fill in the blank makes the world go round…

Not being an economist suggesting an alternative to existing answers to the problem of unlimited want v limited resources would very likely not provide a utopian blueprint. With that in mind, ideal societies are probably best left as part of the domain of satire and/or fantasy. Astral – the working title for my science fiction novel in progress – does not attempt to paint a grand and perfect future for humanity the setting. Nor is the setting a dystopia.

Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter) mentions off-world colonies and the supposition is that they are not all people might hope. In Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity we’re told, “Earth That Was could no longer sustain our numbers; we were so many.” There’s a streak of disposable planet in science fiction that my first love in the genre – Star Trek – avoided almost completely. The inhabitants of Earth had, in fact, abandoned a dangerous courtship with self-extinction and Starfleet’s mission to seek out strange new worlds was not just about mineral rights.


As mentioned in prior entries here, the world(s) of Astral spans about 60 solar systems. The motivation for expansion splits the difference between Earth being used up and something Neil deGrasse Tyson said about a year ago (Oct. 2015): “If you have the power to turn another planet into Earth then you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.”

Most science fiction does not concern itself with the cost of putting fleets of ships in space and terraforming exoplanets. Again, not being an economist, I’m not planning on making any estimates in that regard. However, just as I’ve been musing on alternative political structures, the future on Earth’s colonies is not mute about the downside of capitalism and its contentious cousins.

There are at least half a dozen private entities reinventing space travel and while that’s thrilling it also based on some aspect of a profit motive. That has certainly been part of the equation in all exploration – from Magellan and before to NASA and beyond. This is probably not going away but it could actually get us into space even in the sci fi sense.

A friend of mine once observed that the utopia of Earth in Star Trek was not – could not be – based on some flawless ideology and the logical consequences of implementing it. Someone prior to the career of Mr. Spock had invented a machine that turned energy into matter. The cornucopian replicator solved all the quandaries of what to produce, in what manner, and for whom.

I wanted to argue with him at that point and part of me still does. Pointing to the problems in Star Trek has always bothered me and quite a bit of my thinking over the years has gone over the same steeplechase as others in fandom to mend plot holes. With Astral that’s a reminder to avoid some of them during the making of.

The Federation is not faced with the riddle of a used-up planet somehow still able to build enough ships to colonize and exploit strange new worlds. The philosophy of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” is a direct and natural result of technology solving major sources of waste, class-based tensions, petty behaviors and so on.

The first human colony in the world(s) of Astral was Mars. There are at least four links in a chain from there to α Fornacis/Dalim where the story opens. That chain is not a disintegrating set of broken and corroding links. There is without doubt satirical value in suggesting any human destiny in space will be a series of strip-mined worlds under runaway greenhouse atmospheres but I remain more hopeful… still.


What’s in it for M.E.?

A destiny in space for homo sapiens is certain – or at least I’d like to think so. What form it takes is a matter for debate. The sociopolitical part of world-building for the far future of Astral prompts questions of how humanity will change they it fits and starts toward its fate.

The backstory of space travel in Astral sees the first steps in this regard with ten colonies (between 4.39 and 19.92 light-years distant). A second tier of expansion is launched from those initial settlements and not Earth herself. By extension, through these “grandchildren” colonies, her reach grows from 11 worlds (M.other E.arth† included) to 28.


Globalization on one world may be inevitable. Stretched through interstellar space it becomes imperialism. There is a Chinese saying‡ that suggests a family’s great wealth should not be expected to last through three generations. The proverb is often used as a reminder that a meritocracy is better than honoring tradition and legacy. Some of M.E.’s grandchildren will declare independence particularly where greater prospects derive from looking forward rather than back.


After settled planets divide into factions, M.E. and her remaining loyal worlds would seek to safeguard her dominance. Laws designed to limit rival colonial “families” would be imposed. From the moment they were enacted, however, the decline of the “Solar Empire” would have begun. Tier III of expansion, during which the events of Astral take place, would bring the count to 63 worlds and the range to 39.26ʟʏ from Earth. The original homeworld would exercise control (directly or by extension) over just 52.38%. The next jump in adding new worlds would see M.E.’s control slip below the halfway point.

