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.

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.

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.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 1

With the recent Patreon release of my novel Innocence Reborn, I want to take a closer look at the setting I’ve created for the series as a whole. After Otherworld, it’s second in terms of level of detail, and being a futuristic science fiction setting means it requires a completely different sort of worldbuilding. So here we go. This may or may not become a regular miniseries. We’ll just see where it takes us.

By the way, this post is obviously going to have major spoilers for the book, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Timeline

Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text (mostly because I don’t want it to be too obvious when I get it completely wrong), I do have a sketch of the setting’s timeline. The Innocence Reborn prologue, for instance, is supposed to take place in the year 2432, while the main body of the story is set over a century later, in 2538. Plenty of time to develop technology, etc., but not so much that humanity is completely unrecognizable. That was what I wanted, though I did have to make a few assumptions to get there.

Almost all of those are currently backstory, and we’ll get to them a bit later. Before that, I do have to mention one of the most fundamental conceits of the setting. See, it’s intended to be slightly “harder” than a space opera, in that most things are within the laws of physics as we know them. There is faster-than-light travel, because that’s central to the story I wanted to tell. And that causes a bit of trouble with causality and even basic timekeeping. So 2432 is the time on Earth, but current physics tells us that ships traveling FTL would effectively be going back in time, which makes things difficult.

Well, that’s because of relativity, and the handwaving for Orphans of the Stars is that relativity isn’t quite correct. You’ve got a few loopholes, so to speak. (Behind the scenes, the story universe is, in fact, a simulation that explicitly or accidentally allows such “exploits”. The characters don’t know this, of course.) It also means there’s something like a universal or preferred reference frame, which may or may not solve the timing problems.

Assumptions

Now, on to those assumptions. The other ones, I mean.

As I said, FTL travel is possible in the Orphans universe. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. That opens up the galaxy to human exploration and colonization. And that leads to the next big assumptions. First, Earthlike planets are relatively common, especially around G, K, and M stars. This is a simple extrapolation of current findings; estimates using data from the Kepler mission indicate that the Milky Way could host billions of terrestrial planets, with a fairly good percentage of stars having them in the habitable zone. And that’s not counting those slightly smaller than Earth orbiting medium-size stars like ours.

Second, and less supported by the data, is the idea that life is also relatively common in the universe. The vast majority is single-celled (or the equivalent); sentient, advanced aliens are considered fiction even 500 years in the future. Spoiler: boy, aren’t they surprised?

Other assumptions include simple, workable fusion power, ramped-up manufacturing capabilities (including orbital and deep-space), ubiquitous computing, usable cryogenic suspension, and quite a few other technological improvements. On the other hand, I assume that genetic engineering doesn’t become a huge thing—it’s mostly used for treating diseases and disorders rather than making wholesale physiological changes—and AI never gets to the “destroy all humans” stage. Yes, there are expert systems, and automation has made many jobs obsolete, but human decision-making still beats that of computers. It’s just that AI simplifies things enough that even a bunch of kids can fly a spaceship.

More importantly, there are a few sci-fi staples that don’t exist in this setting. Chief among those is artificial gravity: when the Innocence (or any other ship) isn’t accelerating, the people inside are weightless, and that causes problems. Well, problems and opportunities, because we are talking about a bunch of kids. Also absent are tractor beams, shields, transporters, and other such “superscience”. Terraforming is possible, but it’s been avoided so far out of respect for native biospheres. Antimatter is horrendously expensive, and more exotic particles are as useless commercially as they are today. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced quite as much as one would expect, and cybernetic augmentation, including direct neural interfaces, ultimately turned out to be a fad.

Reasoning

I could have gone all out on this setting. I could have made it one of those where it’s so far into the future that it’s effectively magic. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Mostly, this series started out as an idea I had when writing Lair of the Wizards, a fantasy novel I’m putting out next month. That story is set in a borderline-Renaissance world where people with advanced technology existed, and they left some of it behind. It’s Clarke’s Third Law, but seen from a different point of view, one where we are the sufficiently advanced race. By and large, the characters are children, adolescents, or young adults, and that made me wonder if I could write an adventure-filled, yet still scientific, space drama revolving around characters of similar age.

As it turns out, I can. Maybe it’s not good, but I like it, and I’ve always said that I write stories primarily for my own enjoyment. The same is true for the settings themselves. Just as Otherworld is my linguistic playground, the Orphans universe (I still need a catchy name for it) has become my futurism playground. It’s where I get to play around with the causes and effects of science and technology, then go and write books about what happens when a bunch of kids get involved. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, two days before writing this, I finished the sequel to Innocence Reborn, titled Beyond the Horizon, and I’m already coming up with ideas for Book 3.

Settings can be as deep as you want to make them. With this one, I’ve found one where I just want to keep on digging, and so I will.

