Me and science fiction writing

Sun, Feb 4 2018 11:21am GMT 1
223 Posts
Okay, those of you who looked at the blog I posted will know that I have something of a bee in my bonnet where sci-fi and realism are concerned. I found myself in something of a self-created bind with it, due in part to a reluctance to surrender to the easy joys of just making stuff up. I don't know; I'm of the Apollo-13 generation, where this sort of techie stuff was dumped on us via Patrick Moore on a pretty-much nightly basis and some of it, I'm sure, rubbed off. Anyway, one of the points of the blog post was to ask the question, 'how far is too far?', i.e. how deeply buried in realism can an author get before someone more qualified calls them out on it? Well, the extract below is an example of my own attempt to find the fulcrum of that particular balancing act, the point where science and fiction meet.

What I tried to do in the piece below was create an authentic scene of a barely-controlled orbital re-entry. The scenario is that the spaceship (named Eindhoven) has been crippled in an accident and is now plunging down through Earth's atmosphere with a two people attempting to pilot it who, while they're engineers, aren't pilots as such. Much like the author, they're winging it, based on some hurried cramming from both parties.

So... here goes.

“Keep the angle of attack steady and we should be alright. We’re too big to burn up or disintegrate. Be ready to hit the roll thrusters and arrest our forward momentum.”


A shudder ran through the ship. A series of quakes and shudders rent the craft as the atmosphere around Eindhoven heated up. “When I say so.” Beth got up and stumped back to the flight engineer’s seat, the armoured spacesuit feeling increasingly heavy. “Better strap in. This is going to be rough.”

“Should we warn the passengers?”

“Assuming Killian isn’t simply looking after himself, they’ll know,” she said. “Either way, their fate is out of our hands. They either moved up to A-Deck or they didn’t. Nothing we can do about it now.”

Eindhoven bucked suddenly and the horizon canted sharply to the left. White flames were beginning to play around the visible edges of the hull, charring the smiling light bulb emblem on the nose. “Woah!” Claude grabbed the control sticks and then stamped on the upper-hull roll thrusters.

“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” Beth warned. She checked her console again and then switched to external cameras. The shielding around the lower hull camera was abrading as she watched, but it stayed on long enough for her to witness the fiery departure of the high-gain antenna. “We’re streamlining.”

He thought about the implications of that. “You mean we’re starting to break up.”

“If you’re a pessimist.” Beth glanced at the numbers on his screen. They were flickering over so fast that they were impossible to follow. The hull was shaking constantly now and, through the vestiges of the atmosphere, faint rattling sounds reached her ears. She checked her suit seals were tight and then examined Claude’s.

The white fire crowded around the ship now, so that it was impossible to see anything forward at all. Claude wound the control and the windshield became opaque. “On instruments now,” he muttered. “For what that’s worth.”

Eindhoven bucked violently, rearing up and forcing Claude to slam the forward upper thrusters hard against the deck. “Christ!”

“Keep cool,” Beth ordered. “We’re doing fine.”

“I nearly lost her there!”

“It’ll happen again,” she told him, with zero reassurance-value. “Be ready. We have plenty of fuel for the roll thrusters.”

“It’s those last eight seconds I’m bothered about!”

“I’d say we have a ten-minute freefall ahead of us,” she said. “When I say it, I want you to hit the forward thrusters and keep them on until I say otherwise, got that?”

“Got it.” Eindhoven wobbled again and then there was a lurch that felt exactly like something big breaking off.

“Just part of the engine mounting,” Beth said, checking. “Nothing vital. It’ll burn up.”

“How the hell can you be so calm?” Claude’s face was soaked in perspiration and he wished he could just open his visor and wipe it off.

Beth didn’t answer. She checked a gauge and then vented the last remnants of the ship’s atmosphere. “Glad you reminded me,” she said. “I might have forgotten.”

“Anyone not in a spacesuit -”

“Just died,” she nodded. “I know. But oxygen burns, Claude. Let’s not give fate any more help than it already has, hmm?”

“Temperature of deck-C is rising fast,” he said, nodding at the dial. “Hope Killian got the message.”

“I’m actually half-hoping he didn’t.” Beth opened a new window in the flight-engineer’s screen and found the control she was looking for. “All pressure doors are now closed and locked. Anyone who didn’t make it up to A-deck isn’t going to. Should slow the plasma ingress enough to get us through the worst.”

By now the shaking and shuddering was constant and the scrolling numbers were a blur. Beth reached out and grabbed the cable the Captain had doomed them with. Its terminator was still in the Nightbird’s memory core and she yanked it out with businesslike briskness before plugging it into the flight computer and then reaching over to connect the other end to Claude’s suit service pack. “There you go.”

“Outstanding,” Claude said sarcastically. “Now I can see the clock of doom inside my helmet. Thanks, babe.”

“If you’d wanted tender loving care, you should have looked elsewhere.”

“If we get out of this, dinner is on you.”

“Certainly,” she agreed. “I haven’t had a good flambé in years.” She glanced at her screen. “Okay, Claude. Ready with those thrusters… now, now, now!”

His feet stamped against the pedals and the fingers of his left hand tightened around the trigger controls on the stick. Twelve separate thrusters began to burn simultaneously. The sudden braking threw them forward against their seat straps and, dimly visible through the darkened windshield, clumps of debris shot past, overtaking them. Eindhoven lurched violently, screaming silently as she surrendered pieces of herself to the fire. Then the thrusters sputtered and died. “Forward momentum arrested by one point six percent!” Claude shouted. “Is this enough?”

“I’m right here,” she told him. “Pipe down. There’s an abandoned aquatic park of some sort in our landing zone, just shy of a loop in the river. It’s about a mile short of the airport. We should put down right on top of it.”

“You sure it’s abandoned?”

“Well,” she allowed, “it soon will be.” She looked at him. “Bodies on the deck were inevitable the moment Killian plugged your data core into the computer. Now we have to deal with the mess. People will die no matter what we do. The only thing we can do is try to limit the losses. Heroism is rarely clean and tidy, Claude.”

He held the control sticks in knuckles that, under the gauntlets, were bone-white, and he fought desperately against the hulk’s tendency to roll. The buffeting and banging were constant now, everything a blur. Every so often the ship would rear like a breaching whale as another piece tore away in their wake. Eindhoven was a flaming comet streaking across the upper atmosphere, a blazing fireball leaving shooting, incandescent stars in its wake. Across the planet necks craned in wonder and, increasingly, disquiet. Claude tried not to think about what was about to happen, but it was impossible to banish the thoughts. “We just passed the hundred-thousand feet mark. Temperature sensors on C-deck stopped reporting at four hundred and twelve degrees. Gauges are resetting at zero.”

“Beyond tolerances,” Beth translated. “They’re reporting their own melting.”

"We're burning up, you mean!"

Sun, Feb 4 2018 12:44pm GMT 2
1345 Posts
This computer game might be of interest to you for learning the intricacies of taking off and landing space ships and navigating between planets. Kerbal Space Program. My eldest is always talking about calculating the periapsis, and how much delta V he needs. ?#!? If you don't want to actually get the game there are lots of you tube videos on it that might be worth watching.
The only things that struck me about your passage was that such a big ship was being flown by pedals and a stick, but maybe the computers have been fried. And what about them bouncing off the atmosphere if they're at the wrong angle, or are they past that?
All the things like venting the atmosphere seemed plausable and it was a nice, tense piece. Did they make it?
Mon, Feb 5 2018 08:36am GMT 3
23 Posts
I really enjoyed reading this. I'd definately read more. Good balance between character, tech and drama imo. :)

Mon, Feb 5 2018 12:59pm GMT 4
223 Posts
I'm glad that the extract I posted seems to work and that the balance seems to be okay. The chapter is actually pretty big and there was only a little bit I could post that didn't throw in plot points that, in the vacuum of this thread, could be distracting. In answer to your question, Kate, the Eindhoven was already in a decaying orbit due to an accident suffered earlier in the chapter, so it was going to crash come what may. All Beth and Claude were able to do was attempt to limit the damage the plunge was going to cause. And they do indeed reach the ground, after a fashion Laughing
Sun, Feb 11 2018 05:40pm GMT 5
5 Posts
This is a nice read with a good sense of suspense. To me it reads like Beth and Claude are skilled at flying the Eindhoven, and not like they are winging it. Good chemistry between them. Are they an item?

A suggestion is to read up on the space-shuttle re-entry if you haven't already. Similar physics, but the Eindhoven would probable have the added complication of being less responsive due to its large size. A bit like manouvering a large cruise ship :-)

Some tech comments for your consideration:

“Keep the angle of attack steady and we should be alright." — Like Kate say, maybe emphasize even more the importance of getting the angle of entry into the atmosphere just right (and the terrible consequences if they don't).

Why do they say that they are "too big to burn up or disintegrate"? Are they too big to be torn to pieces?

Does "the fiery departure of the high-gain antenna" mean that they loose communication with somebody? Ground control? In what way does this affect them? Why is the antenna mounted on the lower hull?

Do they mean that communications are breaking up because the antenna fell off, or that the actual spaceship is breaking up? What does streamlining mean in this context: “We’re streamlining.” He thought about the implications of that. “You mean we’re starting to break up.”

If they fire the forward thrusters, how can they be free-falling? Or does she mean 'Then, after ten minutes have passed, fire the thrusters'? I didn't quite follow here:

“I’d say we have a ten-minute freefall ahead of us,” she said. “When I say it, I want you to hit the forward thrusters and keep them on until I say otherwise, got that?”

What do the scrolling numbers represent? Altitude? Temperature? Speed?

I don't understand what's going on with the cable in Claude's suit. Probably something futuristic :-)

I hope my comments are helpful to you!

Tue, Feb 20 2018 12:22pm GMT 6
69 Posts

Interesting little snippet. Well written.

I think you have a flare for scifi.

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