Space Wars

I had a dream, and it troubles me.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago and awoke knowing I had seen something very disturbing, but couldn’t remember what it was. Then on February 21st I had a lucid dream where I realized that what I was seeing was what I’d seen the previous week. Then I understood why I was disturbed.

It was a scene from a vantage point in space. It was cinematic in quality, big screen, IMAX, at least. I was there.

The troubling part was observing a space vehicle moving up to the space station, then seeing the vehicle suddenly yaw its nose away from the station as if slammed by some powerful but invisible force, followed a split second later by the white paint on the space station charring before my eyes. Not all of it, just the part closest to an out of view source of blistering heat. The curved portion on top of the station was spared; from a thermal radiation standpoint it was very realistic.

Curiously, the station was not the ISS: it was much smaller but the markings on the white paint were clearly U.S.. I overhead two men talking on the coms, supposedly ground control, saying the heart rates of the station occupants soared.

It woke me, and I realized the entire dream sequence had lasted about five seconds, at most. It must have been the sauerkraut from the night before.

But what struck me as startling was the news article the next morning about the Chinese preparing for war in space. http://freebeacon.com/dia-director-china-preparing-for-space-warfare/

To quote, “Beijing is developing missiles, electronic jammers, and lasers for use against satellites…The Chinese, as well as the Russians, are also developing space capabilities that interfere with or disable U.S. space-based navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites.”

Suddenly, the thought of either space-based or ground-based attacks on manned vehicles or space stations becomes a frightening possibility.

Then tonight I read that a NASA notebook computer containing codes for controlling the Space Station was stolen.

http://washington.cbslocal.com/2012/03/01/nasa-laptop-stolen-with-command-codes-that-control-space-station/

“These incidents spanned a wide continuum from individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit, to intrusions that may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services seeking to further their countries’ objectives,” Martin said. “Another attack involved Chinese-based IP addresses that gained full access to systems and sensitive user accounts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.”

We tend to think of space as a neutral environment where brave souls put their lives at risk to be part of man’s push away from our planet. It is an environment for scientific pursuit. Of course we have raised a generation or two on images of space battles where humans are fighting to preserve humanity. There is lots of death and destruction, but it is heroic in scope and detail. If death can be glorious, then dying to protect Mother Earth from Klingons is a glorious way to die.

But what I saw in those five seconds of searing imagery left me with a profound sadness. I had witnessed, so to speak, the end of our honeymoon in space. Man’s evil nature was reaching way beyond our stratosphere.

I put no stock in dreams, at least not  my own. But that particular dream did serve to increase my awareness of the not-so-subtle signs that man is determined to extend his malevolent reach into what was once considered hallowed ground; the firmament, the very heavens we have for so long dreamed of reaching.

And now we would spoil it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Middle Waters

Children of the Middle Waters (working title) is a science fiction/thriller that has been completed and is being submitted today for consideration by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. My friend and mentor, the writer Max McCoy, has provided literary criticism and encouragement for the manuscript. Max, who works primarily in the Western genre, wrote a diving-related thriller called The Moon Pool, which happens to involve in its closing chapter the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and someone a lot like me.

Below is a blurb briefly describing Children of the Middle Waters.

In the deep-sea canyons and trenches of the Earth lie thousands of alien spacecraft and millions of their inhabitants who have to leave soon or risk being stranded forever, or being destroyed. Due to their physiology they have been unable to directly contact humans, but they are adroit at mental contact and remote viewing, when it suits them.

They need the help of two humans to assure their safe escape, an experienced Navy scientist and a beguiling graduate student.  But introductions through mental means are slow and suspect, as you might imagine.

The U.S. government is well aware of this deep sea civilization, and is desirous of the weapons the visitors possess, which puts the two unsuspecting scientists in the middle of a conflict between powerful
military forces and powerful intergalactic forces. Things could get messy.

Even worse, jealous friends turn on the unlikely duo and put their lives at risk.

Children combines two separate Native American beliefs and legends with current events. It is a complex thriller with science fact and science fiction mixed in with military action and government intrigue. Also revealed are romantic possibilities that far exceed the capabilities of the mundane, everyday world.

