terça-feira, dezembro 29, 1987

On Horse-Flies: "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking

(Original Review, 1987)

Will having read Hawking's book help me understand the way a horse-fly "grasps" the arrow of time?
For starters, I'm great at killing horse-flies by hand. Should I get some black pyjamas and a balaclava and become a ninja? And there was me thinking that the horse-fly's all round vision and short nerve pathway had something to do with their reaction speed. Being a horse-fly-killing-ninja, what do I need Hawking’s book for? Move aside Hawking!

The best investment I made was a high voltage zapper in the shape of a tennis racquet, hours of Jedi entertainment and aerobic exercise from a pound shop. Has anyone tried downing a horse-fly with a laser to see if they are indeed faster than light? Many hours of fun at my Granny's house...

I suppose there are flies and flies. House-flies are damned elusive but horse-flies, which are only a little bigger, are dozy buggers, although persistent and aware of the advantages of mass attack. Tsetse-flies are of similar disposition.

I could postulate time is the same for us and the horse-fly: a solid turd moving at 1 m/s will have the same speed for both. But if a horse-fly can perceive at a faster rate, and if its reactions are faster than ours, it is living in stretched time (i.e. it can perceive more, and do more in one second than we can). Then, even though perception of time is subjective, and time remains the same for two objects moving at similar speeds, the horse-fly will have more time to live (a longer life) in one second than we do. Of course, they have a shorter life span, so we catch up to them over time :) I have swatted many a horse-fly head-on with a regular fly-swatter using some corollaries resulting directly from my own theorem “How to Kill Juicy Horse-Flies without a Horse-Fly-Swatter”.

A final thought before the “bottom-line”: What’s the last thing to go through a flies head when it hits a car windscreen.......Its arse. Ta daahhh!!

Bottom-line: Time is a measure of perception. Time is the expression of our reality. Our perception changes the reality. What perception of time would a horse-fly have? Our perception is based on the size and shape of our planet and its closer neighbours. Minutes and seconds, days and weeks, years and ages, and many others. Would a juicy horse-fly see day and night and count them? Could a horse-fly perceive time at all, or is it in the now only, with nothing to measure time with? Or is a horse-fly here and not here, in a quantum kind of way? Maybe an horse-fly is just me in another Multiverse…My brain is now moving so fast I appear stunned as I sit with my fly-swatter contemplating black flies, mosquitos, and .........oh my 'noseeums'. Biting midges are definitely in a quantum reality here in Lisbon, not to mention solid flying turds... And no. You don't need this book to be able to kill horse-flies with a fly-swatter or barehanded. It's all in the wrist you see...

quinta-feira, novembro 05, 1987

Hoodwinking Readers: “The Gate to Women's Country” by Sheri S. Tepper

(original review, 1987)

The Gate to Women's Country, remains the best written and most provocative of the lot when it comes to Feminist SF. It's one of the few books where I turned the last page and flipped back to the first and read it straight through again when I realized how deceptive the text, itself, was. I love when Septimus Bird tips Tepper's hand by noting that all good magicians keep us riveted on the left hand when the real trick happens in the right. That ends up being an ingenious clue about the ways we, as readers, are about to be hoodwinked. It's the very rare book that surprises me (my wife swears I have a seventh sense for foreshadowing; and I thought I was just a regular guy...) but this one did; once you know the secret it's everywhere. Having read it many times I continue to marvel at the superb architecture of the novel; its form holds up to the complexity of its vision. I always ended with a debate about whether what the women are really doing is justified, and those were among the most ferociously animated and intense moments in my class. It's like a torture test for those of us who are pacifists but who would have to test how far we're willing to go to prevent war. It's brilliant.

A novel that could be imagined to be a kind of sequel to Atwood's Handmaid’s Tale”, but much better written. Atwood’s seems pedestrian by comparison. In Tepper’s novel, the women don't run away, they take action. It's pretty draconian action, too, with a revelatory moment that comes down on the reader like a hammer.

quinta-feira, agosto 20, 1987

Swallowed by the Sea of Thirst: "A Fall of Moondust" by Arthur C. Clarke

(My own copy bought in 1987 at Bertrand Bookshop)

“He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer. He had found a tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its depths—something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched, wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough—but when the first grain of sand had rolled to the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs it had hurled a fusilade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had overwhelmed it and brought it sliding into the throat of the crater.

As Selene was sliding now. No ant-lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted one for him and his companions.”

In “A Fall of Moondust” by Arthur C. Clarke

Back in the day, I worked in IT for real as a lowly SysAdmin, also known as a computer whisperer (like a horse whisperer, only in binary...). When I was done gently soothing my big beasts with the soft lullaby of 0's and 1's, I always ended by singing them the song their daddy taught them: "Daisy, Daisy . . . " Don't laugh, it worked! Really. They all frequently express their continued enthusiasm for the mission.

A director like Paul Greengrass could really make “A Fall of Moondust” tense (remember United 93). The problem would be that, as Clarke himself admitted, the sea of dust idea is a myth, disproved by later research. Still a good story though. Yes indeed - they'd have to modify it so perhaps it was a sink hole caused by mining - extraction of water etc. But come to think of it, no need. I'd happily suspend any amount of disbelief to watch a film version of A Fall Of Moondust”. Retro-futuristic, perhaps? That would be fun. Lots of flashing lights and magnetic tape whizzing around representing a 1960's view of the far future.

Standing the test of time is part of what constitutes "greatness," surely. Clarke was obviously much more influential than Phil Dick when they were writing and because he paid such attention to technical detail, any number of ideas he popularized later came to be. But Phil Dick has risen in stature as the unthinkable (Nazis openly accepted as leaders in America, for example) in his books has become plausible. He starts to feel almost prophetic whereas when he wrote it probably just seemed a silly idea for a story. And while "Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" has a few rough edges, it poses most of the pertinent questions in bioethics; Clarke for all his brilliance was more of a science booster  than a science critic.