by John Lambshead
There is an old saying about science in science fiction: If the story could be written without the science then it's not SF and should not be written as such.
“Hard” SF is supposed to encompass stories that use science and technology that is at least theoretically possible, as opposed to “soft” sf which embraces fantastic developments. The difference between soft SF and fantasy is largely a matter of style, or to quote Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The downside of hard SF is that it can date awfully quickly.
One of the fascinating blindspots in most hard SF stories, is that they rarely considered the social implications of innovative technology. The future is often depicted as socially exactly like the present, only with impressive gadgets.
What strikes me most looking back at the original Star Trek communicator, apart from the large size, was that they only used it as a mobile telephone, perhaps the dullest and least important use of a modern device that has generated a societal revolution in human mating rituals. While on the subject of “love,” I would suggest that the contraceptive pill has done far more to change the world than, say, nuclear or electronic technology, because it changed our culture.
Which brings me to the science of Into the Hinterlands and The Citizen series. The series is a science fiction tale based around the life of George Washington. It is not a biography but a trilogy of novels that try to distill key issues in this remarkable man's life and present them in an exciting and readable format.
It is not unusual for sf authors to draw upon historical events to provide the background culture and plot for a novel. After all, nothing is more persuasively real than reality. David himself is a past master at this. Consider the Lt. Leary/RCN series.
Drake himself says: “I've read Patrick O'Brian's novels and I love them. Some reviews have referred to my Leary/Mundy series as an SF version of Hornblower. That's not correct; I did an SF version of the Aubrey/Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian's superb knockoff of Forester's Hornblower.”
But the Leary series is far more than that. Daniel Leary may be an officer in a Republic of Cinnabar Navy that draws its culture from the Royal Navy but Cinnabar is not Eighteenth Century Britain. Culturally, it is the late Roman Republic: David read classics at the University of Iowa.
The series also draws heavily on historical events for the background politics to the novels. For example, the political situation of Some Golden Harbor is based on the life on Aristodemus, Tyrant of Cumae, and the general political situation in Southern Italy in 500 BC, intercut with events from the South in the American Civil War and the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Drake's genius is to recognize the essential human interaction from disparate sources and to merge them seamlessly into a believable whole.
There is a further subtle advantage of drawing political situations from the classical world. The political slogans and ideology of the time are meaningless to a modern audience so all that is left is the naked power politics in all its glory, the way a long buried corpse shows the skeleton, not the soft tissue that once concealed it.
For example take the political slogan from classical history, “Freedom of the Greeks.”
To the modern eye it looks like a call for the right of self determination of the Greek people. Actually, it was more complicated than that. The “Greek people” was merely a linguistic concept, somewhat like the “English-speaking peoples” today.
Politically, the slogan meant that each tiny Greek polis, or city-state, should be completely independent to wage eternal war on all other Greek city-state within range. Disunity was not so much a political problem as an ideology. When a city-state planted a colony, usually due to overpopulation, the new state was equally independent and would happily declare war on its parent.
The squabbling city-states were easy pickings as soon as the Mediterranean came within the sphere of great powers. The Ionian city-states on the coast of Asia Minor, unable to come together to put up a unified defence, were conquered by Croesus of Lydia. From then on they were always a province in someone else's empire. The city-states in southern Greece fell in quick succession to Philip of Macedonia.
Each new would-be conqueror of the Greek polis persuaded them to revolt against their current owner by announcing the “Freedom of the Greeks.” In 307 BC, Demetrius Poliocertes arrived of Athens with 250 ships and proclaimed the Freedom of the Greeks, driving out the forces of King Cassander of Maecedonia. He repeated the trick in 302 BC, and again in 294, each time making the same proclamation.
The Irano-Hellenic King Mithradates the Great pulled a similar stunt in 90 BC proclaiming “Freedom of the Greeks,” apparently with a straight face, to persuade the cities to rebel against Rome. The silver-tongued Athenians made great fun of the sunburn on the face of the fair-skinned, taciturn Roman General Sulla, likening it to oatmeal. Sulla, who had no sense of humor, razed Athens to the ground in retaliation without bothering to make a proclamation.
The English phrase “Freedom of the Greeks” does not even begin to describe the power of this propaganda, but from the perspective of two millennia of hindsight, the ideology falls away and we see these political power-plays for what they were.
