[originally posted here at Castalia House]
I recently tore myself away from the pulps and my own Appendix N reading to check out Torchship by Karl Gallagher. The book has come out to rave reviews, including Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval with “a platinum star with diamond clusters”. Personally, I was blown away and could barely put it down. This book had everything from space battles with rogue AI to crazed big game hunters to buried space treasure!
Torchship is an impressive book by an incredible author. I was absolutely thrilled to have Karl Gallagher give me some of his time over the last weeks to answer some of the burning questions I’ve had ever since finishing.
Thank you, Karl!
Alex: To an unscientific fellow like myself, I’d say “Karl Gallagher is a guy who makes spaceships for a living”. A gross oversimplification, I know, so why not tell us a little about your background in aeronautics engineering?
Karl: That ought to be “used to make spaceships for a living.” These days I’m working on fighter planes.
My career started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, majoring in Aero/Astro Engineering. I picked the “astro” option every time. Then I went into the US Air Force and became a weather satellite operator, telling them what to take pictures of and checking for deviations in their orbits. After being told several times that I was doing engineering and “we have contractors to do that,” I left the USAF to become an engineer at TRW Space & Electronics. They had me working on weather satellites, NASA missions, and commercial communications satellites.
I took a two year sabbatical to work at a launch vehicle start-up, Pioneer Rocketplane. That was fascinating technically, but the customer we intended to sell our services to folded. So I went back to my old job. The company gave me a fellowship for a master’s of system architecture and engineering degree at USC, which let me write up some of the interesting work from the start-up. Along the way I was awarded two patents for satellite antenna design.
In 2003 we had another kid on the way and couldn’t afford to keep living in California anymore, so our family packed up and moved to Texas. Now I’m working on the Joint Strike Fighter as a data analyst, not doing direct engineering but helping managers keep track of what’s going on in the program. My rocket engineer skills needed an outlet, so eventually I turned to writing SF.
Alex: Well, I guess that partially answers my next question, “What inspired you to tell the story of Torchship?” So, you’ve got the engineering itch and sci-fi provided the outlet?
Karl: Having an outlet for my engineering is part of it, yes. I haven’t calculated an orbit on the job for over ten years and getting to fiddle with trajectories and specific impulses was a lovely bit of exercise for the technical part of my mind. The larger part was wanting to do more story-telling. I’ve been a tabletop RPG gamemaster off and on since high school. With Warcraft stealing away my players that part of me was also become frustrated. The explosion of ebooks showed me I could write a story and not have it rot away in a trunk. So I took up my pen (literally) and began writing a story.
Alex: The design of Fives Full is unlike just about anything you see in popular science fiction; in a way its design is kind of a throwback to the old pulp rocket ships, but with a tremendous amount of detail to make it a scientifically plausible craft. How did you come up with the design for your Torchship and, as someone who knows a thing or two about spaceships, how would you compare it to the sorts of vessels you tend to see in most sci-fi media?
Karl: The Fives Fulls’ design is driven by some specific constraints. In the setting of Torchship, ships in the Fusion of Inhabited Worlds carry a mandatory full set of state-of-the-art gear and are only off-network for the few moments it takes to jump from one system to another. In the Disconnected Worlds freighters can carry all the electronics they can afford and have to take care of themselves. The only ones allowed to cross the border between those two are the analog ships, who have no software and are limited to 1950s technology.
With that constraint, the Fives Full will be a relatively small freighter focused on doing odd jobs–the classic tramp. It has to be able to land on planets and travel through a couple of systems without needing to refuel. And since this is a low-margin business it has to be cheap to manufacture and operate. The existence of power converters, torch drives, and futuristic materials technology lets it have enough performance to be interesting.
The shape is driven by three factors–being a pressure vessel in vacuum, handling hypersonic speed in atmosphere, and needing a flat base for an aerospike engine. Pressure vessels want to be spherical, so that gives us the bullet-shape of Fives Full–a sphere sitting on a cylinder. It’s clearly in the same family as SSTO designs such as the Boeing Big Onion or Kankoh-Maru.
Once I had the outer shape filling in details such as the propellant tanks and deck locations was straightforward. The nozzles of the torch are a ring at the base, making an annular aerospike. The tanks have to go in the bottom for stability. The decks are normal to the torch’s thrust axis. The cargo hold can accommodate more than forty twenty-foot standard shipping containers. The pilot has a window on top, allowing visual navigation.
