Did Amtrak just find the answer to Space/Time travel?

I was as blown away as anyone by the speed of Amtrak’s response in creating its writer residency program. The quick turn of events, from a quick retweet to a full-blown shot in the arm for the image and relevance of the ailing service, was yet another example of how powerful the internet and social media truly is.

However, that story is well-told and, frankly, boring.

What is interesting about the Amtrak story is that it has allowed the company to take what has typically been seen as a drawback to its service (namely the time required to travel from one place to the next) and turn it into a benefit. It has enabled writers to drop out, plug in, enjoy the scenery – and go to work. And that, for the right person, can be a powerful thing.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I immediately thought of the next step – the possible implications for space travel. Space is vast, as has often been said as well, and we are typically used to regarding this as a massive drawback. And, truth be told, it very likely is an obstacle that we may never learn to overcome.

But, just for a second, imagine a universe in which we do travel between the stars. In this world, science fiction has typically employed one of two conceits to overcome the time gap: the first, faster-than-light travel, decreases the time between two points though wormholes, warp drives, or other bending of space. The second, cryostasis, requires freezing the human body in time to offset the aging process as the vessel travels within the constraints of current ability and physics.

But perhaps, inspired by Amtrak, there is a third option: maybe it is possible that, instead of avoiding or attempting to overcome the time barrier of the journey, humanity instead embraces and celebrates it? In the aftermath of digital age, where artistic, scientific, or any other works might not require massive storage, or heavy materials for their creation, might not the long voyages in space offer potential to think, to collaborate, to produce and to refine? Might we not achieve our greatest masterworks while in limbo, waiting to begin our future on a foreign world?

Maybe, as Amtrak is currently suggesting, a little extra time between points isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.

Old Fool’s Errand: On-trend and on point.

If you haven’t had the chance to check out Old Fool’s Errand, my short story about a crotchety failed astronaut latching on to a second chance at the stars – and a one-way trip to Mars, you may want to take a look, as things are getting pretty real:

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is now back to take a shot at being the first person on a foreign planet.

Now, to be clear, I am not by any stretch of the imagination calling Tereshkova a failed astronaut – far from it! – but it’s another, exciting chapter in the Mars saga, and another step towards a real-life Old Fool’s Errand.

Old Fool’s Errand on Nook! (Hard Drop & OFE coming to Kobo within 24 hours)

Old Fool’s Errand is now out for the Nook – find it here! Kobo editions of both Hard Drop (Amazon and Nook) and Old Fool’s Errand (Amazon) are processing and should be up within 24 hours.

It is a pleasure to bring both works to these new platforms, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to connect with new readers. And, as ever, feel free to reach out, either here or at vandervaartwill on twitter!

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 2: Shipping Crates aka Intermodal containers

shipping container Costa RicaOn the surface, they don’t seem like much: four dirty, sometimes rusted metal walls and a simple locking mechanism. They are everywhere – in harbors, on the highway, on train cars, on construction sites – so much so that they are almost invisble.

But their ubqiuity also underscores their importance and versatility. By standardizing dimensions and making the same container transportable via multiple methods, the humble shipping container makes it possible to pack a unit in Chapel Hill and know – with certainty – that that unit can be delivered in Bangalore, or Murmansk, or Antarctica (whether it arrives or not is another story). This is incredible because it flies in the face of thousands of years of societal development, whereby incompatible systems flouted globalization, trade, and advancement at every stage. As recently as the 19th century, Russia and Europe still boasted different gauges of railroad track (not to mention the Northern and Southern States in the United States!), preventing the easy flow of goods and creating very distinct cultural mindsets (while the Civil War is better known in the West, Russia’s Westernizers vs. Russophile debate has arguably had more impact on the 20th century. That it is neither dead nor buried can be seen in the policies of Messrs. Putin and Medvedev today).

More than that, the shipping crate is hardy and internally customizable, making it possible to ship refrigerated foodstuffs on the same vessel as heavy machinery or cloth goods. As a result, trade routes are simplified, with larger ships taking generic boxes filled with unique content to one port and smaller boats and trucks ferrying it on. Further, the shipping crate makes it possible to deliver packages of survival items to remote locations with greatly reduced effort. It allows humans to exist and thrive in inhospitable and improbable climates such as the deep sea, where cargo ships can hoist food, supplies, and housing onto barren, windswept platforms, or Antarctica, where tons and tons of supplies are delivered every year to allow habitation and research where it could never exist otherwise.

