15 February 2008

Booklog, Warp Speed

Warp Speed, 2006
by Travis Taylor
Mass-Market Paperback, 384 pages.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published four papers in a leading German physics journal. The first established the photoeletric effect, and would in 1921 lead to a Nobel for Einstein. The second mathematically treated the motion of small molecules in a colloid, making rigorous the mathematics of Brownian motion, and solidifying the idea that all matter is made of atoms. The third was a supposition on the research of two other British scientists that ended up leading to relativity. And the fourth was about the equivalence of matter and energy -- this one led to the atomic bomb.

To have these four papers published in a single year is utterly astonishing. Physicists would spend the next half a century getting through the implications of some of these papers, and as much as any man can individually be said to have done so, Einstein set the stage for modern physics. 1905 is generally referred to as Einstein's "miracle year," and it's possible that no other scientist has ever had so many earthshattering results within so short a time frame.

Now. Let's say that in addition to those four papers, Einstein had decided to start a small little invention shop with three or four of his buddies from the patent office and his wife. Imagine that within the next half a dozen years, Einstein and his compatriots had managed to build an atomic rocket capable of flying to the moon and back, personally piloted said rocket into Earth's orbit, constructed the beginnings of an atomic bomb in his basement, had those beginnings stolen from him by British spies, personally fought those spies in hand-to-hand combat to prevent the British from getting the parts, been involved in a small nuclear explosion in the middle of Bavaria, developed organic chemistry based on his knowledge of atomic theory, discovered DNA, cured some forms of cancer with his study of radiation, and oh, what the hell, became a well-respected boxer and semi-professional cyclist, to boot.

Imagine all that, and you're starting to understand the level of achievement that Dr. Neal Anson Clemons accomplishes in the first half of Warp Speed. In the beginning of the novel, Clemons is a physicist/engineer working at a state university (actually, UAH, my local university, as author Travis Taylor is local to Huntsville) who is also a semi-professional martial artist who competes at the tournament level. He's forty-two years old, maintains levels of fitness that would qualify him for astronaut training, meets and eventually woos a beautiful astronaut who also happens to be a fighter pilot, and has a pair of graduate students who work under his direct scientific supervision to develop a power source that is capable of producing an amount of power equivalent to that produced by the entire planet Earth every year in a single second, and in their spare time work on solutions to Einsteinian field equations that would allow for the warping of space and the creation of FTL travel.

That's where the novel starts. I hate to keep harping on this, but the absolutely astonishing level of achievement of the protagonist is the central theme of the book, and I think it's worth noting just how extreme and totally implausible it is. Clemson is more on par with the kinds of fictional scientists so aptly satirized on The Venture Bros. than any realistic person, and accepted on that level, this is a pretty fun book. At least in the first half, before things get really implausible and insane.

The thing is, Clemson is also a clear Mary Sue for the author. They both live in the same city, have the same hobbies, work on the same kinds of research, share the same political opinions, etc. etc. etc. Taylor denies that Clemson is a Mary Sue, having been quoted on his Wikipedia page:

"Have people become so average that they can't believe that some of our nation's current heroes and successes couldn't exist? What about Chuck Yeager? What about Jim Lovell? What about Story Musgrave? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger? What about Pat Tilman? What about Judy Resnik? You can name hundreds of American Superpeople. What about Madonna? Think how old she is and how she keeps plugging away better than many 20 year olds and smarter at it to boot. A good friend of mine is 52, a national class cyclist, and Chief Scientist of a major DoD contractor firm... what about him? Would you call them all Mary Sues? Look at any fighter pilot or astronaut and you'll see someone that I guess could not really exist because they aren't average. I based Anson on real people I have known in my life. The female characters as well. Calling them Mary Sues is an insult to those people and to the American Dream."

Yes, of course, there are plenty of people who are so-called superachievers, but by these standards, Clemson would be a superachiever even by the standards of those superachievers. He's so clearly omnicapable and superhuman that it eventually begins to dissipate all dramatic tension -- I half expected Clemson to start shooting laser beams from his eyes and fly around like Superman before the final pages of the novel.

Maybe I'm being too hard. This is a fun book for most of its length, and Taylor is clearly writing for a demographic that enjoys his tale. The writing is very flat for my taste (and his forty-two year old protagonist reminds me more of a fifteen year old boy emotionally) but he's clearly written the book he wanted to, and insofar as one can accept the severe breaches of reality, it's enjoyable. Towards the end of the book Taylor begins to find the opportunity to talk about his own (to my mind) repugnant politics irresistible, and the book starts to go downhill. There's a particular scene in which Clemson talks to the President of the US that is so astonishingly unrealistic that I could just about smell the cardboard sets, but Taylor has the right to his politics, and I won't begrudge his readers the right to read that which they agree with.

It's light and breezy, and an enjoyable way to turn the brain off, but this isn't the kind of book I can really recommend. It's too extreme, too far off base of reality, and Taylor either doesn't consider or doesn't care about the real-world effects of the technology he has his protagonist create. How much more interesting would a novel simply discussing the social effects of the nearly-infinite-energy dumbbells have been, without all the other silliness? It's a huge lost opportunity, but read alongside such other yarns as Tom Swift stories it's decent.

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