Dec 29

Why I Haven’t Written for Children


There are a few things that people shouldn’t do unless they can’t help it. Unless they were born to do it. Two of those are writing and teaching, and I am afflicted with both.

If you’ve read my profile anywhere, you know that I’ve been writing for a long, long time.  I’m not even sure with the literary bug first bit me, but I clearly remember a story in fourth grade. You’re about nine years old in fourth grade; I was writing at least since then.

The other theme that has threaded through my life is children. Teaching Sunday School and CCD, science fairs, Odyssey of the Mind, school programs, youth soccer, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire, youth caving. That’s not even the whole list. Why? If you are unfortunate enough to view the world purely mechanistically, you’re rather compelled to see children as juveniles of a particular species of primate. Some of us, though, are lucky enough to be able to see them as God’s gift to humanity. They are blank pages upon which inspiring epics can be written.  They are the hope of the future. Dogs and grumpy old men who don’t like them are missing out on one of the greatest blessings in life. That’s why.

Kalle Blomkvist (glasses), a Swedish Nancy Drew, and his buddies Eva-Lotta and Anders threatened by a bad guy with a gun.

Kalle Blomkvist (glasses), sort of a Swedish Nancy Drew, and his buddies Eva-Lotta and Anders threatened by a bad guy with a gun.

It’s not surprising that I write a lot of children. However, they’re not children that are necessarily fit for children to read about.  Kolikki and Kolinda hold tremendous power. Ik is more terrifying than Freddy Kruger if you get on her bad side. The first two will kill you if need be, but Ik is far, far worse than that. Nine-year-old Mellia absorbs the entire contents of a Valshetti educational Star of Knowledge and brings down a tyrant. These are not the day-to-day experiences of real-life children that they can identify with.

Still, one might suspect that since both writing and children have followed me my entire life I would have put the two together and written for children. But alas, no. Actually, I’ve started a few stories: The Voyage of the Sheltowee, The Secret Starship, and an unnamed one involving teleportation. All sci-fi, of course, but I grew up with that.

I name Astrid Lindgren as the greatest children’s author ever and one of the reasons I’m studying Swedish. Americans know her, if they know her at all, for Pippi Longstocking, but I know her for so many more characters: Madicken and Lisabet Engström, Lotta Marten (Nyman in the movies), Kalle Blomkvist, Nils Karlsson, Ronja Rövardotter, and the list goes on. These are all well-known characters in Sweden even if American culture is deprived of their day-to-day presence. Part of my motivation for learning Swedish is just so I can read her stories in the language in which she wrote them.

Ramona Quimby

Ramona Quimby. Yeah, my hair does look rather like that nowadays.

I’m also fond of Beverly Cleary. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 sticks out in my mind. I’ve been accused of having the same haircut as Ramona.  Well, that’s true, but it wasn’t planned that way; I let my niece cut my hair one day and I decided I liked it that way.

But of Lingren’s stories, Ronja Rövardotter is my favorite, but the Madicken and Lotta stories consistently impress me with her storytelling. The film Lotta på Bråkmakargatan (Lotta of Troublemaker Street) sees her turning five, and she is obsessed with getting big, a theme that follows through the family picnic, her wanting a bicycle for her birthday. It follows through to the end when we find her standing in the rain and manure because, after all, they help the crops grow so why not her? In Du är inte klok, Madicken (You’re Out of Your Mind, Madicken), their mother tells Lisabet that she doesn’t want to hear her say a certain word again, so Lisabet gets the idea that she can say it in her closet where her mother can’t hear it. This leads to one of the great comedic moments in children’s film across the globe.

The snooty mayor’s wife: “Do you know who I am?”
Lisabet: “Yeah, but I can only say it in the closet.”

Lotta discovers she has thrown away the bread and her favorite stuffed pig and kept the garbage by mistake. Sorry; it’s in Swedish and there are no English subtitles.

More than just a master of circumstances, Lindgren could get into the mind of a child and understand how they see the world, and how they misinterpret things. Five-year-old Lotta isn’t supposed to go out in the rain, especially because she has a cold. But, she’s Lotta, so she disobeys and follows her brother and sister to the bakery, where she stands sniffling constantly.

