Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hubbard the Scientist

You don't have to be a scientist to write science fiction.  It helps if you're trying to write plausible, realistic, "hard" sci-fi, of course.  But if you're doing "soft" sci-fi, where the laser swords and space fighters could be swapped out with magical swords and dragons without greatly impacting the story, having a firm grasp of physics or electronics isn't important.  Sometimes it's easier to tell a tale if you don't have to spend pages explaining the details behind the setting, and I've noticed that "hard" science fiction can read more like a technical paper than fiction.  The titular Ringworld was the real star of that book, not the humans or aliens in it - I can't even remember any characters' names.

Unfortunately, Mission Earth is no space opera.  We can't convert it into the tale of Sir Jettero of Manco, a noble knight serving the Kingdom of Voltar who is reluctantly forced to play spy as he infiltrates the corrupt Republic of Merica... even though that's pretty much exactly what happens.  Er.

Let me rephrase that.  The story might work as "soft" sci-fi or fantasy, or at least work as well as it already does, which is not well at all.  The problem is twofold.

First, Hubbard wants to change the world, and is trying to speak from a position of authority so that we recognize his wisdom and alter our lives in the way he proscribes.  Now, books don't have to be "hard" sci-fi to have a message or be effective.  Star Wars, or at least the original trilogy, is a beloved space fantasy because it hits on so many classic elements of storytelling and presents them in an engaging way.  Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings are fantasy series that show how love and friendship can overcome the greatest of evils.  But these are general virtues, applicable anywhere.  If you want to solve a specific society's problems at a particular point in history, you don't need to drape your message in too much allegory, and it'd be good to show that you understand that society and its problems - especially if you expect some of those problems to be solved through science.  In this case, presenting your prescriptions through "hard" sci-fi will be more effective than using a space fantasy.

More importantly, Hubbard is trying to be a scientist.  He disdains the laziness of fantasy and its magic swords whose wielders automatically know how to use, and wants to tell us how his marvelous devices function.  He has his characters give chapter-long descriptions of how faster-than-light space travel or black holes work.  And they are some of the most hilarious parts in the story, as it quickly becomes obvious that Hubbard understands physics and astronomy about as well as he understands... well, anything else. 

Let's take black holes.  Hubbard treats them sort of like naturally-occurring nuclear reactors, in that they emit electricity and have a small chance of catastrophically exploding, as opposed to being phenomena that consume everything nearby and which will eventually evaporate (and explode) at a date bigger than the current age of the universe.  Also, they're apparently magnetic whirlpools rather than supermassive spatial distortions.

He's latched on to the idea of time dilation, but completely misunderstands it.  In regular physics, as you approach a black hole's event horizon, space-time is stretched so that to an outside observer time seems to slow.  You, the fearless space explorer, wouldn't notice anything strange during your approach, but once your curiosity was satisfied and you returned from poking at the singularity with your space stick, you'd find that your trip took more time than it strictly should have to travel that distance.  Black holes are then a form of one-way time travel, though of course the same is true of all gravity wells, just not to as dramatic an extent.  If you want to squeeze a few more nanoseconds out of your life, move to the mountains, sneer down at all those peasants on the coast.

In Hubbard physics, black holes apparently have a second event horizon beyond the all-consuming "point of no return" that characterizes singularities.  Getting within a certain distance of the little buggers somehow shunts you all at once into another timeframe x minutes into the future.  So if it's noon when I travel to Palace City, which famously has a little captive black hole hidden in a neighboring mountain, while I'm in the capital it's 12:13, and if I stay for thirteen minutes and leave, I come out at 12:13.  

Except it's not that simple.  Somehow this time distortion removes the area around a Hubbard black hole from reality, so that an outside observer at noon looking at Palace City wouldn't see it as it was at 11:47 am, they'd instead see some discolored fog.  This makes about as much sense as being unable to see into a neighboring time zone - wooo, the clocks over there are different, they must be in another dimension!  This is presented as the ultimate defense because any attackers would have nothing to target, and while ground traffic, air traffic, communications, and a breathable atmosphere are able to make the transition without problems, any hostile missiles or lasers would just get confused and hit the nothing.

