The Technological Innovation I was Reluctant to Feature in Dust

Part of the premise of Dust is that the human race has grown beyond its means and as a result many colonies across the Republic  are struggling to adequately feed their populations.  When Nick, our protagonist, travels to Dust, he expects to find a local population filled with the emaciated and destitute, with people begging for scraps and the whole of the colony struggling to survive.

Much to his surprise, that’s not what he finds.  Instead he finds a population that is having no trouble supporting itself.  He finds his plate is filled everyday with strange but scrumptious meals that leave him more than satisfied.  This delicious bounty is the result of Dust’s top mind, the old geneticist Doctor Aldous Sinclair.  Doctor Sinclair used his scientific gifts to modify crops so that they could thrive in the harsh environment of Dust, thereby guaranteeing the colony’s survival.

The people of Dust rely on genetically-modified foods for survival.

My reluctance to include genetically-modified food in Dust doesn’t stem from any fear of genetic modification itself.  There is nothing inherently wrong with something that is genetically modified.  In fact, human-made modifications can potentially be very beneficial, but that doesn’t excuse the shameful way genetically-modified foods have been handled in the United States.

Just under a year ago, I stumbled across this TEDx talk from Robyn O’Brien.  Robyn does an excellent job laying out the case against the dangers and risks that have been introduced into the U.S. food supply through the introduction of unregulated genetically-modified foods. In the presentation, she reviews the data that shows an increase in food allergies, cancer rates, and other issues that have occurred since genetically-modified foods started showing up in our food supply.  She does note that correlation does not equal causation.  There are times though, when better safe than sorry or caveat emptor should be our underlying approach.

As I sat at my kitchen table with my three little girls, I realized just how much I agreed with Robyn’s approach.  We’ve made wholesale changes to our food buying habits, buying as many organic, natural, and chemical-free food products as we can.  These days, you’re much more apt to find foods from Cascadian Farms, Annie’s, Kashi, or Mom’s Best then you are to find Kellogg’s, Nabisco, or Kraft.  That’s not to say we’re perfect as the need for quick snacks and fast meals with our little girls sometimes makes processed foods necessary.  However, we have made substantial changes.

Frankly, I think it’s fairly shameful how governments in other developed countries around the world have seen fit to protect their citizens from the inherent dangers that could be resulting from their foods and yet the government “by the people, for the people’ has not.  I find the mindset that many people seem to have, that food or chemicals are okay until they are proven harmful, to be perplexing.

When a new medication is introduced to the public, it is required to be tested to ensure that it is reasonably safe (there are problems with biased studies here, but the approach is reasonable).  Side effects must be identified and if a medication proves to be too detrimental, it is not approved.  Yet, medication is not required for consumption everyday by every person in this country.

Everyone, man, woman, or child has to eat.  Yet for the food we put on our plates, we seem to have put the bottom-line of corporations ahead of the safety of the people.

Until this situation is rectified, grocery shopping truly requires a ‘buyer beware’ approach.  I know too many people with cancer to want to put my family at risk by eating food that is ultimately unsafe.

So, as I said, I was reluctant to include this technological innovation in Dust.  I considered adding an exchange that would show how Sinclair tested his modifications to ensure that they were safe, but I couldn’t find any way to naturally blend it in with the story.  I considered not having genetically-modified organisms, but they were important to establishing Sinclair’s abilities.  In the end, I left them in the book with the rationalization that genetic modification is not inherently bad, but I knew I’d be writing a post to express my reservations with the approach the United States has taken.

You can follow Robyn on twitter @unhealthytruth.

Advertisements

Fatherhood is the Engine that Drives Dust

***MINOR STORY SPOILERS AHEAD***

I’ve written a bit on the technological backbone of Dust and the evolution of technology that enables the story, but I haven’t yet written much on what Dust is really about. The story for Dust came to me when I asked myself one question:

What would society be like if you were only allowed to have one child?

