In my last post I elaborated upon the space opera world I am building, which is also an alternate history of the 20th and 21st centuries and has a near-future-level spacefaring phase. I’d like to take this occasion to announce that I have decided to write a novel in this setting, set in that near-future-level spacefaring phase.
I say “near-future-level” because the novel’s story is set in 2020, which by the time I have finished it will still be the current year, but in this timeline the technology is more advanced and broadly consistent with what we will realistically have in the near future. Given the grim challenges mankind faces in the real 2020, setting it in an alternate and brighter 2020 was particularly appealing. The set-up of the actual story is that Menteith Reinhardt, Count von Gleichen (an extinct title in our timeline but in this timeline he inherits it), arranges a solar-system-spanning hunt for an unspecified but very valuable treasure as both the ultimate 70th birthday gift for himself and the ultimate encouragement of interest in human spaceflight. Clues need to be decrypted one after the other in sequence, in effect uncovering a sort of treasure map, for each competitor to reach the ultimate goal.
The Hunt for Count Gleichen’s Treasure: the Plot
In my outline for this story so far, Count Gleichen gives a speech announcing the treasure hunt, followed by the treasure hunters starting in his mansion on the North Shore of Minnesota, then the action in space starts. Each treasure hunter is shown a different path to take to the ultimate destination, helping to scatter them and prevent a dog-piling upon the same clues at the same time; the length of the path each one takes is randomized in some fashion that I have not elaborated upon, but the point is that it is designed to be a fair contest. The first location the main character and his party visit is a space station where the aquamusical shows described in one of my earlier blog posts takes place. Their next stop will be Mars, where they will visit the colonies and landscape there, the civilization there being relatively well-developed since the first manned landing took place in 1963 in this timeline. A location I find very intriguing is what I call the “Cave Forests”, a lava tube that has been made airtight and pumped full of breathable air, trees being planted and grown in the soil, light provided by artificially-drilled skylights or concentrated sunlight. It might be a beautiful place.
Their next stop will be Venus, where they will come on board an experimental cloud city installation, of the type described in another one of my blog posts. By 2020 civilization on Venus will be somewhat experimental, but an infrastructure and population will exist. Zeppelins and floating structures will figure prominently in this part of the story.
The main character, Reinhardt’s apprentice Vidar Zhyvov, comes from a space habitat that was built as humanity’s first in the 1970s under the patronage of Menteith Reinhardt himself when he was younger. For this experimental space habitat the inhabitants chosen by Reinhardt were a (neo-Pagan, spiritualistic, and animistic) pro-natalist new religious movement that fulfills the “Space Amish” trope mentioned in another blog post on space demography; they adhere to the creed mentioned there of rewilding and naturalistic primitivism through space colonization, and deliberately encourage the attainment of natural fertility. Following the example of the real Amish, they practice a custom similar to Rumspringa, and this is when Reinhardt’s protégé left the habitat he was raised in to experience the outside world, ultimately choosing not to remain with the community; during this period he met Reinhardt and became his apprentice. He never renounced all values of his home community, though; pro-natalism remained, and this was shared by his wife, who he met during this same period. By 2020 they have ten children with an eleventh on the way.
Vidar Zhyvov takes his wife and most if not all of his children with him on the journey, and the part of the story where they reach Venus is the first one where one of his sons falls in love with a local girl, and a whirlwind romance ensues. The Zhyvovs end up taking her with them for the rest of the trip. While on Venus, they have a big dinner on a zeppelin, and the airship blows its top in an “accident”, putting them in danger, though they manage to make it out unscathed. “Accidents” have been happening at high rates to other competitors too, leading to suspicions of sabotage.
These suspicions turn out to be correct, because earlier the captain of a stealth spaceship, using a hydrogen-steamer-style design to remain hidden from detection, is revealed to the reader as the antagonist of the story. An experienced mercenary, he does want possession of the treasure for those reasons, but also thinks it’s important that Reinhardt be stopped. From the beginning he lent credence to the conspiracy theories that the true objective of Count Gleichen’s philanthropic network was building a base of power for his family and successors to establish a new order which they would control, but now rumors are swirling that the treasure is actually designs or prototypes for a weapon or some other dangerous new technology, which deepens his belief that it would be good for Reinhardt to be humbled in this instance. I’m not entirely sure that this latter part of his motivation will make it to the final product, though.
