A good icebreaker question is “who is your favourite author?”. The problem that I find is that I read widely and there are often multiple contenders in different genres. The reason for picking a favourite may vary – a character who hits a nerve might stand out, but the writing itself might be quite vanilla. Alternatively, the writing might be beautiful, but the characterisation quite poor. Then, too, favourites change over time as our own thinking evolves and we take on new ideas from others. One of my stalwarts who has stood the test of time is Michael Scott Rohan. He is a writer with big ideas and whilst I don’t think I would ever put his books in the top three of any category, he would always be in the top ten, I think. For a rollicking, fun read, you can do worse than to read his collaborative writing with Allan Scott, “A Spell of Empire”, which has everything you could want in a fantasy novel without being too heavy.
MSR has written across the spectrum of speculative fiction. I think that the first book of his that I read might have been the Gates of Noon, and this led me into his other work, in particular the Winter of the World series, which in style and tone lies somewhere between the Eddings/Goodkind end of fantasy and the Tolkienesque. Perhaps rather more like Tolkien, in that it draws heavily on Norse mythology and is set in a time period during the height of the last major glaciation, perhaps ~50,000 years ago, albeit that he doesn’t go to the extent of creating new languages. It is a rather perfect example to draw upon for a series examining materials science in speculative fiction, given that the central character is a mage-smith. The series follows the fortunes of Alv, an unloved foundling-orphan who sheds his non-name to become Elof (a word from one of the ancient languages of the books with a dual meaning: “one alone” and “smith”). The books take place over a number of years and begin with him fleeing for his life and then being taken in as an apprentice to the slightly shady “Mastersmith”. Here he learns his craft and alongside the other apprentices finds that he has certain abilities beyond the norm for the average smith. He makes three articles for the Mastersmith in order to be considered a Journeyman. In the end his artefacts are even more powerful than the Mastersmith dared hope, and these pieces go on to cause a great deal of mischief in the world: the story is a classic “with great power…” fable, and the novels trace his fortunes as he attempts to put right the wrongs he has literally wrought. He is more or less successful and his ambition and (lack of) emotional maturity often get in his way. But his skill, his friends and his love for them see him through.
There are any number of examples of things that are manufactured in the books that we could talk about: some things, I’m going to talk about elsewhere, some are slightly too mystical for the purposes of our discussion and some are…well, you could always read the books for yourself!
Elof creates a number of swords during the course of the novels: one is one of the Journeyman pieces I alluded to earlier (one of the more mystical items), one is a sword he crafts for his friend Kermorvan, to replace two that Kermovan broke whilst rescuing Elof from various difficulties. The one I’d like to look at today though is very different – this is one that Elof rescues from a bog (during a period of his life where is living almost as a hermit on a causeway, helping travellers who need a smith as they pass by). Whilst the hilt has corroded away, the blade itself is in excellent condition and Elof cuts himself on it in the process of rescuing it. It is resistant to all his attempts to understand its structure, and when it is damaged in the course of the first book, he is unsure how to mend it. Realisation comes, with a hint from one of the ‘powers’ of the world, and he is finally able to claim true ownership when he is able to repair it (using the energy from a lightning strike in the process). The description in the book is meant to put us in mind of carbon fibre and the notes in the appendix are even more explicit on this point.
The problem with this is that if we appeal to a fiberized material then we need to have some sort of a matrix. I don’t propose to going into a great deal of detail about composites here, but a very quick 101 so that we can understand what, why and how: the reason that we would want to turn a material into a fibre is in order to eliminate structural defects that can occur in more bulk forms of the material. We might also find that we are able to achieve a microstructure that might not be achievable in other ways. But we are left with very fine fibres (carbon are of the order of 8 microns in diameter or about 1/12th the width of a human hair) and we need a way of handling them and using them, and protecting them, so that we don’t induce new damage. So we need a matrix material. In the 21st century, the market volume is dominated by polymer matrices, but metal and ceramic matrix composites do exist and are in use for a range of applications. Typically carbon fibre is used with polymer matrices to give a relatively durable material with good strength-to-weight properties. It is used extensively in the aerospace sector and is becoming popular in automotive applications.
But what about Elof’s sword? The description specifies a black blade, and this presents some problems. Assuming a polymer matrix composite then the sword would indeed look black but such a blade would be damaged very easily. Carbon fibre is used with aluminium, although this requires chemical treatment of the carbon fibre so that it doesn’t react with the aluminium – the reaction product is very weak and would compromise the composite. The problem that we have here though is that a) the aluminium would have corroded and b) aluminium is a bright, silvery metal (usually).
Carbotanium is a patented process for producing a laminated structure of titanium and carbon fibre and this, perhaps, gets closest to describing what is seen in the book, although the book predates the patent by several years.* You still wouldn’t get a ‘black’ finish to the sword, but Titanium is so corrosion resistant that this just might work for our mystery sword.
Legal disclaimer: there are situations where authors have described something in sufficient detail that it has not been possible to grant a patent. Robert Heinlein managed this with water beds, for example. I am not a patent lawyer, but I do not believe this to be the case here – I am speculating wildly based on _my_ knowledge of materials and some descriptions in a book. The matrix that Elof’s sword uses is not mentioned.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions – I haven’t even touched on how Elof’s predecessor got hold of some carbon fibre – but life’s like that sometimes. See you tomorrow!