When you think about the sensation of floating: what image comes to mind? Do you swirl about like dandelion fluff? Do you ride on a magic carpet or soar through the International Space Station, an astronaut with a guitar? Floating is the opposite of gravity as glee is the opposite of sobriety. We associate buoyancy with happiness, with freedom and insight.
Yet there are few things as hostile to the human body as microgravity, or zero-G—gravity so low that a person appears to be weightless. Humans have evolved in gravity: keeping one’s body weightless risks a host of physical problems. Neither the space industry nor science-fiction writers have let this stop them. As we continue in 2015, a year in which Dawn and New Horizons have arrived at the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, I brought four authors together to discuss writing about and living in low-gravity environments.
- Ian McDonald is a British science-fiction writer known for his explorations in how technology changes societies. He has been nominated for and received numerous awards, including the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell. His next novel, Luna: New Moon, will be out in September.
- Jody Lynn Nye lists her main career activity as “spoiling cats.” She lives near Chicago with her current cat, Jeremy, and her husband, Bill. She has published over forty-five books, including collaborations with Anne McCaffrey and Robert Asprin, and over 120 short stories. Her latest books are View From the Imperium and Wishing On a Star. Visit her website at www.jodynye.net.
- Corey Ostman writes speculative fiction for humans and machines. He is the co-author of the Cladespace series, which begins with Port Casper, and can be reached intergalactically at portcasper.com.
- Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling novelist, games writer, and comics author. She's best known for military science fiction, and is also the author of Going Grey, the first of a techno-thriller series set in the real world. The sequel, Black Run, is out this summer. She's also written for major franchises including Batman, Gears of War, Halo, and G.I. Joe. Visit her website at www.karentraviss.com.
- Vanessa Rose Phin is the moderator.
When I think of low-gravity settings, some settings come to mind: Integral Trees by Larry Niven, set in a ring of gas outside of a neutron star; wallrunning in Karen Lord’s recent novel, The Galaxy Game; and the battle room in Orson Scott Card's Ender’s Game. In Heinlein’s short story, “Waldo,” the titular character lives on a satellite. When you think of low-gravity stories, in print or otherwise, what comes to mind?
Corey Ostman: What first comes to mind is real life: sitting in front of a seemingly gigantic black and white television set watching NASA astronauts on the moon or aboard Skylab. The first novel I remember reading where microgravity was central to the story was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free.
Jody Lynn Nye: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold. The quaddies were evolved to live in zero-G conditions. Numerous space epics, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stories that take place on the moon. There’s also a filk song about making love in zero gravity.
Ian McDonald: Certainly Ender’s Game, even though I’ve always hated it and I could see right from the get-go what the final twist would be. Integral Trees, of course. An old Bob Shaw novel, Medusa’s Children, which posits a human society in freefall inside a bubble of ocean water transported as part of an ancient alien sea-level control mechanism to the asteroid belt. Head-meltingly strange, as Bob Shaw was at his very best. The Stardance sequence by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, which moves dance into zero G—Jeanne Robinson was a choreographer and artistic director of a dance company. She finally got to realize her dream in 2007, in a specially equipped jet. Gateway, Fred Pohl. All the stuff on the Heechee asteroid.
Karen Traviss: I tend to obsess about realism, even when I set out to write something that isn't hard SF, so when I deal with microgravity it's in the context of ships or EVAs, or—if I might broaden this out to the general effect of differences in gravity—the small details of the impact of higher or lower gravity on humans on an alien world.
As everyone knows I don't read, I'll cite screen works. I admit I'm one of those annoying people who gripes about bad science in movies. I think my attitude to space environments was shaped by the movie 2001, in that I thought, "If this movie can try to get it right, so can the others." There's that wonderful moment when Dave Bowman has been locked out by HAL and uses the pod to eject himself into the open airlock with explosive decompression, bouncing off the bulkheads until he manages to grab something. It's a great example of a scene where realistic treatment is far more dramatic than the alternative.
And I like to see ships using three-dimensional space. Personal bête noire: space battles that are more like surface fleet engagements, conducted on one plane with an up and a down. I did a little cheer when I saw the rebooted Star Trek movie—the scene where the ships are upside down in relation to each other made my day. I love that kind of attention to detail.
Corey Ostman: Karen, you're so right about the little details making 2001 an important film. My childhood mind was blown as I watched the Pan Am space plane synchronize its roll so that it could dock at the center of a spinning space station. We follow Dr. Floyd as he walks on a gently curving floor and we see astronauts Bowman and Poole live within a small rotating section of the Discovery One.
Why might an author choose to use microgravity instead of going with Earth-equivalent gravity in a space setting?
Jody Lynn Nye: Removing the constraints of gravity has several uses. One is to empower otherwise weak characters, as in "Waldo." It’s also been a human dream to gain the power of flight. In zero gravity, we are no longer tied to the ground. On the other hand, no longer being able to tell the ceiling from the floor might show a character as becoming helpless, having to gain control of the environment.
Karen Traviss: If you have aliens who have to interact with humans, and they're used to very low gravity, then it would be the neutral zone in which to engage with them. It's easier for us to handle zero-G than it would be for a creature from low gravity to have to cope with the stresses of Earth gravity.
And, getting back to my fixation with reality—because that's where plots come from for me, the extrapolation of the behavior and interaction of individuals in a consistent environment—there could be ships that just aren't big enough to house whatever passes for a gravity generator. Yes, that was a bit of hand-waving. I have no problem with writers and producers making up technology to address these issues and not explaining it: I'm not fussed if it would work in real life or not, only that they've acknowledged the issue and nodded to the reader or viewer that they understand. I just want consistent rules.
I confess to getting very nitpicky about colonization of other planets and the impacts of different gravity and length of day on humans and terrestrial crops. When I did franchise work, I always made sure I covered that detail for my own sanity, because I knew I'd get sidelined by the practical considerations of, say, a low-G planet with a six-hour daylight period and different oxygen levels.
Ian McDonald: Because it’s the reality of space, the many shapes of gravity. Of course you can spin your ship or station up to rotational pseudo-gravity, and I respect that when I see it. What sets my teeth on edge is artificial gravity in starships—if you can generate gravity, you have such precise control of such fundamental forces that there isn’t anything you can’t do. Collapse stars into black holes, unpack singularities. It’s cheating and, like Karen, I prefer my science fiction to at least doff the cap to physics.
Corey Ostman: I believe it turns on question of setting. If the author wants their characters to be on a small satellite, asteroid, or dwarf planet, microgravity will be a fact of life. In space, generating simulated gravity by rotation or linear acceleration (as long as there’s enough fuel) is possible, but once the characters find themselves on a small world, or in a small place, microgravity will be part of the story. I chose a low-gravity setting in my latest novel, Ceres Rising, so I could explore what it would be like. It’s straightforward to imagine life in freefall, we’ve all been exposed to images of astronauts floating, but low gravity is a different beast. You don’t float—you bounce and you arc. On Earth, you can walk as fast as two meters per second without tripping, but in a low-gravity environment the transition from walking to running occurs at much lower speeds.
Which issue do you see as the greatest hurdle to a story set on a low-gravity station, ship, or world?
Ian McDonald: For me it’s making it strange enough that its effect on life and human behavior is needful, but not so much that it sticks out and becomes the be-all and end-all of the story. This is an issue for all science fiction, I think.
Karen Traviss: I think consistency is always the problem. If you're going for realism in microgravity, I think you're sort of honor-bound to try to get the rest right as well. If you're not going for it, fine, but then you need to spell out the ground rules of your universe.
For me, the negative details of life in zero-G wouldn't be a hurdle but an integral part of the plot. I don't think I could write without exploring how the crew copes with the cumulative small effects that microgravity has on the body and the practical day-to-day hazards of what happens to the stuff you drop or spill. (I seem to remember dealing with the higher gravity on the planets in my Wess'har series, although I'd need to re-read them to be reminded how much detail I went into.) I know everyone goes on about the challenges of bathroom breaks, but we've seen enough footage from the ISS to realize just how much a lack of up, down, and stuff falling conveniently to the floor changes human behavior, from getting into the habit of securing a pen in a pocket to being very, very careful with powdered substances. It's the small detail that makes a story.
