Worlds While U Wait

There’s a scene in the 2nd or 3rd Star Trek movie, I forget which one, where some sort of high-tech projectile is launched at a barren planet. In a burst of light, the planetary surface springs to life. A fully functioning biosphere arises in the twinkling of an eye.

The technical term for this transformation is “terraforming.” A planet is made to resemble the Earth (Latin terra). The advantages of terraforming for human interstellar travelers are obvious: If you can turn any old rocky planet into a Garden of Eden, the galaxy is your oyster. (And we’re going to sidle away from that image without examining it too closely.)

For that reason, terraforming is a popular topic in science fiction novels. Kim Stanley Robinson had, I believe, a success with his trilogy on the terraforming of Mars. I dropped out halfway through the first book when I hit a scene where it became painfully obvious that Robinson didn’t understand the mechanics of lighter-than-air travel using a balloon or dirigible. If he didn’t know how balloons work, I figured, he wasn’t going to be much use on the science of terraforming Mars. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the subject of terraforming is a rich source of story ideas.

Unfortunately for authors, terraforming is about three orders of magnitude more difficult than you think it is. And that’s probably true no matter how difficult you think it is.

Finding a planet of suitable size whose orbit is at the right distance from its primary to provide a surface between the freezing and boiling points of water isn’t even the start of the difficulties. The planet is going to need an iron core that’s rotating in relation to the surface. Why? Because the magnetic field generated by the core is what keeps life on the surface from being toasted by cosmic rays. If the planet doesn’t already have a rotating iron core, there is no conceivable technology that could create one, so your terraformers may have to hunt for a while to find a planet that’s a good candidate.

Nor are cosmic rays the only source of toasting. Your planet is going to need an ozone layer high in the atmosphere to screen out the ultraviolet light.

But let’s not worry about that yet. Ozone is made of oxygen, and you haven’t got any oxygen. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis. In order to put free oxygen in the atmosphere, you’re going to need plants — or, at the very least, cyanobacteria. But let’s not worry about that yet. First you need water. Billions of tons of water.

Our best theory about where the water on Earth came from is that there’s water in comets, and early in Earth’s history (like, four billion years ago), the surface was being bombarded by comets. This is a very reasonable theory. Science fiction writers may therefore want to imagine that terraforming a world (either Mars or one in another solar system) will involve steering a whole bunch of comets in from the outer edges of the solar system and crash-landing them on the planet. Computing the proper trajectory so as to get a comet to hit a planet is fairly trivial, even for a 21st century computer. But first you have to find the comets, and then you have to propel them.

The amount of rocket propellant required would be non-trivial. If your shipload of intrepid explorers is in some other solar system, they definitely won’t have brought along the amount of rocket propellant required. Whether it’s even possible to travel by rocket to another solar system is very doubtful, so your novel is going to have to propose some form of magic physics, both to move your explorers’ ship and to then move the comets.

The comets, even after you find them and aim them in toward the inner part of the solar system, won’t arrive for some years. Until they arrive, the terraforming can’t even begin.

Once you have a planetary surface swimming in fresh ocean, what are you going to do? Our current technology is not able to build even a single living cell from scratch. To design an entire ecosystem, which will of necessity contain millions upon millions of species (many of them microbes), is not something that contemporary science can even imagine. And to drop the entire ecosystem down on the planet at once, trillions of tons of living organisms — living earthworms, living insects to pollinate the living plants, living bacteria to fix the nitrogen in the plants’ roots — oh, wait. We forgot the part about the oxygen. Your plants and earthworms are about to be toasted by the ultraviolet radiation. You have to make gazillions of tons of oxygen before you initiate the cycle of seeding living organisms. How are you going to do that?

If you can wait a couple of billion years, this stuff gets a lot easier. Life on Earth has been around for at least 3.5 billion years. But for the first 2 billion years and more, it was all single-celled life. There weren’t even any jellyfish yet. Multicelled life appeared on Earth only around 500 million years ago. And even then, the evolution of vertebrates who could live on land proceeded very, very slowly.

