Science, Fiction, Life

Month: July 2013

Book Re-Read Review: Shogun


For those of you living under a rock, Shogun is an epic historical fiction novel about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in the year 1600 and goes on to become a samurai and adviser to one of the most powerful lords in feudal Japan. I first read Shogun about 5 years ago and loved it. I don’t re-read books very often, so it has to be a very special book for me to want to read something again. (Warning, this review is slightly spoilery. If you haven’t read Shogun, go do that. It’s awesome, and it has pirates fighting ninjas. But I repeat myself. If you like giant epics that you can fully immerse yourself in, with lots of political intrigue and a large cast of characters, then you will like Shogun.)

Last time, I read the book the way most people do: silently, to myself. But this time, I convinced my wife to come along for the ride. We read aloud before bed, and have tackled books of similar epic proportions (for example, the full Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire series), so we knew what we were getting into. Years ago after I read the book, we had watched the miniseries, but it did not do the source material justice, and I wanted to experience the book again.

I’m happy to say that Shogun remains one of my favorite books, and serves as the Platonic ideal in my mind of what historical fiction should be. It is so huge and intricate and detailed that it really sweeps you away to feudal Japan. The plot is a familiar one, shared by Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar, Fern Gully, and many others. But for all of the problematic aspects to this plot template, I still love it because, when done well, it introduces the reader to a culture that they are not familiar with, and helps them to understand and sympathize with that culture.

Of the examples of this familiar plot, I think Shogun succeeds the best. The book is long enough and detailed enough that the reader comes to understand the Japanese culture along with Blackthorne. At the beginning of the book, the Japanese people that he encounters are strange and brutal and utterly different from what Blackthorne views as “normal”. But by the end, it is almost painful to ride along in Blackthorne’s point of view as he reunites with his former crew and realizes how rude, filthy, undisciplined, and pitiful they are compared to the Japanese characters we’ve just spent 1000 pages with.

What impresses me about Shogun is that the disturbing parts of the Japanese bushido culture are not swept under the rug. They are just put into context. So the first merciless killing of a peasant by a samurai early on is horrifying to both the reader and Blackthorne, but placed into context, with the strict codes of conduct that are a part of feudal Japanese culture, such killings begin to make a sort of sense, even as they remain disturbing to western readers. This cognitive dissonance is one of the more interesting parts about reading Shogun.

Of course, Shogun is fiction, and it would be foolish to think that it is a purely accurate depiction of feudal Japan. I, sadly, don’t know enough to say which parts of Shogun are accurate and which aren’t, but as I understand it, much of it actually holds up pretty well. In writing this post, I came across the interesting site Learning from Shogun, which has a nice (free) book in PDF form written by scholars in Asian studies and history as a companion to the novel, just before the 1980 miniseries came out. In the introduction to the book they write:

“In sheer quantity, Shogun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”

In fact, it is sometimes odd while reading Shogun when the author takes time to define Japanese terms which are now so commonplace that the definition is superfluous. For example, he has to spell out what samurai, katanas, and ninja are. Shogun is not solely responsible for this increased knowledge about Japan, but there’s no denying it played a big role.

I think one aspect that saves Shogun from some of the pitfalls that plague other works of fiction that follow a similar plot is that the white, western main character is very much just a pawn in the great political game that is being played. Although he does gain in power and prestige over the course of the novel, Blackthorne is still at the mercy of the daimyos he is working for, particularly Toranaga. Even having read the book twice now, some of the political intrigue was still over my head. Let’s just say that if you want to be Shogun, you need to have a deep understanding of your rivals’ family trees and how to use them to your advantage. Winning battles is the easy part.

Re-reading the book, and particularly in reading it out loud, I was struck by one aspect of the writing that I did not even register the first time I read it. Clavell is constantly jumping around with the point of view. Not many books (at least not many that I read) do this successfully, but in Shogun it feels very natural. It’s a clever trick to allow to reader to get to know many of the dozens of characters much better than if the point of view had been stuck inside Blackthorne’s head.

My main complaint after re-reading it, is that the book is really extremely long and could probably lose 200 pages and still be great. The length was fine when reading it to myself, because when doing that I could go much faster and so I never felt like the book was slow. But reading out loud, and particularly because our out-loud reading was disrupted for a few weeks, it started to feel like a drag toward the end until we got to the final climax. I strongly recommend reading this book silently to yourself rather than listening to it as an audiobook or reading it out loud, just because that way you it won’t seem to drag as much.