The Citizen series presents something of a different problem than that of the RCN stories. In order to tell Washington's story, David was obliged to recreate two things, a social-cultural situation that matched the American colonies in the eighteenth century and a technology that would offer the fictional Allenson and other characters the same sort of strategic choices that were open to Washington and other people of the time.
Recreating late eighteenth century British society and politics is easy enough. It is close enough to modern Britain to be recognisable and understandable, but different enough to give a period atmosphere. But we come to an immediate and fundamental issue: slavery.
The English colonies in the New World were one of the only two slave economies in modern Western culture since the Fall of Rome, the other being Brazil. It is an irony that a nation founded on the highest ideals of the Age of Enlightenment also incorporated one of the most despicable social systems ever invented, but Orwellian “doublethink” is a universal human trait.
New World slavery added a further pernicious twist in that it was race-based. In the Classical World anyone, from any class, nation or race, could find themselves in the unfortunate position of being a slave if fortune turned against them, so free descendants of slaves were indistinguishable from anyone else. Mayor of London Boris Johnson's great-great-grandfather was a Turk who bought (and married) his great-great-grandmother. She was a Circassian slave-girl. Circassian girls were considered to be especially beautiful in Turkey in the mid-nineteenth century and fetched high prices at auction, £100 or more.
Far from being stigmatized, Boris boasts about this relationship because it livens up the political CV of what would otherwise be just another Old Etonian Tory toff.
With race-based slavery, stigma follows the descendants of slaves, so slavery and race remain a burning issue long after the institution is abandoned. Race and slavery is still a hot issue in the USA.
This presented David with a serious problem because slavery was not a significant issue to the English colonists in the New World. It was a backdrop that no one seemed to question too closely. David had to recreate the wastefulness and inefficiency of a colonial slave economy without slaves. Otherwise our story would inevitably be all about slavery, as to ignore an issue so important to modern Americans would be perverse. David solved the problem by making the “slaves” a non-sentient alien species—Fleeks.
Please do not misunderstand me, slavery in the New World was, and is, an extremely important topic. It merits serious treatment in novels but it is so important that we have to take it out of Hinterlands or it would completely dominate to the detriment of the story we are trying to tell.
I added a variant of indentured servants to reinforce the message. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indentured servants were poor provincial British who borrowed money from an employer for a ticket to the colonies and then worked for nothing for a period of years to pay off the debt. In practice, there was a continuum between indentured servants and white slaves, since the difference could be just a legal technicality. Even today, the cultural group at the bottom of the social pile in the British West Indies are the “redlegs,” descendants of white slaves and indentured servants.
The famous buccaneer and Governor of Jamaica, Sir Henry Morgan, was supposed to have arrived in Barbados as an indentured servant, although we may rightly be suspicious that this part of his story was invented for romantic reasons. Morgan came from a family of Welsh provincial farming squires (a bit like Allenson in the Hinterlands) so was hardly impoverished. Indeed, his uncle (and father-in-law) Edward Morgan had been Governor before him. Morgan sued French author Alexandre Exquemelin (who served under Morgan, incidentally) for publishing the allegation and won £200. And yet, and yet, there is a fascinating entry in the Bristol Apprentice Books of the ninth of February, 1655, listing a Henry Morgan of Abergavenny, Labourer, bound to Timothy Tounsend of Bristol, Cutler, for three years to serve in Barbadoras.
I'm digressing. Let's return to the Hinterlands.
David's next problem was to recreate the social and economic isolation of the American colonies and the difficulty of moving deeper into the Hinterland through the wilderness behind the British colonies.
To take the latter point first: Travel through the wilderness was by foot, horse or possibly canoe. There were no roads so carriages were not useful outside the immediate area of the colonies. With a wonderful bit of lateral thinking, David came up with a transport system that mimicked these limitations wonderfully. Colonists move through the Hinterland by means of machines that travel through a “Continuum” that is outside of normal space-time in a bubble of reality, rather like the time-vortex in Dr Who. But unlike the Tardis, the technology is limited. The bubble is self contained, with very little moving in or out of the field around it. Physical objects and modest amounts of visible light (so the pilot can navigate) pass through the field.
Materials incur a drag when moved through the continuum so Continuum vehicles have to be as light as possible, further limiting the technology. Just to add to the woes of Continuum transport design engineers, some materials, notably metals, incur far more drag than others.
