Monday December 19, 2005


Having read some pretty positive reviews, I picked up the trade paperback of Warren Ellis's science fiction comic Ocean last week.  It sounded like an interesting read—it's not a hybrid superhero/SF book like Adam Strange, it's straight-up science fiction—but unfortunately, the science in the science fiction was bad, bad, bad.  I'm willing to play along and suspend my disbelief, and I'm even willing to adjust my suspenders of disbelief to the genre (e.g. I don't complain about the non-silent space ships in Star Wars), but the mistakes in Ocean were so egregious I wanted to throw the book against the wall.  Worse, several of them were linguistic, including linguists' favorite misconception: the number of Eskimo words for snow.

[Warning: spoilers after the jump.  I'm not going to spoil every detail of the story, but I am going to mention the Big Surprise in order to make fun of it.]

In broad outline, the story is this: one hundred years from now, Nathan Kane, a UN weapons inspector, is sent to a space station orbiting Jupiter's moon Europa to investigate a mystery.  Explorers have discovered, deep under the ice that covers Europa's ocean, a bunch of floating billion-year-old sarcophagi containing near-humans in suspended animation...along with other large, mysterious artifacts and what everyone assumes are weapons (although it wasn't clear to me how they came to that conclusion).

There are a lot of scientific howlers in the book, but let's start with the linguistic one.  One of the researchers, John Wells, having managed to make a computer connection with the alien machines, is using a computer program to decipher their language.  Early in the process, he's getting back translations for individual words, but not whole sentences, and he delivers a warning to the station commander, Fadia Aziz:

Wells:  You want to know what really bothers me?  You can tell a lot about a culture from its language.

Aziz:  Go on.  [Wish I could write like that.]

Wells:  I mean, if we were aliens looking at Inuit text here, we'd see that they've got fifty-some different words for snow.  What do we get from that?

Aziz:  It snows a hell of a lot where they come from.  I get that.

Wells:  Get this: so far I've logged a hundred and sixty-three different words for murder.

Yup, the original snowclone raises its ugly head again.  Geoff Pullum must be turning over in, office, I guess.

I've breezed over this part pretty quickly, so let me back up a bit and point out how many different ways it's wrong:

  1. That they've managed to connect to the alien computer at all is absurd.  This is just as dumb an idea now as it was when Jeff Goldblum did it in Independence Day.
  2. Wells is deciphering the language without a bilingual text.  How does that work?  There don't seem to be any pictures or anything to correlate the occurrence of words with.
  3. Actually, they do seem to have two texts to work with: a written text in the alien writing system—I guess the alien operating system stores the fonts in a standard location—and a spoken version of the same text that Wells is lining up with the written version.  The fact that he's able to line up the characters with the spoken text is the only linguistically-plausible part of this mess, given that aliens must have human or near-human vocal tracts.  But he also says this: "Human language comes from twelve root sounds.  Those sounds rely on both the structure of the larynx and atmospheric conditions....the voice track Anna found has those root sounds.  And the computer's matching them to elements of the language characters in the text."  Twelve root sounds?  Where did Ellis get that idea?  (It sounds vaguely like the theories of official Soviet linguist Nikolay Marr—sort of like Lysenko, except with language—who thought that all languages descended from a proto-language with four syllables: sal, ber, yon, and rosh.)
  4. Does it make sense that Wells is getting back individual words rather than whole sentences?  How could you even tell that a word means 'murder' without some context?
  5. At one point, they show a screen of alien text with a few translated words in it, and those words are the, and, and be, which are probably the last words you'd get as you were doing this kind of decipherment.  Although they're high-frequency, they're almost semantically empty—in fact, there are human languages that get by just fine without articles, or without conjunctions, or without a copula.

Now, I don't want to give you the idea that it's only Ellis's linguistics that needs brushing up—oh, no.  Here's a sampling of some offenses against physics:

Early in the story, Aziz takes Kane down to see the sarcophagi in person.  They travel in a thin, disk-shaped spacecraft with a hull made of diamond.  That doesn't bother me—exotic materials in SF stories are all in good fun.  What does bother me is how they reach the Europan ocean, under about fifty (Ellis's number) miles of ice, by flying the ship straight down out of orbit and slicing through the ice.  Apparently, having a super-hard hull lets you hit ice at orbital speeds without getting squashed to jelly by the shock.  I thought that maybe Ellis was assuming some sort of Star Trek-style inertial dampening field—they do have artificial gravity—but later in the story they manage to knock people around on another space station (which also has artificial gravity) by slamming one of the diamond-ships into it.

Later, Kane is describing future handgun technology: "These are designed for use in space.  They have no recoil.  Gas-fired.  So if you're in a zero-gravity situation, firing them won't send you flying backward at seven hundred miles an hour....First time I was one the moon, I had to use a pistol on the surface.  The recoil sent me shooting off at escape velocity.  Moonbase Alpha had to scramble a shuttle to catch me."  Ellis deserves credit for sneaking in a Space: 1999 reference,  Let's break it down:

  1. You can't make a gun that fires bullets without any recoil, regardless of the propellant.  It's called Newton's Third Law of Motion.  Everybody sing along, you know the words: "For every action there is an equal and opposite..."
  2. And why would a "gas-fired" be different from a standard handgun, anyway?  When the charge in a cartridge goes of, it's the expansion of hot gasses that expels the bullet from the barrel, right?
  3. If you're in zero-G and you fire a gun, you wouldn't go flying backwards at the muzzle velocity of the gun.  It's not velocity that's conserved, it's momentum (the product of mass and velocity).  To see how fast you'd be moving, we can apply the back of an envelope:  Let's say you weigh 80 kilograms.  Some Googling says that a 9mm bullet weighs about 8 grams (convenient!) and has a muzzle velocity of about 360 m/s.  The ratio of your velocity to the bullet's velocity should be the same as the ratio of the bullet's weight to your weight.  So, you should move backwards at a velocity ten thousand times slower than the bullet—3.6 centimeters per second.  That's a bit short of escape velocity.
  4. Even if the math had worked out differently, think what it would mean for a handgun to be able to accelerate you to lunar escape velocity.  Talk about a big kick!  Not to mention how silly it would make the Apollo astronauts look for taking that ascent engine with them when all they needed was a couple of pistols...

