How To Make Your Kid Grow Up Like Me

The other day, I realised I could only remember two of the kids' science fiction series that shaped my young mind.

First and foremost, beyond question, were the Danny Dunn books.

I loved them, not least because they made a solid attempt at getting the physics right.


When people get shrunk to the size of ants in practically any other sci-fi or fantasy story you care to name, they carry on with their lives more or less as normal in their scary new world of bus-sized cockroaches and bean-bag-sized blood cells, or whatever.

Which is wrong, for the same reason that it's wrong that Superman is so often able to take a firm grip of one end of a battleship or something and lift it bodily out of the water.

We can accept that normal physics doesn't apply to Superman himself, just as we can accept that absent-minded Professor Bullfinch in Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine has indeed managed to construct the eponymous Machine. But Superman doesn't magically make the battleship as tough as he is just by laying hands on it. The ship is still subject to normal physics, so when Clark grabs and lifts he should end up with two large handfuls of torn steel, and look like an idiot.

(Image Comics did this right at one point, with the new and clueless Mighty Man trying to lift a car by the bumper and, of course, just ripping the bumper off.)

Anyway, when Danny and company get shrunk, they find they can't walk any more. Because, of course, the acceleration due to gravity is still 9.8 metres per second squared, and if you're scaled down to a thousandth of what you were, that now looks like 9.8 kilometres per second squared.

So if you're standing up and tilt slightly forward with the intention of starting to walk, BANG you're on the ground. Just like an ant would be, if it tried to stand on its hind legs.

You suffer no damage, since scaling down makes you tougher in scale terms, but bipedal locomotion is completely out of the question unless your body and consciousness are accelerated by the same factor by which they've been shrunk.

Which, in the Dunn stories and in all of the crappy Incredible Voyage/Honey I Screwed Up The Physics Hollywood versions, they never have been.

So there.

(Warning! This sort of thing can lead to long conversations later in life about the stability of the Ringworld, which is even worse than prolonged Monty Python quoting when you're at a party and should be meeting girls.)

The other sci-fi(ish) series I could remember was Norman Hunter's immortal Professor Branestawm series, which takes a lot more liberties with physics but is plainly doing so in the service of humour. Branestawm is more of a wizard than a professor; he'd be perfectly at home in Unseen University.

(The Branestawm books, or at least the good editions of them, were also illustrated by nobody less than W. Heath Robinson!)

There was another series, though, that I just couldn't pin down. I could remember it featured a family adventuring around the galaxy in an old spaceship, with memory implanting machines to school the kids, and the spaceship needed its engines de-coked in at least one book... nope, no useful search strings arising from those memories.

(I include them here so that now someone who can only remember the de-coking, or indeed decoking, or decoked or decoke or coke engines spaceship books, will find this post.)

Anyway, considerable Google-bashing finally reminded me that those books were the Dragonfall 5 (or indeed but incorrectly Dragonfall Five, frustrated searchers!) series.

All three of these series are significantly dated these days, but I think that, in itself, has more educational value for the kind of nine-year-old who'll find them interesting. They're all out of print, too, but seem pretty easy to find on the used market, and should be available from any half-decent library.

We'll always have that bit where the giant whelk eats her rapist.

It sucks when you like someone's artistic work and then find out that they're a jackass.

Piracy helps, of course. If you just can't stomach making some mad religious bigot richer every time you see one of his movies or listen to one of his albums - rip 'em off!

That's harder with books. I suppose you can do it if you buy them second hand, but that can be tricky for books that are (a) recent and (b) not rubbish.

I was all set, you see, to write a happy clappy post about how much I've enjoyed a couple of Neal Asher books.

Neal, I presume, wanted to tell some bloodcurdling tales of the sea. But nothing that's ever happened on any sea here could possibly be bloodcurdling enough for him, so he invented a planet, "Spatterjay".

Spatterjay's fauna is almost constantly brutally violent, its human inhabitants get tougher and tougher as they get older and older (and older...), and all sorts of entertaining things happen there. Plankton that eats people, people that don't die even when they've been eaten, treacherous alien slavemaster crabs, cybernetically animated corpses, giant robot pterodactyls...

It goes on. It's a lot of fun.

I've only read a couple of Ashers so far. "The Skinner" was the first one set on Spatterjay, then came "The Voyage of the Sable Keech", which isn't as good (and doesn't seem to have been nearly as well proofread...), but is still a rollicking old tale of blood, guts and hundred-ton-sentient-mollusc rape.

Then I noticed that Neal Asher has a blog.

And everything went downhill.

Look, if you can be coherent about your bitter right-wing realpolitik throat-slitting, I'll read it with a song in my heart and a smirk on my face. But if you keep trotting out arguments that I could see didn't work when I was using FidoNet at the age of 16, you're letting the free speech side down.

Neal reckons that it's bad that governments want to tell us what to do, but we should definitely let them kill us. Before we're convicted, if at all possible.

He doesn't know much about climate change (what a shame there isn't someone you can ask!) but he does know it isn't happening and if it is then it doesn't matter and if it does then it's not our fault and if it is then there's nothing we can do.

And then, there's this.

It's not that he says things I disagree with. He says many things with which I agree. It just seems that he doesn't think too hard about anything he says, and I don't like encouraging that sort of thing by helping to make his books bestsellers.

I don't ask for much from the authors I like. A bit of coherent thought now and then, an affection for orangutans, a few obscure references to Tony Hancock, a recognition that AK-47s for everybody is not necessarily a great way to run a railroad.

Or, of course, just telling your adoring fans to bugger off while you write another vast tome involving hot-swappable mistresses.

That'll do.

Neal Asher does not make the cut.

I propose that the sci-fi-writer version of this Creative Jackass Syndrome be referred to as The Orson Scott Card Problem.

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