Early American Indian beliefs create an ending for this story that no one could anticipate. It is an ending that causes the protagonist to realize everything he has held dear is wrong, in one way or another. At the same time he discovers a reality that is the greatest blessing that man can receive.

 

Computer Simulation as Art — or Rorschach Test

No one has ever confused me for an artist.

I might have been visually gifted as a 3rd-grader, as my parents told it, at least compared to my peers. However, I never seemed to progress beyond that point. I think my progress slowed about the time I saw my first Rorschach test.

I realized then that some people’s art is someone else’s diagnosis. After all, it is no fun to look at an ink blot abstraction, to voice an opinion about it, only to have an authority figure nod his head and write in his notebook as he says, “I see,” when obviously he didn’t.

Clinical trauma aside, I now know that all humanity looks instinctively for visual patterns and searches for meaning in patterns whether they be random or not. There is a survival aspect to that of course; if we detect a tiger’s stripes partly hidden in a confused background of woodland scenery, that offers a potential survival benefit.

Sometimes, even the most mundane things turn out to be “pretty”. Such were the images I saw being formed on my computer screen the other day. The more I looked at them, the more interesting they became. They were like my own Rorschach test, in a very literal way. They were random patterns based on random processes, but my brain refused to look at them that way. They appeared to me as images of natural things, representing anything except what they truly were.

The image to the left, for instance, looked to me like a view through a telescope of a star field with at least one galaxy situated near the center axis.

Or in a very biological way, it might be the view through an immunofluorescence microscope.

The next image looked to me like a view of a placid star seen in ultraviolet light. I could almost feel the blistering heat radiating through space.

Alternatively, it might be a view of a human egg waiting patiently for fertilization, an altogether different interpretation, but like the first, being a necessary component of creation.

The final image looked to me like a cooler star but with clearly visible solar prominences, magnetic storms arcing over the hellish nuclear surface.

I have no idea what others might see in these images, if anything, but I’m guessing each image can be interpreted differently based on one’s own life experiences.

And that after all is the whole point of art, and Rorschach tests.

 

 

The above images were created as part of a random, or stochastic, simulation of rebreather scrubber canisters. They are a view of the upstream end of an axial canister, and shows the state of the canister as heat producing carbon dioxide absorption reactions are beginning.

The cooler looking the canister, the less the amount of exhaled carbon dioxide entering the canister.

The simulation tracks chemical reactions and heat and mass transfer processes in an array of 272,000 finite elements making up a simple absorbent canister. Slicer Dicer and 3VO software (PIXOTEC, LLC) were used to visualize the three-dimensional data set acquired during one moment in time shortly after the simulated reactions began.

 

 

I Dreamed about Flying Last Night

I rarely dream about flying, but I did last night.

I seem to have a propensity for thinking about flying. I’ve written about flying hybrids, as in James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids, which is, as I’ve said before, “some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore.”

I’ve written about flying whales, and I’ve written about flying airplanes. But until now I haven’t written about flying dreams.

One reason is simple: no one wants to hear about other people’s dreams. But flying dreams are part of our collective experience. Everyone has them at some point, usually when young. As I grow older I find them occurring less frequently, and therefore find them all the more enjoyable for their rarity.

Flying dream artwork by Joseph Kemeny (www.josephkemeny.com)

Last night my arms were initially wings, but I quickly realized that I lacked the strength to fly with wings like a bird, or like Maximum Ride. I solved that problem by reverting back to my old dream style, flying with outspread arms, effortlessly.

I was standing on a 3rd story window ledge in a home where a young boy was close by, and I accidentally knocked a small pumpkin sitting on that ledge to the ground. It splattered.

Feeling some sense of responsibility for the child’s welfare, I told him not to try what I was about to do, for his head would splatter like the pumpkin. And then I stepped off the ledge and flew.

It was foggy, but instinctively I knew how to get where I was going, without aid of charts or GPS. I knew I could navigate based on some primordial signal in my brain, like a migrating bird.

It was wonderful.

It was undoubtedly a lucid dream because I was aware of a certain biological need that I consciously resisted because I did not want to break out of the dream. I knew I would never regain the dream once it was broken.

