Please welcome John Ayliff to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. Belt Three was published on June 18th by Harper Voyager UK.
Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction?
In my Qwillery interview last month, one of the questions was "Is Belt Three hard SF?", and that question made me pause. Despite having written the novel, I wasn't sure if it qualified. It seemed like a bold claim: to say that a novel is hard SF is to invite criticism of its scientific details from people who know more science than I do. Unlike some hard SF writers, I'm not a scientist; I'm never going to be able to write the kind of hard sf that takes a bleeding-edge scientific theory and wraps a story around it. On the other hand, I love hard SF, and I think (I hope!) my book will appeal to hard SF fans. In the interview I equivocated and said it had a hard-SF sensibility, without actually giving a yes or no answer, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
Why even attempt to write hard SF as a non-scientist? Partly this was a stylistic choice for this particular novel. I wanted the space-based setting of Belt Three to feel like a difficult and unnatural place for people to live, and the hand-wave technologies one finds in soft SF--artificial gravity, faster-than-light drives, etc.--tend to remove the difficulties of real-life space travel. That's appropriate if those difficulties would be a distraction from the story you're trying to tell, but in the case of Belt Three the difficulties were a part of my world-building.
Even if I'd included artificial gravity and FTL drives, though, I'd want to put them in a basically realistic universe. A character travelling to a city by magic carpet is a sign of a fantasy story; the character getting there and finding a seaport when the real city is inland is a sign the writer didn't do the research. I tried to treat space as if it were a foreign city I was setting my story in. It's OK to invent a new side-street or asteroid if the plot requires it, but the overall setting should be something a native would recognise.
I decided to trust the mental image of space I'd built up from being a child fascinated by popular science books, then research specific details as I needed them. Can you use a solar sail to move closer to the sun? Yes, hence references in my novel to "tacking against orbit". Can you fire a conventional gun in a vacuum? Yes, probably, and certainly hand-guns designed in a space-dwelling setting could be built to be vacuum-safe. If the Earth were blown up and the pieces formed an asteroid belt, how dense would this belt be? According to back-of-the-envelope calculations I made when I started writing, it would be much denser than the real asteroid belt--so dense that, occasionally, you'd be able to see two asteroids at once with the naked eye!
I don't claim that I've got every detail right in Belt Three. Although I think I've got my solar sail ship moving basically correctly, it may not be plausible for a solar sail to move a ship that large; and sometimes I fall back on being vague about distances and travel times rather than risking being wrong. I think, though, that these sorts of liberties are the SF equivalent of adding a fictional side-street to an otherwise accurate city. So I've decided to pin my colours to the mast and say that Belt Three is a work of hard science fiction, and I invite hard SF readers to check it out.
Harper Voyager UK, June 18, 2015
eBook, 400 pages
Trade Paperback, December 2, 2015
Worldbreakers do not think, do not feel and cannot be stopped.
Captain Gabriel Reinhardt’s latest mining mission has been brought to a halt by the arrival of a Worldbreaker, one of the vast alien machines that destroyed Earth and its solar system long ago. As he and his crew flee they are kidnapped by a pirate to be mind-wiped and sold into slavery, a fate worse than death in this shattered universe.
But Captain Reinhardt is hiding a secret. The real Gabriel Reinhardt died six years ago, and in his place is Jonas, one of the millions of clones produced for menial labour by the last descendants of Earth.
Forced to aid the pirate Keldra’s obsessive campaign against the Worldbreakers in exchange for his life, Jonas discovers that humanity’s last hope might just be found in the very machines that have destroyed it.
I honed my writing skills while working in the computer games industry, and still sometimes call my protagonist the ‘player character’ by mistake. I enjoy interesting character drama against a backdrop of hard science fiction, and that’s what I aim to write. Outside of writing, my interests include computer games, tabletop roleplaying games, and going to the opera. I currently live in Vancouver, Canada.