It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

1 Comment

The craft of space

I can’t decide if the success of USAF’s X-37B mission a couple of days ago is the most exciting thing to have happened recently regarding space, or simply further evidence that the US’s space programme is moribund. The Boeing X-37B is an unmanned orbiter which, like the soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle, is thrown into orbit atop a launch vehicle (an Atlas V) but lands like an aircraft on a runway. The X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB on 3 December after 220 days in orbit – photos here and video of the landing here.

The X-37B could be exciting because it’s a new orbiter. Admittedly, it’s the Space Shuttle’s Mini-me, and it’s robotic. But it’s new tech, and it’s likely to be kept up to date. So it might well be the first in a whole new, and evolving, generation of spacecraft. Which is important since, after all, launch vehicles haven’t substantially changed in more than fifty years. Rocket engines still work the same way; the same fuels are still used. But a cutting-edge orbiter? That’s a different matter.

Of course, there are a number of crewed spacecraft already in use, or at various stages of development. Soyuz, which is, ahem, as old as I am. Shenzhou. Also a handful of uncrewed spacecraft, such as Progress, ATC, H-II. SpaceX’s Dragon has had one test flight, but it was a stripped-down version and it’ll be a while yet before it’s capable of lofting people into orbit. Then there’s all those currently on the drawing-boards of numerous companies: Excalibur Almaz, Skylon, Lynx, CST-100, Dream Chaser… And, of course, NASA’s own Orion spacecraft.

I’m still not convinced that COTS, the reliance on the commercial sector to open up space, is going to work. It needs long-term, capital-intensive investment to really exploit space, and private companies won’t, and often can’t, do that. They may help populate LEO, but anything further, and more interesting, is out of their budget and timeframe. Perhaps it’s time the ESA’s member-states upped their contributions and set about doing something exciting involving people.

Some of you are no doubt wondering why this post isn’t on my other blog, A Space About Books About Space, as that would seem better suited to the topic. But I wanted to drag the news about the X-37B into the ongoing series of whinges I’ve posted here about realism in space-based science fiction. If it feels like I’m going on and on and on about this, it’s because a) I find the nuts and bolts of it all fascinating, and b) I think there’s plenty of opportunity in it for science fiction to do something interesting.

Which is not to say that I completely repudiate space opera and all that fanciful magic tech you find in most space-based science fiction. Yes, yes, I know: they’re literary devices. But the problem with literary devices is that they quickly become set-dressing. And then before you know it, they’re being used all over the place without any real thought for how they ought to be deployed. And, you know, sf has been doing that sort of thing for eighty years, so perhaps it’s time to try something a little different. Not that realistic space-based sf – or, as I call it, “spacecore” – has never been done before. You have everything from Jeff Sutton’s First On The Moon to Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series of novels. And plenty in between. For me, however, the two touchstones are Jed Mercurio’s Ascent and the BBC television series Space Odyssey.

More by accident than by design, I’ve been quite faithful in my own short fiction. My Euripidean Space stories (see here) may feature a mysterious alien sentinel loose in the Solar system, but otherwise treat space and space travel realistically. And my story in Postscripts 20/21, ‘Killing the Dead’ (see here), was set aboard a generation starship – so no fancy bending of the laws of physics there. I did say a couple of months ago that I was going to try writing a genre heartland sf story, with FTL and aliens and all the space opera trappings. But I couldn’t do it. One turned into a slower-than-light story, and the other ended up as a UK-based anti-capitalist tale.

Of course, not every sf story idea is suitable for either space opera or spacecore. But at the very least focusing on the mechanics and physics of space travel should prevent writers from writing skiffy – ie, sf stories that don’t really need to be sf. You know the sort I mean: the space destroyer and her noble captain, re-fighting WWII in outer space. I think they call it “military sf”… Recognising that space is not just the blank stuff between plot points can only help concretize the sfnal elements of a story, can only lead to a story which will only work in the setting invented for it.

These days, no sf writer has an excuse for not making an effort – all the information you need is at your fingertips. Everything you could possibly want to know, about everything from the interstellar medium to star maps to the Pioneer Anomaly, can be found somewhere on the Internet. And all those spacecraft I mentioned earlier? There’s plenty of info on those to be found online too. You can get a very real idea of exactly what is required for travelling or living in space.

There are too many monsters in science fiction these days. It sort of takes the science out of it. Shine a spotlight on the hardware, on the physics required for all to work, and we might get back to the sort of sf that inspired generations of scientists and engineers. It’ll be optimistic too. It’s the nature of the material.

And, it goes without saying, there’s more than enough wonder for everyone.


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.