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Back in deepest water

Early Monday 26 March 2012 local time, film director James Cameron became the third person to visit Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean. It was last visited in 1960, by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the bathyscaphe Trieste – see here. Challenger Deep is a slot-shaped depression in the floor of the Marianas Trench, is 10,898.4 metres beneath the surface of the sea, where the water pressure is 114,000 kPa (about seven tons per square inch).

Cameron made the trip in a submersible called Deepsea Challenger, which was developed in secret. Unlike the Trieste, it did not use gasoline for buoyancy, but syntactic foam. The trip took Cameron over two hours, less than half the time it took Piccard and Walsh to make the same journey. He remained on the ocean floor for three hours – and not the planned six due to a hydraulic fluid leak. The Trieste spent less than twenty minutes in Challenger Deep.

There is an X-Prize associated with Challenger Deep: $10 million to the first organisation to make two crewed descents. This does suggest Deepsea Challenger will make another trip soon.

The fact that a private individual has achieved this – and he wasn’t the only one planning to do so: Richard Branson has a submersible of his own – does make you wonder if the first trip to Mars will be funded by some starry-eyed multi-billionaire. In Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), the first Mars mission was partly funded by a film studio, who wanted to make a movie there. The novel was intended as a satire, but it could be sadly prophetic.

This is not to belittle Cameron’s achievement – though, to be fair, it hardly presented any insurmountable engineering challenges. The Trieste made the trip more than half a century ago, and consisted of a hollow steel ball attached to a float filled with petrol. Its designer, Auguste Piccard (incidentally, Hergé’s inspiration for Professor Calculus), had started work on his first bathyscaphe in 1937, and the Trieste‘s keel was actually laid in 1953. Deepsea Challenger is a far more sophisticated vessel, but a descent to Challenger Deep could have been made any time during the past fifty years.

All the same, it’s pretty cool. Though I doubt we’ll ever see people living and working in Challenger Deep.



What are we going to do when we get there?

Look what arrived in the post yesterday: my contributor copy of Where Are We Going?, an anthology edited by Allen Ashley and published by Eibonvale Press. It looks very nice indeed. And it has an excellent line-up too.

And here’s my story, ‘The Way The World Works’. It’s my bathypunk one – see here. It’s good to finally see it in print.

The anthology was launched in London on 2 March. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, but judging by the write-up and photos here, it went very well indeed.


In the deepest water

At 8:15 on the morning of 23 January 1960, Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh, US Navy, climbed into the pressure sphere of the bathyscaphe Trieste, and sealed the hatch. Less than ten minutes later, they were descending towards the floor of the Pacific Ocean, towards the floor of the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean: Challenger Deep.

Challenger Deep is 35,994 feet (10,971 metres) deep. If you put Mount Everest in it, there would still be a mile of water above the mountain’s peak. It is a slot-shaped depression, about one mile wide by four miles long, in the floor of the Mariana Trench. There have been only three descents to Challenger Deep. The Trieste‘s was the first, and the only one to carry human beings. Two remotely operated vehicles have also been there: Kaikō in 1995 and Nereus in 2009. Given conditions on the floor of the Mariana Trench, this is hardly surprising. Down there in the hadal zone, the pressure is close to seven tons per square inch, the temperature is around two degrees Centigrade, and light itself cannot reach. Yet there are creatures living there.

Seven Miles Down by Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz is the only book written specifically about the Trieste and its descent into Challenger Deep. The Trieste was invented by Piccard’s father, Swiss professor Auguste Piccard, who was apparently the inspiration for Hergé’s Professor Calculus. Piccard senior was one of those scientist-inventors who no longer seem to exist. In the 1930s, he built a balloon with a pressurised gondola, and ascended into the stratosphere, the first person to ever do so. A decade later, he turned his attention in the opposite direction, and invented the bathyscaphe, or “deep boat”, in order to study the depths of the ocean. It operates much as a balloon does, although using gasoline, which is lighter than water, rather than air. His first such vessel was the FNRS-2, named for the Belgian Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, which financed its construction and early operations. It was later sold to the French Navy, who upgraded it to the FNRS-3. The Trieste, however, was privately funded.