Snooty woman: “Don’t you have a handkerchief?”
Lotta: “Of course, I do. But I don’t loan it out to people I don’t know.”

Ronja and her friend Birk, from rival robber bands. Sort of a little "Romeo and Juliet" thing going on.

Ronja and her friend Birk, from rival robber bands. They have sort of a little “Romeo and Juliet” thing going on.

Everyone chuckles except for the snooty woman. It is a sin of global magnitude that most of the films based on Lindgren’s works are not available in English. My short descriptions here can hardly do her justice. She understood the minds of lives of children and wrote about them with wisdom, wit, and humor. Those Disney Channel programs can’t even hope to be in the same league.

Therein lies my problem. When it comes to writing material for children, I consider myself more in league with Disney Channel than with Astrid Lindgren. I might have 2000 to 3000 hours of time actually working with kids, but that doesn’t mean I have her insight. She could write for children as if she were one of them, getting inside not only their minds but their hearts.

Books written for children must be held to a higher standard than those for adults. It’s the same reason you require certification to teach elementary school, but any bozo with a Ph.D. can teach college. Frankly, I don’t have the confidence that I’m up to it.

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Aug 09

Beauty in the Universe

In Korvoros, Timothy Saugers is convinced that Risha Dyrrya is the prettiest girl he’s ever seen. That could be true; she is Hamoni and he’s only seen humans up until that point. In A Hierarchy of Gods, Lesley ponders several times about how pretty the Trarsani girls Nekalee and Ritee are, and Whithers is all but drooling down his shirt at the thought of them (believing them to be boys, of course). In The Humanity Experiment, Erik and Abner are stunned by the superhuman beauty of the Kyattoni girls Jaxidreshny and Triknikanthy. In truth, this is no mere matter of opinion nor fantasy on the part of the author; there are real biological principles that make it so.


Jaxidreshny and Triknikanthy

Working render of Kyattoni bond-sisters Jaxidreshny and Triknikanthy. For sisters to be bond-sisters, at least one of them has to be mate-bonded, and her mate having sex with the other one. If you don’t understand how this is a terribly beautiful thing, you don’t understand the Kyattoni. (I really ought to re-render this. The lighting sucks.)

Among humans, we recognize neoteny as a component of both beauty and sexual attractiveness. The really interested reader will check out David Brin’s oft-cited essay on neoteny and sexual selection, as it brings up a few points I mention below. Even those of us who don’t read papers on physical anthropology recognize the connection between youth and beauty, as we frequently putting the two into the same phrase. We know it on an intuitive basis. Cosmetics are a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S. alone, and look at its features.  Foundation and powders to give the appearance of smooth, perfect (read: baby-like) skin; eyeliner and eye shadow to give the illusion of larger (read: baby-like) eyes. Check out Jaxidreshny and Triknikanthy. If those eyes look big, it’s because they really are, one of the features of neoteny more pronounced in them. Those big, brown, puppy-dog eyes are a deal-clincher. No makeup necessary.

Note, of course, that it is primarily women who use these youth-enhancing products, and this is more than just cultural. It is no biological accident that women are more neotenous than men, as the sexual attractiveness paper referenced above discusses. Barry Bogin [1] explains how the neoteny of infants provokes a loving, nurturing response. There is a tremendous volume of fascinating study in this area, particularly how it relates to primate evolution, but we don’t have time for it all here. Suffice it to say that there is firmly established connection between neotenous traits and physical attractiveness.

Therefore, we would naturally expect the more neotenous races, by virtue of which they are also more advanced, to appear quite attractive to us.


Standard Deviation of Beauty

A representation of beauty from homogenization, understanding that in the real world beauty is multidimensional. Consider the pink bar in the center as marking the most beautiful. Notice how a larger percentage of people fall into that range as homogenization reduces diversity in features.