I seem to recall that germinating seeds in zero-G is a problem, so I'd already be thinking in terms of how the crew produces its food. The breakdown of a gravity generator could be the start of a cascading disaster in survival terms.
Jody Lynn Nye: Keeping the gravity issues consistent. What does it really mean to weigh only a sixth of your Earth weight? How would that affect your muscles in the long term? What would buildings look like? How would food be served? How would sanitation be handled?
Liquid acts differently in lower gravity. In zero-G, it floats off in globules. While it might be fun to air-swim after bubbles of Kool-Aid, the novelty would get old if it’s the way you always have to chase down the bubbles of milk that your toddler let loose. Liquid is not the only issue. Particles that are not required by gravity to settle to the floor end up anywhere. NASA astronauts have complained about microparticles of all manner of substances, some of them unpleasant, ending up in the technical equipment because there’s nothing to stop them floating where they will.
Also, we don’t have good working models for low gravity. Exploring what it does to the body, long term, is a matter of speculation. At present, our concrete knowledge is mainly of full gravity and freefall.
Corey Ostman: Actions are most affected by low gravity, so word choice is essential. In low gravity, characters are not going to run down a corridor, but they might pull themselves down a passage, or arc across a room. I think Jody’s point about our lack of knowledge regarding low gravity is what makes the storytelling interesting. It’s great fun to experience low gravity first through a character new to the environment, and then slowly move away from the technicalities of low gravity as the story progresses.
How do you see humans adapting to a low-gravity environment? Would they seek to control the environment or themselves first?
Karen Traviss: I'd put my money on trying to control the environment first. Maintaining bone density is going to be a problem. There's no quick fix for that, although there's a cracking story to be had about astronauts who volunteer to be altered to become human jellyfish.
Jody Lynn Nye: I think it’s human nature to try to control the environment first. When they see how futile that is, either on a personal or fully technical level, then they will learn to adapt to the situation.
Ian McDonald: I agree with Jody that it’s more naturally human to seek to impose human will on the environment—a tech fix. Spin things up. We’re kind of reluctant to change our cultures or ourselves to fit an environment. In some ways, it’s analogous to our attitude toward climate change—we’d rather throw tech at it than make any profound changes to our lives or bodies. Back in space, out of the gravity well of Earth, those four-armed human variants we see so often that are so nimble in freefall—I’ve got them in Necroville, Lois McMaster Bujold has them too—will be different in every fundamental way from us. They’re a radical form of adaptation, but they tell us a profound truth: space isn’t really for us. What goes to the stars, it won’t be us. It’ll be a new, maybe post-humanity. Homo stellaris.
Corey Ostman: I’m biased toward humans controlling themselves first. In most situations artificial gravity isn’t possible, and humans will put themselves way outside their operational envelope for all the usual reasons: curiosity, wealth, honor, friendship, etc. My characters wear a device called a sleep squeeze that keeps the musculoskeletal system in peak performance in microgravity or a low-gravity environment.
The posthuman, the “human jellyfish,” has been a fixation for futurists. I think of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars, when humanity spreads out to planets less initially habitable than Mars, genetically adapting themselves to low light, thin air. Most of you mentioned that humanity will attempt to create gravity before changing itself. What happens when it does turn to self-adaptation? What images do you see? Do you have any favorite stories on the posthuman side?
Corey Ostman: I’m in the minority because I think we’ll have to change ourselves first. In space, it’s easy to “spin things up.” (Ian’s phrase is marvelous!) But on the surface of a planet, it’s difficult to control the gravitational environment. My bet is that we’ll first use technology to manipulate our physiology, such as muscle strength and bone density, and then we’ll genetically engineer the changes that we deem necessary. The conflict between those two subspecies would be fascinating to explore.
