Ulysses. Hmmm.

Ulysses book

Is it possible to not fully understand something – while being aware that you don’t fully understand it – and still get pleasure out of it?

When picking my next audiobook to listen to, I decided I was in the mood for something classic. I also thought it would be a good idea to pick something that might not be easy to read in written form and thus I might be better off experiencing in audio. In the end, I decided to give Ulysses by James Joyce a try after watching Ted-ED’s video on why it’s worth reading. Before watching that video, I didn’t know much about Ulysses, though I had seen it on plenty of “books to read before you die” lists. Much of what I did know, I’d learned while researching the General Slocum disaster; the events of Ulysses take place on 16th June 1904, the day after this historical event, which is referred to a few times by the characters. The main thing I’d picked up was that Ulysses was really, really hard to read, which intimidated me. But I decided, why not? Let’s give it a go.

Here’s what I was thinking for the first few chapters:

Chapter 1: “This isn’t so bad. We’re following this man called Stephen Dedalus. He’s eating breakfast with his companions, and he’s tormented because his mother just died and he didn’t pray over her like she wanted. Fairly comprehensible.”

Chapter 2: “Stephen teaches a class. A man at the school gives him a letter on foot-and-mouth disease to publish in a newspaper, and then makes some anti-Semitic comments. Well, some of this vocabulary goes over my head, but I’m following it okay. I don’t see what all the fuss is about!”

Chapter 3: “……………..Um.”

Not being able to make sense of a book, movie, etc is normally a real turn-off for me. For example, when watching the Hugh Jackman movie The Fountain – where he plays three different characters who may or may not actually be the same person – I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be happening and was more frustrated than entertained. Yet with Ulysses, as I listened to streams of dense, disorderly, disconnected prose where it was sometimes hard to discern simply where a character was and what they were doing, I felt more stimulated than bored or annoyed. Part of that, admittedly, might have been due to how good the narration by Jim Norton was.

So what’s really so good about the book? It takes place in Dublin, on an ordinary day in 1904, and follows two men – Leopold Bloom, and the aforementioned Stephen Dedalus – as they wander separately through the city. Not exactly a setup for a grand adventure, and indeed Ulysses doesn’t even have a real plot to speak of. But Joyce makes it an interesting and unique book through the things we see his characters think about, and the style (or styles) in which he presents them. Much of the prose consists of Stephen and Bloom’s thoughts, and they have all sorts of little philosophical musings, of the sort that many of us might briefly have when examining the quirks and absurdities of everyday life. There’s talk about Ireland itself, and the rules of society. Bloom goes to a funeral and thinks about death; later, he and some other characters are at a maternity ward and think about birth. Joyce certainly manages to cover an awful lot of subjects in the story of one ordinary day.

Every chapter is different, self-contained by both its content and its style. Some of these styles are wildly different from each other. In Chapter 5, which takes place at a newspaper office, the prose is interspersed with blaring newspaper headlines relating to what’s going on. Chapter 15 is mostly a fantasy sequence which is presented in the form of a play; it involves Bloom being put on trial for inappropriate behaviour towards women, then being declared an emperor, then being turned into a woman. My favourites were Chapter 12, which features descriptions of ordinary things done in an overly dramatic, awe-inspiring fashion, like in some ancient legend; and Chapter 17, which is in the form of a Q&A describing every little detail of what Bloom and Stephen are doing. (This last one was a bit easier for my scientific mind to follow.) It’s all very cleverly written, and I personally didn’t find it pretentious; it felt more like an exercise in literary experimentation.

A big part of what makes Ulysses such a difficult read is that so much of the prose is pure stream-of-consciousness. In most books, the author brings order to characters and events, and makes them straightforward for the reader. With Ulysses, there’s no filter to bring order to what the characters are thinking: their thoughts go back and forth, disconnected, changing quickly, a jumble – just like thoughts in real life. Maybe that’s one reason why Ulysses is considered a classic: in this way, it’s a more accurate reflection of reality than most stories. (To say nothing of the descriptions of the characters’ bodily functions – ahem.)

This style, combined with the vocabulary, was what made Ulysses difficult to follow for me. Sometimes, after finishing a chapter, I would look at crib notes online and be surprised at what I hadn’t comprehended as happening. But I didn’t feel like it was necessary to understand every single word. The parts that I did comprehend, I enjoyed, and it was certainly a reading experience like no other. Having listened to the whole audiobook and thus gained some familiarity with the story, I now want to go exploring in it again – this time, in written format – and find things that I missed the first time.

But that will have to wait. Fresh off experiencing Ulysses, I am now attempting to read War and Peace before 2017 is over. Fortunately, War and Peace is a refreshingly simple read compared to Ulysses. Apart from being really, really, really long….

