Monday, December 4, 2017

Spencer Ellsworth - Starfire: A Red Peace, and Wilderness Survival

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since childhood, and he's been a literary agent, and he's joined us as a discussant... and now he's got three short novels coming out from, so I was really excited to feature him on the show. The novels of the Starfire trilogy are A Red Peace, Shadowsun Seven, and Memory's Blade.

The story is a space opera, set ten thousand years in the future in our galaxy at the end of a long war against giant space spiders that eat planets and suns. Humans used genetically engineered soldiers against the spiders, and now those soldiers have overthrown the Empire and decided to kill all humans. There's a mysterious peace with the spiders which essentially consists of "we can coexist with the spiders until we bump into them."

The main characters are a smuggler who decides to save humans - she's genetically engineered, but her parents escaped the life of soldiers, and a soldier who is realizing the nature of the unconscionable orders he's being given. The soldier has a drug problem, in part to cope with what he's being asked to do.

Spencer says this has a similar tone to the X-men, inasmuch as it has an echo of real issues but then a lot of wacky stuff. People in his books read comic books about a folk hero who is a space sheriff. Spencer hints that this person is not as made-up as he appears.

The genetic engineering mixed human DNA with that of a legendary, supposedly extinct race called the Jorians, whose empire was disrupted by the spiders. Many legendary things are attributed to the Jorians, such as terraforming. This universe has a history.

Spencer says the stories are less hard SF and more "fantasy in space," with a Dune-ish flavor.

I asked how many humans there were, and Spencer said they were a despised upper class, who were proud of having pure human DNA, a sort of pedigree. He says the idea was inspired in part by the Russian revolution, in that there was a sympathetic resistance with a good cause, but as with Lenin, the winner turned ruthless. The concept of a war that depends on a disposable soldier class, he said, was inspired by the separation of soldiers and non-soldiers in the US. The soldier character was inspired by conversations with Spencer's dad, who treats PTSD in Marines. Spencer noted that in World War II, soldiers spent about 40 days in combat zones, but that the number is much higher for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.

Spencer said that writing on commission nearly broke his brain the first time. He wrote and threw away the beginning of Book 2 several times. "Beginnings of middles are challenging." He explained that it helped to know what kind of story he was telling. Book 1 is a chase story, Book 2 is a caper/infiltration story, and Book 3 is a story of spectacular battles. Having that structure was useful, because the stream-of-consciousness approach wasn't working. The characters have to get out of a space prison... but why? There's a giant space tick that comes to ships and sucks the air out of them, and is therefore full of air pockets.

Spencer says, "you have to get to the point where you're playing and having fun."

Brian asked whether Spencer plots (outlines) more or whether he does discovery writing. Spencer explained that he has been plotting more. "The more I write, the more I plot... I'm sort of a born-again plotter... If I have a really tight plot I can produce a book on deadline."

Cliff asked how Spencer expanded the world as he wrote books 2 and 3. Spencer said that he re-read Book 1 and looked for places to expand. Some places he seeded deliberately, and other places he just threw in. For example, he never explained how faster-than-light travel worked. He looked for holes, and places where people might like to learn more.

He also worked with the idea that "the glorious resistance is broke." Book 2 leveraged that with the idea that an offer for "letters of credit" would be meaningful for some, but worthless for others. Spencer said he was reading The Expanse while writing book 2, and he wanted to have some bare minimum of scientific accuracy, like with artificial gravity. It made him want to try to explain with a bit more rigor.

At this point in the conversation, we moved onto the other topic that Spencer had wanted to discuss, that of wilderness survival. He told us that as a snotty teenager he'd gone to a wilderness camp (a good one). He then worked there on and off for five years in college. It was in Arizona, so the environment was desert. It was based out of Mesa, and often they would circle around a town but try not to let any of the students know there was a town nearby. There were tarantulas (but only the Vegan kid was brave enough to pick them up). A kid ate a scorpion (apparently it tasted like a really sour shrimp).

We asked Spencer what you think about when you're worrying about whether a character will survive in a wilderness setting. The main issue is that food and water will run out. In civilization, we tend to eat a lot more calories in a day than we need to survive, and so people in the wilderness will eat a lot less, but may expend a lot of energy trying to get enough to eat. Fish and game take a while to clean. Making a bow or a boomerang for hunting is hard, and requires a lot of trial and error. Living on roots and berries is "not much." Even in the height of berry season, you have to eat a LOT of berries, or a LOT of leaves, to get enough to eat. Spencer says, "never turf a character out in the desert without a knife." You need a knife to make a spoon.