The second is homogenization, which I talk about in my last post. However, in addition to making people look more uniform over millennia of intermingling, it also makes them prettier. Scientists have performed studies that have shown that the average a face is, in the mathematical sense of the word, the more attractive it is. If you take 1000 faces and morph them all together, you’ll come up with one that most people see as beautiful. This makes perfect biological sense, as the most attractive people have the greatest chance of propagating their genes, so people within any population would center at that point, with genetic variation causing deviations in various directions. When species have interbred worldwide for another 140,000 years, the standard deviation would be so narrow as to leave virtually everyone near the average, and therefore highly attractive.

Genetic Engineering

However, there is more to beauty than just mathematical averageness. Researchers have also identified certain “hyper-attractive” traits that are not the mathematical average. This brings us to the Kyattoni. It’s not an exaggeration to say they take sex twenty times as seriously as humans. They, among all the nodal races, have taken the initiative to identify those traits and artificially enhance them. Kyattoni females also have an innate ability to manipulate the emotions of others, as revealed fairly early in the series. Genetic engineers have enhanced this as well, along with other physical features associated with sexual attractiveness. If you want to latch onto Erik and Abner’s opinion that Kyattoni girls are the hottest in the universe, there is sound reason for scientists to agree with you. Let’s not get into what the Valshetti did with genetic engineering; they almost invented sex as we know it.


We’re all afraid of losing our attractiveness as we age. But not the advanced races. Their high-level neoteny gives them an edge here. On top of that, the Kyattoni engineered extended youthfulness, and all of them have medical technology that makes aging a matter of choice. Yeah, Dibrinikthy got old, but that was only so she wouldn’t blow her cover on Earth, and she’s planning on reversing that, anyway.


Are these alien girls pretty? Damned straight they are! Any healthy human heterosexual male will probably find a female of any of the nodal species except the Borshcha to be a wet dream. Biologists on Earth believe that human woman are more neotenous than men precisely for the youthful look that mean have evolved to find so attractive.  However, some of the more advanced are so neotenous that they look too young for most humans, and may only appeal to pedophiles, as the aforementioned Whithers. (I’m not kind to child molesters, by the way.)

The other way around is less certain. Human women have varying preferences for masculinization, which doesn’t exist as we know it among any of the advanced species. The high degree of neoteny extends to males as well, and none of them ever develops body or facial hair, deep voices, or those gushing fountains of testosterone. The neoteny of an advanced-race female is perfectly consistent with the neoteny attraction of human males, but the masculinization of human males does not appeal to the advanced-race females. This is precisely why the relationships between a human and a non-human always involve a human male..

Although we can make these general conclusions about beauty between species, we must remember that standards of beauty vary. I think Jaxidreshny and Triknikanthy are every bit as gorgeous as Erik and Abner do, but I’m the CGI guy for this universe, and that’s how I made them. Maybe you don’t. I can hope that I have some Kyattoni blood running in my veins.

[1] Barry Bogin (6 May 1999). Patterns of Human Growth. Cambridge University Press. p. 159. ISBN 978-0-521-56438-0.

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Aug 08

Are There Blacks in My Universe?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced a character that threw me for a loop for a moment: Commander Tuvok. A black Vulcan? Really? But as I thought about it for a few minutes, given the nature of the planet, perhaps one should be more surprised that any of them are white. It’s a hot, sunny world. But the moment provoked me to an analysis: my Banak-Zuur universe is pretty much a white one, as far as humanoids are concerned.

Commander Tuvok, a black Vulcan

Commander Tuvok

Racism? Probably not. In first through third grades, my best friend was a black boy named Billy. I didn’t learn until we moved to the all-white suburbs between third and fourth grades that dark skin was supposed to make people somehow different. Two of my grandchildren are mixed, so all in all, there is not much room in my life to be racist. But I spent much of that life in a white world: an all-white neighborhood, going to all-white schools. When I moved to the Dayton area, it was to an all-white community, where I worked at an all-white company, and went to an all-white church. Since most of The Saga of Banak-Zuur was conceived during those years, I supposed I pictured everyone as white heterosexuals because that’s all I ever saw.