With a somewhat unsafe, difficult manner of faster-than-light travel and each world using genetic engineering to make up for shortfalls in terraforming, the definition of human and the proper use of homo sapiens as a description will – of necessity – change. Evolution in isolation is known to create a wide divergence of traits, ultimately leading to entirely new species.

cats-awayAnother Chinese maxim equates to, “While the cat’s away the mice will play.” But it’s more poetically transliterated as, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Strange new worlds will raise new ideologies and new approaches to the economic problem. The more distant and different the world the more likely influence of any kind from M.E. will be subject to a metaphorical inverse-square law.

The culture of an extra-global humanity will grow ever more diverse. Over time, there will be a family resemblance but that will fade with M.E.’s importance. Any Terrestrial alliance will depend on keeping the extended family loyal, embracing many forms of adaptation, and implementing an active program for innovation: better genetic designs and more efficient terraforming.

Clutching to a status quo, let alone any irredentism, would require FTL capacity that was significantly better than other “humans” were using and an ability to revert to conventional warfare, an inconvenient practice between any two planets in this construct. There is in this a subtle nod toward the Earth-that-was in Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity. Unlimited want and limited resources will eventually use up any world. Improvement of FTL travel may be beyond M.E.

If a human presence in space involved civil war M.E.’s side would likely be much smaller than 51 of 111 worlds in the projected Tier IV. The range in that event would probably not extend to 67.16ʟʏ. And, as it happens, we don’t have to wait hundreds of years to be concerned by hyperbolic ideology, reflexive sectarianism, or economic obsessions. There’s room for evolution there too without altering the meaning of human.

† Is this proverb used when discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (김정은) or a present presidential campaign in the US?

‡ “M.other E.arth” and “M.E.” are part of the copyright of Astral (working title).



for your delight at reading…

Chuck Francisco of Pop Kernal called Book I of The Eterna Files, by my very dear friend and business partner – Leanna Renee Hieber, “the Empire Strikes Back of Victorian paranormal gothic”.  I have described her work in reviews and on panels at conventions as being located four blocks west of the intersection of Poe and Stoker. Her work and many conversations with her have helped me make my own writing and thinking a bit more accessible; I have a tendency to range cerebral.

Ms. Hieber is a diligent and skilled crafter of characters you’ll want to include among the circle of your fictional friends. It is they who guide you as they make their way along the boundaries between this world and a stranger one. The ripples on the veil are not caused by a night breeze but the tendrils of death and dark fates.


Book II, titled Eterna and Omega launched today. The privilege of discussing and reading parts of it before the release was mine but it is now something you can share. I gladly and strongly recommend buying a copy. You may not be as certain about strange sounds around midnight after this worthy tale.


Gemoji image for :book

the needs of the many…

There are probably no authors setting out to have a star or planet named in their honor. That said, very few would decline such homage. Asteroid 4659 and a crater on Mars bear the name Roddenberry. The creator of Star Trek likely didn’t include earning this sort of acknowledgement while developing the series.

Gene Roddenberry did, however, attempt to get the science right. He consulted scientists and engineers on a somewhat regular basis. He was also a student of his times and wanted to present entertaining adventures about the future blended with relevant social commentary. Nichelle Nichols, the original Uhura, famously tells a story that each episode was meant to be a modern morality play.

Countless people recount that original Trek inspired their choice of careers while not necessarily having achieving Roddenberry’s dream of humanity at peace with itself and unafraid of its future in mind. This phenomenon is not limited to math and technology either; I know of at least one lawyer who found the trial of Spock in the episode “Menagerie” fascinating enough to prompt study of jurisprudence. The humanism and idealism of Star Trek are very important facets of my long-standing desire to write and make art.


Many fans consider the reboot of the franchise to be less than worthy of the title and have branded it – somewhat pejoratively – as the “Abramsverse” or “NuTrek”. Paramount and CBS have recently attempted to get ahead of these descriptions. They’d like us to call it “The Kelvin Timeline”.

