Tag Archives: realism

A Couple of Very Reasonable Books

As promised, I finished Mission of Gravity. You know how in old Warner Brother’s cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would fly off the edge of a cliff, keep running, and then suddenly realize that there was no ground beneath him? It was kind of like that. I was literally halfway through the first paragraph of the author’s bio when I realized that the story was over, and I had to flip back a page or two to see where it had actually ended. Turns out I missed it because it never happened.

I’m not sure if it’s a “written in the 1950’s” thing, or the author trying to make sort of point, or what, but the story doesn’t so much “end” as “stop”. The entire plot of the book is that humans are largely unable to survive on the high-gravity world of Mesklin, and require the services of the natives in order to retrieve scientific data from a crashed rocket. Throughout the story, there were two big promises to the reader that kept getting made over and over again:

1) We were going to find out whether the rocket still existed, and whether it was worth the arduous trip to retrieve it and its data.
2) The main Mesklinite character is planning some sort of betrayal of the human characters.

That betrayal actually happens, but the humans reasonably realize that they need the Mesklinites help, and the Mesklinite request is so reasonable (education in basic science; they’re a medieval society) that the scene is almost over before it starts. Their request is granted; end of subplot. Reasonable. Not exciting.

As for the main plot, everything seems to be building up for a climax. After a difficult, painful journey by land and sea halfway across the planet, the rocket is finally in sight. Special care has to be taken in getting the data out because of the high gravity, but things seem to be going well. The end. Seriously. It’s implied that the data is safe and will be useful for the humans, but come on. Throw in a couple more pages of payoff. I was seriously disappointed, especially since the setting was interesting and the plot actually had some decent stakes. Then the ending just throws it all down the toilet.

The other book I’ve been “reading” (I actually listened to it in podcast form) is Captain’s Share by Nathan Lowell. It’s the story of a brand new merchant captain being assigned to the worst ship in his fleet, and his efforts to reform its crew. Although it’s pretty soft as science fiction goes, it had a pretty detailed look at the way that commercial space travel would work in its setting. I’m of two minds regarding the story – on the one hand, Lowell has an interesting writing style and gives great voice to his characters, but on the other hand, the novel had no plot.

Seriously. Characters move around and change, but there’s no narrative arc, no climax, no rising action even. It’s all just beginning with part of a middle but no end. Even worse, the characters, though interesting, were altogether way too reasonable (detecting a theme yet?). Captain Wong marches in, sees the sorry state his ship and crew are in, takes steps to fix it, and all of his steps work. By the end of the book his crew loves him and each other, and his ship is making lots of money. Ta da!

Which is too bad, because I enjoyed the book overall. You might even say that I enjoyed it in spite of its demonstrable faults, and in spite of them I’m not going to call it a bad book. After all, it entertained me, right? It entertained me enough to want to go back to the first book in the series, for that matter. I just wish that there was a little less sugar and a little more meat to the story.

Oh, and I read the young adult novel The City of Ember in about two hours. Not bad, fun setting, but it’s no The Hunger Games. The people were more reasonable, though.

An Historic Day

As a longtime cheerleader of private spaceflight company SpaceX, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce this morning that the second launch of their Falcon 9 rocket was completely successful. Its payload was the new Dragon spacecraft, also developed by SpaceX; the Dragon made several complete orbits of the Earth and successfully re-entered the atmosphere a few hours after launch.

To quote SpaceX’s press release,

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit. It is a feat performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.

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Space, Our Destiny

Today at work I listened to an older episode of the excellent podcast Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour: “Marsifest Destiny.” I stole that title for this post, obviously, because it’s awesome. And the podcast was pretty awesome as well, featuring guest Dr. Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and founder of The Mars Society. In fact I had read parts of his book while doing research for Fugitives from Earth*, but I didn’t really know anything about him until I heard him speak.

Now he is my hero.

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Life and Death in Space

There’s not always a lot of interesting things to write about while I’m slogging my way through the drafting process, so I’ve decided create a feature that I will call Scenes from the Future, wherein I detail scenes that I wrote in the past but take place in the future. Make sense?

