Cookie Warning

Warning: This blog may contain cookies. Just as cookies fresh out of the oven may burn your mouth, electronic cookies can harm your computer. Visit all kitchens and blogs (yes, including this one) with care.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Terry Pratchett On Defending The Defenseless

St. Stephen's Church in Brighton, England,
currently used as a homeless shelter.

Terry Pratchett loves to write. As he told fans at last year's World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England, while other authors may take a break after completing a story, he sees his reward for finishing one book in that he gets to do another one. Then, like his beloved character, copper Sam Vimes, he "starts simple, and proceeds slowly." He may not bother himself to plan too far ahead, instead trusting his storytelling instincts. Should he get into his story, and realize he's followed a false trail, he may end up chucking that story, a portion of it, or the idea underlying it into "The Pit," as he calls it. But he doesn't mind. He can always pull something out of The Pit later, right? In the meantime, he starts off on the writing again, which for him, "goes a lot with impetus and ease."

In his recent novel Snuff, Sam Vimes tries to get out of his holiday in the country. He clearly doesn't want to leave his beloved city of Ankh-Morpork, the place where he feels he belongs. So once he's reached his grand estate, and endured stifled conversations over meals and tea parties with other members of the landed gentry, he seeks respite in the nearby village. For some reason, the locals seem suspicious of him. Why should a member of the aristocracy be visiting a poor man's public house? Why is Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch sniffing around their village? Their suspicion makes Sam Vimes wonder what, if anything, the locals may have to hide.

Given his reluctance to leave Ankh-Morpork, the time needed to familiarize himself with the running of his estate, and the opportunities he takes to spend time with his son, it takes Vimes awhile to discover his first clue as to the locals' suspicion. Readers may wonder exactly where Pratchett is going with the novel, aside from enjoying the commander's discomfort over having to endure his holiday. But then, a hundred pages in, a note from the blacksmith's son leads Vimes to a hill in the dead of night, where he discovers a blood-soaked rag, and a Goblin's severed hand. Given the amount of blood, he realizes that this Goblin must have been killed.


The thing is, no one cares about Goblins. They exist outside the law, not partaking of life in towns or cities, but eking out their existence in caves. Even Feeney Upshot, the village policeman, who has taken an oath to obey the local magistrate's interpretation of the law, finds Vimes' interest in one Goblin's death a little extreme. As Vimes discovers when he visits the chief constable's office, located in a room inside his mother's house, the young man currently has a Goblin chained up outside for stealing pigswill. Feeney has been brought up to believe certain things about Goblins, such as that they are born thieves, they carry horrible diseases, they eat their own babies, and perhaps worst of all, they stink. Or, as Vimes muses: "It wasn't so much a stink as a sensation. the sensation in fact that your dental enamel was being evaporated and any armor you might have was rusting at some speed."

Vimes takes the young Chief Constable to task on a number of issues, chief among them that the purpose of the law is to protect everyone, including the most defenseless of its citizens. The problem is that, in the eyes of the law, Goblins don't officially exist, and therefore have no legal rights. Vimes refuses to accept this. He doesn't know much about Goblins, so he visits those holed up in nearby caves, who have learned to fear and distrust Humans. He takes on the local aristocracy, and defies the village magistrate, as he investigates how Goblins have been torn from their families, and shipped off down the river. He pursues a trail of greed and corruption, all the while arguing with young Feeney, who exhibits a thorough understanding of the letter of the law, but knows little of its soul. To save the Goblins from the injustice perpetrated upon them--from the way Humans have treated them so inhumanely--Vimes risks his social status, his career, and ultimately his life. But for Vimes, that's his duty, his calling in life: to defend the defenseless. He can no more shirk his duty, and turn a blind eye to injustice and cruelty, even if the law currently protects the perpetrators and sanctions their actions.

At four hundred pages in length, Snuff is a long novel by Terry Pratchett's standards. It takes Vimes a long time to uncover a crime, which can make it difficult for the reader to immerse himself in the story. It delves into more serious themes and issues than Pratchett's fans may have expected, such as slavery and the destructive aspects of illegal drugs. Yet it offers moments of action and excitement, including a climactic rescue-effort and river-battle in which Sam Vimes takes on not just the evildoers, but the very forces of nature. Along the way, he discovers some glorious aspects of Goblin-life to counter the rumors and folklore surrounding them. Once those are made public, they will forever change the way Goblins are viewed. As in our world, such sweeping social change on Discworld starts with one person's refusal to accept a perceived injustice. It's a character with whom Terry Pratchett identifies, who seems to hold his ear* at the moment, who talks to him and tantalizes him with ideas for humorous, exciting, and insightful stories. 

His name is Vimes: Commander Samuel Vimes.

