Thursday, 17 January 2013

Deconstructing Clouded Judgement

Writing Clouded Judgement for the Pod and Planet fiction contest was a real labour of love, based on some ideas I'd been kicking around for a while. I wanted to make something of my notes and record what I'd learned from the researching and writing process. This slightly indulgent post is as much for my posterity as anything else, but perhaps it might be of interest to some. There are spoilers though, so maybe you'd like to go read the story first and draw your own conclusions before we peak behind the curtain.

Xenobiology

The central conceit of my planned story was the possibility of life on other planets, of a kind that wouldn't fit comfortably into our current understanding. I knew with regard to EVE canon (and the competition for which I was writing), I would be on thin ice – we don't like aliens in our New Eden - but I really wanted to explore the themes of evolution and Mankind's influence on it and as is often the case for me, once an creative idea has taken root, there was no ignoring it to write something safer.

In any case, I took comfort in that it seemed inconceivable to me (not to mention mathematically improbable) that mankind could have spread so virulently through the cluster over the twenty-odd millenia since they arrived in New Eden, without discovering (or creating – inadvertently or otherwise) any sentient life. Existing canon is scattered with occasional references - slaver hounds, souvicou cave snakes, fedo - so there was precedent.  Indeed, the existence of many Earth-like green-blue temperate planets throughout the cluster made the existence of flora evident and no natural ecosystem based on the earth model can develop and spread without a degree of assistance from animals. Insects distribute pollen, birds and grazing animals digesting and spreading seeds, fertilising the earth and so on.

Even if such life had been introduced by early human colonists, It's exciting to imagine how such life would have evolved on Earth-like planets with subtle environmental differences. Varied gravity, different light levels or atmospheric composition, periodic table variations, unusual magnetic properties - the environmental factors which steered our evolution might have vastly different results if the parameters are tweaked even just a fraction.

But these exciting possibilities were just on temperate planets; why not apply the same thinking to environments even more alien to us? Gas planets seem like a perfect kind of boiling pot environment to create life - if Earth-borne life evolved from primordial soup, why not also primordial vapour? How can we be so certain that our kind of life is the only kind possible?

As I said before, this was an idea I had been chewing over for a while, but the EVE Online Pod and Planet fiction contest gave me the motivation to flesh it out. Naively convinced I had a completely original concept, I started doing some research. in recent years I'd read articles on the viability of ammonia-based life, rather than our carbon-based biology. Knowing that ammonia was also thought to be present on gas planets like Neptune and Uranus, it was the combination of these two facts that had teased the idea of gaseous evolution into my thoughts.

Then, I discovered that Carl Sagan, astrophysicist, astronomer and all-round scientific scion, had thought of all of this before, back in seventies. He'd written papers on the concept of an ecosystem on Jupiter, complete with fast predators, huge balloon-like grazers and smaller flocking herd swarms. He'd even inspired artists to give form to his concepts. In part, I was a bit miffed that my idea wasn't quite as ground-breaking as I'd led myself to believe, but also I was buoyed - this gave the concept far more scientific credibility.

Although I had in mind life which was a little more ethereal, more wisp-like with gaseous tendrils and a flexible concept of physical composition. I liked to think of an electrical charge moving through a stormcloud, more a complex reaction of chemicals with a central essence which could manipulate the atmosphere around it, borrowing appropriate gases as it required. I wasn't so keen on the more mundane physical concepts Mr Sagan had envisioned. Although the two could co-exist in the same environment. I kicked around the idea of the Sagan-esque physical ecosystem with a more willful, elemental and possibly conscious gaseous symbiote which may have developed to the point of having a defined social structure, but more in the sense of cells within a body, where the body was the planet's atmosphere. It could be shepherd and protector for the other creatures.

It was certainly enough of a concept to support my planned narrative and I never intended to set the planetary ecosystem in stone – I was a storyteller, not a theoretical ecologist. Besides, I wanted to leave plenty of ambiguity to allow the reader to make his own mind up and draw his own interpretation on the cause and significance of events.

Planetology and Technology

Given that I'd decided to set my story on a gas extraction colony as found in EVE Online's planetary interaction gameplay, I needed to have a better understanding of the science of planetary atmospheres, gas planets and the EVE lore behind the technology used to make these floating installations work.

