Tag Archives: science fiction

340. Federated Space Service

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

A week ago today, Cyan was delivered to those who preordered from Amazon, and went on regular sale. If you’ve read past the opening segment, you know that the explorers who returned to Earth found it greatly changed.

From Cyan: All seemed well, on the surface, but something profound was happening to the people of Earth. They were waking up to reality. When interstellar exploration had begun, few had taken it seriously. Now the process was flushed with success, and that success carried the seeds of its own downfall.

Suddenly, all over Earth, people who had been indifferent to space travel, except to mutter about a waste of resources, became truly aware of what was happening. And they didn’t like it. In the vague common mind of the beast, numbers began to move in slow, painful calculations.

A few thousand colonists; billions of the rest of us.

They — the rich, the powerful, the smart, the educated, the lucky — they will go to the stars and walk the green valleys of paradise. We — the downtrodden, the ordinary, the workers, the plodders, the ones who really make things happen, the ones who always get screwed — in short, you and me. We will stay behind.

In the general elections of 2103, and in a hundred scattered elections and revolutions in 2104, the people of Earth turned on their leaders and said with a loud voice that the spacers who brought in the ore from the belt, and the workers of L-5, and especially those who were finding new worlds, were no longer heroic friends but dangerous enemies. They would no longer be given freedom to do as they pleased, but would be harnessed to the common good.

This was the Earth Darwin returned to in 2105. When Tasmeen signaled Ganymede Station, she received a taped reply.

“Welcome home, Darwin. You will find the language of this year somewhat different from when you left. When the Dog Star returned in 2088, we found that it would be best to train comtechs in the jargon of your departure year, and that is the reason for this tape.

“The biggest change you will have to be ready for is that NASA no longer exists … because after the general elections of 2103 the people of North America decided to combine all space efforts into one military organization. You are all now members of the Federated Space Service.”

Tasmeen said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

– – – – – – – – – – –

In point of fact, on our world, the war between NASA and the Air Force began on October 1. 1958, the day NASA came into existence and began to encroach on Air Force prerogatives. We’ll look at some of those early battles this week.

334. Making Videos for Cyan

I know from visiting your websites, that a lot, maybe most, of you either are or want to be writers. I’ve talked about some of the mechanics of that, especially in posts 133 and 134. During the last month, I’ve learned some more about how books are marketed in the age of the internet. I’ve had to make videos.

That proved harder than I thought it would, partly because of technology. Don’t think I’m a Luddite – I’ve been a computer nut since 1986 – but I don’t own a video camera. i don’t have kids to record as they grow, and I have no interest is seeing myself moving about on the computer screen.

Most of those who make videos to promote their books do so on their smart phones. I don’t have a smart phone. It is my firm belief that Alexander Graham Bell was an emissary of the Devil. I communicate the way God intended, by email, where I can correct my mistakes before I push send.

I finally used the camera built into my Mac. It makes a shaky, Skype-like picture, but that works well enough if you hold still and go into talking-head mode.

I didn’t want to ramble, so I wrote a script and tried out some videos. They stank (that’s the grammatically correct word that morphed into stunk about twenty years ago). It turns out that a glib, casual, conversational tone takes a hell of a lot of rewrites. I should have remembered that. I had to learn it two years ago when I wrote my first posts. I don’t mean numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .. I mean the ones you never saw because I trash-canned them.

Writing two masters theses and a bunch of novels did not prepare me to write posts. I had to learn a whole new, casual style. This month I learned that written-casual is not the same as spoken-casual — even if it is written as a script before it is spoken. It took quite a few tries to make the transition.

Eventually I made three videos for Brian at EDGE and he will put them on Youtube. They are an introduction to Cyan, the story of why I wrote Cyan, and a reading from Cyan. The first is already up; click here.

I’ve also tacked on the script I used in the Introduction to Cyan.

____________________

Hi. Welcome to my world, or at least to one of them. I’ve always been a fan of near future novels of exploration. There are so many things about traveling at sub-light speed that make for a great story.

