Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More Late-Era Lankhmar

Following up on Monday's post, I wanted to do a bit more in-depth rundown of Fritz Leiber's total run of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, and their rather blatant (to this reader) decline in readability over time. More generally: this is meant as a case study of the various pulp-fiction authors who I feel turned to near-rubbish when they tried to transition from the short story format to novel-length works, and keep their properties running over the course of many decades.

Below I'll make some broad observations about the publication date progression of the F&GM stories, which is not the same as their ultimate in-world continuity (publication history taken from Wikipedia). Warning: There are SPOILERS liberally thrown around below.

1940s – A half-dozen stories of disconnected roguish adventures of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Half of these have page counts in the teens, including the memorable "The Howling Tower". Two are around 30 pages, including the excellent first publication, "Jewels in the Forest" (1939). Later in 1947 the 90-page novella "Adept's Gambit" was published in Night's Black Agents, actually the very first thing written about the pair by Lieber, which is unique in that it actually sets the heroes in classical Earth (based in Tyre). Most of these were collected in Swords Against Death (1970), the 2nd book according to in-world continuity. 

1950s – Only 4 stories were written in this period. Two are the 26-page stories "Claws from the Night" (1951) and "Seven Black Priests" (1953). In 1957 a collection of the stories to this point was released called Two Sought Adventure (geez, compare the figures on that early cover!), including a new 2-page "Induction" as an opener. In 1959 the 41-page novelette "Lean Times in Lankhmar" appeared in Fantastic, with its heroes archly opposing each other, great detail on the worship of the gods in Lankhmar and the gods of Lankhmar, and the Second Coming of Issek of the Jug. (Again the earlier short stories appear in the 2nd-by-time book, Swords Against Death.)

1960s – About a dozen stories of various length appeared in this period (more than in the prior 20 years combined). This includes fan-favorite short stories such as "When the Sea-King's Away" (1960), "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (1963), as well as "Unholy Grail" (1962) which tells the apprenticeship of the Gray Mouser. In 1964 the 94-page "Lords of Quarmall" was published in Fantastic -- my girlfriend & I both found this to be rather dreadful reading, and at the end of the first Gollancz collection, it had me worried about the later works (but it turns out, this was actually among the very first pieces of writing, started by Lieber's partner Harry Otto Fischer in 1936 and finished by Lieber himself almost three decades later). Also in 1965 Fantastic published "Stardock", a 65-page novelette, which is a slower-paced work, but nonetheless one of my favorites because of its careful, detailed, and properly arduous depiction of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser climbing the tallest peak in the world. Near the close of the decade, Lieber published the 230-page novel Swords of Lankhmar, with its city political machinations and the Mouser shrunk down to mouse-size among the denizens of Lower Lankhmar -- again slower-paced, but I found it to be fairly enjoyable when I read it at the start of the 2nd Gollancz collection (probably the first part better, published as a standalone story "Scylla's Daughter" in 1961; the full novel is set in time as the 5th book of the traditional set). The other stories are collected in various books #1-4 of the series.

1970s – Now, it was around 1970 that Lieber's works started to be published as a large collection of books for the first time. This includes Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, and Swords of Lankhmar in 1968, and then Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death in 1970. At this time we get the current in-continuity ordering of the stories (the 1970 books are #1 and 2, while the 1968 books are #3, 4, and 5), and numerous new short stories to serve as fill-in pieces and rationalize the whole series. In 1970 Lieber published the 74-page novella "The Snow Women", providing Fafhrd's early backstory in the North; as well as the 69-page novella "Ill-Met in Lankhmar" which shows how the pair initially hooked up. (While this latter won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, I find it to be rather strangely toned, unusually tragic and melodramatic.) Follow-up short stories from 1970 regarding this early period are "The Circle Curse" and "The Price of Pain-Ease". These relatively late-written stories appear in Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death (books #1 and 2 in continuity). Another half-dozen short stories appear from 1973-1975, ending with 1976's novelette "The Frost Monstreme", and 1977's 98-page novella "Rime Isle" (all of the preceding collected in book #6, Swords and Ice Magic from 1977). Finally, the short story "Sea Magic" was published in the pages of The Dragon magazine in 1977 (and collected with the stories below).

