|Energized: An Interview with Edward M. Lerner|
|conducted by Dave Truesdale|
A near-future space thriller, Energized speculates on the consequences of an almost world-wide oil crisis of staggering proportions, how governments and individuals attempt to adjust when a drastically altered lifestyle is forced upon them -- not to mention those seeking to take advantage of the crisis for their own gain -- and then offers a possible solution rather than focusing on those merely trying to exist after a major disaster and which offers little or no hope; something seen far too often in many other disaster novels. Energized addresses a controversial issue of paramount importance -- the future of energy -- on not just the geo-political and governmental levels, but on the personal as well. Intrigued, I asked Ed Lerner if he would talk a bit about the book and answer some questions that came to mind, as well as some more general questions this type of "hard" SF book poses for the non-technologically oriented reader.
It seems that very many SF novels dealing with an energy crisis in some fashion or another have oil and the oil companies as the heavys, the bad guys -- especially where the oil business impacts the environment. In Energized you seem to propose a more integrated approach to solving an energy crisis, with wind, solar, nuclear, and oil production all part of the equation. What was your thought process in regards to these various energy sources, and what are your views on this in general?
In Energized, after a major supply (and price) shock has disrupted the international oil market, we see the U.S. crank up its move toward renewables. Renewables are a good thing, as are nonpolluting sources -- but nothing is ever that simple. Ethanol? It means burning crops, and driving up the cost of food. Wind farms? They chop up birds and alter the local weather. Some people find wind farms unsightly. Wind power is also inherently intermittent. Solar farms? They're very land-intensive. A VP of Amazon's Web Services group has estimated that one of their large data centers would consume the power output from 6.5 square miles of solar panels. And, of course, solar power must deal with the pesky problems of night, weather, and distribution -- getting power from sunny, dry areas (say, the southwestern deserts) to places that need power (say, Atlanta in the summer and Minneapolis in the winter).
As you suggest, I'm for an all-of-the-above energy policy: fossil, nuclear, hydro, renewables. And in going farther above than most: Energized deals with an energy alternative often left out of the policy mix -- space solar power -- and ways to make solar power satellites affordable.
Energized mentions three drawbacks (there are others) of electric cars. First, batteries are expensive and require scarce materials. Replacing a petroleum cartel with a lithium cartel may shift wealth while leaving consumers no better off. Second, batteries take time to recharge -- if you can find a charging station -- whereas there's a world-wide infrastructure that lets drivers quickly refill their gas tanks. Recharging from a household power outlet (rather than with an expensive, high-voltage charging station) is an overnight affair. Third, bunches of recharging cars would represent a big new load on the electrical grid. As an example, if five percent of the cars in Los Angeles County were electric and charging at the same time, the corresponding power load would be about 750 megawatts. That's the capacity of a good-sized power plant. Those recharging cars would impact distribution networks as well as power generation.
All that said, a major shift toward electric cars -- by many million daily commuters, for example -- would dramatically reduce the demand (and so, the price) for petrochemicals. So would any major shift of electrical generation from fossil fuels to other energy sources. The world consumes terawatts of electrical power, even before electric cars become (if they do) common.
Powersat-1, the demonstration project in Energized, is a square two miles on a side. On Earth, PS-1 would weigh about two million pounds. It delivers one gigawatt to the ground, after the downlink microwave beam has been converted to DC current for delivery over high-voltage lines. (Household current is AC, but cross-country power lines often use DC, which is more efficient to transmit than AC.) If the technology proves out, you'd want to build lots of powersats.
Could we? Sure. The book's captured asteroid is a more-or-less sphere about 1.25 miles across. It outmasses PS-1 by about 500,000 to one. And there are lots of Near Earth Objects that could be captured to Earth orbit and mined there for building materials ...
What does this say of human nature, and how did you come to include such a disparate group of characters -- all fighting for control of energy but for completely different reasons?
Rather than fighting over energy per se, I'd say the major players work toward different visions of the future in which different (sub)sets of people will benefit. For most, control over the energy supply is the means to a larger geopolitical or societal end. And so we see -- among motivations -- selfishness and altruism, both certainly big elements of human nature.
How did I come up with the characters? They emerged from the needs of the plot -- part of the process rather than something calculated. That said, perhaps my seven years as a NASA contractor had some bearing on casting a NASA contractor as the hero....
That's the way spaceflight is going: with the shuttle fleet retired to museums and private companies like SpaceX flying supply missions to the International Space Station. With Virgin Galactic preparing to fly tourists on suborbital flights. With Planetary Resources Inc. planning to capture and mine asteroids. Economy of scale matters; the more private activity happens in space, the cheaper access to space becomes for private citizens and NASA.
I favor a government investment in basic research on Big Problems -- getting fusion-based power generation to the break-even point, for example. The Superconducting Super Collider, which the US failed to complete, and the Large Hadron Collider in the EU are also examples of appropriate (as I see it, anyway) government-funded basic research. That scale of project is too risky, too long-term, and too expensive for private parties to undertake -- and yet of enormous societal value if and when the gamble pays off. Building the first full-scale powersat could also fit that model -- and so, in the novel, government-funded PS-1 is a test bed for new tech.
As technology moves toward commercialization, however, I think the government should back away. The government ought not to be in the business of picking winners and losers -- and it has a poor track record when it tries. That way lies Solyndra, which cost taxpayers a half billion dollars.
For nontechnical readers, I often include a character who isn't a techie, showing in his or her point of view what might otherwise become esoteric. So: the CIA guy doesn't understand the mechanics of asteroid capture -- and in the middle of a crisis, he won't take any longwinded explanations. Sometimes I use analogies to illustrate what might be unfamiliar. And I pace the disclosure of the backdrop science and tech, so as not to interrupt the flow of the story.
Those same stylistic approaches work, I think, for science- and tech-oriented readers. They don't want tutorials or lengthy exposition, either, because they already have the background. What this audience finds interesting is how science and tech advances the story. I didn't belabor the detailed design of the powersat, but I gave hints to that design so that engineers -- I like to believe -- will find PS-1 credible. And for readers with the specialized knowledge to delve deeper, I did my homework (though I don't show the math). Phoebe's surface gravity is consistent with its stated size and composition. Its orbital parameters follow Kepler's laws. The Green Bank Telescope (the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope) can track sky objects -- like Phoebe -- as quickly as in the book. And so on...
You asked about reaching a broader fiction audience, something with which the genre's authors -- and publishers -- regularly struggle. The issue, in my opinion, is broader than that. Society as a whole has too few young people embracing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as career goals. It will take people steeped in STEM disciplines to tackle, for example, the world's intertwined energy, climate, ecological, and economic challenges.
To your direct question, here are my thoughts. For any book, the opening pages are critical to hooking the reader. That's doubly true when a novel with technical underpinnings, such as Energized, aims for a general audience. And so, Energized opens in an exotic setting (in and on Phoebe), and the reader learns on the first page that the likeable guy he just encountered is about to meet an untimely death. Because while SF stories are premised on elements of science and tech, they're never about science and tech. Stories are about people. If authors and publishers -- and reviewers -- can convince the general readership that the science aspect of SF is value-added, that SF is about people, that will, I believe, go a long way toward solving the genre's image problem.
And if glimpses of science and tech in my fiction should interest someone in learning more? In studying a STEM subject? To major in one? That would be great! That would be paying it forward. After all, I was one of those kids who SF hooked on science.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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