The strangest flying dream I had was only seconds long but memorable. I was viewing a glass city, with tall glass spires reaching far into the sky. It was clearly not of this earth, and I can’t swear that I was even human. But I launched myself from near the top of one of those tall glass buildings, and swooped downward, gaining speed, then glided on without effort, like an eagle.

In my college days I told my roommate about a flying dream where I was trapped underneath trolley lines in Atlanta (yes, they used to have electric trolleys downtown in the 60’s) and he found that amusing, but I did not. It was peculiar, but frustrating.

Reportedly it’s common to encounter barriers like electrical wires, and this time I sure enough found those blocking my way at one point, but unlike before I was able to ascend vertically till free of them, then continue on my way.

Sigmund Freud made much ado about dream interpretation, and would no doubt see physical barriers in flying dreams as symbols of psychological barriers existing in the dreamer’s waking world. But the fact that flying dreams are so common, even archetypal in a Jungian sense, and typically so enjoyable, makes me wonder if they might be more than some complex mental fiction that requires a highly paid professional to interpret. Perhaps they are nothing more than memories.

While you digest that thought, I suggest you enjoy the wonderful flying sequence below, generated by a computer game. For full effect, play it in high definition and full screen.

 

 

If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

Battle of Titans: Orcas vs Gray Whales

It is an ageless story, mothers banding together to protect their young from instinctive killers. The fact that it was a battle between behemoth Gray Whales and Killer Whales (Orcas) made it all the more epic in scope, and worthy of the telling.

A fellow scientist and I had driven south early one springtime morning from Anchorage, Alaska to Seward. At 11 AM our glacier view cruise boat left the docks at Seward and headed for the glacier fields at the Kenai Fjords National Park where the glaciers sliding slowly down from the mountains calved into the Gulf of Alaska.

Heading south from Seward.

From there we motored on until we were attracted to a near-shore area by the blowing of water and foam from a group of migrating Gray Whales. The rapid pace of their exhalation was a sure sign that something was wrong. We had stumbled upon a battle involving another type of calf just as the combatants were taking their positions on the battlefield.

A female Gray whale weighing between 30 to 40 tons had birthed her baby during the winter in Baja California and now the mother, quickly growing baby, and two female caretakers (often  called “aunties”) were almost through with their migration to the Bering Sea. But as they swam beyond Prince William Sound, not far from their final destination, they were attacked by two adolescent transient Orcas who wanted that baby whale.

Our boat stopped far enough from the battle to not hinder the fight, but close enough for us to witness the events. Our biologist guide warned us that if we had a weak stomach we might not want to watch because often times the Orcas succeed in killing the baby Gray.

I don’t think anyone on the boat averted their eyes as the three massive females arranged themselves head to tail into a triangular defensive formation, with the baby in the middle. There was no way for the Orcas to get past the females on or near the surface, so they made repeated dives trying to enter the center of the triangle from underneath and attack the baby. But with each dive, the wily Grays maneuvered to block the Orcas.

The Orcas were nothing if not persistent. Perhaps sensing that, the whales started moving closer to a rock cliff face, and then they did something clever, but potentially risky. There was an opening in the rock wall and the baby whale had been nudged into that opening. One whale, probably the mother, was completely blocking that opening with her body. The Orcas tried repeatedly to find a way past her to the baby, but between the blocking action of the other two Grays and the blubbery plug of the cave entrance by the mother, there was nothing the Orcas could do.

We of course saw the riskiness of that defense. It looked to us like the baby was trapped underwater. Even a whale has to breathe sometime.

The other boat was too close to the action, but provides scale for the "cave".

But as I look at the photo I realize now that the cave was tall enough and just deep enough to allow the baby to breathe even with water access cut off. Obviously, the Gray Whale mother had made good use of her 4.3 kg brain. Nevertheless, from our elevated vantage point we could see over the mother whale, and we saw that the baby remained submerged. I’m guessing it was wedging itself in as tightly as it could. The anxiety on our boat grew perceptively as the minutes ticked down with us knowing the baby was holding its breath.

The tactic worked, for the Orcas eventually tired of the game, and after making one or two leaps out of the water they moved away from the whales and headed north toward seal colonies we passed on the way south. The seals would be easier pickings than those highly protective Gray Whales.

