And then something went "bump." in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Nov. 9, 2014, 7:47 a.m.
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A welcome pause, taken in deep fatigue. A big bowl of smothered cabbage and kielbasa—fine stuff; I don’t think I put in quite enough crushed dried red chillies this time. Always seek out kielbasa with Cyrillic lettering or at least foreign-language writing on the packaging.

And I have the second tall glassful of Double Bastard Ale waiting by my elbow as we watch Grimm on TV—a bottle fills two of our glasses, and Mom didn’t care for hers, so I have a second big glass to dispose of, and tonight that is all right with me. (A very winter beer, 11% alcohol by volume. I haven’t been “in training.” I’ll be lightly drunk. Perfect.)

I have been going to bed every night with my whole head feeling all one thick substance, all through, like a solid crayon. Well-used. My whole subconscious ironed out and pacified.

If I follow my time estimate—which I don’t think was a “hard” estimate, but I don’t want to take longer than the writer expects—I need to manage to get through another forty pages over the next five days. That’s tricky. I’m finding some places where I spend the whole day (or the five or six hours I can work before I get too loopy, plus maybe a short spell later) on three pages. The way I’m doing it, at least. I have no idea if I’m doing too much. It’s fixing problems of either grammar, word choice … or, mostly, clarity—which is where it’s hard to make clear boundaries. (I do have some. The boundaries I’m using are where my suggestions serve or seek to help the author’s voice and don’t stray into just trying to change it to match my own preferences. Those are probably the right boundaries, but they’re generous… and the test of whether I’ve gotten it wrong is probably whether an author gets mad.)

Mostly this project—and the smaller project with a fast timeline that I’ll probably break to do before I finish the big one—are a matter of “getting to know you,” or of the writer getting to know me. Meet and greet.

I am bringing all the mojo that I’ve got.

What happened was that…

I’d gotten into a spate of think-writing, or social reactivation, or whatever you’d call it. And, in addition into launching in Prosebox into a certain stepwise diatribe on constructive policy directions on global warming that branched into heavy R&D and space-program options—which I haven’t finished, by the way, I didn’t get to the conventional (is that the word?) “green” options part … in addition to that, I happened to idly join a little group in Facebook called Space Opera.

On whim. I just happened to see it and click. Very unlike me, joining a group is. But the posts and discussion threads were interesting. Enthusiastic.

I like sci-fi fans. “Space opera” is roughly the subsection of science fiction that involves grand dramas and high adventure between the stars. It’s fuzzy, like all the subsections. It intermingles in part with “military science fiction”, for example, in which all the fleet organizations and 3-D space battles are razor-sharp, with roots in tactical thinking and soldierly experience going back to Sumer. It shares another border—which it only overlaps where convenient—with truly “hard” science fiction, where (subject to the limits of future speculative science) all the astrophysics and other physical-world references actually are accurate down to the fifth decimal place. Space opera is Luke Skywalker and Flash Gordon and Paul Atreides and Honor Harrington and the Grey Lensman—people on spaceships wearing capes, basically.

So I hung out, commenting occasionally. There were a bunch of happy little meandering conversations. No nastiness; no trolls. People were there because they loved the stuff, like me.

Some of the people in there seemed to be actually writing stories. Some of the questions seemed oddly practical. Meanwhile, as I say, it wasn’t the Hard Science Fiction group, where I would have been incompetent to help out.

One thread, for example, was started by a person asking how long it would take to travel twelve light years at current speeds.

A naive question? Yes, of course. But people answered. … And it happened to catch me. I can’t remember whether it was during or right after the solar-power-stations-and-Saturn-mining-and-NERVA entries in Prosebox, but I was primed. And I could certainly improve on the answers that people were giving. One-sentence answers, offhand, overbrief, generally overgeneral and unchecked. A few were giving the only real “current speeds” answer, about the Voyager spacecraft, or were mentioning a couple of other useful things, but doing it too short to be really helpful. Helpful is my métier. I’m good at helpful.

