Monday, April 30, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake I

Time, said an unidentified wit, is what keeps everything from happening all at once. History is the temporal landscape of a world, what keeps it from being either an endless dreary plain or a chaotic jumble. Even mainstream fiction can't escape history, and sensibly doesn't try. Romance in the broad sense can escape it even less, because it is about big characters who need a big landscape to play in.

I don't mean just the world-saving stuff: the Lensmen*, Hari Seldon, Frodo, or even the next level down, D'Artagnan saving the honor of the Queen of France. Even chicklit, which of the whole Romance spectrum probably veers closest to mainstream, takes place in the big city. It doesn't need a great deal of history, but other subgenres of Romance do, with fantasy and SF being the heaviest users. Moreover, for all the history they consume, only a small part of it is real; the rest has to be made up.

Making up history is obviously easier in some respects. You won't need to google your fingers raw, then end up going to a university library to find out some obscure but crucial fact; if your hero needs a ferry to cross a particular river, you can make sure the bridge wasn't built till later. Even fake history has to sound convincing, though - more so, in fact, than real history, which can always fall back on being, well, true. The Byzantines got the the secret of Greek Fire in the nick of time to save Constantinople from the great Arab siege of AD 674, but do not try this trick at home. Once upon a time you could get away with it, but these days, if your space empire gets free-electron X-ray lasers just in time for its twenty old system-defense ships to zap 2000 Zorgon battlecruisers to oblivion, you had better be brilliant at tongue in cheek or you are toast.

The art of fake history is, broadly, making it sound like the real thing. This doesn't have to mean the pseudo-realistic style, where the Trojan War was really fought over trade routes and the pretty woman was merely a pretext. The history of the Third Age of Middle-Earth isn't Realistic [TM], but it captures the true flavor of early chronicles, history as it should have been. (In particular, Tolkien, a renowned scholar of Old English, wrote the history of Rohan in the appendix in the style of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.)

Tomorrow I'll look at a few popular tropes, and as why Edward Gibbon was the father of future history.

* Confession that I've never read any Doc Smith.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Little Faux Heinlein

Since I named this blog the Rocketpunk Manifesto, perhaps it is order to offer a couple of snippets of rocketpunk. The two passages below are, so far as I know, the only ones specifically written as such. Originally posted at sfconsim-l, both are shameless imitations of Robert A. Heinlein - faking, I hope, the style of his YA classics from the 1950s, not his didactic and tedious later books.

The first is a "tell me, Professor," explaining a surprising but plausible feature of space warfare, as valid now as fifty years ago - if we are mulishly stupid enough to fight space battles, on which score history is not encouraging:

"Nothing at all?" asked John. Uncle Ray, he thought, would have plenty to say about idiots in government if he knew that the Federation's missiles did not have warheads.

"Don't need it," said Sgt. Murray. "At ten miles per second, anything that hits you - a solid slug, a water balloon, your mom's best china - packs thirty times the punch of high explosives. Don't believe me? Check it."

John took out his slipstick and checked it. He whistled. The year before he left for the Academy, a kid drag-racing on Main St. spun out at 120 mph: His convertable punched through a brick wall and ended up in the lobby of Midstate Bank. This was three hundred times faster. The empty casing of a Mark VII target-seeker rocket has a mass of 120 kilograms. At ten miles a second it will slam into its target with the whallop of an 8000-lb bomb. Whether it carries a load of TNT, a damp squib, or nothing at all, makes no difference.

This next one deals with the problem of detecting enemy ships in deep space:

"It's some old coot down in New Zealand, Lieutenant," said the corporal. "Says he's an amateur astronomer. Something about lights in Virgo. Just thank him and log it in?"

Lieutenant Nunez glanced at the system map, updated daily. "Umm, let me talk to him a moment." Well-meaning citizens were forever calling in to report airplane lights, the planet Venus, and radio masts on nearby mountains. Amateur astronomers, however, usually knew their way around the sky - sometimes better than the professionals did. Cpl. Shelby handed him the phone. "Hello? ... Yes, Mr. Murray ... Yes." Nunez started writing. "You say that right ascension is ... drifted approximately 5 arc minutes ... Thank you, Mr. Murray. You have a good evening too ... You have a very good evening, sir."

