Review: In Conquest Born

It’s interesting to re-read a book that made a huge impression on me the first time around. Some of them seem less exciting, while some hold up amazingly well upon multiple reads. (The best example I can think of for the latter case: Dune. Despite identifying the traitorous character by name on page 28, before we ever set foot on the eponymous planet, Herbert still surprised me with the betrayal…and when I re-read the book six months later, it happened again. I was getting all, “Aha! The Atreides are figuring it out! Duke Leto has a chance, maybe he’ll get away this time oh NOOOOOOOO” but I digress.)

The first time I read C. S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born, I was incredibly impressed. I immediately classed the book as one of my favorite science fiction novels. On my mental tally, it went right up there with Dune.

The novel explores the kinds of societies and personalities that might evolve in an environment of endless conflict. Two interstellar nations, the Azean Star Empire and the Braxin Holding, have been locked in a galactic-scale war for such a long time that, though the original antagonism is recorded, none of the combatants really care why the war started in the first place. The war has become a way of life for both sides, and both cultures have evolved along parallel – but mutually exclusive – courses in response to the war and to each other. The Azeans, determined to make themselves into the perfect fighting race, have started genetically engineering themselves – gunning not just for a specific “ideal” phenotype but for telepathic abilities, which the Braxins specifically abhor. The elitist Braxaná rulers of the Holding sought to preserve, by all the means at their disposal, the ancient warrior culture that first brought them to successful dominance over the other tribes of their planet; they hope that their traditions and ideals will carry them to victory in future conflicts as well. As Zatar puts the distinction between Empire and Holding: “While your people developed Civilization, we developed Man.”

In that environment, both nations accidentally produce a representative who embodies everything their culture has been evolving towards. The first half of the novel chronicles the formative years for Anzha lyu Mitethe, in Azea, and Zatar of the Braxaná. They both become renowned commanders in the Endless War. At almost the exact midpoint of the book, they meet each other in a room – and in the second half, the galactic war becomes an obsessive personal vendetta for both characters. They seek to manipulate their societies’ political and military goals towards their personal objective of destroying their counterpart.

The story is both epic and intimate, with references to more than enough planets, cultures, species, and events to establish a credible universe. Like Friedman’s other science fiction, major themes include self-discovery, the interplay of sexuality and power, and descriptions of characters and cultures that are neither fully good or evil.

Maddeningly, Conquest was Friedman’s first novel and not only did she send the manuscript to a publisher unsolicited, but that publisher accepted it.

Continue reading Review: In Conquest Born

Art Question: Map Labels

I have been working on a map. It looks something like this:

Map Detail

The map consists of India ink laid down on top of a set of watercolor washes. (Well, technically, washes from some Derwent Signature Watercolor pencils – thanks to Robin for those!) This is actually my first excursion into something like this. I like the way the India ink sits on top of the paper, while the watercolor soaks in.

But now I have a dilemma: I’m trying to decide how, or even if, to label the map with place names. I have already digitized the map (eh, roughly…what I really need is a large-format scanner!) and have been playing around with labeling schemes on the computer. The easiest and clearest thing to do in digital form is to (at least partially) desaturate the map such that the colors are duller and the ink is perhaps 60% gray and then scrawl my labels over it. However, the physical map has fairly bright colors and the ink is, of course, nearly always black, which means that a sweeping label over those mountains or forests will not come out well. I think more experienced cartographers of fantastical lands than I would have done the labeling and the cartography simultaneously, so they could shape the trees and mountains around the words if necessary. But no, I had to go ahead and ink in all the forests and mountain ranges first.

Here is what I am wondering: if I get some, say, red ink and use my pen to write a sprawling label over one of those forests, will the ink sit on top of the black-inked trees and be generally legible? Clearly, doing that with black ink would result in an unreadable jumble, but would red cut across the existing features with enough contrast? Should I just stick with doing it all by computer? Or does anyone out there have a better idea?

Getting Over the Space Shuttle Legacy

Representing the entire Orbiter fleet, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is above the Earth for the last time. She comes home on 21 July.