1980s – Lieber published three more, longer works in the 1980s. These are: "The Mer She" (33-page novelette, 1983), "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars" (49-page novella, 1983), and "The Mouser Goes Below" (177-page novella, 1988). I find these latter stories to be confusing, the plots almost totally inscrutable, at turns unexpectedly porn-y, and just really difficult to follow or remember. All of these were collected in the 1988 book The Knight and Knave of Swords (#7 in continuity).

So on close analysis, part of my normal thesis about pulp-fiction doesn't actually hold up -- it's not so much that the stories uniformly turn longer-form over time and get more bloated (the median page count actually stays at an identical 26 pages through the decades of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, dips to 15 in the 1970s, and then rises to 49 only in the 1980s). It's more that from time to time throughout the years, Lieber tried his hand at longer-form stories, and regardless of the publishing era, it is these stories that I found to be more plodding, challenging, and hard to remember afterward (including the very first pieces of written work "Adept's Gambit" published in 1947, "Lords of Quarmall" published in 1964, along with the later works "Rime Isle" and "Mouser Goes Below" written in the 70's and 80's).

Let's set aside the fact that, to a certain degree, Lieber went down the "re-order continuity and write some origin prequels" path (for a far more outrageous example: see Moorcock). There are really two major tonal changes that occur in the stories of the mid-1970's that gave me the feeling of the series precipitously falling out of its chair. These are the following:

On-Stage Appearance of the Gods. Prior to 1975, the gods never made physical appearance in the Lankhmar stories. While there are a legion of priests swarming the streets of the city and making a riotous noise to the gods in Lankhmar (detailed in stories such as "Lean Times in Lankhmar"), not a single one of them has magical powers, and to my reading they are clearly amusing showmen, charlatans, and frauds. Famously, Fafhrd is mistaken for the god Issek after being shaved, going on a drunken rampage, and miraculously shaking off a series of attackers' weapons (having been sabotaged in advance by the Mouser). If incidents such as this serve as the basis for the other of Lankhmar's various gods, then clearly the situation is not good for them -- and that's very much in the tradition of other works of pulp fiction being generally skeptical or dismissive of the nature of the church or religious men. The gods of early Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser are ambiguous in stature, quite probably just the product of con-men and/or delusions.

A prime example is in the first-published story, "Jewels in the Forest". A holy man follows F&GM into a dungeon-like structure, waving protective signs in the air. He declares: "For forty years I have lived on crusts and water, devoting my spirit to the Great God... My purpose in coming here is to destroy an evil thing... no harm can befall me. The hand of the Great God is poised above me, ready to ward off any danger that may threaten his faithful servant...!" -- and exactly one page later he is, ironically and unceremoniously, very dead. (As an aside, this 1939 story is otherwise fantastic and possibly the most thoroughly D&D-ish piece of writing that I've ever encountered.)

But: This changes dramatically with the 1975 short story "Under the Thumbs of the Gods". I was really rather shocked when the first page of this story introduces the "Land of the Gods" and a host of inhabitant deities bumping into each other and interacting, in particular the trio Kos, Issek, and Mog. The first two represent entities that Fafhrd had served or at least sworn idle oaths to in the past. The third is a spider-god with a rather ridiculous retcon of a back-story in that the Mouser had worshiped an idol of it to get in the graces of his first love -- ridiculous because in all the prior literature Mouser had been fervently and even exasperatingly skeptic and atheist. From this point forward, the gods routinely meddle in their affairs and curse them with a number of distracting ailments (up to and including permanent disfigurement). I was just really surprised by this total reversal in theme.

Settling on Rime Isle. The 1976 novelette "The Frost Monstreme" opens with the pair in their customary tavern:
Fafhrd shook his head morosely. 'We've never really lived. We've not owned land. We've not led men.'

