The writing of Icarus Down continues to go well, although I still have to characterize the story as quite young. There’s a lot of things I’m still throwing against the wall to see what sticks. The fight of ornithopters versus zombies aside, Erin has been giving me a number of ideas — particularly with the details of the world I’m working with here.
The science does threaten to overwhelm the story if I’m not careful. Most recently, Erin has encouraged me to seriously steampunk this story up. Steampunk, if you don’t know, is a genre of fantasy that may have been started by William Gibson and his friends who wrote a what if story about what could have happened to the Victorian age if they made a breakthrough on computational machines they were working on and essentially started the Information Age a century early. Nowadays, it refers to any work of fiction which marries a Victorian or Wild West atmosphere — where most machines are powered by steam — with the technology or approaches of today. In steampunk, you can have a little Jules Verne with your fantasy. The genre is very popular right now, and often a fun read, as Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments demonstrates, on both counts.
Erin wants me to ditch the elements of high tech that I’ve included in this story, such as the vid screens, or centrally controlled elevators, because here is a situation, she argues, where a steampunk approach might actually be required.
She posed it as an interesting thought experiment: a society living in the shadows because of the lethal luminosity of their sun would also be a society living under what is essentially a constant barrage of solar flares. We’ve had solar flares here on Earth, and they’ve already done literally hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to our satellite, power and cellphone networks.
Over and above the heat and the light of Icarus Down’s sun, there is the constant electromagnetic radiation to consider, and that would pose several challenges to the struggling colony. Audio and visual broadcasts would become impossible, and communications between the cities would possibly be limited to Morse code telegraphs. Communications within the cities could be limited to pneumatic tubes to send paper messages and possibly even speaking tubes like on a ship at sea. You couldn’t have a network of computers because, while you might be able to shield individual computers from the electromagnetic onslaught, you would be hard-pressed to shield the wires between them, and it wouldn’t take much to blow out the system. Even a central power system would be impossible, so the lights along the corridors within the cities might have to be powered by battery.
How does a high tech society that can build generation ships and travel to far and distant star systems adjust to being suddenly unable to broadcast video? How does a high tech society adapt to losing the ability to live and act digitally? That was the challenge that Erin set up for me, and one I’ve chosen to accept.
Because, in the end, steampunk is cool. Pneumatic tubes are cool. As are hoop skirts and long trousers.
This new scene below, written earlier this evening, is another flashback for Simon as he lies semi-conscious in his hospital bed. Here, he remembers prankster Isaac making use of the colony’s unique electromagnetic characteristics. This is just one of the more lighter changes. Let me know what you think.
Battery boys. Tricks with wires. I remembered one day when I walked into a classroom, just as another student ran out, yelling and clutching his arm.
I looked around, bewildered, to see the desks empty, and the other children pressed against the walls, all eyeing the door out.
I should have followed the first student out, but I was too slow, because before I knew it, I heard Isaac’s voice behind me. “Hey, Simon! Think fast!”
There was a flash of light and a snap, and I pitched forward into one of the desks, feeling as though I’d been whacked by a club.
Clutching my side, I struggled around and looked up. I saw Isaac guffawing. “What, Simon? I just touched you. See?” And he reached forward again. I tried to duck back, but that’s hard to do when you’re lying on a chair. When his finger got to within an inch of my arm, a spark leapt out. I flinched and grunted in pain.
We’d learned about this a few days earlier, why there were no wires longer than a metre inside the walls of our city; why each individual light was battery powered; why Mother Earth had things like audio and visual broadcasts and we didn’t; why the cables that held our city were sheathed in an inch of plastic, and everything fed down to the electric fence that protected the stem from the monsters of the fog forest. Our sun burnt so bright, that even in our shadows, its invisible rays bombarded us. And Isaac had listened, and decided to put his knowledge to practical use.
Isaac had probably taken a roll of sheathed wire a few metres long, wrap it around his chest, and string it down one arm and over his palm, with the uncovered end poking out ahead of his finger. Wait a few minutes for the electromagnetic charge to build, then sneak up behind the victim of choice and give him one heck of a zap. Always worked. And it hurt, too.
It was one of the oldest pranks of the colony of Icarus Down. The shuffling of one’s feet on the carpet before striking was merely traditional.
Still chuckling, Isaac reached down to shock me a third time. Behind him, some of the class were taking this opportunity to escape via the door. Well, I suppose I was at least of some help.
The new voice made Isaac look up. I craned my neck back to see. And there was Rachel, standing in the middle of the room, at a crossroads of the aisles of desks, a clear target. She gave him a taunting smile. “Isaac? Are you going to spend your time shocking Simple Simon while he lays on his back, or are you going to try and get me?”
Isaac frowned at her. He clearly wondered, as I suspected, whether Rachel had some plan. She was wide open, and she didn’t run very fast in her long skirt. And as he took a few tentative steps forward, she didn’t move. Isaac’s grin widened. Sitting up, I looked over at Rachel, willing her to run. But she didn’t. She waited for him.
And when Isaac got close enough to reach out with his wired hand, she grabbed him by the wrist with one hand, opened the lid of a desk with the other and, in one quick movement, planted his finger on the inside edge of the desk just as she slammed the lid down.
Isaac danced about, clutching his hand, swearing. That’s when he brought his bruised fingers to his lips to suck them.
The door burst open, and the teacher strode in. “What is going on here?” he bellowed. He crossed the room and crouched by the weeping Isaac. “Isaac? What happened.”
“Sir!” He sobbed. “Rachel slammed the desk lid on my finger! She—”
“She what?” said the teacher, grabbing his hand. “Let me s—”
There was another flash and a snap. The teacher yelled.
Not a good day for Isaac, all told.