Pretty much, I just want to chat about something cool that I wrote, even if I’m not experiencing quantum shifts in my writing style as I was during planning and I presumably will again during revision. Scenes from the Future will also involve bits of worldbuilding and character description that will hopefully be interesting. If it’s not, well, I’ll notice the plummeting readership and decide to do something different.*

Approximately the first quarter of my novel takes place on or above the Moon, specifically in the colony of Brighton (thank you, Martin Schweiger). The main

So I have this scene where the main characters have just escaped a moon colony, but in the process of doing so have wrecked their cargo crawler. They’re just outside the base by a few meters, but they’ve completely fragged the airlock and they’re losing air. As hypoxia begins to set in, headaches and decreased awareness begin to plague our heroes.

Meanwhile, assistance is on the way. They had a ship in orbit the whole time, but due to a personality conflict between a main character and the rest of their crew, they weren’t really communicating. However, when the ship gets information that the MCs have been arrested, they decide to help. So a lander is on its way.

The lander reaches the crawler just as its air is running out. Seeing a ship landing (but not knowing who it is), the MCs use the crawler’s radio, a simple transponder, to step on the traffic control frequency and act as an emergency beacon. This guides the lander right to them.

There’s one final problem, though: the lander can’t mate its airlock with the crawler: there’s far too much debris about. So, what follows is a sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein the MCs have to take a short walk through vacuum over the lunar surface and jump into the lander’s open airlock.

I did a bit of research on this. I think that most people know that humans won’t explode when exposed to vacuum, nor will their blood spontaneously boil. The real danger is decompression, wherein the lungs might be damaged by the sudden expansion of the air in them. In this case the MCs were in such low pressure to begin with that it wasn’t a real worry. Neither did they have to worry about freezing to death: vacuum is an excellent insulator.

The two biggest worries are severe edema of the skin, radiation exposure, and asphyxia. A human exposed to vacuum will have about 9-12 seconds of functional consciousness, which in this case is all that’s necessary. Radiation exposure isn’t the biggest deal in the future; a number of factors ameliorate its impact. And lastly, edema due to vacuum exposure is transient (though thoroughly painful). As long as total exposure lasts less than 60-90 seconds, a full recovery is likely.

I tremendously enjoyed writing this scene. It developed pretty organically and I felt that the resolution wasn’t too contrived. And as always, I enjoy showing off my research.

*I’m pretty sure my readership is low enough that it cannot ever, technically, plummet. I choose to view this in the most positive possible way.

Mars Gets All the Love

Mars gets all the love. When you hear somebody, whether a scientist or a civilian, talking about another planet in the Solar System, invariably they’re talking about Mars. Mars used to have water. Mars might have life. Mars Mars Mars. Enough, I say!

That probably needs some qualification. Obviously Mars is nearby, it has a 24-hour day, and it’s thoroughly habitable by the standards of, say, Mercury. It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that there have been a lot of scientific missions to Mars, and additional ones are being planned. It’ll be the first planet in the Solar System other than Earth to have a human presence.

However, that doesn’t excuse the favoritism that it gets in fiction. In fact, Mars has a lot of disadvantages for certain activities: it’s farther from the Earth than Venus (on average), it gets about a fifth of the solar energy that Venus does, and it would very likely require more energy to terraform, since it has no atmosphere or active geology. So really, where’ the love for Venus?

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Avoiding Cliches

I’m not sure if science fiction has the most cliches of any literary genre, but it’s sure got a pile of them.* Go ahead and think for a second, I bet you’ll come up with a few even if you’re not really into science fiction.

As a noob science fiction writer, my goal is to stand out by trying to avoid or invert as many cliches as possible without becoming contrary for the sake of contrariety. I’ve put a little bit of thought into this today and I figured I’d list a few ways that I’m trying to be a little different, while at the same time revealing some worldbuilding details that you might be interested in. I decided to go for the first cliches that popped into my head: warp drive (or FTL, whatever), the world government, and (blah) space as an ocean.

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