On eclipses and omens

(I’m writing this post early, as I so often do. For reference, today, from the author’s perspective, is July 17, 2017. In other words, it’s 5 weeks before the posting date. In that amount of time, a lot can happen, but I can guarantee one thing: it will be cloudy on August 21. Especially in the hours just after noon.)

Today is a grand day, a great time to be alive, for it is the day of the Great American Eclipse. I’m lucky—except for the part where the weather won’t cooperate—because I live in the path of totality. Some Americans will have to travel hundreds of miles to see this brief darkening of the sun; I only have to step outside. (And remember the welding glasses or whatever, but that’s a different story.)

Eclipses of any kind are a spectacle. I’ve seen a handful of lunar ones in my 33 years, but never a solar eclipse. Those of the moon, though, really are amazing, especially the redder ones. But treating them as a natural occurrence, as a simple astronomical event that boils down to a geometry problem, that’s a very modern view. In ages past, an eclipse could be taken as any number of things, many of them bad. For a writer, that can create some very fertile ground.

Alignment

Strictly speaking, an eclipse is nothing more unusual than any other alignment of celestial bodies. It’s just a lot more noticeable, that’s all. The new moon is always invisible, because its dark side is facing us, but our satellite’s orbital inclination means that it often goes into its new phase above or below the sun, relative to the sky. Only rarely does it cross directly in front of the solar disk from our perspective. Conversely, it’s rare—but not quite as rare—for the moon to fall squarely in the shadow created by the Earth when it’s full.

The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that not every eclipse is the same. Some are total, like the one today, where the shadowing body completely covers the sun. For a solar eclipse, that means the moon is right between us and the sun—as viewed by certain parts of the world—and we’ll have two or three minutes of darkness along a long, narrow path. On the flip side, lunar eclipses are viewable by many more people, as we are the ones doing the shadowing.

Another possibility is the partial eclipse, where the alignment doesn’t quite work out perfectly; people outside of the path of totality today will only get a partial solar eclipse, and that track is so narrow that my aunt, who lives less than 15 miles to the south, is on its uncertain edge. Or you might get an annular solar eclipse, where the moon is at its apogee (farthest point in its orbit), so it isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole sun, instead leaving a blinding ring. And then there’s the penumbral lunar eclipse, essentially a mirrored version of the annular; in this case, the moon doesn’t go through the Earth’s full shadow, and most people barely even notice anything’s wrong.

However it happens, the eclipse is an astronomical eventuality. Our moon is big enough and close enough to cover the whole sun, so it’s only natural that we have solar eclipses. (On Mars, it wouldn’t work, because Phobos and Deimos are too tiny. Instead, you’d have transits, similar to the transit of Venus a few years ago.) Similarly, the moon is close enough to fall completely within its primary’s shadow on some occasions, so lunar eclipses were always going to happen.

These events are regular, precise. We can predict them years, even centuries in advance. Gravity and orbital mechanics give alignments a clockwork rhythm that can only change if acted upon by an outside body.

Days of old

In earlier days, some people saw a much different outside body at work in the heavens. Even once a culture reaches a level of mathematical and astronomical advancement where eclipses become predictable, that doesn’t mean the average person isn’t going to continue seeing them as portents. How many people believe in astrology today?

And let’s face it: an eclipse, if you don’t really know what’s going on, might be scary. Here’s the sun disappearing before our very eyes. Or the moon. Or, if it’s a particularly colorful lunar eclipse, then the moon isn’t vanishing, but turning red. You know, the color of blood. Somebody who doesn’t understand orbits and geometry would be well inclined to think something strange is going on.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction can use this to great effect, because a rare event like an eclipse is a perfect catalyst for change and conflict. People might see it as an omen, a sign of impending doom. Then, seeing it, they might be moved to bring about the doom themselves. Seven minutes of darkness—the most we on Earth can get—might not be too bad, but a fantasy world with a larger moon may have solar eclipses that last for an hour or more, like our lunar eclipses today. That could be enough time to unnerve even the hardiest souls.

Science fiction can get into the act here, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. If a culture only sees an eclipse once every thousand years or so, then even the memory of the event might be forgotten by the next time it comes around. And then what happens? In the same vein, the eclipse of Pitch Black releases the horrors of that story; working that out provides a good mystery to be solved, while the partial phase offers a practical method of building tension.

Beyond the psychological effects and theological implications of an eclipse, they work well in any case where astronomy and the predictive power of science play a role. Recall, if you will, the famous story of Columbus using a known upcoming eclipse as a way to scare an indigenous culture that lacked the knowledge of its arrival. Someone who has that knowledge can very easily lord it over those who do not, which sets up potential conflicts—or provides a way out of them. “Release me, or I will take away the sun” works as a threat, if the people you’re threatening can’t be sure the sun won’t come back.

