore under something that sounds like cement, and of a small group of survivors encountered a long way farther south than currently known traces would suggest.

It’s a shame that this reissue predates the discovery of the Terror wreck. In contrast to the Erebus, the situation of the Terror seems to differ from Inuit reports—it sits upright and apparently intact close in-shore, rather than being crushed and lying on its side in the open channel. But its location in Terror Bay opens up a whole new layer of possible interpretations for the survivors’ camp found on the shore of that bay. So I hope we see a new edition of this one once the two wrecks have been properly explored. In the meantime, you can read Woodman’s initial response to the Terror discovery here.

Of the three, I recommend Hutchinson’s book for those who would like an introduction, Battersby’s for background, and Woodman’s for detailed discussion.

Colin Kapp: The Unorthodox Engineers

Covers of anthologies containing Unorthodox Engineers stories

“In my youth I thought I was the world’s worst crackpot screwball. The I met up with you and found that, in comparison, I was merely a sane, sensible, hard-working engineer. I never got over the disappointment of that realization. […]

Colin Kapp, “The Railways Up On Cannis” (1959)

If you were a teenage science-fiction fan growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, reliant on the public library system for your regular fix of science fiction, the chances are that you’ve read, and vaguely remember, at least one Colin Kapp story about the Unorthodox Engineers.

Kapp’s stories were regularly anthologized, and public libraries (at least in my part of the world) seemed to put science fiction anthologies on their shelves fairly frequently. The stories were also distinguished by being fun, and genuinely funny, in a genre that often lacks these attributes. It put them in the same memorable category as Robert Sheckley’s “AAA Ace” series, or Frederic Brown’s “Placet Is A Crazy Place“.

Colin Kapp was a British electronic engineer who wrote science fiction novels and short stories between 1958 and 1986. He shares the distinction with Brian Lecomber (whose novels I have reviewed here) of being frequently credited with a “ghost title”—in Kapp’s case, a novel entitled The Timewinders which seems never to have existed. Kapp was never a major player in the science fiction field—his novels were patchy affairs and are now much dated. He is remembered, if at all, for his short fiction—particularly “Lambda I” (1962), “Hunger Over Sweet Waters” (1965), “The Cloudbuilders” (1968), and his five Unorthodox Engineers stories.

Tales of the Unorthodox Engineers appeared sporadically over a span of almost two decades. All five stories were eventually brought together in a compendium edition imaginatively entitled The Unorthodox Engineers (1979). Physical copies of that book now change hands for fairly hefty prices, but an e-book version is available from Gollancz’s Gateway Essentials. A more recent collection is The Cloudbuilders And Other Marvels (2013), in which the Unorthodox Engineers stories are bundled with three others.

The first story to be published was “The Railways Up On Cannis”, in the UK edition of New Worlds magazine in October 1959. (The US edition carried the story in May the next year.) It was anthologized in The Best Of New Worlds (1965). In this story we meet the main characters—Lieutenant Fritz Van Noon, the senior officer of the army’s “U.E. squad”; his second-in-command, Jacko Hine; his boss, Colonel Belling; and the unfortunate Colonel Nash, who disapproves of Van Noon and his Unorthodox Engineers, but who recurrently has to call upon them for help. The Unorthodox Engineers are called upon to repair the railway system on the planet Cannis after it has been extensively damaged in a recent war with Earth. Typically for Kapp, there are layers of problems—the odd botched-together nature of the original railway system, the absence of local steel, and a recurring problem with volcanoes. (Thin-crusted Cannis is bedevilled by the frequent, random appearance and eruption of small volcanoes, all across its surface.) Van Noon comes up with a lateral-thinking solution, not only delivering the repairs Nash requires of him, but protecting the railway from future volcanic eruption. Nash, however, is outraged at Van Noon’s disregard for the chain of command, and the fact that the Unorthodox Engineers’ “quartermaster” is actually a master thief, who has informally requisitioned a large amount of army property. At the end of the story we (and the fuming Nash) learn why the Unorthodox Engineers are effectively autonomous within the army command system, and why even their criminal quartermaster is untouchable.

