Icarus Drowned- A SciFi Short Story

Icarus Drowned

Author’s Note:

The inspiration for this story came while writing a blog post over a year ago. After nearly a year of submissions, I was unable to find a home for this story in either pro or semi-pro markets. I guess not all stories are destined for publication. Still, I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you will enjoy reading it. I present to you the Science Fiction Short Story, “Icarus Drowned.”

 

Icarus Drowned

By Philip A Kramer

 

Ron Kasey fastened the buckle of the harness across his chest and grunted at the tightness of it. He frowned and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but the harness was unyielding.

“Why am I wearing this thing, again? You said I’d be going three kilometers an hour max.”

A sigh was just audible over the coms, one he had heard many times in his flight simulations over the past few months.

“In the state of Washington, seat-belts are required by law,” Laura said, her voice heavy with resignation.

A few muted chuckles filled the coms.

“And in space?”

“We’ll talk about that after another forty tests.”

Ron puffed out his cheeks and breathed out slowly.

He was a test pilot, not a scientist, so it was difficult for him to reconcile the snail’s pace of research with the theoretical speed of the small vessel in which he sat. When he’d earned his wings in the Navy five years ago, he never would have guessed he’d be strapped to the pilot seat of science’s greatest achievement. All of his coworkers were more qualified, certified geniuses all of them, but they lacked the proper flight training.

Ron squinted at the display in front of him.

The large hanger was crawling with people. Some hauled away coolant lines that leaked a white mist from their nozzles, while others disconnected power cables. Laura stood in an observation room above, separated from the noise by a thick pane of glass. She regarded a tablet computer in the crook of her arm even as the other scientists in the room sat in front of large computer monitors.

“Engines?” Laura asked. The professional coolness of her voice brought an abrupt silence to the coms. From the deference of the other scientists, Ron found it hard to believe she was the youngest among them, not much younger than him. She had proven to be more than just a genius; she was a natural leader.

“Fore and aft-engines nominal. We’re a go in T-minus five minutes.” The voice came from Reggie, the man seated nearest Laura. An old red tie held together the loose collar of the man’s button-up shirt. It was a special occasion, the Engine Specialist had told Ron that morning, and it was his lucky tie.

The hum of the engines was just audible from where he sat in the cockpit. They had the presence of restless steeds eager to start a race. The days of propellant driven rockets and shuttles were behind them. This was a chariot, its twin engines harnessing the same force that moved planets. Helios One, the first of its kind, was named for the Sun god who rode his blazing chariot across the sky.

The vessel was spherical but for the three landing struts and the two engine blocks mounted on the outer hull. While the design greatly offended Ron’s sense of style, he conceded that a sleeker and more aerodynamic construction would be pointless in the vacuum of space.

The Helios One was not much bigger than the cockpit of the C130 Hercules cargo plane he’d flown in the Navy. Unlike a plane, his view of the hanger outside was through a single large monitor. Beside it, a separate monitor displayed his telemetry and systems data. The pilot’s interface was also something he’d had to get used to. The traditional two-handed yoke was gone, replaced by a small knob of a joystick on the arm of his chair. He gripped it between his thumb and fore-finger as he had done hundreds of times before. The one thing the simulations hadn’t prepared him for was the crushing sense of uncertainty.

“Coms?”

“Green lights across the board.”

Laura continued running through their pre-flight checklist as the minutes passed, and all stations reported green lights.

“Three kilometers an hour,” he said beneath his breath. “It’s just three kilometers an hour.”

“Repeat that, Helios One,” The coms officer said. “We couldn’t hear your last transmission.”

“I said I can’t wait to see how fast this thing can go.”

Laura lifted her gaze from her tablet.

“Speed is relative. If you mean acceleration, I imagine the upper limit will be determined by how many Gs your body can handle. Accelerate too fast and it could compromise the integrity of the chariot.”

It could have been his imagination, but she seemed far more distressed by the latter possibility.

“Good to know,” Ron said, distracted.

“You won’t feel anything at the speed you’re going,” she said, perhaps detecting his unease. “Well, anything besides the weightlessness and vertigo. Let us know if it gets too uncomfortable.”

So much for reassurance, he thought.

Ron remembered this from the months of orientation and flight training. The fore-engine was a graviton generator. It created a local gravitational field above the chariot. He could change the location of that field with a touch of the joystick, making Helios One ‘fall’ in any direction he chose.

The aft-engine had another role. According to Laura, it opened a hole to another dimension. He’d gone slack-jawed when he’d heard that for the first time. That dimension, she’d explained, was simply a place beyond our own three dimensions, a place the graviton preferred. Small holes to this dimension were all around him at all times, sucking up gravitons. These dimensions were the reason gravity was much weaker than electromagnetism.  By gathering these small dimensional holes in one place, the aft-engine effectively negated the gravitational attraction between the chariot and Earth. Helios One and everything inside of it would become weightless and far easier to move.

He cut short his review of the ship’s systems when the countdown reached the one-minute mark. His mind raced. He wasn’t ready.

That minute, however, felt like an eternity, long enough for him to realize he had a very simple job compared to those in the observation room.

“We really should have performed a christening. It’s bad luck to launch a ship without breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”

“It isn’t a ship,” came Laura’s distracted words. “And it doesn’t have a bow.”

At the ten-second mark, he powered up the aft-engine. The contents of his stomach were the first to feel the change in gravity. An uncanny sense of falling made his hand stray to the vomit bag tucked conveniently in a pouch beside his seat.

He brought the engine up to 90 percent power.

“Gravity at one point two newtons per kilogram and holding,” he said and swallowed the taste of bile. At nearly 10 percent gravity, he could barely tell up from down.

The countdown ended.

“Helios One, you are cleared for launch,” said Reggie.

Launch was a generous word. After flipping a switch on the dash, Ron slowly fed power into the fore-engine.

The gentle sensation of weightlessness and then falling upward played havoc on his senses, as his eyes and inner ear argued the facts. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to picture himself hanging upside-down from the jungle gym at the urgings of his young niece. The memory helped him forget where he was for a moment until a slight groan of metal preceded a loud chorus of cheers over the coms.

Ron opened his eyes and regarded the external camera feed. The chariot was off the ground and steadily rising.

The first manned chariot had launched. Humanity had officially mastered gravity.

Elated, Ron could almost ignore the lunch roiling in his gut.

“We have liftoff.” Reggie said, his usual tone-less baritone had become an enthusiastic tenor.

“One point eight kilometers an hour, vertical bearing. Altitude three meters and ascending,” Ron said, mechanically reading off his vector as he was trained.

“Roger, Helios One. Achieve and maintain altitude at thirty meters,” Laura said.

He didn’t make it to thirty meters.

“Control, my fore-engine is registering some efficiency loss, can you confirm?”

“We see it, Helios One. Hold position.”

Ron eased off the power and held the joystick in place, but the engine’s efficiency continued to drop.

“Helios One, I’m calling an end to the test,” Laura said.

“What’s wrong?” Ron asked. He glanced from the status displays to the camera feed. A few figures in bulky silver suits and helmets appeared at the hanger door holding fire extinguishers.

“We need to rule out a fire. You are cleared to land.”

The horror of being trapped in a small vessel with a fire was something he’d never experienced outside of nightmares.

“Roger, Control. Bringing her down,” he said, his voice quavering.

Soon the engine’s efficiency fell below the level required to keep the chariot aloft.

“This isn’t shaping up to be a soft landing,” Ron said when he saw his speed of descent increase from 1 to 2 km/h. At that speed, the landing struts would buckle, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. It could delay the program for months. Laura knew that too.

“Ron,” Laura said, failing to use his call sign. “Increase power to the aft-engine. One hundred percent.”

Ron complied, even as another engineer reminded her that they’d never managed to sustain complete zero gravity. It was their only contingency plan.

As soon as the power was at full, the meager output of the fore-engine began to slow the weightless ship.

It looked like he would be able to set it down smoothly after all.

The camera feed flickered and then went dark. Simultaneously, an explosion and a chorus of screams sounded in his ear, nearly deafening him. Then all was silent.

Ron squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact.

Nothing happened.

After a few seconds of weightlessness, he cracked open one eye and then the other.

The camera feed was blank, but he was still receiving system data. The only thing missing from the continuous stream of information was his current telemetry.

Have I already touched down?

“Control? I am experiencing a computer malfunction. What is my current vector?”

No answer.

“Coms test. Do you read, Control?”

Ron cursed and tapped his headset.

Remembering the engines, he scrambled to cut power and prepared himself for the sudden restoration of gravity.

Again, nothing happened.

Ron knuckled the side of the consol. The system reported zero power to the aft-engine, but he was still weightless.

Impossible.

When a few seconds of scratching his head yielded no solution, he reluctantly unbuckled his harness. The moment he shrugged out of the network of belts, he began to float away from the pilot’s seat. A bout of queasiness inspired him to bring along the vomit bag, just in case.

Ron grasped the edge of a monitor and pushed off toward the airlock door.

When he opened the door, he froze.

There was only one window on the chariot, and it was attached to the outer airlock door.

Through the window, there was nothing but darkness.

He finally got the chance to use the vomit bag.

Minutes later, when he finally returned to his seat and buckled the harness, his mind was churning more than his stomach.

Space. He had to be in space.

It made sense. The chariot made a wormhole somehow, and now he was floating in some distant part of the universe. He thought his first venture into space would have been more awe-inspiring, more momentous, more… intentional.

There was only one problem with this theory. Through the window he hadn’t seen a single star. Even if he had somehow made it into intergalactic space, he should at least see some galaxies, right?

There had been nothing but blackness. No, that wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t completely black. It was more like a dark shade of gray, like the color of the blank monitor.

He sat forward so quickly, the harness squeezed the breath from him.

The monitor. It wasn’t dead after all. It was showing him an active feed of the outside of the ship.

He unbuckled his harness once more and leaned close to the monitors. There was something out there.  It took a moment to locate the controls for the lights in the cockpit, but as soon as he did, he turned them off and squinted at the screen.

There was definitely something out there. Four somethings. They weren’t pinpoints like stars, but bands of light that stretched from starboard to port, too straight and evenly spaced to be natural.

Alien starships.

Ron breathed out a calming breath. He shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

He turned to another monitor, one with a screen that nearly blinded him in contrast. Columns of data greeted his trained eye. He located a settings option for the cameras. Choosing the contrast setting, he toggled it up to maximum.

The bands of light above the chariot grew even brighter. They were like no alien battle cruisers he’d ever seen, though his experience was admittedly limited. Ron squinted at the screen, his eyes focusing on several dim blotches around and beneath the chariot. They were like distant, colorful nebulas, though some of them had very sharp and defined edges.

Then one of the nebulas moved. It was fast, streaking by just below the chariot. He nearly banged his head on the ceiling as he leapt back in shock.

Once seated, his eyes darted from one nebula to another. Most were still, but some shifted in place, occasionally changing shape. Faint though they were, the shapes looked familiar.

With a sinking feeling, he increased the brightness setting.

The shapes resolved themselves.

The bright bands of light transformed into fluorescent tubes on a ceiling crisscrossed with rafters. The nebulas became workstations, tanks of liquid nitrogen, and people moving about a large, open room.

He had never left the hanger.

Ron took a long, deep breath. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or terrified.

It appeared he was hovering just above the heads of those milling around on the floor of the hanger. The image was still faint, as if light had difficulty reaching him.

The hanger had changed since he’d seen it last. Coolant tanks were on their sides, papers were strewn across the floor, and from the reflective glints of glass on the floor, the window separating the observation room from the hanger had shattered. The observation room itself was nearly full of people, but he couldn’t make out Laura among them.

He took off his headset and confirmed it had power.

“Control, this is Helios One. Do you read?”

Silence.

Whatever had caused the destruction, it had knocked out the coms.

He needed to get up to the observation room.

It took a few minutes of vigorous chin rubbing before he remembered he was currently sitting in a spaceship.

He secured himself in his seat, but his hand paused over the engine controls.

The fore-engine hadn’t registered any temperature fluctuations, but he was still wary of fire. If he gave it just a little power, perhaps it would be enough to move around the weightless chariot.

What was the alternative? He doubted they knew where he was or how to go about reaching him. If he did nothing, he would die from dehydration in just a few short days. Of all the problems they simulated and contingency plans they’d gone through, nothing had prepared him for this.

He brought the fore-engine up to one percent of max power. When the temperature gauge remained stable, he increased it to five. Satisfied, he angled the joystick forward.

He began to move. The motion was so slow he had to stare at the video feed for several seconds to make sure he was moving at all.

As he approached the observation deck, the faint shapes of people in military uniform came into focus.

They weren’t the men he’d seen guarding the hanger, but military medics. They tended to the injured, all of whom were wearing lab coats.

Ron felt sick. It was not the queasiness of zero gravity, but one that tightened his throat and knotted his stomach. He was responsible for this.

He drew closer and recognized Laura sitting on one of the rolling chairs. A large red knot marred the surface of her smooth, pale forehead. She was waving away the medic who was trying to shine a light into her eyes.

