Lightyear FM

Want a perspective on what flying through space might actually look like?  Here’s one project to give you an idea.  Working on the knowledge that radio waves travel at the speed of light, this simulation shows you the local neighbourhood near Earth (excluding exoplanets) up to the limit of the first Earth radio broadcasts; up to 110 years ago (as of 2015).

Things I learned from this:

  • In general, stars don’t float randomly by themselves.  They appear in clusters.  We’re part of a pretty little cluster of mostly much tinier, dimmer stars than our own, that might look like the Pleiades with a red-shift in someone else’s perspective.
  • We can infer that most of the stars near us are smaller/dimmer than our own because most of them have alpha-numeric names (more on that in a minute).  Also, stars progress from red to orange to yellow to white to blue in terms of brightness and most of the stars around us are more orange than we are.
  • Every once in a while you do get singular stars just floating in a void, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
  • There are two nebulae relatively near to us.  One’s about 40 light years away and the other is about 80 light years away.  Each is about 10 light years across.

Naming conventions of stars:

  • The oldest stars we know about have proper names.  Those tend to be the brightest from our perspective and are typically the ones visible with the naked eye.  Most such names are derived from the Arabic language.  You’ll see relatively few of them in our local neighbourhood (Sirius, Fomalhaut, Pollux, etc.)
  • Sometimes stars are named for astronomers or the people who discovered them.  You’ll see a couple of those in this simulation.  One of them, Barnard’s Star, which you’ll see right after the Centauri stars that are our closest neighbours, blasted right through the edge of our solar system only 70,000 years ago!  Talk about a near-miss!
  • Some stars are catalogued.  The Bayer Designation names stars by a lower case Greek letter generally representing its corresponding number, plus the constellation it appears in. (ie. Sigma Sagittarii).  Once all 26 Greek letters have been assigned, letters of the Arabic-derived alphabet are used (ie. G Scorpii).  Sometimes when concurrent stars were discovered (like, say the smaller star in the Alpha Centauri binary) it was designated with a superscript.  The Flamsteed Designation is used when no Bayer Designation exists or when the Bayer designation uses numeric superscripts, because it’s less awkward.  (ie. 61 Cygni).  These stars are usually visible with a decent telescope.
  • The most recently discovered stars, visible with ultra high resolution or space telescopes and tracked by computers, are named with an alpha-numeric designation based on their position in the sky.  Over 990 million such objects exist.
  • Special cases: Pulsars are designated by the prefix PSR, with a series of hyphenated numbers in which the first indicates its right ascension and the second its degree of inclination.  Supernovae are designated by the prefix SN, plus the year they were discovered in, and if there was more than one, a letter indicating the order of discovery (ie. SN 1987A.)  A few supernovae are known by the year they occurred in (ie. SN 1604, also known as Kepler’s Star).  Novae are usually given a name according to the naming convention of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, which includes a number or letter designation and the constellation it’s from (ie. V841 Ophiuchi, SZ Persei, T Bootis.)

Here’s a preview to show you what it looks like: you can find the simulation itself at  Note that if you hover your cursor over each celestial body (save the Earth, the Moon and the Sun) it will tell you what it is and how far away from Earth it is.  Enjoy the simulation! – An interactive journey through space, time, & music from chris baker on Vimeo.

Book Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, I really did devour this book in a single day. Part of the reason is that I was down with a cold, so really couldn’t do anything else and thus had the time to do so, to be fair; but mostly it was because I thought this was an amazing book and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

The basic plot, in case you missed it from other reviews: near Venus and Mercury, in a perpendicular orbit to the elliptic, is an asteroid covered with ships created by an ancient alien race that they call the Henchee (though they don’t tell you where the name comes from). It was discovered when alien ruins, created before we climbed down from the trees, were found on Venus, and one of the ships was found there. The person who found it accidentally piloted it to the asteroid base, where he eventually died of dehydration and starvation, or would have if he hadn’t blown himself up in an attempt to alert Earth as to where he was. This sets the tone for the casual acquaintance with death that is part of the mood and setting of the novel.