Ian McDonald: Oh, yes. This is going way back, but I remember as a twelve-year-old being blown away by James Blish’s 1952 story "Surface Tension": part of his Seedling Stars sequence, where humanity seeds the stars with genetic human variants adapted to their specific worlds. In this story, a crashed seed ship on a brutally inhospitable planet creates a microscopic form of humanity that lives in ponds. In a sense, these posthumans lived in what was effectively a microgravity waterworld. Every pond was a separate world. They battled micro-fauna, built a society, and eventually, a bacterium-powered spaceship to visit another puddle-world. "Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope towards the drying rivulet." Still makes the hairs stand up. I’m interested in the way that environment could be an engine of human biological diversity and even speciation, which is something KSR touches on in the Mars books, but more so in 2312.
Karen Traviss: I'll try not to pick on TV and movies again, but they miss a lot of chances with that. They cling to the idea that we'll just be physically different versions of our essential selves, simply transformed into pure energy or liquid or whatever, but basically thinking the same thoughts and occasionally nodding to transformation by mentioning that we don't need to drink coffee now or use public transport. When I've written altered humans (including those who end up as AIs), I've tried to build them from the perspective of the interaction between body and brain architecture. The brain isn't a separate overriding control unit. The more we find out about how the rest of the body's organs and processes (and our resident bacteria) shape the brain, the more it looks to me that transhuman may well be completely non-human. One of my AI characters, created from a dead individual, although not "uploaded" and essentially a new personality, has his physicality grounded in the ship and any other hardware or signal he can latch onto, but he spends a lot of time thinking in terms of the human body his "template" brain was once wired into. Imagine what your brain might become if your body were jelly and your microbiome were totally different.
Jody Lynn Nye: The first thing that came to mind was the short story, "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!" (Tenn, 1974). It would be fun to explore just how much a person can change before we stop thinking of ourselves as human beings. Anne McCaffrey created heavyworlders for her Dinosaur Planet books, macro-humans who had a stronger bone structure and organs that would be able to withstand more gravity than is found on Earth. The same would also go for lighter-gravity planets. We've already discovered that there is a depletion of minerals from our skeletal structure in light gravity, so scientists would want to explore means of retaining strength and structure where it was needed. I think we’d give up our skeletons only once we came to terms with the new body’s appearance, as much as its necessary function.
Naturally, another adaptation that comes to mind is transference of consciousness to a body better adapted to the gravity. James Cameron explored that in Avatar, but we could go farther than that, with bodies that could fly on their own. We wouldn’t have to copy an existing species, if there were one. We could become something new. Form follows function, of course, but as my husband points out, we’re not the result of the best of genetic inheritance; we’re what survived. If we could create the very best bodies for an environment, how would we change? It’s fun to speculate.
If microgravity is so harmful to human health, why might humans choose to live a floating life?
Karen Traviss: We might not have a choice if we want to explore space. The engineering challenges that we'd have to overcome to generate gravity may result in solutions that don't lend themselves to the constraints of real-life space travel: any such technology might simply be too heavy or uneconomic to use.
Microgravity is probably hugely entertaining for a few hours. Long term is another matter. All I can think of when I consider the redistribution of fluid in the body is a thumping headache!
Ian McDonald: Money or freedom. More likely the former, I suspect. Narrative favours the latter. Then again, money has always been a good narrative engine.
Corey Ostman: Ian, I think you’re right: it’s all about the money. In my Cladespace universe, the basic governmental entity is the corporation, and nations are called compstates. Commerce drives the decisions of individuals. If there's a mining operation on Ceres, and you need a job, you go. And in the end, if physiological needs are met, who wouldn’t enjoy leaving a planar world for the three-dimensionality of zero-G?
Jody Lynn Nye: Because for the fully abled, it would be cool to be able to bound yards at a time. For those who are tied down by their bodies, it might represent a freedom that they have lost or never known.
Jody mentioned that microgravity would extend physical accessibility, and two of you mentioned the “freedom” of low gravity. In the recent anthology, Accessing the Future, Fabian Alvarado’s image of “Julienne the Technician” shows a woman with no arms manipulating a circuit board with her toes in a microgravity environment. How do you see the future of accessibility, both physical and mental, in nul-G?
