Project: Stellar Explorer A Journey Into Madness

Against all better judgement, I am writing a science fiction novel of my very own. I didn’t want to write a science fiction novel, but a.) an idea stuck with me and wouldn’t leave me alone, b.) I had adequate time to pursue this madness, and c.) it’s guaranteed to have killer cover art.

Landing Operations - Color Comp
Landing Operations – Color Comp

I started the first draft last Fall, and I’m calling it Stellar Explorer. That’s merely a project code name for now, I’ve not yet decided on a final title. It’s developed a life of its own, and not merely a shot in the dark, so I’m sharing the details with any of you that are interested.

Where did the idea come from?

In 2015 I was drawing a lot of spaceships, which a number of you followed through my #spaceshipaday Twitter posts. My thanks go out to all of you who have supported my art. Along the way, one particular drawing stuck with me.

Digital - Procreate on an iPad
Digital – Procreate on an iPad

It was a fun drawing that I made on my iPad with the Procreate App. My original intention was to draw a cool background with stars and nebula clouds, but halfway through I felt it was lacking something. It needed a subject, so I added a generic spaceship that was lit with color from the three different star groups, cyan, yellow, and red. The spaceship itself was the fastest part of the whole drawing, and surprised me how it developed so easily. Sketchy in form, with obvious perspective errors, the details flowed fast and fit into place. You know that feeling you get when a plan comes together? That’s what this felt like.

Since I was still on a self-guided mission to improve my artwork, I continued drawing spaceships and fantastic scenes. But this ship stuck with me, and like any other obsession I began to think about that scene. Where was this ship going? Who would build such a ship, and why? What does the rest of it look like? And more importantly, who would live on it?

Digital - Photoshop
Digital – Photoshop

Over the next few months, this spaceship kept showing up in my drawings. Those of you following my art posts might have wondered “why is he drawing the same ship over and over again?”. Obsession, of course. This image wouldn’t leave my mind. The other was more practical – I was honing specific drawing skills and in the interest of time it was easier to use a design that I already explored (as opposed to creating a whole new ship). It shows clear lineage to many of the science fiction shows and stories that have inspired me over the years: from Star Trek, Space: 1999, and Star Wars to novels by Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, James S.A. Corey, and artists like John Berkey, Robert McColl, Vincent DiFate.

After much deliberation and research into contemporary concepts of interstellar travel, it was quite apparent that a spaceship like this is not feasible at all. At least not within the boundaries of existing science and engineering knowledge. It’s enormous, if the size of the windows are any indication. Thousands of people would be able to live inside of it. It would have to reach tremendous speeds to get near those beautiful nebulae within the lifespan of an average human being. And it’s configured like a cruise ship, meaning it would have to have artificial gravity (there are no rotating centrifuges to mimic gravity). But if you extrapolate on a few key technology advancements, technical hand-waving common in the science fiction realm, it starts to look reasonable. At least reasonable enough to warrant further speculation.

What’s it about?

I’ve called the project and this spaceship Stellar Explorer. Derivative perhaps, but as I mentioned earlier the title is TBD. It’s on a long mission to a nearby star where an Earth-like planet was found by observations from our own solar system. To reach this star system, a consortium of business and government agencies invested in a massive program to build a starship that would allow humans to go to this new world and begin exploring it in person, a first step towards a much larger colonization effort.

My story is about the crew of this Stellar Explorer, and their journey to set foot on a new Earth in another star system. They are a capable group, hand picked for their resilience, skill, and willingness to renounce family, country and friends, giving up years of their lives on a mission of exploration.

In this future history, humans have already set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, in orbit around Venus, and several moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We’ve become very good at setting up artificial environments, but they are expensive and exist mainly to harvest the rich resources necessary to sustain the exploding population on Earth. Little mining is conducted on Earth anymore, in an effort to rescue the collapsing ecosystems there after centuries of abuse at the hands of industrialists and modern warfare.

Interior Sketch - Main Arboretum
Interior Sketch – Main Arboretum

Living off-world in artificial environments isn’t pleasant for the working population. It’s claustrophobic, even in the larger domed cities, and it’s dangerous as even a small accident can kill large numbers of people (and have over the course of this future history). There is a thriving leisure travel industry that promotes exotic cruises to locations throughout the solar system, although only the very rich can afford such luxuries. In spite of our expansion into the system, the most sought-after, expensive properties are the few remaining open spaces left on Earth. Places where you can walk and live outdoors.

