Guest Post: The Culture and Adaptability of Space Settlement (Richard Abbott)

Author Richard Abbott has some great December Deals, with

99c/99p novels and a Goodreads giveaway! Don’t miss out!

Click image for a review of Richard Abbott’s first foray into sci-fi
Pockmarked Phobos, larger of two satellites orbiting Mars, by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ University of Arizona, via Wikimedia Commons
“I came away a satisfied customer, and decided that, apart from the constant changes in ambient light, and the eerie silence of the people walking around alleys and corridors, I quite liked Phobos. Slate was amused. ‘After a month you’d be craving noise. Here you don’t even let yourself sing in the shower. You’d never survive.’ She was probably right. As I walked, I found myself wondering how people managed their lives in situations where a certain amount of noise was called for. What happened during games? In the privacy of a shower? Or a bedroom? Slate was right; I had become quite obsessive about creeping about, and restraining my normal level of liveliness.”

As I started to write this, the European Space Agency was coming to terms with the loss of the Schiaparelli Mars lander. A breaking news item had just shown a picture captured by another satellite – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – which probably shows its resting place. Schiaparelli was never supposed to last long on the surface, and the remaining component, the Trace Gas Orbiter, will continue to deliver good science for some time to come. But if I was in that team, I’d be disappointed. Since then, Elon Musk has announced what most people consider is a wildly ambitious plan to land settlers there in huge numbers.

Kindle cover for Timing, the fantastic sequel to Far from the Spaceports (click image for audio excerpt)

Mars has historically proven itself to be a difficult destination to land on, but in my novels I take for granted that the problem has been solved. So this post is not at all about how to land successfully on that planet, but about how I have imagined that society will adapt to new homes, whether on Mars or further afield.

In Far from the Spaceports, and its sequel Timing, the various scattered settlements are separated by days or weeks of travel time. Destinations on the outer rim of the solar system – which so far my characters have not visited – might take a few months. This puts them in the same degree of remoteness as European ports in the age of sail, or global ones in the age of steam. They are far enough apart that you pause to think about the commitment, and ensure you have plenty to do on the journey, but not so far that they take up a significant part of your lifetime.


“That close in, it wasn’t going to last long, in planetary terms. I probably had less than fifty million years to solve the case before the whole thing crumbled into a ring of dust and pebbles. No pressure, then.”


Schiaparelli impact site Mars, NASA/JPL Caltech/University of Arizona (click image)

Each of the places I describe has a particular character. The Scilly Isles – a group of asteroids somewhere in the gulf between Mars and Jupiter – were originally settled to extract minerals, but these are now largely exhausted. The residents are now trying to establish a new identity based on different enterprises. Some readers have commented that there’s a very British feel to them. In passing, the occupants of the real Scilly Isles off the Cornish coast have also needed to constantly adapt to the changing economic environment around them. They have not had much success on the mining front since the Bronze Age, but have successfully found new means of livelihood as older ones die out. Fishing, kelping, cut-flower production, and tourism have all taken turns, alongside the perennial use of the sea which borders them and shapes life there.

The economic life of a place – on Earth or elsewhere – depends crucially on its geography. We know that Phobos – a tiny moon orbiting very close in to Mars – is fragile. It has a rather low density, probably because much of its interior consists of loosely packed rubble rather than solid rock. It is, in all likelihood, riddled with faults. The ground is not sound and reliable. In Timing, this fact dominates life on Phobos, and the social customs are heavily skewed around this fact. Making loud or unnecessary noise is considered a taboo, backed up by local laws. Social gatherings have developed ways for people to be together quietly. Mining of any kind is out of the question, so the economy rests on other industries – like finance. The moon happens to be largely settled by (former) Canadians, and other places tend to have populations largely drawn from one or other of Earth’s nations.

The (real) Scilly Isles

Mars, on the other hand, is huge in comparison to Phobos. Lots of authors have written speculatively about terraforming Mars – boosting the thin atmosphere in various ways with a view to restoring running water on the surface. In my version, this is a long way off, and each settlement is an enclosed pocket of habitable space within a harsh and inhospitable context. But the planet’s size means that there is room for all kinds of difference. There’s a college specialising in financial trading, a glider club – Mars is big on several kinds of extreme sports – and a large, chaotic arena for gambling and more exotic pleasures. And much more besides – if I ever take Mitnash and Slate back to Mars, there’s plenty of opportunity to explore other delights.