Nunez studied the map, sketched an orbit, checked it with his slide rule. "Give me GHQ, Corporal." A voice came on the line, and he was passed up. "Yes, Commander. You may want to wake up General Gordon. It looks like we just found the Belter fleet."

This passage, alas (?), is obsolete. Finding a few spaceships millions of kilometers away might seem a hopeless task, but space is mostly dark, while spacecraft are pretty bright. Even if you paint them black they are still bright, in the infrared - if they aren't, the crews have frozen to death. Moreover, rocket engines powerful enough to drive spaceships are REALLY bright, bright enough to detect in a modest-size telescope from clear across the Solar System ... so long as you point it in the right direction.

In Heinlein's day this last was enough to give space attackers a chance of eluding detection, because human lookouts get bored and lazy. Computers, however, do not. For this reason, the rule of thumb among those of us geeks who think about this stuff is that in space, Everyone Sees Everything.

Another View from 1900

From another blog (now on my blogroll), the wonderfully named Paleo-Future, are some postcards of the year 2000, put out by a German chocolate-maker around 1900.

Windsurfing seems more practical, if strenuous, than water-walking suspended from a balloon, but I like the marine unicycle in the first postcard, and the moving slidewalk in the second is quite elegant.

Also worth a tour is the Future Past website.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The View From 1900

Yesterday a member of sfconsim-l posted a link to this article, predicting the technological wonders of the year 2000, apparently published in the December, 1900* issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. The author's 28 predictions (one is a repeat) are a combination of startling prescience - air forces and global real-time telecommunications, for example - interesting near misses (60-knot transatlantic ocean liners riding on combination hydrofoil/air-cushions; television that you have to go to a movie theater to watch), and sheer quaint oddities (Peas as large as beets!). Since I detest peas, I'm glad the last one didn't come true.

All of it is infused with the sepia-toned glow of the Belle Epoque; you can just see the ladies in their long dresses, elegantly spinning their parasols as they stroll about the promenade deck of a hydrofoil ocean liner. No surly teenagers would be found in the year 2000, nor perhaps many sloppy homes, since Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools. Pre-cooked meals would be available, delivered right to your dining parlor by pneumatic tubes. (The Paris post office had an extensive network of these, only taken out of service in 1984.)

As was the norm until our own dystopian age, The Future worked rather better in prospect than it proved to in the event. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare. Fleas and mosquitos - even the sneers-at-nuclear-radiation roach - would be exterminated. Indeed, so would nearly all wild animals, an outcome that seems dystopian to us, though apparently it wasn't to our great-grandparents.

A fair proviso must be made that one member of sfconsim, its founder in fact, has questioned whether this article is a hoax. It's an interesting commentary on the limits of online research that no amoung of googling would provide a fully reliable answer; the only real test is to go to a brick-and-mortar library and look up the hardcopy issue. If it is a hoax, though, it is a very well-crafted one; it reeks of its purported era, right down to the archaism of hyphenating "warships" when speaking of aerial war-ships.

My own guess is that it is real; the pattern of hits and misses is consistant with other prognostications that I have seen from this era, and the style is thoroughly period.

On Edit: Its authenticity has been confirmed, and a link to a Google scan of the source text supplied, by kedamono in the comments below. I spoke too soon about the limits of online research!
The (presumed) author, an eminent engineer of the time, did a great deal better than the futurists of midcentury did in predicting The Future that I thought I would be growing up in. I'm still waiting for my household robot, let alone my ticket to the Moon.

The Future, in fact, was still a pretty novel concept in 1900. People in 1800 could have had scarcely any concept of it; though the Industrial Revolution had (in retrospect) already begun, it had not yet effected their lives enough for them to be aware of the potential for and effects of rapid technological change. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776), has a great deal to say about improvements in technique, but only mentions the steam engine once, in a footnote.

The Future is now largely passé; I don't recall seeing any articles about Life in 2100 in the past few years - no doubt there were a few, but none that caught my eye. Eager anticipation of hypersonic transports (LA to New Delhi in an hour!) has been replaced by glum realization that we'd just end up stuck in freeway traffic for hours getting to the airport, and lurking concern that both places will be largely underwater due to global warming.