Ian McDonald: What interests me is how it changes conceptions of ability. Sets of muscles that are powerfully useful in a terrestrial environment may be overpowered to the point of dangerous, or largely useless. Legs are overly powerful in zero or low gravity—how much more interesting to use the legs for something else, as in your example. This is something I’m exploring in the second book of my moon sequence, as it intimately affects one of the major characters. But . . . spoilers.
Jody Lynn Nye: Zero-G challenges the norm in so many ways. It has already been suggested that women would make better astronauts than men because women have better small-motor control. Once the need for superior upper-body strength is dispensed with, dexterity could become the physical trait most admired among humans instead of strength. Accessibility in a low-gravity environment would give the disabled greater quality of life, because they would not be held down, as they are on Earth. Those whose muscles were too weak to function in Earth gravity would enjoy greater ranges of motion. As long as they had any kind of control over their muscles, they could participate much more fully in social events as well as jobs. A major problem on Earth is that homes, public buildings, mass transportation, entertainment venues—most of them have not been or cannot be reverse-engineered to accommodate them. We start from scratch in space.
Karen Traviss: It would level the playing field in many types of physical disability, but I suspect there'd be different accessibility issues created by microgravity. It depends on the kind of environment we have in nul-G. Not having to worry about your legs being able to support your weight doesn't change things for people with visual impairment, hearing loss, or even quadriplegia. And ships and shelters, under gravity or not, will always have their limiting factors, like the size of hatches, the ease of opening things, requirements for dexterity, and so on.
Corey Ostman: I can see this cutting both ways. In an optimistic universe, the less able members of society might encounter fewer obstacles in microgravity and lead better lives. But we humans can be an ugly lot, and the dystopian version would see us transporting the less able away from Earth, a twisted reversal of the premise in Blade Runner, where only the able can go off-world.
If we had a long-term microgravity-based society, how might culture change to reflect a radically different way of living?
Jody Lynn Nye: Humankind would have to learn what three-dimensional thought really is, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan notwithstanding. You’d have to adapt to having people passing over your head, something that only happens on Earth if there’s a walkway or another floor above you. Directions would have to become three-dimensional. Sleeping would require a bag instead of a bed. Anything that required pressure against the body, like CPR, would have to be adapted to include an anchor of some kind.
Karen Traviss: And think of the changes required in manufacturing and what we regard as everyday objects and possessions. There'll be a lot of novel products to design and sell. Your example of the sleeping bag—that's a whole industry waiting to emerge. Everything we take for granted now would need some redesign, and we'll need things that we haven't even imagined yet. It's one thing to exist on the ISS and rough it temporarily, but if you actually live in microgravity, you'll want a more comfortable and comforting life.
Corey Ostman: In low gravity there is less of a sense of up and down, and this is especially so in zero gravity. This could lead to writing systems that could be easily read from multiple directions. Visual artists would create works that could be enjoyed from any perspective. We humans like to eat together, cook together, but the tools would have to change to keep the food from flying away. And there’s no reason for rooms to be laid out on a plane. On a very personal level, long hair might be too unruly for a lifetime spent in microgravity, and clothing designed for the gravity well of even a moderate Earth-sized planet might be all over the place.
Karen Traviss: If I lighten up for a moment instead of worrying about upsetting physicists with bad science, I have to wonder how we'd adapt our destructive, aggressive side, because I'm pretty sure we'd still have one. Brawling and acts of vandalism would have to be very different. I find myself wondering what a riot in microgravity would look like and how you'd heave a brick through a window.
Ian McDonald: I’m in the middle of the second volume of my sequence set on the moon in the near future, Luna, and gravity is a huge concern in the lives of my characters. But I don’t want it to dominate them—people get used to changed environments pretty quickly. It’s a society built from many terrestrial nations and ethnicities, developing its own unique civilization, and lunar gravity plays a part in that. The central concern is what’s known as a Moonday—for immigrants, it’s the day when your bone density and muscle armoring deteriorates under lunar gravity to such an extent that a return to earth will almost certainly be fatal. So there’s a ticking clock for every new arrival—a scenario I explore in the story, "The Fifth Dragon," in the Reach for Infinity anthology—and a choice to be made. In the words of The Clash, "Do I stay or do I go?" For those born on the moon, they have no choice at all. Child development under lunar gravity sentences you to your new world and very few others in the solar system. Even Mars would, for a moon-kid, be like two perceived gravities. On the other hand, plants grow to tremendous heights and sizes. I just like the idea of potato plants the size of baobabs. And it’s eminently possible to fly by human wing-power alone—a concept I first encountered in Heinlein’s slightly coy "The Menace from Earth."