Dragon Dave

*See the previous entry. (It's a doozy).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Terry Pratchett On A Copper's Instincts

A Police Station in Brighton, England

Author Terry Pratchett has been writing Science Fiction and Fantasy stories since the early 1970s. The bulk of them (forty novels and counting) take place on Discworld, a disk-shaped world that floats through space atop four giant elephants. (These elephants, in turn, ride on the back of an even larger turtle). His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages, and are beloved by readers all over the world. Yet he seems somewhat amused by his fame. As he told fans in Brighton at last year's World Fantasy Convention, "I just make things up." 

When he starts a new novel, he grasps those ideas foremost in his mind. He describes these as "low-hanging fruit," the ones easiest to pick. Once he's selected an idea, he just has to figure out what the story will be about. Anyone who has ever attempted to write a novel knows how challenging it can be to explore an idea in fiction. Terry Pratchett makes his job easier by following up on his inquisitiveness about our rapidly evolving world. He studies subjects that interest him, such as real-world technologies and systems. With time and study, his knowledge grows, and these subjects mature into the low-hanging fruit he mentioned. Then, with the hard work of research already done, he begins his story. 

Readers reap the benefits of Terry Pratchett's natural inquisitiveness. Over the years, we have seen Discworld's largely medieval society evolve with the introduction of the printing press and newspapers, a post office system, banking, and the rapid expansion of clacks towers, which transmit the equivalent of telegrams using a shutter-semaphore system. While these concepts are sketched out more simply in his stories, we nonetheless finish his novels with an enhanced appreciation for the inventions and processes that run contemporary society.

One of Terry Pratchett's most popular Discworld characters is Samuel Vimes, who has risen through police ranks to become the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. A copper's instincts flow through his veins, and he can sense when something in his city is going (or about to go) amiss. He's been such a successful police officer that he's impressed the rich and powerful, eventually even marrying into the aristocracy. He's become part of the landed gentry, and has more money than he could ever figure out how to spend. Still, he's happiest when he's solving problems in his fair city. So what does Sam Vimes do in Terry Pratchett's recent novel Snuff, when his wife insists they take a vacation at one of their country houses? Or perhaps I should ask: What does he do after the city's ruler, Lord Vetinari, assures Vimes that no urgent crisis in Ankh-Morport require his attention? Well, he can't help but poke his nose into what's going on in community life surrounding his country estate, can he?

If Samuel Vimes has won over readers, he seems even closer to his creator's heart. Perhaps it's the character's natural inquisitiveness, the way he knows every street in Ankh-Morpork, and every aspect of city life, that allows him to sense when something is amiss. Perhaps, when he was a boy, the author considered a career as a policeman. Whatever the reason, if he's ever in trouble with a story set on Discworld, Terry Pratchett knows who he can turn to for assistance. "If a story involves Sam Vimes, I know he'll provide me with a lot of dialogue," he told his readers last year in Brighton. 

As all characters relate in some way to their creator, Pratchett must identify with some aspect of Vimes' psyche. As Vimes is forever interested in the forces underlying life in Ankh-Morpork, perhaps the link is Pratchett's constant fascination with the systems and technologies that drive our modern societies. It's also nice to see an author of Terry Pratchett's stature giving himself the freedom to explore his own interests, and to pursue his own hobbies without worrying immediately when they'll pay off in his fiction. Or even if they will. Of course, it's also nice when he finds a way to share his interests with us. I imagine that's one of the reasons we find his Discworld novels such a joy to read, because the ideas behind them spring from his own joy of discovery. 

Given how Sam Vimes seems to hold Terry Pratchett's ear at the moment*, I imagine he'll continue to play a vital role in future Discworld novels. But then, I could be wrong. After all, I don't have a Copper's instincts. 

Dragon Dave

* Yes, I agree with you. Police officers should not grab people by the ear. Especially not nice people like Terry Pratchett.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Captain Scarlet Is Fearsome

Captain Scarlet: Excuse me, sir. Can you direct me to the hippodrome?

Rusty: That's a serious kink you've got there. Try rolling your neck. Go on, roll it.

Captain Scarlet: Christmas really will be here before we know it.

Captain Scarlet: You packed the last two Wagon Wheels?
Rusty: How else will we get Master & Mistress to take us to England?

Captain Scarlet: I merely said I was 'cuter than' the pink elephants. I wasn't inviting a comparison!

Rusty: Whistling while you work, 'eh? Most commendable.

Captain Scarlet: There's no need to run and hide, but thanks for the compliment. Indeed, I am fearsome.

Captain Scarlet: Proximity Alert! Proximity Alert! Danger! Danger!
Rusty: You know, I think you're right. You are fearsome.

