Review: WWW: Wonder, by Robert J. Sawyer

This was the final book in the WWW trilogy, showing the emergence of an intelligence within the framework of the internet, named Webmind. The first two books dealt with its creation and then its early forays into the public light. This last one deals with how it and humanity come to terms for peaceful coexistence.

With such examples as Hal and Skynet to prejudice us, it’s hardly surprising that Webmind was not received with open arms. Some want to kill it immediately. Others want to try to isolate it somewhere. But Webmind has its own priorities and shows itself to be a worthy opponent and a magnanimous winner. I don’t want to spoil it with specifics, but eventually Webmind proves itself to be a useful addition to humanity.

Meanwhile Caitlin, the blind teenage girl who discovered and nurtured Webmind, manages to ride out her celebrity status and move further into adulthood. There’s nothing particularly Sci-Fi about that part of the story, but it was sweet and kept Webmind’s increasingly high-stakes propositions tied to the realm of mere mortals.

All in all, it was a nice conclusion to the trilogy.

Review: Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson

This was an odd time-travel story. The only thing that travelled back in time, really, was information, but it did so in an impressive way. Giant statues and monoliths began popping up in southeast Asia to commemorate some warlord’s victory… twenty-three years into the future. They result in political instability in the region as well as study in how such things are possible. This ends up being the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists figure out how to make these happen and the affected regions start falling apart, making them ripe targets for any warlord who wants to snatch up the mantle and declare himself to be the anonymous Kuin.

This was a pretty high-concept book, and the style was more literary than I’m used to seeing. In some cases, however, I felt it was more literary than it needed to be. Specifically, the author got into a habit of telling events out of order – not because of any time travel, but just because he felt like it. That got a little old, but it was not prevalent enough to make me stop reading.

So, all in all, it was okay. I liked the concepts involved, but the telling of it was not to my taste.

Review: WWW: Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer

This is the second in Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, where we see the world wide web emerge into a conscious entity, making first contact with a blind girl whose sight has been restored through a computer implant along her optic nerve.

Now in the second book, we have young Caitlin deciding who to trust with the knowledge of the Webmind and what to do about it. Meanwhile, the story of the sign-language chimp finally connects properly with the rest of the story, and some of the world government’s begin to take notice of what’s going on.

I found this book more grounded and believable than the first. The way various people reacted was pretty much spot-on. The optimistic people imagined the possibilities. The paranoid people saw the danger. It was very much a first-contact situation with the full spectrum of reactions.

I’m definitely looking forward to the conclusion WWW: Wonder, but I’m pacing myself.

FTL Flavors: Summary

This is the sixth and final installment of my series on the different flavors of FTL. We’ve warped through hyperspace and jumped through wormholes… or something like that. To clear it up, here’s a summary table showing how these various flavors stack up on the criteria I used:


Clearly, that’s a simplification of several simplifications, but in reducing the various drive features to simple yes/no pairs, it highlights a couple of things. First, not all of the options are represented. What if you took something like warp drive and changed the FTL-FTL box to no? What would that look like if FTL ships could no longer interact? Is it that they cannot see each other? Or maybe they only see each other long after they’ve passed? Maybe they have FTL drives but not FTL sensors?

For another example, what if we put a “yes” in the FTL-Navigation box for wormholes? Maybe instead of simple point-to-point tubes, we’re actually cruising through a complex network of junctions and connectors. Maybe our expected Sol-to-Rigel trip is merely the result of taking all the default options at every junction? What if we could alter course at key junction points and end up somewhere entirely different? What if that kind of exploration can only be done by trial and fatal error?

The second thing I notice with such a table reduction is that there are very different ways to expand these choices into the story mechanics of the drive system. Consider that wormholes and jump drives have almost identical table entries, i.e. Rarely or No across most of the table. Yet these two FTL systems have very different feels to their stories.

Similarly, even staying within a single system can give you FTL drives that end up looking quite different in the actual stories. Consider warp drive. We’re all familiar with how it works in Star Trek. We tear across the universe, warping space and manipulating subspace fields and so on. In my space opera universe of the Hudson Confederacy, ships are using tachyon drives, essentially throwing up ephemeral sails to catch the tachyon wind and yank them up to FTL speeds. The mechanism looks completely different, yet functionally, my tachyon sails are just another warp drive. But my navigators don’t worry about subspace interference. Instead, they worry about shifting winds and tachyon storms.

