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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.






















Philosophical Gas

Present Shock

Unfortunately Mr Tofler has already used ‘Future Shock’ as a title. The main point of his book is that the Future is on us before we’ve had time to adjust to the Present, and that this is a severe shock to all those who do not read science fiction. For example, every sf reader has been aware for years that the supplies of fossil fuels are far from inexhaustible, and that Mankind has been squandering mineral wealth like a drunken sailor. But to the vast majority of the general public, the Energy Crisis has come as a Toflerian shock, and people in the part of the world most affected are standing around wringing their hands and intoning dolefully ‘The End has come.’ But the essential truth of what Abraham Lincoln almost said should have been glaringly obvious for at least the last thirty decades: that you can fuel some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fuel all of the people all of the time.

The people most susceptible to Future Shock are also those most incapable of reading the lessons of history. I am writing this at sea, so I do not have my reference library at hand, but I think I am right in saying that the first nuclear fission weapon was produced, from scratch, in a very short time. It was strongly suspected that both the Germans and the Japanese were working on such devices and if the Germans had been able to marry a nuclear warhead to their V2 rockets, the course of history would have been changed. The Manhattan Project was a damn-the-expense operation. At the time of its initiation there was no know-how, scientific or industrial; there was only Einstein’s famous equation. Techniques had to be worked out hr the separation of the essential isotope U235 from the far commoner U238. The job was done, with time to spare. Perhaps this was a Bad Thing, as affairs have turned out since - or was it? Without the threat of The Bomb, an only slightly updated version of H. G, Wells’s WAR IN THE AIR would have been all too possible, bringing with it the collapse of civilization.

Not a very great effort would be required to cope with the Energy Crisis - but the effort would require an American President more like the late Franklin D, Roosevelt than Richard M. Nixon. Some readers might remember his CCC - Civilian Conservation Corps - that was set up to solve the problem of unemployment during the Great Depression. Workers, skilled and unskilled, were conscripted to do jobs that badly needed doing, but which private enterprise had refused to tackle because there wasn’t enough profit in it. If FDR were in charge now he would have long since begun to recruit technicians and mechanics from the slowing-down factories of Detroit.

The main thing to bear in mind is this; when there is no oil, for any reason whatsoever, it is not necessary to invent, a new power source. There are energy sources that have been used ever since Man decided that the hard work could be done by machinery. A sailing ship is a machine, after all. Oh, I’m not saying we should return to the days of sail. Our knowledge of aerodynamics has grown considerably since the heyday of the windjammers. But even in those days it was only the Norwegians who used wind power to its full extent. Other seamen, seeing a Norwegian vessel, would make disparaging remarks about ‘the Norwegian ensign’. This, easily seen from other ships, was a small windmill on deck. Non-Norwegians obliged to pump bilges would do so by hand - a back-breaking job - or, if their craft were so fitted and if the Old Man sanctioned the squandering of precious coal, would start up the steam -driven donkey engine.

But there are other ways of using wind to drive a ship as well as sails, no matter how well designed and beautifully cut. In the late l920s or early 1980s the Germans experimented with the so-called rotor ship. I remember passing one of the things at sea, and she was an odd looking brute. Unluckily, not much technical information was made available, but as far as I recall, the rotors were fluted, vertical columns which in any wind at all rotated, driving a generator which supplied the electricity to drive main and auxiliary machinery. Such a ship could steer directly into the wind. A square-rigged ship could not come closer to the wind than about 6 points, or 70°. A fore-and-aft
rigged ship could come closer - 4 points, or 45°.

On the same voyage that we saw the rotor ship we saw Graf Zeppelin making one of her commercial flights to Rio de Janeiro. (At the time I was an apprentice in a coal-burning tramp steamer.) Dr Eckener, then commanding Graf Zeppelin, was one of the greatest airship captains of all time - if not the greatest. On one voyage to South America all four diesel engines broke down. Eckener juggled ballast and buoyancy to find a fair wind, and by the time his engineers had the engines fixed he was almost there. You can’t do that sort of thing In a Concorde or a jumbo jet...

Quite a while back I was flying from Sydney to New Zealand by Qantas. It was shortly after the Qantas pilots’ strike over the unreliable radio navigation and ground approach aids at Djakarta airport. I spent most of the flight in the front office, yarning with the crew. Inevitably we talked about the recent strike. The Qantas captain said to me ‘When you’re in trouble you can go full astern and let go both anchors. I can't.’ In an airship you could.

I have written at far greater length on the subject of airships in another magazine (Ark 2: Ron & Sue Clarke), so cannot carry on without repeating myself. But I will say this again; Why burn fuel to proceed from point A to point B and to stay up, when you need burn fuel only to proceed from point A to point B? I hope that the Energy Crisis will mean a return of the airship to most of the passenger and freight routes. Apart from anything else, it will mean a great reduction of atmospheric pollution.

Wind power, as I have said above, can be and has been used for driving both surface ships and airships. It has been used for the generation of electricity for a very long time. Towards the end of World War II there was a quite feasible scheme for covering the surface of the British Isles with wind-driven generators, sophisticated wind turbines rather than primitive windmills. It never got off the drawing board. It would have annoyed too many vested interests - on the Left as well as on the Right. Hell bath no fury like a trade unionist who sees his job threatened. (All right, all right, we’ve all come in that category, myself included.)

In the same way the Severn Barrage scheme - tidal power - has been jammed by vested interests for many, many years. Since well before World War II, Messrs Parsons, the turbine people, have been waiting for the go-ahead.

The production of methane gas from organic refuse is not new. The sewage plant at Bondi has been burning this fuel in its own generators, supplying the power hr its own pumps and lights, for years. Solar power is not new - and why should we need any other energy source when that enormous atomic furnace is there in our sky, a mere eight light minutes away?

Unfortunately, before the alternative power sources are fully exploited there must be a period of inconvenience, and in less lucky countries than our own, actual hardship. But in the not-so-long run we shall benefit. Time and time again, arriving at Sydney, I have been obliged to grope my way in through the smog - and I remember well the beautifully clear air and sky over the city during the last oil strike. The atmosphere of a city should be like that all the time.

I foresee (said he, going out on a very fragile limb) the smaller, economical cars driving the fuel-bogging monsters off the road. I foresee those same cars having their engines modified to burn natural gas, or methane, or (the perfect, pollution-free fuel) hydrogen and oxygen obtained by the electrolysis of water at the solar power stations. I foresee the return of the airship, from the small, handy blimp (such craft would be ideal for coast patrol and air/sea rescue work) to huge passenger-carrying dirigibles. After all, helium is relatively cheap now - and neither ‘Hindenburg’ nor R101 would have come to such spectacular and tragic ends had they not been hydrogen filled.

I foresee screams from the conservationists about the covering of thousands of square miles of desert with solar power screens. Frankly, I’ll probably do a little screaming myself on that point, but admit that it would not be too high a price to pay for a smog-free atmosphere and independence from both the Western oil companies and the Arab oil kings.

I foresee an increasing use of wind power, both ashore and afloat.

And there is one power source the use of which I do not foresee, although I have been meaning to work it out and make use of it in a story for quite some time. Imagine a ship rolling heavily. Visualise the enormous number of foot/tons (or metre/tonnes?) ((joules?)) involved in such motion. Couldn’t all that kinetic energy somehow be utilized for propulsion? Perhaps. But that, I fear, is rather less practicable than the diesel cannon I have worked out but haven’t got around to using yet.
Originally Published in Philosophical Gas No: 27 - Mar 1974