April 25, 2015

There’s a reason SF writers tend to invent ways to travel interstellar distances quickly

Filed under: Economics,Science,Space,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy sings the praises of an early publication by the pre-Nobel academic Paul Krugman:

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a respected professor at Princeton University, and an outspoken liberal columnist for the New York Times. But first and foremost, he is a huge nerd, and proud of it.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1978, Krugman’s geekiness prompted him to tackle a matter of galactic importance: the economics of interstellar trade. Then a 25-year-old “oppressed” assistant professor at Yale “caught up in the academic rat race,” Krugman crafted his “Theory of Interstellar Trade” to cheer himself up. Krugman’s jocularity is evident throughout the paper, which was published online in 2010, thirty-two years after he stamped it out on a typewriter. Early on in the article, he even pokes fun at his chosen profession:

    “While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics”

The key problem with interstellar trade, Krugman writes, is time dilation. When objects travel at velocities approaching the speed of light — roughly 300,000 kilometers per second — time moves more slowly for them compared to objects at rest. (For a great explainer of this effect, which is tied to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, check out this video.) So the crew of a space-faring cargo ship might experience only ten years while thirty years or more might pass for the denizens of the planets they’re traveling between. How then, does one calculate interest rates on the cost of goods sold? Trading partners will undoubtedly be many light-years apart and trips will last decades, so this is a vital issue to resolve.

Since the speeds of vessels will undoubtedly vary, but both planets should be moving through space at close enough velocities where time dilation wouldn’t be a factor, Krugman contends that the interest costs should be tabulated based on the time shared by the two planets. But what about those interest rates? Won’t they differ? Not necessarily, Krugman argues. Competition should lead them to equalize amongst interplanetary trading partners.

April 22, 2015

QotD: Volunteer armies, conscription, and corporal punishment in Starship Troopers

Filed under: Law,Media,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I hate conscription. I regard it as human slavery of the vilest sort and do not think it can be justified under any circumstances whatever. To those who say “Yes, but without the draft we could not defend the United States” I answer violently, “Then let the bloody United States go down the drain! Any nation whose citizens will not voluntarily fight and die for her does not deserve to live.”

I despise jails and prisons almost as much, and for the same reasons, and I am contemptuous of punishment by fining because it is basically unjust, being necessarily uneven and discriminatory in application — e.g., there is a reckless driver in this neighbourhood who is quite wealthy. A $500 fine to him is nothing at all, less than nothing. To me it is an annoyance and one which might well cut into my luxuries and spoil my plans. But to my neighbour across the street, a cook with two children, a $500 fine would be a major disaster.

Yet $500 is what our local courts would charge any of the three of us for drunken driving.

I suggest that ten lashes would be equally rough on each of us — and would do far more to deter homicide-by-automobile.

Both of these ideas, opposition on moral grounds to conscription and to imprisonment, are essential parts of Starship Troopers. So far as I know, no reviewer noticed either idea.

Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Sturgeon 1962-03-05, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).

April 18, 2015

How the Hugo Awards became the latest front in the Culture Wars(TM)

Filed under: Gaming,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski talks about the expansion of the ongoing culture wars into the SF and Fantasy communities:

This is the era in which we are all being drafted in the Culture War. It doesn’t matter if you’re secular or religious, political or apolitical, frat boys or geeks, hipsters or bros. Nobody gets to be neutral or sit on the sidelines, because we’ll all be expected to make our obeisance to the latest politically correct opinion handed down to us by a Twitter mob.

By now, we know the basic ingredients of a typical skirmish in Culture War 4.0. It goes something like this: a) a leftist claque starts loudly pushing the “correct” Culture War position onto b) a field previously considered fun, innocuous, apolitical, purely personal, or recreational, and c) accusing anyone who opposes them of being a racist, sexist, bigot who relies on oppressive “privilege” to push everyone else down, while these claims are d) backed up by a biased press that swallows the line of attack uncritically and repeats it.

Any of that sound familiar? It’s just daily life for anyone on the Right, and it’s slowly becoming daily life for everybody else. Ask Comet Guy.

