Friday, April 6, 2018

Under The Spinodal Curve, by Hanuš Seiner

★★★☆☆ Honorable Mention

(Fantasy Science) The narrator’s girlfriend is the residual personality of a metallurgist who’s away for six months crafting nanomaterials. But when her primary personality reunites with her body, will she still love him? Or even remember him? (4,541 words; Time: 15m)

"," by (translated by Julie Novakova, edited by Ann VanderMeer), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: I liked the idea that designing complex nanotechnology might require total commitment from engineers’ minds. It’s almost like a metaphor for how an engineer gets so wrapped up in solving a problem that his/her spouse feels married to a zombie.

The trick to either force the primary to accept him or else refuse reunification seems clever, provided Bamobah doesn’t die afterwards. But it certainly makes the narrator seem like a selfish jerk.

The scientific language is overwhelming, but it all appears to be accurate. (See comments section below.) In particular, it really is theoretically possible to produce metals that have such low entropy (that is, which are unnaturally well-ordered at the atomic level) that under stress, they can convert energy into entropy. Similar to how the ceramic plates in a bullet-proof vest can absorb the energy of a bullet by shattering, but with much greater effect than that. No wonder it's worth going to so much trouble!

By the logic of the story, the only way to turn this theory into practice is to have metallurgists working for months at the atomic level, and (leaving hard science behind) this is accomplished by having their minds leave their bodies--at the risk that they won't be able to return to their bodies (or won't want to) when their time is up. Some people believe in "the cloud." That the ones who don't return become part of an invisible community of spirits that inhabit all the new metals being produced. Others think those people simply die.

The narrator knows that sometimes at the rejoining, some feelings from the residual personality (with whom he's had this affair) will get absorbed into the returning person, but the odds are low. His friend has given him a tool that will guarantee that if the returning personality doesn't accept the memories of him, then it just won't rejoin at all. Either way, he wins, but if he doesn't believe in the cloud, then what he's doing is killing the original personality (except in the low-odds case where she accepts him).

The spinoidal curve marks the boundary where a mixture can easily separate out into two materials. Bamobah and her primary are supposed to reunite into a single entity, but the narrator wants to preserve the separation, so the title is appropriate to the story.

Finally, I'd like to complement the translator. Most translated stories have an awkwardness to the dialogue and even the narration, but this one is quite smooth in both regards. And I applaud her willingness to go to bat on behalf of the scientific accuracy of her author.

Con: The biggest problem with the story (and the main reason I'm not giving it 4 stars) is the very heavy use of scientific jargon that isn't relevant to the plot. Passages like
Some alloys can kill. Death may lurk inside the Guinier-Preston zones, and if not death, then at least transformation precluding return. Metallurgists know of these places and avoid them, surround them with walls of precipitates, concentration gradients and nanostructured boundaries.
cause the eyes to glaze over--particularly when this is not a hard-SF story. The reason I say that is that even though the materials science is accurate, it's not relevant to the plot. Neither the narrator nor Bamobah tries to use the materials science to to solve their problem. The central problem of the story doesn't involve the real science; it's all about the near-fantasy element where the "astral form" of the metallurgists goes into metals and does all the hard work.

That's why I was slow (again, see comments below) to realize that the scientific terms were real. Whether they were real or just made up, they were only decoration, and most stories that use scientific-sounding terms for decoration either misuse them or just make them up.

On a separate note, we never learn much about the characters. What does the narrator see in Bamobah, and vice versa? This keeps the story from having a big emotional impact. Finally, there's no tension, since we never find out whether he really does it or not.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 03/28/18)
Hanuš Seiner Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Hi Greg, thank you for the review. However - if you talk about releasing structural entropy, it's best to talk about kilojoules (for a given temperature when it occurs). To say that entropy was released in joules per kelvin is like saying that you have withdrawn your bank account interest of two percent per year. That is the correct unit for the interest, but you're withdrawing a specific amount at a specific time.
    Errors like that in a review don't exactly inspire confidence.
    All the best,

    1. You're arguing that "structural entropy" isn't the same as entropy, in much the same way "specific energy" isn't the same as energy. I'd buy that (and apologize) if I could find a scholarly reference to such a definition.

      I did find a paper that defined structural entropy as a unitless quantity (or bits, if you'd rather), but that's just the information-science definition of entropy, which is rather different from the Boltzman definition.

      Do you have a reference to a scholarly paper (or other resource) that would support your definition?

    2. I'm not arguing that structural entropy is not the same as entropy. However, structural entropy can change for a given temperature. Since Hanuš is actually an accomplished material scientist (unlike you or me, a biologist), I asked him to help me introduce the concept to you in a way you'd understand.

      The term "structural entropy" (or lattice entropy) in material science is commonly used to describe a mechanism of (mechanical) energy dissipation by increasing disorder in the crystal lattice instead of producing heat. This is used mainly for smart materials, such as ferroics, etc. Although it might be not exactly correct, people quite often say something like "this part of energy goes to heat and that part goes to structural entropy" instead of "to structural entropy times temperature", which would sound kind of awkward.

      A good examples is a paper by E. Hornbogen (J.Mater.Sci.39 (2004) 385-399), who writes, literally: "More or less, the energy is dissipated as structural entropy." By the way, this is one of the most massively cited papers on damage cumulation in smart materials. Other good examples of this "jargon" are in the papers citing this one.

      In a more general sense, one can always think about entropy as of a (one-way) energy reservoir - if the entropy in the system is somehow artificially kept low, for example by ferroic ordering, by releasing the entropy at given temperature one can obtain a place where the excess energy (for example from a mechanical impact) can be sent. In the story, annihilation of antiphase boundaries leads to such an artificial decrease of disorder, which leads to creation of such a resevoir. Well, "...pumping into the material the possibility to dissipate kilojoules and kilojoules of mechanical energy by release of structural entropy at given temperature." might be more correct, but I cannot imagine a material scientist saying that. And it would be much harder for a casual reader to read it as well.

      By the way, chemists sometimes use "configurational entropy" (not structural) in a similar sense.

      I hope that's satisfying and understandable.

    3. I checked out the article. Very impressive. I'll amend the review. Please convey my apologies to the author--and my thanks.

      If you have a strong science background and you read a lot of hard SF, you'll quickly discover that a lot of "fake science" gets into print. So when I see references to terms I don't recognize, I get suspicious. Still, even with a strong background, it's impossible to know everything about every field, but as soon as I see something I'm sure is wrong, I instantly decide that the rest of it was fake. In this case, though, the mistake was mine. Sorry (again) about that.

      I reread the story, with the knowledge that the materials science is accurate, and it definitely is a different experience. I'll update the review in the next day or two.

      Thanks for taking the time to contact me directly. I do appreciate it. And I learned something! :-)

    4. I updated the review, raising it from 2 stars to 3 stars with an honorable mention.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to educate me on this. I do appreciate it.