The medic gave up and turned his attention to another of the scientists who was being lifted onto a stretcher. It was Reggie. Blood soaked his shirt and lab coat, making it difficult to distinguish his lucky red tie.

Smashed computer screens, toppled chairs, and sheets of paper littered the floor. There was no glass inside the observation deck from the windowpane; it had all fallen into the hanger below.

An explosion had done this, but not just any explosion. He had seen wreckage like this before when his C130 had lost pressure at high altitude. Decompression had yanked open the cockpit door and upended everything and everyone not bolted down or buckled in. Some kind of explosive decompression had occurred in the main hanger.

As he drew closer to the window, he could no longer deny another growing suspicion. He cringed as he eased forward, far enough that the chariot would have made contact with the frame of the window, but nothing happened.

Ron bit his lip. Either the chariot had become intangible or he now occupied a space so small, nobody could see him.

Laura had told him once that the holes leading to the gravitational dimension were microscopic, each occupying an area less than a nanometer. As impossible as it sounded, he suspected he had fallen through one of those holes. It would explain the darkness; he could only see the light that hit the small space he occupied.

Laura raised her head and looked out over the hanger. Her features were contorted in pain and regret, making her almost unrecognizable.

She thinks I’m dead.

“Laura,” he said over the coms. “I’m right here.”

She didn’t hear him, and her gaze swept right past him.

He was just another mote of dust in the room.

After a moment, she stood, steadied herself with a hand on the wall, and left the room. Ron watched her go until the door to the observation room swung shut behind her.

Ron looked at the other scientists. They were not in any shape to help him.

He pushed forward on the joystick, and the ship began to move again. He was still a bit skeptical about fitting through the window, but he easily flew into the room and over the heads of the medics.

The door that separated him from the hallway beyond was made of metal and painted a dull gray. He pulled back on the joystick as he approached, slowing the chariot.

The holes to the gravitational dimension were everywhere, Laura had said, they floated around him, passing through him, soaking up the gravitons that his matter generated. Surely that meant he could pass through the door too.

His lack of confidence in this half-cocked theory caused him to slow even more as he drew closer to the door. If he was wrong, he hoped he would bounce off of it harmlessly.

Every dent and imperfection in the door’s surface became more distinct as he approached. His jaw dropped when he spotted a glossy labyrinth of spirals and whirls. He was looking at someone’s fingerprint.

Ron closed the remaining distance, falling within a canyon formed by the gray paint as it had dried.

When he struck the door, he felt no resistance, but his view from his camera went white, nearly blinding him.

The screen dimmed a few moments later, and he stared mutely at the empty hallway. He wheeled the chariot around to view the door he’d just come through. A perfect, cylindrical tunnel was the only evidence of his passage, so small as to be imperceptible by someone walking by. The edges of the tunnel glowed white hot but quickly faded to a metallic sheen.

While it didn’t go quite as he had planned, he had made it through the door in one piece.

To be safe, he fed more power to the fore-engine and drifted closer to the ceiling. He didn’t want to accidentally bore a hole through someone if they walked into him.

He drifted along the ceiling, weaving around light fixtures and fire sprinklers. He didn’t see Laura anywhere, but he knew where she had gone.

Something constricted in his chest when he saw the door to Laura’s office closed. In the Navy, he had been used to closed doors, to keeping his opinions to himself, to following orders. As the lead researcher, Laura had ultimate say in every aspect of the Helios project, but she had always kept an open door policy. She did not tout her rank, her intellect, or shun the opinions of others. To see her door closed meant there was something inside she did not want her staff to see.

Ron piloted the chariot forward until he was a hair’s width away from the door. This door was made of wood, and the valleys and canyons of its surface looked like some vast, alien world. He worried he might set the door on fire if he tried to phase through it, so he steered into one of the canyons and squeezed into the narrow gap between the door and lintel.

The darkness was nearly absolute, and the brightness of his camera feed was already turned up to maximum. He weaved his way through the dust, which looked like some wooly forest full of tangled vines and large, flat leaves. Here and there, the ghostly skeletons of mites peered back at him. Their huge, bulbous bodies looked more alien than anything he’d seen so far, and their large mandibles looked capable of cracking his chariot in two. He was dust even to them.

He managed to navigate to the opposite side of the door, following the light from the room beyond as if it were the blush of dawn on the distant horizon. When he finally emerged into Laura’s office, he swallowed hard at the sight of her.

She sat hunched over her desk with her head in her arms. Her body heaved in great, wracking sobs.

Guilty for having intruded on her privacy, Ron considered turning back, but she was the only one capable of helping him.

For a long time he watched her, discarding innumerable and half-formed ideas until only one remained. He needed to talk to her.

Eventually, he dragged his eyes from the camera feed to his on-board computer. If visible light could barely reach him, why would radio waves be any different? His communications equipment was built to radio Earth from Pluto if necessary; surely, it was strong enough to amplify a weak signal.

Ron increased the gain on his receiver.

One moment, the telemetry data on his monitor was gone, and the next it began to populate, displaying his current vector. He pumped his fists into the air.

Connecting to the internet was harder than he’d anticipated. Had the techs known how often he Googled the words they used in casual conversation, they would have dedicated an entire monitor to the task. Minutes later, he finally gained access. He toyed with the idea of sending Laura an email, but doubted she would check it any time soon.

The homepage was that of the Department of Defense and prompted him for his password. He ignored it and ran a search for a web-based calling application he’d used previously overseas. He looked up the number for the Gray Army Airfield facility and typed it into the application.

The dial tones sounded in his headset, and then the phone began to ring.

He held his breath.

“You have reached Fort Lewis. If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please dial now. If you would like to be connected to the operator, please hold the line. Calls will be answered in the order they are received.”

He let out his breath in a loud sputter.

A jingle played over the line and Ron idly unstrapped from the pilot seat to float around as he waited.

“Operator, how can I direct your call?”

“Yes, oh thank god,” Ron said, scrambling to return to his seat. “I need to speak with Dr. Laura Kessler, it’s an emergency.”

He considered telling the operator everything, but he guessed the man was not privy to the research taking place at the base. He might think it was a prank and hang up.

“I can forward you to her office, but I see here she also has an emergency number listed, would you prefer that?”

The emergency number seemed appropriate given his situation, and he told the man so.

“Who should I say is calling?”

“Lieutenant Ron Kasey.”

“Hold please,” he said, and the jingle began to play again.

Laura was still slumped over her desk when the call came. Ron couldn’t hear anything, but saw her lift her head, blink, and then reach into one of the pockets of the white lab coat. She took several deep breaths before answering.

He could imagine the words now.

Hi, Dr. Kessler, I have a Lieutenant Ron Kasey on the line for you.

What? Is this some kind of joke? She would say.

No Doctor, no joke. He sounds quite handsome and charming, if I do say so myself. Do you want to take the call?

That does sounds like him. Yes, please put him on.

His imaginings were whisked away when he heard Laura’s voice come over the line.

“Who is this?”

“Well hello, Doctor. That test was quite the doozy, huh?”

“I’m not kidding, who is this?” She sounded angry now.

“Of course…” he said, continuing as if he hadn’t heard her. “I think I’ll skip the harness next time. I think my chest is covered in bruises.”

“Ron?” Her hand shot up to her mouth.

“That’s me.”

“Wha- Are you okay?”

“Yes, with the exception of the aforementioned bruises.”

She was standing now, turning in circles and clutching a fist-full of her dark hair.

“But the chariot. It exploded. I saw it.”

“It was an implosion, actually,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever been able to correct her, and he savored the feeling.

“Where are you?”

“Right in front of you.”

She took a step forward, looking confused.

“Are you down in the hanger?”

“No, I’m… hold on a sec.”

Ron peered down at the dash.  If some light could get into this little trans-dimensional bubble of his, he might be able to get some light out. If he could make his tiny chariot visible, just a dim spark, she would believe him.

He found the controls for his floodlights and turned them on.

The screen went white, and Laura cursed over the headset.

Ron dimmed the lights and the screen resolved into a much clearer picture of Laura, arm up to shield her eyes.

It appeared light had no trouble finding its way out.

“Sorry, my fault,” he said, dimming the lights even further.

Laura lowered her arm, blinking up at the far upper corner of the room where he hovered.

“Ron? Is that you?”

“It is.”

“Are you dead?” She asked.

“What? No.”

“Are you sure?” She took a step forward, her expression torn between amazement and skepticism. “Because you look like a little orb of light. Isn’t that how ghosts are supposed to look?”

“Laura, I am alive,” he said, stressing each distinct syllable. “Now concentrate. I need to get out of here.”

“Where is here?”

He paused, steeling himself. She was either going to think him very stupid, or uncharacteristically perceptive.

“I think I’m in the gravity dimension.”

She shook her head.

“That’s not possible,” she said.

Stupid it is then, he thought glumly.

“The gravity dimension is unidimensional. Matter can’t exist in one dimension,” she said in the same voice she used when he was being particularly incompetent in a simulation.

“Well, how else do you explain the zero gravity and my size? You said the gravity dimension was small, right?”

“It just isn’t possible,” she said, her voice much more uncertain now. “Tell me what you see.”

Ron looked around the chariot, frowning.

“Everything looks the same as before the test, except very little light is entering through the aft window. I’m only able to see you after cranking up the brightness of the monitor.”

She hadn’t taken her eyes from him until he mentioned his ability to see her. With the hand that wasn’t holding the phone, she self-consciously smoothed her hair flat and wiped away the moisture from her cheeks.

“And there’s no gravity?”

“None. The aft-engine isn’t even powered up. I can move around a bit if I feed some power into the fore-engine.”

She was closer now, her arm lifting slightly as if to cup the chariot in her hand.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said hastily, and her hand stilled in the air. “I tried to phase through a door earlier and ended up boring a hole right through it.”

She lowered her hand and took a step back, still visibly shaken.

“I can’t believe you’re alive. I thought I…”

“You couldn’t have foreseen this,” he said.

She let out a long breath.

“I have to tell the others.”

She made for the door, and he wheeled the chariot around to follow her.

The observation room was empty.

“I saw most of them being carried off on stretchers,” Ron said when he had caught up to her. She stared at the destruction before her as she gingerly touched the rosy welt on her forehead.

“It was supposed to be a simple test,” she said, numbly. She visibly shook away her thoughts and leaned over the window frame to peer into the hanger below. A few techs in lab coats were cleaning up the area.

She called one by name.

The young tech, Steven, glanced up at her and then jogged over to the stairs to make his ascent.

Steven stopped just inside the door, his chin dropping as his eyes locked on the glowing point of light hovering before him. Ron silently berated himself for not cutting the lights. It was too late for that, he supposed. He dimmed and brightened the floodlight several times in quick succession.

“Dr. Kessler? You uhh… you have a fairy hovering over your shoulder.”

She smiled.

“That would be Ron,” she said.

Great, he thought. If he made it out of this alive, he would never live down the fairy jokes.

“I was saying ‘hello’ in Morse code,” Ron said.

Ignoring him, she waved the tech over and pointed at one of the monitors. He approached warily.

“Get this powered up and keep an eye on his telemetry data. If we lose contact, I need to know where to find him.” She then pressed her finger against a piece of paper taped to the wall beside the monitor. It contained a long list of names and numbers. “And I want you to call all of these people and tell them to get here as soon as possible.”

The tech blanched as he stared at the names of NASA’s Chief Scientist, Engineer, the Deputy Administrator, and no less than three four-star generals.

Laura left the tech to his unenviable task, taking the stairs down to the hanger floor.

Ron met her down in the hanger, gliding over the window frame and descending. The remaining techs in the room caught sight of him and gawked, many of them backing away until their backs were against a wall, or they stumbled and fell.

Laura surveyed the remnants of the broken window on the hanger floor. A moment later, she looked around for him and, seeing him, approached.

“You said it was an implosion and I think you’re right. If you suddenly shrank to the nanometer scale, all the air you displaced would have rushed in to fill the void. But it’s impossible to shrink matter to that scale without causing a thermonuclear event. I think your apparent size is just an illusion. You are simply staring out of a very small hole in space. But I still don’t see how matter can exist in the gravitational dimension, not unless…” She frowned. “Not unless you somehow pulled our own three dimensions in there with you.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ron, I think we’ve created a singularity.”

Ron swallowed.

“I thought singularities compressed matter.”

“That’s just it,” she said. “We don’t know how singularities work or if they exist at all. Do you know what this means? We may finally know what happens at the center of black holes. Matter isn’t compacted into an infinitely small space, it gets forced into another dimension. This is groundbreaking.”

“But how did it happen to me?”

“When you powered up the aft-engine, it gathered the ambient gravitational dimensions like it was supposed to, but we’ve never moved something so heavy, so when we tried, it put so much pressure on the weakened fabric of space that it folded inward, collapsing into another dimension.”

