Monday, May 2, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter II - Fuzzy Math and Hubbard's Favorite Profession

Corday is delirious, strapped into a bunk in a dark room, "his mind a seething maelstrom of nightmare."  He's being haunted by visions appearing before his waking eyes, specters formed from the shadows around him.  He's being tortured by physics equations.

Cold, dispassionate hand of science - how glibly it could write!  "When the velocity of mass approaches one hundred eighty-six thousand miles per second, Time approaches zero; as mass approaches one hundred eighty-six thousand miles per second is approaches infinity."  They had discovered that years and years ago and it had stood, the barricade to the long passage; and Alan saw it now with nightmare clarity.  Time approaches zero, time approaches zero, time approaches zero...

Though maybe "barricade" isn't the best term, this little equation isn't exactly preventing long-distance space flight, it just makes it a bit inconvenient.

Oh, and the author is nice enough to clarify that "time approaches zero" nonsense by adding "for the mass" in the next paragraph.  Which is to say, less time will pass for that fast-moving mass compared to a clock ticking on Earth.  So if Corday's on a spaceship flying at 108,000 miles per second, which is just shy of 58% lightspeed, and he's headed to Alpha Centauri, which is... uh-oh.

Guys, we have a problem.  Hubbard's spaceship is traveling at a little over half the speed of light, but he says it'll reach Alpha Centauri in three weeks.

Alpha Centauri is 4.367 light-years away from Earth. 

Okay, so the Hound of Heaven is simultaneously moving slower and much faster than the speed of light, let's just ignore that.  Let's do some math to figure out just how much more time is going to pass for the lovely Wossername back on Earth while Corday's shanghaied on a six-week cruise to Alpha Centauri.

Lucky for us, someone was nice enough to set up a special relativity calculator so we can plug n' chug to our physics-loving hearts' content.  If we convert 108,000 miles/second to 173,809.152 kilometers/second, and six weeks into 3,628,800 seconds, then the elapsed time for a stationary observer would be 4,453,696.8277556 seconds, or...

7.3 weeks?  That's it?  Or am I reading things wrong?

You know what?  It doesn't matter, because the Hound of Heaven isn't just going to Alpha Centauri, but other colony worlds around undefined stars.  Since we don't have the information to properly run the numbers, who cares if they wouldn't add up?

So Corday is stuck on a cruise with "the outcasts and pariahs of space," but he's not concerned with them, his thoughts are only for the girl he left behind.  He knows she'll wait for him, he's loved her since childhood, but before he can reminisce about this woman whose name I've already forgotten, Corday gets prodded by a red-faced, gray-haired, gnomish fellow.

"Hello! Awake again?" Now, now, calm down, young fellow. They say you'll be second mate and I'm to take care of you. So steady as she goes and sheer off the asteroids, eh?"

Alan spoke thickly: "Go to the devil."

Hmm, this Corday guy is growing on me.

"Dare say we'll meet, but neither of us are in a hurry, the devil gets enough from Time-zero." He laughed with delight at his own pleasantry and repeated it, "The devil gets his fill from Time-zero." This cheered him up so much that he had to skip backwards and turn a whirl. Then he peered very close and solemn at Alan. "I'm Dr. Strange.


You weren't on dope or anything when you ran away?"

"I didn't run away! I'm here from no choice!"

"Don't want to kill you. Compound Theta Seven won't work on opium. Fights it. Kills the patient. Wanted to be sure. But you're to be second when you come around. Bad case. Hard to work."

And then for no reason there's a break in the paragraphs.

Captain Jocelyn walks onto the scene, his footsteps loud in a spaceship otherwise silent save for a slight vibration.  He looks around at other beds and sleepers, and Corday realizes they're in a sick bay.  Jocelyn orders Strange to "Jar one up" because he needs a "phoneman for Second Con," and the doctor obligingly takes a needle from an eight-year-old in an oversized doctor's coat and sticks it into a "spaceman" in the cot opposite of Corday's.  Strange sheepishly warns that he can't guarantee that the crewman he jabbed is in the best condition, since he "tried to work them over but some of them are tough.  Resistant."  Corday, for example, won't even "trace" at all.

Jocelyn is not amused.

"I told you to leave his mind alone!  What do I care what happens to these cattle.  But you've got a trained brain there.  Leave it alone!  You fool, will you dabble with your confounded hypnosis-"  He quieted himself with an effort.  "Leave his mind alone, doctor.  Psychiatry or no, there's much you have to learn about men."

You can just imagine the dawning expression of glee on my face during this section.  Could it be?  Why yes, Dr. Strange is a psychologist!  He's not a major character and doesn't make nearly enough appearances, but it's just so reassuring to have a quack head-plumber around for Hubbard to ridicule after all those pulp spy stories and tales of body-swapping little people and other such nonsense.

Jocelyn orders Strange to unstrap the spaceman that just got juiced, meanwhile Corday is still confined in his bunk, searching "like an animal in a trap" for an escape.  That heavy door on one wall with the huge wheeled handles and Emergency sign might lead to an escape pod, so there's one option.  Turns out the other guy has similar thoughts.

The narration explains that the freshly-freed patient is a young blond guy with a "rayburn" across his forehead, a five-year veteran of the Venusian run, though there's no way for our viewpoint character to know that last tidbit.  At any rate, the guy with the sunburn is cunning enough to feign weakness as he's helped to his feet, before lashing out at his captors.  And it's not a Hubbard action sequence.