Of course, things changed as I got older and wiser. Angela Wickham, the protagonist of Nemesis, is a black woman, whom I picture rather like Whoopie Goldberg. One of the main characters in Sjøfn’s Daughter is an asexual homoromantic. Sandra Capczek of Final Horizon is of Croatian descent. Koji Akari, not surprisingly, is Japanese. None of these were intended as an exercise in political correctness, which I despise in a free society, but rather a natural consequence of my growing up. That’s just how I envisioned them with my new, widened world view. Did I say older and wiser? I don’t know. In sixth grade, I wrote my first androgenous character; even I didn’t know his/her physical sex. Nor, at the time, did I know that androgeny or transgenderism existed.

Because much of my attention over the past couple of years has been directed toward polishing up my Banak-Zuur universe, I couldn’t help but wonder what the racial mixture of my alien humanoid races would really be. Granted, I could have made something up, but I’m the sort of person to want to look into the science and figure out the results from first principles.

Identifying the Factors

It is only logical that there would be variations in skin color, as well as other physical features, among other Population-K (humanoid, Like, TKK, whichever term you prefer) races, just as there are among humans. However, we also have to remember that the four nodal races (Trarsani, Kria-Ki, Kyattoni, and Borshcha) are some 140,000 years ahead of us, and the Valshetti were almost five million years ahead. We have to give consideration to how that additional time would affect their development.

Cessation of Natural Selection

Some evolutionary biologists have already suggested that human technology has stopped our evolution. Although others disagree, it is true that virtually everyone born into developed nations lives long enough to reproduce and therefore propagate his genes. And this does preclude natural selection as we know it. It is therefore certain that non-competitive species who had our level of technology 140,000 years ago would have eliminated their dependence on the whim of natural evolution.

On the other hand, if they hadn’t, 140,000 years is plenty long enough for evolutionary change, considering that biologists believe that Europeans evolved white skin sometime in the last 8,000 years. With that in mind, we need to allow for the fact that evolution could have occurred over that time period if there was nothing in place to stop it.

Artificial Environments

As an adjunct to the end of natural selection, advanced species would have extensive artificial, possibly uniform, environments that would serve to further isolate them from any evolutionary forces dependent upon environment.


We are seeing this among humans, as different populations that have been traditionally isolated by geography and sheer distance are now able to intermingle and therefore interbreed. We have so many combinations that we just call mixed. We can suppose that 140,000 years from now, interbreeding would have reached a point that the entire population is essentially homogeneous and that any concept of “race” would have long since disappeared. This would be the situation that prevailed for most of the nodal races during the peak of the Triumvirate. The Trarsani are an exception because even though their technology was the most advanced in the known universe, they still almost always mate within their own communities. For them, homogenization occurred over small areas and is yet to become world-wide.

Genetic Engineering

Let’s face it: these races know every connection between genotype and phenotype. They would have long since eliminated any genetic disease or hereditary weakness. Furthermore, they would be able to make modifications to themselves to fine-tune their bodies to whatever environment they choose. After all, the Trarsani went as far as to turn Lesley Kellerman into one of them. The Trarsani and Kyattoni both recognize the social problems that would arise if everyone looked the same, and so practice deliberate genetic “randomization” so that they don’t.

The Consequences

So, with these background factors in mind, let’s see how reality works out for each of these species.

The Trarsani

All white. Always were and always will be. As we learn in A Hierarchy of Gods, they have always lived in the deep forest or underground; over half of them have never seen their sun. Nekalee and Ritee find even the sunlight of Ithaca, New York, to be uncomfortably bright. I mentioned in this post that their darkest hair is still light blond to us. No dark pigmentation exists in their genome as no condition that would benefit from if has ever existed in their world.

The Borshcha

Who knows? The Borshcha took the evolutionary route of the aquatic ape hypothesized for humans but since discredited. They’re as neotenous as the Kria-Ki, but covered with dense, smooth, brown hair. Think of them as a cross between a ninth-grader and a seal. I really don’t know what color their skin is underneath, and I’m quite sure that they don’t care. They have the intelligence to engineer their environment and themselves, but lack the inclination to do so.

