About my fiction: meet Izramith Ezmi from Soldier’s Duty


Last night, I did a very quick character concept and render for Izramith Ezmi, the main character of Soldier’s Duty. She is, of course, the soldier, one of the fearful veiled guards at Hedron (about which I wrote a little while back). I’m thinking that before this character is cover-worthy, she’ll need a fearsome bloodied knife held towards the reader and some spooky lights. The background is probably going to be orange. Yes, there is a lot of urban-style fighting in the story.

A very rough “what is it about”:

In Barresh, they still haven’t dealt with a number of disagreements with neighbouring behemoth nation of Miran that’s sliding further into dictatorship. The Chief Councillor of Barresh, Daya, (who is also from Hedron originally) has hired her to oversee security at a high-profile wedding (read Trader’s Honour to find out who’s getting married), but prior to the festivities, a security patrol stumbles on evidence of a spying ring. The plot involves disgruntled locals, who used to earn handsome kickbacks under Mirani occupation, as well as any number of the many itinerant building workers in the city. Postponing the festivities would mean embarrassment. It is time to bring in the big guns, meaning: Izramith of the Hedron guards.

But she brings problems with her to a world that already has enough problems of its own. In a couple of loosely-related worlds, people have gone missing off the streets for years. Her uncle and newborn nephew are two of those people, and they are the reason why she agreed to leave her home in the first place. Because they are rumoured to be in Barresh.

Of course, the disappearances are related to the spying, which goes back to something that’s been mentioned passingly since Watcher’s Web, something that leads Izramith and a few die-hard suicide-wishers and frenemies deep into Miran for a mission whose hare-brained-ness will astound everyone.

So. Fighting. Hiding in disgusting places. Infighting (remember that association instinct in The Shattered World Within? Yeah, that). Sex. That, too. And a couple of “that wasn’t quite what I was expecting” moments.


About my fiction: the weird and wonderful world of Hedron


The novella The Shattered World Within (published in Giganotosaurus Feb, 2013), describes how the characters find an odd planet:

The seventh planet was perhaps the oddest of all. This planet, too, was a gas giant, blue-purple in colour, with a wide system of pretty rings. It had thirty-five moons, all of them either too small for a colony or too dangerously close to the rings. Many had erratic orbits. The planet described an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. And it moved backwards, spinning rapidly. More oddly, when the crew obtained a higher magnification scan, it showed that the planet wasn’t circular; it was more like a coagulating cloud.

This story, set in my space opera world, takes place about 100 years before the present. The world “discovered” in the story is the weird and wonderful world of Hedron. Long ago, it was a nice, green planet in the habitable zone, when a rogue wandering planet knocked it out of orbit. Sunlight has vanished in the cloud of gas and debris. Vegetation has fossilised or vanished. Some life still exists underground.

How long would it take for and Earth-like planet to lose habitability
– if it remained cloaked in an insulating cloud
– if it had a molten core
– if a chemical process supplemented oxygen (yay, space opera here, so I can wave my hands as much as I want)

The philosophy about Hedron is that sometimes the universe throws us really weird curveballs. Things–like life–exist in places where by rights they shouldn’t.

Today’s Hedron has a dead and cold surface, but not cold enough for the atmosphere to freeze out. It has retains breathable air and an atmosphere. This far from the sun, and hidden behind clouds of gas and rubbish, the surface sees little sunlight. The planet itself is rich in metals. The planet’s atmospheric composition and orbit are probably not stable. But stable enough for people to live (and hide) there for a good period of time, give or take a couple of thousand years.

The people who settled there 100 years ago, as described in The Shattered World Within, were rebels and outcasts from Asto. Within a few “years” (year is a rather useless term of time measurement, because it’s well over 200 Earth years), these people got their act together and started a mining venture. It has a weird system of government, where the board of the mining company is also the government, but where all residents are shareholders and as such, can’t sacked. Casual observers will find a fair number of features of the system resembling communism, whereas the society presents a commercial face in other aspects.

Hedron has been mentioned in almost every Aghyrians story, but I’ve never set anything there. The main character from Soldier’s Duty, Izramith Ezmi, is from Hedron. She has never seen sunshine, or any vegetation that is not artificially grown. She has never seen houses in the open air, or streets, or any of the things that we see when we look out the window.


About my fiction: the Beniz-Yaza solar system


The fictional Beniz-Yaza solar system plays an important role in my space opera world. It is, in short, a binary star. Beniz is larger and more white than Yaza. There are two planets in the habitable zone: the inner planet is Asto and the outer planet is Ceren. Of course these planets aren’t just habitable; they are inhabited.

