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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reading List: America One

Wade, T. I. America One. Fuquay-Varina, NC: Triple T Productions, 2012. ASIN B00AOF238I.
If you can get over the anger and resentment over having your pocket picked of US$3.97 (Amazon price at this writing) for a laughably bad book (easily one of the worst I've read since I started this list in 2001, and perhaps the worst: only The New Paradigm [December 2005] comes close), scorn for reviewers at Amazon who collectively awarded it four stars in sixty reviews, and approach it obliquely with the right sense of ironic detachment, like enjoying a disaster movie, knowing it's only fiction, this may be one of the funniest science fiction novels of recent years, but bear in mind it's funny because you're laughing at the author.

The first warning of what is to come is the prefatory “Note from the Author” (emphasis in the original).

The author is not an expert in the field of space travel. The author is only a storyteller.

Even though hundreds of hours of Internet research were done to write this story, many might find the scientific description of space travel lacking, or simply not 100 percent accurate. The fuels, gases, metals, and the results of using these components are as accurate as the author could describe them.

Should the reader, at this point, be insufficiently forewarned as to what is coming, the author next includes the following acknowledgement:

The Author would like to gratefully thank Alexander Wade (13), his son, for his many hours of research into nuclear reactors, space flight and astro-engineering to make this story as close to reality as possible for you the reader.

which also provides a foretaste of the screwball and inconsistent use of capitalisation “you the reader” are about to encounter.

It is tempting here to make a cheap crack about the novel's demonstrating a 13 year old's grasp of science, technology, economics, business, political and military institutions, and human behaviour, but this would be to defame the many 13 year olds I've encountered through E-mail exchanges resulting from material posted at Fourmilab which demonstrate a far deeper comprehension of such matters than one finds here.

The book is so laughably bad I'm able to explain just how bad without including a single plot spoiler. Helping in this is the fact that to the extent that the book has a plot at all, it is so completely absurd that to anybody with a basic grasp of reality it spoils itself simply by unfolding. Would-be thrillers which leave you gasping for air as you laugh out loud are inherently difficult to spoil. The text is marred by the dozens of copy-editing errors one is accustomed to in self-published works, but more in 99 cent specials than books at this price point. Editing appears to have amounted to running a spelling checker over the text, leaving malapropisms and misused homonyms undetected; some of these can be amusing, such as the “iron drive motors” fueled by xenon gas. Without giving away significant plot details, I'll simply list things the author asks the reader to believe which are, shall we say, rather at variance with the world we inhabit. Keep in mind that this story is set in the very near future and includes thinly disguised characters based upon players in the contemporary commercial space market.

