Saturday, June 24, 2017

'Ah, that was a beautiful piece of engineering and archaeology!'. Cordwainer Smith's IOM rocket.

I'm always fascinated by how science fiction writers portray archaeology.  A couple of weeks ago, I was wandering through the Adelaide Central Markets on my way to work, and I spied a second-hand book sale. There was a box of old science fiction, and one leapt out at me: Cordwainer Smith's Space Lords, which I did not have.

To my delight, this volume of short stories contained one that I'd never read either. Drunkboat is the story of how the Lord Crudelta precipitated the discovery of Space3. I knew of the story as some critics have discussed it in reference to the evolution of the Vomact family. 

Leaving the plot aside, here is how Cordwainer Smith imagines a kind of space archaeology:
We had put him in a rocket of the most ancient style. We also wrote writing on the outside of it, just the way the Ancients did when they first ventured into space. Ah, that was a beautiful piece of engineering and archeology! We copied everything right down to the correct models of fifteen thousand years ago, when the Paroskii and Murkins were racing each other into space. The rocket was white, with a red and white gantry beside it. The letters IOM were on the rocket, not that the words mattered.

IOM, of course, stands for the Instrumentality of Mankind. The national symbols that adorned spacecraft in the 20th and 21st centuries are mystifying to the denizens of the future, but they copy them anyway.

Fifteen thousand years on from the Cold War space race - I assume the Paroskii and the Murkins are meant to represent the USSR and the USA - there's sufficient documentation and models of the early rockets to replicate them. The IOM rocket is thus a facsimile of old technology. If we think about what was happening 15 000 years ago for us, one of the principle technologies was the manufacture of stone tools. So perhaps this was like something archaeologists might do today in replicating a Magdalenian retouched point.

Magdalenian flaked stone artefacts, from Debout et al 2012
Such technology is often called 'primitive' in popular accounts, but it was very far from that, requiring a highly sophisticated knowledge of geology and engineering too - understanding the mechanical, chemical and fracture properties of stone are essential to making stone tools. Learning how to actually make and use ancient technologies is sometimes called ethnoarchaeology, and the idea is that you can learn something about how people lived in the past that simply analysing the artefact as an object cannot reveal.

Similarly, the facsimile of the rocket demands both engineering and archaeology to make it more than just another model. The rocket is launched from its red and white gantry - cheerful picnic colours - and if you want to know the rest, you will have to read the story.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Cable ties in literature: from the boudoir to the post-apocalyptic

It's no secret that I have an obsession with cable ties. The nice thing is that when I explain their fascinating history to people, they often catch the bug as well, coming to appreciate the stunningly simple design of this monumentally successful piece of technology. If you want to know the full story, you can read my paper on cable ties here.

Anastasia Steel and Christian Grey in the cable tie section of the
hardware store. I mean seriously. What a depauperate population
of the popular plastic fastening device.
Sadly, cable ties have not yet set the world of literature alight, unless you count their famous appearance in Fifty Shades of Grey. I would say that E.L James paid insufficient attention to cable ties as critical material infrastructure in her novel; and the range of cable ties available in the hardware shop in the film version is frankly disappointing.

Hugh Howey's Wool is a different proposition. I was lent this book by a friend and was astonished that I hadn't heard of it before. It was immediately enthralling, and there really is nothing nicer than finding a new author whose work just makes you want to read more.

So you can perhaps imagine my breathless excitement when I started Chapter 21 of Wool to find a description of CABLE TIES OF THE FUTURE.

Oh yes.

So here, for your delectation, is the passage in question. I don't think there are any spoilers in it if you haven't read the book.