In fantasy, eclipses can even fit into the backstory. The titular character of my novel Nocturne was born during a solar eclipse (I wrote the book because of the one today, in fact), and that special quality, combined with the peculiar magic system of the setting, provides most of the forward movement of the story. On a more epic level, if fantasy gods wander the land, one of them might have the power to make his own eclipses. A good way of keeping the peasants and worshippers in line, wouldn’t you say?

However you do it, treating an eclipse as something amiss in the heavens works a lot better for a story than assuming it’s a normal celestial occurrence. Yes, they happen. Yes, they’re regular. But if they’re unexpected, then they can be so much more useful. But that’s true of science in general, at least when you start melding it with fantasy. The whole purpose of science is to explain the world in a rational manner, but fantasy is almost the antithesis of rationality. So, by keeping eclipses mysterious, momentous, portentous occasions, we let them stay in the realm of fantasy. For today, I think that’s a good thing.

On the elements

Very recently, a milestone was reached, an important goal in the study of chemistry. The seventh row of the periodic table was officially filled in. Now, almost nobody outside of a few laboratories cares anything about oganesson and tennessine (nice to see that my state finally gets its own element, though), and they’ll probably never have any actual use, but they’re there, and now we know they are.

Especially in science fiction, there’s the trope of the “unknown” element that has or allows some sort of superpowers. In some cases, this takes the form of a supposed chemical element, such as the fictitious “elerium”, “adamantium”, or even “unobtainium”. Other works instead use something that could better be described as a compound (“kryptonite”) or something else entirely (“element zero”). But the idea remains the same.

So this post is a quick overview of the elements we know. As a whole, science is quite confident that we do know all the elements in nature. Atomic theory is pretty clear on that point; the periodic table has no more “gaps” in the middle, and we’ve now filled in all the ones at the end. But element 118 only got named in 2016, and that’s proof that we didn’t always know everything.

The ancients

The classical idea of “element” wasn’t exactly chemically sound. We know the Greek division of earth, air, fire, and water, a four-way distinction still used in fantasy literature and other media; other cultures had similar concepts, if not always the same divisions.

But they also knew of chemical elements, particularly a few that occur naturally in “pure” form. Gold, silver, copper, tin, and lead are the ones most people recognize as being “prehistoric”. (Native copper is relatively rare, but it pops up in a few places, and most of those, coincidentally enough, show evidence of a bronze-working culture nearby.) Carbon, in the form of charcoal, doesn’t take too much work to purify. Meteorites provided early iron. Sulfur can be found anywhere there’s a volcano—probably a good reason to associate the smell of “brimstone” with eternal punishment. And don’t forget “quicksilver”, or mercury.

We’ve also got evidence of bismuth and antimony known in something like elemental form. Both found medicinal uses, despite being quite toxic. (Mercury was the same, and it’s even worse, because it’s a liquid at room temperature.) And then there’s the curious case of platinum. Some evidence points to it being used on either side of the Atlantic in olden times, which is good news for the fantasy types who need a coin more valuable than gold.

The alchemists

For most of Western history, chemists—or what passed for them—tended to focus on compounds rather than isolating elements. However, there were a few advances on that front, too. Albertus Magnus separated arsenic from its compounding partners in the 13th century, much to the delight of poisoners everywhere. Elemental zinc is also an alchemical discovery in Europe, though a few records point to it being made far earlier in India.

Around this time, the very definition of an element was in flux, especially in medieval and Renaissance Europe. You still had the Aristotelian view of the four elements, broadly supported by the Church, but then there were the alchemists and others working on their own things. Some of the questions they considered led to great discoveries later on, but the technology wasn’t yet ready to isolate all the elements. So, in this particular age (conveniently enough, the perfect era for fantasy), there’s still a lot left to find.

The enlightened ones

Henning Brand gets the credit for discovering phosphorus, according to the book I’m looking at right now. That was in 1669, almost a century and a half after Paracelsus possibly experimented with metallic zinc, and a full four hundred years after the last definitive evidence for discovery. The next on the timeline doesn’t come until 1735: cobalt.

Those opened the floodgates. By this point, you could hear the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and that brought advances to the technology of chemistry. The more liberal academic climate led to greater experimentation, as well. All in all, the late 18th century was the beginning of an element storm. Thanks to electricity, the vacuum, and numerous other developments, enterprising chemists (no longer alchemists at this point) started finding elements seemingly everywhere.

It’s this era where the periodic table is a bit of a Wild West. Everything is up in the air, and nobody really knows what’s what. Indeed, there are quite a few mistaken discoveries in the years before Mendeleev, some of them even finding their way into actual chemistry textbooks. In most cases, these were simple mistakes or even rediscoveries; there were a few fights over primacy, too. But it shows that it wasn’t until relatively recently that we knew all these elements couldn’t exist.

