Category Archives: Reading

Michael Palin: Erebus

Cover of Erebus by Michael PalinThey might have had monogrammed dinner plates and personalised silver cutlery, but the didn’t have very good maps.

Michael Palin needs no introduction from me. He rose to fame with Monty Python in the 1970s, and then in 1989 began a career as a presenter of more-or-less gruelling travel documentaries, starting with Around The World In 80 Days. He has written fiction, published a number of volumes of autobiography and numerous books to accompany his travel documentaries, but I think this is his first venture into writing popular history. I’m hoping it won’t be his last. Erebus tells the story of the expedition ship that took James Ross to the Antarctic and John Franklin to the Arctic. Franklin’s expedition, to Arctic Canada in search of the Northwest Passage, famously failed. All hands were lost, along with the Erebus and its sister ship Terror, under still-mysterious circumstances. The wreck of the Erebus was discovered in relatively shallow water in 2014, off the Adelaide Peninsula (known as Iluilik by the Inuit)—and that’s what prompted Palin to write this book. The Terror turned up in a bay on King William Island (Qikiqtaq in Inuktitut) in 2016*.

Location of Erebus and Terror
Click to enlarge
Location of the Erebus and Terror wrecks (prepared from a public domain map)

The UK edition of this book is succinctly subtitled The Story of a Ship. By contrast, the subtitle of the US edition drizzles on a bit, going with One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. I suppose that lets you know what you’re getting into, but where do you stop? One Ship, Several Other Ships, Two Epic Voyages, A Whole Bunch Of People Who Were Involved To A Greater Or Lesser Extent, Some Interesting Historical Context, Some Personal Reminiscences, And The Greatest Naval Mystery Of All Times. That about covers it.

I confess I judged this book by its cover a couple of times before eventually buying it. The cover illustration of a ship recklessly proceeding under full sail into a jagged icefield doesn’t inspire confidence. And the depiction of a ship sporting a spritsail and square mizzen topsail (both of which the Erebus lacked) made me heave a sigh and put the book back on the shelf more than once. Even the horror-fantasy television series The Terror managed to produce a better depiction of the barque-rigged vessels used on the Franklin expedition.

Still from The Terror (2018)
Click to enlarge

But I’m glad I cracked and bought the book in the end—Palin’s punctilious research belies the careless cover.

He starts with the launch of Erebus, commissioned as a bomb vessel, in 1826, and charts its early and forgotten activities in the Mediterranean, before it was repurposed as an ice-strengthened exploration vessel for Ross’s Antarctic expedition in 1839. In a parallel narrative strand, the story of the contemporary search for the Northwest Passage is introduced, along with a cast of naval characters that we’ll encounter again as the story progresses.

These tales have been well-told in the past. I can recommend M.J. Ross’s Ross In The Antarctic (1982), and Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys (1998) if you want to delve more deeply into either story. What distinguishes Palin’s narrative is his interest in bringing the people alive—by quoting their own words, or by taking descriptions from contemporary sources, or even just by describing the sort of accommodation and entertainment they would have had aboard ship. After a while you begin to feel you know the jaunty naturalist Robert McCormick, the self-doubting Captain Francis Crozier, the wickedly humorous Captain James Fitzjames, and the intensely loyal but (one suspects) distinctly annoying Lady Jane Franklin. He has a real eye for the telling phrase in someone else’s writing. We find out a great deal about poor Francis Crozier’s hope for love with Sophia Cracroft when she privately describes him as:

a horrid radical and an indifferent speller

We learn a lot about the quick-thinking Second Master of the Terror (and accomplished artist), John Davis, when he records that, when all hands are called on deck as Erebus and Terror are about to collide during a storm:

I opened my door to prevent it being jammed, and hurriedly put on two or three articles of dress and jumped up the hatchway […]

We can also appreciate the evocative writing of Captain Fitzjames:

The sea is of the most perfect transparency—a beautiful, delicate, cold-looking green, or ultramarine. Long rollers, as if carved out of the essence of glass bottles, came rolling towards us; now and then topped with a beautiful pot-of-porter-looking head.

And with our foreknowledge of what will happen to Erebus and Terror in the Arctic, who could not be moved by the letter of carpenter Alexander Wilson, sent from Stromness to his wife, as the ships are about to depart for the Northwest Passage:

If it is God’s will that we should not meet again I hoop we will meet in heaven their to enjoy life everlasting. Dear Wife every night I lay down in my hammock I offer up a silent prayer for you and my Dear children.

The story is well-told. Palin conveys the excitement and danger of Ross’s three years in Antarctic waters, and also the slow descent into weariness and a yearning for home. And then when the crew assignments are made for Franklin’s Arctic venture, we feel a sense of foreboding as the dramatis personae are assembled. By the time Erebus and Terror sail off into oblivion from Disko Bay in Greenland, there’s a real feeling of loss. And Palin handles the subsequent piecemeal discovery of the puzzling remains of the expedition very well. A row of graves, a message left in a cairn, scattered skeletons, a garbled notebook, abandoned sleeping gear and cooking equipment—and a boat that seems to have been hauled overland in the wrong direction, containing a strange selection of objects including silver cutlery and a copy of The Vicar Of Wakefield. And threading through all that the local Inuit testimony, which was at first dismissed, but which has been proven accurate repeatedly.

And there are maps! Good maps, properly labelled, conveniently placed relative the text. That’s a real joy in this sort of narrative.

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the early days of polar exploration. And even if (like me) you’ve been reading about this stuff for years, I suspect you’ll still find something new and fresh in Palin’s approach. I’ll leave you with a quote from Robert McCormick, which demonstrates how a naturalist went about his business in the nineteenth century:

This evening I tried the effects of hydrocyanic acid on three penguins, to ascertain the speediest and most humane method of ending their existence. One dram of the diluted acid destroyed a bird in one minute and fifty seconds.


* By a remarkable coincidence, the bay in which the Terror lies was named Terror Bay in 1910. The Inuit name is Amitruq.

Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield: Biggles!

Cover of Biggles! by Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield

It seems a tragic thing, and one that I cannot regard without distress, that a country which can send out such delightfully worded bulb catalogues as does Japan, can at the same time unload an inferno of death and destruction on unhappy people, most of whom could not have been in the slightest degree responsible for the incident that provoked the outrage.

W.E Johns, My Garden October 1937
(Commenting on the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War)

 

Best. Cover. Ever.

Well, actually, the cover illustration for this book seems to have been borrowed from a 1993 Red Fox edition of W.E. Johns’s Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, which was a retitled edition of Biggles of the Camel Squadron, originally published in 1934. (Presumably the editors at Red Fox felt that the Sopwith Camel aircraft of the original title might be confused with … well, a camel.) Red Fox went on to publish a couple more editions of Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, with different (but vastly inferior) cover art.Red Fox covers of Biggles of the Fighter SquadronThis book, Biggles!, a biography of author W.E. Johns, was published in 1993 (the centenary of Johns’s birth), but it’s actually a revised and expanded version of a previous book, By Jove, Biggles! (1981), by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams. But Piers Williams turns out to have been a pseudonym for Jennifer Schofield, so the authors are actually the same. This new edition was published by Veloce, an automotive publisher. Ellis is a Celtic historian and novelist; Schofield is something of an expert in W.E. Johns’s work, particularly his Biggles stories, and worked with Red Fox in the preparation of their various reissues of Biggles novels.

So here we have the biography of an aviation author, published by a publisher that generally deals with cars, co-written by a historian and someone whose name has changed since the first edition, which also had a different title. But with cover art taken from a different book issued by another publisher (with whom one of the co-authors worked), which also had a different title from the original work, and which went on to be published by the same publisher under different covers.

Got that? Good. Now we can move on.

Although nowadays remembered primarily (if at all) for his stories about his pilot hero Biggles, W.E. Johns was a marvellously prolific author, with works scattered across many magazines, using several pseudonyms. So the great success of Ellis and Schofield’s biography has been to draw together samples of his writing, so that his life story can be narrated in his own words. It also gives Johns the chance, as it were, to respond to those critics (writing chiefly in the 1970s and ’80s) who have labelled his work as racist, misogynist or glorifying war.

