Learning to Read

Anything is Possible in Fiction.

  I’m diligently working away at the first book in my fantasy series.  While the story I am writing is uniquely mine; all the books I’ve read before have influenced my ideas. The books I loved showed me what to aspire to, but the ones that left me less than satisfied showed me things too.  This post though is about the first book I ever read, and the influence of its author on me, A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony.

  I was twelve years old, in the sixth grade at West Millbrook Junior High School, in Raleigh, N.C.  My father had tried, without success, to get me to read anything besides the comic books I loved so much.  He had a small library at home that I had full, if unappreciated, access to, and literally no desire to explore.

  One day I picked up a different Piers Anthony book that seemed to have an interesting cover.  When I asked my father about it, he said it was a great book, but it was part of a series.  If I wanted to read that one I should really start at the beginning.  I hadn’t even known books came in a series like that.  The cover for Spell for Chameleon was almost as interesting anyway.

  I started reading.  It was not as easy to turn the pages in a print book as in an issue of Spiderman fighting the Hobgoblin, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  It took me almost a month to read that first book, and I learned a lot more than just what was in the pages.  I like to think I had a good vocabulary and reading comprehension, but I still had to look up some words, and research what other things meant.

  I read the book in the early ’80s, so there was no Google, Alexa or Siri to answer questions on demand.  That meant a dictionary, encyclopedias at school and the most dreaded source for information, my dad.  He knew I was reading at least, and that made him happy.  I wasn’t thrilled that he had been even remotely right, but I digress.

  The next book took about three weeks to read — the one after that took about two weeks.  By the time I neared the end of the series (up to that point) I was able to read a paperback novel in about a week.  I am slightly dyslexic (more with numbers than words), but there were few tests for it when I was young, and no practical treatments existed for me.

  The important take away was that I could read.  I and started to learn.  Not the lessons from school, but a whole body of knowledge beyond the sugar cube castle projects and wrote arithmetic I hated.  I learned about places I’d never heard of, people I wouldn’t read about in school for years to come, and adventures that made Luke and Han seem tepid in comparison.

  It also set me on the path to writing, one that I have found my way back to after years of neglect.  I feel like crafting a good story and sharing it with others is living my best life.  I couldn’t have done that without joy reading those first books gave me.

  I had the author of those first books to thank for that.  He has continued to write that series along with others, some I enjoyed some I did not.  If you have never read any of the Xanth or Apprentice Adept series, I highly recommend them both.

  Perhaps I was bound to read something I liked eventually and go on to read the hundreds of titles I’ve devoured since then. If I had not enjoyed that first book, or had half a dozen more to read in the series while I found other authors to experience, I might not have become the reader or writer I am today.   For that reason alone, I owe a great debt to Mr. Anthony.  Of course, I also owe Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, and Harry Turtledove thanks.  None of them got me started on this path though.  When I’m published (whenever that may be) it will be because of those who showed me the infinite possibilities books represent.  Perhaps I will not be a great light for humanity, but at least I will be a true follower of my chosen path.

The Maker’s Paradox

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I am still kind of new at writing and self-publishing (especially self-publishing). I have stories on Amazon and a nifty website to publish articles like this, but there are still lots of things I have yet to learn to do.  One thing I am not new at though is world-building.  I am a thirty year plus veteran at bringing the backstory to life.

It began when I was thirteen years old, with an old briefcase typewriter that I still keep in my garage.  The typewriter was only half of the process for me even then; I had to draw maps of my new worlds.  My first story and the accompanying map was about the kingdom of Azroth (Only coincidentally similar to Azeroth of World of Warcraft fame that came to the gaming community some twenty years later).  I still remember how difficult fighting with the correction ribbon on that typewriter was, and how proud I was of the single-spaced unevenly inked page and a half I wrestled out of it.

After several other abortive world-building efforts, I came upon a game that helped propel my efforts for years to come.  In a surprise twist, it wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons.  I’d had a couple of poor gaming experiences with AD&D by then, and wanted something else.  Although role-playing games were not exactly new by then, I had no idea of how many choices I would face.

I already devoured Marvel comic books by then, so ‘Advanced Marvel Super Heroes the Game’ fit me perfectly.  With that system and the Book of Ultimate Powers, I made hundreds of characters, fictitious locations and even brand new worlds for their adventures.  I pushed MSH as far as I could by the time I got to high school.  However, to this day, I have never played a single Marvel Super Heroes game.

Although I didn’t know it yet, I had bigger ambitions.  The seeds of the stories for my Renegade Galaxy series came from MSH but took almost a decade to sprout.  In the meantime, I got married.  After our honeymoon, I created the fantasy world of Atan, more extensive and realistic than Arda from Lord of the Rings.  best of all, it was all mine.  It still sleeps in the dozen or so notebooks and maps I never finished.

