What do you do when the muse goes AWOL? Do you wait for the arbitrary creature to mosey back into your office, coffee shop, prison cell? Or do you chase her down like a Labrador chasing the pizza delivery guy? I know what you’re thinking. The muse is simply one’s creative brain. The fairy dust section where whiskey is served. One need search no further for the muse than the space behind one’s eyes.
But what happens when a distraction has moved into that space? I’m not talking about the neighbor’s loud TV, but a major league disturbance. Big Life Stuff.
A few years ago, I drafted a novel through a bout of a thing that required an entire summer of medical treatment. I have my father’s Irish sense of humor. Takes a lot to get me down but, let me tell you, that was one crappy summer. I decided that, if I could write a novel though that thing, I could write through anything. I was un-blockable. Just a matter of reporting to work.
April 5th my father passed away.
I was visiting Dad as I always did. We’d had lunch and joked, a normal day, then he suffered a heart attack. Two paramedics and two police officers worked their asses off trying to save him. I could only watch, useless, as Dad slipped away from this life.
I allowed myself the five days of bereavement that any boss would give a grieving employee. I used the days as you’d expect. Wrote a eulogy. Attended to my father’s arrangements and all the meet-and-greet involved. Then I returned to work. Busy work. My front brain went through the motions but my mind kept returning to my dad, laughing, then quiet, then lifelessly driven away in a light blue SUV while my mother, his wife of 65 years, sobbed in a living room chair.
Just the day before Dad died, I had published a blog post on another website about writing perseverance. Show up, I blithely said, and writing will happen. Yet five days later, every time I opened a scene the words blurred behind that flickering newsreel. You need time to grieve, some will tell you. But I’m a writer. Nobody can fill in for me at work. I don’t have such time.
Two months have passed since Dad died. I cleaned out his office and workbench. I handled each tool, and lots of loose screws, sorted and packed the house so my Mom, his wife, can move to a place where she’ll be safe without him. I did these things, and still showed up at my desk every day to write. But grief is fluid. It trickles, then floods and drowns your focus.
I tried assorted head-clearing or mind-numbing remedies with only a trace of success. This bothered me. I’m a person who gets things done, but despite the hours spent at my desk, done wasn’t happening. Finally, I realized I was going about it wrong. My characters suffer loss. My characters mourn. I can’t change how I feel, so I gave the feeling a job. Instead of a deterrent to inspiration, my grieving is inspiration, itself.
I worked through the problem. And here’s why.
Dad used to joke that the greatest compliment to a man of his generation was to be known as a good provider. Out of high school, he’d served in the Marines as a field radio operator in Korea. After leaving the service, he took a job laying brick in the J&L coke ovens. Wanting more for his family, he went to college on the GI Bill, earned a degree in math while working full time, while raising four kids. After forty-four years in the steel mill, he put aside the hard hat. In retirement, he babysat, built walls, grew gardens. Never idle, my Dad. Six years ago, when Mom had a stroke, he became her tender caregiver.
To his kids, Dad provided a lifetime of love and encouragement. And through his example, he taught us a relentless work ethic. That work ethic carried me through these last two months.
What a laugh he would have if he knew I’d made him the subject of a blog post. Even gone, Dad’s still providing! Thinking about it, I’m laughing too. Without a doubt, I’m very much his daughter.
Fifty-five years ago (1961) Yuri Gagarin, a Russian pilot became the first human to venture into outer space. Strapped into the Vostok space capsule, he called out the now famous “Poyekhali” (Let’s go!) before he lifted off. Although Gagarin was the first human to make the journey around our planet, he was not the first Earth-born creature to do so. That distinction goes to a dog.
On November 3rd, 1957, Laika, an 11-pound mixed-breed, was launched into space and took her involuntary place in history as the first animal (human or otherwise) to orbit planet Earth.
Laika was pulled from the streets of Moscow, along with dozens of other strays, to serve in a Soviet space program. The purpose of the program was to determine whether humans would survive high altitude flight. The exact number of dogs ‘recruited’ is uncertain. The launches, during the 1950s and 1960s, amounted to 57 canine slots though some of the dogs completed multiple missions.
After being plucked from the streets, the dogs endured rigorous training. They were confined to increasingly smaller boxes. Some confinement lasted upward of three weeks. The dogs learned to stand for long periods of time wearing specialized suits. They rode in rocket sleds to simulate launch. And, like human pilots, the dogs rode centrifuges to adapt to high g-forces. Unlike humans, the dogs didn’t have to perform vital tasks during their missions. They just had to survive.
