Recently seen: Rogue One

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_poster

Years ago, I decided that I don’t like the Star Wars “saga”. I know that saying this is not going to make me popular with the many people that absolutely love these movies, but I am in good company: In 1990, I attended ConFiction in The Hague. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I met several science fiction writers on that occasion, one of them being John Brunner. At that memorable lunch, he flatly stated that Star Wars had been a disaster for science fiction. Star Wars, Brunner said, was a throwback to the simple science fiction as it was written in the thirties and forties, not the much more sophisticated contemporary stuff. How unfortunate that this throw-back to the thirties would be the first encounter with science fiction for almost a whole generation.

I couldn’t agree more.

I well remember seeing the original Star Wars movie, later renamed “Episode IV-A New Hope”, and being blown away by it. It was only much later that I realized that I had been blown away by the special effects, which were light years more advanced than anything I had ever seen before. But the cheesy and flimsy story so full of holes? Not so much. In fact, years later I went to see one of the reissues of the movie hoping to be awed like I was in 1977 and, by then used to this kind of special effects, was more or less bored to death.

It’s not just the silly light-sabers or The Force and connected mystical claptrap. Nor is it the space ships that look like fighter planes and perform similar acrobatics, oblivious to the fact that such is impossible in the vacuum of space, because this is unfortunately a staple of most science fiction movies. No, it is far worse. The whole background of the much-praised Star Wars universe is actually full of holes. Let me just name one. Whereas many of the more colorful scenes from these movies show numerous non-human races (but almost all of them humanoid: two legs, two arms, nose and eyes, etc), the vast majority of the Empire’s soldiers and almost all persons of any importance are human. Really? In a galaxy-wide civilization encompassing many different species? Now that we’re at it, indulge me and let me name one more hole. The Empire is built on terror and fear. Even its highest officials tremble for Darth Vader and the Emperor. And with reason, because both of these baddies don’t hesitate for a second to kill anybody who displeases them, no matter how highly placed. Historically, such reigns of terror, while often devastating enough, hardly ever endure more than a few years, or perhaps a decade at most. Read up on some cruel dictators of our time, like Idi Amin Dada (who claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland) or Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself Emperor of the Central African Republic (at the time of course renamed to Central African Empire), or -in the more distant past- look at the fate of the crueler Roman emperors. It is very difficult for blood thirsty tyrants like Bokassa or Vader to instill much, if any, loyalty in their underlings and usually sooner than later they are overthrown. But in Star Wars it is never explained why Vader and the Emperor manage to have so many people, from lowly stormtroopers to high level officials and officers follow them and do their evil bidding. Surely not even the power provided by the “dark side” of the Force can explain this.

After seeing the third movie of the franchise, Return of the Jedi, I gave up and never went to see any of the following movies. Until recently, that is, when I decided that given the popularity of the franchise, I might be wrong after all or perhaps that the movies had improved over time. So I decided to give George Lucas and the Star Wards franchise another chance and went to see Rogue One. Unfortunately, I cannot report any significant improvements and I must admit that this is likely the last movie in this series that I’ll ever waste several hours of my life on.

The main plot line of Rogue One concerns the efforts of the Rebel Alliance to obtain the construction plans of the Death Star. I guess everybody knows what this is, by now, but just to be pedantic, this is the unlikely-large space station that contains a huge weapon that can destroy whole planets. Why “unlikely-large”? Well, think about it. This humongous vessel needs almost 2 million people to operate and -at almost 100 miles in diameter (the size of a small dwarf planet)- an unfathomable amount of materials to construct it. Instead of this one ship that can be deployed only at one place at a time, a smarter Emperor could use the same resources to build thousands (or tens of thousands) of large cruisers and battleships and project power much more efficiently over a whole galaxy. Yes, I know: the Death Star is supposed to be a terror weapon capable of destroying whole planets. But then, a dozen battleships capable of firing a couple of hundred nukes a piece could just as well sterilize any planet of any life larger than a cockroach to the full satisfaction of any evil Emperor.

