Random Thoughts – The Problem with Time in Sci-Fi

Time brings an interesting problem to sci-fi. In any other genre, time can almost be ignored. Either it matters to the story or it doesn’t. This can be its own issue, but that is mainly a logical or consistency thing. In sci-fi, though, time becomes integral to the discussion. This has to do with the fact that so much of sci-fi has to do with space.

I recently read two books that highlighted the problem of time and the two solutions to it. The first book was Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein, and the second was Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The solutions were a generational ship and hibernation/stasis respectively. That’s right, this is a double book review and random thoughts. And warning, there will be spoilers for both.

In Orphans of the Sky, Hugh is part of the crew of a ship headed to a far off galaxy. It’s been an unknown number of generations since the ship took off, but it has been long enough that everyone has forgotten what their mission is. They know they are on a ship, though they don’t understand that it is a space ship or that anything exists outside of the ship. The ship is all of reality and all that there is.

The external conflict is a fight between the humans that Hugh is a part of and mutants who hide in higher levels of the vessel. Hugh is captured by a group of these mutants where he is taken to Joe-Jim, a two-headed mutant who leads one of the strongest gangs. Hugh manages to befriend Joe-Jim and is exposed to the true nature of reality, the ship, and its mission.

He attempts to convince the humans to ally with the mutants in order to accomplish their original mission. Everything seems to work towards this plan, but a sudden betrayal by the Captain reveals that the humans want to maintain the status quo and their new society. The mutants are all killed while Hugh, his friend, and their wives are barely able to escape to settle on the planetary goal of their ancestors.

Children of Time starts with a group of scientists over a terraformed planet. Their goal is to introduce a group of apes to the planet along with a virus. This virus is designed to improve evolution among the apes. As they are about to launch the apes and virus, a terrorist plot is revealed that destroys the ship.

The virus is just barely launched where it crashes to the planet and finds a suitable host in several of the insect and arachnid species. The virus works in the spiders, causing them to grow larger and smarter over hundreds of generations. They form a complex society, battle and domestic ant colonies to serve as biological computer systems, and become the dominant species on the planet.

In addition to this plotline, there is another that follows a group of humans from Earth. Earth has been used up and has become uninhabitable. Scraping together the technology of a lost past, they are able to create a ship to carry the remains of the human race to a new planet. The crew is placed in stasis for the trip, though several members of the key crew are woken up periodically to address various problems such as attempted mutinies, god complexes, and finding a suitable planet to settle on.

Ultimately, the solution to the humans’ settlement problem rests with the world the spiders have claimed. Pushed by the existential dread of extinction, the humans and spiders clash for control of the planet.

Both books are great. Orphans of the Sky does have some very problematic issues with how it views women, and I completely understand any who can’t get past that. The only good thing is that it is only brought up maybe twice in the story, so it does not act as a huge distractor. It is fun and thought provoking despite this, and I give it the Silver Stash.

Children of Time is amazing. Really, if you are a fan of sci-fi, read this book. It tackles interesting questions, sets up it plots well, and the spiders aren’t that bad. Trust me, I’m an arachnophobe and I’m saying read this. My only issue is the actual resolution to the conflict. Ultimately, this book gets the Steel Stash. It’s amazing.

Now that the books are out of the way, let’s look at how they handle time. Like I said, time is one of the most important aspects of space sci-fi. To paraphrase Hitchhikers’ Guide, space is big, like really, really big. Space is stupid big. Distances in space are so great, they are practically meaningless. They become measured in how long it takes light to travel to them.

Think about that. Distance is measured by how long it takes one of the fastest phenomenons we know of to travel. We don’t do that on a planet. We can see and imagine distance on a planet. You can conceivably walk from one end of a continent to the other. You can travel around the Earth. To travel to another solar system, you have to find some way of accelerating to the speed of light and then it will still take you decades.

This means that the only solution to space travel, well without a handwave of faster than light travel, is to either have a generational ship or to use stasis. Find some way for your grandchildren to reach the planet or freeze yourself.

Orphans of the Sky uses the first approach. With generational ships, you end up with some interesting problems and questions. What happens if the crew forgets? What happens to society? What about concepts like free will and democracy?

Of course, the last question is probably one of the most important. Unfortunately, it is one of the easiest to answer as well. A generational ship can’t be a democracy. People have a habit of not always choosing the best solution for the whole. With a ship, you only have what you have. You are severely limited on resources. Democratic and capitalistic models are not likely to work unless you massively over-design everything. Of course, that has its drawbacks as well in terms of cost of construction. So everything needs to be rationed.

