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Hard Science Reboot

A Halo Ship of the Mutual Progress association, showing the massive gravitomagnetic coupling pods at the front of the ship. Image copyright Juan Ochoa, Orion's Arm
A Halo Ship of the Mutual Progress association, showing the massive gravitomagnetic coupling pods at the front of the ship. Image copyright Juan Ochoa, Orion’s Arm Worldbuilding Project

Science Fantasy or Hard SF?

As my first story, Madverts, is almost finished, I started worrying about what setting I should really go with.  I was faced with a worldbuilding dilemma, which could be summed up as a simple query, paraspace or lighthugger? Or in other words, Science Fantasy or Hard SF?   Because once it’s published, that’s it, my characters are locked in that universe and I can’t retrocon.

By Science Fantasy, I mean being able to go faster than light, which I present as moving through another universe where FTL is possible , hence Fantasy and low realism. The story would then take place in a normal timescale (say twenty years), but include other dimensions, magic, etc.  The story revolves around Interstellar empires, the galaxy is just the Earth writ large. This is Star Wars, Star Trek, etc, or in other words, Lord of the Rings but in space.  Numerous plot devices are needed to explain why Technological Singularities don’t convert the universe to computronium, or why nanotech doesn’t eat up the universe .  Although this can be answered if it’s assumed rigid/diamondoid nano can’t translate into higher dimensions.  There is mostly uniformity and limited evolution. But as there are also other universes and, if I want, elves, orcs etc (as in WH40k but more rational). I can also put in as much esotericism and metaphysics as I want.

By Hard SF (lighthugger) I had the idea of a reactionless drive vessel which travels so close to the speed of light that time dilation comes into effect, so the story takes place over thousands or even millions of years (deep time) although to the characters time passes normally. In this high realism, hard science scenario, there is interstellar trade, and interstellar civilisations, but no empires (because of times needed to cross the distance between stars) , the Galaxy is very different to Earth writ large. There is much more isolation and much more evolution, and limited uniformity. Every colonized star system re-visited is a new and sometimes dangerous surprise, because who knows what happened since the ship last visited, centuries ago?  Metaphysics here is more limited, science more rigorous, time is deep, and the story takes place in realspace.

I asked my friends on facebook which one they preferred, and the two answers were: whatever suits the story (in this case the story can fit with either) and Hard SF.

Initially I was disappointed that no-one had opted for Science Fantasy, as I’d created quite a fun theosophical-magical universe, with all sorts of new weird stuff.   But thinking about it, the essential underlying theme of my storytelling is Sri Aurobindo’s message of the transmutation of this world of matter into divine consciousness, while retaining its material status.  And if the universe is already a magical place, the tension and the message is blunted.  Whereas if the universe is a grimdark, crapsack world of oppressive laws of matter, it makes more sense.

Reactionless Drive or Conversion Drive?

Once I decided to scrap the high fantasy elements in favour of a hard science setting, my original idea, inspired by Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space/Galactic North Universe was Relativistic ships using an Alcubierre (warp) drive. In this scenario, warp drive is for STL reactionless drive only, this helps avoid the problems of Hawking-Unruh Radiation and Gamma Ray Bursters associated with the Alcubierre metric when travelling FTL.

Unfortunately for this option, I soon discovered that there is no time dilation in a relativistic Alcubierre  ship, as space is flat within the warp bubble.  So there is the problem of decades or centuries long voyages that would be avoided with time dilation.

Next up was checking out the Orion’s Arm page on Reactionless Drive, which gives a good coverage of different types of Reactionless Drive using “void bubbles”.   These are like the classic Alcubierre warp drive, and are presented in a way that make them look like a  plausible and elegant option for hard SF worldbuilding.

In the end I decided to go with a slightly less advanced (relative to the Alcubierre drive) and less complex ship design, the Conversion Drive .  (The name Conversion Drive refers to the conversion of matter to energy with 100% efficiency, like an amat drive without the danger of the whole thing going critical if magnetic confinement fails)

The Conversion drive will feature in the Shummanite, the ship in the main setting of my story (The Alcione will be a larger, diametric reactionless drive ship that appears later in the series). All the hard science technical details are provided by the Orion’s Arm folks, this being is the update of my original 100% handwavium “Singularity Drive” in the early Orion’s Arm.