There’s not much to compare with the typical spaceship from a sci-fi movie or TV show. Those will have artificial gravity, so they can point the decks and engines in any direction they please. The engine will be an abstract shape with no explanation of how it moves the ship. Interior spaces are designed to make good visuals rather than for functionality. One of the Ben Bella books has a Dixon essay explaining how the catwalks and stairs in Serenity’s cargo hold were used to focus on viewer’s attention on the important action. It’s beautiful, but it’s not engineering.
Alex: I found myself thinking that the Betrayal reminded me a great deal of Stanislaw Lem’s Peace On Earth only playing out on an interstellar scale. Are there any specific literary sci-fi antecedents to any of the particulars in Torchship?
Karl: Bloodmusic by Greg Bear is the inspiration for the AI disaster. Earth was wiped out by a not fully understood disaster while refugees fled to the stars. The mechanics of interstellar travel draw on Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Slide rules and scratch paper are needed to get the ship on the precise course to jump to another star system. The overall atmosphere of low-tech spacers far from Earth comes from Firefly. The characters often draw on Lois Bujold’s work. Michigan Long has echoes of Miles Vorkosigan and Fawn Bluefield.
There’s references to other works in the story, including some filk songs and a Doonesbury cartoon, but those are more Easter eggs than plot points.
Alex: Guo’s description of Romance of the Three Kingdoms as ‘a big war, with wizards’ is probably my new favorite #explainaplotbadly. It could just be the rule of threes and I’m reading too much into things, but Torchship is also a story about “three kingdoms”: the Betrayal, the Fusion and the Disconnect. Can you tell us some about your choices to include various aspects of Chinese history and culture in Torchship?
Karl: The thought of mixing Western and Chinese cultures came from Firefly but looking at the situation it made sense as one of the cultural drivers of the setting. Humanity went through a “52-pickup” relocation as it fled the Betrayal. In that kind of chaos many cultures were too fragmented to have much influence. The Chinese had substantial numbers and enough space travel capacity to move as high a proportion of them off Earth as any other nation could.
As the refugees sorted themselves out on their worlds the Chinese had the critical mass in many places to become the dominant culture. On others they’d be a significant minority, strong enough to resist assimilation. Meanwhile the Americans and Commonwealth refugees amalgamated with the Indians and other English-speaking refugees to dominate most worlds. The Anglophone-Sinophone tension becomes an issue in the next two books.
Once I’d decided to have the Western-Chinese split as one of the characteristics of the setting I wanted to show it in the story. Guo became the embodiment of the split. He’s from an Anglophone-dominated world with a signficant Chinese minority. He seeks out ways to connect with the culture that he’s physically isolated from. So he spends his shore leave attending Chinese-language shows and reads history books on the ship.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms was tossed in to show Guo being cultured. I haven’t read it myself, other than a cartoon summary.
Alex: I got the impression that the Fusion Worlds are a big dystopian welfare state; in the next book are we going to get a glimpse into the economic drivers that allow worlds to keep large portions of their populations on the dole and in pick-up bars and VR MMOs AND still manage to field sizable space forces to keep rogue AI at bay?
Karl: The Fusion is a welfare state, but I wouldn’t call it dystopian. People are free to leave at any time (we see Pete emigrate without having to do any paperwork). There’s also freedom of speech and assembly. Economic rights are restricted, mostly because the Fusion wants to tightly limit New Things lest they lead to AIs or other unpleasant surprises.
The next book does show more of the Fusion’s economy. Much of the work is being done by robots, down to the level of taxi driver and pizza delivery boy. A twenty-four hour work week is standard. Factories don’t have many people in them.
So the Fusion Navy has automatic factories cranking out its warships in whatever numbers are needed. Crewing them isn’t a strain on the population. This isn’t an Honor Harrington level of warfare. Thousands of ships averaging a crew of a hundred or two add up to less than a million Navy personnel. Add another million for the Fusion Marine Corps and you still have a tiny fraction of a multi-billion person population spread over a dozen planets.
Alex: I suppose what gave it the dystopian feel was the rather Kafkaesque speedy trial and execution of the gamer who’d modified his gaming rig and thereby compromised network security. It was really a holy-crap moment. Also, didn’t Pete sneak out because government suits were after him for doing wrong-research?
Karl: The Fusion government has a Berserk Button for artificial intelligence and anything that could lead to one. That doesn’t make the whole place a dystopia, any more than cops throwing a grenade into a baby’s crib while looking for plants makes the USA a dystopia.
The execution was in there to stress that these people were terrified of AIs. The rationale for that (majority of humanity killed during the Betrayal, many planets still AI-controlled, regular attacks by AIs) came later. The terror is what makes them prohibit research, ban non-Fusion computers, and insist on continual network monitoring. (Freaking out gamers who’ve overclocked their rigs was a bonus.)
From the Fusion point of view, that our government bans a plant while inflicting no punishment on people who let their home computers be incorporated into botnets would be totally baffling.
Alex: I love the character of Michigan Long. Though Torchship features an ensemble cast, we see a lot of the story from her point of view. Can you tell us some about her?
Michigan is short (5′ 1″), young (25 years), and intense. Good looks and short brown hair make her noticeable without being memorable. She learned to fly as a shuttle pilot on the frontier. When a freighter needed a replacement pilot she grabbed the chance and headed out for the black. Since that was an analog ship she gained practice in calculating trajectories with primitive tools–slide rules, reference tables, and hand calculations. Her fellow crew found her to be very good at her job and polite, but not interested in socializing off-duty.
The above is her cover story. When she discovered her fiance had been killed by the Fusion as part of a campaign of intimidation against the Disconnected Worlds she wanted revenge. After being rejected as a warship pilot she joined the intelligence branch and (through some finagling) was assigned as a deep cover operative. Now she uses her personal, ahem, attributes to extract information about the Fusion Navy. She’ll turn on her charm, get some target talking, and be on her way to another world before he figures out what happened.
Alex: I suppose her being from the Disconnect and much of the early parts of the story being told from her point of view might also have skewed my impression of the Fusion worlds (though I’m still really terrified of them!). The Disconnect, to me, has that frontier emphasis on self-sufficiency that bleeds into Michigan. She’s smart, clever and a bad-ass in her own right. That said, one of the things that impressed upon me was that she doesn’t fall into a lot of the stereotypes and tropes of the “Strong Female Character” we see in a lot of contemporary sci-fi media. Were you conscious of any of these traps and did they shape your approach to her when you were writing the character?
Karl: The “strong female character” or “Mary Sue” are traps any writer faces (in male form, the “Marty Stu” or “omnicompetent hero”). You love your protagonist and want her to succeed in the face of every challenge. Plus you have to not let the protagonist get killed or your book falls apart. But a too powerful character blows through every challenge and makes for a boring story. The trap on the other side is having a protagonist with no agency, who’s simply getting pushed about by other characters in the story. I’ve always hated stories like that so there wasn’t much danger of me writing one.
This is the character equivalent of the same dilemma we discussed with the setting. Some people consider the Fusion a utopia (“I’d get *paid* to play MMOs!”), you reacted to it as a dystopia. Utopia? Dystopia? Neither, if I’ve done my job right. I want to make it an interesting society with good and bad points as a result of its evolution–that’s where good conflicts come from. Either extreme turns the story into beating up strawmen.
I wanted Michigan to be a strong character, someone with agency. She possesses useful skills and earns her place on the crew. At the same time she’s acting independently and often overestimates her ability. She’ll try to bluff her way out of dicey situations, which can get her in more trouble. Those are all things that create more tension and conflict, which is good for story-telling. I don’t have to create yet another villain if the heroine causes enough trouble. I did want to avoid making Michigan a copy of any other protagonist I’d read recently. So she’s not Honor Harrington, Verity Price, or Cordelia Vorksosigan.
Alex: Well, you’ve certainly made a fan of me, and I’ve been telling everyone I know about Torchship. You’ve hinted some at what may be in the next Torchship book (which is already planned for this spring, if I understand correctly). Anything else you can tell us about the future of the Torchship franchise? Are you thinking trilogy? Long running serial adventure? Has Hollywood called yet?
Karl: I’m definitely thinking trilogy–which is to say I intend to wrap everything up in book three, which is in progress. Book two is in draft state, I have a copy covered with red ink and FIXME’s. After Torchship Pilot and Torchship Captain I have some other novels I’ve been kicking around. I may return to the Torchship-verse in the future if I have the right story. But Michigan will deserve a rest by then.
I’m not expecting to hear from Hollywood any time soon. Andy Weir’s success with The Martian was slightly more improbable than winning the billion dollar Powerball. But if any producers are reading this, I’ll point out the episodic nature of Torchship works nicely with the mini-series structure that’s popular these days.
Alex: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about Torchship!
Torchship is available now through Amazon. Though it is available in high-tech new-fangled “eBook” format($4.99), it may also be acquired as a quite reasonably priced paperback ($9.99). I highly recommend the latter, especially if you plan on buying copies for friends.