On worldbuilding, trompe l’oeil, and method acting

28 05 2016

Currently, I’m on Venus.

I’ve designed and built my vehicle, I’m pretty sure my planned means of descent will go without a hitch, and I’ve sketched out a plan for the ascent which should, more or less, work. And I’ve got a suit, which gave me no end of trouble, particularly the flexible joints: it’s not easy to find material which is both sufficiently supple and sufficiently enduring under Venusian conditions. (Carbon-backboned rubber would, of course, degrade and fail on contact with Venus’s scaldingly-hot atmosphere, while the more resilient silicone has an undesirable tendency to allow gas seepage: not what one wants in a suit designed to hold back the planet’s crushing 90-atmosphere squeeze.) And I’ve got a mission, which always helps.

The suit’s bulky, and uncomfortable, and rather clumsy: it could hardly be otherwise. It needs to be robust enough to protect me from the pressure, and to keep me cool—so there’s lots of plumbing, for the refrigerant, and a heavy heat-sink on my back that glows red-hot after a few minutes. I wouldn’t be able to walk at all, or even to stand up in Venus’s Earth-like gravity, if it weren’t for the suit’s servoes—and they also need to be protected from the worst of the heat, so that adds to the weight of the metal-and-ceramic armour in which I’m encased. In essence, I’m trudging around wrapped in my own overengineered refrigerator. I don’t even get a visor, because—heat, pressure, and an atmosphere in which the ‘moisture’ is not water vapour so much as vaporised sulfuric acid—it’s just not worth the hassle. There is a viewscreen on the inside of my helmet, though, so while the telemetry-processing holds up, I’m not blind.

The climate control inside the suit isn’t perfect. But given that it’s keeping me alive upon the boundless hyperbaric kiln that is the Venusian landscape, I shouldn’t complain that, within the suit, it oscillates between ten and thirty-five degrees C. Be glad to climb back up the ceramic steps of the lander, that’s for sure. Even if the airlock is a torture chamber in its own right. Shucking a hot suit full of delicate human meat: it’s not a process to be hurried.

Actually, I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not actually on Venus. But I’m trying to trick myself into thinking I am, because that makes it more convincing when I try to trick others. Fiction is feeling, not fact; it’s all about letting yourself be tricked by someone you trust. And I trust myself, now; I’ve done this before. So for the moment, whenever I have to walk somewhere, I imagine that occurring under Venusian conditions. When I go to pick something up, I translate that process to a bulky suit, awkward gloves, a stifling, lethal environment. I’m building the muscle memory I’ll need when I come to write the Venus story, so it convinces. So it can trick others. (I’ve no idea at all if this is the approach other writers take, but it’s what makes sense to me. Lived experience is a powerful persuader, but when one can’t live the experience per se, one has to fake it, to extrapolate it, to make-believe.)

Guidebooks are always useful: these might, in some instances, be Wikipedia, and/or nonfiction books on the region you’ll be travelling to, but it can be useful to augment these with recent review papers, to ensure one’s local knowledge is reasonably up-to-date. NASA’s Astrophysics Data System is an excellent place to look—it’s freely accessible, it contains a wealth of published research, and while you’ll need a university affiliation to access the full versions of some of the papers, almost all of the abstracts are free-access. It’s a bit like an astrophysical version of TV Tropes.

Photos are useful too; not that we have many close-ups of the Venusian landscape, because the Venera probes didn’t prevail for long against those horrible conditions. But they offer some assistance in scene-setting. Of course, I can’t use photos in the story, so I’ll have to paint the picture with words:

The streambed was a twisted ribbon that knotted its way around outcrops paled by past rainfall, through the canyon it had carved for itself—and would etch anew when winter’s methane rains began, a decade hence—among the rough hillocks and peaks of crud-tarnished ice.

Clearly, that’s not Venus I’m describing there; no methane rains on Earth’s hot near-twin. That extract (from my story ‘Lakeside on the Via Australis’, which was first published in Perihelion SF in 2014, but which looks to be no longer online) is Titan. The protagonist’s seeing it from above, from his ornithopter; he’s just about to commence descent, ‘spiralling down through the soft brown pall of midsummer twilight‘. I have to be reasonably economical with description—a picture might be worth a thousand words, but I don’t think it’s fair to use a thousand words in setting the scene—but hopefully it helps to place the reader there, to see, more-or-less, what I’m seeing. That’s the trompe l’oeil part: the glimpse, the quick sketch, which may suffice to convince.

And I try to get the details right: on Titan, gloves and rope both need to be heated, because most material becomes brittle and inflexible at near-liquid-nitrogen temperatures; faceplates also need to be heated, to prevent fogging from my breath’s moisture; I’ll lose most of my heat through my feet, so these boots had better be very well insulated. (This stuff doesn’t need to be mentioned—too much description can weigh the story down—but it does need to be factored into my development of the story. Method acting: it’s all useful, even if it doesn’t feature in the final script.) Within an interstellar cloud, I can’t travel as fast as I might like, because a small dust grain impacting at high relative velocity can carry all the effective momentum of a cannonball, and dense clouds are raddled with dust. I can hear the muffled ‘tink’, transmitted through the ship’s structure, that each sporadic dust grain makes as it hits the hull; I’m hoping I don’t hear a ‘clunk’, because that wouldn’t be good. Spin-gravity complicates external repairs tremendously, so the ship needs to arrest its spin while I’m outside, patching that hull breach; and that, somehow, is seen by everyone else as my fault, as though that’s in any way far. On Venus—and yes, I’m back there now—I’ll probably want a means of ascent that isn’t rocketry, because I don’t need all the problems that come with storage of an inherently explosive combination of fuel and oxidant in a high-temperature, high-pressure environment. And trying to push exhaust gas out against ninety atmospheres ambient is not exactly ideal, either. (The Russians used balloons to lower some of the later probes down into Venus’s atmosphere: why not reverse the process? It’s complicated—nothing about a manned Venus surface mission exactly says ‘easy’—but it’s doable. Maybe. I’ll see how it goes. What’s the worst that could happen?)

So, if I look a little awkward over the next few days, there’s nothing wrong, as such. I’m just method acting, on Venus.

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