the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

or, random thoughts on hard science fiction.



How hard is too hard?  How much science do you really want in your science fiction?  According to wikipedia, hard scifi is defined as

“a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.”

It goes on to say that hard scifi should have accurate science and lots of scientific details. To simplify greatly, in hard scifi the science is an important part of the worldbuilding.  the soft scifi story says they  boarded a ship and went to another planet, the hard scifi story offers information regarding the type and design of the ship, how it manages to travel faster than light, and what it’s fuel is made of, and all of these details are important to plot development and characterization.

I’ve always had a soft spot for hard scifi because I love knowing how things work. Doesn’t matter if the author mentions elements or fuels or technology that doesn’t currently exist (that’s the fiction part), because I’m still getting a plausable scientific foundation for the technologies mentioned.  Many books that I’d categorize as hard scifi can easily fall into other categories as well – space opera, military scifi, first contact, etc.

Titles that come to mind when I think hard scifi include Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Faith, by John Love, Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan, and plenty of Peter Watts, Gregory Benford, Larry Niven and A.E. Van Vogt.  It’s the type of stuff where accurate science trumps all, and it’s usually pretty damn awesome.

as readers and fans of hard scifi, how hard do we really want it?

I bring this up because I recently survived Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan. Egan is a bit of a mystery man, and this was my first taste of his style.  Egan dumps his reader on an alien planet (sounds good so far!), and the story mostly follows a scientist who learns of the danger her planet is it (still sounds great!).  The physics work a little different in this solar system (sweet!) so we get all sorts of charts (cool, i guess) and academic discussions (when did I sign up for SCI302 Astrophysics II?)  about the physics and how basically time and light and spacetime is completely different here. And then there are more charts, to put everything in 4 dimensions,  more academic discussions (when did I sign up for SCI515 Non-real Relativity??), and then, well, I started to feel a bit stupid.  What happened to the cool aliens and interesting plot?

If the heavy science in the book bores me to tears, can I still call myself a fan of hard scifi?

I freely admit I’m not the smartest person in the world,  I’ve always loved math and science, even if it didn’t love me back.  But when a hard scifi book makes me feel like I flunked 10th grade geometry, the hard scifi just got too hard for me.

Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman

Based on lectures given in 1963, the version I have was published in 1996

where I got it: owned









I was never a very good formal student. Sure, I always liked school, and I liked learning and didn’t mind studying, but when it came to math and science it felt like the information was going in one ear and out the other. The learning of those subjects never felt like a conversation, it never felt like an interaction. It just felt like work.

The greatest teachers of whatever they are teaching make it feel like a conversation. They make physics and chemistry and “how things work” feel like you are witnessing something between passion and magic. Their love for the topic makes people want to learn more. If we are lucky, those passionate teachers record their thoughts.

I discovered the writings of the famous physicist  Richard Feynman when I was in high school, but it would be years before his books made much sense to me. That’s not to say high schoolers shouldn’t read him, they most definitely should, it’s just that the material was beyond me when I was that age.  My first book of his was Six Easy Pieces (and yes, I did eventually go on to purchase  the follow up Six Not so Easy Pieces).   The Six Pieces are the nearly exact dictations of lectures Feynman gave at CalTech in the early 1960’s.  Instead of focusing on formulas and so and so’s law of such and such, Feynman uses easy to understand examples and his vibrant personality and pure love of the subject to invite us into his conversation.

no, the other kind of strange quark!

Originally planned as lectures,  Feynman breaks down the basics of physics, both classical and quantum in six short chapters.  The lectures include stories, improvisations, approximations, and hypothetical conversations on everything from gravitation to strange quarks to perpetual motion and how physics relates to the other sciences. Free of heavy math and scientific jargon, the Laws of Physics are generally compared to learning to play chess by watching two other players,  Conservation of Energy is shown through a story about Dennis the Menace hiding his toys (and his mother having to find them), the concept of “partricles with zero mass” is actually explained in a way I could understand, and the chapter on quantum particles starts by describing them as “not like anything you have ever seen”.  In that final chapter on quantum physics, Feynman is obviously torn between continually having to refer to the classical “laws of physics”, and confusing the student by having to say “yes, but those laws don’t work here, and now I have to figure out a simple way to show how things really work”.

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Lots of things have been jumbling around in my mind this week. Such as:

I caught a rerun of a 2008 Mythbusters episode where they debunked the myth that the 1969 Moon landing was faked. I loved the scene where Adam was hopping around in his space suit.

Reading Scott Lynch’s Queen of the Iron Sands that features an earthling being thrilled how far she can jump on Mars, because the gravity is lower.

Reminiscing about my love for  physics and rollercoaster mechanics with a retired physics professor, while discussing many other wonderful things (if he’s reading this, he knows who he is).

Tor’s Exoplanet article.

What do all of those things have in common?  they all have to do with gravity and planets and physics and everything that’s fun in the universe!  So much science (fictional) fun to be had here!  and a little bit of silliness, of course. I suddenly feel like an 8 year old who just discovered an astrophysics encyclopedia!

What would roller coasters and bungee jumping be like on the Moon? Maybe we’d need magnets to get the thrill of falling.

Speaking of falling, if you were born and raised on a planet with lower gravity, might you never develop a fear of falling?

If your planet had two (or more) suns, would you need extra sunblock?

Would people grow taller on planets with lower gravity?  How many generations would it take for the mutation to “take” in humans? Would plants grow taller? would their roots not go as deep into the ground?

How would changes in gravity affect waterfalls and water erosion?

How would multiple moons affect ocean tides?

How would different gravities affect fashion? Something I read recently (I think it was Anderson’s Bitter Angels), talked about how on a lower gravity planet people used weights in their clothes as fashion accessories, and the poor tied or sewed rocks into the hems of their clothing.  What about shoes? What about hair styles? And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be wearing a Star Trek Unitard.

Sometimes the most important thing is coming up with the questions.

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.