Future past: computers

Today, computers are ubiquitous. They’re so common that many people simply can’t function without them, and they’ve been around long enough that most can’t remember a time when they didn’t have them. (I straddle the boundary on this one. I can remember my early childhood, when I didn’t know about computers—except for game consoles, which don’t really count—but those days are very hazy.)

If the steam engine was the invention that began the Industrial Revolution, then the programmable, multi-purpose device I’m using to write this post started the Information Revolution. Because that’s really what it is. That’s the era we’re living in.

But did it have to turn out that way? Is there a way to have computers (of any sort) before the 1940s? Did we have to wait for Turing and the like? Or is there a way for an author to build a plausible timeline that gives us the defining invention of our day in a day long past? Let’s see what we can see.

Intro

Defining exactly what we mean by “computer” is a difficult task fraught with peril, so I’ll keep it simple. For the purposes of this post, a computer is an automated, programmable machine that can calculate, tabulate, or otherwise process arbitrary data. It doesn’t have to have a keyboard, a CPU, or an operating system. You just have to be able to tell it what to do and know that it will indeed do what you ask.

By that definition, of course, the first true computers came about around World War II. At first, they were mostly used for military and government purposes, later filtering down into education, commerce, and the public. Now, after a lifetime, we have them everywhere, to the point where some people think they have too much influence over our daily lives. That’s evolution, but the invention of the first computers was a revolution.

Theory

We think of computers as electronic, digital, binary. In a more abstract sense, though, a computer is nothing more than a machine. A very, very complex machine, to be sure, but a machine nonetheless. Its purpose is to execute a series of steps, in the manner of a mathematical algorithm, on a set of input data. The result is then output to the user, but the exact means is not important. Today, it’s 3D graphics and cutesy animations. Twenty years ago, it was more likely to be a string of text in a terminal window, while the generation before that might have settled for a printout or paper tape. In all these cases, the end result is the same: the computer operates on your input to give you output. That’s all there is to it.

The key to making computers, well, compute is their programmability. Without a way to give the machine a new set of instructions to follow, you have a single-purpose device. Those are nice, and they can be quite useful (think of, for example, an ASIC cryptocurrency miner: it can’t do anything else, but its one function can more than pay for itself), but they lack the necessary ingredient to take computing to the next level. They can’t expand to fill new roles, new niches.

How a computer gets its programs, how they’re created, and what operations are available are all implementation details, as they say. Old code might be written in Fortran, stored on ancient reel-to-reel tape. The newest JavaScript framework might exist only as bits stored in the nebulous “cloud”. But they, as well as everything in between, have one thing in common: they’re Turing complete. They can all perform a specific set of actions proven to be the universal building blocks of computing. (You can find simulated computers that have only a single available instruction, but that instruction can construct anything you can think of.)

Basically, the minimum requirements for Turing completeness are changing values in memory and branching. Obviously, these imply actually having memory (or other storage) and a means of diverting the flow of execution. Again, implementation details. As long as you can do those, you can do just about anything.

Practice

You may be surprised to note that Alan Turing was the one who worked all that out. Quite a few others made their mark on computing, as well. George Boole (1815-64) gave us the fundamentals of computer logic (hence why we refer to true/false values as boolean). Charles Babbage (1791-1871) designed the precursors to programmable computers, while Ada Lovelace (1815-52) used those designs to create what is considered to be the first program. The Jacquard loom, named after Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), was a practical display of programming that influenced the first computers. And the list goes on.

Earlier precursors aren’t hard to find. Jacquard’s loom was a refinement of older machines that attempted to automate weaving by feeding a pattern into the loom that would allow it to move the threads in a predetermined way. Pascal and Leibniz worked on calculators. Napier and Oughtred made what might be termed analog computing devices. The oldest object that we can call a computer by even the loosest definition, however, dates back much farther, all the way to classical Greece: the Antikythera mechanism.

So computers aren’t necessarily a product of the modern age. Maybe digital electronics are, because transistors and integrated circuits require serious precision and fine tooling. But you don’t need an ENIAC to change the world, much less a Mac. Something on the level of Babbage’s machines (if he ever finished them, which he didn’t particularly like to do) could trigger an earlier Information Age. Even nothing more than a fast way to multiply, divide, and find square roots—the kind of thing a pocket calculator can do instantly—would advance mathematics, and thus most of the sciences.

But can it be done? Well, maybe. Programmable automatons date back about a thousand years. True computing machines probably need at least Renaissance-era tech, mostly for gearing and the like. To put it simply: if you can make a clock that keeps good time, you’ve got all you need to make a rudimentary computer. On the other hand, something like a “hydraulic” computer (using water instead of electricity or mechanical power) might be doable even earlier, assuming you can find a way to program it.