Captain Scarlet & Rusty Daleks

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Authors & Mutant Worms

A robot dog gazes across the Thames
at prestigious Chelsea

This blog entry continues from Monday's entry "Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning."

Although his scheduled time had expired, and he had fulfilled his commitment to the World Fantasy Convention, author Peter F Hamilton returned to the table where he had sat before his reading. At first, he seemed confused as to how to proceed, and offered one of us a copy of the manuscript to pass around. Thankfully, after a little encouragement, he kindly finished the story he had begun toward the end of his scheduled reading.

In "The Return of the Mutant Worms," Peter F Hamilton introduces us to a writer who lives in a portion of London called Chelsea, in a plush flat along the Thames River. This author has labored hard over the years to build up a strong, popular mainstream following, and regards the novel he's just finished as the pinnacle of his career. So when he receives a package in the mail, he tears into it, eagerly anticipating the contract for his forthcoming book.  Instead, he finds a publication contract for a short story titled "Mutant Worms" that he wrote twenty-one years ago. The publication of this story can only detract from his upcoming publicity tour, as mainstream readers will wonder how the writer they associate with such sophisticated and polished literary fiction once wrote a crass genre story about mutant worms having sex with Human females.

The author phones his former publisher, and explains there must be some mistake. The publisher informs the writer that he's made no mistake. Although he thought the story terrible twenty-one years ago, he paid the author a nominal sum for it, then locked it away. Yes, he understands that the publication of "Mutant Worms" might offend and appall the cultured sensitivities of the author's present readership. Yes, he knows that even hearing about this story might discourage readers from buying his new book, or indeed, any novels he might write in the future. So what? He decided to purchase the story as an investment twenty-one years ago. Now it's time to collect the dividends. 

But hey, he's a big-time author now, right? Shouldn't he be willing to share some of his wealth with his former publisher, who helped him in the formative phase of his career? No, he has no interest in selling the story back, for any amount of money. Still, he could be persuaded, for the right price, to not publish it. At least, not right now... 

I smiled and laughed along with my fellow readers as Hamilton read "The Return of the Mutant Worms." I suspect most of them noticed how the fictional writer's story gently mocked Hamilton's extraordinary storytelling achievement of The Night's Dawn trilogy. If my summary of the story has piqued your interest, you can find it in Solaris Rising, an anthology edited by Ian Whates. Along with Hamilton's delightful story, you'll also discover stories by other big name Science Fiction authors. I'm glad that I got to hear Hamilton read his story, and thankful that he was willing (and circumstances allowed him) to finish it. 

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
An introduction to Peter F. Hamilton's The Night's Dawn trilogy

Monday, July 21, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning

Last year, I attended a reading with Peter F Hamilton at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England. I arrived early, and found the author seated at a table outside the scheduled conference room. He seemed relaxed, and chatted easily with those around him. I joined the group, enjoyed seeing him interact with others, and spoke with him when the conversation allowed. Then it was time for his reading. 

Firstly, he read a scene from a new novel called The Abyss Beyond Dreams, due to be released in the United States on October 21, 2014. The story is set in his Commonwealth series, which includes novels such as Judas Unchained and the Void trilogy. Hamilton's soft-spoken voice flowed smoothly, soaking into us like warm honey on a slice of freshly baked bread, and his phrasing seemed more rhythmic and poetic than what I remembered from The Night's Dawn trilogy set in his Confederation universe. The scene introduced us to Darren and Alicia, two young sweethearts enjoying the simple pleasures of small town life. Yet, by the end of the scene, Alicia's life lay in tatters, as she has learned that Peter is three hundred years old, and only looks twenty due to his bionic enhancements. Through illegal cloning, he has brought her back to life again and again, each time romancing her beginning at age seventeen, until something inevitably goes wrong, and their romance falls apart. As with his Confederation novels, and the short stories in Manhattan In Reverse, Hamilton entranced us with the possibilities of the future. Yet it was his characters, with all their hopes, dreams, and frailties, that drew us in, and breathed life into his story.

The second story he read from was The Queen of Dreams, a children's novel he wrote to entertain his children. It involves Princesses, Skylords, and Elves. These Elves are not like the ones from Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They remind me of Punk Rock Elves, or the blue-skinned Na'vi in James Cameron's epic movie "Avatar." They stand seven-feet tall, have no hair on the sides of their heads, and plume-like mohawks that resemble avian plumage. Plus, they've got tails! The story stars Taggie and Jemima, two Human children who acquire magical powers after an encounter with a squirrel wearing glasses. The novel has yet to find a publisher in the United States, but is available in hardcover and digital formats from English booksellers. Hamilton's reading tantalized us with an Elf who surfed on rainbows rather than water, and rode a silver mirror shield instead of a Human surfboard. The story reminds me of Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country (Volume One of her Eidolon Chronicles) or one of the seven novels in C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia. Given the inventiveness Hamilton builds into his Science Fiction novels, I'd say children of all ages should have fun with this story, as well as the illustrations in the book. After writing so many Science Fiction stories for adults, it's nice to see Hamilton stretching his wings, and trying his hand at a children's Fantasy. Let's hope his book sells well in England, and someone decides to publish it in the United States.

