Writing science fiction almost always involves world building. When an opportunity arose to actually see what real world building looks like, I jumped at the chance—and that’s how I found myself on a journey to maars.
To two of them, as a matter of fact.
A maar is a shallow, flat-bottomed volcanic crater, most commonly formed when hot magma close to the surface comes into contact with groundwater, triggering a steam explosion. (There are other mechanisms: in 1977 scientists got to watch an Aleutian maar form, over a period of a week and a half, caused by permafrost being melted, then flashed into steam, by magma.)
With water being one of the defining elements of maar formation, it isn’t surprising that maars commonly fill with water to become lakes, disguising their volcanic origins. And so it was with the maars I saw.
A friend offered to fly me in a small airplane to view two maars near Fallon, Nevada. I sat in the left seat and did most of the flying; although I’m rated in sailplanes, not airplanes, a wing is a wing is a wing, and I found the airplane easy to fly—if perhaps not quite as satisfying as a sailplane would have been. Speaking of flying, as we approached the maars we could clearly see the runways of Naval Air Station Fallon, better known as the home of the Navy’s famed Top Gun school.
The Fallon maars are known locally as the Soda Lakes and at one time were mined for alkaline minerals. The region is still geologically active: there’s a geothermal power plant close by, and the United States Geological Survey lists the Soda Lakes as potential volanic threats, in part due to their young age: they were formed no earlier than 6,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 1500 years ago . . . almost yesterday.
Soda Lakes are the only Nevada volcanoes listed in the annual threat assessment compiled by the USGS, but just over the state line there are many more. It may surprise you to learn that the USGS estimates the odds of an eruption in California in the next 30 years is about one in six! World building, indeed.
Once again this year I have the honor to be a part of the science fiction romance anthology Pets in Space. Part of the first months sales, including preorders, will be donated to Hero Dogs, a charitable organization that provides service dogs at no cost to veterans of the U.S. military and first responders. In this guest post, fellow Pets in Space 4 author Veronica Scott talks about that. She also gives us a suspenseful excerpt from her story.
Back when Pauline B. Jones and I decided to create the first Pets In Space® anthology, we wanted to find a charity to support that had a strong connection to serving military veterans. We decided on Hero-Dogs, Inc., a small nonprofit doing great work providing service dogs to veterans (and first responders). Over the four anthologies, including this year, we’ve had many authors with military ties in the family and at least one who was a veteran herself.
My father and my uncles served hitches in different branches of the military so I grew up with a great respect for the job soldiers do in support of our nation and our freedom. My late husband was on active duty in the USMC for three years and then rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the Reserves at the time of his death (which was not related to his military service). I was a military wife in the early years of our marriage!
I also typically write at least one of my main characters in every book as a Special Forces soldier, either active duty or retired. Their strong ethos or character, rock solid belief in each other as a team, and lethal combat capabilities, combined with their ability to crack a joke at the worst moments, and to be tender and caring to their loved ones really appeal to me. Respect must be earned in SOF circles and huge sacrifices are often made, by the service member and/or by their family.
So for all those reasons, I felt very strongly that our efforts with PISA needed to benefit the veteran community in some real fashion.
Pauline and I loved the idea of putting together a fun set of stories including pets and scifi romance but we very much wanted to have a higher purpose as our guiding principle for whywe were doing the anthology.
For my story in this fourth anthology, I have three military veterans involved – Third Officer Steve Aureli of the Nebula Zephyr (my interstellar luxury cruise ship), his Aunt Dian and her alien ‘dog’, Charrli. Of course Dian and Charrli have a lot of backstory and aren’t what they seem on the surface. They’re veterans of the Sectors Special Forces Z Corps, which means Charrli is very smart and telepathic with Dian. I liked the idea of making Charrli a darling little dog who could be carried around in a purse but who actually has all this ferocious military style training and abilities. He’s not afraid of anything, not even alien idols!
Usually I start with the concept of the pet for my Pets In Space® stories and develop the plot from what the animal ‘suggests’ to me but this time my jumping off place was legends about tourists having bad luck after removing rocks from national parks as souvenirs.
