« December 2011 | Main | February 2012 »

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reading List: 11/22/63

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-2728-2.
I gave up on Stephen King in the early 1990s. I had become weary of what seemed to me self-indulgent doorstops of novels which could have been improved by a sharp-pencilled editor cutting them by one third to one half, but weren't because what editor would dare strike words by such a celebrated (and profitable to the publisher) author? I never made it through either Gerald's Game or Insomnia and after that I stopped trying. Recently I heard good things from several sources I respect about the present work and, despite its formidable length (850 pages in hardcover), decided to give it a try (especially since I've always been a fan of time travel fiction and purported fact) to see if, a decade and a half later, King still “has it”.

The title is the date of the assassination of the U.S. president John F. Kennedy: November the 22nd of 1963 (written in the quaint American way). In the novel, Jake Epping, a school teacher in Maine, happens to come across a splice in time or wormhole or whatever you choose to call it which allows bidirectional travel between his world in 2011 and September of 1958. Persuaded by the person who discovered the inexplicable transtemporal portal and revealed it to him, Jake takes upon himself the mission of returning to the past and living there until November of 1963 with the goal of averting the assassination and preventing the pernicious sequelæ which he believed to have originated in that calamity.

Upon arrival in the past, he discovers from other lesser wrongs he seeks to right that while the past can be changed, it doesn't like to be changed and pushes back—it is mutable but “obdurate”. As he lives his life in that lost and largely forgotten country which was the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, he discovers how much has been lost compared to our times, and also how far we have come from commonplace and unperceived injustices and assaults upon the senses and health of that epoch. Still, with a few rare exceptions, King forgoes the smug “look at how much better we are than those rubes” tone that so many contemporary authors adopt when describing the 1950s; you get the sense that King has a deep affection for the era in which he (and I) grew up, and it's apparent here.

I'm going to go behind the curtain now to discuss some of the details of the novel and the (remarkably few) quibbles I have with it. I don't consider any of these “big spoilers”, but others may dissent, so I'd rather err on the side of caution lest some irritated time traveller come back and….

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
As I got into the novel, I was afraid I'd end up hurling it across the room (well, not actually, since I was reading the Kindle edition and I'm rather fond of my iPad) because the model of time travel employed just didn't make any sense. But before long, I began to have a deeper respect for what King was doing, and by the end of the book I came to appreciate that what he'd created was largely compatible with the past/future multiverse picture presented in David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and my own concept of conscious yet constrained multiverse navigation in “Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”.

If this gets made into a movie or miniseries (and that's the way to bet), I'll bet that scene on p. 178 where the playground roundy-round slowly spins with no kids in sight on a windless day makes the cut—brrrrr.

A few minutes' reflection will yield several ways that Jake, given access to the Internet in 2011 and the properties of the time portal, could have accumulated unlimited funds to use in the past without taking the risks he did. I'll avert my eyes here; removing the constraints he found himself under would torpedo a large part of the plot.

On p. 457 et seq. Jake refers to an “omnidirectional microphone” when what is meant is a “directional” or “parabolic” microphone.

On p. 506 the author states that during the Cuban missile crisis “American missile bases and the Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.” This makes the common error in popular fiction that a higher number indicates a greater alert condition or closeness to war. In fact, it goes the other way: DEFCON 5 corresponds to peacetime—the lowest state of readiness, while DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent. During the Cuban missile crisis, SAC was ordered to DEFCON 2 while the balance of the military was at DEFCON 3.

On p. 635, the righthand man of the dictator of Haiti is identified as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, boss of the tonton macoute. But Baby Doc was born in 1951, and at the time would have been twelve years old, unlikely to wield such powers.

If the ending doesn't make your eyes mist up, you're probably, like the protagonist, “not a crying [person]”.

Spoilers end here.  

There is a poignant sense of the momentum of events in the past here which I have not felt in any time travel fiction since Michael Moorcock's masterpiece Behold The Man.

Bottom line? King's still got it.

Posted at 23:30 Permalink

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading List: The Saturn V F-1 Engine

Young, Anthony. The Saturn V F-1 Engine. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2009. ISBN 978-0-387-09629-2.
The F-1 rocket engine which powered the first (S-IC) stage of the Saturn V booster, which launched all of the Apollo missions to the Moon and, as a two stage variant, the Skylab space station, was one of the singular engineering achievements of the twentieth century, which this magnificent book chronicles in exquisite detail. When the U.S. Air Force contracted with Rocketdyne in 1958 for the preliminary design of a single chamber engine with between 1 and 1.5 million pounds of thrust, the largest existing U.S. rocket engine had less than a quarter the maximum thrust of the proposed new powerplant, and there was no experience base to provide confidence that problems such as ignition transients and combustion instability which bedevil liquid rockets would not prove insuperable when scaling an engine to such a size. (The Soviets were known to have heavy-lift boosters, but at the time nobody knew their engine configuration. In fact, when their details came to be known in the West, they were discovered to use multiple combustion chambers and/or clustering of engines precisely to avoid the challenges of very large engines.)