Growing up, I never really envisioned myself as much of a family man.  I had no dreams or aspirations of having kids and having a family.  I never thought about it.  I thought a helluva lot more about getting a chance to walk on alien worlds and travelling through the stars then I ever did about family.  My own experiences with my parents were different  with a biological father who abandoned my mother and I when I was 2 years old and an adoptive father with his own struggles.

When my wife and I first discussed having kids, I didn’t really have an answer to how many children I wanted.  My wife, seeing me as the responsible-yet-calculating engineer that I was, figured I would be a solid provider for the family, but I would probably be fairly distant with the kids.  I was awkward around other people’s kids, not really able to interact with them in a way that suggested I would be any good with my own kids.

When my firstborn arrived, my change in perspective was profound. Yes, I felt naturally protective which is no surprise.  Not only did I fulfill my obligation to take care and provide for my girls, but I also played with them.  I became involved.  I help with their development.  I read them stories every night, take them to movies and sporting events, and try to teach them about the world around them.  I love them.

There is a 1988 apocalyptic movie, The Seventh Sign, that ultimately asks a young mother if she will die to save the soul of her newborn baby and in so doing she saves the world.  That willingness to give your life for your child is a cliched statement, but the roots of that cliche come from absolute truth.

Now back to the question I asked myself, what would society be like if you could only have one child?  How protective would you be of that child?  What would you think of someone who clearly didn’t love their child?  What would you do if you lost your child?

This brings us to the two main characters – Nick and Max – and their respective relationships.

Nick is a young man whose relationship with his father is broken.  Nick has been raised a good Catholic boy; he is well versed on what is right and what is wrong in the eyes of the Church and the government of the Republic.  He understands that families are limited to one child because of rampant poverty because humanity cannot support the size of the current population.  He understands that everyone has a moral and legal obligation to conserve so that everyone may have at least a small piece of the pie.

In reality, it’s not quite that easy to draw the lines between right and wrong.  A year before the events of the novel, Nick stumbled on some information about his father’s job that opened his eyes and set him down a path that would ultimately lead to Nick leaving home in the middle of the night, setting out to making a life of his own.

Admittedly, Nick’s father is a one-dimensional, bit character; he is the boogeyman who haunts Nick’s dreams.  He is the aloof, distant father who puts career and wealth above family.  His pursuit of the brass ring leads him down a path that Nick finds utterly repugnant.  In the months following Nick’s initial discovery, his relationship with his father sours quickly.  Arguments between the two of them are frequent and Nick’s father withdraws from his son as he learns that their values are in conflict.  While his father is on a business trip, Nick tries to run away for the first time, but his mother talks him out of it.  She holds the family together with every ounce of her strength.  She knows what is at stake and she fights to keep them together.  Ultimately, she cannot stop her son from setting off on his own path.

When Nick’s vindictive father learns that Nick has run off, he strips away all of Nick’s money.  This is what brings Nick to Max and sets into motion a series of events that will dramatically alter both of their lives.  Max lost his only child ten years prior  to meeting Nick.  His days and nights are haunted by the memories of the accident that took her life.  Max knows what he lost and that makes him a little more receptive to taking on a young man who has no real experience and no real place to turn.  It makes him a little more patient with a rebellious kid whose only direction has been provided by the loathing he feels for his father.

It is this connection that propels Nick and Max through the events of the story.  On the backwater colony of Dust, both men will face the consequences of their failed relationships.  Both men will be pushed to the brink of their capabilities until they are forced to come face-to-face with their troubled pasts.

How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part III

Part I

Part II


In part I of the journey to Dust, humanity finally left the confines of Earth and planted its feet in alien soil.  In part II, we unlocked the power to travel across the stars.  In part III, the 23rd century, we will make the stars our home.  With the first steps in wormhole travel behind us, the human race can then do what it has dreamed of since the dawn of space travel – visit and live on all the worlds of our imagination.