During high positive g-forces, blood drains away from the brain. This can cause a condition called G-LOC. (G-Induced loss of consciousness.) Human pilots wear g-suits and practice Anti-G Straining Maneuvers (muscle contractions and breathing) to force blood to their brains. They also have to contend with the change in weight. When we stand on a scale, the number we see is our mass acted upon by the Earth’s 1 g. A person weighing 180 lbs at 1 g would weigh 360 lbs at 2 g. And so on.
High G-Forces in Fiction.
Obviously the kinds of speed required to travel the long distances in space would exert some decent g-forces. In science fiction there are two approaches for dealing with this challenge:
1) Artificial gravity is somehow generated and the occupants of a spacecraft are minimally affected by sudden changes in speed and/or direction. Or,
2) Gravity is a force to be reckoned with.
The Expanse series, written by the James S. A. Corey team, takes the second approach. The series’ characters survive high-g’s using crash couches, and a cocktail of blood-pumping drugs. Have a look at this clip from the SyFy series. (If you think this snippet is good, go read the books. Now!)
Back to the Dogs
Dogs, as far as we know, are no longer subjected to the physical and emotional stresses of space travel. Not real dogs. And not real space travel. But in story world … meet Otto.
Otto is my fictional German Shepherd Dog. He’s a veteran war dog who’s been deployed in a space program alongside his human Marine. In my stories, I didn’t want to invent a vague device which creates artificial gravity so I had a few problem to solve.
Humans fare better during high-G burns when the force is perpendicular to the spine–the horizontal axis. Forward acceleration is easier on our retinas, for one thing. (Eyeballs in versus eyeballs out.) This is why astronauts recline during launch, and why you might read about gimbaled acceleration couches in some science fiction, including mine.
But how to engineer an acceleration couch to suit canine anatomy? Stomach to couch seemed the safest alignment, but I couldn’t imagine a harnessing system that wouldn’t crush Otto’s legs. Inspired by the ‘gee bath’ in the Niven/Pournelle novel, THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, I gave Otto a kennel equipped with a gel-filled bladder. I also placed it on a gimbal to maintain the stomach-down position. I wondered how other writers had solved this problem, but I couldn’t recall reading any sci-fi novels which depicted Earth-born companion animals in high g-force scenarios.
I queried Winchell Chung, creator of Atomic Rockets, to see if he could think of any examples. He broadcast my question to his well-read Rocketpunk community. To my surprise, except for Snowy the cartoon dog, the community was equally stumped.
(Is Otto blazing the trail??)
The Rocketpunk community noodled over my scenario for a bit. The bladder-filled kennel seemed, indeed, an adequately believable solution. One contributor suggested I fill the bladder after Otto was positioned. I think that’s a great idea.
Back to the Real Dog Heroes
The Soviet space dogs withstood their missions under grueling conditions. Most of the dogs were returned safely to Earth. Several were adopted and even had puppies. Sadly, due to technical failures, some of the dogs’ missions ended in accidental fatalities.
There was one exception.
Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth, was deliberately sent on a one-way trip. The Soviet scientists had claimed that her oxygen ran out but, in 2002, the truth was revealed. Laika died during her fourth orbit from overheating, as they’d known she would. One of the scientists said he still felt regret. “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of a dog.”
A Toast to Space Dogs
Jane Kurtz, aka Thirsty Jane, my friend and fellow dog lover, has created a cocktail to honor Laika and the other space dog heroes. The cocktail, now featured on her blog, is fittingly named the the Space Dog.
One of the challenges to writing science fiction is … the science.
For me, the science was once a major deterrent to writing in the genre. I believed science fiction readers would demand world-building only Sheldon Cooper could craft. I don’t know why I felt this way. As a reader, my tastes tend to hang out on the cheesecake end of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.
Even hard sci-fi takes liberties with physical laws. This is fiction, after all, yet there is a tendency for critics to want writers in the genre to get the science right. Take astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse, who famously tweeted about the inaccuracies in the award-winning film Gravity. And there’s this NPR article which seems to take the position that sci-fi writers bear some responsibility for inspiring the next generation of rocket scientists. While Andy Weir may have done exactly that with his superb novel, The Martian, there exists a compulsion to point out ‘mistakes,’ such as the storm which kicks off the story.
