Tag Archives: space travel

668. Century Ships

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has been running a series of reviews on century ship stories. He does a good job, even providing links so you can read the story itself before or after reading his review. I’ve read two of them, both story and review, picked out because they were by Brunner and Ballard.

Century ship stories are an extreme version of slow starship stories, that is, stories about exploration in ships which do not travel faster than light. Century ship stories assume that the people who start the journey will not live to complete it. It will be completed by their descendants who, when they arrive, will never have lived anywhere but on the ship.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it typically is. A reversion to barbarism along with a superstitious belief that nothing outside the ship actually exists is a common trope. The original Star Trek used it in For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky.

I first encountered century ships before I reached high school in The Forgotten Star, a top notch juvenile which has, ironically, been forgotten. It takes place in our solar system, before star flight; the young heroes discover that Ceres isn’t really an asteroid, but a century ship from elsewhere.

The first time I read a century ship story told from the occupants’ viewpoint was Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. It was such a dreary presentation of the “we forgot this is a starship” trope that I never returned to it, and it pretty much put me off century ship stories for a long time.

On the other hand, slow — but not that slow — starship stories are my bread and butter. They take relativity more or less seriously, and offer all kinds of complications through the slowing of time at the approach of lightspeed. Heinlein did it well in the juvenile Time for the Stars. Other authors had milked the concept for its considerable potential for weirdness.

At nearly the speed of light a trip to the stars will seem quick, no matter how many years pass back on Earth, but getting up to the speed of light is an issue is two senses.

First, it will require power on the order of what would come from the total annihilation of matter. This generally requires a MUD (magical unexplained dingus). Slipstick Libby invented one, but usually Heinlein got there by torch ship (what a wonderful name!), a MUD he never bothered to explain. When I needed that much power in Cyan, I invoked Lassiter’s Anomaly as an ersatz explanation. This gave my core ships a nice philosophical underpinning, like E. E. Smith’s Bergenholm which cancelled inertia, but core ships are still MUDs.

Given the power, however you get it, relativistic starflight still has the problem of acceleration time. True, time slows down at near lightspeed, but you have to get there first. If you are an honest writer who takes the time to look at Einstein’s simpler equations, you will realize that it takes a long time to approach lightspeed at an acceleration that wouldn’t squash a human flat.

I did the math for Cyan, and it turned out that a one-way trip to Procyon — accelerating at one gee, coasting, then decelerating at one gee — took three years subjective while twelve years passed on Earth and Cyan. That’s a six year round trip for the ten crewmen, which calls for a lot of games of chess and a lot of intimate human interactions. If you’ve read Cyan, you know what I mean.

As a side note for new writers looking for a useful tip, that coasting stage is a near-freebie. A ten light year or a hundred light year trip would take about the same subjective time, but the time differential between the crew and the folks back home would become immense.

Later in the book, sending colonists took a whole different set of calculations. Accelerating to half the speed of light takes a tiny fraction of the fuel needed to accelerate to near lightspeed, so the colony ships were even-slower-starships, though still not nearly as slow as century ships. Call it twenty years, one way.

How do you get tens of thousands of people into a small space and keep them from killing each other over twenty years? Freeze them. Given the technology of 2107, that meant a twenty percent loss of life among those who chose to go.

Cold blooded? (Forgive the pun.) Not when you consider the conditions they were fleeing.

While the colonist were on their way toward Cyan, a group of beltmen (denizens of the asteroid belt) were also planning an escape. They were already used to living in space; many of them were born there. A long slow trip in a small habitat did not deter them, but the eighty year voyage to Sirius had a lot of unintended consequences. Not quite a century ship perhaps, but close enough.

Of course if you have been following this blog during the last six months you realize that I am talking about Dreamsinger, the sequel I am working on now.

Further down the to-write list is a sequel to the sequel to A Fond Farewell to Dying which concerns a hyper-century ship built around memory taping and a few frozen stem cells. That one doesn’t turn out the way its originators planned either.

I guess the trauma of reading Orphans of the Sky at a tender age hasn’t completely put me off century ships after all.

660. Methuselah’s Children

I used a quote from Methuselah’s Children about a half a year ago in my diatribe against driverless cars. Taking a glance at Heinlein is always a mistake. I found myself committed to reading the whole novel, even though I’ve read it often enough to nearly memorize the thing.

The problem is, it’s his best work, from the viewpoint of skilled writing and skilled science fiction plotting. That is opposed to boy-meets-girl plotting or western-shoot-em-up plotting, which are completely different skill sets.

Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are Heinlein’s best known works, but I find them both to be second rate. The first hundred pages of Number of the Beast is my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel.

Methuselah’s Children is the best novel he ever wrote, hands down, despite my deep affection for at least a dozen runners-up. An early version came out in Astounding in 1941, and was expanded to the work we now know when it was published in paperback in 1958. Methuselah’s Children is the book Paul Kantner was referencing when Jefferson Starship suggested we all “hijack the starship” in 1970.

Heinlein has his strengths and his weaknesses. I acknowledge the latter, but I won’t catalog them. There are plenty of people who like him less than I do who are more than willing to do that. For my money, Methuselah’s Children is the book in which those weaknesses are least in evidence.

As the book begins, Lazarus Long (his first appearance) and Phyllis Sterling meet, interact, and are sexually aware of each other without letting it get in the way. Long offers advice without trying to run her life. Danger rears its head, and each of them reacts with maturity and grace, respecting each other’s competence. There is very little boy-girl snarkiness.

It’s too bad Heinlein couldn’t pull this off more often.

As everyone knows, Lazarus Long hijacks a starship to save his fellow long-lifers. If you haven’t read Methuselah’s Children or haven’t read it lately, this might seem preposterous, but he manages the task with a lot of help from people in power. The things he actually does are all well within the powers of any competent space pilot. He pulls it off not because he is a superman, but because he is a sneaky bastard.

