FROZEN ORBIT Review Thread

Today was a good day. Saw Frozen Orbit in a bookstore for the first time, which floored me. Even though I knew it was there, the feeling of finally seeing it for sale out there in the big old world next to my favorites like James S. A. Corey and Larry Correia is, well…wow. I should be able to find words but I Just. Can’t. Even.

Hot on the heels of that experience, it garnered this mention from Booklist:

The story moves quickly with elements of both a spy thriller and a space race, and never seems to drag, though years pass during the telling of it. Readers are given glimpses of Russia’s Cold War space secrets as astronaut Jack Templeton pores through a long-dead cosmonaut’s journal on the lengthy space flight to the lonely Kuiper belt. A mystery about a crew driven to mutiny at the very edge of nothingness needs to be solved, and questions about humanity’s very existence are asked. Frozen Orbit could make for an impressive movie, one that would stand with greats such as Contact or Interstellar.

I’ll take that all day long, especially the movie part.

UPDATE: From Amazing Stories:

If you’re looking for a hard-core space-hardware saga in the vein of Clarke, Baxter, Mary Robinette Kowal (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky), or the recent Last Astronaut (David Wellington), you’ve come to the right place…There’s enough character drama to pull the story along (with a married couple and two single astronauts aboard) but the real story here is on the science side…The author covers a lot of ground in this space procedural, and you’ll see a reexamination of the themes in Clarke’s 2001 a Space Odyssey here, but with technology and concepts informed by the five decades that separate the two works.

I’ll update and bump this post as new reviews arrive. In the meantime, you can help a brother out–if you liked it, please consider leaving a review or at least rating it on the Amazon page. That helps make it more visible, which is yuuge.

P.S. There are now signed copies of Frozen Orbit at Barnes & Noble in Hendersonville and Brentwood, TN. Act fast!

What Were You Thinking?

Tomorrow is the big day, which I’ve been waiting for since this time last year when Baen accepted Frozen Orbit for publication. And let me tell you, the intervening twelve months have been a rollercoaster: Graduated our youngest from high school, quit my job of 20+ years (a good run by any standard these days, much less in aviation), and moved to Tennessee. So other than that, not much…

No doubt you’re asking, “what were you thinking?” There’s much to say about that which I’ll get to in another post, but with my first “real” novel out tomorrow I’d rather talk about what was in my head while writing it.

See the source image

If you’ve read any of my work, it’s obvious that I’m not your traditional science fiction writer–if there is such a thing. I’m not into space aliens, don’t believe in UFO’s, and am not that drawn to space opera except for the original Star Wars (including Rogue One and The Mandalorian. Wow). And Trek, of course.

Having said that, I’ve never been much into the books from either series. My tastes in reading have always run more towards near-future fiction: what could we be doing, if not right now, at least in my lifetime if somebody really wanted to? Since we live in the age of SpaceX and Blue Origin, who are doing exactly that, I fully expect my brand of stories over time to become less science fiction and more technothriller. I was a huge fan of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton and that’s kind of how my style evolved.

Plus, it’s the twenty-first century and I want my flying car.

I knew from the outset that Frozen Orbit would be different from my other two novels. The basic idea was this: Until a few years ago, we had never laid eyes on Pluto. What if our first look revealed something nobody expected–something decidedly not natural? Not being into space aliens, this presented a story challenge until the idea that the Russians got there first eventually hit me. Still, even that wasn’t going to be enough: What was the compelling idea that would pull it all together?

I have to be careful not to give away too much here, but it’s a topic I wanted to explore. Namely, where did we come from? How did we get here? Were we created, or did we just evolve out of some grand cosmic accident? Or was it a little of both: That is, did our creator put the evolutionary process in place with humanity as the end goal?

This leads to the question of what else might be out there. It’s a big universe, after all. If life could develop here, why not somewhere else? If it has, then why haven’t we detected it yet (i.e. Fermi’s Paradox)?

