Preface to Black Sky Voyage

 

Rather than burden the book description here with an author’s introduction that readers frequently skip, I’ll make the preface a separate blog post. It introduces Oliver Harwood’s space station architecture, which I think is worthy of consideration in future plans for Mars colonists.

—Preface—

I started this novel a long, long time ago when I was a spacecraft navigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) working on the NASA Voyager mission. Somewhere around the time Voyager II passed Neptune, I finished and tried to publish Rainbow’s End. Fortunately, I failed. It and I were not ready for the big time. Not even the small time. Not even close.

Instead, between and during other NASA missions to Mercury and Pluto, I dedicated what little of my energy remained to writing and publishing two other novels that achieved a modicum of critical success in the winning of awards. The first was about war. The second involved an asteroid, a preacher, a reluctant prophet of doom, and a ballerina—things that just naturally go together. In the process, I learned a little more about writing novels that I hadn’t known on the first attempt.

Since then—at loose ends as a recently retired interplanetary navigator and casting about for something new and exciting to do—I dusted off Rainbow’s End, reread it, and thought modestly, “My my, there’s some damn good writing in here, even if the overall execution sucks!” I decided to recycle, revise, and rename. The new name is the one you see on the cover, and the story is a greatly improved and vastly better constructed version (I assert) of the original. You’ll have to accept my word on this. Or see for yourself.

I had a fascination with Mars in my youth, planning at one stage in my career to become the first person to walk around on it. When that didn’t work out, I decided instead to write about colonizing it, and that’s what you’ll see in this story—a race against time and human stupidity to put some of our eggs in a second basket as insurance against a major wipeout. (I believe the odds are stacked against us in the short term, but that’s another story and maybe another novel.)

For my new Mars colony, I needed a space station to put into orbit around the planet and a habitation to put on the surface. My original concept was crude and poorly thought out, consisting of cubical modules plugging together somehow like LEGO® pieces. This was unacceptable for more than one reason. While I pondered, weak and weary, along came an epiphany like a raven above my chamber door: why not use an architecture I’d recently learned about—something modular with standard parts: expandable, sturdy, simple, cheap, and above all, elegant? That would be Oliver Harwood’s concept.

Oliver Harwood (1922-2003) was a twentieth century spacecraft designer who was a leader in the structural design of the Skylab Space Station. I knew him from a presentation or two that he gave at JPL, and a visit or two to his home to discuss promotion of his revolutionary space station architecture. He’d proposed his plan to NASA for use on the International Space Station then coming into existence on drawing boards.

Alas, the design was too elegant, too simple, and too cheap. NASA wanted lots of miscellaneous parts designed by lots of different companies in lots of different states to spread the constituency around so much that the project would be politically untouchable. Thus, we have what we have orbiting overhead in this second decade of the twenty-first century.

We can do better the next time. When we finally get serious about a Mars colony sometime in the coming decades—money-spending metal-bending serious—maybe we can have a second look at the Harwood architecture. You can get an inkling of what it looks like, in all its tetrahedral potential, on the cover of this book where I’ve used six of the seven standard Harwood components, and you can find more details inside.

However, this is not a sales job. It’s entertainment! Most of the details of the story are accurate mechanically, physically, astronomically, and psychologically (I humbly think), and the philosophical speculations should be universally intriguing, but …

The story’s the thing! Consider Station Ollie and Tharsis Cradle as just two of the characters in a telling of a president and a coup d’état, of colonists desperate for survival, and of a stranger who somehow interacts with all of them—things that just naturally go together.

Tony Taylor

Sedona, 2018/03/05

 

Globalism versus Tribalism (or Us versus Them)

Two opposing forces of evolution work in our world: one pulls us together; the other pulls apart. One emphasizes Cooperation, and the other, Competition. One manifests in Globalism, the other, Tribalism, and even these concepts themselves seem locked in a long, never-ending struggle against each other. When will it ever end?

