I got to thinking about taboos in Science Fiction recently. Not the sort that SF has so famously challenged, starting with Stranger in a Strange Land and Dangerous Visions back in the Sixties. That’s become so mainstream that I can hardly think of a taboo that Game of Thrones didn’t break. I’m thinking of the new taboos that authors invent to add depth to their worlds.
The news this week that Tim Berners-Lee sold an NFT of the source code to the first web server sent me searching through my archives. Yep, I have a copy of the source code only slightly later than the version that was just sold (unsigned, of course). You see, when I worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a colleague came back from a visit to CERN with a copy of Tim’s web server on a tape. Soon it was running on the VM mainframe at SLAC that my team managed, the first web server outside of Europe. One of the first things it served was a connection to the Physics Preprints database, which has evolved into today’s well-known ArXive database of scientific articles (housed at Cornell where I work today).
We get to talking about fireflies. My wife remembers the ones in Japan, which come out in the thousands for just a week in mid-June. They’re larger than New York fireflies, and they hover in the creekbeds, gradually rising higher as the night gets darker. In contrast, ours hang out in the trees and grasses, and are active for four to five weeks from mid-June to mid-July, far longer than the short-lived Japanese hotaru (ホタル).
About a week ago, I packed up everything from my office at Cornell University and brought it home. No, I didn’t retire or quit or anything like that. After fifteen months of pandemic, working at home has became the new normal. Leadership decided that our department along with several others will pioneer a new hybrid workplace. Most of the IT staff will work at home and our building will be remodeled as meeting rooms, teamwork spaces, and Zoom rooms. It will be more like a conference center than a traditional office building.
I’ve recently read three hard science fiction tales set in near-present time, centered around an existential threat to Earth, and featured a desperate space flight to seek a salvation. Those three were The Hail Mary Project by Andy Weir, We Are Legion by Dennis Taylor, and The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal.
When the protagonist of Knots walked through a fold in the world into a alternate land, it seemed only natural that he would be befriended by a talking cat. Trefoil was only a walk-on character at first, but quickly became a central part of the narrative. I dedicated the book to the cats who kept me company while writing.
In Stellar Horizons, you build your own space program and advance out into the solar system, first tentatively with fragile robotic orbiters and rovers. With each success or failure you slowly gather scientific data and technical experience and move to more and more sophisticated crewed ships, and then bases, perhaps first on the moon, and then other planets.
It’s finally showing signs of spring here in Upstate New York, even though friends from warmer climates have been posting pictures of blossoms for many weeks now. The Ume trees are the first to burst forth (their cousins in Japan have been out for a couple of months now and are already producing fruit.)
After finishing the excellent (but long and relentless) Otherland series, I was in the mood for something lighter, so I picked out some stories in a more humorous vein. I came up with three that satisfied the need, and reviewed them below. It started me thinking about how they used humor in different ways.
I’ve used a lot of aphorisms in my career, short sayings to make a point. Some of my favorites were:
Sufficient unto the day are the meetings thereof
Cheap hardware isn’t
Anything can be accomplished given sufficient caffeine
To explain simply, understand deeply