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Speculation in Science Fiction

I’ve been reading some on-line debates about science in science fiction. The genre covers the gamut from pure fantasy to stories that try to remain realistic with lots of hard science included. Science fiction that slants heavily towards fantasy may have very little science involved in the story and still be quite entertaining. On the other hand, science fiction that has too much hard science runs the risk of either intimidating or boring readers.

While there are those who will argue either side of the issue, I’m of the opinion that a certain amount of science can add interest to a story. It can help the reader immerse himself in the author’s world and, in certain cases, it can be predictive of future scientific discoveries or developments. It may even lead researchers to investigate lines of research that they may otherwise have ignored. If the last idea is even partly true, science fiction serves a heuristic function.

My own stories utilize ideas drawn from science. I usually try to give the reader an insight into how a particular technology could work without being too specific. I enjoy reading a wide range of scientific articles ranging from astronomy and astrophysics to paleontology to quantum physics to mind sciences and more. My habit of reading such material usually gives me some ideas that I try to weave into my stories. Ideas that a physicist might scoff at, but which may have some validity interspersed with the speculative parts.

In light of the fact that I’m stubbornly independent, I generally don’t like to go along with the fashionable trends in science fiction. I started my first story, “The Time of the Cat” with the idea that I was going to write something that would approximate the vintage stories that I enjoyed as I was growing up. This attitude allows me the latitude to come up with weapons and space travel that I believe many of today’s authors would think are too speculative. In short, you’re not going to find worm-holes and conventional rail-guns in my stories.

I’m currently involved in finishing the last few chapters of “Confederation”. This is the third book in my trilogy “Gaea Ascendant”. Since the story relies on alien-supplied technology that is a step or three ahead of human technology, I use some ideas that are common in human physics, extend them by making what I consider a logical step or three steps beyond our current knowledge, and then describe the resulting device in vague enough terms to give the device in question a certain degree of face validity. In other words, if I can describe it so that it sounds like it could be real, given a high level of technology, than maybe my readers will say something like, “Sounds like it might work and it blends into the story in a believable fashion.”

Or, so I hope. Below is a passage from Confederation that describes how the Sunnys’ anti-matter weapons work. The description is given by Frazzle, a Sunny who is technically astute, but whose mastery of English leaves a little to be desired.

So, please read the description below and see what you think. If you want to comment, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts. (Keep in mind that this is an unedited first draft.)

“I don’t want to upset either of you, but I need some information about anti-matter,” I answered, trying to ease into the conversation.

Frazzle let his shoulders droop and I knew that he was upset, but Red pushed him unexpectedly and hard.

“Get over dat!” she said. “You and me both know dat there be plenty of need for the shooters. Tell Dec what he need to know.”

Frazzle sort of shook himself and then asked, “Whats you want to know. I can talk about the technology an I tries not to think about the use.”

I considered how best to ask. “What I want to know is a simple explanation of how they work and what could go wrong with them unexpectedly. I don’t want to be surprised at a critical moment.”

He seemed to be thinking it over and I added, “I’d also like to know about their limitations and true capabilities. I feel like I’ve been lucky so far and I need to know more.”

He drew a breath and began to explain, “Making de anti-matter particles normally takes much energy, but we cheats. The weapon creates a field that gathers positively charged virtual particles from the sub-field of space – ”

Here I interrupted, “What’s that mean?”

He continued, “You call it de quantum plenum. It’s full of particles of all sorts coming and going, so there plenty of anti-particles to grab with the weapon field. The power of the weapon, the little power packs for the hand weapons and the ship power for the big gun first are used to grab these particles. All sizes of guns work the same, just the smaller ones can’t grab as much particles.”

He paused for breath and I interrupted again, “What happens to the particles once they’re captured by this field?”

He smiled; a closed-lip tightening of his cheek muscles, and looked aside at Red. She nodded her head.

“Dat a good question and it’s the next thing that the power pack does. It powers a circular field that uses the strong magnet force. The positive particles pulled from the virtual plenum become real here and are trapped in the circle field. When the button to shoot is pushed, the field opens and the particles, whoosh – ” waving his hand wildly, “fly out. The direction tube (by which I thought he meant the barrel) has its own magnetic field that keeps the particles in the tube and away from the sides. That field also makes the particles go faster. It uses electric force to make them accelerate to close to light speed. You know what happens when anti-particles hit regular matter. Fswhoosh!” He threw both paws up in a gesture intended to represent the annihilation.

“Okay. That sort of explains how the things work,” I said, thinking about what he’d just told me. “What can go wrong with the system? Does it wear out or break?”

“De direction tube and the place where the circle field is can sometimes get eroded by leaking particles. This happens most when the power pack is low and the magnetic field not strong enough. So, we put limiter on the weapon. It won’t work if not enough power. The hand-held ones have flashing red light when power packs get too low. But this not a problem for the big shooter attached to ship-power. It not run out of shots and power is enough to keep erosion very low.”

He scratched his nose and then continued slowly, “De only problem you have with the big ones is that regular atoms in air or space dust get dissolved and thin the anti-matter pulse down. If too much dust or try to shoot through too much air, the pulse gets used up and no damage to the target happen. Same happens to small guns if try to shoot too far.”

“Frazzle, I’ve always thought that anti-matter reacting with regular matter would create an explosion. Why doesn’t that happen?”

“The shooters project a long burst of particles. Not much hit at once, though very fast. Difference like dripping water on dirt compared to dumping whole bucket at once on dirt pile. Best I can ‘splain,” he shrugged in a very human-like gesture.

Our, or maybe I should say, my grasp of physics wasn’t up to much more than this anyway, so I went on to my next question, “How far and how fast do the big ship cannons shoot?”

“De direction tube on the big ones use lot of energy with each pulse. By time the pulse reach the end of tube, it going nearly light speed. That gives very fast shot. Distance determined by matter in between like I ‘splain. Only thing is shooting at long, long distance, pulse take a while to get there, so target can move,” he answered, waving his finger in the air with an attitude of admonition.

“Okay, so keep the targets fairly close. The atmosphere must not be too much of a problem for the big gun. It had no problem burning a wide path through the middle of the Pug-bears position from space.”

“Dat’s correct. It more a problem for the hand-held weapons. They’re not nearly as powerful. But, when we shooted Boulder to get the Pugs, I boosted power in the gun so the circle magnetic field built up much more particles than normal. Can’t do that much and it take some time. Try too often and the erosion becomes a problem,” he answered.

I judged that I’d gotten about as much information as I could understand. “Thank you! I’m going to go talk to Rudy. You two continue where you left off.” They laughed as I turned to the transporter. I was still smiling myself when I came back into the bridge.

That’s it. What do you think?

The story is approaching the critical juncture in the last third of the plot at this point. I plan on releasing it sometime in July 2015.



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