Category Archives: Setting

Ordnance Survey Maps Go Off The Planet 

This looks good – one of my gripes about writing fiction set on Mars is that despite the huge volume of photographic and topographic data accumulated over the past fifteen-plus years, it’s nearly impossible for a non-planetary-scientist to visualize the terrain using the information products planetary scientists have generated from that data. This effort appears to remedy that problem by presenting the aforementioned data in a familiar format: Ordnance Survey Blog OS maps go off the planet

The planet Mars has become the latest subject in our long line of iconic OS paper maps. The one-off Ordnance Survey Mars map, created using NASA open data and made to a 1:4,000,000 scale, is made to see if our style of mapping has potential for future Mars missions. Our Cartographic Designer, Chris Wesson, designed the map…

While the Ordnance Survey isn’t printing these maps as of yet, they are taking requests at the link above to gauge interest in doing so. Meanwhile, you can view the (enormous) electronic version on the Ordnance Survey Flickr page.

Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration

This sounds interesting, if a bit pricey, like a cross between Big Dead PlaceEndurance, and The Martian (and who knows, probably a bit of Alive! thrown in as well).

Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration: What We Know from Polar Expeditions  [Erik Seedhouse]

With current technology, a voyage to Mars and back will take three years. That’s a lot of time for things to go wrong. But sooner or later a commercial enterprise will commit itself to sending humans to Mars.

 

How will the astronauts survive? Some things to consider are:

• Who decides what medical resources are used for whom?

• What is the relative weight of mission success and the health of the crew?

• Do we allow crewmembers to sacrifice their lives for the good of the mission?

• And what if a crewmember does perish? Do we store the body for return to Earth or give the member a burial in space?

Questions like these, and hundreds of others, have been explored by science fiction, but scant attention has been paid by those designing missions. Fortunately, the experience gained in polar exploration more than 100 years ago provides crews and mission planners with a framework to deal with contingencies and it is this that forms the core of this book.

Why the parallels between polar and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for a Mars mission today than those invoked by the space community. Although astronauts are routinely compared to Lewis and Clark, Mars-bound astronauts will be closer in their roles to polar explorers. And, as much as space has been described as a New Frontier, Mars bears greater similarity to the polar regions, which is why so much can be learned from those who ventured there.

Note that even though we’ve written young-adult SF, we haven’t shied away from these sorts of questions, and indeed In the Shadow of Ares opens with the death of the entire third expedition to Mars, which mystery forms the core of the novel. Likewise, a dramatic mass-casuality accident forms the background of our new short story, He Has Walled Me Inand the story itself has origins in my having read Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival.

 

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.

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.

World-Building

I’m currently re-reading Jim Aikin’s Walk the Moon’s Road, a book I’ve only read once before, about eight or nine years ago. I really liked the book back then and wondered how it would hold up against my recollection.

So far, so good.

What I liked about it the first time (as well as now) was the world-building involved. The setting for the novel is a world colonized in a forgotten past by humans who are only now approaching a level of technology comparable (in many but not all ways) with about 1700AD Europe. Over an unknown number of years, the human colonists mutated into at least a half-dozen physically distinct human types who share the planet with two other native indigenous sentient species.

Naturally, in addition to having physical differences, each of the human types has (in one central case quite dramatic) social and cultural differences as well. Aikin does a good job in describing each of the different groups, such that it’s pretty clear what each group is like, what their interests are, how they are prone to behave, how they relate to each other, and so on. What’s better is that he doesn’t resort to lazy Star Trek writing by making each character a representative of their culture’s monolithic stereotype – each human type has good and bad members and outliers who don’t fit the mold of their respective group.

In short, he successfully builds up a “alien” world that is plausible, layered, and engaging. It may not be as complex or deep as Dune, no, but it’s still (ahem) worlds better than a lot of popular science fiction in this regard.

The dialogue is a little more stiff in spots than what I remember, and he seems to try a little too hard to be flowery in some descriptive passages, but not so much that it’s off-putting. It’d be nice to see Aikin maybe give the novel a scrub to improve these things and issue a new edition.

For that matter, it’d be really nice to see Aikin write more new material. His Wall at the Edge of the World* remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’m disappointed that he hasn’t written much fiction in the twenty years since.

* — The astute reader will catch a prominent (and not a little disturbing) reference to this book in our description of Port Lowell.

 

Speaking of Things That Look Like Settings From the Book…

This image at Wikipedia bears a striking resemblance to how I pictured the Ares IV “homestead” site in the simulation at the beginning of Chapter I, minus the “rump” portion of ERV Lilith.

Mars Direct base artist impression - N. Oberg

Mars Direct base artist impression – N. Oberg

You can almost imagine the suited figure as Amber preparing to fire up her jetpack.

No Need to “Fall Back” on Mars

If you remembered to set your clocks last night to “fall back” for the return to standard time, then you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep this morning.  ABC News makes some  dubious claims in a recent article, Daylight Savings Time Ends This Weekend, and It’s Healthy:

…many doctors say the return to standard time — and the extra hour of sleep you get in the morning — can be healthy.

Uh, we’re talking about one morning, right?  Or are the authors under the impression that we get an extra hour every morning that standard time is in effect?  Of course, the extra hour in the fall (and the corresponding loss of an hour in the spring) is the function of the switch from one convention to the other, and is not inherent to either.

Personally I prefer daylight savings time, as I find an hour of sunlight more useful in the evening than in the morning.  Who works in the yard or plays catch with the kids at the crack of dawn, versus after work?  My preference would be to go with DST year around.

