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Author’s Answer 135

Hello, been a while since we had one of these.

Question 135 – What is your biggest writing failure?

I have a lot of ideas, and tend to start a lot of different projects at once. I’m not sure if it is a failure or a good thing. Let me explain: I have dozens of novels started. Some of them are in my head, others written down in part. Not finishing them before starting a new one is something of a failure. I’d like to get them all written eventually, I just keep coming up with more…

Click here to read the rest on I Read Encyclopedias for Fun.

Startravel and FTL (Books)

 

 

 

 

 

Hello, everyone. This week I’m exploring the idea of travelling to other stars, a staple of science fiction. There are many possible ways of doing this, and I’m going to try to take a quick look at each one.

FTL

FTL refers to faster-than-light, the idea that the speed of light is not the fastest anything can travel. Most authors are very dismissive of this concept, mostly because they don’t understand Einstein as well as they think they do. Einstein’s theories (not laws) suggest that the speed of light is absolute, through a given medium. We have been able to slow light down to a crawl in laboratory experiments. We observe distant galaxies moving faster than light, which we attribute to space expanding, which doesn’t violate any theories or laws. We have also seen things break the lightspeed barrier.

Cherenkov radiation. This is the radiation emitted when a charged particle, usually an electron, passes through a dialectic medium at a speed faster than the phase velocity of light through that medium. Basically the maximum speed of light is determined by the medium it is traveling through. Physics tells us light speed is the fastest anything can travel through a given medium. Cherenkov radiation occurs when something breaks that rule. This isn’t science fiction, folks; this is real. The blue glow in the picture above is caused by electrons moving faster than light through water.

Now, I’m not saying things can move faster than the absolute limit of light we’ve observed, but it should be pointed out that we have only ever observed light from inside a gravity well. We don’t know for certain that the speed of light through the interstellar medium is the same as it is here. We need to get outside the solar system and observe. Maybe then we’ll begin to understand our universe a little bit better.

I don’t know of any modern science fiction stories which ignore Einstein, although it was more common when he was still alive. The only ones I can think of offhand are the stories of E.E. “Doc” Smith, which were being written around the time Einstein was gaining acceptance.


The Lensman series, on the surface, ignores Einstein and gets a bit of ridicule because of that. But the stories don’t, not really. The Berganholm drive of Lensman is a drive that negates the inertia of the craft so that the engines can push it faster and faster. Einstein’s theory tell us that an object can never achieve the speed of light because mass and energy are the same thing, and as an object travels faster, it has more potential energy, so it has more mass, so it requires more energy to propel it faster, and so on. However, if it doesn’t gain energy from traveling faster (inertia-less) then it could travel as fast as the engines could push it. Right? Well, maybe not, but it does a better job of hand-waving (handwavium) than most science fiction. Not to mention that the stories are just damn fun.


Warp Drive

This was a convenient piece of handwavium in Star Trek until someone came along and said: “Why not?” Star Trek uses the warp drive to get from star system to star system. The drive bends space around the ship, technically sending it into warp space, which is kind of like hyperspace (I’ll get to that) but not really. Roddenberry wasn’t a scientist; he was just a really big fan who made it big. However, the idea of warp travel inspired a real scientist, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, to try and work out the physics behind a drive of this type. What he came up with is being called the Alcubierre drive. Basically it warps space by compressing the fabric of spacetime in front of the ship and pushing it away behind the ship. This means that the ship moves over a shorter distance through space and doesn’t violate any rules along the way. For example, if the drive works at 1:4 compression, then four light years could be compressed and traveled over like one light year. I’m sure you can see how this would be useful. The only problem is the math required the total energy annihilation of a Jupiter-sized planet to make it work. Not something very practical.

NASA’s Alcubierre

The scientists over at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) liked the idea but not the execution, so they spent a couple of decades trying to make it better. They did. They came up with a new version of the drive in simulations that only requires the mass energy of a Volkswagen Beetle. Much more practical. They are currently working on getting this thing into operation, and also to refine the engine to use less power. They came this far in two decades. What will we have in one or two more?


Spacefold, Fold, and Jump Drives

This idea is taken from our knowledge of space being wrinkled up and not the smooth sheet of classical physics. I’m not sure who first came up with the idea, but it is best described in the 1958 novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’m sure you’ve all heard his explanation, either in Interstellar, Stanger Things, or elsewhere, but I’ll go ahead and mention it for those who aren’t sure. Take a piece of paper and draw two points on it, the star where you are and the star where you want to go. The paper is spacetime.  Draw a line across it. It takes lightyears to travel between the two stars. Now fold the paper so the two points line up. Jab the pencil through the paper. The hole is the fastest way between the two points, not the line across spacetime.