On the charge of glorifying war, Johns is clearly innocent—having served in the trenches of Gallipoli and Salonika before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, having seen friends shot dead by snipers or spinning away in burning aeroplanes, it is evident from Johns’s writing that he loathed war. This is particularly evident in his early Biggles books, set during the First World War. In Biggles of the Camel Squadron, he has Biggles reflect:

It was hard to believe that within a few miles thousands of men were entrenched, waiting for the coming dawn to leap at each other’s throats. War! He was sick of it, weary of flying, and the incredible folly of fighting men that he did not know …

In the 1930s, Johns used his position as editor of Popular Flying to produce several editorials critical of the UK government’s policy of winding down the aircraft complement of the RAF. (With flying contacts on the continent, he was well aware that Germany was furiously expanding its own air force.) For this, he was accused of “war-mongering”, to which he responded:

Our recent editorials, it seems, have led one or two people to believe that we, or I, personally want war. What utter nonsense. No one in his right mind wants war. Paradoxical though it may seem, it is my fear of war that makes me plead for more aeroplanes.

At the time he wrote those words, Johns felt that the only way to stay out of the coming war in Europe was to have a protective “ring of aerodromes around the coast.” Later, the fall of Republican Spain to the Fascists, and Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, convinced him that Britain had an obligation to become involved in war, and that the need for aeroplanes was even more urgent. His outspoken editorials on this topic eventually led to the publishers of Popular Flying coming under (successful) pressure from the UK government to have Johns removed from editorship.

So it was ironic, then, once the Second World War had started, that the Air Ministry should realize that Johns’s early Biggles books had helped recruitment into the RAF. They approached him to ask if he would write something that might encourage women to join the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force. Worrals of the WAAF was the result, and something of a counterblast to those who claim Johns disliked women. The intrepid Worrals is a female ferry pilot who becomes involved in various adventures and missions through 10 subsequent novels. Throughout it all, she is coolly dismissive of the patronizing and paternalistic attitudes of “pilots in pants”.

It seems that Johns is accused of disliking women solely on the basis of the Biggles canon, in which women hardly ever make an appearance. This was, however, a specific policy Johns applied to the Biggles books, in the belief that his young male readership were put off by female characters. That may well have been misguided, or nowadays might be seen as pandering to a preference that should not be encouraged in prepubertal boys, but it’s very far from the misogyny of which he is sometimes accused.

On the topic of racism, Ellis and Schofield conclude that casually racist remarks are lightly scattered among the Biggles books, as they are in the writings of most of Johns’s contemporaries. But there are intriguing counterbalancing passages. Biggles holds forth on the evils of imperialism on several occasions, and sticks up for the rights of indigenous people on several more. And a Chinese character whom Biggles addresses with “Speakee English?” replies wearily, “Not that sort,” in a cultured English accent.

The charge that a large number of Biggles villains are of mixed race is (Ellis and Schofield respond), “… to put it mildly, exaggerated.” They present figures culled from every Biggles book. In the Air Police stories of the 1950s and ’60s, for instance:

A countdown of the principal villains reveals that in eighty-two tales there are 31 British, 17 of whom are ex-RAF; 12 Germans; 11 Americans; 33 miscreants of assorted origins; and 2 half-castes!

As Ellis and Schofield point out, a better theory based on these figures would suggest that Johns was prejudiced against RAF personnel.

But their own casual use of the word “half-caste” above serves to illustrate the concern of modern librarians—Johns does use expressions that are nowadays considered offensive. In Biggles Flies Again (1934) we encounter “mulatto”, “half-caste”, “Chink”, “dago” and what I’ll here call “the n-word”, so as to avoid some mindless search bot flagging this blog as racist. One may argue that all this was common at the time Johns was writing, and that Biggles Flies Again also includes the Oxford-educated Chinese pirate, Li Chi, who so neatly subverts Biggles’s patronizing assumptions. And one could point out that many of his books lack any such references—I think it’s no coincidence that Red Fox skipped over Biggles Flies Again when republishing some of Johns’s work—but there is nevertheless a feeling that one could not offer a Biggles book to a child today without vetting it first.

What else is on offer in this lively biography? There’s Johns’s poignant writing on his own wartime experiences; his love of gardening (evinced in the quotation at the head of this post); his work as an aviation illustrator; his thriller and romance novels aimed at an adult audience, and now long forgotten; the long, happy years he spent writing, hunting and fishing on Speyside; the story of how, as an RAF recruiting officer, he once knocked back T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in a way rather different from that recorded in Lawrence’s own memoirs; and how he came to be  universally known as “Captain W.E. Johns”, despite having retired from service with the rank of Flying Officer.

Essentially, it’s the story of what seems to be a thoroughly nice man (albeit very much a product of his own particular culture and time) who had many interests, who lived a largely contented life while writing many, many books for which he is fondly remembered by many, many people. That’s got to be good, doesn’t it?

Dave Hutchinson: Europe At Dawn

Cover of Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson

Obviously, the world and everything in it had been stupid since the dawn of time. It was just that, every now and again, there seemed to be a surge in stupid and there was nothing anyone could do about it except hang on and hope things would get better soon.

This is the fourth novel in Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence. I’ve previously reviewed the first three. Europe At Dawn weaves itself around the storylines from those earlier novels, reintroducing many characters, providing background to events from the previous books, and culminating in a resolution to some of the plot strands. The publisher’s blurb on the back hails this one as, “The phenomenal conclusion to the Fractured Europe series”, and Hutchinson, too, seems pretty clear that he’s winding things up. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book he writes:

And here we are, finally. End of the Line. It’s been a wild ride; I certainly had no idea, when I finished [Europe In] Autumn, that it would take us so far or involve quite so many books. But now it’s done.

(You need to have read the books to understand the pun underlying that capitalized “Line”.)

And yet. The resolution in the last few pages of this novel introduces a whole new layer of complexity to the story, and leaves things in a state of tension and potential instability. Should Hutchinson ever wish to come back to this world, he has ample scope to continue the sequence.

The backdrop to these novels is a near-future Europe, fractured by internal disputes as the European Union falls apart under the combined impact of a worsening refugee crisis and a devastating flu pandemic. Borders are closed by anxious governments, and a wave of nationalism and populism sweeps the continent, with tiny new nation-states declaring independence everywhere. The old free movement of people and goods is ended—creating a market for any organization that has the ability to move “packages” from one country to another, no questions asked, without having them exposed to multiple customs checks. This is what the anarchic Coureurs des Bois do, using a combination of spy tradecraft and smuggling tricks, lovingly described by Hutchinson (who appears to be a serious John le Carré fan).

The Coureurs have been one narrative thread running through Fractured Europe—by their very nature, they tend to get caught up in major geopolitical events. One Coureur in particular recurs throughout the books—Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland, and a more-or-less reluctant recruit to the Coureurs, provides an increasingly disillusioned but nevertheless determinedly honourable point of view.

But Hutchinson’s narratives have always shifted from one point-of-view character to another. In the first few chapters of this novel he introduces us to Pete and Angie, who own a canal narrowboat, and who very occasionally are asked to pick up people at odd locations in the canal network; Alice, working at the Scottish Embassy in Estonia, who becomes embroiled in a situation that starts with a fractious folk group and a jewelled skull, and ends in murder; and Benno, a North African refugee who has been stuck in a UN camp on a Greek island for years without hope—until one day a body washes ashore, bringing with it a mobile phone and a gun.

The other narrative thread in these novels has been the existence of the Community—the inhabitants of a different version of Europe, which exists in a parallel universe. Travel between the two different versions of Europe is only possible in certain places—the means of creating and controlling these access points became a significant plot element in the previous novels, and Hutchinson further explores the consequences in this one.

You’ll have gathered by now that the Fractured Europe narrative is now so complicated that you really shouldn’t even attempt to dive straight in to this fourth novel. Even if you’ve been reading them all as they were published, you’d be well-advised to go back and re-read the first three before getting into this one.

