Wednesday, November 24th, 2004
5:13 pm - Impossible Things...  
Ah, suspension of disbelief, where would I be without you? The ability to completely ignore the fact that an underlying assumption or plot point is absolutely preposterous is so often key to the enjoyment of a work. Things such as Farscape's "science".

It's been about three weeks since I last mentioned what I've been reading, an in that time I've actually finished three novels. Go me!

The first was Angelmass by Timothy Zahn, who is probably best known for writing Star Wars novels, none of which I've ever read. I have read a few of his originals, and liked them a lot. Angelmass turns out to be no exception to this. The preposterous premise of the novel is that a single subatomic particle can influence the behavior of any humans in close proximity to it. The particles are called "angels," and seem to make people behave ethically when they are exposed to them. They are emitted by a quantum black hole called the Angelmass, and the leading theory among the scientists studying them is that angels are quanta of good. Okay then...

The Angelmass orbits a star in an interstellar confederation, the Empyrean, whose angel-influenced government just wants to be left alone. A neighboring interstellar empire, the Pax (one remarkably reminiscent of Dubya's America), views the angels as an alien invasion, and are using that as an excuse to invade the Empyrean, thereby liberating them from the influence of the angels, and coincidentally opening up enormous profit opportunities for the corporations that control the government. The Pax recruits and hastily trains an academic to act as a spy, whose mission is to infiltrate the research institute studying the angels, and discover as much as he can about them. He has a remarkably easy time doing this. Apparently, angels not only make people act ethically, it makes them terribly trusting as well. He starts a research project, and begins thinking about some of the implications of the theory that angels are quanta of good.

First off, since a single particle can maintain a continuing influence, it can't be a single quantum of whatever it is, because a single occurrence of the effect would use it up. It has to be a collection of whatevers. If so, it should be losing mass every time the effect occurs. Is the loss of mass enough to be detectable. Also, since the only way a black hole can emit anything is for there to be an equivalent anti-particle formed at the same time, shouldn't there also be anti-angels, quanta of evil, floating around? Why haven't any of those been found? So he goes looking for them, accompanied by an ex-grifter turned angel hunter. Meanwhile, the invasion is in full swing, and the fate of the stars is in the balance. What more could a space opera fan want?

Zahn does a good job holding it all together. The characters are interesting, the internal logic remains consistent throughout, and the action never really drags. I was skeptical about the premise when I started, but wound up enjoying the book a quite a bit.

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I was a big fan of the Tom Swift, Jr., series of books as a kid. Tom was a teenaged genius, and he was always inventing fantastically neat things like flying labs, and jetmarines, and atomic robots. One of my favorite gadgets was the repelatron, which, well, repelled stuff. In one book, Tom and his friend clamped a bunch of repelatrons to a pressurized box, pointed them all straight down, and used the contraption to fly to the moon. Something very similar happens in John Varley's Red Thunder, a Tom Swift book for grown-ups.

There really are two preposterous notions at the heart of Red Thunder. The first is the squozer, a device made from a TV remote and a video game controller, that manufactures spherical force fields by a completely unknown process, completely rupturing the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of energy. Let us assume that we accept the fact that the squozer could exist, and the absolutely free energy it produces can be harnessed to produce thrust. We are then asked to accept the fact that a group of college kids could cobble together a working spaceship out of railroad tank cars, and ride the contraption to, er, Mars.

It's not too far into the future, and the US and China have both launched expeditions to Mars. The Chinese are going to get there first, much to the chagrin of NASA, so NASA is trying to squeeze some extra acceleration out of it's engine. Back on Earth, the aforementioned college kids meet up with an alcoholic ex-astronaut named Travis and his slightly brain-damaged cousin, Jubal, a child-like genius of Tom Swiftian proportions. Jubal invented the squozer, which he uses to make pretty bubbles out of nothing. They also can be made to provide tremendous power. While discussing what to do with them, someone mentions the Mars mission to Jubal, and he determines that NASA's efforts have put that ship in grave danger. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know they're designing a spaceship. The thing about the squozer is that it can provide a constant 1G acceleration all the way, meaning that the trip will only take about three days, so they can not only save the NASA crew, they can even beat the Chinese.

So build it they do. It helps that Travis and Jubal belong to one of those stereotypical huge extended Cajun families which has at least someone in it with every construction skill they could possibly need. They deflect attention by putting out rumors that they're working on pre-production for a big-budget sci-fi movie, and since they're building the thing out of railroad tank cars, people believe them. They buy some surplus space suits from the Russians, load the ship's freezer with high-end TV dinners, and launch. Three days later, they're on Mars.

It's all in good fun, and once you postulate the squozer it's all reasonably plausible. I've always thought that a practical interplanetary spaceship would be a lot closer to a submarine than a space shuttle, and that's sort of the direction the kids take. If the book has a flaw, it's that it takes a long time to get to the launch. About half-way through, I was all "When do we get to the fireworks factory?" But it is worth the wait.

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The third book is a ghost story, The Famous Flower of Serving Men by debg, the second in Deb's series of supernatural mysteries based upon old folk songs. It's short, and a quick read. I only had a few minor quibbles along the way, mostly about how a ghost who seems tied to one spot of ground could suddenly possess someone at great distances from that spot, but they were minor. I liked this one a bit better than The Weaver and the Factory Maid. The ghost is meaner, and the mystery is more interesting, at least to me.

And a final thought for the day - "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
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