Tethering Titan

7 03 2018

There are two types of space elevator. This may sound a little counterfactual, given that, to our knowledge, there are currently zero types of space elevator; but I’m speaking, as you may have surmised, in a conceptual sense.

The first type of space elevator, which plays off gravity against orbital angular momentum, requires a reasonably rapidly-revolving terrestrial planet. Now, ‘reasonably rapidly revolving’ is a somewhat nebulous term, but it signifies an object with a rotation period of, say, no more than a few of your Earth days. The ‘midpoint’ for a space elevator of this type will be at the altitude of geostationary orbit, so the planet in question must have a geostationary orbit which is not prohibitively large. (Of course, ‘prohibitively large’ is also a nebulous term.) Earth, with a rotation period of almost 24 hours (note, though, that ‘rotation period’ and ‘day’ are not precisely identical concepts), has a geostationary altitude of approx. 35800 km, which ensures that objects orbiting the Earth at this altitude, and in an equatorial orbit, appear to hover over the same surface location. For Mars, with a rotation period slightly exceeding 24 hours and a weaker gravitational field than Earth, the corresponding altitude is ‘only’ around 17000 km. If a column or cable is extended from the surface to this altitude, the cable’s apex will be in balance between angular momentum and gravity. But all of the cable material beneath this will have significant weight—because it is not revolving sufficiently rapidly to attain true orbital velocity at that altitude—and this weight needs to be counterbalanced by an extension of the elevator beyond the geostationary point, either with more thousands of kilometres of cable or with a comparatively shorter cable terminating in a sufficiently large counterweight (often, a suitably-sized asteroid) to attain the balance.

Elevator type 1 trimmed

Earth and Mars aren’t the only objects in the Solar System for which such an elevator is conceptually feasible, but they’re the only significant ones. (Other objects are too slowly rotating [Mercury, Venus], too gaseous [Jupiter, Saturn etc.], too small [asteroids], or too hot [Sun] to be worth the effort.) Note, also, the requirement that the elevator must be anchored at the planet’s equator. Singapore, if it wished, could have an elevator on its doorstep. Svalbard could not.

What happens when such a space elevator fails? Kim Stanley Robinson explored this scenario in Green Mars, where the Martian elevator has its counterweight severed by, appropriately enough, Martian separatists. The cable falls, essentially wrapping itself around the equator (or as far around the equator as it can reach) with devastating impact. Woe betide anyone standing in the vicinity.

The second type of space elevator, which plays off gravity against gravity, requires a facelocked planet or moon in orbit around a more massive body. Here the ‘centre point’ of the elevator is the L1 point, where the gravitational pull of the facelocked object—say, for example, the Moon—is exactly balanced by the more massive body’s opposing pull (in this case, Earth). The location of the L1 point necessarily depends on the masses of the two opposed bodies and on the distance between them. For the Earth-Moon system, L1 is slightly more than 54000 km above the Moon’s surface. A lunar space elevator would need to be anchored to the lunar surface directly beneath L1, passing upwards through L1 and extending sufficiently far beyond this to counterbalance the weight of the elevator’s lower reaches. Note that, although this is a taller structure than the Earth elevator, it’s not necessarily more challenging from an engineering and materials perspective, since the Moon’s gravitational field is only one-sixth that of Earth.

Severing the counterweight on an elevator of this type would not (I think) turn the headless elevator into a planetary whipper-snipper, but a cascade of plummeting cable. The catastrophic impact in this scenario, therefore, would be localised around the point of surface anchorage.

Elevator type 2 trimmedClearly, our own Moon is one body that meets the criteria for a space elevator of this type. Titan, facelocked towards Saturn, is another. The separation between Titan and Saturn is much larger—approx. two million km—than that between Luna and Terra (four hundred thousand km); Titan’s mass is almost double the Moon’s; Saturn is much more massive than Earth. The takeout from all this is that Titan’s surface-to-L1 distance is only marginally shorter than the Moon’s, at just under 50000 km. Consequently, the engineering challenge involved is presumably not more significantly difficult than the requirements for constructing a lunar elevator, or a martian one, although consideration would need to be given to the particular physical conditions (principally temperature and ‘space weather’) with which the material of the elevator would need to contend, as well as the hazards of weathering and corrosion of the elevator’s lower reaches in the martian or titanian atmosphere.

