The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 04, 2009

Why Kepler's Somnium is (or isn't) hard SF, and other more interesting questions

Last month BBC producer Louise Yeoman invited me to the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh to contribute to a 20-minute BBC radio programme about Kepler's Somnium, which also featured Andrew Brown, the observatory's Professor Avery Meiksin, and science historian James Connor.

You can now hear it on the BBC iPlayer, and it's worth a listen. Prof Meiksin is a joy to listen to. As for me, well ... I sound a lot more coherent and fluent than I sounded to myself at the time. (Good editing, probably.) Whatever argument I may (or may not) have made to justify the fine distinction I drew between Kepler's speculation and hard SF (some ramble about Gernsback, I suspect) is lost to my memory as much as to the recording, if it was ever there in the first place. Also, I got Hal Clement's name slightly wrong - from nervousness rather than ignorance.

Andrew Brown evidently enjoyed his visit, particularly to the library:

So there I was on Tuesday, touching the vellum of a 13th century manuscript of Alhazen, another of Aristotle, and then a first edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus and one of Kepler's Nova Astronomia. In the shelves on the wall were Galileo's works.

We were meant to be making a radio programme – an interval talk for Radio 3 – but the producer and I and our guest Ken MacLeod just frolicked round that room of priceless books like salmon woken by a spate. Serious work was impossible for a while. There was nothing to say that was adequate in the face of so much beauty and so much history; for anyone who writes, the feel of a physical object which has been read for 800 years is a quite extraordinary thrill.
'Oh monks, monks, monks,' I heard him murmur, looking at a volume of hundreds of pages of minute invariant uncial script, 'that this labour of yours should be used as a cheap analogy for DNA replication!'

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I hope to be able to listen tomorrow. Holding or touching such books would provide me with intense pleasure. It would be a more powerful experience than was my discovery of the now-defunct philosophy library of Columbia University, where books that were fifty years old filled me with reverential delight.

Well, I thought that was you I heard on Radio 3 the other night, but I wasn't sure. An interesting programme; fun to hear science fiction and astronomy discussed on the radio in an intelligent fashion.

I still have to listen to the whole thing (only had time for 20 minutes tonight), but enjoying it greatly... and it's especially fun to hear your voice, Ken. Always nice to have a voice to go with the face and written words.

I love the way he wraps it all up in the end in a lovely traditional religious bow. I was waiting to hear you yelling, 'wait!! no!! that's NOT it at all!!"
Nice work though. Well done.

Thanks for posting that Ken. I just listened and am impressed. I did not know that Kepler's book was so detailed, nor that it had a serious puropse. I always thought it was simply whimsical. But then again I never had the patience to read about the ancient stuff in the histories of rocketry and SF that I've dipped into. I started paying attention with Tziolkovski and Oberth. So I learned some interesting material from the programme.

James, I wasn't there when he said that. It's the magic of modern recording at work.

ejh ... I think what you and - if you don't mind me saying so - people like you fail to understand is that some of Andrew Brown's words are not be taken in a crude literal sense, but must instead be interpreted as having a deeper, symbolic meaning. Salmon are not woken by a spate, any more than hares chew the cud, but in such cases we must seek the spiritual lesson underlying the apparently mistaken observation of nature. Otherwise, we are no better than the fundamentalists.

some of Andrew Brown's words are not be taken in a crude literal sense, but must instead be interpreted as having a deeper, symbolic meaning.

That's as maybe Ken, but it could also be that Brown's allusion was weak because his metaphor was a clunker? ;)

Surely Brown is referring to all makers of dairy produce?

Excellent write up. I enjoyed my reading with your blog.

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