Kapp continued the railway theme in “The Subways Of Tazoo” (1964) which, like all subsequent Unorthodox Engineers stories, went directly to anthology in the form of John Carnell’s New Writings in SF series. Van Noon and his team are called in by a reluctant Nash to revive a two-million-year-old abandoned alien subway system—the only way of getting around the planet of Tazoo while avoiding its singularly hellish surface weather. The U.E. squad are faced with restoring a technology they can neither understand nor properly recognize:

“That,” he asked finally, “is a train?”
“It can’t be anything else,” said Fritz, not very happily. “It doesn’t appear to be a signal box and there’s not much point in having a wrought-iron summer house this far underground. It appears to be the right shape to fit the tunnel, so it’s probably either a highly ornate tunnelling machine or else it’s a train.”

The Unorthodox Engineers not only render the subway operational, but manage to deduce why its builders died out.

“The Pen And The Dark” (1966) is the one I remember most clearly from first reading. Van Noon and his squad are presented, not with an engineering problem, but with a violation of the laws of physics, in the form of a huge alien artefact on the surface of the planet Ithica [sic]. A black cylinder seven kilometres across and thirty kilometres high (“the Dark”), seems to absorb all energy, up to and including nuclear weapons, directed against it. Surrounding it is a penumbra (“the Pen”) nine kilometres deep in which all energetic processes are progressively damped as one penetrates towards the Dark—light sources fade, kinetic energy decays, and there appears to be a phenomenon of “radiant cold” that sucks the heat out of warm objects (like people). Kapp’s loving description of an expedition into the Pen is what sticks in memory, as does Van Noon’s low-tech way of penetrating into the Dark itself. The ending is unsatisfactory, however—one has the distinct impression Kapp came up with an irresistible fun problem for his characters, but couldn’t see his way to a good dénouement.

In “Getaway From Getawehi” (1969), Kapp reached his pinnacle, I think—the interplay between Van Noon and Hine is well done, the one entirely insouciant in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation, the other reduced to a sort of seething fury at the Universe. Van Noon and Hine are sent to the planet of Getawehi to rescue a group of engineers stranded on its surface. Getawehi has a whole suite of strange characteristics—gravity that varies in intensity and direction over the course of minutes, mountains that glow in the dark, rocks in the desert that are at different voltages, and able to deliver dangerously massive current when connected to each other. And then there’s the small matter that, in the vicinity of Getawehi, one plus one doesn’t equal two. Hine demonstrates this by cutting a metre-long girder in half, then welding it back together again to produce a girder only point seven eight metres long.

“But I still don’t see how you can reconcile it with the law of conservation of matter,” said Jacko.
“Where do you keep the alcohol?” asked Fritz Van Noon.

Van Noon, of course, resolves all problems, and also invents a transport system powered by the variable gravity.

Finally, there was “The Black Hole Of Negrav” (1975). By the start of this story, Van Noon has earned the respect of Colonel (now General) Nash, who calls him in to set up a base on the equator of the asteroid Negrav. Unfortunately, Negrav (a monolithic lump of nickel-iron) spins fast enough on its axis that centrifugal force overwhelms gravity at the equator, producing a net outward acceleration. And Negrav also hosts a mini black hole in a precessing orbit a few centimetres above its surface (mini black holes were a hot science fiction topic back in the early ’70s). Nowhere in the equatorial region is safe from the destructive passage of the black hole, which has reduced Negrav to a sphere of mirror brightness.

Van Noon, for once, gets things wrong—but the failure turns out to be a success more complete than what he’d been aiming for, so all is well.

And Kapp wrote no more stories of the Unorthodox Engineers, despite their popularity at the time. The physics, as you’ll no doubt have noted, was pure handwavium—Kapp, like James Blish, adopted the technique of keeping moving very quickly while emitting a cloud of superficially plausible words. The pleasure, which is still there on re-reading, is in watching Kapp drop his characters into an utterly ridiculous situation, which they treat with full seriousness.



Lane Greene: Talk On The Wild Side

Cover of Talk On The Wild Side by Lane GreeneIt is perfectly possible to reconcile strong opinions on individual points of grammar and usage—including dislike of a particular usage, or fear that a change to the language might introduce confusion—with a belief that the language on the whole is built to adapt, to minimise confusion.

What do you think of that cover? I’d read the whole book before I realized that all those letters made up the face of a cat. Probably that’s just me, though.

