In any case, I took comfort in that it seemed inconceivable to me (not to mention mathematically improbable) that mankind could have spread so virulently through the cluster over the twenty-odd millenia since they arrived in New Eden, without discovering (or creating – inadvertently or otherwise) any sentient life. Existing canon is scattered with occasional references - slaver hounds, souvicou cave snakes, fedo - so there was precedent. Indeed, the existence of many Earth-like green-blue temperate planets throughout the cluster made the existence of flora evident and no natural ecosystem based on the earth model can develop and spread without a degree of assistance from animals. Insects distribute pollen, birds and grazing animals digesting and spreading seeds, fertilising the earth and so on.
But these exciting possibilities were just on temperate planets; why not apply the same thinking to environments even more alien to us? Gas planets seem like a perfect kind of boiling pot environment to create life - if Earth-borne life evolved from primordial soup, why not also primordial vapour? How can we be so certain that our kind of life is the only kind possible?
As I said before, this was an idea I had been chewing over for a while, but the EVE Online Pod and Planet fiction contest gave me the motivation to flesh it out. Naively convinced I had a completely original concept, I started doing some research. in recent years I'd read articles on the viability of ammonia-based life, rather than our carbon-based biology. Knowing that ammonia was also thought to be present on gas planets like Neptune and Uranus, it was the combination of these two facts that had teased the idea of gaseous evolution into my thoughts.
Although I had in mind life which was a little more ethereal, more wisp-like with gaseous tendrils and a flexible concept of physical composition. I liked to think of an electrical charge moving through a stormcloud, more a complex reaction of chemicals with a central essence which could manipulate the atmosphere around it, borrowing appropriate gases as it required. I wasn't so keen on the more mundane physical concepts Mr Sagan had envisioned. Although the two could co-exist in the same environment. I kicked around the idea of the Sagan-esque physical ecosystem with a more willful, elemental and possibly conscious gaseous symbiote which may have developed to the point of having a defined social structure, but more in the sense of cells within a body, where the body was the planet's atmosphere. It could be shepherd and protector for the other creatures.
It was certainly enough of a concept to support my planned narrative and I never intended to set the planetary ecosystem in stone – I was a storyteller, not a theoretical ecologist. Besides, I wanted to leave plenty of ambiguity to allow the reader to make his own mind up and draw his own interpretation on the cause and significance of events.
Planetology and Technology
Given that I'd decided to set my story on a gas extraction colony as found in EVE Online's planetary interaction gameplay, I needed to have a better understanding of the science of planetary atmospheres, gas planets and the EVE lore behind the technology used to make these floating installations work.
assorted websites and books on the layers of a planetary atmosphere from the lowest troposphere, through the stratosphere, into the three ionosphere layers; the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere, then you start getting into the magnetosphere which is a whole different kind of space gravy.
This was all hard enough to grasp in relation to our own planet, but then I had to transpose this knowledge onto the concept of a much larger, more gaseous planetary body.
Basing knowledge largely on information about the four gas giants in our solar system, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, I was particularly interested in the last two as they seemed to have more in common with the gas planets found in EVE. Learning to understand the pressure and temperature variations and the chemical compositions and violent interactions really did help to envisage a harsh, alien environment.
Wikipedia page on Neptune, which read, “Since Neptune's atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune's colour.” I love that today's scientists don't know stuff – although to be fair, the more I read the more I got the impression that there's a hell of a lot of guesswork woven into some accepted cosmological “facts”.
The important facts were that the cloud-deck above which we see the orbital facilities hovering in-game indicate that these float above the tropospheric layer in or around the stratosphere. This seems sensible as it would afford the colonies relative safety from the storms which would rage beneath, whilst allowing them to be close enough to access the varying bands of denser gases in the upper troposphere.
The biggest hazards which the colony would face would be gravity (obviously) and temperature – despite some surprisingly balmy temperatures in the storms below, the lower pressure above the tropopause (the altitude where the troposphere and stratosphere meet) meant temperatures below -200C. Pressure wasn't really an issue until extending deep into the troposphere.
I also needed to ensure that everything tied in with the information already available in-game. It was by going through the descriptions of the various gas colony structures that I was impressed by the sheer thought and depth that was going largely unnoticed by the EVE-playing masses. Really, stop once in a while and check out the details...
Whilst not enough to really deliver a scientific explanation, these descriptions contained a wealth of lore touchstones I could weave into the story; the “equilibrium technology”, the “Hohmann Mass Driver” and the indication of the strict controls necessary “to maintain proper weight and balance” of the colony structures painted a picture of an austere, almost barren living environment.
The description of the gas extractor itself as a kind of unconventional organism was delicious; “The extractor itself is much like a living organism, breathing in what it needs and expelling that which becomes cumbersome.” This serendipitously tied into the unconventional life theme I wanted to explore.
Character and Story
In EVE choice and consequence are always central themes. I wanted to tell a story of these frontiersmen on their isolated colony being forced to cross boundaries with which they weren't comfortable. I didn't want any good guys and bad guys, I wanted each character to have clear motives and reasons for their decisions.
I deliberately avoided describing their race of origin in the story as I personally find the idea of New Eden only being populated by a few distinct races a little preposterous. Over the millenia that these sub-sets of humanity have been interacting, they would have been interbreeding to the point where very few would be purebred and I'm not a fan of relying on racial stereotypes to describe characters. That said, I opted for Caldari names as I thought the Caldari aesthetic suited the austere vibe of the colony. However, I also like to think of Dr. Yuskollin as having some Amarrian heritage and his wife even moreso, which was why as a family of doctors, they're all Hedion University graduates. I developed each character in some detail, particularly the Yuskollins, their lives, beliefs and working relationships. I particularly took time to realise the events leading up to the story opening. Like the technology and science research, it was all about having depth and authenticity.
I think this was a good thing. Nothing was really lost from the story and it is a lot less flabby for it. In some ways, it was a gain; I wanted to get the reader thinking, and in many ways sacrificing some of the exposition meant that the reader had to fill in the blanks and draw his own conclusions.
16 prize recipients. So I took up the judges' kind offer of some feedback. There were some suggestions of pacing, predictable plots and obvious characters, which I'll just have to take on the chin (although I think, in part, these concerns were more a matter of taste). But the main issue was that one of the key elements was the “supernatural” nature of the story was considered to be not in keeping with EVE canon. I was surprised by this as I didn't write in any supernatural activity. Hoisted by my own petard of ambiguity, it seems. Maybe the lesson for me to learn is to keep it simple and not try to cram too much in to a short story.
Perhaps I could have taken the time to include explanation of the scientific principles I had in mind that would have caused the unseen gaseous ecosystem to register human intervention as a threat and do everything necessary to expel it. I could have given more attention to the infestation in the stricken Mrs.Yuskollin that allowed the intelligent forces to investigate and sabotage the humans means of escape via the Hohmann mass driver escape capsule. In my mind this gaseous eco-intelligence was harnessing its environment, its “technology” to defend itself from a perceived attack.
|Arthur wasn't wearing any trousers.|
After all, it was the great Arthur C. Clarke, giant of the science fiction genre who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems the same can be said for forms of biological and meteorological science that are not conventional sci-fi fare.
And what is more important was that others enjoyed it. I received number of positive and generous comments both on the original blogpost and from elsewhere. This was my favourite:
So I am content. The quality of the competition was very high and I have enjoyed reading several of the other entries. There was no shame in losing to them. Go check some out for yourself, there's an amazing body of player-generated EVE fiction right there. In the end, it was the community who won.
And I am writing that novel.