Over the long term—and I don’t mean next week or next year or next decade, but the next century, millennium, or million years—the long, long term—Globalism will win. That’s my prediction and I’m stickin’ to it, but as much as I’d like to see it happen, I won’t be around to collect any bets.

In the short-term, Tribalism kicks ass lately in the form of the rise of ultra-nationalism and the breaking apart of a world order and modest stability—e.g., the United Nations, world trade agreements, the European Union—that’s been around or developed since World War II.

In the long perspective, the unifying forces represented, until recently, three steps forward in the evolution of mankind, but it now appears that we’re taking two steps backward into a world of strongmen (like Putin, Turkish president Erdogan, Kim Jong-Un, and possibly Trump) and feudal societies (as manifested by Brexit, the threatening breakup of NATO, the dissolution of trade agreements, terrorism, and the deep polarization of American politics). Sadly, even the internet—once our vain hope for global enlightenment—facilitates this divisiveness and conflict, providing bubbles and echo chambers, fake news, and pockets of tribal beliefs seething with hatred and immune from reality.

The forces of division ascend. The great experiment of cooperative democracy begun a few hundred years ago sadly appears to be ending. The short-term future does not look good; disaster looms, an almost inevitable dark mushroom cloud looming at the horizon.

But be of good cheer! We are a hardy species and some of us will survive; some of our children and grandchildren will see a better day after the earthquakes of political and military tectonic shifts level the playing fields and the radioactive rubble begins to cool. Some will survive and strive to take another three forward steps of Globalism, the reawakening of Cooperation and Community while the forces of Tribalism (read Evil and Entropy) fall back and begin to plot another two steps against us.

Some will survive, some will thrive, and eventually—maybe after a long series of global disasters followed by recoveries followed by disasters—mankind will evolve the stupidity and mean-streak out of itself and begin expanding off this little world into the vaster reaches of the Universe. That will take some time, maybe millions of years, but it is, I think, inevitable.

Evolution— biological, political, technological—is a slow but powerful organizing force, perhaps ultimately the most powerful in the Universe. I believe—against doctrine—more as an article of faith than understanding—that evolution does indeed have direction and a destination, with the purpose of bringing forth consciousness throughout the Universe. Ultimately the Universe will come to know itself.

So, be thou of good cheer! Takest thou solace in the long perspective. (There’s little else to be happy about at the moment.)

Thus spake Tony.

 

Valedictory

Don’t worry, I’m not checking out just yet, but how could any author resist fantasizing and writing about it?

 

Saying goodbye before it’s too late to say goodbye, like Harris Mitchell farewells Diana in The Darkest Side of Saturn.

Goodbye to all the reality of this world constructed inside my head, and to the reality inside reality constituting the approximation of myself. It’s been good knowing you.

Goodbye Jan, Chelsea, Louisa, JJ and Harris, my mother and dad, my sisters Sybil and Lynn, Ed Cobb, and all the people I’ve known from the beginning to the end of my life. Goodbye Como. Goodbye Mammy and Nancy Jane.

Goodbye, sights and sounds of the world. Goodbye to the exotic, unrecognized smell of Gardenias as I walked home, a child, from school. Goodbye to the first glint of morning Sun over red Sedona cliffs, to thunder rolling majestically through a dark tumultuous sky. Goodbye storms, rain, snow. Goodbye and goodnight my soft, mysterious stars. Goodnight Orion and Pleiades. Goodnight Teapot steaming into the galactic center in Sagittarius. Goodnight Moon and Mars.

Perhaps we’ll meet again beyond these blinks of the Universe that constitute ourselves. Somewhere, sometime, a consciousness winks out, and elsewhere, elsewhen, a new one begins to form itself and the world around it. Is that the way it works?

Farewell curiosity. I was never satisfied, never had the wherewithal to discover all I wanted to know. Somewhere, sometime a reset button is pushed, and I begin all over again. Is that how it works? Farewell struggle and despair, so long happiness and sweet caress.