The first extrasolar colonies will face challenges similar to those faced in the original settlement of any foreign land.  Yes, future colonies will have the benefits of modern medicine and technology to assist in their survival.  However, colonies will stay face issues with food supplies, habitats, disease, and environmental disasters that will threaten the safety of those early colonists.  Just as early American colonies collapsed so too will early extrasolar colonies.  Perhaps they’ll be wiped out by a parasitic infection.  Perhaps government bureaucracy will strangle the supply chain and the colony will collapse due to a lack of logistic support.  Perhaps the colony will be wiped out be a mega-storm the likes of which we’ve never seen on Earth.  The point is that lives will be lost and there will be plenty of people who think that this great adventure will not be worthwhile.  Just as today, the torch of exploration and colonization will be picked up by some wealthy, perhaps somewhat eccentric, enthusiasts ready to make a name for themselves by establishing a presence on another world.

While that first colony is struggling for survival, wormhole satellites will begin to arrive at other destinations in the galaxy.  The rate of expansion, while extremely slow at first, will quickly grow.  Within the first two decades of the 23rd century, humanity will gain access to another dozen solar systems.  Coupled with a burgeoning population in our native solar system, people will be eager to live on these new worlds.  People will want to leave behind the mundanity of Earth and Mars and leave for exciting frontiers.

At some point, when colonies become somewhat self-sufficient, those colonies will want autonomy.  It’s possible, probable even, that the autonomy will bring out the worst in humanity and blood will once again be shed in the name of independence.  Perhaps that’s too pessimistic and we will learn how to resolve difficult disputes without the violent revolution that has been a regular occurrence throughout history but I doubt it. Due to the pressures of a society with open communication, that conflict will be short-lived and a provisional government will be established, trade treaties will be put in place, and humanity will learn how to govern with a populace that lives light-years apart.  Thus, the First Republic of Earth will be established.

While governments evolve and people settle into their new environs, those responsible for exploration will continue to refine  their approach.  The initial beacons sent out into remote solar systems were powered by traditional propulsion.  This was to ensure safe arrival; no one wants to exit a wormhole into the middle of an asteroid field, Oort cloud, or in the path of an approaching comet.  Beacons will be placed in relatively dead regions of space, away from stars or planets which could draw in hazardous neighbors.

To speed up the rate of exploration, robotic explorers will be launched on blind jumps, travelling through wormholes that do not have a precisely calculated and calibrated exit points.  When a safe exit point is discovered, another beacon will be put in place.  Through this technique a huge interstellar highway will be constructed and journeying to other stars will be as commonplace as flying to another country.

How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part II

Part I here.

Dust takes place on a colony of the same name established on a harsh, unforgiving world many light-years from Earth.  The single biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how the heck do we get there?  For any story set against a backdrop of galactic exploration,  the author has to decide how the human race figures out how to travel beyond the bounds of the solar system.

There are three well-known mechanisms for this: generation ships, faster than light travel, or wormholes.  Generation ships are well within the realm of possibility but are not  conducive to my futuristic galactic Republic, so I’ll explore that topic another time.  Meanwhile the plausibility of faster-than-light travel took a blow this week, but at the moment, wormholes remain a theoretical possibility.  Do a search for wormhole experiments and you’ll find plenty of discussions on the  topic from all corners of the academic spectrum.  Currently, most of the conversation focuses on the theoretical aspects of the problem – that is is it possible to connect two different points in space-time and allow for quick transit between two points that are light-years apart?

Eventually, these discussions will move from the blackboard to the lab (which may already be happening).  Then at some point in the future, my guess here is the 22nd century, we will discover that scientific holy grail.  At that point, the frontier will be open for business.

First though, we’ll need to work on stability and safety.  The first wormholes created will be highly unstable and disappear within seconds.  They will also require tremendous amounts of energy to generate and open.  It’ll take years of experimenting and practice before we can really harness this technology.