Chris Pine is the second actor to portray Captain Kirk. He has been quoted as giving the following response regarding the franchise shifting away from speculative futurism in favor of presenting an action thriller.

You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses in ‘Does the Federation mean anything? And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?

— Chris Pine, à la SFX Magazine

Star Trek was fond of Shakespeare references and there’s one that perfectly sums up the problem with the Abramsverse and the attitude expressed by Mr. Pine: “…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The last log entry by Kirk was wonderful fan service at the end of The Undiscovered Country and should now be interpreted by CBS and Paramount as exactly how fans would like to see Star Trek handled – rather than catering to a formula while implicitly demeaning the audience.

This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of a new generation. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man… where no one has gone before.

As part of a recent presentation by Claire Legrand, Megan McCafferty, and Leanna Renee Hieber all three authors recommended that any authors in the audience write what they loved reading as children. Write what they wanted to read.

Best Faction map

In broad strokes I plan to cover some of the same ground as Star Trek did: the destiny of humanity in space and to what extent human nature might be baggage carried along the way. It seems fair to say that a writer must be the first fan of his or her own work. So I’ve charted my world(s)-building – applying a different rotation to the same field of real stars used for the Arrowhead interpretation. Astral’s interstellar factions overlapped each other in a previously posted map. That’s not the case in this new one.

At a convention I once attended both Gene and Majel Barrett Roddenberry recommended that whatever I might wish to see in Star Trek I should write and tell Paramount. I never did follow their advice but I may hide it under the guise of thoughtful speculation and all the things the Federation still means to me.

матрёшка мозг…

The idea of a matryoshka brain combines Freeman Dyson’s most famous concept with an almost unimaginably large and powerful computer. A Dyson sphere would be a megastructure completely enclosing the Sun capturing all of the solar energy while simultaneously providing an interior surface area many times that of the Earth. Presuming a radius of one astronomical unit (AU), the distance between the Sun and Earth, the area of the inside of the shell would be about 550 million times the planet surface.

Robert Bradbury (presumably no relation to the famous sci fi author) proposed that in addition to absorbing all the power the Sun emits the enclosure would also be one massive computer. Assume a circuit panel about the size of a sheet of printer paper. It would take roughly 4.5 quintillion such panels to cover the inside of a 1 AU Dyson sphere. Using only today’s computing power the capacity would be mind-boggling.

A hard sci fi author by the name of Charles Stross added another feature. He has imagined that minds could be uploaded to such a computer. It has since been the subject of some speculation that an intelligent species somewhere in the multiverse has made all three of these technological advances.

All this to say that the virtual environment provided by a matryoshka brain is one of a very few in which minds similar to our own might not have some form of hierarchy. There are many variations of the notion that “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” An organizational chart is what keeps everyone from giving orders to everyone else. There’d be too much confusion. Mutually assured insubordination.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a matryoshka brain would be indistinguishable from a hive mind. It also isn’t a foolproof method for skipping the leader-and-subordinates system. However, a computer with this much power would in all probability be omniscient about the activity of each component mind it hosted.

A matryoshka brain unimaginably far in the future. Astral is set only about 550 years from now. Today’s sociopolitical climate has become a bit obsessed with unfettered individual liberty. A month or so ago I overheard a mother trying to determine why her child was getting terrible grades in school. The frustrated student eventually said, “But you told me to never let anyone tell me what to do.” In and of itself that’s a bit of a paradox but that’s another story.

While considering this and working on world-building for the novel, which is part police procedural thriller, I wondered if authority would still be divided over different tiers of officers. In a pseudo-hive mind there’d probably be no crime; if you know what everyone is thinking anything illegal could ostensibly be prevented à la Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. He alreadyrank covered the idea of using precognition in circumventing crime and I’m going down a very different road.

So — one of the main characters of Astral is, in fact, a police officer. She does report to someone and supervises a team of seven others. She does wear a uniform and it does contain some circuitry. The exact capacity of this tiniest final doll in the metaphoric nested computer chain isn’t going to be treated here but I have been looking for a reason to have rank displayed on a special screen woven into a uniform for about three years now.

