Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer

Robert Heinlein’s The Door into Summer is a time travel SF novel published in 1957.

Syd Logsdon’s recent blog post at A Writing Life got me thinking about it again. One of the stand-out aspects of this novel is the time-travel physics, which is the best thought-out in SF that I can think of. It actually explains why, in a universe with time travel, people are not constantly inundated with throngs of tourists from the future.

But a precis first: The story starts in the future (from the point of view of 1957). The narrator and main character, Dan Davis, is an inventor. In this future society, time travel has not been discovered yet, but suspended animation is well-established, and people can take one-way trips into the future via this method.

Davis and his business partner fall in with a con artist named Belle. She’s vile, but I don’t have space to exposit the details of her perfidy. Long story short, she tricks Davis out of his share of the business, drugs him, and has him involuntarily put into cold sleep for a couple of decades.

There is another element here, a young girl called “Ricky” who doesn’t have much of a responsible adult in her life other than Davis, though they’re not related.

Davis wakes up thirty years in his future and is desperate to go back in time to take care of this child, but of course that’s impossible. Or is it?

Turns out a brilliant physicist has, in fact, proven that “temporal displacement” is possible, and has constructed equipment to move objects through time. The military has classified it and he’s not allowed to talk about it, but it does work, and Davis finds out about it. But there’s a catch. Oh my goodness, there’s a hell of a catch:

Time displacement is subject to quantum indeterminacy. You can decide on the length of your trip… but you can’t control whether you’ll go forward or backward! Want to set the dial for 50 years? Okay! Have fun in 2067… or maybe 1967.

Oh, sweet damn, that’s good. Ponder what Heinlein did here:

First, this is broadly consistent with the way the universe works on the quantum scale. I don’t mean that Heinlein learned quantum physics and worked it all out; I just mean that many quantum-level events have this kind of randomness to them. A given particle has a 50% chance of decaying or not in a certain span of time (its half-life), another particle, moving through a certain experimental apparatus, has a 50% chance of going thisaway and a 50% chance of going thataway, etc., etc. It’s so plausible, at some level, that I feel myself half believing it.

Second, as noted above, it actually explains why people in the fictional universe aren’t constantly inundated with hordes of time tourists. Who’d take this risk?

Third, this time travel physics has excellent dramatic possibilities: If you’re desperate, if you need to go back in time, you could just risk it. Just bite the bullet, push the button, and hope you go in the right direction.


Davis does this, and gets lucky: He gets back into the past. There are some great scenes in which he watches himself get drugged by Belle, etc. At any rate, he gets to solve all his problems and save the girl (and his cat – this is Heinlein after, all). The story is good – I’ve stripped off most of the dramatic turns and emotional hooks for brevity, but I recommend it as entertainment. And I’ve always loved what Heinlein did with the physics.

And there was one cool little moment that popped up in the comments at Logsdon’s site, linked to above:

Davis is talking with the physicist, Twitchell, who had a younger colleague who wanted to chance it. Twitchell recounts to Davis that he demurred at first, but the colleague was insistent, and eventually Twitchell gave in. An adventurous sort, the colleague wasn’t content to take a journey of a few hours; he wanted to be displaced several centuries. So Twitchell sent him on his merry way. Which direction did he go? There’s no way to know. Or is there?

The subject’s name was Leonard Vincent. As he recalls this story, Twitchell says to Davis, “I’ve sometimes thought… no, just a chance similarity in names.”

Davis narrates, “I didn’t ask what he meant by this because I suddenly saw the similarity, too, and my hair stood on end.”

And I just got goose bumps as I recalled this scene, even though I know it’s fictional!

If you don’t catch the reference, think about it, or check out the comments at Logsdon’s site.

Where Have the Guitar Gods Gone?

Inspired by this Washington Post story, blogger Pam Mandel weighs in:

Guitar sales have dropped by a third over the past decade… Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did…

Yeah, I miss the era of the guitar god too, Mandel. But seriously, no mention of Eddie Van Halen? Come on.

She continues:

Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article? Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined… And the forgiving little axe serves well as a stepping stone to the guitar. The next generation of wanna-be guitar gods could well be out there; they’re just taking a different route to blazing, finger-blistering stardom.

I must object that the ukulele just doesn’t have the sheer attitude of the guitar. But maybe the uke is a gateway drug to the axe; that gives hope. And when the guys get older and they realize how much cooler they look slinging a guitar than playing any other instrument, it will pick up. (News flash: 16-year-old boys like to do things that help them get attention from girls.)

