Reader Request Week 2022 #7: Space Exploration

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Joseph asks:

What is your relationship to and opinion of, as a science fiction author and just as a person, the present-day effort of space exploration? (Human astronauts, robotic probes, astronomy with ground-based telescopes, or any other aspect of it.)

I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise when I say that I am an unabashed geek for all of it. I love all the whole gamut of exploration, and happily consume whatever news pops up about astronomy, astrophysics, planetary exploration, and crewed missions. I know astronauts and people who have landed probes on Mars! They’re all super cool people! My enthusiasm for it existed prior to my becoming a science fiction writer, and I suspect, in the worst case scenario that sees my science fiction career coming to a grinding halt, I’ll still enjoy our space exploration endeavors. This is all a no-brainer to me.

With that said, some subtle wrinkles to my enthusiasm:

One, in general I lean toward robotic missions over crewed missions, because I think at this point they offer more value, in terms of what we learn about our universe, than crewed missions do. Please note this is a lean, not a “do only one kind of exploration,” and I think we as a nation and as a species are perfectly capable of doing both robotic and crewed missions. And should! If I were the one planning missions for NASA (or whomever), however, I would probably prioritize telescopes and planetary missions and such over putting human footprints back on the moon, or on Mars.

Two, on the subject of crewed missions, I’m reasonably optimistic about the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, but I’m deeply skeptical that we’ll actually land humans on Mars before I shuffle off this mortal coil (presuming a reasonable lifespan). This is because, in nautical terms, going to the moon is like leaving England and traveling to Ireland in gentle seas; going to Mars is leaving England and traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula, with gale force winds and five-story waves the whole way. Boasts by administrators and oligarchs aside, it’s gonna be a whole project, and I suspect whoever goes first should be planning on it being a one-way trip for them. People would still go! But, yeah.

Three, more than a few of the private crewed space missions seem little more than expensive press releases for billionaires, which I don’t love; again, I would like space missions to be about science more than anything else. But also, no one is asking me, and also, with regard to the incipient wave of space tourism, if millionaires want to give ridiculous sums to billionaires just to go into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to experience microgravity for a few minutes, well, it’s their money, I suppose. In their place I would spend that money elsewhere.

Four, what I really want are probes to the moons that we are reasonably sure have bodies of liquid water on them. If we’re going to find extraterrestrial life anytime soon, this is going to be the one of the most likely ways, and I think finding that life should be one of the priorities of our space missions.

(The other was we’re going to find extraterrestrial life? Super massive telescopes that can image the atmospheres (or at least, the spectral absorption of atmospheres) of planets around other stars. Atmospheric oxygen (probably) doesn’t just happen, folks!)

But again, I’m happy with what I get, which is good because it’s not like I’m making the policy or building the spaceships. Space! It’s my jam.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: EC Ambrose

Footnotes, side comments, errata, vague asides — sometimes these don’t matter much. But sometimes, as E.C. Ambrose discovered, they do. And sometimes, as in the case of Drakemaster, you get a book out it!


Sometimes, the big ideas come from very small places…

I was happily reading along for no particular purpose, in a non-fiction book about the Antikythera Mechanism, when I came upon the most intriguing footnote in the history of superscript numerals. The chapter covered other advances in clockworks and gears, and the author clearly loved the material, but knew that it must be somehow restrained lest it take over the main document. The tantalizing footnote referred to a medieval Chinese astronomical clock, and “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial.”

Such a tasty detail that I pounced like a cat on the vermillion dot of a distant laser, pointing my way to a novel—not that I knew it at the time. The quote turns out to be from Cambridge historian and Sinophile Joseph Needham, who, during the 1950’s, proposed to compile a volume for Cambridge University Press called Science and Civilisation in China. 

(I thought I went down rabbit holes! His single proposed volume now consists of an entire library of Chinese historical documents which has produced 27 reference books so far…)

That’s how I discovered the subject of the quote, Su Song’s astronomical clock of about 1090 CE. Polymath Su Song, in the employ of the Northern Song emperor, devised his extraordinary technological wonder to track celestial phenomenon using the finest astronomical instruments of the day, and display the information on a series of dials (complete with moving figures and music) for the purpose of generating highly accurate and detailed horoscopes for the emperor’s children. The “ladies secretarial” recorded this information in red (because of course imperial children are very auspicious, and red must therefore be employed) for future reference.

Naturally, I was hooked! If the footnote was the laser pointer, now I had found the catnip. But a clock, in spite of its ticking, is not a plot.

(Footnote to the footnote discussion: clocks at the time did not tick, actually, because what makes them tick is the escapment mechanism, a newer innovation. One thing that made Su Song’s clock remarkable was his mechanical escapment employing a chain and water buckets to maintain regular intervals.) 

One large obstacle to writing into Chinese history is that the region is vast, and its history is extremely deep. Just beginning the research was daunting, and organizing what I found perhaps more so. I needed to learn enough to discover characters and conflicts, and zoom in on the particular experience of a milieu that makes fiction so compelling. The clock, my centerpiece, had been erected in Kaifeng—then the capital of the empire—only to be taken apart again when the imperial family moved south in the face of incursions by nomads from the Steppes. The Jurchen people claimed the region, and the emperor made one of the great blunders in the history of the world. He invited another nomadic tribe sick of living under Jurchen rule to ride south and rout the invaders. This second nation was, of course, the Mongols who would eventually conquer the world’s largest contiguous land empire.

Right. Looks like my quest to define a small niche of history to write into has, instead, expanded exponentially. I found myself overwhelmed again by the scale of the project. When that happens, I know I need to return to the source, the nugget that originally excited me to take on a writing project. In this case, the clock. I stopped broadly exploring the area, and instead began to learn all I could about this very specific place, Kaifeng, the city of the clock. When I learned that the city had rebelled against its Mongol conquerors in 1257, I knew I had my milieu, both time and place, and a several layers of conflict to explore, not only the large, external problem of the occupying army, but also the way that the region’s history would influence the characters. The Mongols, while possessing a well-deserved reputation for desctruction, also recognized talent when they found it, recruiting skilled engineers, craftsmen and bureaucrats into their army.

I developed my cast of characters from several of the cultural groups and classes coming into conflict, looking for a variety of perspectives to illuminate the narrative, and my beloved footnote grew into a historical fantasy novel of epic proportions: Drakemaster.  A team of rivals in a desperate race across medieval China to locate a clockwork doomsday device. The rest, in this case, isn’t history—it’s the future.

Drakemaster: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Apple|Kobo

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