Thus the crisis of science fiction. The cool stuff, space colonies and the like, has largely given way to dystopias on the one hand, or transhumanism and the Singularity ("Rapture of the Nerds") on the other. Neither one, to put it plainly, is very much fun. Hence my offering of Rocketpunk as a way to breathe some retro-life into the genre. Without it, the current trend will probably continue, and our children will know everything about dragons and nothing about spaceships.

* People a century ago were more pedantic than we are, and universally accepted that the 20th century began only in 1901, not in 1900 - unlike the case a few years ago, when the New Millennium was celebrated at the start of 2000, not when it technically should have been, at the start of 2001. (To be sure, the odometer turning all four digits was a big benchmark in its own right - and in retrospect, 2001 brought us absolutely nothing to celebrate, and much to regret.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Comic Flaws

I have noticed a pattern in some SF novels, particularly "hard SF," of protagonists who have some rather arbitrary minor character flaw, such as morbid insecurity even when they are performing brilliantly, or something of that sort. I can't name names, because I no longer recall specific examples, but it's something I've seen more than twice. These personal flaws become grating after a while - you want to reach through the page and shake the guy. They are not endearing, and worse, they are not very convincing.

In fact these flaws seem to be stuck in as an afterthought - like the bits of domestic soap opera stuck into a 1950s Jimmy Stewart movie about the Air Force, presumably intended to humanize the hero and appeal to women (this was the 50s, after all!). Meanwhile we guys twiddled thumbs or took a bathroom break while waiting for the movie to get back to the cool stuff with the B-36 or B-47.

Why do the authors do this? My guess is because they've been told they should. Personal flaws, according to books about How To Write Good, are supposed to make the hero seem real and human, not like the jut-jawed heroes of comic books back before they whored after respectability and became graphic novels. It rarely works. The Flaw doesn't make the hero more human, merely annoying.

The problem is that the advice on How To Write Good is almost always shaped by the conventions of mainstream, Realistic [TM] fiction. Science fiction, however, is never Realistic [TM] fiction, no matter how careful the author is about space drives and laser cannons. Science fiction is a subgenre of Romance, as I noted a few days ago (and Debra Doyle a few years ago). It is as much Romance as any book with a steamy cover, even if the jut-jawed hero never so much as kisses a lady - and in hard SF, as in old-time Westerns, he probably doesn't, lest the delicate reader be exposed to girl cooties.

Romance is not about flaws. Quick, what is D'Artagnan's flaw? What is Frodo's? Don't say that at the end Frodo can't bring himself to give up the Ring, and is saved only by Gollum biting it off - that is the Ring's doing. If Frodo were of less heroic stature he'd have lost his soul, not just a finger. Heroes in Romance really are heroes, and are supposed to be, not just "protagonists." Dumas reputedly said that D'Artagnan* was the man he himself would have liked to be.

* My greatest single surprise about 17th century France was stumbling upon D'Artagnan in straight-faced history books. He and his companions were based - however loosely - on real people; there's a recent book about them, though I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
In fact, D'Artagnan does have a flaw. No sooner does he show up in Paris than he blunders into duels with three of the finest swordsmen in France, singularly bad decision-making from a life insurance perspective. Happily the Cardinal's guards show up, and the rest is history, or at any rate Romance. D'Artagnan's flaw, then, is impetuous courage. This is a common flaw among heroes in Romance (one unsurprisingly shared by Catherine de Guienne - a young lady about whom I'll have much more to say as this blog goes along).

This kind of flaw works because it is integral to the character, not an afterthought stuck in because the author thinks they should. If D'Artagnan weren't impetuous and brave he would never have gone to Paris and tried to become a musketeer in the first place. If Frodo didn't combine a high sense of duty with a taste for adventure he would never have gotten himself talked into the impossible scheme of hiking into the heart of Mordor to chuck the Ring down Mt. Doom. Without it, there'd be no story.

