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.


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sic itur ad astra…

Note: There’s been a longer than normal interval between posts as there was more than usual work involved with this one.

Science fiction is very probably my first genre love. As readers of this blog already know, this affinity began with Star Trek. Given that, it won’t be surprising that my taste in scifi is generally best served when the setting is against the backdrop of a human interstellar presence. My story set in ancient Greece has been replaced as a priority with a novel-in-progress that takes place almost 50 light-years from Earth and roughly 550 years in the future.

Part of my outline process usually involves a map of some sort. This scifi effort (working title, Astral) is no different. By making a chart of most of the stars within 50 ly of our solar system, details about the future politics of humanity came into sharper focus. This is as much a part of the world building for the tale as FTL travel, terraforming, and human genetic engineering.

Stars

The volume around Earth at the given radius includes at least 583 star systems. There are red and white dwarf stars not shown in the first chart. Similarly, the stars shown do not double up with regard to arity (binary, trinary, and so on). If habitable worlds may be assumed to orbit stars like the Sun, about 10% ±x of these systems could support life. It should be noted, since extrasolar discoveries are being made “all the time”, no real effort was made to match exoplanet reality.

Settlements

A presumption was made that faster-than-light travel would have limitations based on mass and material composition of any ships involved. Relatively instantaneous hops of 20 light-years or fewer are the standard.

This decision puts ten systems with potential for colonization within direct reach of Earth. Each colony would then become a waypoint for the next tier of expansion. The result would be a web of worlds, each having a neighborhood of 10 other colonized systems on average including 2 colonies of their own.

The first question after making these determinations was, “How far from Mother Earth would humanity spread before thinking of their new home world as more important than the origin point of the species?” The answer lay as much with history, sociology, and psychology as with astrophysics. The critical star turned out to be Xi Boötis (ξ Boo, “zai boh-oh-tis”). Two hops from Earth, with 70 Ophiuchus in between as the staging point, Xi could have almost as many imperial opportunities as the initial starting point of the human race.

The expanding network of worlds colonized from Xi (and the colonies growing from those, etc.) would reach to between 20 and 30 more systems by the time humanity began to push outside the 50-ly radius sphere. If such a significant branch of colonial propagation were to stage a revolution, Earth society could be thrown into a panic. What’s more, other factions might seize the event as an opportunity for their own independence – to one degree or another.

All of this is the backdrop of Astral, with Xi and its extended family as the new hub of human destiny in space (for the time being) and two other, though smaller, federations as political entities separate from Mother Earth. Apart from ME, the factions are Federalist Arcadia* (sharing in etymology with Arcturus, one of two “named” stars among those claimed from Xi), the Hamarchy of Keid*, and the Ophiuchid Cantons*.

So, what’s the story? To that I’ll cryptically reply, “Imagine Plato meets Poe.”

* © 2016 Thom Truelove



Or off the clock…

If someone in Ancient Greece were introduced to Joseph Campbell’s title – The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all of the visages might be expected to be those of women.

Greek Hero

Albeit of modern Greek women, this is a composite of a great number of their faces. She would be comparable to the anticipated Hero.

The word or, more precisely, the name Hero (Hērṓ) was considered feminine. The best-known example would be from the tragic story of Hero and Leander (Léandros). They lived on opposite sides of The Dardanelles strait and Hero would set a lamp in a tower window each night, essentially as a lighthouse for Leander‘s swim. This lasted for months until the light was extinguished in a storm and Leander drowned. Hero threw herself from the tower to her own death.

There is, of course, a male Hero – one of the sons of King Priam (Príamos) of Troy. This Hero is not distinguished in any detail by his own myth. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and considering Hero to be a unisex name, the Ancient Greek would still expect a veritable battalion of female faces with the above premise.

Words and their definitions evolve over time and across borders. When we borrow words from foreign languages we don’t always get all the nuance in the bargain. We should, however, try to be diligent in the use of our vocabulary. We set the meaning and context by our selections. This has ramifications outside of conversation and writing, too. Words are how we think.

Last week, I wrote a summary of the monomyth. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been devoting much of my thought to what makes a hero. The shortest answer is, “We do.” And, I think, we should be careful in our choices. In the current social climate we’re much more likely to hear the word hero applied to celebrities from the worlds of music or sports. If you ask several people what makes a hero, courage will rapidly rise near to the top of the list. It is true that the musician and the athlete must be brave to be successful; I’m not sure that’s any less true of all other profession requiring dedication.

When I was a child all of my heroes were fictional characters or persons who’d been dead long enough to have legends associated with them. In youth I think this is acceptable and natural. Early in my adulthood my emphasis and definition changed and I invented a puzzle for myself (and eventually others).

 Name four real people, none of whom are related to you, that contributed to your identity – and be specific about how.