I’m not saying that terraforming is impossible. I’m saying merely that it would require Godlike powers. If your interstellar travelers bear even the faintest resemblance culturally or technologically to the familiar humans you meet on the street, forget it. There is no conceivable technology with which any alien species, much less humans, could produce a livable planet in less than a thousand years or so, and even that vastly accelerated process would be so filled with pitfalls that your Godlike aliens would surely have to work the kinks out by trying and failing multiple times.

This is why I write fantasy rather than science fiction. Science fiction is too hard.

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In Fact It’s a Gas!

The other day I started thinking it might be fun to write a steampunk novel. Steampunk, for those who are standing out on the sidewalk with their noses pressed against the glass, is a sub-genre of science fiction. The typical setting for steampunk is Victorian England, and typically a story is tricked out with fantastic clockwork gadgets and gigantic machinery. Electronics are strictly forbidden. There’s not much punk in steampunk, but there’s a lot of steam.

The collection of steampunk at my local library is spotty, but not too bad. I grabbed a stack of books and started doing a little market research. A persistent thread running through many of these books, I discovered, is the airship. It’s not hard to see why. The airship is charmingly retro, it’s impressively large, and it moves in a slow, dreamy, dignified way. The dirigible is a perfect icon for steampunk.

So I started doing a little research on lighter-than-air flying craft.

My curse as a writer is that I like things to make sense. I don’t care much for ideas that defy the laws of physics. I’ve written stories about elves, and unicorns, and ghosts, but those are just magic premises suitable for fantasy. Once you have a race of elves, they’re subject to the laws of physics just like everything else.

What I quickly discovered is that there’s a reason why, in our own world, blimps and dirigibles are not widely used as aircraft. They’re just not very practical.

For a lifting agent, you have three choices — hydrogen, helium, or hot air. Hydrogen provides the best lift, and it’s cheap and readily available, but it’s also very dangerous, because it’s highly flammable. Given the slightest provocation, a big bag of hydrogen has a tendency to burst into flame.

Helium is not quite as good a lifting agent, but it’s pretty good. It’s also scarce and expensive. Those party balloons you just bought at the store really ought to be illegal, because helium is useful stuff, and we have no way to manufacture any more. When the Earth’s supply of helium is gone, it’s gone.

Hot air is cheap and safe, but it’s a less efficient lifting agent. Because it’s less efficient, your gondola (the thing hanging under the gas bag) can’t carry as much. The gondola has to carry fuel for the burner that provides the hot air, of course. If you also want some kind of propeller, so as to control what direction you’re flying, that’s going to take fuel too. And then there’s the crew, the weight of the gondola itself, and the sandbags that you’re carrying for ballast so you can cut them loose if you need more altitude in a hurry. In the end, you won’t be able to carry much in the way of freight or passengers. Hot air balloons are fine for a spectacular ride at the state fair, but they’re just not a good method of transportation.

As a writer of steampunk, you’re faced with a few stark choices. You can ignore all this nitpicking — just go ahead and write about ironclad airships with mounted cannon, and trust that your readers will be so thrilled they won’t know or won’t care. You can invent a new type of safe hydrogen, though that violates the laws of physics. Or you can dispense with airships altogether and make do with steamships and railroad trains.

Personally, I lean toward option 3. The trouble is, readers of steampunk want to be thrilled. They want to discover visionary wonders of Victorian technology! A steampunk novel with no mechanical marvels is certainly possible in a literary sense, but it would be at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble book publishing market.

Still chewin’ on this dilemma. Not sure what I’ll end up with.

Maybe Next Year

I cringed when I saw the cover of the new issue of Scientific American. Trying to predict what technology will be like 50, 100, 0r 150 years in the future is a parlor game, not a serious intellectual exercise.

To understand why, you need only read a little 1950s-era science fiction. The predictions made by the authors about what the 21st century would be like were not just wrong — they were wildly, spectacularly wrong, by turns far too bold and not nearly bold enough.

My favorite example is Isaac Asimov’s early stories about robots. He built his robots’ brains using vacuum tubes, because the transistor hadn’t yet been invented, much less the IC chip. And yet, sixty or seventy years down the line, we still don’t have autonomous thinking machines of the kind Asimov envisioned. He had not the shadow of a clue about the real technological difficulties over which he was leapfrogging.

