GUEST POST: Jack Campbell, author of “The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Guardian”

Imagine The Lord of the Rings in which the geography of Middle Earth didn’t influence the story. Frodo and friends leave the Shire and bang! They’re at Rivendell. The Fellowship leaves Rivendell and bang! They’re at Moria, then bang! They’re at Rohan and bang! They’re at Minas Tirith. Instead of the long marches through Middle Earth, across the mountains and plains and through the forests and the mines, there would just be a series of events at separate locations.

It doesn’t sound nearly as good, does it?

Yet, that is how most “space” opera handles space. Trips between stars and planets usually take only a short time, sometimes just the blink of eye. Even when long trips are involved, they are shown as a series of destinations. When starships decide to fight, even though they are capable of covering light years of distance in a short time, those starships battle by zipping up to each other in a few moments, then slugging away toe-to-toe like boxers in a ring.

A lot of stories don’t want to deal with space. It’s too big and too empty, unimaginably huge, limitless in all directions, no up or down, and practically nothing in the way of obstacles or barriers compared to the surface of a planet. How huge? It’s about twenty five trillion miles to the nearest star (that’s about forty two trillion kilometers). How do humans get their heads around such a number? Even within a single solar system, the distances are enormous. From Earth to Mars is anywhere from thirty six million miles to two hundred fifty million miles. Why do the numbers vary so much? Because both Earth and Mars orbit the sun. Everything in space is moving, nothing just sits still, so travel is a matter of intercepting a moving target, not going to a fixed location. And if you move fast enough, stuff gets weird thanks to Relativity. Your view of the universe gets distorted. Space is not only big, it’s complicated.

As a result, it’s common to adopt shortcuts that allow a story to ignore space. Means to zip almost instantly across those distances, means to see instantly and communicate instantly across space.

I think that’s a mistake, because all of that empty space matters as much as the mountains and rivers of Middle Earth. Just as the ocean matters on Earth. Space and the sea are different characters, of course. The sea is an active character, aiding you or trying to kill you. Ask any sailor. But space is passive. It sits and waits for a mistake, an accident, an equipment failure, and then it is there, cold and unforgiving. To someone voyaging in space, all of that Nothing is Something. Watch the brilliant movie Apollo 13 and you’ll see what I mean. Space is there, the monster lurking just outside the capsule.

But, if putting space into space opera is a good idea, how can we do it?

As it turns out, the universe has given us a tool to show its huge distances in ways humans can understand. Light. One billion kilometers means…what in terms of distance? It’s considerably easier to grasp the idea that light itself takes one hour to travel that distance. One light hour. Describe the distances as light seconds, light minutes, and light hours, and suddenly we have a meaningful means of measurement. Light itself takes that long to get from here to there? That’s big. Dealing with three light hours is a lot easier to handle than describing the distance as three billion kilometers. Using light as the means of description both simplifies showing how big space is, and makes it clear just how big space is.

It also shows the real obstacles in space. Where hobbits might have to ford rivers and climb over mountains, people in space have to deal with the fact that it will take hours for a message sent from their ship to reach another ship. And though they can see that ship, see it crystal clear across those billions of kilometers, they are seeing where it was and what it was doing hours ago. That distance matters. They need to cross it.

Yes, adding space into a space opera complicates it, just as putting the landscape of Middle Earth into that story complicates travel and plans and action there. But I discovered while writing the Lost Fleet series that those complications add a lot to the story. They make the characters confront more problems, more difficulties, more challenges. They make the setting come alive and feel real. They force me, the writer, to figure out how things would actually work in such a place rather than skipping over it. If I can’t take shortcuts, neither can my characters. I have to write better.

Because space is just waiting for you to make a mistake.

~ ~ ~

Jack Campbell (retired US Navy officer John G. Hemry) writes modern space opera, science fiction, military science fiction and fantasy.

His Lost Fleet series follows “Black Jack” Geary, a reluctant hero who fought a desperate last stand against overwhelming odds. In The Lost Stars series, former leaders of the Syndicate Worlds defeated by Black Jack try to rebuild something better from the ruins of that interstellar empire.

In the Stark’s War series, micro-management and politics have grown to rule the US military with disastrous results during a war on the Moon, while in the Sinclair/ JAG in Space series, a young Naval space warfare officer has to learn leadership as he confronts attacks, terrorist acts, spies and other threats that lead to court-martials in the best tradition of legal thrillers.

Jack has also written numerous short stories about time travel, alternate universes, space and the future.