The Kria-Ki

The Kria-Ki unquestionably reached homogenization, but they also gave up most of their technology and returned to a primitive lifestyle. That theoretically might return them to natural evolution, but their retention of medical technology would have mediated its effects. At the same time, their medical technology would allow them to optimize themselves for the area in which they live. So we can assume that, yes, there are white and black Kria-Ki according local environments. However, other original racial features that are irrelevant to location would remain homogeneous.

The Kyattoni

The Kyattoni are also homogeneous. However, with Kyatton’s steep inclination, which causes it to be nicknamed “The Winter Planet”, there are very few tropical areas and few that are warm year around. Consequently, there were few dark-skinned variants to begin with, only some small populations along north and south coasts near the equator, so they were swallowed up in the overwhelmingly light-skinned gene pool. Unlike the Trarsani, however, they possessed genes for dark hair, and the dominant dark genes have essentially eliminated light hair from the species, leaving even a milk-chocolate shade a rarity.

The Valshetti

The Valshetti were homogenized before the others had even evolved, and remained so.  However, they had a similar proportion of dark skin as humans, and the net result was a skin color I would call bronze, or caramel, or mocha. I looked around for a celebrity who would match, and Beyoncé comes really close, though the Valshetti would have a more yellowish hue. I guess that a large percentage of Americans would call all Valshetti “black”.

A Few of the Others

The Hamoni, a central feature of the Free Space Alliance in Korvoros, were created some 80,000 years ago by the Triumvirate as part of the study to understand the Population-K genetic metacode. Over half of their genetic engrams came from the Trarsani, with contributions from the Kria-Ki and Kyattoni as well as lesser Population-K species. They retain the Trarsani’s light skin and hair, with mostly Kyattoni facial features and the Kria-Ki’s level of neoteny.

Briashabar is a planet in many ways similar to Vulcan of the Star Trek universe, so not surprisingly, they are mostly dark skinned, looking much like the natives of desert regions in India. Shiiskituuk, too, is such a planet. As the Shiiskituuki are a bridge species they are not technically Population-K, but they also have brown skin.

The Valgro and the Tuquinthot, both more hypermorphic than humans, as well as the Dukini, who are as neotenous as the Hamoni and the Arkavikans, who closely resemble humans, have about the same range of skin color as we do.

Take another look at the picture of Commander Tuvok. Ignore his skin color and note that he has other features associated with blacks among humans: his wide nose, his prominent lips, the general shape of his skull. While I might profess that a lot of Vulcans should be black, I find it very unlikely that Vulcan skin color should correlate with other features exactly as does among humans. Possible, but not likely, unless there are some biological forces I know nothing about. So I’ll make it official that although such variations should exist among other Population-K species, we should not expect them to be correlated in the same way as they are in humans. Broad noses might belong with snow-white skin somewhere in the universe.

How About Sexuality?

I live in a culture where racism is alive and well, but so is discrimination according to sexual orientation, so let’s take a short look at that, too.  I haven’t thought about it as much, but I have some ideas bouncing around. For one, homosexual sex is physically impossible for the Kyattoni, so if homosexuality existed at one time, it would have been considered a devastating handicap and eliminated. But what about other races where the situation is less obvious?

Sexual orientation is hard to speculate on because we don’t really understand the underlying psychobiology. If it is genetic, we are at a loss because exclusive homosexuals do not pass on their genes, so simplistic evolutionary theory would suggest that natural selection would have filtered it out generations ago. But it hasn’t. One of the theories that makes some sense to me is the “gay uncle” theory, related to kin selection . If we accept this as the truth, which we do here only an educated guess, we can draw some conclusions.

The advanced medical technology and society of the Trarsani and Kria-Ki would have erased the effects of the kin selection mechanism and allowed conventional natural selection to take over and eliminate any “gay gene” over those 140,000 years. The Borshcha wouldn’t care less, and didn’t implement advanced technology, and so it is probable that the original mechanisms would remain. Overall, we can speculate that homosexuality has disappeared from the gene pool in some manner correlated with the degree of neoteny.

On a cosmic perspective, we can predict that most Population-K species would display homosexuality at about the same rate as humans. Among the most neotenous and therefore more technically advanced, except for the Borshcha, it would have been eliminated either intentionally or the through natural evolutionary processes as they would take place over a thousand centuries in a highly technological setting. There is the potential for it to have resurfaced among the Kria-Ki. The sad irony is that those races from which homosexuality would have disappeared would also be the ones with the advanced socialization that would lead them to accept it without judgment.