This being a reaction rocket, and more specifically a torchship, there can be some nice Star Trek ambient background noise effect when the engine is firing (whereas a reactionless drive I expect would be totally silent other than the hum of the machinery maintaining it). I suppose for a ship with limitless range you could have a dark-matter or photino ramscoop or some equivalent handwavium tech at the front, but I want the Shummanite to be more of a tramp spacer with less bells and whistles rather than a top of the range model.

Orion’s Arm meets Spacepunk

'_____' Spores by 'Landing Zone'
‘_____’ Spores, Image copyright “Landing Zone”, Orion’s Arm Worldbuilding Project

While I’m returning to my Orion’s Arm hard science worldbuilding roots, the Alcioneverse has a very different ambience, one that, for sake of a better word, I call Spacepunk.  It’s a more fragmented and hostile universe, with a much longer time line (several hundred thousand or even several million years, with cultures built on the ruins of other cultures, I haven’t yet decided on an actual timeline), yet also with more human (and alien) agency.

Posthuman cultures and civilisations are more limited and not as long-lived (this is a plot device to prevent the entire universe being converted to Computronium), transapients and transingularitan beings are not invulnerable, as they can be killed even by simple nukes.  And, in contrast to the Banks-type post-scarcity utopia, higher toposophics basically see lower civilisations as equivalent to cockroaches, if they notice them at all.

And, yeah, I still don’t have an answer for the Fermi Paradox, so I’m not sure how that will play out.

When I set up Orion’s Arm in June 2000 with a  few friends, I had in mind the juxtoposoption of mythopoetic space opera (actually I didn’t know the word “mythopoetic” then) and transhuman-based hard science. The problem is I couldn’t create a human-relevant, mythopoetic narrative. It’s a fact that nerd scifi worldbuilding is much easier than human-centric creative writing, especially if you are somewhat autistic (as I am). Also, I no longer hold to Transhumanist memes.  It seems to me that Transhumanism, with its promise of singularitan technorapture, and emphasis on mind emulation uploads in place of the Afterlife, to be just another secular religion.   This is not to discount a lot of transhumanist ideas which I still consider valid, just that it’s not what I want to write about (and many people who have written about it or made movies about it have the problem of scenarios that seem naive and simplistic).

So what I am trying to do now is (a) balance the hard science worldbuilding (of which Orion’s Arm is still the most encyclopaedic and imaginative example) with humanistic centric storytelling, (b) replace the more optimistic scenario with one slanted more to grimdark, (c) at the same time incorporate an overall aurobindonian narrative as the grand story that underlies this, (d) have lots of philosophy and metaphysics within the narrative, and (e) scale down the magic nano stuff by having nanotech more biological (this is also the way real nanotech has developed anyway).

Most of my first book Madverts is already written. I just need to finalise the worldbuilding details. The actual “Young Adult” story (about a teenage professional shopper) would be the same, regardless of whether the worldbuilding is science fantasy, medium-hard, or ultra hard science. It’s like how Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could very easily be retold as a space opera (it would be very like the original star wars). I often think about this, how the story remains the same, and only the details of the setting change

Website upgrade in progress

The interior of a Space Habitat. From the Mass Effect space opera video game.
The interior of a Space Habitat. From the Mass Effect space opera video game.

The last few days I’ve been working on a  major update of the Freehauler Alcione website.  The idea is that this site will have a three-fold purpose: as news announcements for my scifi epic in progress, both writing and graphics, as a minipaedia for worldbuilding the Alcione-verse, and as a collection of interlinked essays, comments, opinions, and reviews, on everything to do with science fiction storytelling and mythopoesis.  So I’m currently adding pages behind the scenes, and will also mirror some essays, or parts of the essays, I’ve written for Omni.

Currently I’ve given myself the deadline of to the end of this year to see if I can get the manuscript of the first book in the series, Up the Well, ready by then.  Up the Well is a rather intense Young Adult story that follows the 17 year old Freedai Reynofar as she tries to get off the dystopian city planet of New Old New Yearth and make it into space.  I don’t want to say more because of spoilers and also it’s only half written.  I was originally going to have another book, Madverts, first but decided to go with Freedai’s story instead

In relation to my previous (of 17 to 15 years ago) project Orion’s Arm, the worldbuilding here is going slowly

 

Freedai Reynofar – provisional portrait

Freedai Reynofar, work in progress.
Freedai Reynofar, work in progress. Created with Makehuman. Hair incorporates Blender particle hair effect by RicoCilliers and anime mesh by johnakaagila

Here’s the first posted image of Freedai Reynofar, the young adult protagonist of the first novel, Up the Well, drawn with Makehuman.