And the WaPo article has some more optimistic thoughts later on:

Paul Reed Smith, the Maryland-based guitar designer, says the industry is just now recovering from the recession that struck in 2009. He points to PRS’s sustained revenue — the company says they’re between $42 million and $45 million a year — and an increased demand for guitars.

“This is a very complicated mix of economy versus market, demand versus what products are they putting out…” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you this: You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.”

Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, the biggest and most controversial of the music instrument moguls. When he and a partner bought Gibson in 1986, for just $5 million, the onetime giant was dying.

“It was a failed company that had an iconic name, but it really was on its last legs,” Ash says. “[Juszkiewicz] completely revived the Gibson line.”

Not all is lost!

The acoustic guitar is light and requires no amplifiers or other powered equipment. It’s easy to learn the basic idea of playing it and it’s very versatile. In its electric version it looks damn cool; see foregoing remark about 16-year-old boys. It’s basically the workhorse of popular music in the western world, and for good reason. Thus the quote above, “You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.” So yes, the era of the Guitar God is probably over for good – that era involved technical innovations that were surprising and wickedly cool when they were new, but are now standard technique. But the guitar as an instrument in western music is not going to disappear.

Trailer Idea for The Republic of Thieves

An idea for the start of a movie trailer for Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves:

Exterior shot of hotel. It’s a calm early morning and not much is going on. We hear coughing and retching.

Switch to interior: Man is lying in bed and puking his lungs out into a bowl. Another, rather large, man attends him. Magically, out of thin air, an older woman appears (go nuts with the special effects here to let the audience know this is a fantasy setting).

Sick man: Come to kill me, mage? Too late; I’m already dying.

Woman: My magic can save you. But you have to do me a favor.

Sick man: Yeah? What?

Woman: You’re the best con man in the world… and I need an election fixed.

BOOM! The audience’s attention is now snagged; the rest of the trailer just has to not mess up.

Prince, an appreciation for novices

The musician Prince died recently. As he would have put it, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” A guide for the curious on how to appreciate this guy’s music:

1. Ignore the overhype. The first thing to watch out for, if you’re new to Prince’s music, is the effect of his hard-core fans, the worshipers. I once had a friend compare the Purple One to Mozart. In a word: No. The problem with these people – I love your enthusiasm, guys, it’s charming, but – is that they’re setting you up for disappointment. When you check out Prince’s music and find it’s not Mozart-level, you might become disgusted and think, “It’s all BS.” Actually it’s not all BS, but the problem is that no one could live up to the expectations his hard-cores will set up in your mind, and the disappointment will annoy you.
What Prince actually was, mainly, was a guy who wrote a lot of good pop music. Pop music is its own area of the musical universe, with clear and reasonable standards, and hooray for it. For example, one of its standards is that a person with no formal musical training should be able to enjoy it. I.e., it should be accessible. Hence “pop,” short for “popular.” (I’ve had some musical training and enjoy certain kinds of esoteric music, but that’s not pop’s bailiwick.) Pop music is not, and is not designed to be, artistically brilliant. It is unfair to a pop artist to judge him by the standards of artistic genius.
In this sense, Prince is like a less extreme case of the Beatles. The Beatles were a solid band who wrote some good pop tunes, and good for them. But due to some weird combination of circumstances which I’ve never figured out, they became feted as the best thing to happen to humanity since the taming of fire. Because this assessment is moronic – in fact, a significant chunk of their oeuvre is downright boring – one’s instinctive reaction is, “The Beatles suck!” Well, they don’t totally suck; they did have some good stuff in with the boring stuff. They just fail to live up to the ridiculous hype with which the Baby Boomers surrounded them. No one could live up to that hype. If you’re not acquainted with their music and you give it a listen, after hearing the hype, I guarantee you’ll be underwhelmed. But that’s the hardcore fans’ fault, not the Beatles’. It’s the same with Prince.