Of course since I’m writing science fiction, I then took the entire topic a step further and gave my ‘rock’ some scary attributes, the ability to do real harm and a bit of carving to justify referring to an idol’s curse in the title.
It seemed to me the idea of tourists and souvenirs fit in very nicely with my interstellar luxury cruise ship Nebula Zephyr, and then since an entire deck of the ship is devoted to recreating a beach from the planet Tahumaroa Two, it was logical for the rock or ‘idol’ in question in my story to have come from that planet and need to go back there. This led me to ponder who in the crew would be likely to become involved with returning a rock and I decided it was time for the Cruise Director, Juli Shaeffer, to get her story.
Who was going to believe her, without a vid from the Ship’s Artificial Intelligence monitors to prove she hadn’t suffered a hallucination? Charrli had obviously seen the rock too but even if he was a retired Z Corps asset, no one but Dian was likely to believe him. “We’re screwed,” Juli said to the dog, stroking his silky ears. “I’m glad you saw it too though or I’d doubt my sanity right now.”
A breeze ruffled her hair and then a gust of wind blew sand across the beach in a glittering spray. Juli stood and picked Charrli up. As she turned, she realized Dian and Steve were bearing down on her.
“We thought we’d better come check on you,” he said. “Are you sure you’re ok?”
Handing the unresisting dog to his owner, Juli said, “I—we— saw something odd and we came to investigate.”
Dian was staring into Charrli’s eyes. “I’m getting a mental picture.” Jaw dropping, she pivoted to gape at Juli as another wind gust blew her skirt around her knees. “He’s sending me a projection of what appears to be the rock you showed us in the groundcar when we gave you a ride. Did you bring it up here? Because Charrli is concerned about it.”
USA Today Best Selling Author Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything.
Grab your copy of Pets in Space® 4 today! For a limited time, Pets in Space® 4 brings together today’s leading Science Fiction Romance authors to help Hero-Dogs.org, a non-profit charity that helps our service veterans and first responders. https://petsinspaceantho.com
This book’s provocative thesis is that our involvement with the Internet undermines the kind of critical, linear, deep thinking that is inculcated by reading, and replaces it with the reactive, scattered, shallow thinking that comes of skimming Web pages and following links in all directions. Published in 2011, The Shallows is at least as relevant now, in 2019. Recommended reading!
My new romantic SF series is set thousands of years from now in an an interstellar city-state and on colonized planets across the stars. Writing SF like that, I’ve had to think hard about what digital technology and artificial intelligence may ultimately look like. Well, I haven’t finished thinking. But Witherspin (December 2019) and Starmaze (2020) will explore those questions.
If digital technology ever reached an end point that was truly catastrophic for part of humanity, other human societies will have found another way….
Recently the short documentary Earthrise was posted on Youtube. It’s an exploration of the emotional impact on the first humans to ever see their—our—lovely world in the rear view mirror.
The crew of Apollo 8 journeyed to the far side of the moon and back. They became the first in human history to go far enough from the good Earth to see it dwindle into a blue marble. Curiously, there had been no advance recognition of the emotional impact of seeing what may be the most hospitable place in all of Creation from a distance,.
The Apollo 8 mission is today remembered for the iconic photo of a crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon. In photographic terms, however, what was to be one of the most reproduced images in all of humankind’s history was a “grab shot”: William Anders had been recording lunar craters on black and white film when suddenly Earth rose above the bleak horizon. He asked for a roll of color film—tossed to him, in zero gee—and caught the image in the nick of time, because nobody who’d planned the mission had anticipated the wonder of this.
In Anders words, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Mission Commander Frank Borman’s take was equally poignant: rather than astronauts, he said, we “should have sent poets.” Poets, as well as visual artists and writers can with capture how the wonder of the universe intersects the human spirit.
The wonder of Creation, the incomparable value of our home planet, and what it means to be human: these are some of the reasons I write science fiction. Maybe these are some of reasons you read science fiction, too.
This was my street when Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston. Yes, there is a street – in fact two wide boulevards – under all that water, which is the bayou usually channeled between the boulevards.