If not, I'll have to pick up a copy on my next visit to England. 

Although his allotted time had nearly expired, the next scheduled author had yet to arrive, so Hamilton pulled out one of his short stories. We all sat forward in our seats as Hamilton started off on a short story he had written for a few years previously. The story, set in London's Chelsea region, introduced us to an author looking forward to the publication of a book he views as his masterpiece. With its characterization, drama, and touches of humor, Peter F. Hamilton had us on the edges of our seats. But then the next scheduled author arrived, and we had to vacate the room.

To be continued...

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Daleks of Chick-Fil-A

This blog continues from "The Bovine Daleks" at Pocket Dalek and Friends

Denim: What's happening? My audio sensors are overwhelmed.

Pocket: I don't know. I've got a cow muzzle affixed to my visual sensor, remember?
Denim: Temperature readings suggest the presence of numerous Humans.

Pocket: Movement sensors suggest that we're surrounded by a milling throng! 

Denim: And my olfactory sensors suggest that the food has arrived.

Pocket: Alert! Alert! I can't interpret these readings!

Denim: I register a definite alien presence! Oh good, Master is taking another drink. We should urge him and Mistress to increase the speed of their nutrition ingestion.

Pocket: Denim's right, Master. You could be in danger. Don't worry, though, we'll protect you. Arming laser cannon now.

Denim: I don't think he wants you to fire on the cow.
Pocket: How do you know the alien we detected was a cow?
Denim: The muzzle fell off my visual sensor.
Pocket: So that's where this second one came from.

Pocket & Denim Daleks

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Peter F Hamilton On Wormholes

Enjoying the view of Human society in Tamworth,
a town without a Wormhole in the English Midlands.

Do you ever get fed up with government? What if you were given a free hand to transform government according to our desires? Or better yet, rebuild Human society from the ground upward? Could you do a better job than the current leadership? These are some of the questions Peter F Hamilton explores in his story "Footvote."

While most of the stories in his collection Manhattan In Reverse are set in the distant future (or in the case of "Watching Trees Grow," in an Alternate Earth in which society developed far differently than our own), "Footvote" takes place in the present. Or at least the present when Hamilton wrote it, back in 2004. A man named Bradley Ethan Murray opens a wormhole to a habitable world he has dubbed New Suffolk. We never learn how he found this Earthlike world, or how he opened this doorway in space-time. Nor do we learn how he acquired the Exotic Matter necessary to keep this wormhole stable and open for his intended two year period. Murray must be a remarkable man, as no one else has observed a wormhole, let along created one, since physicists Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen theorized their existence in 1935. But however he does it, he succeeds in opening this doorway in space-time, and it is a sight to behold. 

And there right ahead of me was the wormhole. It was like some gold-chrome bubble squatting on the horizon. I squinted into the brilliant rosy light it was radiating. 

While we never meet Murray, we get some idea of how he intends to structure his new government from his declaration of ideals that Hamilton sprinkles between his scenes.

Some of Murray's tenets seem reasonable. For example, we can all agree with 1) With citizenship comes responsibility, and 3) Government will be a democratic republic. Others are more debatable, such as 35) Police will not waste their time criminalizing trivial offenses, and 39) Any lawyer who has brought three failed cases of litigation judged to be frivolous is automatically sentenced to five years in a penal colony. Later, Murray gets around to barring certain types of organizations, such as any organized religion, and certain groups of people from entry to his new world. The latter include members of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat party (in other words, anyone who served in Britain's government), as well as tabloid journalists, trade union officials, and traffic wardens. As religion has all too often been used to induce guilt and suffering, and also to excuse violence, perhaps we can concede Murray a point here. After all, who wants the guardians of a "failed society" to muck up a new one? Murray's certainly spot-on in banning traffic wardens, given how practically every place you travel in England charges you to park your vehicle. But then he goes too far, and bans the Cast and production staff of all TV Soaps.

Whoa, hold on! Suddenly, this Bradley Ethan Murray character sounds like a real radical!