I didn’t know it at the time but, I believe now, this provides a wonderful definition of what a personal hero may be. A hero should be someone – male or female – who inspires us to be more. In the original puzzle I suggested that the four figures would represent a personal Mt. Rushmore. This was a handy way to refer to this mental exercise but it was an error. The answer to this puzzle should not be immutably etched in stone. Identity, exactly like definition, evolves.

My answer to my own puzzle was:

  • Gene Roddenberry, for introducing the value of ideals
  • Richard Scarry, for illustrating the necessity to look beyond and behind face value
  • Carl Sagan, for demonstrating the interconnected nature of all subjects and disciplines
  • Jim Henson, for the gift of purposeful whimsy

You might notice all of them are men. In my young adulthood I was interested in defining what sort of man I would be. As a writer, however, I am dedicated to presenting heroes of all genders and having each character be – as much as is possible in fiction – real people.

So, I’m adding two women to the Mt. Rushmore:

  • Nancy Grace Augusta Wake ᴀᴄ, ɢᴍ – a British SOE agent and ally of the French Resistance during World War II. Known aliases: Heléne, Andrée, the White Mouse, and Witch.
  • Hannah Callowhill Penn – the acting governor and proprietor of the Province of Pennsylvania at least a generation before the era of the Founding Fathers. She was the second wife of William Penn.

On the clock…

The most frequent description of the character arc for a protagonist is called the Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey. This isn’t really an outline for the story. It presents an invitation to a date with destiny and is a road map for the main character. The story is about the destiny itself.

In an article I read recently, the claim was made that all the decision-makers in Hollywood are aware of this formula. That’s probably true but impossible to confirm. The article in question went on to imply that adherence to the monomyth is expected. If so, the audience is reacquainted with the Hero’s Journey with each and every story – even if they’re unaware of the structure. Does this mean members of the audience are indoctrinated to expect the monomyth? Are they evaluating stories based on this – even unconsciously? Is there value in exploring alternatives to this structure (made famous by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler)?

Clock

Imagine the Hero’s Journey as a clock. Let’s say our Hero starts at Noon and ends at Midnight. It’s going to be a long day. She or he begins and ends at a metaphoric home. The first hour of the story shows us the world the Hero lives in, what daily life is like, and what responsibilities he or she has.

1

By 2:00ᴘᴍ, however, comes the introduction of a crucial shift in those responsibilities. The Hero spends the following hour presenting reasons that this change (and the new work it represents) can be done by someone else or avoided entirely. All the while, particularly between 2:00ᴘᴍ and 3:00ᴘᴍ, the Hero learns more about the situation and perhaps just why things were not ideal earlier that morning. All of the lessons during this hour are meant to illustrate not only that the Hero has a date with destiny – said date is an undeniable obligation.

2

People fear change. Our Hero is no exception. Until about 4:00ᴘᴍ, the Hero has been experiencing the stages of grief, in a sense. The day has provided shocking news. The Hero has attempted to deny the news and to bargain a way out of dealing with it. As the duty to respond grows inevitable, our Hero finally gives it serious thought and begins, at least mentally, to prepare to deal with it.

3

Perhaps for the sake of emphasis or as an actual intervention, someone arrives to kick the Hero into the real world. It is 4:00ᴘᴍ. This is the mentor, who may have arrived with a useful tool to present as a gift. From 5:00ᴘᴍ to 8:00ᴘᴍ, everything the Hero experiences is new. This is a total immersion and each skill the Hero learns is applied immediately of necessity. There are failures during this stage, of course. The Hero may even experience doubt and seek to quit.

4

At about dinnertime, some stories introduce a specific woman. She may seek to lead the Hero off the new road. Alternatively she may serve as a second mentor. This means the presentation by point or counter-point of the same theme. Depending on the manner of the character, the same line of dialog can be encouragement to quit or to continue. Note: If such a character is included here the author should be careful not to present this woman as a stereotype and cypher. If this sort of message must be delivered to the Hero and the audience, the messenger doesn’t have to be a woman. There’s a risk – as the monomyth is traditionally presented – of an approach to misogyny here.

5

By 7:00ᴘᴍ the Hero finally knows what’s really going on and what must be done. The date with destiny is set at 8:00ᴘᴍ and the Hero’s determination is now a true commitment. Of course the Hero wins. That is, very probably, why she or he is the Hero of the story. At 9:00ᴘᴍ, there’s a reward for all the trouble and injury along the way.

6

But it isn’t Midnight yet. The defeat of the villain is only partial and the payment for service may be intended as a another distraction. The Hero is unaware of this and it’s been a hard day at work – including overtime. There’s been an unexpected bonus. Ten o’clock. Time to go home. The way home is filled with obstacles. There may even be a race. The victory back at 8:00ᴘᴍ left loose ends. The road home proves the lessons have been learned and the skills are now an intrinsic part of the Hero. The transformation is genuine.

big ben

This final triumph comes at the Eleventh Hour and there’s an epiphany following. The Hero’s reward is reinforced by this event and the last steps home complete the transformation. As the clock strikes Twelve, the check is cashed, and it can finally – actually be time to celebrate.

