Featured Novel:'SpaceCorp: A Science Fiction Thriller' by Ejner Fulsang
If you love realistic science fiction that explains how space-faring societies with special interest in interstellar exploration came to be, then you should probably check out Ejner Fulsang's hard science fiction thriller The Galactican Series. The first book, SpaceCorp, invites readers to experience a realistic path where they could share mankind's first glimpses of the planets of Alpha Centauri. The novel takes place in 2070, and its journey takes mankind from Low Earth Orbit to a permanent colony in Cislunar space. This is not your typical space adventure.
Fulsang always wanted to write an enjoyable space-based Sci-Fi story, but until he put in his seven years at NASA, he never felt qualified. The scientific knowledge he gained from NASA may have dissipated the simple pleasures of Star Wars and Star Trek, but his experience enabled him to develop a rich science fiction novel that thrives to bring back readers to reality. "Space is hard!," Fulsang says. "Homo sapiens can’t survive long in interplanetary space where ambient radiation is 25 rems, much less interstellar space where it jumps to 75 rems. These knotty problems do have their solutions but they won’t come cheap."
You'll probably learn a lot from Fulsang's impressive views on science fiction in this interview. There's also a lot of interesting background about SpaceCorp here.
Interview with Ejner Fulsang
What's the major conflict of your science fiction series?
There’s just one. Can the society of SpaceCorp escape into space before they are engulfed by the ignorance that is ruining the world?
Tell us about the world of your novel. How did you develop this setting?
The biggest driver for the setting was the Kessler Syndrome wherein the density of space junk in LEO will eventually reach critical mass in which the random collision rate will exceed the orbital decay rate. The net of it is, as the Prologue predicts, Lloyds of London can no longer insure satellites. This paves the way for SpaceCorp to rehost vital space instrumentation on its fleet of giant toroidal shaped space stations, the Von Braun being the first. They must be very large to ward off debris impacts and they must be staffed with humans who, as Captain Hernandez states, “We’re here to diagnose impact damage, design repairs, fashion parts, and program robots.” It is a lucrative business model that keeps SpaceCorp in the money from 2038 when the Von Braun is christened right up to 2100 when the John Carter is launched for Mars. I also wanted a dystopia-in-progress. The way I chose to construct it was to pick several current headlines and extrapolate forward to 2070. The only value of a literary dystopia—apart from the guilty pleasure of reading it—is if you school the reader in where such trends could possibly lead. The country is not split down the middle—at least not in terms of influence. The Tea Party does not represent half the GOP, yet it nevertheless controls the GOP’s agenda with its power to withhold it’s votes on moderate GOP issues. So all those southern secessionists, and gun-nuts, and plutocrats, and climate denialists, and fossil fuel people, and religious fundamentalists, and gerrymandered voter-suppressed congressional districts, and people who support expensive invasions of inconsequential foreign countries, and so on are, by virtue of their power to say ‘NO,’ driving America’s future. And though it be offensive to some, the disintegration of America is a grim possibility. This is my warning shot across the bow of American consciousness. Our fate is much grimmer than losing the Senate to the GOP, or whether we end up with a female president in 2016, or even whether we have a black man and a black woman engaging in nightly copulations in the White House.
How do you balance the elements of dystopia and technology in "SpaceCorp"?
Some would say not very well. SpaceCorp is the utopian balance to the growing dystopia in America. For example, the Kessler Syndrome might never have become a problem had not a number of rogue nations like Iran and North Korea sought to make their bones in the international arena by shooting down derelict satellites and boosters. The resultant storm of space debris made it so only giant space stations could mount the vital instruments the world needs for communication, navigation, and weather. And like all good utopias, SpaceCorp slowly weaned itself away from a money-based business model. SpaceCorp is a will-work-for-food economy that only works because of the global failure of the financial markets circa 2030. But it’s not enough that SpaceCorp provide its citizens with only a daily three hots and a cot. They need to be united behind a common dream—to become a true space-faring society, to one day reach the stars. The members who don’t share that dream eventually leave—there are easier ways to make a living.