'Fafhrd, you're gloomy-drunk!' the Mouser chortled. 'Would you be a farmer? Have you forgot a captain is the prisoner of his command? Here, drink yourself sober, or at least glad.'

The Northerner let his cup be refilled from two jars, but did not change his mood. Staring unhappily, he continued, 'We've neither homes nor wives.'

'Fafhrd, you need a wench!'

Now, when I first read this, I laughed heartily, thinking it to be a very clever anticipation of a classic Seinfeld scene:

Of course, after George & Jerry commit to getting married in a season cliffhanger, by the start of the next season, Jerry has abruptly broken it off with his carbon-copy fiance and returned to being much happier. (For George the problem lingers for a while longer.) So I was guffawing at how obviously identical this outcome would be for the pulp heroes in their analogous scene.

Except that Leiber wasn't really kidding with this exchange. Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser really do proceed within the story to assemble companies of men for them to gravely captain, to enter committed wife-like arrangements with two new women, and to land in permanent homes in the distant and ascetic community of Rime Isle. They will not ever again return to Lankhmar, or the Silver Eel tavern, or see their wizardly mentors Sheelba or Ningauble ever again in any of Leiber's stories.

In accordance with this shift of setting, the themes and tones of the narrative likewise shifts in a fairly dramatic fashion. We switch from Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser being wandering, thieving, active protagonists in the sword-and-sorcery picaresque style, to more responsible, reactionary, defend-the-land-from-invasions heroes, in the high fantasy style. In so doing, they become quite a bit less interesting, and simultaneously become mostly spectators, often saved by some outside phenomenon of which they are simply fortunate to be in the vicinity. To be charitable, we might say that this resembles the D&D tradition of high-level heroes switching to feudal rulership -- which either speaks poorly of its prospects for gaming, or emphasizes that the PCs must still remain the primary actors and not simply be blown around by setting events.

So I would say: If you want to experience Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser as they are usually acclaimed, in their wandering roguish action-packed short stories, stick to the earlier works in the 1st Gollancz collection (books #1-3 in the traditional series, which are generally excellent!), and you can pretty much skip the 2nd collection without missing much of the good stuff (possibly excepting book #4, the novel Swords of Lankhmar). I guess I would have been happy to read those earlier books and left things at that.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Late-Era Lankhmar and Other Pulp Fantasy

Almost exactly one year ago I blogged about reading Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories for the the first time (in the form of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks First Book of Lankhmar). As I wrote them, that piece was devoted to "lavishing praise on a truly excellent piece of art". The responses ranged from agreement to (paraphrasing) "that's about the most obvious thing you can say about D&D literary traditions". What I think we all agree on: it's really terrific.

After that, I proceeded to the Second Book of Lankhmar -- and while it started off well enough, it turned into something of a monumental struggle. I put it down for a while, and came back months later. And put it down and came back again. Finally, recently I picked it up off my bureau and made the final push on my commutes to finish it. About midway through there's an enormous change in theme and tone that made it achingly painful, and confusing, to get through the rest.

Frankly, this is the same observation that I've made about other pulp-era fantasy writers that I've read in depth: in particular, Asimov (in his Foundation stories), Moorcock (with his Elric stories), et. al. My thesis runs like this:
  1. Early pulp-magazine fiction is in the form of short stories, and they are brisk, imaginative, brimming full of creative ideas, action-packed, and exciting.
  2. Decades later, these authors are motivated to return to these properties, now in the form of more marketable full-length novels that will fit on a bookstore's shelves, and then they are bloated, plodding, boring, dumb, and just a real torturous ordeal to get through.
Maybe if someone had taught these writers how to make a transition from one-beat stories (short stories) to multi-beat stories (novel-length), then things would have worked out better. Maybe. But trying to stretch out a one-beat story to novel length is just wretched for this reader. (Compare: Popular New Yorker magazine articles that get re-written as books; fan-favorite SNL sketches that get stretched into feature films; etc.) Also, perhaps half-a-century after their creation, the writer is simply not as interested, not as connected or hungry, or simply not the same person as when the creations were fresh for them. Money incentive aside.