Of course, there isn’t yet an elevator on Titan, neither in actuality nor in my fiction. It’s nonetheless a bit of a background presence in a few of the stories in Wide Brown Land: with only one location possible for such an elevator, at the ‘sub-Saturnian point’ defined as zero longitude and zero latitude, the construction of an elevator (or even the plans for its construction) gives one geographical region—in this case, the eastern fringe of the Quivira plateau edging into the dunefields of western Senkyo—an intrinsic industrial and commercial advantage over other regions. In my stories, I’ve posited the shift from rocketry to an elevator (as the primary means of shipping offworld) as a driver of dramatic social upheaval, with those in less-favoured settlements on Titan’s far side disgruntled and aggrieved at the loss of local opportunities while economic attention is focussed on the construction of the elevator a hundred kilometres northwest of the sprawling arcology of Sagan. I will, I suspect, actually need to build the thing at some point, though whether it features strongly in subsequent stories remains to be seen.

In any event, some of my characters will not be happy.



Book review: My First Murder, by Leena Lehtolainen

6 03 2018

Leena Lehtolainen is a prolific Finnish writer who is most well known for her ‘Maria Kallio’ series of police procedurals which now stands at thirteen volumes, the first eight of which have been released in English translation. Her work has won Finnish crimewriting awards and has also been shortlisted for the Glass Key award.


My First Murder (Ensimmäinen murhani, 1993, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the first book in the Maria Kallio series, and sets Maria as the principal investigating officer on the murder of Tommi Peltonen, a singer in an amateur choir and a bit of a playboy. Peltonen, felled by a blunt-force blow to the head on the jetty at the site of the choir’s weekend retreat, is known to Maria from her student years (as indeed are several members of the choir who remain the prime suspects for the killing); but despite this conflict of interest, she’s kept on the case because of staff shortages and a hopelessly alcoholic supervisor, and must muddle through while trying to keep separate her police persona from her private life.

The crime at the book’s core is well-framed, the investigation is both logical and beset by an interesting enough array of setbacks, the characterisation is effective, and the embedded social commentary and reflections on gender politics (Maria is painfully aware of her ‘figurehead’ status within the predominantly-male police force) are genuinely of interest … and yet the prose often struggles to come to life. It’s technically sound, but lacks the assurance and the solid pacing of the later works in the series. Lehtolainen is clearly an important author in the annals of Finnish crime fiction, but this debut is less rewarding than its successors.

Book review: Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt

4 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer best known for his ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series of novels which, with their typically sweeping cosmic vistas and intriguingly plotted storylines, fit somewhere in the space once occupied by golden age SF, in the gulf between space opera and hard SF. McDevitt has won one Nebula Award out of (at last count) sixteen nominations; he’s also won a couple of other major awards. I’ve reviewed several of his books.


Odyssey is the fifth in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series, and though the now-deskbound Hutch might reasonably be expected to be the principal character here, she doesn’t get as much airtime in Odyssey as McDevitt’s aphorism-spouting literary curmudgen Gregory (‘Mac’) MacAllister (who first appeared, I think, in Deepsix, book two in the series) and space pilot Valentina (‘Valya’) Kouros. The book opens with the search for the starship Patrick Heffernan, lost somewhere around the middle of a two-hundred-light-year jump through hyperspace and thought therefore to be either adrift in normal space somewhere beyond radio contact or, worse, stuck haplessly in hyperspace. Once the Heffernan search has been stood down, the book’s focus is the mission—led by Valya and crewed by Mac, milquetoast PR flack Eric Samuels and Amy Taylor, the spaceflight-obsessed teenage daughter of a senator hostile to spaceflight—to place monitoring beacons around planets and satellites known to have been sites of visitation by ‘moonriders’, technologically-advanced spacecraft of non-terrestrial origin whose provenance and intentions are unknown. It turns out these moonriders might well have hostile intent …

McDevitt’s novels are extraordinarily compulsive. Even when, as here, he’s not in absolutely top form (there are a few elements of Odyssey I’d describe as slightly hinky, and Mac and Valya just are not in Hutch’s league as protagonists), the story still manages to be both gripping and spellbinding, largely as a function of the careful plotting and expert pacing. The characterisation is effective enough, though somewhat parochial (McDevitt’s is a very American future), the technology is reasonably standard from a SF standpoint (though I was impressed with the description of the gravitic drive units used around a ‘clean’ interstellar research site), and the book even manages to make budgetary pressures and political posturing of some interest, which is not easily achieved in SF. But it’s the use to which these elements are put which snares the reader’s attention. In certain respects, the novel never truly takes off (in the way that, say, Engines of God, Slow Lightning, Firebird and Seeker all do), and yet it still manages to be sufficiently fascinating as to insist that the reader turn just one more page, and another, and …

Book review: The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

27 02 2018

Though Maj Sjöwall and the late Per Wahlöö both also wrote novels individually, this Swedish duo is best know as the authors of the ten-volume ‘Martin Beck’ series, a set of police procedurals charting crime and societal change across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books in the series, Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.