For something Turing complete, rather than a custom-built analog solver like the Antikythera mechanism, things get a bit harder. Not impossible, mind you, but very difficult. A linear set of steps is fairly easy, but when you start adding in branches and loops (a loop is nothing more than a branch that goes back to an earlier location), you need to add in memory, not to mention all the infrastructure for it, like an instruction pointer.

If you want digital computers, or anything that does any sort of work in parallel, then you’ll probably also need a clock source for synchronization. Thus, you may have another hard “gate” on the timeline, because water clocks and hourglasses probably won’t cut it. Again, gears are the bare minimum.

Output may be able to go on the same medium as input. If it can, great! You can do a lot more that way, since you’d be able to feed the result of one program into another, a bit like what functional programmers call composition. That’s also the way to bring about compilers and other programs whose results are their own set of instructions. Of course, this requires a medium that can be both read and written with relative ease by machines. Punched cards and paper tape are the historical early choices there, with disks, memory, and magnetic tape all coming much later.

Thus, creating the tools looks to be the hardest part about bringing computation into the past. And it really is. The leaps of logic that Turing and Boole made were not special, not miraculous. There’s nothing saying an earlier mathematician couldn’t discover the same foundations of computer science. They’d have to have the need, that’s all. Well, the need and the framework. Algebra is a necessity, for instance, and you’d also want number theory, set theory, and a few others.

All in all, computers are a modern invention, but they’re a modern invention with enough precursors that we could plausibly shift their creation back in time a couple of centuries without stretching believability. You won’t get an iPhone in the Enlightenment, but the most basic tasks of computation are just barely possible in 1800. Or, for that matter, 1400. Even if using a computer for fun takes until our day, the more serious efforts it speeds up might be worth the comparatively massive cost in engineering and research.

But only if they had a reason to make the things in the first place. We had World War II. An alt-history could do the same with, say, the Thirty Years’ War or the American Revolution. Necessity is the mother of invention, so it’s said, so what could make someone need a computer? That’s a question best left to the creator of a setting, which is you.

On the weather

It’s hot right now. Maybe not where you live, maybe not when you’re reading this, but today, for me, is a hot, steamy day on the edge of summer. There’s a slight chance of thunderstorms; I can see them on the local radar, and I’d give them 50-50 odds of getting here before they die down for the day.

Weather is an important part of our lives. Unless you live in an underground bunker or a climate-controlled habitat dome (Fallout and Surviving Mars fans can speak up here), you have to deal with it on a daily basis. Some of humanity’s first attempts at controlling the future were purely for the weather: winds, tides, rains, and storms. We go to great lengths to forecast it, and it’s so ingrained in our culture that the most generic icebreaker we have is “How about that weather?”

For storytelling purposes, weather is mostly background information. You don’t even have to put it in, really; it’s assumed to be a sunny day (or clear night) unless stated otherwise. But a little bit of inclement weather can serve a purpose, if thrown in at the right time.

Have you ever seen the rain

Rain, of course, is the most obvious type of “bad” weather. We associate rainy days with dreariness, lethargy, and sadness. Harder rains can cause flooding, while a mere drizzle does nothing but annoy.

But that’s a bit biased. In temperate regions (like most of the US and Europe), rain can fall at any time throughout the year. Warm and cold fronts bring rain, and tropical cyclones can produce massive amounts. That’s how weather works around here. In tropical regions, however, you’re more likely to have distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season, often what would be “winter”, can see daily showers and light thunderstorms. In contrast, the dry season is, well, dry. Some places, even in rainforests, can go months without even a trace of rainfall. Out-of-season rain is an event for these locales, and it’s usually caused by a storm—in fantasy, there might even be ulterior motives.

Most of all, rain sets a tone for a scene. A rainy day is…blah. You don’t want to go outside. All you want to do is either sleep or stare out the window. That’s a great time for introspection, dialogue, and all the hallmarks of what TV writers call the “bottle” episode. Your characters are stuck together, so now’s the time to let it all out.

The thunder rolls

Beyond rain, we have the thunderstorm. (Okay, some storms don’t have rainfall, or they have the virga phenomenon, where the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. Bear with me here.) Storms produce lighting, which then creates thunder. Larger ones can drop hail, ranging from tiny pellets to softball-sized chunks of ice. Depending on where you—or your characters—live, tornadoes are also a possibility.

A thunderstorm represents violence, the fury of nature. It’s a good time for characters to wonder if the world is mad at them specifically. The aftermath brings a chance to spot and repair damage, as some severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can destroy houses, knock down trees and power lines, etc. A few, alas, are even deadly. (I used a killer storm in Written in Black and White, for instance.) If you can’t find a story in the tornado outbreaks that struck Joplin, Missouri or Ringgold, Georgia, a few years ago, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Lightning also kills, though that’s rarer. In fantasy settings, especially those with active deities, that might also provide a bit of a hook. For the sci-fi side of the coin, consider the more extreme storms that could occur on other worlds. I don’t just mean the Great Red Spot here; Earthlike planets with thicker atmospheres, for example, would certainly have stronger winds in their storms.