The innocuous field in which the personal is suddenly discovered to be very political might be fashion, music, toys, sports, or sex, not to mention weddings, flowers, cake-baking, and pizza.

Or video games. Or science fiction.

Which explains the latest, wide new front of the Great Social Justice War: Gamergate*, and the battle over the Hugo Awards, a prestigious annual fiction award for science fiction and fantasy writers.

Hugo nominations are not made by a cloistered group of experts. They are voted on by anyone who becomes a “supporting or attending member” of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. This has usually meant that the voting is limited to a small pool of a few thousand die-hard science fiction fans. But in practice it means that anyone willing to shell out $40 can cast a ballot.

Science fiction has always been a fertile arena for exploration of big ideas — much more so, these days, than highbrow “literary” fiction. The use of fantastical science fiction premises allows authors to project a future in which everything is done differently, or in which human nature itself has been altered, and this leads them to ask questions about what is really natural, necessary, or essential to human life and what is merely conventional, artificial, and unnecessary. It has been remarked that “big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.”

Clearly, all of this freewheeling exploration of ideas has got to stop.

April 6, 2015

David Brin – What is Science Fiction?

Filed under: History,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 1 Apr 2015

In this Trekspertise special, David Brin lays out the qualities that help science fiction stand out from other genres. This is a re-edit of David Brin’s original video, “Science Fiction: The Literature Of Change”. Be sure to check out Mr. Brin’s excellent books, as well =)

March 24, 2015

Writing science fiction for the modern audience

Filed under: Humour,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Frank J. Fleming thinks he’s found the magic formula for writing science fiction books that will appeal to today’s more sensitive, enlightened readers:

What makes good science fiction? Is it a fast-paced story? Interesting characters? Unpredictable twists and turns?

Unfortunately, I had those outdated ideas in mind when I wrote my first novel, Superego. But as we all know, the true purpose of science fiction now is inclusiveness. Entertainment is okay, I guess, but what we really need to focus on is making sure everyone feels cared for and included and that no one feels weird, no matter how weird they are.

This is difficult for me as a white, heterosexual, cisgender male. I’m basically committing a hate crime just by existing. I’m not even sure that in this day and age I should be allowed to write science fiction. Still, I decided to examine my novel to determine how inclusive it is.

I first used the Bechdel Test, as that’s a nice objective measure. I ran into a problem right away, though, because Superego is written in the first-person perspective of a male character. It’s like I didn’t even try. Still, there are a number of named female characters in the story, and a few times they do speak to each other. Most of the time, they’re talking about the main (male) character, but I did locate a short conversation between two women about one getting the other a chair.

Boom! Passed the Bechdel Test. It’s a very feminist novel.

QotD: Critics and reviewers of Science Fiction

Filed under: Media,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… I am still bugged by the quality of reviewing generally accorded science fiction. Or let’s call it “speculative fiction” for a moment because one of the things that bugs me the most is that some critics seem strongly indisposed to permit a writer to speculate.

It seems to me that the only excuse for the sort of fiction we write (whatever it is called) is speculation, as far-ranging and imaginative as the author can manage.

But is this permitted? Don’t make me laugh, it hurts. The usual critic drags in his Procrustean bed at the first hint of free-swinging speculation. There has grown up an extremely conservative orthodoxy in science fiction, spineless, boneless, suffocating. It is almost amorphous but I can sketch the vague outlines. It is do-goodish and quasi-socialist — but not Communist; this critic wouldn’t recognize dialectical materialism if it bit him in the face. It is both “democratic” and “civil libertarian” without the slightest understanding that these two powerful and explosive concepts can frequently be in direct conflict, each with the other. It is egalitarian, pacifist, and anti-racist — with no notion that these concepts might ever clash. It believes heartily in “freedom” and “equality” — yet somehow thinks that “older & wiser heads” are fully justified in manipulating the human psyche to achieve these ends — after all, it’s for their own good … [sic] and these new orthodoctrinaires are always quite certain that they know what is good for the human race.

Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Sturgeon 1962-03-05, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).

