© Norman Sperling, September 2, 2014
A friend tipped me off that this science fiction book features the Astroscan telescope, which I co-designed, so I knew I’d read at least enough to see how my scope fared. I dove right in and, because it’s a really neat book, I read the whole thing. I was so involved that a few times I’d pause, think “hey, it brought up the Astroscan again” so I’d page back to the reference, mark it, and then plow straight on to see how the story went.
The premise asks what would happen if enormous earthquakes hit Missouri’s New Madrid fault now, as they did in 1811-12. My travels have recently taken me to St. Louis, Memphis, New Madrid, and Reelfoot Lake, and most of the other places in the book. Williams portrays the flavors, weather, accents, and scenery much as I saw them.
Mix in a flooded Mississippi River, failure of the electric grid and most communications, and isolated power-abusing authorities. Detailing the major chaos takes Williams’s expertly-developed characters along paths twisting through hundreds of pages to converge in the mop-up.
The science is quite good. The seismology is excellent, as far as I can tell. So is the hydrology. So is the technology -- from helicopters to nuclear reactors to guns. The major issue of reactionary Whites repressing Blacks has, I hope, diminished since this story was published 15 years ago … I hope.
Also improved today are communications and smartphones and multiple ways to access the www. Most wouldn’t work -- I’ve been in plenty of “no service” areas on this trek -- but there would also be places where you could get through.
One factor that didn’t ring true was radio. Old fashioned AM radio travels thousands of miles at night. Surely someone in this novel could have used a car radio, or scrounged up a battery-powered transistor radio, and listened to outside news. It wouldn’t get a message out, but at least it would get news in, tell that St. Louis and Memphis were flattened, and warn of impending storms and flooding.
Into this stew Williams tossed the Astroscan telescope. He must have asked his astronomical consultant for a portable telescope that could take rough handling. I can tell that the author actually handled one and looked through it. Most of the astronomical objects would look about as described. But he waxed overenthusiastic about galaxies - the ones he listed show up just as grey fuzzblobs. To notice the details he cites requires much larger scopes.
Terrestrial viewing, important to the plot, would work just as described. Characters’ reactions to Astroscan's odd looks sound pretty good. The shoulder strap is meant for exactly the kind of carrying that the hero used it for. The casing is indeed tough enough to withstand being knocked around (and no other beginner scope could). So the scope earned its way into the book, the author understood its special characteristics, and it sparked enough interest that its teenage user could think of going into astronomy. For the Astroscan, this novel is a huge success. And if that teenager enrolls where I teach, I want him in my class.