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.

SF writers having fun with seasons

As a writer, you can do all sorts of fun worldbuilding stuff with seasons. The English-language concept of Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter is based on the European seasons. Even on Earth, it doesn’t hold everywhere.

In northern tropical Australia, where I used to live, you have two seasons:
A dry season, when–surprise, surprise–it doesn’t rain, and a wet season, when it’s supposed to rain but often doesn’t, and if it does, it does so in quantities no drainage system could possibly be built to cope with, and in between these bouts of liquid air, it’s just horrible and humid.

Even in Sydney, we have only three seasons. Autumn very slowly morphs into spring, as the European benchmarks for winter–long nights, bare trees, and snow–just don’t hold. Many trees never lose their leaves at all, and some only do so well into spring, and even some of the European trees appear mightily confused.

On your imaginary world, you may choose to adhere to the basic four-season model, but if your setting has a dry or tropical climate, the seasons will be different.

But why not do something more challenging. Let’s go back to what causes seasons. Two things:
1. the inclination of the planet’s axis of rotation compared to the plane of rotation.
2. physical distance of a planet to the star.

Factor 1 is by far the most important on Earth. It is why we have summer while the northern hemiphere has winter. Factor 2 requires an elliptical orbit. No planet has an orbit that’s 100% circular. Earth’s orbit is pretty darn circular, but still, Earth is closest to the Sun in January and furthest from it in July. Therefore, the summers in the southern hemisphere are slightly warmer than summers at similar latitude in the northern hemisphere, and the winters slightly colder. Still, when you consider other factors of topography, this effect is so small as to be meaningless.

Supposing you were on Mars, the facts would look very different. Mars has both an inclination and an elliptical orbit. Therfore, the winters on the southern hemiphere of Mars are noticeably colder (and longer, since a planet moves faster the closer it is to the sun) than those on the northern hemispere and the summers noticeably warmer. However, the inclination of Mars is still similar to Earth’s.

Now imagine if you were on a planet rotating perpendicular to the plane of orbit. We have such a planet in the solar system: Neptune. If you stood on the north pole of Neptune in the northern summer, you’d have the sun not only permanently above the horizon, but straight overhead, as in the tropics on Earth. In winter, the sun would disappear for months. The sun would only rise and set every day on the equator. How would plants and animals survive on a world like this?

How much science does there need to be in Science Fiction?

This is a question that gets asked a bit in writer’s forums, and frankly, I have some trouble with it. I mean, it’s called Science Fiction, isn’t it?

Yes, I know there are many stories out there that don’t seem to have any science at all. Look at Star Wars, for example. It’s so full of semi-magical rubbish that you can hardly call it Science Fiction and… yeah, yeah. That said, how do you know that some real science wasn’t behind the inspiration for some of the admittedly cool worldbuilding? Sure, there was a lot of stuff that’s plain impossible and more like magic, and overall, Star Wars is probably closer to fantasy. But, you wanted to know how to write better and more sellable Science Fiction, right? You’re not writing Star Wars and your name isn’t George Lucas, so let’s forget about them and all those stories that have questionable science. You want to sell a story to a good magazine. How much science do you need?

In the last year, something changed for me. I went from being able to sell stories at semipro level to being able to sell them at pro level. In my case, I can pinpoint the exact moment of change. It was that hot Sunday afternoon in January 2010 when I went to Officeworks and bought that pair of titanium scissors. I became interested in titanium and after reading about it, I cobbled together a number of ideas into a strange ecosystem that relies on titanium. From there, it was only a small step to invent characters and a story. Ultimately, not that much science made it into the story, but the science inspired almost every bit of worldbuilding the story has.

The story I wrote next, Party, with Echoes, which I sold to Redstone SF, had even less science visible in the story, but that doesn’t mean none went into the writing of it. In fact, since it’s set on Europa, I bought a book on the moon. The same book has given me ideas for further stories.

His Name in Lights, which I sold to the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette, has even more science, and more of it made it into the story, but again, the science formed the basic inspiration for many elements in that story. The science told me what should happen, and gave me ideas for cool scenes. Having asked myself the question: could one possibly sign-write on the clouds of a gas giant, I set about writing a story that involved just this.

