Everything Ends in Elysium

We are nothing if not the change we bring to the world; our memory, our legacy, our dent upon the universe. So it goes. Our greatest dreams demand the greatest upheaval. As to forge the future, we must break the past.

All in pursuit of perfection.

Every once in a while, an entire generation is thrown into the fire to grasp it. Some of our dreams, the worst ones and the most powerful, demand a new beginning. We hurl our ever greater resources at the hideous task: be it scorched earth or the final solution. (Aren’t they always meant to be so?) The previous century will be remembered, as long as there are people to know, for its decades long adventure into hell on earth. It was the worst of us. What different worlds could we have seen if the fire was not lit, ninety-nine summers ago. If indeed you or I would have ever been born at all.

History is written by the winner. But push it hard enough, and you’ll leave your mark in either case. Just don’t count on liking it.

Fortunately for the lot of us, beyond two cities in Japan, everything changed in 1945. Our newfound nuclear prowess put the kibosh on the once very appealing notion of a winnable war between great powers. As unfashionable as it is to say, I really do think that our remaining ability to demolish one another in a furtive hour or so is what remains our principal peacemaker to this day. The nations of the world are led by no brighter minds or more enlightened souls than before. As if. And our interconnectedness, though ever stronger, is not the sort of thing the past could never know. Rather, we went our way safe in the knowledge that future tyrants had better think small. So far, they have.

But what about when we must no longer share the same lonely little world?

In my story, Aria is the first to stir this fate. A confrontation between our first and second Earth results in something so atrocious that it is still, in Alpha’s time centuries later, known as just the “Aria incident.” It is the nightmare of shining apocalypse that I imagined everyone must have had during the Cold War; whose end alone I saw. It is an orgy of space borne violence, triggered in confusion but executed meticulously. And I have a song set aside for it, to be explored in time.

This memory of a lost world is the setting for the people of Earth come the story proper. As above them threatens not Aria’s forgotten army, but a single man. The one who could, and would, end it all for us. That we might finally repay our debt, and meet Elysium as one.

A neon genesis, as it were. Many minds think alike for good reason. Before and after discovering the fact.

Ode to Joy is the poem and the song for this set piece. What else could suffice? Schiller’s appeal to our gloried future when put to Beethoven’s most enduring symphony’s very climax is perfection in itself. The ultimate soundtrack to the battle at the end of the world. All quarter of an hour of it!

I have an orchestra in mind, playing a concert while it happens quite beyond them and old Europe’s evening horizon. The Ode is the centrepiece of their performance, played to mark the centennial of the world government whose leaders are attending. It is, of course, still the anthem. Though seldom quite as long as this.

As great an indulgence as this all surely is, I’ll note that I’ve worked out what events come when, in the music. One highpoint is when Yolanda, the president, is finally handed a screen onto the live events above. She went in to the hall knowing that a standoff was now likely, but her underlings acted alone to unleash all this. Echoes of Aria, which foreshadows everything.

But not quite.

Death & Rebirth

I can’t really say what it is that makes me want to write. As if it’s any single thing. But one theme that makes me tick is an interest in putting diverse knowledge to use. I like my fiction laced with insight.

Among the better reads on the internet is Horace Dediu’s Asymco. The name’s shorthand for asymmetric competition: a crucial pattern if ever there was one. He’s a protégé of Clay Christensen, rightly well known for The Innovator’s Dilemma. But he amounts to more than his influences. He’s a storyteller as much as an analyst. If there’s someone who can spin a yarn about history, its ebb and its flow, it’s Horace.

The latest episode of his podcast, The Critical Path, is titled rather ominously The Best Single Invention of Life. It’s always worth a listen. The part I’m pointing to, however, starts at the full hour mark. I think it’s a classic bit of big picture thinking, on the fly.

Business is business. Cut-throat, dynamic, possessed. Companies thrive and starve by the strength of their ideas and execution. That turbulence is what sets aside our free market capitalism from other failed ideas. Pity they were designed to be so much better. Innovation is fire. Without it we freeze, but never pretend that no one gets burned.

Cities are built by the commerce within them. Horace notes that London is still, at its core, Victorian splendour writ in stone, while Tokyo is the corporate towers of its own boom, post war. No doubt the same will be said of now when Shanghai and Beijing reflect on their future pasts. You build in the good times. And, as long as war or other monumental catastrophe doesn’t tear your city down, so the urban landscape remains.

But why do golden ages end? For cities, for companies, for cultures and for men?

The key may well be that we must learn how to destroy as well as to build. As in to topple those achievements we made our very selves. We’ve got to disrupt ourselves, before someone else inevitably does. We’ve got to keep breathing, instead of fighting off the future from our precious past. We, the individual, have got to get to grips with the disturbing truth that nothing is eternal. History rolls on, wherever innovation takes it.

Being European, I can see his point. I live in a Victorian city of sandstone terraces and villas, with scarcely a sixth storey let alone a tower in sight. The twentieth century left Edinburgh almost alone. A resident of a century ago wouldn’t have much trouble finding their way around. The eyes of the world were elsewhere. What work did go on in recent years came to a sudden end, thanks to a certain bank and crisis.

