Everything Serves the Narrative First

I got a laugh out of the clumsy narrative servicing in this article: Americans Will Head to Space Again Without a Russian Taxi:

Since the Space Shuttle’s retirement six years ago, NASA has been buying spots aboard Russian Soyuz craft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s a politically awkward arrangement to say the least, given more than a decade of strained relations, Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the dented American pride of having to ask in the first place.

That line appears to be the whole point of the article. After that, the rest is just a slapdash mishmash of news bites, reading as if the author copy-pasted a bunch of semi-related tweets into a single document. It lacks the coherent structure or flow from paragraph to paragraph that this article and a few others I read show he’s actually capable of creating.

Apparently, writing a good article in this instance was less important than the opportunity to repeat this partisan assertion-as-fact.

 

Ringworld on Amazon

This is interesting news – Amazon is adapting Ringworld:

“Ringworld,” a co-production with MGM, is based on Larry Niven’s sci-fi book series from the 70’s. It tells the story of Louis Gridley Wu, a bored man celebrating his 200th birthday in a technologically-advanced, future Earth. Upon being offered one of the open positions on a voyage, Louis joins a young woman and two aliens to explore Ringworld, the remote artificial ring beyond “Known Space.”

It’s nice to see SF adaptations being made from books I’ve actually read for a change. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will actually turn out well (I think it will be challenging, both to make the story work on the screen and to represent the setting both accurately and compellingly), or whether Amazon will look at the projected budget necessary to pull it off and back off instead. But given how good a job they’ve done with The Man in the High Castle, I’m willing to get my hopes up for this one.

What’s interesting, though, is that Ringworld is not a very long story. I could see it filling out ten episodes…but then what? Do they do all this work developing the backstory of Known Space and a couple of its recurring characters just for a single season, or do they continue on with the other Ringworld books, and perhaps branch out into the other stories and novels set in the Known Space universe?

That has some interesting potential, and is akin to my thoughts after re-reading The Mote in God’s Eye this summer. It struck me then that the Co-Dominium universe (and particularly the period in which the Mote novels and King David’s Spaceship are set) is ripe for adaptation as a series in the High Castle format. Only, instead of telling the Mote stories right away, build up through a combination of existing and new material over the first 10-12 episode season. These episodes could include KDS, along with the revolt and suppression of New Chicago, leading up to a cliffhanger involving the appearance of the Crazy Eddie Probe and setting the stage for a second season based entirely on TMIGE. The early episodes gradually introduce the technology, future history, and sociopolitical setting along the way, so that narrative dumps don’t bog down the main story later on.

We’ll have to wait a year and see how it turns out, if it makes it to the screen in the end.

Asgardia, or How to Filter Out Undesirable Settlers

If I were setting up a space settlement, this is exactly how I would go about weeding out those unsuited to the undertaking: What Tops the Agenda for a New Space Colony? A Debate Over Taxes

It’s more than just taxes, and so much less. The project is tailor-made to draw in weirdos and whackjobs and busybodies and control freaks, who would at best (as is apparently happening) cause the whole undertaking to collapse in strife, and who were it to actually get off the ground would turn the place into a hell on orbit.

April Fool’s Day Redux

Back online after a couple months of proposal work, two rocket engine designs, and a promotion. Whew. And despite all that, I’ve been writing quite a bit, having now completed the roughing-in of the “true crime” Dispatch and nearly completed the same for the “Marineris expedition” Dispatch. Next weekend, Carl and I will finish the third act of Ghosts of Tharsis…or else.

And then, a break from outlining to do some actual Dispatch writing. Which will be fun.

In the meantime, enjoy last year’s April Fool’s Day story, Anatomy of a Disaster, fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake’s first (and perhaps not entirely canonical) Dispatch From Mars:

At 09:04 the position sensor data from Margaret Steadman’s Mobile Agent shows that she was rushing around her apartment, from one room to the next, presumably searching frantically for her missing pets. She appears to have deduced the answer, as at 09:05 she climbed onto a chair below one of the open vents through which the animals had escaped.

At the same moment, Rudolph Alexander had found the source of the mystery noise. What sounded like mewing and an occasional screech was just that, and it was coming from the air vent above the process display wallscreen in the Box.

“There was fur poking out. Whatever was in there was pushing, pulsing against the diffuser, making it bend and bulge. My first thought was the vent was blocked by something, a large cluster of lint or whatever, and that that noise was the air whistling through it. Then I saw the claws. And the eyes.”

There was no time to call for help. The diffuser broke free, and strange animals poured out into the Box like a waterfall—a screeching, angry, hissing waterfall of fur. “Fifty, a hundred, more and more of those things were between me and the door to the main corridor. I-I panicked, sure, I admit it. Wouldn’t you have? All I knew was I had to get away. And there was only one way I could go.”

With unknown and terrifying creatures flooding into the Box, Alexander took the only other way out: the hatch into the production area.

“All our training said that hatch was supposed to stay closed when a batch was running, but nothing trained me for anything like this. I tried to shut the hatch behind me, really I did! I must have crushed a half-dozen of those monsters doing it. But I couldn’t get it to latch—pressure hatches won’t close if there’s anything blocking the jamb. At least I remembered to hit the emergency shut-down button. What more was I supposed to do?”

While Alexander’s account of these events was initially seen as an attempt to evade blame by faking a psychological breakdown, evidence recovered from the scene later exonerated him.

“Nobody believed me at first. But then they found the video from the Box. And those bodies in her freezer. And, boy, then people understood!” he declares with wide-eyed triumph, leaping to his feet and stabbing a finger into the air. “Then, then everyone knew old Rudolph Alexander hadn’t lost his marbles after all!”