The interesting thing here for me is that it represents an excellent science experiment in things pulp: Were the early creations really better? When we ask the question in terms of D&D or Star Wars, the argument usually gets tangled up in the issue of, "you're just being nostalgic; you don't remember correctly". But obviously in terms of Asimov or Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser I wasn't reading them in the 1940's; I've read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. And once again let me say clearly: The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting. This is not nostalgia speaking on the part of this reader.

If you think about it, why would this not be the case? In some sense the earliest stuff must be of exceptional quality, in order the "break through" into the wider culture and become some kind of phenomenon. But once that "brand" is established, then later works will have a guaranteed group of fans/buyers who will purchase any new release. The quality can really only vary in the downward direction (because the original was so high), and there is little incentive or pressure to do otherwise (because of the established customer base). See also: Stephen J. Gould's book Full House on populations varying away from some limiting wall (upwards or downwards) over time.

More on Wednesday.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Blasters

Blasters! What are they, and how are they used? Do you have to get training or licensed for them? Are they more or less cool than light- or sonic-based swords?

The Star Frontiers Basic Game Rules say this in its basic equipment section:

Laser Pistols fire a pencil-thin beam of intense energy in a burst that lasts only a fraction of a second. Each powerpack contains enough energy for 20 shots. Laser pistols are the most common sidearm on frontier worlds, and are often called "blasters". [SF Basic Game, p. 9]

So by this line, we see that in the Star Frontiers campaign universe, blasters = laser pistols, with their "pencil-thin beam" of light energy. It seems pretty obvious that this was intended to make a mental connection with the popular Star Wars films that had come out in the years immediately prior to the game's publication, where all of the sidearms are referred to as "blasters":

OBI-WAN: Your father's light saber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

HAN SOLO: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

BARTENDER: No blasters! No blasters!

Recall that the blaster-effect in Star Wars isn't exactly "pencil-thin", it's kind of a flying glob about as big as a large man's arm. Anyway, I figured it might be interesting to dig into where the earliest sci-fi conception of a "blaster" comes from, and where better to look than Asimov's Foundation series?

It's certainly the case that the stock sci-fi weapons in Foundation are called "blasters" or "blast pistols":
Toran opened the inner door and closed contact on his blast pistol... He [Pritcher] held his hands apart, "I'm not armed, and I come on a peaceful errand. You might relax and put the blast pistol away."... There was an irresolute silence and then Bayta said, calmly, "Put the blaster away, Toran, and take him at face value. He sounds like the real thing." [Book Two, p. 144]
But what is their effect when fired? Here's one demonstration:
Devers snarled and reached slowly for his own gun. The lieutenant of police smiled more broadly and squeezed the contacts. The blasting line of force struck Devers' chest in an accurate blaze of destruction -- that bounced harmlessly off his personal shield in sparkling spicules of light.

Devers shot in turn, and the lieutenant's head fell from off an upper torso that had disappeared. It was still smiling as it lay in the jag of sunshine which entered through the new-made hole in the wall.

It was through the back entrance that they left. [Book Two, p. 92]
And here's another:
Bayta, face frozen white, lifted her blaster and shot, with an echoing clap of noise. From the waist upward, [X] was not, and a ragged hole was in the wall behind. From numb fingers, Bayta's blaster dropped to the floor. [Book Two, p. 273]

I have to agree with Obi-Wan here -- this is distinctly not "an elegant weapon". While the first example speaks of a "blasting line of force", the end result is tremendously more destructive than anything we see in most sci-fi games or movies -- it wipes out someone's entire torso, leaving limbs and head bouncing separately on the ground, in addition to taking out most of the wall behind them. Or it disintegrates everything on a person above the waist. Stuff like that -- it's freakin' brutal.

Now, of course, when Asimov was writing in the 1940's, lasers didn't exist yet. The first functioning laser was not constructed until 1960 (although theoretical principles do date back to Einstein in 1917; link), and it was only after this point when the "laser" seemed to become the obvious choice of sci-fi armaments. In Foundation, it seems like the "blaster" functions more like a mini-nuclear bomb blast. You can almost see the man-sized mushroom cloud erupting from where a person used to be -- and certainly this is line with Asimov's fetishization of all things atomic-powered at the time.

