Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Nightsiders by Sue Isle

Nightsiders by Sue Isle is a collection of four short stories set in the same world. It is part of Twelfth Planet Press's Twelve Planets series, twelve collections which are showcasing the work of twelve Australian female authors. I believe it's the only one so far to be entirely science fictional (that said, the only other I've read is Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts -- an excellent blend of Roman mythology, the past and the future -- and I'm not sure what's planned for the rest of the series).

Nightsiders is set in Western Australia, in and around Perth. I want to say it's post-apocalyptic, but that's not quite true. It seems part local apocalypse, part generalised catastrophic climate change. The Australian climate has changed so that the west coast is no longer particularly habitable, with hints at the start that things are better in the east. The former city of Perth is now generally referred to as Nightside, because the people living there have turned nocturnal, seeking shelter during the heat of the day and going about their business in the marginally cooler nights.

A few words on each of the stories:

The Painted Girl

13 year old girl has been with walking with an older woman (who isn't her mother) as long as she remembers. One day, her life abruptly changes and she learns there's more to it than she'd realised.

The Nation of the Night

Ash, 17 year old a trans boy, goes east for an operation. The story is mostly about the stark differences between the parched west and the drowning east. He quickly learns that life is far from perfect in Melbourne, even if they still have hospitals and infrastructure. In Nightside (aka Perth), everyone helps their neighbours, in Melbourne, the infrastructure is overcrowded and they're trying to keep out as many surplus people as they can manage.

Paper Dragons

Some of the kids in Nightside put on a play based on some old TV scripts they found in an abandoned home. Turns out it's a soap about the trivialities of teenage life as in our time. Nightside's entire population of old folk (who remember life before the bombings and the evacuation) turn out to watch.

The Schoolteacher's Tale

This was my favourite story. Mostly, I think, because it filled in some of the gaps left by the other stories with teenage protagonists who didn't know life before Nightside. The titular schoolteacher is a 70 year old woman who had been mentioned as a key figure in the lives of the characters in the previous two stories. We are exposed to some of her reminiscences of how much the world has changed and, through the story, we learn a bit of where Nightside is headed in the future.


It sort of feels strange that I can summarise each of the stories in a few sentences but barely even touch on what the stories are really about. Partly this is avoiding spoilers, and partly because there are some themes and ideas that run through all four stories which are hard to pin down to just one of them.

An idea that runs through all the stories (though features the most in the first one) is that of the Drainers. They are a group of people with a genetic mutation that gives them a tolerance for the harsh sun and helps them go a bit longer between sips of water. They come out during the day when everyone else is sleeping, and hide in caves and drains (hence the name, I suppose) at night. There are stories of them eating people or draining their blood and, because they move about when everyone else is sleeping, they're regarded almost as reverse vampires, a notion which appealed to me.

All the children protagonists have adapted better to life in Nightside than the adults. They have good night vision (and poor day vision) and, of course, they are used to the only life they have ever known. One theme that ran heavily through the first three stories is that of abandonment. In the two middle stories, the children were abandoned by parents who went east during the evacuation. There's a heavy implication that this happened to almost all of the children of Nightside, with some of the remaining adults acting as foster parents to many of them. It sort of felt a bit much. Of course, the children that weren't abandoned when their parents went east wouldn't have still been around. But really, children are pretty much top of the list of things parents take with them when leaving a war zone. Where are the parents that stayed behind with children? Where are the children whose parents were killed rather than left? I appreciate that the theme of abandonment fits in with the greater theme of Nightside being abandoned by its former inhabitants and the rest of the country, but it felt a little bit lopsided by the time I got to the end.

On a happier note, this was a collection full of strong and well drawn female characters. With the exception of Ash (trans) in the second story, all the protagonists were female. There was also a good balance of male and female secondary/background characters, which is always nice to see.

To a small degree, the setting put me in mind of Daughters of Moab by Kim Westwood, but the writing style was very different and thematically the setting and the idea of adaptation to a hostile environment were the only things the two have in common.

Overall, I found Nightsiders an interesting read.

Rating 4 / 5 stars

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rapid slow space travel

Credit: Craig Crawford on APoD
I have posted in the past about mundane space travel such as might be used with the solar system (or another star system if we're talking aliens or whatnot). However, with speeds that slow, it would take an extremely long time to reach another star, even the closest. To have any hope of reaching another star, we need to be able to travel much faster.

