Friday, 12 January 2018

Book review: Artemis

By the author of The Martian but IMO inferior. Partly because it is so much of the same genre: engineering puzzles, but on a moon city. Yes, it has a spunky female heroine and so on, but that only gets you so far. See-also Goodreads.

So what's wrong, apart from the rather derivative must-write-a-second-book feel? The setup is rather more contrived. The entire politics and economics of the situation feel unnatural. There's a city on the moon, but it is the only one, and it is dying - effectively - because... the author can't be bothered to imagine why it might not be dying. People went to all the effort of building it and then... stopped. I think about half way through the book the author realises this, but can't work out how to escape. This is because engineering is his thing; the politics in the Martian didn't really work either, but were much smaller; here they can't help be a largeish part, and they don't work.

Also the setup. In the Martian, the central plot is natural; here it is forced. It all feels so trivial. The engineering behind the plot might work, but who cares?

Reverting to general patterns, another flaw is "why did this happen now?". What happens is that in the largely un-law-protected (but for mysterious reasons rather law-abiding) city of Artemis, gangsters start showing up and killing people and the authorities, such as they are, are powerless. There's a mega-rich guy at the start of the story, and weirdly he has but one - apparently unarmed - [art-time bodyguard; he presumably relies on the safety of the city despite the total lack - as it emerges - of any mechanism for that protection. But if all of that were true, the gangsters would have shown up a year earlier. Or before then. And this then swings back to the-politics-is-not-well-thought-out. There are echoes of Heinlein's moon, but what could have been interesting in the hands of a "Plato" interested in constitution building just doesn't work here.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Theatre review: Warhorse

Warhorse was a children's book but now it is a play. We went to see it as our first Christmas not-a-panto this year; and that made sense. TL;DR: good.

It is all rather well done. As everyone says, they horse puppets work well despite there being no attempt to hide the puppeteers; the bird puppets sort-of work too: well, the little flying-joyously ones do, and maybe the crows. I'm less sure about the comedy goose. Another bit that works well is the shooting, which is sudden and startling, rather than slow. The tank towards the end is odd; that didn't seem to make sense at the time. Looking now at the wiki page about the book, I think that's how Joey gets stuck on the wire, but that wasn't really clear in the play.

The only bit that sticks out as implausible - other than the inevitable co-incidences, which aren't too blatant - is Friedrich the German artillery officer practically doing a "lumberjack" and saying "I didn't want to be a soldier".

But what do we make of it on the moral or intellectual plane? It ticks all the obvious boxes: war is bad, hard work and perseverance is good, drunkenness is bad (errm, even if it has good consequences, never mind that), and so on. But we knew all that anyway, so that doesn't get you much. Does it provide any kind of insight? Does telling WWI from the viewpoint of a horse bring anything fresh and new? No.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book review: the Martian

The Martian (Goodreads) was recommended by D, and I enjoyed it. It is sci-fi but "hard"; the plot is closely based around near-term plans for how early exploration off Mars might happen. the genre is "engineering"; essentially the lone protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them not by heroism or exceptional intelligence but by being resourceful, thinking things through and ingenuity.

[This review written in early 2018 after I'd read the inferior Artemis as well, but backdated to mid-October which is about when I read TM.]

Plot (but you can get this from the wiki page or elsewhere): a dust storm means the explorers need to leave early but by accident one bloke is left behind, presumed dead. Can a rescue rocket get to him in time, and will it come to him or will he need to trog across half of Mars to get to it?

Most of all of this is well done and convincing. Details are plausible. So I'll point up a few that aren't. The sudden-evacuation-in-storm isn't quite; I can't think they would be so poorly prepared. The politics back on Earth is naive. The not-tell-the-departed-crew bit isn't believeable. Turning over the rover towards the end felt a bit too much like let's-throw-another-obstacle-at-him. But that contrasts with the rest, where the obstacles arise naturally and do not feel contrived, and the story mostly flows well.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book review: Divine Endurance

Divine Endurance is a weird book. It is well worth a read; if you haven't, do that first, because any explanation will tend to spoil it. If you don't like books in which much is unexplained, or in which things only become slowly clear, then find something else. Having said that, the flaws are more obvious on a second reading. And it isn't quite clear where Flowerdust fits in; just an episode, I think.