I haven’t thought too much about the science surrounding gender identity because we know even less about that, but I do know the behavior of the nodal races. The Kyattoni don’t have a sense of gender identity at all as we think of it, and among the other advanced races, it is subdued relative to us. None of the nodal races bother with significant differentiation in gender presentation or roles. They wear the same clothing, perform the same duties, and none concern themselves with ornamentation. Gendered behavior tends to increase with hypermorphism. The Valshetti, however, are an exception. As advanced as they were, they were remarkably like humans in gender identity, expression, and roles. There is nothing scientific behind this; I just assumed that gender labeling of any kind was unbecoming an advanced civilization, my political and social views coming through.

So in the end, we find that the Banak-Zuur universe is not a white one, nor a heterosexual one, nor a cis-gendered one.  With the understanding that such diversity exists — not only among Population-K species but among Population-D as well — let’s see how I can use that. We’ll probably see a lot of diversity on Trigdru (A Remembrance of Evil).

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Jul 05

Seven Things Wrong with “Doc” Smith’s Bergenholm

The Bergenholm remains a fascinating piece of technology.

I intend to write a blog post about the various technologies that have worked their way into science fiction to allow us to reach the distant stars in more than 1000 human lifetimes. There are several of them: hyperspace, subspace, jump ships, warp bubbles, wormholes, even merely assuming Einstein was just wrong, and a few of my own: space rarefaction (especially the infinite-gradient case), space stratification, negative-inertia corridors, and that as yet unnamed technology that not only whisks Tim, Wendy, and Two halfway across the universe but bumps them a century into the future.

Aside from my own flights of fancy, there is one that I’ve seen in only one fictional universe,  and it is one that has intrigued my curiosity ever since I first read of it when I was in high school, decades ago.  I’m referring to Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s inertialessness, implemented by the ubiquitous and mysterious device called the “Bergenholm”, named after the cryptic figure who explained how to make it work.

The premise is that it completely neutralizes the inertia of matter, rendering it massless, or “free”. In that state, an object such as a spaceship instantly attains the velocity at which friction against the rarefied gas of space exactly matches its propulsive force, which in the Lensman series amounts to thousands of tons. It is presumed that this balancing velocity is many thousands or millions of times the speed of light.

Smith doesn’t stop there.  He introduces the concept of “intrinsic velocity”, claiming that the conservation of momentum is never actually violated because when the Bergenhold shuts off, the ship immediately goes “inert” and assumes the velocity and momentum that it had the instant it was switched on.  This in turn leads to complications and subtleties that stretch across the six volumes as a way of life for space-farers. Any rendezvous in space must necessarily include “matching intrinsics.”

It’s all a very interesting proposition, but as I recently re-read the series as I am compelled to do periodically, I was struck by a few more inconsistencies on top of the ones I already knew about. Here, with no disrespect for Smith intended, as he remains the father of the space opera, here are the ways the Bergenholm drive doesn’t quite ring true.

1. It would alter the fundamental properties of the universeTriplanetary

All amateur physicists and most science fiction fans know that as velocity increases, so does mass, so that at the speed of light, an object’s mass is infinite.  It is obviously impossible to accelerate it any further.  This might be true, but it’s only one aspect of the situation, one that is easy to visualize for the non-scientist.  At heart of the matter is that the laws physics has to be the same for everyone, or the universe has some serious problems.

The speed of light turns out to be related to the magnetic permeability (μ0) and electric permittivity (ε0) of free space by the relationship:

Speed of Light

Since these are the two most fundamental constants upon which electronics operates, not to mention our nervous systems, we had better not mess with them.  For physics to keep working, the speed of light must not only remain a constant, but the speed of every photon of light in a vacuum must be the same constant for every observer.  Look at it this way.  You see a beam of light about to pass you by (at the speed of light, of course) and
you decide to follow it.  You go faster and faster, but no matter how fast you go, in order for your iPod to still play, the light has to still pass you by at the speed of light.  You’re up 99.999% of the speed of light.  How fast does that beam pass you by? You got it: at the speed of light.  If it were otherwise, all of the electronics on the ship would quit working and you would die.  What happens if we actually exceed the speed of light? Well, at the  very least, physics breaks down, and you’re in a heap of trouble.