Right now, we aren't technologically equipped to do so and that's not what this post is about. What I'm going to talk about is what happens when we (or rabbits or clocks or whatever) travel at high speeds. Because strange and interesting things do happen. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Einstein's special relativity.


We live in a world with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. All this really means is that we can define a co-ordinate system (for example x-, y- and z-axes) which can define any point in space by listing three numbers (the x, y, z co-ordinates) and which can define any point in time with a single number (although it doesn't look like a single number, that's how we can think of "11:00 am on 21 January 2012"). Any point in spacetime (that is to say, our universe, past and present) can be defined by combining those two co-ordinate systems to give four numbers, unique to each point.

Now, say you're in a long corridor. There are several ways you might try to measure how long it is. You might walk along it and count steps or use a measuring tape. You might jog or walk at a know speed and time how long it takes to get to the other end. If you were particularly eager and the corridor sufficiently long, you could bounce light (or radio waves) off the far end and time how long it takes to complete a round trip.

Of these three options, I'd hazard that most people would use a length-based measurement as per the first option.

Now suppose your room is actually a space ship traveling close to the speed of light with you inside it. (For now we're ignoring how it got up to that speed.) You can still use the same three methods to measure it. Remember, when you're moving at a constant speed, you don't feel the movement. Aside from bumpiness due to uneven roads/train tracks/turbulence, the only sort of movement you can detect without looking out a window are the periods of acceleration and deceleration. So, if you're traveling at a constant velocity in a spaceship with no windows, you would have no way of checking how fast you're going, but other than that, nothing weird would seem to be happening.

On the other hand, if you were outside the spaceship watching it go past, how could you measure how long it was? Being on the outside rules out walking along it with a tape measure (unless it's stationary, but then it's not going past, is it?), but the other two methods more or less work. If you know how fast it's going, you can time how long it takes to go past. If you know how long it is, you can time how long it takes to go past and work out how fast it's going.

Intuitively, we might expect that spaceship length doesn't change and that the speed of the spaceship is the only thing that determines the time taken for it to go past. This isn't strictly true.

The one immutable quantity when we're talking about moving objects in a vacuum (that is, spaceships in space) is not how long they are or, strictly speaking, how fast they're going. It is, in fact, the speed of light. The old mantra of special relativity is:

The speed of light is constant in all inertial reference frames.

A definition before I go on: inertial reference frame is a set of co-ordinates which isn't accelerating. If you are in an inertial reference frame, you can define your spacetime position with respect to those co-ordinates.

Also, an important point is that it's not possible for any object with mass to move at the speed of light (or faster). The only reason light gets away with it is because photons, particles of light, are massless.

Goin' fast

Say your fancy long spaceship is constantly going at half the speed of light. Because the speed of light is constant in all inertial reference frames, light from a torch you shine inside the spaceship will still travel at the same speed of light as it would anywhere else. Furthermore, just because you're traveling at half the speed of light doesn't mean the light from your torch will appear to travel at one and a half times the speed of light to someone outside your spaceship who can look inside.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it?

To make up for the apparent paradox, two things happen. Remember that speed or velocity is basically the amount of distance covered in a stretch of time. To keep the speed of light constant, both distance and time change, depending on how fast you're observing from.

A fast moving object appears to be shorter than it would were both object and observer in the same reference frame (that is, traveling at the same speed in the same direction). This applies to the outside distance for a fast-moving spaceship -- the distance traveled/left to go appears shorter than if the spaceship was stationary with respect to it. This is called length contraction.

Quick side note: this means that all distance is relative and there is no such thing as being truly stationary, just stationary with respect to some other reference frame.

The faster your spaceship goes, the more slowly time passes for you. Well, actually, to you it would seem that between starting your journey and ending it, time passed more quickly planetside than it did for you. (It's all relative, see?) This is called time dilation.

The amount by which time slows down or distance shrinks is dictated by the relative speed of your spaceship. There's a mathematical quantity called the Lorentz factor, represented by the Greek letter gamma, which tells us how much.

Gamma, the squiggle on the left, is the Lorentz factor, v is the speed the spaceship or whatever is traveling, and c is the speed of light, equal to 3 x 108 metres per second.

So if you're traveling at half the speed of light, gamma would be equal to about 1.15, so time would pass 1.15 times more slowly. An hour on the spaceship would take about 69 minutes to pass on Earth. The length of the spaceship, to someone on Earth, would be 1.15 times shorter. One metre would appear to be about 87 cm long.