Even if you have the ability to provide abundance for everyone, there is still the issue of maintenance. It is a ship after all. It needs to be repaired. It needs certain actions. Over a short timeframe, that may not be an issue, but what happens when you need more engineers, technicians, and specialists? Do you let society decide? Do you beg? Or do you put the mission and survival of everyone onboard above individual wants and tell people what they need to do?

Of course, another solution to the people issue is to alter the society to place a higher value on these jobs. This can be accomplished through extra perks and incentives, or it can come on the form of veneration and deification of the command. This is the direction that Orphans end up going in. The original captain, Jordan, became a god to the people of Hugh’s time while the mutineer Huff became the devil. The Captain wasn’t just a job, but a position of honor and power, not for the common man.

One of the values of Orphans is that not only does it ask these questions, but it also explores the issues that they can bring up. Jordan’s writings, ship manuals and technical logs, become holy documents. One must be initiated into the grand mysteries of a scientist to even read them, and even then, these things aren’t for question. They are merely to be followed.

This, of course, leads to the problem of the power-hungry. Hugh wants to complete the sacred mission that Jordan set out on. In attempting to do so, he works with several key members of the scientists to overthrow the Captian and install a new man who will finish the mission. The new Captian, however, just wanted power. He found an opportunity and seized it, using Hugh and the mutants to gain his position before disposing of them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Children of Time. The crew was all put in stasis. For many members of humanity, they fled a dying Earth, went to sleep, and woke up on a foreign planet. For some, however, they kept waking up throughout the trip. The eyes of humanity during the trip is a scholar named Mason. He was a student of the past and knew the old languages and programming. Any time the ship encountered some piece of old tech, he was woken up to help translate and provide advice.

This led to some interesting questions from him. Objectively, he was hundreds of years old. Subjectively, he was only a few decades. This was a thought process that his mind continued to struggle to comprehend. How do you reconcile those two thoughts? How do you realistically rationalize the idea that you aren’t eternal? Or insignificant? How do you face the endless march of time when you constantly blip in and out of it. How do you reconcile time itself when even time becomes meaningless do to your constant jumps forward?

For the humans of Children, distance is a meaningless concept. No matter how far anything is, it is only a single night’s sleep away. For those who kept waking up, time loses its value as well.

Of course, these questions are the reason why sci-fi is such an influential genre. It is one of the only genres that can ask questions like these, that can explore the human psyche and experience through them.

But what do you think? Do you feel there are different ways to approach these problems? Different questions you want to explore? What answers do you have? Let me know your thoughts. And as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.

Rose Nexus Updates

Whew. Draft 1 of Rose Nexus is complete. In fact, I am about halfway through my first draft edits on it.

This story turned out to be a bit more than I had originally intended. I thought it was going to be just a simple little short story. Instead, I managed to get it into somewhere around 24k words currently. Of course, that is making this first revision a bit of a challenge. After all, when I started writing, there were several things I glossed over because they weren’t really that important. Now I have to go back and fill those parts all in.

In addition to the general growth of the story, it has expanded the scope of the world as well. For those of you who follow me on twitter, you have a bit of an idea. For the rest, here is a little taste of the world.

The Romulean Empire was blessed with a mysterious substance known as oraculum. This moss-like substance allowed them to create flying ships and conquer all of Terra. In addition, it was discovered that oraculum would allow the Romuleans to extend into the heavens and explore the cosmic sea itself. They quickly began to colonize planets and extend their influence into fourteen provinces.

Another boon was the discovery of magic. The gods blessed Lord Caesarium with immortality and magic. Caesarium, in turn, granted his people with its uses and long life. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t struggle. Colonies revolt, pirates raid the Cosmic Seas, and unknown horrors lurk in the darkness.

This is the backdrop that our hero Brennus finds himself in. A relatively young magus (mage), he is sent to find the source of a mystic illness. Will he succeed or will he be crushed by foreign magics?

Of course, with the expansion of the world and setting, Rose Nexus is likely to only be the beginning. I have several other stories planned for the Romuleans as they attempt to control their empire. The current plans right now are for those stories to stay in the 20 to 30 thousand word range. Nothing intimidating. A good afternoon read (hopefully).

Of course, the motivation to get these out quickly does need your help. Follow me here or on twitter. Beat me up on facebook. Heck, with enough interest, I might even figure out the whole newsletter thing. Or just keep an eye out on Kindle Unlimited.  Regardless, I’m excited about exploring this universe, and I hope you will be as well. (Here’s another taste, a flash fiction I put up a while ago.) And as always, I mustache y’all to stay fantastical.