The migration of humans to colonies in space has been a staple of science fiction for close to a century, yet none of the authors who have written about it has come close to grappling with the real issues, which are probably more economic than technological, though the technological challenges are beyond imagining. And yet, here is Scientific American blathering about “starship humanity.”

Dissecting the rosy vision of space exploration in this article would be an amusing exercise, but it would take days. There’s a howler in almost every paragraph. Author Cameron Smith imagines Read more

Fantasy Unchained

I’ve written seven novels. The first two were published; the other five haven’t been. Three of those five my agent (who I guess is now my former agent, more or less) declined even to try to market. He didn’t feel they were commercially viable, and he may have been right. It’s very possible that my stories aren’t gripping enough to provoke excitement among hard-to-impress publisher types.

Even so, every few years I get the itch to try it again. Right now I’m sketching some ideas for a fantasy novel. The idea of writing another less-than-publishable book, however, fails to stir me. If I’m going to put all that work into developing a story, I’d like to believe, or hope, that other people might enjoy reading it too.

To that end, I thought I’d do a little survey of what’s going on in the fantasy field. I have my own favorite authors, but they’re not necessarily representative. Terry Pratchett sells like gangbusters, but I have no interest in writing like Terry Pratchett. Tim Powers I happen to like a lot, but I don’t think he’s a hot seller.

Poking around on the Web, I made a list of about 20 authors of epic fantasy series, folks who seem to be selling decent quantities of books. Hard sales figures are not readily available, but given that there are 14 books in Robert Jordan’s series, it’s a reasonable bet that the publisher was happy with the sales of volumes 3, 4, 5, and so on.

I approve of writers’ habit of putting the first chapter of a book up on their website. It gives me a reasonable glimpse both of what the book may be like and — more important — what elements these writers feel will draw in fantasy readers.

One strategy, in books that aren’t the first volume in a series, seems to be Read more

Eye Candy

Last night I watched the first half of Avatar on DVD. I’m not sure I’ll watch the second half.

It’s visually stunning, of course. Breathtaking. But the story … feh.

For starters, there’s the unobtainium. Terrible name for a mineral — straight out of DC Comics. Either unobtainium is an element (which it can’t very well be), or it’s a molecule. If it’s a molecule, synthesizing it from its atomic constituents is simply bound to be a thousand times cheaper than sending out starships and maintaining a base on another planet.

We need also to ask, how can a gigantic economic demand ever develop for a substance that is so rare as to make this mining operation profitable? Consider the case of aluminum: It’s extremely useful stuff, but it was also extremely rare — more precious than gold — until a way was found, in the 19th century, to extract pure aluminum from bauxite. Until aluminum became cheap, there was no demand for it!

Considering the scope of an interstellar mining operation, unobtainium would have to be worth at least Read more

Trapped in Amber

In a couple of weeks I’ll be moving, so I’ve been putting my books in boxes. 45 boxes. I got down to the Z’s in the science fiction section, and box 44 was full, and the Roger Zelazny novels were still on the shelf. So I sat down and started reading the Amber series.

I think I have the original edition paperbacks. All five volumes, published in the ’70s. Black covers. The paper is yellowing by now. I must have read them at the time … or maybe not. I tended in those days to start things and then get distracted. I remember only a few bits and pieces from the first three books.

The story kept me turning the pages, I’ll say that for it. This time, I read all five books straight through. And yet, at the end, I find myself very dissatisfied. The Amber saga is flimsy. For the benefit of any writer who might stumble onto this blog while contemplating (or actually developing) a fantasy series, here are a few Read more

Bibliophilia

I wish I had a lot more time to read. I own hundreds and hundreds of books, some of which I’ve been carting around for 30 or 40 years. Don’t remember a thing about some of them except that I enjoyed them. It would be nice to sit down for a few years and just read.

And not just the old books, either. I’d love to buy lots of new ones.