Atlantis floating over the Bahamas

The Space Shuttle is a tremendous vehicle, a real achievement of engineering. It has given us the Hubble Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory; it’s brought astronauts and nations together in a place where they can see the Earth for what it truly is; it has demonstrated and developed our capability for assembling structures and conducting experiments in space. I think the greatest achievement of the Space Shuttle Program has been the construction of the International Space Station, a huge structure where seven or so (sometimes as many as 13) astronauts can stay for half a year or more – a marvel of engineering if there ever was one. The population of the Station compares with some pioneer towns in American history.

This summer, the Shuttle Program ends. Every news outlet, blogger, commentator, and space enthusiast out there seems to agree that the word to describe the STS-135 mission is “bittersweet.” I agree that the Shuttle program has been pretty sweet…but I’m not bitter that it’s coming to an end.

In fact, I think it’s a very good thing.

The Space Shuttle Program has been active for 30 years now – and I find that simple fact quite unsettling. To put that timeframe in perspective: I grew up steeping myself in space, got a college degree in a hard science, completed a Ph.D. in spacecraft technology research, and began a career in the spacecraft industry, and I just turned 27. As long as I have been alive, there has been a Space Shuttle and a Space Shuttle Program. Or, for another view, NASA has conducted six manned space programs: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station. Not only is the Space Shuttle Program the longest-running of them all, but it ran as long as all the other programs put together. Our nation got to the Moon from zero space-age industrial base and with a supply of engineers who had no idea how rockets worked in just over ten years. My point is this: The Shuttle Program started in the Eighties, and our nation should have been ready for the next space program in the Nineties.

How did NASA get to this point? The simple answer is that NASA was created as a weapon we could use to fight the Cold War. It was a two-pronged weapon: First, its purpose was to respond to the apparent Soviet dominance in rocket and spacecraft technology, and show that America could develop that knowledge, too. Second, it was a careful political weapon – “Look, your space program is entirely militarized. Ours is entirely civilian and peaceful, and based on capitalist contracts, and those purposes are actually superior!” Now, after it became clear that America won any Space Race that existed, NASA is a weapon without a war. It simply cannot command 4.4% of the federal budget like it did in the heyday of Apollo (it’s stuck with a measly 0.5-0.7%.). And NASA does not command the affection of the American people as well as it did in the mid-20th Century. Without those sources of support, it cannot achieve lofty goals.

I think that the Space Shuttle is, in fact, a good symbol for everything that is wrong with the American space program. In a word: Complacency. We’re too used to having a Space Shuttle – so much so, in fact, that the media continues to equate the Space Shuttle Program and the manned space program. Congress, in particular, is way too used to the Space Shuttle Program, and I think members of Congress view NASA more as a source for government sinecure jobs than for bold exploratory endeavors. The American public has become complacent about the Space Shuttle to the extent that one lasting legacy of the Shuttle Program is that the public thinks space travel is boring – NASA public affairs officers have not been able to deal with a generation that thinks iPhone apps are more exciting than human beings blasting off into orbit. And NASA itself has become complacent about the Shuttle, in many ways. NASA contractors lament the tragedy of this program ending after giving them a single, steady job for 30 years. NASA employees wonder what they will do after spending so long on this one program. And fourteen astronauts lost their lives to complacency within the Space Shuttle Program.

So, yes, the Space Shuttle is a sweet piece of hardware, and it has given us many achievements and advances. And I feel the bittersweet mood surrounding the STS-135 mission, the bittersweet mood that has been building for the last few years. But, for me, the “bitter” part doesn’t come from the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

I’m bitter because the plan America has to follow the Shuttle Program sucks.

Congress has decreed that the post-Shuttle American space program will be this: NASA shall build a really big rocket, and it shall stick the Orion capsule on top of this rocket. I am unimpressed: NASA has already figured out the really big rocket, and that capability has been in private hands for decades. Building a bigger rocket is just a question of scaling up the engineering of contemporary technology, it’s not a fundamentally new enterprise. And the Orion capsule is an Apollo-style vehicle with 125% of the personnel capacity of the 40-year-old Apollo. And Congress, while extremely interested in specifying how much stuff NASA should build and in which states NASA should build it, it has no interest whatsoever in giving the space program an objective to use that stuff for. President Obama, at least, has been willing to sketch out an objective, but NASA is going to be struggling to apply these Congressionally enumerated devices to meet exploration goals. There is a fundamental mismatch between the technologies NASA is supposed to develop and the goals it is supposed to achieve, and so our nation will end up with a Senate Space Launch System Program that exactly mirrors the over-budget, behind-schedule, and finally cancelled Ares program. So, I am bitter about the end of the Shuttle Program because it has clearly illuminated to what extent Congress views NASA as a source of pork spending, an agency to provide sinecure jobs in their districts, and not as a vehicle for our nation’s and our world’s loftiest aspirations.