Book Review – Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

Book: Eisenhorn

Author: Dan Abnett

Genre: Fantasy, Thriller, GrimDark, Warhammer 40k

Part of a Series: Yes, Eisenhorn

Spoiler Warning.

Eisenhorn is a trilogy by Dan Abnett that follows the life and career of Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn and set firmly within the Warhammer 40K universe. It begins with Xenos and the investigation of a mass murder on a remote planet in the Helican Sector. Using his position as Inquisitor to inspire fear and gather information, Eisenhorn tracks the clues of the murder back to the capital planet of Gudrun. There, he uncovers a plot by the ancient family  Glaw to resurrect one of their ancestors, Pontius, through dark rituals, and their efforts to make contact with an alien race in order to secure a copy of an ancient text of destruction. Along the way, Eisenhorn gathers a team of companions to aid him, fights a daemon from the warp, and eventually saves the day. The dangerous and heretical text is destroyed, the Glaw family is broken, and Pontius’ soul is still trapt in a mystic orb.

The second book, Malleus, sees Eisenhorn come under a charge of heresy. The daemon he fought with in Xenos returns to wreak havoc while dropping Eisenhorn’s name to another Inquisitor. Eisenhorn learns of this after surviving another mass murder and assault on Thraxcian Prime. In attempts to track down the perpetrators of that assault, he uncovers another daemon as well as the evidence of what was assumed to be long dead Inquisitor attempting to perform a grand act of heresy. With Eisenhorn also labeled heretic, he must track down this rogue Inquisitor alone. This forces him to turn to Pontius Glaw in order to learn the secrets of the daemons and their weaknesses in exchange for creating Pontius a robotic body. With the help of a friend from the Adeptus Mechanicus, Eishenhorn fashions a staff that will amplify his psychic powers. Armed with this new weapon, Eisenhorn obliterates the second daemon, severely weakens the first, and kills the rogue Inquisitor. He is found innocent of his heresy and reinstated as Inquisitor. The book ends with Eisenhorn in secret possession of a dark text for controlling daemons and creatures of the warp as well as the first daemon trapt in Eisenhorn’s bunker.

Hereticus is the final book in the trilogy. While presiding over a trial, Eisenhorn learns that the man who killed a friend of his was on the planet. Eisenhorn abandons the trial to track the man down only to find himself confronted with a battle titan. With very little time or good options, Eisenhorn summons the daemon he trapt to kill the titan. While recovering from the event in his home on Gudrun, his entire organization is attacked by mercenaries. He manages to escape with a handful of his people, flees the planet, and pieces together the fact that the attack was conducted by non-other than Pontius Glaw. Glaw seems to be searching for some hidden treasure of a daemon king and wants the dark text Eisenhorn saved while also eliminating all evidence of Glaw’s continued existence. Through much sacrifice and the loss of friends, Eisenhorn is able to defeat Glaw with the help of his daemon and disappears from Imperial record.

In addition to these three books, there are also two short stories of various adventures and investigations Eisenhorn had. They are fun and fine for what they are, but as a whole, they are not necessary. These stories merely explain some of the plot points of the following books. The explanations are not necessary for understanding, but including them in the main texts would have likely killed pacing and been non-important.

First things first. I know that there are going to be some Warhammer fans who are going to disagree with calling this book fantasy. Just because it is set in space doesn’t make it sci-fi. It has all the trappings of a fantasy story. Like Star Wars, it is fantasy in space. This is not to detract from the book, and at the end of the day, label the genre however you want.

That being said, I have always been fascinated with the lore of Warhammer. It is a dark world where millions can die in a cold, unforgiving universe. The works of The Black Library, Warhammer’s publishing house, are proof of the fact that when anything is an existential threat to society, any means are permitted to eliminate that threat.

This philosophy is exemplified in the Inquisitors. Agents of the Holy Emperor, they have near unlimited social power. Many of them are extremely strong psychics. Through the use of the law, fear, and psychic will, they impose the moral right and fight against the corruption and heresy that would destroy mankind in whatever way they see fit.

Eisenhorn is a great case study. He says he begins as a puritan, but in reality, he is more of a moderate. True, Eisenhorn destroys the first dark text in Xenos, but even other moderates within the Inquisition agreed with him on that. As he progresses through the stories,  Eisenhorn makes decisions that pull him more in line with the radicals and closer to a true heretic. The trilogy ends with the reader wondering if he is still the hero that they have followed or the threat that was shown in Malleus.

