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.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.)
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.
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.Volyova ends up having to scrape Nagorny's remains from the ceiling of one of the ship's chambers.
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.
That physics is deadly stuff, if you know how to use it.