Well, who says it has to be intelligent life (ignoring the obvious joke that we still haven’t proven intelligent life even exists on Earth yet)? Remember back in the 90’s when NASA thought they’d found fossilized microbes on Mars? I vividly recall some talking heads on CNN gleefully speculating that Christians were going to have a difficult time with that.

Ignoring their obliviousness of the other major religions, I thought, why should we have a hard time with that? How was this any different from discovering a new species in the Arctic Ocean or the Atacama desert?

I fully expect us to eventually find life elsewhere right here in our Solar System. There are likely candidates orbiting Jupiter and Saturn right now: Europa, Enceladus, and even Titan. I see them no differently than I do the under-explored regions of Earth, and finding life would certainly not pose a threat to the notion of Humanity as God’s chosen creation.

Intelligent life in another solar system would, however. If you hold the view that humans were uniquely formed as and God’s favored creation (above the angels of Heaven, in fact), then yeah, that’s a problem. I can easily see how that would lead a lot of people, myself included, into a crisis of faith.

There are a lot of good arguments for why we haven’t detected intelligent life yet (either through radio signals, drive signatures, alien megastructures, etc). One is that all of these presuppose other intelligent species would be much more advanced than we are. Even a hundred years’ worth of technological advancement would look like magic to us. A thousand years? We’d think they were miracle workers. We might not even be able to recognize the signs of a civilization that advanced.

Then there’s this: If it’s taken fourteen billion years for us to get to where we are, why exactly would we think other species somehow jumped ahead of us? What if we haven’t detected intelligent life yet because we’re all at about the same stage and the distances between us are so great that there just hasn’t been enough time yet?

Here’s another idea: there are other, very advanced civilizations, and they’re not particularly nice. Maybe we live in a dangerous neighborhood and just haven’t learned to keep our electronic mouths shut like everybody else.

It always struck me as hopelessly optimistic to assume any advanced civilization would naturally be peaceful because otherwise, they’d have surely destroyed themselves by now. This never made sense to me. What if there’s a whole race of predatory aliens out there, and we’re blasting EM radiation all over the place just waiting for the peaceful Vulcan space hippies to show up and throw out their Live Long and Prosper gang sign? What if instead, we just attracted marauding Klingons? If that’s the case then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow may be a good day to die.

That appeals to me from a storytelling point of view, but I don’t find it especially likely either. I’m more intrigued by the one question I’ve not heard asked enough: what if we’ve never found intelligent life because we’re the first?

Mind. Blown.

Scary, but also reassuring from a theological point of view. If you believe we’ve been commanded to go forth and multiply, well…that should affect how you view our role on this planet and our responsibilities to each other and the majestic Creation that has been provided for us to explore. God gave us big brains, opposable thumbs, and a boundless universe to use them in.

What if, when God told us to “go forth and multiply,” he really meant it? What if one of His purposes for us was to spread life through the universe? How might He do that?

Buy the book and find out tomorrow.

Countdown to Launch

Three days to go!

Frozen Orbit is about NASA’s first expedition to the outer planets, prompted by the discovery of a top-secret Russian spacecraft, Arkangel, abandoned at Pluto around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you’re wondering how in the world they could have pulled that off given the state of technology, well…who else but the Soviets would’ve been ballsy enough to build an Orion-style nuclear pulse drive?

USAF Orion Spacecraft Concept (Credit: NASA)

If you haven’t heard of Orion (and it’s most definitely not the current NASA project–it’s actually a travesty that they’re using the name for what is a decidedly less ambitious program), the concept is simple:

  1. Build a spacecraft with a really big plate and shock absorbers.
  2. Detonate a nuclear bomb behind said plate.
  3. Keep detonating nuclear bombs until the spacecraft has reached a measurable fraction of light speed. And make sure you’re pointed in a safe direction.