Highly technical depiction of the wormhole transit paradigm in Dust

Then there’s the problem of knowing where that wormhole will open up.  The model that I’ve established in Dust is fairly simple, satellites have been deployed throughout the galaxy and link together to form a transit network.  A wormhole can be created between any two points in that network.  The satellites are needed to keep a stable link so that we know with certainty where the wormhole will open up.

With a stable means of transit in place, now we can actually start sending things through the wormhole.  Because the loss of human life in making scientific progress is generally frowned upon, no government will approve the use of wormholes for human travel without extensive testing.  This means the first traveler through a wormhole will be a friendly, sacrificial robot.

The difficulty with beginning to use this transit system will be getting the satellites in place.  If the only way we could accurately predict the exit point of a wormhole is to physically put a satellite in that location, then it’s going to take some time to put that satellite in place through conventional means.  Right now, the closest exoplanets that we know of are roughly 10 light years away.  Even assuming we’ve advanced conventional propulsion to the point where you can travel at roughly half the speed of light or greater, it will still take 20 years to get the first beacon in place and then another ten years for the two satellites to link up.

So when the frontier finally opens, it won’t be a gold rush at first but rather the slow trickle of molasses as humanity works to put a safe and reliable network in place.  Once that network is in place, then the fun begins and humanity will establish its first outpost beyond the boundaries of our solar system.

That won’t be the last of the struggles though, because at some point, there will be an accident and lives will be lost.  When that happens, human transit will be suspended until a root cause to the problem is found and the entire system is made safer.   Those initial flights will be fraught  with risk and it will only be after the system has proven reliable that governments will grant average citizens the opportunity to travel to distant stars.

For more on how I approached building the fictional world of Dust, please see my guest  post on the book blog Alchemy of Scrawl.

How do we get from here (Earth, 2012) to there (Dust, 2512)? (Part I)

The challenge of setting any story in the future is establishing some reasonable progression of society and its technological capabilities.  Dust takes place some 500 years in the future, so I thought it would be fun to lay out a bit of a timeline of advancements needed and milestones achieved over that time.

Sometime this year or next, I expect the discovery of the first potentially habitable planet to be announced.  Exoplanet discoveries have steadily ramped up over the past year and that will only increase as more resources are devoted to deciphering data from research projects like the Kepler telescope.  The discovery of a habitable world will no doubt spark a small mention in the national conversation, but the stark reality is we will be limited in how much we will be able to learn about this world at this time.  So we will discover the world, we will no doubt listen to it and study its atmospheric composition, but beyond that there won’t be much more we can do.

On human exploration, I have to believe that at some point in the next 2 decades some man or woman will set foot on another world in our solar system.  Whether that person will be from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea or any other space-faring nation is ultimately irrelevant.  What really matters is that someone will do it.  That person may set foot on that world for the noble goal of exploration, due to an attempt to instill national pride, or in some misguided cold-war-style space race, but it will be done.

When that happens, I want to believe that the final hurdle will be overcome and that the floodgates for exploration will be open.  This is naive, of course.  At a minimum, I hope we have learned lessons from the incredible accomplishments of Apollo and hopefully, we will be there for more than just a brief visit.  Of course, the real gate-opener for exploration and ultimately colonization will be to find a way to make it profitable whether it’s through mining, scientific advancement, or some other unforeseen reason.  Make it profitable and companies will come.

While this exploration of the solar system will ultimately result in advances in medicine and medical technology due to the obstacles overcome in that exploration, medical advances will continue to advance due to terrestrial research.  Within the next couple of decades, the developed world will start to have access to life-extending medications.  Even without these medications, the world population will continue to increase and the ability of the planet to support the ever-growing population will continue to be stressed.  Could the world population ever become so large that humanity is forced to try and expand to another world?  Possibly, but it’s more likely that some section of society would collapse before a solution like that would be pursued.

Eventually though, assuming there are enough well-to-do private enthusiasts and/or government funding, enough money will be poured into developing space exploration technologies that the cost-to-orbit will be lowered, advanced propulsion capabilities will be delivered, and the technical challenges related to establishing a colony on another world will be overcome.  Then finally, whether through necessity or curiosity, humanity take out an insurance policy on the Earth and begin living on another world.

