L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

07 July 2007 Blog Home : July 2007 : Permalink

Happy Birthday Robert A Heinlein

100 years ago today Robert A Heinlein was born in Kansas City Missouri. There is an entire weekend celebration of this fact going on in Kansas City and a lot of people, from the instapundit to NRO to the New Nationalist are blogging about it.

Heinlein was certainly one of the greats of Science Fiction. Whether he was the greatest or whether writers such as Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov are greater is one of those things that are best discussed over a brew or 10. Like Clarke, Heinlein identified/predicted a bunch of technologies that mankind will (need to) develop in order to get into space. Unlike Clarke, Heinlein also thought a lot about society and how to remedy the bits he perceived as failing.

Heinlein was not my first exposure to SF, but his Citizen of the Galaxy was one of the books that really stuck in my mind after I read it (aged approx 11). The books that most people cite, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers are indeed some of my favourites too. They are some of the select few books that I can almost recite passages from because I have read them so often. However the Heinlein book that I like the best is the second or third one I read - Friday. Friday is a book that hasn't received quite the same approval and is frequently lumped amongst the "late season dross" rather than the brilliant books of his middle years yet I believe this is wrong. A couple of years ago I defended Friday after a I read an NY Times review of Heinlein which was rather negative about Friday and I stand by what I wrote there.

In terms of the prediction of the future Friday is very very good. In fact it occurs to me that in some ways Friday depicts a world where the golabl warming freaks have won because we see very little personal powered transport, many references to horse drawn vehicles and so on. On that tack (non-fossil fuel energy) I should note that one thing Friday talks about (and ISTR this is in other books too) is the Shipstone. A Shipstone is a highly advanced power storage device and in Friday we get to learn quite a bit about how Shipstones are charged using solar power in the desert and things like that and then used all over the place in cars, spaceships etc. In other words something like this:

Until recently, large amounts of electricity could not be efficiently stored. Thus, when you turn on the living-room light, power is instantly drawn from a generator.

A new type of a room-size battery, however, may be poised to store energy for the nation's vast electric grid almost as easily as a reservoir stockpiles water, transforming the way power is delivered to homes and businesses. Compared with other utility-scale batteries plagued by limited life spans or unwieldy bulk, the sodium-sulfur battery is compact, long-lasting and efficient.

It would be nice if the developers of this battery or some other better one called their product a shipstone.