Finally, at the end of the story, Our Heroes reenter the Earth's atmosphere using one of the diamond-hulled ships for protection, but diamond wouldn't make a very good heat shield.  Some more Googling suggests that the surfaces of the Apollo capsules reached about 2800 degrees Celsius during reentry, but Wikipedia says that diamonds burn at about 800 degrees.  A hard material wouldn't make a good ablative heat shield, either—you want the shield to heat up on the surface, then slough off that hot material, carrying the heat away with it.

As you can probably tell by now, I was disappointed with the science.  The story didn't knock me out, either.  The bad guy is a tissue-thin Evil Corporate Guy who works for the Doors Corporation, "the biggest computer and communications company in existence."  (Get it?  Doors, not Windows.)  See, Doors is so evil that it uses mind control to erase the individuality of its employees and turn them into automatons, but this guy's programming has gone sour and now he's crazy.  (Yeah, that was always happening back when I worked at Microsoft.)

In closing, I'd like to point out that the basic plot of Ocean is, shall we say, strangely familiar.  Let's see, space explorers find frozen coffins full of ancient, evil humanoids who, if awoken, may destroy all life on Earth...Colin Wilson, call your agent!

[Now playing: "Just Got Lucky" by JoBoxers]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I haven't read the series, but the idea of a recoil-less gun isn't entirely absurd. A few of Larry Niven's stories involved a gun that essentially fired small, self-propelled rockets. As long as the back of the gun barrel is open, the reaction will propel the bullet without applying much force to the gun.

It's sad that SF so rarely handles linguistics correctly. Or even plausibly. It's often the same thing with computer security. Whenever someone starts talking about viruses and firewalls, I can only suspend my disbelief if I mentally replace "computer" with "magic box".

Posted by: Dave Menendez at Dec 19, 2005 10:18:04 AM

I haven't read the series, but the idea of a recoil-less gun isn't entirely absurd. A few of Larry Niven's stories involved a gun that essentially fired small, self-propelled rockets. As long as the back of the gun barrel is open, the reaction will propel the bullet without applying much force to the gun.

That's the kind of gun I was trying to exclude by talking about "a gun that fires bullets" (along with lasers and other energy weapons) but I guess I should have been more specific.

The gun in Niven's stories was really produced, by the way. It was called the Gyrojet.

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 19, 2005 12:50:02 PM

Well, you could always make a recoil-less gun by firing two bullets simultaneously in opposite directions. Might render the gun a bit awkward to use safely, though. ;)

Posted by: Scott at Dec 19, 2005 3:12:02 PM

"Recoilless" bullet-firing guns do exist, working on much that principle; they're designed so that much of the blast from the propellent charge is directed backwards, countering (in principle) the forward momentum of the projectile. But they're mostly anti-tank weapons - I don't know if you could make a handgun like that (that didn't blow the user's hand off).

Posted by: Tim May at Dec 19, 2005 8:17:42 PM

My favorite SF is a careful combination of reasonable science and unprovable speculation. I hate it when the science is obviously flawed, and there isn't enough fantasy to keep me interested in the story. It's usually because the author is concentrating on showing you how smart he is, rather than writing a good yarn, so there's an element of egotism involved that kinda turns me off. I prefer character-driven stuff. Graphic SF often seem to be a lowest-common denominator as far as the writing end is concerned, but can look real cool, which elevates them for some folks. I'd rather read Lenore. ;-)

Saw a Gyrojet in action once, as a kid. It wasn't as loud as, say a .38, and looked real neat, but even back then, the owner could barely afford to fire it. The amazing thing about it was as long as the propellant lasted, the round was moving in an essentially flat trajectory, and as powerful as it was at peak velocity, it must have been like a laser beam at the right range. It didn't have much recoil, because it started out much slower than a conventional round, I understand. The idea of a ballasted pistol, which would eject compensating material to the rear, had an SF iteration in one of the Jack Vance "Anome" stories, "Brave Free Men". Its progress was somewhat amusingly followed in the background, from idea to practical application over the course of the story.

Posted by: Vanwall at Dec 20, 2005 11:38:06 PM

"Let's say you weigh 80 kilograms. Some Googling says that a 9mm bullet weighs about 8 grams (convenient!) and has a muzzle velocity of about 360 m/s."

As long as we're picking nits about physics, you might want to recall that weights are gravitational forces, not masses. =)

Posted by: agm at Dec 31, 2005 1:21:12 PM

As long as we're picking nits about physics, you might want to recall that weights are gravitational forces, not masses.

A little Googling shows that the usage "weighs X grams" is much more common than the alternative "masses X grams". Taking X=2 for example:

"weighs 2 grams": 931 ghits
"masses 2 grams": 2 ghits

Even the paraphrase "weight of X grams" is more common than the corresponding "mass of X grams", although less overwhelmingly so. Again for X=2:

"weight of 2 grams": 527 ghits
"mass of 2 grams": 103 ghits

Note also that the use of grams as the unit already made it unambiguous that I was talking about masses, not forces. So, if it pleases you to translate the words "weighs" and "weight" into the words "masses" and "mass" in your head as you read, feel free to do so.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 1, 2006 4:33:47 AM