Then there's Hubbard's ideas about space travel, those wonderful Will-be Was engines, as described in Part 12, Chapter 4.  Science fiction authors who don't want boring, years-long voyages between worlds have devised a number of ways to break the universal speed limit and allow for faster-than-light travel - folding space to decrease the distance between you and your destination, slipping into another dimension without such speed limits, reducing your spaceship's mass so that it "falls" through space absurdly fast, and so forth.  But Hubbard needn't bother which such parlor tricks, because he lays out a completely different understanding of the universe.  Time is a physical force that determines where objects will be, but can nevertheless be tricked by artificial masses into propelling a starship many times the speed of light.  It is also subordinate to the power of life, which is able to slow or warp time to its will, which makes sense because life precedes the physical universe it inhabits.

With such major head-scratchers, it's easy to overlook the little things, like air not being "matter."  If you're gonna start something you call "the science of science," it might help to understand that gas is one of several states of matter.  But the author's astonishing ignorance aside, I rather like his fumblings with black holes and space travel.  Once the aspirin kicks in they're entertainingly dumb, unlike the rest of Mission Earth, which is either unentertaining or horrifying.  Even if none of his efforts are really necessary.

All that stuff about the black hole's timeshift shielding the galactic empire's capital?  Why not make it a force field?  The book already has tractor beams, just weave a bunch of them to make a dome to block those enemy missiles, like how Heller was able to gather up a ginormous clump of loose ice particles from the rings of Saturn.  Will-be Was engines?  Have Tug One be an experimental ship with prototype engines much faster but much less stable than the ones in active service.  Black hole power plant?  Use a bigger version of the asphalt-eating engines used in Heller's cars, or maybe some orbital mirror to focus solar energy is an obscenely cost-effective manner.

I can think of a number of explanations for these odd sci-fi decisions, the simplest of which is that the author just didn't know what he was talking about.  You could try to argue that science has come a long way since Hubbard started writing science fiction, but I'm pretty sure when Einstein and others were unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos, they weren't suggesting that black holes were doorways leading a set time into the future, which was an inaccessible parallel dimension.  Another theory is that Hubbard wanted to do something different with black holes and space travel, and so consciously wrote something no other science fiction author had come up with because it made no sense and was kinda dumb.

Or maybe Hubbard's peculiar notions of how the universe worked were distorting conventional science into what we see in Mission Earth.  francoistremblay pointed out that the bizarre lecture about Life and Time at the start of Book Two is pretty much Scientology canon.  Give a religious fundamentalist a high school physics textbook and you might get something similar to Hubbard's scrawlings - I think I remember a Chick Tract where Jesus was the strong nuclear force holding atoms together or something. (editor's note from the future: "Big Daddy" is mostly anti-evolution, but there are a few panels about particle physics - what we call "gluons" are actually Jesus holding a bunch of protons together)

Whatever the reason, it's not enough for Hubbard to not understand the "science" in "science fiction," he also has to botch the "fiction" part as well.  By this I mean he fails to understand how his science, no matter how bizarre, fits into the fictional world he's building.

Take Blueflash, for example.  This is of course the magical light that causes anyone who sees it to drop unconscious, with a convenient memory loss that makes it perfect for covert landings on alien planets.  I think we see it used once or twice when Tug One makes its trips to the East Coast, and then Heller uses it to rescue his sister.  That is it.  You might think such a technology would be extraordinarily useful for law enforcement, able to incapacitate entire mobs of people to be easily taken into custody, but we certainly don't hear about it being used to keep the Confederacy from going up in flames in Book Ten.  The Blueflash would also revolutionize warfare, allowing armies with it to effortlessly capture or cut the throats of their helpless foes.  Soldiers would probably end up wearing special helmets with lenses to block or dilute its effects, and combat engineers like Heller would wear such "sunglasses" as second nature.  Yet we never see the Blueflash used in combat, or see soldiers with countermeasures for it.