Some of the other hypothesized faster-than-light drives, including the one that NASA is really exploring, get around this by never exceeding the speed of light in local space.  The Bergenholm inertialess drive, unfortunately, breaks the law.

2. It relies on windings and armatures

Smith never completely explains how the Bergenholm works, which is understandable because it’s a fictional device, and if he did we’d be able to build one.  Like all good science fiction writers, however, he drops come clues.  He talks of electrical windings and uranium armatures, all of which sounds very much as if he envisioned it as something akin to a motor.  As both scientist and engineer, this concept presses my credibility right to the limit.  I’d have preferred him be less detailed.

3. It violates the conservation of energy (part 1)

Although Smith does address the conservation of momentum with his intrinsic velocity, he completely ignores the conservation of energy.  Momentum is given by p=mv, so we can easily see that when mass goes to zero, so does momentum.  OK.  But kinetic energy is given by K=½mv2, so when mass goes to zero, so does kinetic energy.  Where, pray tell, does that energy go?  Most of the time, when either kinetic or potential energy “disappears”, it becomes heat.  This is related to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but let’s not go into too much detail about that.  As a net result, we should expect that when a 20,000-tons spaceship traveling at 1000 km/s switches in its Bergenholm, it would instantly puff up into a cloud of incandescent vapor.  Or would it?  Let’s look into how that would play out.

4. It violates thermodynamics

According to the kinetic theory, the temperature of matter is related to the average kinetic energy of its molecules.  But wait!  The molecules that make up the ship (not technically molecules, but the same logic applies) have no mass, therefore no kinetic energy, therefore they are at absolute zero.  Let’s skip the fact that the crew would be frozen solid, because that’s part of the same picture.  Not only does the gross kinetic energy of the ship disappear, so does all the energy associated with its temperature.  Just were, then, would it go.

I had thought of throwing in a bunch of equations like


but this isn’t really a treatise on thermodynamics. Suffice it so say that in order for that much energy to vanish without violating thermodynamics, the entropy of the system would have to decrease abruptly, without doing the math, probably to a negative value.  The problem is, negative entropy is impossible by either the Boltzmann or Gibbs definition.  And even if it weren’t, for a closed system to decrease its entropy at all violates that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics.  There is no way for it to work.

5. It violates the conservation of energy (part 2)

We looked at kinetic energy, now let’s look at potential energy.  If you switch on a Bergenholm on the surface of Earth, fly to Valeria with almost three times Earth’s gravity and turn it back off, what happens? Forget about matching intrinsics for the moment.  Well, you’re suddenly at a much lower gravitational potential energy than you had on Earth and even if you can postpone the conservation of energy as he does with momentum, it has to go somewhere. It can’t go into kinetic energy because we also have to conserve momentum.  This is just another way that energy has to disappear, which takes us back to the last two problems above.  Only there’s more.  If you go the other way, from Valeria to Earth, energy has to suddenly appear from nowhere.

Incidentally, in one of my unfinished works, I use this to advantage.  To conserve gravitational potential energy after entering hyperspace from low Earth orbit, you have to come out at the same energy level, i.e., probably near an Earth-sized planet.

5. You wouldn’t be able to breathe

Even if you didn’t freeze.  The pressure of a gas depends on the inertia of molecules.  Take that away, and no matter how much you gasp for breath, air is not going to seek out your lungs.  You’d effectively be in a vacuum.  In the first successful trial of the inertialess drive, either Rodebush or Cleveland (I forget which one it is without looking it up) drifts across the cabin until the tip of one his hairs touches the bulkhead. Drifts?  With what?  There is no inertia.  But somehow they could still breathe. Blood might well pump OK, as the molecules of liquid are pretty much in contact, wherein forces are communicated primarily by Pauli exclusion, but that would do you no good if you can’t get oxygen into your lungs.