If we developed a space elevator tomorrow, or if we adopt railguns or use SpaceX on steroids or any form of mass cargo delivery system offworld, the shipping crate is where we would start in terms of packaging and consolidating cargo needing to head off world. It’s more than just logistics: this is modular thinking’s mascot. In theory, with five shipping crates and a solar cell, a human can live quite comfortably on Mars – or any other non-melting, non-crushingly pressurized body in the solar system. It is both the brick and mortar of human colonization, and it will be there when we move off-world.

On space exploration, Apollo 13 and the need for off-world urgency

Early in Apollo 13, when a reporter asks Jim Lovell (i.e. Tom Hanks) why the Apollo program should continue on after ‘One small step…’, Tom’s answer is (loosely paraphrased) ‘Imagine if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and no one followed in his footsteps.’ At the time, it seems a strong response, and the reporter at least acts as if his question has been answered.

This line struck me immediately and instantly as oddly flippant and insufficient, partially due to the fact that we now know that someone (i.e. the Vikings) actually reached America nearly 500 years before Columbus and that for those five centuries, no one did follow, and partially because it reflects the degree to which Hanks’ character in the film (not necessarily Jim Lovell in real life) has become removed from the real world realities that govern his world.

The first issue is of course one of hindsight. Lovell likely did not know at the time that the Vikings had reached North America, or at the very least would not have considered it a confirmed fact. However, to someone in our present situation, this knowledge is significant as it provides both a precedent and a cautionary tale. The precedent is that of outliers, of concerted efforts and overachievement that extend past the boundaries sustainable by societal structures. The cautionary tale is the flipside of that equation, and concerns what happens when we overextend: failure, suffering, and – in the case of the Greenland settlers – starvation and ultimately extinction.

This dovetails nicely with my second issue with the response – namely, that it reflected the idealistic fervor of a true believer. To Hanks/’Lovell’, it is inconceivable that we would not continue to fly to the moon, to mine its secrets and perhaps the moon itself, whether that made economic sense or not. But of course, in the 1970s, it made absolutely no economic sense to colonize the moon – reaching it had been a primarily political achievement, a proof that the strongest nation in the free world, through a combination of concerted efforts and supported by the free market, could achieve more, and more quickly, than a totalitarian state. Once this political end was achieved, there was little left on the moon that was of interest to society as a whole.

Nor has this absence of interplanetary purpose been overcome since. The probes to Mars and Venus, and across the rest of the solar system, only served to reinforce this: outside of the spectacular announcement of life on another planet, there has been little of interest off-world to a society that has developed none of the cultural or technological structures to support an extraplanetary presence. Even now, the ISS is little more than an ultra-high-altitude observation balloon, conducting scientific experiments whose primary cultural function is to exist and occasionally upload cool zero-gravity (or more precisely, low-gravity) clips on YouTube.

More broadly, the question of whether space exploration has reached a near-term apex is one that bears serious thought. Despite plans to launch to Mars by 2030, despite various plans (including the aforementioned Mars One reality TV concept) to extend the reach of human space exploration, and despite the work that the various Mars rovers are doing, the merit/relevance of space exploration is not yet proven in the cultural psyche. For better or for worse, and James Cameron’s half-baked idea of mining asteroids notwithstanding, space exploration is a big ‘so what?’ at present, one that is somewhat hard to answer. Let’s not forget that, while the Viking expeditions to North America were the result of petty individual one-upsmanship and fortune-making, the Columbian expedition was one fueled by a global arms race for riches and dominance. In other words, despite some evidence that the Americas existed prior to Columbus’ expedition, there was no need to follow up on this information before the factors that launched Columbus in the first place made the new lands relevant. We may, unfortunately, need significantly higher pressures on Earth to overcome a similar hump in our space exploration.

Finally, there is a third, nagging question regarding the above question: “What if no one had followed in Columbus’ footsteps?” Why then, millions of Native Americans might have survived and thrived, the Incan culture might have reached new heights, and the eventual global confluence might have had a very different power dynamic. That the outcome was what it was is partially due to the factors that created the demand for exploration in the first place: an exploration born out of a thirst for power and riches is not likely to be a benign one. If our space exploration is likewise fueled by greed for wealth and power, as it inevitably will be if we wait for the large-scale cultural factors  supporting permanent settlements off-world to be in place, then it can be expected we will meet similar disasters. This, then, to me, is a healthy portion of my reason for writing near-Earth science fiction: to make real the potential, to consider the present possibilities, and to light a fire under our cultural backside and make it happen – before the economic and political imperatives kick in.

…Sounds awfully familiar.

What’s that, a subject (or subjects) who won’t play ball with the audience back home?

It’s nice when it’s clear you’re thinking along the right lines.

In the meantime this whole ‘putting the duct tape over the lens’ concept sounds awfully like the premise of a horror film.