Once on board, Slipstick Libby invents a space drive which takes them to the stars.

Assembled odd bits of other equipment, looking more like the product of a boy’s workshop than the output of a scientist’s laboratory, the gadget which Libby referred to as a “space drive” underwent Lazarus’s critical examination. Against the polished sophisticated perfection of the control room it looked uncouth, pathetic, ridiculously inadequate.

. . . but it works, and yes, Libby is a superman. Heinlein got away with that by making him a relatively minor character.

On planets they visit along the way they meet the Jockaira and their “Gods”, as well as the “little people”, and find out that humans aren’t the smartest race in our corner of the galaxy. Another writer would have made this a cause for feelings of inferiority, but Lazarus Long is Heinlein in disguise. He doesn’t have a humble bone in his body.

The refugees, armed with all they have learned, return to Earth to fight for their rights. Flags wave, cannons sound, bands march — well, not really, but that is the feeling.

Everything that Heinlein was, is on display here. It’s great fun, but it’s not slapstick. Heinlein keeps a light touch, but his alter ego “takes his soul out and examines it” just often enough to keep matters in perspective.

Heinlein would revisit every idea, many of the characters, and every character-type in subsequent novels. None of them would be so well balanced, nor have so few groaners.

648. Limits of Accuracy

The Limits of Accuracy
in World Building

I’m sitting here on October 15th with half a dozen files open on my computer, calculator at the ready, and a page of scratched calculations. I’ve been world building again.

In full disclosure, my last math class was college calculus and I don’t remember much of that. I’m no astrophysicist. I know that because I bought a book on orbital mechanics in hopes of cribbing a few formulas to use in my writing. It didn’t take long to realize that I was out of my element.

My primary source of world building math has always been How to Build a Planet by Poul Anderson. I have kept a xerox copy on hand since I first used it while writing Jandrax back in the seventies of last century/millenium.

Don’t bother to google it. There are so many resources available for world building on the internet today that it gets pushed to a back page. I don’t use the new stuff myself; it looks like a black hole you could fall into and never escape. World building can easily eat up all the time available for writing. Besides, there is a limit to the accuracy we need.

When I set up the solar system around Sirius, a long time ago, I popped in a few inner planets, more or less following Bode’s discredited law, and set their distances after calculating i, luminosity, for the most important planet.

Sirius A, for the record, has about twice Sol’s mass and produces about 23 times its radiation. I calculated the distances from it to where there would be a luminosity of 75% of Earth’s, 100% of Earth’s, and 125% of Earth’s, then dropped Stormking into the middle of that range. That gave me an orbit roughly the equivalent of Jupiter’s, so I took the length of Jupiter’s year and called that the length of Stormking’s year.

That was good enough for then, but not now that I’m actually writing. I have political exiles on Stormking (which has a Uranian tilt) who have to walk for their lives, continuously, to stay in the middle of that planet’s temperature extremes. I have to know the real length of the year on a planet that distance from Sirius, to see how far I have to make them walk.

The exiles have to proceed southward for most of a half a year, rest for a few weeks, then turn north again, forever. It provides all kinds of plot possibilities, but I owe it to the reader to get my figures straight.

Sirius is a double star, and that other star provides complications I can only approximate. Since I began seriously contemplating returning to Dreamsinger, I came to realize that the perihelion of Sirius B would, on some orbits, coincide with Stormking’s position on its orbit in a way that would cause a superheated event. Big trouble for the exiles; great opportunities for the puppet master. (That would be me.) I can’t calculate how often this will happen or how severe it will be, given my skills, so that will be a hole in my accuracy.

I moved the orbit of Stormking out to the 75% luminosity distance of 828 million kilometers to make my exiles slightly more likely to survive, and calculated the year length (in Earth days) from that, using formulae I don’t totally understand, and came up with 4493 Earth days. That is fairly close to my ballpark estimate of 4335, which is Jupiter’s year in Earth days.

Why do all this? Partly it is because you have to consider your audience. If you try to write hard science fiction, set around known stars, a few of your readers will be scientists, and a much larger number will be people who wanted to be scientists, or at least love science. You have an obligation to them not to do something dumb.

Actually, a lot of science fiction writers are scientists or engineers, and can easily do the math I struggle with. I admire them, but I don’t feel inferior to them. I got here by a different route and I know things they don’t know. In all likelihood, you know things I don’t know. It all comes out even in the end, or at least even enough that we can all share the same fraternity of people who enjoy science fiction.

Careful world building is a rule of the game. You wouldn’t play chess with two white queens. You wouldn’t write a western where Wyatt Earp carries a luger instead of a Buntline special. You might, however, give Earp a luger if you were writing steampunk. Different games, different rules. If you take the science out of hard science fiction, all you have left is . . . basically nothing.

Nevertheless, there are limits. I am not good enough at calculating orbits to know for certain what Sirius B would do to my scenario, but I know what has to happen in the story, and by God that’s what is going to happen, no matter what physics says. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Now it you will excuse me, I have three other planets to calculate, so my people can follow reasonable orbits traveling between them. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself.

You know, sometimes I do miss warp drive. Punch a button, and there you are at Vulcan. It would be so easy.

645. Lassiter Triumphant

Sometime in the eighties as part of Cyan, I wrote the story of Lassiter, discoverer of Lassiter’s anomaly, destroyer of the final vestiges of Einstein’s version of the universe, and inventor of the space drive that powered all the starships in the novel. He was quite a character, and soooo not a hero that he was fun to write about.

Unfortunately Lassiter’s story took up too much space in a novel that was already verging on excessively complex, so I reduced the explanation of his space drive to 236 words on pages 64 and 65, and left the man himself out altogether.