Another example is Voltar's modern alchemy, how power plants are able to convert chunks of lead into gold in a way that produces more energy than it consumes.  The result is that gold's price is kept artificially high by power companies preferring to work with less weighty elements, but the stuff is still so common and easy to produce that "skimming off a few ingots" would be easy to put down to "wear and tear."  Gris is able to buy some for ten credits a pound, or .625 credits an ounce.  Madison explains near the start of Book Nine that the exchange rate is about 20 credits to a dollar, so Gris was buying gold on Voltar for something like 3 cents an ounce.  Today the going rate for gold was $1,305.40 an ounce.  But despite being demoted to an industrial by-product, gold remains the metal of wealth and taste in Voltarian society.  Expensive aircars and mansions are slathered with it, it's woven into fabrics for the rich and powerful, pirates and criminals like Gris continue to drool over it, Voltarian paper currency is made to resemble it, and people in general share the author's preoccupation with the shiny yellow rocks.

Or hey, what about those "time-sights," the temporal telescopes used to look into the future and avoid smashing into planets while traveling at faster-than-light speed?  For some reason these are used only as navigational systems, and not embedded in any high-target government building to spot any attackers a day before they come.  The Voltarian police doesn't aim them at their crime logs and have a dedicated unit for tracking down and arresting criminals before their deeds come to pass.  The Emperor of the Confederacy doesn't have a gem-encrusted, ancestral time-sight that he uses to bring additional foresight into his decision-making process.  The most creative Hubbard gets with this astonishing device is having Heller use one to cheat the stock market as a way to get rich.  What, he couldn't adapt that "command isolation geometry" that lets him figure out the physical location of a planet's ruler to an equation that helps him find where da money at? 

And then there's the long list of technology that the heroes, and only the heroes, get to use.  Heller's luxury tugboat has an absorbo-coat stealth system and holographic projector that he uses to destroy particularly stupid enemies without having to fire a weapon.  The supremely paranoid Lombar Hisst naturally does not put an absorbo-coat on his personal flying cannon, and the only other time we see holograms used is for entertainment purposes, not military.  While other soldiers are killing each other the hard way, Heller's shooting bombs that make scary noises that cause entire armies to rout, and much like the Blueflash example these soldiers aren't wearing any helmets designed to counter this potentially devastating nonlethal weapon.

Most egregious of all is the bloody hypno-helmet.  The Apparatus, that sinister paramilitary organization trying to take control of the government, uses them for language trainingAnd also to randomly turn a captured mob hitman into Gris' personal super-assassin, as a sort of surprise present, only for the guy to get taken out by a housecat.  And yet despite having this technology, the entire plot revolves around the Apparatus trying to take control of key officials through drugs, hatching an elaborate scheme to smuggle in alien substances and get the right people dependent on them, rather than grabbing someone for an hour, slapping a shiny hat on him, and programming him to vote for Lombar.  It's Krak, not the book's (designated) villains, who uses them to fullest effect, to hypnotize Gris into doing what she wants, and then unleashing them upon her Earthly foes. You could defend this by pointing out how that back-alley "head plumber" Gris visited was able to figure out he'd be hypnotized, so unlike everything else discussed there are evidently countermeasures for hypno-helmets, but surely reducing the ruling council to a bunch of sickly drug addicts is even less subtle?  If you want to tell a story about using drugs to take control of a government, don't introduce technology that renders the drugs obsolete!

I can't even begin to list all those one-shot devices Heller stored in his rectum over the course of the story.  So many patches or smelly sprays that force their victims to take off their clothes, or say "yes" to the next question asked, or run away in fear, or chase after a piece of fabric.  Are they microchips wrapped in fabric, able to send a specific impulse into the victim's brain, regardless of species?  Scents proven to evoke a specific effect in the majority of noses in the galaxy?

