(Again, being late is my fault. I’m going to send another invite-to-blog to Peter and Pam and try to get them to post their own posts. Alternately someone whose head is not divided between novel, publishing and
the incredible lighteness of being the first steps in what will be a complex and massive house move needs to take point0-man on this. – SAH)
It’s The End of the World as We Know It . . .
Disaster fiction has always been popular. Fun to read. Mainly because it’s so completely unlikely.
I mean, an asteroid hit the Earth? Yeah, yeah, Dinosaurs, but what have the heavens done for us lately? Besides the Tunguska event (Imagine if that had happened in 1968 instead of 1908!) Or Cherblinsk (what’s with Russia, eh? Insulted the heavens or something?)
And a nuclear war? C’mon, next you be claiming Russia is eyeing Europe, or some mad mullah in Iran is trying to build a nuke.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados . . . rare natural events with mostly local effects.
Terrorism, war, crime, financial melt down, civil unrest . . . problems caused by man.
Large asteroids, alien invasions, massive solar flare, supernova nearby . . . TEOTWAWKI!
As a writer, which one shall I pick? In real life, which one should I prepare for?
As a writer, I have to make my readers believe the improbable is possible. In real life, I have to pick the most likely, and hedge my bet a bit in case one of the very rare but very deadly one happens instead.
Fictionally, part of my choice is going to depend on what my main character is capable of. Bambi vs Godzilla is only funny once. I have to have a disaster my hero can survive. Or possibly sacrifice his life saving his children or the World or something equally noble. I can pick the disaster, and I can also pick the characters.
In Real Life, well, here I am. Sixty years old, with a strong back and crappy knees. And the disaster that will happen, will happen. Nothing I can do to change that.
As a writer, I tend to analyze what I do, to prepare for a real life disaster. And then extrapolate that into very strange places. I live a hundred miles, more or less, from the Gulf of Mexico on very flat land. So, my main worries are hurricanes and flash flooding. Toss in the occasional tornado and hailstorm.
Power outages, inability to get anywhere for supplies, leaking roof . . . Here on the borderland between suburb and rural, it means having a two week stash of food on hand, and bunchatona water. Ah! But what if you were on Mars? Or in a spaceship? All of a sudden those leaks will involve air departing, not water getting in. How much food do you have to have on hand? How independent are you? Is someone fixing the power problem, or do you need to go fix it yourself?
Now, some things you can’t deal with in real life. Nearby supernova expected in six months? What can a Hero do, fictionally? As a writer, you’ve got to work something out. Underground? In a space ship deep inside Jupiter’s magnetosphere? Hide behind the Sun? In real life, depending on just how far away that supernova is, and if you have deep natural caves or mines on your property, or you work for some experimental engineering firm building a magnetic shield that just happens to be just what is needed . . . Oops, sorry slid into fiction again . . .
The thing is, there is very little in real life that isn’t useful for writing fiction. _Anything_ that happens, good, bad, or neutral is something that can be used in a story, sometime. Especially how you deal with it, and how, in retrospect, you wish you’d dealt with it.
The opposite is true as well. Exploring fictional scenarios, both as a reader and a writer, can help you see upcoming problems, and how to avoid them, mitigate them, or beat them. In real life. Stranded in the frozen north? Shipwrecked on a desert island? Picked up by a madman with a submarine? I’ve read them all, and have some grasp of what to do to start surviving.
Spaceshipwrecked would need a bit more research, but that is part of why I like writing SF. Marooned in the Past? Yes! More fun research!
There’s been a lot going on lately in SF/F. Self immolation appears imminent in some factions. Anger is very energizing, it wakes you up, gets you going, probably some endorphins and so forth going on. All your friends tell you how right you are to be angry, and they get angry too . . . Reminds me of my youth. “If it feels good, do it.” But the problem with anger is that it needs to be aimed at something or someone. Who probably doesn’t appreciate it, and may get righteously angry in return. And onlookers, instead of rallying around may just decide to walk away and let the idiots on both sides burn their bridges while they’re on them.
