It’s been another week of immersing myself in my current work-in-progress, and I am loving every second of it. It’s hard to believe, at this point, that there was a time not long ago when I looked ahead in this story with dread, wondering how I would ever get to where I’m going. Now, I find myself looking ahead with anticipation, eagerly awaiting the next chapter, the next phase of the story. It is gratifying, to say the least.
Safe to say, at this point I’ve stopped questioning whether or not I’m ready to write Samarkand. I’m writing it. That being said, here’s what I was up to this week:
At long last, the end of phase one is approaching. This week I managed to knock out a chapter and the better part of another, and I’m not finished yet. At this point, I’m confident to say that I’ll have completed phase one by the end of the day Sunday, if not sooner. I could run off an entire post simply detailing all of the ways in which the story has changed over the past few weeks (indeed I’ve been considering it, and may yet do so). Suffice to say the more I get into the story, the more convinced I am that I’m creating something distinctive, the more everything seems to take on its own unique feel.
Arguably the biggest changes have been to the spacecraft at the center of everything: the ECV Susan Constant. One of the greatest challenges in science fiction is to make things original and eye-catching: to create something that’s never been seen before. It may be said that this is far more difficult in hard sci-fi, where designs for spacecraft and the like must strike a balance between being “cool” and practical. As I’ve said in several recent posts, thus far one of my greatest challenges has been nailing down the structure and appearance of the Susan Constant, moving from a somewhat generic concept to something both unique and functional.
Ultimately, my design has emerged from a redefinition of the very nature of space travel. Spaceflight design conventions today are based largely on aircraft design, which makes sense as everything we launch into space must, at some point, travel through our atmosphere. On the other hand, fictional conventions of spacecraft design tend to liken spaceflight to nautical sailing, laying out starships the way one might lay down the hull of an aircraft carrier. But the more I looked into how, exactly, a spacecraft like the Susan Constant would need to be constructed to accomplish its objectives, the more I realized none of that really seemed to matter.
The overall idea came to me initially as a planned conversation in which Commander Bedford, the commander of the ship, is explaining the process of space travel to one of the colonists, suggesting that spacecraft aren’t flown or steered so much as they are simply “operated”, likening the process of running a spacecraft to operating industrial machinery as opposed to a vehicle, like a boat or a plane. In Pathfinder, I was dealing with a crew on mankind’s first extrasolar mission. At that point, in the 2090s, though mankind has been traveling through space routinely we’re still fairly new at interstellar travel, and thus tend to design spacecraft adhering to outdated conventions on how such a craft should look and operate. By the 2110s, however, we’ve moved past single-use spacecraft as one might see on an early exploratory mission. The Susan Constant is not, as I had originally envisioned her, designed solely for the Samarkand Expedition; she’s a colony ship intended for repeated use, likely to spend decades at a time out in space.
Ultimately, it was the realization that space is a completely unique environment that led to the breakthrough. Rather than viewing space as some sort of endless ocean, or merely an extension of the sky, I began to view it as a completely new environment. Like ground, air, or sea, it comes with its own unique challenges. Thus, as the needs and realities of air and nautical travel shaped the basic designs of aircraft and ships respectively, so by this point spacecraft would have transformed to suit the environment for which they’re intended.
Over time, I’ve come to take design cues for the Constant from a design I’d come up with for Pathfinder: the Poseidon Deep-Space Vehicle. Typically referred to in the story as a DSV, the spacecraft was introduced in the late 2080s for the expressed purpose of transporting supplies, equipment, and personnel to fledgling outposts on the moons of the outer planets. Unlike previous spacecraft, which generally spent at most a month at a time in open space, the DSVs spent years at a time plying their course to and from Jupiter and Earth. As such, the DSVs were built for endurance, and ultimately functioned not so much as vehicles but rather cities in space.
It was gratifying to realize that the Susan Constant could be seen as a continuation of an existing design language; essentially, the DSV became the template for later spacecraft, helping to completely redefine how humans travel through space. This was made all the more fulfilling by the fact that the DSV concept was originally something I’d come up with in background for Pathfinder, but never found a place for in the story itself.
When all was said and done, I found that the Susan Constant was laid out in a way that surprised even me: a design that, while perfectly suited to its purpose, seems to defy all conventions for vehicle construction we see today. In simply going through the design piece by piece, I succeeded in creating something completely new, and I’m very happy with the results.
Of course, all of this will matter considerably less once phase one is complete; the characters I’ve focused on thus far will be largely relegated to the background, the Susan Constant becoming more of a plot device than a setting. However, I feel this serves as an excellent introduction to the story, helping to familiarize the reader with the universe I’ve created, and the realities of life in space over a century from now.
While the next phase of the story will begin aboard the Constant, most of it will take place on the surface of the planet, serving as the reader’s introduction to this untouched new world, and the challenges the colonists will face.
I managed to come up with a couple pieces of short fiction this week, and while I only really took of with those two, I feel really good about both of them.
The first, which I’ve already completed, is actually set within the universe I’ve created for When We Left Earth. However, while the other stories I’ve set within that framework took place around the time of Pathfinder, in the 2090s, this one is set closer to the period of Samarkand. I feel really good about the story overall, but perhaps the best part of it was the breakthrough it represented: of all the short stories I’ve set within this universe, this is the furthest into the future I’ve gotten. It also helps to flesh out the side of a major debate I’d yet to explore.
Terraforming forms one of the major plot points throughout When We Left Earth, and by the time Samarkand takes place, it’s become a hot-button issue. On the one side are people like the colonists aboard the Susan Constant: rugged conservationists, who feel humans should learn to coexist with existing ecosystems on alien planets. On the other is the United Nations of Earth, the overarching human government, which supported by popular opinion believes terraforming is the key to colonizing space: reshaping other planets to resemble our own in all ways, even populating them with flora and fauna indigenous to Earth.
While I feel this story, Paradise, is capable of standing on its own, to me its value in story development may outweigh its worth as a piece in and of itself.
The second story, Relativity, is not yet complete, but coming along nicely. The story will follow the experiences of an astronaut being pulled into a black hole. Over the course of the story, he begins to experience moments of his past, but in reverse, eventually seeing further and further back in time, living lives through the eyes of other people, ancient humans, all leading up to his inevitable end. While the story seems to show him living his entire life backwards, then seeing even further back, the ending will show that everything the reader has witnessed occurred in less than a second, all at the very moment he crossed the event horizon.
This feels good. I’ve started looking forward to these posts, as I’m eager to relay what I’ve done, and what I plan to do. Suffice to say I’ll keep writing, dreamers. So long as you keep reading. – MK