The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, September 17, 2003


The Declarer Book Club

Last Saturday while in Eureka I shopped at two used bookstores and scored no fewer than seven used books. (Small California tourist towns have fantastic used bookstores.) One of them was Asimov on Chemistry, a collection of essays by the master of science writing. (I can offer no better praise than the review quoted on the back: "Any book that starts with the words 'Asimov on' is a book which will instruct.")

Asimov was a wonderful science and science fiction writer. In addition, his Foundation Trilogy is one of the greatest mystery novels ever written. But when reading his works, I am always struck by how totalitarian Asimov was. I don't mean totalitarian in the boot-on-a-human-face-forever variety -- I'll get to one of those in a minute -- but rather that Asimov always envisioned real and fictional societies as driven by a single will, by a brilliant and powerful person or conspiracy of persons.

Asmov's totalitarianism resulted in some rather silly assumptions about politics and economics. Examples from the Foundation series: The traders are not independent agents, but rather salesman working on quota. Now why on Earth -- or in the heavens -- would people travelling to barely known regions for months at a time work that way? The plutocrat Hober Mallow uses his factories to combat the Foundation's state-sponsored religion:


And there isn't a factory ... that isn't under my control; that I couldn't squeeze to nothing, if Sutt attempts revolutionary propaganda. Where his propaganda succeeds ... I will make certain that prosperity dies.


Pretty damn smart of Mallow, to gain control of every factory in the Foundation! And how unenterprising of other industrial magnates not to step in and sell their products where Mallow boycotts.

Another example, from my new Asimov on Chemistry book, is from an essay on gases with low boiling points. Asimov describes the strange properties of helium, which include the facilitation of superconductivity in certain metals. This statement, from 1960, is worth a smirk:


Properly manipulated, such a "cryotron" [tantalum wrapped around niobium, immersed in liquid helium] can be used to replace vacuum tubes or transistors. ... a giant computing machine of the future may well be desk-sized or less if it is entirely "cryotronized".


But then Asimov goes off the deep end. He calculates the amount of helium present on Earth, notes that it is in short supply, and proposes that we obtain helium from Jupiter. A base on Jupiter V -- I think this is the small moon Amalthea -- can scoop up helium that escapes from nearby Jupiter. Asimov has no use for a bunch of individuals with computers; he proposes that all computers be built on Amalthea, to create "the nerve center of the solar system."

Asimov's reasoning is that this would save the expense of transporting the helium back to Earth. Well, yes, but sending the helium back here avoids transporting a slew of computers to Amalthea, along with tons of lead to shield the computers from Jupiter's lethal radiation. It also avoids speed of light delays, which will make you wait for several hours to find out which 40-year-old-pitcher has the highest batting average. In fact, maybe you could just seal the fucking computer chassis real good so they don't leak any helium.

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I bought another wonderful book that I had been seeking for several years: William Shirer's Berlin Diary. Shirer, author of the classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, was an American correspondent in pre-war Austria and Nazi Germany. Berlin Diary is his diary from 1934 through 1941. I am now reading the entries from the early part of World War II. Like any decent human being, Shirer was nauseated and terrified by the victories of Hitler over the free world.

Decent human beings were a minority in Shirer's environs. Here is a memorable passage from time of the Anschluss (Germany's forcible union with Austria):


Back to the [Cafe] Louvre. ... Emil Maass, my former assistant, an Austro-American, struts in, stops before the table. "Well, meine Damen und Herren," he smirks, "it was about time." And he turns over his coat lapel, unpins his hidden Swastika button, and repins it on the outside over the buttonhole. Two or three women shriek: "Shame!" at him.


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