I had already made this cut long before I retired from teaching and used OCR to get the half-completed paper Cyan manuscript into the computer. Somewhere in the dozens of boxes from the pre-computer half of my career, Lassiter remains. It would be nearly impossible to find him this late in the game.

There are a lot of paragraphs, pages, and chapters like that, irretrievable in the outer world, but still resident in the dust bin of my mind. I enjoy rummaging around there and experiencing them again, even though you can’t see them.

Now that I am writing Dreamsinger, I have a chance to resurrect Lassiter from memory, and this is the attempt. If things go well, I will finally be able to commit him to print within the novel. If not, at least you get to meet him here.


Lassiter was a funny looking guy who loved women, and had more success with them than you would have thought possible. He had a big nose, big ears and a receding hairline. He was five feet eight and skinny, but he had a big personality.

His pursuit of women was not predatory, but he always wanted more. As soon as he had enticed one woman into his bed, he was ready to look for another.

Lassiter was also a fine engineer, and in his work he was as steady as he was unsteady with women.

If he had been less of an engineer, he would never have been able to develop a whole new way of looking at the universe. If he had been less horny, he would never have worked as hard at chasing fame.

#          #          #

Lassiter collaborated with an established ghost writer to produce his biography, which they called A Man of Gravity. It was not humility that kept him from writing it himself. Lassiter had no humility. It’s just easier to get away with bragging if you say “He did this . . .” instead of saying “I did this . . .”. For example:

Lassiter was fuming when he barged into Linda Volstone’s office. She was the vice-administrator of the Lunaire Pile, the Morris reactor which provided power for the entire Lunar colony. Lassiter was the senior engineer at the project, and he was a frustrated man.

“Lin,” he said, “you’ve got to do something about Dahlgreth.”

Volstone was slender with night-black hair. She had shared Lassiter’s bed two — no three — women ago, and she still had a weakness for him. She said, “What is Dogbreath up to now?”

Dahlgreth was not a popular administrator.

Lassiter said, “He still won’t let me publish.”

from A Man of Gravity, page 27

In fact, it is doubtful that this exchange ever took place. The real story was about a diligent engineer who discovered an overage in the power output of his reactor, and could not explain it. It was only a fraction of a percent, but it haunted him. It was real; it should not have been there; there were no errors in his instruments nor in his calculations. Something was happening that Einstein’s equations could not account for.

After a much research, he concluded that reduced gravity was the reason. Nothing in any theory supported him, and he was all but laughed out of physics, but the fact remained that no reactor on Earth showed the overage, but Lunaire did and the Chinese reactor on the back side of the moon did.

He published his findings and ran into a wall of opposition. Einstein had been under siege for more than three decades — but by theoretical physicists, not by some upstart engineer who had a few facts and a theory, but did not have fifty pages of unreadable mathematics to back him up.

A lesser man would have crumbled. So would a greater man, but Lassiter was motivated by something normal physicists would not have understood. He wanted fame. More than that, he wanted to be so rich and famous (and the rich part was extremely important) that women all over the world would throw themselves at his feet.

His biography did not say this, but everyone who really knew him understood.

He made himself famous by casting himself as the little guy that the establishment was afraid of. He built a brash persona, and then grew into it. He became the relentless voice of simple reason.

He gave interviews. He wrote op-eds. He was a favorite guest on talk shows. Everywhere he appeared he had the same message: the overage is there, lesser gravity is the only thing different, let’s outfit a probe and settle the matter.

The probe Dirac settled the matter. As it moved outward from the Sun, the output of its mini-pile grew. Measurements were made, conclusions were reached. It turned out that a larger portion of the reactor’s fuel was being turned into energy the further the probe moved outward from the Sun’s gravity. Somewhere beyond Uranus, the probe’s reactor could no longer handle the overage and it exploded. The nuclear fireball continued until every atom of the probe was consumed.

Once the metaphorical smoke cleared, it became apparent that anyone who could initiate a reaction beyond thirty-seven light minutes from the Sun would have a self-sustaining nuclear torch that would eat ice, asteroids, cosmic dust — anything.

Gravity was the only thing holding matter together. No one could explain why, but there it was. Start a hot enough fire, far enough from the sun, and Lassiter’s anomaly would bring about the total annihilation of matter.

It would provide a stardrive; not FTL, but good enough to allow starships to visit nearby stars. That brought enough fame to satisfy even Lassiter. And enough money. And enough women.

For the rest of his life, Lassiter basked in his accomplishment. Money poured in. Women adored him, or at least adored his money and fame. By the time he was ninety-seven, and still hanging on to life with apparent gusto, he was the second most famous man on Earth and the second richest, both following Saloman Curran.

When the nukes came down, his story ended with billions of other stories, but during his lifetime he lived driven by his gonads and never paid a price for it.


When I was young, probably in high school, I ran across the following observation:

If a race of intelligent beings evolved at the bottom of a sea of mercury, they would be unable to discover electricity because every build-up of charge would be immediately dissipated.

I don’t remember who said that, or what book I found it in. Actually, I have mentioned this before, and asked if anyone knows where it came from. Do you know? I’m still listening.

That observation stuck with me and is the basis for Lassiter’s anomaly. What used to be called weightlessness and is now called micro-gravity is not the absence of gravity, but a balancing act within a gravity well. When we reach the empty spaces between the stars, what will we find there that has always been masked by the gravity that defines our perceptions?

Lassiter’s anomaly? I doubt it, but who knows?

643. Apollo 12

Everybody knows about Apollo 11, especially since its fiftieth anniversary last July. And then there’s Apollo 13 which was crewed by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon, with Gary Sinise working hard in the simulator. Or so America remembers it.

Quiz: match the actual Apollo 13 astronauts with the actors who played them.

