Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary cover

A lot of people really like this, but it really isn't for me. The plot is an eerie recreation of the author's previous (and superior) big hit, The Martian, in which an astronaut finds themselves unexpectedly alone on an ambitious space mission, and has to science the shit out of things (by which we mean deploy some high-school science trivia, along with a penchant for very ordinary mental arithmetic) to save the day.

A badly written, distractingly unconvincing, and ultimately deeply annoying collision between hard science fiction and hand-wavy nonsense, with no literate themes, no higher meanings, no lurking Jungian archetypes - no mythology to it at all. Just a succession of edge-of-the-seat will-he-or-won't-he survive tense moments... Then: Yay, it worked, he did it! But in space!

Not even worth engaging the subjectivity-proof rating system for this one.

Rating: 2/10. I did finish it, but I wish I hadn't.

The Electric State

The Electric State cover

by Simon Stålenhag (2017)

I listen to a really fantastic science fiction podcast by Damien Walter, which is fascinatingly cerebral. Damien selected Stålenhag's work for his recent round-up of the 21 most significant science fiction storytellers of the 21st century (so far).

This is the same artist whose work inspired 2020's Tales from the Loop, and Damien's selection spurred me to engage more fully than just browse around Stålenhag's images all over the web.

I wasn't disappointed. The word count is low enough to be considered a short, but the main event is the accompanying illustrations, which are downright startling in their contrasts of the mundane and the fantastic.

Charting the journey of a runaway teenager and her small yellow robot, through a ruined near-future American landscape, littered with the debris of a high tech consumerist society addicted to an all-encompassing virtual-reality system. As they approach the edge of the continent, the world outside the car window unravels at an ever faster pace, as if somewhere beyond the horizon, the hollow core of civilization has finally caved in.

The Works of Larry Niven

A few days ago I mistakenly named Neal Stephenson as the author I'd read more of than any other. But I was forgetting about being young and inhaling books. On reflection, that title must surely belong to Larry Niven. As a teenager I read every last thing he did - or at least everything I could find in my hometown.

At one point my Mom picked up World Out of Time, to see what craziness her son was always buried in, and she concluded over the dinner table that I was reading it for the sex scenes she'd found. I presumably objected inarticulately that I was so little interested in Larry Niven's brief nerdy depictions of space sex that I'd barely even noticed they were there, but I have the impression she wasn't convinced. But it really was was his brand of hard science fiction that I was there for (I protest too much!) - revolving around ideas rather than character arcs, and the ruthless application of consistent world-views.

In inventing the Ringworld, Niven was inspired by Dyson spheres, first described by Olaf Stapledon, and popularized by Freeman Dyson. A full, solid Dyson sphere was, in some regards, inefficient. Dyson postulated miraculous gravity generators to make the inner surface of the sphere habitable. But this can be achieved much more feasibly by simply spinning the structure. However, all the matter inside the sphere, including any atmosphere, then pools at the equator. Niven observed that the superfluous surface of the sphere, away from the equator, can then be removed.

This vastly reduces the material needed to construct the megastructure. Given miraculous elemental transmutation, one could easily gather enough matter by recycling all the planets in a solar system as building material, even with a 1,000km "wall" along each edge to keep the fringes of the atmosphere in. Although this yields a much smaller habitable interior surface area than a full sphere, it's still something like a million times larger than planet Earth.

The aliens themselves weren't quite like any I've read before or since. The creepy sessile but sentient Grogs. The mysterious Outsiders, information brokers who are able to answer any question humanity has - if only we could afford the prices. The warlike, carnivorous Kzinti (picture a species of vicious, vaguely feline Chewbaccas - surely the inspiration for Wing Commander's Kilrathi) forever attacking humanity before they were quite ready. You can't help but almost feel sorry for them. By the times of Ringworld, representatives such as Speaker to Animals (named for his shameful profession, interfacing with humans) are sufficiently adapted to working alongside humans to become formidable allies.

Perhaps Niven's greatest alien race was The Pierson's Puppeteers - like an ostrich with two necks, each topped with a single eye and dexterous mouth, while the brain resides safely in the body (pictured below, on the cover for Neutron star). The body plan makes so much sense in action. Mobile eyes mean they routinely view objects from both sides simultaneously, perfect for close-up detailed work, using the hand-like mouths. Or, spread the necks wide for amazing stereoscopic vision when distance estimation matters. And that gestural laugh - eyes turned inward to briefly gaze into one another, observing the self, no mirror required.