March 17, 2015

A new Lois McMaster Bujold book tentatively scheduled for February, 2016

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Oddly enough, I’d just exchanged emails with Lois about an unrelated topic, and I closed with the hope that her muse would inspire her very soon, as any LMB book is to be eagerly anticipated. And just a few days later, here she is posting to the LMB mailing list (http://lists.herald.co.uk/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/lois-bujold):

I am pleased to report that a new Cordelia Vorkosigan novel has been sold to Baen Books for publication, tentatively, in February of 2016.

The title is Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

It is not a war story. It is about grownups.

And that is probably all I ought to say right now in a venue read by the spoiler-sensitive. It is, after all, a long haul till next February.

2016 will also mark the 30th anniversary of my first publication by Baen, which ought to be good for a little PR fun.

Ta, L.

March 14, 2015

Charles Stross on Terry Pratchett

Filed under: Britain,Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charlie doesn’t describe himself as a close friend of Terry’s, but they knew one another in the British SF community:

Friendship is context-sensitive.

I wouldn’t describe Terry as a friend, but as someone I’d been on a first-name acquaintanceship with since the mid-1980s. If you go to SF conventions (or partake of any subculture which has regular gatherings) you’ll know the way it works: there are these people who don’t really see outside of this particular social context, but you’re never surprised to see them in it, and you know each other’s names, and when you meet you chat about stuff and maybe sink a pint together.

I haven’t seen Terry since the Glasgow worldcon in 2005. The diagnosis of his illness came in 2007; I’d been spending a chunk of 05-07 out of the country, and after the bad news hit I didn’t feel like being part of the throng pestering him (for reasons I’ll get to later on in this piece.)

And on how Terry’s fame grew exponentially not long after they’d first met … and how it changed the public Terry (it perhaps didn’t do much to change the real Terry):

Some time between about 1989 and 1992, something strange began to happen. I started seeing his name feature more prominently in bookshops, displays of his books planted face-out. He started turning up as guest of honour at more and more SF conventions. When a convention did a signing with Terry, suddenly there was a long queue. And when he walked into a room, heads turned and people began to close in on him. There’s a curious phenomenon that goes with being famous in a particular subculture: if everybody knows you, you become a target for their projected fantasy of meeting their star. And they all want to shake your hand and say something, anything, that connects with what your work means to them in their own head. (If you want to see this at work today, just go to any function he’s appearing at — other than the Oscars — and watch what happens when Neil Gaiman walks into the room. He is, I swear, the human Katamari.)

Being on the receiving end of this phenomenon is profoundly isolating, especially if you’re one of those introverted author types who can emulate an extrovert for a few days at a time before you have to hide under the bed and gibber for a while: you’re surrounded by strangers who desperately want to connect with you and after a time it becomes really hard to tell them apart, to remember that they’re individuals with their own lives and stories and not just different faces emerging from the surface of a weird shape-shifting fame-tropic amoeboid alien. It’s not just authors who get this: if anything we get off very lightly compared to actors, politicians, or rock stars. (For some insight into it, go listen to the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.) I should add, this sort of introversion is really common among writers. It’s an occupation that demands a certain degree of introspective self-absorption, alongside a constant distance from the people you’re observing, who — they mostly don’t know this, of course — may provide the raw fuel for your work. So, if you want to hang on to your sanity, eventually you either go and hide for a bit, or you surround yourself with people who aren’t faintly threatening strangers who want a piece of your soul. Which is to say, you selectively hang out with your peers, or folks you met before you caught the fame virus.

Terry was not only a very funny man; he was an irrascible (and occasionally bad-tempered) guy who did not suffer fools gladly. However, he was also big-hearted enough to forgive the fools around him if they were willing to go halfway to meeting him by ceasing to be foolish at him. He practiced a gracious professionalism in his handling of the general public that spared them the harsh side of his tongue, and he was, above all, humane. As the fame snowballed, he withdrew a bit: appreciating that there was a difference between a sharp retort from your mate Terry at the bar and a put-down from Terry Pratchett, superstar, he stepped lightly and took pains to avoid anything that might cause distress.

Anyway, this isn’t a biography, it’s just the convoluted lead-in to an anecdote about the last time I saw him (which was a decade ago, so you’d better believe me when I say our relationship was “situational friend” rather than “personal friend”).

