Monday, July 27, 2009


[The rocket] had passed the transonic speed range and was approaching...10,000 m/sec without incident. Suddenly, the flight path began to fluctuate. Observers later reported that she had yawed to the left and that the contrail behind her fiery jet then became wavy. A few seconds later, the vessel broke apart. the aftermost portion blew up in an explosion whose shock wave was audible at the launching site much later. The smaller forepart of the ship continued upwards on a steep ballistic parabola, passed its maximum ordinate, and fell with still increasing velocity into the sea.
Is it:
A) A particularly vivid account of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?
B) A news story about a troubled Soviet launch?
C) Werner von Braun, trying his hand at a science fiction novel in 1949?

If your answer was C, you win! I'm reading von Braun's Project Mars: A Technical Tale and the first part's not all that bad, especially for the time it was written, though not only is all the math, physics and astronomy right -- as was so proudly said of the crop of hard SF writers who came on the scane about then -- he has a tendency to show his work. In detail. On the other hand, while his assumptions can be broad, there's no accusing him of hand-waving.

His brave astronauts have now landed on Mars and the yarn has turned a bit...philosophical. I'm suspending judgement.

If you ever wondered what was behind the stunning Chesely Bonestell paintings showing an expedition to Mars, this is it -- and the book includes several nicely printed color plates of them.

The book gets savage reviews at Amazon. Dr. von Braun's characters are not that bad, being generally what you get when an engineer or pilot writes writes of his peers; non-technical readers often complain they are lacking in angst-filled depth, not understanding that the drama to be found in technical challenges. (George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral yarns, filled with people just like the ones I work with, have often been so criticized -- "cardboard!'' -- even though he was a working electrical engineer and wrote about the kinds of people he was around every day) . The book suffers from having been written in German and translated by a man who was not, as nearly as I can tell, a writer of fiction. All that said, the first part holds up very well if read as an outline for a film script. It remains to be seen if the finish will be as strong.

No link; if you'd like to buy it, go to Tam's and use her window!


reflectoscope said...

Typical Von Braun, all "Will it go up?" and no "Where will it come down?"



Anonymous said...

Have you seen the youtube vid of the apollo 11 ignition and flight tracking played in slo-mo, set to some BSG soundtrack music?
This is well worth watching full screen with the sound up, just beautiful. I think I played it about a dozen times the first time I saw it, tears in my eye, best thing mankinds ever done.
WvB gets a big big pass from me for being connected to Apollo and the Sat 5.


reflectoscope said...

Likewise for me, don't take me the wrong way.

B said...

Yep, those "cardboard" characters are the real thing, most of the time.

I know, I worked with many and sometimes I are one.

Ian Argent said...

Damn - I need to go and dig out my copy of the complete VE (the ... '74(?) one; it's got the two stories after the shutdown of the station in it.)

I never thought the characters were shallow - perhaps I know too many real people?

Roberta X said...

It seems likely. I was surprised the first time I read that. It convinced me that some critics, even SF critics, were not spending enough time around real techies!

If memory serves (unboxing my library is stuck at the letter "P" until I get the window seat and some more shelves done), The Complete VE has the matter-transmission yarns, including the "tunnel diode" one set very long after the station's shut-down, plus an interesting bit of Smithian space-opera. My copy is a very well-worn paperback -- I should probably be on the qui vive for a backup.

Ian Argent said...

No - I'm sure it has the quantum-gap matter transmission story "External Triangle" and "Identity" (legacy of Hellion Murdoch). I merely couldn't remember the date of publication of the collection I had. Wikipedia to the rescue (I was wrong, it was '76). A couple of the early stories had been lightly edited postWar (mainly to add a completely irrelevant reference to the Smyth report when discussing the station's power source - not nearly as much as "Blowups happen" was edited for the same reasons".) My favorite quote from the series is in Firing Line, when they're discussing the ridiculous charge in Wes Farrel's supercapacitor (13 farads at something like 100 kv; IIRC. Big numbers) and the reaction of the rest of the characters to it.

The cover is currently taped on my copy. And now I REALLY have to get cracking on unpacking the library.