We see it in the SF community, we see it in politics. How does that affect our fiction?
When I first wrote my SF/F crossover series, I was extrapolating from the early stages of this sexual civil war. I started with competing research facilities in universities. Genetic engineering, improving humanity . . . first they put those special “ESP” genes in the Y chromosome, so they could test it without the complications of pregnancies and so forth. Outrage in a woman’s college! Their version went on the X chromosome, along with a gene that would attack the Y bearing sperm . . . Other researchers tried to calm things down with genes that would work for either sex. Then I exiled them and gave them time to get even worse. Now I have witches and mages at odds with each other, with no understanding of the origins of their enmity . . .
Is that my message? Oh heck no. My message is the girls and boys—to the fury of their elders–falling in love with each other and forming long lasting families full of people who both love and respect each other.*
And that’s what’s going to happen here, in real life. Girls and boys will always be attracted to each other. Well, occasionally, boys will be attracted to boys, and girls to girls. Or shoes. No big deal.
But it would sure be nice if we could get back to this basic idea–that people fall in love and are most comfortable living with each other–quickly, before we lose the knack of politeness, good manners. The oil that lubricates our social interactions and eliminates so much friction is important. The knowledge of how to start out on the right foot really helps in life. We need to teach our children to be joyful and hopeful instead of fearful and defensive.
Perhaps what we need, instead of stories where a disaster destroys civilization, are more disasters that are survived due to civilized behavior. I’ve read some like that. I’d like to hope some of mine convey that message. And I hope that if TEOTWAWKI happens, locally, regionally or globally, we remember that civilization is a vast improvement over nasty, brutish and short.
*Well, actually my message is more like “Wouldn’t magic be cool!” but the social stuff is in there, too.
And now I’ll inflict a chapter and a half of my current WIP on you, since it’s all about the End of the World:
1995 Los Angeles
“You are bug fucking insane!”
I glanced up, a bit surprised by the vehemence of the woman’s outburst.
“In fact they invented the term ‘utterly mad’ to describe people like you!” She twisted against her restraints.
“Oh, I doubt that. I believe few if any psychologists use terms such as ‘mad’ these days. Even a clean simple ‘insane’ is out of vogue. Nowadays it’s all ‘narcissist’ ‘sociopath’ and this or that ‘spectrum’ of mental imbalance.” I shrugged. “I haven’t really kept up with the field. Have they gone back to ‘mad’ now?”
The body on the deck groaned.
Excellent timing. I removed the last of the supplies from the airlock and heaved the twitching man through the hatch. I cushioned his head, rather than allow it to impact the deck. However tempting, I calculated that he’d received a dangerous amount of head trauma already. Police everywhere were notorious for their relentless pursuit of “cop killers,” besides which I did try to avoid unnecessary killing.
“Now, officer, or inspector or whatever police are called this time, if you will refrain from attacking me, I will untie you and shove you into the airlock with your colleague. Then I will cycle the lock and you two can jump down to the ground and retreat at least a hundred meters . . . Are you metric, this time? No? A hundred yards or so ought to be sufficient to be safe when I depart. Feel free to go further.”
“I will not allow you to leave.”
I sighed. “I have already set the controls. I will be leaving in five minutes.”
She sneered. “You expect me to believe you set a timer before you even unloaded your car?”
“I programmed in the course a month ago, when I arrived. As you see, I’m right on schedule.”
Sneer. “Riiiight. So what happens if you get in a traffic jam?”
I dismissed her concerns with a wave of my hand. “Then I build a quick jury-rigged system, good for a single jump, and meet the plane there.” I clipped the wires holding her hands above her head, watching carefully for aggressive moves. The sticky trap had finished dissolving, so she was dangerous, again. “I’ve only had to do it twice.”
“Twice in how long?”