Let it snow

I’m a kid at heart, so snow is obviously my favorite sort of inclement weather. It’s got all the same downsides as rain, but add to those the cold, the lack of traction on icy roads, and sheer weight. Then again, it also gives us snowball fights, snowmen, sledding, skiing, and so on. For children, snow is fun. For the working man, it’s terrible. A perfect dichotomy, if you ask me.

Heavier snowfalls do the same thing as heavy rains and severe storms: keep people inside. (Sometimes, it keeps them inside for far too long. Look at, say, the Donner Party.) But where a thunderstorm usually lasts only an hour or two at most, the aftermath of a blizzard can stick around for a week or more. In places that don’t often see large amounts of snow (like Tennessee in 1993), that causes massive headaches for the populace. Set in older days, before technology allowed us to store over a week of food without trouble, you have an even bigger problem. A two-foot blanket of snow in a place that wasn’t expecting it could be the prelude to a disaster. And speaking of disasters…

The weather outside is frightful

Some of our most destructive disasters stem from the weather. Tornado outbreaks strike across the Great Plains in the US and Canada, sometimes also creeping into the American Southeast. I know those all too well: one 2011 twister touched down less than a mile from my house. Hurricanes and tropical storms, not as common in Europe or on the West Coast, strike the eastern US fairly often. We all remember Katrina and the others from the wild 2005 season, but every portion of the coast has a tale from Andrew, Hugo, Camille, Opal, Rita, or one of the many other retired names on the NHC list.

A true weather disaster is a story in itself, but it can also provide the impetus or backdrop for a story. The storm might be on the periphery, but it will affect the characters even from a great distance. News reports trickle in, loved ones may ask for help—you get the idea. All you have to do is turn on the TV or check the Internet to see what happens when a natural disaster strikes.

And that really goes for anything to do with the weather. We’ve got sites and channels dedicated to nothing else. You can’t miss it. The hard part is figuring out how to integrate it with your story. The first question to ask there has to be: do you need to? Maybe it’s enough to say that it was a cloudy day, or that rain was striking the roof.

If that’s not the case, and you do need a storm to spice things up, think about what they do in real life. They bring people together, either physically (because it’s too dangerous to be outside) or emotionally (every major disaster brings out the charitable contributions). They can destroy homes, change lives. But they can also be a time to shine. We can always find the hero who threw himself atop his kids so the tornado would take him instead, or the boater who made six trips to the houses of flood victims, or whatever you’re looking for.

Or it might just be a little rain. That wouldn’t hurt.

On lunar exploration

The Moon. Our closest celestial neighbor, the body that gives light to our nights. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest achievement: walking upon that body. And we’re losing the heroes who accomplished that feat. With the recent death of Alan Bean, only 4 of the 12 remain alive.

Something must be done on that front. We can’t let the direct, personal exploration of our natural satellite pass out of living memory. Some private corporations (e.g., SpaceX, Boeing) are looking into the matter. Next July would be a fantastic time to make a power move in that space race.

But let’s take a step back, look at exploring the Moon from a storytelling perspective. That is, after all, what we do here. For the budding author of science fiction, dear Luna presents an interesting setting not entirely unlike Earth’s deserts, the deepest ocean trenches, or the vast emptiness of space.

The right stuff

As you know (unless you’re one of those lunatics—note the pun there—who thinks the whole thing was a hoax, in which case I have nothing more to say to you), 12 American men walked on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972. A total of 24 traveled there, including those who merely orbited it. Stays ranged from a few hours on Apollo 11 to over 3 days on the final mission, Apollo 17. EVAs (moonwalks) lasted as long as 7 hours. And they did it all with 60s-era technology, with so many corners cut that it’s a wonder nobody died in space.

Since then, and even during the golden years of the Space Age, the media has been enamored with lunar exploration and cis-lunar travel in general. But that fascination extends much deeper into history. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, written about a century before Neil Armstrong’s small step, set the original standard for the subgenre. Pulp action from the early and mid 20th century painted a distinct picture of the Moon that today’s generation mostly knows from Looney Tunes and The Jetsons.

In the now five decades since Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” picture, we have the data to make much better fictional accounts. Some of the best, in my opinion, are actually biographical in nature: Apollo 13, as well as From the Earth to the Moon, the HBO miniseries named after Verne’s seminal work. More recently, we also have Moon from about a decade ago, the found-footage horror film Apollo 18, and many others. Advances in technology and cinematography can transport viewers straight to the Sea of Tranquility, Tycho crater, or any number of other lunar locations.

Literary fiction doesn’t have movie magic, but the same fire burns in the book world. Andy Weir’s Artemis, for instance, shows that writers’ love for the ball of rock next door has not waned completely. Mars might get more airtime, but the Moon is so much closer. It’s the perfect stepping stone, both for a species and an author.

