Endurance Wreck Discovered

This has been sitting in my drafts box for a couple of weeks, so I’m a little late to the party with the news: Wreck of Shackelton’s Endurance Found

The state of preservation is remarkable, not only given its century-long submersion but compared to the crew’s descriptions and film of what happened to the ship as and after they were forced to abandon it. I would have expected a pile of rotted lumber scattered across the seafloor.

We have a Dispatch story outlined and partially written (yes, I know I say that a lot) based in part on the Endurance expedition, which I would like to get to if we can ever get Ghosts of Tharsis completed. It’s The Anabasis performed by members of the Shackelton, Mawson, and Scott crews, led (unfortunately) by someone who makes Fauci look like Oppenheimer.

 

Life Imitates Art: EuroSpace Edition

This has some striking relevance to certain events at the beginning of Ghosts of Tharsis: Astronauts in Europe ask for their own independent crew spacecraft

In fact, Ivanka has a thought along these lines, just before…very bad things happen:

“While Europe is still at the forefront of many space endeavors, such as Earth observation, navigation, and space science, it is lagging in the increasingly strategic domains of space transportation and exploration,” the manifesto states. “Europe’s Gross Domestic Product is comparable to that of the United States’, but its joint investment in space exploration does not reach even one tenth of NASA’s.”

Russia has the Soyuz crew vehicle, China has the Shenzhou spacecraft, and NASA has SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Moreover, within a few years, the US space agency should add the Orion spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner capsule to its fleet of human spaceflight vehicles. India also seeks to develop and demonstrate a crewed transportation system to low Earth orbit within the next two years.

So where does that leave Europe?

She’s not any happier about being part of an also-ran team than these manifesto-writers are. In her case, though, it’s because all that money that could be lavished on a European space program is being frittered away on corruption.

Families in Science Fiction

At Powered by Robots, James Pyles asks “Where Are the Families in Science Fiction?”

I’m curious. Of the science fiction and fantasy you read, have you seen any family life shows in a positive way, especially in more recent publications?

I haven’t seen much in recent science fiction, because I haven’t been reading much science fiction recently. My reading priorities lately trend to the Classics and other nonfiction.

However, when we started out writing what became “In the Shadow of Ares”, this was one of the elements that we noticed was missing from a lot of SF at the time. We wanted to write a young adult novel that avoided the cliches of that genre and SF itself. So, we created a main character who was human, who made mistakes, and who wasn’t some sort of infallibly smart and precociously wise Secret Chosen One destined for greatness, and we set her in a family with parents who made some pretty risky sacrifices to make a go of it. We explicitly avoided making her an orphan, or situating her on her own in some manner like many of Heinlein’s juveniles’ protagonists (stowaways, runaways, castaways, and kidnappees). Too, families fit with the overall nature of the fictional universe, in which Mars is just starting to be settled – one character observes (perhaps only in draft) that if you’re not having babies, it’s a base and not a settlement…you’re not really committed to stay and build a new world.

In “ItSoA”, Amber’s positive relationship with her parents (especially her father) is a key element, while in the sequel, “Ghosts of Tharsis”, her close relationship with her mother is explored. In both books, the issue of children and families on Mars is an important theme, and this theme reappears in “Redlands” and (indirectly) in “He Has Walled Me In”. In “Pipeline” (unpublished), Thoreson’s children are entrusted with his business empire on Earth when he emigrates to Mars with his grandchildren to run the project. Also in “Ghosts of Tharsis”, every protagonist is shown in the context of family: Amber, Marek’s children, Ethan and his parents, Ezekiel and his brothers, even some tag characters. The only story we’ve published so far without a positive family element in it is “Anatomy of a Disaster”, which is appropriate given the story is a farce inspired by the Piper Alpha disaster. Even our non-Ares Project story, “Silent Stalker”, involved the positive portrayal of two families.

The funny thing about it, though, is that while we chose consciously at the beginning to include positive portrayals of family, it’s played out naturally in the creation of characters and situations. For example the “Baby Taboo”, once conceived (no pun intended), took on a life of its own in the fictional universe and suggested different but always opposed reactions from different characters – everyone hates the taboo, and you never see anyone but the villains truly supporting it. At the beginning of “Ghosts of Tharsis”, when the MDA relents and allows a small number of children 13 and older to emigrate, that not only brings Amber some kids her own age to associate with but necessitates exploring the family backgrounds of those new arrivals to explain how and why they ended up on Mars.

Apart from that initial decision, though, it’s not something that we’ve shoehorned in, and is not presented in a treacly or sentimental way. It just followed naturally as we drew on our own experiences and those of families around us.

Perhaps that’s the real problem: those authors who cannot or will not write positively about something as commonplace and essential as families are themselves broken children from broken homes. Like the majority of modern culture creators, their creative priority is the non-stop masturbatory airing of their childhood resentments – they hate their fathers so much that they write them out of the future.

Alistair1918

Alistair1918 came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.

The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.

An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:

  • Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
  • Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
  • The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
  • I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
  • The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
  • Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.

It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Exploding the Myths of Explosive Decompression

Contrary to science fiction tropes, it takes more than a drop from one atmosphere to vacuum to do it. But it’s happened: Byford Dolphin Diving Bell Accident

Came across this while looking for information on the effects of the more likely 1-to-0 atmospheres depressurization for a scene in Ghosts of Tharsis. (Not really a spoiler, since you won’t see it coming.) It’s both horrifying and fascinating at the same time, and coincidentally led me to an account of the Piper Alpha disaster, which also has some bearing on events in the book.

Life Imitates Art #9845761: Splat

NASA Mars orbiter examines dramatic new crater.

Impressive. Now, imagine a few dozen of these happening. At the same time. I just drafted that scene last weekend…

I find it a bit surprising that this sort of thing (to various magnitudes) happens about 200 times per year. Not that it should be all that surprising, considering it probably happens on Earth as well – the rocks just don’t reach the surface thanks to our atmosphere. Surprising because one tends to think of Mars as a completely dead planet, where nothing much happens.

As we continue to explore and eventually settle the place, we’re bound to find out it’s nowhere near as dead as it seems. Something important to keep in mind with regards to writing fiction set on Mars – your characters are likely going to have to outrun a water outburst or dodge a meteoroid every now and then, and who knows what else.

Work Update and New Year’s Resolution

Work continues on the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares, tentatively titled Ghosts of Tharsis. We have the book fully outlined, in detail, with the prologue and a bit of the first act boilerplated. Amber and Ivanka get new friends, Amber gets a little more than she expected from her first off-Mars trip, and in yet another example of life imitating art in the Ares Project universe, electronic/data security (and indiscriminate violations thereof) are a significant element of the plot.

Just before Christmas we finished the first draft of a short story set in the Ares Project universe. The story takes place between the two books, and involves a different character with rather different problems from Amber’s. Oh, and it’s an homage to H.P. Lovecraft…

Given how straightforward it was to write up the short story, I’m making it my goal to turn out at least three more Ares Project short stories this year. We’ve got a long list of ideas for these, including one gimmick that lends itself to an ongoing series of related stories. I’m also making a goal to publish Ghosts of Tharsis by the end of the year, if our work schedules permit it.