Furthermore, it’s also an over-simplification to think that a story must use only one flavor of FTL. Many combine them. For example, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber uses a mix of hyperspace and wormholes. That is, while most travel occurs via hyperspace, one planetary system hosts the intersection point of several long-distance wormholes, giving them a huge strategic advantage both for shipping and war. Similarly, some of the later Star Trek series (TNG, DS9, and Voyager) added rare wormholes on top of their trusty warp drive fleet.

So, did I skip a flavor? Probably. There’s a lot of SF out there. Some of those FTL systems may indeed be fundamentally different, but I suspect that a lot of them will boil down to being one of these four with different names and different hand-waving for the so-called science.

But the most important thing for all of them is to get your characters from here to there before they grow old and die. And once there, they can try to write a letter home, which brings up the matter of FTL communication, but that’s a subject for some future series of articles. With luck, I’ll get to that before we reach Sirius.

The whole series: Intro, Warp Drive, Hyperspace, Wormholes, Jumping, Summary

Review: Saving Mars, by Cidney Swanson

Saving Mars is the first book in a trilogy (or series) of books about a teenage pilot from Mars and her brother. I was mostly checking this out for my daughter, because she is nuts about Mars, and the brother in question is a reasonably high-functioning autistic. Likewise, my daughter’s brothers are autistic. On that point, I will probably recommend it to her around age thirteen or fourteen. (She’s nine now.)

However, it didn’t work that well for me as an adult. I have certainly enjoyed some YA fiction, but this one only did so-so. Too many details were glossed over for my taste, and I found a number of decisions (made by both youngsters and adults) to be poorly thought out. While I can say that’s something to be expected amongst the adolescent, some of these pushed my willing suspension of disbelief, especially the ones made by the adults. This probably would not have bothered me had I read it as a young adult myself, but looking at it with adult eyes it bothered me.

I will probably continue to read the series – after all it’s high-adventure and solar-system politics – but I really do hope the characters get smarter in the later books.

FTL Flavors: Hyperspace

hyperspaceThis is the third in my series on different flavors of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, and today I’m taking a look at hyperspace. The general idea here is that there is a separate space, parallel to our own, that allows for shorter travel between two points. It’s no longer four light years to Proxima. Instead, you transition over to hyperspace, travel a hundred thousand kilometers, and drop back into normal space at Proxima.

Generally, hyperspace is considered to be as Euclidean as normal space (which is not always truly Euclidean) and is scaled linearly with normal space. That’s the $5 way of saying that if you go twice as far in hypespace, you’ll go twice as far in normal space and in the direction you would have expected.

gateThe only tricky thing about hyperspace is getting between normal space and hyperspace. In some stories, your ship can contain the necessary equipment to open a transition point. In other tales, it requires a gate in normal space to open that transition point. But once you’re over in hyperspace, it’s just a matter of throttling up or sailing away.

Let’s see how the details break out.

FTL-to-FTL interactions: This varies. In some stories, hyperspace is a chaotic or void space that is completely incomprehensible, so you cannot interact with other ships even if they were supposed to be flying formation with you. In other tales, hyperspace is pretty much just like normal space but with better graphics. In those cases, you can fly around, talk to other ships, and even shoot at them. Of course, there’s room to play around between those two extremes such as limiting communication range due to “hyperspace flux” or the likes.

FTL-to-sublight interactions: Usually there are no interactions here. You are in a truly separate space. At best there is a level of communication, but that is typically done via fixed points like gates. However, I have seen a couple of odd exceptions to this rule, typically where something unusual in normal space (such as a supernova or black hole) will cause a disturbance in hyperspace.

Relativistic effects: Generally there are none. The ships aren’t typically travelling very fast in hyperspace. It’s just that the distance there is shorter. Either that, or there is simply no special relativity in hyperspace. However, I have seen an odd time variation in some of C.J. Cherryh’s stories where mental processes continue on at a normal pace while other biological processes slow down. This allows frequent travelers to have a mental age of 40 while still appearing to be only 30.

