Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Big Three’s “Big Three”

It’s notable how many of us niche SF writers cite “the big three” as influences — meaning Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Wikipedia even lists them as one commonly referred-to trio.

Count me as among those who’ve been influenced. I would have cited those three together long before I had heard the grouping. Back then, I’d soon broaden my horizons to include Ray Bradbury, Mack Reynolds, Ben Bova and others (pausing here, both because there are too many to list and because there are too many to remember), but the same big three were always The Big Three. The school and public libraries contributed greatly to my SF re-education.

Who were the big three’s big three? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that H. G. Wells would surely be one. Wells was a highly influential public figure even in the 1940s.

I mention H. G. Wells twice in One Thousand Years. For example, when my character Sam McHenry cites “The martian invaders of H. G. Wells.”

The more interesting reference (to me), was when McHenry says, “Atomic weapons are real, although different than H. G. Wells described.” It’s a bit of an obscure reference, but it wouldn’t have been quite so obscure back in 1944. McHenry was referring to The World Set Free.

That book depicted atomic weapons as having the blast of a conventional explosive, but continuing its explosion for a long period with a half-life of 17 days. Okay, so Wells was wrong about that. But keep in mind that this was published in 1914. It was the first novel about nuclear war, making it well worth a read if you’re fascinated by early science fiction.

H. G. Wells almost made a third reference in my book. The starship Göring was almost named Vaterland, for the Germans’ dirigible flagship in The War in the Air.

There is so much more to say about Wells, but I should save that for another day.

Jules Verne must be another one of the early Big Three. Nobody should be surprised that I might say that. I’ll leave it there for now.

Who’s the third? (There’s no reason there has to be a third, other than that we have the phrase “the big three.”)

It’s hard to single out a third author with enough science fiction to put them on the same pedestal. Not Edward Bellamy (although Heinlein must surely have read Looking Backward); not Jack London, who’s better known for other things; and not Edgar Rice Burroughs, who some would argue went too far into the fantasy side of things. As important to me as Barsoom was, that’s an important point. (I’m well capable of arguing against that point, but that’s also for another time.)

Stanley G. Weinbaum is close, but he came too late to qualify, having published in the 1930s. It’s likely that our big three read his work, and it’s certain that he influenced the field of science fiction before they could take up the plow. I would take him out of the running only because of the date, if reluctantly so. Much of his work would have coincided with theirs if he hadn’t died so early.

Not everything comes in threes. But if you haven’t read Weinbaum — and if you are interested in early science fiction — then you should start here.

A future of better eating

Soylent Green (1973)
We’ve had a flurry of new food news lately. And by that, I don’t mean the commissioning of a new Iron Chef.

Recently, there was Peter Thiel and Bill Gates with their plant-based artificial eggs, and news that Gates is joining with Sergey Brin to invest in artificial meat.

Earlier this year, Rob Rhinehart wrote of his experiment eating the basic raw ingredients. He calls the concoction “Soylent.” The results he writes about are nothing less than fantastic. If you hadn’t heard about it, definitely click that link.

We’re on the cusp, not of a new revolution in food, but of several new revolutions in food.

It’s only a matter of time before we stop raising animals for meat. Or rather, they’ll be grown in vats. We may have to wait until they get the taste right, but it will happen. Beyond that, the next step will be to create new types of foods. We’ll have foods from new types of plants and animals that never really existed before. The generation after that will see hobbyists creating meats and vegetables the way that home brewers are now doing with beer.

If you’ve read Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Food of the Gods,” you can guess what will happen next. (Sorry, I’m not going to spoil it for you.)

UPDATE: The new Soylent does remind me of something we’ve seen before. (No, I’m not knocking it; they both probably work pretty well.)

The PBY Catalina

Consolidated PBY Catalina (source Wikipedia)

Consolidated PBY Catalina (source Wikipedia)

I’ve had the PBY Catalina as a sort of web page emblem for a while, but I’ve never been on one. My book is set during WWII, but this plane never makes an appearance.

I have, however, been a naval aircrewman as a P-3C inflight-technician. And the P-3C, also a patrol plane used for anti-submarine warfare, is a direct descendant of the PBY. So, I am connected in that way.

It was during my time in the Navy that I was temporarily assigned to the Naval Air Test Center and sent to the Bahamas for ten days. (I had an extraordinary amount of good luck back then.) The NATC reasoned that the Navy would save money on jet fuel if we stayed in a nearby hotel rather than fly to the test range each time. We flew a test flight every other day.

It was on an off-day that the airport called our plane commander, asking us to move our plane to a different parking spot. I went along to be the plane director. This means using hand signals to help the pilot to the exact spot. It was then, on my day off, that I got to see a PBY Catalina parked nearby.

I was enthralled. The blister observer windows near the back make it distinctive. My side window on the P-3C was much larger than a commercial airline passenger’s window, but it’s put to shame by the observer windows on the PBY. I wonder if the crew seats had cup-holders back in WWII.

It’s a beautiful aircraft. I’ve never seen one again.

The end of Moore’s law is (possibly) near

I don’t know how I missed this: via NextBigFuture, Moore’s law will hit an economic wall sometime in early 2020s.

If you’re new to this, Moore’s law is the observation (by Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel) regarding the capacity of an average IC chip doubling every 18 months. The bottom line is that computers are getting better all the time, and that the rate of improvement is somewhat predictable. Moore made this observation in 1965.

This isn’t the first time someone’s predicted this law’s demise, but it’s bound to happen eventually.

We’ll have far better computers in the 2020s, including (hopefully) the beginnings of real intelligence. That will change the economics. Moore’s law really only needs to keep going until computers are smart enough to figure out the next step on their own. They won’t be quite that smart ten years from now, but they may be smart enough to help.