Magnificent desolation

But the Moon also presents problems. In that, it’s both a setting and a source of environmental conflict, much like the “middle” Mars in my post about the Red Planet. Take out the dust storms (because there’s no significant atmosphere) and the months-long travel time, and you don’t have all that much difference.

The Moon has about half of Mars’ gravity, 1/6 g instead of 3/8, which can present more physiological and medical problems. Lunar dust is a well-known source of trouble. Without air—what little atmosphere the Moon has seems to come from solar wind interacting with dust particles—you have to search for consumables. Radiation is a much greater concern, more like the trip to Mars rather than living on its surface. All told, it’s not a place friendly to life in the least.

Yet there are upsides to the Moon. Besides its proximity to Earth, you have the simple fact that it’s tide-locked to us. Anywhere on the near side will always be in radio contact with some part of our planet. (Conversely, the far side is in total radio silence, one reason why so many astronomers want a telescope out there.) Building material is cheap and plentiful; lunar regolith has the potential to make decent concrete, according to some studies, and recent surveys indicate that our satellite, like so many in the outer system, may have a massive storehouse of water lurking beneath the surface. Also, unlike Mars, Europa, and the asteroids, the Moon is in Earth’s orbit, and thus close enough to the Sun for solar power to be reasonably efficient, so no need for perfectly safe, yet politically unviable, nuclear options.

Sailing the seas

The Moon might not make a good home for humanity. The hazards are too great. In the single sci-fi setting I’ve created, with the present day set in the 26th century, all that progress has seen only limited colonization of Luna. It’s treated more like a combination of Antarctica and an offshore oil platform. Space opera and science fantasy fans might differ on that point, and that’s okay. It’s your call.

Whatever your moon ultimately becomes, it’ll start as an exploration target. Somebody has to continue the story Apollo left unfinished. And that will likely be sometime relatively soon. Definitely in the 21st century, unless you’ve written some serious disaster that forces a period of technological regression, and very possibly in the next decade or two. (A good date for the first lunar colony, if you’re following a realistic timeline, is 2069, of course.) Robotic surveys will come first, as they do, but then you’ll get the flags and footprints, the serious scientific investigations, and all that great stuff.

What those first explorers will find is anyone’s guess; I’m just here to tell you how I would write it. For the Moon, given its hostile environment, its lifeless nature, and its desolate appearance, I can certainly see a scientific thriller aspect. Every step takes you farther from the safety of your capsule/module/whatever. One wrong move can send you tumbling down the slope of a crater. Abrasive dust wears away the seals on your suit, not to mention the damage it might do to your lungs. (It smells like gunpowder, according to eyewitness accounts.)

It’s not hard to create terror on a lunar excursion, and that’s without invoking alien artifacts and the like. If that’s what you’re going for, then play it to the hilt. Yes, this is dangerous work. Yes, anything can go wrong, and the consequences are dire. But it’s a job that has to be done, whether for the good of humanity, scientific progress, or cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, part of the allure of exploration is, well, the allure. You’re exploring a whole new world. Maybe not a planet, but it’s still virgin territory for the most part, and the next wave of lunar excursions may take place hundreds of miles from the nearest human footprints. Wonder is the order of the day. As barren and bland as the lunar surface is, many of the moonwalkers would later wax philosophically about its “stark beauty”. For a story about the exploration itself, about painting a picture with the Moon as backdrop, that’s probably the aspect you want to emphasize. The craters, the rills, the lava tubes and other strange sights.

Exploration is fun. So many of my own works feature it, because I truly believe that humanity’s greatest moments come when we explore. Space is the final frontier, and the Moon is the first step into that frontier, the very border of an endless land of opportunity. It may be inhospitable. It may be inimical to life as we know it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth experiencing.

Release: Lair of the Wizards (Hidden Hills 1)

Once again, it’s time for a new novel release. This one is Lair of the Wizards, Book One of the Hidden Hills series. It’s a monster that defies categorization, in my humble opinion, but I hope you’ll like it. Here’s the blurb:

For ages, the wizards guided the people of Stada. They brought knowledge, advancement. They were the bearers of the future. But generations have lived since the last wizards left the land to parts unknown. Now, war with a neighboring realm is bringing Stada to the brink, and the tribulations of battle reach even to the city of Karston. Here, the wizards may be gone, but not forgotten. Here, their knowledge lives on, their secrets have been preserved. The tales all tell that the wizards lived in the Hidden Hills north of town. Although they left, their home remains, and when an earthquake rattles Karston, it reveals the path leading to the lair of the wizards.

I actually started writing this novel all the way back in 2015. (Originally, I envisioned it as a short story!) I spent the next two years working off and on, mostly whenever I was taking a break from other projects. Lots of editing ensued, and I finally have something I feel ready to share with the world. You can find it over on my Patreon if you’re in the Serious Reader tier or above. That’s only $3 a month, and it includes DRM-free copies of all my other stories, like Nocturne, Before I Wake, and many more. No matter what you call Lair of the Wizards, whether fantasy or sci-fi or whatever, you have to call that a deal.