8

All this to say, the author is not bound to this structure any more than the hero should be considered a slave to the story. If there is no choice, there is no story. If it is true that all good stories following the monomyth it is important to remember that all bad stories do as well. What matters more than compliance, then, is how the tale told departs from the formula. Going off the clock is part of what makes the story worth telling and memorable.


🕛

Well, why not write?

There are four stories pushing at me (not counting those planned with my coauthor). In pondering each over the past week or so, I was a little surprised to realize that each stems from a different purpose in telling.

For longer than I can precisely recall, I have criticized a lot of films with the label “big, dumb, testosteronedriven explosion movie”. I’ve never been particularly interested in writing a romp. That’s not the objective or, I should say, there is an objective.

Each of the stories I have in progress came from quite different moments of inspiration. Some were like unexpected bolts of lightning while others were the result of prolonged brainstorms.

Comprehension of a lifetime’s factors —

One of the novels began as a spreadsheet for sorting data and looking for trends. It wasn’t intended to be a story at all. Trends in the information, however, began to suggest a narrative. The more I looked, the more compelling and fascinating (to me) it became. There actually was a narrative in the chart and it sprang out of it in an almost parthenogenetic way.

Expanding the perception of courage —

The second book was inspired by a single image. I cannot say if the artist had any story in mind but it made me think of a “band of brothers” situation. The main characters in said band all happen to be young women. For a brief moment it seemed that Sucker Punch might be what I had in mind but the reviews given by friends dissuaded me from that notion and from seeing the film.

The diligence of the heart —

Folklore has many tales that predict the return of a hero or of a force. Imagine such a situation were to transform a part of the world – and everyone in it – almost in an instant. What aspect of human nature and emotion could then be examined? What would prove you were still human despite the change and how far would you go to prove it?

Making sense of nonsense —

Science fiction series, when they include sentient aliens, eventually generate a set of stereotypes concerning them. Even Star Trek and Doctor Who have not proven immune. Examining the Vulcans logically reveals that much of what we think we know about them doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. I aim to explain the contradictions.

For just a little over a year, I have been posting here on a weekly basis. Somewhat prior to adopting that habit this blog kicked off with a simple image. If my reason for writing can be distilled to a single sentence, it is captured in that banner.

Homesteading


Equal rites…

I know anecdotally that editors can be quite thankful when they do not have to remind an author that people have different ethnic backgrounds. Characters should also. Recently, as the research phase for A Song Heard in the Future came to a close, I found that is was not going to be difficult to include a range of heritage.

Given that almost any (every?) story set within the world of Greek mythology and worship will be a Mediterranean tale, the likelihood of an all-majority cast seems very, very low. That said, several of the major characters are not actually Greek.

diversity mapThe first king of Thebes was initially from Phoenicia and one of the kings of Thrace was a Libyan immigrant. Pygmalion (or Pumayyaton), the famous sculptor, was a Cypriot. The more-traveled characters may even have heard of a Titan by the name of Gadeiros from what would become Spain and Norax, a hero on the island we call Sardinia and the Greeks knew as Ichnūsa.

The biggest revelation to me regards the ancestry or a demigod famous for Twelve Labours. His great great grandparents were Ethiopian royalty. Is the world ready for a Hercules who is at least one-eighth black?

There is another story about publishing I’ve heard. I won’t repeat it here because it’s absurd and offensive but it regards the readership of science fiction and fantasy. We’ve moved beyond that, right? In this case, I’m hopeful that any future editor of Song will be intrigued by the prospect.

…tap to put a new Tome into play…

With just six days to go for the funding deadline (and it being solidly in the Halloween season) I would like to take this opportunity to remind visitors to this blog about Simon Berman’s kickstarter initiative to bring something new to the Cthulhu mythos. The book will be a collection of old and new stories set within and inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s universe. And if this is the first post seen by a new visitor to Surfing the Zeitgeist, let me also add, “Welcome.”

Writing is about an adventure – an adaptation in character as the result of a crisis. I feel that’s what I’ve managed to contribute to the new book in question with my short story, “Letters from the Sea”.

If you have already participated in this kickstarter, you have my thanks. I would also request that you share the link and encourage others to join you in lending support. If you’re new to this blog and/or knowledge of this project, please view the kickstarter page and the archive, along with the art and illustration sections, of Surfing the Zeitgeist. Perhaps I can then extend the welcome to “Welcome aboard.”

For Copy & Paste ease, here is the link: http://tinyurl.com/p2yasta

achievement