Zeppelins On Mars, Water Purification On Earth: Research Secrets Of Two SF Writers

The most irksome aspect of writing a science fiction story is often the research. Sometimes you have the perfect story, but it's based on junk science. Here's how Caitlin Kiernan and Nicola Griffith handled it.

Answering questions from a would-be science fiction writer, Griffith talked about how she approached research for her Nebula and Lambda award-winning novel Slow River. It turns out she was researching the topic before she even knew she was writing a novel:

Do I research? Yes. Half the time I don't know that that's what I'm doing. I'll find myself being interested in something close to hand—when Kelley worked at an environmental engineering company, she brought home magazines such as Garbage and Pollution Engineering and a catalogue (they called it a pigalog) of industrial things like emergency eye baths, drench showers, and neoprene protective gear. I inhaled them all. It got me thinking. I saw a faint outline of Slow River appearing from the mist. Then I began research in earnest.

By contrast, Caitlin R. Kiernan came up with a story about zeppelins on Mars, which is appearing in her new collection A Is For Alien, and then went about researching how it would work:

I spent several hours researching zeppelins, Martian aerodynamics, hydrazine, nitrogen tetroxide oxidizers, entomopters, and the problems one encounters with propellers and rotors in a thin atmosphere. Turns out, putting zeps on Mars is not as easy as I'd hoped (but nothing ever is). Consider the following:

On Mars, with a sea level equivalent pressure of only 0.7 percent that of Earth, a ten-foot cube of hydrogen would weigh about seven one thousandths as much as on Earth, or about 3.5 thousandths of a pound. But even the Martian atmosphere, at a near vacuum, only weighs in at about a tenth of a pound. So the net difference in weight would be about ninety-six and a half thousandths of a pound. This means that to get a full 73 pounds of lift, we would need about 760 such cubes. Fortunately, Martian gravity is only thirty seven percent that of Earth. So we need even fewer cubes, about 280 cubes. So to carry the same payload on Mars as on Earth we are looking at a design that begins almost 300 times as large as a similar vehicle on Earth [italics mine - CRK]. This sounds extreme, but amounts to a cube of hydrogen on Mars of 67 feet on a side producing our net 27 pounds of lift. Ignoring such pesky add-ons such as structural weight, a dirigible made to lift one person of 200 Earth pounds, or 74 Martian pounds, would need about three Mars-sized cubes for lift. Four people would need a dozen, plus another dozen for payload, and another couple of dozen for fuel and structure. This means a spherical balloon would need to hold almost 50 volumes of a third of a million cubic feet each to be useful. A dirigible of 17 million cubic feet is called for, about triple the size of the Hindenburg.

And I need zeps that can carry dozens of people and a significant cargo payload.

It sounds like maybe doing the research first, and then coming up with the story afterwards, is the easier route. But not necessarily the more fascinating one.

[Caitlin R. Kiernan link via Marooned: Books On Mars.]