But we can see that the overall evolution of the device -- from works like Foundation to Star Wars to Star Frontiers, etc. -- is one of radical diminution of the effect, starting from almost complete bodily and area destruction, and ending with a mere "pencil-thin beam" that does some amount of localized harm to the target, all under the same name -- and following the trends of real-world technology of the time.

Can you find any earlier literary examples of "blasters"?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Hyperspace, Pt. 4

Still continuing our investigation of Asimov's Foundation stories and its early precedents for sci-fi hyperspace (with focus on their expression in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks and other beloved works of SF) -- Book Three of the series, Second Foundation, again contains two novellas. The first, now called "Search By the Mule" (the subject of the search being the titular and secretive Second Foundation) was first published as "Now You See It --" in Astounding Magazine in 1948. In this story we get our most extensive view at hyperspace operations within the trilogy, and also commentary on the evolution of the technology over time. First a brief peek:
The Lens was perhaps the newest feature of the interstellar cruisers of the day. Actually, it was a complicated computer which could throw on a screen a reproduction of the night sky as seen from any given point of the Galaxy.

Channis adjusted to co-ordinate points and the wall of lights of the pilot room were extinguished. In the dim red light at the control board of the Lens, Channis' face glowed ruddily. Pritcher sat in the pilot seat, long legs crossed, face lost in the gloom.

Slowly, as the induction period passed, the points of light brightened on the screen. And then they were thick and bright with the generously populated star-groupings nearer the Galaxy's center. [Book Three, p. 29-30]

Before I go on, I have to wonder at why Asimov happened to call this new technology the (capitalized) "Lens". Is it a call-out to E.E. Smith's somewhat earlier Lensman stories which also featured hyperspace travel? Or is it simply in reference to the projected galaxy's disk-shape, which Asimov referred to in an earlier story as the "Galactic Lens"? But let's dig into the several pages of detail on its operation to which Asimov now treats us:
The ship bounded through the Galaxy, its path a widespaced dotted line through the stars. The dots, referred to, were the scant stretches of ten to sixty light-seconds spent in normal space and between them stretched gaps of many parsecs that represented the Jumps through hyperspace.

Bail Channis sat at the control panel of the Lens and felt again the involuntary surge of near-worship at the contemplation of it. He was not a Foundation man and the interplay of forces at the twist of a knob or the breaking of a contact was not second nature to him.

Not that the Lens ought quite to bore even a Foundation man. Within its unbelievably compact body were enough electronic circuits to pinpoint accurately a hundred million separate stars in exact relationship to each other. And as if that were not a feat in itself, it was further capable of translating any given portion of the Galactic Field along any of the three spatial axes or of rotating any portion of the Field about a center.

It was because of that, that the Lens had performed a near-revolution in interstellar travel. In the younger days of interstellar travel, the calculation of each Jump through hyperspace meant any amount of work from a day to a week -- and the larger portion of such work was the more or less precise calculation of "Ship's Position" on the Galactic scale of reference. Essentially that meant the accurate observation of at least three widely-spaced stars, the position of which, with reference to the arbitrary Galactic triple-zero, were known.

And it is the word "known", that is the catch. To any who know the star field from one certain reference point, stars are as individual as people. Jump ten parsecs, however, and not even your own sun is recognizable. It may not even be visible.

The answer was, of course, spectroscopic analysis. For centuries, the main object of interstellar engineering was the analysis of the "light signature" of more and more stars in greater and greater detail. With this, and the growing precision of the Jump itself, standard routes of travel through the Galaxy were adopted and interstellar travel became less of an art and more of a science.

And yet, even under the Foundation with improved computers and a new method of mechanically scanning the star field for a known "light signature", it sometimes took days to locate three stars and then calculate position in regions not previously familiar to the pilot.

It was the Lens that changed all that. For one thing it required only a single known star. For another, even a space tyro such as Channis could operate it.

