Saturday, November 10, 2018

Is it safe to come out yet?

Now the mid-terms are over - finally! - I guess it was too much to hope that any kind of normality would take hold. On reflection, that was only ever a naive hope. No matter who won or lost, Trump was always going to:
(a) proclaim victory anyway,
and/or (b) claim conspiracies and witch hunts,
always with a dose of (c) blame someone else,
and (d) mock and insult anyone he doesn’t like.

The only difference would be the relative proportions of the above. So it’s basically business as usual in the kindergarten playground of American politics, and two more years of campaigning to look forward to before the next election.


What I’ve learned over the past two weeks of unplugging from the online world is how toxic the world has become, and how badly that toxicity affects me. I should probably make a more permanent effort to ignore all news from south of the border, because it’s way too depressing and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So, turning to more positive thoughts ...

Writing is going well - steadily ahead of the target I set myself at the end of July. I’m just at the 50% mark for the first draft. I have a rough outline of the rest of the story, but still murky on some of the plot details. However that is normal for my writing process so it’s not a problem. Yet :)

I took part in a writers’ panel last week on the publishing process, which was a lively 90 minutes of questions and answers.

Several people at work bought The Ashes of Home (the workplace remains my main source of paperback sales) and I’m getting positive comments back.

I plan to reduce the e-book price of both Ghosts and Ashes next month for a Christmas promotion, so if anyone was thinking of picking up a copy it’s worth waiting a little while.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

What happened to humanity?

I was planning on lining up more posts on worldbuilding, but the last week has left me feeling like normal rational life has taken its leave of this continent.

We have a spate of bombs through the mail, and then Pittsburgh - to add to all the other mass shootings this year. But what is most sickening is that, rather than genuine calls for strength and unity and compassion, the loudest voices on both sides of the divide are racing each other to the bottom of the sewer dredging the depths for any political capital they can gain.

I think I’m going to unplug from the Internet until after November 6, because right now a large slice of humanity has lost its humanity.

BTW - comments are off, 'nuff said

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Long Dark - plant life

A peculiar world is likely to support some peculiar life. What I’ve settled on is by no means original, but I’m trying to develop the basic idea into something unique to this story.

I’m entering new worldbuilding territory here, because up until now I’ve not dealt with any form of alien life. Even in Shayla’s world, they never encountered another inhabited planet. Everything there has its origins on Earth (even though they’ve long ago forgotten that Earth even existed.)

In The Long Dark, the planet Elysium is girdled by a single plant-like superorganism. The locals call it Sponge.

Like Earthly life, Sponge is based on carbon chemistry, with water as the medium, and an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. During the summer season, Sponge photosynthesizes for energy.

But similarities end there. Sponge is not based on cellular structures like our plants and animals, and it has no DNA. I don’t get into these kinds of details in the story, but my basis is that there are other mechanisms possible for self-organization and replication.

Something I am fleshing out, though, is some insight into the inner structure of Sponge as that is important to the story. The plant mass forms a carpet hundreds of meters thick - kilometers in places - that covers the equatorial to mid latitudes, ending about 40 degrees north and south. Given the extreme conditions at the poles, I figured this was a reasonable extent for life to persist.

Map of Elysium, showing the active growth zones north and south, 
and the main north-south systems of veins

The name “Sponge” conjures images of a fairly amorphous uniform spongy mass. In the story I try to dispel that with images of specific and detailed structure at all kinds of scales from the microscopic to the gargantuan. There are vast structural ribs holding the plant’s shape, and complex networks of veins, aquifers, and chambers to convey liquid, nutrients, and air to where it’s needed. The mass is riddled with chambers, deep chasms, and vast hollows that would easily swallow a town, along with a variety of specialized structures that make up the living portions of the plant. It is these depths that the colonists harvest for a living.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Rock on, Taylor!

Some bizarre and contradictory scenes played out in the media last week.

We have Taylor Swift posting a political message to Instagram - something she rarely does:

And then we have Kanye West in the Oval Office - transcript here:

What first struck me was the blatant double standards at work in the highly-charged world today

When Taylor Swift posted her thoughts on Instagram, an angry hornet swarm of indignation buzzed into being.
“Why should the world care what a singer thinks?”
“What does she know about politics?”
“What gives her the right to voice an opinion?”
The implication is - you have no right to post this, shut up!