Now the asteroid, called Gateway, is inhabited by a gold-rush style community of “prospectors.” Each of these ships seems to be capable of going to a location pre-set by the Henchee with some sort of FTL drive, and returning via an automatic piloting system. But no one understands exactly how to set that location. No one knows how long each trip is going to take, and no one knows how long it’s going to take to get back, so you might starve to death on the trip. A system of drawing lots to suicide and even survival cannibalism has been worked out by the prospectors. Because the Henchee systems seem to be integrated you can’t remove any of the Henchee equipment without destroying the ships, so you must cram human survival gear in next to all of the equipment. The ships are able to support one, three, or five people with extreme difficulty and in close enough quarters to literally be in each others’ armpits. The Henchee may have had some other way of picking up nourishment on the way; humans do not.

Even if you do survive the trip that way, because the Henchee built all this stuff maybe millions of years ago, whatever it was that was in the location they went to that they were interested in might be gone. Planets might have been eaten by suns going supernova. Stars might be white dwarves by now. You might end up literally in the middle of nowhere, or you might end up in the cornea of a star or cooked by coming out too close to a blue star by radiation. The risks and the odds are astronomical. There are many, many ways to die, many of them indicated by “mission reports” that Pohl includes intermingled in the text, along with classified ads, letters home, and various other dribs and drabs that give you a really clear picture of prospector life and the surrounding community that has developed. As an aside, some reviewers have been critical of what they see as trademark 1970s liberalism in the society so described, but I think those reviewers probably haven’t read as much as I have about frontier towns and communities that grow up around other dangerous professions, such as soldiering. It seems pretty typical of such communities to me. Not a lot of children present, sex and drugs (at least soft ones) available everywhere, and some really great intellectual and artistic stuff going on alongside all that.

So why would anyone do this? For the same reason people left everything to follow the gold rush; the potential for the big payoff. If you find something of scientific value on your mission, they pay you a science bonus in the millions of dollars. They pay you a multi-million dollar danger bonus if you survive something extremely dangerous. They pay you royalties in the thousands if your discovery can be used by future generations (such as discovering a new world full of Henchee ruins, or a faster route to something of significance.) In order to get this, you’re basically owned by the Gateway Corporation until you do. You don’t have to leave on missions once you get to Gateway, but there’s a life support systems tax and everything, as it often is in frontier gold rush towns, is extremely expensive, so you either get a shoveling-shit kind of job for a subsistence existence or you dare the runs.

And why would you go there and take this risk? Because society is basically a corporatist, overpopulated dystopia, in which there are so many people competing for so few resources that oil shale must be mined to grow food in bacterial and mold cultures. That’s where our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, comes from, one of these food mines. His father was killed in a mining accident when he was young and his mother died of lung cancer from exposure to mining chemicals; she might have lived, but she didn’t tell Bob that she was sick because he had suffered a psychotic episode and was undergoing psychiatric care, and she didn’t have the money to pay for treatment for both of them. In many ways this is a 1970s sci-fi trope — overpopulation causing widespread famine — but Pohl treats it as an impetus for the story and not the story point itself, and honestly, with the risk of climate change and current economics, it’s not an unrealistic view of the future, I’m sorry to say.

The story is told in the form of flashbacks that come from Bob seeking psychiatric treatment after he has struck it rich at Gateway and returned to Earth, where he now lives a multi-millionaire’s lifestyle. He’s suffering from severe PTSD and is trying to get his life back in order.

I’ve seen more than one review that describes Bob as a “whiner” or an “asshole.” I think that these reviewers don’t understand PTSD. Pohl’s depiction of the disorder, which I happen to know a great deal about both from research and experience, is spot on. A person acquires PTSD not necessarily from experiencing a dangerous situation (though certainly they can,) but also from living with fear for a very long time. Children with abusive parents acquire it because they never know when they’re going to be attacked next, as do abused spouses (both male and female,) and soldiers acquire it because they never know when the next assault is going to come.

