Category Archives: Characters

Reminder: New Ares Project-Related Mars Stories on Kindle

At $0.99 apiece, they’re steals. Why would you not buy them both?

He Has Walled Me InHe Has Walled Me In

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out. An homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx”.


Dispatches from Mars – Anatomy of a Disaster: The Mars Environmental Works Catastrophe and the Death of Margaret Steadman

In this Dispatch, freelance journalist Calvin Lake explores the unlikely truth behind the worst industrial accident in Martian history: the destruction of Mars Environmental Works. Going beyond the bare facts and curiously self-interested evasions of the official Mars Development Authority inquest report, Lake’s account uses exclusive eyewitness and survivor interviews to paint a fuller picture of the catastrophe of April 1, 2050. A pun-ridden spoof of several science fiction tropes.

The next short story will be another of Calvin Lake’s Dispatches, this one concerning entrepreneur Jedediah Thoreson and his North Cap Water Pipeline project mentioned in Anatomy of a Disaster. Unlike that story, Pipeline will be a serious treatment of its topic. The Dispatches will be a series of essays on various aspects of life on Mars in the Ares Project fictional universe, written by fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake (who will also play an important role in the upcoming Ghosts of Tharsis).

Re-Reading “Tunnel in the Sky”

I’ve only read Tunnel in the Sky once before, probably in the late 1980s when I first discovered Heinlein. I remember having liked it then, but with some vague misgivings. Reading it again, I can better put my finger on what I did and did not like about the book.

What I liked:

