The Really Big Idea: John Lumpkin
Today for the really big idea we veer back to space. As John Lumpkin describes the thought process behind his debut novel, Through Struggle, The Stars, he raises an important point about constraints. The obvious thing about having a structure is that it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel at every point. You just don’t have to worry about certain things. But the more important effect of constraints is on the mind: they make you try harder. Look at the difference between Star Wars and Phantom Menace and tell me I’m wrong. Real constraints can force creativity whether you’re dealing with shortages of money or the lack of an FTL drive.
And as a side note, the website that John mentions is fantastic and well worth a couple weeks of your time.
A Big Rock
To tell the stories I wanted to tell, I needed a big rock.
Not too big – not the sort of rock that puts the roaches in charge or leaves people fighting over the last bit of go-juice using crossbows and football pads. But big enough to scare some of humanity into heeding the Dean’s warning that “Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.”
So the asteroid strike that drowned South Africa was one bit of assumed future history among many that got us to the setting of Through Struggle, the Stars, a future in which the Earth’s nations are colonizing human-friendly worlds around nearby stars. It’s a future in which we haven’t achieved utopia nor slid into dystopia, but remained on the knife’s edge between them.
The assumptions necessary to engineer this setting – about events, ideas, technology, exobiology, you name it – all have second- and third-order implications that I had to consider. I found them to be maddeningly limiting at times. I couldn’t put habitable planets wherever I wanted; I needed to map out the nearby F, G and K stars where they were most likely to develop. Adhering to the laws of physics made it impossible to write the convenient scene in which two key characters 20 light-years apart are quickly brought together, or to employ sexy but silly things like manned space fighters, inertial dampeners or visible laser beams. (Getting the science right was much easier with the help of Winchell Chung’s incomparable web site, Atomic Rockets. Winch also served as the cover artist.)
But these constraints were also liberating. They kept the story grounded, and they required the characters to confront problems, not rely on some form of magic to get around them. They also implied strategies that nations would employ to advance their interests.
Fortunately, that includes building space navies.
Through Struggle, the Stars follows a junior American Space Force officer, Neil Mercer, as he shepherds a senior spy on a covert mission that throws them in the middle of a nascent war between Japan and China, Earth’s top two powers by most measures. Japan got there by being the first to really make it to space, in a major and permanent way, and China got there by being the economic powerhouse that it is. By 2139, the United States and Europe have declined, in a relative sense, settling into a reasonably comfortable tie for third.
But no one can figure out why the war is happening, or why the United States may be taking sides. What follows includes space battles, wormhole blockades and Marines dropping from orbit into enemy-held territory. It’s a story of how well-meaning leaders, believing they are acting in the interest of their nations, still manage to start wars, and it’s an examination of how wars are fought. Neil’s journey to new worlds forces him to confront what it means to be a good soldier, and what it means to be a good citizen.
This is my debut novel. It is a complete story but also the first of a series in this setting. I started writing it just as I finished a stint as a national security reporter in Washington, D.C., a job that had me there on 9-11 and took me on brief visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. The story interrogates some of the ambiguity I felt reporting on our wars during that time. The protagonists are sometimes heroic and sometimes screw up. They have distinct ideologies, pursue their own interests and sometimes disagree with one another. The antagonists are smart and learn from their mistakes. No meaningful choice is without its costs.