A smile tugged at one corner of her lips, and she shook her head in wonderment. The techs in the room had gotten over their fear of the hovering orb of light and were now nodding to each other in understanding. Ron pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I’m so glad this amuses you. Can we get to the part where you tell me your genius rescue plan?”

“Have you gone outside?”

Ron snorted, but her expression remained serious.

“I don’t have my EVA suit yet, I was only just measured.”

“You aren’t in space, Ron. You said it yourself, when you tried to go through a door, you put a hole through it. That means matter can still travel from one side to the other, so there’s nothing to stop air.”

Ron hadn’t considered that.

“Are you saying I could jump out the airlock and reappear in the hanger?”

She cringed.

“You should test it first. Light and air might be able to move freely, but anything larger? Let’s just say I don’t want to see what happens if you try to squeeze through a nanometer sized hole. Try throwing something out the airlock.”

Ron rarely heard uncertainty from her, which didn’t bode well for the plan. He turned the lights on in the cockpit and unbuckled himself from the pilot seat.

He hadn’t been in the airlock since moments after he lost communication with Control. The room reeked of vomit, and the bag containing the mess still floated around the empty room.

Through the window, he saw the dark expanse that had greeted him earlier. Now that he knew he wasn’t in space, he saw the truth in the darkness. If he let his eyes adjust, he could just make out the plane of the floor and ceiling of the hanger, the latter crisscrossed with rafters and long, fluorescent lights.

“Ron? Are you still with me?”

He shook himself, realizing he’d been drifting there for a long, silent minute.

“Yeah. I’m getting ready to open the door and toss something out. You might want to tell the others to evacuate the room. I don’t want to peg someone.”

He heard her telling others to gather in the observation deck and make themselves useful there.

He took a deep breath and tapped the control panel beside the door. The touchscreen display came to life. Sure enough, it reported normal atmospheric pressure on the other side of the airlock. Ron tapped the green button and a series of metal gears whirred inside the round door, terminating with a soft click. He braced one hand on the frame of the door, and then twisted and pulled on the handle. The door eased open without incident, and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

He gripped the handles just inside the door to keep from drifting out into the empty void. He looked around for something he could throw, but the techs had removed all loose items from the chariot to prevent them from floating around in zero gravity. So instead, he grabbed the closest thing to hand and lobbed it out the airlock.

“Alright, here it comes,” he said.

The object tumbled end over end until it encountered something about twenty feet away and disappeared in a bright flash.

Laura cursed.

“Are you alright?” Ron pushed off the frame of the door and twisted around in midair to fly back to his seat. Not bothering to buckle himself in, he turned the chariot around to get a panoramic view of the room. “What happened?”

In the far corner, spattered against the concrete wall, was a smear of gore.

Laura jogged over from her shelter inside the hanger door to get a closer look.

Halfway there, she visibly recoiled and held the back of her hand to her nose.

“What’s that smell?”

“Chicken parmesan,” Ron said guiltily.

She stared uncomprehendingly at the point in space he occupied. When realization hit her, she visibly gagged then took two quick steps away from the mess.

“Why the hell would you throw that?”

“It was the only thing I could find.”

“Oh my god,” she said, making a chocking sound. “It’s on fire.”

Some of the shredded paper from the vomit bag was smoking and sputtering with flame.

Ron winced. That couldn’t smell good.

She ran for the large double doors that comprised a large section of the far wall. A small door was set into one of these larger doors, and she pushed through.

The grounds outside were wet from a recent rain, but just beyond the darkened pavement of the runway, a field of grass glittered with raindrops in the light of the setting sun. The grass continued into a large field that descended a low slope to a small reservoir. Even the dim facsimile of the scene through his monitor did nothing to diminish its beauty.

When he met her outside, she was coughing. He waited to speak until she once again held her cellphone to her ear.

“What now?”

Laura squeezed her eyes shut as she rubbed her temple.

“I don’t know. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. The science just isn’t known. We may have to wait for the rest of the team to arrive.”

Ron grimaced. He wasn’t looking forward to days of waiting. He could be dead from thirst by the time they finished with their meetings.

Laura was no longer observing her surroundings. A wrinkle had appeared between her eyes and her gaze was unfocused.

“This is my fault,” she said, so softly that he had to adjust the volume. “I told you to bring the aft-engine to full.”

“If you hadn’t, I would have crashed into the floor, and caused millions of dollars in damage to the chariot.”

“But you would still be here.”

Ron blinked. Did she just imply she cared more for him than the chariot?

“I’ll let you make it up to me. Buy me a drink after you get me out of here.”

A smile touched her mouth and she pointedly avoided looking at him. After a long, silent moment, the smile faded.

“A drink…” she said, the word trailing off as if she found far more meaning in it than he entirely intended. “That’s it.”

“I don’t follow,” he said, but her feet were already in motion, and a determined glint shone in her eye.

She jogged down the gentle slope, her lab coat billowing out behind her.

When she stopped near the bottom, she held out a hand.

“Your drink,” she said triumphantly.

Just beyond a lip of concrete, was the massive reservoir, murky and slightly green with algae.

“I was thinking of something pint-sized.”

She looked around until she spotted him trailing behind her.

“If that bag had truly squeezed through a nanometer sized hole, it would have been unrecognizable,” she said, then grimaced. “Well, at least more recognizable than it was after going through your big mouth. The hole must have widened a bit to allow the matter out.”

“So you can send me water?” he said, understanding. “If it widens, you’ll be able to get me more than just a drop at a time.”

“There is that, I suppose, but I was thinking of getting you out of there instead. If we fill your little balloon until all of the matter wants out. The hole should expand in all directions until the entire chariot emerges.”

“That’s it?” he asked. His despondency evaporated.

“It’s something, right? Something worth testing?”

She wasn’t confident in her plan, he could see that, but for having just discovered trans-dimensional travel, she knew more than anyone else. He trusted her.

Ron steered the chariot over the calm water until he hovered right above it. Orange clouds floated on blue sky in the reflection of the water.

“In the Navy, they teach you not to fly the aircraft into the water,” he groused. “Here goes nothing.”

He plunged down into the murky depths.

The monitors went dark and he cranked up the brightness of the floodlights.

Ron’s mouth fell open at the sight that greeted him.

Rotifers with maws of bristling cilia sucked in swarms of darting algae. The algae were everywhere and seemed to converge on him, their long flagella whipping back and forth. Studying them closer, he realized they weren’t drawn to his light, but being pulled in by a rapidly growing current.

“I think it’s working, but it’ll take forever at this rate.”

“Move deeper. The water pressure should push the water in faster.”

He did and then looked around the cockpit as if expecting the hull to buckle under the pressure. The chariot always felt like an aircraft’s cockpit to him, but now he couldn’t shake the image of the bridge of a submarine.

Even as he watched, the algae flickered out of existence, sucked into the expanding dimensional rift. As it grew, so did his field of view. Soon, the algae were little more than specks flying toward him, moving too quickly for his eyes to follow.

“You closed the airlock, right?”

Ron cursed and leapt from his seat. Rocketing back to the airlock, he caught himself on the frame of the door.

The darkness outside was not nearly so pervasive. The flood lights on the front of the ship illuminated a thick fog. Small patches of water pooled on the side of the ship in the zero gravity, condensing along its cool spherical surface. As he watched, the puddles grew, merging into one another until the hull shimmered under the eerie glow of the fog.

Then rain began to fall, though falling wasn’t accurate. Rain converged on him. When he stuck his hand out the airlock, rain pelted it from every direction. In the zero gravity, it clung to his spread fingers like an alien, gelatinous mass, slightly green with algae.

He stared in fascination until a glob of the stuff hit his face and resisted several attempts to wipe it away. A chill crept over his skin and he blinked away visions of drowning in a helmet made entirely of clingy water. He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit and closed the door of the airlock.

“I’d like to formally change my call sign,” he said, voice raising in pitch.

“To what?”

“Icarus,” he said as he looped a strap of the harness over his shoulder.

“The guy whose wings melted after flying to close to the sun? Is this some kind of philosophical nonsense about falling short of the Helios chariot?”

“No. It’s because he fell into the sea after his wings melted and drowned.”

“Pessimism? From you?” She said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“I’ve tried all sorts of new things today:  trans-dimensional travel, trying to stomach zero gravity, asking you out for a drink. Why not pessimism?”

It was quiet, even the drumming of water on the hull of the chariot trailed off into the heavy silence.

“Ron, I…”

The lights of the cockpit dimmed momentarily. His eyes flicked to the data monitor and saw an alert flashing in large, red letters. The communications relay was down. In hindsight, he wasn’t surprised. Those delicate electronics were on the outside of the ship. They were shielded from wind, the vacuum of space, and perhaps a little rain, but they were not made to be submerged.

Water enveloped the camera, and the shallow rivulets warped the view of outside. Then a flurry of bubbles appeared. The water was flowing in even faster.

A peculiar sensation started in the pit of his stomach, and then his whole world fell out from beneath him. He was whipped back and forth in his seat until the loop of the unfastened harness slipped from his shoulder and he fell forward. When his world stopped moving, he was lying on the floor of the cockpit.

Gravity had returned.

Dizzily, he rose to his feet and stumbled over to the airlock. It was just as dark outside the small window as it had been when he first entered the gravity dimension, but this darkness was murky and oppressive. He pressed his nose to the window and peered around. The shimmering surface of the reservoir was nearly thirty feet above him. He was back.

It was too much to hope the chariot was buoyant.

He could wait for rescue, but it was just a matter of time before the water shorted another critical system. Flying out of here was as dangerous as waiting. He did not want to return to that other dimension.

He turned and closed the inner airlock door, trapping himself in the small room. The pressure of the water beyond the door made opening the airlock difficult. It took several minutes at the control panel to override the safeguards.

He kicked off his boots and unzipped his jumpsuit, dropping it to the floor. As an officer in the Navy, he was no stranger to frigid waters or great depths. He planned to ease the door open and let the airlock fill with water, then swim to the surface.

The moment he turned the lever, however, the force of the door opening sent him careening into the back of the airlock. His head struck the unyielding metal and a white light filled his vision.

The next thing he knew, he was coughing up water and shivering on a bed of soft grass. When he heaved out the last of the water in his lungs, he sucked in air that tasted of fresh-cut grass and the crisp air that follows a spring rain.

He blinked and was greeted by a pair of bright blue eyes. Laura had pulled him from the water. She had brought him back.

“Champagne,” he wheezed, when he caught his breath.

She let out a small laugh and sniffled. Her cold, trembling fingers came to rest on his cheek, and beads of water dripped from tendrils of her dark, wet hair.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll buy you that drink.”

He shook his head.

“It’s bad luck to skip a christening.”

 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading “Icarus Drowned.” If you have any thoughts about the story or questions about the science, please leave a comment below or send me a message. Remember to follow me on twitter @PhilipKramer9.

Until next time, write well and science hard!

The Science of Exobiology

Space rocks

So you want to introduce a new lifeform in your fiction. There are many reasons to do so. A sentient humanoid can provoke your reader’s sympathy and relatability, while a vile, brainless, and flesh-eating slug can put your readers on edge. If done sloppily, however, skeptical readers will find the flaws in such a creature, and that disbelief will undermine any of your attempts to draw them into the story. You can blame biologists for always taking the fun out of your unique imagination, or you can choose to awe them with the many ways you manipulate biology into something terrifying or beautiful. After all, there are millions of weird and wonderful species on our own planet, some far more alien looking than what sci-fi authors have conjured up over the years.

anemone

“Fish and anemone,” picture by Philip Kramer at the Seattle Aquarium

Here are the things you should consider when making a new species:

 

What is life anyway?

To breathe life into your creation, you should first understand what life is. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. This simplistic definition has led to some interesting debates. A virus for example, can do little to none of these things outside a host cell. Is it a living thing? Crystals too can take in energy and materials from their environment and use it to grow and reproduce. Is a crystal alive? Alien life will also likely defy some of these rules.

So what might life on another planet look like? This field of study is referred to as exobiology and astrobiology.

 

All life is a product of its environment.

Everything about life, down to each protein or strand of DNA, was selected for over the course of millions of years. If an organism died before passing on its genetic material, the next generation would not inherit those characteristics that lead to premature death. This is evolution, and because of it, nearly everything about you has a purpose and function.

True, there are some things that appear to have no function except to give scientists headaches. These things exist because they can, or because they did not provide an evolutionary disadvantage. For example, many of the glycoproteins coating each of our red blood cells have no apparent function. Others, like the Duffy antigen, are used by the malaria parasite to infect cells. As a result, many individuals whose ancestors were from malaria-prone regions do not express this antigen. The simple rule is this: evolution will select against adaptations that negatively affect a species’ chances of survival and procreation, but any adaptations that improve those chances, or don’t change them at all, will persist.