Hamilton doesn't take us through Murray's wormhole, so we don't get to see what New Suffolk looks like, or how the colonists build their own version of Eden. Instead, he focuses on the probable consequences of what would happens if a large number of people left England. Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to the President's Treasury Secretary in the United States) in Tony Blair's Labour government public claims that government revenue has only fallen by ten percent. Yet Janette, a recently divorced mother of two, reads about the European Union sending engineers to shut down failing UK nuclear reactors. She finds it hard to concentrate on the news on this sunny, summer day, as the breeze wafting through her windows brings with it the sewer-like stink from the uncollected trash building up in the town square. She also learns that all British soldiers are being recalled from the war in Afganistan (which doesn't make the United States happy), and nearly everyone in uniform is being reassigned to civic duties, such as helping out in fire departments, serving as prison guards, and providing engineering support for power stations. Russian gas companies are already demanding payment in advance for any gas they will supply England come winter. Of course, Gordon Brown is urging all town councils to "cut down on wastage," although exactly how they can do that, or how much wastage there really is, Abbey can only guess.

What Abbey knows is that she's fighting for her way of life, and the people she loves. Foremost among the latter include her children, Steve and Olivia, who are going away for the weekend with her ex-husband Colin and his girlfriend Zoe. While the children are away, she takes the train with her friend Abbey to join the "Public Responsibility Movement," which is protesting at the entry point to the Wormhole. What she doesn't know is that Colin, a man who used to love her, but now no longer understands or respects her, is planning on taking Zoe, Steve, and Olivia through the wormhole to begin a new life in New Suffolk. He's sold his house, and converted all his savings into transportable goods. Of course, he gets stuck in traffic, as there's always a long line of pedestrians and vehicles heading into the wormhole, which gives us time to understand his views on why he's leaving, and his hopes of what life in New Suffolk might offer. Both parents view the reasons for either leaving or remaining in England in rational terms, yet reach opposing decisions. This gives us some idea as to why they got fell out of love, and got divorced before the events in the story.

As with "Watching Trees Grow," I've tried to give you the ideas underlying "Footvote," as well as a little of the flavor of Hamilton's storytelling, without ruining the conclusion for you. Of the seven stories in Manhattan In Reverse, "Footvote" alone offers us a view of (nearly) contemporary Earth. The story suggests that while our world will never be perfect, most Human societies straddle the knife-edge of survival. Of course, we'd all love to remake government according to our own desires, but from Bradley Ethan Murray's laundry list of principles, we get the feeling that life on New Suffolk will not be superior to what we currently enjoy. The story reminds us how quickly a club, committee, church, company, or any type of Human organization can decline or fold when enough people walk away from it. And Hamilton's story functions as a metaphor for how Human society is constantly evolving, as one set of ideologies is discarded for newer, more "moral" or "equitable" ones. There is a cost for everything in this world, and that cost of change is often paid by those least capable of doing so. But that's me, doing an in-depth analysis of what most people would probably only view as a Science Fiction story that, despite its slightly tongue-in-cheek humor, nevertheless shines a serious light on economic, social, and familial issues. 

Perhaps it's a good thing that I'm not running the government. No doubt you'd do better. Still, should you someday grasp the reins of power, I urge caution before you ban any TV soaps. Could Human society, let alone the British government, survive the cancellation of such popular shows as "Doc Martin" and "Downton Abbey?" Think of the chaos that might ensue!

Dragon Dave

Monday, July 14, 2014

Peter F Hamilton On Sticking To Your Principles

A sign cries out to passersby in Oxford, England

MURDER. It was the Banner scored big and bold across all the street corner newspaper placards, most often garnished with adjectives such as foul, brutal, and insane

In "Watching Trees Grow," a novella in Peter F. Hamilton's short story collection Manhattan In Reverse, Family Investigator Edward Raleigh travels to Oxford, England in AD 1832. In this alternative world, the Roman Empire never collapsed. With technology evolving faster in this world than in ours, the average human lifespan increased significantly. Yet one person will not enjoy the benefits of a long life, enhanced technological resources, or centuries of fine English cuisine. That person is Justin Ascham Raleigh, who is found murdered in his Dunbar College dormitory. 

Despite the violence associated with our historical Roman Empire, Hamilton's alternative world doesn't condone murder under any circumstances. While Edward is shocked by the violence of the crime, he nonetheless pursues the clues, and investigates all the suspects. These include Peter Samuel Griffith, Justin's roommate who reported the crime, and his six close friends. As Justin's dormitory apartment yields no immediate clues, Edward adjourns to Oxford City police station, where he assists the detectives with the questioning. The greatest suspicion falls on Alexander Stephen Maloney, who had dinner with Justin on the evening of his death. Alexander has frequented gambling clubs of late, and been losing heavily. While Justin had no money that Alexander might have stolen, Justin had been pursuing a scientific idea in physics and spectrography that he believed would have guaranteed him a professorship. Might Alex, or someone else, have murdered Justin for the potential monetary value of his idea? Alas, Edward and the police detectives find no documentation to back up this hypothesis. Faced with a dearth of clues, Justin's death goes unsolved.