Answers: Jim Lovell (commander), Fred Haise (lunar module pilot), and Jack Sweigert (command module pilot). Ken Matingly was the astronaut who got bumped for a disease he didn’t have.

That’s it. The average American knows one flight, one movie, and may vaguely remember something about the Bible being read from the moon. It was lunar orbit, actually, on Apollo 8.

There were six moon landings; five of them are essentially forgotten. Apollo 12 was the second landing, and today it has reached its fiftieth anniversary with none of the mega-hype we saw in July. If Apollo 11 had aborted at some point, and Apollo 12 has succeeded exactly as it did, all the hype would be today, and no one would remember Neil Armstrong.

Query: who was the next person to fly the Atlantic solo non-stop after Lindbergh. Answer: I have no idea, either.

For the record, the crew of Apollo 12 consisted of Pete Conrad (commander), Alan Bean (lunar module pilot), and Dick Gordon (command module pilot).

The countdown for Apollo 12 started at midnight Nov. 9th, 98 hours before scheduled launch. Zero and liftoff, was reached after several holds, some planned, some not, at 16:22 GMT (22 minutes after noon, local time) fifty years ago today.

36 seconds into the fight, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning. 52 seconds into the flight, it was struck again.

Every light on the boards went on at once. No one had seen such a display of dismay on any flight or in any simulation. Conrad said, “I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.”

NASA had made the launch despite a thunderstorm, for reasons no one seems to be able to nail down. The surge of power from the two strikes caused most of the electrical system to shut down, rather like a home surge protector shutting down power to save a computer. The crew rode out the emergency until they reached a stable orbit, then got to work reestablishing their connection to the fuel cells.

As if that weren’t enough, the automated navigation system was no longer working. They had to use a sextant (a high tech one, of course) to establish their position by shooting a pair of stars.

Two hours and fifty three minutes after liftoff, the final stage of the Saturn V fired again and put them on a trajectory for the moon.

*          *          *

The moon landing was routine — which is to say, very much like Apollo 11 — which is to say, scary as hell.

They did not have a computer data overload like the one in Apollo 11 that made it look like they were going to crash. They had already had their electrical overload on liftoff.

They came down precisely where they were supposed to. What made it a scary-same-as was that the immediate area where they had planned to land was covered with small craters and boulders, and they had to search around for an area that wasn’t. Conrad flew the LEM while Bean kept his eyes on the instruments. As he swung them around toward his left, the LEM tilted crazily. Then Conrad found a clear spot and came down to land.

Landing on the moon throws up a storm of dust and small particles that obscure the ground and can damage the spacecraft. In the low gravity, it all takes a while to settle. One of the probes on the four feet of the lander touched the moon, a light came up on Bean’s board and he relayed the message. Conrad cut the rocket and the LEM fell, slowly due to the low gravity, to the moon’s surface.

As planned, not counting having to search for an alternate landing site.

Here’s a side note on what it is like to want to know things. I have been aware since the sixties that the LEM balances on the thrust of its rocket engine, and moves sideways to find a place to land. But how did it move sideways? Were there side thrusters like the ones which move big ships away from the dock? Was the main engine gimbaled? No, it turns out, the whole craft is tilted, so the main engine can move them sideways, operating like a helicopter.

So how do they tilt the LEM? Do they use the same attitude thrusters that change its orientation in space? That seems likely, but I’m not sure. Learning one thing just makes me curious to learn another.

Once they were down, there was work to do. In addition to the exploring and sample collecting like Apollo 11, they also set up the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package) which would continue gathering and relaying information long after their moon walks were over. Conrad and Bean did two moon walks, and on the second one walked to the nearby Surveyor III spacecraft, the unmanned soft landing vehicle which had surveyed their landing site two years earlier. They removed a few parts for analysis back on Earth.

Once their time on the lunar surface was over and the LEM upper stage had rejoined the CSM, the LEM descent stage was given a controlled burn by remote control, then allowed to crash back to the lunar surface. This gave a test “seismic” event to calibrate the ALSEP. So if anyone mentions those six LEM descent stages still sitting on the moon, you can tell them no, there are five.

Apollo 12 splashed down late on November 24th. By the time it was launched, politicians were already dismantling Apollo, and America was yawning. We set out to beat the Russkies and we did it, so why were we still going to the moon?

Politics and public opinion work that way; science doesn’t. No one ever did one experiment and said he had the answer to any problem. No geologist ever looked at one tiny patch of ground and said he understood the whole Earth. Fifty missions would not have been too many to settle scientific questions about the moon, especially since each mission would have likely generated new and deeper questions.

Nevertheless, after November of 1969, only four more missions would land on the moon. Apollo 13 would fail to land, and Apollos 18, 19, and 20 would be cancelled.

Pete Conrad went on to command the first manned mission to Skylab. He died in 1999. (For information on Skylab, see posts 297, 298, and 299.)

Dick Gordon was backup Commander to Apollo 15 and was scheduled to finally land on the moon as Commander of Apollo 18, until it was cancelled. He died in 2017.

Alan Bean Commanded the second manned mission to Skylab and was backup Commander for the Apollo-Soyuz mission. He died in 2018.

After leaving NASA, Bean studied art and became a painter of lunar subjects. He said, “I’m the only man who can paint the moon, because I’m the only one who knows whether that’s right or not.”

There are about a million books on Apollos 11 and 13, but locally I could only find one book on Apollo 12. Fortunately, that one was full of Bean’s own recollections and paintings. See Apollo: an eyewitness account.

642. The Green Fields of Mars

European Space Agency

First a note on timing. My normal Wednesday post will be pushed forward to Thursday to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

I was a bright kid in a very small school, so sometimes they cut me some slack. In 1964 I was allowed to take both junior and senior English because there wasn’t much left for me to take, and they knew I was such a nerd that all I would do with this unexpected freedom was study harder.

