Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

Here’s the original thread if you prefer to read it in situ on Twitter. The notes are slightly cleaned up.


Next up in my twitter live reads: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower, on physicist Freeman Dyson and his historian son George Dyson (ht @andersen for reco).

I’m coming in to this fairly cold. I’ve read Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson and met him briefly once at a conference. Freeman I only know of vaguely via the Dyson sphere and nuclear rocket concepts. Let’s see what we can learn of this pair. I assume Esther will cameo too.

We open with 2 chapters on trees. Physicist Dyson Sr, is speculating about growing huge trees on comets to make them habitable, Hippie Dyson Jr. is literally living up a tree in British Columbia. This is off to a promising start. I think Dyson trees were featured in Hyperion?

Okay Jr. is basically a more rugged and honest Thoreau, up a tree instead of waldenponding. He’s got an intriguing thing going. He’s competing with squirrels for insulation. He traps and releases them. We’re in the early 70s.

Couple of workmanlike chapters sketching out Sr’s life as a prodigy. Educated during WW2 under Hardy at Cambridge, wartime work on bombing logistics leaving him with a sense of being a mass murderer, then off to Cornell to study QED with Bethe and Feynman. Genius stuff done early.

Again that sense, as in the Astounding review, that in the 40s there were only about a dozen people doing anything significant. Everybody else was interchangeable parts. Amazing how often the same people show up in all the stories.

After a few chapters focused on George’s life in PNW and some fine evocative prose on the Inside Passage natives, we’re back in Chapter 15 with Sr. and the Orion project. Nuclear-powered rockets.

“It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilization that small groups of men can escape from their neighbors and from their governments, to go live as they please in the wilderness….”

“… A truly isolated, small, and creative society will never again be possible on this planet” — from Sr’s manifesto in 1958. Very Buckyfullerish. Brower is really laying it on thick re: yinyang between Freeman’s space poiesis and George’s PNW praxis.

The Orion rocket idea finesses temperature limitations of metals by having the nuclear explosions kick it up very quickly. 80,000 kelvin for a millisecond. Chemical rockets are continuous 4000k thermal stress. This is not a subtle device 😆.

A heavy lens-shaped aluminum pusher plate greased between 2Hz explosions to drive a vehicle via a pneumatic shock absorber. “Lurches but not unpleasant. Greased like a channel swimmer, Orion would frog-kick through the void.” I sense a contrast to George’s canoes coming soon.

“Orion in its enormous power could haul such excesses of freight that no cleverness was necessary in planning staterooms and storage” There’s the buckyfullerish expansive-abundance thinking. Strategery is for the delta-vee poors. We kinda got there with wasting transistors.

Strikes me that effective futures thinking is the opposite of nuanced. Inventing the future = generate a giant surplus to swamp out uncertainty. The details don’t need elaboration, just a bounding box of abundance to emerge in. Orion = nuclear cornucopia out of gravity wells.

The account of PNW native art a few chapters ago had shades of that same theme, except in a natural setting. Giant surplus of seafood driving native art. Neal Stephenson riffs on the same thing early in Cryptonomicon. Wonder if he got it from this book.

“For bigger ships, using existing stockpiles of weapons would have worked. Just put enough propellant around, and it didn’t matter that the charge was not shaped. That was characteristic of everything we did. It was always easier if you made the thing big enough.”

Damn an actual formula in this book. No wonder it’s not well known. Every formula halves sales according to Hawking heuristic.

The description of Freeman as a theoretical physicist with an eye for beauty, but also a very good engineer with an intuition for the essential part of a messy practical problem, suggests a very rare mind. Musk for example doesn’t have the physicist side afaict.

There’s YouTube videos of the Project Orion tests. Fascinatingly weird. Frog kicking is right. A jellyfish doing frog kicks.

Now at George’s main act. Now we learn of the Baidarka, the Aleutian wood/whalebone-and-skin kayak he reinvented with aluminum and fiberglass and wrote a book about which I might now have to read.

While we’re talking lost maritime crafts, here’s another book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a while and might read, on the wave navigation methods of the south seas

Now we meet George’s shady ex drug-dealer friend. George is some mix of Walt Whitman, John Muir, and a cyberpunk high-tech/low-life guy at this point in the story, not the tech historian he became later.

Surprise twist: book is now dissing profligate artistic excesses of the inner passage natives and praising the Aleuts, who were less artistic, but more accomplished seafarers.

“The artistic dugout builders of the Inside passage hated to leave sight of land, and ventured over the horizon only when a harpooned whale towed them there, or when a storm blew them. The Aleut kayakers paddled over the horizon often, and on purpose” #TeamAleut #booFancyDugouts

Heh this is basically chemical rockets vs Orion. Though I don’t immediately see the rude abundance aspect of the Aleutian canoe. The radical lightness perhaps?