Why do you think is it important to bring realism into science fiction? Do you take time to extrapolate scientific rules in your fiction?
Star Trek/Wars, Avatar, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, etc. are like intellectual crack—a wonderful short term high but oh so addictive. Like all habit-forming drugs, over time they become their own reality, especially if you never had much of a grasp on reality to start with. This is the case with the untrained and uneducated young mind, and a good many older minds for that matter. By untrained, I refer to the failure to use the scientific method in everyday life. No, I don’t mean conduct an experiment for each and every thing you want to know. For me, life is one giant and unending experiment. I am constantly associating what I see (yes, reading is part of what I see) with what I don’t understand in order to explain and predict. It is an imperfect method, of course, because life makes it very difficult to isolate the variables as you would in a laboratory. But over time this method is far superior to faith-based or dogma-driven reasoning. Those who don’t practice that approach are in danger of being sucked in to a kind of group-think that can be very hard to extract themselves from. Read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from The Republic. I read it as a senior at West Point and it has forged my life ever since.
So what to do? Stories like Star Wars or Twilight certainly make for some guilty pleasures! To compete, hard sci-fi writers have to show how there is a rich source of plot material and character development embedded in technical and scientific realism. Let me show you an example with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation. It’s really not that hard. What Konstantin said in lay terms is that if you fire a rocket that is sitting in space, you will accelerate to a new velocity according to the speed of the exhaust gas subject to the overall mass of your rocket until you run out of fuel. At that point you will maintain your new velocity until you hit something. If you want to go faster still, you must fire another rocket. But alas, you didn’t bring one! So let’s start the experiment over, this time bringing two rockets. You fire the first one but strangely you don’t achieve the same velocity as the first experiment. That’s because you are carrying more total mass in the form of the second rocket. No matter, you go ahead and fire the second rocket and you end up traveling faster than the first experiment, but not double the velocity of the first experiment. Hmm… repeat with three rockets. You end up going faster than the second experiment but significantly less than three times the velocity of the first experiment. All that extra starting mass is causing you to have diminishing returns. Bummer.
Okay, how do you fold that concept into a plot? Well, we want to get to the nearby stars and so far, all we know is that chemical rockets won’t get us to .5 c, the minimum velocity needed to get to Alpha Centauri in a reasonable time. We could try nuclear thermal rockets. They have much higher exhaust gas velocity and a lot less wet mass because they don’t require an oxidizer like conventional rockets. But they still won’t get you to the stars because even nearby stars are very far away and there is no way you can pack enough liquid hydrogen propellant to reach .5 c. Cutting to the chase, you’re going to need an antimatter drive. Fission reactions only provide about 1% mass to energy conversion. Fusion is good for only 3%. But antimatter provides the full 100% mass to energy conversion needed to get you to .5 c provided you can handle all that antimatter without blowing yourself and your planet to oblivion. Antimatter is not fussy. It will annihilate with anything it comes into contact with, whether it’s hydrogen propellant or your spacecraft. Of course, this being a gripping science fiction story, the reader can rest assured that some form of antimatter mishap is exactly what going to happen!
So there you have it. Technology begets plot. It’s that simple. You have the basis for a good story andyou learned about Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation and a bit about exotic spacecraft propulsion. Aren’t you proud of yourself? No? Okay, go back to your Vampires of Mars.
Did you have to re-watch Gina Carano's films or shows for inspiration to develop your character?
Yes, I’ve seen the movie Haywire at least four times, plus I saw another movie she did, In the Blood. I paid special attention to her fight scenes and how she delivered her lines. Her laconic, matter of fact delivery during stressful situations blew me away.
I should point out that several other characters are based on Hollywood actors as well. The crusty old president is Burgess Meredith, Jason Byerly is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and protagonist Mack MacGregor is John Cusack.
What science fiction elements did you particularly like from the works of Sci-Fi authors you mentioned? And how do you blend those elements in your work?