Oh, she was good at those supercilious tones. “Well, I’ve rather lost track. You know how it is, after the first dozen time jumps, a few problems with onboard power and one tends to lose track of one’s personal chronological age.” She didn’t seem to be interesting in hitting me, so I took a moment to consider the question. “Perhaps ninety years?”
“You’re holding up well.”
“Oh, in the future humans have a much longer lifespan. Hardly surprising, even you will live twice as long as your great great grandmother.” I turned and took the kick on my thigh. Kept turning, holding on to her, and releasing as she lined up with the hatch. She turned her sprawl into a shoulder roll, and sprang right back at me.
I slammed the hatch in her face, spun the wheel to seal it—I’m a bit old fashioned that way, love the brass hardware—and tapped the controls—I also find optronics indispensable—to lock this hatch and open the outer. I didn’t deploy the steps. It was only ten feet down; they could damn well jump.
Whistling happily, I gave the transfer equipment a last lookover, then started stowing the supplies. The fabricators are, in theory, capable of producing all my needs. They fall badly short when it comes to desires. The sweet crunch of a real apple simply cannot be replicated.
The faint quiver of the starting sequence alerted me to the passage of time. I had, of course, lied to Agent Bonner. I might have programmed in the next jump a month ago, but there was no timer. Any more. Two jury rigged death traps were quite sufficient to assure me that I could always get home. For some definition of home.
I’d been one of only twelve survivors of The War. A dozen scientists, buried in a deep bunker in the Antarctic icecap, frantically trying to perfect a time machine, so we could go back and save our civilization.
Oh, the time machine worked.
But changing history has turned out to be more complicated than we’d realized.
Haven’t got it right, yet.
The space plane had been, so to speak, off the shelf. We’d just added the time machine. What I wouldn’t give to have that industrial sized fabricator back!
The onboard fab did good work, but it couldn’t turn out replacement parts for the plane. I really needed to find a future that had some robustness to it, and just quit. Just . . . accept what had resulted, and realize that it was an improvement on “Everybody dies.”
I walked into the cockpit. It was large, but not large enough to gain a more auspicious designation. Dale had tried to call it the command deck, but since it had just enough room that one could walk up and sit in a chair rather than climb into it, he’d been unsuccessful.
The forward screen—so called because the really big ships had vid screens, instead of this sweep of transparent alloy—was a compete U and stretched up overhead as well. It differed only in its optical properties from the rest of the silicon bronze hull. Like the rest, it was layered with nanocarb sheets and as close to indestructible as anything humans had ever made. The instruments and controls were in a panel that swept around the U of the cockpit just under the screen. The pilot and copilot seats faced forward, the navigator was on the port side, facing to the port. Of necessity, I’d found I could reach the critical controls from the pilot’s seat. The communications gear and the radar, lidar and such were out of the pilot’s reach on the starboard side.
Dale had been killed by police during our third expedition into the past. Pity; he’d been the best pilot. The time machine was my baby, my specialty.
Today I was alone, and if manual piloting was needed, I’d be the one doing it.
A glance out the windows showed no sign of the two cops. Good, they were gone. The two cars—mine and their official vehicle—were still entangled, where they’d rammed me. Silly of me to care. I had made a minimum down payment, and hadn’t bothered making the first payment. But I hated to see equipment abused.
Three clusters of cop cars blocked any path the plane might have taken to get to the runaway. Little hick county airport. Private planes and a few shuttle service commercial small jets. The space plane was the biggest thing here. The police all seemed to be huddling behind their vehicles with rifles pointed this direction. I couldn’t spot Bonner. No doubt she’d hauled her partner off to the nearest hospital.
I walked back to the airlock and sealed the outer hatch.
Agent, Officer, Lieutenant or whatever. Bonner was one of the puzzles of time travel. A person who recurred. Who, no matter how we’d changed the past, had happened again and again. I’d met five recurring people, so far. This was the third time Bonner had shown up. Something about the late twenty-first century seemed to generate world destroying maniacs. We kept—I kept—having to come here, to the early twenty-first century, to stop them before they even began to develop something awful. To stop them before they killed everyone.