The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967, translated by Alan Blair) details the investigation of a sequence of shocking fatal attacks on preteen girls by an unknown assailant, in public parks across Stockholm. With no reliable witnesses (the only people thought to have seen the attacker are a mugger and a three-year-old boy), and with two fatalities only days apart, the police are under extreme pressure to solve a series of crimes almost completely devoid of useful clues. The taciturn Beck (whom I’ve discovered, three books in, that I visualise as actor Martin Clunes—perhaps it’s a first-name thing) leads an investigation which, by necessity, repeatedly clutches at straws and repeatedly ends up down blind alleys but which, finally, starts to crystallise into a case with one suspect …

The Beck novels have a distinct flavour of ‘time capsule’ about them: they’re very plainly not of the modern world of smartphones, the internet, and magically-powerful forensic analysis. This means they have a particular charm which more recent procedurals, seeking to capture our present day, lack; yet the Beck novels’ setting was the present day of its time, the background issues—mismanaged urbanisation, societal unrest, the uptake in hallucinogenic substances etc—were very much concerns of the time. And insofar as human nature seems to necessitate never properly solving any of its problems, but merely compounding them in unexpected ways, it’s fair to say that the society of these novels (and that society is a reasonably subtle but nonetheless enduring focus of the series) is distinctly recognisable to the modern-day reader, for all that it differs in some details.

The above may make The Man on the Balcony sound dry and sombre, and yet it’s not. It’s low-key, certainly, expressed in clipped, efficient prose that lends the story immediacy. The characterisation is effective but largely undemonstrative; there are no larger-than-life crises designed to throw characters into an emotional or physical maelstrom, merely the plodding routine of the long and poorly-focussed search for the killer, punctuated by fresh clues, fresh red herrings, and fresh attacks. The book doesn’t even aim at catharsis, as if acknowledging that the ultimate result of all of this can never be a resolution, merely an end of sorts. It’s all surprisingly immersive, and quietly intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Sjöwall & Wahlöö, you should.

Wide Brown Land cover reveal

22 02 2018

There has been movement at the Titan short story collection station, with stunning cover art provided by the ridiculously-talented Shauna O’Meara. The cover’s wraparound, but for the moment, this is what the front looks like:


Shauna has also contributed some wonderful internal art for three of the stories: ‘Hatchway’, ‘Lakeside’, and ‘Phlashback’.

I’ll have more to say, about availability and such, in coming days, so stay tuned.

A cover reveal

21 02 2018

I’m a bit slow to get to this, but the SpecFicNZ Te Korero Ahi Ka anthology I mentioned last month is now out:


Here’s the TOC:

Ahi Ka (Eileen Mueller and A J Ponder)
On the Run (Kevin Berry)
Moa Love (Aaron Compton)
An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie (Daniel Stride)
Friend (Grant Stone)
Backchat (Mark English)
The Lost (Gregory Dally)
Gatekeeper, What Toll? (Mike Reeves-McMillan)
The Dragon’s Friend Inn (Serena Dawson)
The Big Bad Wolf (Kevin G Maclean)
Breach (Robinne Weiss)
Mother’s Milk (Dan Rabarts)
The Eye of the Beholder (Kevin G Maclean)
Somnium (Gregory Dally)
Dance, Tiny Particles, Dance (Sean Monaghan)
Earthcore: Initiation (Grace Bridges)
Mid-Life (Matt Cowens)
Her Grief in My Halls (Alan Baxter)
The Music of the Spheres (Debbie Cowens)
Diggers (Sally McLennan)
To the Centre of the Earth (Robinne Weiss)
Big Enough for Two (Piper Mejia)
Why I Hate Cake (Paul Mannering)
The Mysterious Mr Montague (Jane Percival)
The Nineveh (Mouse Diver-Dudfield)
What You Wish For (I K Paterson-Harkness)
Dancing West to East (Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey)
Selfie (Lee Murray)
Wearing the Star Cloak (Darian Smith)
Te Hokianga Mai (The Return) (Marolyn Dudfield)
Magnetic North (I K Paterson-Harkness)
The Iron Wahine (Matt Cowens)