Besides, it won’t be long until scientists have charted the actual planets around all the nearby stars. Then we won’t be able to make up our own planets.

Put those ideas together and you have Cyan, which is the name of me newest novel and the name of the planet that it takes place on.

In the year 2080 a crew of five men and five women, scientists all, set out for Procyon where they find a planet that stands straight up in orbit, with bands of unvarying climates. About 45 degrees north, is paradise.

But paradise with teeth — virgin, wild, beautiful, but very dangerous. Keir, our crewleader’s task is to keep his fellow explorers alive. He’s good at his job, but on a planet crowded with predators, that may not be enough.

For these scientists from vastly overcrowded earth, after years confined within the starship, the beauty and emptiness of Cyan is intoxicating.

They have one year to decide if Cyan is suitable for colonists, and it turns out to be perfect. But then one of the scientists picks up a flaked stone. This is not a natural occurrence. Someone, or some thing, has made it.

The explorers have discovered the Cyl.

The Cyl are a stone age group. They look nothing like man and their intelligence is low, but they are about to become much more. Evolution moves quickly under Procyon’s intense radiation, and the Cyl are poised to make the leap to full intelligence.

Earth needs Cyan to ease its massive population, and the Cyl need to be left alone to find their own destiny. Lines are drawn among the explorers and the resolution of the problem threatens to tear them apart.

____________________

When you get your copy of Cyan, you will see that this introduction actually only covers the first fifth of the novel. Giving a full summary would have made the video far too long.

333. Arthur C. Clarke: The Big Re-write

This is a follow-on to yesterday’s post.

There is an intellectual challenge in comparing Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night to his The City and the Stars. I could easily see someone writing a thesis in an English Literature program comparing the two in great detail. That would certainly make more sense that a thousandth thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses.

Clarke’s first version of the work, written, published, and praised, just wouldn’t let go of his mind. I get that; it happen to me twice. (The won’t let go part, not the published and praised part.) My second serious novel, Valley of the Menhir, came to me as a fragment and grew piecemeal over four decades. Cyan rolled along smoothly, and was almost finished (at about half it’s present length) when I ran into a problem I couldn’t solve without destroying the basic structure of the book. It sat in manuscript for years before I realized a way out of my dilemma.

Of course Against the Fall of Night was already out there, but the idea that a book could nag at a writer for years and finally cause a rewrite — even after it was published — makes perfect sense to me.

Truthfully, however, these two novels are the same story. Clarke would not agree, but I think he stood too close to both his works to judge. There are differences between the two, of course, and Clarke considered them significant. They don’t seem so to me.

In the introduction to Against the Fall of Night, Clarke said:

Between 1937 and 1946, at least five versions, of ever increasing length, were developed.

He also said this, which we already noted yesterday:

. . . undoubtedly, much of the emotional basis came from my transplantation from the country (Somerset) to the city (London), when I joined the British Civil Service in 1936. The conflict between a pastoral and an urban way of life has haunted me ever since.

Many people before Clarke had written to that theme without creating anything as lasting as the city Diaspar. Many people after Clarke recycled Diaspar, under many names in many novels. The movie Logan’s Run comes to mind. Yesterday I spent an hour in a local used bookstore and saw several forgettable (and actually forgotten) novels where the hero escapes from or is exiled from a sealed city and finds himself in a sylvan, or at least archaic, world.

I am glad to have reread The City and the Stars, and to have read Against the Fall of Night for the first time, but I don’t think I could recommend either to a modern audience. The writing style is not stilted, but it doesn’t sing. The premise is good, but a modern reader will have seen it already in a hundred novels published since mid-last-century. Finally, Clarke fails in his stated prime intention. He does not give a sense of deep time. When he says that some aspect of Diaspar has lasted a billion years, he could have said a thousand years instead, and the feeling would have been the same. I don’t fault him for this; I think the task was an impossible one. A thousand years or a billion years are both the same size when measured against the only yardstick that matters — “Longer than I will live.”