I haven’t yet mastered Blender’s particle hair effect, so I’ve cheated by combining one of the Makehuman hair meshes with the Blender particle hair effect by RicoCilliers and a downloaded Blender anime mesh by johnakaagila.  It’s not perfect, but it’s okay and will do for now.  The grainy nature of the render is because my computer only has a basic graphics card.

Still to be added, tech gear, futuristic clothing (although the Makehuman T-Shirt looks pretty cool and I could probably write it into the story), hoverboard, and background.

Writing essays on space opera and pop-culture

Scene from the upcoming science fiction movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, directed by Luc Besson
Scene from the upcoming science fiction movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, directed by Luc Besson, adapted from the French comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, and starring Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. A classic, special effects rich, action adventure space opera, similar to Star Wars, Mass Effect,, and Guardians of the Galaxy

This last one and a half months or so I’ve been writing essays for Omni magazine on scifi movies, especially those with a  space operatic theme, storytelling, mythopoesis, and pop culture, which I’ll be double posting here, along with any additional thoughts I have.

I’ve always been interested in scifi movies for their mythopoetic power, despite the lack of realism and story consistency, and indeed often inferiority next to most print science fiction (or “SF”).  The reason I like movies is because cinema brings so much more to the table: special effects, music, actors. and so on.

Also, even though I write in text, I always think in pictures.  It’s as if I have a cinema playing my own scifi movie in my head.  Hence I always look for inspiration to movies, the visuals, the music, and so on.

I envisage there’ll eventually come a time when any creative person will be able to make a complete movie on their desktop quantum computer (and you’d need a quantum computer because of the rendering and computing needed for movie standard special effects!).  In the meantime, we have to make do with either print stories or TV/movies (with some hybrid media like graphic novels, and new emerging independent movie and CGI film-making)

I’m going to be writing less essays anyway, not because I don’t enjoy writing essays (I do), but because I really need to focus on getting my first novel finished in six months.

Oh, and I still can’t figure put how to do realistic hair in Blender.

incorporating metaphysics in science fiction

Front on view of the Nebuchadnezzar, Morpheus' ship in The Matrix
Front on view of the Nebuchadnezzar, Morpheus’ ship in The Matrix. Called a “hovercraft”, it actually corresponds to the standard space opera trope of the small spaceship with its ragtag crew of rebels. See also the Matrix Wiki page on this ship

Lately been writing essays for Omni.  Working on my latest one on The Matrix and Gnosticism really got me thinking about metaphysics, worldbuilding, and scifi, since The Matrix is probably the most metaphysical movie (and trilogy) I have seen.  That’s not to deny there isn’t metaphysics and Gnosticism in other scifi as well, even the  silliest, e.g. some Marvel Comics and their Guardians of the Galaxy (their version of Star Wars essentially) with concepts like Celestials and Infinity Stones.  But I’m interested in a  more serious approach to metaphysics, and achieving this in a similar way to how Tolkien incorporated pagan nordic (Viking, Beowulf, etc) mythology in Lord of the Rings.  I’m less interested in the Silmarillion because it’s too mythology heavy.  I’m interested in creating an adventure story, a road movie but in outer space, not a mytho-theology.

As I explain in my essay, the Wachowskis failed to incorporate the gestalt of Gnosticism.  They got the paranoia, the underworld, the spirits trapped in matter perfectly.  Essentially, they created a very Philip K Dickian form of Gnosticism.  But they totally left out the transcendent element, the Pleroma, the Aeons or supra-mundane spiritual archetypes.  They also only included half of Philip K Dick’s gnosis; his Black Iron Prison (negative), but not his Palm Tree Garden (positive) (see The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick).

Essentially then, The Matrix Trilogy is a long meditation on the world of what Rudolf Steiner calls Ahriman, the anti-divine power and the god of materialism and mechanism in matter  Interestingly, it’s also a space opera, albeit one set on a post-apocalyptic Earth.  I say this because it features a classic small spaceship, the Nebuchadnezzar (above), directly comparable to the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars, Serenity of Firefly, and Milano of Guardians of the Galaxy,  Even though the story is set on a future, post-apocalyptic Earth, the trope of a grimy ship with its rag-tag team of plucky rebels is identical

