A correction, or why science fiction is hard.

Princess of Shadows is now over 150,000 words. I’ve connected up the Bleak sequence with the next major segment, not in any particularly satisfying way, but enough to keep going on. I think I have two major segments and two minor left to do. Perhaps another 20,000 words or so, but I’ve been guessing at my word count through this whole project, so that may be off.

I should have gotten several thousand more words down, but for a good portion of the last two weeks I actually suspended writing the novel because I needed to make some notes on some details of the world of Jauthur, especially its calendar. With five moons and a day and a year noticeably longer than Earth’s, I realized I needed to outline the way the Val keep time, or there was going to be trouble.

And that’s when I discovered I was in trouble. With two novels already published I am committed to certain facts about Jauthur I can’t get around. One of these is that Jauthur has five moons– the Mother Moon, the Daughter Moon, the Son Moon, Wanderer, and Rock (a captured asteroid, in case anybody needs that explained to them). Another fact is that the Daughter Moon has a 14 day orbital period (this relates to a story detail that literally takes one character out of harm’s way and puts another in her place). The third fact is that the Mother Moon is the largest moon.

The trouble was, when I composed the first novel, Princess of Wonders, Kathy arrives on Jauthur and is confronted by the multiplicity of moons right away. In the narrative she notes that the apparent size of the Mother Moon is “ten times the apparent size of the full Moon on Earth”. I originally put that detail in to create an other-worldly vibe, just the same as when you see multiple moons or suns in science-fiction films and you know at once you’re not in Poughkeepsie any more. Well and good enough on its own.

But when I went to reconcile the moons’ orbits with the Val calendar (with two seperate months of 14 and 63 days, another story detail I was stuck with), I realized, with a kind of Hitchcockian frisson of horror, that I had made the Mother Moon way, way too big. If the moon was the same distance from Jauthur as the Moon is from Earth, then it would have been 10 times the size of the moon, or about 20,000 miles in diameter. Eek. In that case, Jauthur, a close twin of Earth at about 7800 miles in diameter, would be orbiting the Mother Moon, not vice-versa. Pushing the Mother Moon out would only make things worse, as that would make it larger– angular diameter is a pretty straightforward calculation (yes, this involved math). I could bring it closer, and so reduce its actual size, but I had committed myself in the story to having the Daughter Moon on an inner orbit versus the Mother Moon (that 14 day orbital period thingie). I could not therefore plausibly have a very large moon in a very close orbit with a lesser moon without risking possible cosmic catastrophe.

After some head-scratching and fumbling around with calculating orbital periods the old fashioned way (confession– my scientific notation skills are way rusty) before locating orbital period calculators on the Web, I decided that the simplest thing to do would be to make the one correction to the text that would restore a degree of plausibility to the story– I changed the apparent size of the Mother Moon from ten times the Earth’s Moon to two, with the Mother Moon at about 250,000 miles and with a 30 day period. This made the whole arrangement of moons a lot easier to swallow– but it meant altering the text of a novel that’s been published for almost two years, something I find galling, even if it was just correcting one detail. But it was necessary because I didn’t stop to think about the world I was building when I first wrote the story.

At this point you may be asking why this matters in a piece of fiction. I wrote a story, after all, not a treatise on lunar orbital systems. My answer is that this is a piece of science fiction, which operates (when done right) by a different set of rules. I’m firmly of the opinion that anybody who seriously tackles sci-fi should at least attempt to get the basic science right, however many warp drives you have, or however much cavorite you coat your spaceship with. Otherwise you should stick to fantasy, where you can do what you please (though even fantasy should have internally consistent rules for its worlds). I’m not writing hard science-fiction– the Divine Lotus series is more about the sociology of modernization and imperialism– but it would make me ill to leave something obviously wrong in the narrative when I can correct it.

So be warned– science-fiction is hard. Do your homework first. Think about your world. And practice your scientific notation. It’ll come in handy.

Later.

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