  • Our intrepid entrepreneur, shortly after receiving his Ph.D., moves his company and its 100 employees to Silicon Valley, where Forbes projects it will “double its workforce every month for the foreseeable future.” Well, Silicon Valley is known for exponential growth, but let's work this out. What's the “foreseeable future” to Forbes? Twelve months? Then, starting at 100 and doubling monthly, there would be 204,800 employees at the Silicon Valley campus. Twenty-four months? Then you'd have more than 838 million employees, more than two and a half times the population of the United States. This would doubtless be a great boon to the fast food joints on El Camino, but I'm not sure where you'd put all those people.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is not used to search for asteroids. Such searches are performed with wide-field, Earth-based telescopes as used by the various Spaceguard projects. Provisional names for newly-discovered asteroids are in a form different than that used by the author, and the year in the name is inconsistent with the chronology of the novel.
  • Observations of the asteroid are said to have been made through “the most powerful telescope possible”, which revealed fine surface detail. Well, I don't know about the most powerful telescope possible, but the most powerful telescopes in existence are not remotely capable of resolving such an object at the distance cited as more than a dot of light. And all of those telescopes have objective mirrors, not lenses.
  • If one were to hitch a ride on a bomber, one would not “sit on top of tons of bombs”. Bombers do not carry bombs inside the crew compartment, but in an unpressurised bomb bay, where hitching a ride would be suicidal.
  • Plutonium-238 (used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators) is not “reactor-grade” since it would be useless in a fission reactor. And nobody calls generators which use it “reactors”, nor are they “car-sized”.
  • “EMPs, powerful Electric Magnetic Pulses” are not “produced by sun flares in deep space”. Electromagnetic pulses are most commonly produced by nuclear weapon detonations interacting with the Earth's atmosphere. And “sun flares in deep space” just doesn't make any sense at all: solar flares occur, as you might guess, on the Sun.
  • Now we come to the first instance of the humble element hydrogen being used as a kind of talisman which makes all things possible. We're told that the space station hull will be shielded by pouring liquid hydrogen into a honeycomb carbon structure which will then be sealed at the factory on Earth. Now what do you think will happen once that structure is sealed with liquid hydrogen inside? Right in one—bang! Without cryogenic cooling, liquid hydrogen, regardless of pressure, will flash to gas at any temperature above its critical point of 33° K, blowing the laminated panel apart. In any case, a thin shield composed of carbon and hydrogen would be as effective against heavy primary cosmic rays as a paper bag.
  • Next come the “electromagnets” made from a “powerful rare-earth magnetic material called neodymium”. Neodymium is used to make permanent magnets, not electromagnets. Here is the first instance of the author's not comprehending the difference between magnetism and gravitation: the magnets will create “a small gravity field that is about fifteen to twenty percent of what we are used to on earth”. As will become clear later, he's not talking about using magnetic boots, but rather creating artificial gravity, which is utter nonsense.
  • The liquid argon thermal insulation is ridiculous. It would blow apart the panels just like liquid hydrogen, and in any case, while gaseous argon has low thermal conductivity, in liquid form convection would render it useless as an insulator. Further, the author believes in the naïve concept of the “temperature of space”. A vacuum has no ability to transport heat, so the temperature of a body in space is determined by the balance between the heat absorbed from the Sun and other bodies and generated internally versus heat radiated away into space.
  • Space station panels are said to “receive a covering of a silver silicon-plastic-like photovoltaic nanofilm paint an inch thick for solar-energy absorption.” Here it appears the author, who has no concept of how photovoltaic panels work, is trying to dazzle the reader with a sufficient number of buzzwords to dull critical thought. Photovoltaic cells should absorb as much sunlight as possible in a thin layer. A material which required a layer “an inch thick” would not only be wasteful of weight, but so inefficient as to be laughable. Solar cells must have an anode and cathode to extract the electricity, and cannot be applied as “paint”.
  • A Cessna 172 does not have a “joystick”, but rather a control wheel, and no airplane uses its “rudder pedals to bank left or right”. Rudder pedals are used to yaw the aircraft, not control bank angle.
  • How probable is it that Maggie's private pilot flight instructor would happen to be son of a retired three-term U.S. senator?
