Archive for April, 2010

Writing Homecoming

One of the questions I get asked most often when I mention Homecoming is “How long did it take you to write it?”

I don’t know.

I’ve been telling myself stories for as long as I can remember—at least since grade school. I hadn’t written much of it down, except for a few poems. But then I got my first computer, a Kaypro running CP/M. Writing wasn’t easy, but it beat the attempts to read my own handwriting, cutting pages up, taping and stapling them back together, and proofreading mimeograph stencils of my dissertation. Still, I didn’t write much for fun, and I don’t think I wrote any fiction.

The next step was a Mac Plus, running Microsoft Word 1. Writing got a lot easier. I wrote most of the Alaska Science Forum articles on that machine, as well as doing some FORTRAN programming on it and I suspect a few scientific articles. I may have started Homecoming on it. I say may, because I can’t find the earliest drafts that I actually wrote down. Certainly the characters were around by then, and many of the incidents. But the first drafts I can find, now resident on my old G3, were started in 1994. They may have been a rewrite of something I originally wrote on the Mac Plus; they may have started life after I got the Centris in 1993. I’m not even sure whether they started out as Word or Word Perfect, as I have used both over the years.

I started out thinking of one story, with the material now in Homecoming along with what is now in the sequel, Tourist Trap. Too long. I tried breaking it into three books—Smokescreen, Homecoming, and Falaron Trek, and that is the oldest version I still have. I joined a science fiction writers’ group, and had it pointed out that the stories lacked enough conflict, Smokescreen didn’t really end, and the name Falaron Trek sounded too much like a spinoff of Star Trek. (I’d actually been thinking of pony trekking.)

I rewrote the original Smokescreen and Homecoming as a single book, now called Homecoming, with the bits in chronological order. Unfortunately this kept the story jumping back and forth between Central and Riya, with neither knowing the other existed. Falaron Trek was eventually renamed Tourist Trap. I sent both out to several publishers and agents. I got rejected. I revised. Often. I did get encouragement from a local librarian, and from a brother-in-law I was sure would hate it

I retired, as driving to and from work was getting impossible. Lots of time to write, yes? Well, until the fire. “The dogs and the computer.” I told the firemen at two in the morning when they asked me what to get out. All but the two geriatric dogs survived—I don’t think those two ever woke up, as they had access to outdoor runs. The G3, which at that time had my only copies of my fiction writing, got dumped in a foot of snow at 20 below and it’s still smoke-stained. But it is operational and has my early files 12 years later.

The next couple of years I concentrated on non-fiction, mostly my website on Shetland Sheepdogs and genetics, and looking for a more permanent place to live—all on one floor, within walking distance of a bus line, and where I could keep all five dogs. I found it and moved in, still part of the writing group, but now writing mostly short stories. I even sold one. But the writing group broke up as people moved away. The parts of the story I’d written no longer bothered me, but the later years of the characters still rattled around in my head, wanting out. Bits got written at novelette and short story length, but I still couldn’t quite pull the bits together. Then one fall it occurred to me—suppose I changed the sex of one character?

The first draft of what was to become the middle book of my trilogy was written over the following winter and spring. I began taking writing courses and signing up for the creative writing section of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The next winter I wrote the first draft of the first book of the trilogy, incorporating several of the short pieces I’d written earlier. Homecoming and Tourist Trap were laid aside, modified only when I needed to make them consistent with the trilogy. The third book of the trilogy took a little longer, mostly because it took me a while to find a unifying theme, but aside from an epilog it too was complete when I went to the Fairbanks Festival of the Book last summer.

I went to a session for writers, and heard for the first time about assisted self-publishing with on-demand printing. I hadn’t seriously considered self-publishing, though I felt I had something to say—the last thing I wanted was a few thousand books in my garage! But this sounded worth checking out. The handout gave the web addresses for iUniverse and LuLu, and I checked out both. iUniverse looked particularly interesting—their books were carried online on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, they offered editorial evaluation with the possibility of recognition and even some sales assistance for books their editorial review found worthy, and with a sale on, the price was low enough I felt I could afford to take the risk. The next step? Getting my manuscript ready to send them.

Why do we have weather?

It all goes back to the fact that the heating and cooling of the atmosphere is not uniform. Some volumes of atmosphere get more energy than they lose, and must get rid of the excess. Others lose more energy than they get, and must somehow get more energy. Weather and ocean currents are Earth’s way of moving energy from places that receive more energy than they lose to those that lose more energy than they gain.