There is nothing is modern physics that says this can’t be done, and a few things that suggest it can. A subset of this would be wormhole travel, which basically does the same thing. Some other books which make use of this are Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Falcon by Emma Bull, and my own stories, where I use several different drives. I have seven methods of interstellar travel in my stories, because I figure that if it works, someone will be using it.


Hyperdrives

The idea behind hyperdrives is that there is a layer (or layers) of reality  that are beyond and yet congruent with our spacetime. Imagine another spacetime that is smaller, or where the speed of light is different. You travel at normal speed in hyperspace for a light-month, pop out into realspace, and you have traveled ten lightyears. Cool concept, and not beyond current theoretical physics. Possibly the least likely drive, but real enough that it can be backed up with some physics from hyperspace theory (a real thing) and brane or m-theory (membrane theory) that uses real observation and a lot of math to explain what science fiction authors like to throw into stories because it is cool and convenient. Some notable examples are the Babylon 5 TV series, the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber, This Alien Shore (amazing story) by C.S. Friedman,  and my own stories, where hyperdrive is the most common type of drive.


There are many other types of drives in fiction. Asimov had a cool story where the AI pilot of the starship goes insane because, just for moment during the jump, the human crew and passengers are neither alive nor dead, causing some serious confliction with the Laws of Robotics.

For non-FTL solutions, there are generation ships, solar sails, cold sleep, stasis pods, Von Neumann devices… The list is endless. Ask me in the comments if you want to know more about any of these.

Book Review: Invader, Foreigner Book Two – by C. J. Cherryh

No Author’s Answers this week, so we’ll do something a little different.

As strange as it may seem, I have only just started reading this series. Weaver has been trying to get me read it for years, but I resisted because I had read some C. J. Cherryh books in the past that I didn’t care for.

This was a mistake.

So far, of the first trilogy, I have enjoyed this book the most. I feel this is where Cherryh really hit her stride. I’m looking forward to reading the others.

For anyone who loves anthropology and linguistics, they will love this book. A huge part of it tied up in the study of the Atevi people. The natives of the planet human has colonized. The plot is mostly political, which I usually don’t enjoy, but it works here. Cherryh really shows just alien a mind can be because of a different culture. This is something I encountered when I first began to study anthropology. If you truly learn about a culture enough to become a part of it, you will forever be an outsider in the culture of your birth.

I highly recommend the series, and this book in particular, to anyone with an interest in reading a truly well thought out alien race. Granted the Atevi aren’t really that different physically, but that just helps illustrate the differences in culture and psychology.

The Kardashev Scale

Some of you may be asking what is the Kardashev Scale and why is this guy talking about it. Good questions. I’ll try to answer both.

First, I’d like to point out that the scale was a thought exercise by a Russian astrophysicist, Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. It originally had four levels, and has since been expanded to six. It is not an absolute law of the universe, it is just a convenient way to look at and understand civilizations based on energy consumption. I find it useful as a writer so that I can understand the civilizations in my stories.

Type Zero – Planet bound

This is us, the human race. Yes, our technology is so pathetic we haven’t even really gotten onto the scale yet. Some scientists believe that if we survive long enough, we’ll move into Type One in the next century or two. The present reliance on inefficient fossil fuels is holding us back. We need better power sources, and we need them soon.

All of human evolution, science, philosophy, technology, everything, has been at the bottom of the scale. One of the hardest things for people who are beginning to study anthropology to understand is how we went from something much like a chimpanzee to where we are now in just a few million years. The most startling evolution of our species has been in the last fifty thousand years.

That is so short in evolutionary terms. To understand that, you need to understand evolution, which is probably a whole blog post in itself, and you need to understand what technology really is and how it has driven us. Our ancestors banged rocks together and created the first tools. Since then, technology has driven our evolution. The creation of tools gave them an advantage. Making and using better tools was also an advantage. Technology selected humans for evolution. We made tools and tools made us. Keep that in mind as we explore what future technology might look like.


Type One – Planetary

This level of civilization utilizes the energy output of a star. We need to produce or collect a hundred thousand times the energy we have available now to be at this level. A Type One civilization would almost certainly have control of the natural processes of its home world. Most futuristic science fiction sits at this level. This is the level of science of most of the civilizations in my novels, with a couple of notable exceptions, of course. Think of the Krell from Forbidden Planet. Technology without instrumentality, right at the bottom of the scale. What would this do our evolution? Would we stop evolving or evolve even faster? There is no easy answer, but one thing is certain, we would be forever changed.