My interest however is in a space operatic story arc that incorporates both the lower, ahrimanic and lovecraftian dimensions, the middle imaginal and aetheric dimensions, and the highest, pleromatic and transcendentalist ones.  Stories dwelling on the lower worlds are common, those concerning the higher are rare.  Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey for example ends with the sort of transcendentalist aspect that one would expect to find, but was lack in, The Matrix Trilogy

The obvious, and easiest, way to incorporate metaphysics is through mythic concretism: the various planes of existence are portrayed as actual regions of space.  This is the case of traditional mythology such as Jain, Buddhist, Nordic, and Dantean (Divine Comedy) cosmology for example, and even I suppose in esoteric systems like Kabbalah and Theosophy.  But this approach, which I do use, also lacks a certain subtlety.   So I’m also striving for something more, though I’m not yet sure what for it will take.  Anyway, we’ll see how things turn out.

The Zoneship Alcione – work in progress

The Zoneship Alcione - work in progress.
The Zoneship Alcione – work in progress.

Here’s the newest version of the Zoneship Alcione.  The term “zoneship” is used, rather than the equally appropriate “starship” or spaceship, because the Freehauler Alcioneverse assumes that reality consists of zones, which can be traversed in order to attain FTL (faster than light, hyperjump, whatever) travel.  Most “space opera” science fiction uses the basic plot device of some sort of magic FTL drive to span the vast distances between the stars, but the rest of the story is pretty mundane, basically like society and politics on Earth today, or like a technological space-based version of a High Fantasy Earth, but with spaceships instead of naval vessels or freighters, planets instead of cities or countries, and alien races instead of cultures or nationalities.  There’s nothing wrong with that, inasmuch as science fiction is often more about the present than the future (attempts to predict the future generally end disastrously anyway, e.g. we have smart phones but not moon bases).  But I other worldsthought it would be interesting to incorporate different zones of existence into the story and worldbuilding.

So rather than normal/realspace propulsion and FTL (as is standard e.g. impulse drive and warp drive in Star Trek), I’ve got  a magic/handwavium realspace reactionless drive propulsion (because there’s no way to realistically move a twenty million ton starship otherwise) using negative matter/mass/energy/unobtanium, plus hyperspace rotation, plus at least two distinct FTL propulsions, one for paraspace and one for aetherspace.

The spikey mace thingie was originally going to be used to generate the huge amounts of energies needed for the reactionless drive field, and based on Ken Burnside’s torchship design in his Attack Vector Tactical space-based wargame, but when I looked at the illustrations again I noticed they were an open grid.  Since I like the medieval feel of this mace thingie, I decided to go the full science fantasy Art Major School of Physics and make it into a propulsion unit for paraspace.

Originally I was going to have paraspace propulsion based UFO disks, a sort of large spinning thing, perhaps attached to the diametric drive ring, or else separate and either at the middle or the end of the ship, but no matter how I drew it, it just didn’t look right.

It seems like UFOs and space opera spaceships are such incompatible tropes that any attempt at synthesis looks ridiculous (well, there’s Star Trek spaceships (saucer on a rocket) and Stargate Atlantis mythology, so maybe it’s not).  This is because UFOs are a paranormal, interdimensional, ultraterrestrial phenomenon, possibly some sort of plasma or magnetic field effect when temporarily materialised in realspace, whereas spaceships are a mythological, symbolic representation of modern day things like giant machinery.  As I’ve elsewhere explained (on Omni), space opera is just the modern form of epic mythology, and vice-versa.  It’s meant to describe this world, only in epic poetic form.  Whereas UFOs simply don’t fit with our concept of reason or how the universe works, and in any attempt to explain them rationally is likely to drive you crazy.  See for example the works of French astronomer and ufologist Jaques Vallee, specifically Passport to Magonia and Messengers of Deception.

In a sense, but having crazy paraspace universes co-existing with realspace, not just metaphysically but physically, so a ship can transit between the two, I’m “cheating”, in that I’m describing the universe how I’d like it to be in a story, as opposed to how it really is (it may well be that interstellar space is simply too vast to be traversed by physical technology, and this is the reason for Fermi’s Question: where are they?

But that is what story telling is, not so much cheating as creating or rather re-interpreting myths.  Other zones of existence then become simply another type of otherworldplace, like other planets, parallel universes, alternate timelines, dreamscapes, and the rest.  What makes science fiction, and especially space opera, so cool is precisely its settings and hence the ease it can be used to tell myths, because all myths and archetypes by their very nature require some sort of numinous, imaginal setting; something that is not of this boring, mundane, quotidian world.  People who love scifi and fantasy, whether reading it or writing or drawing or otherwise creating it, are those who love and need and crave these  other worlds, as an alternative to their everyday stifling boring world.

