Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Danny Dunn, pseudoscientist

Danny, I hardly knew ye

They say you can't go home again. Well, I can. And do. Several times a year. I have the rare privilege of possessing long-lived parents who still live in the home they built when they got married over fifty years ago. That's stability for you.

Time has taken its toll, of course, so a trip to Mom & Dad's isn't really a return to childhood. It is, however, akin to a scavenger hunt in which the items to be scavenged are all bits and pieces of my youth. While scrounging up the old science fiction magazine containing that negative review of Michael Crichton, I ran across a number of other old publications. Stashed in my parents' basement are bookcases and chests of drawers stuffed with books I read decades ago. I was particularly delighted to turn up an intact copy of Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, a young-adult science fiction novel that I remember having enjoyed in grammar school.

What a disappointment to read it again! I'm not naïve enough to have expected to recapture the old thrills I experienced the first time through, but I really did think it would stir some happy memories. Instead I learned how uncritically I must have read it when I was but a lad. I sure didn't demand much of kid lit in my preteen years. There is not even a glimmer in my memory banks of dimly remembered outrage at the dreadful science in Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. I'm not quibbling about the notion of anti-gravity paint. If we let H. G. Wells invent Cavorite for the use of his First Men in the Moon, we can give authors Williams and Abrashkin a pass for their similar device in their young-adult novel. No, the problems in Danny Dunn go far beyond that. Here is an egregious passage:
[Dr. Grimes] snapped on the TV camera. One of the screens lit up.

Both Danny and Joe yelped involuntarily. A blazing ball of gas almost filled the screen.

“A comet!” the Professor exclaimed.

“And we are near its path,” Dr. Grimes added.

Wh-wh-what'll happen if it hits us?” asked Joe.

“That depends,” said the Professor. “A comet's head is mainly chunks of meteoric material which give off flaming gas. Its tail is composed of gas and dust particles as well. If the head should pass within a hundred miles of us, we might be boiled alive. If the tail along comes near—well, I don't know—”

Danny said, “Shouldn't we close the shutters?”

“By all means. The light might blind us.”

Danny touched the control, and the steel shutters closed tight over the port. Even so, the light from the TV screen was dazzling.

“Close your eyes!” the Professor commanded.

They did so. Even through the closed lids the glare penetrated, although the comet was thousands of miles away. Faintly they could hear a hissing, crackling sound like a distant forest fire.
I should have chuckled at the nonsense of a flaming comet and the notion that sound can travel through a vacuum. In those days, the Mercury and Gemini space programs were under way. Many kids like me, who had heard President Kennedy call for a landing on the moon, were stuffed to our eyebrows with astronautical lore. I must have been pretty forgiving if I don't remember tossing Danny Dunn across the room. (In a later and more cynical age, the movie Capricorn One portrayed a hoaxed Mars mission that unravels when someone finally notices the absence of a time-lag in communications with astronauts who are supposedly millions of miles away. In reality, hordes of teenagers would have caught the mistake immediately, sparing everyone the ordeal of watching O. J. Simpson being chased across the desert by black helicopters.)

It turns out to be extremely convenient that sound waves can propagate through vacuum in the Danny Dunn universe. The Professor fixes a stuck electrical relay on the anti-gravity spacecraft by playing a makeshift bull fiddle over the speaker on the outside of the vehicle. (I'm not kidding!) Once the relay is working again, the space travelers are able to return to earth for the requisite happy ending. Imagine that.

Hard versus soft

I like my science fiction the way I like my ice cream: hard. Leave that soft-serve stuff for the romance novels. My disappointment upon rediscovering Danny Dunn reminds me of happier experiences with Heinlein's young adult novels, especially Starman Jones, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, and Red Planet. While I've read and enjoyed Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, no one should mistake them for actual science fiction. For me, a science fiction novel needs to convey a sense of reality—speculative reality, of course, but still a potential reality.

The author who does that for me today is Alastair Reynolds. While his novels are amazingly inventive, everything in them has an extremely high degree of verisimilitude. Very few people possess the special combination of talent and training that permit the creation of such wonderful novels as Revelation Space and its sequels. Reynolds is an erstwhile employee of the European Space Agency and holds a doctorate in astronomy. Fortunately, his talents as a writer permit him to use his profound knowledge of spacetime physics without baffling the reader with verbiage better suited to a treatise.

Here is an example of completely hardcore physics put in the service of a thrilling fight to the death. The psychotic Nagorny has ambushed Volyova and is marching her to the elevator shaft that runs the length of their kilometers-long spacecraft:
Volyova had tried resisting, but Nagorny's strength was that of the psychotic and his hold on her might as well have been steel. Still, she assumed a chance for escape would present itself as Nagorny took her to wherever he had in mind, once the elevator arrived.