So—here was what I said (very slightly revised afterward, for no reason but compulsiveness), after leaping into Google for a bit and working the Windows “Calculator” function:

Do you need to be able to slow back down at 12 light years? For most purposes it would be yes, but that halves the maximum speed a ship can travel, because half the fuel must be saved for slowing back down.
If "current speeds" means what we can do right now, the Voyager answers are the right ones. Our chemical rockets are so weak that we can only leave the solar system at all using gravity assists from moving planets. If Voyager 1's speed stayed approximately current, it would travel twelve light years in around 210,000 years. If we used ion drives (fudging slightly, but we do have some) over long periods to get a *somewhat* higher velocity before or after the planet flybys, and planned a sequence of gravity assists for fastest velocity outward only... we'd shave this slightly, I don't know by how much, but for most purposes the difference wouldn't matter.
If "current speeds" means something we don't have now but could build with technology we have now... I think that means either the Project Orion idea or Robert Forward's laser-pushed sail idea, that people have already mentioned. Both are **incredibly expensive.**
With Project Orion we have and can build atomic bombs, and we can build a giant plate with giant shock-absorber springs on it to be hit by the atomic bomb explosions. We'd have to put some kind of coating on the plate to expand or somehow kick the plate when the atomic bombs that we're dropping out the back go off in space - there's no blast in vacuum, which complicates use in space rather than just for launching from Earth—but evidently there is a way it can work. We could do it now. Wikipedia gives me a top speed of 3.3% of the speed of light, which is halved if you have to slow back down, so 1.7% of the speed of light. I think that means an Orion ship would go 12 light years in 1,412 years if you stop, 706 years if you just zoom past the 12 light year mark.
With Robert Forward's laser-pushed solar sail... I'll *pretend* we already have all the tech to do it. We have lasers and solar power, anyway, and we have done a couple of solar sails and *mostly* know how to build good ones... the other stuff is just details, right? So, we go to Mercury and we, um, build a whole lot of solar collectors on it and/or around it. The solar collectors power big lasers. We build a big collimator in space that all the lasers are aimed at, that combines them all into a single big laser beam that goes outward. And out between Jupiter and Saturn we, er, build or spin a plastic lens with the diameter of Texas, to refocus the beam. That beam would push a solar-sail ship.
Robert Forward calculated that it would take 20 years to push the sail-ship to 20% (!) of the speed of light, covering 2 light years in that time. Then it would coast. I'll assume this isn't changed. Now, in his book his ship only went 6 light years in total, and, at the end, part of the sail detached, went a little faster because it had less mass, and reflected/focused laser light back on the rest of the sail to slow the ship back down. I don't know if this would still work further out, or how much further out; the beam has to be weaker further out. If the solar sail can't slow down, then it's 20 years to speed up, covering 2 light years, and then 50 years to cover the other 10 light years, for a total of 70 years to pass 12 light years with no stop. If the slowdown can still work, then it's going to be a bit longer.
(I can't say how much longer like I can with other things, because I'm not sure how differently the reflection-slowdown phase works from the speedup. Also if they're approaching a star the sail will catch the sunlight more and more to slow it too.)
If "current speed" just means foreseeable now, then... I believe I remember Robert Zubrin saying that, if we can make the controlled fusion of deuterium and helium-3 work (harder than making the first fusion we'll manage work, if we manage any), and if we can build a drive based on that sort of fusion (we probably would be able to), then we could make a spaceship with a cruising speed of 8% of the speed of light. But I'm sorry, I can't remember whether that includes slowdown at the end or not, and I don't have the Entering Space book with me and I can't find the answer online. So factoring in a slowdown might, or might not, take the speed down to 4%. So, assuming my memory is otherwise right, it would either be 300 or 150 years needed to go 12 light years with slowdown at the end.
(This would be better than the Project Orion design because it doesn't need to be a gigantic ship full of thousands of atomic bombs, it's just a regular heated-propellant drive... and it's better than the beam-pushed solar sail idea, even though the top speed is lower, because with that you can only go in one direction, away from our sun, and you can't keep going outward from each place you get to—you've left your giant laser drive back on Mercury— and the laser system can only push a single ship at a time, and would be pushing that single ship for decades, while you could have a whole bunch of fusion-powered ships.)
That's all I've got.

There’s a huge amount that I didn’t mention and didn’t investigate, but, subject to Wikipedia and so on plus my own understanding, what’s actually there should all be about right. (Well, on the last bit, also subject to my memory, which is much, much iffier; I never did find my copy of Zubrin’s Entering Space. I could be completely off on that part.)

All of it is astounding. Interstellar travel may yet be impossible, and remain impossible… but it appears that those ideas and their relatives may take it all the way down to embarrassing impossible … where the impossibility would be a matter merely of no one wanting to do it.

Which, given the scale involved, is more than we had any right to expect at all. By a great deal. It’s almost unthinkable. It is unthinkable.