Most importantly, heat cannot escape from a reality bubble in the Continuum except as a thin trickle of infra-red. Firing some sort of puissant energy weapon inside the bubble would be suicidal. Similarly, rail guns are out of the question due to rapid heat build up. Chemical explosive powered guns would be lethal due to fumes as well as heat build up. The pilot's only realistic weapon system is to throw things or use a mechanical device like a crossbow or, for portability, a spring gun.
Then we have the problem of an energy source. A motor generating significant amounts of waste heat or fumes is out of the question. The pilot is then reliant on low-drag batteries for power. That is okay for short runs of known duration but any exploration of the Wilderness will require the pilot to use good old muscle power and pedal. The lightweight Continuum transport “frames” used by our intrepid explorers are essentially high-tech electric bicycles.
High-tech bicycles have a long pedigree in science fiction. Have a good look at Wells’ description of the design of his time machine, while bearing in mind that Wells’ passions included socialism, free love, and bicycling.
To the stars and beyond, by pedal power—David has a wicked sense of humor to be sure, but he has recreated the sheer physical demands of journeying through the colonial American wilderness, without which our story would be a nonsense. It was hard work and you took only what you could carry. This was not a job for the old, the sick, or the irresolute.
There is a further human factor necessary to properly recreate the strategic situation in the American colonies—the native American human population. There are various ways this could have been handled. For example, remnants of a collapsed culture found over the Hinterlands or rebels who have fled into the wilderness, but these would fail to describe the innate alienation both social and biological between native American and European culture.
David’s solution was elegant and close to reality. He postulated the Riders, a branch of humanity that split off early in our history—just like the real history of the native Americans. How Riders left the planet, and continue to move through the Continuum, was a bit of a head-scratcher. Hence David invented the Beasts, nontechnological Continuum travellers, because a technological alien species would warp the story.
I do not want to go into the biology of why another technology-using species in our corner of space time is very unlikely as that will be the subject of another essay.
I expanded on David's ideas and could not resist linking the Rider exodus to the Toba Event and the effects of “bottlenecking” in human evolution. I then developed Rider culture around these points with nods to native American culture.
My professional life was as a research scientist in phylogenetics, ecology and evolution, so biology does tend to weave through the story. To understand the Riders we have to look at current thinking on human evolution.
Around five to seven million years ago a strange primate lived in Africa that was the ancestor of chimps and humans. Note that not only are chimps human beings closest relatives but people are chimps closest relatives. From a chimp's perspective we are more like them than anything else in the animal kingdom.
Our chimp-hominid joint ancestor was a nonspecialized animal that was bipedal on the ground but quadripedal in trees using a grasping foot. No fossils have been found of this beast but we have a fair idea of this creature's morphology because we do have fossil evidence for a close descendant that lived in Africa around four and a half million years ago, Ardipithecus ramidus, one of the first hominids.
The chimp-hominid appears to have been under evolutionary pressure to specialize and it went in two directions. The ecology of Africa in this period was changeable, with forests advancing and retreating in oscillations. Such instability speeds up evolution. Genetic evidence suggests that the split into two separate clades (literally “branches” or evolutionary lines) was done by about five million years ago, although there seems to have been a long period of interbreeding.
One clade specialized in an arboreal lifestyle—the chimps took to the trees—while our ancestors became increasingly adapted to the plains of Africa. Incidentally, the genetic evidence suggests that chimps evolved faster than human beings. Note that “evolved” in this context simply means changed.
Jumping forward in time to around two million years ago, we encounter a species of hominid named Homo erectus (I will simplify here for the sake of clarity otherwise we will get buried in the detail of paleontological arguments). This organism evolved in Africa, or possibly Western Asia, and spread across the Old World. It has the same generic name (Homo) as us and is probably the first hominid that is recognizably “human.” For example, there is evidence that they used fire as a tool. However, they were not us.
The H. erectus line speciated allopatrically, i.e. geographically. The African clade evolved into H. sapiens—us! The first morphologically recognizable human fossils are only two hundred thousand years old and were found in Ethiopia. The first evidence for the creative human mind was found in a South African artefact dated to seventy thousand years ago. It is an abstract pattern on two pieces of ochre. We don't know whether this marks the evolution of the human mind as being later than the evolution of human morphology but it is a possibility.
Suspiciously, something else very special happened about seventy thousand years ago; the Toba Event. A super-volcano under Lake Toba in Sumatra let rip, causing global cooling and weather instability.