The next morning Juliette arrived early at her desk having stolen little more than four hours of sleep. Beside her computer, she saw a package waiting for her: a small bundle wrapped in recycled pulp paper and encircled with white electrical ties. She smiled at this last touch and reached into her overalls for her multi-tool. Pulling out the smallest pick from the tool, she stuck it into the clasp of one of the electrical ties and slowly pulled the ratcheting device apart, keeping it intact for future use. She remembered the trouble she'd gotten into as a mechanic's shadow the day she'd been caught cutting a plastic tie from an electrical board. Walker, already an old crank those decades ago, had yelled at her for the waste and then shown her how to tease the little clasp loose to preserve the tie for later use. 
Years had passed, and when she was much older, she had found herself passing this lesson on to another shadow named Scottie. He had been a young lad at the time, but she had had a go at him when he had made the same careless mistake she once had. ... 
She loosened the other tie crossing the package and knew the bundle was from him. Several years ago, Scottie had been recruited by IT and had moved up to the thirties. He had become 'too smart for Mechanical', as Knox had put it. Juliette set the two electrical straps aside and pictured the young man preparing this package for her. The request she'd wired down to Mechanical the night before must've bounced back up to him, and he had spent the night dutifully doing her this favour. 
She pried the paper apart carefully. Both it and the plastic ties would need to be returned; they were both too dear for her to keep and light enough to porter on the cheap. As the package came apart, she noticed that Scottie had crimped the edges and had folded these tabs under each other, a trick children learned so they could wrap notes without the expense of glue or tape.

Scottie leaves her a note: Keep the ties - I got plenty. 

Where do I start? There is so much going on here, and although I believe there are some technical unlikelihoods, on the whole Howey has paid the cable tie much greater respect as an artefact than E.L James.

At this point I must digress. I searched for a link to Wool to include and discovered something that astonished me. Another reviewer HAS ALREADY COMPARED WOOL TO FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.


Science fiction's answer to Fifty Shades of Grey, the review in the Guardian says. Perhaps I missed the BDSM scenes in Wool. I'm pretty sure I did. And I may be wrong, but I'm also pretty sure that few reviewers take the cable tie approach to literature. Well there's nothing for it but to read this other review.

Ah, now I read that the comparison is made on the basis that both works were initially self-published. There is no mention of cable ties. So I shall continue.

Juliette's cable ties are described as "white electrical". This is the industrial context in which cable ties were first invented, when Maurus C. Logan visited the Boeing factory in 1956 and watched the workers tying up the electrical wiring in an aircraft. He was employed by US electrical outfitters Thomas and Betts. Since their first manufacture, cable ties migrated into everyday life and a myriad of uses securing every kind of thing. Here, in the isolated culture of the silo, sealed off against the toxic world outside, cable ties have retreated to their original use.

Colour is significant in cable tie manufacture. Black cable ties are generally intended for outdoor use; their carbon content makes them UV resistant. In the silo, the cable ties are white. They will never be used outside, as no-one can survive outside in the poisoned atmosphere. They're like little pale fishes trapped in a an underground pool.

There are two types of cable ties, those which have to be cut off and can't be re-used, and re-usable ones, which need to be undone with a special tool. It's not entirely clear from Howey's account which is intended here. If you loosen the ratchet head, will it really be useable again as it won't engage with the ridged tail? Juliette doesn't seem to be using a specialised tool, just the smallest one from her panoply.

This is a minor point against the real implications of the passage however: that in the closed world of the silo, an artefact that was once mass-produced and discarded without thought is now precious and valuable.

The cable ties are symbolic here as well: Scottie is using them as a material allusion to the history that he and Juliette share, knowing that they will make her recall the past. They symbolise the passing on of knowledge: the creation of new bonds - as well as their dissolution. They are used to secure the parcel, but they are part of the gift as well.

Fastening is an art when materials to secure objects are in short supply. The parcel is a contradiction of meanings. Scottie has used the valuable cable ties to hold it all together, but in the first layer he has employed the technique learned from childhood to fold the paper together. Here we see a discipline of alternatives in an alternative world.

I particularly appreciate the thought that has gone into this passage, projecting a social and technological context for an artefact of the present into the future. It's what science fiction does best.

So my Cable Ties in Literature Award today goes to Hugh Howey for Wool. It is perhaps not quite on the level of other literary awards, given the small pool of nominees. Nevertheless, I regard it as an achievement. Congratulations, Hugh.