Don’t let the ‘hard matters’ critics keep your sci-fi stories tucked safely in a virtual folder. The NPR article I mentioned prompted author Fran Wilde to ask ten writers to weigh in on the subject of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ science fiction. My favorite takeaway came from author Tade Thompson who wrote, “The exploration of cultures should not take a backseat to the exploration of the solar system.” And this, from Elizabeth Bear who describes science fiction as, “the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies.”
There’s a lot of room in the genre for a variety of tastes. Write what you love to write. If you prefer sci-fi that’s diamond hard, then do like Mark Watney and “science the shit out of it.” If you’re on the opposite end of the scale like me (I write space western) know your readers’ expectations andart the shit out of it–within your subgenre’s framework.
Newton’s Laws? Or Newton’s Strong Suggestions?
Even on the softer end of the scale, there are some considerations when playing fast and loose with the impossible. If you thumb your nose at Newton, make the result so spectacular we’ll stow our disbelief in suspended animation for the rest of your character’s journey. (Re: The Rule of Cool.) Awesomeness matters. So does consistency and cause and effect.
Tolerance levels vary.
Personally, one-man armies, infallible badassery and cars that endure multiple should-be-fatal collisions push my button of disbelief. (Batmobile and Bumblebee, excluded.) On the other hand, I’m all in for Star Trek transporters, Thor’s hammer, and anything Firefly/Serenity. As I mentioned, I write space westerns so my tastes should come as no surprise. When writing, I try to honor the science, but not at the expense of my stories.
So how might an unscientific writer get the science less wrong?
Delivering on this post’s title, here are three of my favorite resources which speak specifically to science fiction writers:
Winchell Chung, aka Nyrath, calls his website a “glorified term paper.” I call it a science fiction wonderland. Mr. Chung helps dream weavers like me “get the scientific details more accurate.” That’s been true in my case but Atomic Rockets is so much more than a reference. If you love science fiction, visit this site! The collection of research and factoids, and pure genre nirvana is priceless to an author. Warning, it’s addicting. If you’re a writer and, like me, you find Nyrath’s work invaluable, consider becoming a patron.
Physics of the Impossible
Theoretical physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku, tells us that, today, “the fundamental laws of physics are basically understood… and physicists can state, with reasonable confidence, what the broad outlines of future technology might look like.” His book contains three parts. First, he covers what he calls Class I Impossibilities. Sci-fi technologies like force fields, phasers, teleportation, and several more are impossible today but they don’t violate known laws of physics. (I was happy to learn that my latest novel’s plasma curtain was not an outlandish device.) Next, Dr. Kaku covers Class II Impossibilities, namely, faster-than-light travel, time travel and parallel universes. These technologies might be possible millions of years in the future. Finally, the Class III Impossibilities will never be realized because they violate the laws of physics. Can you guess what they are?
World-Building Dr. Stephen Gillett, a geologist, “does planets for a living.” Who better to turn to for planetary inventions? Topographies, atmospheres, suns and moons and gravity, Dr. Gillett does the math. Truly, there’s a lot of math. He also provides examples of sci-fi world-building done right. Two fascinating chapters are devoted to the Earth which, during most of its history, was an alien scum world. If you want to build geologically credible planets then get this book.
Annals of the Former World John McPhee’s collection of essays provides a complex yet entertaining treatment of the geological history of North America. John McPhee tags along with geologists to decipher road cuts, piecing together clues about the geologic past. Did you know the Earth was “prone to rolling?” As McPhee tells it, New Jersey was once as close to the equator as Yucatan is today. Read this book and be a danger on the highway whenever you drive past a sheered hunk of hill.
Okay, so this last resource wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi writers but few research materials are, and —> this book makes a party out of rocks!
What are your favorite resources for getting the science not-too-wrong?
My sidekick weighed 18 pounds and defeated moles, and she kept me company during this lonely endeavor called writing.
Like a good sidekick she provided comic relief and an alternate point of view. She approached every task with tenacity and enthusiasm, even if the task was simply warming my lap.
During the last ten years I’ve written millions of words. My dog heard me type every one of those, waiting and thrilled for every break. Whenever I felt like I was paddling through tar, I’d watch her sitting a vigil beneath our tree, certain the squirrel couldn’t stay out of reach forever.
Eighteen pounds of enthusiasm. Megatons of love. And so explains why my website is dedicated to a certain Cairn Terrier.
Missy Kay passed away last December. She got me to the launching pad.