Bob expresses much of his post-traumatic stress in the form of suppressed rage. Perhaps other reviewers haven’t realized it but his trauma began long before Gateway; it began in the dangerous mines, where he grew up knowing that his father was killed by an accident and knowing his mother died of chemical exposure; and the same would inevitably be his fate if he remained, but he had nowhere else to go. That, I think, certainly qualifies as a trauma-inducing situation. So when he won the lottery, and it was enough to take him to Gateway, he went.

But this was just going from the frying pan into the fire. Many people are driven by desperate poverty into, say, the military, even though they’d rather not do it; or more commonly, petty crime with considerable risk (like gangs or the drug scene). And if anyone says they had a choice not to do that, I say that such a person has never experienced that kind of desperate, crippling poverty. I have, and there have been times in my life when I have seriously considered such things.

Bob spends a lot time dithering on Gateway before taking his first run. Many people see that as cowardice, and he describes it as such when he is in therapy, but Bob is an unreliable narrator suffering from a great deal of survivor’s guilt and self-loathing. Since one of the first things he experienced was the smell of cooked bodies when a cleaning crew opened up an ill-fated returned ship, I think it’s rational fear. He didn’t want to risk his life like that, but he felt he had no choice if he wanted to live. Scary stuff and I would hope the reader would imagine oneself in that situation. Unless you’ve been faced with the choice of such odds, I don’t think you have any idea how you’d react. I think that people who failed to empathize with Bob’s plight probably spend too much time playing video games. He’s a normal guy, an anti-hero, not an action hero.

A spoiler follows:

(view spoiler)

Now many people will instantly condemn Bob because he hit a woman who was his girlfriend. That makes him an abuser. Yes, it does. But I also think this has to do with a lack of understanding about PTSD and a lack of understanding of Bob’s situation. Bob ended up breaking up with his first girlfriend because he was too scared to go on that first mission. So the million-dollar payoff could have been his, and then he would be out of this situation in which he must risk his life and live with fear as a constant companion. Or he might be dead. His current girlfriend also avoided going out on runs due to fear. So there was a lot of misplaced self-loathing involved in the situation, and when Bob struck her, he was really striking himself. It doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it *understandable.* He would not be the first person suffering from PTSD to do something similar. (hide spoiler)]

There is also a brief exploration of LGBTQ themes in this book, in that slightly-awkward way that the 1970s has of presenting LGBTQ characters. Gay and lesbian characters are presented as a matter of course in the people that the protagonist encounters, and Bob himself has a brief fling with a character who identifies as bisexual. But Bob struggles with that and feels a certain degree of shame and embarrassment about it in therapy, and there’s also a suggestion (subtle, but there) that Bob’s brief homosexual fling has something to do with his psychological issues. This is a problematic element that you find in 1970s fiction, representing the prejudices of the time. But it’s possible that someone who is unaware of the prejudices of the time might not even notice this issue.

After that, Bob tears off on a spree of self-destruction, and this eventually culminates in a really terrible situation which he survives. I won’t spoil it for you because this is the climax of the book we’re talking about, but if you could survive such a horror without having nightmares you either fail to grasp the horror of it, or you’re a sociopath.

Gripping, moving, outstanding sci-fi novel about the risks of discovery, the bravery of humanity, and about ordinary people doing the best (and sometimes less than the best) they can in terrible situations. It won pretty much every award available in science fiction there is and it deserves it. Seriously, read it.

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Symphonies of the Planets

Although space is a virtual vacuum, this does not mean that there is no sound in space.  Sound does exist as electromagnetic vibrations.

Through specially designed instruments, the Voyager, INJUN 1, ISEE 1, and HAWKEYE space probes used Plasma Wave antenna to record the vibrations of the planets that they visited that are within the range of human hearing (20 to 20,000 Hz).

To be fair, however, they are often quiet; quiet enough that they are difficult, if not impossible, for the human ear to hear.

The recorded sounds are the complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the Solar Wind, ionospheres, and planetary magnetospheres.  Here’s a sample of some of the recordings released by NASA:

Here is a recording (and photos) of the noise of the Singing Comet, 67P, as recorded by the Rosetta spacecraft (though in this case the volume has been increased by 10,000 times):

And here is a full playlist of the Symphony of the Planets.  These five CDs, which are now out of print, were created from the complex sounds recorded by the Voyager probes.