Horace is quite right of course. Renewal the like he describes is no less than rebirth. An ancient archetype of culture the world over. Yet one we much prefer for our heroes than ourselves.

As for my writing, the idea of the truly eternal city fascinates me just as it does in real life. Make no mistake: to be any such thing is a struggle. A fight, between the drives to create and destroy, and between the instincts to invent and preserve. A metaphor suited perfectly, I think, to Aria and Gaia. The thriving city of billions, and its sanctuary of a moon.

Rebirth here is more than figurative, as Aria was not spared the discontinuity of apocalypse. It takes more than the memory of a metropolis to build it again from scratch. It takes an infectious ideal.

For whatever reason, I’m unsatisfied with dreaming of cities under alien skies for their own sake. The aesthetic is one thing, but why else are they there? What makes them viable? What draws people to them in the fist place? From where we are back here, so early on in history, we haven’t the faintest idea what could truly drive us to the myriad of worlds in those countless stars. Curiosity won’t pay the bills. That’s the place for economics.

But there’s something to be said for the artful guess; when you know the pattern, if not the ultimate answer or the underlying cause. And while we might not know much as yet, wherever we go in the fullness of time, we can’t help from being ourselves when we’re there.

Satellite of Love

Remember Gaia? According to Marie:

The two might have started out as twins, but Gaia is a whole other world now. Where there are streets like mountainsides on Aria, Gaia has stark ravines of bare rock. Through them fly either wild birds or urban traffic. For every garden in the city, here there was a forest. And a mountain, plain and lake. But the most striking difference of all was simply: where were all the people? On Aria, in the all but unending city at least, you’re never by yourself. Not really. Solitude was a luxury most folk could only fake, jammed together in history’s biggest construction site. But Gaia truly was a place of peace.

And Mina loved it.

Little Gaia is Aria’s moon. The two orbit around one star of the doublet that is our next door neighbour: Alpha Centauri. A likely place indeed, both α Cen A and B – or Toliman and Kentaurus as they are named by then – are stable, middle aged stars of promise and integrity quite like our Sun. The larger one is even just as golden. Around each other they dance, in a loop of eighty years, never too close to disturb the other’s potential planets, and never too far to shine quite glorious in said worlds nighttime skies.

No wonder they turn up time and time again in our space stories. Or indeed that I picked Toliman for Aria, my tale’s second Earth.

But Aria was not always to be there. And nor was Gaia born its moon.

Once upon a time, and for quite a long one too, Andala wasn’t in the Pleiades. I imagined it as a planet of a blue star in Sagittarius, on the way to the centre of our galaxy; albeit less than a hundred light years so. Longer years than ours, instead, and neither shining Merope and her sisters, nor great Kai forever overhead? It would have been a different Andala. Alone.

Aria was already baked into the story, in either case. I couldn’t pass up a whole New World when I had the chance. Aria is where human achievement and excess is raised to a whole other power. Its sheer nerve threatens us like nothing else. Inevitably, both of mankind’s home worlds do clash. The event is such a nightmare that it is still known, euphemistically, as “the Aria incident”. I haven’t as yet as described the conflict any further than the mention of its name. But, given that we have the power to make worlds for ourselves by then, you can well imagine.

I don’t want to strew populations here and there across the stellar everywhere. It’s a lot of needless work, for a start, and I don’t think adds as much as it costs in confusion. Mine and yours! Yet even so, I wasn’t done with Andala and Aria in addition to Earth. I had one last world in mind.

Gaia was born from the question: what of a global nature reserve for our dying habitats? We may be slowly coming to the realisation of our full impact on this planet, but I do wonder how much of it we can save, whatever our intent. We’re surely never going to dismantle our cities and our farms, to head back to the forest, mountain and the open plain. Not even in the absurd case we should all want to. There’s just too many of us, too much of us, and our artificial realms. You could well say the fundamental problem posed by climate change is just another layer on top of the engine of extinction which is our drive to feed ourselves and build our homes. Nature is nothing if not dynamic. And so it changes as we change.

Come the point when we can breathe life on barren worlds, needless to say, we’re in a whole new game. I liked the idea of one globe set aside for saving nature, while another sees the very opposite. So Gaia became Aria’s counterbalance, Pollux to Castor, the one that can survive.

Then I thought about who’d pay for it.

The best idea, I reckoned, was that Gaia was never meant as charity. Such an expense! The fabrication of worlds could only be as a venture, expected to pay back handsomely, like our empires of old. Gaia’s fate as a sanctuary was an accident. I figured that Aria and Gaia could have been in a race for supremacy, each one the product perhaps of vying powers on the Earth. Interstellar imperialism, indeed. As I got around to getting a feel for the actual distances between the stars, and started putting numbers to our progress, I was struck by how narrow our horizons would still be by the time I needed them made. Alpha Centauri loomed ever larger, and so I moved them there, from the as yet undefined afar. But even so they weren’t yet planet and moon. Indeed, they didn’t even share the same one star.

