Sunday, March 1, 2009

Alternate History/Weird Science

So the apparently lengthy research/learning curve process proceeds apace for the "Percival Lowell Goes to Mars" story. It's an interesting process, and an instructive one...I've never tried to conceive of a viable alternate history/alternate science story, and what all seems like it needs to go into the preparatory research process is interesting, and daunting. First I had to get a sense of the physics and energy requirements of achieving escape velocity from Earth's atmosphere. Then I needed to look into the existing (or almost existing) technology of the time--in this case, the time period between 1900 and 1915 or so. Then I needed to think about other things, like how such a craft might be powered, or propel itself, if it did indeed escape the gravity well and get into interplanetary space. And I needed to consider how things did actually go in history, and look for moments or instances where something might have gone differently, and then begin to postulate the consequences of such a divergence, to see if the posited diversion might be useful to the story I want to tell and and to support the alternate future I want to explore.

One odd consequence of my somewhat random and haphazard research into various things is that I increasingly believe that it was at least technologically possible that we could have launched a viable spacecraft in 1915. The theory and the rudimentary implementation of the necessary technologies was there...nobody was taking the next necessary steps in that research yet, and wouldn't ultimately do so for a number of years, but a whole lot of the shit that might make such an endeavor work was already on the drawing board, at least implicitly.

So then the question becomes, what would have to have happened differently to persuade people--scientists, financiers, etc.--to make it possible for something else to have happened. I've been looking at the beginnings of rocketry theory, Tesla's crazy experiments with electicity and magnetism, Modernist poetry (Amy Lowell, the Imagist poet, was the sister of Percival Lowell, as it turns out), as well as early attempts at viable solar power and Robert Goddard's positing of the viability of ion drives for space travel in the interplanetary vaccuum.

Thing is, the more I look at all these disparate bits, the more I see possibilities regarding how it could have happened differently. Roundabout the time Percival Lowell decided to build his observatory in Flagstaff, Nikolai Tesla moved his center of operations to Colorado Springs--in the American southwest of the 1900's, they were practically neighbors. Tesla was also inspired by Lowell's writings about the canals of Mars to work toward a way of communicating via projected energy with Mars. Likewise, while the Lowell Observatory was under construction in Flagstaff, there was a solar energy concern that sold its first photovoltaic electricity-generating apparatus to someone in Mesa, AZ (which was subsequently destroyed in a windstorm). Most all experimentation into solar power at the time was focused around the discovery that selenium gives off electrons, thus producing electrical energy, when exposed to sunlight, and it turns out that selenium is most easily obtained as a byproduct of copper refining--and Arizona was, and is, one of the biggest producers of copper in the United States. Also, Lowell was of the Boston aristocracy, and one of the early pioneers of rocketry theory was a guy named Goddard, who was very much embedded in the Boston academic/intellectual scene. I'm pretty sure that Lowell and Tesla never met, and that Lowell and Goddard never did, and that Tesla and Goddard didn't, but maybe they did, and even if they didn't they could have, had things gone a bit differently.

That seems to me, at present, to be how the alternate history thing has to work. It's like, maybe it didn't happen, but it could have, and if it did how would things be different? And to build the alternate present and future one has to ascertain what could possibly have happened differently, and then think through what the consequences for future time would be had those things actually transpired in a different way. It's a fascinating historical scavenger hunt to try to build a story from those sorts of considerations, and there is a huge learning curve, but it's sort of awesome and a whole lotta fun to try it. I'm also enjoying the way it seems to boil down to issues of plausibility--the more things one finds in the historical record that suggest that, well, it could have happened, the stronger the spine of the mooted story winds up being. So. Good times.

And somewhere in the SF Metro area, Emily J is laughing at me, no doubt, because once again something that seemed at the outset like a more-or-less innocent and manageable story idea has swelled into something that probably could, and maybe should, be a novel.

Tra la. We shall see. In any event, it's good times. And my Percival Lowell books about Mars should probably be arriving in my mailbox sometime this week. Yay.


  1. Emily L is laughing at you too, but in a benign way. I'm excited for this story!

  2. This sounds like sort of a sci-fi "Ragtime," which would be a fine thing since "Ragtime" is awesome and it made E.L. Doctorow a lot of money. The part about Lowell and Goddard meeting or not meeting made me think of the bit in "Ragtime" where Freud and Jung ride the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island, which most assuredly did not happen, but could have happened, and perhaps should have. Anyway.

  3. I've kind of been poking at that historical time period myself (though alt-history fantasy, not alt-his-SF) and would love book recommendations if you want to toss any my way. I've been reading a lot of the "famous crime against the backdrop of the Gilded Age" books -- Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, Charlatan, American Lightning -- and they're useful but too scattered. (And too sensationalistic, in some ways.) Something more focused would be useful, I think -- especially things involving Boston & Chicago in those time periods.