In AD 1853, Edward flies into Newark aerodrome in Manhattan City. While traveling on Raleigh family business, he snatches the opportunity to utilize advances in forensic techniques to link the DNA of one of the suspects to a cigar butt the police discovered during their investigation. 

"For Mary's sake," the suspect exclaims. "It's been twenty-one years."

"Yes. Twenty-one years, and he's still just as dead."

The evidence Edward collects is insufficient to solve the crime, and so sixty-seven years later, in AD 1920, Edward takes a scramjet-powered spaceplane from Gibraltar spaceport to Vespasian, a space station in orbit around Earth. From there he endures a three month journey aboard a spaceship powered by low-temperature ion plasma engines to Jupiter, and then a shuttle down to a spaceport on Ganymede, one of the gas giant's moons. From there, he travels by bus to the city of New Milan. 

All the buildings were free-standing igloos whose base and lower sections were constructed from some pale yellow silicate concrete, while the top third was a transparent dome. 

During his six-month stay on Ganymede to conduct Raleigh family business, he visits another of the original suspects. 

I waved a hand at the curving windows, with their thin reinforcement mesh of carbon strands. That particular carbon allotrope was the reason the glass could be so thin, one of the new miracles we took so much for granted. 

Carbon 60, as it is known, was discovered ten years previously by one of the murder suspects. Edward wonders if it might have been the idea Justin was working on, and the murderer killed him to pursue it instead. Alas, the interview yields no definitive proof, but Edward is assembling clues from the available evidence, and utilizing increases in technology to solve this century-old murder. 

Fast forward to AD 2038. A deep-flight ship exits a wormhole portal and lands at a habitat orbiting Eta Carinae. It has taken Edward over two hundred years, but he has finally forged a water-tight case. Standing on this massive space station orbiting a distant star, he arrests the person responsible for Justin's murder. Under questioning, the person admits to the crime. In a way, Edward feels as uncomfortable with arresting this person as he did about Justin's murder, as this individual has developed Justin's idea to radically advance human expansion to the stars. But Edward finds murder as unacceptable now as he did two hundred-and-two years ago, when he had just embarked on his career as an investigator for the Raleigh Family. 

"You took Justin's life away from him," I said. "We can produce a physical clone of him from the samples we kept. But that still won't be him. His personality, his uniqueness, is lost to us forever."

In killing Justin, the murderer steals Justin's idea, and uses it to create the kind of future that most of us can only dream about. In sticking to his principles, Edward persists with an investigation that most of us would have given up on, and thus preserves a future in which everyone matters. As to which individual contributes the most to his society, and the betterment of mankind, Peter F Hamilton leaves the reader to decide.

Dragon Dave

Friday, July 11, 2014

Meet NASA's Robot Astronaut

Stan: Welcome, Space Enthusiasts! I'm Stan the Cyberman, NASA's latest robonaut. Let me show you the highlights of Houston Space Center.

NASA's human astronauts wore these on previous missions. With my cybernetic knitted body, I don't need gloves. 

Still, sometimes I wish I had fingers.

The Captain of a previous mission wore this uniform aboard the International Space Station. I can't remember his name right off. Captain Peacock? Captain Pike? Captain Phillips? 

I'm sure it began with a P.

After an arduous spacewalk, I enjoy playing chess with my fellow astronauts. Official NASA documents state the agency returned this set to Earth because engineers needed to refurbish the set. I suspect the other astronauts just got tired of me winning all the time, and thought a new set might bring them better luck.

What can I say? They're only human.

Despite the flaws inherent in their biological systems, I enjoying working and hanging out with my human counterparts. We usually have a lot of fun together.

And here's a prototype for another robonaut. He's modeled on the Transformers, an intelligent race of beings from the planet Cybertron. Doesn't he look cool?

So, give me some feedback. Does seeing all this inspire you? Do you think NASA might someday select Daleks for astronaut training?

Rusty: I can't believe Stan made it here before us.
Artist: The wise Dalek finds inspiration, not envy, in others' achievements.  
Rusty: You're right, I know you're right. Still, a Cyberman! And I was really enjoying my visit to Houston Space Center…

Stan the Cyberman, and Artist & Rusty Daleks

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Peter F. Hamilton on the Mind of a Murderer

A black, fuel-efficient car arrives in Oxford, England

In his story, "Watching Trees Grow," author Peter F. Hamilton transports us to Oxford, England, in the year 1832 AD. This is a different 19th Century England than we know from our history books, as Edward Buchanan Raleigh is jolted awake shortly after midnight by the “blasted telephone with its shrill, two-tone whistle.” On the other end of the line is the Raleigh Family’s missus dominicus, Francis Haughton Raleigh, who informs him that a member of the Raleigh family, a student at one of Oxford's colleges, has been murdered. Edward may be a Family investigator, but murder clearly frightens him. He wonders: “What kind of pre-Empire savage could do that to another person?” This gives him added reason to help the police solve the case, as “I didn’t want my child to come into a world where such horrors could exist.”