  • The premise of the story. It’s almost shocking to realize that there was a time when the idea of high-school students being dropped on an unexplored planet to fend for themselves for two to ten days – no rules, no adult supervision, no possibility of intervention, and with death as a very real possibility – as a school sanctioned activity, could be presented as a realistic scenario. While in the 1950s this might have been stretching the Boy Scout ethos a bit (a point Patterson makes in his bio of Heinlein), today this element would belong less to science fiction than outlandish fantasy: long before Rod Walker had a chance to apply his chronic, paralyzing angst to the decision of whether or not to go through with the test, Patrick Henry High School would have been sued into insolvency by the first pair of grieving parents to find a lawyer capable of circumventing any liability waivers they or their mulched-by-alien-pirhana-dogs offspring may have signed. I imagined how right-thinking busybodies and helicopter parents would react if you proposed something analogous to this today, and got a good chuckle out of it.
  • Elements of the plot and world that seemed to prefigure/inspire later SF and other media (something else Patterson touches on, I discovered after I wrote this post). For example the titular tunnel, which is essentially a Stargate without the water ripple or the kawoosh effect (luckily for Rod, since he would have been disintegrated by it at one point in the book), but with what amounts to an iris in one case, and subject to the same sorts of misalignment problems presented in the Stargate movie and the first few episodes of the SG-1 series. Also from the Stargate franchise, you have the similarity of the marooned ‘duplicate’ crew of Destiny having to start over with nothing on an unfamiliar planet after their gate is disrupted by a large stellar event, quickly coming to grips with the situation and starting a new government, building the tools to make the tools to make the tools, etc., recovering the ability to make iron (albeit bog iron in the case of SG:U, which is more believable as it mirrors iron development in a number of real-world cultures) — of course, since SG:U was subject to the influence of John Scalzi, I suspect it was more of a lazy knockoff of Heinlein than inspired by him. For another example, stasis fields of varying time-distortion effects – while Heinlein’s stasis fields never reach complete time stoppage like Larry Niven’s do, his description of how they were invented bears some similarity to Niven’s account of their invention in the Known Space universe. And of course, there’s the presentation of the dishonest and manipulative news media at the end of the story, in which journalists are shown to be more concerned with titillating images and lurid stories than presenting the truth of what they’re covering.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • Rod Walker. What an insufferably neurotic and insecure character. I kept expecting him to learn from his experiences and develop new confidence and grow into his role as ‘mayor’ of the group of survivors paralleling his growth into adulthood. But he just…didn’t. His dinner scene with his family after his return is little different from the dinner scene before he left – he managed a community of 70-odd individuals for more than a year, yet he still can’t stand up for himself against a self-absorbed father who is completely detached from reality, relying once again on his older sister to intervene. (Of course, one can read the portrayal of his parents and his home life as the genesis of those neuroses and insecurities – Rod is barely recognized as an autonomous individual by his parents, everyone is expected to walk on eggshells around his codependent and psychologically delicate mother, his father uses her fragility as a weapon to control the others, the parents are so self-absorbed that they planned to use all of their financial resources to go into stasis for twenty years to await a cure for a disease they never mentioned the father had and without even telling their minor child who they are leaving behind penniless and parentless, etc.)
  • The other characters. Nobody really had any depth, and few were even likable. Heinlein seemed unable to decide whether Grant should be a villain or not, presenting him at first as a sweet-talking sociopath, morphing into Napoleon from Animal Farm, before abruptly turning him into a well-meaning but incompetent leader who sacrifices himself for the survival of the others to atone for the consequences of his lack of foresight and bad decisions. The same with Roy, who is at first Grant’s henchman in Animal Farm tyranny and dislikes Rod for being Grant’s rival, then abruptly becomes pals with Rod (all through the downriver expedition, I expected the newly-chummy but intermittently-sullen Roy to metaphorically unmask and literally stab Rod in the back). And as noted above, the parents are horrible people, as is their “family friend” who is tacked on at the end.
  • The unresolved romantic issues between Rod and Caroline. Yes, I know the reasons why they didn’t end up together (racial sentiments in 1955 would have made the book unsellable, or at least seem so to his publisher, even though – if you pay close attention – both characters are actually black), but it’s unsatisfying that their relationship simply…ends. And isn’t resolved even in the epilogue.
  • The numerous abandoned plot, character, technology, or world elements. While it didn’t quite reach Star Trek levels, it was frustrating to have some element built up only to see it dropped abruptly without further development or used in an inconsistent manner. The Deacon was missing parts of three fingers, but later on a character informs us that it was better for Grant to have died from his injuries because unlike on Earth, they lacked readily available replacement/donor limbs. In the first few days, before anyone even knows they’re marooned, one of the students is stalking and killing the others, yet this whole matter is dropped abruptly after Jack explains how she acquired Rod’s knife – wouldn’t someone in that situation at least be a bit put off by the thought that a fellow student who (if Johann and his dog count as the first victims) was murdering the others within the first few hours of the test, for no other reason than to take their gear? If the point was to hit the theme about humans being more dangerous than any alien predators they might encounter, the opportunity was wasted by leaving that thread so poorly resolved. Likewise, why spend so much time on the downriver expedition and the discovery of the beach of bones and the abandoned cliff dwellings without then following up on the significance of those things? Yes, I can connect the dots and guess that the dopey joes stampeded the herds to the salt sea and then ate them on the beach while the animals were trapped and weakened from thirst, but the cliff dwellings and the implications of their existence were completely wasted…we’re teased with the idea of sentient aliens, and then that idea is developed no further and their fate is left unresolved. So many Chekhovian guns are hung on the wall and left unfired at the end of the story that I have to wonder if there isn’t a much, much longer original version from which the published version was haphazardly cut.

Overall, not Heinlein’s best work. But not his worst, either, as it’s still a passably entertaining read (if you don’t read it closely enough to frustrate yourself the way I did). According to Patterson Heinlein wrote the book in one month, and I think it shows in lack of attention to detail. From what Patterson relates of Heinlein’s writing practices, Tunnel in the Sky reads as if he had a bunch of well-developed world-building material on hand and a solidly-developed gimmick, and hastily strung a story around it all to meet a deadline.

The Ethics of Martian Babies

Rand Simberg probes the issue over at PJM: The Bioethics of Mars One.

It’s funny to see Rand and the commenters on his article echoing the sentiments we present in In the Shadow of Ares regarding Amber’s parents having a child on Mars and the continued reluctance of other settlers to have children. One criticism we received from several early readers of the manuscript was that it was unlikely that in a dozen years of settlement activity, nobody else would have had a child but Aaron and Lindsay.

Well…here’s an indication that it’s not so unlikely.

A Simple Thought on “Hunger Games”

The problem with writing a novel from first-person perspective is that it’s safe to guess that the point-of-view character is not going to die. And when it’s written in present tense, you can be certain of it — there’s no plausible literary device by which they can recount events after the fact, and it’s stretching belief to have them leave behind a journal which abruptly terminates in an agonized “AAARRGGGGHHH!”