But Nagorny had no intention of waiting for the elevator. With her gun, he forced the door, revealing the echoing depths of the shaft. With nothing in the way of ceremony—not even a goodbye—Nagorny pushed Volyova into the hole.

It was a dreadful mistake.

The shaft threaded the ship from top to bottom; she had kilometres to fall before she hit the bottom....

She was going to die.

Then—with a detachment which later shocked her—part of her mind had reexamined the problem. She had seen herself, not falling through the ship, but stationary: floating in absolute rest with respect to the stars. What moved, instead, was the ship: rushing upwards around her. She was not accelerating at all now—and the only thing that made the ship accelerate was its thrust.

Which she could control from her bracelet....

She could stop her fall—her apparent fall—by ramping the ship's thrust into reverse for however long it took to achieve the desired effect. Nominal thrust was one gee, which was why Nagorny had found it so easy to mistake the ship for something like a very tall building. She had fallen for perhaps ten seconds while her mind processed things. What was it to be, then? Ten seconds of reverse thrust at one gee? No—too conservative. She might not have enough shaft to fall through. Better to ramp up to ten gees for a second—she knew the engines were capable of that. The maneouvre would not harm the other crew, safely cocooned in reefersleep. It would not harm her, either—she would just see the rushing walls of the shaft slow down rather violently.

Nagorny, though, was not so well protected.
Volyova ends up having to scrape Nagorny's remains from the ceiling of one of the ship's chambers.

That physics is deadly stuff, if you know how to use it.


Bronze Dog said...

It would not harm her, either—she would just see the rushing walls of the shaft slow down rather violently.

Nagorny, though, was not so well protected.

About time they used those pesky good physics to kill the bad guy in a cool way. :)

Michael Falcon-Gates said...

I wasn't all that thrilled with large parts of the book-- Reynolds is WAY too fond of the notion that small groups of people can live together for years and be constantly PLOTTING against each other-- but I did enjoy this bit.

The Inoculated Mind said...

That reminds me of the scene in the beginning of Star Wars Episode III, where the ship started plummeting and everyone started plummeting WITHIN the ship! It was the most amazingly stupid thing I had seen in a scifi film. It was worse than armageddon! Nice to hear that some SciFi gets the physics right!!

e said...

I love Reynolds. I find it interesting that the new hard SF turn is exemplified by Reynolds (Welsh), Ken MacLeod (Scottish) and Greg Egan (Australian). I would recommend MacLeod's Cassini Division and Egan's Diaspora (as well as the very new David Marusek's Counting Heads--but he's from Alaska).


Myrmidon said...

Is it too late to leap to Danny's defense?

I don't understand why Williams and Abrashkin aren't allowed to pull bad science out of their ass -- except when H.G. Wells did it first. Once you've accepted anti-gravity paint, in the service of moving the plot along, why should you be squeamish about some un-physical sound waves and a flaming comet or two? In for a penny, in for a pound.

You've also managed to rediscover one of the lousiest of the Danny Dunn books. My hypothesis is that Williams and Abrashkin dashed off the first few books really quickly, thinking of them as silly boys-adventure escapism rather than as science fiction. The books which predate the introduction of Irene, like Anti-Gravity Paint, are the worst. Some of the later books were much improved. Try Danny Dunn: Invisible Boy.

(Speaking of Irene, I can't let this one pass: Heinlein's YA novels may be "harder" than some of the Danny Dunn books, but more than one of my female friends has thrown Heinlein's work across the room in frustration. Danny Dunn's friend Irene is a young, female aspiring scientist who is taken seriously and who never gets hit on by her male colleagues. Is there any such woman in any of Heinlein's work? The young, female aspiring scientist in The Menace From Earth is a nicely drawn character, but the story is about her discovery of her true identity as somebody's love interest!)

Finally: while it's unlikely that a stuck relay could really be dislodged with loud sounds, it's certainly not physically impossible. The relay is attached to the hull, as is the external speaker. No air is necessary to get sound from one to the other -- the hull conducts sound waves just fine. (Of course, you could just hammer on the hull from the inside and get the same effect...)

Sili said...

I like my icecream creamy ...

I've never had much taste in literature either, it would seem. Though I only recall reading a coupla novels. The titles of which escape me (as does most everything I've ever read and done). I could outline bits of the plot, perhaps, but that's about it.

Nice to see "maneouvre" spelt correctly. And interesting that you should use "verbiage".

wv: maten - I mate, I mote, I have maten

Steve Poole said...

Too funny. I picked this up at a thrift store and thought I'd recapture some youthful enjoyment. Instead it sent me into such a rage that I googled "Danny Dunn bad science" and ended up here.

I've always enjoyed James P Hogan for the science, but not so much for the overall quality of his writing.