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Victory Number 9!

Every NaNoWriMo is difficult, but this one felt especially tough. You never know how a story idea is going to turn out till you start writing it, and I just fell out of love with this particular one. Still, having put the effort into planning and researching, I determined to see it through to the end.

Which I did, last night, alongside my NaNo buddies at the local write-in! I had a Coke and a cheesecake to celebrate.

It certainly wasn’t all bad: some individual scenes and character moments were fun to write; a couple of side characters surprised me in how they ended up developing; and I learned (or re-learned) lessons like how to construct a proper mystery, how to approach a historical backdrop I’m not so familiar with, and that I need to keep the plot moving to do my best writing.

Next year will be my tenth NaNoWriMo, so I want to do something special for it. Maybe all my characters could meet each other in a multi-universe Avengers-style crossover. At the moment, I’m feeling inspired by listening to the audiobook of Ulysses by James Joyce (I’m not even halfway through and already looking forward to writing the review of this one). There’s so many different ideas, topics and styles to be found in this novel, and I might like to try something like that, throwing lots of different things at the wall in a single piece of work and seeing what sticks.

Well done to everybody else who completed this year’s NaNoWriMo, and to everybody who at least gave it a go!

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Film review: Justice League


Five years after The Avengers came out in cinemas, it is now time for DC’s team of ultimate heroes to get their own live-action movie. But I was excited for The Avengers. I was not excited for Justice League; I was more…curious. This film was preceded by four others making up the DC Extended Universe: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. Of those, only Wonder Woman received generally positive reviews; the others had a mixed to outright negative reception. Despite agreeing with popular opinion in this regard, and hearing bad things about Justice League, I still wanted to see it in cinemas: it was another big superhero team-up and I wanted to judge for myself.

So what’s the verdict? Well, to be fair, there are definite signs of DC trying to learn from past mistakes. But it seems they’d already gone too far down a particular path to make the drastic changes which could have made this a good movie.

Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck) is concerned about indications of an impending alien threat; so, in true Batman style, he prepares in advance by assembling a team of heroes. As well as his existing acquaintance Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), he goes after Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller). While some of these candidates are initially reluctant, their hand is forced by the arrival of Steppenwolf, the Ender of Worlds (Ciaran Hinds), who is seeking three “motherboxes” hidden on Earth which will allow him to – surprise surprise – end the world.

While the story does skip around a bit chaotically in the first act, it does at least feel fairly cohesive after that. There are, however, some pretty big holes in the script. A flashback explains about how the armies of Earth took possession with Steppenwolf’s motherboxes – which, if brought together, would perform the single function of destroying the planet – and then hid them far away from each other: my own thought was “Or maybe you could, I don’t know, DESTROY THEM?!” (Maybe it’s explained in a deleted scene, of which there are apparently many.) There’s a gaping continuity error when Cyborg says he was created after the death of Superman, when in Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman found a video of his creation from before that event. And the end of the second act features a moment of painful carelessness from the heroes that had me mentally face-palming.

Some of the characters really aren’t that bad. I was comfortable with Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and I really enjoyed Ezra Miller’s performance as the Flash: the character’s youthful fanboy-style enthusiasm brings much of the comic relief and is a breath of fresh air. After Superman is resurrected (come on, am I really spoiling anything?), I even got a smile or two from watching him: he’s certainly more “truth, justice and the American way” than in his last two appearances. But Cyborg and Aquaman were more problematic. Since their only previous appearances in the DCEU were cameoes, I didn’t know them, nor did I feel like I really got to know them as the film progressed; subsequently, I didn’t especially care about them. Meanwhile, any scenes involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) or “Save Martha” Kent (Diane Lane) just made me think of Batman v Superman and left a bad taste in my mouth, like not wanting to eat Chinese food because you were sick after eating it one time.

A Justice League film should really have significance, but instead, the film we got feels terribly generic and not special at all. The villain – whom I had never heard of before – has no real character and just wants to destroy the world. The plot about stopping the villain from collecting all the hidden items he needs to complete his plan is certainly nothing new. And when watching the action scenes, I felt bored more often than not. The film has a running time of 120 minutes, relatively short for a superhero film these days – and I was grateful for that as it meant I could go home sooner.

So no, sadly, Justice League is not a good movie. A good movie makes you care about what’s happening and who it’s happening to – and watching this, I hardly cared at all. Rating: 2/5.

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Book review: Artemis

From Andy Weir, the author of The Martian (my favourite book of 2015), comes a new science-fiction novel, Artemis. As with The Martian, I listened to the audiobook edition, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson. The performance on its own is okay: Dawson’s voice fits the protagonist very well, and she makes a good effort with the many different accents she needs to put on, but she sometimes struggles to maintain distinctive character voices, so that occasionally I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be speaking if the prose itself didn’t specify.