  • The shuttle craft has three forms of propulsion: hybrid rocket motors for initial acceleration, “hydrogen thrusters” (again, with the hydrogen—more to come) to get into orbit and maneuver, and ion drive motors using xenon gas for propulsion in space. Now, as becomes clear from numerous references in the novel, the author is not talking about rocket motors burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, but rather has gotten the curious (and clueless) idea that somehow hydrogen, by itself, can provide high performance propulsion. Sure, you can use hydrogen as the working fluid in a nuclear thermal rocket, but that's not what we're talking about here. Further, xenon thrusters produce such low thrust that they would be utterly incapable of performing the exploits they are claimed to do here.
  • The author says “her wings expand like one of the old X-51s”. I presume he means the X-15 (whose wings did not “expand”), not the X-51 Waverider, which is not old and has only vestigial wings.
  • No aircraft has an aileron on its tail; it's called a “rudder”.
  • Why would Maggie need to buy a car to get from California to the Air Force Academy in Colorado? Couldn't she take the bus or a plane? Are cadets even allowed to have personal cars?
  • Maggie is said to have been trained by the Air Force initially to “fly an old C-47”. These aircraft were retired from Air Force service long before she began her career.
  • It's the United States Marine Corps, not “Corp”. This isn't a typo, as it appears on multiple occasions.
  • There is no “European Space system”. It's the European Space Agency.
  • There is no reason at all to expect to find radium on an asteroid. With its longest-lived isotope having a half-life of 1601 years, all radium found in nature is the product of decay of other elements, and will never be found in more than trace quantities.
  • The author uses “control dash” for spacecraft control panels and “windshield” for the windows in deep space vehicles. His spacecraft are not, as best I can determine, equipped with running boards or rumble seats.
  • Solar arrays on space stations become “solar dragon-fly antennas” in the author's nomenclature.
  • We're told that the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (which the author variously calls a “nuclear battery” and “nuclear reactor”) containing one pound of plutonium-238 will be adequate to power a derelict Russian space station with multiple modules like Mir. Let's see, shall we? The Mir core module solar arrays initially produced 9 kW of electricity. Generation capacity was added as additional arrays were launched on subsequent modules, but offset by degradation of older arrays. But clearly 9 kW was required to operate the base station. The thermal power output of a pound of plutonium-238 is around 250 watts, but conversion of this heat to electricity has never exceeded an efficiency of 7% in any generator. Assuming this optimistic figure, the generator would produce 17.5 watts of electricity, substantially less than the 9000 watts required.
  • A “small set of hydrogen batteries” power the shuttle prior to launch. Not fuel cells, as no mention of liquid oxygen is made. Just magical hydrogen again. Is there anything it can't do?
  • Oh, and now there appears to be a “rear liquid nitrogen thruster” on the shuttle. How does that work—spewing liquid nitrogen out through a nozzle? You'd do better with Diet Coke and Mentos. If you're counting, we're now up to four separate propulsion systems on the shuttle, each with its own unique propellant.
  • Don't want to be too ambitious, at least at the outset. “There will be eReaders all over the ship with every bit of practical knowledge about agricultural [sic], human, and animals ever known; they will also be loaded with star charts, planetary systems and every asteroid and planet's history and whereabouts within our solar system. I don't believe we will leave our own system on our first journey.…”. But what the heck, we may decide to take a jaunt over to Alpha Centauri just for fun—after all, we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • I don't believe even fighter jocks would consider it appropriate to refer to two Air Force flight officers as “girl pilots”, as the author does.
  • How to accomplish the orbital two-step key to the mission without being detected? No problem: they have a “Cloaking Device” which hides the ship from radar “[m]uch like a black hole”. It's probably magnetic, with hydrogen. Not mentioned is the detail that space, from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit, is under constant optical surveillance which the cloaking device would not impede, and could easily detect and track an object the size of the shuttle.
  • Both the Russian space station and the International Space Station are said to be in equatorial orbits. In fact, Mir was and the ISS is in an orbit with 51.6° inclination.
  • The author does not appear to have the vaguest idea how orbital mechanics works. In fact, from what he has written, I can't figure out how he thinks it might work. Cartoon physics has its own zany kind of consistency, but this makes Road Runner cartoons look like JPL mission planning. My favourite among a long list of howlers is when they decide to raise the orbit of the Russian space station from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit. Set aside the enormous delta-v this would require and the utter inadequacy of the shuttle's propulsion system (oh, wait, I forgot about the hydrogen thrusters!), let's consider the maneuver. After docking with the space station, the shuttle burns the hydrogens to “increase her orbital speed by approximately 500 miles an hour”. Then, an orbit later, the shuttle points its nose “outward into space by three degrees” and the same burn is made. This is said to increase speed from 11,000 miles an hour (far below orbital velocity) to 14,000 miles an hour (still below orbital velocity). Two more inane burns allow, at their completion, the station to “climb away from earth on an ever-widening orbit of 900 miles per day”. Got that? No additional burns; no additional delta-v, and the station continues to spiral outward from the Earth to ever increasing orbital altitude. There is much, much more, all as idiotic, but I won't belabour the point further.
  • The coordinates of the asteroid are said to be fed to the team every twelve hours by an insider. In fact, orbital elements for asteroids are available to the general public and can be used to calculate the position of asteroids for years into the future.
  • The C-5 Galaxy transport plane is said to be a Boeing product; it was in fact built by Lockheed.
  • The tankers which refuel the C-5 are said to be in one place a KC-125 and later in the same sentence a KC-25. Neither plane exists. Clearly KC-135 was intended.
  • There is no reason to go through the rigmarole of using the C-5 to transport the secret cargo. There are commercial freighter jets which could carry a cargo of that size without the need for in-flight refueling.
  • The concept of dumping nuclear waste into the Sun further reveals utter ignorance of orbital mechanics. It seems the author believes (or would like the reader to believe) that once you're “in space”, all you have to do is “unload the stuff in the direction of the sun” and if falls straight in and goes poof. In fact, it is very difficult to impact the Sun, since you have to cancel the entire orbital velocity of the Earth, which is around 100,000 kilometres per hour, or about three times the delta-v needed to reach low Earth orbit.
  • Weightlessness is equally described as a quasi-magical state like being “in space”. When preparing to burn the shuttle's engines for an orbital adjustment, the pilot tells the crew “You will not feel the burn since we are now weightless.”
  • Always have a backup plan! “Our last resort is that we could go to Mars and begin mining there in 2016.” Never mind that we don't have any vehicle suitable for atmospheric entry and landing, nor a way to get back from the surface. But we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • When the xenon thrusters are activated, it is said “they continuously propelled the craft forward, its acceleration always increasing.” So, the author does not understand the difference between velocity and acceleration. What's a derivative among rubes?
  • Just when you thought things couldn't get more absurd, we arrive at the one by three mile asteroid only to discover that it has a gravitational field 70% as strong as the Earth's. Now, with any material known to science, the gravitational field of such a small body should be negligible. How can this possibly be the case? Magnetism, of course.
  • Those with the most cursory acquaintance with the U.S. government may be surprised to learn that mission of the National Security Agency (NSA) is not limited to cryptography and signals intelligence but to “always be sure that there are no hidden agendas in large projects”, or that the Federal Reserve is charged with detecting those “bringing illegal contraband into the country”, or that to inspect any facility on “U.S. occupied land” a congressman doesn't “need a search warrant. Members of Congress never do…”.

If this weren't enough, at the very end the author springs a cliffhanger which puts everything achieved in the entire novel in doubt. If you loved this novel, you'll be delighted to know that there are three sequels already available. I shall certainly not be reading them.

Something like this actually could have worked if the author had cast it as a neo-golden-age story of space travel in which an intrepid band set out for space defying the powers that be and conventional wisdom along the lines of John Varley's Red Thunder (July 2012). But by pretentiously trying to cast it as a realistic techno-thriller, the result is risible. Readers are willing to indulge thriller-writers the occasional implausible gadget to advance the plot, but when you have a howler which violates laws of physics known since Newton and taught in high school every few pages, the result is not thrilling but just silly. It's as if a writer published a western in which revolvers held 600 shots, fired with range of 5 km and 1 cm accuracy, and everybody rode horses which could gallop at 250 km/hour for 12 hours straight (but, you see, they're getting special hydrogen hay!).

Why spend so much time dissecting a book like this? Because it's fun, and it's the only way to derive enjoyment from such a waste of time and money. If you're wondering why the U.S. space program is in such a parlous state, it may be enlightening to read the four- and five-star reviews of this book on Amazon, bearing in mind that these people vote.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

Posted at September 21, 2013 17:28