45th century transit information (quote of the week)

I'm unsuccessfully trying to go to sleep reading Iain M. Banks's science fiction novel Matter.  His heroine is thinking of making a trip:

Even without consciously thinking about it, she was there with a diagrammatic … representation of this section of the galaxy.  The stars were shown as exaggerated points of their true colour, their solar systems implied in log-scaled plunge-foci and their civilisational flavour defined by musical note groups …

An overlay showed the course schedules of all relevant ships and a choice of routes was already laid out for her, colour-coded in order of speed, strand thickness standing for ship size and schedule certainty shown by hue intensity, with comfort and general amenability characterised as sets of smells.  Patterns on the strands — making them look braided, like rope — indicated to whom the ships belonged.

— Iain M. Banks, Matter, p 95

If you've ever tried to make a clear and informative transit map, look up at the night sky!  Maybe somewhere out there, right now, unimaginable aliens are debating whether "schedule certainty" should be a hue, a pattern, or a smell.

10 Responses to 45th century transit information (quote of the week)

  1. Edward Re April 28, 2011 at 4:42 am #

    You wouldn’t read a map like you’re going on the open sea in the 19th C by then I hope. Tell him there are transit planners like http://www.131500.com.au. Maps are for planners. Consumers want to be taken to point B while they sit back and have a read, hopefully by a spaceship which has a smoother ride than a bus. Oh, don’t get me started on spaceships vs trams.

  2. Alon Levy April 28, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Spaceships with warp drives have a smoother ride than spaceships with jump drives. Nobody will ride a jump drive ship unless they’re too poor to afford their own ship.

  3. francis April 28, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    planning is hard enough in two dimensions… imagine 3 or more!

  4. metasyntactic April 28, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Then again, the characters in Banks’ world have the advantage of having instantaneous access (via a terminal or their neural implants) to the AI Minds that run the transit system on their space habitat or ship, should there be any question about scheduling. It would be hard (though wonderful!) to get our municipal or regional operators to be quite that responsive.

  5. Zoltán April 28, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    @Alon Levy
    This is especially true in parts of the universe where the ticket you bought on the warp drive ship isn’t valid on the jump drive ship, and vice versa.

  6. EngineerScotty April 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Wormholes are merely interstellar grade-separated transit systems.

  7. anonymouse April 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    @Edward, you’re wrong. Planners, even ideally, answer the question of “how can I get from A to B?”. In reality, they tend to answer “A to B at time T”, for a very specific value of T and with fairly little explanation of the consequences of being late, or choice to stick to services that are frequent and thus more tolerant of delay (your own, or that of prior services on the trip). But even an ideal trip planner won’t answer the question of “Where can I go?”. Which is a pretty important sort of thing if you want casual, non-commuter transit use.

  8. Cap'n Transit April 28, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Responding to Edward, I don’t think maps are just for planners. Some transit users are procedural navigators, but plenty are spatial navigators as well. And it’s definitely important to give people a sense of possibility, not only “where can I go?” but “Where can I go and be back in two hours?”
    Something was bugging me about this description, and it finally came to me. There is no redundancy in the signal. If you misinterpret a color or a thickness or a pattern, you have no other way of cross-checking that with information from another source, so you’re SOL. Even seamless telepathic links can have errors, so you need to build in some redundancy. It may slow things down, but that’s the price of accuracy.

  9. Ted K. April 30, 2011 at 6:56 am #

    Maps have audiences other than planners. I like to treat some for their aesthetic value (e.g. the Napoleon’s March On Moscow map). There have been those that stick pins in maps as a way of selecting their destination. I have used maps as a visualization tool that brings a dry list of sites (e.g. bookstores, branch offices) to life.
    Re : The described map
    I think that the map is in her minds eye via an implant. That would be a great way to save on hardware costs but only if you have enough bandwidth. And if she needs more detail she just thinks about taking a closer look at a particular section.

  10. Ethan Tucker May 1, 2011 at 2:09 am #

    I happened to be reading Matter this week too. Always enjoy Banks’ starship naming; this novel has the ‘Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill’ and ‘Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall’.