The likelihood that police detectives will abandon rank in favor of consensus or telepathic gestalt any time soon seems as remote as a breakthrough leading to the imminent construction of a computer 200 million miles across. If you discover evidence to the contrary, please let me know. The uniform rank display will turn up somewhere else.

ceteris paribus…

Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?

One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.

In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.

Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.

There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.

We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.

About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.

Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.

Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.

Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.

Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.

It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.

Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.

RememberIn another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?

Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.

Perilous by pelorus…

I wouldn’t be the first to describe the difference between hard and soft science fiction. In fact, Tor provides a quite reasonable guide.

From the advent of sci-fi there have been at least two camps. In general, Jules Verne suggested the grand adventures technology might make possible while H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley offered cautions about the potential consequences.

Roughly a century later, the voyages of the USS Enterprise might have begun nearer to Verne. The final frontier gradually became less about exploration of a boundless sea and more an unending series of tensions played out upon it. If not Wells’ territory, certainly near the neutral zone.

How much attention is paid prevailing scientific theories depends on balancing the needs of the story. The world-building for Astral has been to provide an understanding of the hardship the characters have faced before the story begins. The action takes place on a world quite distant from Earth so part of this process has been devising reasonable rules and repercussions for faster-than-light (FTL) travel.

In soft sci-fi FTL simply works at the often literal press of a button. How long the trip may take, what fuel is used, and some understanding of what laws of physics are being broken and how never enter the picture. As the genre approaches the other extreme, nothing superluminal (neither travel nor communications) happens; light not only has a speed limit but it’s one that’s part of the definition of the universe. In between there are warps, jumps, and hyperspace – and that’s where Astral sits presently – on a scale from 1 to 10, somewhere near 5.

NASA is exploring the possibilities of EM Drive and, while decidedly thrilling, the realities of that are now firmly in the realm of scientific speculation rather than speculative fiction. On the other side of the coin, hyperspace will be forever associated with the Star Wars franchise – at least in the mind of this author.

Making something sound like science can give rise to La Forge syndrome:

“The phase inducers are connected to the emitter array. The override is completely gone and the pattern buffer’s been locked into a continuous diagnostic cycle.”

I’m not a mathematician and I don’t want to run the risk of actually getting some critical math completely wrong. Similarly, I’m not ready to plant a flag and reclaim luminiferous aether in the name of voyages extraordinaire. Some time was spent in study of certain theories of Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz. While this did not result in a formula it pointed (perhaps tangentially) to answers I can use.

The characters would not be making hops of several light-years in less than the blink of an eye. The farther the actual distance traveled it would still take longer. In Astral a trip from Earth to δ Pavonis would take between two weeks and nine months depending on the equivalent of a warp factor or calculations from a navicomputer. These durations compare to a single Atlantic crossing by steamship at the dawn of the Victorian era or three such journeys under sail combined during the mid-1700s, respectively. A hop of even one light-year would depend on finding a shorter distance than Euclidean geometry would permit.

Ultimately there’s no actual need within the story to know the precise settings of any phase inducers. In the original Star Trek series, the set designers put the label “GNDN” in several places. When asked what this stood for they replied, “Goes nowhere, does nothing.” This in-joke can also serve as a warning to a writer. When it can’t serve the story it can’t be included.

People don’t usually talk about travel unless something goes wrong. Otherwise, a long car trip is reduced in the telling to roads taken and noteworthy sights along the way. With all of this in mind the only reality of FTL travel that matters is what impact they may have on the characters who undertake a crossing.

Astral Space

Non-Euclidean geometry, in strictly mathematical terms, does not equate to things Lovecraft. But while traveling along any weird topology suggested by an extradimensional, self-intersecting manifold what might be seen if looking out a portal? What do the characters think it means? Does it shape their point of view without twisting it to madness?

The navigation of Astral may be in Verne’s spirit but the story winds up at the intersection of Wells and Shelley.