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Energized: An Interview with Edward M. Lerner
conducted by Dave Truesdale

© Edward M. Lerner
Edward M. Lerner
Edward M. Lerner
Before taking the plunge in 2004 into full-time writing, technologist turned author Edward M. Lerner spent thirty years in high tech at every level from engineer to senior vice-president. He worked at such places as Bell Labs, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. He delivered high-tech products and systems to government agencies (including NASA, the FBI, and the Defense Department) and commercial customers as varied as AT&T and McDonald's. Along the way, he visited a satellite factory, flew the space shuttle training simulator, wandered around the space station trainer, and watched a space shuttle launch. Sooner or later, all that experience shows up in his fiction. Lerner was born in Chicago, has lived in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, and now lives in Virginia

Edward M. Lerner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Juggler of Worlds

Energized
Juggler of Worlds
Fool's Experiment
Moonstruck
Small Miracles
Probe
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After working for thirty years at high-tech companies, including seven years as a NASA contractor, physicist and computer scientist Edward M. Lerner turned to writing full-time in 2004. Co-written with Larry Niven are five prequels to Niven's multiple award-winning novel Ringworld, the most recent (and final book of both the Ringworld and Fleet of Worlds series) being Fate of Worlds (Tor, August 2012). In the meantime, Lerner has written seven stand-alone novels of his own, of which Energized is the most recent (Tor, July 2012).

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?
Energy is among the world's biggest problems -- because whatever the problem one would choose to tackle, the solution will require energy. And a lack of dependable energy compromises most everything we have come to take for granted -- as 600 million Indians just rediscovered in their recent blackout. Rather than (as some do) scapegoat a particular source of energy, I think the challenge is to let each source play to its strengths. Because every type of power generation -- not just fossil fuels (and nuclear, also often vilified) -- has drawbacks.

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.

As the book makes clear very early on, when Industry around the world is scrabbling to fill in the energy void created by the abrupt and monumental oil crisis, the electric car has many frustrating drawbacks. Would you say that there are just some elements of modern society that only the oil (and natural gas) industries can provide? For instance, while the book posits capturing a careening asteroid headed for Earth rather than deflecting or attempting to destroy it, and then begins the sophisticated engineering project needed to turn it into a giant solar collector -- a tremendous energy source for the United States (and Earth), some sort of combustible fuel would still be required for aircraft, automobiles, trucks and the like. The uses for oil and its byproducts are endless. How much energy could we expect from such an immense solar collector, and in what ways would it lessen our need for oil and its byproducts?
In the short run, some energy applications -- say, jet fuel -- are unlikely to be replaced by electricity (however generated). Jets could burn liquified hydrogen (just try selling that to passengers who remember the Hindenberg), but I don't foresee any time soon airplanes independent of some energy-rich flammable fuel. And, of course, petrochemicals are chemically useful as feedstock to many industrial processes. Think: plastics.

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 ...

One inescapable fact seems clear, that energy -- in whatever form -- is the lifeblood of the world. And right now (like it or not) it is oil that supplies the lion's share of this lifeblood for all technological societies across the globe. In Energized the catalyst, the springboard of the entire novel, comes from the accidental despoiling of most of the world's oil overnight, rendering it unusable -- all save for a few deposits scattered around the world, one of which is found in Russia. (I don't want to give away how this comes about, but it's scary if truly possible.) So with the price of oil soaring and lining the coffers of the Russians, thus elevating them (once again) to a formidable world power, while the United States and much of the rest of the world is scrabbling to survive with any semblance of normalcy, you have various individuals, tech companies, venture capitalists, and even a terrorist or traitor thrown into the mix all attempting to either make PS-1 a reality, or destroy it, for if it is a success then the balance of power is shifted back to the United States and the world has a virtually limitless new source of power; if thwarted then Russia's stranglehold on the planet becomes more secure. An amazingly tense and for-all-the-marbles thriller ensues, which more than anything else shows how dedicated and passionate human beings can be on either side of the situation, and what lengths they will go to in order to "win." Some desire only to provide plentiful power to the peoples of Earth, while others will do anything, regardless of the loss of innocent life in furtherance of their cause.

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?

"An amazingly tense and for-all-the-marbles thriller." I won't quarrel with that :-)

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....

In the novel, private industry took the lead in several space-based projects and many of the urgently needed energy-development programs. What role do you see government playing in our search for new energy sources, if any, and how did this figure in Energized?
In Energized, NASA detected an onrushing object and then mounted the effort to capture Phoebe into Earth orbit. NASA established a crewed base on the newly captured little moon and organized the PS-1 demonstration project. Private industry was also involved, by flying astronauts to Phoebe, for example, and under contract to NASA to build PS-1. In short: a public/private partnership.

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.

What challenge does it present to the writer of actual science-based fiction to make the science accessible, understandable, to the average reader who may not be familiar with the terminology? I've always believed that science-fiction writes up to the reader, challenging them in ways more traditional literary mainstream fiction does not (whether dealing with science, politics, social themes or any other topic). In Energized I found it easy to follow the scientific concepts and terms you used, but I feel many readers not of a scientific mind are automatically afraid to consider reading a "hard" SF story because they mistakenly believe they'll be lost because of the jumble of esoteric terms necessary to the story. So again, what challenge does this present to the writer in order to make the story colorful and interesting while not writing down to the reader and spoiling it for the more scientifically aware reader? A few current SF writers I can think of off the top of my head have done it very well -- Larry Niven, Ben Bova, Greg Bear, Stephen Baxter. How do you strike a balance, and do you have any thoughts on how to persuade more readers that "hard" SF isn't dry or boring -- which Energized (and a book of yours a few years ago, Fools' Experiments) certainly isn't?
As you say, appealing to both audiences is a balancing act.

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.

I found Energized a stimulating read on several levels and hope others will as well. I appreciate your taking the time to discuss it.
My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me to discuss it.

Copyright © 2012 Dave Truesdale

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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