The Air Force studied this back in the 1960’s, as did the British Interplanetary Society in the 70’s. Neither group was able to convince their governments to fund them, despite its potential to open up the solar system to us (and possibly even interstellar travel within a human lifetime). Frozen Orbit postulates that the Russians were enamored enough with the concept (and didn’t care about the cost in either rubles or environmental damage) to actually go through with it. Why no one ever heard of it, and more importantly why they never came back, is the crux of the story.

Pre-order at Amazon!

Next Giant Leap

Can’t believe I forgot to link this, so I’m blaming the Christmas rush. Baen asked me to write a short background story on Frozen Orbit in advance of its release next week. From the opening:

Vladimir Vaschenko’s first indication that his landing attempt might not have planned for every variable was when the ground beneath him exploded.

If you want to find out what happens next, go to http://www.baen.com or just hit this link right here.

If It’s Boeing, It Ain’t Going

It pains me to say that. I spent a lot of time in their performance engineering school in Seattle, and after every course I came home feeling like a rocket scientist.

CST-100 Starliner passing by Charleston on its way to (the wrong) orbit.

After today I wonder if their rocket scientists feel like rocket scientists:

For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and more comfortably.
Of course, getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines in order to climb higher into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed, and for a while it was uncertain if it occurred at all. Now, it seems that some kind of ignition did occur, but whatever happened did not put the Starliner on the path it was supposed to reach.

Well then.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what happened. Hopefully it’s easily understood and a quick fix–but in space program terms, “quick” is relative. At this rate, who knows when we’ll see a crewed Starliner flight?

Between this and the MCAS debacle, one rightly wonders what the actual &#$%@! is going on at the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. It’s fair to wonder if this points to bigger problems, the rumblings of which I began to hear about 10-15 years ago after the McDonnell/Douglas merger. The engineers I got to know in Seattle were almost to a man concerned with the new management culture being imposed on them. They were afraid Boeing was becoming less of an engineering concern and more of a “business.”

That might have sounded like frightened old-timers protecting their rice bowls, but it looks like they knew what they were talking about. The bean counters took over, much to Boeing’s detriment. Moving the headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago certainly didn’t help. The 787 was a slow-motion fiasco, with supply chain and certification problems that delayed its entry to service by years, but at least the thing’s flying and hasn’t killed anybody yet. If only we could say the same thing for the 737 Max.

Safety and quality are always a balancing act: if you park all of your airplanes, you’ll never have an accident. You’ll also be out of business. You can likewise implement quality systems which are so onerous that nothing gets done. The opposite is to ignore safety and quality in the chase for dollars, and it can be surprisingly easy to rationalize cutting corners for the sake of “accomplishing the mission.”

By striving to improve their bottom line through questionable business decisions, this company has created some very expensive problems for itself. I just hope they’re not fatal, as I don’t want to see Airbus become a de facto monopoly. Despite their current issues, I think Boeing has always built a better product and I want to see that continue into the future.

It takes decades to build your reputation and seconds to squander it.

 

 

 

 

Steely-Eyed Missile Men

Just a quick hit, then back to work…I’m finishing a short story for Baen’s website in advance of Frozen Orbit’s release, the deadline for which coincides with an audit trip I have to take right after Thanksgiving. So yeah, lots going on at Chiles Manor South…

Aerotech Arreaux, the first large-ish rocket I built after getting back into the hobby 15 years ago.

My high-power fleet and mission control.

The Arreaux on an Estes F-15 motor, after the engine nozzle clogged and blew out the forward end. Black-powder motors are susceptible to this problem as they don’t easily scale up in size.

Public Missiles Mini Black Brant X, on an H182 redline motor.

Estes Mega Der Red Max on an Aerotech G64 White Lightning motor. Composite propellant works a lot better in these sizes than black powder.

Last weekend I went to my first high-power rocket launch since moving to Tennessee and had a blast with the Music City Missile Club (pun intended). It was a bit chilly with clear blue skies, not like the teeth-rattling cold and gray overcast that too often defined our launch days with Tripoli Mid-Ohio.

Out of four attempts, I had two successful flights and two which were less-than-successful but no less spectacular (i.e. they blew up).