March 13, 2015

March 12th will be a black day on the calendar from now on

Filed under: Britain,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

It’s the day we bid farewell to Terry Pratchett. While we knew the end was nigh, many of us had hoped it would be postponed for many a year. In the Guardian, Christopher Priest says farewell:

BEING DEAD IS NOT COMPULSORY. NOT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO. These are the words of Death, one of Terry Pratchett’s ingenious comic creations in his Discworld novels. Death has a booming, unamused voice (always in capitals, never in quotation marks), and is the permanent straight man in the comic chaos around him. He goes about his morbid business on a horse called Binky, whose hooves throw up sparks on every street cobble. Death is a skeleton, with eyes like two tiny blue stars set deep within the sockets. He wears a black cloak, carries a scythe and, at the end of a day’s work, loves to murder a curry. At the point of contact with his latest client, he usually spends a few moments having a courteous word or two with the recently deceased, until they fade away.

Now Death has gained a most illustrious client, for Pratchett himself has died, aged 66, after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The exchange is no doubt unamused but courteous on one side, amusing but rueful on the other, but of fervent interest to both parties. It’s a conversation that millions of Pratchett fans would ache to overhear. Would Death dare to speak in capitals to Sir Terry Pratchett?

Pratchett was, and will remain, one of the most popular British authors of all time. In the modern age, only the career of JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, is comparable. The facts of Pratchett’s success are impressive: the sheer number of books he has sold (some 80m copies worldwide), and the number of reprints, translations, dramatisations on television and stage, audio versions and spin-offs, plus awards and honorary doctorates galore. Then there’s an inestimable amount of Discworld spinoffery: chess pieces, wizardly hats, cloaks and T-shirts, leathern bags, pottery figurines, fantastic artwork, magic clobber of every kind including dribbly candles – all made by and sold to fans. His signings at bookshops were legendary: a queue stretching down the street was de rigueur, and although Pratchett worked quickly at the signatures, he was unfailingly friendly to everyone who turned up. He was open to readers: he answered emails (or some of them, because the volume of incoming messages was spectacular) and he went to Discworld conventions (almost all of them). He was a nice man, unpretentious and with a wry manner.

Pratchett was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, son of David and Eileen. He described himself as an omnivorous reader of books from the local library, making up for his lacklustre years at High Wycombe technical high school. He wrote his first story while still at school: The Hades Business, originally published in the school magazine. It became his first professional sale when it was picked up later by the magazine Science Fantasy. He went into local journalism, working on the Bucks Free Press, and later on the Western Daily Press and Bath Chronicle. While working as a journalist, he wrote innumerable short stories for the newspapers under pen names.

March 1, 2015

Leonard Nimoy “made braininess sexy”

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

ESR talks about the late Leonard Nimoy:

There have been some surprisingly sensitive eulogies for him in the mainstream press, but they all merely skirted the edges of what may have been his most important contribution to popular culture: he made braininess sexy.

Journalists looking back at his life correctly note that despite James T. Kirk’s alpha-male swagger, Spock was the character that made women sigh. But they miss the full significance of this, a significance not easy to see because we live within the consequences of Nimoy’s achievement. He was the first star geek, a role model not just for Trek fans but for generations of bright kids after him.

If you are, like many of my readers, a fan of classic SF, ask yourself this: you had brainy heroes aplenty in your books (and rare that was outside of SF in those days) but who was the first one to be a live presence in media SF where he could influence the mundanes in a way print SF could not? That’s right; Spock. Leonard Nimoy’s methodical self-projection.

Nimoy made space in popular culture for intelligence as a positive quality in a way not seen so charismatically since perhaps as far back as Sherlock Holmes. By doing so, he paved the way for the post-Star-Wars boom in science fiction — and with it the gradual the emergence of a relatively self-confident subculture of bright, imaginative people who in the 1990s would begin to label themselves ‘geeks’. And who, whether Trek fans or not, would half-consciously see him as a role model and universally mourn his passing.