Type Two – Stellar

You thought Dyson sphere (not the vacuum) civilizations were pretty awesome, but they are near the bottom of the scale. At this level a civilization can control the energy of entire stellar system. Enclosing stars, and even moving planets is available with this much power. If you’ve read E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman, you’ll be familiar with an early idea of this level of civilization. They would probably feel like the ultimate masters of fate, and yet, they have so much to learn, so far to go. Would they even be recognizable to those Type Zero civilizations? Maybe not.


Type Three – Galactic

I know some of you may be asking if this isn’t the scale of the Galactic Patrol in Lensman. No. No, it isn’t. None of those civilizations harnessed the power of an entire galaxy. You’ll need to read some books by Stephen Baxter to see this in action. Some theories about civilizations at this scale propose networks of Dyson spheres linked to bring power back to a home system. The scale is staggering, as are the implications of technology. The technology would really be pushing evolution faster at this point, and we are only halfway along.


Type Four – Universal

These civilizations would harness the power of an entire universe. Possibilities include harnessing the expansion of the universe for power. They would have technology that would look like magic to us, and they aren’t even at the top of the scale. I won’t linger here, I think most civilizations that reach this point won’t either. Surely with much power, knowledge, and technology, a civilization will expand into other universes.


Type Five – Multiverse

What does this even look like? A civilization that harnesses not just the power of its own universe, but of other universes as well. They might even harness the power of all of them. All universes. They would seem as gods to us. We couldn’t understand their technology even if we could communicate with them. This is one of the subjects I explore in my books. What would this look like? What would they be like? How long can they stay at this level? How would evolution have shaped them?


For most purposes, anything beyond Type One is pointless to even think about, but it is fun, isn’t it?

Author’s Answers 134

Here are my answers to the question “How do you organize your notes?”

Notes? What notes? Just kidding. I have folders of organized files sorted, by series: people, places, types of starships, terms, technology, races, star charts, names of starships, stages of civilization, types of travel, travel times, time dilation, backstories, additional misc. notes, deleted scenes, weapons, and lots of other stuff. I’m a junkie for notes.

I don’t do notes on plot. I figure out what general story I want to tell, and who I want to experience it. I then write the first scene with that person, then figure out where I want to go along the way. It is a very organic process. I do a lot of writing in my head.


Please go to the blog and read all of the other excellent answers to this question – I Read Encyclopedias For Fun

Powered Armor in Science Fiction (Books)

As some of you may have guessed from reading my stories, I’m a fan of advanced armor for soldiers in science fiction. I’m talking today about the types of armor, specifically strength-augmenting armor. There are four major types to be found in science fiction, specifically books. These have shown up in movies and video games, but I’m focusing on origins in fiction. Which is not to say I won’t mention a game, movie, or comic if it is appropriate.

Soft Armor. These are essentially tight fitting spacesuits that have some degree of strength augmentation, usually in the form of reflex plastics or, in older works, hydraulic exoskeletons. The skin of these suits is usually something like Kevlar, flexible metal mesh, or reflex plastics with piezo-electric sensors designed to harden the material under impact. The strength augmentation is usually very low, mainly just enough to compensate for the weight of the suit. These are mostly found in near-future science fiction.

Open-Air Powered Armor. These are essentially just a hydraulic exoskeleton worn over conventional ballistic armor or even just clothes or uniforms. While not really armor itself, it is still a staple of near future science fiction. I felt it warranted a mention here, because it does augment the wearer’s strength.

Piloted Suits (Mecha). Some authors have written about armor that is actually just a small walker talk instead of something worn. These are usually called mechs. The pilot sits in the torso of the vehicle and controls it in various ways, from mind-impulse to levers and pedals. The smallest of these stand only four or five meters, while the largest are sometimes as large as skyscrapers. Personally, I like the smaller ones. The larger ones just seem to vulnerable to heavy weapons, missiles, and nukes.

Cybernetic Powered Armor. These suits of armor are worn like a second skin by the user. Familiar to most people from the Iron Man movies, these have been a part of science fiction for far longer than people usually think. I use the term cybernetic because these suits are really just an extension of the of the soldier when worn. They augment the capabilities of the wearer with heightened strength, speed, protection, and senses.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll now talk a little about the history of powered armor in books, at least as I was exposed to and inspired by them. I highly recommend all of the following books if you haven’t read them. If you have, read them again. You’ll get different things from them at different points in your life, trust me.


