Ooh, skiffy!

Books I’ve been reading lately:

Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. An absolute delight; a masterpiece of satire and black humor.

Player Piano, also by Vonnegut; his first novel, in fact. Far less enjoyable; he had not yet found his form. Pretty much the only element it has in common with his later work is its pessimism.

Archform: Beauty, by L. E. Modesitt, was very interesting because it is the only Modesitt novel I’ve read (and I’ve read most of what he’s written up until around 2000) where the main protagonist’s actions results in neither the collapse of the antagonist’s civilization nor the total obliteration of their real estate. Instead, the male protagonists buys the female protagonist flowers and asks her out. Far out.

Lilith: A Snake in the Grass, the first book in Jack L. Chalker‘s Four Lords of the Diamond series. I know it’s not nice to speak poorly of the deceased, but Chalker, a fairly well-respected SF author, managed to get pretty much all of the science wrong in this one. Consider the following:

  • The Diamond system has four habitable, Earth-like planets orbiting “a hot, F-type star” at distances ranging from 159 to 308 million kilometers. While Chalker does not provide many details about the star, F-class stars tend to be somewhat brighter than the Sun, with a habitable zone between roughly 200 and 300 million kilometers for the dimmest (F8) and between roughly 350 and 500 million kilometers for the brightest (F0). This places at least one of the four planets well outside the habitable zone.
  • The second planet, Lilith, has an axial tilt of 84°, “almost a world on its side”, which Chalker claims “meant little seasonal variation”. In reality, a planet with such an extreme axial tilt would have extremely hot summers in constant daylight, and extremely cold winters in constant dark, as each pole would alternate between pointing almost straight toward the sun and almost straight away from it.
  • The third planet, Cerberus, is “harsher”, with an axial tilt of 25° which “gave it extreme seasonal variations that ranged from its frozen polar caps to a hot 40-degree Centigrade at the equator”. In fact, 25° is very close to the Earth’s axial tilt, which is currently about 23.5° but varies between 22.1° and 24.5° over a 41,000-year period. While Chalker’s description matches Earth fairly well, I don’t quite see what he means with “extreme seasonal variations”.
  • As the protagonist lands on Lilith, he describes it as “basically a ball—highly unusual as planets go, even though everybody including me thinks of all major planets as round”. Actually, most planets we know of (and especially the solid ones) are fairly spherical; the Earth, which is comparable in size to Lilith, has an oblateness of 0.003 and is indistinguishable to the naked eye from a perfect sphere.
  • Lilith’s gravity is “roughly .95 norm” which the protagonist—an experienced interplanetary agent—notes will make him “feel lighter and be able to jump further”. Actually, such a small deviation from Earth standard would not be noticeable unless one could somehow instantaneously switch back and forth to compare.
  • The protagonist goes on to summarize Lilith as “a large world, as worlds go, but with low gravity, which meant no metals to speak of” which reflects a very simplistic view of the processes that govern a planet’s chemical composition.

I’ll take comfort in the fact that at least he didn’t go as far as L. Ron Hubbard and make up aliens who, since they are from another planet, naturally have an entirely different table of the elements…

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