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.