Some other values of gamma for speeds which are significant fractions of the speed of light are:
  • Speed: 0.75c, gamma =1.51
  • Speed: 0.867c, gamma = 2
  • Speed: 0.9c, gamma = 2.3
  • Speed: 0.95c, gamma = 3.2
  • Speed: 0.99c, gamma =7.1
  • Speed: 0.9999c, gamma =70.7
To work out the time dilation, multiply by gamma, to work out the length contraction, divide by gamma.

This isn't quite all there is to know. For example, objects traveling at relativistic velocities (at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light) also increase in mass by the same factor of gamma and accelerating up to high speeds is also a bit strange. More on that next week.

And in case you're wondering how fast you have to go for these relativistic effects to kick in, or even how we know they're real... well, they exist no matter how fast you're going, it's just that at the sort of speeds we experience on a day to day basis, the time differences are entirely negligible. We have been able to test relativity, however, in a couple of ways. Flying super-precise atomic clocks around on aeroplanes has shown that time passes more slowly for them relative to us. The same has been shown for GPS and possibly other satellites. On a much larger scale, measurements of binary pulsars have also confirmed Einstein's theory of special relativity.

Stay tuned for more next week.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Spare Parts by Sally Rogers-Davidson

You may recall me posting about the Australian Women Writers Challenge at the end of last year. Well I just finished reading my first science fiction book for the challenge, which I will review in this post. Actually, I'm undertaking two challenges, the other not being restricted to only science fiction books (although it is mostly fantasy). One of the books I've read that I've decided to count as not science fiction was a bit borderline. That's Hoodwink by Rhonda Roberts, which is about a time-travelling PI. The time-travelling part is obviously the science fiction element, but since the book doesn't spend much time talking about the mechanics or physics of time travel (it's mentioned briefly and I suspect may become more important in other books), I've counted it towards the other challenge. If you're interested, you can read my 4.5 / 5 star review here.

Spare Parts by Sally Rogers-Davidson

This was actually a fairly difficult book to track down. When I first made my list of possible science fiction books by Australian women, many were out of print. This was one of them. Or so I thought at first, since it was published in 1999 and not readily available in the usual places. I actually found it on Audible in audiobook form (if you become a member, even briefly, it's much cheaper to buy audiobooks from them, FYI). It was read by Suzi Dougherty, who has apparently also read many/most of John Marsden's audiobooks. The Australian accent was appreciated since most audiofiction I come across, with a few British exceptions, is American.

But enough about the format.

Spare Parts is about Kelty, a 19 year old "C-grader" (in a caste system which goes down to D), whose prospects were reduced when she narrowly missed out on a place at university (because C-graders can only get in with scholarships). The book is set about a hundred years in the future in the sprawling suburbia of Melbourne, albeit a Melbourne more filled with high-rises and with even dodgier trains than at present.

When Kelty's best friend is grievously injured in an industrial accident, Kelty decides to sell her body and join the space corps to save her friend. This is a world where the rich discard their old, decrepit (or sometimes merely slightly wrinkled) bodies and have their brains transplanted into the young bodies of people of the lower classes, for a nice fee. The people who've sold their bodies then get to have their brains transplanted into cyborg bodies. The catch? Cyborgs (or cybermorphs as is the politically correct term) aren't allowed to live permanently on Earth.

When I first started reading, I thought this was a dystopian novel and was convinced that Kelty was going to discover that the evil A and B graders were killing the poor for their bodies and organs. It's possible that I've read too many YA dystopias of late. To alleviate any confusion such as what I suffered, I want to make it clear that this is not really a dystopian novel. Sure, it's not all rainbows and sunshine for the poor, criminals wear tracker bracelets which electrocute them if they feel angry (so they don't attack bystanders) but it's not terribly different to our world. The class boundaries are just a little more emphasised so that the rich live in high-rises and ride cable cars around the city and the poor live in dodgy areas and ride the subway. The main thing which distinguishes Spare Parts from books like The Hunger Games and Divergent or even 1984 is that there is no government conspiracy keeping everyone oppressed. The poor are just poor and have to either sell their bodies and join the space corps or be smart enough for a scholarship to university to improve their situation.

Of course, I'm not saying that the characters, rich or otherwise, are necessarily all on the up and up, but if I hadn't automatically assumed dystopia, I think I would have enjoyed the start more, instead of spending it being deeply suspicious of the society. That's more an issue with my expectations than with the book itself, however.