Watcher’s Web and the forthcoming novel Trader’s Honour are set on Ceren. So is Ambassador (only this novel takes place about 200 years later). My novella The Shattered World Within (Giganotosaurus Feb 2013) is partially set on Asto, about 100 years prior.

All of which finally spurned me into action to sort out how this solar system could work and what it would mean for the planets.

All of the following comes with sincere thanks to Tsana Dolichva, astronomy PhD student extra-ordinaire, who helped me sort out and confirm a few issues. Later, I will cross-post this to my author site, where I can hopefully display the awesome video of the system she made me with a truly real solar system simulating program.

The two stars are close together, about 0.3 AU from each other, which is a little bit closer than Mercury is to the Sun. Beniz is an F class star (warmer than our sun) and Yaza a G class star (equal to our sun). The two stars rotate around each other in 24 days. Because of the gravitational pull of the stars, the inclination of the orbits of any planets will be very small. In other words: the stars eclipse twice per rotation. This will be the most noticeable feature in the sky of both planets, so, lacking significant moons, this is how both planets determine their months. Because of the differences between the stars, one half of the month will be slightly warmer than the other. Also the time of the eclipse will be colder than the rest of the month.

Seen from Ceren, the furthest separation in the sky between the stars is about 9 degrees. The width of the Moon on Earth is about half a degree in comparison.

Because there are two suns, this means that the habitable zone is wider and extends from roughly 1.6 AU to over 2 AU (Mars is at 1.3-1.6AU).

Asto is a hot planet, too hot for our type of human to be comfortable. Daytime temperatures easily reach 50-60C. Water on the continents is fairly sparse and the oceans are foul baths of chemicals. There are all sorts of reasons for this. I haven’t written much about the planet yet, but the next Ambassador novel will be mostly set on Asto.

Ceren is a verdant cool planet with extensive ice caps and huge height differences. That said, Barresh, the setting of Watcher’s Web and part of Trader’s Honour, is on the coast and on the equator and quite tropical. The rest of the planet is not.

The wider habitable zone for the system also means that the year will be longer than in systems with a single star. Since daylength on Ceren is 28 hours, it is not relevant to talk in days, but the difference will be noticeable when talking to people on other worlds (this is space opera, right?).

Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. Her latest book is Trader’s Honour, in the space opera series The Return of the Aghyrians. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s new release newsletter.

A few comments about Geospermia (Analog, May 2013)

Yes, I know it isn’t May yet, but the May 2013 issue of Analog with my story in it is out in the wild, and has been sighted by US subscribers (if not yet by me).

Martin Shoemaker alerted me to a discussion on the F&SF forum about the issue in which a few people mentioned my story Geospermia. For those who have followed me on various social networking sites, this is what I loosely termed the “pandas on Mars” story.

It seems that people take away various messages from the story, which is interesting to see.

To me, this story is mostly a biological SF story. Yes, there is terraforming and there are conflicting ideologies in the human population in this habitat, but it is a story about the realities of trying to grow stuff in soil that has never grown anything. I touched on this subject in my posts about farming on Mars or about growing crops in space.

If you try to to replicate some sort of ecosystem under circumstances that are different from the original, it is very likely that something unexpected will happen. Species which should do well don’t, and ones that hadn’t been on the radar become invasive pests. Nature is good at throwing curveballs like that.

In another, much earlier post, I described that I used to work in pasture ecology, where people actively introduce species for the improvement of pasture quality. The process goes like this (simplified): scientists travel overseas to identify species that have desirable characteristics and collect seed. They take the seed home (fumigated through quarantine) and grow plants inside a quarantine glasshouse. Plants that pass inspection will then go into pots to bulk up seed quantity and then into small plots in various locations in the field. People will constantly monitor the plants. It is virtually impossible to predict which plants will do well in the new environment.

Supposing you had a habitat on Mars ready to be populated with living things, how would you go about deciding what to put in? Apart from selecting plants and animals that are adjusted to each other, I suspect that the reality would have a wet-spaghetti element to it (you throw it at the wall to see what sticks). Each of the differences between normal growing conditions and conditions in the new Mars enviroment will influence each species in a different and often unpredictable way. Therefore, you will have a species that may well be timid and unremarkable on Earth run riot on Mars, because it just happens to be less sensitive to the conditions on Mars that are different from Earth. I’m thinking about soil composition (salts and fine particles), light conditions and high carbon dioxide.

Is the story depressing? I don’t think so. What we tend to get from a lot of hard SF is a very big picture, a bird’s-eye camera view of the new society without much detail about what the lives of people inside settled habitats are like on a day-to-day basis. People in these new habitats face the realities and frustrations of trying to grow stuff that should grow but won’t and other stuff that grows but they wish it didn’t. They face the responsibility of churning out food on a regular basis. Their life contracts to their reality, mostly limited to the inside of the habitat, just like many people rarely travel outside the town where they live. This reality is none less interesting than the bigger picture, and is more human.

