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


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

The Crucible of Time: a book review

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars

Superman is boring

Superman, as orginally described, was invulnerable. Having a hero with superpowers that are too strong makes for a boring story, because a good story needs conflict. There are several ways of handling that, of course.

1. Kryptonite weakens my powers

According to some accounts, kryptonite was invented specifically to make Superman less invulnerable and boring (Paul Fairchild explains why this was a bad decision). Kryptonite, of one kind or another, is a classic solution to the problem of an overly strong superhero which, to some extent, has been used by multiple authors. It can be overused, however. If your superhero is always weak, why have such a character at all? A better variation of this approach is for the protagonist to carry his or her own metaphorical kryptonite inside, as some kind of “fatal flaw.”

2. My powers come at a heavy cost

This is one of the easiest ways for an author to ensure that his or her character does not overuse their superpowers. These superpowers may cause pain, coma, physical harm, or other damage that enforces a break between uses of the superpowers. For example, the psychic Greg Mandel in Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising and its two sequels suffers severe headaches when his powers are used to excess. Variations of this approach are used in a number of fantasy novels.

3. My powers disturb or frighten me

A good example of this option is Doctor Who, in the eponymous TV series, who often needs to be talked into taking action. The advantage of this approach is that it produces a great deal of interesting dialogue on why the superpowers are disturbing or frightening.

4. I am still learning to use my powers

This option is particularly common in young adult fiction. It allows the author to have an attempted use of powers either succeed or fail at any point; but this makes sense with a young protagonist. The young magician Pug in Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a good example. So is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. To some extent, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings can be viewed as having a combination of (3) and (4). But, however the author does it, I think that some limitation on superpowers is essential for a story to remain interesting. What do you think?

The Invention of Clouds: a book review

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn (2001)

I recently read The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn, who also wrote Terra (which I reviewed some years ago). The present volume focuses on the Quaker pharmacist Luke Howard, who produced a taxonomy of clouds in 1802. Essentially the same classification is still used today (but not, as Hamblyn points out, without considerable debate during the 1800s):

Although the focus is on Howard’s work and life, Hamblyn in fact provides a brief history of meteorology (or at least of the study of clouds), and there is a chapter on the Beaufort scale. Contemporary literature referred to includes:

Google Ngrams plot for three of the cloud types (with and without hyphens). The words “cirrostratus” and “cirrocumulus” first appear in reprintings of Howard’s pioneering essay, while the word “cumulonimbus” is introduced around 1887. There is a renewed spike of interest in cloud types beginning in the early 1940’s.

The Invention of Clouds also has some interesting comments on clouds in art and on how to get an education at a time when the two English universities banned non-Anglicans from attending. However, the book does have a few small errors. For example, cloud droplets are not “a mere millionth of a millimetre across,” but in the range 0.005 to 0.05 mm. However, that does not stop the book from being both enjoyable and informative (although I did wish for colour images). See also this review from the NY Times.

The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn: 3½ stars

Crosstalk: a book review

Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the science-fiction romantic comedy Crosstalk by Connie Willis. This novel is reminiscent of her previous books Bellwether and Passage. Like Bellwether, it is set in a high-tech company (this time, a mobile-phone company), and has the fast-paced craziness of Howard Hawks movies such as Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Like Passage, it has a hospital staircase scene, and explores themes relating to neuroscience and parapsychology.

The social commentary in Crosstalk focuses mainly on social media and the dangers of too much communication. The novel begins: “By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone. The first one was from Suki Parker—of course—and the next four were from Jill Quincy, all saying some variant of ‘Dying to hear what happened.’ Suki’s said, ‘Heard rumor Trent Worth took you to Iridium!???’ Of course you did, Briddey thought. Suki was Commspan’s very own Gossip Girl. And that meant by now the whole company knew it. …

To say too much more than that would involve spoilers. The Guardian also liked the novel, but the LA Times did not. I’m giving it four stars.

* * * *
Crosstalk by Connie Willis: 4 stars

ASC 11: Leadership

Nuon Solar Team celebrates their 2017 WSC win (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Ernest Hemingway famously said that “war is fought by human beings.” It’s the same with solar cars – they are built and raced by human beings. Or, as Solar Team Twente likes to say, they are “powered by human energy.