 

Nat Geo Goes to Mars

Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033.  You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.

Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.

Dispatches: the Writing Technique

Carl and I came up with Cameron Lake, a freelance journalist visiting Mars and documenting its people, events, and culture, as a medium for using interesting elements of the Ares Project universe that we didn’t have room for in books or stories. And then we sat on the concept (and about two dozen story ideas) for about two years, until we got the idea to do Anatomy of a Disaster as an April Fool’s Day gag.

And that went well. That experience led in turn to my taking on a personal challenge while on vacation this summer to spend the ten weeks after I returned producing ten detailed outlines of new Dispatch stories. (I finished with #8 yesterday, with ten days to finish the remaining two.) I’ve settled into the following technique or method for this, which seems to work quite well – start with a new document, and the kernel of an idea:

The Gimmick: write out in 1-2 sentences what the core idea of the story is – the gimmick, twist, gee-whiz technology, character quirk, whatever the inspiration for the story is.

The Summary: in one paragraph, explain in simple language what the story is about…that is, how the gimmick manifests in a plot.

Discussion: this is the brain-vomit or stream-of-consciousness part – brainstorm about the plot, characters, setting, twists and turns, science fictional elements, etc. using bullet points to document what you think up; use this section to document any relevant research you do regarding these things; it’s a catch-all, so keep it open-ended and unstructured, and don’t worry about dead-ends (you might use them later somewhere else); explore variations on the mechanics of the story, how characters relate, and the logical consequences of actions and any technology used; profile your characters, how they think and act, who they are, what the look like – ditto any relevant social structures or trends; this is also the place to document any peripheral thoughts or expand on an idea relevant to the story but which might bog down the Structure or Working Outline sections below – for example, thinking through a character’s backstory at a level of detail that informs his presentation in the story but isn’t shown in full, or working out the real-world ramifications of some technology that appears in the story, or explicitly documenting something that will affect or should be cited in related stories in the fictional universe.

Structure: as you brain-dump in the Discussion section, you’ll get a clearer idea of the story you want to tell and how its plot should work; here, use a numbered list to arrange the steps of the plot in order; treat each line item like a summary of one chapter; raid the Discussion section until you have captured all the high-level elements you want to use and have them ordered into a coherent plot that flows from one section to the next; if any character dialogue suggests itself at this point, I’ll document it in this section; explicitly establish here how the story ends (I try to make up a tentative last line for the ending), so that you know your destination.

Working Outline: once you’re comfortable with the quality and detail in the Structure, copy and paste it at the end of the document; at the beginning of each line item insert a tentative chapter title (useful even if the finished story won’t use them) and a simplified one-line summary of the chapter; break the copied text for each chapter into sub-bullets (the simplest way to do this is to make each sentence in the copied text into an individual sub-bullet); work through the outline, adding, reworking, and reordering the sub-bullets and chapters to make the story flow and show the action and ideas you want it to include; to keep from getting bogged down in minutiae, use placeholders for character or place names you haven’t already chosen and mark any technical details for later review unless they are essential to know in advance (i.e.: the plot hinges on them, vs. they’re generic enabling devices or part of the setting); when you gut-feel that the story is sufficiently organized, make a rapid pass through the whole Working Outline changing all of the sub-bullet text into the proper tense, making it read like actual prose where possible, and turning it into dialogue where relevant.

I’ve gotten to the point now where about half of the story is written when I’m finished outlining it, in that most of the sub-bullets are sentences in draft form and ready for editing. (In the case of these ten outlines, I then send it to Carl for his input). Finishing it then involves doing more research to fill in the missing details, reworking particulars to make both of us happy with the story, and finally polishing the text into its final form.

In practice this results in a really long document for a mere short story. The Gentlemen Adventurers, the outline I finished yesterday, originated as an idea only last Monday and a blank-sheet document on Wednesday. In the intervening 8 days I produced a document of 20,150 words, 3,835 of which are the Discussion, 5,570 are the Structure, and 10,700 are the Working Outline. Obviously I didn’t actually write that many words from scratch, as the Working Outline started as a copy-paste from the Structure – in the end, recognizable copy-paste accounts for about 40% of the Working Outline. The number also doesn’t account for two chapters which still exist only as extended summaries, as they will require research to flesh out in detail.

I started in this morning on the ninth of the ten Dispatches, which will be a comedy of errors concerning the first British Trans-Marineris Expedition. Beginning with a roughly 200-word Gimmick and Summary, the Discussion so far brings the word count up to 2,670 words. Not bad for about an hour and a half of writing before going to work. Unfortunately, in this case it’s all context and social trend backstory – I haven’t even started in on the details of the failed expedition yet…

 

Innovative Science Fiction

I may have to read this one – I have never seen these novel elements in science fiction before, let alone woven together in the same story. So original! I can’t even.

Now, after more than a century of exploring the stars, Keith Stoner returns to find that the world he has come back to does not match the one he left. The planet is suffering the consequences of disastrous greenhouse flooding. Most nations have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments, such as the New Morality in the United States. With population ballooning and resources running out, Earth is heading for nuclear war. Stoner, the star voyager, wants to save Earth’s people. But first he must save himself from the frightened and ambitious zealots who want to destroy this stranger—and the terrifying message he brings from the stars.

Disappointing – it reads like a grab bag of threadbare 1970s SF cliches. I thought Bova was a little more creative than this. Or for that matter, creative. This is less imaginative than the mashup of lefty tropes in Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids.

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.