So little effort is spend explaining how they work, or even setting up the devices in the narrative, that they belong in their own "comic relief" category.  Unlike the big stuff like the black holes' time distortion, these doodads aren't relevant to the greater plot, and are used roughly once apiece to defuse a situation, usually in a way that humiliates the victims.  Hur hur, the big bad police inspector we're supposed to hate ran away with his tail between his legs.  I think these may be homages to James Bond's gadgets that he always finds a way to use over the course of his mission, just done bass akwards - Q's gizmos are shown and explained in a dedicated sequence, and logically used when a situation requires them.  Heller's gadgets appear without warning and could be used more or less interchangeably - there's not a big difference between making hostile police chase a cat with a patch of fabric tied to its collar and causing them to run away from a scary piece of paper.  The kicker is that these miracle patches are rendered completely redundant by existing technology, but Heller decided not to carry his scary bombs those days, I suppose.

At any rate, the most we see of other characters using this bizarre technology is mention of off-screen blackmailing thanks to the "take off all your clothes" patch.  But surely the "answer yes to the next question" fabric would have been useful for Lombar?  "Hey Your Majesty, hold this.  Oh, can I rule the empire in your stead?"

So the science in Mission Earth is shoddy and misused by the culture that invented it.  But there's another role science can play in fiction - a means of inspiring the audience.

If you write well enough, and make a flight to the moon sound feasible, your government may be more willing to fund this "NASA" thing people are proposing.  And heck, in the How William Shatner Changed the World special, Martin Cooper of Motorola credits Star Trek's tricorders with inspiring him to invent the cellphone.  So maybe no matter how unfeasible Mission Earth's technology is now, someday we too could live in a world with... pieces of fabric that make us chase cats, I dunno.  More to the point, Hubbard is writing about how science can be used to save the environment from ourselves, so we should be using the technology he describes to do so.

There's a couple of problems, though.  First, as mentioned previously, Hubbard is not operating under our understanding of physics or chemistry.  Second, the "save the environment" message in Mission Earth is buried deep beneath a heavy coating of "psychology/psychiatry is evil," which is what the author is really interested in discussing.  As a result, the potential environmental applications of Hubbard!science are both afterthoughts and pretty erroneous.

Take, for instance, Hubbard's warnings about climate change.  Somehow greenhouse gasses are causing, or at least coinciding with, the shifting of Earth's magnetic poles.  And it is not the extremes in latitude and angle of solar radiation that keeps the Earth's poles cold, but those magnetic poles being under solid land rather than the ocean - if they should wander out over water, why, the ice caps will melt and flood the whole planet!  Even assuming this was accurate, his solution to this problem is for the book's hero to fly out to Saturn in his souped-up spaceship, lasso tons of ice with his tractor beam, and throw it at our planet and hit the Arctic at just the right angle to create a gyroscope effect in the core to shift the (magnetic) South Pole back into position.  Not terribly feasible at the moment, but maybe we could come close by setting off enough nukes?

Or there's the other big problem with Earth, all that pollution and greenhouse gas trapping heat in the atmosphere.  Hubbard has a combination of solutions for this: harness a black hole in a tractor beam to zap unlimited electricity into our power network, use an alien carburetor to convert any waste material into go-juice for our vehicles, and unleash a horde of "spores" into the atmosphere to eat the pollution, and only the pollution, and certainly never mutate and consume the planet's biomass, or form a new layer of debris once they run out of food and die.  At least the problem in this case is real, but the solutions are again untenable.  He might as well suggest we hire a wizard to transmute greenhouse gasses into perfumed breezes, enchant our cars to roll on their own, and build golems to walk on treadmills for unlimited clean energy.

In short, and in conclusion, Hubbard pretty much fails in every way it's possible for a science fiction author to fail.  He doesn't understand science, he can't write fiction, and he's not moving society forward with his ideas.  You can't even say that his tale of blastguns and spaceships is fun escapism, because the sci-fi parts of the story are dragged down by the author's "satire" of the society you'd be trying to escape from, not that the story was any fun to begin with.

But as I said, the extent to which Hubbard fails at science forms some of the only entertainment in Mission Earth, so God bless him for trying.


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1 comment:

  1. So there are only two problems with Hubbard's science fiction: the science, and the fiction.

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