The periodic age

Once the periodic table became the gold standard for chemistry, finding new elements became a matter of filling in the blanks. We know there’s an element that goes here, and it’ll be a little like these. So that’s how we got most of the rest of the gang in the late 1800s through about 1940 or so.

Ever since nuclear science came into existence, we’ve seen a steady stream of new elements being created in particle accelerators or other laboratory conditions. Strictly speaking, that began in 1937 with technetium (more on it in a moment), but it really got going after World War II. Over the next 70 years, scientists made from scratch a couple dozen new elements, none of which exist in nature, most tearing themselves apart within the barest fraction of a second.

Nuclear physics explains why these superheavy elements don’t work right. The way we make them is by forcing lighter elements to fuse, but that leaves them with too few neutrons to truly be stable. The island of stability hypothesis says that some of them could actually be stable enough to be useful…if we built them right. So, even though there’s no more room on the periodic table (unless Period 8 turns out to exist), that’s not to say all those spots along the bottom row have to disappear in the blink of an eye.

The oddballs

Last but not least, there are a few weirdos in the periodic table, and these deserve special mention. Two of them are quite odd indeed: technetium and promethium. By any reasonable standard, these should be stable. Technetium is element 43, a transition metal that should act a bit like a heavier manganese.

No such luck. Due to a curious quirk in atomic structure, 43 is a kind of “magic number”. An atom with 43 protons (which would be, by definition, technetium) can never be fully stable. At best, it can have a long half-life, and some isotopes do last for tens of thousands of years, but stable? Alas, no. Promethium, element 61, is the same way, for much the same reason.

Uranium is well-known as the last “stable” element, although none of its isotopes are truly stable; the most stable, 238, has a half-life around the current age of the Earth. Element 92 is also familiar as the fuel for a man-made fission reactor or a bomb, but it’s even more interesting than that. Because it’s radioactive, yet it can last for so long, uranium has the curious property of “spontaneous” fission. A few places in the world are actually natural nuclear reactors, though most have long since decayed below critical mass. A culture living near something like that, however, might discover neptunium, plutonium, and other decay byproducts long before they probably should. (They’ll likely find the link between radiation and cancer pretty early, too.)

The end

Depending on who you ask, we’re either at the end of the periodic table, or we’re not. Some theories have it running out at 118, some say 137, and one even says infinity. The patterns are already clear, though. If there’s no true island of stability, then most anything else we find is going to be extremely short-lived, highly radioactive, or both. Probably that last one.

Today, then, there’s not really the possibility for an “undiscovered” element. We simply don’t have a place to put it. That doesn’t mean your sci-fi is out of luck, though. There could be isotopes of existing elements that we don’t have; this is especially true of the transuranic elements. More likely, though, would be a compound not seen on Earth. A crystal structure we don’t have, or an alloy, or something of that sort—a novel combination of existing elements, rather than a single new one.

And then you have the more bizarre forms of matter. Neutronium (the stuff of neutron stars), if you could make it stable when you don’t have an Earth mass of the stuff packed into something the size of your house, would be a true “element zero”, and it may have interesting properties. Antimatter atoms would annihilate their “normal” cousins, but we don’t know much about them other than that. You might even be able to handwave something using other particles, like muons, or different arrangements of quarks. These wouldn’t create new elements in the traditional sense, but an entire new branch of chemistry.

So don’t get discouraged. Just because there’s no place on the periodic table to put your imaginary elements, that doesn’t mean you have to choose between them and scientific rigor. You just have to think outside the 118 boxes.

Exoplanets for builders

In just over two decades, we’ve gone from knowing about nine planets (shut up, Pluto haters) to recognizing the existence of thousands of them. Almost all of those are completely unsuitable for life as we know it, but researchers say it’s only a matter of time before we find “Earth 2.0”. Like any other 2.0 version, I’m sure that one will have fewer features and be harder to use, but never mind that.

As so many science fiction writers like to add in a large helping of verisimilitude, I thought I’d write a post summarizing what we know about planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, as we enter 2017. Keep in mind that there’s a lot even I don’t know, although I’ve been following the field as a lay observer since 2000. Nonetheless, I hope there’s enough in here to stimulate your imagination. Also, this will necessarily be a technical post, so fantasy authors beware.

What we know

We know planets exist beyond our solar system. They’ve been detected by the way they pull on their stars as they orbit (the Doppler or radial velocity method), and that’s how we found most of the early ones. The majority of those known today, thanks to the Kepler mission, have been discovered by searching for the change in their stars’ light intensity as the planets pass before them: the transit method. In addition, we have a few examples of microlensing, where the gravity of a planet bends the light of a “background” star ever so slightly. And we’ve got a handful of cases where we’ve directly imaged the planets themselves, though these tend to be very, very large planets, many times the size of Jupiter.