In-FTL Navigation: This can vary, but there is almost always some. At the very least, ships travelling through hyperspace have the option of dropping back to normal space early, short of their destination. Course changes might require such a transition back to normal space, but there is that option. However, in most cases, hyperspace seems to allow as much navigational flexibility as the warp drive, complete with screeching turns and barrel rolls. Still, one limitation on this is the fixed points of gates. If you can only transition via the gates, then all the zigs and zags of your pilot won’t change the fact that you really only have a handful of destinations.

Speed Differential: Again, there typically is speed differential in hyperspace, typically achieved simply by travelling faster or slower within hyperspace. Sometimes, though, I have seen it done with multiple parallel spaces with different speed limits with them, e.g. hyperspace-A allows an effective 10-to-1 speed boost, while hyperspace-B gives 1000-to-1. However, I have seen a few cases (notably most of Jack McDevitt’s Omega Cloud series) where all ships travel through hyperspace at the same rate, since that is believed to be a fundamental property of hyperspace.

Malfunctions: These can suck. The most common malfunction is with your ability to transition to and from hyperspace. If you end up stuck in normal space, you’re just like the folks with the busted warp-drive, sticking your thumbs out in hopes of rescue. Except, of course, if you’re out in the middle of interstellar space, there won’t be any warp-drive ships careening past to see you. Instead, they’ll all be passing by unseen in hyperspace. Even worse is when you get stuck in hyperspace. Unless you can get to a gate to transition back, you’re left to the mercy of whatever monsters the author has left lurking in the dark corners of this alternate reality. Most often, those ships will simply disappear like the sailing ships of old, leaving only grieving widows and frustrated insurance adjusters.

Special traits: This is a nice dodge around relativity’s limits that doesn’t require much hand-waving with dubious physics. About the only big decision to make is whether or not ships can generate their own transition points or if some or all of them require a system of gates.

Tune in next week for a look at wormholes.

The whole series: Intro, Warp Drive, Hyperspace, Wormholes, Jumping, Summary

Review: Starbound, by Joe Haldeman

This is the sequel to Marsbound, which I reviewed earlier. In this one, our protagonist Carmen heads off on a relativistic sublight trip to a nearby star to meet with the aliens who were behind the machinations of Marsbound.

I was a little disappointed by this one, not so much for the story itself but for some of the mechanics of how it was told. The basic story is that of the journey, i.e. the preparations, the long trip itself, and what happens once we get to the destination. Those aspects were fairly interesting and held my interest, so on the basic point of telling a good story, I’ll give it good marks.

However, while Marsbound was told from the single point of view of Carmen, “the girl from Mars”, Starbound is told from three separate first-person points of view: two human and one Martian. I can see some justification for the choice, but it ended up confusing me frequently. I could get two or three pages into a chapter and not be sure who the current “I” was. It would have been nice if each chapter could have led off with some identification, even if it was something explicit like the character’s name in the chapter heading.

The second mechanical thing that soured the book for me was something of a cheat. Telling the story of a thirteen-year round-trip voyage is hard to do without boring the reader to tears. Yet Haldeman pulled it off for the first three-and-a-half years or so. Then… I don’t know, maybe he ran out of steam. Maybe he just didn’t want to have to do another nine years of it, so he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and made it go away somewhat magically. He went to some length explaining why we wouldn’t understand the real explanation, but it still felt like a cheat.

So, while I enjoyed the tale, I was disappointed by some of the execution. I’ll probably finish off the trilogy, but I’m no longer quite so excited about it as I was after Marsbound.

Ships of My Fathers, Launch Day

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I wrote another book, Ships of My Fathers. Well, it is now out there, officially, available for purchase. Right now it’s in print and on the Kindle. The other e-book platforms will follow later in the year.

It’s another space opera, in the same universe as Beneath the Sky, though it’s not really a sequel. It’s the story of a young man who finds out that his recently deceased father was not the man he thought he was and what he does with the mystery that leaves behind. Here’s the cover and blurb:

ShipsOfMyFathers_Cover300pxMichael was orphaned at seventeen, light-years from home. His inheritance: a starship, distant relatives he never knew existed, and inescapable questions that challenge everything he thought was true.