In any case Zhyvov’s next stop will be Jupiter, where it turns out that in addition to the crushing gravity, two and a half times Earth’s, the next clue has to be fetched in a special installation deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere built by Count Gleichen in a special submarine-style vehicle also built by Count Gleichen. The challenge is increased with the depth of the installation not being far above the vehicle’s “crush depth”, and with the installation and the clue descending further down into the atmosphere when it detects the vehicle’s approach. Due to these challenges Vidar Zhyvov leaves his wife and children in orbit while he goes down himself.
Due to this separation the villains, who have been tracking them, take the occasion to attack with their stealth drones in order to capture or interrogate the wife and family to gain greater leverage over the situation, successfully using warning shots to threaten the wife into letting a drone ship filled with combat-ready robots dock with and board her ship. As it turns out after the suspicions of sabotage the wife’s ship has more than enough battle robots on board already to fend off the attack. The villains fail and worse yet for them the Zhyvovs and all the other competitors now know they have enemies; a silver lining is that the robots and drones are not traced back to them.
After this their next stop, as the clue from Jupiter told them, is somewhere in the Saturn system. This part of the plot isn’t as developed, but Vidar needs to fetch another clue, and the family meet some colonists, with for balance one of his daughters finding a love interest there, but in contrast to the Cytherean girl (Cytherean being the favored demonym for Venus in this timeline), the boy from Saturn doesn’t work out as he doesn’t want a whirlwind adventurous romance.
From there the journey takes the Zhyvovs all the way back across the inner solar system to the innermost planet of all, Mercury, where not only a clue but a lover for another one of Zhyvov’s daughters is found, also staying with them for the rest of the trip, the boy from Mercury proving more daring than the boy from Saturn. From there one of the journey’s more interesting legs begins, as the clue points them in the direction of a comet passing through the inner solar system at the time. This comet, which unless any showstoppers come in my way will be one and the same with our own Comet NEOWISE, will contain another clue planted there by a robotic space probe that was officially sent to intercept it for “research” purposes. After retrieving this clue, perhaps in another special-purpose vehicle they pick up near Mercury, the Zhyvovs wonder what else might be deceptive about the trip.
As if to continue with the cometary theme, they must from there go to a research station in the inner Oort cloud, the first piece of the Telescope Cloud I mention in another one of my blog posts. By 2020 it has become more than the lonely space station it started out as; it has become a full-fledged research center with a growing community of scientists, families, technicians, and service providers. From here if I provided too much detail it would spoil the climax, but it should suffice to say that there is a femme fatale, or at least a girl suspected of being one, at this research station and this will lead directly to the hero and villain meeting face-to-face in a swordfight…on Neptune. For once I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest of that!
Thoughts on the Set-up for this Novel
I will confess that the true purpose of this plot is to serve as an excuse for the characters to travel to the interesting locations I have created in the course of worldbuilding, but as you can tell there is nevertheless a real story. Vidar Zhyvov is the protégé of Menteith Reinhardt, the sponsor of the treasure hunt, and in this setting that’s a rather elite position, because Menteith Reinhardt owns what might be the vastest philanthropic network in history, with initiatives in social reform, scientific research, political think tanks, technological development, education, and more. This is all funded out of his multi-billion-dollar fortune, inherited from his grandfather Otto Reinhardt, who invented the microchip in the late 1920s and co-founded the company that commercialized it in 1930, inaugurating the personal computer revolution half a century earlier than our timeline. Menteith invested his inheritance wisely over the years, and has grown his original fortune very substantially over the decades.
Vidar Zhyvov’s motivation to go on this treasure hunt is that he has always wanted to go on a great and significant quest like the heroes in mythology. This alone would be enough, but he comes to suspect that Menteith Reinhardt might be using this treasure hunt to evaluate the potential for replacing him with another apprentice.
This fear is not entirely groundless; before recruiting Zhyvov Reinhardt had a previous apprentice, but he became estranged from him when he joined the administration of Menteith’s cousin Wolfram Reinhardt when he was elected President of the United States in 1992, which prompted him to search for a new apprentice, ending up with Vidar Zhyvov. Menteith Reinhardt intends for his apprentice, whoever that may be, to inherit control of his vast philanthropic network; this provides a lavish lifestyle, which Vidar has already become accustomed to over the years of his training under Menteith, and also a nearly unique opportunity to shape the course of human history. Together with Vidar’s spirit of adventure, even a suspicion of losing such an opportunity provides more than enough motivation for him to go on the quest.