As a result, I took senior English a second time the following year, not because I needed it, but because what else were they going to do with me? That was the year I wrote a long paper on “The Probability of Life on Mars”, based on such things as the advancing and retreating color changes during the Martian year. The scientists speculated on tough, low growing plants; I suggested tall grasses, because the changes persisted despite all those dust storms.

Life was good.

Then NASA sent out all those probes and took all the fun out of the solar system. Suddenly Venus was not a swamp where dinosaurs might lurk and if you wanted to dream of running your feet through alien grasses you had to go on out to planets around other stars.

Now exoplanet research is taking away the nearby stars from the realm of the imagination, and dropping them one by one into the crucible of reality. A pox on all your probes!

There is a reason for this rush of nostalgia. I love science fiction and I have been writing it for decades, but nothing has given me half as much pleasure as the books about space exploration I read when I was young. The good ones, that is. I’m going to provide an annotated list on November 18. It will be too long to append to this post, and the post between will be taken up by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

For years now, I’ve wanted to write some new space exploration juveniles/YAs, and I have worked out a few possible plots, but nothing seems to work for me. I also don’t see any good ones coming from anyone else. If you know of any, let me know.

I do see a lot of nostalgia. One fellow is writing a series of reimagined Tom Swifts, disguised as fan fiction for legal reasons. I won’t name him in hopes that he will continue to fly under the radar. I tried one and they aren’t bad.

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios have produced a pair of anthologies of new stories in the old style called Old Mars and Old Venus. John Michael Greer and Zendexor have a similar anthology called Vintage Worlds. I won’t be reading them since I have long since lost my taste for short stories, but I don’t see anything similar in juveniles — except for the one mentioned above which the courts may remove any moment.

Anyway, nostalgia isn’t the path to take. Today’s kids aren’t yesterday’s kids, and nostalgia is for my generation. What we need is juvenile/YA space exploration literature as good as the best of the old, but modern in outlook.

In one sense, it is remarkable that we don’t have a hundred good space exploration juveniles each year. Even the best imaginations of the past could not begin to equal what NASA has actually discovered in the last decades.

Perhaps the best thing to do is evaluate what worked then, that doesn’t seem to work now. These are the things which come to mind.

Most of the older books I loved were written before space exploration was a reality; only a few were written as things were happening. The death of exploration in 1972 has to be part of the problem, since the space shuttle and ISS were basically just politics, not exploration, IMHO.

All of the young protagonists in those old books wanted to become adults in a futuristic world. The need to become an adult — or at least get out from under the thumb of adults — hasn’t gone away, but the futuristic world doesn’t seem as accessible or as exciting as it once did. Dystopia rules the day, but that won’t last. It never does.

Education isn’t helping. Kids now put together robot kits that are no more individualistic than their soda and vinegar volcanoes used to be. What joy is there in that? Robots used to be laughed at, but kids still made them out of cardboard boxes and goldfish bowls. Now they are prepackaged and shoved down kid’s throats in middle school.

In the old stories, there was intelligent life everywhere in the solar system, and it seemed like those young people couldn’t step out of their ships without finding a new or lost race. Now there may be bacteria under a dozen miles of ice.

The old spaceships worked. They got places quickly. They didn’t have to put up with the utter stupidity of trying to explore the solar system in craft depending on burning gasses, essentially no different chemically from your kitchen stove. See post 402. Nuclear Spacecraft.

I’m sure that someone is going to solve this conundrum and there will be good new space exploration juveniles/YAs for another generation. I’m equally sure that they won’t be written by old fogeys. The people who will write them are in their teens and twenties now, and I hope they hurry, because I want to read them.


My, my, how strange is life. I finished writing this post late afternoon of Oct. 7th. When I turned my computer on the following morning, the new EDGE newsletter was in the inbox. (EDGE published Cyan.) They were advertising a new book, The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague. It appeared to be a juvenile/YA. At least one of the quoted reviews said it had a “well crafted story, amazing hero’s and not one ‘bad’ word or adult activity!”

So I bought it and started in. It isn’t a juvenile/YA because the protagonist is an adult. That is a critical point that was simply assumed in the post above. It is good clean fun; it reminded me in that way of Michael Tierney’s To Rule the Sky. Either of these would be great for kids, but they aren’t juveniles. Perhaps we need a new category. Let’s call it IETCNHAAA, which stands for Innocent Enough to Cause No Heart Attacks Among Adults.

Then again, maybe not.

641. The Synapse Emerges 2

This concludes the post begun Monday.

The Cyan sequel, unnamed, has remained in the upper left corner of my brain all the time that I’ve been writing Dreamsinger. Dreamsinger is not a sequel to Cyan; it is sideways, starting at the same point and diverging into an empty corner of the Cyan/Jandrax universe.

Today (I’m writing both parts of this post on October 5, 2019) everything fell together. Hang on, this get’s complicated.

Humans have colonized the space around Sirius. The main population center is Home Station, in orbit of Stormking, a basically uninhabitable planet. Directed dreaming is used to keep the population happy and easy to control. (See 621 and 622.)

Okay, good enough, but how does this directed dreaming work? How can you create and store a dream, then implant it into a living brain? What technologies are involved, and how much do I have to tell the reader? I will certainly tell less than I know, but I have to have it well in hand to tell the story effectively.

REM sleep was discovered in 1953 and sleep studies were in all the science magazines I was reading through high school. Consequently, I already know more than people who came onto the scene after it had faded from prominence. Still, research is a writer’s best friend so I went to the local library, sorted through the books on dreams and dreaming, and dumped the ones which were astrology, self-help and wishful thinking.