There was jubilation on our boat. I think we’d all been holding our breath like the baby, at least a little.

When the coast was clear, literally, the Grays moved back into the open water near where the battle had begun and caught their breath, heaving great geysers of watery air as they panted. They had obviously been very stressed, but their cleverness and strategic cooperation saved the day, or at least the moment.

Two Orcas. Copyright by Rolf Hicker. Used under fair use.

Things could have been different, both better and worse. Local Orcas were so-called residents who don’t attack Gray Whales. Residents tend to be fish eaters. Fortunately for the Gray baby, the more lethal transients were not as experienced with the local geography. They were also adolescents, not as experienced as adults, and there were only two of them. A pack of them, with adolescents being guided by adults, might have been more succesful. Transient Orcas, genetically different from Residents are reported to kill a third of the baby Gray Whale population each year.

Interestingly, the Grays seem to know where transient Orca populations are the most active, and in those regions they tend to stay close to shore. In this case that strategy paid off by allowing the baby to be protected by a rock wall and its mother.

On the boat we celebrated all the way back to Seward; we had witnessed a frightening conflict with, for us and the whales, a happy ending.

To learn more about Orcas attacking mother Gray Whales and their calves, see the excellent photos and story at the following website. http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/MtyBayOrcaattack.html

Scalloping – What If the Tide Turned?

It’s scallop season in the fertile waters of the Florida Panhandle. Almost completely surrounded by a peninsula called Cape San Blas sits a shallow body of clear water and sandy bottom that is an ideal location for bay scallops. Unfortunately for the scallops, the shallow water makes a yearly harvest of scallops by boaters and waders almost too easy.

Recently my extended family of eight descended on the unsuspecting bivalves as if our lives depended upon them. We spent most of a day in a hunter-gatherer mode, reaping the benefit of a bountiful crop, imagining an earlier day when local tribes did in fact depend on the local scallops and oysters for their survival.

I had been scalloping in Saint Joseph’s Bay once before, but this year the scallops were larger, and seemingly more bountiful. They attempted to hide in the sea grass, and I suppose those that hid well were passed over. But fortunately for us, many could not hide from the practiced eyes of determined snorkelers.

Usually scallops react to being picked up by snapping their shells together in an attempt to protect their vulnerable innards. However, one large scallop which had apparently lived long enough to be the equivalent of a wise scallop, or perhaps simply an inquisitive scallop, started to close his shell, and then stopped. We remained locked in a gaze, me with my green eyes staring through a diving mask, and it staring at me with its multiplicity of luminous, iridescent blue eyes.

Photo credit: Bill Capman, 2002.

I know this is blatant anthropomorphism, but it seemed like it was saying, “Well, hello. What’s this? Are you a deity? I’ve heard about you, but you’re not at all what I was expecting.”

I must admit I stared back quizzically, surprised by this little fellow’s bravado. He truly seemed to be checking me out.

It was bad luck for him that his telepathic powers of communication didn’t make a dent in my determination to eat him, or at least to eat his adductor muscle after discarding the rest. So into the bag he went with the growing collection of other scallops. In the end, his bravado did him no good at all.

It was somewhat of a pitiful sight as the captives were poured in a heap on a wooden platform just above the water of the bay. I bet they could smell it, the safety of water so close, and as the cliché says, so far away. They all tried to escape, to jet away, sounding like a chorus of  castanets. Of course, in air, jetting just doesn’t work for them. They were stranded. I could almost sense their collective panic.

I suspect the mechanics of scallop butchery came as quite a shock to this little guy. I’m just glad that this year I didn’t have to do it — my son took my place at the sacrificial altar. After all, shucking is, at its best,  tiring and a little bit gross. Beer helps of course.

In the unlikely event that now jaded scallop had seen me, had watched me with its sixty or more eyes as I began to take a shucking knife to it, could I really do what my family was expecting of me? Probably, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, I didn’t have to face that, and I will confess, I felt only pleasure, no guilt, as I finished off the last of those pure white scallop muscles, sautéed with butter, garlic and a dollop of lemon juice.