However we see them, we’re sure they’re out there. They can’t all be false positives. And thanks to Kepler, we’ve got enough data to start drawing some conclusions. Of course, these must be considered subject to change, but that’s the way of science.

First, our solar system, with its G-type star orbited by anywhere from eight to twenty planets (depending on who’s counting) starting at about 0.3 AU, looks very much like an outlier. We don’t have a “hot Jupiter”, a gas giant exceedingly close to the star, with an orbit on the order of days. Nor do we have a “warm Neptune” (a mid-range gaseous planet somewhere in the inner system) or a “super-Earth” (a larger terrestrial world, possibly with a thick atmosphere). This doesn’t mean we’re unique, though, only that we can’t assume our situation is the norm.

Second, we’ve got a pretty good idea about which stars have planets. To a first approximation, that’s all of them, but the reality is a little more nuanced. Bright giants don’t have time to form planets. Small red dwarfs don’t have the material to create Jupiter-size giants. Neither of these statements is an absolute—we’ve got examples of gas giants around M-class stars—but they’re tendencies. Everything else, seemingly, is up in the air.

What we can guess

Planets do appear to be everywhere we look. There are more of them around M stars, but that’s largely because there are so many more M stars to begin with. A lot of stars have planets with much closer orbits, so close that you wouldn’t expect them to form. Gas giants aren’t restricted to the outer system, like they are here. And there’s a whole class, the super-Earths, that we never knew existed.

We can make some educated guesses about some of these planets. For example, many of the super-Earths, according to computer simulations, may actually be tiny versions of Neptune, so-called “gas dwarfs”. If that’s true, it severely cuts our number of potentially habitable worlds. On the other hand, the definition of the habitable zone has only expanded since we started finding exoplanets. (Even in our own solar system, what once was merely Earth and maybe the Martian underground now includes Europe, Titan, Enceladus, Ganymede, Ceres, the cloud tops of Venus, and about a dozen more exotic locales.) Likewise, studies suggest that a tide-locked planet around a red dwarf star doesn’t have to be frozen on one side and scorched on the other.

We’ve got a few points where we don’t even have data, though. One of these, possibly the most important for a writer, is the frequency of Earthlike worlds. By “Earthlike”, I don’t simply mean terrestrial, but terrestrial and capable of having liquid water on the surface. Where’s the closest one of those? Until about a year ago, the answer might have been anywhere from 15 to 500 light-years away. But then came Proxima b. If it turns out to be potentially habitable—in the month and a half between my writing this post and it going up, we may very well know—then that almost ensures that Earthlike worlds are everywhere. Because what are the chances that the next-closest star to the Sun has one, too?

Creating a planet

For the speculative writer, this lack of knowledge is a boon. We have the freedom to create, and there are few definite boundaries. Want to put a gas giant in the center of a star’s habitable zone, with multiple Earthlike moons? We can’t prove it’s impossible, and the real-life counterpart might really be out there, waiting to be found.

Basically, here’s a rundown of some of the factors that go into creating an exoplanet:

  • Star size: Bigger stars are shorter-lived, but smaller ones require their “classically” habitable planets to be much closer, to the point where they’ll likely be tide-locked. G-type dwarfs like ours are a happy medium, but not a common one: something like 1% of stars are in the G class, and there’s not much data saying that planets are more likely around them.

  • Star number: Most stars, it seems, are in multiple systems. Binaries can host planets, though; we’ve detected a class of “Tatooine” planets (named after the one in Star Wars, because scientists are nerds) circling binary systems. For close binaries, this is a fairly stable arrangement, but with huge complexities in working out parameters like temperature. Distant binaries like Alpha Centauri can instead have individual planetary systems.

  • Planet size: We used to think there was a sharp cutoff between terrestrial and gaseous planets, based on the difference between the largest terrestrial we knew (Earth) and the smallest gas planets (Uranus and Neptune). Now we know that’s simply not true. It’s more of a continuum, and there may be super-Earths much larger than the smallest mini-Neptunes. And those gas dwarfs appear to be the most common type of planet, but that could be nothing more than observation bias, the way we thought hot Jupiters were incredibly common ten years ago. On the smaller end of the scale, we haven’t found much, but there’s no reason to expect that exoplanet analogues of Mars, Mercury, Pluto, and Ganymede don’t exist.

  • Surface temperature: This is a big one, as it’s critical for life as we know it. We know that liquid water exists between 0° and 100°C (32–212°F), with the upper bound being a bit fluid due to atmospheric pressure. That 100 (or 180) degrees is a lot of room to play with, but remember that it’s not all available. DNA, for example, can break down above about 50°C. Below freezing, of course, you get into subsurface oceans, which might be fun for exploration purposes.