In one book there was reference to a researcher sending visual images to a dreaming colleague. (See Our Dreaming Mind by Robert Van de Castle, pp. xxii and xxiii.) It seemed legitimate, and not believing anything is as futile as believing everything. Besides, I don’t have a Ph.D. reputation to uphold, so I decided to go with it. Now I have to explain it. Here’s a bit from the (very) rough draft of Dreamsinger.

     In the misty olden days of the twentieth century, Van de Castle demonstrated that thought images could be projected into a dreaming mind. That tiny bit of knowledge did not fit into the world as it was then understood, and was forgotten for nearly a hundred years. When it was discovered again, it pointed toward revolutionary changes in our understanding of the brain.
     Basil Kendrick demonstrated that events similar to brain to brain transmission seemed to occur continuously within the brain. He theorized that transmissions of information took place not only by synapses, but also by means of what he called K-waves, which were so short as to be undetectable and, incidentally, travelled faster than light.

K-waves, are you kidding? That sounds like something E. E. Smith would have used. Hang with me a while. The idea of telepathy taking place at FTL speeds goes back to Heinlein, and I always liked it. I needed some entrée into FTL, and this seemed like a good way to get it. As for the term K-waves, Kendrick named them after himself in order to get his name into the history books.

The name Kendrick came out of the air, and I was prepared to keep changing names until I found one that didn’t have a (K or B or D or whatever)-wave connected with it in the real world. As it happened, I got lucky on the first try.

I Googled. There are real K-waves, but they refer to long cycles in economics. I could ignore them. However, there is also a K-complex, so I checked that out.

Without getting into things that are above my pay grade, the K-complex is an EEG waveform associated with memory consolidation, which occurs during a non-dreaming stage of sleep. K-waves (imaginary) and the K-complex (real) are unrelated, but they won’t be when I get through writing Dreamsinger.

Now picture an old writer jumping for joy, just not as high. Things are coming together, or at least close enough to use.

They used to say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”. I would add, “. . . and in writing science fiction”. It is fiction, after all, and you have to at least go beyond our present knowledge, probably in a direction future reality will not support. I work hard at world building, but I’m not obsessive about it. (Reading these two posts, you might disagree.)

My Kendrick, on Earth just before colonists departed for Cyan and for Sirius, stirred up controversy with his theories and then the nukes came down. All his studies were in the massive databanks of the computers that went to Sirius and to Cyan. Under Sirius, they led to directed dreaming. On Cyan . . .?

Suddenly, I have a way of connecting the unconnected all over the place.

I already know that Louis Dumezil, who will later write the Monomythos, and “Frank”, who will invent the FTL drive, have met while waiting to go on the new Darwin expedition. Now I simply add one conversation. In a bull session during training Dumezil will tell “Frank” about K-waves, and their purported FTL speed. He will know this because his father (the religious fanatic, remember?) was a nut on telepathy. Dumezil will also tell his life story, which includes the white powder on the blue berries that lead to a psychedelic experience. (I wrote all this a couple of months ago in a short piece called Children of the Hollow Hills, which you haven’t seen.)

When “Frank” gets washed out of the trip on the Darwin by Debra and Beryl’s new research, he sets out to study the supposed connection of telepathy with FTL, but there are no known telepaths on Cyan. However, he finds the remnant of the cult Dumezil escaped, who are still sucking fungus powdered berries and talking mind to mind.

“Frank’s” study of telepathy, using the cultists as subjects, proves the FTL nature of K-waves. He also discovers K-waves are the actual carriers of all information inside the brain, as Kendrick suggested. The previously measured energies of the synapses are only a side effect, a sort of down-cycle echo of the true energies. “Frank” renames the K-waves as Synapse waves, and goes on to invent the FTL drive I used in Jandrax, and which will allow him to go exploring after all, bad genes notwithstanding.

He names it The Synapse, which I knew he had to because that was what I called it back in 1976.

Don’t you  love it when everything falls together?

Was intuition at play here? Maybe. Foreknowledge? Don’t be ridiculous. I think it was pure, dumb luck, augmented by self-training in grabbing anything good as it floats by, and letting nothing escape that might further the cause.

640. The Synapse Emerges 1

Life is weird, and strange things happen. It is almost enough to make you believe in a master plan, although it remains questionable whether that would be divine or diabolical. In any case, if there is a plan, it’s a hoot.

I’m going to tell you a story that began in January of 1976 and came full circle on October fifth, about a month ago. I have to warn you though, only old writers, new writers, or wannabe writers are likely to be be interested.

But really, who among you hasn’t either built a world, or wanted to?

In the fall of 1975, I sat down to prove or disprove my ability to churn out 40,000 to 50,000 words and call it a novel. By Christmas I had succeeded, although it wasn’t good enough to publish. Right after New Years, I set out to write a “real” novel, science fiction, with world building and everything. It was to be a lost colony book, so I had to get my people stranded, and that meant inventing an FTL drive. I took all of five minutes to do it.

     A sphere floating in space, silver against a backdrop of stars.
     The stars shift their colors, doppler down, out. The sphere hangs alone in darkness where here and there are concepts yet unborn. Six antennae project; it is not so much moved as displaced. First it is here, then it is there, but it never crosses the space between here and there . . . Synapse drive can cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.

from Jandrax

All done. I blew things up and left my people who-knew-where, and I didn’t have to think about that star drive again.

Synapse? It was just a word that came to mind, with no real connection to brain cells except that it seemed to imply something, without specifying what.

Beware of what you create, Dr. Frankenstein.

I wrote the novel Jandrax, and it was published. Picture a young author leaping with joy.

A few years later I started Cyan and had to invent a non-FTL star drive. (For more, check out the post coming November 20.) This time I put some thought into it so that it had some reasonable underpinnings. Lots of years passed and eventually Cyan was published, but I wasn’t through. I now had a world full of people I really liked, and some of them were young enough to continue exploring on the decrepit old starship Darwin.