The Aesthetics of an Alternate History
Some elements that I plan to include that have not been elaborated upon to date include the fashions. Already on Earth the aesthetic in this timeline is more traditionalist than it is in real life; perhaps most obviously, women still habitually wear skirts, with pants having burst on the scene in the 1930s and 40s only later to fade out. Hemlines still become higher, with the resulting dominant look being the closest to our 1960s. Hats never really go away, with women’s hats cycling between simpler styles and more elaborate Edwardian-esque styles over the decades. Corsets, however, definitively fade out as they did in real life, though at a somewhat slower rate, with their use hanging on in formal settings.
Short hair for women never becomes truly dominant; though there are periods when it becomes fashionable in the 20th century, starting in the 1960s long hair started to reassert its dominance. The “aesthetics of guilt” never take hold and softer, curvy, voluptuous figures remain dominant; though a fashion for slimmer figures takes over in the mid 20th century, the pendulum never swings out of the pre-20th century box, with it swinging back to fuller figures starting in the 1960s when a return to natural beauty and authentic femininity takes hold as the aesthetic trend. Tanning takes hold in this timeline as in real life as beach culture becomes prestigious, albeit with the long-term trend toward the historical standard of paler skin evident in our own time starting to assert itself earlier.
Casualization in general proceeds much slower than in real life, with the three-piece suit hanging on into our own time as a men’s formal standard, though the most obvious change might be the formal jacket being ditched instead of the vest, something I introduced to this world in the interest of “alternateness”. Blue jeans never become popular outside work sites, instead being replaced by athletic pants and skirts.
These trends relative to real life might be even more pronounced in space colonies, because long hair (when worn loose), skirts, and elaborate frilly clothing don’t do very well in zero gravity, as these looks are reliant on gravity pulling down to make them work. Women in zero-g environments might wear pants for practical reasons, and short hair will be more popular here than anywhere else, though long hair could easily be confined so it doesn’t fly all over the place.
These women will likely be the most common outside visitors to habitats, stations, and ships that have artificial gravity, and the fact that these traditionally feminine styles can be used not only to show off femininity but their higher status as a resident of a habitat with artificial gravity will only make them more attractive to women in space. Women in 1g space habitats might, at least in 2020, have the frilliest and most feminine styles of all. Women in weightlessness might counter by applying much more cosmetics, however. This spacer culture in this time period will also extend to non-Earth planets, due to their close ties.
Aside from fashion, another aesthetic consideration is architecture. Beaux-Arts had not played itself out as a trend before it was so rudely interrupted by the Great War, so in this timeline Art Deco, already emerging before the First World War, takes over starting in the 1930s and extending through the 1940s, the higher-class examples grading almost toward a revival of Art Nouveau. Futurism succeeds Art Deco starting in the 1950s and extending into the 1960s, helped greatly by the Futurist movement not having so many of its adherents killed in the First World War. My feeling is that some sort of new traditional aesthetics, or perhaps a proper revival of Art Nouveau, or some combination of the two, takes over after that in this timeline, but I’m not sure exactly what form that would take. Various fusions might be influential over different decades, as the Western-Japanese blend was with Art Nouveau.
All of this will impact the look and feel of the world these characters will live in. There are various other differences I have developed over the course of worldbuilding this setting, but the fashion and architecture would be the most obvious for an adventure-focused novel, so I have focused on that here.
I have already completed around 5500 words of my novel, the working title being “The Hunt for Count Gleichen’s Treasure”, which do describe the whole plot but only at an overview level, in my personal adaptation of the snowflake method, which seems to be the writing process that works best for me. Although some finer-grained description and a few lines of dialogue are already included, the fact that it is already 5500 words and has hardly been fleshed out at all yet is a very promising sign for its potential to be a full-length novel. Writing out the story even in a stripped down who does what when where description from beginning to end really helped me gain a greater understanding of the story and to actually start writing, so I would recommend aspiring writers who don’t take well to spitting out words spontaneously or fleshing out an outline into prose to try this method.