space travel

Can you plan too much? #scifi

As most of my works are science fiction, I tend to end up with many scenes set on space craft. Some of these are brief, but in my more recent books space craft have featured more heavily.

View along top of Celtic Conveyor

JHF Celtic Conveyor

Sometimes I’ve sketched out deck plans on paper, detailing just the locations which crop up. This was how I designed the Elysian in Astronomicon: The Beginning¬†and the USS Oppenheimer in Icarus.¬†Other times I have put in some hours constructing detailed 3D models on my laptop. Examples of this are the Icarus from the book of the same name and the Akhena from Astronomicon: Distant Relatives.

The clear advantage of 3D models is that I can try out walking around the different locations, trying out new angles and coming up with ideas that a paper plan just wouldn’t inspire. It gives me a better idea of distances and lines-of-sight, occasionally causing me to use locations I would not have considered otherwise.

Eridani Flagship AkhenaThis doesn’t always go to plan. When I started designing the Eridani flagship, the Akhena, I quickly discovered that I had bitten off far more than I could chew.

The vessel was considerably larger that I could construct myself, so I was forced to limit myself to the important areas that would be used in the novel. The main hangar bay (near the rear of the vessel) was constructed in detail, as were the major corridors and some obvious architectural features such as the gardens. I may have to add to this model in future as the Akhena will be appearing again in a planned future novel.

JHF Celtic Conveyor

JHF Celtic Conveyor (overview)

My most recent work, Deadline, has led me to build my most detailed model yet. Most of the book is set on the Celtic Conveyor so it was necessary to model many of the locations on the ship. Especially as the crew spend much of their time chasing the mysterious alien intruder around the bowels of the ship. I’m also planning for the model to be re-used as the Celtic Conveyor’s sister ship, the Astral Empress. If I can use a model several times, it makes it worth investing a little more time in the construction.

JHF Celtic Conveyor

JHF Celtic Conveyor

With practice, I have got much faster at using the tools and a better judge of what details are important and which can be glossed over or ignored completely. It’s been a fascinating process and allowed me to maintain perfect consistency when characters move about within the vessel.

Now all I need to do is find someone who can render up the models so I can use them on my book covers too.

Icarus Front view 2 - In Space

Icarus – Gecko Class Asteroid Mining Vessel

Star Drive Technology

Icarus Front view - In SpaceBroadly speaking, spacecraft fall into two technological categories. There are the sublightspeed variety that we are very familiar with, such as the Space Shuttle (okay so the bit we call the “Shuttle” is actually the “Orbiter”). Then there’s the supralightspeed variety which don’t yet exist, the USS Enterprise and Battlestar Galactic springing to mind as examples there.

Some novels use the technology we have today and go for gritty realism, others jump into the more distant future, get rid of all the lightspeed limitations which can cramp a good story, and head off into Star Trek territory.

Even Star Trek acknowledges the transition between the two technology levels in First Contact. They presented a world where the transition was a break-through and everything changed at that point.

Icarus Front view 2 - In SpaceI seem to be unusual in that I have written science fiction novels which often span the transition period, assuming it will be a tricky process with no single, universe-changing breakthrough. In Astronomicon: Icarus, the titular vessel uses a plasma drive allowing it to reach small fractions of the speed of light, but never get close to a “warp capability”.

The salvage vessel in the same novel, the EUSS Wagner, travels out to the Trojan Cluster using a plasma pulse drive. This is very much a transitional technology which is obviously purely a temporary stage in development. While it is drastically faster than the mining vessel Icarus, is incapable of breaking the light barrier.

The third vessel in Icarus is the mysterious “USS Oppenheimer”, a highly classified experimental vessel fitted with, what the crew call, a “Torus” drive. Details of the technology are mostly kept secret by the remnants of the vessel’s crew but we are given the basic concept of how its space-bending main drive functions, allowing it to bypass the limitations of the speed-of-light.

Of course such technological leaps can be perilous, as the crew of the Oppenheimer have discovered. The first attempt to bend space on an interstellar scale does not go to plan, forming the exciting basis for the whole novel.

I plan to write more books that sit within the transition time of such technology. In real life things often don’t work properly, especially with new technology and I think it can be fascinating to explore that in science fiction too.