The psychology is also exquisite. Herbivores and herd-beasts, the Puppeteers are inveterate cowards. No human has ever met a sane one - only their more unstable individuals would venture out alone to run the risks of space travel and meeting alien species. However, they are very intelligent, more so than humans, and industrious, and devious. It becomes clear over the course of the books that Puppeteers have selectively bred the Kzinti into constructive docility by engineering the many human-kzin wars, and their plans for everyone else are scarcely less manipulative.

Finally, my personal favorite was always the Pak. As alien as could be, and yet they are us. On humanity's original home-world, long before introduction to planet Earth, a symbiotic plant grows which young humans find uninteresting, but in middle-age they develop a compulsion to binge on it. It activates genes that provoke startling physiological and psychological changes, transforming the human from a breeder, into a protector - stronger, and with large joints for better leverage, with a tough wrinkled armour-like skin, much smarter, with a second heart, and ruthlessly dedicated to just one goal - protecting their own offspring. It is protectors who, it turns out many novels later, originally built the Ringworld. The absence of the transforming plant, which won't grow on Earth, means we grow without its benefits, leaving us with inadequate hearts, joints that fail with age, and an old-aged descent into feeble bodies and minds. Then, as the story begins, the first known interstellar spaceship shows up at Earth, piloted by one protector, come to rescue the failed colony, with a hold full of strange plant roots...

Wonders like these, from the novels and short stories set in his Known Space universe kept me up at night, and shaped the way I thought. Although Niven's writing had some mildly conservative tendencies, especially when under the influence of his militaristic writing partner Jerry Pournelle, it is also permeated with the necessity of a very liberal philosophy of non-judgemental tolerance of other lifestyles, both alien and human, a philosophy made explicit in one of Niven's Laws: "The only universal message in science fiction: There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently."

It's clear I wasn't the only one spellbound. Niven's ideas have been influential throughout science fiction culture. Bank's Culture's Orbitals and the understandably much rarer full Rings are clear descendants, as is the eponymous megastructure/superweapon of the juggernaut Halo franchise, and countless other imitators. Niven's meticulous hard-SF approach to fantasy in The Magic Goes Away, and in particular his concept of the conservation of mana, was an influence on Magic: The Gathering, as acknowledged in the card Nevinyrral's Disk (Niven's name backwards), which uses magic to simultaneously accelerate it's own spin, and to hold itself together, thus rapidly using up all the mana in an area, rendering further magic unusable. Movies such as Wall-E throw in sly nods - the Axiom is labelled in a passing graphic as using a "General Dynamics Type Three Hull", which is a similar size and shape to Niven's "General Products Number Three Hull".

For years I remember toting Niven's various doorstop 500 page novels to one place or another, such as being forbidden from carrying one into the Houses of Parliament viewing gallery. All the better that they usually had these crazy great '70s covers, mostly by artist Peter Andrew Jones, from whom you can buy prints of some of them.

Collecting these today by Google image search, I see today that these funky covers are relatively rare - the vast majority of Niven's sales were of editions with far less interesting and less skillfully put together covers. So I think it's appropriate to collect and celebrate them here.

I've not even read half of what Niven wrote. By the '90s the crazy covers had been replaced by more conservative designs, and at the same time I drifted away to other things. At the time it felt more like Niven was drifting away from me, evolving in style over the years, losing something hard-to-characterize that I'd enjoyed, maybe just the rawness of his earlier works. Maybe his style was diluted through him writing so many books as partnerships, or, as I increasingly assumed, in an advisory role, lending his name to the cover for younger, less well-known authors, who did most of the work.

Looking back on it, with 30-or-so year's hindsight, there are also components of Niven's writing that are lacking, and I was slowly growing out of it. Hard SF often celebrates the elevation of ideas over characters, and while there is a value to that, particularly for those readers who are the most vulnerable to the sensation of wonder, it also needlessly shuns other aspects, like the emotional impact of character-driven drama or individual psychological epiphany. A more skilled writer, I now think, would have a broader range of tools to imbue the story with more emotional resonance and meaning.

Still, while the affair lasted, it was fabulous. Goodreads page counts indicates it was eleven thousand pages, beating my Neal Stephenson consumption by a clear thousand pages. Combining that with a very conservative estimate of the number of times I re-read each one, nearly twenty five thousand pages. What can I say, I was a teenager, with seemingly endless oceans of time.

The following are just his books that I've read. He has many others, especially many that are more recent than these.

