Cities in Flight by James Blish: a book review


Cities in Flight by James Blish (1955–1962)

I recently re-read the science fiction classic Cities in Flight by James Blish. The galaxy-wide sweep of this four-part novel had stuck with me ever since I first read it as a child – likewise the role of the city that has two names twice. However, I had forgotten that the story opens in what is now our present (2019, with a prelude set in 2013 and a brief reference to an event of 2018). It was interesting to compare Blish’s vision of the future with our reality – where are our planetary outposts, for example? On the other hand, we have already begun forgetting facts, and letting computers remember them for us. Likewise, we have already started automating all “ordinary” jobs.

As an aside, it should be noted that the fourth part of the story, A Clash of Cymbals, was published in the U.S. as the less poetic The Triumph of Time.

The basic premise of this four-part novel is that a newly invented antigravity spacedrive allows cities to lift off into the galaxy and become “Okies” or itinerant labourers. Depressed American steel towns, for example, take off in search of planets with ore that needs refining. People, however, are still people, and not all the cities are friendly.

The writing is classic “hard SF.” There are even differential equations! The plot is heavily influenced by Oswald Spengler and the overall view of humanity is rather pessimistic (though not as pessimistic as some other novels). The second of the four parts, A Life for the Stars, focuses on a teenager (unwillingly) joining the exodus of cities, and thus has the form of a “coming of age” novel. The fourth part, like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero and some other classic “hard SF,” ends with a sort of Big Crunch/Big Bang (although, as usual, the philosophical implications of a cyclic universe are inadequately explored).

The timeline of the novel spans more than two millennia:

  • 2018: Jovian expedition (in progress as They Shall Have Stars begins)
  • 2019–2021: development of the “spindizzy” antigravity spacedrive and first interstellar expedition (They Shall Have Stars)
  • 2105: fall of the West; earth ruled by Stalinist “Bureaucratic State” (hinted at in They Shall Have Stars)
  • 2310: the Battle of Altair begins the Vegan War, which in turn leads to the formation of the Hruntan Empire
  • 2375: rediscovery of the “spindizzy” on Earth; “Okie” cities begin to spread across the galaxy
  • 2522: collapse of the “Bureaucratic State” on Earth
  • 3111: New York, N.Y. leaves planet Earth (its career in space forms the major part of the novel)
  • 3602: Earth police take action against the remains of the Hruntan Empire (Earthman Come Home)
  • 3975: the Battle of Earth (Earthman Come Home)
  • 4104: the End (A Clash of Cymbals / The Triumph of Time)

As a classic, this novel is well worth a read, in spite of some writing flaws that are obvious on a re-reading. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary. Goodreads rates the combined novel as 3.95 stars, which is consistent with my 3.5 (I have a tougher scale).


Cities in Flight by James Blish: 3½ stars


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Albi Eco Race 2019 begins!


Image credits 1, 2, 3

The Albi Eco Race 2019 has begun. The solar-car segment (“Niveau 3”) includes Bochum University of Applied Sciences with their legendary 2011 car, SolarWorld GT (top left), as well as their sexy 2015 car, the thyssenkrupp SunRiser (top right; it will make a comeback at WSC later this year) and their 2017 car, the thyssenkrupp blue.cruiser (not shown). The French (or rather, Breton) team Eco Solar Breizh is fielding their challenger Heol and their new urban mini-Cruiser hx2 (bottom). I understand that the Lycée Jehan de Beauce (Project 28) is also participating, along with the fantastic Ardingly Solar team from the UK (who will take their Cruiser to WSC as well).

The actual solar-car race is from 9:00 to 16:30 on Saturday (French time), if I am understanding the timetable correctly. There are active Twitter feeds from Ardingly, Bochum, Eco Solar Breizh, and of course the race itself.

Sadly, it looks like rain.


Image credits 1, 2, 3

Edit: it seems that the SolarWorld GT suffered some damage, which means that only two Bochum cars are competing. Also, hx2 is not competing in the solar-car segment. Below are the speeds from the qualifiers.