How many people are needed for a space colony?

Shifting Reality is set in a space station orbiting Epsilon Eridani b. The planet, which my characters call Sarasvati, is a gas giant which I have given rings, and the station’s main industry is the harvest of ice from these rings for the production of water, oxygen and fuel. The station is one of four human settlements in the solar system, three of them mining stations. These four settlements survive as independent communities, if not entirely from each other, then certainly from Earth, 10.5 lightyears away.

All of which raises the question: just how big does a community need to be to be truly independent, while maintaining the standard of living we’re accustomed to?

Let us take a few steps back and ask a question that will probably sound stupid, and variations of which make up many jokes: how many people does it take to change a lighbulb.

Duh, I hear you say. Changing a lightbulb is so easy, that’s why the jokes exist. I totally just googled “lightbulb jokes” and there is an entire site devoted to them, from which this beauty: How many porn actresses does it take to change a light bulb? A: Well, it looks like 2 of them are really doing it, but the real answer is actually none. They’re just faking it. Mwahahaha! Lightbulbjokes.com

Anyway, the point is, changing a lightbulb is an extremely easy task.

Or is it?

Think of all the assumptions underlying the word lightbulb: that we know what it is, what it does and how it works. That there is a reliable supply of electricity. That there is a company that makes ladders. That we have a house that has a ceiling for a lightbulb to hang on.

So, how many people does it really take to change a lightbulb? How many people does it take to make sure that lightbulbs can exist and work so that the Irishmen, or Canadians, or porn actresses, can change them?

There’s the manufacturing: the glass, the metal, the factory that puts it together and puts it in a box. There is the mining. There is the power stations and the industry associated with making them work (coal mining, hydro-power and dams, wind farms, whatever). None of those industries will work without buildings or other places to house them. People make these buildings. Those places need to be cleaned and maintained and you need people to do this. None of those companies can survive for very long without an influx of new workers, so there are places for the new generation to be trained. Looking further into the future, each of those companies needs to make provisions to allow their workers to look after the very young. None of any of these people do well without food, so there are the people who cook, and they, or course will need something to cook, so you need agriculture, after all those people have used transport to get to their work, and would like to flush the toilet after they’re done, and would also very much like to buy all the items they need in a shop. And doing all of this naked could get rather embarrassing, not to mention cold. I have not yet mentioned the internet, or medical care.

By the time the insignificant light bulb is screwed into its insignificant fitting, many people have made contributions to it. Yes, many of those contributions are exceeding fleeting, but in terms of our question–how many people would a truly independent human colony need–by no means insignificant. All those things need to work and need to be in place before someone can climb up the ladder and change that lightbulb.

Medieval humans spent a hideous amount of time simply surviving: chopping the wood, hunting the game, toiling in the fields. They might have been smart, but only the very rich ones had the time to do something with it, by buying labour to do their domestic work. When technology lifted, the growing of food was one of the first things to be large-scale outsourced to other parts of the population. Ditto with the building of houses, the very basic level of health care, the making of clothes, the raising of farm stock. Then: transport. Many people who first bought cars still did a lot of their maintenance themselves. The cars, of course, were manufactured, but these days very few people maintain their own cars. Your car might even need a computer technician. The making of clothes has gone the same way. Of course none of us, barring people in remote areas, ever produced our own electricity or looked after our own water and sewerage.

Each time living standards jump, we add an extra level of service, with associated necessary people to maintain it. If you are astonished by how many people’s efforts have touched the humble light bulb, you will be blown away by the number of people who have breathed over the space program.

I wanted to know what the web says about minimum population requirements, and if you google “how many people are needed for a space colony” the number that’s most quoted is ten thousand. I haven’t discovered the source of this number. Will quote it here when I find it.

Ten thousand is a large-ish village. My husband’s family lives in a town roughly that size. It’s very agricultural, so food isn’t a problem. There is a council that maintains roads and sewerage. But no one makes washing machines. And if someone is sick, you have to go to the hospital in the city. There is also no high school, and I’m not even speaking about a university.

Picturing that village with the people in it, it is my guess that if the rest of the world disappeared, they’d survive fine, but it would be accompanied by a very sharp drop in living standards.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the protests. You train the people. And they multi-skill. Yep. Sure. And the people starting the colony could decide to only include smart people, and not take loafers, and expect everyone to put in their very best effort. But you know what? That will only work for so long. Loafers, disagreers and political stirrers are born. We’re in space 10 lightyears from Earth. What are you going to do? Execute them? And the last time a society as a whole tried to give everyone jobs and be hyper efficient, we called it communism. Ain’t gonna work.