Let’s step past the obvious absurdity of these comments in the first place. Instagram is a social media site, along with many others. Millions of people post their thoughts to these sites every day. Who cares what you ate for breakfast? Nobody? Fair enough, but nobody castigates you for posting it. If you don’t care, shrug shoulders and move on.

The subtext seems to be, becoming a successful musician somehow cancels your right to a voice like the rest of the population.

The double standard comes into play with the sub-subtext - you’re not allowed to post something I disagree with. That same furious horde was strangely silent when Kanye West monologued in praise of Donald Trump.
Who’s he? A rapper.
Political qualifications? Zilch.
Equivalent condemnation on publicly voicing an opinion just because he’s an entertainment celebrity?

Then we come to the content of their respective messages

Kanye West expressed outright and unequivocal support for Donald Trump. The message was exclusively partisan. That is his right.

In comparison, Taylor Swift did express her values and who she would be supporting in her state in the mid-terms, and she articulated her reasons clearly and succinctly. That is her right.

But beyond that, she didn’t exhort her followers to support Democrat candidates or to share her political beliefs. This was simply the lead-in to the real thrust of her post, which was an entirely non-partisan exhortation to educate yourself and vote accordingly. And, importantly, to make sure you actually do register and vote.

Why that message should attract such vitriolic condemnation escapes me.

To put it bluntly, if you have a problem with Taylor Swift’s post, then you appear to have a problem with the very foundation of democratic elections

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Long Dark - surface conditions

I’ve talked about the peculiar day/night cycle on a world with a 90 degree axial tilt. That much is straightforward observation of how the sun would look at various points on the planet’s surface. But the next part of worldbuilding is a lot more speculative.

Most of a planet’s weather is driven by convection currents caused by temperature differences in its atmosphere and oceans. With that in mind, think about a planet where the sun hovers directly overhead at the pole, baking it remorselessly for months, then disappears for a whole half of the year plunging that same pole into darkness. To me, that adds up to massive temperature fluctuations across the globe during the course of a year.

I know the same thing happens on Earth at the poles, with six months day and six of night, but the sun stays low in the sky and the days stay cold. The poles don’t turn into the tropics at midsummer, and most of the Earth’s surface sees a reasonable day/night cycle all year round. On this planet, by contrast, periods of light and darkness are taken to extremes across most of its surface, and everywhere gets a dose of tropical heat at some point in the year.

One thing I think we can safely assume - there will be some pretty violent weather going on. Beyond that, I certainly have no way of knowing how it would look, so the rest is pure invention.

Earth has many stable circulation patterns, but its axis only wobbles 23 degrees back and forth relative to the sun during the course of a year. My world does a complete 180 and then back again, so any circulation patterns would completely reverse, which suggests a lot of turbulence to cope with.

In this world, a ‘year’ lasts about thirteen Earth years, so that gives a lengthy season. My worldbuilding has global weather patterns switching through a series of states as the seasons change. Each state is reasonably stable - though not necessarily benign - for a long stretch of time as the planet slowly turns new latitudes to the sun, then the pattern becomes unstable and flips in a rapid and violent transition to the next season.

The height of summer is the calmest time, and this is when most of the outdoor work is done. Meanwhile, in the winter hemisphere, temperatures bottom out at minus two hundred Celcius, lashing the winter pole with storms of nitrogen rain.

The most violent conditions arrive some time after midsummer, as the winter pole starts thawing and the summer pole plunges into darkness. Through the mid-seasons, convection currents in the atmosphere undergo dramatic shifts powered from the poles. I’m expecting storms and winds that would put an Earthly hurricane to shame.

On top of this, a red giant star itself is pretty active compared to our tranquil sun. Outbursts of solar flares make nearby space inhospitable to orbiting craft much of the time, and the colonists long ago gave up trying to keep satellites working. I’ve given the planet a powerful magnetic field to shield the surface from the worst of the solar storms, but it’s still a dangerous place to be. And all this electrical activity makes communications tricky at best. The colonists rely on land lines laid between permanent settlements, and short wave radio when conditions allow.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Long Dark - building a habitable planet

Almost a year ago, I talked about the unusual world setting of The Long Dark. This is a world with a roughly 90 degree axial tilt - so it’s effectively spinning on its side compared to the plane of its orbit.