Check it out, and have a great summer!

New adventures in Godot

As I’ve said many times before, I think Godot Engine is one of the best options out there for indie game devs, especially those working on a budget in their spare time. Since I don’t have all that much spare time (rather, I have more than I know what to do with), I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and try to make a game.

I know it’s not easy. It’s not simple. That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a shot. And I’ll be sure to keep you updated as to my progress.

What I’ve got so far is an idea for a casual word-find game. Think a cross between Tetris and Boggle. You’ve got a playfield of letters, and the object is to select a series of them that spells out a word. You get points based on the length of the word and the letters you use (rarer letters like J or Z are worth more than the common E or R). Then, the letters you chose disappear, and others fill the space.

That’s where I’m at now: getting the field set up. Then, I’ll work on the rest of the basic game mechanics, from selection to scoring. UI comes after that, and games need sound effects, animations, etc. Eventually, I’d like to produce a mobile and desktop version for you to download here or elsewhere. (Still weighing my options on that.)

Don’t expect too much, but if I can get this done, I hope to move on to more ambitious projects. Although I do focus far more on writing these days, I still love coding, and game programming remains one of my favorite aspects. Godot makes that part easy, and it does it without all the cruft of Unity or Unreal. It really hits the sweet spot, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 3

The world—rather, the universe—of Orphans of the Stars is not quite ours, but it’s meant to be much closer to that than some other futuristic space settings. To that end, I’ve gone into my usual serious level of detail in worldbuilding, in hopes of creating something that stands the test of time. While I’m well aware that no setting can be completely without fault, I like to think that I’ve avoided most of the more obvious flaws.

The important places

Aside from Earth itself, which only appears directly in the Innocence Reborn prologue, the galaxy is a vast expanse full of interesting places. Obviously, the most prominent features of our Milky Way (and the slightly different one of the setting) are the stars themselves. Ours is one of billions, and a fairly ordinary one. Sure, it’s in the top few percent in terms of size, and it’s the only one we currently know of to hold habitable and inhabited planets. But that’s a limitation of our present technology. Future telescopes and instruments will be able to find “Earth 2.0” out there, and one of the primary assumptions of my Orphans setting is that the so-called “Rare Earth” hypothesis is dead wrong.

But let’s back up. As I said, we’ve got billions upon billions of stars out there. All of them, however, are quite far away. To reach them in any reasonable amount of time requires bending, if not breaking, the known laws of physics. That’s one of the few times I explicitly do so, and I’m not afraid to admit that I employ a bit of hand-waving to get there. (Remember that the stories are from the perspective of children. They wouldn’t know the specifics. Yes, that’s intentional on my part.)

I do give FTL travel a number of limitations, mainly for storytelling purposes, but also following some fairly obvious rules to make the process seem more realistic. For instance, it’s limited to the ship, not the surrounding space. There are no hyperspace pathways or subspace tunnels. And that means spacecraft moving faster than light are isolated from “normal” space. They can’t communicate, because they’re outrunning light itself, including EM signals. And radar, so they’re also flying blind. It gets them where they need to go, but there’s always a margin of error, and it sometimes happens that a ship has to spend more time finding its way once it reaches its destination than it needed to get there in the first place.

Those destinations, wherever they are, share one common feature: they’re meant to be plausible, given the assumption of terrestrial planets being common, but advanced lifeforms coming around much less often. The colony of Marshall, seen in the prologue of Innocence Reborn, orbits a star that really exists, one that has no known planets as of 2017. Maybe TESS or Gaia will find something that completely invalidates my efforts, but I hope not.

The same goes for Malacca Colony, the next destination of the renamed Innocence. I described it in some detail in the last part of this series, but now I’d like to talk about it from a wider perspective. Again, it may not be real. It almost certainly isn’t, in fact. But there’s no data I know of (as of this writing) that proves it can’t exist. And that was my goal.

Port of call

Since the world named Malacca figures so heavily in Innocence Reborn, I think it deserves a bit of screen time here, as well. First off, it is a colony world. It’s only got a few hundred thousand people living on it, and they all do their best to prevent contamination of the local biosphere. For the planet does have native life. Not much, and almost none on land, but there’s something there.

Canonically speaking, Malacca Colony suffered a very recent (in geologic terms) mass extinction event. That killed off what little land-based life there was, especially as this particular event was part of a “Snowball Earth” type state. Based on the planet’s orbit around its star, as well as influences of its neighbors and the other two components of the system (it’s a trinary, and the other two stars were only resolved as distinct in 2015), I saw this as highly plausible, and a good explanation as to why humanity felt comfortable “invading”. The colony of Pele, constructed on a volcanic archipelago, has a research center dedicated to studying the extant marine life, and that may come into play later.