The nearest sizable star at the moment was Vincetori, according to Jump calculations, and on the visiplate now, a bright star was centered. Channis hoped that it was Vincetori.

The field screen of the Lens was thrown directly next to that of the visiplate and with careful fingers, Channis punched out the co-ordinates of Vincetori. He closed a relay, and the star field sprang to bright view. In it, too, a bright star was centered, but otherwise there seemed no relationship. He adjusted the Lens along the Z-axis and expanded the Field to where the photometer showed both centered stars to be of equal brightness.

Channis looked for a second star, sizably bright, on the visiplate and found one on the field screen to correspond. Slowly, he rotated the screen to similar angular deflection. He twisted his mouth and rejected the result with a grimace. Again he rotated and another bright star was brought into position, and a third. And the he grinned. That did it. Perhaps a specialist with trained relationship perception might have clicked first try, but he'd settle for three.

That was the adjustment. In the final step, the two fields overlapped and merged into a sea of not-quite-rightness. Most of the stars were close doubles. But the fine adjustment did not take long. The double stars melted together, one field remained, and the "Ship's Position" could now be read directly off the dials. The entire procedure had taken less than half an hour. [Book Three, p. 35-38]

Commentary: To start with, I'm unable to resist remarking on the breathless description of the Lens as a device able to "pinpoint accurately a hundred million separate stars... capable of translating any given portion of the Galactic Field along any of the three spatial axes or of rotating any portion of the Field about a center". Obviously, while this was surely an amazing leap of imagination to 1940's readers, this could be a free app on any pocket smartphone today. (Think about what that says about our advances in computing technology -- outstripping Asimov's view of a 50,000-year future in less than a century.) Easy guess: I'm sure if this were included in a Hollywood film today, then control of the Lens would be depicted not by "knob... contact... visiplate" but by the standard "holo-view floating touchscreen" effect that's been part of every sci-fi movie since Minority Report, it seems.

One great thing about this passage is that the traditional time for computing interstellar jumps is absolutely identical to that found in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. From Second Foundation above: "In the younger days of interstellar travel, the calculation of each Jump through hyperspace meant any amount of work from a day to a week". In the Star Frontiers game: all established routes are from 4 to 14 light-years, i.e., days of travel time (SF Alpha Dawn p. 51). So that's interesting, but the rationale given above of hunting stars wouldn't apply, I think, because in the Frontier only 20 known routes exist, and you'd always know where you were and what the closest stars were (excepting perhaps misjumps to unknown systems, but that's not the standard situation).

Of course, the upthrust of this passage from "Search by the Mule" is that the time spent on search-calculations has been radically reduced to only about 30 minutes for a fairly inexperienced user like Channis. Part of the explanation here is the "growing precision of the Jump itself". But does this indicate some irreducibly random element on even the best jumps, or simply an improvement in the preparatory calculations?

The other novella in Second Foundation, "Search by the Foundation" (originally "-- And Now You Don't" when presented in 1950) has just a few tidbits on interstellar travel, such as a restatement of the internal experience, and the fact that even with excellent charts, some calculations are still needed:
... she met the initial acceleration with equanimity and the more subtle nausea that accompanied the insideoutness of the first jump through hyperspace with stocism. [Book Three, p. 155]

The calculations were not difficult. The "Space Route Handbook" was quite explicit on the Foundation-Kalgan route. There was the momentary twitch of the timeless passage through hyperspace and the final light-year dropped away. [Book Three, p. 161]

Finally, there is a scene describing a major spacefleet battle which turns on an apparently novel tactic: half of the Foundation fleet lures an opposing navy into a predetermined sector of space, at which point the other half of the force performs a hyperspace jump into the rear of the enemy, and thus devastate them from an undefended direction. So apparently a hyperspace jump is now (perhaps for the first time?) accurate enough to succeed at that, at least from a relatively short distance away, and with some precise pre-planning as to time and location. [Book Three, p. 239-243]

So I think that concludes our monograph on Asimovian hyperspace and the connection points it has to the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. The limitation options for narrative/gameplay purposes seem to be: (1) requiring days of advance time for calculating a jump, (2) not being able to jump from the vicinity of a large gravitational mass, and (3) needing to achieve a certain base velocity before a jump. Asimov's Foundation series focuses mostly on items #1-2, with a single whisper of a suggestion to #3 (one character mentions "building up take-off speed" in Book Two, p. 226). Niles' Knight Hawks game relies on items #1 and #3, with no mention of #2 -- and likewise disposes of the term "hyperspace" (in favor of "Void"), as well as any special technology for "hyperspace motors".

