Archive for February, 2009

Not Writing Today

February 26, 2009

Actually I haven’t been working on the two novels in progress for a couple of weeks. It’s not that I’m blocked, I know exactly where the next chapters need to go – I just need to postpone the writing until I see clear days ahead.

My wife fell and broke a leg, so I’m never short of things to do. It’ll be the middle of next month before she sees the surgeon who will pronounce – or not – if she can start to put any weight on that leg. She has osteoporosis, and a pin holding the bone together – so the key question is how well everything is knitting into one piece. Meanwhile I do the cooking and the shopping and all the other things in between that someone sitting in a chair, getting bored enough to scream, cannot do. After feeding the dogs and putting the veggies in the soup I made this afternoon I got to do washing up for an hour and a half. How was your day?

That marathon was for only a couple of day’s dishes. Housekeeping worked better while she was in the hospital – I used one of everything and rinsed them out every time I needed to use one. Somehow, that’s not working any more.

I do have a bit of writing I intend to get to – inserting a scene in a chapter of the (mostly) completed novel, The Wildcat’s Burden. I’m getting ready to fire another batch of chapters to my editor, so when I received the novel crit from a member of my local writing group and she suggested I need to show Gisel and her doctor have a really good relationship – I searched for somewhere to fit it in. Again, I know what I need to write, it’s just deciding to get at it. Maybe later this evening.

Tomorrow evening, the local highschool has their arts evening and I’m one of the local ‘arty’ people asked to come by and round out the evening. I have to introduce them to the anthology published by our local writers’ group – which has its launch on Sunday. Then I’m going to read a short scene from Arrival, that hasn’t had a launch because I ceded the spot to the anthology. Arrival is now in two contests, so I think I’ll hold off its local promotion until I know how well it’s doing. Confident? Yes, but I haven’t seen the competition.

I’m doing another novel review at the moment, although I had intended to quit writing them. Another Double Dragon Publishing author and I agreed to buy a copy of each others book, review it and paste reviews all over our local sites. He’s in UK and I’m in Canada, so we both expand our customer reach that way. He reported he was halfway through “Arrival” and enjoying it. I haven’t wanted to admit I’m lucky to manage reading two chapters a day of “Exit – Pursued by a Bee” and I’m not going to make the end until a week or so into March.

A couple of reviewers have copies of Arrival that they’ve promised to review – one for this week – but I don’t see it yet. Amazon seems to have taken down the third party review that I posted on Arrival’s page. I’d better get onto the lady that wrote it and ask if she will post it to Amazon. Maybe she’s not a customer.

If the cross-reviewing works out I should look at doing more of it. Need someone in Australia next.

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The Next and the Next.

February 21, 2009

I’m behind with blogging this week. My wife broke a leg and so I am cook, housekeeper and home help until she mends. I haven’t had time to write a new blog entry, but I found this that I don’t think I posted before. I’ve updated it a bit to say something about the next Iskander series novels in the pipeline.

Arrival went back to the beginning of the adventure, when Gisel was 16 and the Iskander had just arrived in orbit around Gaia, the 17th century alternate Earth. That novel has shifted the series sideways a little into the YA category and I’m trying out a few plots to follow if young people show interest.

The novel of her adventures at 18, when she became commissioned into Iskander’s Security Service, has been on the back burner for a long time. It features the Iskanders’ second campaign season in Tarnland with Lord Ricart commanding the right wing of the allied army, in which the Iskander Legion is the heaviest hitter. As a new lieutenant Gisel gets to help train Iskander’s first light infantry unit over the winter, but the chauvinists in the Autarch’s entourage veto her leading it into action. They don’t reckon with Gisel’s determination, or the accidents of warfare, but I’ll leave you to wait for the novel to find out how she fares. I will say that this novel features her ill advised love affair with . . . ah, now who could it be with?

I have two possibilities to take up her life at the age of 17, the summer following Arrival. Gisel is supposed to be at full-time study – she has to learn a ‘trade’ to fit into the Iskander hierarchy. However Gisel’s training is rather like the engineering sandwich courses I followed – a period of intense study followed by practical experience. The stories take place after she has undergone the first few months of her father’s engineering introduction, as well as the medical training Hather offered, which has qualified Gisel as an EMT – emergency medical tech specializing in battlefield wounds. She’s likely to get a lot of use out of that in her later career.

It’s now M’Tov’s chance to put her through security service training – his own program that covers keeping Iskander people and installations safe from nasties, as well as training her to operate safely in hostile territory either gathering intelligence or sabotaging something. I have one idea to have her join a party infiltrated into an Imperial possession to gather information and make contacts with potential allies. The other idea is to put her training aboard a vessel sent to rescue a nobleman who has disappeared – after proposing a treaty of friendship with Iskander. Do you suppose her nemesis Zagdorf could have something to do with it?

Then in the adult stream there is a sequel to The Wildcat’s Victory; it is at third draft stage. Those who have read TWV will remember the situation at the end – well this takes place over the period 6 – 7 months later. If you haven’t read it I won’t give any hints, but the title is The Wildcat’s Burden. It should be released around September this year. Gisel has a new posting – a city job that keeps her from dashing about all over the countryside – but this is no sinecure – the city is the most dangerous in the world. Since I couldn’t have her sticking her neck out to go and find more enemies, I have them come to her – operating in the city to spy, sabotage, murder, or make their fortunes. It features all her old enemies and most of her friends – plus a number of new ones.

No Automobiles in this Retrofuture

February 13, 2009

Retrofuturist fiction creates a world of the past where someone anachronistic either introduces the technology of the future or states a guiding principle for it. In my Iskander series novels I have a small castaway team of engineers and scientists introduce advanced technology into a 17th century world. I picked the 17th century (even if I like to stray into the 16th and early 1700s) because it is accepted that this was the pre-industrial-revolution period. I wanted to have my modern people start from scratch.

Having worked with people from a pre-industrial society – the desert Arabs we hired for our oil exploration crews in Libya in the 1960s – I have had first-hand experience with some of the difficulties the moderns might face. One of our fresh-out-of-the-oasis new hires rode out from camp in the cab of a pickup on his first morning – very much plunged into a new world because he’d only ever seen a vehicle from the outside before. He was wonderstruck until we arrived and everyone climbed out – leaving him in the passenger seat. Then he freaked out – hysterically pounding against the door and windshield. He had no idea how to get out. Who knew? We soon rescued him and showed him how a door handle worked.

Imagine this happening with an important personage – say an armed personage – in a retrofuturist scenario in one of my novels. He might try to shoot his way out, or smash a window, and at the very least form a very unfavorable opinion of the people trying to impress him with the ride. What if he was the king? Not knowing enough to give him a careful intro to what was about to happen could be a political disaster.

The locals in my stories are all depicted as very cautious and skeptical at first, when confronted with the Iskanders’ technology and philosophies. The Gaians have to be won over. In our world, every new development had to go through the process of introduction and gradual acceptance. We have grown so accustomed to most that the idea some might be suspect could hardly be further from our minds. Even offering the Gaians an opportunity to have shares in the only modern steelworks on the planet is met by suspicion. “If this is so good, why do you have to share it with me?” “Do I look fool enough to hand over my hard earned gold to some unheard of scheme?”

The fellow who was used to riding a horse to visit the distant capital would think twice before accepting that this steam contrivance could get him there in hours. His mind goes little further than the possible advantage or harm to himself, but he might gather his courage to buy a ticket to try it. He wouldn’t have the slightest idea that the coal and smoke could, over many years, do serious harm to the world – but he’s already suspicious that this gimcrackery goes against all that is tried and true in his world. Only the moderns who build the machines are aware of the whole picture – pro and con – and it is their responsibility to avoid the problems that will develop in the more distant future.

I have depicted the developments to be aimed at mass transit rather than private. The railroad is inevitably mass transit, even if certain individuals might have private carriages, and ships too are mass transit. They do not attempt to introduce individual vehicles like automobiles, or even bikes – rather let the locals continue to use horses, carts and carriages for their local transport. They also need their own people to move about unobtrusively, so horse and carriage works best for them. Both the railroad and the sea transport can be switched to modern, pollution free propulsion once the local labour force has reached the required level of sophistication. As I mentioned before, a star traveling culture must have fusion power, and once they reach the development level where they can build new reactors the railroads can be electrified and the ships carry their own reactors of suitable size.

In our world, the current designs of automobile were never inevitable. The steam truck (lorry in Britain) held its own against the internal combustion engine until political influence in the 1930s was used to impose taxation and regulation to kill steam. The electric vehicle had a short run until fashion turned to gasoline – assisted mightily, of course, by the oil companies. The curse of suburbia and the huge subsidies that created the road network that makes an automobile almost essential today are not a product of superiority over other modes, but the product of manipulated social planning. Manipulated, of course, by those who stood to gain from it.