The attraction of the book is largely in it's tone; and to some extent it shares this with White Queen. Elegaic, unruffled, unhurried, tolerant of people and of disaster.

But ah the downsides: and here I shall wax philosophical; bear with me, it is worth it, I think. I've been reading Popper recently; The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx. And Popper is strongly critical of what he calls "historicism" or in Marx's case "historical prophecy": in essence, the idea that history has it's own meaning, it's own destiny; teleology, perhaps. And if you hear that, you begin to see the backbone of a lot of sci-fi novels; perhaps a lot of novels in general. And this one in particular: much of the beauty is in the characters learning to accept their "destiny"; the long slow downwards slope of their world into death. But it is all nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that; and (as I said before) all too common.

Update: reading GJ's article on the book at her website, it is clear that she thinks the book is about something else. But as the author she is in some ways blind to what it actually says, because of course she knows what she meant it to say. So take, for example, the way the dolls "know" that they shouldn't fixup various "surface" problems because the humans don't want those problems fixed. Like Derveet's fatal illness. Then stop and think: how does that make sense? It doesn't, except in the all-is-predestined manner that I've already pointed out is Bad.

But I should add something positive: which is that the view of society, and the bizarre sexuality in which essentially all important people are homosexual, just makes perfect sense and all fits together; is very well done.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Wednesday: glacier, valley, St Christophe en Oisans

The next day it is probably time to go down, especially since plans to go up to the Col du Sele appear inadvisable in the light of conditions. In fact a party have come from that direction but we are relatively inexperienced and conditions are clearly not good, and since we don't actually want to cross it's just not a good idea. However, going down won't take all day so D, E and I decide to go down to the glacier basin and see what's what from there. We rise at the sane hour of 7:30 for the standard breakfast and are off by 8.

Before we do that, here's Pilatte taken from above at the end of yesterday. The route in from the valley is to the left. Here's a view from the terrace looking right up towards les Bans. Here's the common room empty then, the "urinal" is the water tap.


There's a wide dust-gravel area with tables with a panoramic view. You'll notice it all looks quite dry and the hut was on short commons for water: drinking water could be had from taps but the indoor loos were forbidden leaving only the outdoors "long drop" that you see just "over" the hut. Off to the far right is the boules allee. Also taken the day before is the start of today's route:


The path heads off to the right, rising gently up by 50 m before you start to descend. It is... worrying. There's no run-out so you want to be careful on your feet, though "difficult" sections have cable. Not to spoil the surprise but when we get down we cross the obvious central moraine and follow the obvious glacier swooshing up to the left, avoiding getting too close to the rock in the centre, because ice has clearly fallen off it not long ago.


Here we are at the bottom of the descent. I'm now on the glacier, or rather the pile of rubble / moraine that edges the glacier; E is coming down the rope that protects this last stage (but just hand-over-hand; that's all that is needed, and since the rope is knotted it is all that is possible). You see the red paint blobs that look large from here but are teensy weensy from the glacier; memorise where it is, it is hard to see. If you follow the link to the expanded pic you'll see the cables leading from where D is at the top of the rope to the ladders off to the right. If you were of a nervous disposition you might rope up for all this. While we're on the route, here's a nice pic (taken from after we've trogged up a bit) because it makes it look all scary.


Look closely (you'll need the full-size pic) and you'll see Pilatte on the shoulder, and on the left side a crack slanting down with a blob of red on either side of it; that's our route. Meanwhile, on the glacier looking upwards we see up the swooshy ramp.


At the top of that swoosh, around 2800, we look around. It is a fine morning and the views are magnificent if somewhat intimidating. From closer up I think you can see that a route up to the Col du Sele is probably not so hard.


Go up the snow just left out of the picture, then traverse rising right above the first rock up the ice, and you'll avoid most of the crevasses. But, we have no time for that today, so it's time to return to the hut. Here's from a little lower down, showing how the glacier has been falling over the rock onto the lower portion; but that's fine, as long as you don't go near it.