Other than that, the world orbits at a greater relative distance, making it colder than Earth overall, and that factors into the colonial experience. Kids get cranky when they’re cold, and that shows in the narrative. But there are other effects, too. The same goes for the planet’s lower gravity, about 70% of Earth’s. People who live their whole lives there tend to be taller. Falls aren’t as painful. Combine that with the lower body temperature (another adaptation), and it’s not too great a leap to posit that they tend to have better cardiovascular health than their homebound counterparts. On the downside, it’s harder for them to adapt to the heavier pull of Earth, and so it goes for a bunch of still-growing children who live there for months.

Beyond the physical characteristics, there’s not a lot to say. I’ve already mentioned the five colonies, and the book itself goes into the reasoning behind that, albeit from a story-internal point of view. From the outside, I’ll say that I wanted the opportunity to have competing factions, even if I didn’t use them. And I think it shows an important part of the setting: humanity is not unified. We—or our descendants—are not exploring the galaxy as a single race. Our divisions, as we know them today, might not exist, but division itself is a constant. With what happens at the end of the sequel (which I won’t spoil for you, as it’s not finalized just yet), that may turn out to be a mistake.

This series isn’t, though. It’ll keep on going, because I’ve only scratched the surface. And I like talking about this kind of thing. I like throwing out my ideas in these behind-the-scenes specials. So I’m going to continue this, but probably not every month from this point forward. Whatever happens, I hope you’re enjoying this look into a possible future as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it.

Summer reading list 2018

Here we go again.

Two years ago, I came up with what I thought was a great idea. Inspired by the summer reading lists I had to suffer through in school, I created a simple reading challenge. So, now that the unofficial start of summer is upon us once more, let’s try again, shall we?

As in the previous installments, the whole thing is unofficial. It’s just for fun. There aren’t any prizes, you won’t have to write any book reports, and you get to pick what you read. That said, there are a few general rules:

  1. The goal is to read 3 books between the US holidays of Memorial Day (May 28) and Labor Day (September 3). These are considered the “unofficial” endpoints of summer, and they roughly match the months when school isn’t in session. (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s a winter reading list, but I can’t help that.)

  2. A “book”, for the purposes of this challenge, can be just about any non-periodical. Use your best judgment. Graphic novels are okay, but comic books probably aren’t. Just be honest with yourself. That’s what counts most.

  3. One of the books should be nonfiction. Doesn’t matter what kind, as long as it involves actual events and people. History, biography, true crime, and even technical manuals all work for this, though historical fiction obviously doesn’t.

  4. (Writers only) One book should be of a genre you don’t normally write in. For example, a fantasy author should give, say, science fiction a shot. This is your chance to step outside your comfort zone. Of course, you can count the nonfiction book from Rule 3 for this, too.

  5. (Writers only) You can’t count anything you wrote. Not even if it’s under a pen name. That one’s pretty simple, and it’s mainly because, if I didn’t put it in there, I would be tempted to use my own works.

So that’s it. That’s the challenge. I’m crossposting this to both my Patreon and my blog. Feel free to spread it wherever you like. If you’re one of those who likes to put everything on social media, let’s see if we can stake a claim on the hashtag #SummerReading. I don’t go in for Twitter or Facebook, but I have recently created an account on Mastodon, so you can follow me or check my progress there. I’m @mikey@toot.love right now, but I’ll probably move somewhere else later on.

Have fun, everybody. And have a great summer.

Release: The Control Variable (A Bridge Between Worlds 3)

We’re still building those bridges. Here’s the third one, “The Control Variable”:

The other world was exciting, but theirs still has so much left unknown. Amy knows that, yet she finds her thoughts constantly drawn back to her time away from her home planet. She also knows that there are other crossings, other bridges. Even if those won’t take her where she wants to go, they need to be found. Alex can find them. He has the map. All he needs is the time, but that may be running out.

Otherworld stories remain exclusive to my Patreon for the time being, so you can pick this one up there, along with over 20 other stories, for only a few dollars a month.

Next in the series is Part 4, “The Dark Continent”, coming July 24. Until then, have a good summer, and keep reading!

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai grammar overview

I don’t really want to get too deep into grammatical minutiae in this series, so I’ll instead make this post more of a high-level overview of the grammar of Virisai, the most central language of my Otherworld setting.

How it looks

As I’ve previously stated, I didn’t want this conlang to be anything too extreme. It’s spoken by humans, even if those humans aren’t from Earth. And while some parts of this world (the Americas, Australia, etc.) do indeed have some hideously complex languages, that isn’t necessarily a given. Especially with a literate language, there’s definitely a tendency to simplify. So Virisai doesn’t go overboard on the weirdness, and that’s by design.

Word order is about like you’d expect, broadly similar to, say, Spanish. Nouns come before most adjectives, verbs tend to sit between subject and object, and you’ve got a series of prepositions. But that doesn’t mean it’s a typical Indo-European language. Oh, no.