Still, I fixated on the idea of writing a game from those science-fiction ideas I had in high school.  Despite my efforts at learning to program, I never wrote a single piece of code for a game.  Instead, I wavered between new fantasy worlds and fleshing out the locations for my would-be sci-fi game settings.

Life has a way of interfering with unfinished things; at least it does for me.  I had a ten year enlistment in the Navy to get through, a marriage and divorce to see through, work of one kind or another, lots of failed relationships, the birth of my son, buying and keeping my first house, more health problems than I thought I might survive and a second marriage to concentrate on.  Writing or creativity, in general, took a back seat to all of that for a long time.

I managed a bar for a few years in the little Iowa town I call home.  I only spent a few hours a week there, but as anyone who has run a business can attest, it consumed more than those few hours.  Only when the bar unexpectedly closed was I able to focus on a new story I had just begun, about the Return of Magic to the real world.

That work in progress is still my main focus today, but I have taken a break from it once in a while to work on the original sci-fi series I began in high school, Renegade Galaxy.  I did not know it was a series of short stories and novels then, but I have seen the width of material I cobbled together over the years and have outlined a few dozen interwoven stories for that version of Humanity’s future.

Therein lies my problem though.  I am incredible at setting up a vivid world for my characters, full of wonders and mysteries to explore. I can show the world through their eyes, think their thoughts, speak in their voices, but for what?  I have spent so much time and effort building those worlds that I struggle to give meaning to the trials and tribulations I inflict upon the characters I created.

My only solace is improvement.  I am getting better.  One of the greatest joys for me as an author is learning to tell my stories better.  I love applying lessons from Ben Bova, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, or Stephen King to hone my craft and give new meaning to the intricately detailed worlds I have built over the past thirty some years.

I suspect some of you reading this can relate to some or all of this.

Feasible Missions – Part Four

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Feasible Missions – Part Four

Lunar vs Martian Colonies

  In this final installment of the “Feasible Missions” series, we’ll compare and contrast the two most plausible colony options currently available to our species.  The Lunar colony models and the push for a sustainable Martian colony are both regularly in the news.  Which one is better for us, or for the space programs talked about in earlier articles?

The answer to that depends in part, on the space program asking the question.  First, as we’ve discussed before, the moon is closer to home and that is a big plus.  Mars may ultimately prove to have more resources, but it is much farther from Earth.  For either of the colonies to be successful, we need more than resources and overcoming distance.

For robust national space programs, like NASA, the European Space Agency or the Russian successors to the Soviet space program, the answers may be very different from SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace or the fledgling efforts of asteroid mining companies like Planetary Resources.  A program with thousands of employees, multiple work sites on Earth and annual budgets worth billions of dollars will have a different approach.  Smaller and necessarily more targeted programs will have to compete with the larger well-established programs on every level.

That brings us to an idea I have touched on before.  One single approach to colonization is not necessarily in the best interests of our species survival.  Several attempts in more than one direction are intuitively better for our chances of survival than putting all our proverbial eggs in one basket.  Although beyond the scope of this article, Lunar, Martian, Asteroid Belt and a variety of proposed orbital stations should be developed either in concert or as stand-alone projects.

The main concern in all of our would-be colonies is sustainability.  Humans have a hard enough time sustaining life on Earth, let alone in the vacuum of space, where the entire environment is out to kill living things.  The means to achieve a sustainable presence beyond low Earth orbit is twofold.  We need technologies that do not yet exist, and a pioneering social approach to colonization not seen on Earth since the mid-nineteenth century.

The technologies are solutions to problems we have talked about in previous articles.  We need construction processes, viable environmental systems, radiation shielding, power supply systems, communications systems, and agricultural solutions that we have yet to make substantial progress towards.  A lack in any of these primary infrastructure technologies will significantly impact life expectancy and quality of life.

The other component, a pioneering mentality, is no less important.  Far from the comforts of civilization, colonists will have to rely on one another to face the perils of their new home, regardless of which colony is attempted.  Far from the often romanticized wild west of American history, colonies in space will require detailed social planning and harmony to survive.

I propose, rather than focusing our efforts on a Mars versus Moon contest, we instead look at an integrated approach for three specific feasible objectives.  Our first priority should be the once proposed Deep Space Gateway renamed LOP-G (Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway) by the current NASA administration as a point to marshal resources for any further expansion.  From the gateway station, we can send other missions to Mars, the moon, and further into the solar system.

Coincidentally, this is the current exploration plan favored by most national space programs to date.  The 14 member International Space Exploration Coordination Group which includes NASA, ESA, JAXA (the Japanese space program), CSA (the Canadian space program), and the Russian Roscosmos.  This station, the successor to the International Space Station will be a testbed for emerging technologies needed for further human exploration of our solar system.