It was about 48-hours later, when the delicate flavor of those fresh scallops began to fade from my memory, that I had a sobering thought. Could those bivalves in fact be more sentient than we assume? After all, I’ve been mistaken before about the intelligence of invertebrates.

I’ve heard that scallop eyes can’t really see shapes, only shades of light, and movement. Arguably there is not enough neural matter for them to generate anything like a thought — at least in human terms.

But what if we’re wrong? Even worse, what if a highly advanced alien species, hungry after traveling interstellar distances, encounters humans? Would they consider us with the same lack of respect that we consider scallops? Could we be considered to have too little cerebral grey matter to create an organized thought — at least in alien terms? Would we be considered insentient and therefore unworthy of pity as we’re “shucked” and sautéed for dinner?

In Stephen Hawking’s opinion, that is a real possibility. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

So, maybe we shouldn’t be trying so hard to attract the attention of extraterrestrials. If they show up hungry, maybe our communication, telepathic or otherwise, would do us no more good than it did that inquisitive scallop.

He sure was tasty.

If You Were a Human-Animal Hybrid, What Would You Want to Be?

James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids is, for me at least, some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore. What a fun way to spend a cross-country flight!

Even though Patterson’s series is written for adolescents, it fulfills in me an inner need to fly.  What could be better than flying with your own magnificent wings? At the same time, it poses ethical questions about science and genetic experimentation. The flying kids despise their evil scientist creators, but the ability to fly sure gets them out of some tough scrapes, just in the nick of time of course. Up and away! (If you’ve read the books, you know what I mean.)

Now comes news that animal-human embryos have been created in secret, apparently for several years. (See the link, below). While the cries from ethicists and the public are a rising crescendo, and probably overstated once you understand all the facts, the hybridization concept raises an interesting personal question. If I was a hybrid, what would I want to be?

Without a doubt, being a human with wings, with the ability of flight, would be my number one choice. Of course, that does bring some hazards; collisions with aircraft being foremost. I don’t think being ingested by the engine of a passenger jet would be a fun way to go. Or being sucked into the updrafts of a potent thunderstorm and spit out, frozen, unable to fly, at the top of the storm 43,000 feet up. That would be a long fall for a bird-human ice-cube.

And of course you have the ever aggressive hunters and cryptozoologists anxious to get a piece, or more, of you. But if you’ve read any of the Maximum Ride series, you’re familiar with those human threats. It’s always the humans who seem to be the meanest and most determined.

Moving from the avian world to the aquatic, there are lots of options. But I think foremost would be my choice to be a top predator. After all, big fish eat little fish, so who wants to be a little fish?

Dolphins rank right up there in predatory prowess, although they’re not a fish, but a mammal. And they’re cute and smart. No one wants to be even part of a dumb, ugly animal.

For land animals, polar bears are undoubtedly the coolest predator, in an emotional temper sort of way. They don’t seem to fear anything, certainly not humans, who they consider dinner. But they never get to migrate to the tropics for vacation, so I consider that to be a real negative for any potential hybridization. And besides, their favorite food, seals, are cute, especially the baby ones. What humans, even part humans, would want to eat cute food?

Of course, I suppose if you’re hungry enough …

I think it is easier to think of being all animal than to think of being an animal with human traits like intelligence, speech, artistic and scientific creativity. Nevertheless, Planet of the Apes provided one well-known artistic example of that possibility. Another is a muscular, arguably intelligent walking frog, as seen here, borrowed from a now-obscure internet site (meaning I can’t find where it came from*). You’ll read more about such creatures in Children of the Middle Waters, when that book becomes available.

One unfortunate consequence of being an animal is that most animals are short-lived. There are exceptions of course, like the tortoise, but the 100-year or so life span of a tortoise must seem to drag on forever for them.

Certainly a long life span offers some advantages, like the odd mixture of mirth and despair we get from watching our fellow humans repeat the same mistakes over and over. For me, I think the blessed part of it is watching the generations of our offspring growing up and generating offspring of their own.

The more I think about the choices for being part animal, the more I think about what it is to be human; all human. As I ponder that thought, I keep returning to the simple fact that, to me at least, being human means we are able to love our spouses and children and parents with a pure unadulterated, non-judgmental,  joy; sort of like a dog welcoming its master home.