This time I hadn’t seen Boner until she rammed my car. Hadn’t spoken to her until she’d chased me into the plane and walked into a sticky trap.
An interesting phenomenon. Perhaps someday I’d have the time to study it.
A soft gong announced the final stages of prep. All the autopilot lights were green, so I settled back in the acceleration couch.
The plane didn’t need takeoff space. We were sitting on a pad of concrete off a taxiway. Then everything twisted weirdly and we were floating in space. Just a tiny time jump. We were in the same place. But the Earth had rolled on in its orbit without us.
We were orbiting too. I sighed. “No. I am orbiting a day behind Earth. The plane does not count. The plane and I are not a ‘we.’ Dammit.” I swallowed old grief and leaned back to double check the next stage of the program. This next time jump would be big enough that I had had to account for the movement of the Sun in its orbit around the center of the galaxy, and the movement of the galaxy relative to what I suspected was the point of origin. That made it a whole different sort of experience. I pushed the button and Reality twisted again . . . and stayed that way. The curvature of space was . . . tight in the temporal dimension. The couch was torqued and uncomfortable. Or maybe it was the realization that my body was also torqued that bothered me. The open hatchway to the main cabin was too small, no, too big, too far, but I stepped through in a blink.
The further away the furniture was, the more it looked like it was melting and deforming. The closer to the actuator, the tighter the curl it was deforming into. I tended to spend these long jumps in the cockpit, but today I was hungry. I held my hands up, curved to block out the headache inducing vision from the side and walked past the actuator to the mess.
The time machine took up most of the empty cubic in the space plane. A lot of it was in the “cargo hold” below, the custom computers were in the overhead, and the actuator took up well over half the space where the crew ought to be living. The actuator was centered, fore and aft, up and down, side to side, pretty well taking all of the recreation, exercise, and eating area, and crowding the kitchen space. All the storage and cooking equipment was against the port wall, and we’d . . . I . . . ate at a tiny table in the open area in front of the main airlock, which was on the starboard wall across from the kitchen.
Once I was closer, in the same space curvature as the apples, they ceased looking like corkscrewed bananas. I was reaching for one when I heard it. Something high pitched, then a thump . . . I turned and looked at the airlock.
“Oh no. Surely not . . .”
I paced over to the hatch and stared at it. I spun the brass handle and pulled the hatch open.
Bonner came screaming out of the airlock, clawed hands going for my throat.
2200, Earth Orbit
Now many people have called me a gentleman, and my dad may have taught me to never hit a woman, but I’d had a bad decade and this was just too much. I grabbed her hands, twisted to avoid a snap kick. We danced around, me dodging kicks and head butts. I got her wrists together and into one hand so I could grab her around the calf of the kicking leg, and heaved. Her head slammed into the wall and she crumpled down to the deck, blinking and trying to get up.
“Don’t you have any sense at all?” I swapped my glare from her to the man staggering out of the airlock. The deck was so cramped he was only a meter away, so I could see that his right pupil was a quarter the size of his left. “Oh, sit down before you fall over and bash your head again.”
He tried to look belligerent, or perhaps dominant. Since he was about to fall over, the effect was not terribly impressive.
“This is massively inconvenient.” I stalked over to the fab and called up the medical programs. “Let’s see head injury . . . pupils uneven . . .” I followed the prompts and took the scanner over to the table. “Sit down. I know everything looks weird right now, it’s not all your head injury.”
At which point the actuator cycled down and the world returned to normal. The man blinked around, then sagged into the chair. I ran the scanner around his head three times, upper, middle and lower sections, then stepped back to the medical program. The fab spat out an autoinjector. I put it against the man’s upper arm and it hissed. He jumped, tried to stand, crumpled.
I muttered something rude under my breath and hauled him up by his lapels. Half carried him around the actuator and plunked him down in the recliner that was the sole remainder of the rec room furnishings. I clicked on the screen and set it to search and analyze any signals it could detect. “If you must keep butting in, watch that and call if it finds anything interesting.” I turned and stomped back around the actuator.