Which brings us back to the above design.  Here I’m incorporating ideas and deckplans I drew up 18 months ago.  Since this version of the Alcione is much larger than the original, there’s heaps more space, so the deckplans will only include a small part of the ship.

Originally the Alcione was going to be unarmed, to get away from the repetitive cliches of a lot of military scifi , but I felt she needed some sort  of weapons, though I’m thinking of toning it down a bit  Make the battle module smaller, or simply a part of another module.  That’s why this is called a work in progress.

 

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Thoughts on designing a scifi spaceship

Freehauler Alcione - 3d model in progress
Freehauler Alcione – 3d model in progress

Continuing  to work on Alcione using Blender.  As a proper render doesn’t come out properly (no doubt I’m not doing something correctly), this updated screenshot is posted here instead.  While it doesn’t show light and shading, it does show the various modules more clearly.

The front is the right, with the chionic (quasi organic)  module that helps pull the ship forward in paraspace.  As currently I’m assuming one blender unit = 50 meters, this puts the forwards module at about 125 meters, not including the orphiopluteuii (long arms facing forward, named after  a type of echinoderm larva with similar structures), although I may increase the size of this forward element.

The other structures at the front are sensors and twin gauss guns.  Originally Alcione was going to be unarmed apart from an anti-meteor laser or perhaps a token anti-piracy gun, but I wanted to give her some nerd love and the story some excitement and battles.  The idea is that she is a sort of armed merchantman and part time privateer that travels between civilised space and the lawless outer colonies of the human diaspora.

There follows the bridge crew quarters, forward hanger, thermal panels, etc, with a holographic logo on the side (I’m using Jacques Cousteau’s design until I can create my own).   This module extends for another 160 meters.  When I was doing deck plans using MS paint I was thinking in these terms (although with less space), so I’ll try to reuse some of that older material.

The large sphere is biospherics, about 80 meters in diameter on this plan, followed by 16 spherical water tanks around the central axis.  With the exception of Silent Running, cinematic spaceships don’t seem to have biospheres, and for that matter most literary ones don’t.  Everything is austere and mechanical and functional, or if spacious and comfortable it is in the way a Star Trek federation vessel is; all sterile corridors and lounges and holodecks.    It’s as if nature doesn’t exist in these universes.  I remember being impressed reading something Lynn Margulis, the co-inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, said about this upon watching Star Trek.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I was able to recover her comments:

Until recently, when I visited the Star Trek commemorative exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, I had never seen a single Star Trek episode.  For ten minutes, indolent curiosity, nostalgia for the 1970s, and the crowds at my back induced me to watch it: very United Statesian and very dated.  I was struck by its silliness. The lack of plants, the machinate landscape, and in the starship, the absence of all nonhuman life-forms seemed bizarre. Humans, if someday they trek in giant spaceships to other planets, will not be alone. In space as on Earth, the elements of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus and a few others, must recycle. This recycling is no suburban luxury; it is a principle of life from which no technology can deliver us. Human voyages into deep space require ecosystems composed of many nonhuman organisms to recycle waste into food. Only very short stints in constant contact with mother Earth are possible in the absence of ‘ecosystem services.

– Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution

When I encountered those words (it probably wasn’t the entire quote) some decades ago, they really impressed on me how unrealistic much of science fiction is (more comments alongside the above quote here).  I just cannot envisage spaceships without ecosystems., carrying little portable versions of Biosphere 2 along with them wherever they go .  Of course, a lot depends on worldbuilding; if FTL starflight is as quick and easy  as it is in low realism TV and movie space opera, essentially equivalent to a modern intercontinental jetliner, or even a drive to the local shopping center, there isn’t a need for ships to carry their own biosphere.  My own preference however is for outer space to be very large, very hostile, and very difficult to traverse.  Even if this is as much about plot devices and cosmic anxiety as it is about actual hard science.  Some space operas, like the Alien(s) franchise, do have that sense of loneliness and danger, even if their monsters are biologically absurd.  There is little appeal in space opera that mimics today’s crowded Earth.

After the biospherics section (I wonder if this also is too small, or if it should be kept small for crapsack world reasons) there is another module with the machine shop, large shuttle hanger, and what have you, this is about 110 meters long and 40 meters wide.