We are changing the heating and cooling of the atmosphere in a number of ways. Consequently, the details of how the atmosphere and oceans move energy around–and thus the weather–must also change.

The problem is not simple. Much of the energy gain and loss of the atmosphere is itself due to the same weather that moves energy around. But the chances that all the changes will balance out naturally are about like expecting a tornado to put things back the way they were before a hurricane hit.

Please note that when I talk about heating and cooling of the atmosphere I am not talking about the replacement of warm air by cold or vice versa. Rather, I am following a mass of air, often called a parcel of air, and looking at the changes in the energy within it. So what are the processes that change the energy content of the air?

If the air is in contact with a surface, be it ground, water, or snow, energy will flow from the surface to the air if the surface is warmer, or from the air to the surface if the surface is colder than the air. The surface is most likely to be warmer than the air if it is daytime, summer, and the surface is fairly dark. If it is winter, night, or the surface is very light in color (snow, desert sand) the surface may be cooler than the air. Further, land temperatures are strongly affected by the season and time of day. Water temperatures are affected mostly by season and by ocean currents. The presence of clouds moderates the cooling or heating of the land.

Energy, in the form of latent heat, also flows when water vapor evaporates or condenses. Thus the evaporation of water from the oceans adds energy to the air near the surface, while the formation of dew removes energy from the air. The condensation of clouds does not change the energy content of the air, but it changes latent heat into a rise (or a reduction of the drop) in temperature. This is a very important way of transferring energy from the surface to cloud height.

How can air gain or lose energy when it is away from a surface? This is where the so-called greenhouse gasses become important. Air is transparent to the part of the light spectrum we see, which is where the sun puts out most of its energy. This is important for us, as our eyes wouldn’t be much use otherwise. But there is a large part of the light spectrum we do not see. The most important part for weather and climate is what is called the thermal infrared. This is the part of the light spectrum, the colors invisible to our eyes, given off by objects at what we call room temperature. Although the major components of the atmosphere (oxygen and nitrogen) are transparent in the infrared, certain gasses emit and absorb very strongly in these colors. In particular water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone are able to absorb energy given off by the earth’s surface and emit energy to space. The emitted energy depends very strongly on the temperature of the gas. Thus the rate of energy loss at 100 degrees F is over 6 times that at 0 degrees F. Cloud droplets also emit and absorb energy in the thermal infrared.

Over all, then, the air gains energy near the surface, at low latitudes, in summer and during the day. It loses energy at high elevation, at night, near the poles and in winter. Although ocean currents succeed in moving a considerable amount of the energy gained from the sun near the equator to the polar regions, the vertical energy transport and about half of the horizontal transport is left to the atmosphere—hence weather.

We have been changing the way in which the earth absorbs energy from the sun at least since the origins of agriculture, since cleared fields normally absorb energy differently from forests. But over the last hundred years or so we have also dramatically changed the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and methane have increased as our growing population has relied more on fossil fuel burning and also needed larger areas given to agriculture. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, so water in the atmosphere has increased as well. It is even possible that the particles we have put into the atmosphere have made clouds more stable, which could also increase the water vapor in the air and hence the greenhouse effect.

There is no question that we have changed the energy losses and gains of the atmosphere, or that these losses and gains are what drives the entire weather system. The disagreements among climate scientists are not in whether a change will occur, it is in the details of what that change will be. But expecting no change, when we are changing the processes that drive the whole climate system, is extremely unreasonable.