Bonner had made it to her feet, but she was swaying, even with a hand on the wall. I set the medic program for patient #2 and picked up the scanner.
“If you will refrain from kicking and hitting, I will . . . ”
“You are under arrest, buster. You have the right . . . Put that down!” her hand went for her shoulder holster, fell away. She must have just remembered me taking her gun—and her partner’s while they were helpless. Her in the sticky trap, him from a head-on collision with the actuator. So I’m not a fancy fighter. Sue me. I’m big enough and strong enough that a little training was quite enough.
She kept her hand on the wall and edged over to the table. Slid down into the chair. “Who the hell are you? We know you used the name Augustus Sturm, but that name comes up completely blank in the records. Who are you, really. Why did you assault those children? What did you give them?”
I sighed and ran the three circuits of her head. “I am Dr. Augustus Sturm. I’m a physicist, my specialty is the temporal dimension. I’m a time traveler.”
The med program wasn’t nearly as impressed with her injuries. The autoinjector it produced was a quarter the size of the other.
She eyes narrowed. “Is that the same thing you gave those children?”
“No, this is for your mild concussion. The children received a sterilizing compound, so that when they grow up and marry each other they do not produce the team of scientists who developed the plague that killed half the world’s population.”
“Gawd. You are totally loonie.”
“I am not impressed by lower class slang.” I dropped the injector on the table. “Take it or not. I have a space plane to fly.” I headed forward, pausing at the sight of the screen.
“It’s a SciFi show.” The man looked pretty much as you’d expect after he’d been in a car crash, fought his way into a spaceship and been thrown into a hard lumpy object head first. “Pretty boring. They’re going to tap the electric field of the Sun to power the entire earth. If they don’t have a disaster pretty quick, I’m going to have to figure out the controls and change the channel.”
I swallowed, and examined the show. The banner below was running commentary. The President would be cutting the ribbon momentarily, and they’d fire up the Sun Tap.
“I think . . . ” I swallowed again, feeling sick. “I think that’s a news cast. Are they insane?” Finally, finally a future that has a vibrant, living planet. Please. Please. They cannot be in the process of destroying it as we speak!
The cop tried to glare, winced and closed his eyes. “It’s some stupid show. Probably burn up the Earth, have mutants running around the ruins . . . ”
“Shut up.” It came out a shaky whisper, and I hustled down the short corridor to the cockpit. The nav comp had the earth pinpointed. We were about twice as far out from Earth as the Moon. I tapped the controls and rotated the spaceplane so I could see them. A double planet, the beautiful little blue ball and a smaller half moon of white.
I could hear the two cops’ voices behind me. I don’t know what they said, but Bonner staggered into the cockpit and stopped dead, jaw dropping as she looked out at the stars and Earth.
She snorted suddenly. “Excellent imaging, but the gravity gives it away. You can’t make me believe we’re in space.”
I glared, and reached out to the artificial gravity control. Dialed it down. All the way.
Not one of my smarter moves, with two concussion cases aboard. They were probably already a bit nauseous, and . . . so I turned the gravity back on. And got the cleaning bots out and turned them loose. Showed my passengers the bathing facilities.
At least they were convinced. I think.
The man was already looking better . . . “What is your name? I can’t keep think of you as ‘the man’ however cute the coincidence with the slang term.”
He gave me a blank stare. “Slang? I am a man. Henry Aguiar.” He shot a nervous glance up the corridor toward the Earth, closer now, cloud swirls visible.
Bonner joined us. “And what do you have in these? Weapons?” She jerked a thumb at the nearest hatch. Three on each side of the corridor.
“Staterooms, they called them.” I reached and opened mine, center starboard. “They’re umm, very compact.”
They peered in. The bunk was both short and narrow. I barely fit. It also served as the seat for the fold down desk. Storage under the bed, a variety of lights and a fold down screen on ceiling. I had never decorated.