Michael’s quest for answers takes him halfway across the Confederacy, from the gleaming corridors of the wealthy super-freighters to the dark holds of Father Chessman’s pirate ships.

The truth is waiting for him, but he’ll have to survive to find it.


Where did this come from?

This story traces its origins to two main ideas. First, my father died of cancer about eight years ago. No, he did not leave behind any great mysteries, but I started to wonder what it would have been like if he had. What if he had not actually been an electrical engineer? What if he had secretly been a Cold War spy instead? Or what if he were a member of some ancient secret society? What if his old friends and enemies came looking for me?

We think we know our parents, but what if they really did have some dark secret? They could probably be quite effective at hiding it from you. You might not trust them to take you ice skating or to deliver on your Christmas wishes, but you figure that you can trust them on some fundamental issues, like what your name is, or whether they’re war criminals. Because of that, you never think to dig into those kinds of secrets. But sooner or later, the past catches up to everyone, and those secrets come out.

Another big source of this was someone who was a minor character in Beneath the Sky: Father Chessman. Something about him really appealed to me, and a number of other folks said they liked him as well. He’s the other half to the larger story arc in this series, as our protagonist Michael learns more of his own history, he finds himself learning more about the origins of Father Chessman.

In the end, the series is going to be about the rather big idea of moral equivalence, whether terrible acts are justifiable in dire situations or if some acts truly are beyond the pale. If so, which ones? What if it was your father who did it? What if it was you?

But along the way, there will plenty of space opera fun, with merchants, pirates, conspiracies, young love, and even the occasional explosion. Check out the sample chapters.

Space Elevator Misconception

BasicElevatorYou’ve heard of space elevators, right? You know, it’s that cable that hangs down to Earth from geostationary orbit and stretches out another 35,786 kilometers past that to balance it all out. Down here on Earth, we’re experiencing one Earth gravity, 9.8 m/s2, aka “1 g”. And up at the center, in geostationary orbit, we’re weightless. And at the far end, we’re experiencing full Earth gravity again, only pointed outwards due to centripetal force, right?


I’ve seen this crop up in a few SF stories involving space elevators, and it seems so natural that I assumed they were correct. It makes sense, after all. The bottom is being pulled down at one Earth gravity. To balance out, the other end also has to be getting pulled up at one Earth gravity. It makes sense, but it’s wrong.

Why? The key is that Earth’s gravity is stronger at the surface than in the increasingly higher orbital altitudes. Somewhere in the back of your head, you’re starting to remember something called the Inverse Square Law, aren’t you? That’s right. Like many physical phenomena, their effects decreases with the square of the distance. If you’re twice as far away, you only feel one fourth the effect.

What does that mean for our space elevator? It means that at its center, we are not balancing 1 g of gravity with 1 g of centripetal force. Rather, we’re balancing the decreased gravity from the distant Earth with an equivalent amount of centripetal force. How much gravity is there at that distance? Let’s do the math.

The formula for gravity at a distance is:

g = GM / r2

… where G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the body (i.e. Earth), and r is the radius of the orbit. The value of the product GM is known to high precision at 398,600.4418 km3/s2, and the geostationary orbit radius is 42,164km — 6300 of which are between the Earth’s center and surface. So at that altitude, the gravitational attraction of the earth is 0.224 m/s2, or a mere 2.28% of the gravity we experience on the surface of the Earth at the base of the space elevator.

But what does that say about the centripetal force we experience out at the far end? Well, centripetal acceleration is defined by the formula

a = w2 * r

…where w is the angular velocity in radians per second, and r is the radius of the circle we’re turning in. Since we’re still staying over the same point on earth, the angular velocity is (2 * pi) per day or roughly 0.0000729 radians per second, and our radius is about 77,950km, i.e. twice the geostationary altitude plus the radius of the Earth itself. And being swung around at that far-flung distance will net us a grand total centripetal acceleration of… 0.41 m/s2.

But we’re not quite done, because even though we’re being flung around, we’re still feeling some gravity pulling us back to the Earth. At that distance, it’s only 0.065 m/s2, but that does drop us down to 0.35 m/s2, or a mere 3.6% the surface gravity of the Earth.