The Horses of Homecoming

Horses and starships in the same novel?
Well, why not?
I’m not talking about horses as transportation, at least not on Central. But as Winston Churchill said, the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Why shouldn’t people capable of interstellar travel keep and breed horses for sport and recreation? Derik does and so does Vara, though they don’t have much else in common.
The Humans of the Confederation never forgot where they came from. They didn’t (and don’t) interfere with us, but they took a lot of plants and animals with them, including cacao and honeybees, both now widespread in the Confederation. When Humans on Earth began domesticating plants and animals many of the domesticates were imported by the Confederation—including horses. On Earth at that time, they were used largely for warfare and transportation. In the Confederation, they were a novel form of recreation and several horse sports were developed.
I actually invented three sports for Homecoming, including one, obstacle racing, on horseback. (The other two are pattern chess and plasmaball.) When he has any spare time, Derry designs obstacle courses—and they can be fiendish. These courses combine elements of several equine sports of Earth with a few taken from dog agility.
Obstacle racing started out in my imagination with the cross-country phase of three-day eventing. This gave me the jumps, the banks, uphill and downhill jumps and the idea of a more or less fixed course. The idea of two or more horses taking the course together in an actual race came from steeplechasing. The pen jump comes from handy hunter classes. The weaves come from pole bending, but the obstacles the horses have to weave through are rigid—trees or boulders. Hard on the riders’ knees if the horse makes a mistake! Finally, the course may incorporate elements from a trail riding class—opening a gate to go through it, for instance, or retrieving an article from a box.
Canine agility incorporates jumps and weaves, but it also has tunnels, teeter-totters and a high walk. The tunnels in obstacle racing might be covered bridges, caves or large culverts. The teeter-totter can be taken at speed, but the horse must be taught to accept the change in footing as the balance of the teeter board shifts beneath him. The high walk as used in competition is the only type of obstacle that requires technology not available on Earth. Physically, it may be a narrow bridge without a visible railing or a narrow trail with drop-offs on either side. In either case, this is an obstacle that could be very dangerous to the horse—not to mention the rider—so the sides are normally protected by force fields. If the force fields actually come into play, the horse is automatically disqualified, but will at least live to try again!
A particular course need not use every type of obstacle, of course. Derry’s courses, at least, are designed to take as much advantage of natural obstacles as possible.
In addition to being divided by age of the rider and level of experience of the horse, there are several types of obstacle racing in competition. The riders may go individually, with advance knowledge of the course—the easiest type of class. In scramble classes riders go in heats of three to six riders at once, with a final class made up of the heat winners, usually with some change in the course. Finally there are the surprise classes, where the riders have no knowledge of the course until five minutes before they start their rides.
The obstacle race in Homecoming is not this type of competition, of course, just something set up by Derik to entertain his son (and himself.) But this kind of event does exist as a competitive sport, and if I ever get that trilogy published, it will come up again.

Did I hear something?  The clock radio is on, news of Iraq, of Afghanistan, music…  I drift back toward sleep.
Could the radio have a beep in the program?  Not likely.  My insulin pump?  It doesn’t quite sound like the familiar warning, but I grope the pump out, thumb the button.  No warning, only the sensor showing my blood sugar—normal—for the last three hours.
This time I listen, look around, consider possibilities.  Wristwatches—possible, but not likely.  I haven’t moved any in months.  Pedometers, ditto.  I can rule out a cell phone, at least I think I can—mine hasn’t been used for a couple of years and must be totally discharged by now.
I look around the bedroom.  The older Sheltie, whose hearing is almost gone, snoozes; the younger, the one whose rear end is nearly paralyzed, shifts and whines nervously in her crate.  The KUAC posters and the arrangement of artificial flowers in a gift basket hang as usual on the white walls, and in any event are not subject to bouts of cheeping.  The radio…  Come to think about it, I once traced a cheep to another clock radio, in another room.  But that was an inadvertently set clock chime, once an hour, on a clock that I have not managed to set since I lost the instructions.  And that radio is not in this room—is this sound?  I look at the closed wooden door to the hall as another cheep sounds.
It’s time to get up in any event; might as well open the door and see if I can locate the sound.  I struggle out of bed and hobble over to the door.  Of course whatever it is isn’t cheeping just now.  I close the door and care for the dogs and myself, trying to ignore the cheeps.
They are definitely louder in the hall, but the cheeps are too brief to locate.  I call the older dog to the kitchen door, at the other end of the hall.  Uncharacteristically, the younger leads him, so eager to get out into the run she almost trips me.  I work my way back down the hall, waiting for the cheeps and trying to judge where they are loudest.  Near the door to the office, I think.  That narrows it down to the uninterruptible power supplies, neither of which shows a warning light, and the smoke alarms.  Probably one of the smoke alarms saying it needs its backup battery replaced, but which?  The one in the hall, or the one four feet away in the office?  In either case, I will need the stepladder–both alarms are on the ceiling, far above my reach.  Do I even have the right kind of battery?
I drag the stepladder in from the garage, and call the dogs in for their breakfasts.  The younger dog clings to my ankles, clearly demoralized by the cheeping.  I finally shut her in the back room, stand in the hall under the smoke alarms, and shut the office door.
Cheep.  But it’s softer this time, so the smoke alarm in the office is probably the culprit.  Now all I have to do is remember how to change the battery without the instructions the previous house owners took with them.
Just climbing the stepladder is a problem, with a bad knee and an impaired sense of balance.  I manage to unscrew the alarm from the ceiling, where it hangs from the house wiring.  I see something I think is the battery compartment, but how does it open?  The instructions, if they are instructions, are molded into the white plastic over my head.  Have you ever tried to read small, faint print, over your head, through bifocals, while trying to balance on a stepladder?  I finally give up and try Googling the brand name on the Internet.  All I can find out is that my smoke alarm is so old it should have been replaced.
Cheep.  The last time this happened, I wound up breaking the battery connections and had to replace the alarm.  As long as I don’t electrocute myself, I can’t do any worse this time.  And if I break this one, I’ll have the electrician replace all of them with models I can replace the battery in.  I climb the stepladder again, the good leg always higher, determined to find that battery.
The compartment cover won’t come off as I pry at the edges, but pulling at the place where the wires go into it seems to have some effect.  I persist, working awkwardly over my head, teetering on the ladder, until the cover finally gives and I see the 9 volt battery with its silly little snaps.  Carefully I pry the snaps off the battery, still reaching awkwardly over my head–this is how the other battery connection got broken, with one of the snaps coming off the connector rather than off the battery.  Success!  Now if only the replacement battery I’ve found is good…
It takes both hands to fasten the snaps on the new battery, while I teeter on the stepladder.  I hold my breath, waiting for another cheep to tell me that the new battery is dead or that the sound was coming from somewhere else.  Blessed silence.  Even the dogs seem to draw a breath of relief.
Now all I have to do is get the wires tucked back into a too-small space and screw the wretched smoke alarm back into the ceiling.