Like the murdered student, Edward studied at Oxford, first majoring in Science, then in Law. After graduation, he studied with the Family to gain his position as an investigator. Now he’s thirty-eight years old, with three children accredited by the Raleigh Family, although one he had to fight for one to be recognized, as it was the result of a youthful indiscretion. He's intelligent, thoughtful, and capable, but in his world, he's a mere child. His boss Francis is over four hundred years old, and has seen a vast amount of change in his life. When Francis was Edward’s age, electricity had yet to be harnessed, and medicine consisted of herbs boiled and mixed according to “already ancient lore.”

Within minutes, Francis picks him in his black car. His boss starts the battery, and winds up the motor potentiometer. As the car silently reaches 25 miles per hour, Francis regrets that the Roman Congress recently banned combustion engines. Edward reminds him of the long-term view: batteries will improve, petroleum is dangerous, a limited resource, but hazardous to the environment. Francis agrees with his much younger colleague: “Lusting after speed is a Shorts way of thinking.” Nevertheless, he’s impatient to reach the crime scene, and help the police solve the case. Sooner or later, he will have to stand before the heads of the Raleigh Family, and they won’t want to hear about an open investigation, or his lack of results.

One of Oxford's fine colleges

When the two men reach the city center, they find people trickling out of the taverns and cafes. Students are shouting, quoting obscure verse, drinking, fighting, and throwing bags and books around. Francis parks outside Dunbar College, a building of pale yellow stone. Inside, they climb the stairs to the victim’s room. Justin Aschan Raleigh was a typical final year student, with a three-room apartment, but he’s not enjoying his bedroom, parlor, and study anymore. The police detective warns Edward “This isn’t pretty.” Still, he can’t help but wince when he sees Justin’s chest smeared with blood, the result of a vicious slash to the abdomen. The knife juts from Justin’s right eye.

In our world, the fall of the Roman Empire decimated civilization. In Edward’s world, the Roman Empire found a way to remain effective, and avoided our centuries-long descent into barbarism. Human invention and technological progress continued unabated. Families such as the Raleighs safeguard their members’ interests, and medical advancements have lengthened the average lifespan by centuries. Yet Edward's world is not so different to our own that we cannot understand his reaction to Justin's ravaged body. The slash to the abdomen would most likely proven lethal, but killer wanted to make certain of Justin’s death, hence the final thrust into the skull. Much like you or I might perform under similar circumstances, Edward relies on the procedures drummed into him in his Investigation courses, and reminds the police detective to collect all available forensic evidence. Then he goes beyond this, and requests that the blood of all suspects and anyone in Justin's vicinity that night be tested for alcohol and narcotics. The murderer must be caught! As Edward puts it, “Whoever did this was way off balance.”

Dragon Dave

Read Peter F. Hamilton’s story, “Watching Trees Grow,” in his collection Manhattan In Reverse.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Transcendent Power of Friendship

Friendship & Fellowship in Lichfield, England
Samuel Johnson's hometown

In Samuel Johnson's story The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Imlac, Rasselas, and Nekayah have traveled to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. When Pekuah pleads for them not to enter, Nekayah could have ordered her servant to accompany them. Instead, her heart softens, and allows the frightened woman to remain outside. Then she follows Imlac and Rasselas inside the pyramid. 

While the men muse on what prompted the ancient rulers to build a feat of engineering comparable only to the Great Wall of China, Nekayah studies the sarcophagi, and all the other features of the richly furnished galleries. She tries to store away all the marvels she has seen, so she can tell Pekuah all about them later.

She and the men leave the Great Pyramid, and find the tents in disarray. A servant tells them that during their exploration, a group of Arabs arrived, “seized the Lady Pekuah with her two maids, and carried them away.” The Arabs might have taken the entire party, had it not been for a party of Turks who were chasing them. The servant advises them that all they can do now is wait, and hope the Turks return with the Lady Pekuah and her maids. But the Turks do not return with Pekuah, and so after awhile the party returns to Cairo, where Rasselas makes inquiries, petitions the Bassa (an Egyptian governor), and hires people to discover Pekuah’s location.

