Mind the Gap

I don’t get it.

I’ve started reading Stephen Donaldson’s Gap cycle, and I don’t get what’s so great about it.

I don’t mind that the characters are dicks. That’s Donaldson’s thing, and I knew it before I started reading.

I do mind his writing style, which I find flat and unengaging, but I guess it’s a matter of taste.

There are two things, however, that really bother me: plot holes and bad science.

A significant part of the plot in the second book, Forbidden Knowledge, revolves around a computer virus that has been planted in a ship’s computer system. This is a big deal, because the virus might wipe the system’s memory, and they don’t have any form of removable media on which they can store a copy of the most important files (navigation data, communication codes, etc.). The possibility of an offline backup is not even mentioned. In the end, they are rescued by the fact that, by law, the ship is equipped with an append-only flight recorder-like write-once-read-many storage device, which for some unfathomable reason also keeps a copy of the ship computer’s software and data. The possibility of restoring their systems from that copy does not even occur to any of the crew until the protagonist, who happens to be a police officer, mentions it. The mind boggles.

I laughed when I read that it would take several days to copy “thousands of gigabytes”, but that’s excusable; the book was written in an age where personal computers only had a few tens of megabytes of secondary storage and a terabyte was inconceivably large.

I did not laugh, however, when Donaldson spent an entire chapter explaining how this device (called a datacore) works. It would have been perfectly fine if he had just handwaved it, but instead, he provides a detailed but nonsensical explanation, based on an extrapolation of his incorrect notions about contemporary (i.e. 1991) technology. He starts off by screwing up the description of conventional, real-world CMOS, claiming that they “drew power only when they changed state” and could therefore “store data in a physically permanent form, without a sustained energy supply”. Next, he claims that silicon-on-sapphire (as opposed to conventional silicon-on-silicon-dioxide) CMOS is “a step in the direction of real permanence”. Finally, he postulates a silicon-on-diamond variant of CMOS technology which “never changed state at all”.

Note that programmable read-only memory, which exhibits those exact properties, was invented in the 1950s.

His understanding of astrodynamics is even worse. He seems to have heard of Newton’s first law of motion and of rotational gravity, but he’s a bit fuzzy on the details, to put it mildly:

  • The ship has a terminal velocity—in vacuum!—beyond which its engines (referred to as thrusters, so I’m going to assume they’re reaction engines) can not accelerate further (he speaks of “diminishing returns”).
  • The ship’s captain very cleverly deceives the authorities by departing a space station in a direction almost opposite from that of his intended destination and accelerating to the ship’s maximum velocity, after which he cuts the engines and applies a “steady and delicate lateral thrust which curved [the ship] toward her eventual heading”.
  • The ship’s bridge is a cylindrical room—its exact dimensions are not stated, but probably no more than ten meters in diameter—concentric with the pressure hull’s axis of rotation, with workstations positioned around its inner circumference so the crew members seated at each station will experience artificial gravity when the hull is spinning. However, they do not experience the Coriolis effect or tidal forces or any other side effects, which should be very noticeable and very unpleasant that close to the hub.
  • The ship is large enough to have several (presumably concentric) decks connected by elevators, but no mention is made of any variation in centrifugal force from one deck to the other.
  • When the ship briefly loses power due to the virus, artificial gravity immediately disappears. What, no rotational momentum? When power is restored after “less than a minute”, the main protagonist, who at that point is floating but still holding on to the captain’s chair, immediately slams into the deck with enough force to almost damage her knee.

Again, I wouldn’t have minded the least if he had just handwaved the matter of artificial gravity. After all, gravity generators and acceleration compensators are common science-fiction tropes. However, Donaldson apparently fancies himself a hard science-fiction author, so he has to make it scientifically plausible—to himself, that is, and possibly to uneducated or oblivious readers, since he clearly hasn’t done more than superficial research.

And in a couple of chapters, he’s going to start messing with genetics…

2 thoughts on “Mind the Gap

  1. I’m not disagreeing with all your opinions of Donaldson, just wanted to point out some things.

    “which for some unfathomable reason also keeps a copy of the ship computer’s software and data”

    The datacore keeps a copy of everything because it’s more than just a flight recorder–it’s meant to keep ships and crews honest by recording every action they do. Because the software used by the ship’s computer is in the datacore, it can be verified by the authorities that it has not been tampered with (e.g. modifying the ship’s computer so it DOESN’T write everything to the datacore).

    I work in the gambling industry and all our source code releases have to be archived in a secure vault as well as vetted by licensing bodies.

    “The possibility of restoring their systems from that copy does not even occur to any of the crew until the protagonist, who happens to be a police officer, mentions it. The mind boggles.”

    The crew do not think of doing this because replaying/reading of datacores can only be done by the police authorities. Morn, as a police officer, can do this. No one else on board would think of this. Perfectly reasonable.

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