But he came up with a powerful blow in each hand, striking Jocelyn a heavy backhand smash in the chest and throwing the doctor aside like a sack.  There was a blazing insanity in the young man's face, caused half by drugs, half by his terror.  Even while Jocelyn staggered, the spaceman lunged for the emergency port.  Behind it there might be a lifeboat.  Beyond it might lie freedom

See?  It's an actual paragraph, no terse exclamations of improbable feats of strength.

It's also a wasted effort, as Jocelyn draws an "arc pistol" and shoots the escaping crewman.  The kid freezes with his hands on the door's wheel, staggers back, "drifting with the acceleration of the ship," grabs a stanchion, and slumps to the floor with a "mild, apologetic look" on his face.  Then Jocelyn has to get up and secure the door, because "Air was seeping out of the compartment, sucked greedily by outer space."

Why is there an airlock in the medical bay?  Wait, no, why is there an open porthole to hard vacuum in the medical bay, particularly a med bay filled with doped-up prisoners who might not want to be on the spaceship?  And a psychologist with a fondness for drink.

Or maybe the doorway to space was installed because there was a psychologist in the adjacent room, so you'd need an emergency exit, am I right?  Anyway, Jocelyn dusts himself off and orders Strange to try again with another patient, so off the good doctor goes with needle in hand and young orderly at his elbow.

It was a process Alan was to find common and necessary on the long passage - psychotherapy.  Brutal therapy.  Nothing delicate about it.  If you had to take a man's mind half away to make him useful on a ship, take it away.  Crush his memories, rob his personality, stamp out his rebellion.  There wasn't much time that could be spent, drugs were cheap and crewmen were dear.  Narco-hypnosis was the most effective speed tool.  A vessel on the long passage was never full complement and a man made into an idiot, if he could steer, was better than a full personality with revolt in his brain.

Or instead of going through all this hassle to turn shanghaied crewmen into loyal sailors, maybe it'd be easier to hire people who actually wanted the job.

Also, this all seems a bit melodramatic for a three-week cruise to Alpha Centauri.  It took longer than that to cross the Atlantic back in the age of sail, and people seemed to manage without lobotomizing anyone.

Even though Jocelyn forbade Dr. Strange from doing his thing on Corday, there's two instances where our hero wakes up to find the psychologist hovering over him, and in one case Corday is able to get a hand free and come close to throttling Strange before getting hit with a tranquilizer.  Strange later laughs the incident off with a "No hard feelings," and explains he "thought you might have had a lecture or two on your modern psychiatry stashed away in your cranium," and he was drunk and didn't want to go through the trouble of finding a book.  The doctor claims that he doesn't usually drink, "but once in a while when you come back and see things changed you want to drink."  And then he has to look away for a moment before going back to his usual bouncy, manic self.

Corday asks how old Strange is, and the doctor replies that he's been on the Flea Circus, the crew's nickname for the Hound of Heaven, for some fifty-six years.  He's evasive about his sidereal age, but Strange does mention his contemporaries just inventing the "Weaver cellular exhaustion technique" when he was a boy, and Corday knows that said technique is over three thousand years old!

Wait, what?  So this story is set x + 3,000 years in the future, but rocketships are still taking off from "racks" and Mars is the hotspot for economic opportunity instead of some place outside the solar system?

Disappointing.  Well, it turns out Dr. Strange isn't having much luck with Corday because the guy is completely immune to hypnotic suggestion, which might be what interested Captain Jocelyn to begin with.  Corday stiffly explains that a tenth-class engineer, like all noble-born children, is "proofed" in this way shortly after being born, and that "building a bridge and breaking a mind are two different things.  Leave me alone."  Then he turns his attention to the wall.

Outward bound on the long passage, outward bound to the stars.  He did not know the speed of this pariah nor how close it would come to light.  If it was as slow as ninety-four per cent it still meant that for every moment ticked by the clocks of the Hound of Heaven, hundreds passed on Earth.  If the Hound spent six weeks in a round trip to Alpha Centauri, nine years would pass on Earth."

If I've done the math right, at that speed one second would pass on the Hound for every 2.93 seconds on Earth, so that six-week round trip would end with Corday returning to find that 17-and-a-half weeks had passed on Earth, which is what, just over four months?

Also, is there a typo throwing things into even further confusion?  At the start of the chapter Hubbard's talking about the speed of light as 186,000 miles per second, which is correct give or take a couple hundred m/s, but then Corday starts 108,000 miles per second, like he rounded to 180 thousand and got the order wrong.

I guess this is why Hubbard eventually moved on to spaceships that traveled faster than light by projecting an artificial mass against Time itself to bounce the vessel forward.  It's less likely that someone's going to sit down with a calculator for a few minutes, then get up, look you in the eye, and inform you that your story's premise is just flat-out wrong.

Damn it all, I'm curious.  Okay, so the Hound of Heaven can make it to Alpha Centauri, which is 4.367 light-years away, in just three weeks.  Alpha Centauri is 41,230,000,000,000 kilometers away, so the Hound would be traveling... 1,814,400 km/s, is that right?  Six times lightspeed?  So after six weeks, or 3,628,800 seconds, at that speed, the time dilation back on Earth would be... aww, that's the square root of a negative number, and calculators hate that.

Eh, I'm a liberal arts major, maybe I've made a mistake and it all works out somehow. 

Back to Chapter I

1 comment:

  1. Wait, they do have faster than light travel? Whut.