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: The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

The Mauritius Command (Aubrey/Maturin, #4)The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge.

I have been a Patrick O’Brain fan for some time, so I was perhaps primed to appreciate this book more than I otherwise might have been. But the exploits of Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, who seem a very unlikely pair of friends, are among my favourites. In Canada it seems a rare thing to encounter others who share my joy, and I am told that aside from me, only “old guys” read O’Brian’s nautical classics at the bookstore where I work. If that’s true, I’d like to contribute to a revival. These excellent nautical tales have received international acclaim for their historic accuracy, and they have directly contributed to the development of modern space opera. Many of the giants of that genre, such as David Weber, have acknowledged their debt to O’Brian, C.S. Forester and Joseph Conrad, the Grand Triumvirate of nautical adventure stories.

In The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey is appointed Commodore in command of the British Royal Navy’s fleet at Mauritius, which is an island very near to Cape Town that is occupied by the French. O’Brian based most of the events of the story on a real-life navy campaign during the Napoleonic Wars, including the outcome of battles, the ships involved, and many of the details. The small fleet is to blockade the French ships and protect England’s vital merchant marine. This mission is extremely challenging – Jack must proceed badly outnumbered, with outdated and smaller ships, and England’s closest supply port is almost a thousand miles’ sail away, while the French, of course, have the islands. This is Aubrey’s first fleet command and he struggles with his lack of experience in ways that directly complicate the plot. The task is made even more difficult and dangerous by the dangerous, notoriously stormy seas, and by the undermanned army garrison that is to support him in these aims, which is waiting for desperately-needed reinforcements. Jack’s command is fraught with great responsibility and little privilege, but his career might be made or broken on it, provided he survives. To up the stakes, Jack’s rather large immediate family, including wife and small twin girls, are entirely dependent upon his fortunes; and also thousands of miles away in England. The fleet’s brave and ingenious solutions form this novel’s riveting plotline.

One of the best parts about O’Brian’s series is that Aubrey and Maturin share equal billing as protagonists, and O’Brian successfully writes accordingly. In this novel Maturin plays an essential but mostly supporting role, having maneuvered to land his friend this command in the first place, and putting his considerable skills as a spy and a propagandist to work on Aubrey’s (and England’s) behalf.

I found this book to be one of the best of the series, filled with action, dramatic tension, sudden reversals, glorious triumphs and crushing defeats. If you enjoy military fiction, adventure, politics, historical fiction or even space opera, you really should put it on your list.

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Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges, including a short review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and of “The Mauritius Command” by Patrick O’Brian. Also, what to expect in the next couple of weeks and the rest of my reading list for the challenge!

Source: Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

RPG Now: Player’s Guide to Skybourne

“I have become the destroyer of worlds.”

So begins a player’s adventures in Skybourne. A wizard’s arrogance left a world broken, ravaged by a sentient forest, and surrounded by the planar wound called the maelstrom. Yet in this aftermath lies a world of adventure, where airship pilots delve a world’s worth of ruins looking for ancient treasure, where Aasimar kings and barbarian lords battle for control of a dozen new cultures, and where anyone with a ship and a will can make their fortune, if they have luck on their side.

Built for both the traditional and Spheres of Power magic systems, Skybourne is a campaign setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game built around the adventures of an airship and its crew, and borrows as much in tone from Firefly, Star Wars, and other shows as it does from classic sword and sorcery adventures. In this, the Player’s Guide to Skybourne, you’ll find:

  • A host of new races, including the plant-born Alraun, the octopus-like Cacaelia, the dinosaur-blooded Cherufe, the magically-constructed Created, the draconic Cuazaj, the pheonix-like Fenghaung, the plant-like Leshy, the fey-blooded Sidhier, and the insectoid alien Tatulani.
  • Over a dozen new archetypes, including the Halfling dragonrider, the tranquil barbarian, the Alraune bodysnatcher, the gun chemist, and more!
  • New traditions, a ‘tradition trait’ system, and the Fallen Fey racial sphere for the Spheres of Power magic system.
  • Religions and magic rituals.
  • Rules for using crews- swarm-like groups of hired hands that aid the PCs in sailing ships and attacking their enemies!
  • Airship rules, including sailing, customization, and combat!
  • New feats, new skills, new equipment, new magic items, and more!

Watermarked PDF $9.99 by Drop Dead Studios.

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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Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who gave us Tarzan, published this novel first as a magazine serial and then released it as a completed novel later on. It’s always an interesting experience to read classic sci-fi, especially when it’s this classic. This pulp legend is loaded with so many tropes it might make the modern reader toss it aside in disgust; except that none of these were tropes when this book was written. And why are they tropes? Because they were amazingly successful and popular, and thousands of writers who succeeded Burroughs tried to imitate what made the John Carter books what they were. These, along with C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, were the primordial space operas.

John Carter, ex-civil war soldier and Southern gentleman, is mystically transported to the planet Mars in a fashion that feels more like fantasy than science fiction to the modern reader, except that almost everything that happens after that is sci-fi to the core. John Carter finds that as a denizen of Earth he is considerably stronger and can leap incredible distances compared to the native Martians, who are adapted to Mars’ lesser gravity; which, of course, would be exactly what would happen by all laws of physics and biology, if Mars were actually inhabited (though this is also ignored in some places; for instance, Martian riding beasts have no trouble carrying John Carter, although he is certainly more dense, and therefore much heavier, than the people of Mars, which is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants.)

Carter initially finds himself among the savage green men, who are twelve to sixteen foot tall green, four-armed aliens with great tusks like orcs; where he, through a strange combination of coincidences and misunderstanding of social custom, finds himself both a prisoner and a chieftain; and he teaches the green men about friendship, loyalty and benevolence, which are qualities they have forgotten because limited resources on the dying world of Mars have demanded a more savage way of life of its denizens. Then he ends up meeting the more human-like, more technologically and culturally advanced (but smaller and weaker) red men of Mars, where he meets the princess who motivates him to acts of heroism that read like mythology; which of course also make the John Carter books the primordial planetary romance.

As a modern reader I found that I was impressed by much of the implied technology, which included but was not limited to anti-gravity vehicles, terraforming, and the rudiments of nuclear power and plasma weaponry (described as being powered by radium or something similar.)

Aside from the fact that this standard story formula has become the essence of the default science fiction plotline and setting (clearly guiding, among other things, the standard plots of the original Star Trek series,) I can see so many direct influences in many other ways. The Gor novels are essentially Barsoom updated, kinkified and taken to the extreme; the Dark Sun novels borrow the “savage world of limited resources” setting whole-hock, and I think we even get the fact that Mork hatched from an egg from this novel, since the people of Barsoom are born thus. We even get our scantily-clad heroes and heroines from Burroughs’ work; the Martians wear jewelry and combat harness, but not clothing.

There is much to irritate the modern reader if you allow it to. Racism and sexism is rampant, as is the hypocritical logic of Colonialism, and as I’ve said, it’s full of what have become tropes. The writing of the time is prone to contrived plot conveniences and dei ex machinae. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, which of course is considered bad writing by modern convention. And yet it’s a damn good read that keeps you pressing on to the very last page. It took me only a day to burn through it even though I don’t have as much time to read as I would like on working days.

Refreshing, however, to the modern reader, is the fact that despite his Colonialism, John Carter is a man who tries always to do the right thing as he sees it at the time, and in this age of dystopias and anti-heroes, this is like a breath of fresh air. And the style is an easy read that is appropriate for everyone from teens to octogenarians and up.

Everyone who considers themselves a sci-fi or fantasy fan should read this book, whose influence is clearly underrated. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, the tropes.

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Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I waited eagerly for this to arrive from Amazon, since this was going to be the book for January for my SF Masterworks book club, and it seemed like it would never arrive. However, that’s because it was shipped from the UK. It got here on the fourth and I started reading it right away. I chewed through it pretty quickly, partly because it was an excellent book and partly because I was really sick with the flu and thus I had the time.

Delany apparently wrote this book at the age of 23 in the 1960s, and because of that, a lot of people are quick to judge him as being “in love with his own cleverness.” I think that’s a characterization that wouldn’t have been made were people not aware of that tidbit of information. I will admit that Delany does have a habit of lecturing his readers, even about subjects that he doesn’t really know as much about as his characters should.

Rydra Wong, the clever, strong, brave heroine of the piece (who might be a bit of a Mary Sue; but hey, cut Delany a break, this was a strong female sci-fi protagonist in 1966!) is a famous poet and a cryptographer in a far future where humanity has settled in the far-flung corners of space. One might think that these are contradictory skills, but Rydra is perhaps a bit autistic, having been afflicted with a plague as a child that may have caused brain damage, and is a bit of a savant when it comes to languages and communication. That “knack” extends into even reading the subtle nuances of body language and muscle tics, and might even border on telepathy.

There is a war going on between Invaders and Alliance (never thoroughly explained; the Invaders are some kind of enemy aliens but the Alliance also includes aliens). A general discovers that some kind of a code they dub “Babel-17,” is being broadcast over radio receptors right before major mechanical disasters happen to major Alliance military targets. He asks Rydra, the best cryptographer he knows, to crack it.

Realizing this is not a code but a language, Rydra decides she must track down the speaker of this language and understand it, and decides to go in search of it. The language doesn’t reveal much initially but does tell her where the next “accident” will be so she goes there, after first recruiting a bizarre hodgepodge crew. What follows after explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language forms personality and consciousness, in an unforgettable crazy space opera romp with an unforgettable ending.

I find myself thinking of this novel as “proto-cyberpunk.” Babel-17 is likened at one point to computer languages and it is used to program machines. The working class people (called “Transport” as opposed to the stiffly proper white collar “Customs”) are prone to enormously transformative surgical alterations that make many of them look anything but human, nontraditional relationships, odd customs, and the use of discorporate (read: dead but preserved as energy) people to do jobs that live humans simply couldn’t do. I was reminded very much of the world of Joan D. Vinge’s “Catspaw” and I can’t help but think that if Delany had been born twenty years later, this book would have contained a lot more internet or cyberrealm equivalent. All the elements of what will become cyberpunk are here. I love this colourful world, so vividly realized in such a short novel.

I also love the protagonist. What a breath of fresh air in 1960s vintage science fiction! She’s marvelous! Some reviewers have found that her abilities stretch credibility, but really, if you read carefully, she’s amazing at just one thing; reading and understanding people. That ability serves her well in many capacities, including poet, cryptographer, starship captain, diplomat, and rogue.

I suppose it may not be to everyone’s tastes — my partner found it dull, but then again he doesn’t share my interest in how language forms consciousness either. Personally, I’m glad I had to buy this book to read it because I’m sure I’ll read it again. Highly recommended!

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