In Rogue One, this almost becomes a caricature. To demonstrate the huge power of the Death Star, a city on the planet Jedha is targeted and destroyed. Really! A whole city!! With one shot!!! OMG!!! This enormous feat discourages a majority of the rebels, who are ready to give up in the face of so much power. Yeah, right. Ever heard of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Why would folk commanding enormous spaceships capable of untold mayhem be impressed by the destruction of just one city? Surely people who can travel faster than light are also capable of harnessing nuclear power…

So after having thrashed the Death Star and the procurement policies of the Empire, what do I think was wrong with Rogue One? For a starter, there’s the overly dramatic music, which after 10 minutes at most becomes really irritating. I love trumpets, really, but too much of a good thing is simply too much. The story line is overly formulaic and simplistic to a fault. The characters are all cardboard-like and it is very difficult if not impossible to identify with any of them, good or bad. They just go through the motions, without anything more complex than “saintly” or “pure evil” coming into play. And then there’s the rambling grand finale of the movie, when the main characters go to a planet named Scarif to break into the Empire’s archives and steal the plans for the Death Star. Not surprisingly, things don’t go all that smooth and mayhem ensues.

Sure, this results in a lot of action and great special effects, but logic has fallen victim to these effects. I’m not even talking too much about the fact that this high-tech Empire saves its valuable archives on some sort of VCR cassettes that are stored in a huge vault and have to be retrieved mechanically. Seriously? There really is no handier way of doing this? And despite the fact that a lot of highly sensitive super-secret material is stored here (like the plans for the Death Star), there sits this huge broadcasting antenna on top of the archives, just to make things easier for any spies, I guess.

To make life even easier for said spies (but rather miserable for the regular operators, I guess), all controls for handling this emitter and antenna are handily located outside and on top of that huge tower. That way, we can have some harrowing scenes with gaping depths that our heroes threaten to fall into. Apparently solely for the purpose to offer spaceships zapping by an opportunity to shoot at these heroes, the joy stick (!) that is used to align the antenna is rather inconveniently located on a walkway sticking out from the tower. The Emperor and Darth Vader should do something really nasty to the incompetent engineers who designed this tower, they deserve it!

And what’s the deal with robots in the Star Wars universe? They never seem to do much of anything useful, are often hilariously clumsy (like C-3PO), and generally only seem to exist for comic relief. They certainly don’t do things that humans couldn’t do, either, which I think defies the whole purpose of robotics. Let me finish with one final blooper. Near the end, the rebels, who have all but given up, learn of the attack on the Imperial archives and reverse course completely, deciding to join the fight. They are based on a different planet, presumably in a different star system altogether. Nevertheless, within minutes of their decision, they are in orbit around Scarif shooting it out with the Imperials. Well, that’s because of their FTL drives, of course…

So was there nothing I liked in this movie? Well, yes, there was. As I have mentioned several times above, the special effects are really very good and at time breathtaking, the more so because I saw the movie in an IMAX theater in 3D. The vistas of strange planets make you dream of future vacations… But is that enough to carry a more than 2 hour movie? Not as far as I am concerned.

Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!

Recent Reads: David Weber et al., A Call to Arms

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David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope, A Call to Arms. Baen Books, 2015, 477 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8156-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

David Weber is not the guy you go to for deep ideas and thoughts. Weber writes space opera and he does that exceedingly well. This book is another good example of his talents, even though this time he has been assisted by two co-authors. A Call to Arms is the second volume in the Manticore Ascendant series set in his “Honorverse“. This series tells the story of the early Star Kingdom of Manticore and its rise to prominence among the nations of the known galaxy. As with other books in the series produced by Weber, the strongest part of his stories is his description of politics and how decisions are being made.

Although his characters are certainly not interchangeable and individually clearly recognizable personalities, characterization is not always his strongest point. For example, much is made of the fact that the protagonist of this series, Travis Long, yearns for rules and a structured environment. Despite this, Travis seems to be functioning best when things are at their most chaotic and after a while the repeated references to this character trait becomes a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, Weber generally succeeds in making his characters believable, even the “bad guys”, something that many writers usually have the most problems with.