Jody Lynn Nye: Ian, I loved "The Menace from Earth," and I craved the opportunity to fly. I’ve also read that children born in low gravity might also be taller and thinner. I wonder if lifespans would be lessened, at least for the first few generations of moon-born, until biology caught up with environment.
Karen Traviss: Do you remember the short story "Crucifixus Etiam," by Walter Miller? I read it as a child, and although this isn't what critics see as the point of the story, what stayed with me over the decades was that the adapted labourer terraforming near-airless Mars couldn't go home again because he was stuck with his artificially adapted lungs. He'd made his own world, quite literally, but he was confined to it. Themes of the one-way nature of things interest me as a writer. The first generation or two would have the hardest time adjusting their society to the new reality, and that would play into the cultural psyche of succeeding generations in interesting ways. Forget the future: how would we view our collective past as a species when the Earth could never be home again?
Many of the exoplanets discovered so far are potentially hospitable, but larger than Earth by one or several gravities. How would you see humanity adapting in those circumstances? Would a high-gravity planet with Earthlike conditions be preferable to a moon or planet with low gravity, or not?
Corey Ostman: Human bones and muscles can handle low multiples of Earth’s gravity, provided that explorers can train prior to arriving at the exoplanet. But other body systems wouldn’t take kindly to an increased gravitational field. Will the brain stem be happy with all the extra weight of the cerebral cortex pressing down? Will the fluid in our semicircular canals throw off our balance? It seems to me that low-gravity environments would be more preferable than a three-G super-Earth.
Karen Traviss: I found my knee-jerk reaction to that was "High gravity, please." (But not crazily high. Nobody wants crushed internal organs.) The strain on the body might do some awful things to your heart and shorten your life, but bodies seem to adapt to load better than its absence. As always, the thing that interests me is exploring the small details of that. How much gravity can we handle on a continuous basis? If humans went to different planets and adapted to a variety of gravities, would there be times when they met up somewhere neutral and those adaptive differences had a social impact? If you came from a high-gravity world, would you be banned from taking part in sports alongside lower-gravity folk? There are much more serious considerations than that, but for the most part, humans on Earth function within a relatively narrow range. What if the range was much, much wider?
Ian McDonald: My instincts say low gravity is preferable to high gravity but I have no biological or physiological reason for thinking that. I think it’s a deep, unconscious association of weight with mass, strength, brutality, materialism, and lightness with freedom, aestheticism, light, and spirituality. Your basic dwarves versus elves, I suspect. In terms of who could visit whom in this federation of many-gravities worlds, the advantage lies with the hi-G humans. In movie imaginings of other worlds, I can’t think of any depictions of hi-G worlds. I don’t think we have any visual imagination for hi-G worlds, whereas low-G worlds, it’s always flight. Or frozen floating clouds. Low-G gives humans superpowers. Earthling privilege.
Which space setting (low gravity or otherwise) is most interesting to you at present?
Ian McDonald: Very much the moon. It’s a tough place. One of the toughest. Mars is a resort by comparison.
Jody Lynn Nye: I’m interested in low-gravity planets, including the moon. I’m also interested in what it would be like to live on a space station in full zero-G.
Corey Ostman: Having just written a book about life in the asteroid belt, I’d have to say Ceres is the most interesting to me. Its surface gravity is one thirtieth that of Earth, so you don’t float, yet you don’t fall too rapidly either. But don’t drive too fast on the Cererian surface: escape velocity is a paltry 1,778 kilometers per hour compared to 40,248 on Earth!
Karen Traviss: I'm not writing SF these days, although there's still a big human biology element in my techno-thrillers, but if I went back to SF, I'd be looking at human interaction with aliens (and aliens with other aliens) again. It's always rewarding to explore conflicting psychologies.
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