“Where are the other five crew?”
“Dead. One by one.” I flinched away from that memory. I turned and walked back to the kitchen. “There were twelve of us. Only six of us came aboard. The others said they’d keep working on the second plane. And Tsing was so old . . . and Marie has, had, horrible motion sickness, so she sent Trent off, they were husband and wife, both just brilliant . . . . We only went back ten years. We figured a couple of deaths, the worst of the war mongers over there, the worst of our own appeasers . . . when we returned . . . instead of a world dying in a radiation poisoned waste, we found a world dying of a manufactured plague. Marie was dead. Trent killed himself.”
Aguiar snorted. “Better story than that.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward the screen. A bunch of politicians were giving speeches. “So, in trying to prevent a nuclear war, you murdered some number of people. And that initiated a bio war? And suicide and remorse? Depressing story. Never sell in Hollywood.”
“What happened to the other four? Tell me!” Eva leaned across the table and glared.
There was plenty of room for the three of us because . . . I sighed, and fabbed myself a glass of wine. “That was when Trenton killed himself. When he realized Marie, his wife, was dead. She’d been in the bunker with us, had stayed behind. Very prone to motion sickness. And the other five we left behind as well. All twelve of us ought to have come.”
“So, we picked up enough information to pinpoint the laboratory that created the first virus. And we went back and bombed it. Jumped back to our time, and found yet another nuclear war. So we went back and . . . Dale was shot and killed by a policeman.”
“We went home, and found grey goo. Some nanotech thing. They didn’t know if it was a deliberate weapon, or . . . just a stupid accident. Good thing we’d gotten in radio contact with a final bastion of humanity before reentry. We went back, to before the first time we changed history, to see if we could reset the whole fiasco. They detected the space plane, tried to shoot us down. Next thing you know both sides were accusing the other of a sneak attack, missiles flew . . . we’d triggered the nuclear war two decades earlier than it really happened. And everybody died.”
Aguiar snorted. “Why didn’t you kill Hitler. That what they do in all the movies.”
“Hitler was the best we came up with after three tries.”
“That was the best?” Bonner was sneering again.
“Yes. A madman who turned and attacked his own ally at a critical juncture. The West defeated him in just four more years. When it took longer it resulted in a nuclear war in Europe in the late 1940s. Which led to my world—my history. With all those disastrous endings.”
From the screen, a faint cheering.
I turned and walk forward. The president had cut the ribbon, and the head of the Sun Tap project gave the order to start. He turned to the crowd to speak.
“Of course, we tested the links to the orbital platform, and the early stages of the ionized power channel . . .”
“Ionized channel?” I could hear the whimper in my voice, and stiffened. It hardly mattered, those people down there . . . they were just temporary . . . idiosyncrasies of the history I’d created. They didn’t matter. They didn’t.
I walked up to the cockpit. The Earth was closer. I could see the bright spec that was the orbital power station. A faint scintillating line heading for the Sun at the speed of light . . .
“What is that?” Bonner was peering past my shoulder.
“A laser. It must be ionizing the interstellar medium—it isn’t a complete vacuum—so the electric charge will . . . I don’t see how that can possibly work, the solar wind is highly ionized already. Can they make enough of a difference . . . ” I broke off as a line of brighter light leaped to meet the laser line, flooded back up it. Raced toward Earth.
Blew through the satellite as if it weren’t there . . . a yellow white flower blossomed on the surface of the Earth. And spread. And grew. It deepened into yellow, and then yellowish orange as the wave front engulfed the entire hemisphere, then focused in on the opposite side, heating up again. It went all the way. No one was spared.
I must have been standing there for hours. It must have taken much longer than it seemed. I turned away, and walked to my stateroom. “They didn’t matter. Really. They were just a temporary temporal phenomenon.” I started the next round of calculations. I could drop my passengers off in their own time, maybe a year later, and settle down in a library with some detailed history books . . . pick a dozen targets, try the most recent first . . . something had to work . . .