Hurricane Florence has now done to the Carolinas what Harvey did to the Texas coast last year – slam in from the sea then dawdle, dumping immense amounts of rain to result in flooding, destruction, and death.
And Astronaut Alexander Gerst on the International Space Station just photographed the eye of the super-typhoon in the Pacific saying, “As if somebody pulled the planet’s gigantic plug. Staring down the eye of yet another fierce storm. Category 5 Super Typhoon Trami is unstoppable and heading for Japan and Taiwan. Be safe down there.”
What with this summer’s hurricanes, Western wildfires, some strong tornadoes surprisingly far north, and entrenched drought in some parts of the US, individuals and institutions increasingly look either foolish or blinded by self-interest and greed as they deny climate change, or even accelerate it. They’re denying and accelerating it anyway and not just in the US. As a result, industrialized civilization may well tip the Earth’s climate into a slow but inexorable catastrophe.
That’s the background of my novel Hurricane Moon.
In the late 21st century, with Earth wracked by climate change, an ambitious private foundation launches a starship to find a new world. Aboard the starship Aeonare Catharin Gault, an idealistic astronaut-physician, and Joseph Devreze, a geneticist as brilliant as he is irresponsible. Aeondiscovers two Earth-sized planets in orbit around each other. Planet Green has abundant plant life. Planet Blue is an oceanic world covered with hurricanes. The green world with its bright blue moon seems like a perfect stage for the drama of civilization to begin anew and turn out better this time. But the journey took too long. A millennium of cryostasis—cold suspended animation—has caused insidious genetic damage. Now Catharin must rely on the irresponsible genius Devreze to help her repair the human genome if there is to be a future for the colony on Planet Green. Their mutual attraction ratchets up even as their conflict escalates. Together Catharin and Joe must decide how they can face, and embrace, a future utterly at odds with Aeon’s planned mission and their own expectations.
In the sense of naming times of the year for full moons – I’ve seen Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, and Moon of Cold-Exploding Trees – a Hurricane Moon has to be a season of crisis. It happens that way in my novel. And it seems to be unfolding on 21st-Century Earth, starting with everyone in striking range of monstrous hurricanes, super-wildfires, and record-setting droughts and heat waves.
In 1996 a science fiction story set in Paris, France, was – finally – published. It predicted glass-walled skyscrapers, feminism, burglar alarms and email. These were hardly novel ideas in 1996 or even in 1989 when the manuscript was first circulated.
But the publisher originally approached by the author had rejected the story as being too far-fetched to be believable.
The publisher, a businesslike fellow named Pierre-Jules Hetzel, could be excused for what might appear to us as narrow-mindedness because he’d read the manuscript shortly after it was written: in 1863—at the height of the US Civil War, six years before the golden spike was driven to complete the Transcontinental Railroad and forty years before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight. Following this rejection, the manuscript was locked away by its disappointed author. It wasn’t seen again until 1989, when the author’s great-grandson opened the safe.
The author of Paris in the Twentieth Century was Jules Verne.
None of us are immune from rejection letters from hoped-for publishers. We’re not immune to rejections from friends, lovers, employers, colleges, colleagues, parents, or spouses either. May we be brave enough to write and love and hope again!
“I have to report that M. Blériot, with his monoplane, crossed the Channel from Calais this morning. I issued to him a Quarantine Certificate, thereby treating it as a yacht and the aviator as Master and owner.
—The Collector of Customs, Dover
July 25, 1909
1909. Less than 100 years ago, an airplane crossing the English Channel was unprecedented. What will the future hold?
For my latest of my backlist story collections (until a large and rather complete collection of my backlist of SF stories next year), while making review copies available on BookFunnel, I came up with this tagline:
An imaginary journey from ancient Archaeopteryx to aircraft under distant stars.
I tend to write “hard” science fiction, that is, science fiction with some actual science in it. The fantasy elements aren’t allowed to randomly trample what we know about the physical universe. The boundaries between hard and soft SF are fluid. Truth is, science is just one of the many strands that woven together make us, collectively, who and what we are. It’s an expression of our natural and so very human curiosity. Where it will lead us, we never know in advance.