On Earth alone, evolution progressed down millions of branches depending on environmental pressures. Many of those branches ended when these evolutionary experiments failed or the creature was overpowered by another creature attempting to take over the same ecological niche. As humans, we adapted our opposable thumbs from grasping tree limbs to avoid predators on the ground and reach food high in the canopy. We became bipedal to facilitate running and giving us a height advantage to spot both predators and prey when traveling across the ground. When intelligence improved our ability to hunt and forage, we dedicated much more room and energy to developing it. For other animals, they took to the air, or stayed in the water, and evolved talons, teeth, and scales to defend themselves. Any change to the fictional environment would make your creatures change accordingly. If the atmosphere was just a little thicker, for example, like the one on Venus, instead of birds with wings, you might have puffer-fish like creatures that fill an air-bladder with hydrogen or oxygen to float around. If your creature lives in dark caves like Astyanax mexicanus, a Mexican cave fish, they will probably have no eyes, or at least not ones that function.

 

Familiar or strange?

Going out of your way to creating an entirely original and strange lifeform may not be necessary. In fact, some scientists think life can only come in a finite number of forms. So it is possible that alien lifeforms share characteristics with us or other life on our planet. Darwin’s Aliens, is a new theory suggesting that there are only a handful of ways biology can evolve to deal with its surroundings. Yes, even biology is beholden to the laws of physics. Take the eyes as an example; there are only a few ways a creature might focus light from its environment onto a cluster of light sensitive cells. Evidence suggests that eyes evolved independently on dozens of evolutionary branches on Earth into something that looks and operates very similarly. The number and placement of those eyes on the head are also no coincidence, allowing a large range of vision without taking up too much space and energy in the brain to process that information.

Just because alien life might look familiar, doesn’t mean it can’t be strange. You can still be creative with your alien. In fact, it is very unlikely aliens will look too similar or identical to life on Earth. Since we exist because of a series of random genetic mutations and environmental coincidences (like ice ages and the particular tilt of our planet caused by the moon), it is very unlikely a species from another planet will have experienced the same evolutionary history.

Designing your lifeform.

The simplest unit of life as we know it is the cell. Alien life will most likely be composed of cells too, as it is the natural progression of simple to complex life, and allows each unit to carry the genetic information required for it to grow and replicate. Your alien can be a single cell, or a complex lifeform composed of two or more of these units working together for mutual survival. This partnership also allows some cells to specialize in certain tasks (defense, digestion, locomotion, etc.) to make tissues and organ systems.

Here are some of the features and organ systems most complex life should have:
Size- No matter the planet, there will be gravity, so your lifeform’s proportions will likely adhere to the square-cube law. This law, while by no means strict, describes most of the complex terrestrial life on Earth. In simple terms, it describes the relationship between volume and surface area of a creature. As a creature grows in size, its surface area does not increase at the same rate as its volume. As a result, larger animals must have thicker limbs to support a greater mass, a circulatory system to deliver nutrients and gasses through its body, and methods to dissipate heat through its lower relative surface area. Increasing an insect to the size of a cow would make its exoskeleton heavy, and its spindly limbs unable to support the mass of its bulbous body. Additionally, it could no longer rely on it tracheoles and hemolymph to diffuse oxygen throughout its body.

bug

“Pillbug,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Skin- Often the largest organ in the body, it is the last barrier between living flesh and a harsh environment with no regard for living things. Making a sentient slime the primary host of a hot, water-poor planet like Venus would not only be impractical, but evolutionarily impossible. A type of lizard with scales that reflect infrared and are resistant to sulfuric acid rain, however, would be far more likely. If the planet is cold instead, fat deposits or thick fur will serve as good insulation.

In addition to a physical barrier, the skin can also serve as an optical defense or lure. Lizards, butterflies, encephalapods, and many other creatures disguise themselves with their surroundings, make themselves look menacing, or lure in other creatures by appearing to be harmless.

 

fleattle

“The Fleatle,” by Ian Dowsett

Skeleton and muscles- In some cases, the skeleton can take place of the skin. This is known as an exoskeleton. While it can provide protection from the external world, it is not very deformable, and weighs too much on large creatures. Additionally, such a skeleton would limit growth, and occasional periods of molting would make the creature vulnerable to injury. An internal skeleton provides more joint versatility, structural support, and anchorage for ligaments and tendons. Add muscles, and the creature will be able to move through and manipulate the environment around them. The means of locomotion will vary depending on its evolutionary environment, allowing for wings, fins, tentacles, or feet and hands. The type and position of joints is going to alter the function of the limb. For example, the elbow and knee are terribly weak joints (the fulcrum near the end of lever), meaning it takes a large amount of force to move the limb. Why would evolution do this? While the arms and legs are weak, their length away from the pivot point means they can move at incredible speeds, ideal for running, climbing, and throwing things. By contrast, relatively small muscles in joints used for crushing and raw strength, like the jaw, can allow bite pressures of over a thousand pounds per square inch in the hippopotamus, alligator, and hyena.

Tim's alien

“Gra’Sugra” conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Brain- The nervous system, a means by which creatures control their limbs and the movement and function of other organs, can be simple or complex. For complex creatures, they come in two major types: centralized and decentralized. A central nervous system, like our brain and spinal cord, control all peripheral communications. A decentralized nervous system, like the octopus, has multiple little brains that can act independently of one another, or coordinate with each other without sacrificing intelligence. If your human explores encounter an alien starship, chances are the alien creature will have a complex nervous system, for how else would they have constructed such advanced technology.

ForC

Centralized nervous system- “ForC” by Ian Dowsett

 

Drude

Decentralized nervous system-“Drude” by Ian Dowsett

 

Metabolism and digestion- Biology is a huge source of entropy, bringing far more chaos into the universe than order. Life gets its energy by breaking existing molecular bonds and using that energy to create new ones. But we break far more bonds than we form. As humans, we must consume dozens of tons of food over the course of our lifetimes just to maintain our relatively unchanged size and shape, and perform comparatively low-energy functions.

The source of molecular energy a lifeform uses can vary. On Earth, most life gets its energy from breaking down simple carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. These in turn were formed by other lifeforms. Chances are the circle of life will come back to plants, who ultimately get their energy from the sun to form carbohydrates. In areas that lack sunlight or are too inhospitable for plant life, ecosystems revolve around other root sources of energy. Deep under the ocean at hydrothermal vents, where temperatures can reach higher than 400 degrees Celsius, the base life form are extremophiles (Archaea) which can use non-organic compounds to synthesize energy in the absence of sunlight. These in turn feed larger crustaceans and nematodes.

Morning Glory

Morning glory pool at Yellowstone. Many colors attributed to extremophiles. Picture by Philip Kramer

It is also possible, that aliens will not find humanity or other forms of life appetizing unless they evolved similarly. We have very specialized enzymes for very specific foods, like glucose (D-glucose, not L-glucose), amino acids (L, not D), and fats. If an alien predator does not utilize these same substrates, we will not taste very good or sit very well with them.

Waste disposal- On that topic, waste disposal is another must for complex organisms. It is impossible to digest, utilize, and recycle 100% of ingested food. At some point, toxins, and metabolic waste will need to be eliminated. Intestine type organs to digest and absorb, a liver to detoxify, and a kidney to filter our liquid waste, are common features of most complex life on Earth. Some creatures, like birds, reptiles, and most fish release both solid and liquid waste and reproduce through a single orifice called the cloaca. The aliens in The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, have such an orifice, much to the amusement of all the authors in the series.

TPATG alien

Alien from The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, illustrated by Stephen Lawson. Note: over-emphasized cloaca.

Reproduction- Life is complex, therefore it requires a lot of genetic information to maintain and recreate it. No matter what your alien species, they will have a genetic material (could be DNA, or some silicon-based version of it), and a method of reproduction. It can be an asexual species that creates clone-like copies of themselves like many starfish, or it can reproduce like humans and most other animals with two or more members of the species contributing genetic code.

starfish2“Starfish,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Or, like slugs, they can be hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female reproductive organs.

 

slug1

“Seattle slug,” by Philip Kramer (edit of picture)

Circulation and respiration- The need for a way to distribute metabolic substrates and facilitate gaseous exchange is necessary for all large and complex organisms, including plants. The lungs and/or gills would need high surface area to facilitate the transfer of gasses. In smaller creatures, diffusion is sufficient, though rudimentary tracheoles, a heart, and hemolymph are present in many insects. Aside from supporting metabolism, the circulation is an ideal medium to support an internal defense against invading organisms. Most animals have a complex immune system supporting many types of specialized cells. Any alien coming to Earth would not have the adaptive or innate immunity required to repel local microorganisms. We would also have no defense against alien microbes.

Senses- Like locomotion, the senses will be defined by the environmental medium and ecological niche of the creature. Vibrations travel through air far better and faster than they do through a medium with little to no compressibility like stone or water, so many terrestrial creatures will likely have ears. Assuming there is light to see by, aliens will also have a type of eye, though it may see different parts of the spectrum. Tiny hairs, like those on insects, could improve tactile awareness, and receptors for aromatic molecules can provide a sense of smell. Humans have far more than five senses, so there are plenty to choose from to make your aliens as aware or unaware of their surroundings as you want. If, for example, your aliens only see in infrared, your space troops could use a special armor to disguise their heat signature.

Samuel“Samuel,” by Ian Dowsett

Mechanical augmentations- Aliens with a computer driven intelligence or mechanical augmentations are an exception to many of these “rules.” They will need energy, but this can come in many different forms, and they will not need to digest or dispose of waste in the same way. Despite the differences, however, they would have needed an intelligent biological host or a biological predecessor to design them. Seeing as how mechanical lifeforms are far more resilient, they will likely be the first interstellar visitors we encounter.

The tide

“The Tide,” Conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Conclusion.

Congratulations, you have now made an imaginary lifeform and, ipso facto, you now have imaginary godhood. Don’t let it go to your head. Even a novice biologist will likely be able to undo all your hard work. But you have one thing going for you. Give your creatures all the things required of life, make it beholden to the laws of physics, and a product of its environment, and even those pesky naysayers won’t be able to prove its nonexistence. If you are still having trouble, take a page out our own planet’s ecological history. There are many millions of species with unique features, functions, and evolutionary trees, right here on Earth. With a little bit of research and imagination, we can all be amateur exobiologists.

 

Until next time, write well and science hard.

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide to Seattle

I’m excited to share the news. I’ve just completed a new project, and it is now available for pre-order on Amazon!

Let me give you a rundown.

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide Series.

cropped-copyright_logo2

I met Stephen Lawson back in May at the International Space Development Conference. If you recall, he was the runner-up for the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. A couple of months later, he reached out to me with an idea for a project. He came up with The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide, a series following a young man, Thursday Forrester, as he treks across a post-apocalyptic United States in search of a cure that will save his life.
Stephen’s idea was straightforward. He would introduce the character, the setting, and the stakes in his first installment of the series. As Thursday traveled, other authors would be in charge of moving Thursday through their own cities, progressing the plot, and moving him closer to his final destination. Stephen has a lot of author contacts and managed to recruit the following authors for the 1st series:
Episode 1- Louisville- Stephen Lawson
Episode 2- St. Louis- David VonAllmen
Episode 3- Utah’s Deserts- Dustin Steinacker
Episode 4- The Mojave Desert- Sean Hazlett
Episode 5- Los Angeles- Jake Marley
Episode 6- Seattle- Philip Kramer
That’s right, Seattle is the location of the cure to Thursday’s mysterious illness, and so I had the honor of wrapping up the series. It’s been a blast planning and coordinating with the other authors. We’ve had to communicate regularly to brainstorm and to avoid inconsistencies and plot holes. They are all award-winning authors and have written great stories. Click the links above to purchase their episodes.
Stephen also reached out to the award-winning illustrator Preston Stone for the original cover art and logo.

TPATG_Seattle_cover

Cover by Preston Stone. ©Stephen Lawson 2017. Click image to be directed to purchase page.

The Series Blurb.

They descended from the infinite void of space, annihilating cities and destroying the foundations of modern civilization. Black nanoswarms fed like a locust plague on anything with an electromagnetic signal, wreaking havoc on the lifeblood of human industry. Then, as quickly as they came, the invaders mysteriously died, leaving humanity with nothing but savagery, starvation, pestilence, and death in their wake. Spurred by a life-threatening illness, a young man named Thursday Forrester chronicles his harrowing journey through a land riven by violence and superstition.

Episode 6 Blurb.

When the alien invasion ended, humanity strove to mend their broken world… until they remembered how much they enjoyed war. In Seattle, rival clans fight over territory and resources. Resh, the headsman of the Five Clan, has the power to conquer the entire city, but he has other ideas. He runs. Outside the city, far from responsibility and the risk of assassination, Resh comes across an abandoned hospital. Inside, he finds a young man climbing into a wheelchair. Suffering from a mysterious illness, the traveler makes him a deal he can’t refuse. But Resh takes on more than he bargained for. To help the traveler find the cure he’s after, Resh must return to a city filled with scheming and betrayal, and confront an organization with a terrifying agenda.

Visit www.tpatg.com to learn more about the other episodes!

How to buy.

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide is a six episode series. Episodes will be released on Kindle beginning November 1st, and every two weeks thereafter. Episode 6 of Series 1 — The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide to Seattle — will launch on January 10th, 2018. Pre-order here!