There’s one notable exception to this. This book describes a period in the development of the Star Kingdom where some local politicians try to defund the Navy as much as possible to further their own political goals. Of course, they are shown to be at the wrong side of history when the Kingdom is attacked by mercenaries and only barely escapes being conquered, thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the severely underpowered Navy. When the dust settles down, it turns out that these politicians stick to their positions and continue to work to deny the Navy the funds it needs. Here, Weber fails to make this believable. Faced with the clear-cut evidence that there are dangers to which the Kingdom is exposed and against which it needs to defend itself, one would expect even the most hard-headed idiot to change his position. Instead, Weber’s characters maintain their obviously wrong stance and he fails to make it clear to his readers why on Earth (or, rather, on Manticore) these otherwise not stupid people would do this.

One thing I have come to appreciate more and more was that the names of characters in this series are “normal”. What I mean with this is that we don’t have to deal with the unpronounceable (and almost impossible to remember) names used in his Safehold series or the gimmicky names that he used in his early Honorverse novels (remember the cheesy “Robb S. Pierre”?)

A Call to Arms provides good reading, an engaging story described in a believable way. If you’re allergic to politics, you’d do better to avoid this book, and most of Weber’s other work, too. Weber does not provide high literature, but then, he does not pretend to nor (as far as I can tell) does he even aim to do so. Still, I always look forward to a new book of his, certain that it will provide a number of hours of enjoyable reading and diversion. If I have one quibble with Weber, it is perhaps that lately his story lines seem to slow down more and more, with each new book in his different series advancing the greater story only incrementally.

Recent Reads: Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise

 

Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise. Tor Book, 2013, 424 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6917-8

Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of books, using some quite original ideas as the basis for his stories. I have not read all of his work, but enjoyed Spin and its sequels, Axis and Vortex. Like in the Spin series, this story is based on rather enigmatic aliens interfering with humankind. Unlike that series, this book is not set in the future, but in the present of an alternate history. In this alternate history, the last threat of a big war was the Great War, known to us as the First World War. It was nipped in the bud and never became the deadly meat-grinder that it was in our timeline. In consequence, Germany never was beaten and the Russian Revolution did not take place. That the war did not break out and instead became the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace is thanks to an alien “entity” living in near-Earth orbit. This alien has inexorably nudged human history towards less violence and, after the “Great Armistice of 1914”, the League of Nations has become an important force of peace, not the toothless organization that it has been in our timeline.

Without going into too much detail of the plot, the main issue that the novel addresses is the price of freedom. Is a peaceful world without major wars something for which it is worth to give up our freedom? What the main characters do not know, of course, is how the world would have developed without alien intervention, something we, the readers, do know, of course. And then the price humankind pays for this peaceful world becomes a mixed bag of good and bad things. Technology has developed much slower than in our world. No nuclear energy, for example. But also, no nuclear weapons, no MAD. No rockets either: the alien does not want us to intrude upon its domain or even discover its existence.

Of course, as a science fiction fan, the latter restriction weighs heavily. However, the moon landings are now almost 50 years ago and we have not advanced much since then. Were those few trips to the moon really worth the untold millions of people killed in World War II (not to speak of all those other 20th century wars)?

It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, the novel’s protagonists choose freedom and the destruction of the alien entity. Much more interesting is the question whether we, knowing how murderous the 20th century became, would have made the same choice…

Interesting as the story is, near the end it becomes rather predictable. In addition, I found the characters to be rather bland, without much development. Thomas, the younger brother of one of the main characters, for example, just remains one-dimensional and clearly was only added to the plot for one surprise at the end (which, by the time I got to that point, I had already guessed anyway). The other characters are fleshed out more, but never to the point that I actually felt like understanding them and the choices they make.

In summary, I think this book is clearly worth reading. The underlying ideas are intriguing and reasonably well worked out. The characters could have been developed better and the plot is in places a bit predictable. All in all, I found this book entertaining and intriguing and rate it 7 points out of 10.