Much of the language, and interestingly the traditional time frame for the calculations, is identical between the two works. But in general the Asimovian explanation seems not only more widespread in works of SF, but (to put cause after effect) more satisfying and not so self-evidently preposterous. I think if I were to revise the Knight Hawks campaign setting information, then the first and foremost fix that I'd make would be to switch to a more fully Asimovian view of the interstellar travel mechanism.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Hyperspace, Pt. 3

Again, continuing our investigation of Asimov's Foundation stories and its early precedents for sci-fi hyperspace (with focus on their expression in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks and other beloved works of SF) -- The second of Book Two's pair of novellas is titled "The Mule" and it's most commonly people's favorite, including Asimov himself, and probably the best critically reviewed. (Me, I think I like the preceding story "The General" better because of its heroic antagonist and somewhat more epic depiction of a grand space campaign.)

In this story, a small band of Foundation partisans fly around the Galaxy, trying to escape from the mysterious, star-conquering mutant called the Mule, and alternately trying to find some way to defeat him. More than once it repeats the prior story's point that hyperspace jumps are not feasible close in to a planetary mass:
It was when Toran had left [planet] Kalgan sufficiently far in the rear to attempt his first interstellar jump, that Captain Pritcher's face first creased slightly... [Book Two, p. 150]

With cold-eyed calm,  Toran drove a protesting vessel from the vicinity of one star to that of another. If the neighborhood of great mass made an interstellar jump erratic and difficult, it also made the enemy detection devices useless or nearly so... [Book Two, p. 217]

Then we get our longest description to date of the calculation procedure required for interstellar jumps:
The stars begin to cluster closely when the core of the Galaxy is penetrated. Gravitational fields begin to overlap at intensities sufficient to introduce perturbations in an interstellar jump that cannot be overlooked.

Toran became aware of that when a jump landed their ship in the full glare of a red giant which clutched viciously, and whose grip was loosed, then wrenched apart, only after twelve sleepless, soul-battering hours.

With charts limited in scope, and an experience not at all fully developed, either operationally or mathematically, Toran resigned himself to days of careful planning between jumps.

It became a community project of a sort. Ebling Mis checked Toran's mathematics and Bayta tested possible routes, by the various generalized methods, for the presence of real solutions. Even Magnifico was put to work on the calculating machine for routine computations, a type of work, which, once explained, was a source of great amusement to him and at which he was surprisingly proficient.

So at the end of a month, or nearly, Bayta was able to survey the red line that wormed its way through the ship's trimensional model of the Galactic Lens halfway to its center, and say with Satiric relish, "You know what it looks like. It looks like a ten-foot earth-worm with a terrific case of indigestion. Eventually, you'll land us back in Haven."

"I will," growled Toran, with a fierce rustle of his chart, "if you don't shut up."

"And at that," continued Bayta, "there is probably a route right through, straight as a meridian of longitude."

"Yeah? Well, in the first place, dimwit, it probably took five hundred ships five hundred years to work out that route by hit-and-miss, and my lousy half-credit charts don't give it. Besides, maybe those straight routes are a good thing to avoid. They're probably choked up with ships..." [Book Two, p. 221-222]

Most of this scene speaks for itself: The 1940's style approach to solving engineering problems with (rustling) paper charts, various mathematical methods employed by the operators, real-versus-not-real solutions, and simplistic calculating machines (that, apparently, a court jester such as that represented by Magnifico might conceivably use). Again, we see that even in possession of charts (albeit apparently poor ones in this case), the pilot must still perform intricate calculations prior to any jump. The 500-ships-and-years background to developing the navigational charts is interesting. But for our purposes, perhaps the most salient point is that here we see the first note on the time frame for these calculations: "days of careful planning between jumps", which is the same as that used in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. At least for closely-packed star systems near the galactic core -- which itself also matches the SFKH campaign setting (actually the very first thing ever said about the game: "Near the center of a great spiral galaxy, where stars are much closer together than Earth's sun and its neighbors, a Human race developed..."; Star Frontiers Basic Game inside cover).