February 25, 2015

QotD: Robert Heinlein’s four “themes”

Filed under: Liberty,Media,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

    None of these things is done “by instinct”. I sweat like hell to make it a rousing good story while getting in the preaching I want to preach … I suggest that to the extent that they are used unconsciously, unwittingly “instinctively”, they are sloppy craftsmanship and likely to be bad art.

There were four “themes” he did use over and over — deliberately and not “by instinct”:

    One is the notion that knowledge is worth acquiring, all knowledge, and that a solid grounding in mathematics provides one with the essential language of many of the most important forms of knowledge. The third theme is that, while it is desirable to live peaceably, there are things worth fighting for and values worth dying for — and that it is far better for a man to die than to live under circumstances that call for such sacrifice. The fourth theme is that individual human freedoms are of basic value, without which mankind is less than human.

William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).

February 13, 2015

“Over cocktails in the woods of eastern Kentucky, they formed a partnership to mass-produce porn”

Filed under: Business,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The son of Golden Age SF author Andrew Offutt talks about his father’s other books:

My father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, grew up in a log cabin in Taylorsville, Ky. The house had 12-inch-thick walls with gun ports to defend against attackers: first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At 12, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method — find it and land on it — using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than 400 books. Two were science fiction and 24 were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using 17 pseudonyms.

In the mid-1960s, Dad purchased several porn novels through the mail. My mother recalls him reading them with disgust — not because of the content, but because of how poorly they were written. He hurled a book across the room and told her he could do better. Mom suggested he do so. According to her, the tipping point for Dad’s full commitment to porn, five years later, was my orthodontic needs.


Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went. Most writers get more words per page as they go from longhand to a typed manuscript, but not Dad. His handwriting was small, and he used ampersands and abbreviations. His first drafts were often the same length as the final ones.

Manuscripts of science fiction and fantasy received multiple revisions, but he had to work much faster on porn. After a longhand first chapter, he typed the rest swiftly, made editorial changes and passed that draft to my mother. She retyped it for final submission. At times, Mom would be typing the beginning of the book while Dad was still writing the end.

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Eighty percent of the notebooks described sexual aspects of women. The longest section focused on their bosoms. Another binder listed descriptions of individual actions, separated by labeling tabs that included: Mouth. Tongue. Face. Legs. Kiss. The heading of Orgasm had subdivisions of Before, During and After. The thickest notebook was designed strictly for B.D.S.M. novels with a list of 150 synonyms for “pain.” Sections included Spanking, Whipping, Degradation, Predegradation, Distress, Screams, Restraints and Tortures. These were further subdivided into specific categories followed by brief descriptions of each.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.

February 8, 2015

Refuting the “Golden Age of Television” meme

Filed under: History,Humour,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

A few years back, Livejournal user Squid314 took issue with the idea that we’re somehow enjoying a great era of TV programming lately:

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’ve been watching Babylon 5 lately. It’s not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it’s consistent and believable.

Contrast this with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is fun to watch, but if you think about it for more than two seconds you notice it’s full of plot holes and contradictions. Things that cause time travel paradoxes that threaten to destroy the universe one episode go without a hitch the next. And the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor’s biology gain completely different powers no one’s ever alluded to depending on the situation. The aliens are hysterically unlikely, often without motives or believable science, the characters will do any old insane thing when it makes the plot slightly more interesting, and everything has either a self-destruct button or an easily findable secret weakness that it takes no efforts to defend against.


So Doctor Who is not a complete loss. But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.

Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.


…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin’ unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you’re starting to wonder if any of the show’s writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I’m not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named “Enigma”, because the writers couldn’t spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means “Man of Steel” in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman “Man of Steel” and the Frenchman “de Gaulle”, whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don’t even try to make their stuff believable.

January 10, 2015

Sub-orbital airliners? Not if you know much about economics and physics

Filed under: Economics,Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charles Stross in full “beat up the optimists” mode over a common SF notion about sub-orbital travel for the masses:

Let’s start with a simple normative assumption; that sub-orbital spaceplanes are going to obey the laws of physics. One consequence of this is that the amount of energy it takes to get from A to B via hypersonic airliner is going to exceed the energy input it takes to cover the same distance using a subsonic jet, by quite a margin. Yes, we can save some fuel by travelling above the atmosphere and cutting air resistance, but it’s not a free lunch: you expend energy getting up to altitude and speed, and the fuel burn for going faster rises nonlinearly with speed. Concorde, flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 2.0, burned about the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 of similar vintage flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 0.85 … while carrying less than a quarter as many passengers.