Lane Greene is an American journalist who writes the Johnson column on the topic of language for The Economist. This is his second book about language—the first was You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity (2011). That dealt with language as a political tool—about how people use language to differentiate “us” from “them” (and how governments can use minority-language suppression to force “them” to be more like “us”). This book, Talk On The Wild Side (2018), is subtitled The Untameable Nature of Language. It covers some of the same ground (there’s a big section on identity politics and minority languages), but deals mainly with how languages, like species and ecosystems, evolve and adapt. Greene’s point is that it’s foolish to imagine we can stop that process, and also that we shouldn’t worry about it—all those young folk with their annoyingly repurposed words and their disregard for the good old rules of grammar aren’t going to break the language, because no language in the history of the world has ever been broken by its speakers. The meaning of words will slowly evolve, but we’ll never end up without a word for an important concept, and we’ll always adjust the way we speak to avoid ambiguity. And if the old rules of grammar aren’t being applied, that doesn’t mean there’s no grammar—simply that new grammar has replaced the old.

In particular, Greene wants to convince us that we should ignore the self-righteous posturings of the Grammar Police. He offers several reasons: 1) They are ignorant of real grammar; 2) There is not, and has never been, only One Right Way to say anything; 3) Language will continue to evolve despite efforts to stabilize it; 4) Absolutely nothing bad will happen if you commit the Grammar Crime of ending a sentence with a preposition, or using “which” in a restrictive relative clause—these are just invented notions (and in some cases we can even name the people responsible*).

Greene zeroes in on Nevile Gwynne (author of Gwynne’s Grammar) as a particular focus for his counter-arguments. Gwynne is a useful illustrative target—he’s high profile (at least, within the severely limited demographic of those interested in grammar), and he peddles all the well-loved but baseless old nonsense about avoiding split infinitives and the singular “they”, always putting possessives before a gerund and using the nominative pronoun in a subject complement. But such is the depth and breadth of Greene’s onslaught against Gwynne, one does get the creeping feeling there might be some history between them:

Gwynne has a reasonable grasp on some elements of traditional grammar, and it’s hard to take issue with his description of proper punctuation. But on nearly every complicated, contested or even interesting point, he gets it wrong, as if he had an unerring instinct for getting it wrong, a compass with a needle that consistently pointed any way but north.

But there’s a lot more to this book than the debunking of fusty old grammar myths. There’s a chapter on invented languages, including Loglan and its successor Lojban—languages constructed on strict logical principles which are puzzling difficult to speak fluently. And another chapter on the problem of teaching computers how to translate between languages—the current (moderate) success of translations software didn’t happen until programmers stopped relying on intricate rule-based systems, and instead started exposing adaptive systems to large amounts of real-world data. The lesson here, Greene suggests, is that natural languages simply aren’t logical constructs, as the Grammar Police would like to believe.

And there’s a fine chapter on how languages change over time—sounds shift, meanings shift, grammar mutates. Greene talks us through the Great Vowel Shift in English, which accounts for why our spelling now so poorly matches our pronunciation. And he deals with the many incarnations of words like buxom and nice, the meanings of which are now a very long way from where they started (“flexible” and “stupid”, respectively). And finally, there’s a fascinating introduction to the theory that the grammatical structures of languages cycle continuously between synthetic and analytic forms. Modern English is largely analytic, relying on placing individual words in a particular order so as to convey meaning; Old English was synthetic, embedding complex meaning in single words by the use of noun cases and verb declensions that have now all but vanished. By gradually eliminating most of the word-endings that did grammatical duty in Old English, we’ve become more reliant on word order in Modern English to tell us (for instance) which noun is the object and which is the subject of a verb.

These changes are slow, and writing has only been around for 5000 years, so we need to look back to the most ancient texts in order to see a language pass through a complete cycle:

Old Egyptian had a complex verb structure with suffixes and prefixes, Late Egyptian lost most of these and uses multi-word phrases instead, and Coptic, Egyptian’s descendant, has developed complex verbs again.

There’s a nice chapter on code-switching—how we all switch registers between conversational and formal usages, all the time, according to our situation and our audience, and another on “framing”—using particular word choices to attempt to influence the mental metaphor a listener will adopt. So arguments are framed as being “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, because no-one wants to think of themselves as “anti-life” or “anti-choice”.

If that all sounds like a gallop through a lot of loosely related topics, that’s because it is. But it’s an entertaining and informative gallop, and at its heart is a cogent argument that we should stop trying to tame language by imposing spurious rules upon its speakers, and instead take delight in observing its behaviour in the wild.

* Greene tells us that John Dryden is responsible for the alleged rule against the “stranded preposition”, and H.W. Fowler for the idea that “which” should only be used in non-restrictive relative clauses.

For another damning critique of Gwynne’s Grammar, see the clever and entertaining review at Stroppy Editor.