You thought the Apollo astronauts looked bouncy on the Moon? They were over four and a half times heavier than they would be at the end of the elevator’s cable. It’s enough to keep things on the floor, but it’s not enough to feel very strongly.

BasicElevator_withForceArrowsThis also points out an interesting problem with balancing the elevator. After all, it’s that balance between the Earth pulling it down at the spin flinging it out that keeps it in place. But as we’ve seen, the bottom of the cable is being pulled down towards the Earth at 9.8 m/s2 while the other end is only being pulled out at a mere 0.35 m/s2. Thus, while the top and bottom halves of the cable may have the exact same mass, the bottom half is heavier. That is, it is being pulled upon with more force.

The solution to this was given when these space elevators were first proposed, and that was to put a ballast weight at the far end of the cable. If it’s massive enough, it does not even need to be at double the geostationary altitude. It could be closer to the Earth, but since it would still be above geostationary orbit, it would be pulling with all of its weight (its mass times its centripetal acceleration) outwards. Thus, you can still balance out the space elevator and keep it floating serenely in the sky.

Ahh, I hear you saying, but what if we just made the cable longer? After all, the further out the cable goes, the centripetal acceleration acting on it goes up. Maybe if we made it long enough so that the far end did experience one full g of centripetal acceleration, there would also be enough force from the mass of that longer cable to balance it out. Maybe there’s still hope for some kind of mirrored gravity at either end of the cable?

Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t work.

The root of the problem is that while gravity drops off with the square of the distance from the Earth, the centripetal acceleration builds linearly with the distance. To experience one gravity at the far end of the cable, being swung around us once per day, the cable would have to be 1.84 million kilometers long.

There are two problems with such a long cable. The first is that the orbit of the moon is only about 384,000 kilometers. While a space elevator on Mars would face a similar problem with the small moons there, it has been suggested that the moons are small enough that well-timed wave maneuvers (like plucking a taut wire) would allow the elevator there to dodge the moons. However, Earth’s moon is 156 times wider than the largest of Mars’ moons, and even if its slow-moving body could be dodged, it would be impossible to dodge its gravity which would take the math into even crazier areas.

But the bigger problem goes back to that disparity between the two forces’ relationship to radius. While the gravitational acceleration acting on the bottom of the cable drops away rapidly as it rises from Earth’s surface, the acceleration acting on the far end of the cable as we back away from the end would only decrease linearly. So, while the mass of the “top half” of the cable would be only fifty times as massive (at a minimum), the force acting on it (the mass of each part times the centripetal acceleration acting on it) would be over a thousand times as great as the force of the lower half being pulled down to the Earth.

Even if it was made from a material cable of withstanding that much force, there is no way we could secure it to the surface of the Earth. It would be plucked from its docking station like an unwanted nose hair and flung into space like… well, like an unwanted nose hair.

So keep the solar system free of nasty million-kilometer cables, and don’t insist on 1 g of centripetal acceleration at the end of your space elevators.

Review: Code of the Lifemaker, by James Hogan

This is an odd book. It starts with a long prologue that gives the evolutionary history of a machine race on Saturn’s moon Titan, from its inception with a damaged Von Neumann factory ship to mutation, sexual reproduction, competition, and the rise of diverse species and intelligence. Then it sets up a first contact situation between humanity and these machines. We in our spaceships, and they struggling to move past their own equivalent of the stone age.

There are also twin battles going on between science and mysticism. For the robots of Titan, there is a nascent movement towards science and observations, all the while struggling beneath an oppressive religious doctrine handed down in the sacred scribings of the Lifemaker. Meanwhile, amongst the humans, we have hardened scientists trying to expose the trickery of a new-age psychic who is in truth an incredibly talented con artist.

It was an interesting story, and I eventually enjoyed most of the characters, though the psychic bugged the hell out of me at first. I did find some of the storytelling mechanics hard to follow as we jumped from one setting to another and one POV to another with little visual or textual clue that it was happening. I wonder if this might have been the fault of the transfer to ebook, since this is an older book that came out on paper back in the 80’s. Either that, or it was just the way it was written.

It was a good ending in that everyone got what they deserved, so I came away pretty happy.