I found this a fascinating journey of discovery which resulted in me getting lost in assorted websites and books on the layers of a planetary atmosphere from the lowest troposphere, through the stratosphere, into the three ionosphere layers; the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere, then you start getting into the magnetosphere which is a whole different kind of space gravy.

This was all hard enough to grasp in relation to our own planet, but then I had to transpose this knowledge onto the concept of a much larger, more gaseous planetary body.

Basing knowledge largely on information about the four gas giants in our solar system, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, I was particularly interested in the last two as they seemed to have more in common with the gas planets found in EVE.  Learning to understand the pressure and temperature variations and the chemical compositions and violent interactions really did help to envisage a harsh, alien environment.

One factoid that particularly excited me was from the Wikipedia page on Neptune, which read, “Since Neptune's atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune's colour.” I love that today's scientists don't know stuff – although to be fair, the more I read the more I got the impression that there's a hell of a lot of guesswork woven into some accepted cosmological “facts”.

The important facts were that the cloud-deck above which we see the orbital facilities hovering in-game indicate that these float above the tropospheric layer in or around the stratosphere. This seems sensible as it would afford the colonies relative safety from the storms which would rage beneath, whilst allowing them to be close enough to access the varying bands of denser gases in the upper troposphere.

The biggest hazards which the colony would face would be gravity (obviously) and temperature – despite some surprisingly balmy temperatures in the storms below, the lower pressure above the tropopause (the altitude where the troposphere and stratosphere meet) meant temperatures below -200C. Pressure wasn't really an issue until extending deep into the troposphere.

None of this was a huge concern from a narrative perspective – if New Eden's mankind can harness wormholes and transfer human consciousness across space, I didn't need to worry about their ability to overcome simple problems like making a city hover indefinitely above an incredibly hostile environment. I just needed to understand enough to deliver a story with authenticity.

I also needed to ensure that everything tied in with the information already available in-game. It was by going through the descriptions of the various gas colony structures that I was impressed by the sheer thought and depth that was going largely unnoticed by the EVE-playing masses. Really, stop once in a while and check out the details...


Whilst not enough to really deliver a scientific explanation, these descriptions contained a wealth of lore touchstones I could weave into the story; the “equilibrium technology”, the “Hohmann Mass Driver” and the indication of the strict controls necessary “to maintain proper weight and balance” of the colony structures painted a picture of an austere, almost barren living environment.

The description of the gas extractor itself as a kind of unconventional organism was delicious;  “The extractor itself is much like a living organism, breathing in what it needs and expelling that which becomes cumbersome.” This serendipitously tied into the unconventional life theme I wanted to explore.

Character and Story

In EVE choice and consequence are always central themes. I wanted to tell a story of these frontiersmen on their isolated colony being forced to cross boundaries with which they weren't comfortable. I didn't want any good guys and bad guys, I wanted each character to have clear motives and reasons for their decisions.

On the first draft I didn't have any names in mind, just placeholders, but I had a strong idea of how I wanted the three central characters to interact. There would be the driven, focused alpha-female who became Director Valta, the morally-flexible displaced leader in Administrator Toukka and the most sympathetic character, the tragedy-tinged Dr. Yuskollin.

I deliberately avoided describing their race of origin in the story as I personally find the idea of New Eden only being populated by a few distinct races a little preposterous. Over the millenia that these sub-sets of humanity have been interacting, they would have been interbreeding to the point where very few would be purebred and I'm not a fan of relying on racial stereotypes to describe characters. That said, I opted for Caldari names as I thought the Caldari aesthetic suited the austere vibe of the colony. However, I also like to think of Dr. Yuskollin as having some Amarrian heritage and his wife even moreso, which was why as a family of doctors, they're all Hedion University graduates. I developed each character in some detail, particularly the Yuskollins, their lives, beliefs and working relationships. I particularly took time to realise the events leading up to the story opening. Like the technology and science research, it was all about having depth and authenticity.