Virisai has no case for most nouns or adjectives, yet it does have different case forms for gendered nouns and pronouns. In the latter, it’s a bit like English: the triad of maa/maare/mei, for instance, essentially matches I/me/my. Gender, however, is only marked on nouns that represent humans and certain animals, typically those that have been domesticated. (Due to the timeline, Vistaan doesn’t have animals brought from the Old World, but it does have those that existed in America prior to the Quaternary extinctions at the end of the Ice Age, such as the American horse, faal, or even the saber-toothed cat, oceigal.)

Technically, Virisai recognizes four cases, but the accusative and dative are often merged, especially in the western dialect. The fourth case, the genitive, is even weirder. Instead of being marked on the possessor, as is normal for languages like Latin, the genitive marker -es appears as a suffix on the possessed, head, noun: he roun “the house”; he rounes vira “the man’s house”. Possessive pronouns don’t change this, either (rounes mei, “my house”), which points to it being a later development.

On the verbal side of things, there are a few other wrinkles. Virisai has no real progressive aspect (as in English “I am walking“); those cases where I write native speakers using it should be understood to use the more basic present—rather, non-past—tense instead. Concord exists, much to the dismay of students, and it comes in two forms, subject and object. The object concord markers aren’t strictly necessary, and are completely absent in the third person, but they’re considered a mark of formality.

Beyond that, I’ve got a mostly complete sketch of Virisai grammar, including a number of different derivational affixes, rules for adverbs, numerals, and prepositions, as well as much more. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’ll give you an example of text in the conlang, and what better text than the one everybody uses?

The Babel Text

  1. Gyor, et graaten peis tei heis radvet ai et croin aat.
  2. Asta a besaalsar jaastal, hein danyetel he brel am e’taante Shinar, e sialanel trate.
  3. Asta hein radel almedenta a, “Jaasi! Vecrettei rouzin e peissar paitei heire.” E hein tei verouz mid vecaal, ai ciobren mid hamet.
  4. Asta hein radel a, “Jaasi! Esdeire sauteltei he tiran, ai h’alettis, vos mieses oos am et nin, e esdeire vecrettei he caar, a andeser deire fin kecoolit cie et damises et graaten peis.”
  5. A fied re virisin sauteleste e’tiran ai et alettis, et Laton ducselal.
  6. Asta et Laton radal a, “Fiesi! Hein saa heis mal, e tai heis radvet; asta heid pries saa et ilbares re yeten det h’id. Re raacen mos, gyor saa molyoris heire.
  7. Jaasi! Ducseltei, asta trate gulgortei et radvetes heiz, a hein mu cormenen ket et alrades almedin.”
  8. Hegis et Laton trate kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis, e syukenel a sautel e’tiran.
  9. Hebal, oore fin carir Babel, ebra trate et Laton gulgoral et radvetes et graaten peis, e trate et Laton kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 2

So I’m back. Since the last post about this series, I finished the draft of the second novel, Beyond the Horizon. It’s a little different, in that all the flashy space battle action is at the beginning. That, I think, gives it more tension, because you’re expecting more with each new step. I also left the story on something of a cliffhanger, which means I really should work on Book 3.

But that’ll come later. Today, let’s delve deeper into the setting of Orphans of the Stars. First, we’ll start on Earth. Home sweet home.

Lay of the land

After five centuries, you might expect Earth to be unrecognizable. After all, 500 years ago, there was no USA; there were barely even colonies in the Americas. China wasn’t communist, because communism didn’t exist. The Middle East was a different sort of morass than today. And so on. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a modern conceit to think that our current institutions are stable, that they’ll last forever.

For the Orphans setting, I’ve gone more towards that latter end of the spectrum. There are changes, but the broad strokes aren’t too different from what we know today.

First up, the US still exists in my version of the 26th century, and it has mostly descended into the corporate-controlled dystopia whose birth we’re watching in our era. California and New England remain bastions of liberalism (in both senses of the word), evangelical Christianity has lost a lot of its support, and the extreme polarization of nowadays has come and gone. Americans in the setting still hold both the First and Second Amendments in high regard, pointing to them as proof of American exceptionalism, even if they have been weakened severely through the centuries.

Across the pond, while the EU eventually broke up in my extrapolation, it reformed mostly along the same lines. Britain is in a curious spot, as it asserts its independence (Northern Ireland, I’m assuming, rejoined the rest of Ireland) and leadership of a Commonwealth trade pact, while also considering itself a member of this “new” Europe. Many of the other countries of the continent are in much the same position as today, if a bit more extreme. The Scandinavian nations, for instance, have an even heavier focus on quality of life. (Earth’s oldest living human at the time, as I mention briefly in the first chapter of Beyond the Horizon, is a Danish woman.)