Title Pages Times
Rainbow Mars (1999) 477 1 477
Destiny's Road (1997) 448 1 448
The Ringworld Throne (1996) 368 1 368
Beowulf's Children (1995) 512 2 1,024
Flatlander (1995) 369 1 369
Crashlander (1994) 281 1 281
The Gripping Hand (1993) 413 2 826
The Barsoom Project (1989) 352 1 352
The Legacy of Heorot (1987) 383 2 766
The Smoke Ring (1987) 323 2 646
Footfall (1985) 524 3 1,572
The Integral Trees (1983) 272 2 544
Oath of Fealty (1981) 324 2 648
Dream Park (1981) 448 3 1,344
The Patchwork Girl (1980) 205 2 410
The Ringworld Engineers (1979) 307 2 614
Convergent Series (1979) 227 2 454
The Magic Goes Away (1978) 212 5 1,060
Lucifer's Hammer (1977) 629 2 1,258
A World Out of Time (1976) 246 3 738
Tales of Known Space (1975) 240 5 1,200
The Mote in God's Eye (1974) 596 3 1,788
A Hole in Space (1974) 196 2 392
The Flight of the Horse (1973) 212 5 1,060
Protector (1973) 218 4 872
Inconstant Moon (1971) 200 4 800
Ringworld (1970) 228 2 456
N-Space (1969) 693 1 693
The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (1969) 182 2 364
All the Myriad Ways (1968) 181 2 362
A Gift from Earth (1968) 256 3 768
Neutron Star (1966) 285 4 1,140
The World of Ptavvs (1966) 188 4 752
totals 10,995 24,842

(Discussion on Damien Walter's Science Fiction Facebook group)

Termination Shock

Termination Shock cover

by Neal Stephenson, 2021

It's another 720-page doorstop from the much-beloved author (which is actually slightly slimmer than his average book, which would be 770 pages). It was enjoyable, but not life changing. Not as compelling as some of his previous. Reads a lot like a narrative wrapped around the author's own personal justifications for pro-active geo-engineering projects. Which, I have to admit, I was pretty horrified by the idea when I first heard about it - meddling further with a critical and horrifically complex dynamic system that we don't undertand, and all that.

The story presents the the scenario of countering the temperature rise caused by CO2 in the atmosphere by releasing high altitude sulphur dioxide, to reflect sunlight back into space. This mitigates many of the most prominent effects of climate change, such as high-temperatures, storms, forest fires, and sea-level rises.

It further presents the idea that it's relatively easy and cheap to do, and some nation or part thereof that cares the most - e.g. The Netherlands, or Venice, amongst others, will either take a crack at it, or else will cease to exist. So we might as well get used to the idea and be prepared for what, geopolitically, happens after that.

I don't know if it's simply the story making me increasingly familiar with the idea, or whether the depiction of the mechanism genuinely quells some of my worries, in that it seems easy to start at a small scale, monitor the results, scale up as required, and the fail-safe is that the sulphur should quickly fall out of the air, allegedly harmlessly, if we realize this was a bad idea. I've at least tempered my initial harshly negative viewpoint somewhat. So, mission accomplished, I guess?

I've probably read more text by Stephenson than any other writer. Hmmm. By Goodreads page counts:

Title Pages Times
Zodiac (1988) 308 1 308
Snow Crash (1992) 559 2 1,118
Interface (1994) 640 1 640
The Diamond Age (1995) 499 3 1,497
The Cobweb (1996) 448 1 448
In the Beginning... Was the Command Line (1999) 160 2 320
Cryptonomicon (1999) 1,152 3 3,456
Quicksilver (2003) 927 1 927
The Confusion (2004) 815 1 815
The System of the World (2004) 908 1 908
Anathem (2008) 937 2 1,874
Reamde (2011) 1,044 1 1,044
Seveneves (2015) 880 1 880
Termination Shock (2021) 720 1 720
totals 9,997 14,955

Ten thousand pages, all from one author, or fifteen thousand if you include re-reads. Not bad! The number of re-reads is a reasonable proxy for the impact each book had on me at the time.

But on reflection, there is another contender...

The Incal

The Incal 4 cover

The Incal The Fall

The Incal The Fall

The Incal 4 cover excerpt

Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky, art by Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius), 1980-88

I grabbed this in the English translation from the original French, having been intrigued by the Pocket Essential Alan Moore's description of it as a contender for "the best comic in the medium's history".

This creative pairing also worked together on the unproduced 1970s movie of Dune, the one whose cast was to have included Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and Mick Jagger, and presumably would have been pretty trippy - I mean, even more trippy than the David Lynch one turned out to be. The artist, Mœbius, has had a long and glorious career, knighted for his art in his native France, and he worked on other movies such as Alien, Tron, The Fifth Element, and The Abyss.