It was the interplay between these three characters that I wanted to describe as the events their choices set in motion spiral out of their control. I also wanted the challenge of bringing some excitement to an aspect of the EVE universe which is very sedate and unengaging. The pacing of the story was a challenge, I wanted to draw the reader in quickly, hence the immediate conflict in the board room scene, but I also wanted to deliver at least some of the historical and scientific depth I'd researched. Sadly, for the sake of brevity, a lot of this got stripped out again to fit the 5000 word competition limit.

I think this was a good thing. Nothing was really lost from the story and it is a lot less flabby for it. In some ways, it was a gain; I wanted to get the reader thinking, and in many ways sacrificing some of the exposition meant that the reader had to fill in the blanks and draw his own conclusions.

With the set up delivered, I enjoyed the writing the more energetic and physically descriptive final act. The technical and scientific research I did really paid off in the extractor head scene – I felt I could write the descriptions of the environment with some authority and had a clear visualisation in my mind.  Again, I left the hows and whys of events deliberately vague, instead focusing on the events themselves to allow the reader to interpret the cause of the changing atmospheric conditions and the inexplicable sighting of a supposedly bed-ridden casualty somewhere she ought not to be.

Critical Reception

In terms of the Pod and Planet competition, it was this ambiguous quality that was probably my undoing, the story failed to place amongst the 16 prize recipients. So I took up the judges' kind offer of some feedback. There were some suggestions of pacing, predictable plots and obvious characters, which I'll just have to take on the chin (although I think, in part, these concerns were more a matter of taste). But the main issue was that one of the key elements was the “supernatural” nature of the story was considered to be not in keeping with EVE canon. I was surprised by this as I didn't write in any supernatural activity.  Hoisted by my own petard of ambiguity, it seems. Maybe the lesson for me to learn is to keep it simple and not try to cram too much in to a short story.

Perhaps I could have taken the time to include explanation of the scientific principles I had in mind that would have caused the unseen gaseous ecosystem to register human intervention as a threat and do everything necessary to expel it. I could have given more attention to the infestation in the stricken Mrs.Yuskollin that allowed the intelligent forces to investigate and sabotage the humans means of escape via the Hohmann mass driver escape capsule. In my mind this gaseous eco-intelligence was harnessing its environment, its “technology” to defend itself from a perceived attack.

Arthur wasn't wearing any trousers.
Other clues existed in the text, but were removed for brevity and I could certainly have been more transparent with my narrative. But I think I prefer it this way, EVE theme be damned. The fact that some interpreted this to be in some way religious, with ghosts and divine intervention is amazing. I love that words I wrote could be interpreted so differently. And who's to say that they're wrong. Certainly not me, I wanted ambiguity and interpretation and that's what I got.

After all, it was the great Arthur C. Clarke, giant of the science fiction genre who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems the same can be said for forms of biological and meteorological science that are not conventional sci-fi fare.

And what is more important was that others enjoyed it. I received number of positive and generous comments both on the original blogpost and from elsewhere. This was my favourite:


So I am content. The quality of the competition was very high and I have enjoyed reading several of the other entries. There was no shame in losing to them. Go check some out for yourself, there's an amazing body of player-generated EVE fiction right there. In the end, it was the community who won.

And I am writing that novel.

2 comments:

  1. I re-read the story tonight (had read it back when you originally posted) and was reminded how good it really was. You turn a beautiful phrase and paint great pictures with words. Honestly, had you submitted to the Day in the Life category, I think you would have gotten a prize.

    My gut check is the same as yours at the start - namely that New Eden is very scrubbed of alien intelligence. Had you laid this clearly at the feet (wings?) of alien fauna at the end, you may have had a shot.

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  2. Cheers for the vote of confidence Rhavas, it's reassuring. Looking back at the rules, maybe you're right about the category, but I did feel I was operating within canon - specifically I wanted to flesh out the baseliner activities on hostil planetary colonies as I don't think there's much on that at the moment. I thought I saw a gap in the market, so to speak.

    And yeah, ultimately, it wasn't core canon, the non-human element wasn't in keeping with the common themes of EVE whether or not you interpret it as supernatural or scientific.

    In any case, I don't really mind not winning. The feedback I've had from many folks who have read it is far more valuable and encouraging and I think I learned some valuable lessons with regard to writing for an audience versus writing for a reviewer.

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Lay it on me.