Interesting side note: As we were nearing the end of the book, we decided to get a bottle of sake to sip as we read the final chapters. I had only had sake once years ago so I wanted to try it again. Turns out I really like it a lot! Erin doesn’t, but that just means more for me!

Bottom line: Shogun is awesome, if a bit long. The plot is a familiar one, but it tells a great story and you will learn a lot about Japan in the 1600s even if the book is not 100% factual. Also, there are scenes where pirates and ninjas fight. If you have not read this book, you should probably go do something about that.



Worldbuilding in GIMP

It’s no secret that I like to write (hence this blog), but what you may not know is that I have a long-standing interest in writing fiction. Note that this is different from actually writing fiction: I rarely do so, for a variety of reasons that really deserve their own post. But several years ago I did manage to successfully participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), churning out 50,000 or so words of rather awful fiction. One of the key steps in preparation for NaNoWriMo that year was doing some basic worldbuilding.

I have a really hard time writing a story if I don’t know the lay of the land…literally. If my characters have to venture off into an undefined world, then I don’t know what their options and limitations are and so I am paralyzed with indecision. A map provides the framework on which the events of the story can play out, and I find that the constraints that it provides are crucial for understanding everything from the placement of cities to the boundaries of nations to the history of empires. So much is influenced by geography that without it I’m lost.

I am trying to get back into fiction writing: I have had the nebulous idea for a novel rattling around in my head for years but to really write it, I needed a world. For my NaNoWriMo map, I used the program AutoRealm which had some nice capabilities, but didn’t make very attractive maps. So for this new worldbuilding effort, I decided to use a proper image editor: GIMP.

GIMP is an open-source program similar to Photoshop. I use it all the time for work to make figures, so I know my way around it, but I haven’t used it much to just draw. And to be honest, I didn’t want to just draw continents because it’s actually quite difficult to draw natural looking coastlines. I needed something more random.

After searching online, I found an excellent site called the “Cartographer’s Guild”, where lots of worldbuilding enthusiasts share their tips and tricks in very helpful tutorials. I won’t duplicate all of that effort here, but I will point to their helpful collection of tutorials. In particular, I found the one entitled “Using GIMP to create an artistic regional map” very helpful.

It turns out GIMP has a tool that renders a cloud-like texture, and by stretching the black and white levels on randomly generated cloud textures, you can make random continent-shaped blobs. For most people, this would be enough, but since I know way too much about planets, I wanted to make my random cotinents more realistic, with things like island arcs and shapes that could conceivably come from plate tectonics. So I made several sets of random blobs ranging in size from continents to islands, and selectively merged them together to make what I thought were more realistic (but still mostly random) continents. Here’s what the end result looked like:



I played around with some of the other tips in the tutorials to make attractive oceans and land colors and got this:


From here, the next step was adding mountains. I went back and forth on whether I wanted to try to make realistic looking mountains or line-drawings like you might see in a map in the front of Lord of the Rings. In the end, I decided to go with the line drawing option. I alread had some idea of where I wanted my mountain ranges, the trick was drawing the actual mountains. I am too lazy to draw them individually, so I looked up how to create a brush in GIMP that cycles through a set of simple images with each click. The term for this is an “image pipe” and it’s actually pretty simple: you just make a small image in GIMP with multiple layers and draw a different image on each layer. They you save it as the appropriate file type and voila! Choose that brush and then each click draws one of the layers. Here are my mountain layers as an animated gif:



With mountain ranges in place, the next logical thing to add was deserts. So I thought a bit about what the prevailing winds are like on an Earth-like planet, and the placed deserts in the rain shadow of mountain ranges. I also added some nice white shading toward the poles and gray shading around mountain ranges.

At this point it was looking pretty good if I do say so myself! The main missing natural features that might be relevant to any stories set in this world are forests and rivers. For forests, I decided to just use one of the built-in brushes in GIMP, along with the “apply jitter” option to paint scattered dark green specks for trees. Rivers were a bit trickier. Just like the continents, I didn’t want to hand-draw them because they would not be naturally random enough. For this, I found a simple free program that can draw fractal lines and export them as vector graphics. I drew a bunch of fractal lines then loaded them into my GIMP project, colored them blue, and placed them where it seemed appropriate. The end results? Realistically random-looking rivers! Here is the final map:



I’m pretty happy with this map, and I’m eager to start adding cities and countries and figuring out how the geography that I’ve created here influences the seed of a story idea that I am trying to develop. And even if the story that I write set in this world doesn’t end up being very good, I learned a lot of fun GIMP tricks in the process of making this map!