Rockets aren’t a magic technology. Neither are hybrid hypersonic air-breathing gadgets like Reaction Engines‘ Sabre engine. It’s going to be a wee bit expensive. But let’s suppose we can get the price down far enough that a seat in a Mach 5 to Mach 10 hypersonic or sub-orbital passenger aircraft is cost-competitive with a high-end first class seat on a subsonic jet. Surely the super-rich will all switch to hypersonic services in a shot, just as they used Concorde to commute between New York and London back before Airbus killed it off by cancelling support after the 30-year operational milestone?

Well, no.

Firstly, this is the post-9/11 age. Obviously security is a consideration for all civil aviation, right? Well, no: business jets are largely exempt, thanks to lobbying by their operators, backed up by their billionaire owners. But those of us who travel by civil airliners open to the general ticket-buying public are all suspects. If something goes wrong with a scheduled service, fighters are scrambled to intercept it, lest some fruitcake tries to fly it into a skyscraper.

So not only are we not going to get our promised flying cars, we’re not going to get fast, cheap, intercontinental travel options. But what about those hyper-rich folks who spend money like water?

First class air travel by civil aviation is a dying niche today. If you are wealthy enough to afford the £15,000-30,000 ticket cost of a first-class-plus intercontinental seat (or, rather, bedroom with en-suite toilet and shower if we’re talking about the very top end), you can also afford to pay for a seat on a business jet instead. A number of companies operate profitably on the basis that they lease seats on bizjets by the hour: you may end up sharing a jet with someone else who’s paying to fly the same route, but the operating principle is that when you call for it a jet will turn up and take you where you want to go, whenever you want. There’s no security theatre, no fuss, and it takes off when you want it to, not when the daily schedule says it has to. It will probably have internet connectivity via satellite—by the time hypersonic competition turns up, this is not a losing bet—and for extra money, the sky is the limit on comfort.

I don’t get to fly first class, but I’ve watched this happen over the past two decades. Business class is holding its own, and premium economy is growing on intercontinental flights (a cut-down version of Business with more leg-room than regular economy), but the number of first class seats you’ll find on an Air France or British Airways 747 is dwindling. The VIPs are leaving the carriers, driven away by the security annoyances and drawn by the convenience of much smaller jets that come when they call.

For rich people, time is the only thing money can’t buy. A HST flying between fixed hubs along pre-timed flight paths under conditions of high security is not convenient. A bizjet that flies at their beck and call is actually speedier across most intercontinental routes, unless the hypersonic route is serviced by multiple daily flights—which isn’t going to happen unless the operating costs are comparable to a subsonic craft.

December 30, 2014

Economics of SF writing – the fall of the short story and the rise of the novel

Filed under: Business,Economics,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:48

Charles Stross outlines the reason SF writers pretty much stopped writing short stories en masse in the mid-to-late 1950s:

A typical modern novel is in the range 85,000-140,000 words. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. The shortest work of fiction I ever wrote and sold was seven words long; the longest was 196,000 words. I’ve written plenty of short stories, in the 3000-8000 word range, novelettes (8000-18,000 words), and novellas (20,000-45,000 words). (Anything longer than a novella is a “short novel” and deeply unfashionable these days, at least in adult genre fiction, which seems to be sold by the kilogram.)


Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space were originally published, among others.

For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market — the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up — Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).

The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift — it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.

A side-effect of dwindling sales is that the fixed overheads of running a magazine (the editor’s pay check) remains the same but there’s less money to go around. Consequently, pay rates for short fiction stagnated from the late 1950s onwards. 2 cents/word was a decent wage in 1955 — it was $20 for a thousand words, so $80-500 for a short story or novelette. But the monthly magazines were still paying 5 cents/word in the late 1990s! This was pin money. It was a symbolic reward. It would cover your postage and office supplies bill — if you were frugal.

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