Feasible Missions – Part Three

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In part one and two of this series we looked at what space missions current human technology could undertake right now, and then focused on what options Earth’s moon might provide.  So far, we have established that there are still technical challenges to overcome, but the prospect of lunar colonization has been within reach since the days of the Apollo missions.  In this part of the article, we will focus on Martian colonization options and the challenges they present.

Visiting and eventually staying on Mars has been a goal of manned spaceflight since the dawn of the space age.  Werner von Braun believed a human exploration of Mars was essential to the American space program.  Other plans to explore or colonize Mars still use many of the basic concepts from his proposed mission.

Missions to Mars do not always end as mission planners might like, lost spacecraft, landers, and rovers are more common than operational machines.  Missions from the European space agency, India, Japan, China, and Russia, have joined earlier missions by the Soviet and NASA space programs, with varying degrees of success.  The emerging private space sector also has plans for Mars missions, with SpaceX planning a permanent Mars base sometime in the 2020’s.

The first challenge Mars presents is the distance of the aptly named red planet from Earth.  The Moon is much closer and we have sent people there and back already.  Mars does not share that history.  We have sent probes and robots to Mars, even proposed a sample return mission, but we have never sent real live human beings there.

The distance is a challenge for several reasons, among them: exposure time, communications lag and self-reliance.  While all of these challenges are obvious, the impact of the inability to have real-time communication may not be.  The mission will be increasingly out of sync with mission controllers on Earth, and subsequently slower to respond to changes in mission objectives due to unforeseen circumstances.

Space travelers will also be entirely reliant on one another and whatever supplies they take with them.  While eventual resupply might be possible over the course of a long-term mission, immediate response to losses in transit or on the surface of Mars will be impossible.  The colonists will have to improvise with what they have on hand.

Most proposed human spaceflight missions to Mars expect a travel time of about nine months to and from the red planet.  This flight time introduces the next challenge to colonizing Mars, in the form of radiation exposure.  Energetic particles and ionizing radiation continually bombard Mars and the space between there and the Earth just like the Moon.  Technologies to minimize exposure during transit and while on the surface of Mars must be developed beyond our current ability for colonization.

Mars is only about a third the size of Earth and has about a third of the gravity we are used to.  The long-term effects of low gravity and weightlessness are another challenge to colonization.  A number of medical conditions could develop for colonists, and there are currently no means to combat these conditions.

Medical care in transit or on Mars is also a challenge.  Humans are prone to illness and injury, and our bodies have evolved healing strategies that work well with Earth’s gravity, air pressure, and atmospheric makeup.  Effectively treating inevitable disease or damage will require us to develop ways to recreate those conditions, especially if surgery is necessary.

Building the colony structures on Mars presents similar challenges to building on the Moon.  Underground structures versus above ground structures, radiation shielding, energy production, life support and all the requirements for a sustainable human presence are the same.  Only the greater distance or Mars from Earth multiplies the cost, the time required and the possibility of loss.

In the final part of this article, we will compare and contrast a Lunar versus Martian colony.  Which one is most advantageous for a continued human presence in space and for the continuation of our species?  Those answers and a modest proposal from the author will sum up “Feasible Missions – Part Four”.

 

Feasible Missions – Part Two

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In the first part of this series, we briefly investigated the current obstacles to space exploration.  Now we will turn our attention once again to what we can do.  We have already demonstrated our ability to go to and return from the Moon, as well as deploy robotic missions to Mars.  To colonize the Moon or Mars, we will have to do much more than that, but the technology to go there and return already exists.

From the earliest days of the space race after World War Two, the Soviet space program and their American counterparts at NASA have planned and proposed permanent outposts throughout our solar system.  Most of those plans are beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few worth looking at.  A permanent base on the Moon appeared to be the next logical step in the American space program since the Apollo missions demonstrated our ability to put astronauts on the moon and bring them home.

The Soviet space program felt the same way and devised a plan to build just such a base years before their counterparts at NASA could beat them to it.  Known in declassified documents as the Zvezda Moonbase, the Soviets intended to use the installation first as a military command post then expanded the concept for future development of their unrealized Lunar Expeditionary Complex.  The goal overall was to create a sustainable human presence on the Moon before anyone else could, this was all part of the canceled N1-L3 lunar program overshadowed by the success of the American Apollo Program.

NASA also seriously studied building lunar outposts from the Project Horizon proposal to build a US Army fort in 1959, through the similar US Air Force Project Lunex in 1961, to a sub-surface base proposed in 1962 in the Sea of Tranquility.  None of those proposals went very far, and with the cancellation of Soviet lunar exploration plans, the urgency to build an outpost on the moon waned quickly.