The Aleuts apparently routinely visited Kamchatka in Asia. Our planet is weird.

If my life depended on finding and killing seals in arctic conditions in one of these I would basically give up and die. “When he had knotted his last drawstring, the hunter was truly embarked. Man and kayak became a watertight unit, a sea centaur.” No thank you.

“It’s hard to devise a definition for sea mammal that does not make the Aleut a specimen”

“The forerunner of [non-Aleutian kayaks sold in stores] is not the sea lion but the beer can.”

Damn I had no idea Russians basically enslaved Aleuts during Russian Alaska times, and led a raid against Tlingit in Inside Passage in 1799. 500 Aleut canoes attacking Sitka 😱

Yay for practical George

Damn, George is a total badass. I had no idea when I met him. The kayak stuff was mentioned as a footnote in a space discussion.

He navigated the Yuculta rapids in his fiber glass baidarka over 3 days

On to Chapter 17: Oatmeal. Back to the Orion story.

Okay that was a short chapter. TLDR: Orion killed. On to Part 2: Chapter 18. Back with George and Baidarkanomics.

Now into George’s baidarka adventures. Not much to live tweet in this section. Just long, evocative passages about living lightly at interface of land, sea, and sky.

Now he’s mate and navigator of a barge carrying a small farm up to Alaska in a haywire operation that reads like Huck Finn in the Arctic

“One day a cow fell overboard. Carol Martin chaser it in the tug, twirling a lariat, full of happy memories of Colorado. He lassoes the cow from deck, and they hauled it aboard.” HOW IS THIS NOT A MOVIE? Shades of Oscar and Lucinda here

The barge had a piano that George played 😂

This trip up to Juneau with a bunch of cows, horses, farm stuff, a truck… legend

Now he’s done with the barge farm gig and is paddling from Juneau to Skagway. Google says ~7h in what looks like a ferry route. Alaska is huge.


After paddling a 100 miles in a day he makes camp on a beach… only to meet wolves. Who howl and have whales sing back. This is unreal/dream-like stuff wtf.

The economics in this story are interesting. Grandpa George was a royal court musician. Freeman was bound to the military industrial complex. George lived a rewilded life outside of the cash economy for the most part. At least for this 1970s frontier chapter of his story.

George makes plans to build a little cabin at glacier bay. Moonscape type territory. Ringed by mountains and inaccessible except for a few months in summer. He plans to have his climber friends bring food and stay. Inlet-keeper. This puts the hard in hard waldenponding.

Chapter 20. Still in the 70s. Plans to build his house interrupted. Park service want to hire him and his baidarka for research. The canoe can go where other vessels can’t. George is basically Arctic Han Solo with a baidarka for a millennium falcon and no chewy.

The idea of the house is now toast. George is now frontier guy setting up a summer camp in Torch Bay for the park service scientists along with guy named Ned Gillette. Cook, carpenter, etc. Book author enters the story as a character.

Summer camp scientist stories with George as yoda-cook. “George likes cooking for people who work hard. When he cooks for people who just sit around, it hurts his own sense of worth. He explained this pointedly several times, and we took it as a warning.”

‘“The cook has a lot of power, and I intend to use it,” George confided once to Ned and me. It was a funny line, or a disquieting one, I wasn’t sure which.’

New chapter. George has pre-installed a beef with a new arrival at the camp, a small mammalogist the book calls Mouse Woman. Wonder who it was. If this were a romance novel they’d fall in love or something.

George is a character out of Jack London. In this chapter he tries to make a crab trap (fail) and a spare paddle (success). Both projects use combos of natural material and tech material. The paddle is a spruce, plywood, and epoxy. Trap was a sapling plus beach-found junk netting.

Now “a wigwam… sweathouse… tepee of beachcomber plastic draped over a driftwood tripod.” Something childlike about this but with adult competence. I used to do stuff like this in the yard as a kid.

No-context George quote: “I’m on a different level…I’m building a different thing. I know it’s strange. But I’m an expert on this business of inner space and outer space, and how one is a manifestation of the other.”

This book is slow going because I’m reading a paper copy like a barbarian and I can only read for a half hour or so on the balcony before I lose paper-book stamina. Kindle ebooks so much better.

Ok a horrible cruise director type character has arrived and killed the energy, so George, who has been making mystical preparations to leave, is leaving with author. 2-person baidarka trip back south. On to chapter 27, back to Freeman.

Short Chapter 27: Freeman dreams up a huuuge nuclear rocket concept to go to alpha Centauri. I guess with Orion canceled might as well wrap up on a speculative high note. Chapter 28: George plans a huuuge canoe. Brower isn’t subtle about his juxtapositions.