Echoes of all of these are visible throughout the consistently stunning artwork of The Incal, and it has been explicitly noted as an influence on the expansive decayed futurescapes of Akira and Blade Runner, and the flamboyant visuals of the Star Wars prequels.

The writing really swings for the fences, a sprawling tale of a reluctant hero's journey, taking in societal commentary, intergalactic travel, spiritual transformation, iconic incarnations of good and evil, and a deep thread of mysticism.

For me, it does have a very evident "foreign" feeling - small social nuances with which I'm unfamiliar. Equally clearly, this is part of its exotic charm. And while the story touches on, perhaps even consists of, deep themes, it doesn't so much articulately explore them, but instead simply incorporates them. This is not a comic for people who are not already comic fans.

In lesser hands, it might have been undisciplined. But wherever the story roams, the artwork is endlessly enthralling. I especially liked the touch of protagonist, John DiFool, starting out distinctly ugly, but being rendered more handsomely on the rare occasions he manages to get in touch with his more noble aspects. Jodorowsky manages to keep it all together, bringing it around to a splendidly satisfying theatrical close. Bravo!

Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun cover

by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2021 spoilers

This was just wonderful to read.

The near-future scenario is revealed in a compellingly minimal way, teased in minor details. Eventually we piece together an epidemic of children without siblings, born into a competitive, authoritarian society. Higher-rank parents are able to purchase artificial friends, to help with the rigors of socialization. Klara, a newly activated artificial friend, demonstrates a lack of experience in dealing with human situations, but her efforts are unstinting, to understand what is going on within the family to whom she is sold, and do her best for them. Her earnest naivety as a narrator only serves to magnify the emotional impacts of the story, as her keen but inexperienced observation conveys everything we need to know about the dysfunctions of her tragic new family. She describes herself as feeling emotions, so the story is partly a discussion of what it means to be concious, to feel, as the humans around her are forced by circumstance into desperate schemes that expose the self-protective aspects of their love.

For all that, though, I'm not sure what to take away from it. Clearly the author is very skilled. It seems likely that metaphors are at work here. But, lunk that I am, I'm unable to discern what they are.

I'm fairly sure that the "boxes" Klara sometimes relates her perceptions being divided into are just stylish flair - a reference to the ways in which her brain works differently from ours, calving off processing into separate processors, or some-such, which comes to the fore when she is under stress, or deciphering complex emotions. I don't think this strikingly non-literal aspect is indicative of any deeper symbolism.

Sometimes, when I fail to pick up on metaphor, it's because religious allegory is involved. Beyond tales of mere personal transcendence, my brain just isn't wired that way. I can see that Klara is in many ways an innocent. Free not only of wrongdoing, but also of wishing harm, and - being made, not born - of original sin. On the literal level, this is emotionally resonant, especially when Klara's heroic contribution to the family is rewarded by being uncomplainingly discarded, like an appliance, at the end of the book.

But is this related to the other big clue about things I'm not picking up on - the title? I'm at a loss of what to make about Klara's relationship with the sun, which is a central plot point. Was Klara's bargain with her Sun god literally answered by a special burst of healing light, that saved her family's child from terminal illness? Certainly that is how Klara relates it. Could she perhaps have been imagining this? Might the recovery have been fated to happen anyway, and Klara's association with the burst of sunlight was all in her head? But the text tells us that the rest of the household are awestruck by the brilliance and beauty of that particular sunbeam, not just Klara. Later on, the questions Rick asks of Klara show that, although he does not understand, he has guessed the significance of the moment.

So. Klara the innocent's anthropomorphized Sun god's healing powers are real, and He answers her prayers to save the life of a child. And I don't know what to make of that.

Fortunately, I'm in good company. A quick search does yield intelligent writing about the book, but I don't see anyone coming up with aspects or metaphors that I've entirely overlooked - although that is usually quite fruitful when I search about other books that puzzle me. So I venture that I'm not the only one who doesn't get it.

Rubik's Beginner

Rubik's cube on table

I've never before memorized the complete set of tricks needed to solve a rubik's cube... until today! My first completion with no reference to my notes took 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Wine and chocolate motivators as pictured.

Rubik's cubes first came out outside Hungary in 1980, when I was 9. A year or two after that, I got my hands on an nth generation photocopy of handwritten instructions for solving one, derived by a mathematically-inclined friend of a friend of my Dad. (The things we used to do before the internet!)

I memorized the first few phases, so have always been able to do the first two layers. But the last parts of that solution involved remembering a couple of 15 or 20 move sequences, which apparently ten-year-old me got bored of, or distracted from, before ever committing to memory.

