Monday, January 04, 2010

Furnished Early In Books

It's a new year and a new decade (psychologically at least) so let's start over from the beginning. Here I am, aged three or thereabouts, being introduced to the world of books by my uncle (and also, if you look closely at his right hand, to cigarette smoking: the books took but the cigarettes didn't). Oh sure, it isn't the first book I encountered, but it's the first record of my book-addiction. I can't remember what that book is, and don't have the Bladerunner-style software to resolve the cover - is that a running dog, or the silhouette of a brontosaurus? Whatever it is, I'm fascinated by it. I'm hooked.

(It's summer 1958, in my grandmother's garden. More than fifty years ago. But the first commercial nuclear power station had begun operation in Britain two years before; it was a year after Francis Crick had laid out the 'central dogma' - the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins that underpins molecular biology - and the replication mechanism of DNA's double helix had just been confirmed by the Meselson-Stahl experiment; Christopher Cockerell had just unveiled the first hovercraft; there were more households owning TVs than radio-only households; IBM had just made its first computer; there were Russian and American satellites in orbit.

(In short, just as I was learning to enjoy and understand books, modernity was everywhere. It was only natural to grow up expecting aircars, unlimited electrical power, space stations, and moonbases to be just around the corner.)

7 Comments:

Blogger saint said...

So they called it predicting our technological future, but it was more like speculative fiction.

I love the jetpacks and flying cars argument. "It's not the future, where is my jectpack." My response "you can keep a human heart alive in a jar overnight, and it will repair itself in preparation for transplant. How exactly is a jetpack more futuristic than that?
Anyway, they're working on them, they just happen to be a bit more complex than the drawings look. For instance, how not to flip over and fly your face directly into the ground requires some computational and mechanical precision that aren't exactly easy to put in a backpack that's also a FRICKEN ROCKET."

However, we will do it, because jetpacks are really freakin cool. They were just wrong about the dates because they were guessing instead of trying to extrapolate technical difficulties they might come across.

The jetpacks I always see envisioned have a couple jets coming out the bottom, unidirectional, yet they manage to hover and fly all over the place no problem. In real life, that will send you up, you'll spin out of control, and eventually smash face first into something. And probably burn your legs off to boot.

A man did fly across the English Channel, but that was on a jet wing and only went forward, had to land by parachute. I think he also had to lanch from a plane or heli.

There's also the matter of fuel, luckly jets are super-efficient, but hovering eats mad power - maybe some crazy battery technology will allow us to power the jets electromagnetically.

Maybe we'll just invent beyond room temperature semiconductors and give jets the finger and just use quantum mechanics to fly around.

January 06, 2010 12:53 AM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Oh yeah, it was all around me when I was a kid. It just got smaller and faster. We could have jetpacks and aircars if we want them. Turns out we don't, mostly. Although the extreme sports crowd are doing some very interesting stuff with wing suits, not to mention that jet wing. And then there's this...

January 06, 2010 9:00 AM  
Blogger George Berger said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 06, 2010 4:14 PM  
Blogger George Berger said...

That's a wonderful rembrance Paul. Mine is here, cut-and-pasted minus two photos.

The Library, Willy Ley, And Me

I was born in Far Rockaway NYC, the southernmost area of The Big Apple. Except for the Carnegie Library, my high school, and my many friends, it was an intellectual wasteland. You can see the Library here. It was built in 1906 and was stocked with good reading. As a youngster of 15 in 1957 my interests were technical-scientific and my mind was empty. Then I got a card for the “adult” section. I immediately became a bookworm.

The Carnegie had small but excellent SF (ground floor, left) and technology (first floor, center) sections. I quickly devoured Olaf Stapledon’s classics Last and First Men and Star Maker, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and Clarke’s The City and the Stars. A better introduction to SF was unthinkable at that time. These books turned me into a lifelong, devoted, SF reader. Thanks to this initiation I was able to take part in the development of modern SF into its current mature form.

The technology section had several wonderful books on spaceflight. The most prominent and distinguished was the third edition (1957) of Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. It is a book of a kind that is no longer written and that, I believe, can today be published only after overcoming stiff editorial resistance. Its 528 readable pages present an historical, technical, and in part narrative history of its title subjects. Its bibliography details texts in a number of languages and does not shy away from reproducing titles in Cyrillic and Japanese notations. Try doing that now! I love this masterpiece so much that I recently bought a used copy online.

Dr. Ley was one of the founders of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Association for Space Travel), the famous club of German astronautics enthusiasts which among other achievements experimented with liquid fuel rockets at its Raketenflugplatz (rocket airdrome) in the outskirts of Berlin. He and his wife Olga fled to New York City after the Nazi seizure of state power (the group dissolved a bit later, due to disagreements concerning cooperation with the Nazis). My reading of SF and rocketry literature moved me to contact him. We met twice in his modest house in Jackson Heights, NYC. Our conversations convinced me to study mechanical engineering and other subjects in college (CCNY), so that I could advance the development of liquid fuel rocket engines. I admire them and Willy Ley to this day. Indeed, he was revered in NYC SF circles and is now an American cultural icon.

His immense scholarship in several fields, combined with my continual reading of the best SF, helped save me when I was no longer able to study engineering, mathematics, and physics. I switched to philosophy and transferred to Queens College, which was near Far Rockaway. The importance of studying the history of philosophy and literature – not only SF – was impressed on me by Willy Ley’s pleasant but authoritative character. It has never left me, although I left the Carnegie Library behind when I moved to Manhattan to attend Graduate School at Columbia University. That magnificent library, a monument to learning, burned down around 1970; it was replaced by a postmodern monstrosity whose online photos fill me with disgust for our dumbed-down age.

George Berger (Amsterdam, December 2007)



'The Library, Willy Ley, and Me' being an occasional contribution for the DAPPER apa by George Berger

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January 06, 2010 4:40 PM  
Blogger PeteY said...

Funny, I had assumed you were an ex-smoker.

I had a nasty experience with smoking around a young nephew - I was trying to be discreet and keep it well away from him, but I reckoned without his curiosity. He asked me "Cosa e?" (he is Italian - "What is it?"). He had never seen a cigarette before. I felt guilty to be the despoiler of such innocence, so I'm even more careful now.

January 06, 2010 9:41 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

I was in the bookshop yesterday I saw a bunch of titles with your name on them.

Which of your books would you reccomend as a first read?

January 07, 2010 8:51 AM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

I was a long-time passive smoker, Pete, but that's as far as it went.

Hi Simon, good question. Hmm, either Fairyland or the latest in paperback, The Quiet War.

January 08, 2010 8:50 AM  

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