Close rendezvous with an asteroid.
Close rendezvous with an asteroid.

The discovery of an Earth like planet in a nearby star star system sets off a 100 year race to build and test the technology necessary to get humans there and become a true interstellar species. Many worlds had already been discovered using astronomy observations, but the catalyst was the first actual image of a blue world. Seeing another living planet for the first time inspired all of the human race. It would be a new home where people could live in the open, free of artificial spaces and the threat of ecological collapse. And real estate there would be outrageously expensive.

That’s all fine, but it sounds like every other science fiction story. What makes yours so different?

The best science fiction I’ve read doesn’t focus entirely on cool technology and spaceships, although that’s often part of the mix. It focuses on us, the people who are living and breathing (and reading) today. Filling a novel with spaceships and rayguns is fun but for me the more interesting part is the human story.

Concept Sketch - Status Report
Concept Sketch – Status Report

What happens to a group of people who are stuck inside of a large spaceship on a journey that will take years? What do you do to pass the time? Who goes crazy from the monotony? What happens when you break up with someone, and you still have to live near them? Even though this Stellar Explorer is big, and carries tremendous exploration capabilities at the new world, it is an isolated island of humanity on a long, lonely voyage. Think about a large, luxurious ocean liner. For a week or two it’s fantastic. You have great food, entertainment at your fingertips, exercise facilities, lots of booze, and exotic destinations. But if you were on that same cruise ship for six to ten years, with the same group of people, it would start to drive you nuts.

Character Sketch - Tarika Donnelly
Character Sketch – Tarika Donnelly

Perhaps a better analogy for this Stellar Explorer are the science stations in Antarctica. In fact, there’s a great documentary called Antarctica which I watched while thinking through all of this. I highly recommend it. The people living at McMurdo station live in artificial communities in a part of the world that can kill you outright if you’re not properly prepared. They are isolated and most rotate out after six months, although a number of people have committed themselves to year-round living. They become a microcosm of humanity, working day to day in a place that is beautiful and deadly with little outside assistance or contact.

What makes you think you can write a good science fiction novel?

Honestly I don’t know if I can write a good science fiction novel. It may be a complete disaster with a cool cover. I have no illusions that writing is easy. It isn’t. I may only be good at building the world and drawing it, I don’t know. But as they say “write what you know”, and I know science fiction. I also know a hell of a lot about the dysfunction of professional organizations and being trapped in high tech environments with people that you either want to hug or strangle, take your pick. Somehow there’s a connection, and one that I think will be worth exploring.

My only published work at the moment is a coloring book, with more on the way. I’ve tried my hand at writing many times, and some of the first were on a typewriter (kids, ask your parents what these were). Short stories, film scripts, novels, I’ve collected a number of them over the years and while I admit that most of them weren’t finished, and none of them published, a few of them weren’t half bad based on the comments from the few who read them.

The first degree I studied in college was film production. It was a small program in a community college but you did need to think about your stories and it inspired me to begin looking at the craft of writing. At the time I struggled with it. I was young, admittedly inexperienced, and it showed in my stories. I understood the mechanics of writing, but fell short on capturing life. I set it aside many times and would occasionally get inspired to write science fiction.

Nothing I’ve tried writing has had the same depth and momentum as this Stellar Explorer idea, and I hope that over the next year or so you will find it interesting enough to stick around with me while it comes together.

A Stellar Explorer closes in on a moon orbiting a gas giant
A Stellar Explorer closes in on a moon orbiting a gas giant

What’s the status of this novel, and what’s next?

I’ve already completed a good portion of the first draft. It’s been a learning experience for me as it is the most ambitious writing project I’ve undertaken. I knew going in that writing a novel is a lot of work, and nothing I’ve learned so far has proven me wrong. After I finish the first draft there will be a number of edit passes before it’s ready for publication.

At this time I have no publisher, this is entirely a project of my own creation. There are a lot of self-publishing routes available to me, and there’s still plenty of time to make that determination when I get closer to being done.

I intend to begin introducing the characters and the world to you all as I progress. I hope you come along for the ride and enjoy the journey as much as I have so far. Cheers

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