2. Guitar skill. While the alleged Eric Clapton quote about Prince being the world’s greatest guitarist is a fabrication, he was pretty good on the axe. For readers who are knowledgeable about the guitar, this will be the pleasant surprise about Prince. Remember how above I said the guy is overhyped? Well, given that, the freakin’ bizarre thing about him is how underhyped his guitar playing was. How do his hard-core fans miss this? Well, maybe they don’t miss it, and I’ve just missed their ranting about it. But seriously, listen to When Doves Cry, the opening measures and a passage from around 3:45 for several measures afterward. (You have to have the full-length version for this; the radio version and the Greatest Hits version are truncated.) I think his image as a pop god caused everyone to overlook his instrumental skill.

3. Eclecticism. E.g., the random Ravi Shankar-like sitar inserted into “7” at random moments. The combination of pure light-pop dance-y numbers like Raspberry Beret and more thematically serious material like Sign O the Times (warning: crack gangs, machine guns).

4. Humor. “‘…’cause if you don’t I’m gonna explode, and girl, I got a lot.” LOL. My understanding of Prince’s music expanded when I realized there was a lot of humor. Once you listen for it, you hear it all the time.

5. Recommended entry points:
Albums: 1999, Purple Rain.
● 1999 (from 1999)
● Little Red Corvette (from 1999. Warning: One line of the lyrics is really gross)
● When Doves Cry (from Purple Rain. Why does When Doves Cry sound, in some undefinable way, different from most other pop songs you’ve ever heard? I’ll put the answer at the end of this post so as to avoid giving it away.)
● The title track from Purple Rain isn’t bad either. What’s that? Did I hear some hardcore in the back shout, “It’s genius, man! It’s genius!” Sit down, fanboy, and catch your breath.
● Thieves in the Temple (from Graffiti Bridge)
● 7 (from the Love Symbol Album)
● Thunder (from Diamonds and Pearls)
● Sign O the Times (from Sign O the Times).
● He also wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, and there are two (at least) performances of it, one by Sinead O’Connor and one by His Purple Majesty himself. Weirdly, O’Connor’s performance is the better, IMHO.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Why does When Doves Cry have a unique sound? The song has no bass line(!), which is very unusual for this kind of song, i.e., an up-tempo Top-40 pop tune from the 1980s. In fact, within that set of songs, it’s probably not just unusual, but unique. Apparently Prince let his bass player add a bass line was when the song was played live, but why? The song hit #1 without any bass! Give the people what they want! And let the bassist go grab a beer!

Weird guy doesn’t like science fiction

I once happened across an essay by a Hank Parnell (“The Inadequacy of Science Fiction,” 5/05/02, The Texas Mercury)), who took the delightfully weird position of being against science fiction. Imagine having a position one way or the other on science fiction; it’s like being pro-Wednesday or anti-beige. Parnell’s strange piece inspires a few remarks.

One, he’s upset that SF isn’t obsessed with death:

“Life, as the ancients knew, is inherently tragic, for we all must suffer and inevitably die. Yet death in science fiction is invariably a sort of martyrdom, when it is not cheated outright: an ersatz immortality. Science fiction is preoccupied with things that ‘are not and work not’…”

Jeez, Parnell, if you’re obsessed with death, er, have fun with that. Most of us aren’t, and most literature, SF or otherwise, isn’t.

Two, Parnell gets his own analytical perspective, Christianity, wrong. He says that the goal of Christians is to be sinless: “To a Christian, a life without sin grants the believer a moral superiority.” Say what? The point of Christianity is that you can’t avoid being sinful and you need God and/or Jesus to bail your ass out. Just FYI. If you weren’t copied on the memo please contact the system administrator; she’ll put you on the list.

Three, he buys into the common and oft-refuted error that the purpose of SF is to predict the future; he slags it for rarely accurately doing so:

“The second greatest inadequacy of science fiction is the limitations of human imagination and knowledge; and to state that human imagination and knowledge have no limits, as most SF writers/readers will [HUH?]… is to reference my first objection to science fiction. In truth, we don’t know what alien beings, if there are such, would really be like, no more than we can know what our own world will be like 10 years from now, to say nothing of a hundred.”

Of course. That’s why it’s called science fiction.

“…the flux of human culture and technological innovation is such that the world of tomorrow would bear little resemblance to the world of today.”

Quite. That’s the entire point of SF.

“A related inadequacy is science fiction’s reliance on gimmicks. A traditional SF story is a gimmick story. Roads that roll, humans that change sex from male to female and back, robots with ‘positronic brains’ – the heart of the story is the exploitation of a gimmick.”

