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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Reading List: Venus Equilateral

Smith, George O. Venus Equilateral. New York: Del Rey, [1942-1945, 1947, 1976] 1980. ISBN 0-345-28953-6.
During World War II the author worked on one of the most outrageous (and successful) electrical engineering projects of all time--a vacuum tube radio set manufactured in the tens of thousands, designed to be fired from an artillery piece, withstanding an initial acceleration of 20,000 gravities and spinning at 500 revolutions per second--the radio proximity fuze. To relax, he wrote the Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction and collected in this volume along with a retrospective written in 1973 for an anthology in memory of long-time Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

If you like your science fiction hard, this is about as geeky as it gets:

"The nice thing about this betatron," said Channing, "is the fact that it can and does run both ends on the same supply. The current and voltage phases are correct so that we do not require two supplies which operate in a carefully balanced condition. The cyclotron is one of the other kinds; though the one supply is strictly D.C., the strength of the field must be controlled separately from the supply to the oscillator that runs the D plates. You're sitting on a fence, juggling knobs and stuff all the time you are bombarding with a cyc." (From "Recoil", p. 95)
Notwithstanding such passages, and how quaint an interplanetary radio relay station based on vacuum tubes with a staff of 2700 may seem to modern readers, these are human stories which are, on occasions, breathtaking in their imagination and modernity. The account of the impact of an "efficiency expert" on a technology-based operation in "QRM--Interplanetary" is as trenchant (and funny) as anything in Dilbert. The pernicious effect of abusive patent litigation on innovation, the economics of a technological singularity created by what amounts to a nanotechnological assembler, and the risk of identity theft, are the themes of other stories which it's difficult to imagine having been written half a century ago, along with timeless insights into engineering. One, in particular, from "Firing Line" (p. 259) so struck me when I read it thirty-odd years ago that it has remained in my mind ever since as one of the principal differences between the engineer and the tinkerer, "They know one simple rule about the universe. That rule is that if anything works once, it may be made to work again." The tinkerer is afraid to touch something once it mysteriously starts to work; an engineer is eager to tear it apart and figure out why. I found the account of the end of Venus Equilateral in "Mad Holiday" disturbing when I first read it, but now see it as a celebration of technological obsolescence as an integral part of progress, to be welcomed, and the occasion for a blow-out party, not long faces and melancholy.

Arthur C. Clarke, who contributes the introduction to this collection, read these stories while engaged in his own war work, in copies of Astounding sent from America by Willy Ley, acknowledges that these tales of communication relays in space may have played a part in his coming up with that idea.

This book is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are readily available.

Posted at September 18, 2005 15:14