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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Book Review: Far from the Spaceports (with Giveaway)

Author Richard Abbott is generously gifting a FREE COPY (Kindle or e-pub) of

Far from the Spaceports

for one lucky winner! Read the review and comment below or here to get you name in the draw!

Update: The draw has been completed and we have a winner. Congratulations to Nataliya, and thank you so much to author Richard Abbott for generously providing a copy of his marvelous novel for our contest!

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

Spaceports cover

I’ll be honest up front: I don’t normally read science fiction, and in fact am not really a huge fan. Nevertheless, when a read of Far from the Spaceports was presented for possible review, I was open to it because I’d seen reviews for other novels by Richard Abbott, which … means nothing really, I know, given they aren’t sci-fi. But he’d piqued my curiosity in the past and a preview at the blurb gave me a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t “typical” sci-fi.

How glad I was I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, for Far from the Spaceports was a delightfully pleasant read, not only with a fantastic plot but also personable characters (one as artificial intelligence!), intriguing world-building, an especially thrilling and sweat-breaking scene and lures from one transition to the next—all the way through.

The sole bump for me was an opening chapter segment with a tad bit of disconnect, but I put this down to the narrative and I getting to know one other, and walking into a scene in progress smoothed over quite quickly. Potential readers with the same sort of relationship to sci-fi as I generally have can also rest assured that the jargon written into the tale is not the dense or fearsome linguistic mine trap from which we often recoil: in fact it’s fun to read and typically rather understandable: “Slate … had flicked on the message within a couple of femtoseconds of reception.” Abbott does a great job, as I came to see early on, of keeping his readers informed and on track with contextual passages of dialogue or prose that need little information padding at all.

Far from the Spaceports, set in the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt close to Jupiter, is Mitnash’s story of his mission to the Isles to investigate financial fraud. He works under the jurisdiction of the Economic Crime Review Board (ECRB), along with his “onboard persona,” Slate, also referred to in the beginning as a stele. This I found rather fascinating, given that Slate performs, really, essentially the same function as ancient stelae in terms of the passing of information, though electronically and with the added modern ability to communicate via cochlear implant.

Ceres
Ceres, largest of the real-life asteroids, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It lies in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

Abbott’s choice to tell Mit’s tale in first person is a splendid one, as readers can more closely get to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, whereas there would be a remove with even an omniscient but detached narrator. We engage in more of a personal feel to what Mit experiences, such as the whining of an electric car, “probably older than I was,” in double-duty fashion providing readers an idea of just how long the colony has been functioning as well as the character’s sense of resigned acceptance regarding priorities of supply.

Mit has been doing this for a while as well, as indicated by his statement that, “Some years ago I’d asked Slate to use [his partner] Shayna’s voice as the audio basis whenever we were away from Earth.” As the story progresses we are privy to Mit’s impressions as he takes up his newest mission as well as his relationship with the loyal Slate, who provides him with data computations and information helpful to his investigation.

The information technology is what in part makes this novel different to many other sci-fi stories I’ve given a shot: it is the focus, not stereotypical laser battles with weapons that can melt your enemy, nor outstanding physical feats of bravado acted out by your hero. Mind you there is action and Mit is tested, required to engage his wits to escape physical and other danger that he finds himself embroiled in, can predict or see coming. His arsenal is awareness and prep, intelligence—of the cerebral as well as provided sort—and quick wits in detecting and escaping the mysterious, suspicious and dangerous. Abbott’s persuasive mixture of just the right ingredients at particular moments shows off a research and storytelling expertise blended together with such dexterity readers periodically pause to admire the effect—of writer as well as character.

“[He] was looking at me with the unfocused expression of someone who was querying a remote [stele]. I had practiced for hours in front of mirrors and human trainers to avoid exactly that look. He saw me watching and tried to cover himself.

 ‘[My contact] tells me your supplies will be transferred within the hour, Mr Thakur.’

 I nodded, knowing full well he had been running a completely different query.”