I grew up with the legacy of the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are heroes to me, but I am also acutely aware that they are now over eighty years old. And only ten other people walked the Moon since they have. I want to see NASA doing big things again, and I don’t think Congress has it on that path.

What do I think NASA should be doing? Simple. I think NASA should be going where no one has gone before.

Where no one has gone before. Not private companies, not other nations’ space programs, and not NASA itself.

Thus: I don’t think NASA should be in the business of building rockets. NASA paved the way in this country, but since the mid-20th Century, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, and other companies have successfully privatized and industrialized the process of getting things into space – and that’s just in America. This process has even made its way into the small business market: SpaceX (which started small, but is rapidly growing) promises cost-cutting launches, has successfully sold its services to acquire the largest commercial launch contract ever, and it is planning to launch a heavy-lift rocket by the end of 2012. Just by the dates, before the program even starts, Congress’ SLS is in losing position and is slated for an inadequate finish – and that’s if it can keep to its intended schedule, which I don’t think likely after the Ares program. So I wonder why NASA should be doing so much as looking into the feasibility of such a vehicle. Just buy the ones that exist! The agency even has several options to pick from!

I also don’t think NASA should be in the business of building space capsules! Again, NASA paved the way – but now, Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada are all developing their own passenger-carrying capsules, and again, that’s just in America. These vehicles come under the aegis of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks companies that can sell taxi service up to the Space Station and back at competitive prices, with NASA oversight for astronaut safety. So I wonder why NASA has to invest in building yet another such vehicle. Just buy the ones that are further along in development! The agency will even have several options to pick from – and SpaceX’s Dragon is practically ready!

I think NASA should skip all these solved problems and get back involved in true exploration. That is not a goal that a space capsule is appropriate for: what is the most massive component of the vehicle? The heat shield. And on the way to an asteroid or moon or planet and back, what is that heat shield doing? Taking up precious mass capacity. Reducing the spacecraft delta-v. Shrinking our horizon. I look at the Apollo program, and I think the star of the show was really the Lunar Module – that spidery thing that looked silly on the ground, but was totally at home in the environment it was built for: airless moons. That is the kind of thing NASA should be building: interplanetary spacecraft for going into deep space. These should be launched on commercial rockets and assembled modularly in space – using techniques NASA has perfected during the Space Shuttle program as it built the Space Station. They could even be constructed while docked to ISS. Then, the astronauts would taxi up in Dragons or Dream Chasers, hop into the interplanetary vehicle, and go to other worlds!

Which other worlds is an important question, and I think it has to be driven by material benefits – not just science and exploration goals, much as I love them. Because, you see, I want a sustainable human space program, not a flags-and-footprints-and-then-Congress-and-the-public-forgets-it program. I think we have to look to destinations where we can use available resources to refuel and build new space vehicles. For that reason, and the fact that an astronaut can throw things at their escape velocities, I want to see these interplanetary ships going to asteroids.

We can practice harvesting space resources and building space vehicles on the surface of the Moon, before we go further afield to deep-space asteroids. We could go to the near-Earth objects or the Asteroid Belt. We can get to Phobos and Deimos, in Mars orbit, and build shuttles to go down to another planet’s surface. We can even learn enough to mount expeditions to Jovian moons. And as we send scientists and engineers to all these places, they will need a support network – and so NASA can contract with private companies to follow them. Y’know: Starbucks on Mars.

See, I want to take everything we learned from Apollo and the Space Shuttle and build a space infrastructure. NASA-built launch vehicles and capsules are not going to help with that.