Goodbye Mary Frye and to your “diamond’s glint on snow” and “thousand winds that blow”. I love your “soft uplifting rush/Of quiet birds in circle flight”, and your “soft stars that shine at night”.

Farewell, adios, so long …

Goodbye, and strive for perspective, the broadest deepest perspective you can achieve, because you are a mote of the Universe, and the Universe needs to see itself as clearly and broadly as it can. It needs to know itself through you.

 

See the last entry in Quotations to read Mary Frye’s poignant masterpiece.

Rockets, Rhymes & Recipes

Where have I been these last few months? Planning the next black sky voyage.

It’s a novel about presidents and coup d’etats, Mars colonists and aliens, death and resurrection, volcanic recrudescence, and a few metaphysical speculations.



Station Ollie, in this working cover, is a geometrically realistic 3-D software model using the tetrahedral architecture that Oliver Harwood—a real spacecraft designer who had a hand in the Skylab Space Station design—invented in the 1980s and 90s. It consists of six standardized parts, all of which I’ve used in Station Ollie. The “Nodal Balls”, which are rhombic dodecahedrons (sorry—I had to throw that in for the woo-woo factor), serve both as air locks and docking connectors for the other components. These nodes are key to a modular concept that allows for the building of space-filling tetrahedral structures of great strength and variety using only those six standard parts. The elegance and logic of this architecture almost certainly preclude the concept ever being adopted by a bureaucracy infested organization or politically driven government.

With a few more drafts to go, the novel should be finished in about a year. Here’s the current working prologue to launch the ship. The similarity to The Darkest Side of Saturn prologue is intentional. Consider it indicative of some of the themes common to both books.

All aboard and bon voyage

—Prologue—

A long, long time ago—about fourteen billion years more or less—the universe banged into existence. Immediately—commensurate with the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics—our baby universe began dividing into infinitely many sister universes weaving almost parallel but slightly diverging courses through meta-time. One of these would become the home of The Author. This narrative is not about that universe or the separate one containing Harris Mitchel and an asteroid named B, nor a somewhat different one containing pilot Steve Mylder who counted air combat missions in a brutal war. It is about the slightly different universe which contains neither Steve, Harris, nor B, but does house a president that Harris once met.

In that baby universe, in the beginning, gasses swirled, mixed, collided, and gave birth to galaxies and stars. Stellar systems formed consisting of mother stars surrounded and embraced by loving children: planets, asteroids, satellites, comets, and other odd siblings. In some of these systems, life ignited and began a long journey towards an unfathomable end, obeying Evolution’s holy trinity of Replication, Variation, Selection in a never-ending struggle to make order out of chaos and perhaps bring forth consciousness from unconsciousness, thus continuing a never-ending and hard-fought battle with the Great Satan, Entropy, who strives to make disorder from order.

A long time ago—about one billion years more or less—in one of these stellar systems in one of these galaxies, this evolutionary course resulted in the ignition of consciousness. A race of beings quickly came into existence able to control and direct its environment. It began expanding relentlessly outward, filling all available evolutionary niches—to the nearest planets, to the nearest stars, to the nearest arms of the galaxy and beyond.

A while ago—about one million years more or less—another race of beings also banged into consciousness and began exploiting its technological prowess to expand into every nook and cranny of its birth planet, eventually casting an avaricious eye on its neighbors.

A short time ago—about one thousand nine hundred and fifty years after the birth of a significant religious figure—a member of these later developed beings named Enrico Fermi lunching outdoors with his colleagues on a warm sunny day raised his gaze to the sky and shrugged with upturned palms, exclaiming in puzzlement, “Where is everybody?”

He meant, presumably, that with all the possibilities of advanced beings long preceding his own race, Where are all those alien beings? Why haven’t they expanded and overrun this corner of the galaxy, paving it over into a galactic parking lot to serve a galactic football stadium … and sadly, paving over his own unfortunately less advanced and hence defenseless sapient civilization?

