Books by Flynn, Michael

Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

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