New interest in lunar exploration and settlement has come about slowly but surely as more national space programs and commercial interests have developed around the world.  Robotic missions and new proposals from China, India, SpaceX, and Space Adventures has spurred a reevaluation of colonization of the Moon.  Even the European Space Agency has been studying where to place permanent outposts for decades.

All of these proposals take the good with the bad when it comes to outposts on the Moon.  On the one hand, the Moon is close to Earth, and we have over fifty years’ experience visiting, orbiting and returning from the Moon.  On the other hand, as one of my favorite books about colonizing the Moon warns, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”  The Moon has long day and night cycles, temperature changes go from about -178 degrees Celsius to over 126 degrees Celsius between day and night, gravity there is about one-sixth of what we are used to on Earth, and the surface is awash in abrasive moon dust while it is constantly bombarded by radiation and micrometeoroids.

Most modern proposals for a colony (or colonies) on the Moon advocate for some kind of underground construction, either by covering the colony in lunar regolith (dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials) or finding and building in undiscovered lava tubes left over from long-dormant volcanic activity.  These methods provide increased protection from radiation, micrometeoroids and air leaks from the colony.  The tradeoff here is in increased construction complexity and potential difficulty in later expansion.

The alternative proposals are a variety of prefabricated surface modules, locally sourced modules constructed in-situ or a mixture of the two.  Any surface structures would still require increased shielding from radiation, micrometeoroid impacts, and temperature extremes.  Both the underground and surface options still have to contend with energy requirements through either solar or nuclear power or a blend of both.

In part three of this article, we will look at Martian colony options.

Feasible Missions – What can we do now?

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I believe like many others, that if humanity is to survive, let alone flourish, we need to expand beyond our home world.  We need to push beyond Earth’s orbit, to develop the technologies to live there and embrace the incentives to reach for the stars.  We have taken some steps along that path, but there is much more to do.

With what we can already do in mind, what are some feasible objectives for our current space programs?  Governments and private groups regularly send robotic probes and satellites into space.  We also have the international space station in orbit with dozens of supply and personnel missions to keep it flying.

What we do not have is a human effort beyond the safety of Earth’s orbit.  There are practical reasons for that, but we must overcome these obstacles if we are going to become a spacefaring civilization.  In the United States, the technical challenges have kept safety minded NASA from planning such missions.

The first two problems we face are radiation and impact damage.  Earth’s magnetic field and its Van Allen radiation belts provide protection to human spacecraft from all but the strongest radiation and larger space debris.  Beyond that envelope of protection, space is an unforgiving environment.

Radiation is everywhere in our solar system.  From the constant stream of the Sun’s solar wind, to bursts of x-rays, gamma rays and exotic particles flung in our direction from distant sources, there is no shortage of sources of exposure for spacecraft and their inhabitants.  The technical problem we face is how to mitigate the effects of that exposure over the course of the months or years a mission might take to complete.

Impact dangers are also a major concern for space travel.  Even a tiny particle, traveling at great speed can do significant damage to a spacecraft and the often-sensitive instruments onboard.  There are a few more ideas about impact mitigation than radiation, but the cost of producing such protection and sending enough of it into space to be effective has presented challenges too.

Beyond Earth’s protection, there are two real candidates for human habitation, Mars and the Moon.  Humans have already been to the Moon and back, but so far, we have only sent robotic missions to Mars.  For us to colonize either there are still many technical obstacles to overcome.

In order for us to live in any semblance of comfort, we need at the bare minimum:  Sustainable habitats, life support, food, and water.  For us to thrive on a new world we must do more than the bare minimum.  Historically, a few hardy pioneers often blaze a trail for the rest of us to follow.

Habitats have to provide protection from both radiation and impact damage, as well as extremes in temperature and very low or no outside atmospheric pressure.  Habitats are more than just shelter though; they also provide a place to work, to grow food, and to raise families.

Life support has to cover not only the immediate needs of air, food and water, but also the long-term needs for health and well-being.  While we cannot plan for every contingency, there are some things people will need.  Colonists will need health care, some of them from the cradle to the grave, without ever setting foot on mother Earth.

Growing food and recycling available water will be even more important to colonists than to those of us on Earth.  In addition to plants that exchange Co2 for oxygen, livestock for food and locally sourced medicines will be essential for long-term population growth.  Also, while there may be ice deposits throughout the solar system, recycling water that is already inside a colony is far easier than harvesting and processing more.

Part two of this article will examine the two most likely destinations for the first human colonies, The Moon and Mars.  We will also look at the proposed, “Deep Space Gateway Station” and what other infrastructure might be necessary to keep those colonies growing until they are self-sufficient.  The future of humans in space is still largely unwritten, but we can guess at a few trends if we continue down the path ahead.