How big is the scale? Well…
One light year is 63,239 AUs, which means 63,239 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun. That’s, as Google has helped me to know, pretty much exactly the difference in size between one inch and one mile.
One AU is about 93 million miles.
What would be the same amount smaller than an AU? My Calculator and Google Maps say that one AU would be 63,239 times the distance to fly from … well, from Canberra to just short of Auckland, for one. Again, the difference between an inch and a mile.
So, a single light year, … no, it’s a bluff, I can’t process it either.

Meanwhile the very nearest stars are not the twelve light years away that the person was asking about, but closer than that. They’re 4.3 light years off (a pair of suns orbiting each other and orbited more distantly by a third, that is at 4.2 just now).

I restrain myself from putting in the friendlier numbers I Calculatored for that. Yes. Truly. I have digressed. Forgive me…

(Incidentally, the physicist Robert Forward didn’t only write about his laser-sail calculations in nonfiction. He wrote a novel about it (he said it was pretty much a nonfiction paper in story form), called Rocheworld when it was first published in serial form and then The Flight of the Dragonfly when it came out in novel form.
That is true “hard” sci-fi, when the interstellar drive in your story works.)

I am too tired, and now too buzzed (the beer has been taken care of), to have the strength of character to cut that digression! –smiles– But anyway…

Shortly after all this, the moderator of the Space Opera group mentioned that he was going to post a couple of open Shameless Self-Promotion Threads, in which people could tout themselves.

Generally meaning to tout their works. I had begun to realize that there were actually quite a few science fiction writers in the group! That had never occurred to me, that I’d find a clump of them in Facebook.

But, meanwhile, the moderator had been expunging quite a few false-hearted spammers from the group. People with ersatz identities who had joined and immediately posted comments selling sunglasses, or whatnot. (He had been announcing each of his removals with a wonderful picture of an orbital laser weapon firing at a point down on a planetary surface, with the caption “IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO BE SURE.”)

This faced me with a delicate problem… I went ahead and just asked about it. I said that I had only come to the group looking for fan conversation, honestly, and I happened to be a freelance copyeditor just starting out, which might be relevant, but, if I mentioned it when the time came, was I going to abruptly become too bright to look at? If there’d be a problem I’d hold off and just enjoy the group. Really, I had no connection with sunglass companies…

The moderator laughed and said it was no problem, it was a common situation.

Then the person who had posted the question about travelling twelve light years asked me to send her my professional info in private chat.

I went there and explained that really there was little to give yet. We got to talking.

And she said that she liked to give people a chance … and that she was part of a group of writers to whom she would be happy to recommend me … and that I should start out charging very little to get a reputation and experience (already my plan)—and would I like to edit her next short story?

… –flabbergasted– Yes, I would like to.

The next day, she messaged me and said that she was still working on the short story, but she was thinking of putting out an all-ages edition (with the salty language and sex removed) of her novel that was doing really well on Amazon in the Kindle Store, and would I like to read that and make sure that it still flowed and made sense with those parts taken out, and do an editing once-over on it as well? And tell her whatever I thought, she could take it. It would probably be a very clean copy.


So she emailed me the file, and I started working on it—and I started finding quite a bit to address after all. Much more than the light edit we had talked about would really entail. Was I wandering off the track? I finished Chapter One, and sent it back to her, asking, Is this what you want me to be doing? It’s going to take me a while this way, and if there’s a timeline on what you intend to do with it…

Her email came back, very happy: YES continue!!! She said I’d found a whole bunch of stuff her proofreader had missed; she could use what I found in both editions! (Proofreading is actual typographic error-correction only, pretty much—and she said she’d never had a real editor before, so probably really it was a friend or family member.) So I dove back in.

And that is what I’ve been working through ever since, that novel. She’s finished the short story now, and when she gets it back from her beta readers she’s going to get it to me and I’ll interrupt whatever’s left on the novel to edit the short story, which evidently she will need to submit pretty quickly.

So that’s where I am. I already saw her saying to someone else in Facebook that she thought this new guy would be her editor from now on, and if I do right by her with these two projects she’ll speak well of me to others too. (And she has already hooked me up with one of her friends for a non-fiction project, a doctoral dissertation! I’ll see the first installment of that around December 1st. I gave him far too low a rate, less a fire-sale price than me being on actual fire—but I’ll get a dissertation notch on my bedpost.)

So that’s what happened.

I have had no idea of how to find people who would know they needed to pay me for what I could do. I’ve been rubbing less than two sticks together.

And then I … fell backwards into this.

Not by trying.

By talking to people online and goofing off.

And that’s the story.

Last updated November 11, 2014

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