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: Timing

Timing (Far from the Spaceports: Book 2)
by Richard Abbott

There are some sequels we get around to reading, or even purchase enthusiastically, remembering the pleasure experienced from their predecessors. Rarer, however, is the follow-on one prodigiously hopes is being written before they even conclude the first. In this instance, I became a beneficiary of the reality behind that wish when I learned of Timing, second in Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series. Having read and reviewed the first novel last year, I became quite attached to Mitnash Thakur, financial fraud investigator to the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt near Jupiter, and couldn’t get enough of his prepossessing personality and, dare I say, aura.

This time around I fairly dove into the narrative, enabled by Abbott’s smoother story opening in Frag Rockers, a then nearly-empty Bryher bar in which Mitnash feels “old contentment resurfacing,” an apt manner in which to re-unite previous readers with this protagonist, given the memories re-kindled as we observe Mitnash’s gaze circle around his group and, together, remember. This is not to say one must have read Far from the Spaceports to understand what occurs here. Timing is most definitely a strong standalone, and any reader coming to it first also experiences an order advantage.


Neither of us had considered transferring her to a handheld, or some other portable gadget, since our last experience of that was still too painful.


What I mean by this is that periodically within Timing Abbott references an episode that occurred in the first novel; as a previous reader I feel the satisfaction of recognition. Newer readers have this in store for them as well, even if they read the two novels in reverse order: in the series debut, happening upon full events only referenced in Timing consummates each occasion, resulting in a gratifying sense of completion, an “Ahh, so that’s how it played out!” Mitnash tells his story with an intimate feel, as if he is speaking only to you the reader, so links between the novels as well as those connecting readers to the narrative and real-life society’s imaginings of their own future, link two worlds not only with technological realities and fantasies in common, but also the range of emotions that accompany them. We don’t just care for the characters; we feel a kinship.

Within the narrative, Abbott avoids weighty jargon, relying instead on a writing style that runs as smoothly as water, and an ability to communicate succinctly and economically some layered and otherwise complicated information. In this manner he takes us from Jupiter now to Mars, where a financial scam spirals into terror activity, negatively affecting even Slate, Mitnash’s artificial intelligence (AI) partner, whose own agency as persona is demonstrated in a robust personality, preferences, even bias and occasional snobbery. Her fears, too, play a role in how they navigate their way through the case, for the fallout might be serious indeed. At one point Slate attempts to interact with a set of personas centrally located within the attack directed against a college computer system.

They were still metaphorically limping along very awkwardly, their normal coordinated step disrupted by the trauma. When they did approach the subject, cautiously and with much hesitation, the level of fear they felt was like nothing Slate had witnessed before.

 [T]hey had also been unable to communicate with one another. For a pair whose initial, halting attempts at chat had been with one another, whose awareness had included each other from their very first cold startup, the loss was catastrophic. It was still difficult for them to build a trusting rapport with anything external.

 Slate was, I understood, very gentle with them, and avoided probing too deeply.

Slate’s compassion is tinged with fear for herself as well, and as events escalate with threats and extortion from a new band of outlaws called Robin’s Rebels, the pair must join forces with an unlikely partner, one they are not sure they can trust, even as they know they have to. The author maintains a fine balance with this angle, re-introducing a previous character and keeping us sitting up straight as we journey from spot to spot—experiencing the idiosyncratic nature of each—keeping a close lookout for someone we don’t know. Abbott also splices in details about our protagonist’s relationship with Shayna, back on Earth, and the peculiar weave of time that affects how days are experienced in these parts, on occasion plaiting them together in a brief comment about his poor timing, the utilization of which he would need to execute more efficiently if he is to crack this case. As we move along, Abbott silently teases out the question hovering between the lines about Mitnash and Shayla: Are their own weaves of time, and the manner in which they experience them, compatible? Or does the timing of each exist on planes far too separate for their union to be a success?

These questions and the situation they inhabit, paired with Mitnash’s continuing working relationship with Slate make one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Not that I admire trouble, mind you. In Far from the Spaceports the investigative duo get on well despite the occasional stumble, and carry on nicely. It works and is, as part of the introductory novel to this world, appropriate. In Timing, Mitnash and Slate experience deeper disagreement, some rather more serious as Abbott gives us a more profound view to the nature of the discord, or at least their conflicting perception and opinion. It also solidifies Slate’s role as more than a sidekick, intensifies the pressure of work in space and the stress of a human and AI relating to each other—not to mention humans raised in a number of extremely different environments—and lends questions to where Mitnash’s deeper feelings, preferences and loyalties lie.

As Mitnash struggles to write and dispatch a message to Shayna, partly attempting to explain his excessive amount of time away, we see how relationships affect those within them as well as those who observe. As in so many other passages through the book, Abbott provides insight into how a persona—this particular one, anyway—thinks, even if her logic is flawed, and the influence it has on Mit’s behavior.

“If we did succeed in getting straight back, we’ll still have been away from Earth for about six months. You need a better note than that.”

 An hour later I had crafted something which, I thought, sounded warm and conciliatory rather than just trite … Signal lag was about a quarter of an hour to Earth, and it was morning in Greenwich just now. Shayna would read it before too much longer.

 “Is that why you and Rocky gave up sooner than us?”

 [Slate] was not impressed.

 “Don’t you think that’s rather glib, Mit? On the Lovelace scale, we had the equivalent of nearly ninety years as a couple. And managed some five year separations within that. Do you think you will be together that long? How many human couples do you know who get to ninety years together?”

 Of course I apologised, and she accepted, and I settled down for the night.

Abbott as a science-fiction author, the characters and the plot itself mature as the complexities of all three, plus more, interact and give us a story that provides questions as well as answers, thrill and satisfaction, and an adventure that can’t be beat. The psychology of relationships being a huge theme running through the book follows superbly, in human terms and within a storyline unencumbered by excessive examination to bog down events. As a reader not typically attracted to sci-fi, it enthralled for itself, as well as the awareness that I could be drawn to the genre not once now, but twice, a condition that underlines the author’s ability to captivate readers from inside as well as out of the genre’s general readership.

The asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. In 1596, Johannes Kepler noted the excessive gap in the orbits between the two and believed there must be an undiscovered planet there. There is in fact a dwarf planet, Ceres. By Mdf at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Click image for more information)
So where do we go from here? Interestingly, I find myself contemplating a second reading of both novels—and soon—something I often pass up on other books I unsurprisingly loved because the timing was always off. I feel as if I am the only one Mitnash is telling his story to, and am drawn into the world Abbott builds with such fluidity, a perfect mix of fantasy elements with reality, the differences of the people in his world to us, as well as how similar and ordinary much of it is. (As readers may know, I’m a great lover of the ordinary.) As the story wraps itself around us, we become a part of that world, a magical attachment that lingers even when we step away.

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, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Timing in order to facilitate an honest review.

For my review of Far from the Spaceports, click here

Stay tuned for my review of Richard Abbott’s latest, Half Sick of Shadows, a guest blog and more!

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Author image courtesy Richard Abbott