It's perfectly okay for heroes in Romance to be jut-jawed, or have flowing red hair down to here, or whatever; and they don't need some fake flaw. Becoming a hero - a pretty crazy line of work - is flaw enough.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Worlds Beyond II - "Super-Earth"

Scarcely had the electrons dried on my last post about extrasolar planets than some pretty dramatic news hit the wires: discovery of the most Earthlike extrasolar planet yet, orbiting the star Gleise 581, about 20 light years away. The star is a dim red dwarf - though quite close as stars go you would need a telescope to see it - and it was already known to have two other planets.

Earthlike is a relative term - I wouldn't recommend buying real estate there yet, even if we had a way to get there. The planet is at least eight times Earth's mass, thus probably about twice its size - possibly rather more, if it is largely made of less dense stuff than rock, as big planets usually are. All we know about it is its distance from the parent star, 0.073 AU* (about 10 million km), and its minimum mass - the mass may be greater, for reasons I'll go into if someone wants me to.

* An AU, "astronomical unit," is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun - about 150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles for those of us in countries where they still use medieval units. Get used to it, because I will be using AUs a lot here.
We also know how bright the star is - not very (about 1/200 as bright as the Sun) - from which we can determine how much sunlight, or Gleise 581-light, it gets. Even this little bit of information, however, is enough to take a fair first guess at the planet's temperature, which comes to about 0-40 degrees C (32-104 F) - a temperature that permits liquid water, the most basic stuff of life. It could be colder if it is covered with ice that reflects away most of the light that otherwise would warm it, or much hotter if it has a dense greenhouse atmosphere like Venus. Still, it is at the right distance to have liquid water, which is a very good start. Conceivably - pure speculation here - it could have a lot of liquid water, perhaps a hydrosphere several thousand kilometers deep, making Earth's oceans look like a thin muddy film by comparison.

This discovery isn't just cool - it is awesome.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Jack and the Beanstalk

I do not much care for beanstalks, for reasons that have nothing to do with the blood of an Englishman.

For those of you who are not space geeks, I should briefly explain what a beanstalk is. A satellite in the right orbit, about 40,000 kilometers up, is "geostationary" - it orbits the Earth in 24 hours, and therefore seems to float at one spot in the sky. If you were aboard a space station in that orbit, and you had a long enough and strong enough wire, you could reel it out till the other end reached the ground. You could then use it as a rope ladder to go up and down with no need of a rocket or anything resembling a rocket. This is a beanstalk.

An alternative term is elevator, for the sensible reason that no one wants to climb the stairs that far. The idea, so far as I know, was first proposed by Arthur C. Clarke - about as good a source as space speculation can have; he was also the discoverer of the geostationary orbit, now used by most communications satellites. (Which is why your satellite TV dish can point in one direction instead of slewing around all the time.)

It's quite a brilliant concept, really, and no great surprise that in the last few years it has become very popular both in science fiction and nonfiction space discussion. So what do I have against beanstalks?

They do have a few technical hitches. No currently known material is strong enough for a wire hanging down from 40,000 km to support its own weight without snapping, let alone carry a load. (However, there are laboratory hints that such materials may be possible.) Reeling the wire down and anchoring it at the ground end could be ... challenging. Devils also tend to lurk in the secondary details, such as operating the elevator cars that would run up and down along the cable or cables.

All of these may well be solvable; a beanstalk would still be a truly stupendous civil engineering project - essentially a railroad suspension bridge, 40,000 kilometers long, turned on-end. Given that an ordinary light-rail line costs at least $10 million/mile, a beanstalk to orbit would be perhaps a trillion-dollar investment.

And that is my beef with beanstalks. At some future date, space traffic might be so heavy that the enormous investment could be justified - the Interstate Highway System probably did not cost all that much less in present-day dollars. The fashionable trend in SF and space speculation, however, is to lo-ball the cost down to as little as $10 billion, and see beanstalks not as an eventual successor to shuttle-like reusable orbiters but as a near-future substitute for them.

On one level this is understandable. The Shuttle has turned out to be a huge disappointment (for reasons I'll discuss in a future post), and the technical challenges in building a truly robust orbital transport are enormous. Yet to pin our hopes for space access instead on a technology never demonstrated on any scale, and perhaps not possible at all, strikes me as a bit like putting our faith in magic beans.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Worlds Beyond

Every two or three weeks I take a quick look at the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia. Most times there is nothing new at the site, but sometimes there is. Last week there were five new things there: five newly discovered worlds, orbiting stars 150 to 300 light years away.*

* Or 50 to 100 parsecs. Astronomers never use light years, only parsecs, meaning parallax of one arc-second - the distance at which Earth's orbit would look roughly the size of a dime as seen from a mile away. To sound like a pro, use parsecs - but light years are much cooler.

According to the Encyclopaedia, maintained by the Paris Observatory, 227 extrasolar planets are now known, plenty enough to make up for poor demoted Pluto. The California-Carnegie site, more conservatively, proclaims 202 "nearby" extrasolar planets - apart from the inevitable competition between research teams, there is always disagreement at the margins over both what is a planet and what counts as "nearby."

However you count them, this is two dozen times as many planets as there are in the Solar System, with or without Pluto. For such a profound discovery, the extrasolar planets don't get very much public attention, and it is easy to guess why: There are no dramatic pictures of them, in fact no pictures at all. All have been detected by more or less indirect means, and we have no idea what any of them look like (though there are some gorgeous if speculative images by space artist Lynette Cook).

For both astronomers and science fiction writers, the extrasolar planets have in fact been just a bit awkward. Most are giant planets, roughly as massive as Jupiter, but orbiting very much closer to their parent stars - half of them closer than Earth is to the Sun, and about a third of them closer than Mercury. No one expected this; when they started turning up the theorists had to scramble to explain them. For astronomers and SF writers alike it has meant that planetary systems are not the way we expected them to be.

In fairness, much of this embarrassment may be due to "selection effect." Our methods of finding them work best, and confirmation comes most quickly, for big planets close to a star. Thus those 200-odd planets are typical only of the kinds of planets that are easiest to find. If twins of Jupiter orbit nearby stars, they would be barely at the uncertain threshold of detectability - and even once initially detected it would take a decade or so to confirm that they are the real deal.

Yet here's a lurking uncertainty: Perhaps the Solar System is not typical, but something of a fluke, in which case Earthlike worlds may be few and far between. It's also a bit humbling that Ma Nature threw us such an unexpected curve.

All the same, it is awesome to think that there are over 200 known worlds out there, harbingers of countless more waiting to be found.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Genre With No Name

I'll step back a bit today from SF to comment on a broader question that I alluded to in my first (real) post. There is a genre of fiction that most of you probably read if you are visiting this site. Taken as a whole it sells like hotcakes, filling a lot more shelf space at your local Barnes & Noble than mainstream fiction does. Yet it has no name - at least no familiar name that clearly refers to it - and most people who read it don't know that it exists.

No, not rocketpunk - that doesn't fill any of the shelves yet (though a lot of SF is arguably rocketpunk without knowing it). And rocketpunk has a clear, unambiguous name, even if I only just re-coined it a few weeks ago.

In truth the nameless genre does have a name, instantly familiar too - but while it more or less retains its original meaning in literary history, the name has shifted enough that in popular usage it only refers to one subgenre of itself. Give up yet? The genre with no name is Romance.

Romance in the usual sense - the kind that gets even less respect than science fiction, but sells a lot more books* - is a legitimate and long-standing subgenre of the true, broader Romance genre, going right back to the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle. Or at least to Chretien de Troyes, who reworked Welsh and Breton tales, via Geoffrey of Monmouth's fake history, into the gold standard of Western schlock lit ever since.

* I've seen a plausible claim that more science fiction is now being sold as "futuristic romance" than as SF.
Though part of Romance in the broad sense, boy meets girl is only part - the boy generally has to slay a dragon or two along the way, or elude the Cardinal's guards, or zap a few enemy spaceships. Only quite recently have the girls been allowed to slay dragons themselves, a notable enrichment of the genre. Science fiction is a subgenre of Romance, as are fantasy, mysteries, and really most of what people read for sheer pleasure rather than because they think they should.

Literary fiction, so called, is hardly ever Romance these days, though at one time nearly all of it was. They parted ways early in the last century -I would pinpoint the moment of split with one book, A Farewell to Arms. Here is a perfectly good Romance - but because it was the 1920s, and Hemingway, Cat Barkley has to get run over by a bus on the last page. (That book didn't bounce off the wall - it burned up from atmospheric friction before getting there.)