A little while later, the group debates how it is that the Mule can apparently still be tracking their ship across interstellar space, when after a half-galaxy of flight they still encounter a ship of his men:
"Followed?"  hooted Bayta. "Through hyperspace?"

Ebling Mis interposed wearily, "That can be done -- given a good ship and a great pilot. But the possibility doesn't impress me."

"I haven't been masking my trail," insisted Toran. "I've been building up take-off speed on the straight. A blind man could have calculated our route."

"The blazes he could," cried Bayta. "With the cock-eyed jumps you are making, observing our initial direction doesn't mean a thing. We came out of the jump wrong-end forwards more than once." [Book Two, p. 226]

Now, one significant point here is that apparently one's real-space direction of travel determines the course of one's hyperspace trip, or is at least correlated with it -- not terribly surprising, but nice to have it confirmed here in how the characters discuss possibly being tracked. But the far more intriguing thing is the phrase "building up take-off speed", which is the one and only whisper of a hint in the Foundation stories that one needs to achieve a certain velocity before making a hyperspace jump. If that's correct, then it would in fact give some kind of precedent (perhaps) for the Knight Hawks mechanic of accelerating to a given fixed jump speed (namely 1% of light). Or maybe that was just a sloppy way of referring to the need to get a certain distance away from any large solar or planetary mass -- a point which is made far more clearly and consistently then needing a certain speed. The reader may need to make up his or her own mind on exactly what is being said in this short passage.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Assault Scout Minis

Taking a break this Saturday from the ongoing "Asimov on Hyperspace" series -- it's time to add some Assault Scouts to my growing fleet of kitchen-cast miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. Below I'll brief you on the whole process:

I've got the mold made and now I'm in the kitchen melting the metal on the stove. (Actually, the rubber mold-making process from the original miniature itself takes a day or two, something I'll show another time.) Anyway: Metal bubbling happily on the stove.

It usually takes a few tries with a new mold to get it working right (a combination of metal heat, size of pour-hole connection, and how well I've talcum-powdered it in preparation). This was one of my better molds: pretty quickly I had four assault scout copies, as well as the bases, successfully cast. Below you can see the last one coming out the mold, still stuck to its pourhole: it snaps off nicely at just the right point. I prop up the hot mold to get air underneath and cool it off as much as possible. Old pourhole-sprues are waiting to get dropped back in the melting ladle.

Now I cut off some 2" lengths of wire and grab my "basement box" for the next step. I live on a 3rd-floor apartment, so I need to truck to the cellar and outside to do spray-painting and stuff. In the basement I will: (a) roll out the wire with a block of wood on cement to straighten them out, (b) clean the wire with some rubbing alcohol and a cloth, (c) super-glue the wire into the bases, (d) step outside and prime the ships (gray) & bases (black), (e) repeat a half-hour later, and (f) hope my elderly landlord doesn't throw them out as rubbish while they're drying.

Now I'm painting those assault scouts in my UPF color scheme: navy blue base coat, reflective metallic silver on top. I actually had quite a bit of trouble with this paint job (I redid it at least two or three times) because the small assault scouts have so much less physical detail, I wasn't getting much contrast between base and topcoat -- I was trying to dry-brush them for detail, and they still came out kind of flat. On the other hand, if lots of blue shows through they look battered and clunky and not sleek/fast. So at the end this was the best I could accomplish -- mostly silver all over.

Finally, after drying, they get glued onto the black bases. Not too bad, I don't think -- Sathar beware!