Jupiter as the Moon

Have you seen this awesome set of pictures depicting what it would look like if you replaced our moon with each of the planets? I particularly like the images for Jupiter and Saturn – they absolutely dominate the night sky:


Jupiter, as it would look if it were our moon.

I always enjoy pictures like this: they are a great way to illustrate the relative sizes of the planets. But the following tweet made my skeptic senses tingle:


Now, Ezra Klein is a smart guy, and I have followed his blog for a while for his excellent political coverage, which is nice and wonkish, with lots of graphs and charts. I’m a scientist, I like me some graphs and charts. But as much as his blog loves to factcheck political stuff, he failed to fact check this fact check.

The tweet in question says that the Earth and Jupiter would collide if they were the same distance apart as the Earth and the Moon. it’s not that this is wrong, but that it doesn’t state its assumptions and so it is misleading. I was tempted to reply on Twitter, but this is the sort of thing that, alas, involves lots of caveats so I thought it would be better to tackle it here.

The main question is what the motion of the two planets is when you suddenly replace the moon with Jupiter. If both planets are stationary relative to their center of mass, then yeah, they’re going to collide. But the same would be true of the Earth and the Moon. If the two planets have any angular momentum at all, they will orbit their center of mass rather than simply falling toward each other. So that means that in all cases except that in which the planets start at rest, they won’t hit each other.

But not quite. Because planets have some size. If they don’t have enough angular momentum, they will follow a very narrow elliptical orbit and will crash into each other. To avoid collision, there has to be enough angular momentum for the periapsis of the orbit to be greater than half the sum of the planets’ radii. I tried switching Jupiter for the moon, but otherwise keeping the angular momentum and orbital eccentricity of the system the same and I found that the periapsis is about 4400 km (I did this calculation quickly – my numbers might be off so feel free to check me!). This is too small to keep Earth and Jupiter from colliding, so the tweet is correct, given the assumption that the angular momentum and eccentricity of the system stays the same when you swap the moon for Jupiter.

But what bothered me was that the tweet could be read to imply that an Earth-sized object and a Jupiter-sized object could never comfortably orbit each other, and that’s just not true. With enough angular momentum, an Earth-sized object could be in a stable orbit around Jupiter.

So, let’s say the system has enough angular momentum for the Earth to stay in a stable circular orbit at the specified distance. What other misfortune might befall us? One possibility is that we would be inside the Roche limit and the powerful tides from Jupiter would tear us apart. I calculate the rigid-body Roche limit for Jupiter and Earth to be ~108,900 km, which is safely less than the Earth-Moon distance.

That’s not to say the tides wouldn’t do some weird things of course. Jupiter’s tides would still be huge and so it would raise enormous tides in our oceans and in the solid rock of the Earth itself. The friction generated by these tides would heat up the Earth’s interior (and probably trigger volcanoes and earthquakes in the process) and gradually slow the Earth’s rotation until one side of the earth was permanently locked facing Jupiter (the same thing has already happened to the moon, which is why we don’t see the far side except from spacecraft).

We would also be pounded by the intense radiation of Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Our magnetic field might protect us for a while, but as our spin rate slowed, our magnetic field would die, leaving us exposed. It’s possible that the radiation would then strip away our atmosphere, leaving the earth a desiccated and dead world. I’ll leave that calculation as an exercise for the reader.  Correction: our orbital period around Jupiter would actually not be much more than a day, so our magnetic filed would probably survive.

So, bottom line: the tweet in question is only sort of right. Earth could stably orbit Jupiter, just not with the same orbital parameters as the current Earth-Moon system. If we were in a stable orbit, there would be some… interesting side effects, which might prove to be deadly, but nothing as dramatic as crashing into Jupiter.


Liquid Hot Magma

Well, technically lava since magma refers to un-erupted molted rock. And technically technically it’s not erupted, it’s melted in a big furnace, so it probably isn’t lava either.

But yeah, bottom line: here’s a video of synthetic lava poured over a slab of ice. Science is awesome:

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