Saturday, November 28, 2009

Uranus Strikes Out

The Challenges of Writing a Near Future SFR

I had a funny thought today that in the process of revising my latest manuscript, Outer Planets, I effectively obliterated a member of our solar system from the mission parameters. Zap! Space dust. (Doesn’t being a writer come with some nifty powers?)

In my original draft of this Near Future Romance, my space exploration vessel was plotted to scout the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus for potential colony sites and resources that could be mined, extracted or otherwise pilfered by a burgeoning colony or two, or absorbed by consumers back on Earth. So why pick on poor Uranus? What did the seventh rock from the Sun ever do to me?

To put it simply, common logic killed Uranus.

First of all, it created a timing problem. My mission takes place from approximately the year 2039 to 2044. As it turns out, Jupiter and Saturn are going to be in close proximity in orbit in approximately November 2041, instead of being at opposite sides of the sun. The timing is perfect. Actually, they’ll be close again sometime in the 2070s but that’s too far in the future for the story I want to create, which I intentionally set within the life span of most readers. There’s a reference in the story to His Majesty, the King of England. Guess who that is? I thought it was kind of a cool thing that when the reference is made to a monarch some 30 years in the future, the reader will know who will most likely be occupying that seat.

But back to Uranus.

First of all, placement in orbit. I simply couldn’t make the inclusion of Uranus work in any feasible way, since although it wasn’t at the opposite side of the sun at that point, it was too far away to work into my mission without adding tens of million of miles. That was strike one.

Secondly, my purpose for including Uranus in the story was to open up the possibility of its additional 27 moons (as of this date) to explore. But with just Jupiter and Saturn there are already 123 moons. (Amazing, isn’t it? There are 150 moons orbiting those three planets!) Upon re-evaluation, 123 moons is plenty to explore especially with the possible water moons of Europa and Encaledus, the methane oceans of the Earth-lookalike Titan, and the volcanic activities on Io, et al. In fact, exploring 150 moons was probably overkill. So that was strike two.

Last of all, distance. Even if I’d cheated a bit and made Uranus’s orbit position feasible (i.e. fictional) for the timeline, it’s still way out there. Literally wayyy out there. Though Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus are neighbors, the distances between them are enormous. Earth is a mere 92,957,000 miles from the sun—to make the measurement of great distances easier to understand, that’s called an AU (or Astronomical Unit). In comparison, Mars’ orbit is only about one half of one AU away from Earth. Venus is even closer, but in the opposite direction. Jupiter is 483,632,000 miles away or four AUs. Saturn is 888,188,000 miles or nine-count ‘em—nine! AUs. And Uranus? A whopping 18 AUs or 1,690,950,000 from Earth, about twice as far out as Saturn.

Just for fun, I laid all the planets beyond Earth out on a graph line and translated it into rounded AU numbers. It looked something like this:

0.5 Mars

1.8 Asteroid belt

4.0 Jupiter

9.0 Saturn

18.0 Uranus

29.0 Neptune

38.0 Pluto

So even if Uranus was in perfect alignment, like Jupiter and Saturn will be, it would require all the time it took to reach Saturn (another two years) to get there, making my mission at least an eight-year mission, not five years. For reasons of both believable logistics and most of all, plot dynamics, that simply doesn’t work.

At our present level of propulsion technology we’d be hard pressed to even reach Jupiter in the first year, but I think it’s reasonable to assume some advances in both speed and efficiency in the next thirty years. So, one year to reach Jupiter. Six months to research the Jovian system. Another two and a half years to reach and study Saturn. And a final year to return home. (I developed new technology to increase the ship’s velocity for the return to Earth. Voila! Five year mission.)

So that settled it. Strike three. The mighty Uranus has struck out. Besides, the blue gas giant and her twenty-seven moons was just way too much additional detail to pack into an 110,000 page novel.

Writing a Near Future SF Romance is presenting a whole new set of challenges for me than I’ve encountered in my other SFRs. In P2PC and Draxis, I could simply create the worlds I wanted with all their little quirks, customs and idiosyncrasies to compliment the plot or add conflict for the characters. But dealing with characters living in a world only two or three decades down the road, the story takes on the feel of a contemporary (albeit an extraordinary one). There’s a lot more research involved. In P2PC, the distance between Veros and Banna (or Rathskia and Ithis) didn’t matter. Because those planets are…you know…fictional. Whereas Jupiter and Saturn are fact. And they can be seen by anyone on any given night with any decent telescope. Hello!

This project has been an incredible journey for me via my research. Whether reliving the giddy years of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, studying how a space shuttle actually orbits, marveling at the amazing paintings of former astronaut Alan Bean, touring the Skylab at the Smithsonia Air and Space Museum, or puzzling out the political dramas surrounding the Mir space station, Outer Planets has taken me places I’ve never been before. I hope it will do the same for readers someday in the not too distant future.


  1. We need more near-future SFR so hats off to you for tackling such a project! And thanks for taking us through your process of...elimination.

    (sorry, couldn't resist!)

  2. I can't possibly top Heather. So I'll just say thanks for the interesting glimpse into your process! (Feeling sort of sad for the little guy, though.)

  3. Jeez! All those moons! All that space!! The mind boggles. I mean, ANYTHING could be out there . . . waiting . . . y'know, just a thought. :-)

  4. Uh huh. Ever seen 2010? Great movie, BTW. Much better than 2001. [Eek, blasphemy!]

    A lot of fans may not realize that Firefly was set in just one solar system. "Dozens of planets...hundreds of moons." Joss Whedon received praise as someone who probably got it right, since the possibility of traveling to distance stars is still very much fiction and/or fantasy in the world of science.

    As writers our imaginations venture off into the far reaches of the galaxy or the universe, but the truth is, there's plenty of mystery and wonder right here in our own neighborhood.

    At least that was one of the things that intrigued me when I started writing Outer Planets.

  5. Cool! Laurie, I really enjoyed this post. Kudos on the research.

  6. Thank you for your comment, Rowena. I think your series--FORCED MATE, INSUFFICIENT MATING MATERIAL and KNIGHT'S FORK--would also be described as Near Future Romance, wouldn't they?

    Thanks for stopping by Spacefreighters. :)


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