  • Atmosphere: Except for a couple of gas giants, we’ve got nothing here. We have no idea if the nitrogen-oxygen mix of Earth is common, or if most planets we find would be CO2 pressure cookers like Venus. Or they could retain their primordial hydrogen-helium atmospheres, or be nearly airless like Mars. Something tells me that we’ll find all of those soon enough.

  • Life: And so we come to this. Life, we know, changes a planet, just as the planet changes it. A biosphere will be detectable, even from the distance of light-years. It will get noticed, once telescopes and instruments are sensitive enough to see it. And it will stand out. Some chemicals just don’t show up without life, or at least not in the quantities that it brings. Methane, O2, and a few others are considered likely biotic markers. The million-dollar question is just how likely life really is. Is it everywhere? Are there aliens on Proxima b right now? If so, are they single-celled, or possibly advanced enough to be looking back at us? Here is the writers’ playground.

What’s to come

Assuming the status quo—never a safe assumption—our capability for detecting and classifying exoplanets is only expected to increase in the coming years. But I’ve heard that one before. Once upon a time, the timeline looked like this: Kepler in 2004 or 2005, the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) in 2009, and the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) in 2012. In reality, we got Kepler in 2009 (it’s now busted and on a secondary mission). TPF was “indefinitely deferred”, and SIM was left to languish before being mercy-killed some years ago. The Europeans did no better; their Darwin mission suffered the same let’s-not-call-it-cancelled fate as TPF. Now, both missions might get launched in the 2030s…but they probably won’t.

On the bright side, we’ve got a small crop of upcoming developments. TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Sky Survey, I think) is slated to launch this year—I’ll believe it when I see it. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble’s less-capable brother, might go up in 2018, but its schedule is going to be too crowded to allow it to do more than confirm detections made by other means.

Ground-based telescopes are about at their limit, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. The E-ELT is expected to start operations in 2024, the Giant Magellan Telescope in 2025, and these are exoplanet-capable. The Thirty Meter Telescope was supposed to join them in about the same timeframe, but politically motivated protests stopped that plan, and the world is poorer for it.

Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom, though, let’s look on the bright side. Even with all the problems exoplanet research has faced, it’s made wonderful progress. When I was born, we didn’t know for sure if there were any planets outside our own solar system. Now, we’re finding them everywhere we look. They may not be the ones science fiction has trained us to imagine, but truth is always stranger than fiction. Forget about “Earth 2”. In a few years, we might have more Earths than we know what to do with. And wouldn’t that make a good story?

On space battles

It’s a glorious thing, combat in space, or so Hollywood would have us believe. Star Wars shows us an analog of carrier warfare, with large ships (like Star Destroyers) launching out wing after wing of small craft (TIE Fighters and X-Wings) that duke it out amid the starry expanse. That other bastion of popular science fiction, Star Trek, also depicts space warfare in naval terms, as a dark, three-dimensional version of the ship-to-ship combat of yore. Most “smaller” universes ape these big two, so the general idea in modern minds is this: space battles look like WWII, but in space.

Ask anyone who has studied the subject in any depth, however, and they’ll tell you that isn’t how it would be. There’s a great divide between what most people think space combat might be like, and the form the experts have concluded it would take. I’m not here to “debunk”, though. If you’re a creator, and you want aerial dogfighting, then go for it, if that’s what your work needs. Just don’t expect the nitpickers to care for it.

Space is big

The first problem with most depictions of space battles is one of scale. As the saying goes, space is big. No, scratch that. I’ll tell you right now that saying is wrong. Space isn’t big. It’s so huge, so enormous, that there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to encompass its vastness.

That’s where Hollywood runs into trouble. Warfare today is often conducted via drone strikes, controlled by people sitting at consoles halfway around the world from their targets. We rightfully consider that an impersonal way of fighting, but what’s striking is the 10,000 miles standing between offense and defense. How many Americans could place Aleppo on a map? (The guy that finished third in the last presidential election couldn’t.) Worse, how would you make a drone strike dramatic?

In space, the problem is magnified greatly. Ten thousand miles gets you effectively nowhere. From the surface of Earth, that doesn’t even take you past geostationary satellites! It’s over twenty times that to the Moon, and Mars is (at best) about another 100 times that. In naval warfare, it became a big deal when guns got good enough to strike something over the horizon. Space has no horizon, but the principle is the same. With as much room as you’ve got to move, there’s almost no reason why two craft would ever come close enough to see as more than a speck. A range of 10,000 miles might very well be considered point-blank in space terms, which is bad news for action shots.

Space is empty (except when it isn’t)

Compounding the problem of space’s size is its relative emptiness. There’s simply nothing there. Movies show asteroid belts as these densely packed regions full of rocks bumping into each other and sleek smuggler ships weaving through them. And some stars might even have something like that. (Tabby’s Star, aka KIC 8462852, almost requires a ring of this magnitude, unless you’re ready to invoke Dyson spheres.) But our own Solar System doesn’t.