Like its predecessors, this one can be read as a good spy thriller, full of tradecraft, chases and escapes. And it’s a wry reflection on human nature, about how good people can end up doing bad things. And it’s an allegory of sorts, too. Hutchinson relishes European diversity (the varied architecture and cuisine of the locations in his novels are lovingly described) and mourns the retreat into nationalism and populism that is so evident in today’s politics—his Fractured Europe is just our Europe, except with the control knobs twisted a little farther over. And the Community, an empty alternate Europe colonized from our England centuries ago, is a vehicle for Hutchinson’s bleak view of the potential fruits of populism:

Rupert picked up the other photos and sorted through them, frowning. “He’s got other problems, over there. A lot of English people are emigrating to the Community. English English people.”
“Ah.” For a certain type of English person, the Community was a wet-dream of Return, a place where tricky concepts like ethnic diversity and political correctness and sexual equality had never taken root, and gay rights were a misty fantasy. By any number of modern standards it was an awful place, and that was probably why so many of the English wanted to move there.

But, like the previous novels, it’s also funny. The idea that an independent Scotland is run by a terrifying woman known as “Big Mo” is both amusing and strangely plausible. And the characters are much given to wry observations on their own predicaments:

Ben nodded. “Okay. We’re going to check out of here, then one of us will go with you while you check out of your hotel, then we’re going to find somewhere else to stay.”
“You’re making all this up as you go along, aren’t you?” Elsie said.
“It’s what we usually do,” said Ben.

So. If you’ve already read and enjoyed the previous Fractured Europe novels, you must just go straight out and buy this one. (But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?) But if you haven’t read any of these books before, you should probably start at the beginning, with Europe In Autumn.


One final note: the empty alternate Europe occupied by the Community in Fractured Europe has an origin story, “On The Windsor Branch”, previously published only in a now-defunct Polish science-fiction magazine, Fenix (1994), and in a volume of short stories, now long out of print and rare, As The Crow Flies (2004). The crowd-funded publisher Unbound are currently taking contributions to reissue As The Crow Flies, with a couple of additional stories, here. If you like Hutchinson’s writing, you might care to contribute.

Christoph Baumer: The History Of Central Asia, Vol. 4

Cover of The History Of Central Asia Volume 4 by Christoph Baumer 

After the Soviet occupier and its vassal Najibullah were defeated, it was not long before the loose partnership of convenience among Afghan resistance fighters disintegrated along ethnic divides. The Pashtuns rallied around Hekmatyar, Khalis and Sayyaf; the Tajiks around Massoud, Rabbani and Ismail Khan; the Uzbeks around Dostum’s Junbesh-e Milli Islami (National Islamic Front) party; and the Shiite Hazaras around the Hezb-e Wahdat alliance. Their sponsors, respectively, were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates for the Pashtuns, India for the Tajiks, Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks and Iran for the Hazaras.

This is the final volume in Christoph Baumer’s monumental history of Central Asia. The publisher, I.B. Tauris, has done good work in maintaining the look and feel of these books, over six years and four volumes. I have previously reviewed the first three volumes, and this one has the same solid heft, the same glorious images, and the same sweeping scope.

Subtitled The Age of Decline and Revival, it takes up where Volume 3 left off. At the start of the sixteenth century, the Mongol and Turkic nomads who had dominated vast swathes of central Asia were entering a period of decline. The wealth that had flowed along the Silk Roads was now being moved, increasingly, by sea, and the economy of Central Asia suffered as a result. The empires of Genghis Khan and Timur disintegrated into squabbling successor states, albeit spawning the short-lived Mughal dynasty in India. Russia encroached from the north, China from the east, and the British Empire from the south, each of them exploiting the shifting allegiances of the warring khanates and hordes, while attempting to secure their own borders and pursuing a larger geopolitical game. While I was familiar with the Great Game played out in this area between Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century, I was unfamiliar with many of the more ancient machinations Baumer describes. The Chinese, for instance, actively promoted the dissemination of the pacifist Buddhist religion among their Mongol neighbours during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in an effort to curb some of the Mongols’ notorious warlike tendencies. The policy backfired on them when the reincarnation of the Third Dalai Lama was identified, not in Tibet, but in Mongolia. This Fourth Dalai Lama, Yontan Gyatso, was a descendant of Genghis Khan through both his mother and his father. Suddenly China faced the threat of a Buddhist-Genghis-Khanid theocracy that could pull together all the bickering Mongols and unite them with Tibet. Perhaps no surprise, then, that the only ever non-Tibetan Dalai Lama met his death early and “under suspicious circumstances”.

Baumer is good at pointing out how the machinations of the Great Game foreshadowed many things we think of as modern political inventions. For instance he quotes Palmerston, writing in 1853:

The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with determined resistance, and then to wait for the next favourable opportunity to make another spring on the intended victim. In furtherance of this policy, the Russian Government has always had two strings on its bow—moderate language and disinterested professions at St. Petersburg and at London; active aggression by its agents on the scene of operation.

Sound familiar?

And he tells us how the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was approved by Lord Curzon on the basis of “fake news”—a report by a Scottish missionary that the Tibetans had gained access to Russian weapons and military support. But, after the invasion, it transpired that:

In Tibet, there was neither trace of Russian weapons nor of Russian Cossacks or agents, nor was there a Russian-Tibetan Friendship Treaty.

Those pesky vanishing Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The second half of the book takes Central Asia through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. There’s a flicker of the potential for independence in Central Asia as Russia undergoes its Communist revolution, but it doesn’t last long.

Baumer’s description of Afghanistan’s bleak recent history is excellent, teasing out both the complexities of internal alliances and disputes, and the motivations of the geopolitical players who stir the pot in this revival of the Great Game. (The illustrative quotation at the head of this post is the opening of Chapter VIII: Afghanistan Forces the Three Major Powers to Engage in a Joint Struggle against Islamic Extremism.)

The final chapter, dealing with the five Central Asian republics that became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union, is also exemplary. The web of interdependence maintained by the USSR fell apart, and had to be cautiously rebuilt. The mountainous states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan control the water that downstream farmers in Uzbekistan need—but if they release water in summer, to water Uzbek fields, they will not have it in their reservoirs in the winter, when they most need hydroelectric power for domestic consumption. The oil and gas produced in these states can only flow along pipelines that pass through Russian territory—Russia can potentially throttle the flow to hold either the Central Asian producers or the European consumers to ransom. So the Central Asian producers would prefer to be able to get their product to the sea, to be loaded on to tankers—but the USA, keen to isolate Iran, will not countenance a pipeline through that country; and the alternative route, through Afghanistan, is fraught with difficulties.

All in all, it’s a fine concluding volume to a very fine series—clearly written, beautifully illustrated, and handsomely produced. If you have any significant interest in Central Asia, and a vacant five-inch space on some stout bookshelves, you should be feeling the urge to invest in the whole set.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Moon

Cover of Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson“People say all kinds of stupid stuff!”
“Yes, but after people say stupid stuff, they do stupid stuff. That’s how history happens. […]

I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before, in reviewing his New York 2140 and Green Earth. Like Green Earth before it, the title of Red Moon seems to be a nod towards the Mars trilogy for which Robinson is most famous—Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. The story is set largely upon a near-future moon (in the year 2047, to be exact), which has been colonized primarily by the Chinese, who occupy a sprawling complex of bases at the moon’s south pole. There, they exploit both the continuous daylight available on mountain tops in that region, and the ice deposits present on permanently shadowed crater floors. Other nations have concentrated their bases around the north pole, where they exploit similar resources.