For more information, check out his website.

Bookbanter Column: Diary of an Ereader, Part Two: Equiring an Ereader

Half the reason I chose to finally get myself an ereader was for the digital review copy aspect.  I’ve been reviewing books for over a decade and with the development and growth over the last few years of not just ebooks, but also the world of digital review copies and ebook reviewing, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out on a facet of reviewing.

I rarely don’t have my next book picked out and waiting to be read and reviewed on my shelf, but I knew there were virtual shelves of books out there that I could be e-partaking of.

But first I had to get myself an ereader, which is an interesting story in itself.

If you’re any sort of book fan who enjoys frequenting used bookstores, then you’ve probably heard of Powell’s in Oregon.  They have a couple of stores, and their mighty, multi-storied one is in Portland has its own special map to help you find your way around its labyrinthine stacks.

Going there for a book lover must be like going to Disneyland; one day I’ll go.

Powell’s also has a full website where one can buy both new and used books, as well as DVDs and movies.  The other great thing about the Powell’s website is you can sell your used books there.  It’s an ingeniously simple process.

You simply plug in the ISBN of the book (located above the barcode and on the copyright page) and the page does its searching thing and decides whether Powell’s needs a copy of this particular book or not, and how much they will give you for it.  You even have the option of choosing virtual credit to buy items through the website (this is how I eventually got my Complete Series of The X-Files), or getting money through Paypal.

You can enter just about any number of books, and Powell’s will let you know which ones they want and which ones they don’t need at this point in time.  If you agree to it, and how you want to be paid, you then accept the terms and get the address label and postage emailed to you, which you just print out and slap on the box of books, and Powell’s covers all shipping costs to mail your sold books to them.  Once they receive the books – which can take some time as it travels by media mail – you then get your money.  It’s as simple as that.

I review a lot of books each year, in addition to reading many, and from week to week there are a number of books being delivered to my humble abode.  When I’m done with these books, after reading and reviewing them, some I choose to keep, if I really enjoyed them; some I give to friends to enjoy; and the rest I sell through Powell’s.

Around November of last year, Powell’s all of a sudden started selling ereaders through their website, specifically Kobo, including the Kobo Mini and Kobo Glo.  Upon discovering this — as I made clear in Part 1 of this series, ereaders aren’t cheap, which is why I hadn’t acquired one yet — I saw my chance to finally get myself an ereader.

So I began saving my Powell’s virtual credit, selling off my reviewed books, as well as thinning some of my bookshelves, clearing out volumes I no longer really needed to own.

And yes, part of my thinking process in this was also: well, I could have these number of books taking up these number of shelves that I’m not going to read too often, or I could have digital copies of them on my ereader where they would take up a fraction of the virtual space.

It took me some time . . . at least a month I’d say, and then I had enough credit to purchase my Kobo Glo (so I would also be able to enjoy ereading at night), as well as nice protective case for it.

While there are many ereaders to choose from out there, the Kobo Glo was a good fit for me, other than the fact that it was essentially free with my getting rid of my books, all I really needed was a device for ereading.  I didn’t need an iPad or a tablet; I have a PC and a laptop; it’s an ereader I didn’t have.  With the E-Ink screen it works great in bright light without any glare.  2 gigs of memory gives me space for many thousands of books.  Plus the whole light thing means I can enjoy ereading in the dark.

The battery life is long and dependable, as has always been the case with Kobo ereaders.  I rarely need to charge it.  As for ereading software, I use the free Kobo program which helps me keep track of my shelves and what I have, and buying books is real easy.  I also use the Adobe Digital Editions program, which is free to download, and makes it real easy to download and add new ebooks, organize my shelves, move the ebooks over to my ereader, and even read ebooks real easy on my computer with this software.

The menu options and the touch screen on the Kobo Glo make it real easy to use and organize your ebooks.  There is also the option of highlighting, adding notes, and using the dictionary if needed.  The swipe while not the patented page flip of the iPad, is fast and every fifth page leads to a page fresh because of the E-Ink, which is a little distracting at first, but you soon become used to it.

Finally, like with all the Kobo ereaders, there are badge awards for repeatedly reading at certain periods of time during the day and night, and serve as a friendly tracking stat for your ereading and serve to make it more enjoyable.

Ereading is everything I expected it would be, and the Kobo Glo makes it comfortable and enjoyable, and while it never will replace print books for me as the dominant way to read, my ereading has certainly increased.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.