Given the current rate and commitment to exploration, 50 years is probably too ambitious a time frame for this to happen.  This is where you have to recognize that even if the United States doesn’t do this, then some other country will.  With any luck, it’ll be a cooperative effort.

Once a foothold is established on another world, we will then begin the task of reforming that world into something more hospitable for us and turning it into a long-term home for our people.  Currently, these technologies and approaches are only theoretical, but we have plenty of time to turn those theories into reality.

Up next, the 22nd century…

Spaceship Design of Dust or Everything I Know about Spaceship Design I Learned from the International Space Station

In writing Dust, the first element of the setting that I defined was the Hannah, Max Cabot’s medium-class freighter that serves as the setting for a good portion of the story.  My biggest challenge when writing Dust was to not try and explain how every little thing worked in the flow of the story.  I would often have to go back and remove sections that I ultimately felt went into too much detail.  Instead, I figured I would save those details for some behind-the-scenes posts on here.

Spaceship design is something that I have been playing around with since I was about ten years old.  One year, my mom brought me home a tablet of graph paper from her civil engineering firm and I spent hours and hours drawing spaceship layouts, identifying where the ships systems were, challenging myself to come up with designs that weren’t recognizable as ships from Star Wars or Star Trek.

In college, spaceship design and function continued to dominate my creative thoughts.  It was then that I wrote the short story “The Scout” which was an attempt to write a short story where the main character was the ship itself and its journey through space.  Finally, a year after I graduated from college, I started working on the International Space Station (ISS) and I got to delve into the design of a real spaceship.

My first assignment on ISS was as an instructor for life support systems, so it should come as no surprise that the Hannnah’s systems reflect much of what I learned then.  From a life support systems perspective, the ISS is the first spacecraft that has attempted to have a close-looped system.  For a spaceship that is going to spend much of its time in space, you want an efficient system that will not waste any resources.  On ISS, an oxygen generator uses water produce oxygen and has a leftover component of hydrogen. A separate system removes carbon dioxide from the air.  The oxygen from that carbon dioxide is combined with the hydrogen from the oxygen generator to then form water, which when processed can be used to produce oxygen, and so on.  The key philosophy here is that a spaceship has to recycle everything and waste as little as possible.  The more you waste, the more you have to replenish.  ISS doesn’t have a truly closed system, but it’s taken great strides towards one.

About a third of the way through Dust, the Hannah experiences problems with rising carbon dioxide levels.  Max then embarks on a hunt to figure out why this is happening.  One of my favorite lines of Max’s is when he says that there are no mysteries on-board a spaceship.  Everything is definable; there are few variables.  Everything that happens in that closed environment has a limited set of contributors and probable outcomes.  Max knows this and immediately knows that something is amiss.

At this point, Max starts tearing apart the ship to find the source of his problem.  This reflects another lesson learned from ISS: everything breaks.  Every component on ISS has been pored over, rigorously tested, and then operated on Earth to make sure it works.  Even still, things are constantly breaking.  Before the ISS was fully complete and it didn’t have fully redundant systems, the biggest threats to having to abandon the station were that the oxygen generator would break, the carbon dioxide remover would break, or that the toilet would break.  And those three things broke with disheartening regularity in the early days of the program.

It was only natural to me then that the Hannah would constantly be having problems.  While I fully expect that in 500 years a top-of-the-line spaceship will be full of self-healing alloys, self-healing nanostructures, and other “unbreakable” components, the reality for Max is that he flies the equivalent of a 30-year-old used Winnebago.  Nothing heals itself, half the ship is replacement parts, and nothing runs for too long without breaking.  Someday, when spaceships are as ubiquitous as cars, we will have to deal with the reality that not everything is a top-of-the-line model.  When that happens, I hope the owner has a maintenance robot of their own to help with all of the repairs.

On the ISS when something breaks, the crew knows that they will be spending some time within the next couple of weeks replacing something, which means they’ll have to go digging through storage areas to find the spare parts.  Then they’ll have to spend a good deal of time cutting through clutter to get what to what they need.  Pictures of the inside of ISS, like the one below, show that the station is jam-packed with stuff.

So, my procedure says to follow the white wire...

For this, I gave Max a bit of an advantage as he gets to use a 3D printer to generate replacement parts.  I had to do something to cut out the piles of stuff that would otherwise be lining the floor.  I did however try to preserve the concept that there is no wasted space aboard the ship.  Behind every panel is some vital piece of equipment.  Throughout the story, Max is forced to worm and weasel his way into and out of tight spaces all in the name of making a living.

So through the Hannah’s systems and operation, I tried to reflect a realistic spaceship environment.  That realism though means the entire ship is one big pain-in-the-ass for Max to run by himself which is what ultimately leads Max to trying to hire on some extra help.  I could have made the ship less of a junker, but I’m confident that Max wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Dust is available in the Amazon Kindle store for $3.99 and is free for Amazon Prime members.

Introducing ‘Dust’, Now Available in the Amazon Kindle Store

Image Dust, my first published novel, is now exclusively available in the Amazon Kindle store.  Currently it is available in eBook format only, but will be available in paperback in the coming weeks.

What is Dust about?

Dust is a science fiction adventure set in deep space, hundreds of years in the future.  The story follows a young man, Nick Papagous, as he runs away from his rich, luxurious homeworld and journeys to the rough and tumble frontier.

Nick is running away from home to escape the control of his father, a top official in the Marshall Conglomerate.  The Conglomerate produces everything needed to help maintain a safe and secure society.  They serve the people and in so doing they serve the Republic.  Or so his father says.   Nick, though, has found something rotten in his father’s work and he can no longer live with the man he once admired.

Nick is forced into the employ of Max Cabot, an old, weathered freighter pilot who does supply runs to the last colony humanity has established, the colony on Dust.  Max has been on this route for ten years, trying to put his tragic past behind him.  The Republic has turned a blind eye to Dust, an inconsequential world that isn’t worth maintaining. However, Dust has plenty of secrets beneath its shifting sands, secrets that will challenge everything Nick believes.

What is my writing background?

Dust is the second novel I’ve written but the first I’ve published.  My first novel, Crusade of the Warrior King, will be released later this year.  I’ve also written many short stories, several of which are also available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, iBooks, and other sites.  Check the Hutt Publishing tab for details.

Who or what influences my writing?

I’ve read more science fiction novels than I can remember, but my favorites are Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt’s Omega series, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  I prefer fiction that has a bit grittier feel, that has a bit of an edge to it.  I’m not a big fan of happy endings, which is probably why I like King’s work as much as I do.

I do love space opera and the grand sweeping stories of the original Star Wars trilogy or the Star Trek movies.  They’ve romanticized flying through the stars, fighting super-villains, and the rogue-ish hero.  There’s no denying the influence that movies like that or shows like the ill-fated Firefly have had on me.

I’m also a big fan of Ben Bova and his series of novels that explore the colonization of the solar system.  Bova’s fiction falls under the category of hard science fiction, rooted in real-world science wherever possible.  While I prefer adventures that allow humanity to travel from star to star, I still try to root the story in some form of reality.  I hope that some of my twelve years working for NASA on the International Space Station shine through in an entertaining manner.

I hope you enjoy the novel and I am open to any and all feedback you may have, positive or negative.  I’m also happy to answer any questions about the story.  I’ll be following this post up with a few other posts on some aspects of the story including the technology, comparisons to real space vehicles, etc.

Dust is available for $3.99 from the Amazon Kindle store and is free for Amazon Prime members who own a Kindle.  I’ll post an update when the paperback is available.  Please rate and leave feedback.  If you enjoy it, please pass it on.  I appreciate any and all support.