So what’s red about the moon in Robinson’s new novel? A couple of things. There’s a leftist Chinese revolt instigated from the lunar surface, and a shadowy Chinese military organization called Red Spear, who are interfering in the politics of the lunar colonies. And at one point a literal red moon, as observers on the moon watch the Earth move in front of the sun:

Eclipses were fairly common on the moon, Valerie and John were told. The red annular band surrounding the Earth was sunlight bending through the atmosphere; this phenomenon explained why people looking up at a lunar eclipse saw the moon turn a dusky red.
And indeed the land around them was now that same colour. When they finally looked down from the mesmerizing sight of the red ring in the sky, they saw that the land around them had turned both dark and distinctly red. It was somewhat like the color of a red sunset on Earth, but darker and more intense, a subtly shifting array of dim blackish reds, all coated by a dusty copper sheen.

Like all Robinson’s novels, this one is intensely political. Factions within the Chinese government jockey for power with each other, and China also exploits the economic weakness of the United States, which is undergoing the financial consequences of a mass debt default similar to the one that formed a plot element in his novel New York 2140.

Two characters are caught up in the middle of this geopolitical storm—Fred Fredericks, an American technician tasked with delivering a secure quantum communication device to the Chinese Lunar Authority, who ends up being accused of murder; and Chan Qi, a would-be revolutionary who is also the privileged daughter of a senior Chinese politician, and who has become illegally pregnant while on the moon. Both become political pawns, hunted by multiple factions within the Chinese government.

Also involved is Ta Shu, a Chinese poet, broadcaster and feng shui expert, whom we previously encountered in Robinson’s 1997 novel, Antarctica, and whose gentle enthusiasm here pervades Robinson’s loving descriptions of the moon. And on Earth, an unnamed systems analyst tracks the movements and allegiances of both the plotters and the pawns, with the aid of an Artificial Intelligence he is gently cajoling towards more human behaviour patterns.

So it’s complicated and many-layered, like all Robinson’s novels. And, again like all Robinson’s novels, the plot is diffuse—meandering off into translated poetry, dissertations on the history of China, the nature of power and the nature of money. Fredericks and Chan flee to the Earth and then back to the moon, and are handed off among various factions. Between tense chase sequences, they have meditative political discussions. So, as usual, if you like Robinson, you’ll like this. If you don’t like Robinson, he will as usual drive you daft with frustration.

Fredericks and Chan make an interesting pair, in a way that is almost a Robinson signature—polar opposites in many ways, forced together by circumstances, they learn from each other, grow to respect each other, and finally have to rely on each other. By the end of the novel, when they struggle to survive on the lunar surface, we have a deep sympathy for them and for their mutual bond.

Robinson’s near-future China is a believable extrapolation from the present day, its citizens surveilled by a “balkanized panopticon”—constantly monitored and rated for their social credit score, but by so many disparate organizations that no big picture of an individual can easily emerge. In order to circumvent the key-phrase trackers of the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens are forced towards ever more elaborate circumlocutions, prefigured today by the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon. For instance, the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, known in China as the June 4th Incident, is referred to as “July 339th”. (Robinson here seems to be implying an escalating series of blocked key-phrases and subversive counter-phrases, beginning with “May 35th”.)

Unlike most writers, Robinson never lets his characters or his readers forget that they are on the moon. The one-sixth gravity of the moon is ever-present in the narrative, influencing how his characters walk around, how they flee down a flight of stairs, and how they dance. (One of Robinson’s hypnotic set pieces in this novel is a description of an impromptu low-gravity dance to the music of Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha.)

As usual, he coins some words without explaining them (another thing that drives his critics wild):

“A big solar storm is coming,” Xuanzang replied, looking unhappy. “[…] The plasma’s coming at us fast. It’ll hit in about a half hour. We’re going to have to do a swanwick.”
“What’s that?”
“We have to suit up and get under the rover. Storm that big, we need all the protection we can get. […]

Do a swanwick? It’s a fairly obscure reference to Michael Swanwick’s 1991 novella, “Griffin’s Egg”, in which the protagonist does something similar.

I always enjoy reading Robinson, but felt this one was even less focussed than most—certainly not a good gateway novel if you want to try him out. And there are a couple of infelicities that make this one feel like a slightly rushed job. Some events fundamental to the story’s progression (an election, an incarceration) happen “off screen” in a way that feels jarring. Robinson treats the Latin word mare (the technical term for a lunar lava plain) as if it’s a plural noun—the plural is maria. And Pete Conrad’s first words on stepping off the Apollo 12 Lunar Module on to the lunar surface (“Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”) are wrongly attributed to Buzz Aldrin.

But then again … it’s typical of Robinson that I’m not sure whether he made a mistake, or his character made a mistake when telling the anecdote—the same character tells a spurious tall story about the origin of Aldrin’s nickname.

And I’m also not sure about the intention of the ending—the novel’s final scene and last words could either be a fitting ending to a stand-alone story, or herald a sequel. Either way, I’m cool with it.

Three Locked Room Mysteries

Covers of three locked room mysteries

‘I will now lecture,’ said Dr Fell, inexorably, ‘on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the “hermetically sealed chamber.” Harrumph. All those opposing can skip this chapter. […]

John Dickson Carr The Hollow Man (1935)

“Locked Room” mysteries are stories in which the central puzzle involves a crime committed in a locked room—classically, a murder victim is found alone in a room that has been locked from the inside. There are variants that don’t involve murder, and variants that involve some other hermetically isolated location, but all of them have the same narrative roots—an “impossible” crime that generates a howdunnit inside the whodunnit.

Cover of All But Impossible!In 1981, Edward D. Hoch conducted a small survey of mystery writers, asking them to name and rank their favourite locked-room mystery novels. He reported the results in the preface to All But Impossible!, a collection of mystery stories he had edited.

So I thought I’d read the top three on the list.


In first place, by a considerable margin, was John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), which was published in the USA as The Three Coffins. Carr was a marvellously prolific writer of Golden Age mysteries, and something of a specialist in the locked room. The Hollow Man / The Three Coffins is often considered to be his best work.

G.K.Chesterton self-portrait
G.K.Chesterton self-portrait (Source)

It features one of Carr’s several amateur detectives, the morbidly obese Dr Gideon Fell. The nature of Fell’s doctorate is obscure. His affectation of a cane, a cape, a shovel hat and pince-nez spectacles attached to a ribbon seems to be a knowing wink in the direction of fellow mystery writer G.K. Chesterton, who affected similar garb (and was of similar stature).

In this, the sixth of Carr’s novels featuring Fell, there are two interlinked locked room mysteries. In the first, Professor Charles Grimaud receives a mysterious visitor in his study. The study door is then locked from the inside, a shot is heard, and when rescuers manage to open the door they find Grimaud dying of a bullet wound, and no sign of his visitor. An open window suggests a means of escape, but pristine snow lies both below the window and above, on the roof. Nearby, a man is shot in the back at close range with the same gun that killed Grimaud. His body and the gun are found lying in a cul-de-sac by witnesses who respond within seconds to the sound of the gunshot. Again, a fresh fall of snow shows no other tracks but the victim’s own.

Dr Fell wheezes and limps his way through the case, asking seemingly irrelevant questions, chuckling appreciatively as new puzzles arise, and occasionally pausing to explain his latest deduction to the bemused but (in the main) appreciative Superintendent Hadley of Scotland Yard.

The writing is clear (as it must be for any author attempting to construct a water-tight mystery), but shot through with acute observation and wry humour.

Here, Carr tells us a great deal about the daughter of Prof. Grimaud, in just a couple of sentences:

She tried to be efficient and peremptory, even in the way she drew off her gloves; but she could not manage it. She had those decided manners that come in the early twenties from lack of experience and lack of opposition.

And here we are introduced to Gideon Fell’s manner of interrogation:

The doctor, Rampole knew, was firmly under the impression that he was a model of tact. Very often this tact resembled a load of bricks coming through a skylight.

The mystery is carefully constructed—Carr starts out by telling us which characters are reliable witnesses:

Therefore it must be stated that Mr Stuart Mills at Professor Grimaud’s house was not lying, was not omitting or adding anything, but telling the whole business exactly as he saw it in every case. Also it must be stated that the three independent witnesses in Cagliostro Street (Messrs Short and Blackwin, and Police-constable Withers) were telling the exact truth.