Outside the Western world, things are a bit more hit or miss. Russia fell into decline, China gobbled up North Korea, some Pacific islands sank due to rising sea levels (and new ones appeared when the waters receded during a cold snap circa 2300), and so on. Essentially every equatorial nation profited from the rise of cheap, accessible spaceflight: Ecuador tried—and failed—to build a space elevator, while a spaceport in Luanda is the only reason most people even remember Angola exists. And the Middle East, well, it’s still the Middle East. Even 500 years isn’t enough time to fix that.

Slip the surly bonds

An adventure story set in space really needs places to go in space. And, since I’ve already established that Earthlike planets are common in the galaxy, and that FTL travel exists and doesn’t cause any ill effects to the universe at large, it’s only natural that humans would eventually begin to build colonies away from the mother planet.

First of those is Mars. The oldest and largest Martian city, in my setting, is actually named Tesla. (Because of course it would be Elon Musk that started it.) There are others, started by offshoots of the initial colonial push or later ventures. Terraforming remains a distant, if obtainable, goal. (For Mars, it’s considered okay, because there’s no discernible native biosphere.)

The Moon, by contrast, doesn’t have much of a permanent population. It’s more like Antarctica today, or offshore drilling platforms. People live there for a time, mostly to run experiments or oversee resource extraction, but they don’t stay there. That’s partially from the lunar dust problem, but also because of the known existence of other terrestrial worlds. Our nearest celestial neighbor just isn’t prime real estate.

The same really goes for most of the other parts of our solar system. Jupiter’s moons are interesting, the asteroids are valuable, and Titan continues to enchant those who ponder its mysteries, but my setting (as opposed to, say, The Expanse) makes interstellar journeys possible before in-system colonization really gets off the ground. Thus, most of the Sol system is left to automated mining and collection, with a few manned research stations and the occasional torus or O’Neill cylinder construction for those who really do want to live in space.

Economics of colonialism

That, more than anything, is my main assumption. With the galaxy (or at least our little corner of it) open to humanity, wars over living space really have no need to exist. Rather than fight a bloody war with only the barest hope of success, separatists, if they don’t mind packing up and leaving, have any number of places to go. Which brings us nicely to the colonies themselves.

Human colonization of the stars, in this setting, proceeded in waves. First, the initial push was more of a “can we do this?” kind of thing. Terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 systems (I hope nothing in the next few years makes these impossible!) were first, because they were known quantities by that point, as well as good testing grounds. A few others then followed, once good news came in. This, I assume, would be in the latter half of the 23rd century.

Next were the profit-seekers. Larger corporations in our time have values exceeding the average country’s GDP; in future centuries, absent a revolution in the way we think, I see no reason why that would change. Thus, private spacefarers began setting up their own colonies in the systems that looked most profitable, a land grab and gold rush combined. For the most part, they would stay somewhat close to Earth, if only for the ability to easily escape if things went wrong. But one colony, named Marshall, was founded specifically to be on the frontier.

For the most part, the early 25th century continues that trend, though the attacks on Marshall (the prologue of Innocence Reborn) ultimately result in a 50-year moratorium on claiming new planets. Instead, new colonies are only allowed on worlds which already have a human presence. They’re big enough, after all.

The end of that ban, however, changes the game just a little. Now, instead of one group running off to take a new planet entirely for themselves, Earth’s governments (national, corporate, and larger organizations like the UN) have agreed to restrict the practice to partnerships. That’s why Malacca (the main “base” colony for the second half of Innocence Reborn) has not one colonial government, but five.

That’s the “current” era of colonization, in terms of the setting. It ends up being slightly cheaper overall, so the corporate bean-counters like it, and there’s less risk of a catastrophe, so risk-averse types feel a little better. And that opens up the many worlds to smaller groups. Marginalized sects were some of the first: Palestinians, Rohingya, Marxists, supremacists of every stripe. Utopia-seekers also joined in, as well as experimentalists who wanted the chance to try out different social philosophies.

I specifically designed Malacca to house one of each type of colony, purely to illustrate that. Rosaria, where the orphans make their new home, is a fairly typical corporate state, a company town projected into the future. Yuan Yang is the (Chinese) government-run colony, which keeps both its culture and economy very close to home. Windmore is a social experiment run by Brits wanting to try out direct democracy; it has the most distinct cities, but they’re all much smaller, and that’s how they like it. Pele is the research center, run by North American universities, with the feel of a college town. And Little Eden, though it hasn’t appeared on screen just yet, showcases the utopia option—specifically, that’s a retro-revival of older forms of Christianity.

All in all, with hundreds of colonies in existence at the time of the “main” storyline, there’s plenty of room for a writer to play around. And I fully intend to. I would like to do a few shorter stories set in different parts of the Orphans setting, those not touched by the all-kid crew of the Innocence. And I wouldn’t really mind if others wanted to do the same. Just ask, and I’ll be happy to help.

This is the end of this part, but not the extended postmortem that is this series. I hope to be back soon, because there’s still so much left to say.