There are many aspects to this human side of solar car racing. I’ve written before about how little things like team clothing contribute to team cohesion. A diversity of skills is important if a team is to succeed. During the race, nutrition is one of the things necessary to keep people working at top efficiency. But today, I want to talk about team leadership.

Engineering leadership is critically important, although surprisingly little is written about it. Tracy Kidder produced a fantastic, almost ethnographic, description of real-world engineering in his 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine, but even that book has the actual leadership happening mostly in the background.

A century earlier, Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with the words “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (“Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему”). That is true also for solar car teams. Many things have to be done right if a team is to succeed, but doing one thing badly is enough to stop a team in its tracks.

A team leader must, first of all, motivate team members to do their best – it is no accident that all the solar car team leaders I’ve met have been really nice people. A team leader must make sure that the overall problem of building, racing, and finding sponsorship for a solar car is broken down into manageable pieces, and that the right person is in charge of each piece – this is the essence of engineering.

A solar-car team leader must also have – and promote – a clear vision of the car that the team is going to build. It is possible to have a world-class suspension, a world-class body, world-class solar cells, and world-class everything else, and still fail, because the components were designed under different assumptions, and don’t actually fit together to make a world-class car.

A team leader must keep an eye on the critical path as well. Building a solar car for a race is one of the most challenging kinds of engineering project – one where the delivery date is fixed in stone. What project managers call the critical path is the sequence of activities which, if they take any longer than planned, are guaranteed to delay project completion. Generally, the schedule for building and testing a solar car doesn’t leave much room for that kind of schedule slippage.

One perennial question with solar car team leaders is how long it takes them to realise that there is a problem requiring the team to either (a) change the way it operates or (b) pull out of the competition. Each year, I am reminded by somebody or other of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, summarised so well in the famous data visualisation above (by Charles Minard).

Napoleon’s death march (painted by Illarion Pryanishnikov)

Napoleon began his invasion with 422,000 men, and reached Moscow with only 100,000 survivors. This was not enough to do anything, so he turned around and went home again, losing most of his remaining troops to cold and skirmishes in the process. I have often wondered at what point Napoleon realised that his plan was not working the way that it was supposed to. In a similar way, there is always a solar car team that begins a last-minute “death-march,” working until 3:00 AM each night, desperately trying to finish their car. The early hours of the morning are not a good time to be making safety-critical engineering decisions, and teams which leave it so late to panic generally don’t do very well.

But enough of Napoleon. Let us listen to some men and women who know how it’s done (translations from Dutch are my own best attempts):

Olivier Berghuis, Solar Team Twente (2017): “As team leader you are the one ultimately responsible for the success of the project. That means that you have to keep a close eye on the progress of the project’s technical, communication, and financial aspects. The mood of the team and the personal development of each team member are also critically important important responsibilities of the team leader.” (“Als teamleider ben je eindverantwoordelijk voor het slagen van het project. Dat betekent dat je de voortgang van het project op technisch, communicatief en financieel gebied in de gaten moet houden. Daarnaast is de sfeer binnen het team en de persoonlijke ontwikkeling van elk teamlid een zeer belangrijke verantwoordelijkheid van de teamleider.”)

Shihaab Punia, University of Michigan (2016): “… build the best possible team and team culture …”

Photo: Jerome Wassenaar

Irene van den Hof, Solar Team Twente (2015): “I think that I am a good listener for my teammates. I try to put a lot of emphasis on that. Everyone is young and inexperienced, and that can sometimes cause problems, but together we are indeed a team, and everyone has to reach the finish line – I make sure of that.” (“Ik denk dat ik heel goed kan luisteren naar mijn teamgenoten. Daar probeer ik ook veel aandacht aan te besteden. Iedereen is jong en onervaren en dat kan voor problemen zorgen, maar samen zijn we wel een team en iedereen moet de eindstreep halen, daar zorg ik ook voor.”)

And it’s worth repeating the excellent insights from Rachel Abril, who was on the Stanford solar car team for four years (“Go fast, but not recklessly fast. Test it. Test it again. Test it more. Use failure as a foundation for success.”):