The trouble was, I’d blown up the Earth, and I couldn’t count on it to recover for a long while. Someone had to write the Monomythos which had driven/would drive the plot in Jandrax, and someone had to invent the Synapse. I had to find them hidden among the population of Cyan, and I had to find motivations for both of them to do what I knew they had to do.

Writing prequels is like doing a time travel paradox story. He invented this, because he had to, because he used it on page 92 of a previously published book, that takes place in the new book’s future. See, time travel.

There was no problem with the Monomythos. I decided to have its writer be a rational young man who had grown up under the influence of a religious fanatic, either his father or a father figure. That’s right up my alley and the writing of it has been dribbling along recently on days when other writing is stalled.

In fact, the whole sequel to Cyan has been dribbling along in lots of pages of notes-to-self. Darwin is too old to push to previous accelerations, so the next journey will need cold sleep. No problem, there are 60,000 cold sleep units left over from Cyan’s colonization.

But that brings up something else.

I don’t know about you, but loose ends keep rolling around in my head long after I’ve moved on to other books. In Cyan, between 10 and 20 percent of the cold sleepers never woke up. Their bodies were fine, there was just nobody home. I had created that as an unexplained fact, but ever since then I’ve been wondering why things should work out that way. I decided to let Debra and Beryl figure it out in the sequel.

If you don’t know who Debra and Beryl are, for God’s sake go buy a copy of Cyan and read it. (LINK)

Using the computer’s file of DNA patterns from the 60,000 who set out from Earth, Debra and Beryl discover that a certain cluster of seemingly unrelated genes is present in all who died, and absent from all who lived. Further research is indicated, but it provides an absolute predictor of who will die in cold sleep.

One of the people (still unnamed, let’s just call him Frank for now) who is ready to depart on the new exploration finds that he has the deadly gene cluster and can’t go. When the Darwin departs without him, he is motivated to find an answer to faster than light travel.

All of this was worked out during the last six months, well before yesterday’s epiphany.

I’m only half way through this odd tale, and this post is already long enough, so I’ll to finish on Wednesday.

634. A Tribute to Alexi Leonov

This is a substitute post. The one I had planned about my two latest animal neighbors will have to be pushed forward to sometime in late November, probably just before Thanksgiving.

The reason for the change is that Alexi Leonov died in Moscow on October 11, and I just became aware of it tonight (Oct. 15). You’ve probably never heard of Leonov, and that is a shame. He was the first person to walk in space, in a flight filled with incredible dangers. I wrote a post about the flight for its 51st anniversary, called Spacecraft Threatened by Bears. I will present it again below, changed only by the addition of a few links to other related posts.

Spacecraft Threatened by Bears

Yes, I agree; it’s a snarky title. It’s also accurate, believe it or not.

I had the great good fortune of living through the early days of manned space flight. I was nine years old when the Russians orbited the first satellite, and the early manned flights came when I was in high school. I watched every American launch with fascination and envy, but the Russian launches were shrouded in secrecy. I knew only the bare minimum that all Americans knew. I’m not sure the president knew much more.

During those early days, nothing was routine. Every mission was dangerous. They still are, of course, but not so much as then. American failures were there for all the world to see, while the Soviets kept their’s secret. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, information about the early Russian space program became generally available, but by then few people cared. I did, and I sought out the stories.

Today is the fifty-first anniversary of the first space walk — by the USSR. I would have brought it to you on the fiftieth anniversary, but I wasn’t blogging yet. Voskhod 2 was a triumph, and also a flight which went spectacularly awry.

Voskhod 2

March 18-19, 1965

The first six manned Soviet spaceflights were aboard Vostok craft. Gagarin became the first man in space on Vostok 1, Tereshkova became the first woman in space on Vostok 6. I plan to talk about them on their anniversaries, in April and June.  [For those posts, see 131. First Into Space, 132. Chasing Cosmonauts, and 168. A Woman in Space.]

Vostok astronauts wore space suits throughout their flights and landed by personal parachute separate from the descent module. Before the second generation Soyuz spacecraft came on line, the Soviets launched two additional manned missions on modified Vostoks called Voskhod.

On Voskhod, a backup solid fuel retrorocket was added to the spherical descent module, another additional rocket softened the landing so that the cosmonauts could remain within the descent module, and the ejection seat was no longer used. This allowed Voskhod 1 to carry three astronauts where Vostok had carried only one.

Voskhod 1 cosmonauts flew without space suits, as did early Soyuz missions. Voskhod 2 cosmonauts Belyayev and Leonov wore space suits because they were scheduled for the first space walk. Their craft also carried an inflatable airlock.

American space walks first took place during the Gemini program (see post 87). That craft had two hatches but no airlock; both astronauts were in vacuum during the entire spacewalk.

On Voskhod 2, Leonov crawled into the airlock, sealed the inner door and opened the outer one. Belyayev remained in the pressurized descent module.

For ten minutes, Leonov remained within the airlock but exposed to the vacuum of space, then he slipped free and floated on a tether for another ten minutes. He was called back in to terminate his space walk, and his difficulties began.

(Or perhaps they had already begun. Some sources state that he “experienced a disorienting euphoria” during the space walk and other sources state that he suffered bends-like symptoms after the space walk was over; I haven’t been able to confirm these statements.)

It is certain that he had extreme difficulty reentering the airlock. His space suit had over inflated; the boots and gloves had slipped beyond his toes and fingertips, and his suit had increased in girth. He had to vent part of his rapidly depleting oxygen in order to bring his suit down in size, and even then had to enter the airlock head first, instead of feet first as planned. Once inside the airlock, he had extreme difficulty contorting his body to close the outer door. All the time, his body was heating up dangerously. Since he was surrounded by vacuum, there was nothing to carry away the heat his body was generating.