The Lensman Series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. While the series as a whole has armored space suits, it is actually not until the fourth book Grey Lensman (originally serialized in Astounding in 1939) that we see the first cybernetic powered armor in science fiction. While somewhat primitive by modern standards, the armor that Kinnison wears really is astounding. It heavily armored, no vulnerable faceplate, strength augmented, and carries energy shields and heavy weapons. It is direct ancestor of powered armor in fiction and pre-dates Iron Man (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963) by twenty-four years! The story has psionics, wormholes (hyperspatial tubes), and other dimensions.  It influenced Robert A. Heinlein and many others, including myself.


Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein. The APE suits in this book are described as somewhere between powered armor and a piloted suit. These are arguably the origin of mecha in science fiction as it predates the first appearance in Japanese anime by four years and had a profound impact on science fiction as a whole. The story follows a members of the mobile infantry through his life and several battles. The suits carry a frightening array of weapons, up to and including Davy Crocket scale tactical nuclear weapons. Planet fall is made through orbital drop pods (a first) and the suits have heads-up displays (another first), and jump jets. The story is nothing like the terrible movie and well-worth reading. It also has a few characters with low-level psionics. It is worth noting that the armor of the video game Fallout 4 is very close to the APE suits as described in Starship Troopers.


The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman. This classic story is more about the effects of war on people and societies than about the war itself. That is not to say that it doesn’t have some very good combat sequences, it does. The powered armor of the novel is well thought out. In the novel it is not so much about armor, as strength amplification. The suits are armored plastic (plasteel), designed to be space suits that are more sturdy that the fabric ones today. The primary weapon is the laser finger, a built-in system that can be tuned to different levels of power and is used as both a weapon and a building tool. The story is unusual in that the ship are limited to light speed, but do use black holes (collapsars) to shortcut vast distances. Relativity is still a major problem, and the characters live thousands of objective years while only living through several subjective years. Drawing heavily on Haldeman’s experiences from the Vietnam War, The Forever War is an essential read for anyone who likes military science fiction for more than just war stories.


Armor (1984) by John Steakley. The author was asked if he had been inspired by Starship Troopers and responded “Borrowed hell, I outright stole it.” I don’t think that is a fair view of the novel. It owes much in the early part of the novel to Heinlein’s novel, but other then one scene, which I took as an homage, it is a brilliant war novel in its own right. The armor in the story is powerful, fusion-powered, with high strength augmentation. While the first half of the novel is non-stop action, it is more about the people fighting, than the war. It is a study on the effects of combat on people. The second half of the novel is really more about people who want to know about war stories. It is about how people try to live through other peoples memories. Granted, being science fiction, it is a little more literal than people asking inane questions like “how many people have you killed?” to soldiers. It also has a bit of the “be careful what you wish for” when asking questions. Also, I really love the original cover art.

 

 

In Which I am Interviewed by Fiona Mcvie

Here’s a little bit from the interview with the link to the full interview below.

Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
Well, my latest novel, Project Brimstone, the first of a new series, just launched at the beginning of May. I am currently working on the fourth novel for The Awakening series, titled Stars End.

Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
Hmm. That is a hard question. I’ve always been a storyteller. I told myself stories at night long before I got past my dyslexia and learned to read. I wrote my first novella in seventh grade; it wasn’t very good, as you may imagine. It was a tired little story about a space fighter pilot ending up in the future to help fight a war. I wrote for the RPG industry for a while in my twenties. Then, after my divorce, I decided to get serious about writing my own stories.

Full Interview

Psionics in Science Fiction

Psionics, in my books, is the science of understanding how the brain interacts with the underlying quantum reality of the universe. Readers will sometimes confuse it with a belief in psychism, which is often just a load of nonsense.

Psionics in science fiction is most often represented by mental powers such as telepathy, empathy, and teleportation. Given what we know about how the mind interacts with quantum reality, it isn’t outside the realm of speculation to assume a better understanding in the future. I often have characters with psionic abilities in my stories. I find it an interesting literary device. It lets me play with additional information within a tight-focus viewpoint when writing.

For example: Commander Hrothgar Tebrey (from The Awakening Series) is a psionic commando. He has spent years training, honing his mind to be sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of others. I try to show useful and harmful sides to his abilities. Yes, he can read minds. He also is effected by the emotions of those around him, for better or worse.

As strange as it may seem, there is actually a slight scientific basis for the idea of psionics. It can be seen in experiments with the basic particle of light, the photon.

For most of the last century there were arguments about whether light was a particle or a wave. The math worked for both. Scientists on both sides of the argument conduced repeatable experiments that proved they were right. Words got heated. Then they conducted the experiments together and things really got strange.

You see, light is either a particle or a wave depending upon the desire of the experimenter.

