High Frontier: Design Notes #1

Yesterday, I finally managed to finish the draft on the next Alamo novel, ‘Take and Hold’, which is scheduled for release near the end of next month; editing and proofreading remain before it comes out. What this means is that it is now time for a new project, and I’ll say now that this was not the post I was expecting to write. The plan as it stood earlier was for a series of short historical novels, or for westerns, but over the last two weeks of writing Take and Hold something new has been creeping into my mind, and it’s at a stage where it needs to be written. Hence, the next project is the first in a new science-fiction series, currently under the working title ‘High Frontier’ - I know that the first book in the series is called ‘Anything Goes’ but the series title is still pending more thought.

I’ve been looking for a new science-fiction series for a long time, but until recently I haven’t been able to come up with a concept that really satisfied me. I probably could have put together a new military science-fiction series, and threw around a few ideas, but at the end of the day I’m already doing that with Alamo - so something different was on the cards. I spent a long time thinking about epic fantasy, but for a variety of reasons that failed to make the grade; at some point I’m going to do a big million-word fantasy series, I know that, but this is not the time at the moment, not until it is ready in my head. I went a long way with a ground-pounder SF series called ‘Fox Company’, about a US Special Forces unit engaged in peacekeeping missions in a wormhole-linked series of interstellar colonies in the 22nd century, something that had some scenes that I liked sufficiently that there is a good chance that the series will appear at some point.

Where did that leave me? Back to square one, perhaps, but perhaps not. I’ve had a setting in my head for a long time - shades of Alamo, here, and indeed it came from similar starting premises. I grew up expecting space stations and moon bases by the time I was an adult, and it was somewhat disappointing to see things proceeding far slower that, in my opinion, they needed to. However, I also think that all of this is about to change; the next thirty years are going to be really exciting in terms of space flight, and I stand by a prediction that the first man on Mars will take his steps by 2030. We’re closer than we think.

I’m digressing. The point is that I have a mental picture of what the Solar System will look like in around fifty years from now, but that until recently I haven’t known what sort of stories to tell in the setting. I do know that I want it to be a lot harder than Alamo, more my answer to the works of authors like Clarke and Heinlein, who wrote their settings to be as consistent as possible with the real universe. A common criticism of hard science fiction is that it tends to limit stories, but I think this is nonsense; if ‘reality’ was a restriction to storytelling then how would any police procedural work, for example. (Fine, some of them dance further away from reality than others, but the point I’m trying to make is that accuracy is no restriction to good storytelling. People are always going to be people.)

I’ll take a closer look at the setting in later posts, but to sum up, I postulate a series of scientific bases on Luna, Mars and orbiting Venus, as well as commercial development of LEO, Phobos and near-Earth asteroids - potentially, the first exploitation of asteroids out in the Main Belt. Mercury and Callisto visited at least once by human expeditions, and the first ship bound for Saturn under construction. Commercial development implies stories, obviously; whilst a well-run space outpost might be perceived as too ‘boring’ to work, the more interests and groups get involved, the more potential for fun.

Where does the story come in, then? Our old friend, the space freighter. All of these stations and outposts are going to need consistent resupply, and that’s going to mean commercial efforts, at least primarily. NASA will contract out resupply of Sagan Base on Mars to a private company, just as companies such as SpaceX are supplying the International Space Station right now, and I can’t see that changing. While you can expect a high degree of automation, simple distance means that there will be people out there managing the systems. Time-delay causes no end of problems, only getting worse the further out you get.

Space tourism? To LEO, definitely, and likely Luna as well - and even if the cost of a ticket is in the millions, certainly there will be a market for taking people to Mars at least, though probably riding in the same conditions as a passenger on a bulk freighter out on the Pacific. Which does not mean people won’t do it, I just don’t necessarily see a hotel/liner infrastructure for a long time. Hell, from a story point of view, that only makes things more interesting. And there will certainly be personnel transfers and the like between the outer stations, so passengers will be a must.

That means human crews, for a host of reasons. Obviously they’ll be kept to the minimum, but I can’t see Lloyds’ providing insurance on something without a human backup. They won’t be flying the ship, but they’ll be fixing it - and fixing dinner at the same time. Say a six-man crew, something on the order of the Nautilus-X design that someone at NASA came up with a few years ago - an interplanetary spaceship with a $3.5 billion price tag. Figure it will drop when you build more than one, so $2 billion is probably better.

That’s a lot of money. Not that it will necessarily cost that much. Say NASA buys three of them for $9 billion in 2030, to support its Mars mission plans. When they are over, these are now surplus, and are sold at auction - with part of the deal a commitment to resupply Mars Base and the new Venus Station. Well, they won’t make $9 billion. More like half that - so $4.5 billion for three. That sounds a bit better. Pan Galactic gets going, but face competition from their rivals in Cosmoflot, and after a few years, go out of business. Their assets are sold at auction. Again. This is now, say, 2042.

The auction will not include any contracts; NASA is buying services from Cosmoflot, but the companies working near-Earth asteroids want cargo ships to bring platinum back to LEO, as well as exchange crews, and enough people know that to provide some interest. Now the ships go to three different owners, at $500 million each. See how this works? By the time they’ve been in service for a while, the last owner might have only paid $100 million, and that’s about the cost of a supertanker today. The second-hand spaceship market. Naturally, there will be newer, flasher ships with better drive units - but these are still perfectly good for the job, and economical to boot. Will private companies build spaceships? Probably not, but they’ll buy them used from governments, who will make it clear that this is a good ‘pro-business’ strategy. Heck, there was an abortive attempt to buy a Space Shuttle as its operations were winding down. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this working.

So what we have here is a series of companies fighting for survival and dominance in a tough market, but one that is opening up and building year on year as dependence on space resources increases. Reliance on government contracts to support bases on Luna and Mars helps kickstart this, but there are private operations as well to add extra fun. Lots of little trading corporations trying to make a living by pushing out their competitors. That sounds like a pretty interesting universe for stories to me; I think I can get a nice number of novels out of the setting.

No comments:

Post a Comment