Yes, really.  This is real world stuff I’m talking about, not just Arcane Space!

So if you’d like to imagine what it sounds like aboard a Spelljamming ship, picture that the closer you got to a planetary body, the more of this kind of sound you would hear.  It would start as faint, water-like popping noises.  Then you would wonder when the wind noise had started.  Then you might notice a high-pitched drone like a wet finger on crystal or a Tibetan singing bowl.  In some cases (Suns, large planetary bodies) you might notice a low droning buzz, like the sound of a WWII airplane.  The closer you got to the planetary body, the louder it would get, and when you reached a planetary gravity plane, it would be a veritable cacophony to ears accustomed only to the creak of the ship, the flap of sails and the quiet of the Void; which would fade again into the background once you hit atmosphere and terrestrial noises began to reach your ears.  Or you might be sailing along in space, likely with continual distant popping sounds that would be more rapid the closer you were to the center of the sphere, and all of a sudden a Solar Gale might whip wind and ringing and high-pitched drones through the air envelope.  In which case, a sargasso might be heralded by a sudden, deafening silence.


Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.

Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.

The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.

Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.

Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.

In short, read it. It was amazing.

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Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay – no word of a lie. This has to be among the best novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.

This novel is the first book in the SF Masterworks imprint series (in publication order). This is the novel, along with Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers, that invented the space marine. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. It’s also hard sci-fi that deals with time dilation effects from sublight interstellar travel and wormholes as a way to somewhat address the sublight limitation.

More than that, this is a war novel. It’s a damn good war novel, written by a Vietnam war veteran, that ultimately speaks about his war experience.

I’m sure he must have been writing it as a form of therapy. It deals with war in a way only a soldier and a veteran can truly know. It covers the injustice of the draft, the horror of killing, the impersonal compassionateless nature of the military, dehumanization, PTSD, loneliness and isolation, the terror of being caught up in an experience so much bigger and more terrible than you, the danger and invasiveness of war technology, survivor’s guilt, and alienation from the culture a soldier leaves behind. The space marine trope character is often tough as nails and devoid of human weakness. Haldeman’s space marines are anything but.

It was powerful, gripping, horrible, funny, disturbing, sad and poignant.

The edition I read contains an introduction from John Scalzi and an intro by the author, who said this was the definitive edition. Haldeman wrote that he had difficulty getting the book published because no one wanted to read a war novel in the immediate wake of Vietnam; a non sci-fi publisher expanded into sci-fi and that’s how it got done. And it won the Hugo and the Nebula. I see why.

He said that even so, he had to cut a novella portion from the middle because “it was too depressing,” according to his publisher. That portion was restored for this book. Normally I’m not a fan of restoring cut bits to award-winning novels; I can’t imagine this one without it. I think the book would have really missed something if he hadn’t included it, so hopefully you can find that edition.

I borrowed a copy from my public library to read as part of the Science Fiction Masterworks book club (which you can find as a group on Goodreads, a Facebook group, and a reading challenge on Worlds Without End; join us!) I finished it yesterday, and by that time I’d already ordered a copy from Amazon, knowing I would read it again and again; which arrived today.

Go out and get a copy. Read it. You’ll thank me for it.

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Review: Echoes of Honor by David Weber

Echoes of Honor (Honor Harrington, #8)Echoes of Honor by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was . . . maddening.

On one hand, it told the tale of Honor Harrington and crew trapped on a deadly prison planet and trying to escape with deadly risks, dangerous all-or-nothing chances, and a crew of ne’er-do-wells and unlikely bedfellows. Brilliant, awesome, edge of your seat sci-fi action adventure in the highest degree.

The other half was a technical manual and a struggle in politics on new technology that would change the balance of the fictional war that is the focus of the series. Total yawnsville. Worse, you *have* to read it, because if you don’t, you won’t understand a damn thing about what happens in the rest of the books.

I am reminded of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which is about one half the awesome story you know from the Broadway musical and one half a political dissertation. And not Game of Thrones politics either. I skimmed the political bits.

Equal parts awesome and frustrating. But the essential story was fantastic, so I must rate it more highly than not.

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