On a bigger scale, I see these settlements as basically independent and self-governing. Signal messages from Earth take between about four and twenty minutes to Mars, depending on relative positions. Out to the asteroid belt, that jumps up to somewhere between quarter and half an hour.  That means up to an hour’s delay between asking a question and getting back the answer. You can’t have a real-time conversation like that – back in the days of the Apollo missions it was frustrating enough dealing with a three second round trip! And with journey times lasting weeks or months, you can’t easily enforce decisions either. So I’m not imagining any kind of solar system empire, or federation, or whatever.

For a bit of fun, some code for an Alexa skill the author is developing. (Click image for more of the Alexa results: additional audio excerpt from Timing).

There is no unifying organisation deciding how things should be, and no system-wide constabulary to enforce them. Mitnash and Slate work for the Earth-based Economic Crime Review Board. In the course of their duties they might end up pretty much anywhere in the solar system, troubleshooting fraud and other financial crimes. But although they can ask for information from the main London office, they’re on their own day to day. They don’t, and can’t, go in with all guns blazing. Instead they resolve matters by more covert means, hacking into and fixing the computer systems which have been compromised. The battles they engage in are fought with lines of code, not brawn or physical weapons. Like those people today who consider themselves “ethical hackers”, their work takes them very close to the line between decent and dubious.

So, where next for Mitnash and Slate? There’s another plot brewing, tentatively called The Authentication Key, which will take them out to Saturn. There’s plenty of moons to choose from there, ranging from tiny fragments under a kilometre across right up to Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury. And of course there are the rings….

This NASA/JPL picture is a composite from the last few days of the recently-finished Cassini-Huygens mission, commenced on October 15, 2007 and named after seventeenth-century astronomers Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens. It presents a poignant image given its very recent ending (click for NASA’s farewell to Cassini).

 

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About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.

Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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Images courtesy Richard Abbott, except where otherwise indicated.

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Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extract A (Richard Abbott)

As readers recall, I’d previously reviewed Richard Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, later returning for more Mitnash and Slate in its sequel, Timing. Today the author graces our pages with an audio excerpt from Timing—the first for us here at the blogola! It was rather exciting listening to it, and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to share it here, along with some author comments as to the linguistics involved in setting up the pieces.

First, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and the above-mentioned duo will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space.

Click image to read plot description
For more about Timing, click the pic!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today you’ll hear—and can read along—a bit of discussion between Mitnash and Slate, along with another pair, Rydal and Capstone, as the group talks about oddities in the data they are studying. It comes from a narrated portion utilizing Amazon’s Polly software; Abbott points out that unlike Alexa, which is a single voice, Polly can do text to speech in several.

Previous to hearing this excerpt, I was still in marvel mode at any of this, though my conversation with the author brought me forward a bit, into a place where I began to distinguish characteristics and contemplate the mechanics of setting it all up.

“[I]t’s like all programming really… a slow start to get all in place, then once it’s there, you kind of just turn the handle.” Of course, I know very little about programming—probably readers are way ahead of me on that—but his comments enabled me to view it more as technology rather than something huge and undefinable. While constraints remain, it nevertheless is exciting to “witness” the process unfold.

“In this case [included are] limitations of the text-to-speech engine, which at current state of the art can’t correctly parse some complex sentences! I often put a qualifying clause at the end of a sentence instead of earlier on, and Alexa and Polly don’t know how to say it within the overall shape. So [in places] I’ve moved some phrases around in a sentence to give better flow.”

In today’s excerpt the audio remains faithful to the text, but as we move on in this series, we’ll catch glimpses of the accommodations. Listen, however, for the nuances that appear: accents, pronunciation inconsistencies (I thought I heard at least one), vocal pitch and so on. At post’s bottom, see the link to an article about using technology for far more than entertainment.

And without further ado, let’s listen up. Simply click the arrow below to start.

Extract A

Rydal’s gig, the Heron, was moored in amongst half a dozen vaguely similar craft. I had expected something about the size of the Mermaid, in which Nick had ferried me, last time I was here.

The Heron was considerably smaller though, and it would be a squeeze getting more than the two of us into her. A purist would say it was more of a scull, than a gig.

We sat side by side in the bridge to look at her analysis. It was rather less roomy there than my bedroom at the Rileys’, but since the Harbour Porpoise was still with Boris, there wasn’t much choice.

Rydal first got Capstone to display the increments as a kind of contour map, overlaid onto the Isles of Scilly. It wasn’t very revealing. There were certainly some minor local variations from island to island, but it looked random to me.

Then she pulled back to show the whole asteroid belt. That was different. Just as she had said, Ceres and Vesta showed huge peaks – Ceres was the larger – and the amount across the Scilly Isles was dwarfed in comparison. I nodded.