Location Scouting.

While I’ve seen quite a lot of Seattle in the past, mostly thanks to my brother, a captain in a local tour boat company, I needed to do more research before writing my episode. Here are a few of the pictures I’ve taken while scouting locations for the story:

 

I hope you enjoy reading the story and please don’t forget to purchase the other episodes in the series.

 

The science of suspended animation

Stasis2.png

I sold my first non-fiction article!

Back in January, I got in contact with Tony Daniel, the senior editor of Baen books, sent an article proposal, and signed a contract. Around the same time I won the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story award. I think it took him a couple of weeks to realize he was communicating with the same person in the two different email chains. This article was originally going to be posted last month, but he felt it was best not to publish it the same month as my short story “Feldspar.”

Here is the link to the article on the Baen website: “Stasis: The Future of Suspended Animation.”

For this article, I managed to get an interview with Dr. John Bradford, the COO of SpaceWorks, who is pioneering the development of suspended animation techniques with NASA for future human expeditions to Mars.

Here is the full, unedited interview:

Me- “How long could hibernation theoretically be sustained?”

Bradford- “One initial comment that is a bit of semantics, but we like to always clarify. On the term ‘hibernation’: We can’t actually make people hibernate, so prefer terms like “human stasis”, “torpor inducing”, and “metabolic suppression”. Maybe in the distant future through gene therapy/modification, this can be achieved, but right now we are focused on artificially inducing a hibernation-like state via cooling and metabolic suppression. So, we are trying to mimic hibernation, but not achieve it.

We are in the process of evaluating how long we can sustain the low metabolic state. This will ultimately have to be determined through testing, but since we are starting with current practices for Therapeutic Hypothermia, we have a lot of data to evaluate on what is occurring in the body over short 2-4 day periods. Longer periods of up to 14 days has been achieved, but data there becomes much more limited. We also look at animal hibernators as sources of understanding (and inspiration). Bears are a great model since their core temperature doesn’t drop to the extreme conditions most hibernators experience. They can be in torpor for 4-5 month periods. In summary though, we don’t know what the theoretical limit is yet. For our approach, it would not be measured in years. We can benefit a lot in terms of space travel if we can achieve just a few weeks, but ultimately we are looking to achieve months.”

Me- “Are there any plans to test human hibernation in the near future?”

Bradford- “Eventual human testing is on our roadmap and plans. NASA’s NIAC program is not funding us for any medical testing though, only to evaluate if this is possible, identify how we would do this, and quantify the mission impacts if it is feasible (engineering analysis). However, we are getting inquiries from a few investors and looking at non-governmental funding sources to start some specific testing. Note again that we do have medical data from subjects undergoing TH over short periods already, but those were not controlled tests.”

Me- “What is a major medical/engineering hurdle that will have to be overcome before this technology can be implemented?”

Bradford- “I get asked this question a lot and my answer probably changes frequently depending on what aspect I’m currently working on or problem I’m trying to solve. There are certainly challenges, but we are coming up with a variety of solutions or ways to mitigate them, either via a medical approach or engineering it out. The ability to initiate human testing will certainly be a milestone – fortunately I hear from a lot of people that want to volunteer! Transitioning to space-based human testing would be the next big step.

Lastly, I’d say we believe human stasis represents one of the most promising approaches to solving the engineering and medical challenges of long-duration spaceflight. With this technology, a variety of new options can be introduced and applied that address major human spaceflight medical challenges and risk areas such as bone loss, muscle atrophy, increased intracranial pressure, and radiation damage. System-level engineering analysis has indicated significant mass savings for both the habitat and transfer stages. These savings are due to reductions in the pressurized volume, consumables, power, structures, and ancillary systems for the space habitat. This capability is potentially the key enabling technology that will ultimately permit human exploration to Mars and beyond!”

To read the full article, including other interviews, and to learn about the science of suspended animation, click the image below:

 

stasis article

Link to Baen article: http://www.baen.com/stasis

The Science of Time Travel

time-machineLet us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

-Arthur Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Time travel features heavily in speculative fiction. It provides a useful means of foreshadowing and helps to heighten suspense as the characters try to avert a looming disaster or manipulate the future for their own ends. It appeals to all of us who have ever experienced guilt or loss and want to go back and fix it. It is rife with unintended consequences and can trigger exciting conflicts. However, it also provides a great source of frustration for writer and reader alike as they try to contend with the plot holes, paradoxes, and skewed logic associated with tampering with the fundamental laws of our universe.

In this post, I will address the most common problems and paradoxes associated with time travel, and then discuss the science that could make it possible.

Causality.

Cause and effect. That is how the universe works. Nowhere in nature can an effect cause itself, which is to say that energy cannot spontaneously manifests itself to perform an action. Thermodynamics and all of Newton’s laws require a cause and effect, but time travel inevitably breaks these laws.

Like the Billy and Rubin comic above, if the Professor succeeded in going back in time to stop Billy from building a time machine, he would then have no time machine with which to make the journey. Traveling to the past, for even a few seconds, can violate causality and initiates all kinds of paradoxes.

Grandfather paradox.

There is no better example of a causality violation than the Grandfather Paradox. If a time traveler kills his own grandfather before he meets his grandmother, the traveler will have never been born. Most disturbing of all, are the implications for “free will.” If the traveler sees his grandfather, he will be physically incapable of killing him, for doing so will prevent his own existence. Imagine a knife that physically cannot interact with a person, because if it were to interact, it would prevent its own interaction. *Mind blown*.

Butterfly effect.

A term used in chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect is coined after the concept of a gentle disturbance in the air caused by a butterfly’s wings, which eventually leads to a hurricane.

Some writers insist that any disruption to the timeline will “heal,” and all will be set back on course, but this is unlikely. If the person went back just to witness an event, they talked to no one, and received no more than a passing glance by others and were quickly forgotten, then I could see the future not changing… much. But even if something small happens, like the traveler buys a slice of pie from a street vendor, it could initiate a chain of events that divert the future substantially. What about the person who was supposed to buy that slice? That person might then continue walking to find another vendor, and chat with friend he met on the street. If that friend subsequently misses a trolley and arrives late to work, failing to smile at the woman who would have been his future wife, then generations of people will have ceased to exist in the future, and all of their actions, and achievements, will have been erased… just because of a slice of pie. This is another example of causality, and every major and minor moment in our lives can be traced back to equally minuscule events.

Foresight and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Time travel isn’t the only thing that violates causality, it can also be violated with foresight. Having knowledge of a future event can allow the future to be changed, but is it really the future if it can be changed?

Prophecy is a common plot device in Fantasy novels. If a seer or prophet sees the hero’s future or reads their fortune, what will happen if that hero decides to do something completely different? If the hero changes the future, was it ever the future to begin with? What is to stop a person from just sitting down and not doing anything if they learn of their future? If that future depends on them performing an action, yet that person refuses to do anything, how can that future exist? This is the Idle (or Lazy) argument. For example, if a man learns he will die by being hit by a bus, that man can refuse to leave his house, thus preventing the future. I have seen authors stretch the limits of believability by having the hero walk into situations, saying and doing exactly what the prophecy says they will, even though they know exactly what fate awaits them.

This only works if the prophecy aligns with the main character’s own motivations, or if they are somehow duped into causing the situation they were hoping to avoid. We call these self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the hero makes something happen because he or she believes there is no avoiding it, or because they want it to happen. For example, there is a prophecy that a castle will be invaded; so on the day of, the character leaves his guard post at the gates and flees the city. The enemy notices this new weak point in the castle’s defenses and decides to invade.

The science behind time travel:

Paradoxes aside, it should be noted that time is very strange. Some scientists suggest it is nothing more than a product of our minds trying to make sense of the universe. Time can go faster for some, and slower for others, all depending on how much gravity is around or how fast an object is travelling.

Black holes.

Time is inherently linked to the three dimensional fabric of space. Therefore, a force that can condense that fabric, can also affect time. Gravity is such a force, and a black hole is a near infinite supply of gravity. If it were possible to survive the spaghettification (gravity literally stretching you out) associated with entering a black hole, you would most certainly be crushed by the pressure of the mass surrounding you. There is a theory however, that a zone exists around a black hole where the centrifugal forces of its spin counteract the forces of its gravity. Thus, time would be slowed (possibly even reversed), but you would not be pulled into the center.

Special relativity.

Satellites in orbit are actually experiencing time a little slower than we are, largely because of the speed at which they circumnavigate the globe. Einstein introduced the concept of special relativity, which basically states that, while nothing can travel faster than light, light will still appear to travel at light speed, even if the light source is traveling at close to light speed. So, depending on your reference frame, time will move differently based on your speed. This time dilation can make a person’s 300 year journey near light speed feel like 20 years. This is probably the closest humanity will come to “traveling though time,” but it is a one-way ticket. Traveling faster than the speed of light, theoretically, would reverse the flow of time. Most scientists maintain this is impossible, because it would violate causality.

Quantum mechanics and the Many-Worlds interpretation.

Some writers have gotten around the causality argument by suggesting that time might be like a river. If a significant event disrupts the flow of time, it can branch off into another stream, parallel to the first, creating two different timelines of different pasts and different futures.

Based on observations of quantum entanglement, and particle-wave duality, it is clear that, at the quantum state, an object can be in two places at once, and doing different things. Physicists have since theorized that any and every action creates a parallel universe, in which the opposite action was taken. These infinite worlds can be very similar to our own or very different. While this concept doesn’t quite offer up a solution to time travel, if proven true, it can help eliminate many of the causality paradoxes associated with it.

Conclusions:

Because there are so many theories regarding time, its nature, and how to travel through it, there is no correct way to portray it in speculative fiction. I would advise, however, to thoroughly outline your book if it contains elements of time travel. For many readers, time travel paradoxes are indistinguishable from plot holes.

What other considerations should writers take when writing about time travel? Did I miss a theory? Leave your comments below.

Rest assured, if time travel is possible, I will travel back in time to this very moment to ensure that I got everything right…

…nope. No Phil from the future. I’m a little disappointed, actually.

Books I read in 2016

For those of you who haven’t found your way over to my Reviews page, I decided to post the content here now that 2016 is over. Overall it was an average year for me. I estimate that I read about 25 books. Unfortunately, I’ve only had time to write reviews for a small number of those. I will post more reviews throughout 2017.

In keeping with the theme of this site, these reviews will focus on the plot and the accuracy of the science. I graded these books with a POINTS system I invented for this purpose (Plot, Organization, Intelligibility, Novelty, Technology, and Science). Each will be given a grade out of 5 with a highest possible score of 30. This score has little to do with my enjoyment of the novel, but how I rate the individual parameters. I will try not to give too many details or spoilers, but it might be necessary on occasion.

*Cover images taken from listings on Amazon.com.

Here they are:


51ax82bt2b4ylColumbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by Craig Alanson (POINTS= 25/30)

Plus POINTS: This first book in the series follows the POV of a young soldier home from a stint in Nigeria. He is surprised to see an alien ship crash land in a field near his hometown. The aliens immediately start destroying things. He rounds up some people and fights back. This is only the beginning of the story. More aliens arrive, but these are helping them, and eventually drive the hamster-like aliens away.  The young soldier is shipped away to an alien planet where he must keep the peace. It is there that he discovers that their friends, the lizard-like aliens, are not so much their saviors as their overlords, and the ones they should be fighting. He teams up with fellow soldiers and an artificial intelligence to take back humanity’s freedom. Science and technology wise, it is hard to say what is and isn’t possible when advanced alien technologies are thrown into the mix. At least they didn’t all speak the same language and instead they were given devices that could interpret everything that’s said. Overall, this is one of the more humorous books I’ve read. There are some slow parts but it is nicely paced and full of action.

Minus POINTS: Alanson didn’t write the most original story, but he definitely put a new twist on the average military scifi. The science is probably the lowest scoring in the POINTS system. The thing that I have the hardest time coming to terms with is the appearance of the aliens. They are described to be very similar looking to hamsters, with another species very similar to lizards. It is very unlikely that an independently evolving species on a separate planet with an entirely different climate would look remotely like anything we have on earth. Even more unlikely, is that they would all breath similar air compositions. I think adding in some breathing apparatus for the aliens or humans on a foreign world wouldn’t have detracted from the story. Also, Alanson states that the insects, animals, and microorganisms on these foreign worlds wouldn’t effect them, which may be true when it comes to ingesting unknowns compounds, proteins, or being exposed to a venom, but it is more likely that an organism would have found the organic molecules that makeup the human body very pleasing, and the human immune system would have no way to fend it off. Artificial wormholes and faster-than-light travel is also mentioned, but with no explanation as to how such things were made or how FTL drives don’t affect causality and mess with… pretty much all of Einstein’s theories. A long-vanished race of aliens left behind the wormholes as well as an artificial intelligence. Providing comic relief is not the only thing the AI can do, it can also bend space-time, hack every encryption code, interface with every technology, and exist in multiple dimensions. Despite all of this, it still uses helium 3 as a fuel source. Overall, I would recommend this book as a great, entertaining read, so long as you aren’t expecting hard-scifi.