And it’s this idea of a dialogue with the reader that Carr takes to new heights in The Hollow Man. Fell delivers a famous dissertation to his associates in Chapter XVII: The Locked-Room Lecture, enumerating the mechanics of locked room mysteries in detective fiction under a series of headings. But at the same time this allows Carr to tell us: I know you also know all this stuff; so now you know I’m not going to be using any of those tricks.

Not content with that, Carr has his character Fell turn towards the reader, dramatically breaking the fourth wall:

‘But, if you’re going to analyze impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’
‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.[…]

Isn’t that remarkable? Through Fell, Carr addresses us directly, sharing with us our awareness that this is all a puzzle, posed by the author for the entertainment of the reader.

And Fell isn’t the only character who seems aware that he is embedded in a mystery novel. Later in the book, two minor characters try to piece together a list of suspects. One says to the other:

[…] you’re picking him for the reason that he doesn’t seem to have any connection with the case at all; that he’s standing around for no good reason, and that’s always a suspicious sign. Isn’t that so?’

But that’s an awareness that only readers have—and again, Carr is saying: Nope, not going to use that old trope either.

Lest this all give the impression that Carr is too clever by half, I report that the resolution to the mystery, when it comes, is satisfying and had been fairly signposted in the narrative—though Dr Fell only reveals the clinching evidence in the denouement.


Second was Hake Talbot’s Rim Of The Pit (1944). Talbot wrote only two mystery novels, and this is the second. Both featured his character Rogan Kincaid—a gambler who finds himself accidentally involved in solving mysterious crimes. (Kincaid also appeared in two short stories.) “Hake Talbot” was the improbable pseudonym of stage magician Henning Nelms—which, as Anthony Boucher points out in his preface to the Bantam edition of Rim Of The Pit, “somehow sounds even more like a pseudonym”.

The set-up here is that of a classic “country-house” mystery. A group of people have assembled in an isolated house in the northern woods, close to the US border with Canada. One of them is killed—someone in the group must be the murderer. As with The Hollow Man, above, a fresh fall of snow fails to reveal footprints where footprints should be (and, in this case, shows footprints where no footprints should be).

But there is a thread of the supernatural weaving through this one from the outset. The group has assembled to conduct a séance, in order to contact the spirit of Grimaud Désanat, a Frenchman who died under slightly mysterious circumstances on a hunting trip near Hudson Bay, several years previously. There is now contention over lucrative logging rights in woodland owned by Désanat. Désanat’s widow, a spiritualist medium of slightly dubious credentials, who is also at the focus of the logging dispute, has agreed to conduct the séance to solicit the views of the deceased Désanat himself:

In the past, Rogan had found the aberrations of his spiritualist friends mildly amusing. This was different. Calling back the dead to clear up a commonplace business arrangement was like trading in a second-hand magic carpet on the price of a new Ford. Nevertheless, if the spiritualist premise were granted, the idea was as logical as a demonstration in geometry. The thought was unwelcome. In Mr. Kincaid’s experience, logic applied to fantasy meant danger for someone.

The spirit of Désanat duly appears to the assembled group, but in an unexpected way, and the widow is later killed in her locked bedroom.

There are in fact three linked locations in this novel—the house in which the murder takes place, a hunting lodge nearby, and a cabin inhabited by the Native American who had guided Désanat on his final disastrous hunting trip. The characters spend a lot of time moving back and forth between these three locations, finding mysterious trails of footprints that either start or stop in the middle of otherwise pristine snowfields. A flying demon of some kind is sighted, which the Native American guide identifies as a windigo. One of the characters appears to become possessed by the spirit of Désanat, and circumstantial evidence suggest that he is able to levitate when so possessed.

The atmosphere of oppressive supernatural threat is well maintained as one impossible event follows another, and the characters begin to flip-flop between “there is a monstrously ingenious murderer among us” and “Désanat has become an evil spirit and we need to find a way to destroy him”.

Unusually, Kincaid seems to be pretty much along for the ride most of the time. He is the point-of-view character, and we are privy to his various ruminations and experiments, but many of the other characters make observations or deductions that help drive the story forward. Instead, Kincaid provides a sort of wry, rational commentary throughout, including what must be a nod to Sherlock Holmes:

“I’ve saved myself a good deal of worry at one time and another by putting off my thinking until I’ve gathered my facts. […]*

Another character, the Czech stage magician Svetozar Vok, provides a guide to mystery-solving, aimed as much at the reader as at his fellow characters:

Ambler looked at him in surprise. “You speak as if there were a formula for solving problems of this kind.”
“But there is.”
“I should like to learn it.”
The Czech spread his hands. “I can put it in one sentence: Look for the unnecessary.”

As well as being a general principle for readers of mystery novels (story elements that are unnecessary to the characters will always turn out to be necessary to the plot), that advice has specific relevance to this story.

As the story drew near its conclusion, I started glancing uneasily at the slim sheaf of unread pages. Things seemed to be wrapping up in a distinctly unsatisfactory away, though one character made a fine observation that has frequently occurred to me at the end of novels and films:

“Do you realize,” the professor answered, “that we have two dead bodies on our hands, and that we can’t possibly give the police a reasonable explanation of how they were killed?”

The reasonable explanation for the reader is withheld until the last 15 pages, when Kincaid finally stirs himself to reveal the plot underlying the multiple impossibilities of the story. All is accounted for, and Talbot has played fair with his readers—almost all of the elements of the solution were presented, in hints and casual observations, as the narrative progressed.

My only complaint is the absence of a map. Both the other novels reviewed here provided useful crime scene maps to guide the reader’s imagination, and this one would have profited from two—one of the house in which the murder took place, and one of the exterior with all those vexatious trails of footprints.


In third place was Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, first published in French as Le Mystère De La Chambre Jaune (1907). Leroux is perhaps the least famous author of an extremely famous work—few people would nowadays be able to identify him as the author of the novel The Phantom Of The Opera (1909). And The Mystery Of The Yellow Room is a real classic of the “locked room” genre—John Dickson Carr has his sleuth, Gideon Fell, mention the work approvingly during his locked-room lecture, described above. Fell credits it with being “the best detective tale ever written”.

The original English translation was done anonymously, and leaves something to be desired—there are odd turns of phrase and strange word choices. But it has the advantage of being in the public domain, so you can find it freely available at Project Gutenberg, among other places. My copy uses the public domain text, but there’s a more modern translation, published as Rouletabille And The Mystery Of The Yellow Room (2009), which may be worth seeking out.

Cover of Le Mystere De La Chambre Jaune, Gaston LerouxAlmost all fictional detectives in mystery novels are unusual in some way, but Leroux’s is more unusual than most. This is the first of a series of novels featuring his sleuth Joseph Rouletabille, an 18-year-old reporter for the Epoque newspaper, whose editor sends him to cover (and of course solve) newsworthy and mysterious crimes. He is blessed with a remarkably round head and bulbous forehead, which were well portrayed on the cover of the original French edition, and he frequently smokes a pipe—something that seems slightly alarming in a teenager, to the modern reader.

His trusty companion is the narrator, Sainclair, a lawyer who sometimes accompanies Rouletabille during his investigations, sometimes transcribes witness statements, and sometimes runs errands—the accompanying frequent shifts in style make for a slightly choppy narrative. The representative of mainstream law enforcement is the famous Sûreté detective, Frédéric Larsan, known as “The Great Fred”, whom Rouletabille treats with a mixture of respect and disdain, according to whether Larsan’s deductions accord or conflict with Rouletabille’s own.

There are two mysteries to drive the narrative. In the first, Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson retires to her bedroom, immediately adjacent to her father’s laboratory, and locks the door behind her. Two witnesses remain in the laboratory. Shortly after  midnight, she cries “Murder! Murder! Help!” two shots are fired, the door is broken down, and she is found lying on the floor with a severe head injury. No-one else is in the room, though it contains a plethora of confusing clues—a bloody handprint, a cap, a pair of boots, and a mutton bone which had apparently been used as a club.