Real planets come in all sizes, geographies, climates, geologies, and probably ecologies. They circle a wide variety of stars. But they do all follow certain physical laws, and these laws constrain how the various aspects of a planet work together. Orbital mechanics and the physics of how stars work do provide some limits. In inventing a planet, you need first to consider what you require of that planet. Is it to be a carefully chosen object for colonization by human beings? The site of an accidental colonization? An uninhabitable world with something worth exploiting? The home of a non-human and totally alien species? A base for scientific exploration?

For Homecoming I invented three planets. Two are intended to be fully livable, Earthlike planets, the results of long-ago modification. Both circle sun-like stars and have climates, year lengths, day lengths and axial inclinations similar to Earth’s. The ecology of Central is assumed to be a mixture of species imported from Earth and the home planet of the R’il’nai, and differences from Earth ecology are unimportant for this story, though they do exist. That of Riya is a combination of a native ecology with that from R’il’n. In the native Riyan ecology, land animals with internal skeletons have six, rather than four, limbs. This allows for four-legged animals with wings, like the little lizard-like animals that act as pollinators for the native vegetation. Photosynthesizers also differ from Earth’s, with a growth structure based on expanding sheets (with holes) rather than branches. Both planets have components—like the tinerals on Riya—brought in from planets other than the primary sources.

On the third planet, Mirror, I let my imagination go. This is not a comfortable planet for human beings, nor is it intended to be. It is, however, modeled on the early stages of evolution on Earth, with an interesting twist—both left-handed and right-handed biochemistry co-exist. Is this possible? I don’t know, and neither do my characters. But every scientist I know would agree that this is a planet to be preserved for study, not colonized. Mirror circles a star much like our sun at a distance that allows water to be liquid, so as real planets go it’s pretty tame. Its atmospheric pressure is high—like that of early Earth—with a significant fraction of the pressure coming from carbon dioxide, which contributes to its hot climate. There is nothing surprising about a planet having lots of water and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen are the four most common reactive elements in the universe, so we expect their compounds to be common. Water is just hydrogen and oxygen, while carbon dioxide is carbon and oxygen. What is unusual is to have free oxygen, as on Earth, and pressure and temperature that allow water to be liquid.

On Mirror the process of combining carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates and free oxygen, using sunlight as an energy source, is just getting started. There is oxygen in the air, but not enough to support much in the way of land dwellers. My castaways are quite reasonable in wanting to get away as soon as possible—they’re not properly equipped for the scientific study they recognize the planet needs. Besides, they want to get home! I’ll have more to say on planet building later. For now, welcome to my blog and I hope you surf on over to my website and find out what Homecoming is all about (