Writing science, writing fiction (I)

Synopsis: Whether writing a good novel or a killer scientific article, the process is much the same: What scientists can learn from science fiction authors…

Many years ago, back in 1990, I attended my first Science Fiction Worldcon, called “ConFiction“, in The Hague. An interesting feature that year was the “Dutch Treat”. One could sign up with a group of about 10 people and invite a science fiction writer for lunch and talk with them in that small circle. To me, these “treats” were the highlights of that particular meeting. I did as many of them as I could and have fond memories of speaking with John Brunner, Harry Harrison (a Guest of Honor, accompanied by his charming wife, Joan), Fred Pohl, Brian Aldiss, and Bob Shaw (I think that’s all of them, but I am writing this from memory, so I may have forgotten one). Of course, these conversations spanned many topics and I was not the only participant, but at some point or another I managed to pose the same question to each of them, namely: how do you write a story (be it a short story or a novel in multiple parts). Do you just start, do you write some parts first and only continue when you’re completely done with revising them, or something else entirely?

Writing a novel

Basically, all of them gave similar answers and what interested me in particular was that the process of writing that they described matched rather closely the process by which I write my scientific articles (in a very real sense, those are stories, too). To  paraphrase John 1:1, “In the Beginning there was Nothing and Nothing Happened”. Well, at least nothing is happening visibly. What is going on at this stage is that an idea for a story has started percolating inside the writer’s mind. He (I did not manage to get into lunches with any female writers, although I got signatures from several, such as Anne McCaffrey) may not even be thinking about the story consciously, but deep down in the murky recesses of his brain things are shaping up. Then the moment comes to start writing, the Dreaded First Sentence (DFS). Sometimes that comes easy. More often it seems to be a stumbling block of Himalayan proportions. In extreme cases, the DFS can lead to a severe case of writer’s block. The solution is actually quite easy: write something, anything, doesn’t matter how bad. We’ll deal with this later in the revision stage and you’ll see that it will be much easier then. Once a first sentence is on paper (or, nowadays, on your computer screen, in 1990 most people still used pen/typewriter and paper…), things start going easier. In case anybody wonders, the DFS is, indeed the very first sentence of the story. Nobody starts in the middle of a story. (This is not to say that the start of a story cannot be in the middle -or even at the end- of the narrative, but that is a different thing). Sounds self-evident when we’re talking about writing a story, but nevertheless many scientists actually start writing with their methods or even discussion, instead of the introduction. Needless to say, this makes for bad story-telling.

Once the writer’s block vanquished, a first draft of the complete story or novel is written pretty rapidly. The writer doesn’t get mired into detail too much, that’s for later (“detail” being grammar, flow, repetitive words/expressions, and such, not story details, those are important from the very beginning). When finished, the draft is pushed aside for a while. This may be a few days or even weeks or months, depending on the individual writer. Scientists, of course, don’t always have the luxury to let things lie around for so long… The next step is revising. Followed by revising. And revising yet again. Most revising is actually cutting. Too many writers think that it’s the number of words that count, the more the better. In fact, it’s usually a case of less is more. Shortening a story or scientific article, often makes it easier to read and diminishes the probability that a reader gets bored and lays down the work. Once all the revising and polishing is done, the piece is usually laid to rest for a while again, followed by some more revising. At the latest, this is the point where that Dreaded First Sentence finally gets beaten into its ultimate shape. And then, only when the writer is now completely satisfied, the completed work is submitted to a publisher (or, for professional writers, an agent first and then a publisher) for evaluation.

Next post: Writing a scientific article. Stay tuned!

Favorite science fiction classics (I)

Below I briefly describe some of my favorite science fiction novels, in no particular order, together with some of the reasons why I love these books.

Soon to come: how the experience of science fiction writers can help us write better scientific articles, so stay tuned.

This is the story of Lazarus Long, who by chance of genetics (and selection for longevity)  basically is immortal and at the start of the story is about 2000 years old (and the ancestor of a large part of the human population of the inhabited galaxy). The book can be read on different levels and if read as just an adventure story, provides ample diversion and amusement. On a deeper level, the book has more to offer. Once the more liberal mores of the Sixties allowed it, Heinlein started exploring the bases and boundaries of our traditional morals. Where Stranger in a Strange Land addressed religion and even cannibalism, this book is about love, not skirting touchy issues like incest. The book contains many challenging ideas. Let me give just one example from the many that fill this book to the brim. At one point the main character gets cloned, but with an original twist: his clones are female because they got two copies of his X chromosome. When his clones fall in love with Lazarus, we are faced with serious moral questions. As always, Heinlein doesn’t fail to challenge the reader. As a hard-core libertarian, it should be no surprise that Heinlein’s ideas of what is permissible between consenting adults diverge rather drastically from those of most people. But agree with him or not, he does make one think, which is what a good book should do. It made me reflect a lot about the concept of sin and what is right or wrong. My personal conclusion was that sin is when you harm somebody else and this harm could have been avoided by your (in)action. Time Enough for Love provides food for thought, much thought, almost enough for a lifetime.

Although Schmitz is perhaps best known for his short stories, I personally love his writing most because of two novels. The Demon Breed (1968) is a true space adventure and, although skillfully written, not a high flyer. The earlier The Witches of Karres, however, is a completely different caliber. I remember reading it for the first time and I still wish that it would be possible to read it for the first time again! It’s unadulterated space opera, but not an ordinary one. It’s a crazy book, but fun crazy. From the main character’s home planet (“Nikkeldepain”) to the invaders from another universe (“Worm Weather”), to the magic beings (” vatches”) governed by mysterious klatha energy, this book is big fun from beginning to the end. Sure, it’s not grounded in any real science, which usually for me is a big no-no, but if you are having as much fun as this book provides, who cares?

I read this book shortly after it came out and it was one of the first LeGuin novels that I read (the first one having been City of Illusions). It is part of the Hainish Cycle, a number of novels that are set in the same universe. The novel plays on a cold world, named Gethen. In a poetic way and a style that was completely new and fresh, Le Guin describes the world and its climate and, more importantly, its inhabitants. Although never confirmed with certainty, it appears that the Gethenians are the result of a genetic experiment to create a human race adapted to the severe climatic conditions of Gethen. Besides some obvious metabolic modifications, the most important difference between Gethenians and the rest of humanity is that they are sequential hermaphrodites: most of the time they are neuter and not interested in sex, but once every month they become sexually receptive and in a complex interaction with their sexual partner differentiate into either a male or a female form. They have no predisposition to being male or female and the same individual can be the father of one child and the mother of another. Being androgynous most of the time obviously has implications for a society that is much less focused on sex than ours. Le Guin was not the first to describe a society made up of human hermaphrodites (Theodore Sturgeon‘s 1960 Venus Plus X may have been the first), but this novel is deeper and more poetic than anything that came before. Again a novel that makes you think: by describing an alien, albeit human, society, Le Guin stimulates us to reflect on our own society, and its morals, conventions, and idiosyncrasies.

 

Postscript: All of the above works were written in the sixties and seventies of the last century. That does not mean that I don’t like contemporary science fiction. On the contrary, I think that some of the stuff produced nowadays far surpasses anything written before, even in the Golden Age. But the above books I read in my formative years and they have stayed with me my whole life. Several of them have influenced my life in a very real ways. Not because I wanted to emulate anything in these books, but because they made me think and showed me that many things that I took for granted were, perhaps, not as self-evident as I thought. In a future post, or more likely several posts, I’ll discuss some contemporary novels and writers that I particularly like.

The science in fiction: From gravity to microbiota

When talking about the science in science fiction, we often concentrate on technology or cultural developments that were correctly predicted in a novel. Of course, we all know that science fiction is not written to come up with correct predictions about the future, but comparing older novels with current developments is fun, nonetheless. At least as much fun is the opposite: where did novels get it completely wrong and why. One of the earliest examples is of course Jules Verne‘s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon; 1865) in which three explorers are sent on a voyage to the moon aboard a “spaceship” that basically is a huge hollow bullet, fired from a gigantic cannon. Apart from the possibility (or, rather, impossibility) of such a launch mechanism, the novel contains a big mistake that nowadays even a kid in high school will immediately spot: the travelers are subjected to gravity all the way to the point where the gravitational fields of Earth and Moon cancel each other out and then experience a short period of weightlessness. After this their capsule turns around and they are henceforth subjected to the gravity of the moon. However, while the physics of the late 19th century certainly would have been able to predict accurately the weightlessness that the travelers would have experienced throughout the trip (apart from a brief moment at launch), it is easy to see how Verne could have made this mistake. Even much later, in the 1960s, even educated writers got much wrong about acceleration and the effects of its presence or absence. Hugh Walters (and not just him, either) had his astronauts lose consciousness at every launch because of the g-forces they were subjected to, for example.