“For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.” — Freeman Dyson

3 deft chapters on Freeman. On starship concepts, anecdotes from an exobiology conference, and one on space colonies. Philosophical differences with neighbor Gerard O’Neil of O’Neill cylinder fame.

O’Neill got famous for dreaming up large, comfy, expensive middle class space colony concepts. Iirc the thing in Neuromancer is an O’Neill cylinder? Freeman wants scrappy shoestring budget tin-can colonies modeled on the Mayflower economically. Pilgrims. Planters and adventurers.

George and Ken are heading south in the baidarka. Arctic huck finn type voyage.

That was a long languorous chapter on the voyage. Now some commentary. Brower declares both father and son romantic reactionaries but votes for the nostalgia of the son over that of the father. Freeman’s techno-utopian linear evolutionary visions are judged misguided.

Chapter on George and Ken recovering from exhaustion of 20h of rowing in Tyee, an abandoned cannery town. Both have fevers (coronavirus 🤔?)

Hunter graffiti to which George adds: Didn’t hunt, Didn’t kill, Came here And sat still — Dyson, 1974. Heh I was born in 1974.

George on pea soup made from a mix: “It’s amazing the stuff they pass off as food. It’s barely enough to let you survive. Just enough to let you sit in front of a TV set.” He’s suspicious of writers though he became one himself later. In this bit he and Ken aren’t getting along.

Chapter 37. How to reduce cost of space exploration by 3 factors of 10: fewer people, more risk-taking types willing to die, better tech. 10^3=1000. I think Elon is shooting for ~100

Freeman thought one space strategy was to simply wait a century after government programs quit and get junk for cheap, like Mayflower was a cheap private voyage more than a century after Columbus expensive state-sponsored exploration. With space it’s taken ~50 post Apollo.

George and Ken are scouring a junkyard for an aluminum pole and plate to make a rudder. It’s a year after their big voyage (which Ken quit in Ketchikan). The book really likes to lay it on thick re these father/son juxtapositions.

Now in a chapter on George’s enormous 48-foot 6-person canoe, Mount Fairweather. Built 1974-75. Dude’s a total Quixote. Apparently a legend in boatbuilding circles. I’d like to see it. Link to some pictures.

Big canoe about to launch. On a mad poet present for occasion: “His lines did not scan, but ended wherever he ran out of room. The poem itself ended similarly…Henry produces poetry the way a factory loom produces fabric — by the yard, and it can be cut off almost any place.”

Chapter 41: Ken goes to La Jolla to meet Freeman as weird sort of emissary from George. They take walks and stuff, discussing space, nukes, etc. Now on to Chapter 42, the reunion! Starship father meets Canoe son. “Luke, I’m your father” moment.

This collision of worlds is lit. Freeman checks out the treehouse and then goes with teen daughter Emily, and Ken, to rendezvous with George on some island. The journey itself is a gem of a vignette. The movie scene would be great.

“The plexiglass domes [on canoe manholes] were in place…Freeman repeated…that the canoe was beautiful. He confessed that he thought he would like it better without the domes — just the classic Aleut lines. The astrophysicist, oddly or not, did not like the spaceship look.”

This story is full of colorful side characters, like Will Malloff, a weird frontier guy who ran a 1-person lumber mill and bred Rhodesian ridgeback dogs (lion hunting dogs) on Swanson island, where Luke Dyson met Anakin “Darth Orion” Dyson.

“The Malloff settlement testified to the energy that two isolated people…can unleash. Here, I could not help thinking, was the kind of small colony [Mayflower mode] that Freeman Dyson advocates.”

This whole bit reminds me of the “Amazing Crusoes of Lonesome Lake”, also set in the region, which I read as a kid as a Readers Digest condensed book. Looks like British Columbia is the true last human frontier. Book.

Damn. 2 other characters present, Ron and Julie Moe, are ex lighthouse keepers. I guess this breed had not entirely been automated out of existence in 1975

Will’s grandfather was a Dukhobor. TIL file

Father-son moment: George: “What do you think about this idea of a radio? Some people think I’m crazy to want to put one in this canoe.” Freeman: “I think a radio in the canoe is a good idea. That’s what I like about you—you’re not a purist.” Next: paddle in a starship?

Freeman says he’s working on theory of what holds galaxies together Daughter Emily: “epoxy” (which George swears by for canoes) Now that’s a good family joke.

George and Ken save 2 men from drowning on last day on Hanson island. This book is just endlessly eventful.

Book closes with some wonderfully meditative and poetic short chapters. This whole thing has been an epic read.

Ok done. That was a totally wonderful book, and I’m glad I read it in sips sitting on my balcony in a pandemic. Thank you @andersen for the reco.

Series Navigation<< Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeNotes: The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil >>

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Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter