It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Let’s hope it pays off…

Crystalic is melodic death metal band from Tampere in Finland. I’ve liked their music since stumbling across one of their demos a few years ago. In 2007, they released an album, Watch Us Deteriorate, on a small label. I bought it. Apparently, things have not been good since then and they no longer have a record deal. So they’re giving away their new album, Persistence, on their website here. It’s very good. Download it, listen to it, and spread the word.

The band are also going to self-release the album as a limited edition CD, which you can pre-order here. I’ve put my order in already.


I’ve suffered for my research, now it’s your turn

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.


There’s something moving in sf

There’s an interesting Mind Meld this week on SFSignal about “The Next Big Trend/Movement in SF/F Literature”. You can find it here. I noticed that my jetpunk (see here) doesn’t get a mention – although it has here in a post by Dr Nader Elhefnawy, which I suppose means it’s sort of arrived…

To be honest, jetpunk wasn’t an entirely serious suggestion, and I wrote the post chiefly because I liked the title “Vulcan Bombers in Space” and I wanted to post some pictures of cool aeroplanes. But I do think there’s room for some interesting fiction to be written in there – especially given that retro sf usually either means visions of the future from the 1930s – 1940s, or, well, steampunk and dieselpunk. The 1950s and 1960s were, I think, more interesting technologically, and some of the futurism from those decades would make for excellent science fiction.

(Source: Douglas Holland's Aerospace Site)

All of which got me thinking about other “movements” and what inspires me to write science fiction and what I try to put into my stories. I like the hardware, I freely admit it – I have all those books about the Apollo programme because I find the spacecraft, and the way they work, fascinating – the technology, the engineering, the science… and how that does what it does for those who use it. The hardware I find inspirational, but it’s the people using it I try to write about it.

And all those books about Apollo I’ve read persuaded me to try writing sf which was as realistic as I could possibly make it. Not Mundane sf – because I want to still use some of the genre’s tropes, like faster-than-light travel or aliens. But I wanted to show that space is a hostile environment, that getting out of gravity wells is difficult, that human beings can only operate in space because of the science and technology and engineering. And since I’d been thinking about trends and movements, I decided this should be called… spacecore.

(Source: NASA)

Then I had an idea for another story, but this time set in the depths of the ocean – which again is as much about technology as it is about people since the ocean depths are as inimical an environment as space. I was going to title the story ‘Base Under Pressure’, but that really is the worst short story title ever. Anyway, I thought, stories set at the bottom of the sea need a name too. How about bathypunk?

(Source: SEVEN MILES DOWN, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz)

At which point, I decided – and had pointed out to me by friends – it was all getting a bit silly. To tell the truth, my sf stories are hardly written down a single line in the genre anyway: the Euripidean Space stories are near-future hard sf; ‘Killing the Dead’ is set in a generation starship; ‘The Amber Room’ features alternate universes; ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ is near-future post-catastrophe… And the novels I’ve delivered to my agent are steampunk-ish space opera.

Also, movements and labels tend to be applied after the fact by commentators and critics. They point to a group of writings and decide they are enough alike to deserve a common term to describe them. Dreaming up a “-punk” or “-core” and then writing to it is apparently the wrong way to do it. Well, it is if you tell everyone that’s what you’ve done.

So I won’t. I’ll be thinking about jetpunk and spacecore and bathypunk and whatever other ones I dream up as I’m bashing out my stories. I’ll be thinking about the hardware and the people who use it. And if others do the same, if that means there’s a little less magic in sf and a bit more, well, science and technology, then I’ll consider that a good thing. But it’s not like a movement or a bandwagon or anything.

Unless you want it to be.