So, what exactly is Romance? According to Debra Doyle - who rudely wrote a fine essay on the subject before I could get around to it -
The dictionary definition of "romance" as a genre is: "a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious" (which is sort of right, though the "remote in time or place" clause oversimplifies a much more complex quality of removal from everyday reality.)
Romance doesn't have to happen in a galaxy far away, or in the Middle Ages. It can happen in Los Angeles - but the LA of Chandler and his successors, not the ordinary, everyday LA of creeping along the 405 at five mph. The freeway may not go any faster in Romance, but waiting at the end of your offramp are some plug-uglies, or a dangerous dame, or both.

Now that you know what genre you've been reading all these years, why does it matter to anyone but lit geeks? Doyle got to that first, too: It is a question of literary standards and expectations, which boil down to realism. The realism at issue here is not the sort we genre writers labor over - how to array footmen to stand up to a mounted charge, how a lady lets a gentleman know of her interest without risking scandal, or what orbits are practical for a ship with arc-jet plasma drive.

The question is about how realistic the characters and situations are expected to be. Characters in Romance are a bit (sometimes a lot) larger than life. They aren't ordinary schmucks, as has been the fashion in much Serious Lit in recent times. The settings and situations are also not quite ordinary, because Romance essentially takes place in Faerie, or at least its outskirts. The days are a bit brighter, the fields a bit greener, the slums a bit slummier.

Romance, therefore, cannot - and should not - be judged by the same critical standards as mainstream and literary fiction. It will never pass those tests, and as Doyle points out, will not be the better for trying. It has its own set of standards. What those standards are I'll leave for another post, or more likely many posts, because the standards for Romance literature have largely been either forgotten or never yet worked out. Still they exist, and it would be good for us to understand them.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Handwavium: Don't Leave Home Without It

I do not know who first came up with the term "handwavium," or even if it originally had to do with science fiction. I first learned it at SFConsim-l, the best site for space discussion that I know of.* Handwavium, and its cousins such as unobtainium, are all the materials, technologies, and new laws of physics that allow us to do fun things we cannot do now (such as travel in space for less than a fortune).

* The name stands for SF Conflict Simulation, i.e. wargames, so it is probably not a place for the confirmed pacifist, but by no means is discussion confined to futuristic ways to blow each other up.
The queen of handwavium is of course FTL (Faster Than Light, for those of you who are not SF geeks) - a shameless violation of relativity, almost universally used in science fiction so that we can travel among the stars without decades or centuries of boredom en route, and get home in time to bore our friends while they are still alive. Lesser forms of handwavium are required for such conveniences as "torch" drives, rockets that can run at full power for weeks at a time, and a host of other gadgets that make up the standard space SF kit.

As space SF subgenres go, rocketpunk gets by with less handwavium than most, or at any rate with subtler handwavium. Rockets, after all, are real enough, and writers like Clarke and Heinlein were usually pretty careful about getting things right. (Heinlein reputedly spent a couple of days doing orbit calculations - with pencil and paper - for a couple of lines in the YA novel Space Cadet.) We don't have atomic rockets, but one was ground-tested in the 1960s, at a place rather colorfully known as Jackass Flats.

Heinlein handwaved the Solar System quite a bit - by the 1950s hopes for canals on Mars or a jungle Venus had pretty much faded - but mostly what the SF writers of the 1950s got wrong was the cost. No fault of theirs; no one yet realized just how hideously expensive space rocketry would be, or how difficult it would be to spread out the costs by flying spacecraft on a regular basis. (747s are expensive too, but air travel is cheap because they can carry a full load of paying customers every day - for shorter flights several times a day.)

In one major respect, however, rocketpunk - and for that matter a good deal of space SF not intended as rocketpunk - invests in a great deal of negative handwavium. If the writers of the 50s greatly underestimated how expensive and complicated space travel would be, they even more greatly underestimated how cheap and convenient computers would be. A classic instance is Heinlein's YA Starman Jones - still one of my favorite SF novels.