I thought the way the cyborg bodies were explained and treated was well done. The space corps is composed entirely of cyborgs because ordinary human bodies aren't resilient enough to withstand the accelerations and radiation and other dangers of space. Human brains can't just be plonked in a cyborg body and be expected to know how to manipulate it (especially given the extra senses they have, like infrared and UV vision, for example). Rogers-Davidson deals with this by giving each cyborg an AI assistant which interfaces with their systems and helps them acclimate to the world. They can even mitigate or postpone the effects of alcohol. Kelty's snarky AI was one of the really fun parts of the novel. (She's so "state-of-the-art" she can even be sarcastic.)

I also enjoyed the human aspect of the novel. It was nice to see a wide range of female characters and their relationships were equally varied and well drawn particularly between the main character and others (since this was written in first person, that's to be expected). In fact, I think there was only one prominent male character, and he was only really around in the first half of the book, which is rare to see. Another key difference between Spare Parts and many more recent YA books is the lack of a romantic plot line. Which I found endearing. Given all the changes she's going through -- changing bodies, changing socioeconomic circumstances -- Kelty really has much more important things to worry about than boys. It really is nice to read about a teenager who doesn't think important life choices have to include boys.

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living in the Future

It being the new year and all, I thought it might be nice to reflect upon what we, as a whole, have achieved that was once science fiction but is now commonplace. Or at least existent. And I'm not going to focus on the big obvious things, because those are boring and, well, we know smartphones and iPads and modern medicine are crazy futuristic devices/advances. That's obvious. But what about the little things? Specifically, what about food?


I was inspired to write this post when I was eating a fried egg and cheese toasted sandwich that was both gluten and dairy-free. The cheese was made of soy and the bread was specially processed to get rid of the gluten, as well as being made with alternate flours (that is to say, it has gluten-free wheat starch as a key ingredient as well as non-wheat flours). If you're wondering, the cheese stuff does sort of taste of cheese (without the evil taste of doom that I associate with dairy products), particularly if it's mixed with something else, like egg and bread. Other magic pseudo-dairy products I have in my fridge include rice milk, oat milk, soyghurt, oat milk-based ice cream, oat milk fauxghurt, rice milk-based cream, soy-based sour cream, two types of pretend cheese (another flavour of the slices and a solid type one I haven't actually tried yet) and dairy-free margarine.

The more exotic of these are relatively recent inventions. In terms of food (intentionally) not containing gluten*, coeliac disease (and hence the negative impact of gluten on sufferers) was discovered circa World War II (thanks to bread shortages, I believe), margarine has been around for a while, soy and grain milks even longer, although less so in the western world. Another relatively recent development is vegetarian products which resemble miscellaneous meat products. There's not-bacon (it even comes with not-fat bits), slices pretending to be ham, a variety of sausages -- from pseudo hot dog to chorizo to pseudo chicken and gourmet -- faux chicken nuggets, kebablike things and probably something else that's slipped my mind.

All these things already exist.

Science fiction often has us eating vat-grown protein (Bujold's Vorkosigan books), hydroponic vegetables (lots of things) soy moulded into all sorts of unusual and interesting-tasting things (Asimov and others). We already have hydroponic vegetables -- I'm pretty sure that's where my tomatoes come from these days -- and soy disguised as all sorts of things. The main difference is that we're growing these things on Earth, not in space. But we're getting there.

Uncooked quinoa. Nabbed from wiki here.
NASA has looked into (pdf) using quinoa as a space crop because, unlike soy, quinoa is a complete protein. This means that it contains all the essential amino acids we need (just like meat does). As well as being high in protein, it's high in fibre, iron and other useful things. And in terms of off-world farming, crops are much easier to deal with than animals. That pdf I linked at the start of this paragraph is pretty old, and I suspect NASA's research is directed elsewhere for the moment, but there's no reason for this not to be taken further in the future.

Another aspect I want to touch on is additives. There is a certain magic to making something taste like a thing that hasn't even been within a metre of the production line. More importantly, and more relevantly, are preservatives, both the chemical and the food-storage kind. The fact that we can ship things all around the globe without them going off before they reach their destination is also a little bit magic, when you think about what our pre-refrigeration ancestors had to contend with. To say nothing of freeze-drying or long-life (dairy) milk.

And I haven't even begun to talk about mass production farming and all that jazz. Although, despite continuing research/advances in those areas, aspects of that are a little less futuristic-feeling than pretend sausages. Unless we're talking about genetic modification, but that's a whole other can of worms.

So. We might not quite be up to growing crops in space yet, but in terms of what we can do with food, I think we're already living a little bit in the future.

*which isn't actually the substance I have issues with, but that's beside the point.


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