Rocket science ain’t supposed to be easy.

Going for Gold at Pluto

See the source image

New Horizons‘ lead scientist Alan Stern describes their “Gold Standard” plan to return to Pluto:

First, after an orbital tour of Pluto, a final pair of close gravity-assist flybys of Charon will free the orbiter from the Pluto system to explore the Kuiper Belt without any need for any propulsion from the orbiter. Next, using only the existing capabilities of the NASA Dawn mission electric propulsion system, the craft will conduct a flyby tour of up to a half-dozen small Kuiper Belt objects and any one of a number of dwarf planets. In fact, in some scenarios, the Dawn propulsion system can even place the Pluto orbiter around a second dwarf planet for another orbital mission.

Lots more on the particulars of the design trades that have to be made for an orbital vs. flyby mission in the article at Astronomy.com. One of the balancing acts that always intrigued me is the need to cover the distance quickly but still arrive with enough propellant to slow it into orbit when it gets there.

An earlier piece at Astronomy lays out just why we ought to be interested in this icy world at the end of the Solar System:

Pluto generates enough heat to comfortably sustain a subsurface ocean over billions of years. The evidence scientists have accumulated so far suggests such an ocean is present — although it most likely remains locked beneath a thick, rigid shell — and would be detectable by a future orbiter. Also keep in mind that Pluto is not unique: Other bodies in the Kuiper Belt have similar sizes and most likely also possess oceans. So, the outermost reaches of our solar system are not universally hostile. Despite the cold and the dark, Pluto and its brethren may represent welcoming oases.

This is fascinating to me, and was part of my premise for Frozen Orbit. When it became apparent it held organic compounds known as “tholins” similar to what we’ve found on Saturn’s moon Titan, I naturally wondered about what else might be hiding out there in the Kuiper Belt. If comets were the source of Earth’s water and organic materials, most of which came from the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, then that kind of makes the whole belt into one big freezer pantry. That made for some intriguing story ideas about how we came here and our place in the universe.

The rest you’ll just have to read about when Frozen Orbit comes out in January. If you really don’t want to wait, Baen is selling advance reader copies now.

 

The Story So Far, or Lessons Learned on the Writing Life

Writing full time is a dream come true for anyone who’s finished even so much as a short story. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Now that I’ve taken the plunge, there are a few lessons I’d like to pass on. This list is by no means complete:

1. Time management is everything. 

You may have a lot more of it now but it’s still less than you think, especially if working from home means you’re now responsible for, you know, taking care of said home. If you don’t make writing Priority One, I promise you will find enough meaningless distractions to leave you doing what Sarah Hoyt calls “rotating the cat.”

My days start pretty early. I help Better Half get around and see her off to work by 7. I make time for daily devotionals and Bible study (whatever is important to you, but this is something else that will fall by the wayside if I don’t do it first thing), then catch up on email and daily news. I make sure all that is done plus breakfast by 830. I’ll work out afterward if I feel like it. Otherwise, it’s time to plant my butt in the seat.

The exception to all this is when I have a road trip for my contract job. There’s a certain amount of preparation that has to happen ahead of time, and when I’m out on the road that job is the priority. Besides keeping my focus where it needs to be, it makes it easier to wrap up reports while I’m still on the clock and not back at home.

2. Human interaction is also everything.

Let me be clear: I did not leave a crappy job. It wasn’t always the most interesting thing in the world, but it was still a good gig. I miss my old coworkers, and you will too unless they were jerks in which case congratulations on escaping a toxic work environment.

That’s what I like about my contractor gig: besides paying actual money, it gets me away every few weeks to spend a lot of time with new people.

On a related note, I’ve also found it important to get out of the house and “go to the office” just to break up the routine (or maybe establish one). Don’t make fun of the loner at Starbucks pounding away on his laptop because he may not be doing it just for show–in fact, if you’re in the Bellevue, TN, area it might be me! I’ve recently started checking out local coffee shops Not Named Starbucks just to break up the monotony. First time I tried it I knocked out 1500 words in two hours on a story I hadn’t touched in three weeks.