Diaspar, glorious as it is in Clarke’s description, had stood for billions of years and then was utterly changed by one young man is what appears to be about a year. Such an effortless transition has neither resonance nor believability. What Alvin does is powerful and meaningful, and Clarke’s creation of Diaspar, Lys, the Seven Suns, and Vanamonde is worthy of praise. But the changes that happen come too easily for full satisfaction as a novel.

Both versions of the story of Diaspar were great books for their time. Nevertheless, a modern reader encountering them today might shrug and say, “This is all old stuff. I’ve seen all this before.” He would not realize that these two novels, through their many imitators, are the reason the ideas seem familiar.

This all reminds me of Jekyll and Hyde. Almost no one has read the original, unless forced to in a literature class, but everyone knows the story. So which is great — the imitators everyone has seen, or the original everyone has forgotten?

332. Arthur C. Clarke: The Two Diaspars

In 1949, Arthur C. Clarke wrote his first novel Against the Fall of Night. Four years later, he rewrote it, and gave it a new title, The City and the Stars. Clarke himself said that only about 25% of the first novel resided in the second. My arithmetic doesn’t add up with his. I see them as much closer to each other than that; in some ways, barely different.

If you want details, go to the Wikipedia article on the latter novel. There is a section of comparison between the two books where the differences are laid out, but I find them superficial.

I read Against the Fall of Night for the first time this month. The City and the Stars, on the other hand, was one of the first proper science fiction novels of my childhood, and a major influence on me.

I read it soon after I found the local public library. Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton and dozens of lesser science fiction writers were suddenly available, where I had previously only had Tom Swift Jr. to read. About then I was probably reading three books a week, and at least half were extremely forgettable.

This would have been about 1960 or 1961, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Clarke was my main man then. That seems entirely appropriate; I was just really learning to think, and Clarke was all head. By the seventies, I couldn’t read him any more. His prose doesn’t sing and his characters have neither heart nor cojones. They weren’t quite wooden, but they were at least cloistered.

Actually, most of all, they were extremely British. And so are these two novels. Here is a quote:

Since that far-off day, Man had explored the Universe and returned again to Earth — had won an empire, and had it wrestled from his grasp. p. 97

That’s from The City and the Stars, the one I read as a child. At that time my understanding of the twentieth century was shallow indeed. Reading it again fifty-some years later, it is clear that the novel is largely a product of its time and place. Clarke had just moved from Somerset to London and found the transition difficult. Hence the contrast between Diaspar the uber-city and Lys the sylvan paradise. Both books revolve around the elegiac feeling of a time when mankind had forged a stellar empire and then withdrawn to Earth when (as his main character believes) they were driven back from what they had conquered.

World War II had just concluded. It had driven a stake through the heart of the British Empire. India won its independence in 1947, and the fifties saw one after another of the old colonies become new countries. At home in Britain, it was a time of deep austerities as the British tried do rebuild their nation out of the ruins of war. 

America suffered during the war; I do not disparage her losses, but no one bombed our cities to rubble, nor destroyed our economy. The fifties in Britain were not like the happy days of hot rods, tract housing, TV, freeways, and kitchen appliances.

Reading Against the Fall of Night or The City and the Stars today, as an adult aware of twentieth century history, that background informs my reading much as it surely informed Clarke’s writing. In both novels, the closed city of Diaspar is the last bastion of mankind in an Earth gone to desert, in a universe on which man has turned his back. Alvin, the hero, is mankind’s last hope of recovery from those great losses. more tomorrow

331. Solitaire for Ten

Cyan is now available for pre-order through Amazon, with the eBook arriving April 17th. Meanwhile, I plan to repeat a few year old-posts that were designed to stir the blood of would-be readers just before an earlier release date that didn’t happen. This is one of them.

————————————-

In the novel Cyan, the starship Darwin carries ten explorers at relativistic speeds to explore the Procyon system.

Ten explorers, eleven light years from Earth. As the only humans on the entire planet Cyan, the death of any one is sure to send shock waves reverberating through the group.