There are some thematic oddities to this trilogy, however. First, it is definitely a thriller. The mystery aspect does not feel like it is played well enough to warrant calling it that. Yeah, the surprises can be figured out, but they aren’t what provides the underlying drama. The tension and threats are. It also feels very strongly of a noir type story. A private detective in search of truth in the world of corruption.

The problem is that those stories work best when the detective is just outside the system. Everything Eisenhorn does is within the scope of his authority. Sure, he spends long parts of one book labeled a heretic, but that did not affect how the rest of society saw him. To the world outside the Inquisition, he was still an Inquisitor. With the sheer enormity of the universe presented, the ability to disappear and still maintain one’s lifestyle does little to impart the impact of the character’s decisions on his fate.

All in all, though, these books are a fun romp. They are tense, well-paced, and tell a continuous story. The details are interwoven well and despite the massive size, over 770 pages, nothing is really out of place or forgotten. Eisenhorn is great if you enjoy a good thriller or intrigue, as well as a non-threatening introduction into the world of Warhammer and its books. The generally depressing nature of so many people dying so unceremoniously does make it hard to give universal recommendation. And so, I award Eisenhorn with the Iron Stash (4/5)…(really a 4.5. Like I said, tough to give more when I can’t tell everyone to read it.)

Friday Flash Fiction 013 – Raise the Black Flag

The trail of greenish light cut through the night sky. It was always the same when they came. The light was the messenger of their arrival. Before long, their ships would land, their troops would depart, and Miriam’s people would be forced to empty the warehouses that they had so diligently stocked up.

Miriam swung down from the treetop perch and landed on the forest floor. Leaves crunched under bare feet as she ran towards her village. She paused at the tree line just before the clearing. Beyond stood her village, a small collection of huts clustered around a bend in the river. The dock was nestled in the bend, though it was only used for the Romanus.

The other villagers had seen the green lights in the sky and had gathered outside, staring up towards the heavens. Miriam followed their gaze and watched as the wooden Romanus ship descended from the stars. It landed gently in the waters of the river as several men from the village ran to extend the walkway from the dock to the deck.

Once the ship was tied off, a Romanus official stepped forth, flanked on either side by a Praetor Guard. Their bronze breastplates shone in the moonlight while their capes fluttered in the gentle summer breeze, the red of the official contrasting with the purple of his guard. Miriam was too far away to hear the proclamation that the official was making, but she assumed that it was the standard address.

Every month since anyone could remember, the Romanus descended among them demanding tribute in the form of ore and precious gems. Something was off about this month’s visit, however. The villagers seemed tense as they listened to the official. Miriam also realized that the Romanus only brought one ship as opposed to the several they normally used to carry off her people’s hard earned goods.

The official had finished speaking and stared down the walkway at the surrounding villagers. There were shouts of confusion and anger from the small crowd. He listened with a look of mild disinterest before turning and stepping back onto his ship. As soon as he cleared the walkway, soldiers moved down the wooden path from the ship to the village. Cries of panic erupted as the soldiers began entering houses and villagers ran off in any direction they could.

Miriam watched in silent horror as fires lit the summer night. Screams of pain filled the air only to be cut off suddenly. Forcing herself to back away further into the tree line, she turned and ran. She did not stop running for seemed an eternity. The screams had faded away, but the glow of her village burning still glowed in the night.

* * *

Dawn was less than an hour away. Miriam had finally forced herself to calm down and turned back towards what was left of her village. Smoke still drifted lazily from the charred remains of huts. In the center of the village, several tents had been erected. The soldiers seemed to have made camp in the middle of their carnage.

Miriam felt her blood boil at the sight. How could they be so callous?

She was pulled from her thoughts by the sounds of people nearby. Silently, she crept towards the sound and discovered a few survivors from the village.

“Liam? What happened? Is there anyone else?”

A tall lad, barely younger than Miriam but still not old enough to hunt alone, sighed heavily. “They said that the empire no longer needed us. Our land is to be given to a new Proconsul who would settle it with citizens. We were the only ones who made it out.”

Miriam was shocked at the news. With a simple declaration, her people were killed in order to make way for a new settlement. All that was left of her village was a small group of barely more than children.

“Very well. If they think that we can be gotten rid of so easily, I guess that we will have to show them their mistake.” She nodded to herself as much as the band of survivors. “Listen up. You all can stay here and try to hide from the Romanus or you can come with me and fight back.”

“But how?” The question came from a smaller lad in the back. “There are thirty soldiers out there and only eight of us.”

