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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reading List: Empire

Card, Orson Scott. Empire. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31611-0.
I first heard of this novel in an Instapundit podcast interview with the author, with whom I was familiar, having read and admired Ender's Game when it first appeared in 1977 as a novelette in Analog (it was later expanded and published as a novel in 1985) and several of his books since then. I'd always pigeonholed him as a science fictioneer, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that his latest effort was a techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy vein, with the flabbergasting premise of a near future American civil war pitting the conservative “red states” against the liberal “blue states”. The interview, which largely stayed away from the book, was interesting and since I'd never felt let down by any of Card's previous work (although none of it that I'd read seemed to come up to the level of Ender's Game, but then I've read only a fraction of his prolific output), I decided to give it a try.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The story is set in the very near future: a Republican president detested by the left and reviled in the media is in the White House, the Republican nomination for his successor is a toss-up, and a ruthless woman is the Democratic front-runner. In fact, unless this is an alternative universe with a different calendar, we can identify the year as 2008, since that's the only presidential election year on which June 13th falls on a Friday until 2036, by which date it's unlikely Bill O'Reilly will still be on the air.

The book starts out with a bang and proceeds as a tautly-plotted, edge of the seat thriller which I found more compelling than any of Clancy's recent doorstop specials. Then, halfway through chapter 11, things go all weird. It's like the author was holding his breath and chanting the mantra “no science fiction—no science fiction” and then just couldn't take it any more, explosively exhaled, drew a deep breath, and furiously started pounding the keys. (This is not, in fact, what happened, but we don't find that out until the end material, which I'll describe below.) Anyway, everything is developing as a near-future thriller combined with a “who do you trust” story of intrigue, and then suddenly, on p. 157, our heroes run into two-legged robotic Star Wars-like imperial walkers on the streets of Manhattan and, before long, storm troopers in space helmets and body armour, death rays that shoot down fighter jets, and later, “hovercycles”—yikes.

We eventually end up at a Bond villain redoubt in Washington State built by a mad collectivist billionaire clearly patterned on George Soros, for a final battle in which a small band of former Special Ops heroes take on all of the villains and their futuristic weaponry by grit and guile. If you like this kind of stuff, you'll probably like this. The author lost me with the imperial walkers, and it has nothing to do with my last name, or my anarchist proclivities.

May we do a little physics here? Let's take a closer look at the lair of the evil genius, hidden under a reservoir formed by a boondoggle hydroelectric dam “near Highway 12 between Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier” (p. 350). We're told (p. 282) that the entry to the facility is hidden beneath the surface of the lake formed in a canyon behind a dam, and access to it is provided by pumping water from the lake to another, smaller lake in an adjacent canyon. The smaller lake is said to be two miles long, and exposing the entrance to the rebels' headquarters causes the water to rise fifteen feet in that lake. The width of the smaller lake is never given, but most of the natural lakes in that region seem to be long and skinny, so let's guess it's only a tenth as wide as it is long, or about 300 yards wide. The smaller lake is said to be above the lake which conceals the entrance, so to expose the door would require pumping a chunk of water we can roughly estimate (assuming the canyon is rectangular) at 2 miles by 300 yards by fifteen feet. Transforming all of these imperial (there's that word again!) measures into something comprehensible, we can compute the volume of water as about 4 million cubic metres or, as the boots on the ground would probably put it, about a billion gallons. This is a lot of water.

A cubic metre of water weighs 1000 kg, or a metric ton, so in order to expose the door, the villains would have to pump 4 billion kilograms of water uphill at least 15 feet (because the smaller lake is sufficiently above the facility to allow it to be flooded [p. 308] it would almost certainly be much more, but let's be conservative)—call it 5 metres. Now the energy required to raise this quantity of water 5 metres against the Earth's gravitation is just the product of the mass (4 billion kilograms), the distance (5 metres), and gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s², which works out to about 200 billion joules, or 54 megawatt-hours. If the height difference were double our estimate, double these numbers. Now to pump all of that water uphill in, say, half an hour (which seems longer than the interval in which it happens on pp. 288–308) will require about 100 megawatts of power, and that's assuming the pumps are 100% efficient and there are no frictional losses in the pipes. Where does the power come from? It can't come from the hydroelectric dam, since in order to generate the power to pump the water, you'd need to run a comparable amount of water through the dam's turbines (less because the drop would be greater, but then you have to figure in the efficiency of the turbines and generators, which is about 80%), and we've already been told that dumping the water over the dam would flood communities in the valley floor. If they could store the energy from letting the water back into the lower lake, then they could re-use it (less losses) to pump it back uphill again, but there's no way to store anything like that kind of energy—in fact, pumping water uphill and releasing it through turbines is the only practical way to store large quantities of electricity, and once the water is in the lower lake, there's no place to put the power. We've already established that there are no heavy duty power lines running to the area, as that would be immediately suspicious (of course, it's also suspicious that there aren't high tension lines running from what's supposed to be a hydroelectric dam, but that's another matter). And if the evil genius had invented a way to efficiently store and release power on that scale, he wouldn't need to start a civil war—he could just about buy the government with the proceeds from such an invention.

Spoilers end here.  
Call me picky—“You're picky!”—feel better now?—but I just cannot let this go unremarked. On p. 248, one character likens another to Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. But it's spelt “Hari Selden”, and it's not a typo because the name is given the same wrong way three times on the same page! Now I'd excuse such a goof by a thriller scribbler recalling science fiction he'd read as a kid, but this guy is a distinguished science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Awardfour times, and this book is published by Tor Books, the pre-eminent specialist science fiction press; don't they have an editor on staff who's familiar with one of the universally acknowledged classics of the genre and winner of the unique Hugo for Best All-Time Series?

One becomes accustomed to low expectations for science fiction novel cover art, but expects a slightly higher standard for techno-thrillers. The image on the dust jacket has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any scene in the book. It looks like a re-mix of several thriller covers chosen at random.

It is only on p. 341, in the afterword, that we learn this novel was commissioned as part of a project to create an “entertainment franchise”, and on p. 349, in the acknowledgements, that this is, in fact, the scenario of a video game already under development when the author joined the team. Frankly, it shows. As befits the founding document of an “entertainment franchise” the story ends setting the stage for the sequel, although at least to this reader, the plot for the first third of that work seems transparently obvious, but then Card is a master of the gob smack switcheroo, as the present work demonstrates. In any case, what we have here appears to be Volume One of a series of alternative future political/military novels like Allen Drury's Advise and Consent series. While that novel won a Pulitzer Prize, the sequels rapidly degenerated into shrill right-wing screeds. In Empire Card is reasonably even-handed, although his heterodox personal views are apparent. I hope the inevitable sequels come up to that standard, but I doubt I'll be reading them.

Posted at January 27, 2007 22:23