I haven’t yet sighted a physical copy (and likely won’t get to do so until the launch at Conclave 3 in Auckland, over the Easter long weekend), but it is already available online at Amazon (paperback and .mobi) and at various other sites including Apple and Kobo (.epub and maybe .mobi again), so if you’re interested, please check it out!

Book review: Standard Hollywood Depravity / Killing Is My Business, by Adam Christopher

20 02 2018

Adam Christopher is a NZ-born science fiction writer, comics writer, and editor, now living in the UK. He has written several standalone or short series SF novels and won a Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2010 as editor of the NZ Doctor Who Club fanzine, Time/Space Visualiser. I’ve previously reviewed the first of his ‘Ray Electromatic’ mysteries, Made to Kill, here.

Standard Hollywood Depravity and Killing Is My Business, released only a few months apart, are the second and third book-length contibutions in the ‘Ray Electromatic’ series (there’s also an online novelette, ‘Brisk Money’, in the same series).


The novella Standard Hollywood Depravity sees last-robot-in-the-world Ray Electromatic (ostensibly a PI, in actuality now a hired killer) on the job at a Sunset Strip nightclub, where he’s been contracted to take out a go-go dancer, Honey, who’s working at the club. It’s a simple enough assignment, but Ray’s curiosity-simulating software is piqued by the presence of a surprisingly large contingent of LA’s hired killers for what is a rather uninspired performance by nondescript British Invasion band the Hit List. Reasoning that they’re not simply there for the music, Ray surmises that something bigger is afoot; as indeed it is. Something that his target, Honey, is every bit as mixed-up in as anyone else among the nightclub’s underworld notables.


In the novel Killing Is My Business, Ray is hired to wipe out city planner Vaughan Delaney, but he’s beaten to it when Delaney leaps from his sixth-floor window, in what might be termed an act of auto-defenestration (a particularly apt term given that the object which fatally breaks the planner’s fall is Delaney’s own car. Moving right along, Ray’s next target is construction impressario Emerson Ellis, but again the robot assassin is thwarted: Ellis has gone to ground. Ray’s next gig, at least, goes to plan, though it’s a complicated plan and nothing is as it seems. He’s hired to keep reclusive LA crime kingpin Zeus Falzarano alive (for the time being) by shielding him from the bullets in an arranged bloodbath at an upscale Italian restaurant, where dozens of Falzarano’s heat-packing, sunglass-wearing footsoldiers are messily perforated by machine-gun fire. This achieved, Ray is welcomed into the Falzarano fold as a useful bodyguard and resourceful hired gun … as per the plan, which requires Ray to work out just what it is that Falzarano is working on. After all, where there’s a crime kingpin, there’s usually a nefarious scheme …

Both tales are pacy and peppered with a tough whimsicality, making good use of Ray’s Achilles heel: he may well be nearly indestructible, but his memory tape only has a capacity of twenty-four hours, meaning that he starts every day more-or-less afresh, privy only to the information in his core memory and the salient details that his AI comptroller, Ada, has seen fit to pass on to today’s iteration of Ray. Additionally, it’s never straightforward to predict when Ray’s problem-solving will employ his PI skills and when it will divert to the ‘hired killer’ option. These wrinkles usefully add to the tension, and the blend of clunky roboticism and noirish sensibilities do give the books a definite wry appeal. Nonetheless, I was a little disappointed that these sequels seemed to less effectively channel the Raymond Chandler spirit, in dialogue and description, than did the series’ first book Made To Kill. There’s also a sense in which too much of the books’ action takes place, respectively, in the nightclub and in the heavily-fortified Falzarano compound: one of the things which, to my mind, made Made To Kill so successful as a standardbearer for Chandlerish robocrime was its deployment of a broad range of mid-century LA settings as the story arc made repeated midflight corrections, and that’s missing in these two later books. It would be incorrect to say that they plod—they certainly don’t, and there’s still lots of fun to be had within their pages—but they don’t sing quite so well as their predecessor.