Once air pressure had been restored in the airlock, Belyayev opened the inner door and Leonov was safe. For the moment. As he said in an article for Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine in 2005, “the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.”

The mission had achieved it’s goal and it was time to return, but just before the scheduled time for firing retro rockets the cosmonauts discovered that their automatic guidance system was malfunctioning. It took time to prepare for manual entry, so they had to wait one orbit, which would make them miss their return point by a thousand miles. Most of that orbit they were out of radio communications. When communications were restored, ground control asked them where they had landed, not knowing of their difficulties.

Their orbit was set, but the time they would fire their retro rockets would determine where on that orbit they would land. They chose a target just past the Urals. Using the clumsy and difficult manual backup equipment, they achieved the correct attitude and fired the retro rockets in the conical rear portion of the craft called the orbital module. The orbital and landing modules were supposed to separate ten seconds after retrofire. They didn’t.

The two cosmonauts knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Instead of the steady press of force against their backs as they decelerated, they found themselves whipped about by confused forces that exceeded ten gravities. A communication cable between the two modules had failed to release, and now both modules were spinning about each other, tethered by the cable.

Finally, about 60 miles up, the cable burned through and the cosmonauts were freed. The drogue chute deployed, and then the main chute. All was peaceful and in order – briefly. Then it became dark as they dropped below cloud cover, the final rocket fired to slow them to landing speed, and they landed in 6 feet of snow.

They were 1200 miles beyond their intended landing point.

They blew the explosive bolts to release the hatch. It didn’t open. They had landed in the middle of a forest and the hatch was held shut by a tree. By yanking violently they dislodged it and it fell away, lost in the snow.

They made their way out of the spacecraft and waded through snow to a small clearing. Bikonur had not heard their landing signal, but a passing cargo plane had. It circled, and was soon joined by other planes and helicopters, but none of them could land in the rough taiga. Pilots threw a bottle of cognac; it broke. They threw warm clothing which got caught in the trees, but at least two pairs of wolfskin boots made it to the ground.

The light was failing. The cosmonauts returned to their landing module for shelter. Leonov was walking in calf deep sweat still trapped in his space suit from his space walk. Both cosmonauts stripped, removed the liners from their space suits and wring them as dry as possible, then put the on again along with the wolf skin boots and abandoned the useless space suits. The crawled into the landing module for the night, well aware that the taiga was filled with bears and wolves, and that this was mating season, when they were most aggressive.

The hatch was out of reach. The lights failed, but the circulation fan ran all night. The temperature dropped to 22 below zero.

A rescue party arrived on skis the next morning; they chopped trees to build a small log cabin and a big fire. The cosmonauts spent a second night, then skied out to where a second, larger party had chopped down enough trees for a helicopter to land.

I guess they made ‘em tough in those days. I suspect they still do.

625. Gateway Drug

Science fiction is a gateway drug. I don’t mean a gateway into general reading; that would probably be Dr. Seuss. I mean a gateway drug into a life of exploration.

Harlan Ellison told this story on himself. He was on a tour of some space installation, probably Houston but I can’t be sure. It’s been years since I read the story. One of the pocket protector crowd came up and told Harlan that his stories had been inspirational to his career. In Harlan’s version of the story, he was unimpressed, but he had a carefully crafted curmudgeon persona, so who knows really. He later found out that he had been talking to an astronaut.

Space exploration is taken for granted today. The moon landing happened during my early twenties, but just a dozen years earlier, in the late fifties when I first became fascinated with science fiction, few people believed man would ever leave the earth.

Science fiction people — writers and readers — believed.

Science fiction has been a gateway drug for a very long time. In 1898, 16 year old Robert Goddard, already fascinated by science, turned his attention to space when he read H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.

With little outside help and while enduring the disdain of his colleagues, Goddard invented the liquid fuel rocket, then went on to invent the multi-stage rocket. He received patents for both in 1914 and had actually built and successfully launched a liquid fuel rocket by 1926. He went on to pioneer the use of gyroscopic control of steerable thrust rockets.

Goddard was launched by science fiction, and in turn he launched a whole flotilla of boy scientists building rockets in their basements and flying off to explore space in the science fiction of the twenties and thirties.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him.

In 1905, in Transylvania (now in Romania) eleven year old Hermann Oberth became fascinated with the works of Jules Verne, particularly From the Earth to the Moon.

Oberth took training in medicine, but spent his spare time conducting experiments in rocketry. He studied physics from 1919, but his dissertation on rocket science was rejected as utopian. He chose to expand his work and publish it privately, saying he would become a great scientist even without a diploma. He was right.

His book, The Rocket into Planetary Space, became a classic. Its publication led to the formation of the VIR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt — Society for Space Travel) a German group which built and launched rockets in the years between the World Wars. Wernher Von Braun became a member. Oberth later became a mentor to Von Braun.

Von Braun’s work led to the V-2, and the V-2 led to every subsequent rocket built by the Americans or the Russians, including the Saturn V. Oberth was in the crowd watching its launch when it carried Apollo 11 to the moon.

Today Nova on PBS is probably the gateway drug for a life of fascination with space, and science fiction as literature has been largely co-opted by the movies. But there is a lot more content in a science fiction novel than Nova or Star Wars can present, and kids are still reading.

The first time a kid comes upon a science fiction idea, no matter what the quality of the work it appears in, that story is the one which counts. It doesn’t matter how many times the idea has been presented in the past, the story you read when you are twelve or thirteen is the one that stirs your juices and sets your neurons into a new pattern.

Maybe someday, some kid will be inspired by one of my books. The odds are against it so late in the history of science fiction, but it’s a comfort to know that it could happen.