It may seem silly to be making this argument at this time – while our political landscape is defined by budget and growth concerns – but I think NASA couldn’t be more relevant. First, it’s one of the most successful government programs in terms of its accomplishments, in terms of the technological benefits, in terms of the scientific returns, and in terms of the increased economic growth in response to each federal dollar spent. Second, we as a nation are faced with a growing number of long-term problems: how to provide cost-effective medical care, how to give our populace better nutrition to combat obesity at attractive prices, how to supply our power grid with enough energy for all its customers in a responsible, sustainable way…all of these things are problems that NASA would have to solve in order to keep people living in space indefinitely. We could solve our problems on Earth in the crucible of space. If we want to really push the economy, accelerate the pace of growth and innovation, and pull off a “Manhattan Project” to deal with climate change, I think a self-sustaining human colony in deep space is the way to go.

The whole situation that NASA is in just kills me. On the one hand, without the Space Shuttle Program, it has a tremendous opportunity to re-invent itself as the kind of program that conjures up images of men and women with the Right Stuff, consistently churning out dramatic stories of inspiring successes and garnering public support. But on the other hand, Congress has set NASA against that path by giving it directives that are almost certain to fall short of their objectives, wasting time and money. NASA was once a great agency, and it could be so again…but we in the space community will have to convince a lot of Congresspeople to look outside of their Shuttle-era complacency and into the future if we want to see a space program worthy of a great nation.

President Obama spells out his NASA vision

While I would love for President Obama to give Twitter the blind eye I think it deserves, today he used the blip medium to take (moderated) questions from the public. One of those questions was about the future of the space program and NASA. Here is the President’s response (courtesy of

I am so happy to hear Mr. Obama say this! I am totally on board with the idea that NASA should be sticking its neck out doing unproven things and pushing the frontier outwards.

The most unfortunate thing for NASA’s budget and NASA’s role over the past year or two has been how poorly the Administration articulated this vision. They let the media run with headlines about how “Obama killed the manned space program,” instead of making the story one about smart investments in proven methods and accelerated research into new technologies to get our astronauts to really exciting destinations that the Apollo veterans could only imagine. You know…buy Falcons  to get to LEO while NASA figures out how to get to Mars.

The President could make an even stronger case – I think that if he wants to advocate a “Manhattan Project” to fight climate change, push the capabilities and cost-effectiveness of medicine, engineering, and agriculture, and provide lots of jobs, industry opportunities, and infrastructure investments, he ought to announce a program to establish a self-sustaining human colony off the Earth. But I think he hit some major points for a sustainable space policy in his answer above. He also made the strongest, most unambiguous statements I’ve seen yet about the purpose of NASA and the destinations the agency should target.

Sadly, Congress is now subjecting NASA to both the Death of a Thousand Little Cuts and the Death of Stupid Over-Specified Directives. If the American manned space program ends, it will be because Senators like Orrin Hatch and Bill Nelson look at NASA more as a jobs program for their districts than as a vehicle for realizing our nation’s highest ambitions. Hatch in particular – the Ares program should have been cancelled and the heavy-lift vehicle mandated by Congress is a bad investment that will take NASA nowhere.

Maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration is going to do a better job of putting their space policy message out in the coming budget fights. And then maybe, just maybe, we will end up with what the Augustine Commission called “a space program worthy of a great nation.”

This is really amazing and if you haven’t seen it already you need to

Space Shuttle Enterprise on the launchpad

Click the image above to go to a Space Shuttle program retrospective photo gallery put together by the photographer formerly behind the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog. It’s amazing. (I never knew that Enterprise made it to the launch pad! And in Vandenberg!)

Some of the pictures give a wonderful glimpse into the history of this storied program. And some of them are actually heartrending to someone like me. Especially when I got up to the picture of Christa McAuliffe – because I think I have actually sat in that chair. I remember thinking about how I was sitting in a seat that many astronauts had spent time in, and how prominently displayed in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility’s huge open space are giant versions of the Apollo 1, STS-51-L, and STS-107 mission patches.

I particularly like the shot from Vandenberg, above, the snap of Sally Ride, and the image of the cosmonaut peeking out from Mir – among all the classics like Bruce McCandliss floating in space and the wonderful new shot of the Shuttle docked to ISS.

Count on me to write something else for the end of the Shuttle program soon…