Critique of "Thumbalina and Flatfoot" by Bob Langer

Story by Roland Hough

Dear Roland,

I try to wait until I've finished reading a story before making any comments. In the first paragraph you state that you're space craft is in free fall. In the second paragraph you state that, "Gravity is increasing, I can feel it in my fingers." If the space craft is truly in free fall, then there would be no sensation of gravity by the passengers. (This is why people in LEO are weightless, not because the force of gravity falls off that quickly.) If the craft is either accelerating or decelerating, then it is not in a state of free fall.

If this spacecraft/glider is no longer in free fall and is subject to the full force of 2.4 gravities, the situation is not as grim as you might suspect. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book in '51 called, "The Exploration of Space." In it he mentions that under an acceleration of 4 gravities, the force required to lift your arm would be comparable to lifting a heavy briefcase or a portable typewriter at arm's length. He also mentions that in the prone position, man can survive a force of 20 gravities for up to a minute.

I'm trying to get a handle on this planet that your intrepid hero is in orbit about. I appears that you're basically describing Jupiter. From the 2.4 g's to the atmospheric winds, etc. The physical details are all matching too closely. For a gas giant, Jupiter is not all that large. Of the dozen or so planets discovered orbitting other stars, about half of them are more massive than Jupiter. One appears to be ten times Jupiter's mass. You might want to run some of those numbers through a calculator and come up with the gravitational force exerted by an even larger planet. As far as their atmosphere's goes, you should be safe sticking with a similar mixture to that of Jupiter.

And unless you're inventing new jargon, tacheon should be spelled tachyon.

Your reasoning for why human pilots are needed to "find the gate," is a little implausible to me. From the risks involved with this type of process, this would be ideally suited for designing a machine to take care of this task. Hmm... Interesting that you give this planet a diameter of at least three times that of Jupiter. Yet it has the same mass as Jupiter. And it has a solid surface. Overall, with that mass and that volume, this planet should be even less dense than Saturn. In fact, it would have a density less than a tenth of Saturn's. Which makes me wonder whether or not this tenuous collection of gasses would even coalesce.

Here goes the mention of the nearly unbearable gravitational force again. Let's say you have a 200 lb male as your pilot. At 2.4 g's he would weigh, 480lbs. Yes, this is indeed heavy. But, people who weigh considerably more are able to function under their own power. It may not be comfortable, but there's little reason for our hero to belabor this point.

This is just a minor, almost personal preference. In this future where we have a form of faster than light travel via a vast cosmic network, why does it sound like our hero is using a 20 MHz 386 with 2 meg of ram? There is no hint of even a half witted AI. Apparently there is no voice recognition since the pilot must flip switches on his arm rest to take care of even the most basic functions. There is no indication that the computer has any ability to generate speech.

Ouch... I am toward the end of the story. You have mentioned that these thread gates are invisible to the eye and are very difficult to detect. Now, at the last instant, the hero happens to remember a key fact. Radar will show a "slight blindness" to a thread gate when it is near by. To prevent this from sounding contrived, make some mention of this fact earlier in the story.

Ok, I have finished this entire story now. Beyond the more technical notes, allow me to make a few comments in regards to the story telling.

The Idea behind this story is that mankind has developed "Thread Gates" as a means of faster than light travel. One consequence of the difficulty of placing these Gates is that it requires the presence of a human pilot. Which naturally leads us to your lead character.

The lead character of this story felt to me to be rather flat. Why did he go on this third trip? After the publicity from his second outing (the one where he found fossilized evidence of life on another planet) our hero could have sold the film, novel, and any other right associated with his experiences for a considerable fee. So, taking into account his apparent wealth, and the risk factor involved with this exploration, why go on the third trip? The only answers that come to mind are either vanity or greed. Our hero doesn't sound particularly greedy. Although he does refer to himself several times in the third person. This is a particularly vain trait. However, he wasn't so vain that I wanted him to fail. I simply didn't care about him one way or the other.

The plot, the events, the actions that the hero had to take could be summed up in one quick sentence. This was a story of Man against Nature. In this case, Nature was pretty damn big, and Man had some technological support. This may be due in part to the characterization, but the tension in the plot did not increase throughout the story. The tension hit a plateau once the pilot's situation was defined. With the navigator unconscious, and the ship out of control gliding through a gas giant's atmosphere, where can you go to increase the tension?

One possibility to consider is having the pilot eject some balast, namely the unconscious navigator. If the energy situation is as tight as you claim, perhaps dumping the body would help make the difference. It would certainly raise the stakes in the story.

Also, one note on the point of view. In this type of story I would strongly urge you to not use the first person viewpoint for a couple of reasons. One is that there is no profound change in the character. There is no need for the story to be told in his words. Secondly though, and more importantly, with the first person viewpoint, you know that the narrator (in this case the pilot) is going to come out alive. If the narrator doesn't make it out, it feels like the reader has been cheated... The reader starts questioning how the narrator is able to tell this story at all. So, you don't want to use the first person viewpoint because it makes the story feel predictable. At least, I wouldn't want to use the first person viewpoint for that reason.

All in all, this was an entertaining story. One thing to keep in mind though is be very careful with any technical details. There will always be someone reading your stories who has the background to comment on the technical details of your stories. A group of MIT students worked through the dynamics of Larry Niven's "Ringworld," and found that it was unstable. Also, for another perspective on the lone explorer in a space ship you may want to read Frederick Pohl's novel, "Gateway." (On a side note, Legend software wrote an adventure game based on that novel in the early '90's. They were giving it away on the internet a year or so ago.)

I hope these comments help.

Bob Langer