41t82bdrhohlThe Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey (POINTS= 27/30)

Plus POINTS: This isn’t your typical zombie story. I was actually very surprised to find out that it was a zombie story. The story follows Melanie, a very nice and bright little girl, except she is treated like a dangerous monster by the people who take her from her cell and deposit her in class every day. Her diet consists of the occasional grub. Carey has cleverly used a well know fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that causes zombie-like behavior in ants, as the zombie pathogen of choice. Zombies that have been turned long ago, end up with fungal coatings and even sprout mycelium. One of the doctors doing the research actually goes into detail how they think the fungus is hijacking the brain, and why kids like Melanie are so special. She introduces some actual research tools and techniques as well. In order to prevent Melanie from smelling human’s and feeling the impulse to eat, they have to constantly douse themselves in chemicals. When the facility that’s holding her gets overrun, she and the humans that fear her must band together to get her to another facility where they can continue to perform research on her. Melanie has to overcome many zombie-ish impulses along the way. POINTS across the board.

Minus POINTS: While it is impossible to say how the cordyceps fungus has been manipulated or mutated to create zombies, it is never likely to have such a devastating role on humanity. For one, most fungal infections grow very slowly, and the immune system slow it even more. Also, the fungus would have to somehow penetrate the blood-brain-barrier, which is difficult for even the smallest of pathogens. There is also a scene where a huge wall of fungal mycelium stretches into the sky, sprouted from thousands of zombies. There is nowhere near enough biomass available to support that type of growth, especially when it would have to compete with other microorganisms. It’s difficult to believe that it could withstand the wind or even a single storm.  There is also a scene where they arrive a huge mobile-tank of a laboratory. I can’t believe that anybody would have designed or constructed such a laboratory. There is no logical purpose. Overall, the story started strong but became more and more improbable as it went along.


611ezqeptpl-_aa300_The Mountain Man Omnibus (Books 1-3) by Keith C. Blackmore  (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: The mountain man is Gus. He lives on a hill outside a small city in Nova Scotia. He is constantly drinking and lonely. You can’t really blame him; zombies have taken over the known world. These books were a great read. It was a story of survival, friendship, and the fragility of the human mind and morality. When you have to fear the living more than the dead, it really paints a grisly picture of mankind. He does make one friend though, Scott, who leaves the picture a little too soon in order to chase down a killer. There is some serious ingenuity and resourcefulness on the the part of Gus and Scott. The story gets many plus POINTS for plot, intelligibility, and organization.

Minus POINTS: As for novelty, technology, and science, I have to deduct some POINTS. I’m tempted to give very little points for science and technology, especially since this is a zombie novel, but on multiple occasions, Blackmore addressed that they didn’t know how the virus worked, but that it slowed decay, and could even jump species. No detail is better than the wrong detail. There was at least one occasion where the author described the ‘smell of cordite’ after guns were fired. This is a common description which is completely inaccurate. Cordite has not been used in ammunition since the end of WWII… and this book is set in the near future.For the most part, every character had a purpose all the way up to the third book. Personally, I saw little point to the Norsemen except as a tool to show how savage humanity can be. Also, Gus spends years scavenging for supplies, but doesn’t ever try to find seeds and grow his own food. This seems very short-sighted.


511dbkz7gulSpaceMan by Tom Abrahams  (POINTS= 26/30)

Plus POINTS: This is a great post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t afraid to throw some science and technology into the mix. An astronaut, Clayton, becomes stranded on the ISS, when a massive Coronal Mass Ejection strikes the earth. He recovers his dead colleagues who were out on a space walk, and then tries to find a way back to earth, to his family. The other POV in the story is Clayton’s family and a family friend. When the CME hits, power goes out, and many devices are shorted. A short time later, planes come crashing to the ground. All-in-all, this story was successful in integrating accurate science and terminology with life or death situations that hook the reader’s interest as well as educate.  I see too many books getting the facts of solar flares wrong, but Abrahams accurately demonstrated how fast CMEs move (pretty slow compared to the light from the flare), the radiation they carry (protons), and the devastating effects of the EMP on electronics. It was apparent that the author did his research. Many plus POINTS for Science and Technology, novelty, and intelligibility.

Minus POINTS: The book was short and the author really should have included the sequel as a part of book 1 because very little of the conflict is actually resolved. While Abrahams does a decent job of switching between POVs, I thought the novelty of the book was the astronaut stuck on the ISS, but he seems to spend more time following the people on the ground, making this feel more like an average post-apocalyptic story. In fact, it seems like the space adventure ends too soon. While it is hard to say what people would do in the event of the apocalypse, I think chaos and disorder happened a bit too quickly, with gangs, thugs, and religious cults taking to the streets within a day or two.


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Leviathan Wakes (Expanse series #1) by James S. A. Corey (POINTS= 27/30)

Plus POINTS: Despite being categorized as a space opera, I see very little resemblance. This is a book with a lot of political and interpersonal conflicts, but it really gives us a snapshot of what might actually happen when humanity begins to colonize the solar system. With large corporations and governments fighting for resources, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter being a source of much of it, tensions are high. The story is a mystery suspense that focuses on the disappearance of a woman and the seemingly pointless destruction of an ice freighter. It follows the perspective of a detective on the Ceres station on the belt, and a small surviving crew of the destroyed ice freighter. They uncover conspiracies that can change the way the humanity views their place in the universe. The pace was great, the writing gripping, and the science as spot on as it could be for such a large leap into a possible future. Corey (pen name for two authors) accurately depicts G forces, types of ‘artificial gravity’ (thrust or rotation), and the health effects and physiological changes of people that aren’t living in a ‘gravity well’. He knows what he is talking about.

Minus POINTS: There isn’t much negative to say about this first book in the series. I felt a bit more info could have been provided on the Epstein drive, which is a fusion reactor capable of providing continuous thrust. The crash couches and other seats meant to cushion the crew during high G maneuvers and accelerations are interesting, but the explanation of the ‘juice’ pumped into them to sustain consciousness and mobility during such event doesn’t quite satisfy me. Also unexplained is how a particular entity (protomolecule) can control many EM fields, take over organic matter, and change direction or speed up with seemingly no change in inertia. While it does break a couple of Newton’s laws, Corey does salvage his credibility by bringing up this fact and having the character’s baffled by how it could be done. They are, after-all, face to face with a strange entity that may have technology far beyond our own. It is also a bit improbable that humanity would have developed so far as to begin colonizing some of Jupiter’s moons and build massive ships, but not improved on standard projectile weapons, nukes, etc. Everyone knows that developing weapons is the first technological leap in most societies. Humans love killing each other.


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Hell Divers (The Hell Divers Trilogy Book 1) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: When the rest of humanity lives on floating airships above a radioactive earth, how can they survive? By sending divers down to the surface to scavenge for any fuel cells and supplies they need, that’s how. This book had a very unique concept and was full of action from start to finish. The overall scientific concepts are sound, though Smith does not talk about the science the much. I can’t even guess if severe electrical storms would be caused by massive amounts of radiation on the surface of the planet, but it makes sense that many, many ions and radicals would form under the radioactive onslaught, leading to severe electrical discharges. Smith also does due diligence in describing the harm such radiation inflicts on the human body, whether it be an acute exposure or a chronic one. Overall, it was a very interesting read and kept me entertained throughout.

Minus POINTS: Given the fairly short length of the novel, I would have preferred one or two fewer points of view. There were some 5 or so in total, and it really prevented me from getting attached to any one character. Alternatively, the book length could have been increased to help flesh out some of the underdeveloped sections. For example, there was one conflict where militant crewmen seize control of a section of the ship and make demands. It almost ends in catastrophe, and was definitely suspenseful, but I felt like nothing much came from it and we never had a lot of closure. Drawing out the suspense and fleshing out the resolution would have made a much more satisfying read. The organization was a bit awkward as well. I felt like he worked the tension up a bit for each dive, but none of them lasted that long. He could have had fewer dives and drawn out the suspense a bit more for each one. Smith compensated for this a little bit by having one POV on the surface most of the time. And unless I missed it, I imagine that solar energy would be a better energy source for an airship, but instead they rely on nuclear power. Perhaps, for whatever reason, they can not rise above the omnipresent cloud cover. Such cloud cover, however, would have caused the earth to cool. While Smith mentions quite a lot of snow on the surface, it isn’t clear if this is due to the location of the city or if it is the general state of the planet. But these are very minor points. The major minus points to the science was the use of super mutant monsters. Yes, perhaps two centuries had passed since the war occurred that irradiated the planet, but that is way too short a time for humanoid creatures with hard skin, barbs, wings, and no eyes to have evolved. Yes radiation can speed mutation, but it is more likely to cause death to the creature that is being irradiated, thus preventing evolution. Also, the radiation would have been much worse centuries ago when the war started, and these creatures would not have had their thick skins to protect them from it. Earth would be sterile. It is also not clear how the monsters are detecting electrical and radioactive energy or feeding off of it.


41ck5inzmjl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: This was a highly original and engaging novel which really got my imagination going. Like Wool, much if the story takes place underground as it follows a family of sand divers as they explore the remains of forgotten and lost cities that have been buried under the sand for a long time. It is not just a tale of survival under the sands, but above it, as more and more people compete for the loot as well as chase after the most valuable loot of all, something that can make obstacles, and people, vanish in the blink of an eye. This story has a lot of political and survival elements that really amp up the suspense.

Minus POINTS: Vibrations seem like the most likely way to penetrate into sand, however, the notion that vibrations can be controlled so well as to extend from a suit and several feet away into the sand to harden sand or soften it, is a bit ridiculous. Yes, they character’s use little headsets that read their intentions, but the technology feels more like telekinesis than real technology. Soften the sand all you want, it would still exfoliate your face off and tear through any type of fabric or metal with enough time (the same principle as sandpaper), but this seems to have been left out by Howey. The worst part for me was the ending. The hero goes off with a mission, rather than show that hero doing their exciting mission, we are instead give the POV of the concerned family as they sit around a camp, bored as they watch the horizon for proof of the hero’s success. Showing people being bored is a sure way to make the audience bored. The climax of the story, while interesting, wasn’t all that intense either. And with a lack of a satisfactory resolution, the story really suffered in the last half.


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Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series) (POINTS= 28/30)

Plus POINTS: I thoroughly enjoyed this series and I was surprised it had taken me so long to pick it up. Hugh Howey has crafted a fascinating world for us, an underground world. The residents of a large underground silo have been living for generations below the toxic atmosphere, believing that nothing and nobody was capable of living above the surface. Their only connection to the world outside the silo is a camera that shows them the toxic wasteland above. Occasionally men and woman are sentenced to death (or volunteer in some cases) to clean the surface of the cameras with a bit of wool. They always clean, even when they say they wont, and they all die before they can climb the hill and out of view, their suits deteriorating in the toxic environment. It has become taboo to speak of the outside, and in fact, it is a death sentence to express any interest in leaving. But everyone thinks about it. When the sheriff of the silo expresses an interest to leave, everyone is shocked. The send him out to clean and then go on with their lives, growing plants, recycling everything, mining, in the hopes of keeping the silo running for their life times and their children’s. When a new sheriff is recruited from the lower floors, mechanical, she begins to research why the previous sheriff wanted to go outside, and uncovers some large conspiracies that upend all they know about the world above and the purpose of the silo. The science and technology presented in this book appeared very thought out and well conceived and very realistic. I couldn’t think of many things he could have added to improve on the silos. The plot was full of suspense throughout, and I had a hard time putting it down. The culture and mindset of the silo seem very logical, with religions, taboos, and other things like their concept of distance and open spaces, the scarcity and price of paper, or the mythological view of animals that may have once walked the surface.

Minus POINTS: The only minus points here are due to the ending and a bit of the science. There were several points were I thought the motivation of the characters was a bit lacking or underdeveloped, thus resulting in actions that seemed very unlikely, or that they were overlooking some obvious problems and then became surprised by the consequences. The ending was a bit underwhelming and I never got the sense that I experienced a true climax of the tension. My only issue with the science were a few unlikely events where someone survived what would have been some extreme pressure, and the seeming lack of exhaustion for some people as they climbed a bunch of stairs. Also, there is apparently some room for people to fall or drop things over the edge of the stair well, if that is the case, why didn’t they create a lift or pulley system to help transport supplies or people? Technology wise, everything seemed a little dated and unsophisticated, but you learn that much of this was intentional.

Note: I chose not to review Shift (POINTS=19/30) or Dust (21/30) by Hugh Howey because I felt like I didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about them. Neither ended very satisfactorily, had way too much background, alternate POVs, unrelatable motivations, and info I thought distracted from the story, and were kind of boring. Dust wasn’t too bad, though. I think he could have left out Shift and continued with Dust, and made the whole series much better.