Consider the Eiffel Tower.
It was built for the International Exposition of 1889. Its winning design was selected in the face of a storm of criticism over its audacious break with tradition. Critics howled at the planned desecration of the Parisian skyline! Twenty years later the exposition concession expired—and the Eiffel Tower was slated for demolition. But that didn’t happen, and thereon hangs a tale..
In 1864, Cambridge professor James Clerk Maxwell had manipulated the equations that bear his name to predict that electromagnetic energy could travel through space at the speed of light. This prediction was experimentally verified a quarter-century later by Heinrich Hertz—but only over very short distances. Would it hold true for longer distances? In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated that electromagnetic energy could be transmitted and detected at great distances: in a dramatic flourish he sent a signal clear across the Atlantic Ocean!
The received signal was, however, incredibly weak. This meant that equally incredible power had to be poured into a transmitter to reap even a barely detectable signal at the other end. This made communication by radio slow, uncertain, and expensive—but not for long. The triode vacuum tube, invented by Lee De Forest, changed everything overnight: the triode was the first electronic amplifier, able to accept weak signals and multiply them into currents large enough be handled with ease and convenience.This was in 1907, and it was still topical news when the Eiffel Tower’s lease was up.
When built the tower was approximately twice as tall as any other above-ground structure in human history. As such it was virtually made to order as an antenna tower. But would it serve? Would the Eiffel Tower really work as a radio antenna? It would, and it did—and it was saved. (In fact, eventually 17 meters were added to the top, in the form of a television broadcast antenna. Again, the critics howled.)
Hard science fiction has on occasion worshiped technology at the expense of humanistic or spiritual values. Yet consider how that the Eiffel Tower stands today because of its unforeseen utility in the era of modern electronic communications. And ponder how you’re reading these words on a screen built into what’s usually known as a “computer.” It may be a dedicated reader platform, or a smartphone, or a laptop device—but whatever it is, you probably use it for communicating, not for computing. You use it to bridge the chasm between yourself and your fellow human beings.
I use electronic impulses to communicate with my readers, to tell stories. Story is something human beings have done for as long as human beings have existed. The screen at which you’re looking right now, along with the stack of books that are undoubtedly nearby, along with the Eiffel Tower, witness to our mutual need to speak, to listen, to hold, to aspire, and to dream.
And I have a new novel finished – a story with science and humanity, adventure and romance, and many unexpected surprises. I can hardly wait to transmit it to the world. . . .
Early in November I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)
The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.
The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it. There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis: it’s Venice in Texas!
There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.
Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers. Here’s one of the watchers.
No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe. Portions of this cathedral date to 1738. It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.
And then there’s this: the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.
The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.
When I write speculative fiction, I do a lot of world-building. I imagine a fictional world in sufficient detail and logically consistent enough to potentially exist—and sound plausible to knowledgeable readers. (I have to do the same thing with the contours of the human heart; our shared, different-but-alike internal landscapes must be recreated in a way that always rings true.)
When building worlds, for my jumping-off place I start with the world we all share: the beautiful blue oasis we sometimes call Earth, sometimes call Terra—and always call “home.”
The image below shows a part of the world familiar to transatlantic airline pilots. You can spot the lights of Goose Bay, where an airport large enough to land an airliner serves as a sort of emergency “what-if” option for flight planning.
In the lower right portion of the image you see the white ring that marks the perimeter of the Manicouagan Crater, a meteor crater fully 70 kilometers in diameter. In wintertime it’s covered with frozen water, making it so striking and so readily visible even from orbit.
And the aurora borealis crowns the Earth with fire.
Auroras figure into my Aeon’s Legacy series – in the novel Hurricane Moon, in which an aurora on the colony world Green is injected with the ashes of dead starfarers, adding colors to create a luminous memorial; and in Star Crossing, in which the auroras of Green are transformed into a generator for a radio message across the stars.
And a meteor crater in Canada figures significantly into my novelette “The Vigilant Ones.”
This photo, courtesy NASA, was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on February 3, 2012.
Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love