“That looks convincing. But it doesn’t tell us much about the cause.”

“Now see what happens if we scale for population size rather than show simple totals.”

The red planet as seen from the ESA Rosetta during its 2007 flyby [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo], via Wikimedia Commons
The display changed. This time the Ceres and Vesta peaks were almost identical in size. The total values might be different, but the subsequent disbursements had been chosen so as to make the amount per recipient the same. That spoke of careful planning. Meanwhile, Pallas was flat, and the various other domes here and there, around the belt, showed nothing as well. That was really interesting.

“You mentioned Mars?”

“Well, yes. There’s a few places on Mars itself, and a tiny scatter on Phobos. Nothing on Deimos. Here…”

The Martian system appeared. As she had said, Deimos showed the same low-level random splutter as the Scillies. Phobos showed a little bit more, but nothing very definite. Mars, with its wide diversity of settlements in different places, showed an equally wide variety. In amongst that, were several peaks, reaching almost the same value as Ceres and Vesta, but the data was patchy. I leaned back.

“Slate, what is there in common between those places?”

“I’ll see what I can find out. And I’ve just fired off a query to Khufu down in London to see if we have any similar data on the Jovian system. Capstone tells me that he and Rydal have no details for there.”

Khufu was the main Pyramid installation supporting the Finsbury Circus office, together with those other scattered souls who, like Slate and I, were on detached work off planet. Vaster than a persona and more capable, he was also more serious, less easily sparked into lively debate, and not really the sort of individual you would want to spend time with. He did, however, have access to a colossal amount of information, and was able to leverage this to make connections the rest of us might miss.

At any rate, a query going down to the Finsbury Office and back would take the better part of an hour, given the relative locations of Bryher and Earth just now. So we had time to spare. Time to see what we could do for ourselves with this puzzle.

While waiting for Slate’s analytics to initialise, I half-turned to look at Rydal. Her skin was darker than mine, and as we had boarded the Heron, she had gathered her unruly ringletted hair back into a more orderly bob. She glanced at me briefly, and I looked back at the screen. It was ready now.

“Any ideas?”

“We need to find the common factor. Let’s see what Khufu comes up with.”

To my surprise, it was Capstone who answered.

“Slate and I have been working together on this, Mitnash. You see, I have a lot of demographic data that isn’t relevant for your normal investigations into fraud. But it fits very neatly with what Slate already knows, and means we can eliminate most possibilities. So far as we can tell, there’s only one common feature that appears to have any relevance to the matter. Ceres and Vesta use a twinned Sarsen pair as the main financial deal hub. Deimos and Pallas do not. Mars has a lot of different systems here and there, so it’s harder to tell.”

Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft with Vesta and Ceres. NASA image. (Click image for details; once there click “open in media viewer” for a really fantastic closeup. Also see link for NASA gallery)

“He’s right, Mit. Pallas has a single Sarsen with a lot of upgrades to quicken her up. Deimos has a routing engine down to Mars, based on a cut-down Ziggurat. No real local processing at all. The main Mars site at Elysium Planitia has a full Pyramid, but there are a lot of sites elsewhere on the planet which do have twins. A couple of them are reasonably close to the peaks, but there is no direct connection that I can see yet.”

“From memory though, the twinned pair is a fairly common configuration. We mainly see it in finance, but it’s very widespread beyond that too. Ship navigation and all. I’m not surprised that there are several like that on Mars. Slate and I can send a query to get a full list across the system, if we think it would help. But does anyone here on the islands use twinned Sarsens?”

“Oh yes. The main financial hub on St Mary’s. You remember, we talked about it, last time we were here.”

Rydal stirred.

“Actually there is another, though hardly anybody knows about it yet. Back on Martin’s we have one as well. I’m telling you this in absolute confidence, but there is a move by some of us there, to take the islands’ deal processing away from Mary’s. We’re putting together a proposal right now, listing a number of occasions when the Mary’s hub has either underperformed or thrown errors. Acquiring the twinned pair was part of the proof of concept.”

This was news to Slate and I. At a guess, it would be news to Elias as well, but Rydal had effectively sworn us to secrecy, for the time being.

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Click here to read about some remarkable advances used to help people with autism enjoy higher levels of productivity, meaningful interactions and privacy. 

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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Stay tuned for more excerpts, my review of Richard Abbott’s next book, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot,” and some conversation with the author!

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This post has been updated to include an embedded audio box for excerpt as opposed to the hyperlink previously created.