We’ve got two asteroid belts, but the Kuiper Belt is so diffuse that we’re still finding objects hundreds of miles across out there! And the Main Belt isn’t that much better. You can easily travel a million miles through it without running across anything bigger than a baseball. Collisions between large bodies are comparatively rare; if they were common, we’d know.

Space’s emptiness also means that stealth is quite difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind, and the background is almost totally flat in any spectrum. And, because you’re in a vacuum, any heat emissions are going to be blindingly obvious to anyone looking in the right direction. So are rocket flares, or targeting lasers, radio transmissions…

Space plays its own game

The worst part of all is that space has its own rules, and those don’t match anything we’re familiar with here on Earth. For one thing, it’s a vacuum. I’ve already said that, but that statement points out something else: without air, wings don’t work. Spacecraft don’t bank. They don’t need to. (They also don’t brake. Once they’re traveling at a certain speed, they’ll keep going until something stops them.)

Another one of those pesky Newtonian mechanics that comes into play is the Third Law. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That’s how rockets work: they spit stuff out the back to propel themselves ahead. Solar sails use the same principle, but turned around. Right now, we’ve got one example (the EmDrive) of something that may get around this fundamental law, assuming it’s not experimental error, but everything in space now and for the near future requires something to push on, or something to push against it. That puts a severe limit on craft sizes, speeds, and operating environments. Moving, for example, the Enterprise by means of conventional thrusters is a non-starter.

And then there’s the ultimate speed limit: light. Every idea we’ve got to get around the light-speed barrier is theoretical at best, crackpot at worst. Because space is huge, light’s speed limit hampers all aspects of space warfare. It’s a maximum for the transmission of information, too. By the time you detect that laser beam, it’s already hitting you.

Reality check

If you want hyperrealism in your space battles, then, you’ll have to throw out most of the book of received wisdom on the subject. The odds are severely stacked against it being anything at all like WWII aerial and naval combat. Instead, the common comparison among those who have researched the topic is to submarine warfare. Thinking about it, you can probably see the parallels. You’ve got relatively small craft in a relatively big, very hostile medium. Fighting takes place over great distances, at a fairly slow speed. Instead of holding up Star Trek as our example, maybe we should be looking more at Hunt for Red October or Das Boot.

But that’s if reality is what you’re looking for. In books, that’s all well and good, because you don’t have to worry about creating something flashy for the crowd. TV and movies need something more, and they can get it…for a price. That price? Realism.

Depending on the assumptions of your universe, you can tinker a bit with the form of space combat. With reactionless engines, a lot of the problems with ship size and range go away. FTL travel based around “jump points” neatly explains why so many ships would be in such close proximity. Depending on how you justify your “hyperspace” or “subspace”, you could even find a way to handwave banked flight.

Each choice you make will help shape the “style” of combat. If useful reactionless engines require enormous power inputs, for instance, but your civilization has also invented some incredibly efficient rockets on smaller scales, then that might explain a carrier-fighter mode of warfare. Conversely, if everything can use “impulse” engines, then there’s no need for waves of smaller craft. Need super-high acceleration in your fighters, but don’t have a way to counteract its effects? Well, hope you like drones, because that’s what would naturally develop. But if FTL space can only be navigated by a human intelligence (as in Dune), then you’ve got room for people on the carriers.

In the end, it all comes down to the effect you’re trying to create. For something like space combat, this may mean working “backward”. Instead of beginning with the founding principles of your story universe, it might be better to derive those principles from the style of fighting you want to portray. It’s not my usual method of worldbuilding, but it does have one advantage: you’ll always get the desired result, because that’s where you started. For some, that may be all you need.

Magic and tech: heating and cooling

Humans are virtually unique among species in altering their environment to better suit their needs. (How much they alter that environment is a matter of some debate, but that doesn’t concern us now.) No other species that we know of has created an artificial means of changing the ambient temperature of an enclosed area. Some animals and plants can regulate their internal temperature, but not that of their surroundings. We’re alone in that.

Heating things up is fairly easy. Fire is one of the oldest inventions of mankind, and it’s practically the standard marker for human habitation. Almost nothing in nature can cause fires—lightning is one of a very few examples—and wildfires are uncontrolled by definition. A tended fire, then, screams for a human interpretation.

Fire, of course, has been useful for many things throughout history. Cooking was one of its earliest uses, with pottery and metalworking coming along later. And as the ages have passed, our command of the flame has only grown. We’ve gone from open fires to furnaces and ovens and incinerators. We’ve changed from using wood to coal to electricity and gas and even lasers.

