Justin Woolley is joining us today to talk about his novel, Shakedowners. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Some starship captains explore strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations. Some lead missions of discovery through wormholes to the other side of the galaxy. Then there’s Captain Iridius B. Franklin, someone who spent too long seeking out strange new bars and new alien cocktails.
After graduating bottom of his class at Space Command Academy, Iridius Franklin hasn’t had the glamorous career he envisioned, instead he hauls cargo ships full of mining waste, alien land whale dung, and artificially intelligent toy dogs across the stars.
Iridius does have talent though – he is exceptionally good at breaking starships. So, when not hauling freight, he is captain of a shakedown crew, a skeleton crew used to test newly constructed ships for faults before the real crew takes over.
While on a routine shakedown mission aboard the FSC Gallaway, soon to be pride of the Federation Fleet, Earth is attacked by an unknown alien life-form. With the galaxy in chaos, Captain Iridius B. Franklin finds himself, unqualified, understaffed and completely unprepared, in command of the most advanced starship in the galaxy.
Now, he just needs to not break it.
What’s Justin’s favorite bit?
When I wrote Shakedowners I did so with a clear idea of the tone of the story. I was going to blend my love of Star Trek with the humour of writers like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Shakedowners would never be hard sci-fi but, that said, when I sat down to think about my favourite bit of the book I immediately thought of one thing: the science.
As an aerospace engineer I love the science of space travel. I adore science fiction that stretches what we currently know about physics into future possibilities that feel real. As much as I love space opera it is often loaded with pseudoscience technobabble. With Shakedowners, I set out to make sure this was a work of science-fiction that was at least flavoured with real science, no added MSG in this dish thank you (MAGIC SPACE GEAR) – well, within reason because sometimes you need science to bend a little to serve the story.
Most science-fiction leans on some key things that are impossible as we currently understand physics, things like fancy laser weapons, teleportation, spaceships that fly like aircraft, artificial gravity, instantaneous long-distance communication and the big one, faster-than-light travel.
Some of these I outright state as being impossible in the universe of Shakedowners. There are no laser-guns, spaceships manouevre with thrusters and enter and exit orbital trajectories like real spacecraft and nobody is beaming up anywhere. There are a handful of sci-fi staples I use such as energy shields and artificial gravity which, I admit, I glossed over with a bit of techno-spit-and-polish. In each of these cases I still tried to incorporate genuine science. For example, there’s no way to make artificial gravity without mass, a lot of mass, like planet-loads, but Shakedowners has artificial gravity. However, there’s an incident in the novel where we at least see, with scientific accuracy, what happens when the artificial gravity switches off.
But instead of where I cheated, let’s talk about where I didn’t. One thing that needs to be overcome in a sci-fi with a huge galactic federation is the MASSIVE distances involved. There are two pieces to the distance puzzle, travel and communication, and that pesky speed limit known as the speed of light limits both of them.
Ask any physicist and they’ll tell you that nothing can travel faster than light, not mass, not energy, nothing. That means the maximum speed we can send a communication signal at is the speed of light. For a quick example, that means if we were standing near the sun (get your SPF 50+) it would take approximately eight minutes for a message we sent to reach Earth. It would then take eight minutes for the return message. You say hello and have to wait at least sixteen minutes for a reply. Now, imagine you’re communicating with the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri. After you say hello, you’d be waiting almost nine years for a reply. That’s difficult logistics for an interstellar government. So, how do you overcome that? Well, I used the fascinating phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Put simply, quantum entanglement is a phenomenon where two quantum particles are linked such that if we know the state of one we can instantaneously, no matter the separation distance, infer the state of the other. So, a communication system comprising quantum entangled particles provides some hope for instantaneous communication despite the vast distances of space. Of course, it’s not currently possible and might never be but it’s real science that provides a solution for having an interstellar chat.
Alright, so we can talk to each other, but how do we get around? Most people have heard of the term time-dilation that is the effect that time moves slower for an object in motion relative to another object. The effects of this are insignificant and unnoticeable at any speeds we experience, but if you consider zooming off into space at close to the speed of light, it becomes an issue. It means the crew of the starship Enterprise would fly off on their five-year mission buzzing around at warp speed and when they return to Earth it’s likely that hundreds of years have passed. That’s a tough issue to overcome in a plot-line – thanks Einstein!
I dealt with faster-than-light travel and time-dilation through my imagined technology, the BAMF drive – the Bedi-Alcubierre-Millis-Formelge drive. I based the BAMF drive primarily on the theoretical Alcubierre warp drive hence the nod in the name. In Shakedowners, when a ship travels faster-than-light the BAMF drive creates a bubble universe around the ship. The bubble itself comprises space-time and so doesn’t move through space like an object, it ‘moves’ through space in a way analogous to a wave moving through water. While this is happening, inside the bubble-universe, the ship is stationary i.e. does not move relative to the surrounding space, think of the ship like a surfer on the wave. So, with no relative motion, the ship doesn’t experience time-dilation. When the BAMF bubble bursts, ‘popping the cherry’ is the slang pilots use, the ship is deposited elsewhere in the galaxy. The BAMF drive also means I get to make jokes about how every time a starship travels it creates its own universe in which thousands of species evolve, develop intelligence, form civilisations and then blink out of existence when the bubble bursts.
From no lasers to bubble-universes, working through the science in as plausible way as possible while still allowing for a rollicking sci-fi adventure was my favourite bit of writing Shakedowners.
Justin Woolley has been writing stories since he could first scrawl with a crayon. When he was six years old he wrote his first book, a 300 word pirate epic in unreadable handwriting called ‘The Ghost Ship’. He promptly declared that he was now an author and didn’t need to go to school. Despite being informed that this was, in fact, not the case, he continued to make things up and write them down.
Today Justin is the author of the Australian set dystopian trilogy The Territory Series consisting of the novels A Town Called Dust, A City Called Smoke and the recently released finale A World of Ash. He also writes the web serial Listening to the Other Side, a fictional blog about talking to the dead.
Justin lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two sons. In his other life he’s been an engineer, a teacher and at one stage even a magician. His handwriting has not improved.