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The Martian by Andy Weir (POINTS= 29/30)

Plus POINTS: As far as the POINTS system goes, The Martian is currently the standard by which all books are judged. The story of a man deserted on a barren planet, trying to survive until rescue, is about as hopeless and grim as you can get, but Weir manages to inject humor, action, intrigue, and most importantly, science. From orbital dynamics, to pressure regulation, and oxygen and water reclaiming systems, he is pretty spot on, with in depth descriptions which are intelligibly and cleverly delivered (which the movie does a really poor job of replicating). I thought he started the story in just the right moment, not too early or too late. While it may not be targeting the softer side of the sci-fi readership, for us hard sci-fi fans, it’s just what we’ve been asking for. I confess that I did not read this recently, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten many details… I’ve read the book 5 times now!

Minus POINTS: Its really no one particular thing. If I could take away a third of a point from the intelligibility, science, and plot categories, I would. It is pretty heavy on the science and terminology, so readers need to pay attention to avoid missing anything vital to their understanding. Scientifically, there is a minor point with the inciting incident, where Mark gets impaled by an antennae and the MAV almost tips. With atmospheric pressure so low on the planet, it would have been impossible for the wind to push over much of anything. The only part I found lacking in the Plot was the seeming disappearance of a secondary character, Mindy Park, who was in charge of monitoring Mark on the surface of Mars with orbiting satellites. I would have liked to see her jump in and save the day at the end, perhaps having a satellite diverted to help with a lost communications issue or something. And perhaps have Mark establish some sort of relationship with her in the end. They both seemed pretty lonely. Oh well, can’t have everything.


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Red Rising by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: This is an emotionally charged and gripping story about a young Red man in a caste-based society, who must become a Gold in order to “break the chains” they use to enslave his color. It has a more futuristic Hunger Games vibe, but the purpose of this competition is to train Golds how to become ‘peerless,’ to separate the grain from the chaff. I would classify this novel as a dystopian space-opera. Though it is not hard sci-fi, it was evident that Brown did his research and took his time constructing the elaborate and rich story line.

Minus POINTS: The story opens with the main character harvesting helium 3, an essential part of fusion reactions, from beneath the surface of mars, though this process and fusion reactors in general are not discussed. Also unaddressed by the author is how this isotope of helium can build up below the surface of a planet with minimal geological activity. Solar wind is the primary source of this particle in the solar system, so I have a hard time believing it would occur anywhere but the surface. There are elements of genetic manipulation, complex physiological alterations (‘carving’) and power over laws of physics. Cleverly, Brown uses the main character’s ignorance and perhaps lack-of-interest in these processes as a way to avoid explaining them in detail. Grav boots, for example, are a contraption that allow their wearers to zip around wheresoever they please, while ghost cloaks make the wearer become invisible. Many other such technologies exist that can somehow prevent the local vibration of air molecules to suppress sound, and make swords infinitely sharp and capable of cauterizing flesh.


51pg95d6dvlGolden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: As the second installment of the Red Rising Trilogy,  Darrow continues on his ongoing mission to overthrow the Gold overlords of society. To do this, he has become one of them, made a name for himself, and schemed his way into a position of power where he gets the Golds to war amongst themselves. His inner turmoil grows as his mission clashes with his burgeoning love and friendships. Breaking away from the setting of Mars, the setting of this story take place on the moon, in space, and a few other places around the solar system. There were no obvious plot holes that I could see and it was a very enjoyable read, with intriguing characters, exciting space battles, and political drama.

Minus POINTS: My main scientific objection to this story was the creation of Earth-like atmospheres and climates on the moon (and many of Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons). Not only is the moon able to hold atmosphere, but it still has a low gravity? Unless I missed it, this was never explained. While I find it plausible that ‘artificial gravity’ might be created one day, and could possibly help hold an atmosphere to the moon’s surface, it is obvious that this was not the method Brown used. And how do they protect themselves and prevent the atmosphere from being stripped away from cosmic rays? We will never know. The razors, incredibly sharp whips that can become sturdy swords with a “chemical impulse” also defy reason, but they are an interesting concept, nonetheless. The characters also seem capable of recovering from almost any injury, and can have severed limbs and eyes replaced within the span of a few chapters.


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Golden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: The ruse is over, Darrow can no longer pretend to be a Gold. In this book, he must discover who is ally and who is enemy as he seeks to overthrow the Gold overlords. There are many fronts to this war and Darrow must choose one to fight first as well as amass an army to accomplish the impossible task. This story is packed with interesting characters, fascinating plot twists, and non-stop action.

Minus POINTS: The organization and plot take a bit of a hit here. While it was easy to follow, the author relied a bit too much on the ‘all hope is lost’ mentality for the reader, allowing us to believe that all of the plans have gone horribly wrong. Yet still Darrow and his friends still accomplish the impossible at every turn. It is sometimes difficult to understand his motive during these events. For example, rather than fight the Jackal or Sovereign, he decides to go take on a large fleet outside of Jupiter instead. His plan to gain the moon lords allegiance and take out the huge fleet seems rather flimsy, indeed, it almost ends terribly for him and the cause he fights for, but as always, just when things start going horribly wrong, he succeeds and even accomplished more than he intended to. As is typical with this series, the technology and science bring the score down a bit. While these aspects of the book are interesting, they don’t have much of a connection to reality. Medically, you can’t just stand up and be alright after being ejected into the vacuum of space for several minutes or being locked in a small box for 9 months, even if given an injection of some secret stimulant in the heart. Also stab wounds are probably going to cut vital organs or at least cut through some muscle and bleed a lot, so it’s unlikely that you can just carry on fighting without being slowed much. Wounds also seem to disappear with a couple chapters or so, and amputated limbs are somehow found and reconnected.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

ecosystems-and-life-support-in-scifi

Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

food-water-and-air-cycles

Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

Ecosphere.jpg

My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.

The science of gravity

gravityFor this week’s post, I’ve decided to talk about the thing that keeps us all grounded, makes us fall, and keeps us from venturing too high. It’s a very weighty subject, something I hope will draw you in, and it’s apparently a great source of puns. It is gravity.

Writers have gone to great lengths to circumvent this fundamental law of nature. When gravity can be eliminated or overcome, new and astounding opportunities arise. Our characters can strap themselves into rockets, dirigibles, and aircrafts to view our world from amazing heights, or visit entirely different worlds.

Unfortunately, many writers think their grasp of gravity is sufficient enough to excuse them from any research. In most cases this is true, but when glaring mistakes prevent readers from being immersed in the story, a little research would have been invaluable.

The science.

Gravity is many magnitudes weaker than electromagnetism at the microscopic level, allowing even a weak fridge magnet to resist the pull of our entire planet. What gives? Why isn’t it pulling its own weight? That was the last pun, I swear. The truth is, while electromagnetism predominates over the small, on the planetary scale, gravity always prevails. So for such a strong force, why do we have no idea how it works?

Unveiling the mysteries of gravity is the sole priority of many research labs around the world, and many theories have been proposed, but only a few have been found scientifically and mathematically sound (though they make many assumptions). The problem with all these theories is that they offer few testable hypotheses, and are based principally on math. Some, like Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG), believe that gravity isn’t a force at all, but instead a warping or changing of the geometry of space-time (4 dimensions). While other theories, like Quantum Field Theory (QFT) and M-theory (string theory), believe the force of gravity is mediated by particles, the graviton, which propagate out like any other particle, not just in our 4 dimensions, but into other dimensions. There are pros and cons to each theory, and some go to extraordinary lengths to justify the strength of gravity relative to electromagnetism or the method by which it propagates. Some theories don’t try to explain everything at all (create a unifying theory) because it simply won’t work. Recently LIGO detected the previously hypothetical gravitational wave from two colliding black holes, giving researchers some clues as to how gravity propagates through space. This casts some doubts on those theories that suggest gravity has everything to do with space-time geometry, unless you somehow justify that ‘ripples in space’ are somehow to blame.

If you are creating a story line where gravity manipulation is a major plot point, some of these theories might make a good starting point for ‘anti-gravity’ technologies. Since no theory has been proven, there is a lot of room for creative license. I myself have absolutely no formal training in physics. In fact, I probably got away with taking fewer physics courses than the average science graduate. I also am pretty terrible at math. I have been looking into theories of gravity for several months now, and most of them gave me headaches. I applaud anyone who can make sense of them. I, with my limited understanding of physics, think gravity might be a combination of several theories. I theorize that perhaps gravity is a distortion of space-time, but that this distortion is the result of a particle, the graviton. If the Higgs boson (spin 0) is unable to move freely through space (or the Higgs field, whatever that is), imparting mass to objects, and the photon (spin 1) is able to move across space freely, what if the graviton (hypothetical spin 2), had the same speed as a photon, but also affected space, not by resistance, but repulsion. If the graviton were responsible for distorting space, this could explain its weakness (displacing space at the plank scale), its ability to affect time, and its ability to propagate like other particles. I have no idea if this theory has already been suggested or has already been debunked, but it’s what I am going with until someone decides to educate me. Seriously, if you are a physicist, we should chat.

Whether or not you came up with your own theory, gravity is still one of the most studied and characterized ‘forces.’ It follows certain rules. These rules are so defined, that we can take Newton’s equations from the 16th century, and use them to launch a tiny ship about 240,000 miles to land exactly where we want on the moon with zero to minimal course adjustment. So here are some considerations when writing your novel:

Orbits.

It is important to note that just because your characters are in space does not mean they will be weightless. If you take a balloon to the very edge of space, you will still feel the gravity pulling you down. It is only when you achieve angular momentum, momentum away from gravity, that weightlessness occurs. This is an orbit.

While orbits are relative, we tend to say one thing is orbiting another thing, when that second thing is the more massive of the two. Orbits are pretty simple to understand, and once understood, writers can avoid making some simple mistakes. A stable orbit is when a body has an angular momentum (outward force) that is equal to the inward force supplied by gravity. Because the force of gravity decreases according to the inverse square law, the further something is from the center of mass, the slower it has to travel to remain in orbit. For example, the International Space Station has to travel at nearly 17,500 miles an hour to remain in a low earth orbit of about 200 miles (orbits every 90 min), whereas a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, or about 22,000 miles from earth, only has to travel at about 7,000 miles an hour (orbits once 24 hours). At about 5 trillion miles from the sun, the objects in the Oort cloud barely need to move at all and only need to be nudged in order for them to come careening toward us as a comet. If you need a planet to revolve around another, but close enough to fill a quarter of the sky, they need to be revolving pretty fast around each other in order to counterbalance the pull of gravity, which will also cause some extreme tidal forces (to the core and oceans).

Directions.

Like orbits, directions are relative. North on our planet is simply the magnetic north, where the magnetic field lines converge back on our planet (the place in the north pole where the compass starts to act a little erratic).  On other planets, this may not be the case. Venus for example, has an extremely weak magnetic field, perhaps due to its very slow spin, or the loss of convective forces due to a thick crust.

Gravity is also the only thing that differentiates up from down. The saccule and utricle of the inner ear contain grains of calcium carbonate that respond to gravity and momentum, tugging on hair cells (mechanoreceptors). This as well as visual stimuli, help you orient yourself to gravity and keep you from falling over.

In space, without gravity, this sensation is lost and many astronauts have to deal with a bit a vertigo and nausea as their eyes tell them something their ears are not. In space, people need to orient themselves to something besides gravity, like a feature of the galaxy (quadrant), the orientation of equipment or text on the spaceship, or they can learn to ignore directions all together. In my current work in progress, it is a struggle to describe motion and actions when lacking a directional cue. Are you really reaching up to flip a switch if you are upside down relative to everyone else? It is important to orient your reader to the character’s POV and sense of direction in order to prevent confusion.

Other effects of gravity.

As mentioned earlier, a world orbiting closely to a gas giant will likely have tremendous geological activity and a molten interior from tidal forces. A small world about the size of our moon that is not orbiting a gas giant will likely have very little atmosphere and no molten interior, since gravity is responsible for both.

Buoyancy is another ‘force’ that exists because of gravity. As Archimedes’ principle states, whether it is water or air, if something weighs less than the stuff around it, it will rise above it until it finds an equilibrium. It will sink when the object weighs more than the medium. This upward force is caused by the pressure differential in the medium, i.e. the pressure of the medium against the bottom of the object will be slightly greater than the pressure of the medium against the top of the object, causing it to rise. Neutral buoyancy occurs when the medium it displaces weighs the same as the object itself, and when the pressure difference between the top and bottom equals zero. The larger the volume of the object, the more medium it will displace, but it will also tend to weigh more. That is why ‘density,’ the weight of a certain volume of an object, is commonly used to estimate buoyancy. In orbit, the effect of gravity is canceled out and everything will be weightless. Thus there is no buoyancy in space. You can inject a drop of air into a sphere of water, and it will stay in place and not rise to the surface.

There are also many health effects associated with a long exposure to weightlessness, including muscle and bone loss as well as some neurological and visual problems. Rather than go into all of this, I will encourage you to read this post from Amber, a fellow sci-fi blogger and science nerd.

Difference between mass and weight.