Heinlein paints a vivid picture of life in a starliner's control room - including the petty officer whose job is to convert computer inputs into binary numbers, using a book of tables, then convert the computer's output from binary back into decimal for the astrogator to use. Forget scripting languages, forget C++, forget even FORTRAN or assembly code - a starship's control computer requires binary input, keyed in on a front panel. Hey, it was 1953.

The real problem for SF writers, though, isn't the guy looking up binary numbers, it's the astrogator. Even with current computer technology, the interstellar navigation problems portrayed in Starman Jones - the ship gets Lost in Space after its Astrogator dies - could surely be handled better by a computer than by weary Captain Blaine and incompetent Mr. Simes, or even by brash young Max Jones, the hero, or the late, brilliant Dr. Hendrix.

SF writers have resorted to various gimmicks to get around this problem. One fairly popular dodge is to say that computers don't work in hyperspace for some reason. That, however, is a painfully obvious bit of special pleading. (Well, so is FTL, but ....) Frank Herbert in Dune posited a distant future in which computers had been placed under religious interdict, which at least bellies up to the bar.

The need for this huge negative handwave, rolling back computer technology to the 1950s, is perhaps the biggest challenge facing rocketpunk as a subgenre. Rocketpunk isn't alone in that, however, because it is a problem that most space-oriented SF runs into sooner or later. Who would have imagined that one of our biggest literary problems would be too much technical progress?

Friday, April 20, 2007

On Rocketpunk

So ... here we go, with roughly the one-billionth blog on the Web. Is it really needed? On the other hand, is any justification really needed? So here it is.

As good a place to start as any is with the name, Rocketpunk Manifesto. What is rocketpunk? Google reports (as of now) about 400 hits on "rocketpunk," then boils them down to 85 "most relevant results" - mostly some people's screen names, apparently in both the Hispanosphere and Japan, a clothing store somewhere whose website has vanished. A 2004 post entry in the Wikipedia backroom discussion area on Steampunk, however, uses it in much the sense I intend:

Steampunk is science fiction, but it is science fiction set in a past era, specifically the victorian era. Do were consider 1950s science fiction "rocketpunk?" Of course not, but if someone were to set a story in that era and write it as though it was a 1950s science fiction novel, then it would be considered "rocketpunk."
Needless to say I had no idea of these pretty obscure sources when I hit on the term in a post on the SFConsim-l discussion board at Yahoo Groups:
Steampunk is now a familiar SF subgenre, set in a retro-futuristic vision broadly inspired by Verne and Wells. Among other things it requires a special kind of magitech, really magi-science, with things like aether ships.

Surely there is now a place for a retro-future based on the vision of 50 years ago, on the verge of the actual historical space age. I will call this rocketpunk.
The 1950s were the golden age of The Future - monorails, personal rocket packs, and of course regular scheduled flights to the Moon. Steely Dan, no surprise, nailed it in IGY
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
Monorails were always a silly idea (good old standard gauge railroad tracks work just fine), but the Moon trips would have been seriously cool. Instead, here we are in 2007, and the new Official Space Vision is warmed-over Apollo capsules. The old Heinlein and Clarke stories had the space technology pretty much right; what they horribly underestimated was the cost. You actually can go into space as a tourist now - all you have to do is wave $20 million in front of the Russians, and up you go.

(Remember when we used to scoff at Russian space technology? But how long since they had a fatal accident?)

If we can write about steam-powered aether ships, surely we can write about rocket ships as they were supposed to be - perhaps blowing up now and then (the 1950s were pretty casual about safety), but usually getting where they were supposed to go: a real space station, the wheel kind; the Moon base; and in due course to the colonies on Mars, the asteroid belt, and on to the stars ...

That, more or less, is what Rocketpunk is about.

This being a blog, however, I have no intention of confining myself only (or even mainly) to rocketpunk as such - but it is a handy center of gravity for a scope of discussion that includes science fiction in general, fantasy, historical fiction - including imaginary history - and actual history. All of which are either part of or provide source materials for a genre that fills half the bookstores but has no common name. I'll get to that in a future post.

Meanwhile, welcome to Rocketpunk Manifesto!


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