It turns out that the modern "beginner's method" that I'm reading about today is considerably simpler than that, and is much easier to understand and memorize. So now that lingering childhood inadequacy is vanquished.

(Discussion on Facebook.)

Creating Animated Meme GIFs on the Command-Line

Got sick of navigating the limitations of various online services to create animated gif memes, finally figured out how to do it manually. Not a universal process, just what worked for my situation. (Which is Ubuntu 21.10, "Impish".)

All of of the ffmpeg invocations could probably be combined into one, but I show the commands as I used them, as I was figuring each step out.

1. Download a video

Starting from a video on YouTube:

To download this locally, install youtube-dl, hit the YouTube share button to grab the video's encoded URL, and:

youtube-dl -o Ash.mp4

This gives me an 850KB .mp4 video file.

2. Split

I only want the final few seconds. To remove the start of the video, keeping from 6.5 seconds until the end:

ffmpeg -hide_banner -i Ash.mp4 -acodec copy -vcodec libx264 -ss 00:00:06.5 Ash-split.mp4

Args to ffmpeg are position sensitive. Specifying '-ss' (to split the file) before the input ('-i') can't create the split at an accurate location, since it has to guess whereabouts in the file the given timestamp will occur. But putting it after the input (as done here) means it can split accurately on the given timestamp, since the file has been processed by the time this arg gets actioned, so accurate timestamp/frame conversion is known, at the cost of having had to process even the parts of the video that are then discarded.

Vcodec of libx264 is specified because, according to stackoverflow, "scenes in mp4 are broken", whatever that means, and specifying "copy", as most people do, gives me an output with no video, only audio.

This results in a three second, 217KB .mp4 video file. (the following is just an image of it).


3. Crop

To crop out the black bars from the top and bottom:

ffmpeg -hide_banner -i Ash-split.mp4 -vf 'crop=iw:365' Ash-split-crop.mp4

Here, we crop it to the input width "iw", and 365 high. In the absense of any offset ordinates for the crop, ffmpeg defaults to centering them, so this 365 pixels are taken from the (spatial, vertical) middle of the video, which is exactly what we want.

This results in a three second, 220KB .mp4 video file.


4. Resize and convert to gif

ffmpeg -hide_banner -i Ash-split-crop.mp4 -vf 'scale=512:-1' Ash-split-crop-resize.gif

This results in a grainy-but-passable three second 750KB animated .gif:


The file size can be smaller, if you care, most easily by splitting a shorter video clip, reducing the frame rate, or reducing the 'scale' in this step.

Alternately, this could be done using ImageMagik's 'convert', but the result of that was a very large (10MB) file and played very slowly, and I wasn't immediately sure how to fix that.

5. Add text

Using Imagemagik's 'convert':

convert \
    Ash-split-crop-resize.gif \
    -coalesce \
    -font impact -pointsize 36 -fill white -stroke black -strokewidth 2 \
    -gravity north -annotate +0+0 'I can''t lie about your chances, but' \
    -gravity south -annotate +0+0 'you have my sympathies' \
    -layers Optimize \

The '-coalesce' option removes all the .gif optimizations, then we apply the text labels, then the '-layers' option re-applies optimizations. Without this dance, the text is all twitchy and messy.

Voilà. Imagine sending it to a co-worker who is taking on a difficult task, like making changes to that thorny section of the codebase that nobody likes:


Subnautica: Below Zero

on Windows, published 2021. spoilers

Subnautica, and its icy sequel, "Below Zero", have perhaps been my favorite games of the last few years. The majority of their run time takes place under the colorful waters of an alien ocean. It's been a joy to sit side-by-size with Zander for tense scuba cave dives, or piloting vehicles through vertiginous underwater cave systems, headlights straining through the murk to reveal wonders. It has inspired cake.

Part of the games take place on land though. I started drawing a map of Below Zero's Glacial Basin region just to keep track of where we'd been. To make sure we visited all the locations, found all the MacGuffins (I'm looking at you, pesky antidote), and experienced all that there was to experience.

But as those goals approached completion, I finished drawing it because it had become a therapeutic experience. Happily exploring away, mesmerised by the scenery, avoiding hostile wildlife, uncovering the ruins of ancient alien artifacts. Reckoning distances by eye, scribbling down what we found, updating and correcting the map as we went. Being lost in the experience. Simply a joy.

Reddit is encouraging me to tackle the tricky Actic Spires area, too. <Rubs hands>...

Subnautica screenshot