Second Time Around

I just finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After watching the sixth film I was left with a nagging feeling that some crucial plot points had been left out, so I had to go back and check. As with many good books, once I started I couldn’t stop. I was wrong; the plot points they left out weren’t exactly crucial, they just happened to be my favorite part of the story.

Warning: Spoilers for Prince and Hallows follow.
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Lunar Stories

I recently read three excellent books: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. In each case, this was my first exposure to the author’s work, and in each case I was thoroughly impressed. Each author has a powerful and distinctive voice; I will not soon confuse these books with anything else I have read. Fahrenheit in particular I recommend to anyone, regardless of their interest in science fiction, for its prose that develops in style and complexity parallel to the story and the protagonist. It’s a shockingly effective technique.

I was more interested, however, in the similarities between Heinlein’s Moon and the middle portion of Clarke’s 2001. Each carefully considers life on the lunar surface, and they reach similar conclusions on many points. There may have been some influence, but with Heinlein’s book released in 1966 and Clarke’s in 1968, the works may be considered contemporary. Naturally, both books make much of the lunar gravity and joke about people trying to descend stairs in 0.17G. Each suggests that we will utilize centripetal force for artificial gravity and extract water from lunar rock. And, most interesting to me, each suggests that the most efficient way to launch people and goods into orbit would be to use a miles-long assisted acceleration ramp. As Heinlein likes to point out, it’s gravitationally uphill to the moon and downhill to Earth. If we’re ever going to build a base on the moon, this seems like a must. I find it amusing than none of NASA’s recent program renovations includes this idea, which is at least half a century old. We certainly have the technology for it, but apparently not the budget.

Each story also considers the future utilization of artificial intelligence, with similar conclusions. In each story, traditional computer architectures have been outstripped by computers modeled on the human brain. In terms of computing power, their estimates are surprisingly accurate: Clarke’s HAL in the year 2001, although vastly powerful, is probably not quite human in terms of intelligence. Heinlein’s Mike from the year 2075 has just become self-aware, but rapidly shows himself to be more intelligent than any of his human companions. With current estimates saying AI and computing power will match human intelligence sometime between 2020 and 2040, these books are very relevant. It’s a humbling thought that we will probably build a moon base and see a computer pass the Turing Test in my lifetime.

That said, the two books have little in common in terms of political views and attitude about humanity. Heinlein is pessimistic (or realistic, depending on who you ask) about human nature and the course of politics, and his book sings the praises of practical Libertarian principles (called “Rational Anarchy” by one of his characters). Clarke is an optimist; he lets humanity get along and be at peace while we explore space, and even assumes we will have grown up enough not to offend an alien intelligence before we’ve sent a human beyond Jupiter. Overall, I think I enjoyed Moon more for its more detailed and realistic vision of the scientific and political implications of living on a different planet. Not to say Clarke isn’t terrific – I just find I enjoy Heinlein for some of the same reasons I enjoy Herbert – his holistic approach to science fiction. Only Heinlein is more relevant, more immediate, and less fantasy (Y’know it takes place in 2075 instead of 10,191).