Then four large colourful hexagonal cargo modules (each about 75 x 175 meters) , which give an overall carrying capacity of four of the largest modern container ships combined.   Of course such comparisons are unfair, realworld surface ocean container vessels are limited by canals, port facilities etc; assuming a medium-hardness (say 6 or so on the scale of scientific hardness/realism) handwavium reactionless drive, a staple of a lot of science fiction, space opera ships need have no size limitations at all, other than those arbitrarily imposed by worldbuilding and plot devices..

Following is the weapons, sensors, and manufacturing module, which is based partly on the standard Wet Navy capital ship space opera design, of the Blender Shipyards, which I incorporated because I want to get away from the rigid radial symmetry of the earlier designs.  This measures about 150 x  150 x 40 meters.

These measurements are to help with deckplans.  Nerds like myself love these little worldbuilding details.  My idea in writing and worldbuilding is of a ship big enough to easily get lost in, or for an enemy or scary monster to hide in, with some parts much older than others and associated with a history and urban legend, such as being haunted, but not so large as to be unmanageable.  Hence a bit over a mile (say between 1.6 and 2 km), a mile being the length of a Star Wars Star Destroyer, seems a good size.

It’s interesting here to think about the difference between military scifi/SF (Star Wars, the later Star Trek), which has mile long ships full of officers and ratings walking to and fro, pilots dashing their fighters, and stormtroopers marching aimlessly about, and the space  horror (Alien(s), space comedy (Red Dwarf) ships which, while equally huge, are mostly deserted, with only a handful of crew or misfits struggling to manage the whole thing.  My approach is midway between the two, and it is likely that automation will make it easier for smaller crews to manage larger vessels.

Further on is engineering, the reactor, and the drive system, but I’ll leave explaining that for another day.  My next project is to use Blender to render Freedai Reynofar, the protagonist of Up the Well, the first novel in this series

The Alcione modelled with Blender

Freehauler Alcione, initial Blender version

Freehauler Alcione, my initial Blender version

Above is my first posted image of the Freehauler Alcione, as modelled in Blender.

When I started, I found Blender extremely bewildering.  It was a huge learning curve .   My original rough attempt at modelling the Alcione was simply a series of shapes put together to represent the general outline.

After about a month of study, I started really getting the hang of it, focusing mainly on the 3d modelling side.  Without a high-end graphics card it’s not really worth my while doing a lot of rendering and attempting movies and so on, assuming I even had the time to put into the latter.

While now much more familiar with the interface, I still found 3d modelling tedious because of all the details.

There’s a number of youtube tutorials and guides that show you step by step how to model your own spaceship, beginning with a simple cube, although some familiarity with the Blenber interface and shortcut keys is required.

With a  few exceptions, all these blender spaceships, while beautifully built, follow the traditional design of a wet navy ship in space; bilateral symmetry (distinct up and down and front and rear) and small (equivalent to jet) engines.

Here the confluence of the design team George Lucas hired for Star Wars, and science fiction writers using the Space is an Ocean trope, have created the naval analogy that is now de rigour for space opera covers, self-published military SF, and nerd ship art nowadays.

The breakthrough idea with my modelling the Alcione was to download creative commons licensed models of spaceships in Blender format, and copy and paste parts of them to wrap around my rough outline, along with giving acknowledgements.  After downloading several scifi spaceships it became evident this wouldn’t work; either they were too hard to convert to the scale and symmetry I was after, or they were too detailed (which normally would be perfect, but it means they take too long to render).

In the end, the only one that turned out to be appropriate is an awesome free for use collection of hulls, parts, and greebles, called “Shipyard” posted on Blend Swap. Although I still had to modify many of them to get the extra axis of symmetry I’m after, though I couldn’t resist sticking a big gun on the central hull section!

As this is 3d software so I can show the Alcione in any position, but in comparison with earlier images I’m posting it in right side view. This is very much a work in progress; I still have to add things like airlocks, hanger doors etc.  As I develop this design more, I’ll post further updates.

On a scale of realism (if you’ve followed my realism in science fiction gradations; latest version here) this would be about a 6 out of 10; if Star Wars is 2, Kim Stanley Robinson is 9, and the postulated Alcubierre FTL drive is, I dunno, 7 1/2. I’m deliberately not writing hard SF though because I want to go crazy with my imagination. I also don’t use the Alcubierre Drive because (a) it’s still problematic at FTL speeds (tho works just fine as a STL (slower than light) reactionless drive), and more importantly (b) my story and worldbuilding combines FTL and Theosophical planes of existence.