Another mistake that probably only few people have noticed (mainly because the book is much less popular than Verne’s) is Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column (1941). It’s far from Heinlein’s best, but, then, even Heinlein’s weaker books are always worth a read. It was published almost a year before Pearl Harbor and portrays a future in which Japan and China are unified under a common emperor as “Pan Asia” and on a conquering spree. After annexing India, they take on the United States and after an apparently rather brief war occupy the country. The story follows a group of researchers hidden in a secret base in the Rocky Mountains who, just at the moment of surrender, discover a new powerful weapon. It is based on a kind of hitherto unknown radiation (not from the common electromagnetic spectrum, but from spectra resulting from different combinations of electrical, magnetic, and/or gravitational forces). These new types of radiations can have several effects, ranging from inducing severe fear to killing specifically some groups of organisms, while leaving others unharmed. Indeed, the researchers get on the trail of this weapon at the start of the novel when a mishap kills almost all people in the base, but not their laboratory mice and rats.

Later on as the story unfolds, one of the scientists realizes that the weapon can also be used for good, namely to cure infectious diseases. To put this to the test, he infects himself with anthrax and then heals himself by using the appropriate radiation to kill the anthrax bacteria. In fact, he also notices that a heavy head cold also disappears and realizes that by killing all microorganisms in his body, he has significantly improved his overall health. When I read this in the middle 70s or so, I already knew that this was incorrect: killing all his gut bacteria would at least have caused some digestive problems for this brave self-experimenting researcher… By now, of course, we know that such a treatment would have much more profound effects.

Recent research has revealed that the composition of our microbiota can influence almost anything you can think of. Having the right gut microorganisms may provide children with a more adaptive response to malnutrition (see also here). And your gut microflora may influence your susceptibility to psychiatric disorders such as depression. Of course, there is no way that Heinlein could have foreseen any of this, as microbiology was just in its infancy at that time: the first antibiotic, penicillin, had been discovered only a decade earlier and did not come into general use until more than a year after Sixth Column was published.

The discovery that our gut bacteria influence our brain and affect things like mood and such was probably a surprise for many people, even neuroscientists who have rightly described this finding as a paradigm shift. In retrospect, as with so many things, it’s much less surprising of course. We habitually try to influence our psychological state by using chemicals, be they recreational drugs or psychopharmaca like antidepressants. That different gut microorganisms, by producing different chemicals (or different quantities of the same chemicals) eventually entering our bloodstream, influence our psychological state is therefore perhaps unexpected, but not really too surprising. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, this has made the view that our behavior is molded by our genes in interaction with environmental influences even more simplistic than it already was. After epigenetics, now our microflora adds additional complexity. And just like genotype and environment complicate things by displaying complex interactions and covariations, it is to be expected that effects of our microbiota will depend on our genes and our environment (and any combination thereof), making things even more complicated. It really makes one wonder, given the current state of our knowledge, about the chances for success for the hugely expensive Human Brain Project.

Given the state of science in 1941, we should probably also credit Heinlein with some insights that were ahead of his time. In the same staff meeting where the above-mentioned scientist confesses to having infected himself with anthrax, the commander next directs the discussion to how best to use their discoveries for propaganda. The head scientist leaves the meeting disgustedly: he’s only interested in science, clearly implying that social science is not real science. In response, the commander reflects on why mass psychology, and psychology in general, would not be a valid field of scientific inquiry. One of the biologists knows the answer to that one: psychology is not a science, because it is too difficult. In a time when experimental psychology was still in its infancy, that’s quite a remarkable insight. In fact, given the above remarks about genes, microbiota, interactions, and what not, things are quite more complex than even Heinlein could have thought. Despite all the advances that we have made since the 1940s and the concomitant improvements in, for example, mental health, we are not at risk to be out of a job anytime soon, as we are still far from understanding how our brains work.

As I have said before: good science fiction makes you think