Yes, you read that right. Somehow the minds of the scientists were able to alter the fundamental nature of a photon. It is a fun experiment, I’ve done it myself in the lab. What we don’t know, is how the mind is able to interact with the photon. We know that it has something to do with the mind changing the probability wave of the photon. To me, this is where psionics comes in.

So, on to influences in my work. Below is a by no means comprehensive list of psionics in science fiction. It is just a list of the books I felt influenced me the most when it came time to include psionics in my own stories.


The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

This collection is actually the three novels Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. I read these first when I was ten, but have read them again most years since. I may have fallen in love with Lessa… The stories tell the tale of a colony of humans cut off from the rest of civilization and trying to survive on a planet that has some very unpleasant visitors sometimes… If you haven’t read these, I heartily suggest that you do, as they are excellently written, and a lot of fun. Psionics in the stories is low-key, mostly telepathy and empathy in a few rare individuals. The eponymous dragons of the stories are bioengineered from local wildlife and have the ability to teleport. There is also a thread (hah!)of archaeology in the stories as the descendants of the colonists attempt to rediscover their past. Most of that is in The White Dragon and All the Weyrs of Pern.


The Lensman Saga by E. E. “Doc” Smith

This series, which begins with Triplanetary, is simply epic in scale. It begins at the dawn of the galaxy and spans far into the future. Once you get to the third book, the timeline stops jumping forward by leaps and bounds and follows Kip Kinnison, a Lensman of the Galactic Patrol. Arguably space opera, these books nevertheless have many firsts. Atomic weapons (prior to WW2), huge space battles, psionics soldiers, the first powered armor I’ve ever come across in a story, and lots of aliens that aren’t really like humans at all, but are still treated as people. Robert A. Heinlein cited Smith as a direct influence, as have many authors since. You can see the influence of these books in many modern movies, such as Alien and Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, Green Lantern is a (bad) comic book version of the story! You’ll see these stories come up again when I talk about powered armor in a future post. 🙂 I really want a Grey Lensman outfit for a convention…


The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

This is an excellent story about teleportation and its impact on society. It is hard to talk about without giving away the plot, but imagine a world where people can teleport, and what that might mean… This is a great story with an unlikable character. It influenced Babylon 5 (Bester the psi cop?) and authors as far ranging as Roger Zelazny.

 


Falcon by Emma Bull

Falcon is about a lot of things, but at the core it is about a program to create pilots for starships where the pilot is also the engine. It has precognition, teleportation, empathy, and a few other abilities tastefully done. It is a great and under-read  novel. The story is told in two parts that seem unrelated at first. Keep reading. Like most stories by Emma Bull, the payoff is worth it.

 


The Foundation Series by Isaak Asimov

This series is a little dry by todays standards, but still a great piece of storytelling. It is the story of the long slow collapse of galactic civilization and the foundations that were established to try to bring it back after the fall. Truly epic in scale. This solid work of science fiction includes telepathy in the later books, and it is masterfully done.

 


Breed to Come by Andre Norton

This is a complex story (incidentally published in the year of my birth, 1972) of an earth where humans are extinct, and the ruins are populated by intelligent animals evolved from animals mutated by a plague that killed off humans. This theme is present in modern stories and movies. Some of the animals, those evolved from cats in particular, have slight psionic abilities. Besides being a great story, it has several themes that are very relevant today, such as worldwide ecological disaster. This book, along with The Beast Master were strong influences on my early stories. Also, I love this cover.


The Humanoid Touch by Jack Williamson

Psionics is a core part of this story, along with robots that smother life under kindness. Williamson took the idea of robots protecting humans from themselves to a scary place. This book is required reading at the MIT robotics lab. Really. In this story, psi phenomena is related to the rhodomagnetic triad, characterized by ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium. An energy spectra similar to the ferromagnetic triad, but having tachyonic properties. The story is cool, scary, and heartbreaking. It was important for me, because it was the first time I’d seen psionics treated like a science. The characters build devices that detect, effect, and enhance psionics as well.


There are hundreds of other great works I could write about, but these were strong influences. Thanks for reading!

Author’s Answers 132

The next Author’s Answers is up with this topic that shouldn’t be controversial, but somehow still is.

Question 132: Do you use the Oxford comma? Why or why not? Give your own example where you would need to use the Oxford comma.

Yes, yes I do. I use it because it is the only way to write clearly and be understood. Those who do not use it will be misunderstood, misread, and the subject of schadenfreude. Note the use in the previous sentence.

You can find the rest of the questions, and other author’s answers, here: I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

Brother Thomas, editor extraordinaire, has this to say on the subject:

Beyond the Oxford Comma