Further edit: The thyssenkrupp blue.cruiser won the event on points. The thyssenkrupp SunRiser came second, with 119 laps in 8 hours, i.e. an average of about 53 km/h. Heol from Eco Solar Breizh came third.


Eurovision!

The 2019 Eurovision Song Contest is on right now. Above (click to zoom) is a combined word cloud for the songs (or English translations of the songs).

From the point of view of getting into the final, it seems to be bad to sing about Heaven (Montenegro, Portugal), war (Croatia, Finland), cell phones (Belgium, Portugal), or cold (Latvia, Poland, Romania). On the other hand, it’s good to sing about lights (Germany, Norway, Sweden).

Good luck to everyone for the final!


Origin by Dan Brown: a book review


Origin by Dan Brown (2017)

I recently read Origin, the latest Dan Brown novel. Just about every Dan Brown novel covers topics dear to my heart, such as cryptography, computer simulation, the theory of computation, and artificial intelligence – but also the history of science, the history of Christianity, Dante, and Galileo. Dan Brown routinely promises an accurate depiction of these background topics (in this latest novel, he says “All art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real”). However (as I also pointed out for his Angels & Demons), the reality of his novels doesn’t quite live up to this claim. To pick just three examples, Yves Klein did not invent the pigment in International Klein Blue; “Pope Innocent XIV” was an Argentinian antipope, not a Spanish one; and it is not suprising when computer simulations produce results reflecting the assumptions built into their design.


Gaudí’s la Sagrada Família (image credit) plays a major part in the novel. It has been on my bucket list for decades. It still is.

Even as a work of pure fiction, Origin still disappoints. As with Dan Brown’s previous novels, the constant appearance of crazed gunmen doesn’t make up for the plot weaknesses. And a major theme of the novel is artificial intelligence – now, I don’t object to this being portrayed far in advance of current technology (that’s not uncommon in fiction), but the theme of artificial intelligence has been handled far better by (among others) Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick, Michael Crichton, and Peter F. Hamilton. I also found the book’s ending profoundly anticlimactic. However, if you’re a fan of Dan Brown novels, you’ll probably like this one too.

For other reviews, see The Week (“Dan Brown is a very bad writer”), The National (“The idea that a computer simulation would fundamentally destroy the faith of billions in their religions is so utterly, cluelessly juvenile that it seems right at home in a Brown novel”), and The Stream (“It’s sci-fi done by someone who knows nothing about sci-fi”).


Origin by Dan Brown: 2 stars


International Nurses Day

Sunday (May 12) is International Nurses Day, a day which marks the contributions that nurses make all around the world. The day is in fact the birthday of Florence Nightingale, who was a pioneer nurse as well as a pioneer of medical statistics. Nurses are multi-talented!

Thank you, all you nurses, for your contributions to the world!


2019 World Solar Challenge update #5


Michigan’s Novum, after having arrived second in 2017 (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Warning: this list is obsolete. Please check more recent posts.

Here is a further update on the 51 teams (27 Challengers, 23 Cruisers, and 1 Adventure car) aiming for the 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia this coming October. Many teams are busy with construction, and below is my best understanding of the current team status (it does not yet reflect the to-be-published official list of teams). A few things have changed since my last list, and I have added some pictures and corrected some errors.

Meanwhile, 25 teams – Bridger, Calgary, CalSol (1st in 2017), Esteban (3rd in 2017), Florida, Ga Tech, Illini, Illinois St, Kentucky, Mich St, Missouri S&T, NCSU, NJIT, Northwestern, Principia, PrISUm, Purdue, Rutgers, SIUE, UBC, UPRM, UT, UVA, W Mich, and Waterloo, including 1 WSC team – are preparing to attend FSGP 2019 in America this July.

Recent BWSC news is that JU Solar Team have a body, that Eindhoven have a bottom shell, that Top Dutch and CalSol also have shells, and that Bochum have clarified their plans.

In addition, on 24–25 May, the Albi Eco Race will have Bochum competing against Ardingly and several French cars (see my report on the 2018 event).

AU  Looks on track  Adelaide University 

Challenger (Lumen II) – they have been doing a lot of testing.