Spencer has eaten rattlesnake, and apparently you have to eat the ribs. You can eat crayfish in this area of Arizona - apparently it's an invasive species there which causes problems, so no one will mind if you eat them.

After a few days, you will be exhausted from low calorie intake, and low level of carbohydrates. Spencer explains that this is why people settled down to make bread when they could.

Making a fire in a wet biome is hard. You need to learn the tricks to find dry wood.

There are five different uses for a yucca plant, but those don't apply in another biome.

Spencer doesn't watch wilderness survival shows. There are wilderness skills meetups that you can join to learn more (linked here). Gary Paulson books have a lot of good wilderness survival information. The film Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford shows some wilderness survival skills. Brian Dolton recommended The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, which looks at people trying to survive as they cross the southern border of the US.

Che asked how much you have to carry to survive. Spencer observed that in the medieval setting typical of fantasy, people had parasites anyway, so they just drank the available water anyway unless they were near cities. Carrying water is very heavy, so it's a good idea to carry a filtration device. Spencer says "Dry camping is a scary endeavor." "You wake up dehydrated, and have to hike dehydrated." He said if he had kids in his survival group who complained of headache or stomachache, he would tell them to drink 2 canteens of water and see how they felt. A backpack would probably have to weigh 50-60 pounds if you wanted to have enough calories to feed you for the week. Spencer explained that you can compact some of that if you have a lot of oily foods. He said someone like Tolkien's Aragorn probably carried a lot of rendered-down fat. He would probably either just eat it, or use it to cook his roots and berries because of the amount of calories he would get from it. He would probably also carry dry, flat bread if he could find it, but would want a type that would not mold easily. "You want a complex carbohydrate source if you can get it." Tolkien's invention of lembas bread makes sense because he was a veteran of World War I, and would have understood about the need for calories. Spencer said that when he was running his wilderness group, they would make sure to have sunflower seeds and powdered creamer for the kids, because they were nice and fatty. "If you are writing fantasy, you can invent nuts." "Any fatty nut is going to be beneficial," but they are most appropriate in a dry environment because in the damp they will sour and sprout.

Spencer said that in the scene where Aragorn walks up to the camp with a deer, "that would be the next 30 hours of Aragorn's life, trying to figure how much nutrition he could get out of that deer." He'd have to strip the meat off and build a smokehouse to smoke it. He'd want to eat as much of the organ meat as possible and also smoke as much as he couldn't eat. He'd also have to render the fat and process the hide. "The ringwraiths probably would have caught him in the probably 30-40 hours he'd have to spend processing the deer" before it could spoil. Spencer said it's also possible they just ate as much as they could and then left the rest as waste, but he would be mad at them for it. Brian added that the wagon trains that crossed the US would shoot a buffalo, eat fresh meat, and then leave the carcasses.

Spencer said it's important to remember that indigenous ways of life are usually sustainable, and colonizers' ways are usually not. The killing of animals would be done very carefully to keep the herd above the population threshold needed for it to stay the same size over time. The arrival of horses changed this, however.

It's hard to be a vegetarian in the wilderness. If you're hungry you will need to kill something. You can smoke fatty meat, but it's better to render the fat and then eat it.

Cliff asked how long it would take to fix the food from a midsize animal, and Spencer said two days if you have to smoke it, scrape the hide, eat the organs, and render the fat. He suggested that if you're in an alien planet scenario, you can use handwavium for your smokehouse. Che asked if one would build a smokehouse on wheels and somehow bring it with you. Spencer said in the Pacific Northwest, there are fishing sites where people would build a smokehouse. People with horses and carts can bring tools, but if you put a clay oven in a handcart, it will crack if it bounces.

Calories are the biggest issue for wilderness survival. Clothes will also degrade. Spencer said you can shave bone awls out of solid bone, and they end up about 3 times the size of sewing needles. You can use sinew from animal tendons or from plants like yucca as thread.

Spencer, thanks so much for joining us and letting us feature your work and your specialty! This was quite fascinating. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 6 at 10am Pacific to discuss portraying children. Then, on December 12, we'll be joined by guest author Rebecca Kuang! I hope you can make it to these discussions, and as always, please consider supporting the show on Patreon, here.