Saturday, March 1, 2008

Variable Star

I just reread Spider Robinson's book Variable Star, created from Robert Heinlein's outline. It's a curious way to write a book, to be sure, and the first time I read it, I was surprised at how much I liked it. Most of the book is Spider. There's the occasional homage pun (her eyes were Hazel, stones, rolling), and he pays lip service to Heinlein's stock in trade, like briefly mentioning that one of the main character's girlfriends has decided to enter into a group marriage. The plot, though, does seem to me to be one that Heinlein could have written. Details about the planet that the characters are headed towards are incredible and detailed, and the starship drives are mysterious in their workings, which is (oddly) appropriate to this particular book. Some of my favorite parts are when the characters talk about history:

"Webb was an idiot. His analysis presumed that if other life did exist, it could not be more intelligent than him. It was the characteristic flaw of the entire PreCollapse millennium: the assumption of vastly more knowledge than they actually possessed." He closed his eyes and rubbed them. "Over and over like a recurring flu they developed the imbecile idea that they understood nearly everything, in all but the finest details. They had no slightest idea what lightning was, how it worked. They had absolutely no clue how moisture got farther than about ten meters up a tree--the highest that capillary action can push it Fifty years after the splitting of the atom, they accidentally noticed for the first time that hurricanes emit gamma rays. There were quite a few large, significant phenomena they could 'explain,' often elegantly...over and over again...and had to, because the explanations began falling apart at the first hard data-push. Things like he Tunguska Event, gamma ray bursts, why an airplane wing generated lift, what ninety percent of our DNA was doing there...yet they were solemnly convinced they basically understood the universe, except for some details out in the tenth decimal place.
"They somehow managed to persuade themselves that computer models constitute data. That very complicated guesses become facts. They made themselves believe they had the power to accurately model, not merely something as inconceivably complex as, say, a single zygote...but a national economy, a weather system, a planetary ecosphere, a multiplanet society--even a universe. They made solemn pronouncements about conditions a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, on the basis of computer models which they had produced with computers not even bright enough to talk, let alone understand speech. They were unlike all the generations before theirs in several ways, but chiefly in that they had no faintest clue how ignorant they were. Previous ages had usually had a pretty good handle on that."
"Things got worse in that direction soon."
"Sure. Scientists were claiming godlike knowledge, and couldn't deliver. It go to where even the average citizen could sense they were bluffing. They could go on for literally days on what happened in the first five minutes of creation, without ever saying a single thing that meant anything, did anybody any good. They wouldn't even discuss what happened when you died, let alone how random chance produced life. No wonder the citizens decided to go back to a different kind of omniscience, that came with omnipotence and omnibenevolence thrown in at no extra charge. Twentieth-century science handed the world over to Nehemia Scudder, on a plate. No wonder some people preferred 'intelligent design' to evolution. At least it put intelligence somewhere in the mix."

A very Spider-like rant, isn't it? But I find it strangely compelling, especially in company with a later explanation of what caused the "Terror Wars," a smug Canadian-type analysis of the actions of the US after 9/11, but ending with this description of Americans:

"They were some of the most intelligent and humane people in the history of the planet: what could they have been thinking?"
"Of course they were not. They were feeling."

I like science fiction that not only shows us a possible way to go, but provides a bit of road map for how people could get there. Variable Star does that, in the best Heinlein tradition.

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