When the F-1 development began, there was no rocket on the drawing board intended to use it, nor any mission defined which would require it. The Air Force had simply established that such an engine would be adequate to accomplish any military mission in the foreseeable future. When NASA took over responsibility for heavy launchers from the Air Force, the F-1 engine became central to the evolving heavy lifters envisioned for missions beyond Earth orbit. After Kennedy's decision to mount a manned lunar landing mission, NASA embarked on a furious effort to define how such a mission could be accomplished and what hardware would be required to perform it. The only alternative to heavy lift would be a large number of launches which assembled the Moon ship in Earth orbit, which was a daunting prospect at a time when not only were rockets famously unreliable and difficult to launch on time, but nobody had ever so much as attempted rendezvous in space, no less orbital assembly or refuelling operations.

With the eventual choice of lunar orbit rendezvous as the mission mode, it became apparent that it would be possible to perform the lunar landing mission with a single launch of a booster with 7.5 million pounds of sea level thrust, which could be obtained from a cluster of five F-1 engines (which by that time NASA had specified as 1.5 million pounds of thrust). From the moment the preliminary design of the Saturn V was defined until Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the definition, design, testing, and manufacturing of the F-1 engine was squarely on the critical path of the Apollo project. If the F-1 did not work, or was insufficiently reliable to perform in a cluster of five and launch on time in tight lunar launch windows, or could not have been manufactured in the quantities required, there would be no lunar landing. If the schedule of the F-1 slipped, the Apollo project would slip day-for-day along with its prime mover.

This book recounts the history, rationale, design, development, testing, refinement, transition to serial production, integration into test articles and flight hardware, and service history of this magnificent machine. Sadly, at this remove, some of the key individuals involved in this project are no longer with us, but the author tracked down those who remain and discovered interviews done earlier by other researchers with the departed, and he stands back and lets them speak, in lengthy quotations, not just about the engineering and management challenges they faced and how they were resolved, but what it felt like to be there, then. You get the palpable sense from these accounts that despite the tension, schedule and budget pressure, long hours, and frustration as problem after problem had to be diagnosed and resolved, these people were having the time of their lives, and that they knew it at the time and cherish it even at a half century's remove. The author has collected more than a hundred contemporary photographs, many in colour, which complement the text.

A total of sixty-five F-1 engines powered 13 Saturn V flight vehicles. They performed with 100% reliability.

Posted at 21:01 Permalink

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Heads up! Transit of Venus, 2012 June 5-6th

Transit of Venus: 2004-06-08 One of the rarest of celestial spectacles is the transit of the planet Venus in front of the disc of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. Indeed, this event did not occur at all in the twentieth century and takes place only twice in the twenty-first, the first of which, on June 8th, 2004, you've already missed. So it's either catch the big show on June 5–6th of 2012 or plan to hang in there until the next transit of Venus on the 11th of December 2117.

Fortunately, the 2012 transit of Venus occurs near the June solstice, when the Earth's northern hemisphere is tilted the most toward the Sun, and since the southern hemisphere is mostly water and ice, the vast majority of the human population will, given clear skies, be able to observe this celestial show. With the exception of people in western Africa, the west of Spain, Portugal, the eastern three quarters of South America, and Antarctica, the transit will be visible, although to many viewers the transit (which lasts about six hours) will already be in progress at sunrise or still be in progress at sunset. So while you may not be able to observe the whole thing, unless you happen to be in one of the sadly deprived regions this time, you'll at least be able to see Venus as “a spot, not a dot” crossing the disc of the Sun. The following map courtesy of Fred Espenak and NASA/GSFC shows visibility of the transit. As long as you're not in the darkest shaded area, you'll be able to see it if the weather cooperates.

Transit of Venus 2012-06-06 visibility map

You can observe the transit of Venus without any optical aid whatsoever apart from a safe solar filter to protect your eyes. For direct viewing with the unaided eye, eclipse specs will do the job. If you want to view or photograph the transit through binoculars, a telescope, or a camera lens, you'll need a full-aperture solar filter securely fastened in front of the objective. Polymer film filters are the most economical, but a glass, metal-coated filter will provide a sharper image and better contrast. Whatever filter you choose, be sure it is securely attached to your viewing device, as even instantaneous exposure to unfiltered sunlight through optics can result in blindness or destruction of camera equipment.