There’s a lot in this new design that’s tied up with my worldbuilding. I’ve replaced my previous ideas of Torchship (not viable at more than 5,000 tons or so) and NegMass drive (really awesome cool idea but technological problems I expect would be insurmountable) in favour of good old handwavium, the fallback of every serious science fiction writer.

To briefly explain this vessel, I assume a new type of reactionless drive is discovered which uses negative energy like the Alcubierre drive, but doesn’t have such a gigantic power requirement (although still pretty intimidating). In my universe I assume economics of scale make it practical to create gigantic reactionless drive ships. The only reason is because I love giant spaceships, but even so they still have to be justified in-universe.

The spiky ball in the illustration is the fusion generator for the (slower than light, realspace) reactionless drive field, the spikes are heat radiators (this particular design is inspired by Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games, whose spaceships designs (see this page for 3D modelled screenshots) are as realistic as you can get, and whose Attack Vector Tactical, is perhaps the only hard science space combat games ever written.  David Pulver’s GURPS Transhuman Space also features equally rigorous and realistic space combat, but the emphasis is still on roleplaying rather than specific wargaming..  Mr Burnside’s radiators are obviously a more realistic design because they are an open framework; an enclosed sphere would instantly vaporise.   (hence the need for copious amounts of unobtanium and handwavium in even the most realistic scifi universes).  In my less realistic universe, this chamber only functions for a very brief period, which is luckily enough to generate the reactionless field

Surrounding the super fusion reactor it is the quasi Alcubierre ring,  (see also the cute Kerbal Space Program version); which, thanks to the magic of handwavium and the eloquence of technobabble, is able to create a partial warp in spacetime by using negative energy to generate a repulsive gravity field.  I can’t call this the Alcubierre field, because it’s not that; I’ll have to invent a fancy name for it.  Diametric Field, whatever.  Essentially, as a plot device, I wanted something like Negative Mass but without the need to generate it and exactly balance it with the positive mass.

Behind this are the scifi gizmos which generate the actual reactionless field.  Actually these greebles are too ordinary, this part should be more crazy looking. I’ll probably have to completely model my own design here.

For those wondering what “greebles” are, they’re the irregular bits of tech that have been stuck on the outside of spaceships ever since George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Presumably, greebles must serve a purpose, but the purpose is never defined, it’s simply part of the huge complexity of a starship, which, paradoxically in most space operas can easily be managed by a crew of only about six or seven, including a  single engineer.  I read somewhere an idea that adventure space opera is inspired by WWII bomber crews as by the tramp steamship, as they have the same number and similar roles, but infuriatingly haven’t been able to find the reference.  Most likely this is just convergence, but the parallels are still intriguing,.

I was even considering a totally smooth version of Alcione, but when I sketched it, it didn’t look right.  So I’ve stuck with greebles.

Returning to the design here, in front of the reactionless drive complex, the icosohedron module contains the unobtanium gyroscopes that rotate the ship into the hyper-spacial dimensions where FTL is possible. I’ll need to stick a fusion reactor somewhere in front or behind this to power the rest of the ship’s systems; this is different to super fusion generator in the spiky sphere and will have normal thermal radiators.

Then the middle assembly with engineering, and more modules, including the machine shop. Actually there’s plenty of space for the fusion reactor which will be pretty small, say 500 megawatts I’d guess, which being enough to power a small city, should be more than enough for any lasers and gauss guns. Then in front of that cargo, biospherics, the crew quarters and bridge. Then there’s the thermal radiators (which being edge on aren’t clearly visible) and the crew and habitation modules.

The structure at the front marks a divergence from the earlier Alcione designs. This has aetherspace thingies and chionic generator at the front. The idea is it’s part mechanical, part organic. The long branch like things which carry the ship forward in aetherspace. The original inspiration was plankton, such as echinoderm and crustacea larva. I was actually at one point thinking of revising the Alcione as a bioship, so it looked like a giant organic plankton creature (and the comparison between microscopic plankton and floating in space, while not scientifically accurate,  is still quite evocative and mythopoetic) , but the idea of a giant hunk of metal and fullerene is just too appealing, even if it does have organic components

The overall length of the Alcione in-universe is a bit over a mile, say 1.8 kilometers from tip to tip. To give a sense of scale, the large ring is about 600 meters in diameter.

