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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #18 - Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have written together more than a dozen very good thrillers. But they have also authored books on their own. I just finished reading Impact, by Douglas Preston, a gripping Science Fiction story.

I found the story very good and free from all small typos and mistakes that so often mar paperbacks.

But, unfortunately, Preston made a huge mistake that actually invalidated the whole story. I know, “suspension of disbelief” and all that, but this mistake also causes a completely unacceptable inconsistency within the story.

WARNING: Spoiler. In the rest of this article, I’m going to reveal some key elements of the plot and hit at how it ends.

The premise of the whole story is that an alien race, around 100 million years ago, placed an intelligent machine inside the Voltaire crater on Deimos, the smaller of the two moons orbiting Mars. Awakened by an exploration probe, the alien AI sends to Earth a sort-of asteroid entirely made of strange matter. It then sends another, bigger, asteroid, also entirely made of strange matter, to the Moon, almost destroying it.

The first asteroid reaches Earth on April 14. Its speeds is measured to be 48 km/s (page 10). When, days later, the second asteroid hits the Moon with devastating results, the US top military brass wants to nuke the machine and be done with it. But they are told that it would take at best nine months for a space mission to reach Mars, and, in any case, the next window of opportunity for a Mars launch would be almost two years off (page 442).

On page 439, the US president is told that “the Deimos Machine can’t fire unless Voltaire crater is oriented toward the Earth. And since it’s a deep crater, the orientation has to be fairly close. [...] It was aligned in April [...]. The next alignment was tonight. You saw what happened to the Moon”. When the president asks “When’s the next alignment?”, the reply is “Three days from now”.

Do you see the mistake?


Think about it: Earth and the Moon were struck on the same nights when the crater was aligned, first in April and then less than a day before the meeting described on page 439. But how could that be? Strange matter or not, an asteroid travelling at 48 km/s takes at least three months to travel from Mars to Earth. Actually longer, when considering that the asteroid’s speed must have been highest when it was measured on Earth, because it was moving toward its perihelion.

How could an asteroid possibly reach Earth shortly after leaving Mars? Preston could have had the president ask that question. Then, a scientist could have said something like “The Deimos Machine must be able to operate some sort of teleportation mechanism. Perhaps it can open a wormhole and send the asteroids through it. After all, these aliens can travel between the stars. That’s probably why we didn’t detect the large asteroid that hit the Moon”.

But that would have not worked either, because on page 463 (the second last of the novel) one of the main characters says “Last week, one of the satellites in place around Deimos by chance intercepted a powerful burst of radio noise from the artifact. Evidently a communication of sort”. In other words, the machine didn’t use wormholes or other fancy stuff to send a message to its constructors. It only used a burst of radio waves. And if the machine doesn’t have any “subspace-like” capability of sending information, it doesn’t make sense to hypothesise that it has it for an asteroid.

Then, we can only conclude that Preston just screwed up.

And obviously, without a “magic” quasi-instantaneous travel from Mars to Earth, the story becomes impossible. By the time the first asteroid hit Earth, there might have been dozens of them on their way. It would have been too late for one of the protagonists to stop the machine and save the planet.

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:

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