AU  Hmmm  ATN Solar Car Team 

Cruiser (new team: see my team bio) – their team is a mixture of lecturers and students from five universities across Australia. They have tested a model in a wind tunnel.

AU  Hmmm  Australian National University 

Challenger (new car: MTAA Gnowee) – the car is named after a woman in Aboriginal myth who carries the sun. They are working on their mould.

AU  Looks on track  Flinders University 

Cruiser (Investigator Mark III) – they are planning to improve aerodynamics, reduce weight, and make some other changes.

AU  Looks on track  TAFE SA 

Cruiser (SAV) – this time they will tow the trailer that belongs with the car.

AU  Looks on track  Team Arrow 

Cruiser (ArrowSTF) – they have done a six-month-out update video.

Team Arrow 6 Months to #BWSC19 Update

AU  Looks on track  University of New South Wales / Sunswift 

Cruiser (Violet) – they have been testing their car on the track.

AU  Looks on track  Western Sydney Solar Team 

Challenger (new car) – they won the American Solar Challenge last year (with their Challenger car Unlimited 2.0).

BE  Looks on track  Agoria Solar Team (KU Leuven) 

Challenger (new car: BluePoint) – they have some (top secret) production moulds and are now sponsored by Agoria. They held a mock race with the old car.

CA  Looks on track  ETS Quebec (Eclipse) 

Challenger (Éclipse X.I) – they came an excellent 3rd in the ASC, 102 minutes behind Western Sydney, and hope to go even faster with the new battery pack in their modified car. Planned improvements are summarised in their winter newsletter.

CA  Looks on track  University of Toronto (Blue Sky) 

Challenger (new car: Viridian) – they plan to unveil the new car in July.

CL  Hmmm  Antakari Solar Team 

Challenger (new car: Intikallpa V) – no news on the new design as yet.

Antakari BWSC 2013 aftermovie (they participated in the Adventure class)

CL  Hmmm  Eolian AutoSolar 

Cruiser (new car: Auriga ) – they will be back at the WSC after coming 14th in 2007.


public domain photo

DE  Looks on track  Bochum University of Applied Sciences 

Cruiser (thyssenkrupp SunRiser ) – Bochum is not building a new WSC car, but are improving their sexy 2-seater SunRiser, which came 3rd in 2015. They also have a solar buggy team. As in previous years, they are participating in the Albi Eco Race.


photo: Anthony Dekker

DE  Looks on track  Sonnenwagen Aachen 

Challenger (new car) – they have a car-racing game app starring their car.

HK  Looks on track  Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education 

Cruiser (Sophie 6 plus) – they have been working on the car body.

IN  Looks like they might not make WSC  R.V. College of Engineering 

Challenger (new car) – no details as yet.


public domain photo

IN  Hmmm  SolarMobil Manipal 

Cruiser (SM-S2) – existing car.

IR  Hmmm  University of Tehran 

Cruiser (new car: Persian Gazelle 4) – they will unveil their car on 11 June.


public domain photo

IT  Looks like they might not make WSC  Futuro Solare Onlus 

Cruiser (new car: Archimede 2.0) – they have an exciting design concept.

IT  Looks on track  Onda Solare 

Cruiser (Emilia 4) – they won the American Solar Challenge (Cruiser class) last year, and they have written up their design process here.

JP  Looks on track  Kogakuin University 

Challenger (new car) – they have announced their participation and held a “Solar Team Welcome Party” for new members.

JP  Looks on track  Nagoya Institute of Technology 

Challenger (new car) – no news on the new design as yet.


public domain photo

JP  Looks on track  Tokai University 

Challenger (new car) – in January they hosted some visitors from Lodz.

KR  Looks on track  Kookmin University Solar Team 

Challenger (new car) – no news on the new design as yet.

KUST BWSC 2017 aftermovie (they raced in the Challenger class)

MY  Looks on track  EcoPhoton / UiTM 

Challenger (new car: Tigris) – see their first vlog (in Bahasa Malaysia).

MA  Looks like they might not make WSC  Mines Rabat Solar Team 

Challenger (new car: Eleadora 2) – their new catamaran will look like this. They have made a mould for their body.