The article did provide me with an insight for getting the perceived benefits of additional sleep every day, regardless of the timekeeping convention.  According to Steven Feinsilver, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, we have difficulty with the “spring forward” time change due to biology:

…our basic circadian rhythm (the ‘body clock’) actually seems  to be programmed for a longer than 24 hour day.  It runs a little slow.

Every day on Mars (its rotational period) is 24 hours and 37 minutes long.  Sign me up for that.

9/11 and Science Fiction

Glenn Reynolds (prompted by a post by Andrew Fox) muses on the absence of 9/11 (and by extension the War on Terror) from science fiction, which Fox speculates is a taboo subject.

Carl and I started writing In the Shadow of Ares one week before 9/11, so the genesis of the book spans the world before and the world after, in a way. Yet we consciously avoided making reference to the event or to the War on Terror and its various manifestations in the backstory to the novel. Is it because the subject is taboo? (It wasn’t when we began, quite the opposite.) Is it because we chose to be politically correct? (Hardly – if it had been unacceptably politically incorrect to talk about it, that would have been motivation in itself to work something in.)

No: it’s because the matter isn’t settled. It’s hard to extrapolate a likely future from current events when those events are so volatile and unpredictable. Five years or even one year later, any future history based around certain seemingly-likely developments of current conditions could be overtaken by events in the real world, rendering it not merely inaccurate, but wholly or even absurdly wrong. Just look at near-future science fiction from the late-1990s which understandably failed to anticipate 9/11 itself. For that matter, who would have expected from reading science fiction prior to 9/10/01 that the singular historical event of 2001 would have been a major terrorist attack rather than the discovery of an alien-built monolith?

Predicting the future by hewing closely to current trends is asking for trouble, so, we decided to simply gloss over the next two decades and begin our future with the first mission to Mars (and a nearly-simultaneous asteroid impact in the Atlantic) in 2025.

We do touch on Islamic terrorism in a couple of little ways, however. We refer several times to a settlement named “New Tel Aviv” — we haven’t had reason to include the backstory yet, but there is a reason for the “New” part. In the sequel, which we are writing now, terrorism is a key element of one character’s backstory as well as and element of the overall plot — but is played so as to illustrate that it is a dead practice, long abandoned even by radicals much as anarchist bombings and assassinations were all the rage in the three decades leading up to WWI. Indeed, the younger characters, when confronted with what appears to be terrorism, don’t know what to make of it any more than a teenager today would know what to make of “propaganda of the deed”.

I don’t for a second doubt that there are writers (and editors and publishers) who shy away from anything to do with Islamic radicalism or terrorism in science fiction since 9/11. Islam certainly wasn’t taboo before 9/11 given books like Terra and Jitterbug and short stories like Juhani Appleseed (note that in film, the producers of The Sum of All Fears have explained that they changed the villains from Arab nationalists to neo-Nazis well before 9/11 because the former had become cliche…while the latter had, apparently, not), but one would expect that the same political correctness which has made criticism or even insufficiently positive portrayals off limits in other areas of the arts to have done its damage in science fiction as well.

If you read carefully, however, you will find one small but poignant reference to 9/11 buried in In the Shadow of Ares. It has to do with the diggers, and anyone who watched the on-the-street video during and after the collapses streaming throughout the day on 9/11 itself should immediately recognize it.

Life Imitates Art: Moving Asteroids

There is a moment very early on in In the Shadow of Ares where Amber and her refer in passing to an asteroid, Eleanor, which for several years had been gradually nudged to an eventual orbit around Mars for future mining.

It looks like someone is looking at a similar idea for Earth-crossing NEOs – A Plan To Place An Asteroid In Earth Orbit:

Could a similar thing happen to Earth, ask Baoyin and co. Having studied the orbits of the 6000 known near Earth objects (NEO), they say the short answer is no. None of them will come close enough for Earth to capture.

However, a few of these objects will come maddeningly close. So near, in fact, that a small nudge would send them into Earth orbit. “When such an NEO approaches Earth, it is possible to change its orbit energy…to make the NEO become a small satellite of the Earth,” they say.

A particularly good candidate is a 10-meter object called 2008EA9 which will pass within a million kilometres or so of Earth in 2049. 2008EA9 has a very similar orbital velocity as Earth’s. Baoyin and co calculate that it could be fired into Earth orbit by changing its velocity by 410 metres per second. That’s tiny.

This nudge should place the asteroid in an orbit at about twice the distance of the Moon. From there it can be studied and mined, they say.

There’s a reason we inserted that throwaway reference in In The Shadow of Ares. You’ll see why in the second book…

Fog on Mars

This report on a newly-released analysis of data from the Phoenix lander pretty closely describes what we had in mind for the “yardang” scene…only in reverse – Martian-Fog Study Finds Thick Haze, “Diamond Dust”:

“Heat from the air is lost to the ground, so the air close to the ground gets colder, and as that pocket of [cold] air gets larger,” more water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into ice crystals, and the fog gets thicker, Moores said.

“The fog starts closer to the ground and rises in height over time, so the cloud gets thicker and thicker and higher and higher as the night goes on,” he added.

Eventually the icy haze begins to shower the ground with a light sprinkling of snowlike particles. The shower is not quite snowfall, the scientists say, but is perhaps more akin to the “diamond dust” that falls from the skies on some cold nights in Earth’s Arctic regions.

Some 0.0001 inch (2.5 micrometers) of frost coats the Martian surface by the time the sun begins to rise in the morning. That icy layer then sublimates—turns directly from a solid to a gas.

In our case, the resulting frost at first sublimates into a fog as sunlight hits it, then rapidly dissipates. It may be a bit of literary license (or not — there’s no saying that what we described doesn’t happen), but it’s not far off from observed reality.