Keir Delacroix, groundside leader of the explorers tried to put this into perspective upon the death of one of his colleagues. You will note a deleted name, to avoid a spoiler.

It seems to me that funerals are for the living, for saying things that we already know, to put life and death in perspective and find some comfort.

“We are alone here. We are more alone than any other humans have ever been. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us dies, a piece of the whole dies. We must be very careful with one another, because we are all we have.

“We come from an Earth that is overflowing with people. One death there is nothing. Had **** stayed behind, and died, no one would have noticed. Here, that death puts our whole world out of balance. And that is why we are on Cyan — to find a world where individual lives can be valuable again. At least, that is why I am here. Not as a scientist; not even as an explorer; but as a man searching for a place where humanity can find its soul again.

Death is a hungry beast, seldom satisfied with just one victim. And exploring a new planet is no safe endeavor.

—————————————

When pioneers arrived on the east coast of North America, the forest they faced was vast. It was later said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever having to touch the ground. That forest is no more.

When Heinlein’s pioneers reached the stars, flaming laser axes in hand, they wrought similar destruction. Today’s reader would not accept that.

I wrote Cyan as an exercise in seeing, not what could happen, but what probably would happen, in near-term stellar exploration. That includes both the pressures for colonization from an overcrowded Earth, and a knowledge of the ecological disasters which need to be avoided.

The explorers on Cyan are careful in their daily actions and in planning for future colonization, but they are not prepared to find a truly half-human species. Viki Johanssen, crew anthropologist, demands that Cyan be placed off limits to colonization, for their sake. Keir disagrees, and colonization plans go forward.

Viki is faced with a decision. What if she stayed behind when the Darwin returned, to study these creatures while they were still pristine, before human colonists come in? What would you do, if you knew that mankind’s only chance to study this half-human species was now, even at the expense of becoming the only person on an entire planet, certainly for decades, perhaps forever?

Would you choose to stay behind?

328. Still not a Frog or a Kangaroo

220px-Litoria_tyleri    220px-RedRoo

Cyan is now available for pre-order through Amazon, with the eBook arriving April 17th. Meanwhile, I plan to repeat a few year old-posts that were designed to stir the blood of would-be readers just before an earlier release date that didn’t happen. This is one of them.

——————————————-

Flashback: 1963, riding in a car, reading an article, probably by Arthur C. Clarke, on why humans should go into space. A little fish, swimming in shallow water, said to his father, “Why don’t we go up on the land and see what we can find?” The father fish responded, “Why would you want to do that?”

I read the passage out loud, but no one was interested, so I relapsed into nerdy silence.

Years later I found that the now accepted theory is that fish in shallow waters, accustomed to using their fins against the sea bottom, began to use them to navigate mud flats at low tide as mud skippers still do in mangrove swamps today. Legs evolved from fins.

It didn’t happen this way on Cyan. (This is a follow-on to posts 320 and 321. If you missed them, we’ll wait for you to read them. Done? Good.)

On the planet Cyan, hundreds of millions of years ago, primitive chordates developed a split vertebral column, which resulted in twin tails. When they moved onto land, their tiny front steering fins were never used for locomotion and their twin tails (they had no back fins) became legs.

As Gus Lienhoff said when he dissected the first one Cyanian creature the explorers had collected:

Look, no pelvis. Look at this complex of bones. Some are fused, some flex, and these four are cantilevered. And look up here; no scapulae, just three extra thick, specialized vertebrae. Tiny front legs, powerful back legs with twice as many joints as you would expect, and absolutely no hint of a tail. Not even anything like a coccyx. A truly tailless, truly hopping biped. I wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible.

Not a frog, not a kangaroo.

Frogs are quadrupeds with overdeveloped hind legs, like rabbits. They have a vestigial tail, like a human coccyx. If you look at a frog’s skeleton, it looks a bit like a massively deformed human. They can leap, but they also walk.

