Cliff diving on Miranda

Novel Concepts: #4 – Miranda – A Challenge Accepted

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With the possible exception of Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova is my favorite author.  I’ve read at least a dozen of his novels and have thoroughly enjoyed each one.  Bova’s greatest work, in my opinion, is the tapestry he has woven within his Grand Tour series.

The Grand Tour series tells a generational story of mankind colonizing the solar system and parts beyond.  It is still ongoing and I anticipate it will only get better in the future.  The titles of the Grand Tour books are primarily simply the name of a place in the Solar System.  Each story has threads that lead it to the others.  A side character here will be a main character there.  An event in one will get a passing reference in another.  The tendrils are enough for a careful reader to recognize, but not so heavy that they come off like the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Last week, on a lark, I visited Dr. Bova’s website and was pleased to find a contact page there.  I had assumed that Dr. Bova would be far too inundated with fanmail to take much notice, but, I wrote a short note thanking him for his work and recommending that he do a novel set on Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus (stop giggling).

To my great surprise, I received a response in less than 12 hours.  Dr. Bova told me that Miranda seemed interesting and challenged me to name a reason why any non-scientist would want to go there.  I must admit that I hadn’t thought the matter through as much as I really should have.  For a long moment I was well and truly stumped.  A few ideas occurred to me though and I wrote back with a short outline of 4 possible suggestions for a journey to Miranda.  Dr. Bova replied again suggesting that I had the necessary interest and talent to write a novel about Miranda myself.

Challenge Accepted.

I worked out the basic plotline and central characters on a long drive home from Virginia last week.  A long drive on a straight highway has always done wonders for me cognitively.  In this case, it allowed me to flesh out a complete story from start to finish.  That’s relatively rare for me as most of the time when I start to write, I have absolutely no idea how I will finish.

Here I present my outline for Miranda.

Allow me to start with a quick data file about Miranda and the Grand Tour’s universe.  (I don’t believe I can use the Grand Tour setting without Dr. Bova’s permission, but for the moment, I’m using it to give some background to my story.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll be impressed.)

Miranda is, in my opinion, the most interesting of the moons of the outer solar system.  The smallest of Uranus’s five spherical moons, it was discovered in 1948.  Almost all data about Miranda has been obtained from observations made by Voyager II as it flew past in 1986.  The photographs and scans have shown Miranda to be a geologist’s paradise.  Unlike almost all the moons of the outer solar system, which have rocky cores underneath icy surfaces, Miranda is a jumbled mess of rills, canyons and broken formations.  The current speculation is that Miranda must have been shattered at some point in the distant past and the pieces scattered in orbit.  The various pieces, over time, coalesced into their current shape, a random pattern of water ice and rock mixed together.  The moon has less than 10% of Earth’s gravity and orbits Uranus once every 35 hours.  Due to axial tilt and orbital mechanics, only one side of Miranda (the southern side) faces the sun.  Essentially this combines to say that if you are standing on much of the southern half of Miranda, Uranus would appear to not move at all and the sun would appear to move very little.

The elements of the Grand Tour that are semi-essential to know for my setting are as follows.

– After catastrophic greenhouse flooding, the Earth’s political power rests with religious extremist groups.  One of these is the Christian organization called the New Morality, which controls what remains of the government of the United States and much of Europe.  The New Morality is no fan of the independent colonists in the Solar System and does whatever it can to bring them under the yoke of Earth control.

– Long before our story begins, a lunar colony named Selene became its own country and operates independently.  It has a secular government and a thriving business building ships using nanotechnology.

– Water is a resource in high demand everywhere in the Solar System and so mining it is a priority for many.  A colony ship in orbit around Saturn has a business which thrives on shipping water from the Trans-Neptunian objects (essentially asteroids found in the outer orbits which have water.

Okay, enough about our setting.  Let’s get into some character profiles: (Names, genders and certain personality traits are subject to change)

Mark Zimmer: Mark Zimmer dropped out of a very prestigious university to begin his own company.  At the age of 21, he unveiled a new product which he called Mr. Secretary.  Mr. Secretary is a program, a connected series of algorithms, that can accurately predict and exploit economic trends.  The program was adopted by the small nation of Eritrea in the African Union and within one year had expanded the treasury of Eritrea by 300%.  Soon, every nation and nation-state on the planet had purchased the program from Zimmer at an outrageous price.  The global economy stabilized somewhat under the collective control of the programs acting on behalf of national interests.  The stability is seen as a byproduct of the influence of the Mr. Secretary program and economic woe be unto any government that has not adapted Mr. Secretary as a decision maker in regards to its finances.

With his rapid success, Mark Zimmer became a billionaire and has spent the last 7 years aimlessly taking on projects, trying to fend off the boredom that often overtakes him.  His latest entertainment has been a series of tax dodges that he has created through charitable donations to the Smithsonian Museum.  Mark has commissioned the engineers of Selene to build very accurate working prototypes of famous spacecraft from the films of the 20th century.  After “orientation flights” where he pilots the crafts around the inner Solar System for a few months, Mark will drop off the spacecraft off at an orbiting outpost of the Smithsonian.  These “charity donations” of “artistic projects” have allowed Mark to move much of his money off-world.  Still, the fun of bedding supermodels in a replica of the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey has started to wear thin and Mark is hungry for a new project.  (For those playing the home game, yes this is a thinly veiled sketch of Mark Zuckerberg, with just a touch of Tony Stark thrown in for fun.)

Taylor Frost: (haven’t decided whether this character is male or female, but for the moment I’ll use masculine pronouns)  Taylor Frost is a hacker.  Taylor, in defiance of the authorities on Earth, hacked into the hidden files of the New Morality and the Sword of Islam and posted their secrets for the whole world to see.  His goal was to bring down the corrupt political machines by exposing lies and crimes that had been hidden to the public at-large.  The public remained unmoved at the revelations.  Due to a smear campaign and a massive media blitz, the crimes of the religious organizations of Earth were largely ignored.  Society either dismissed the evidence as bogus, or else put its focus on more pressing matters.  Taylor, being instantly ostracized and hunted, fled to the nation of Selene, on the moon.  At Selene, he received asylum from the lunar colony, but due to political pressure, was technically classified as a tourist (in order to avoid the implications of having such an infamous person as a full citizen).  Taylor has spent the past few years in Selene, living off the meager stipend provided by Selene and trying to find a use for himself without the benefits of full citizenship in the colony.  (Again, for those of you scoring at home, I’m aiming for an Edward Snowden ripoff in this character.)

Charles Hancock: Charles Hancock is an engineer living in Selene.  He has been Mark Zimmer’s chief designer for all the spacecraft that Zimmer has commissioned.  Zimmer and Hancock share a love of history, films and spacecraft and the two have a good working relationship, despite the fact that they have never met in person before our story begins.

Evelyn Fielding: Dr. Fielding is a resident professor of Fusion and Nuclear Studies at the University of Colorado.  She was a mentor to Charles in his university days and the two talk often and consult each other on projects and designs.  Evelyn is something of a technocrat and has no problems with the New Morality, so long as her studies on fusion power systems are left unchallenged.

Now, to the story

Part One – Spark:

Mark Zimmer is on a test flight of his newest spacecraft.  He is contacted by his accountant, who explains that the tax loophole that allowed him to have spacecraft built as a charitable donation is now closed.  The young billionaire laments the intricacies of capitalistic systems and reroutes his newest acquisition to lunar orbit for a vacation in Selene.

After landing in Selene and finally meeting his long-term penpal Charles Hancock, Zimmer tours the lunar colony and rethinks his current situation.  He learns that Taylor Frost is a “permanent tourist” in Selene and arranges a meeting so the two mavericks can discuss ideas.

At the Meeting with both Hancock and Frost, Zimmer unveils his latest idea.  Mark wants to create a post-economic society.  A truly egalitarian collective of like-minded citizens who eschew monetary concerns and capitalistic in-fighting to create a system where economic status is null and void.  This would be a society beyond Adam Smith and Karl Marx, something truly unique and independent.

Hancock and Frost both find the idea to be somewhat preposterous, but agree that it has an idealistic merit that cannot be overlooked.  The idea of a society that is not only classless, but unconcerned with monetary influence is a concept that they see as intriguing if not wholly impractical.  Zimmer states that his monetary resources are vast and that the financing of a new society such as this is possible with the means at his disposal.

Frost has been living as something of a wage-slave in Selene, the victim of an unfortunate diplomatic conundrum which prevents him from officially holding a job within the lunar colony.  Frost needs no encouragement to consider signing on with Zimmer’s idea of a post-economic society and sees it as a way to find a new independence outside of the looming shadow of the New Morality.

Mark, inspired by the Mormons of the 1800’s, has chosen Miranda as a site for his new colony.  Much like Utah in the 1800’s, Miranda presents itself as the most rugged and difficult terrain which is currently unoccupied.  For this reason it would be unlikely that others would want to stake a claim to Miranda.  Zimmer also reasons that a colony that far out in the Solar System would be relatively safe from outside powers.

Hancock is unmoved by the idealism of the project, but is fascinated by the technical challenges it presents.  As Zimmer’s plans begin to take shape, Hancock becomes the chief architect of the project, designing both the colony’s shelters and environmental systems, as well as the spacecraft that will bring the colonists and their supplies to Miranda.  The engineer sees the project as the ultimate test of his skills and does not shy away from the daunting nature of the project.

At one point, Hancock consults with his old mentor, Dr. Fielding, about the fusion power plants that will be used in the colony.  They have a friendly discussion about their current projects.  Dr. Fielding makes mention of a new contract that she has been commissioned to work on called Project Angel.

Part Two – Kindling:

Two years later the colony ships have launched with 120 souls on board to claim the moon Miranda and begin the establishment of Zimmer’s new society.  The colonists are largely ridiculed by the media and the whole thing is seen as a stunt doomed to failure.

Leading the colonists in their endeavor, Mark Zimmer becomes the first man to step foot on Miranda. The construction of the Miranda base begins under the direction of Charles Hancock, who decided to join the expedition under the logic that he, as its chief architect, would be best suited to help the colony improvise, adapt and survive.

In their first six months, the colonists struggle to create a self-sustaining system of resources, but their efforts eventually culminate in a base that can feed, warm and shelter all its residents with little aid from outside sources.

The power vacuum created by a lack of economic factors leads to internal infighting among the colonists.  Conflict arises when different colonists submit long-term plans for the future of Miranda.  Eventually these conflicts come to a head and talk begins about potentially abandoning the colony and essentially “cashing out.”

In secret, Taylor Frost sends a coded signal back to Earth.  Taylor’s signal installs a trojan horse program on the Mr. Secretary systems which have maintained the economy of Earth.  The trojan program disrupts the Mr. Secretary systems and leads to a chaotic upheaval of stock markets and pricing for many commodities on Earth.

Taylor, seeking to unite the colonists again, reveals his actions to all at a town-hall style meeting.  Like Cortez burning his ships, Taylor has launched this economic bombshell to poison the colony’s relationship with Earth.  Frost’s actions are seen as monstrous, but the implication is clear: the citizens of Miranda cannot abandon the colony.

Part Three – Conflagration:

Back on Earth, the economic upheaval causes many problems, but in large part is brought under control within a matter of weeks.  The Mr. Secretary program is abandoned and the governments of Earth return to their former approach of using human decision-makers.  The anger against the Miranda colony, however, does not abate,  The New Morality, through their influence on various governments, derides Miranda Base as a haven for economic terrorism and declares war on the fledgling colony.

Evelyn Fielding is called to serve aboard the Armstrong, a massive spacecraft commissioned by the New Morality to carry their will to various pockets of humanity off-Earth.  The Armstrong is essentially a battleship, though officially its mission is to conduct security and render assistance wherever it is needed. The Armstrong was built during the same timeframe as the Miranda ships and it is the final stage of Project Angel, which Dr. Fielding has been working on previously.

The Armstrong departs Earth on a mission to seize and, if necessary, destroy the Miranda colony.  Despite its large engines and considerable fusion power sources, the journey will take approximately six weeks due to the extreme distance of Uranus’s orbit.

Miranda Base monitors the flight of the Armstrong and prepares to be attacked.  The colony has no weapons to speak of and the ships that escorted the colonists are similarly unarmed.  Charles Hancock, under the influence of his mentor, had never built any weapon system on a ship before and the colony ships are no exception.  Miranda’s citizens prepare for the worst and plans are made to resist or surrender, depending on the actions of the Armstrong when it approaches.  There is also talk of delivering Taylor Frost to the Armstrong as a peace offering.

The Armstrong arrives in orbit around Miranda and, under the instructions of the New Morality, immediately fires a shot at Miranda Base, destroying a greenhouse shelter that had been erected and was a major source of food for the colony.

Zimmer and the surviving colonists immediately radio the Armstrong and request to surrender.  However, just as the surrender is offered, the Armstrong’s fusion reactor has a massive malfunction.

Fusion reactors are essentially small contained stars which generate energy.  In this case, Armstrong’s fusion reactor star is essentially going nova.

The captain of the Armstrong calls upon Dr. Fielding to stabilize the fusion reactor and is stunned to find that Fielding refuses to fix the problem.  Dr. Fielding is appalled that her designs were used to power weaponry that targeted a civilian colony.  She has sabotaged the reactor and announces that she is willing to perish along with the rest of the Armstrong’s crew unless the captain powers down all weapons and jettisons the warheads that the Armstrong is carrying.

Listening in to the exchange between Fielding and the captain, the colonists of Miranda Base offer to accept the surrender of the Armstrong and render assistance with its reactor, provided that the weapons are powered down according to Fielding’s demands.

Not wanting to sacrifice the lives of his crew, the Armstrong’s captain relents and disables the weapons systems of the battleship.  Dr. Fielding brings the reactor to a stable state after representatives from Miranda come on board to take command of the ship.  The formal surrender of the Armstrong is handled according to the rules of naval captures in warfare.  The captain and crew of the Armstrong are held in the ship’s now empty weapons deck.  The warheads which gave the Armstrong her teeth are transferred to the surface of Miranda and held as property of the colony.

Seeing the opportunity to savor some revenge, Taylor Frost takes command of the Armstrong and makes ready to fly the ship back to the inner Solar System and exchange the crew, again according to naval customs.  In the final scene Frost, Zimmer and Hancock discuss plans for the ship after its crew is paroled.  Frost makes a bad joke that he is considering putting the ship into a kamikaze run targeting the headquarters of the New Morality.  It is clear to all three that Frost is not serious.

Photo credit: Image at the top is from the amazing short film Wanderers by Erik Wernquist