After this, my next Blender project will be a portrait of Freedai, the protagonist of my first novel (in the currently rearranged series), who later (after some dramas and adventures) finds herself as a junior crewmember on the Alcione.

Writing, blender, and more

Lighthugger
A lighthugger from Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space Universe. Artist unknown. Downloaded from Alastair Reynolds com

Since I’ve last posted, a lot has happened.  I’m now living in the countryside for one, and tranquility has been great for my creativity.

My setting now includes five major characters: Triumvar Jonas Lothfield, the captain (of sorts) of the eponymous starship and one of the protagonists  of  Freehauler Alcione, teenage Kamren Sortnoi-Valentinon and her friend Marcel Landin, the two protagonists of Mechacross, who are gifted a mech by a rogue military entertainment complex AI, Marcel’s older brother Perryn Landin, the main protagonist of The Universe is full of starving xenopaleontologists, and mechaneer and spacer girl Freedai Reynofar, who joins the crew of the Alcione.

The Alcione herself has had a makeover.  I wasn’t really satisfied with the old modular design.  It was too much a compromise between high realism hard SF (an actual hardSF spaceship would certainly be modular, but it would be much smaller, say 100 meters, and use some sort of torch or nuclear pulse propulsion (such as feature on the excellent Atomic Rockets site), and the more fantastical space fantasy type universes of Star Wars and Warhammer 40k.

I decided to scrap the modular design and make the ship a single integral vessel.   I wanted to keep the vertical skyscraper/tower design, but add various organic elements, and also mechanistic greebles (bits and pieces on the outside of a ship hull that have been an essential part of the “giant starship aesthetic” for 40 years, since Star Wars revolutionised the way space opera should look).

Because I wanted a huge ship, I also kept the reactionless drive, but reluctantly decided to get rid of the negative matter propulsion idea.  Despite its hard science credentials and originality it felt too fidgety from a practical tech reason (the amount of negmass would constantly have to be modulated to exactly counterbalance the ship’s positive mass) and, more important, a great big ball of negative matter chasing the ship would be counter-intuitive and not accommodating to space opera aesthetic

One thing I definitely wanted to retain was the tower design.  The whole artificial gravity perpendicular to the direction of motion thing is so contrived and derived on the need to rationalise human actors in a 1 gee environment (only Gravity breaks the mould) combined with the naval ships in space trope of Star Trek and Star Wars that it makes absolutely no sense in a worldbuilding and storytelling context.

The result is a vertical spaceship a mile high, in which gravity is generated by acceleration provided by a handwavium drive, and when the drive is switched off, e.g. when the ship is docked, the situation is one of weightlessness.

The nearest I can think of to this configuration is Alastair Reynolds Lighthugger, and of the artwork available, the one at the top of this page, with its massive construction and menacing sense of power is the closest to how I currently envisage the Freehauler Alcione (part freighter, part privateer), although it would likely present a somewhat less intimidating appearance, if only to encourage trade.

Indeed, my own worldbuilding could probably be described as Revelation Space meets Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader, with some  Heinlein Citizen of the Galaxy thrown in for good measure

As I want to create my own scifi representations, I’ve started learning Blender (a popular open source and free 3d modelling package), with an eye to making a 3d model of the Alcione, although I may have purchase a powerful graphics card, because of the computational demands on rendering an image.

It’s turned out to be a steep learning curve indeed, as Blender isn’t the most user friendly of programs (though for all I know the professional packages that cost thousands of dollars are just as hardlearn).

Originally I was going to attempt the interior as well, but with the complexity and time requirements it looks like an exterior view will be enough for now.

 

 

General update

I haven’t posted anything in a while, because I’ve been working on the deck plan of the Alcione.  Then I started writing a start featuring the crew of the Alcione.  Now I’m going back to the previous story.  I’ve scrapped the idea of novellas and will have a full length story

My current writing plan is this:

Book 1, Mech Cross, featuring the two teenage protagonists Kam and Shymarc.   Madverts will be part 1  (as well as writing the book i need to draw a plan of the mech)

Book 2, Spacefreighter Alcione.  Introduces the Alcione and its  crew (also will have deck plans).  Freedai joins the Alcione.

Book 3. Kam and Shymarc join the Alcione, along with a corporate AI that’s been helping them but has its own agenda

Various further developments and  sequels.

The whole story will be one series, although each novel will be self-contained