Parnell, you can’t really slag SF writers for not paying enough attention to technological change, and then slag them for writing stories that assume technological change. And if you’re going to be wrong, at least be original. SF authors don’t try to predict the future, as many people outside SF have mistakenly thought. The point is to explore a large set of possible futures. And cultures, human and alien. And political changes associated with technological changes. Etc. A good example of this last appears in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting: organ donor technology is so cheap and reliable that voters have an incentive to implement the death penalty for, e.g., jaywalking… so they can harvest the jaywalker’s organs and thus potentially extend their own lives.

But after all this it occurred to me that maybe Parnell isn’t serious. Perhaps this essay is just an act of semantic Da-Daism. Lord knows it’s weird enough. If so, I like it. In fact I wish I’d thought of it first, and I’m joining in now. I’m hereby making it known that I’m against A-flat. Join me, brothers, in the struggle against this imperialist, high-calorie musical note! Down with A-flat!! Down with A-flat!!

Album review: Steve Vai’s Flex-able

First in an occasional series.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Vai eventually became prominent as the guitarist on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile, where Vai came out blazing. On tracks like the hilariously-titled Shy Boy (David Lee Roth? Seriously?), the notes fly out of the fretboard at about 800 per second. But hard-rockin’ though that album is, DLR was essentially a one-thing act; he wanted to do hard rock and nothing but hard rock. And that’s cool. That’s great. But. Vai evidently had broader goals, a fact that had been displayed on his earlier solo album Flex-able, an uneven but ultimately worthwhile pastiche of, uh, everything.

This is a time capsule from the era of the Guitar God [1978 (Van Halen’s first album) – circa 1993, requiescat in pace] and it exhibits most of the virtues and vices of that era. The guitar technique can be very impressive, prompting one to blurt, “How does he do that!?” But from a musical perspective it often makes one ask, “Um…why did he do that?” The ugly and pointless There’s Something Dead in Here is a good example.

Music qua music is the main stumbling block here. Some tracks, like Next Stop Earth, are just technique for the sake of technique. On the other hand, Viv Woman is a classic 4/4 blast with the distortion knob turned all the way up, and it rocks. And Burning Down the Mountain and Call it Sleep also use simple themes, but are melodically pretty, which is ultimately the whole point.

When Vai ventures into songs – as opposed to instrumentals – he often founders, at least when he tries to be serious, as with The Boy/Girl Song and Junkie. There aren’t enough departures from the cliches to convey anything but triteness. (Boys and girls often find each other exasperating! Who knew!?) But when he tosses away the attempts to be profound, and just has fun, he creates amusing confections like Little Green Men and So Happy.

Little Green Men about four-foot-two
Maybe they want to mate with you

Little Green Men about four foot
Maybe they want to kick some butt.

The governments of the world are very good at concealing the presence of these little visitors… until we are ready to enter the Age of Light Without Heat.

All of this diverting silliness occurring with interesting guitar noises in the background. Vai’s most entertaining when he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The track So Happy is pure showing off, but fun due to the novelty. The piece begins with a woman speaking about a how nice it would be if everyone could be happy all the time. A minute in, Vai starts matching her, perfectly, on the guitar. Even my son, who is in grade school and knows nothing about the guitar, exclaimed, “How does he do that?” I would love to send this track back in time to before the Guitar God era, say 1955, and watch the expressions on people’s faces.

Overall, you should definitely own this album if you (1) are interested in the guitar and the history of innovation with the instrument, or (2) have eclectic musical tastes, as this album has a little of everything.

Why you should write that novel now

At some point in the future humanity will fragment as it heads out to the stars in different directions. Our descendants will have the ability to take everything that can be encoded into ones and zeros with them. But as they get farther from each other communication will diminish. If we’re 100 light-years apart, two-way communication takes 200 years. If our successors upload themselves, as is more or less inevitable sooner or later, and then crank up the speed on the hardware they’re running on, it will seem longer. If they think a million times faster than us – and that’s a very conservative forecast – 200 years will seem like 200 million years to them. Also, as the distance rises, the power required to get a message across the distance rises. And the uncertainty about whether there’s anyone still at the other end and where exactly they are rises… etc. So inevitably, communication will stop.

A thousand years from now, a work of art created at point A will never be appreciated 100 light-years away at point B.

Those of us in the here and now are wonderfully lucky. We have an opportunity the vast majority of those who come after us will never have: the opportunity to create things that will be part of the memetic heritage of all our descendants.