Oct 22 2008

Chocolate Fusion

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Nineteen eighty nine was an interesting year. On a personal note, it was the year I married Jill and moved to Colorado. In physics news, “high temperature” superconductors were all the rage (compared to liquid helium, liquid nitrogen is high temperature), and Pons and Fleischmann had just made their stunning announcements of cold (room temperature) fusion in a test tube. There was a lot of discussion pro and con on the latter, of course, and Jerry Pournelle’s conference on BIX was abuzz with it. Somewhere in there I came up with the transposition code mentioned below, and as it happened, Larry Niven was going to be in Denver for an SF con that coming weekend. Inspired, I dashed off the story below.

The title of course is borrowed from Niven’s “What Can You Say About Chocolate Covered Manhole covers?”, and if you haven’t read that story, get thee hence immediately and do so; you won’t get the joke in mine unless you have. It was originally anthologized in his All the Myriad Ways which includes many excellent stories, including the Hugo-nominated eponymous one. “Manhole” was reprinted in N-Space, which is still in print. So go, now. I’ll wait.

Back? Okay, with that in mind:


Copyright © 1989, 2008 by Alastair Mayer, all rights reserved.

I should have thought it through. Larry Niven’s characters are always talking about thinking things through, and I’ve been a fan of Larry’s writing for years. That’s what got me into this mess, I guess.

It goes back as far as the discovery of ceramic superconductors, perhaps. High temperature superconductors figure a lot in some of Niven’s stories, although at the time nobody thought they were possible. So when they were discovered, I naturally thought of his stories. But hey, a lot of science fiction writers can have predictions come true. And Larry was sufficiently vague about how his superconductors worked. Hard SF writers give good mumbo-jumbo.

It was the cold fusion announcements that really got me intrigued, though. Again, Niven has used practical fusion devices in a lot of his stories. The ship drives of the asteroid dwelling Belters used “crystal-zinc fusion tubes”, for example. Of course, the real cold fusion tubes turned out to use palladium, but the crystal structure is important.

Then it dawned on me. The symbol for the element palladium is “Pd”, and for zinc is “Zn”. If the letter “P” is shifted ten letters up the alphabet, you get “Z”; likewise, if you shift “d” ten letters you get “n”. “Zn” is a simple transposition cipher for “Pd”. I wondered how much Larry really knew about crystal palladium fusion tubes when he talked of “crystal-zinc”.

I might have let it go at that if it weren’t for his story, “What Can You Say About Chocolate Covered Manhole Covers?”. It’s a short entertaining story on the aliens-among-us theme. The aliens are breeding humanity to higher intelligence, selecting the best of a group, isolating them to breed a new, more intelligent group, and so on. One alien tests us by coming up with intriguing questions and suggestions at, say, gatherings of SF fans, and seeing who takes up the idea and runs with it. The title comes from one such question: “what about chocolate covered manhole covers?”.

Not that I really thought that Larry Niven was an alien, of course, although it might explain where he got some of his ideas. I did think that it would be a good conversational opening gambit to go up to him and ask “what about chocolate covered fusion tubes?” and waiting for the reaction. As it happened, he was a guest of honor at a local con at which I’d also been invited to speak, so I’d have my chance. Dumb.

“Manholes” should have warned me. The principal characters in that story deduce the truth, and the reward for their ingenuity is to get stranded on another planet. It should have occurred to me to wonder just what might happen if Larry Niven really was an alien among us.

So here I sit, on a deserted beach on I know not what planet. Not Earth, not with at least two moons. I should start looking for food and shelter soon. Meanwhile, I think I can use the fusion tube he left to keep me warm for awhile, and the chocolate coating is pretty tasty.


I did get an opportunity to show this to Larry at the con. (Note, I would emphatically not recommend just dumping a manuscript on your favorite author at a con; in this case there was a prior connection (I’ve been Pournelle’s guest at Niven’s house a couple of times), it was a quiet time in the con-suite, and I asked nicely first.) He seemed amused and granted permission for me to publish it (if I could find an interested editor). I never did circulate it much, the time was already passing and it’s rather an “in joke”.

But what the heck, it was fun. 😉

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