Both Baxter (in Titan) and Atwood (in Oryx and Crake) made it okay to destroy the world, in each case the lesson being that if we persist in our ignorant and irresponsible ways, the world—or at least civilization as we know it—will come to an end. Baxter’s Titan is particularly interesting in that he used a large asteroid colliding with the Earth to create an artificial mass extinction. Mass extinctions are interesting. We’ve had quite a number of them over the eons, and each one has replaced the old order with a new order, e.g., the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago took out the dinosaurs and made way for mammals.
The current order of apex mammals—Homo sapiens—is a helluva a long way from the altruistic society of Star Trek and showing no signs of heading that way soon. Is humanity due for a mass extinction? Or maybe the message is that it’s not too late if humans will but mend their evil ways. How do you communicate that? There have been many books about the evils of war, yet war is as popular today as it ever was. There is a whole sub-genre of military Sci-Fi that wallows in it. Typical dystopias are not much better since they often put the plot in the middle of an extant dystopia and develop the story around the hero coping with his ruined world. The only literary value of a dystopia is if the writer extrapolates from the present trends to show how they lead to ruination. Where do you find those trends? Watch the news for a week or two and you’ll have plenty.
How do I blend these elements into the Galactican Series? Well, that would be a spoiler, but I assure you, the ending will be apocalyptic!
Your scientific knowledge is impressive. Did you have to extensively explain certain concepts when writing your novel? If so, what ideas or concepts are described in greater detail?
Oh, yes. I used some pretty cheap plot devices to get across concepts like Mack explaining the advantages of nanocellulose in building giant space stations to a room full of SpaceCorp executives. And I went into great detail of trouble explaining Mack’s ‘stratolaunch’ system for putting the millions of tonnes of building supplies into Low Earth Orbit at high launch rate and low cost. Then there was the morale talk Mack gave to the crew of the Pelican to explain why the shift from conventional aluminum hulled space stations to nanocellulose—they fancied themselves as more riveters than algae farmers. In the Epilogue Monica goes into considerable detail about the genetic modifications that will be needed for a new species of space-adapted humans. I repeat the radiation hazard argument numerous times throughout the story. I also try to work in explanations of orbital mechanics to explain why spacecraft behave the way they do in orbit. In books to come, there will be many more ‘tutorials’ to aid the reader as well as enrich the story.
Hard science-fiction is a genre that's less accessible to readers than other popular genres like YA Fantasy or Romance, probably because there are fewer readers who have the intellectual capacity and patience to marvel at rich science fiction books like yours. Do you agree with this statement? Share us your views about this matter.
What I do write is Hard Sci-Fi, defined as “driven more by ideas than characterization. Plausible science and technology are central to the plot.” I can speak to hard sci-fi and I completely agree that there are fewer readers who have the intellectual capacity and patience to appreciate a book like SpaceCorp. But I take heart—if there are readers who put the time into becoming fluent in Klingon, then by damn, there must be readers who can comprehend Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers of hard science fiction?
So the remaining issue is how you learn all the science and technology that goes into writing a hard sci-fi space story. For me working at NASA for seven years was a big help, but perhaps too steep a price unless you just want to work at NASA. I found working at NASA okay as an effing day job, but the bureaucracy was insufferable—today’s NASA is not the NASA of the Apollo era. Besides the usual civil servant issues, it has also become the hunting ground for Congressional types looking to skewer a bit of pork for their districts. It’s no wonder SpaceX can put a payload into Low Earth Orbit for less than a tenth the cost of conventional launch services. It’s also why I had Congress sell off NASA and a good many Air Force launch assets to the highest bidder as part of the backstory of my series. Finally, it is no accident that each year the space budget withers while NASA careens about like an answer looking for a question. (End of rant.)
Learning about the science and technology appropriate to hard sci-fi can be done in about a year or so of diligent web search/study (equal emphasis on search and study) IF you don’t have an effing day job. (BTW--effing day jobs are the curse of the writing class.)
Here are some helpful starters (I’ve done them all):
a) JPL’s Basics of Space Flight
b) Project Rho Atomic Rockets