I forget where I stumbled across mention of the Trieste‘s descent to Challenger Deep. I was aware of it, of course; but knew little beyond the fact that it had happened. I certainly didn’t know that this year was its fiftieth anniversary. I remember watching the BBC submersible drama series The Deep, which featured a drilling rig on the floor of an ocean trench some 20,000 feet below the sea-surface. While The Deep wasn’t very good (nuclear reactors do not explode), I thought a crewed facility on the floor of the deepest part of the ocean might make a good location for a short story. So it might well have been that which inspired me to look up the Trieste

… at which point I discovered that there’d been very little written about the descent. Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings and a number of books were published to celebrate it. This year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Trieste‘s descent and there’s been… nothing. In fact, the only things I could find proved to be contemporary with it: an article from Life magazine written by Walsh (see here), and Seven Miles Down by Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz. And the latter has apparently never been reprinted since.

source: Wikipedia

The book is actually more a history of the Trieste, and Piccard’s involvement with it, than it is a blow-by-blow account of the descent to Challenger Deep. The opening chapters cover the FNRS-2 and -3, the difficult time Piccard senior making his dream of a bathyscaphe reality, and the early dives. There is mention of Otis Barton and William Beebe, who invented the bathysphere and pioneered direct study of the deep ocean using a submersible. About halfway through the book, Dietz joins the story. An oceanographer attached to the US Navy’s Office of Navy Research and based in London, he helped persuade the US Navy to buy the Trieste and put Jacques Piccard under contract. During the second half of the 1950s, the Trieste made some thirty-five descents, piloted by Piccard and carrying scientists as observers. These were initially in the Mediterranean, and later off the coast of California. It was not until 1959 that a request was made of the Chief of Naval Operations to authorise “bathyscaphe (Trieste) operations (Project NEKTON) in the Mariana Trench, between November 1959 and February 1960”. Permission was given, a new and stronger pressure sphere was ordered from Krupps of Germany, and once that was fitted the Trieste was shipped from her base of operations in San Diego to Guam. She made six descents to various depths in the South Pacific before Piccard and Walsh made their record-breaking dive to Challenger Deep.

source: US Navy

Much of Seven Miles Down is written from Jacques Piccard’s point of view, although he does hand over the narrative at various points to Dietz. The prose is workmanlike but readable. Piccard maintains a nice balance between technical detail and his own impressions and experiences. It makes for an interesting read, although the prose doesn’t really come alive until the chapter on the descent to Challenger Deep. The technology involved is perhaps not as fascinating, and nowhere near as complex, as that in the Apollo programme, but the descents were every bit as dangerous – in Challenger Deep, there were 200,000 tons of water pressing on the Trieste‘s pressure sphere, for example. If Piccard had miscalculated the amount of gasoline needed in the float, or iron shot used as ballast, the bathyscaphe might never have returned to the surface. In fact, they were very lucky: during the descent, Piccard and Walsh heard something explode but could not work out what it was (on previous dives lights, a camera, and stanchions had all imploded). It was only during the ascent that Walsh spotted that the window at the rear of the antechamber had cracked. If it gave way, they could not clear the water from the antechamber and entrance tunnel and so would be unable to exit the sphere. They’d have to remain inside it for the five-day journey back to Guam and dry dock. Fortunately, the window didn’t break.

An appendix gives the technical specifications of the Trieste, and lists all sixty-five dives made by the bathyscaphe between 1953 and 1960. After the descent to Challenger Deep, the Trieste returned to San Diego but did not dive again. In 1963, she was modified and then used to search for the missing submarine, USS Thresher. She underwent numerous modifications and upgrades over the years before eventually being retired in 1980. She now resides at the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington DC.

Here’s an excellent video by Rolex about the Challenger Deep dive:

Finally, this year the X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million prize for the first privately-funded submersible to make two crewed descents to Challenger Deep. And yes, I did write a science fiction story set in a crewed base in Challenger Deep. It just needs a little more work before I start submitting it…


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.