Perhaps unusually for a locked-room mystery, Mlle Stangerson survives this attack, but can recall only hazy details. This sets the stage for the second mystery, which is another “locked room without the room” puzzle. Stangerson’s attacker makes an another attempt on her life, but is then apparently trapped as he flees into a T-shaped gallery with pursuers converging on him from the ends of all three limbs of the T, blocking all possible escape routes. He reaches the T-junction, turns the corner—and within a few seconds the three pursuers meet at the same junction, with no sign of the assailant on whom they had been converging.

The book is monumentally complicated, with multiple side-plots branching off from these two mysteries, with clue piled on conflicting clue until it seems it should be impossible to draw everything together. In the midst of all this, Rouletabille is given to strange utterances which seem to strike fear into the person addressed, but make no sense to Sainclair:

‘The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, nor the garden its brightness.’
The words had no sooner left the lips of Rouletabille than I saw Robert Darzac quail. Pale as he was, he became paler. His eyes were fixed on the young man in terror, and he immediately descended from the vehicle in an inexpressible state of agitation.

Like Talbot and Carr, Leroux occasionally seems to address the reader through his characters, though not as directly as Carr. Here’s Rouletabille expounding a truth that is only true in detective fiction:

‘If they had been accomplices,’ said Rouletabille, ‘they would not have been there at all. When people throw themselves into the arms of justice with the proofs of complicity on them, you can be sure they are not accomplices. […]

And after Sainclair has drawn a diagram of the locked room, we can almost hear Leroux taunting us:

With the lines of this plan and the description of its parts before them, my readers will know as much as Rouletabille knew when he entered the pavilion for the first time.

The first mystery is resolved admirably, and I presume this novel’s legendary status rests primarily on that plot. The second mystery, of the assailant who vanishes at a corridor junction, requires for its set-up and resolution a sudden onset of uncharacteristic vagueness in both the narrator and Rouletabille. Indeed, by the standard of later mystery writers, Leroux does not “play fair” with his readers, and withholds or obscures several important details while making an elaborate show of openness and honesty. But, given that he was pretty much inventing the genre, we can probably forgive him that.


So. I enjoyed Leroux’s novel least—in part because of the clumsy translation and the “unfair” narrative structure, but mainly because I found Rouletabille just plain annoying most of the time. Carr’s was the most polished offering, with a satisfying structure and an interesting and engaging detective. And Talbot’s was a madly eccentric, head-clutching firework display of a mystery—but his protagonist, Kincaid, was too thinly sketched to make me feel one way or another about him.


* Compare Holmes’s “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” from “A Scandal In Bohemia” (1891)

Carl Miller: The Death Of The Gods

Cover of The Death Of The Gods by Carl MillerFor almost all of us, the technology that we draw around us closer and more intimately with every passing moment is also something that we understand only more and more distantly. As it becomes smarter, better, more pervasive and more essential it also becomes more mysterious and arcane. The phones in our pockets are now so complex, to most of us they might as well be small black boxes of magic.*

Carl Miller is Research Director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. The Death Of The Gods is his first book. It’s about the internet, and how it is radically shifting the locus of power in society. It’s a catchy title, but Miller actually shows us that not all the old gods are dying—some are managing to use the internet to find new ways to hold on to and expand their power over other people.

The chapter titles give a good idea of the range Miller covers: People, Crime, Business, Media, Politics, Warfare and Technology. There’s also an “Interlude” which, in defiance of its etymology and usual meaning, is the last chapter before the Epilogue. It dips a toe into the topic of the Dark Web, and how much we can believe about what goes on there.

The chapter entitled “People” deals with hacker culture, from its origins in MIT during the 1950s, among the aficionados of the Tech Model Railroad Club, to today’s DEF CON conferences, where hackers show off their latest exploits to tumultuous applause. Miller’s thesis is that, because hackers understand the workings of everyday technology so much better than the rest of us, they own that world in a way that most of us don’t. There’s a new locus of power out there, and a power struggle within it between the “black hats” and the “white hats”—criminal hackers and those who hack against them.

“Crime” talks about how the internet has provided a whole new modality for criminality. In 2015, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, told us all that the crime rate in England and Wales had fallen by 64% since 1995. But in 2016, for the first time, crime statistics were adjusted to include “computer misuse offences”—and they turned up around 4 million cybercrimes to add to the 7 million annual “conventional” crimes we already knew about. Criminality hadn’t been suppressed—it had just moved on-line. And the police are finding it difficult to follow effectively, because their jurisdiction stops at international borders, whereas the internet does not.

“Business” describes the rise of new business models, in which tech giants provide free services to users, in exchange for harvesting and monetizing their data. This bypasses many laws that were originally designed to protect consumers in their dealings with corporations that are selling a product, or publishing and distributing media. The scale of the regulatory problem has started to become visible with the recent drama involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The chapter also delves into the rise (and wild oscillation) of cryptocurrencies, and how their underlying blockchain technology promises wider applicability to how we make contracts with each other in future. While the tech giants try to centralize power, cryptocurrency and the blockchain holds out the promise of decentralization.

“Media” is about how the internet is killing good old-fashioned investigative journalism, and the small newspapers that held local politicians and businesses to account. It’s being replaced by a scramble for click-bait content (“churnalism”) which doesn’t even need to be true to earn money. And yet … Miller also tells the story of how conventional news outlets watch social media to pick up breaking news as it happens—the BBC picking up the first hints of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey on-line, before the news had spread through the traditional news machine. And then there’s the story of Eliot Higgins and the Bellingcat Investigation Team, who, in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, used social media posts and videos to track the movements of a Russian BUK missile launcher into and out of the area.

“Politics” talks about how the big data harvested by those tech companies are used to produce targeted campaign advertisements, but also about how social media has allowed the coordination of protest, like the Arab Spring of 2011. But the problem with social media is that while it’s useful for the initial coordination of a protest movement, it’s very poor at teasing out a coherent negotiating position. Enter Audrey Tang and “civic hacking”—a complicated way of using social media to allow a large group of people to hone down gradually on some simple statements that summarize their position. It’s a process that’s already had some success in Taiwan.

“War” is about informational assault—not just trying to sway hearts and minds via social media, but also the conduct of 4D attacks (deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive) by sowing complicated and conflicting interpretations of events until the target audience doubts what the truth is.

And “Technology” deals with how all that other stuff is delivered to us—the algorithms that track our movements, predict our desires and wrap us in a filter bubble of our own design; and the bots that seek to drive or divert on-line conversation by automatically making posts or tweets according to some pre-established agenda.

Miller writes pretty clearly, and tells his story with a combination of interviews, research and personal anecdote. And I think this is a timely and balanced effort. It’s easy to become overwrought about the rate of societal change being driven by the internet and its attendant technologies, and to focus on the undoubted bad stuff that comes with it—but Miller is careful to describe how the same technology holds out the potential for solutions, and ways in which this seismic shift in the locus of power can be moderated and controlled.


* In 1973, Arthur C. Clarke pithily predicted the problem Miller describes: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The Myth Of The Starbow

Cover of Starburst, by Frederik PohlThus, with all Einstein numbers of flight [velocity as a proportion of the speed of light] greater than 0.37 a major dark spot will surround the take-off star, and a minor dark spot the target star. Between the two limiting circles of these spots, all stars visible in the sky are coloured in all the hues of the rainbow, in circles concentric to the flight direction, starting in front with violet, and continuing over blue, green, yellow and orange to red at the other end.

E. Sänger “Some Optical And Kinematical Effects In Interstellar Astronautics” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (1962) 18(7): 273-7

 

Above is one of the earliest descriptions of the appearance of the sky as seen from a spacecraft travelling at close to the speed of light, written more than half a century ago. It predicts something remarkable—that the sky would be dark both ahead of and behind the spaceship, and between these two extensive discs of darkness a rainbow would appear. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon that I’ve found appears on the cover of Frederik Pohl’s 1982 science fiction novel, Starburst, shown at the head of this post. (This is both unexpected and ironic, for reasons I’ll reveal later.)

Now, I’ve recently invested four posts in systematically piecing together the appearance of the sky from a spacecraft moving at close to the speed of light. If you’re interested, the series begins here, builds mathematical detail over the second and third posts, and draws it all together, with illustrations, in the final one. Using the equations of special relativity for aberration and Doppler shift, and applying them to black-body approximations of stellar spectra, I was able to come up with some pictures using the space simulator software Celestia.

Here’s a wide-angle view of the sky ahead seen when moving at half the speed of light:

Sky view ahead at 0.5c
Click to enlarge

And a tighter view at 0.95 times light speed:

Sky view ahead at 0.95c
Click to enlarge

And at 0.999 times light speed:

Sky view ahead at 0.999c
Click to enlarge

No sign of Sänger’s “minor dark spot” ahead, and no real indication of a rainbow. The stars appear hot and blue ahead, in a patch that becomes more concentrated with increasing speed, and that central area is surrounded by a scattered rim of red-shifted stars, shading off into darkness all around. At very high velocity, the blue patch begins to fade. (For a detailed step-by-step explanation of all this, see my previous posts, referenced above.)

What’s going on? Well, Sänger made an embarrassing mistake:

For simplicity’s sake we may assume that the stars in the sky, as seen from the space vehicle when at rest, are all of a medium yellow colour of perhaps λ0 = 5900Å.

He modelled all the stars in the sky as if they emitted light at a single wavelength, like a laser! Unsurprisingly, when these monochromatic stars were Doppler-shifted, they passed through all the colours of the rainbow before disappearing into ultraviolet wavelengths (ahead) or infrared (behind). Hence the dark patches fore and aft of Sänger’s speeding spacecraft, and the rainbow ring between.

But of course real stars emit light over a range of wavelengths, with peak emissions that vary according to their temperatures. As I explained in previous posts, when real stars are Doppler-shifted they change their apparent temperature, so the stars ahead of our spacecraft appear to get hotter, while those behind appear cooler. Hot stars may look white or blue, but never violet. Cool stars may be yellow or orange or red, or faded to invisibility, but there is no temperature at which they will appear green. And the fact that stars of different temperatures are scattered all across the sky means that Doppler shift can’t ever produce the concentric circles of colour that Sänger imagined. Sänger’s rainbow is a myth, based on a fatally erroneous assumption (“for simplicity’s sake”) that really should have been picked up by reviewers at the British Interplanetary Society.

Sänger’s idea would have vanished into appropriate obscurity, were it not for the fact that science fiction writer Frederik Pohl was a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and received its monthly journals. Writing about it later, Pohl mistakenly recalled reading Sänger’s article in another BIS publication, Spaceflight. (BIS members received one publication as part of their membership, and could pay to receive the other, too—it seems likely Pohl subscribed to both.) He later described his encounter with Sänger’s article like this:

Before I had even finished it I sat up in bed, crying “Eureka!” It was a great article.

“Looking For The Starbow” Destinies (1980) 2(1): 8-17

Pohl loved this image of a rainbow ring, and called it a “starbow”. He went on to feature the starbow in an award-winning novella, “The Gold At The Starbow’s End” (1972):

The first thing was that there was a sort of round black spot ahead of us where we couldn’t see anything at all […] Then we lost the Sun behind us, and a little later we saw the blackout spread to a growing circle of stars there.
[…]
Even the stars off to one side are showing relativistic colour shifts. It’s almost like a rainbow, one of those full-circle rainbows that you see on the clouds beneath you from an aeroplane sometimes. Only this circle is all around us. Nearest the black hole* in front the stars have frequency-shifted to a dull reddish colour. They go through orange and yellow and a sort of leaf green to the band nearest the black hole* in back, which are bright blue shading to purple.

If you’re on the alert, you’ll notice that Pohl got the colours the wrong way around—Sänger’s prediction placed red behind and violet ahead (not Pohl’s “purple”, which is a mixture of red and blue).

When Pohl’s novella was published as part of a collection, its striking title was used as the book title, and Pohl’s description (including the reversed colours) leaked into the cover art of one edition:Cover of The Gold At The Starbow's End, by Frederik PohlPohl was a skilled and popular writer, and he cemented the erroneous “starbow” into the consciousness of science fiction readers.

Also in 1972 the space artist Don Davis, cooperating with the  starship designer and alleged translator of Ice-Age languages (among many other things) Robert Duncan-Enzmann, produced a distinctly weird New Age image of the starbow, which you can find here. I have scant idea what that’s about.

But then, in 1979, along came John M. McKinley and Paul Doherty, of the Department of Physics at Oakland University, Michigan. They had a computer, and they were unconvinced by Sänger’s identical monochromatic stars. They instead modelled the real distribution of stars in Earth’s sky, approximating each one as a blackbody radiator of the appropriate temperature, and applying the necessary relativistic transformations:

One prediction for the appearance of the starfield from a moving reference frame has been circulated widely, despite physically objectionable features. We re-examine the physical basis for this effect. […] We conclude with a sequence of computer-generated figures to show the appearance of Earth’s starfield at various velocities. A “starbow” does not appear.

“In search of the ‘starbow’: The appearance of the starfield from a relativistic spaceship” American Journal of Physics (1979) 47(4): 309-15

The physicist (and science fiction writer) Robert L. Forward mischievously forwarded a preprint of McKinley and Doherty’s article to Pohl. And Pohl, tongue firmly in cheek, described this experience in the Destinies article I quoted above:

… “there is no starbow,” they conclude. True, they then go on to say, “we regret its demise. We have nothing so poetic to offer as its replacement, only better physics”—but what’s the good of that?

Only slightly chastened, Pohl later went on to expand the novella “The Gold At The Starbow’s End” into a frankly-not-very-good novel, Starburst, the cover of which appears at the head of this post, resplendent with a starbow. I find it difficult to imagine the confusion that might have led to that cover, given that Pohl had removed the starbow from his narrative, while managing to give McKinley and Doherty a very slight (but distinctly ungracious) kicking in the rewrite:

Right now we’re seeing more in front than I expected to and less behind. Behind, mostly just blackness. It started out like, I don’t know what you’d call it, sort of a burnt-out fuzziness, and it’s been spreading over the last few weeks. Actually in front it seems to be getting a little brighter. I don’t know if you all remember, but there was some argument about whether we’d see the starbow at all, because some old guys ran computer simulations and said it wouldn’t happen. Well, something is happening! It’s like Kneffie always says, theory is one thing, evidence is better, so there! (Ha-ha.)

As the cover of Starburst suggests, the starbow was just too good an image to die easily, and few science fiction readers (or writers) read the American Journal of Physics. Undead, the starbow continued to trudge forward—a zombie idea. In September 1988, Robert J. Sawyer had a short story published in Amazing Stories, entitled “Golden Fleece”. It scored the coveted cover illustration for that month:

Amazing Stories, Golden Fleece 1988It’s a slightly confusing image, illustrating a key event in the story. The vehicle in the foreground is a shuttle-craft, which is escaping from the large spacecraft in the background, a relativistic Bussard interstellar ramjet travelling from right to left. And there’s a starbow! And it’s the wrong way round again, with red at the front! I haven’t read Sawyer’s original short story, but I have read the 1990 novel of the same name, in the form of its 1999 revised edition:

The view of the starbow was magnificent. At our near-light speed, stars ahead had blue-shifted beyond normal visibility. Likewise, those behind had red-shifted into darkness. But encircling us was a thin prismatic band of glowing points, a glorious rainbow of star—violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

I don’t mean to single Sawyer out, because lots of authors were still invoking the starbow in their writing, but his 1999 novel is the most recent persisting version of the starbow I’ve turned up so far, particularly notable because it recycled the Amazing Stories cover art:Cover of Golden Fleece by Robert J. SawyerTwenty years after McKinley and Doherty wrote “We have nothing so poetic to offer as its replacement, only better physics”, the starbow lived on.

And you can still find it—order a starbow painting by Bill Wright on-line, here.


