I promised myself that during August I’d have a go at writing a space opera – you know, a proper one, with giant spaceships, aliens, awesome weaponry… that sort of thing. Not just because I enjoy reading such stories and would like to write one of my own, but also because I could make it all up. I mean, what would I need to research? The laws of physics? Most space opera stories ignore those pretty much, anyway. I could just take the story, and fly with it.
Sadly, I didn’t manage it. Instead, I wrote the first drafts of two stories – one set at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the other about the exploration of Mars. (This was on top of ongoing work on a novelette and a novel.)
Both stories required a lot of research.
The Mars one was the easier of the two. There’s plenty of material online – there’s even a Google map of Mars. Plus, I have several books on the exploration of the Red Planet: Mission to Mars, Michael Collins (I reviewed it here); The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin; Mars 1999, Brian O’Leary; and Mars Underground, William K Hartmann. So I had lots to read in order to make my fictional trip to Mars, and subsequent surface exploration, as accurate and authentic as possible.
The story set on the floor the Mariana Trench, which I’ve been referring to as my “bathypunk” story, was much harder to research. It seems bizarre that more information is available about Mars than about the bottom of the Pacific, but that does seem to be the case.
I forget where I first stumbled across mention of the bathyscaphe Trieste, which dived 35,767 feet to the floor of Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean on the planet, in January 1960. But the whole thing struck me as fascinating. Perhaps it was due in part to that recent, and terrible, BBC series, The Deep. However, what’s most astonishing about the Trieste‘s achievement is that it’s never been repeated. As one book says: hundreds of people have reached the summit of Everest, twelve men have walked on the Moon, but only two men have ever visited the deepest part of the ocean.
This January was the fiftieth anniversary of the Trieste‘s descent, but it’s been a curiously low-key celebration. There’s a very nice website here. But, while the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 resulted in the publication of a number of books (see here), there’s been nothing about Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh’s trip 36,000 feet down, where the pressure is close to seven tons per square inch, on the floor of Challenger Deep. The best account I’ve found online is this, the Google Books scan of a contemporaneous article in Life Magazine, dated 15 February 1960 and written by Don Walsh himself.
This made researching my story a great deal harder than I’d expected. Yes, writing most varieties of science fiction requires research. Getting the details right in, for example, spacecore – I invented the term, so I’m going to damn well use it – is important. Happily, there’s plenty of information available online – the Apollo Lunar Surface Journals, for example – and I also have loads of books on the topic. But for my bathypunk story, I wanted to know the answer to a simple question: what are the actual physical dimensions of Challenger Deep? It’s described as a “bathtub-shaped slot” in the floor of the Mariana Trench; but I can’t find how deep that slot is, how long it is, or how wide. There’s even doubt as to whether it’s the deepest part of the Mariana Trench – the Wikipedia articles on it, Challenger Deep, and the Trieste all appear somewhat contradictory.
In the end, I had to resort to ordering a copy of Seven Miles Down, by Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz. It was published in 1961, and appears to never have been republished since – not even for the fiftieth anniversary of the Trieste‘s descent. There was a Scientific Book Club edition in 1963, but that apparently doesn’t include the photographs in the original. Seven Miles Down is pretty damn rare. And expensive. Admittedly, I really do want to read the book, even if my bathypunk story, er, sinks without trace (although I’d sooner it didn’t, of course).
They say you should write about what you know. But, let’s face it, that would make for pretty boring fiction. And not just by me. It also makes little sense if you’re writing science fiction. Unless “what you know” can be read as “shit you make up that no one else has ever made up before”. Which is much harder than it sounds, and not always effective. Because how do you know that something you’ve just made up isn’t, well, wrong? You’ve just dreamt up this great idea: it’s sort of like a planet, but it’s actually a humungous ribbon which goes all the way around a star and people live on the inside surface of it… It’s a ringworld. And then someone reads your book featuring this ringworld and works out that it’s inherently unstable as described… Oops. Should have researched it.
Admittedly, it’s easy to get bogged down in the research for a story. And I actually enjoy reading about the stuff around which I base my stories. Sometimes, I’m already interested in a subject when an idea for a story comes to me – all those books I collect for my Space Books blog have inspired a few ideas, not all of which have become stories. Other times, something I read sparks an idea, which in turn requires research before I can make a story of it – like my bathypunk story, or ‘The Amber Room’ (see here). Then there are the ones where the idea comes out of nowhere, sometimes fully-formed, but usually vague and incomplete…
When I started this post, I’d intended to write about my experience in researching two different short stories, but I seem to have drifted from the point. Nonetheless, having read back over what I’ve written here, I’m now more determined then ever to see if I can write that space opera story, one where I can just make it all up, one that requires no research at all. Wish me luck.