Human beings came perilously close to extinction. We were reduced to somewhere between one thousand to ten thousand breeding pairs and this is seared into our genetics. We are the result of what is known as genetic bottlenecking, which is why the human genome is so similar in all human beings, and why it is such a mess. Inbreeding is horrendously dangerous for us. For example, the children of first cousins are ten times more likely to have genetic defects than the norm. Only 3.4 percent of babies in the UK are born to Muslim parents, but they account for about 30 percent of recessive gene diseases. The reason is that 55 percent of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins, rising to 75 percent in Bradford, and many of the parents are themselves the descendants of first cousin marriages.
Baen Barflies may recall Jim Baen’s and Karl Ugland’s interesting monographs on the subject of inbreeding.
For the Citizens series, the Toba Event is when the first humans left Earth to become The Riders. How this happened is still a matter of debate to the characters of Into The Hinterlands. All Riders are descended from a handful of individuals, probably a single hunter-gatherer band. I tried to show the impact of genetic bottling on Riders by a simple and relatively unimportant genetic peculiarity: most are left-handed.
Extreme bottlenecking has also had an effect on Rider culture. They live in warring hunter-gatherer clans but they exchange women from clan to clan. Only the clans that adopted this cultural behavior would have survived genetic catastrophe.
Such genetic evidence as exists suggests that early human societies did something similar. Women had a greater genetic dispersion than men, who seemed to have stayed in one region—reproductively speaking.
I had a model for the Rider exodus from human evolution. The sudden jump in human mental ability as indicated by artefacts occurs close to or just after the Toba Event and it is tempting to ascribe cause and effect. Genetic bottlenecking followed by unfavorable climatic changes could cause rapid evolution. For whatever reason, human beings made a cultural Great Leap Forward about fifty thousand years ago and soon afterwards small groups made the long trek out of Africa to populate the world.
Non-African human beings are therefore a bottleneck from a bottleneck, just like Riders. There is still more genetic diversity in Africa than the rest of the world put together, although curiously there appears to have been a degree of genetic input into the human genome outside Africa from two of our sibling species, one unknown and H. neanderthalensis—the original native Europeans.
After a few hundred thousand years or so, the geographically separated populations of H.sapiens would probably have followed the H. erectus clade and speciated, but the Great Leap Forward kept leaping forward and we have shrunk the world with our technology. The genetic pools of human populations are connected by increasingly fast-flowing connective streams to form a single global genetic ocean.
But what of Riders, are they human? Are they the still H. sapiens, the same species as us? An analogous question is whether H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens are the same species.
It is always a bit of a shock to nonbiologists to discover that what constitutes a species is largely a matter of convention and opinion. Biological classification is the art of naming species and putting them into hierarchies of natural groups according to shared characteristics, something that started with Aristotle. Phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relationships and in the modern world classification is intended to reflect current thinking on phylogenetics, but the two should never be confused.
The classificatory level of species is no more real or artificial than any other taxonomic level, such as phylum or family. There are many theoretical biological definitions of species but broadly speaking a species can be defined as a shared unitary gene pool. This is something that is in a constant state of evolutionary flux.
Historically, species were defined by degree of morphological difference according to the subjective opinion of the individual taxonomist, which made for lively scientific conferences. Latterly, the percentage degree of difference between selected genetic markers is commonly employed, which at least has the advantage of being more objective if a lot less fun.
So, I would not class H. sapiens as conspecific (same species) as H. neanderthalensis because (i) they were morphologically distinct (the practical definition) and (ii) they were not part of the human gene pool. The overlap seems to have only produced an input of about four percent.
So what of Riders? Well, morphologically Riders do not seem to have had sufficient time to develop a clear distinction with H. sapiens so would be the same species. However, Riders and people rarely (never) seem to interbreed for cultural-behavioral reasons. Now, this is significant because it implies that the gene pools of Riders and people are separated. In that situation, division into two species is inevitable if the separation continues for long enough—probably a minimum of hundreds of thousands of years. However, if Rider, or human, behaviour changes such that they start interbreeding then they reform as a single species.
H. erectus spread around the Old World and underwent allopatric speciation. H. sapiens did the same thing but remained a single gene pool due to the Great Leap Forward. The future for Riders is uncertain, assuming they even survive contact with people. . . .
Finally, David had to address the economic and social isolation of the American colonies. It is difficult for modern people to emotionally grasp how big a barrier was the Atlantic Ocean. We live in a world where any significant event, and much trivia, on one continent is beamed in real time to the other, where you could wake up one morning in one continent and on a whim decide to travel to the other with the confident expectation of being there within twenty-four hours, where the trip to the airport could take longer than the transatlantic flight, and where the biggest obstacle to travel is bureaucratic complexity.
In the eighteenth century a ship put out from Bristol or Liverpool and disappeared over the horizon, sometimes never to be seen again. Travel times to America would typically have been of the order of two months but could be longer.
The wind-powered oceanic ships were entirely dependent on natural forces so followed set routes that took advantage of wind and wave. For example, the “Traditional and Best Route” to travel from New York to London would involve sailing south to just off South America before turning East to the Canaries and then North. Columbus followed a slight short cut via the Azores known as “The Downwind Route.” A glance at a globe demonstrates that these are a long way round.
The Atlantic Ocean reappears in Into the Hinterland as The Bight, an area of the Continuum where there are no habitable planets. Interworld ships have to jump it in one go. David invented the “chasms” in the Continuum to recreate the transatlantic trade routes. Chasms are semi-permanent energy currents that flow through the Continuum. Ships can ride along them obtaining a free increase in speed and hence range. The Cutter Stream colonies only exist because of a powerful chasm called the Cutter Stream that runs across the Bight from the area of space containing the Home Worlds (the Europe analog).
Smaller chasms in the Hinterlands serve the same strategic function as rivers. They act like roads, expediting movement along set channels. Historically, the rivers of North America favored the French. The British had put their colonies in the wrong place.
Colonies may be planted in inhospitable reasons for military purposes or reasons of political prestige but as such they will never progress beyond military outposts. For a colony to prosper and attract immigration it has to have viable two way trade with home. It has to have exportable products that will make a profit for a commercial shipper. Merchant ships are quite different from state-controlled navies. Commercial viability is a balance between operating costs, speed and range, and the value of the transported goods.
I had to invent transbight interworld ships that had operating costs linked to range. The obvious way range would be limited was heat build-up within the reality bubble around the ship. It would hardly be viable to pedal a merchant ship across the Bight any more than one could paddle a merchant ship across the Atlantic. Crews cost, not just in wages but in supplies. So an interworld ship would use a motor of some sort. Motors are machines that increase entropy by turning other forms of energy into heat.
So I envisaged an interworld ship would start a voyage with a core of chilled iron. As it runs through the continuum, heat from the engines is fed into the core until it reaches high temperatures and the ship can go no further. Increasing range, or speed, or cargo capacity means increasing the size of the chilled core. But the chilled core exerts a drag requiring bigger motors that generate more heat, and so on. The general mathematical pattern of such relationships is that each linear increase in “capacity” will require an exponential increase in size of the ship. For a cargo of a given value, there will be a travel time beyond which the shipper is running at a loss.
While on the subject of interworld ships, I should point out that economics also applies to where a merchant ship can dock. A military assault vessel, such as HMS Ocean, can turn up on any coast and transport men and materiel ashore using only its own assets. That capability costs a great deal of money, which would make a merchant ship uneconomic.
The interworld port in the Cutter Stream is by the capital, Manzanita City, or to put it another way the capital is beside the port. The port has heavy duty, mirror-flat, landing aprons that can support a loaded interworld ship without stressing its lightly constructed hull; reinforced hulls that could land anywhere would add weight that would add drag, increasing costs. The port on Manzanita has vital infrastructure to “refuel” the ships, to whit a large lake of clean freshwater to quickly cool down the core, speeding up turnaround time. And time equals money.
The early British regular army campaigns in North America built roads through the wilderness as the army moved, something that seems insane to modern eyes but actually it was a tried and tested military strategic option. All civilized imperial armies built roads for the movement of troops and supplies when invading a wilderness. To give just one example, the Romans left military roads all over Western Europe. The city I live in is built on the A2 road, known to my Anglo-Saxon forbears as Watling Street. This road runs from the channel ports to London and then in a great curve across the Midlands to the giant Roman military base at Chester.
One point to remember is that the American mainland colonies in the eighteenth century were of minimal value to either Britain or France. The motivation for conflict between the two global superpowers in North America was largely a matter of national prestige and politics, not economics. A modern example might be confrontations between the Soviet Union and the USA, often through proxies, in Indochina, Africa or the West Indies.
That is probably a good place to finish. I hope readers find the story entertaining. I hope I have done a decent job bringing Jim Baen and David Drake's superb concept to life but, most of all, I hope I have done justice to the memory of that remarkable Englishman and American, George Washington.
Southern England, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by John Lambshead