In the parts of Gaia that come under the Iskanders’ technological influence the political and taxation advantages will all be directed at keeping cities concentrated and viable, and public transit affordable and efficient. Those self propelled machines like dozers, backhoes, cranes, and heavy haulers will remain steam powered until the availability of cheap electric power and rare materials make it practical to switch them to long life batteries or fuel cells. The diversion of almost all of our transport and trade to the least efficient prime movers on highways was never inevitable. It will take us generations to undo these effects of greed in the past. I intend to show the advantages the Gaians will enjoy by never being seduced into these wealth destroyers.

The Power Problem for Gaia

February 7, 2009

This topic may sound a bit dry to some readers, but I have to admit that I find the history of technology as fascinating as that of military history – which is why I have aspects of both in my writing. So, continuing the discussion of retrofuturism in the Iskander series stories…

The Iskanders begin the prime mover development cycle the way we did on Earth because steam plants can be easy to teach operators and mechanics to ‘drive’ and because they can be built with less sophisticated production facilities and materials. The simple one stage single or double-acting reciprocating machine is neither powerful nor efficient, but is a cheap solution that works. Simple fire tube locomotive type boilers fueled by coal or wood are also easy to train personnel to run.

The developments to triple expansion, to economizers, and to superheated steam generated in water tube boilers of higher pressures are all linear and logical improvements. The production machinery and materials to make them can also be progressively introduced into the production lines. The steam turbine is a quantum jump, but would present no more technical difficulties to make than it did our forefathers in the early 20th century. Perhaps I’m being very timid in suggesting such a development route, but I think it would be easier to educate a previously uneducated workforce via this progression than by going straight to fuel cells, or gas turbine electric systems – for example.

The fuels require consideration. My own feeling is that burning crude oil and natural gas as prime mover fuel is a criminal waste of valuable resources. Oil should only be used for lubricants, and natural gas for plastics. However, their obvious advantages over coal (ease of handling and low ash) would inevitably make it supremely difficult to keep them out of furnaces and internal combustion engines. The answer is, of course, to limit the use of steam and internal combustion engines to the fewest number of years that one can by superseding them with something better. Electrification must be started as early as possible.

It is axiomatic that a star traveling society has mastered the production of cheap electricity from efficient fusion power. No star travel would be possible without the amounts of energy developed from the fusion reaction. My conception would be that the Iskanders would begin building fusion powerplants as soon as they had the highly skilled workforce and precision machine tools available. It could take fifty years, to my mind. Enough for the first retrained blacksmiths to father a generation of mechanics, and for them to father a young generation of technologists. (Many writers have pointed out that it takes a mechanically minded generation to educate and train offspring that can learn enough to make the next step.)

The need for fusion fuel is why the Iskanders have the priority mission assigned to the Oceanographers – “Find a suitable location for our heavy water separator and the tritium plant”. A fusion reactor converts heavy hydrogen, the H2 deuterium and H3 tritium, into helium – while releasing a great deal of energy, as in a hydrogen bomb. The oceans, lakes, and rivers (as well as the gas giant planets and their satellites) offer an abundant and virtually unending supply of the hydrogen needed. Deuterium is present in water at a ratio of 1 D2 atom to every 6500 atoms of H1. Heavy water, where the lighter H atoms are replaced by D atoms is 10.6% denser than ordinary water – deuterium ice sinks in normal water. To convert the D2 atoms to T3 atoms for the fusion reactor requires them to be bombarded by high energy particles – most simply in a nuclear fission reactor, like that at Chalk River in Canada which produces more than 50% of the world supply of medical isotopes.

We owe our existence and the whole biosphere of the Earth to the energy released by the fusion reaction – the sun runs on this cycle. The reaction on the sun uses ordinary hydrogen and takes place at a temperature of several million degrees Celsius. The trick in producing a powerplant on Earth that works on hydrogen has been to use H2, H3 and Lithium to persuade the fusion to take place controllably at lower temperatures. No one has succeeded in developing a workable, power generating fusion plant yet – all the test designs have needed more power in, to promote the reaction, than the reaction has produced. However, hopes are high for eventual success with either the Tokamak model – a veritable monster machine like a fission reactor within huge containment magnets – or perhaps the Stellarator. I suggest this design for the Iskanders, whose need is for a reactor small enough to tuck into a starship or a space plane. I suspect such a machine requires the same super-precision in its construction as does the latest European stellarator design. Hence the need for a highly skilled workforce.

So, next week I will continue the topic of power and fuels, and suggest how that bane of human society – the automobile – can be avoided on Gaia.