The most obvious characteristic of such a world is its extreme seasons. Other than a narrow strip around the equator, everywhere will experience midnight sun and some day-long darkness. The closer you get to the poles, the longer those periods of perpetual day and night become.

The strangest points on the surface are the poles themselves. At midsummer, the sun will be stationary, directly overhead. Expect it to get very hot! As the days proceed, the sun will start to move in small circles, gradually getting wider and wider and closer to the horizon. When you reach the equinox, the sun will hug the horizon, then dip below, and you then have half a year of complete darkness. This is “the Long Dark” of the book’s title.

This extreme light/dark cycle was really the foundation for the story, but there are other important features I wanted to bring together, which meant some research to build a credible and consistent world.

When I first came up with the idea, I pictured the world circling a white dwarf. I don’t know why, but that was my mental image. As I developed the setting, though, I realized I wanted this world to have a very long year. I wanted my colonists to have several Earth years of “summer” in one hemisphere, before they had to migrate across the equator and set up camp in the other hemisphere.

This meant it had to be orbiting far out compared to Earth’s orbit, yet still warm enough at that distance to support liquid water and life. A white dwarf was not going to give me the conditions I needed.

I had an idea for how to resolve this, but no idea whether it was workable. I was delighted when some reading from a number of sources suggested I was on the right track.

In a few billion years, our own sun is expected to go through a red giant phase. It will expand to swallow the orbits of the inner planets, maybe even Earth’s. This led me to two very important realizations:

First, in this phase the “Goldilocks zone” will push outwards to cover the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. The “Goldilocks zone” is what astronomers refer to as the habitable zone, where liquid water should be able to exist on a planet’s surface. Right now, anywhere beyond Mars is too cold, but when the sun expands, the frozen outer reaches of the solar system will get a lot more toasty.

The second note is that if this is the evolution of our sun, then a red giant like this must be roughly the same mass. This means planets’ orbital periods will be comparable to those of our own solar system for a given distance out. And somewhere around the orbit of Saturn gave me the length of year that I was aiming for!

Right there, I had a long orbit that lay in the habitable zone. My white dwarf became a red giant.

I’m sure there are other scenarios that would give me the right combination of conditions, but this one simply resonated with me. It also provided other useful features that I’ll talk about in future posts.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Worldbuilding The Long Dark

One of the guilty pleasures of speculative fiction is the opportunity to imagine whole other worlds, and then bring them to life on the page.

There are some aspects of worldbuilding that I like to treat as a pastime in their own right in parallel to the actual writing. I wrote a whole series of posts about the massive drawing project for Admiral George Leonard, from The Ashes of Home.

That project was self-indulgent relaxation for me. It goes light years beyond the handful of rough sketches that I actually needed for the purposes of the story. In fact, the novels I’ve written so far have been fairly light on true worldbuilding.

The Shayla stories are set thousands of years in the future. There’s space travel and advanced tech, ships and planets for story settings, but strip out those elements and the world she inhabits is firmly rooted in current and past Earthly cultures. Worldbuilding largely consisted of placing a filter over the world we know, and deciding which features to amplify and which to fade out.

When it came to Tiamat’s Nest, I was starting even closer to home. Earth, later this century, but changed by a shifting climate and the ravages of conflicts and migrations as a vastly diminished population makes a new life in the new habitable zones.

Writing The Long Dark is presenting an entirely new challenge for me. Here, I’m starting out with a planet similar in size and temperature to Earth, but vastly different in most other respects. It supports non-Earthly life - a first for me - but humans can’t survive unprotected out in the open. In fact, their entire way of life is different from anything we know.

So, I’m having to go back to the drawing board and question just about every aspect of life that we take for granted. Of course, for simplicity and sanity, there has to be an undercurrent of familiarity, but I still have to look for hidden assumptions and bring them out into the open to see if the environment might drive a different set of norms that will play into the story somehow. I can’t simply transplant “small town England” onto alien soil and hope for it to make sense.

As a result, I’m expecting the first draft to take longer than usual, to leave me more time to mull over worldbuilding aspects as I go. Having said that, the last couple of months have been more productive than I expected and, for now at least, the words are flowing well.

Ha! I’ve probably jinxed it now!

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