This undercuts suspense by lowering the stakes in any trouble they happen to get into. The challenge then becomes, like a Bond movie, to provide enough action to be entertaining despite the knowledge that the character can never truly be in mortal danger. Which, of course, Hunger Games does.


The Disappointment of “Star Wars”

Over at PJM Kathy Shaidle lays out Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks.

Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”. 

Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression of the character as being a wise and noble mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, a father figure whose efforts to help the latter learn his true nature and value are cut tragically short. In November I watched Episode 3 and most of Episode 4 back-to-back, and found Kenobi now comes across as dishonest and incompetent hack (or worse):

  • His incompetence and inattentiveness regarding the young Anakin’s training and his failure to recognize the blatant, flashing-neon warning signs of the latter’s willfulness and disobedience led to Anakin’s temptation to disallowed romance and his corruption to the Dark Side. He was too young, inexperienced, and headstrong himself to take on such an important and demanding task, but he did it anyway, even begged for it.
  • He walked away and left the maimed and burned Anakin to die, without properly finishing the job of killing him – finishing Anakin off was his responsibility, since his failures had led to Anakin becoming what he had become and because he was the one who had cut him to pieces. It was his duty to make sure the threat was eliminated, and having gotten to the point he did, and being a supposedly noble Jedi, it was his duty to exercise the virtue of mercy by finishing Anakin off instead of leaving him to suffer in agony for minutes or hours longer. This is where the “or worse” comes in – his incompetence let Anakin survive long enough to be rescued, but his leaving Anakin in agony revealed a cruel indifference to the latter’s suffering if not a vindictive satisfaction with it.
  • When he first meets Luke in Episode 4, he lies to him regarding the fate of Luke’s father. In hindsight, this is as much a self-serving lie to cover up his own involvement in Anakin’s fate as it is the white lie for the not-quite-ready-to-know-the-truth Luke that it always used to seem.
  • If we accept that his duty while in exile (as established at the end of Episode 3) was to conceal and protect Luke, how do we reconcile that task with the fact that Kenobi lived in a remote dwelling far away from the Lars farmstead, too far to keep watch on Luke, and that he had apparently never had contact with Luke for the first eighteen years of his life? Why was the Jedi master not training the boy from childhood to use the Force to protect and conceal himself incase he himself were to be discovered or to die? Again, incompetence…had Luke been better prepared, he would have been more effective in confronting the challenges that faced him.
  • When entering the cantina, Kenobi would have been smarter to have used his “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade Luke’s two harassers to leave him alone rather than to lop off one of their arms and thereby draw unwanted attention to himself and his companions. Incompetence, and another instance of indifference to the suffering of others (specifically, others he has maimed with a light saber).
  • Finally (though there are no doubt more instances to be found), Kenobi lies to Vader when he boasts that he will “become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. It was all braggadocio – he never followed through on that threat.

It was all very disappointing to notice these elements in a character I used to like. But, it just goes with the territory when you’re talking about the Star Wars franchise.

UPDATE: Brian Preston responds, on behalf of science fiction fans. I should add for my part that I don’t agree with Shaidle’s attacks on science fiction as a genre, just with some of her criticism of the Star Wars movies. Some were good, and fun, but not great, and when you look at them with a critical eye towards character development and such, they really suffer.


Paypal’s Peter Thiel on the Collapse of Science Fiction

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.

One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Ares was the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:

  • By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
  • By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own.  “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
  • By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.

This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.

I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?

Mobile Agents Arrive on Earth

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares , when viewing commercials for the new Siri application for the iPhone 4S, will likely recognize flashes of “Laura” and “Emily”.  The artificially intelligent characters are Mobile Agents or “MAs”, not much bigger than a cell phone, that serve as much more than communication devices. 

This app brings today’s cell phones a huge step closer to what we envisioned on Mars in the not-too-distant future.  Siri is a voice recognition app that is apparently intelligent enough to not only understand what you say, but to know what you mean:

Talk to Siri as you would to a person.  Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late.” “Remind me to call the vet.” “Any good burger joints around here?” And Siri answers you.  It does what you say and finds the information you need.  And then it hits you.  You’re actually having a conversation with your iPhone.

Like the MAs we envision, and prototypes being developed to assist in exploration activities, the Siri app recognizes location when it provides restaurant options “around here” or when you ask it to “remind me to make a dentist appointment when I get to work”.  Better yet, it also figures out what other apps to use based on what you are asking it to do.

Inspiration From Real-Life Experience

Somehow, somewhere, I lost my Blackberry yesterday.

Yes, of course, I did all the usual things to try to find it: searched high and low, called it using the land line, rooted around under the seat in the car. But it was no use, it went missing somewhere between Conifer and Five Points (north of downtown Denver) and isn’t coming back. When I mentioned this to Carl, it prompted us to wonder what would happen if someone similarly misplaced their MA? How might we use this as a story element, if a character had a habit of doing so?

In our fictional universe, MAs are vital pieces of personal equipment. More important than a mere cellphone and more powerful than even today’s smartphones, they serve a number of communications, information access, computation, organization, navigation, and safety functions. To someone who had grown up using an MA and had woven instant access to these functions into his daily routine, losing his MA would be akin to losing a part of his brain. It would be much more disruptive than what we experience today when (as also happened to me about two weeks ago) we lose internet service for a few days – in such instances we find other things to do, or other ways to accomplish what we would have done on the internet. But forty years from now, when our lives will be still more integrated with our information systems, this may be difficult or impossible. Loss of connectivity will be much more disruptive.

And not only disruptive, but potentially dangerous. If one loses his MA entirely (not merely its connection to information infrastructure), he loses the safety features built into it. On our Mars of 2051, this means that he may have no knowledge of current air composition or radiation conditions, for example, information which could have life-or-death importance at any time. As we showed in In the Shadow of Ares, this isn’t an idle concern. Amber and Grantham face the inconveniences and dangers associated with losing connectivity and with losing their MAs at different points in the story.

This is an issue you may see arise in the sequels…

Amber’s Mission

Last week marked the anniversaries of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents.  Those old enough to remember one or more of those tragedies recall the feelings of shock and sadness.  Eventually we moved on, however, recommitting ourselves to the noble endeavor of manned space exploration.

But what if a spacecraft vanished without a trace?  And what if, decades later, you had the chance to solve a mystery that most had given up on, even if they hadn’t forgotten?  That’s the challenge facing 14-year-old Amber Jacobsen:

There was an ocean of data from the Ares missions and the subsequent exploration and settlement of the planet…surely there was some clue, something that had been missed.  She looked up at the portraits again.  What if it was right in front of everyone, and they couldn’t see it, because they were still thinking like Earthers? 

But shewasn’t an Earther.  She looked around the cabin at the memorials to the Ares III crew.  Mars was her world, the only one she’d ever known.  If something had been missed, maybe she could see it.  Why shouldn’t she be the one to find the truth? “I’ll do it.”

“What’s that?”  Aaron had drifted over to the other side of the cabin.

“Find out what happened.  You know, figure it out.  I’m gonna do it.”

The Mysterious Mr. Rana

There’s more to Rajiv Rana than we let on in In the Shadow of Ares:

He paused, then added simply, “You’re quiet today.”

“Am I?” she asked coolly as she pulled on her immersion goggles and rings.  You’re part of it.  Margolis said so herself.  I know you’re hiding something.  That’s why none of the Green’s survey data from the past two years is available.

“Yes, you are,” he replied, noting the tone in her voice with a slight narrowing of his eyes.  “But, if you don’t want to talk to me, well, that’s okay.  We can talk again when you’re in a better mood.”

She yanked off her goggles and turned to face him.  “What makes you think I’m in a bad mood?”

He shrugged.  “Your…moodiness?”

“What?  Oh.  Well, maybe I am mad.  Shouldn’t I be?  I know you’re hiding something…” She stopped short when she saw his face suddenly become an expressionless mask.

There was an uncomfortable pause.  “Hiding?” he asked cautiously.  “What is it you think I am hiding?”


His dark eyes bored into her own.  “Go on.”

Me and my big mouth. “The, uh, the cavern…”  If possible, his face became even more expressionless when she mentioned the cavern.

“The cavern?  What is it you think I am hiding about a cavern?”

Think fast. “I, uh, I know you’re hiding something down there.  There’s…  something down there, isn’t there?  That’s why Grantham won’t let anyone go in?”

“Oh, that again.”  Rana pursed his lips and rolled his eyes.  The tension between them seemed to evaporate suddenly.  A little too suddenly, perhaps.

What could he be hiding? And how did he really break his nose?