Charlie Stross: September 2016 Archives

So, this Tuesday SpaceX pulled back the curtain to announce their Interplanetary Transport System—a monstrously large rocket, fully reusable and about two and a half times the size of a Saturn V moon rocket—capable of transporting a hundred people to Mars, and with a goal of initial flight testing within a decade.

It's not total vaporware: in the past couple of weeks they also tested the first full-up Raptor engine that will power the ITS (a cryogenic methalox engine with a closed-cycle gas generator, which gives it a specific impulse head and shoulders higher than Apollo-era kit and the capability to operate on fuel generated from the Martian atmosphere for return flights). They've also unveiled the biggest carbon fiber tank ever assembled (the fully-reusable ITS will use carbon composites extensively), and have unveiled a bunch of targets for what the ITS stack will be able to achieve: in non-reusable form it will be able to deliver a 500 tonne payload to LEO, and with reusability in mind a 320 tonne interplanetary craft capable of landing vertically on Mars (and, when refuelled, of returning to Mars orbit without staging).

So, here's my question:

What are the other possible commercial applications of the ITS, besides sending a million optimists to Mars?

I'd like to give you a happy fun thought experiment to chew on.

It's 2016. And it's been a bad year. Let's imagine that it's about to get infinitely worse for everyone, and by December 31st, 2016, the human species is extinct. Cause: something minimally disruptive to the rest of the biosphere. (A very tightly targeted human-specific military bioweapon gets out and proves to be unexpectedly deadly: say, an IL-4 expressing poxvirus that goes above and beyond.)

Earth abides, of course, and without humans life goes on.

In a discussion elsewhere on the interwebbytubes, the subject of in media res openings came up.

An in media res opening is one where a story starts with a bang, a climactic action sequence -- then cuts away to a slow build-up to how the protagonists got to that point. It's a variant on the hook line, whereby the author sets out to snag the reader's attention right from the get-go (e.g. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." -- Iain Banks, "The Crow Road") but with a whole scene, rather than just a striking opening sentence or paragraph.

One or two commenters (in the discussion elsewhere) objected that IMR openings feel manipulative and increasingly fall flat; the event may be explosive (car chase! space battle!) but we've been given no contextual information about the stakes, no character to identify with, and it's clear that what follows is gradually going to focus down until it converges with the opening, thus undercutting any suspense until we get to see how it plays out at the end of the story.

But I don't think this is inevitable.

(Blogging continues to be sparse because, although I just sent in a final draft of "The Delirium Brief", I'm hard at work on other projects—notably my 2018 space opera, "Ghost Engine", and my 2018 Merchant Princes universe novel, "Dark State"—and taking time off to attend a birthday party in Berlin.)

The trouble with writing fiction is that, as a famous novelist once said, reality is under no compulsion to make sense or be plausible. Those of us who make stuff up are constantly under threat of having our best fictional creations one-upped by the implausibility of real events. I'm pretty much resigned to this happening, especially with the Laundry Files stories: at least space opera and fantasy aren't as prone to being derailed as fiction set in the near-present.

But there's a subtle corollary to the impossibility of story-telling keeping up with reality, and that's the point that it is also pretty much impossible to invent protagonists who can keep up with reality.



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in September 2016.

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