Where is everybody? asked Enrico. There was no answer. For this devilishly speculative and unanswered question, he was honored in the naming of a paradox, namely the Fermi Paradox.

An even shorter time ago, a leader of these less advanced and hence defenseless sapient beings—a president—announced a program to colonize a nearby sibling planet. The planet was named after Ares, a god of war also known as Mars.

Yesterday—meaning an extremely short time ago Geologically speaking (or perhaps more appropriately for a planet named after Ares, Areologically speaking)—one of the three colossal and dormant Mars shield volcanoes riding atop a gigantic uplift named Tharsis Ridge awoke after a brief snooze of a hundred million years, more or less, and began again to stream its buried gasses into the sparse atmosphere of the planet. The first colonists-to-be looked down in awe upon this curious spectacle from an orbit far above.

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Acknowledgements:
Mars texture map: JHT’s Planetary Pixel Emporium at
http://www.celestiamotherlode.net/catalog/mars.php
Modelling software: Cheetah3D at https://www.cheetah3d.com

 

Upon reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

A smart and accomplished girl in her third year of college gets a highly desirable summer internship as an editor at a prestigious fashion magazine in New York City, and proceeds to blow the opportunity and lose her way by going slowly insane. After returning home, she attempts suicide and finds herself in an asylum for several months where she receives electroshock treatments. At the end she apparently recovers, returning to college, but the suicide of a fellow inmate rocks her and makes her question her long-term existence.

In the middle of the story I found myself angry at the author—the story is very autobiographical—for blowing her opportunities and ruining her life, even though I felt I should be empathetic and understanding. By the end, as she recovered, I was more accepting.

In 1st person, past tense, Plath’s writing is full of strong images, metaphors, and clever turns-of-phrase, her use of language being essentially poetic. I admire her writing.

I also got a strong sense of how different personal realities can be. She lived (as do many) in a world dominated by personal and emotional relationships, a world of tenuously controlled and often irrational passions. I must be a polar opposite to this, because my world seems dominated by objective physical realism. Perhaps I am to be pitied because my relational reality is shallow, but even putting aside depression and suicide, I prefer mine in most respects. Reading Plath makes me wonder anew how people can think and exist so differently.

Sylvia Plath’s world is not mine, and mine not hers. This is not a bad thing; in fact, this is one of the reasons we read (or should read) fiction—to expand our personal realities.

Plath committed suicide a few weeks after her book was released. The first edition was attributed to her pen name and was not critically acclaimed. The second edition a few years later identified her as the author and, to the cynically minded, began it’s rise to fame upon the back of her tragedy.

I wish she’d lived to write and rhyme into her promising future. But if she had, most of us may never have heard of her.

Press Release—Award-winning Author Speaks at Peregrine

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

2016/08/09

AWARD-WINNING SEDONA AUTHOR SPEAKS AT PEREGRINE

Fly literary combat missions and dodge fictional asteroids with Sedona author Tony Taylor when he discusses and reads from his two award-winning novels, Counters and The Darkest Side of Saturn on Saturday, August 20th at 2 PM at the highly regarded Peregrine Book Company of Prescott, Arizona. He will sign books after the event.

Taylor’s latest novel, the Darkest Side of Saturn—the story of two astronomers who discover a dangerous asteroid—won First Place for Commercial Fiction in the prestigious 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Awards contest, and was the Book of the Year in the 2015 Arizona Literary contest. Additionally, the book won a First Place and three Finalist awards in other contests.

His first novel, Countersa tale of air combat—was short-listed for the Grand Prize in the Hoffer Book Awards, and went on to receive an Honorable Mention in the Legacy Fiction category.

Pilot, spacecraft navigator, author — Tony Taylor flew fighters in the Air Force and later navigated NASA spacecraft to all eight planets of the solar system. For insurance, in order to claim all the planets in case Pluto is promoted again, he added that one in 2015 as a member of the New Horizons Navigation Team.

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Taylor-082015_Flyer