I generally read the Resnick/Malzberg column in the SFWA Bulletin, and this month they were talking about specialty publishers — small houses that are supporting the history of science fiction by keeping classics in print. So today I have an itch to rush out and buy all the science fiction I can find. It’s a mild form of mania — a raw desire to buy thousands of books simply because it would be so cool to own them! Complete collections of Heinlein, Sturgeon, Poul Anderson, and a host of other visionaries. I’ve got most of the Philip Dick paperbacks … but maybe I’m missing a few!

I won’t do it, of course. I wouldn’t have time to read them all, and I’m not rich enough to indulge such whims purely for the sake of having a well-stocked private library. Besides, a lot of the old science fiction wasn’t actually very good. Reading it would be in the nature of a research project — to find out what ideas were amazing or trendy in 1950, and what cultural blind spots the writers wallowed in without knowing it.

Some of the cultural blind spots are interesting. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of SF in which everybody was having happy sex with everybody else (or at least, with everybody else of the opposite sex). STDs weren’t even a blip on the radar, and nor was the importance of long-term pair-bonding to emotional health.

But I’d still like to own all those books!

Reading: Connie Willis

Many years ago I was knocked out by Doomsday Book, Connie Willis’s novel of time travel to the dark days of the Black Plague. But then I tried another of her books, found it disappointingly shallow, and gave up on her.

This month I decided to give her another shot. I borrowed To Say Nothing of the Dog from the library, rolled up my metaphorical pant legs, and waded in.

Imagine a Victorian sitcom. Imagine Lucy and Ethel wandering around in Victorian England, trying to fix up a mixup that just gets worse and worse.

The history department at Oxford is using a time machine to travel back from 2057 to 1940 in order to do a blazingly trivial bit of research (the whereabouts of a spectacularly ugly vase that vanished during the Nazi bombing of Coventry Cathedral). But there are complications, so the narrator takes a detour Read more

Reading: The Dragons of Babel

Elves, centaurs, dragons, trolls, witches, hippogriffs, and other creatures even more fantastical throng through Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel. But it isn’t what you’re thinking. Swanwick has taken classic fantasy and mythology and done a cheerfully brutal mash-up with the seamier elements of our own modern world. There’s plenty of technology (from cigarette lighters to subway trains with electrical third rails), explicit sex, and casual profanity, not to mention overt references to actual historical figures like Mozart and Flaubert.

The first 2/3 of the novel seems almost picaresque — young Will is wandering through the world without much direction, falling in with whoever he meets, getting into trouble, falling in love, and so on. But Swanwick has a deeper design. Eventually the story is revealed as a modern expression of one of the timeless fantasy themes.

I’m not even going to tell you which theme, because that would spoil it. This book is a winner. If you’re looking for something fresh in the fantasy genre, you won’t want to miss it.

Video: Battlestar

I never saw the original BattleStar Galactica series. The new series looks pretty good, though it’s far from flawless. Last night I watched the pilot miniseries, which is essentially a 3-hour movie. I’ll try a few more episodes before making up my mind.

Script: Pretty good. Plenty of human elements, and it’s always nice to have Truly Evil Bad Guys that you can love to hate. I love seeing a woman fighter pilot who (though apparently heterosexual) smokes cigars with evident enjoyment.

What the Cylon sexpot is doing inside Gaius’s brain is a bit hard to decipher. Why the Cylons would build a new Cylon race that was all but biologically identical to the humans — mystifying. What the Cylon was doing lurking in the weapons depot — even more mystifying.

Effects/animation: Very good. Marred mainly by a few concessions to what TV viewers will expect to see. The fighter spacecraft look way too much like conventional jet fighters — and when we see a profile of a pilot in the cockpit, the stars in the background are whipping past! This is just wrong. The stars would appear stationary unless the craft were spinning rapidly, in which case it would be out of control.

Casting: As Commander Adama, Edward James Olmos looks the way Captain Kirk should have looked, but didn’t. Too bad Olmos can’t act. He seems to have only one facial expression: craggy.

And speaking of Star Trek, when Galactica is hit by enemy fire in the final battle … you guessed it, everybody on the bridge staggers sideways and falls down, and sparks fly from the control panels. We have so been here before.

But overall, it’s not too bad.