This whole place doesn’t really want to stick together. The gravity is fake. The atmosphere is fake. The tides, the wind, the sea. Might all look nice and natural on the surface, but it’s not.

What finally made Gaia into Aria’s moon was the thought of its latter day tribesmen looking up toward the awful glow coming from the city in the sky. The incident needs its witness. And something about the artifice of their small world and reassembled tribes said it all for me.

Alpha in Centauri

We’re getting to the stage now that we know there are worlds aplenty, out there beyond our Sun. The hunt for exoplanets is booming, in something of a modern day goldrush if only we could get there. Writing a story set out among those very stars, you can likely guess my sentiment. I’ve already a song set aside for the growing starmap of man’s ongoing travels, for a choice moment of exposition somewhere in my book. The coincidence of science fact meeting up with my fiction is a merry one.

But wouldn’t you know they’ve now found the first one at Alpha Centauri?

I’ve a particular interest in that binary star, as our closest neighbour is the inevitable place to build our second Earth. In my tale, it’s called Aria. Let Marie fill in the details.

Nothing can prepare you for Aria. We set a record flying there in just twenty days, quite an achievement back then. Yet before our eyes, there was no doubt who had won the prize.

“Different every time.” Said Kingston from his prime view up in front.

That world shines blue like Earth, with a clear sky you can see through to the storms and clouds, and glimmers of the sea. But our homeworld has no city a tenth the size of Aria. We saw it rise before us as we arrived. Circles, like rings in a tree the size of Britain or Japan. At its core the old town, where they built the dome which used to be the only human part of this planet. And around it, ever larger, ever farther to the curve of the world, the layers of a metropolis beyond anything built any time, anywhere.

“So they say.” Mina waved me to her side. “Aria is growing so fast you can see more branches of the city from here in orbit.”

Aria is at Alpha Centauri because of my future history’s needs. I required a well established outpost by the time that Proteus visits. And I’ve later reasons for this to be an independent world, I shan’t go into soon. With my preferred principle of the ever increasing speed of interstellar travel, I found that the available space was indeed a smaller place, considering what was available “back then”. A nearby neighbour so it was. And Alpha Centauri, for all its binary omens (regards the n-body problem), looks much more Sun-like than the competition.

For now, we cannot see these planets that we discover. It’s all less direct than that. We infer that they are there by their effects on their mother stars. As such, it’s easier for astronomers to find larger planets, or ones close in to the star in question, or indeed both. Our lists are dominated by such examples, unlike any in our family, unless you still hold out hope for Vulcan. I bet this is observation bias, an understandable and quite perennial feature of a technology-limited field like astronomy. So I mean to say I expect a great diversity of extra-solar systems out there, not all of them the spitting image of ours, but not the unrelenting cosmic zoo we’re first finding either.

The fact that Alpha Centauri B holds a planet is grist for my wishful mill. And the fact that we cannot simply see whatever system lies there, at once, is all the better for dream-weavers like me. There’s still a chance I might be right! Oh brother.

We live in interesting times. But dream of so much better.

My model calls.

Music of the Spheres

Gravity rules the universe. Of all the invisible forces of physics, it is the one we see out at large; in its actions. Our gentle course around the Sun is its doing, as is the Moon’s silent hurtle above our heads. Our mutual speed is our saving grace. Gravity would have our worlds collide in ultimate destruction, once again, if it were not for the orbits’ dance. And this is the subject that’s been keeping me in code of late.

My long fascination with astronomy and physics strikes again!

I’m quite chuffed with my recent experiments in simulating gravity. Not the physics, which is pure Newton, but the fact I could get them built and run at all. I can’t pretend to be a great programmer, yet the fact I’m drawn to one of the oldest languages of them all does at least lend a fair bit of speed to the calculation. Brute force, courtesy of Euler, until I get to grips with a better way. Or another yet? Yes, all this would be easier if I didn’t insist on reinventing my every and very own wheel in the process. But this is just how I work, on so many levels.

Technically, all I’ve done is cobble up a simple integrator, pre-loaded with the solar system, as it is now. The fact I could just query a second forward and get acceptable velocities for the bodies involved was music to my ears. Indeed, so far, I’m impressed with the fair accuracy of my rudimentary sim. Made possible thanks to a public wealth of open astronomical code.

Suffice to say, what draws me to simulations of planets, stars and moons, is neither mathematics nor programming, but the chance to play god. Once you have the gears in place, the machine is yours.

Back when I was laying out the physical groundwork for Kai and Andala in the one hand, and Aria and Gaia in the other, I was playing the classical way in bare guesswork. With a little luck, my number machine might confirm what I have arranged already, and, better yet, let me extend it. My desire for scientific credibility is a fine old piece of busywork, when I occasionally remember to indulge it. And when, inevitably, it does come back to bite me, I’ll get another round of practice in the art of the evasive maneuver.