The quality of my stories took a big leap when I decided to start taking the science in Science Fiction seriously, and using the science to inspire and guide the story rather than tacking some pseudo-science onto an existing story, and hoping no one noticed. About using facts in Science Fiction, someone at the Analog forum said this very true thing: don’t think no one will check; they will. Very true. You have to get the facts right. Better still, make sure you’re one step ahead of the editors and readers in terms of research.

So I think those people who ask how much science a Science Fiction story needs don’t fully understand the concept of the genre. Science is not optional. Science Fiction is, breathes, and lives science. The inspiration for it is the science. The resulting story may or may not have an obvious science component, but without the science extrapolation or inspiration, it would be dull, commonplace or clichéd.

That doesn’t mean dull, clichéd stories don’t get written. Heck, sometimes they even get published. But if you want to give yourself the best chance at getting published in a decent Science Fiction venue, it is my strong feeling that you had better start looking after the science other than spending five minutes on Wikipedia checking the most obvious facts.

When I talk about science, I include the social sciences. There are many great stories that can be written about concepts in such fields as psychology, political science and linguistics.

You do not need a PhD in any of these fields to learn about them. Your readers will probably never have heard about the interesting concepts you have used as inspiration for your fiction, and therefore, the stories will have that spark of being different and fresh, as well as feeling authentic and interesting.

Unobtainium. So… what exactly is this stuff?

I will probably damage my reputation by saying that I enjoyed last year’s top-grossing movie Avatar on many levels. Even the science, while highly popularised, did not contravene too many known laws of physics and facts of biology. Except for one thing, and that one thing has bugged me ever since. In hindsight, it’s quite amazing how long I allow stupid trivialities to bug me.

Anyway, Unobtainium.

I mean, seriously? Which script editor worth their salt would leave such an obvious ersatz-name in the finished product? What on Earth were they thinking?

As writers do when the going gets tough, I googled it. Apparently, Unobtainium, also spelled Unobtanium, is jokingly referred to in engineering when there is a need for a material that doesn’t (yet) exist. The term is also used to indicate materials that are extremely rare. In the movie, it’s a MacGuffin. What it does is not important. Only that it is rare and very valuable and thus is the reason for the hero’s quest.

Fine by me. I just wish they called it something else.

But it keeps nagging. There is that scene in the movie, you know, where the evil and hapless company director whose name I’ve already forgotten, picks up the sample that floats above a hollow dish. It makes me wonder what this stuff is. It looks metallic, and it floats. By what mechanism and what would people do with it?

First up, why does it float? It seems to me that it needs the dish to stay up in the air. That would suggest a magnetic field. Aside from the fact that I’m unsure that a bowl-shaped dish would emit the right shape magnetic field to keep an object afloat (I’m thinking it would need to be horseshoe-shaped), I’m wondering what the benefits of such material would be. Given a magnetic field strong enough, many materials could be made to float. Maglev trains work on this principle. The floating capacity would depend on the density of the material, the size of the sample and the strength of the field, and two of these can be varied by the observer. Creating a stronger magnetic field just requires more electricity, negating the value of the material. The repelling force that holds the sample in the air can only be as strong as that induced by the magnetic field, so to stay up, the sample must be very light. It could be a very light-weight, strong material. OK, but is that really valuable enough to raze an entire planet?

Secondly, it could be some sort of anti-gravity material. I’ve thought about how this could work, but am drawing blanks. If, for example, the material consisted of atoms of negative matter, each of these atoms would repel each other (as opposed to attracting each other, which is what regular atoms do), and the material wouldn’t stay together in a clump (hint: this is why we haven’t found any negative matter). But let’s suppose some sort of property existed that rendered the material inert to gravity.

Fine, but why stop at gravity? It’s nothing but a force (actually, it’s an acceleration, but let’s not get too technical). A material cannot know if a force applied to it is the result of gravity or something else. Would this type of Unobtainium resist being pushed or picked up? Ah, but it would only be moved if physically in contact with the object doing the pushing or pulling.

Fine. We have just established that Unobtainium would be an excellent material for making heavy lift, single stage to orbit space ships. Stuff that negates gravity. Woo-hoo!

Except now we’re in orbit. How do we come down in a space ship that wants to go the other way? Er…?

So what about you? What do you think would make an element exceedingly valuable?

P.S. I’m sure there is a short story in some of this. Somewhere.