6. It requires absolute space

The most fundamental concept of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is that there are no absolute positions and no absolute times.  Everything is relative; that’s why it’s called relativity.  You’re out in the middle of space and go free.  You stop, but what do you stop relative to?  Anywhere in our galaxy, that’s easy; you stop relative to the gas in space, even though it’s not much.  You’re blown around by interstellar winds.  But this argument doesn’t get around the basic problem.

Let’s say you’re so far out in space between superclusters that molecules of gas are thousands of miles apart. You go free.  Now, what do you stop relative to?  In order for stopping to even be meaningful in that case, there has to be some absolute concept of position.  This requirement was actually built into the notion of “intrinsic velocity” to begin with, even though I didn’t mention it until now, because in a relative universe there is no such thing.  There is only relative velocity.  I’m not saying that absolute space is impossible, but in that case, we would have to go back 100 years and rewrite all of physics from the ground up.

7. It violates symmetry

This is the toughest one of all to explain without getting nauseatingly mathematical, but I’ll try.  If you’re a mathematician or a masochist — believed by many to be the same thing — check out the Euler–Lagrange equation. OK, to put the heart of the matter into words, if a generalized coordinate does not appear in a Lagrangian equation of motion, then the first moment of that coordinate is invariant, or constant.  If we’re looking at the conservation of momentum, the generalized coordinate is position and its first moment is momentum. The similarity in the words moment and momentum is no accident. To get less mathematical again, it is the fact that every point in space is identical that results in the conservation of momentum.  This is actually really, really cool stuff if you’re a physics geek, and is codified in Noether’s Theorem.  Also, that every direction is the same that leads to the conservation of angular momentum and that every time is the same that leads to the conservation of energy.

So what happens the instant you switch on the Bergenholm?  Mass disappears and so does momentum; we’ve covered that.  Momentum experiences a discontinuity at that point, and so by the very basics of what constitutes motion, there must be a discontinuity in linear space.  With the Bergenholm on, when the ship is free, it is arguable that it is no longer in the same space that it was before. I don’t mean the same place in space, I mean the same space.  Where you would go, I have no idea.  Technically, I suppose, another universe, which would wreck havoc with their detectors and communications.  But the whole thing bears a striking mathematical similarity to both my space stratification drive and negative-inertia corridors.

Let me reiterate that these observations are in no way intended to disparage Smith.  He was a visionary.  It’s hard to find any feature of modern science fiction he didn’t pen in the early days of pulp fiction: defensive screens, faster-than-light travel and communication, atomic blasters, all the way up to the sun gun, planetary mass negaspheres (there is some bad physics there, too), parallel universes, and mental telepathy.  About the only things he missed were teleporters and computers. He laid the basis for Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and pretty much everything else.  And let’s not forget that the Lensmen were part of my inspiration to write, and a huge part of the inspiration for my own space opera series.

What have you found in science fiction that doesn’t quite ring true?

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May 05

A List of Planets


Trarsa, showing the eclipse shadow of the nearest moon.

For a long time writing The Saga of Banak-Zuur, I kept a running list of planets, other significant place names, people, and important artifacts.  Perhaps I should have kept it up, but it got oppressive to maintain.

Nevertheless, I got to thinking about all the planets in the series, and how they exemplify just how big my fictional universe is, and made an attempt to compile them from scratch again.  Here is the list of planets I constructed, but I can guarantee that several are missing for some combination of the following reasons:

  1.  I forgot about them.  I have a suspicion that I forgot a few in Korvoros, at least.
  2. They are never named.  There are several in The White Shamitz that fit into this category.
  3.  I haven’t written them yet.  Some of the worlds in the books I haven’t finished yet are here, but there is an excellent chance that I’ll add more.

Regardless, I’ll probably update this list as necessary.  I won’t describe them, because I don’t want to
give away too much of the plot.

Central System
Guuludin Homeworld
Infinity Base
Inner Sanctum
Karsh Kaila
Library planet
Noryx Homeworld
Rubris Targ
Sia Shorsh
Unnamed World
Unnamed World 2

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