Also, if you don’t have a dog or a cat, get one. Preferably a dog, because there are no good places for a litter box if you don’t have a basement or a decent-sized mudroom. See also that whole “rotating the cat” problem.

3.  The mental engagement of a full-time job may benefit your writing more than you realize.

YMMV, but if you’re like me you used storytelling to escape the mundane. You might be surprised at how much more work it takes to spark the old imagination.

4. Unless you’ve been handed a six-figure advance, be prepared to feel worthless.

My wife and I have swapped roles after twenty years spent raising our sons. She now works full-time in a job with excellent benefits and I work part-time as a contractor in my old industry (business aviation). We made all of the preparations responsible adults are supposed to do ahead of a big life change like this: eliminating debt, setting a budget, and ensuring we had enough savings to cover the gaps while I begin building writing income.

None of that changes the fact that after being the main breadwinner for all those years, I’m now small potatoes. My part-time consulting job brings in about half of what I was making before. While it enables writing full time, any royalties won’t be seen for at least another nine months from now. Baen structures their advances so that you have a good chance of selling through, but I still have no idea how much those royalties might be.

I have other stuff in the works that’s too short for Baen to publish so it’ll go on Kindle Direct where the royalties come a little quicker, but it’s still no less scary. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to go back to work full time. Which brings me to…

5. Make certain your significant other is 100% all-in.

It’s not fair to them otherwise, and you’re going to need them on your side for the times when doubt threatens to cripple you. My wife has been absolutely committed to this, and I can tell you with certainty I wouldn’t have been able to go through with it otherwise. She has been an absolute treasure and I hope every one of you reading this has someone like this in your life.

That’s all for now. I still have a lot to learn so there will be more to come in the future. In the meantime, you may recall I have a book coming out in January. Pre-orders mean a lot, so Tap That App and tell your friends!

 

Coming Soon

…but not soon enough!

The blog’s been dormant for awhile (okay, a long while), so you may rightly wonder what I’ve been up to. There’s this little thing, coming January 2020:

Balancing work on my first “real” novel for Baen against a full-time day job and family commitments kept me incredibly busy. Something had to give.

So I quit the day  job.

If that sounds nuts to you, rest assured it still feels nuts to me. Just so you know, I didn’t completely throw caution to the wind – I’m now a contractor in a job that pays fairly well for being part time, which enables me to write full time. This is a window of opportunity which needed to be taken advantage of, meaning that I can’t take three years to finish a novel anymore and expect to make it as a writer.

Life has changed dramatically for us in just about every way. Much, much more to follow as I breathe life back into this site. In the meantime, enjoy the cover and pre-order FROZEN ORBIT at Amazon.

Don’t Be Evil

Google is still doing it wrong:

Google ads has refused to do business with a Christian publishing house “because of the faith we express on our website,” said Concordia Publishing House CEO Bruce Kintz in a Facebook post today.
“Google ads will no longer accept anything related to the cph.org domain. They stated the reason is because of the faith we express on our website,” Kintz wrote. “[A CPH associate] was told, as an example, that things like our bible (sic) challenge on our [Vacation Bible School] webpage would clearly need to come down before they could consider us for ads.”

Let that sink in. They take exception to a church publishing house hosting apps for Vacation Bible School.

Ever been to a Lutheran service? Not exactly filled with the fervent faithful speaking in tongues and tossing snakes around. Google is afraid of a bunch of exceedingly polite people doing…what exactly? Teaching manners to their kids? Believing in a higher power? Holding another Sunday potluck?

If they’re this bad with the Lutherans, you can imagine how they really feel about the rest of us knuckle-dragging rednecks.

It’s like the whole country is a field of dried grass and the hard left just can’t stop lighting matches to see what happens. As Col. Schlichter has pointed out, if they’re this afraid of the “Christian” right, they’re really going to hate the non-Christian right.