On the other side of the coin, cooling is much, much harder. Fans are old, but they’re awfully inefficient. Ice melts, and if you don’t have a way to make it, you’ve got to carry it in from elsewhere, losing some (or most) along the way. Some places had the ability to store food in the frozen ground, but that usually only works about two or three months out of the year. It wasn’t until the Scientific Revolution that we starting developing ways to create artificial cold, through vacuum pumps and air compressors. Today, we can reach somewhere around a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature, but the vast majority of our ancestors were virtually out of luck.

Where we stand

So, the state of our magical world is, compared to ours, pretty dire. We’ll start with cooling technology. That’s easy, because there basically isn’t any. Without magic, we’re mostly limited to fans and (when we can find it) ice. Instead of modern air conditioning, houses were built to control the flow of heat. High ceilings allowed hot air to rise, effectively cooling the lower floor. Houses could be constructed to take advantage of the prevailing winds. And food that needed to be preserved could be salted or smoked or pickled. Or kept in cellars, where the temperatures are fairly steady and cool.

As in our world, heat is another matter altogether. Our created world has a good command of fire, even before you add in the arcane. They can work (some) metals, which requires great heat and, more importantly, control of that heat. Houses have hearths and fireplaces, and sometimes ovens. A few public buildings have something similar to the Roman hypocaust, a kind of central heating created by piping hot air underneath a raised floor and behind the building’s walls.

Magic’s helping hands

In fantasy stories, fire is typically the most destructive magical element, as well as the most “flashy”. The fireball is the sword-and-sorcery spell. As usual in this series, however, we’ll eschew the over-the-top explosions and stick to something more low-key, but much more effective in advancing the state of a civilization.

It’s still simple to command fire in our magical world, and it is most certainly given to militaristic and destructive uses, but more peaceful mages have investigated arcane fire for its more beneficial properties. A reliable fire-starter is merely the first of these. Starting a fire in older days tended to be…difficult, but the mages have created a solution. It’s a tiny magical crystal, of the same kind we’ve seen in previous entries, but attuned to fire and heat. Attached to the end of a short stick, it causes tinder to ignite within a few seconds. In modern terms, it’s a lighter.

Larger versions of this produce much more heat, but they’re more expensive and less efficient, making it less than practical to use them for home heating. Mages are working on that problem, however. A few richer individuals can afford the waste, and they do use these fire crystals to heat their homes in the winter. But even their cooks prefer the tried-and-true methods of a proper fire, even if it was started by magic.

Cooling is a harder problem, even for magic. That’s because, technically speaking, there’s no such thing as cold. There’s only the absence of heat. Making something colder requires taking away some of its heat. Fans, for example, work by causing a breeze; the moving air carries away the heat near your body, which has the effect of cooling it. That’s one strategy that can be exploited by magical means, and our mages have done so. Electric fans obviously need electricity, but arcane ones can be powered by the same force providers we’ve already met. Those are expendable—and thus costly—but they get the job done.

Besides these forms of crystallized magic, the wizards of our magical world have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Personal spells, of course, are very important. Mages can light their own fires at the touch of a finger and an arcane word. They can provide their own cooling winds. And some of them can even use spells to increase their own ability to withstand extremes of hot and cold.

Far and wide

But the biggest impact of this greater command of fire is in the knock-on effects it brings to the rest of the world. Starting fires is great, but they’re only useful if you, well, use them, and it’s hard to find medieval-era technology that couldn’t benefit from better ways of making heat.

Metallurgy is the obvious winner here. With magic allowing bigger, hotter, more controllable fires and sources of heat, it becomes possible to melt and boil metals otherwise impervious to the era’s tech. This leads to better, purer alloys, among other things. Steel, naturally, will be one of the first. Historical methods of production were largely limited to small batches until the Industrial Revolution.

Cooking advances with better heat, too. So do many manufacturing professions. And if magical methods of heating become easier and cheaper—this is not a given in our setting, but it could be in others—then wood and charcoal fall out of favor everywhere, because magic takes over. Environmentalists rejoice, because even this modest level of magic means that coal never becomes needed for heat. Nor does oil. The entire fossil fuel industry is obsoleted before it’s even born.

It’s counterintuitive, but better heat technology will also lead to a greater understanding of cold. Most of the early discoveries about cold had to wait until things like steam power and vacuum pumps arrived. Magic short-circuits that, though. Magical means of power generation take the place of steam engines, even in laboratory settings, potentially allowing the science of refrigeration to progress much earlier. Our magical kingdom is on the verge of such discoveries, with all they represent. The first true refrigerators and freezers may be less than a lifetime away. Even if they aren’t, nothing more than an easy way of producing ice is a century or more of advancement.

Next time

The next part of this series will move on from heating a house to building it. We’ll see how magic aids in construction, from building materials to architectural designs. For now, since summer has started, find somewhere cold and enjoy the fact that you can.