Nekayah, meanwhile, sinks into gloom that her favorite companion is gone. She blames herself for her kindness in allowing Pekuah to remain outside the pyramid. She spends her days reliving all the good times she spent with her servant, and clutches those memories to her heart. She loses interest in Cairo, and nothing that occurs in their household seems as enjoyable as what happened when Pekuah was with her. After two months have passed, she announces that she wishes to shut herself away, and join a convent. Imlac and Rasselas convince her to wait a year before she makes such a monumental decision, but she only agrees if the two pledge to continue their inquiries, and pursue any reasonable means of finding her.

Rasselas and Imlac continue paying informants and private investigators, and after seven months they learn that Pekuah is being held by an Arab chief in an Egyptian castle. Nekayah doesn't flinch at the large ransom the Arab demands, and by this time, the men know better than to deny her this. So Imlac and Rasselas arrange for her release, and take strategic precautions to ensure that the Arab chief holding her neither swindles nor captures them during the handoff. 

In addition to his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote nonfiction books and newspaper articles. For two years, he even sold a biweekly periodical called "The Rambler" directly through newsagents, in which he addressed issues and topics that concerned the rising middle-class of the 18th Century. Some critics view The History of Rasselas, The Prince of Abyssinia, as a condensed version of the latter, cloaked in a thin fictional veil. At times, the story certainly leans toward the didactic, and some might argue that reading it is pointless, as we know that there is no perfect place or situation that can grant any person a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. But I enjoyed Johnson's story, and my favorite part of it was seeing how much Nekayah loved her servant Pekuah, as well as the lengths Imlac and Rasselas went to secure her release.

Truly, friendship knows no bounds, regardless of how often we differentiate ourselves based on race, religion, politics, behavior, or other such important factors.

Dragon Dave

Friday, July 4, 2014

An "Out Of This World" Park

Yes, you rest, Mistress. A park is a great place to take a break from driving. Relax under the trees, soak in the vivid greens, the...

…Ooh look, planes! Are those T-38s?

They are! I love the T-38 Talons! NASA has used them since the Project Gemini days for research and astronaut training. Northrop built over a thousand for the Air Force, half of which the United States military still uses today. Other countries also use the T-38s for, you know, whatever they want, I guess.

Mistress should get one. It'd be faster than a car.

Say, there is trusty old BP-K, the boilerplate capsule used during the Apollo years. NASA engineers also used BP-K to test aspects of the Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System. Master should get one. He could adapt it into an super-cool office.

Say, this park is really out of this world! I wonder where we are?

Artist Dalek

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Power of Superstition

A statue of the Egyptian goddess Hathor,
courtesy of the British Museum in London

After Imlac, Rasselas, and his sister Nekayah return to Cairo with the hermit in Samuel Johnson’s novella The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, the prince and princess divide their efforts to observe every aspect of city life. When they come together, they compare notes, and argue the merits of a country versus city life, and domestic matters such as the ideal age for marital partners. Then Imlac approaches them with a suggestion.

“You wander about a single city, which, however large and diversified, can now afford few novelties, and forget that you are in a country famous among the earliest monarchies for the power and wisdom of its inhabitants. The old Egyptians have left behind them monuments of industry and power before which all European magnificence is confessed to fade away. To see men, we must see their works, that we may learn what reason has dictated or passion has excited.”

The royal siblings dismiss this suggestion at first. Rasselas argues that his “business is with man, not with piles of stone or mounds of earth.“ But gradually Imlac makes his case to the prince and princess.

“Let us visit them to-morrow,” said Nekayah. “I have often heard of the Pyramids, and shall not rest till I have seen them, within and without, with my own eyes.”

The trio travel to the Great Pyramid, and as their servants erect tents, they marvel at this structure that has defied time and nature’s efforts to sweep away all monuments to human civilization. But when they prepare to go inside, Nekayah’s servant Pekuah begs them not to enter. “The original possessors of these dreadful vaults will start up before us, and perhaps shut us in for ever.” Pekuah is anything but a simple-minded servant. Among Nekayah’s staff, she is called Lady Pekuah, and has maids that personally attend her. She converses easily with the princess, and readily takes charge when the situation demands. In many ways, she seems to have benefitted as much from Imlac's counsel (as well as the other educators from their days in the Happy Valley) as Nekayah and Rasselas. Yet she shakes with fear while warning of the ghosts that await them inside, intent on imprisoning their bodies and corrupting their souls. 

The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the seven great wonders of the world. For nearly four thousand years, no one built anything taller. Even back as far as the fifth century BC, people of importance such as the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to Egypt, and discovered its wonders. Despite centuries of looting, exquisite Egyptian architecture, sarcophagi, decorations and furnishings await her. It is a place that, both then and now, most people would love to visit. Yet Lady Pekuah elects to remain outside the Great Pyramid, along with the other servants, their supplies, and of course, the camels.

That is the power of superstition.

Dragon Dave