Note: I happened upon Stephen R. Wilk’s How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap, which I’ve previously reviewed, while searching for references to the starbow. Wilk’s chapter “The Rise And Fall And Rise Of The Starbow” overlaps with some of what I’ve written here, but also discusses starbow-like manifestations in film.

* Pohl’s “black holes” are the patches of sky devoid of visible stars ahead of and behind the narrator’s spaceship, as predicted by Sänger, not the astronomical objects of the same name.

Helen Czerski: Storm In A Teacup

Cover of Storm In A Teacup, by Helen CzerskiI studied physics because it explained things that I was interested in. It allowed me to look around and see the mechanisms making our everyday world tick. Best of all, it let me work some of them out for myself. Even though I’m a professional physicist now, lots of the things I’ve worked out for myself haven’t involved laboratories or complicated computer software or expensive experiments. The most satisfying discoveries have come from random things I was playing with when I wasn’t supposed to be doing science at all. Knowing about some basic bits of physics turns the world into a toybox.

I commended Helen Czerski to your attention, as a physics popularizer, in one the earliest posts I made on this blog. At that time I was enthusing about her BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science. Since then I’ve also enjoyed Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics and From Ice to Fire: The Incredible Science of Temperature. Czerski is a working physicist, with an interest in oceanography. What she’s been doing with her TV science popularizations is to take a big, sweeping theme in physics (light, sound, temperature) and to tease apart its relevance to everyday life as well as to cutting edge science—sometimes there are practical demonstrations, sometimes interviews with scientists, and sometimes Czerski gets to wander around in exotic locations, looking valiant and contemplative (something which seems to be absolutely required these days, for any science thread on television).

This approach carries over into her first book, Storm In A Teacup, subtitled The Physics of Everyday Life. The deal here is that Czerski identifies something interesting in a trivial aspect of daily experience, links that to a fundamental principle of physics, and then gallops off in various interesting directions, highlighting more stuff that is driven by the same physical principle.

So the popping of popcorn takes us to the Gas Laws, which take us to rocketry, steam engines, elephant’s trunks, katabatic winds and diving whales. A little “do this with your kids” experiment involving a bottle of lemonade and a handful of raisins provides the starting point for a dissertation on gravity and buoyancy, which touches on the Titanic sinking, high diving, weighing scales, the design of Tower Bridge in London, tightrope walking and the manoeuverability (or otherwise) of T. rex. Other chapters deal with the importance of characteristic length and time scales to physical phenomena, wave motion, phase changes, centrifugal force and electromagnetism. The final chapter, entitled “A Sense Of Perspective”, pulls many of these themes together by exploring their relevance to human beings, to the planet Earth, and to the existence of civilization.

Czerski communicates her own enthusiasm very well, and leavens the narrative with personal anecdotes, which reveal (among other things) a certain obsession with mugs of tea and slices of toast. Most of the physics was familiar to me, but watching Czerski draw her links to many disparate phenomena was always entertaining. And occasionally, there’s an amazing fact: she tells us that the Titanic sank in water that was only fourteen times deeper than the ship’s length (I’d have guessed much deeper than that); explains why pigeons bob their heads back and forth when they walk (unless they’re walking on a treadmill); and why UK pennies manufactured after 1992 stick to magnets, while earlier coins don’t (I was immediately set rummaging for pocket change to test this one for myself).

The final chapter manages to produce some of those grand-scale revelations that the late Carl Sagan deployed so well, shocking the reader (at least momentarily) into a completely new view of the world:

Some of the water [in Antarctica] has been frozen for a million years. […] In contrast, the molecules being pushed out of Hawaii’s volcanoes as lava are only just dropping below 1,100°F for the first time since the Earth was formed, 4.5 billion years ago.

And the idea Czerski presents a few pages later, that civilization can be  summed up by two inventions, the candle and the book (portable energy and portable information), just jumped straight into my head and has been camped there ever since.

So if, like Czerski, you enjoy having a little toolkit in your mind that turns the everyday world into a toybox (and if you don’t, why on Earth are here?) then you’ll enjoy this book. A lot.

Stephen R. Wilk: How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap

Cover of "How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap", by Stephen R. WilkI sometimes think that we should spend at least a little time explaining everyday manifestations of physics to undergraduates, so that they can talk about phenomena that appear in everyday lives.

How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap (2013), is subtitled Odd Excursions Into Optics, which (combined with the manifesto above) pretty much covers what it’s about.

Stephen R. Wilk is a Contributing Editor for the Optical Society of America (OSA), with a CV that includes time spent working with lasers in both academic and commercial laboratories. The book is made up of a series of short articles, which are revised and expanded versions of pieces originally published by OSA’s Optics and Photonics News, as well as The Spectrograph, the newsletter of the George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory at MIT.

The object of the exercise, Wilk says, was “Education by Stealth”—packaging some useful nugget of science into an article that strayed entertainingly into little-visited byways.

For the book, he has sorted his articles into three sections—History, Weird Science and Pop Culture.

“History” covers a lot of ground, including: how the ancients might have been able to do close miniature work using a pinhole, before magnifying lenses were invented; a mysterious optical phenomenon sighted by Antonio de Ulloa in 1735; the real reason Newton insisted on having seven colours of the rainbow; and the history of the camera lucida, an open-air version of the more familiar camera obscura projection system.

Camera Obscura
A camera obscura being used to project an image into a darkened room for copying

Some of the “Weird Science” isn’t particularly weird—there’s a very satisfying and comprehensive article on retroflectors, for instance. I also enjoyed the discussion of the derivation of the expression “once in a blue moon”, but the description of how Mie scattering can conspires to make the full moon actually appear blue was utterly impenetrable—Wilk describes the shape of a graph to us, instead of plotting one and marking it up appropriately. And that’s a serious shortcoming of this book, I have to say—Oxford University Press seem to have been happy to spring for a few uninformative copies of historical illustrations, but the book doesn’t contain a single original diagram. It’s a book on optics, with no diagrams!

Here’s Wilk, forced to verbally handwave a Penta Prism reflector, without recourse to illustrations:

This is a block of glass with two faces set at an angle of 45º to each other. Next to each of these are two faces, usually square, that meet at a right angle to each other and each of them makes a [sic] angle of 112.5º with the other two faces. The prism can work as it is, with only four faces, but the 45º angle is far from the rest of the prism and gives it an unwieldy long “tail” […] so it’s usually cut off, adding a fifth face, hence “penta” prism.

Got that? I thought not. Here’s a diagram:

Pentaprism
Image by DrBob, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

A fair proportion of “Weird Science” is laser-heavy: edible lasers, pyrotechnic-pumped lasers, laser systems that have never been used, the author’s own problems with lasers … It’s Wilk’s special interest, but this was the least interesting section for me, in the main because, in his enthusiasm, Wilk occasionally forgets to translate for his lay audience:

You can perform this trick with perfectly reflecting metal microspheres, too, but you have to suspend them in a beam having a TEM01 “donut” mode, for obvious reasons.

Well, yeah. Obviously.

Finally, “Pop Culture”. Here, Wilk riffs on anything vaguely optical that takes his fancy: the infamous patent on the idea of using a laser pointer to play with your cat; the development of the ideas of “ray guns” and “tractor beams” in science fiction; whether it might be possible to create jewels that glow in the dark, like in the movies; and how lasers have been portrayed by film-makers over the years.

It’s all great fun, I suspect there’s something here for everyone with any interest in optics, and I am positively in awe of Wilk’s ability to ferret out obscure references and the earliest historical glimmerings of scientific ideas.

But it could have been so much better with diagrams, graphs, and some better proof-reading—shame on the Oxford University Press.*


* Well, actually, it turns out there’s no shame on Oxford University Press with regard to the lack of illustrations—I must apologize to them for my mistaken assumption. Stephen R. Wilk has contacted me to set the record straight—the lack of illustrations was an authorial decision, not an editorial one. After an extremely time-consuming process sourcing illustrations for a previous book, he made a conscious decision to try to do without them in this one.