It would be nice to climb les Bans one day. But earlier in the season would be better I think.


On the way down I incautiously strayed too far onto the "bulge" and we encountered the crevasse zone. It was entirely safe because you could see them all, but rather tedious threading our way through them. It finally gave me some idea of what you read in books when people describe the back-and-forth required.


To end our adventure, here's D contemplating the glacier (but if you prefer, here is him contemplating a large hole).


After that - and, of course, after lunch - there's the longish descent down into the valley. At the bottom we find that an emergency bridge has been restored to the more convenient path, so we take it. It looks like we're sending M across first but we aren't really: D's rucksac is already across so we experimented on him.


Gradually we descend back to more civilised parts, leaving the glaciers behind, but the storm has still left some destruction behind and the path has washed out in a few places.


We take a break (and catch up with D) at the shut-for-the-season-remember Refuge du Carrelet. The bridge just lower that appeared totally broken on the way up is now miraculously restored. I keep looking back; here's just before la Berarde. Once back, we gratefully remove our Big Boots and head down to St Christophe en Oisans where we plan to spend the night; but I'll fold that into tomorrow.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Tuesday: Gioberney: 3352

Previous: Pilatte.

We're called at 5, because that's when you're called if you're climbing Gioberney from Pilatte. It is an F; in the Rebuffat book there's a lovely snow ridge that attracted me years ago; but I fear it is gone now. Breakast is mountain bread, butter, jam, museli, coffee for me and hot chocolate for D and E; M stays abed. There's one other party; we faff repacking and they get off ahead of us, which is fine by me. When we get out there's a half moon illuminating the night, and up above the lights of the other party just disappearing over the lip. We'd recced the route start the day before and find the cairns and markers; by 6:30 it is light enough to turn off head torches.


The route goes up the shoulder of the W bank of the Pilatte glacier, whose basin you see here. The high point on the right is les Bans; then le Pointe des Boeufs Rouges (really) and the Pointe du Sele, with the col du Sele over to the Refuge du Sele (and thence down to Ailfroide) between those pointes. All of that basin "ought" to be easy snow, not hideous open crevasses - of those, more tomorrow.

Looking upwards this is Gioberney, although the summit may not be quite visible; our route takes us around the cliff on the left.


Looking across to the north face of les Bans; compared to my map (from 2011. Now I look, the map even has a general note telling you that they're melting back) the glaciers are massively eroded. Maybe it would be a good idea to come earlier in the season next year when there's still some snow around.


The route turns and we're on the now-rather-small glacier du Gioberney, heading up to the col at 3238. Finally we can almost see our objective, I always find that reassuring. Notice that we aren't troubling ourselves with the rope - that is safe and secure inside D's sac, borne aloft by his strong young shoulders. Because this is probably more neve than glacier.


At the col! We can leave sacs and axes and crampons behind, but we do take the precaution of putting our helmets on. D wittily has his sunhat on underneath; well, it works for him. The route - off towards the skyline on the right - is somewhat free form form here and is, needless to say, much easier than it looks, assuming it looks difficult to you.


From the col you can look over the far side. Just visible just over the dark ridge is the Chalet de Gioberney; the even lower valley is the D480 to le Bourg; further down that out of sight is La Chapelle en Valgaudemar. In theory visible on the slopes to the right is the Ref du Pigeonnier, probaly on the ridge opposite the dark ridge.


And then we're at the summit. yes, it's a pile of rubble. It is now 9 am; we took 3 hours, which is acceptable. It's a warm sunny day so we lounge around admiring the views, especially the crevasses of the glacier basin, and speculate how the path to the Col du Sele is supposed to work: I can just about trace out something that might work; you can never tell from a distance.

To help orientate, here's a picture taken from the glacial basin looking up towards Gioberney (right) and the actually-slightly-lower Pointe Richardson on the left, with the Gioberney glacier in between and the col central.


To finish with, here's a view of the descent ridge across to les Bans, featuring D and E. The descent also takes 3 hours, because we don't hurry; we arrive in time for galettes for lunch which is the important bit. We're tired, except perhaps for D, so happy to eat, drink, read, play Skulls and floating bridge.