Well, actually, maybe we’re not so different from some animals after all!

In case you missed it, the news of the human-animal hybridization efforts was cited at the following link, and elsewhere

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2017818/Embryos-involving-genes-animals-mixed-humans-produced-secretively-past-years.html

*My apologies if you created the walking frog drawing. Send me your information and I’ll give you proper credit. Same thing for the other graphics which I believe to be in the public domain.

My Pathway to Writing – Learning from Max McCoy’s “The Moon Pool”

This is not some random book review. I have a personal investment in Max McCoy’s underwater thriller, and to be honest, Max is a friend and mentor.

As the Scientific Director and Senior Scientist of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), I get some unusual calls from time to time. One of the most memorable was from a novelist, Max McCoy.

Not being an avid reader of Westerns, I had never heard of Max, but he had an interesting question. He wanted to know if our large, high pressure chamber, called the Ocean Simulation Facility, could be used to depressurize a small submarine. He gave me the dimensions of the submarine, and little other information to go on.

The unequivocal answer was yes, it could be done fairly easily. With that affirmation, Max traveled to NEDU. After touring our facilities and meeting with our Commanding Officer, engineers, scientists, and submarine medical officers, he began sketching out a closing chapter of his manuscript, the Moon Pool. NEDU would be prominently featured.

During his visit, over lunch, we talked a little about my non-fiction writing project, a spiritual/supernatural collection of carefully filtered anecdotes. He encouraged me in my efforts, and even shared an amazing story of his own. But what Max did not know was that I was stuck in the style of science writing that had been the mainstay of my scientific career. It was hard writing, and frankly, hard reading as well.

When Max returned to Kansas, he sent me his manuscript, which I devoured. The Moon Pool was a change of pace for Max as well. He had been an avid diver for years, and had a diving related story brewing in his mind for some time. For him, The Moon Pool was a welcome, if temporary, release from the Western genre for which he was so well-known.

When I finished the manuscript I began an almost maniacal writing session of my own — an all nighter — writing how I thought the NEDU chapter should read. Since no one would see it, I featured myself and my buddies, inserting our characters into the story, and with a plausible and action-filled story line. I had never had so much fun writing — the words spilled out of my head onto the keyboard.

I sat on that secret product for probably a week before I told Max what I had done. He asked to see it, and much to my surprise, he and his publisher liked it. Even more to my surprise, my character and those of my friends ended up in the last chapter of Moon Pool, modified of course to meet Max’s needs. That book, published in 2004, has a treasured place in my office at NEDU.

On the back cover is my blurb, “A one-of-a kind underwater thriller. The sinister beauty of the underwater world is painted in hues that only an avid diver and inspired novelist could capture.” On the front cover, my dear friend Bob Barth, the Navy’s first Aquanaut, wrote, “A great book! Compelling stuff.” By the time Max visited us, Bob had authored his own book on the Navy’s historical Sea Lab program.

I owe a great deal to Max, for he taught me just how fun creative writing can be, and how, with proper guidance, it can be turned into a commercial product. I have since written two books, one written in record pace, for me at least.  The novel, working title “Children of the Middle Waters” is a mixed military-science fiction story that involves my favorite things, flying and diving, with a pinch of top-secret government intrigue;  just another day at NEDU.  After a long gestational period, I used the creative writing skills developed in the novel to improve the style of the spiritual/supernatural manuscript. Both Children of the Middle Waters, and the spiritual book have yet to be published. But I’m optimistic that will happen in good time.

I will discuss those works more in upcoming blog posts.

By the way, Max’s Moon Pool begins with a supernatural event that is tantalizing in its originality. Furthermore, my spiritual book contains an anecdote of a supernatural experience Max experienced when young. Finally, as a tribute to Max McCoy, he is the inspiration for an investigative journalist in Children of the Middle Waters.

In retrospect, that was quite an auspicious phone call I took one day eight years ago.

Below are links to Max’s web site and his writer’s blogs.

http://www.maxmccoy.com/

http://www.maxmccoy.blogspot.com/

http://www.signalsandnoise.net