Kangaroos have a five-legged gait when walking. They lift up on a tripod made of small front legs and a powerful tail to shift their massive hind legs forward. Then they stand balanced on their hind legs while moving their forelegs and tail forward. 3 – 2 – 3 – 2, etc. When they run, they depend on their tail for balance, just as some dinosaurs used a massive tail to keep their foreparts from tipping forward.

Cyanian bipeds, from the simplest to the most complex are hoppers. They all have short, grasping forelimbs; not quite T-rex hands, perhaps, but too weak to knuckle walk, as apes do. They can move miles with grace and speed, but moving inches puts them into a condition of stumbling clumsiness. There are tree dwelling tailless bipeds on Cyan; how they navigate is a mystery I didn’t get around to investigating.

When a trio of Cyl (intelligent Cyanian creatures created through recombinant DNA – its a long story) first enter a human habitat . . .

They were awkward inside the dome where the furnishings of the place made a maze for them to negotiate. As bounders, they were creatures of the unobstructed open plain. This human habitation was utterly foreign to them, not because of the steel from which it was made, or the interlocking triangles of its geodesic construction, but because it was cluttered. How could one hope to move about in it?

I explained all this to the artist who did the cover for Cyan. I also sent a crude sketch of what I had in mind, with many disclaimers about my (non)skills as an artist. The resulting cover shows a Cyl slightly different from my vision, but better. That’s what good SF cover artists do. However, it is an upper body portrait, so the secret of bipedal tailless hopping remains unresolved.

If I really want to know how it works – and I do – I would have to construct a skeletal robot and see how he moves. But there is no way I’m going to have that much free time anywhere in my near future. I have too many other books to write.

324. Scientific Entrepreneurs

ksc-20160408-ph_kls0001_0005_25704320894In Heinlein’s original stories, a visionary entrepreneur named D. D. Harriman put the first man on the moon. In our world, NASA did it.

Recently, NASA has been in one of its periodic slow periods and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been taking center stage. Just this week (I’m writing this on March second) both groups were in the news. Musk announced that two unnamed underwriters had put down sizable deposits for a trip around the moon in the near future, riding in a Dragon spacecraft on top of one of his Falcon rockets. And NASA has announced that the first launch of its Space Launch System booster might carry astronauts around the moon again, for the first time since 1972.

Both are big news, if they happen. Of course, if you follow the space program, you know that there are always more big stories of upcoming events than there are actual events. We’ll have to wait and see.

There are many space enthusiasts who feel that private enterprise should lead in the exploration of space. “Boy genius builds rocket in basement and travels to Alpha Centauri” has a long history in science fiction. I don’t see it.

American industry built all the components of the Apollo missions, and the government paid the bill. Elon Musk has built the Falcon rocket (see photo) on his own, but a NASA contract to supply the ISS pays at least part of the bill. Different, yes, but how different? Privately owned trucks carry goods to your town every day, but on government built roads. Private enterprise is always entangled with government support.

Perhaps it all comes down to a case of, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust private enterprise? Or do you trust the government? Personally, I don’t trust either one of them, so I don’t care who carries the torch for space exploration, as long as it happens.

All this brings us to the anniversary of the day.

Since innumerable interesting things have happened throughout history, and there are only 365 days in a year, you can find something worth celebrating almost any day.

On March 26 (yesterday) or March 25 — depending on which side of the international date line you’re sitting on as you read this — in 2012, James Cameron made a solo descent to the deepest point in the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, in the Marianas Trench, had not been visited by humans since 1960. That expedition was sponsored by the government, specifically the U. S. Navy. Cameron’s visit was self-financed.

Rich men spending their money on their passions, without regard for profit, is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon. Rockefeller made his money in oil, then set up the Rockefeller Foundation. Alfred Nobel made his fortune in armaments, then set up a Peace Prize. Andrew Carnegie made his money in railroads, then set up a chain of libraries across America, including one which illuminated my youth.

Cameron became rich through such films as Titanic and Avatar. His passion for undersea exploration is of long standing. Like Musk with manned space flight, Cameron is continuing an exploration that the government began, then partially abandoned.

Tomorrow we will look at earlier explorers of Challenger Deep.