What is more, society needs a fairly large proportion of people who are happy to just consume stuff. A lot of the above services will only work well at large scale. Ten thousand might be a nice number for a seeder population or might be a genetically justified number (it gets quoted in this respect), but it’s not a long-term viable population.

Approaching the problem from the other side, and forgive the macabre-ness of the following: if a quarter of the world population disappeared overnight, would our standard of living drop?

Yeah, yeah, I hear you, it depends on which ones. You could argue bluntly that the world could well do without the poorest people, but don’t go telling me that the rest of the people could just go on living as before. For one, who made that shirt you’re wearing?

A quarter isn’t that much, so what about if half the world population vanished, and let’s be fair and distribute the vanishing evenly over the entire population. Three and a half billion people, and you’d miss half the people who normally share your table at dinner. Don’t tell me worldwide standard of living wouldn’t be affected.

OK, still, it’s a matter of choosing the right people, and training. But, in order to have the same standard of living, those supposed ten thousand colonists will need the same access to extremely specialist medical care that we have. We have this care because people are allowed to specialise–because they outsource everything else. Forcing fewer people to do the same work means unspecialising them. A jack-of-all-trades will not do the same job as a specialist. End of story.

But, you can automate tasks.

Yes, and each level of technology you jump will require more dedicated specialists to maintain it. Dog, meet tail.

You need more than ten thousand. Substantially more. You need something the size of a decent city, just to maintain our current western standard of living.

Oh, I forgot, we expect these folk to maintain an interstellar space service as well…

Words and worlds: about my SF fiction worlds

The marshes of Barresh seen from the direction of the great esscarpment, as in Watcher’s Web.

As I heard today that my novella The Shattered World Within will be published in Giganotosaurus (and I’m extremely happy about his; last year they snatched two Nebula nominations out of twelve stories published, so it’s a well-read magazine), I made some comments about relationships between this novella and published work. Facebook and Twitter are not the most ideal venues to explain those things, so here we go.

In my Science Fiction worlds, I use (not exclusively, but rather a lot) two different worlds. One, I refer to as “the space opera world”. It has, space opera-like, different types of humans who have evolved like Darwin’s finches, and we–the humans we’re familiar with–are only a small branch. In this world, there is FTL travel, which is a network of custom-made wormholes, a network that relies on technology and politics outside the control of Earth humans.

This is the world I’ve used in Shattered World, but also in The Far Horizon and Watcher’s Web. Shattered World is set about 100 years in the past, Watcher’s Web in the present, and the novel Ambassador (Ticonderoga Publications 2013) is set about 200 years into the future. Due to the Darwin-finch effect, it is a rich world, with many different corners that don’t need to (and often don’t) overlap. But you may recognise some names. Barresh (where most of Watcher’s Web is set) is the locality of the above picture-doodle in Bryce–although the buildings need to be lower. Other names will we Asto, the Coldi people, Aghyr, and Miran, or Hedron, the locality of Shattered World, although it doesn’t yet have a name in the story.

The other world is the one I call the ISF/Allion world. This world has one human starting point (Earth), and spends a lot of time without FTL travel. It is developed eventually, but it’s not easy, as in space opera. In this world, Allion Aerospace Ltd was a company that boldly went… er, no… boldly bought the ISS off the various contributing nations when they wanted to let it infall and developed it commercially.

(Seriously, I made this up before all this GFC and private space flight business started)

They built a self-sustaining habitat, supplying the station from their base in Indonesia. They scouted workers amongst brilliant postgrad students at western universities, disgruntled by their lack of prospects in their home countries, and their inability to secure a working visa for their home countries. By far the majority of their recruits are women.
They also put the first human (Chandra Lee–non-white, non-male, non-American) on Mars, started a settlement there, and the company became fully space-based.

The rest of the–more traditional–world has been playing catchup since, and both Allion and the official, government-sanctioned International Space Force have made mistakes, fought skirmishes and one all-out war.

This world is limited to hard SF. It encompasses a much narrower range of environments and stories, and most stories fit after the other (although you can read them as stand-alones). There are also a lot of short stories in this world, such as Trassi Udang (Belong), Poor Man’s Travel (Anywhere but Earth), and Charlotte’s Army. All of these are seen from ISF perspective. His Name In Lights: a novella is from Allion perspective. Watch out for a longer work, tentatively called Shifting Reality, that follows where Poor Man’s Travel left off, and involves Ari from Trassi Udang when he is four years older.

Oof, I don’t think I would have fitted all of that in 140-character Twitter posts.