“It’ll be ok, Sean.” Miriam smiled at the boy. “We only need to get to their ship. With that, we can get others, like us, and strike back at them at our own choosing and when they are weak. The soldiers are all asleep, so we can easily board the ship and take care of whoever is left on board.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the group before Miriam turned and led them back to the village.

She was surprised how easy it was to move past the sleeping soldiers. By the looks of the empty wineskins lying about, they had celebrated their “victory” over her people. Miriam silently pointed at Liam and then at the weapons left near the tent’s entrance. Nodding, Liam took Sean to gather the gladii and spears before joining the others on the dock.

Boarding the ship, they found only a handful of sailors. They were all asleep on the deck and were easily taken care of by the newly armed group. There was a little fumbling as Miriam’s new crew tried to make ready to sail. Their boats only traveled the waters, not the stars. Fortunately, the process of raising the ship into the air was intuitive enough and done without raising an alarm from the soldiers on land.

As they sailed into the morning sun, Miriam turned towards the cabin. Surely the official who brought the news was in there. She approached the door, gladius in hand. Little did the Romanus official know that he was not to survive the maiden voyage of The Galiani Revenge.

Miriam opened the door to the cabin and found the official still asleep in her new bed. She walked slowly towards him, a moment of doubt crossing her mind. Looking over her shoulder at the shrinking image of her village, Miriam tightened her resolve. Sometimes, one just needs to raise the black flag.

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Flash Fiction Friday 006 – Terrors of the Deep

The Viribus sails the cosmic seas. But there are dangers that lurk out in the dark expanses. Can the Viribus survive or is it doomed to be consumed by the universe?

Crow’s nest duties were always the worst. It was supposed to be done by convicts, but the trip had been long and there were no convicts left. A quarter of them were back in their cells below babbling incoherently. The rest had disappeared.

The crow’s nest needed to be manned, however. So it was that Marius was sitting in the small wooden circle atop the mast. He had shown a little too much disrespect to his section lead. Normally this was punishable by a little extra duty and a forfeiture of pay. Given the need for lookouts, though, he was ordered up to the top of the mast instead.

He shivered as he stared out into the darkness. There was no real day or night out on the cosmic seas, but it was the twenty-third hour. The decks below were as silent as the cosmos surrounding Marius as the majority of the crew slept. The solar winds provided no warmth and only heightened the feelings of isolation.

Out in the distance, a sole balaeic drifted through space, its massive body undulating and writhing on unseen currents. The Jues Nebulae glittered beyond the bow, a red and green beacon that signaled the final leg of their journey. With a little skill and a little luck, the Viribus would be back at a friendly dock within a week.

From the shadows below Jues, a glint of light caught Marius’ eye. He fetched his looking glass and lifted it in the direction of the flash. The image of another ship jumped into his vision. The vessel was thin and sleek, bearing a single mast, and its bow was carved into a strange shape. While it was still too far to make out the design of the bow clearly, the shape of the ship was unmistakable.

“Pictusings! Pictusings below the Jues!”

In response to Marius’ cries, the bell on the deck below began to ring out its alarm. A flurry of motion erupted below him as the crew was woken. They rushed to their battle stations as the Pictusings ship approached.

It wasn’t long before the Pictusings were upon them and the battle was made. The clash of swords and the thud of clubs exploded around the two ships. Screams of the wounded and dying pierced the air. Even though the Viribus was a larger ship with a skilled and hardened crew, the Pictusings were known for their fierceness, dragging the fight on longer than it should have. Longer than was prudent.

Out from the depths of the cosmic seas, a shadow moved. It was drawn to the sounds of pain and scent of blood. There was no form to the shadow as passed by the battling ships, only an indescribable sound. The sound bore into Marius’ ears like a screw digging into wood, removing shavings of sense and sanity. His screams were echoed by those below until a fog passed over his mind, blurring out reality.

* * *

The Viribus drifted into the port of Helenesopia. Once secured, the dockmaster strode up the gangplank, notebook in hand, ready to record the declarations from the ship’s logistician.

“A little more trouble than normal on this run Heraclon,” the logistician reported. “We lost all our convicts about eighty percent of the way through. Mindeaters and the like seem to be growing in the Adriomos region. Had a little run-in with the Pictusings near Jues as well. I recommend you put a notice out on those two spots.”

Heraclon nodded absently as he made the notes. “Of course. We will also start the paperwork to refill your stock of convicts. Any thing else to declare?”

The logistician tapped his chin a moment in thought. “No, not that I can think of. Cargo is all accounted for and our paperwork is in order. All in all, I would say it was a fairly successful trip.”

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