This is a relatively minor point, but that should make it easy to remember. Mass is measured in grams, and weight is measured in newtons (gravitational force multiplied by mass). Most of the time weight and mass can be used interchangeably, unless there is space travel involved. Your character’s mass will be the same on earth as it is on mars, however, their weight will have changed. Weight is the measure of an objects gravitational attraction to another object, whereas mass is a physical property of the matter the object is made of. Mass is caused by the Higgs boson, but weight is caused by gravity (perhaps the graviton). While the incorrect use of this terminology will probably not dissuade many of your readers, it might cast doubt on your knowledge of the subject. Better safe than sorry.

Artificial gravity.

This encompasses any technique that is used to mimic the effect of gravity, and it is used in nearly every hard sci-fi story where astronauts are able to walk instead of float around on their space-ships. Creating an artificial gravity will be required for prolonged periods of weightlessness to prevent many of the adverse health effects. It it important to note that artificial gravity is not gravity at all.

Centrifugal ‘force’ is a method used to generate artificial gravity, whereby a torus, or another type of structure, is rotating around a central point. This has the effect of making all objects within the structure want to fly outward, but the structure itself is preventing that (centripetal force), thus allowing all the objects to be forced to the inside of the structure, with up being the center of rotation, and down being out into empty space. There are some pretty simple equations that will allow you to estimate the amount of rotations/min needed for a torus of a certain radius, to generate a certain amount of force (equivalent Gs).

Other continuous forms of acceleration can also apply a constant force, however, rockets will run out of thrust eventually, and when the people inside the rocket catch up to the rockets velocity, they will become weightless again.

It is up to the writer whether or not they want to address how gravity is simulated in their ship. I personally prefer there to be some mention of it to avoid logical inconsistencies. For example, if there is no torus or rocket used to apply this continuous force, then I will assume gravity has been mastered and replicated. If that is true, why would you need propulsion at all? What happens when the ship loses power (assuming generating gravity consumes power)? Where is the device that creates it? Where are all the floating cities, flying people, and gravity weapons? Conquering of gravity would of course result in all these and many other amazing things.

Anti-gravity.

It does not exist (yet). Sadly, most contraptions that claim to be working by anti-gravity are in fact operating by buoyancy or propulsion. In order from something to be anti-gravity, it must ignore gravity, or perhaps reverse it, not just compensate for it. This probably won’t happen until we find out what gravity really is. Is it the curvature of space time by Mass? A change in the geometry of space-time?

But when we finally do unravel the mysteries of gravity, we may be able to redirect it, amplify it, or turn it off altogether. Exciting times are ahead, but as sci-fi writers, we don’t have to wait, we can bring that excitement to the here and now.

 

On that note, I think I will end with a blurb for my current work in progress. This has been extremely fun to write so far and I look forward to keeping you guys up to date on its progress.

Grounded (working title) blurb:

In the not-so-distance future, the graviton, the fundamental particle believed to carry the force of gravity, has been discovered. A government research facility wants to be the first to harness the power of gravity and reduce the cost of aerospace ventures. But when a high energy experiment goes awry, all matter within a mile radius is made weightless. Hundreds of lives are lost to the sky.

In the wake of the event, all further graviton experiments are banned in order to prevent a future disaster, one that could destroy the very thing that holds the earth together. The survivors are left with a choice: to leave the research facility and become grounded by the very foods they eat and air they breathe, or to be maintained in a weightless state and embark on a scientific expedition to the sky and beyond without gravity to hold them back.

But with nearly every commercial industry developing applications for weightless matter, its value has soared. Many of the survivors seeking to return to a normal life and weight have gone missing. When heavily armed men break into the facility, they do not steal the wealth of weightless materials around them. They are after something far more valuable: the graviton research that started it all. With the fate of the planet at stake, one lone researcher must stop them at any cost, even if it means casting off the moorings that hold the facility to the ground.

The misinformation perpetuation

teleportation

In a previous post, I spoke about how essential communication was to the survival of our species. In the critical stages of our evolution, when humans were few in number and they could not glean information from a device in their pocket, misinformation meant death. Give someone the wrong directions, and they will walk into a swamp or get turned around in a frozen tundra. Inadequately describe an edible mushroom or berry, and the next time you go check on your neighbor, you’ll find them dead. These instances still occur today, but less frequently due to the ease at which we can access validated information. But this has also made us lazy and we often assume information comes from a reliable source.

In Science-

Misinformation in research journals has a toxic effect on science. All it takes is one publication to slip through the cracks and suddenly, anyone who reads that article and doesn’t know better, will now be a source of misinformation to the rest of their colleagues. Misrepresentation of a biological process, data fabrication, misuse of terminology, or even a misinterpretation of a theory, can spread unchecked in scientific journals until it becomes an epidemic. Billions of dollars have been wasted on the experiments that resulted from this misinformation.

In Movies-

In the entertainment industry, this isn’t called misinformation, it’s called ‘artistic license,’ and it gives the industry the ability to alter, fabricate, and withhold any and all information for the sake of entertainment. Everyone who has watched a movie will have seen a 5 gram bullet knock a 90,000 gram individual back a few yards. Aren’t grenades supposed to explode in a huge fireball? Of course we all know that heroes can dodge every single bullet shot at them, that scientists can cure every disease with just a microscope, and that sound is easily carried through the vacuum of space. These examples have the desired dramatic effect, but don’t we owe it to our audience to avoid perpetuating these inaccuracies?

In Writing-

There is a lot of misinformation between writers that is given in the form of advice. Many new authors will hear this information and treat it as fact and be very vocal about ‘the rules’ on most writing forum. We have all heard the writing rules, but the truth is, there are none. Writing is very subjective. Unless you write in a made-up language, or completely disregard grammar, you will likely find someone who is interested in your book. What works for some might not work for others. Even this writing advice is completely subjective. Separating fact from opinion is much more difficult in this industry than in science. It is generally a good idea to listen to the advice and learn ‘the rules,’ even if all you intend to do is break them.

How to overcome misinformation-

What do you do if your entire plot is built on inaccurate science? Despite my assertions that many things can be explainable with science and that writers don’t have to break the laws of reality in order to achieve their plot goals, there are certain things you can’t explain with science, but work as decent plot devices. For example, there is no possible way for a mutation to cause an individual to grow fur, muscles, and claws within seconds. Biology doesn’t work that fast on the macro scale. But then we wouldn’t have werewolves. There is no scientific basis for telekinesis or turning a deck of playing cards into flying explosives, but then you wouldn’t have the X-men. Warp drives, or anything that can travel faster than light, violates causality and many laws of physics, but it is the only way to move spaceships quickly from one star-system to another. So, depending on where you stand in the hard or soft sci-fi category, your plot might be limited by the laws of science.

When writing other forms of fiction, however, research and accuracy rarely limits your creativity. Not only will readers appreciate your adherence to fact, many will have learned something. When a reader recognizes an incorrect statement in your book, they will be shaken out of the story. Some reader will even think less of you, especially if it concerns something they are passionate about. If your main character is a lineman who repairs power lines for a living, make sure you research their standard practices and the correct terminology. If you have a character hack a database, make sure you actually use correct computer terms and give plausible scenarios. Anything from the process of making cheese to the appearance of a flame in zero gravity, make sure you have the facts, because chances are someone will know more than you. This is why they say to “write what you know,” because that is the tried and tested method to write a believable story. This doesn’t mean I should only write stories about a caffeine-addicted scientist who spends way too much time on the computer, it means I should educate myself on a topic before writing about it.

The higher purpose of a writer-

People read books for entertainment, but shouldn’t they gain more than a few hours of enjoyment? Teaching your readers something is easy if it is done right. Long paragraphs explaining the mechanics of an internal combustion engine will have your readers dozing, but a dialogue between father and son as they work on a common hobby will feel more natural and realistic. Better yet, have the son damage the engine, and show the suspenseful process of him trying to repair it before his father comes home. Your reader might not even realize that they’ve learned something.

If you point out the what-ifs, things that might actually happen given our current understanding of the world, you can inspire your reader as well as educate them. In my opinion, that is where speculative fiction is at its best. Ever since the ideas of space elevators, solar sails, ion engines, and hover cars were popularized, huge advances in research and engineering have brought them so much closer to becoming a reality. Many of the scientists I know today are big science fiction fans, and many of them entered the field because books and movies first inspired them to learn more and to create something. How disheartening would it have been for them to make it all this way only to find out that the thing that inspired them had no basis in science or reality, that it was based on fabricated information and flawed from the start.

I originally created this blog to help encourage others to look to science to inspire their writing, but another major hope of mine is that their writing will inspire science. Putting science aside, the accurate portrayal of events, the coverage of a controversial subjects, and calls for change, can all inspire action in your readers. That is how we as writers can effect real change in the world.

The science of magic

magic and scienceI have a secret to confess: 90% of the books I read are fantasy. I can hear it now: “But you always stress the importance of scientific accuracy. Magic isn’t real.”
I know, I know, but I still hold fantasy to the same standards as sci-fi. While magic will never be scientifically plausible, it must still operate logically, with rules and limitations. The only difference between these genres is that the author defines the laws, not a scientist. But once defined, those laws should not be broken. Magic without limitations is just as bothersome to me as inaccurately portrayed science. A wizard who can make an obstacle disappear with a wave of his wand is no different than a star-ship captain who uses a fancy DHTMB (doohickey-thingamabob) to vaporize an obstacle.

I enjoy fantasy for the same reason as everyone else, to be taken out of our world and go on a narrated tour of the fantastical. But magic should still have logical consistency, otherwise it’s impossible for me to get fully immersed in the story. Don’t get me wrong, I can still enjoy fantasy books without a strict magical system, but my enjoyment is of other things like the characters, the setting, and the writing style. In those books, I am indifferent to the magic; it doesn’t add anything for me. If all you need is a magic word and a wand to solve all your problems, I might be envious, but I won’t relate to the story. Writers that create a magical system complete with strengths and weaknesses, and explain what is possible and what is not, immerse me in the story much more effectively. In order to pretend magic is real, I must first understand it.

 

I am a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson, largely because of his originality, but also because of his firm grasp on what makes magic enjoyable and captivating. He has created a set of laws that can help writers create a believable magical system:

Magic is defined as soft or hard magic in Sanderson’s first law. This is much like soft or hard sci-fi. Soft magic does not follow any set of laws and can’t easily be predicted. It is mysterious and capable of almost anything. Hard magic is well-defined, and has logical limitations. I tend to think of soft magic as a background feature in a character driven story, something the author uses to nudge them in a certain direction or patch up any holes in the plot (my words, not Sanderson’s). Hard magic is integral to plot and setting, something the main character must understand and use wisely in order to overcome obstacles. Neither have to follow the laws of science, but one is more defined than the other.

The second law is a law of limitations, where magic has weaknesses and strengths, i.e. there should be a cost to using such power. By Sanderson’s estimation, the best magical systems have more limitations than power. This is another way to make a magical system logical, for there is no such thing as action without consequence, and no such thing as infinite power.

Another way to infuse logic into a magical system is to follow Sanderson’s third law. Sanderson tells us to think through the consequences of the magic we have created, to try to think of how it will affect the world. If everyone has the ability to fly, I’m pretty sure they won’t be driving cars to work in the morning, or waiting around in airports. If everyone lives forever, there will probably be strict rules on procreation to prevent overpopulation. There is nothing more jarring to a reader than a contradiction. Making the laws simple will also help limit confusion, and keep it from becoming a tangled mess.

Logical magical systems are something I have been striving to create in my own writing. The magic in Agony’s Fire is very simple, but it can be used in countless ways. It is based on a single premise, that in a place devoid of time, space, and matter, there is nothing to stop anything from coming into being. In this place, a simple possibility can make it a reality. However, nothing made in this Void can enter our reality unless it follows all of its laws. Therefore, the user must have a perfect understanding of what he/she is trying to create in order to bring it into existence. Because the human brain is so limited, my characters have only managed to create the simplest form of energy: heat. So far. But heat can’t be created from nothing. The energy used to create fire is pulled from the mind of the user, where the possibility and understanding of fire originated. Likewise, you can pull energy from the world into the Void, and to balance that loss, the energy is placed back into the individual’s mind. It is a magic that can be used in many creative ways, but one that is also limiting. They can heighten their emotions, senses, cognition (which I term the Agonies and Sanities) when drawing energy from the world to create cold, or they can give some of it up to create fire, hence the title Agony’s fire. Pull in too much energy from the world and they can have a seizure, but give too much energy to the world and they can lose consciousness, or worse, their sanity. This magic has also created a society of people who wish to learn, for only in understanding something completely will they be able to create it.

I would encourage you all to write down the laws of your magic and summarize them like I just did. If they are noticeably fickle laws, and they fall into the realm of soft magic, then perhaps there is a way to strengthen them. Sanderson’s laws are a great template to start from. But the logical consistency of magic and science is just a small part of what readers are looking for in a book, so if it becomes too monumental a task, make sure to focus your energies on good writing, powerful plots, and believable characters.