NL  Looks on track  Solar Team Eindhoven 

Cruiser (new car: Stella ?) – they have turned a shipping container into an oven for production and plan to reveal their car on July 4. The bottom shell just came out.

NL  Looks on track  Solar Team Twente 

Challenger (new car: Red E) – they are already producing regular vlogs (in Dutch), and have also produced an (English) day-in-the-life blog post. They have revealed their design, which is a GaAs catamaran (see the animation here). They will run a MOOC explaining the design of their 2015 car, and will reveal their 2019 car on (of course!) 21 June.

NL  Looks on track  Top Dutch Solar Racing 

Challenger (new team: see my team bio) – they have a shell, which looks a lot like Michigan’s Novum.

NL  Looks on track  Vattenfall Solar Team (Delft) 

Challenger (new car: Nuna X) – these are the champions formerly known as Nuon. See their 2017 aftermovie.

PL  Looks on track  Lodz Solar Team 

Cruiser (Eagle Two) – they have produced a solar baby, which is a prize that lasts.

PL  Looks like they might not make WSC  PUT Solar Dynamics 

Cruiser (new team) – they are making a mould for their body.

SG  Looks on track  Singapore Polytechnic 

Cruiser (SunSPEC 5) – they have new motors and new doors.

SE  Looks on track  Chalmers Solar Team 

Challenger (new team: see my team bio) – their final render resembles the car of the South African NWU team. They have been working on their suspension, and hope to ship the car in early June.

SE  Looks on track  Halmstad University Solar Team 

Challenger (new team: see my team bio) – they are planning a bullet car, much like Michigan’s 2017 entry.

SE  Looks on track  JU Solar Team 

Challenger (new car: Axelent) – they have a rolling test chassis and a body. The body design seems long and thin.

SE  Looks on track  MDH Solar Team 

Challenger (MDH Solar Car) – they have been doing some testing.

CH  Looks on track  Solar Energy Racers 

Challenger (SER-3) – they raced this car in South Africa.

TW  Looks on track  Kaohsiung / Apollo 

Cruiser (new car: Apollo IX) – they have been making some carbon-fibre seats.

TH  Looks like they might not make WSC  Siam Technical College 

Cruiser (new car: STC-3) – no news on the new design as yet.

Siam Technical College BWSC 2017 aftermovie (they raced in the Cruiser class)

TR  Looks like they might not make WSC  Dokuz Eylül University (Solaris) 

Challenger (new car) – they expect the new car to be 44% more efficient than the 2015 model.


public domain photo

GB  Looks on track  Ardingly College 

Cruiser – this high-school team came 6th in the iESC Cruiser class, but have upgraded the car since then. They have been entertaining royalty, and will participate in the Albi Eco Race.

GB  Looks on track  Cambridge University 

Cruiser (new car: Helia) – they are busy with fabrication.

GB  Looks on track  Durham University 

Challenger (new car: Ortus) – they have been doing outreach, as well as fabrication.

US  Looks on track  Appalachian State University (Sunergy) 

Cruiser (new team: see my team bio) – as with some European teams, they have been testing at an airport.

US  Looks on track  Berkeley (CalSol) 

Cruiser (new car: Tachyon) – they have a shell. They will also attend FSGP 2019.

US  Looks on track  Houston School District 

Adventure (Sundancer) – this high school team from from Houston, Mississippi is a regular visitor, because they keep winning the US high school race.

US  Looks on track  Stanford Solar Car Project 

Challenger (new car) – they have revealed their shell, which is a unique asymmetric bullet car.

US  Looks on track  University of Michigan 

Challenger (new car) – they are asking for name suggestions for the new car.

Michigan BWSC 2017 aftermovie (they came 2nd in the Challenger class)

US  Looks on track  University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project 

Cruiser (new car: Freya) – they have posted a progress video on Facebbok.

UMNSVP BWSC 2015 aftermovie (they came 5th in the Cruiser class)

This page last updated 23:09 on 18 May 2019 AEST. Thanks to Nigel for several news items.