 Indeed, Far from the Spaceports is a mystery novel, complete with queries and lies, and the author skillfully balances this genre mix with humor, including that coming from interaction with Slate, who has a developed personality as well as perspectives. On occasion she is suspicious, which makes sense given her ability to mine data and utilize formulae to determine viability. But Abbott bestows her with more than that, allowing her to avoid the paradigm of “sidekick” by making her a greater part of the story and not merely a tool Mit utilizes to progress in his detective work; he needs her as much as she needs him, and not just for efficiency. Readers will appreciate her worry about being marginalized, for example, or frustrations, even snobbery regarding equipment. Already miffed in one scene, she retreats into mostly silence.

’The fake[ flowers] are better on Deimos.’

 Pretty, though.’

 She made a noncommittal noise. Neither of us had seen a real agapanthus plant, but Slate would have been able to acquire much more accurate sensory data than I could, so she was probably right.

 Whether right or not about the quality of the flowers, she also disliked her current living space and was letting me know. A hand-held was small, slow, and impoverished compared to her usual frame. She always made her voice sound tinny when she was transferred to inadequate hardware to remind me of her frustration.”

 At one point Mit partners with a new character who, despite her late appearance in the book, is also well developed, though presented in such a way I often wondered if she was helping Mit or would turn out to be a double agent or baddie. This continued the anticipation earlier created—and that provoked actual sweat on my forehead—when Mit has to work his way through a spell of psychological warfare perhaps even more frightening than super-powered space arms.

This links also to contemplations of what a futuristic world looks like, though to Abbott’s credit, he doesn’t fall into any sort of dystopian-like trap with machinations of evil—also sci-fi staples that may have turned me off in the past. Instead, he gracefully explores various elements, periodically pointing to new versions of what appears in our existing world: small anachronisms used to define or identify actions no longer actually performed in the manner described. For example, someone today might counter repetition with, “You sound like a broken record,” despite these devices being obsolete. In Mit’s world, errors in a systematic analysis are “still call[ed] a fat finger problem even if no fingers are actually used.”

Things can also get a little intrusive, such as it being “almost impossible to persuade anybody you were out of contact,” to the very dangerous, such as hacking and a higher level of identity theft. Abbott makes it believable because though it amps up the results to something quite deceptive and potentially very destructive, more so than we deal with today, it was birthed from our current technology. It adroitly fits readers of all stripes.

Dawn
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft above Ceres (NASA/JPL)

At the end of the day one could describe Far from the Spaceports as a sci-fi mystery, which it is, though it is so much more than merely that sum. With likeable characters and bad guys readers can’t easily identify, believable futuristic technology, a well-balanced mix of drama and dry humor, and a very engaging and well-told storyline, it is a new take on detecting, with enough questions arising in the end or remaining unanswered from earlier that it seems open to a sequel.

Like many books before it, Far from the Spaceports surely contains elements I missed that could be caught on a subsequent read. Of course, readers know only too well this is near impossible in these days of to-be-read piles threatening to topple over. However, as I approached the end I felt sorry not to be moving through more breathtaking scenes with Mitnash (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been calling him Mit), that there weren’t at least 200 more pages. So then, as now, I resolved it shall be read again and I hope I’ll be doing it in anticipation indeed of that sequel I mentioned as possibility.

Far from the Spaceports is simply an amazing book that took me to a world I was alien in yet felt comfortable exploring and want to return to. Combining all the right elements of mystery, psychological thriller, sci-fi, adventure—not an easy balance—this is a novel that will bring aboard a wave of new readers for sci-fi, and have Richard Abbott to thank for it.

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Update: I am so pleased to announce that the author is indeed working on Timing, a sequel to Far from the Spaceports projected for release in early autumn. Stay tuned for my review as well as some chatting with and a guest blog from author Richard Abbott. 

In the meantime, be sure to comment below or here to get your name in the draw for your  FREE Kindle or e-pub copy of Far from the Spaceports

About the author …

richardabbottRichard 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. A sequel, Timing, is in preparation for release 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.

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.

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! Far from the Spaceports is also available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.

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All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott.