5x5 Wonder Wednesday: a sci-fi novel concept (or two) for NanoWriMo

Monkey Monday was dedicated to an idea I’m playing with for NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge, so I thought I’d use Wonder Wednesday to showcase a second concept that’s bouncing around in my head.

The idea was inspired by Elon Musk’s plan to colonise Mars, where he mentioned that because Earth and Mars aren’t always the same distance apart, there are fixed windows when you can make the dangerous trip in the shortest time possible. I wondered what this might mean for the inhabitants of a small colony, relying on intermittent deliveries of vital supplies and luxuries, as well as an influx of new colonists.

But you could also push it harder, setting up a distant outpost where the connection is far more fragile, the visits less frequent and the relationship more important for the planets at both ends of the journey.

Getting there is only half the journey (SpaceX)

1 Mars would need to be a near-future story Elon Musk’s presentation pitched a timetable for potential journeys to Mars, with trips lasting from three to five months, travelling roughly every 18 months. His engines might become better, but he sees this as a way to send more people and cargo, not to get there faster. You can also assume they’ll get more reliable.

So you’ve got to tell the story while the colony’s establishing itself and struggling to survive between infrequent and unreliable new arrivals.

The trip to Mars is far shorter than the sea voyages people took just a century ago (Space X)

2 What’s the Mars crisis? A story like this is driven by crisis. The early colony would have a fraught existence as it established self-sustaining food, air and water, dealt with the challenges of a hostile environment, and prepared for up to a hundred new arrivals. There would be political battles as new arrivals integrated, and what would happen if a ship from Earth was lost or somehow crippled en route, or experiences a less than optimal landing?

Musk’s plan also assumes that Earth is ticking over smoothly, but in the background is a presidential election where one candidate seems content with the idea of plunging his country into civil war, but that’s without the possible collapse of Europe’s postwar stability, an ISIS-style group taking over Pakistan’s nukes, or Putin deciding to flop his military cock into Europe’s backyard. The colonists would also be dependent on Earth, so what happens if supplies are disrupted by events at home?

You’ve also got to consider other explorers and colonists. The US government might conceivably send scientific expeditions independent of the privately-funded colonists, and their goals could be at odds with people attempting to settle a planet, exploit its resources and shape it to their own needs. China’s tortoise-and-the-hare space programme will certainly see it putting boots on Mars this century, and India will probably want to be there as well. Russia might even find a few pennies behind the sofa for a space programme that does more than go there on paper. Mars is a big planet, but the things people want have a habit of being in the same place.

3 Where does the other scenario take place? It’s a long way from Earth, settled by some sort of colony ship or fleet with no expectation of new arrivals. There’s no faster-than-light travel, and it’s still dangerous and expensive.

The colonists have found two useful planets: one is hostile but rich in metals and minerals, and can support a high-technology civilization; the other is fertile but poor in other resources so it can provide an excess of food, but needs labour and technology. And lets say it has some dangerous indigenous species, just for fun.

The two worlds are only in a useful conjunction once or twice per generation, which is when the technologists arrive to trade luxuries for food, and offload their excess population. They’re both relatively young societies, so they can only survive by relying on each other, but there are already social and economic differences emerging between them.

The geospatial mechanics isn’t that important, because the beauty of space is that it’s so big you can create almost anything that doesn’t break fundamental rules of physics. I’m thinking of a hot, bright but unstable star with the tech society based on the moons of a gas giant in a fairly close orbit of months or weeks, so that even water ice isn’t plentiful. The ‘Goldilocks’ zone hosting the agrarian planet is much further out, taking decades to circle the star and enjoying long, slow seasons. Crucially, they’re both in strongly elliptical orbits which synchronise for a close approach roughly every 10 years (maybe) when traders can arrive, stay briefly, and return in a few months.

We already know that gas giants are very common in our galaxy (NASA/G. Bacon (STScI))

4 What’s the conflict here? The two societies begin in equilibrium, and our story begins with a threat to that balance.

Let’s say the tech society uses cobbled-together spacecraft to bring together resources into sheltered underground bases, and they’re effectively family concerns based on the original crews of the colony ship, or ships. A solar flare from the unstable star could disrupt the economy and force the colonists to go on their usual trading visit with a lot less to offer, but their technology gives them the power to take what they want.

The agrarian society looks very nice to the regular new arrivals from the tech society, but they’re often given either crappy work in poor conditions as tenants of the original settlers, or expected to farm the wilder, more dangerous parts of the planet. It’s an almost feudal economy, where the farmers are tithed and the technology which arrives is distributed unevenly and unfairly. But maybe some of the new arrivals are trying to set up independent trading deals with old friends, and the planet as a whole lacks the resources to prevent the tech colonists taking what they want.

5 Which story is best for NaNoWriMo? They’re very different scenarios, built around a common mechanical conceit.

The near-future story lets you draw on lots of highly probable speculation and the burden of world-building is far-reduced so you can concentrate on the plot and characters. On the other hand, unless you can tell a story which feels self-contained it risks becoming an open-ended tail of Mars colonisation, and that’s been done very well before in epics like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy. You’d need a small tight story to stand on its own.

The distant colony story is a sandbox where you can do anything you want provided you set up a consistent universe. You can choose to make parallels with any society on Earth, or try to imagine something new.

The challenge with both stories is to plot them through to the end and sketch the characters before I begin writing, so they don’t meander into a endless ramble halfway through the month.

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