You may think this posting precocious, but if you're interested in observing, photographing, or recording the transit on video, now is the time to decide on the equipment and techniques you'll use, order any gear you don't have on hand, and practice observing and imaging the Sun with the equipment you'll use for the transit. And if, like mine, your full aperture solar filter is showing its age, take a close look at it and see how much its many adventures may have degraded its performance and consider retiring it in favour of one with fewer pinhole defects.

Transits—you want 'em all now?   Happy to oblige!

Posted at 20:19 Permalink

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading List: Survivors

Rawles, James Wesley. Survivors. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-7280-3.
This novel is frequently described as a sequel to the author's Patriots (December 2008), but in fact is set in the same time period and broadens the scope from a small group of scrupulously prepared families coping with a “grid down” societal collapse in an isolated and defensible retreat to people all around the U.S. and the globe in a wide variety of states of readiness dealing with the day to day exigencies after a hyperinflationary blow-off destroys paper money worldwide and leads to a breakdown in the just-in-time economy upon which life in the developed world has become dependent.

The novel tracks a variety of people in different circumstances: an Army captain mustered out of active duty in Afghanistan, an oil man seeking to ride out the calamity doing what he knows best, a gang leader seeing the collapse of the old order as the opportunity of a lifetime, and ordinary people forced to summon extraordinary resources from within themselves when confronted with circumstances nobody imagined plausible. Their stories illustrate how even a small degree of preparation (most importantly, the knowledge and skills you possess, not the goods and gear you own [although the latter should not be neglected—without a source of clean water, in 72 hours you're a refugee, and as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote in Lucifer's Hammer, “No place is more than two meals from a revolution”]) can make all the difference when all the rules change overnight.

Rawles is that rarest of authors: a know-it-all who actually knows it all—embedded in this story, which can be read simply as a periapocalyptic thriller, is a wealth of information for those who wish to make their own preparations for such discontinuities in their own future light cones. You'll want to read this book with a browser window open to look up terms and references to gear dropped in the text (acronyms are defined in the glossary at the end, but you're on your own in researching products).

Some mylar-thin thinkers welcome societal collapse; they imagine it will sweep away the dysfunction and corruption that surrounds us today and usher in a more honourable and moral order. Well, that may be the ultimate result (or maybe it won't: a dark age has its own momentum, and once a culture has not only forgotten what it knew, but forgotten what it has forgotten, recovery can take as long or longer than it took to initially discover what has been lost). Societal collapse, whatever the cause, will be horrific for those who endure it, many of whom will not survive and end their days in misery and terror. Civilisation is a thin veneer on the red in tooth and claw heritage of our species, and the predators among us will be the first to exploit the opportunity that a breakdown in order presents.

This novel presents a ruthlessly realistic picture of what societal collapse looks like to those living it. In a way, it is airbrushed—we see the carnage in the major metropolitan areas only from a distance. But for those looking at the seemingly endless list of “unsustainable” trends underway at present and wise enough to note that something which is unsustainable will, perforce, end, this book will help them think about the aftermath of that end and suggest preparations which may help riding it out and positioning themselves to prosper in the inevitable recovery.

Posted at 23:41 Permalink

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reading List: Early Warning

Walsh, Michael. Early Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7860-2043-0.
This is the second novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent, I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did go ahead and read the next book in the series, and I'm pleased to report that the versatile and accomplished author (see the review of Hostile Intent for a brief biography and summary of his other work) has indeed now mastered the genre and this novel is as tightly plotted, action packed, and bristling with detail as the work of Vince Flynn and Brad Thor.

In this novel, renegade billionaire Emanuel Skorzeny, after having escaped justice for the depredations he unleashed in the previous novel, has been reduced to hiding out in jurisdictions which have no extradition treaty with the United States. NSA covert agent “Devlin” is on his trail when a coordinated series of terrorist attacks strike New York City. Feckless U.S. President Jeb Tyler decides to leave New York's police Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) to fend for itself to avoid the débâcle being laid at his feet, but allows Devlin to be sent in covertly to track down and take out the malefactors. Devlin assumes his “angel of death” persona and goes to work, eventually becoming also the guardian angel of the head of CTU, old school second generation Irish cop Francis Xavier Byrne.

Devlin and the CTU eventually help the perpetrators achieve the martyrdom to which they aspire, but not before massive damage is inflicted upon the city and one terrorist goal accomplished which may cause even more in the future. How this fits into Skorzeny's evil schemes still remains to be discovered, as the mastermind's plot seems to involve not only mayhem on the streets of Manhattan but also the Higgs boson.

The action and intrigue are leavened by excursions into cryptography (did you know about the Poe Cryptographic Challenge?), the music of Edward Elgar, and Devlin's developing relationship with the enigmatic Iranian expatriate “Maryam”. This is an entertaining and satisfying thriller, and I'm planning to read the next episode, Shock Warning, in due time.

Posted at 16:50 Permalink