But what about the story itself? It takes place around the 2070s on Artemis, the first and only city on the Moon. The protagonist is Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a young woman who works as a porter, while supplementing her income through smuggling contraband. Jazz is offered an opportunity to get rich quick when a Norwegian businessman recruits her to sabotage one of the Moon’s major industries, which will allow him to buy it out. Jazz’s first attempt doesn’t go as planned, but before she can complete the assignment, it becomes clear that there’s something bigger going on, and she will need to think fast just to stay alive.

This is a very different sort of story from The Martian – centering around a heist for the first and third acts, with thriller elements in-between – but you can certainly tell it’s by the same author. The dry style of humour is very similar, as is the invention and explanations of futuristic technology which still manages to be grounded in reality. Particularly good is when Jazz gets in trouble because of some little bit of science she overlooked – like not being to make a spark with flint in a vacuum – which always feels believable. It would have been nice to learn more about how Artemis was built and what the ships going to and from the Moon are like, but ultimately that’s not relevant to the story. One wonders whether Artemis and The Martian take place in the same universe: while there are no references to the events of The Martian, neither are there any facts that would make it impossible. Artemis does feature a character named Bob Lewis, who might well be related to Mark Watney’s commander Melissa Lewis.

The setting of Artemis is very rich, and strikingly multicultural: Jazz herself is Arabic, and there are side characters from Kenya, Norway, Ukraine, Russia, Hong Kong and Brazil. Rather than just being politically correct, this again feels very believable, as a city on the Moon in the future would be sure to attract global interest. Having Kenya, of all places, be the central space-faring power behind Artemis feels like a random choice – until it is pointed out that Kenya sits on the Equator, making it an efficient site for launching rockets. The society portrayed is also neither utopian nor dystopian – indeed, it’s pretty much like the present day (unless you’re a cynic and would argue that we live in a dystopia now). Artemis’s residents have a strong sense of community and regulations are quite lax in some areas; but there is still crime, corruption and prostitution to be found.

I liked the character of Jazz, who is somebody you can root for despite being deeply flawed: as well as being a criminal, she is stubborn, can have a bad attitude, and is the first to admit that she has made some bad life decisions. I also liked how the story as a whole played out: it was engaging and mostly not too predictable. For example, at one point, it looks like a particular character is going to be exposed as the main villain – but it turns out they aren’t, despite having their own agenda. There were only a few minor flaws in the story: the technical explanations sometimes became difficult to follow, and some aspects of the ending felt a little too easy and convenient. And for all the aforementioned diversity, it felt a little stereotypical that out of Jazz’s former boyfriends, the one whom she describes as more sweet and loving than any other turned out to be gay – because apparently it would be unrealistic to expect such qualities from a heterosexual man.

If you enjoyed The Martian, then you’re in safe hands with Artemis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets a film adaptation too. Rating: 4.5/5.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Day Sixteen

I remain on target, and have passed the halfway point with 27,142 words (and I plan on doing a little more this evening). Yet I can’t really say I’m loving this story.

Throughout the second week, I was finding it very difficult to muster enthusiasm as I sat down to fill the day’s writing quota. The fact that it’s a historical story might have contributed: I have done research, but sometimes I get bogged down by a detail that I’m not sure about. But the main reason was probably that the story wasn’t really going anywhere at that point, focussing more on exposition and the main character’s thoughts than actual action.

I like to think you learn something from every NaNoWriMo, and while it may be a lesson I’ve already covered in the past and since forgotten, I’ve learned that I’m more of a plot-driven author than a character-driven one. So I’ve made an effort to inject life into the story and plan out how the central mystery will unfold. This was fun at least: I ended up drawing a tree diagram of what the missing person has been doing, how the protagonist might uncover clues as to his activities and whereabouts, and the consequences that different stages of her investigation might bring. And then I turned these into a timeline, covering the months over which I already know the story takes place.

I’m not worried about not finishing. No matter how hard I’m finding the writing, I tell myself that I’d feel worse if I quit and broke my streak. But I do hope to have a bit more fun as I go along.

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Kerbal Space Program: One Giant Leap for Kerbalkind

At the end of my last post on Kerbal Space Program, I was trying to figure out how to transport 2350 units of ore from the Mun and land it on Kerbin to fulfil a contract. But in fact, the problem was solved with surprising ease. I had in fact already fulfilled the part about mining 2350 units from the Mun, thanks to the activities of Moonbase 1; I hadn’t initially realised since Moonbase 1 had been continually processing the ore rather than storing it, but apparently it still counted. Then, as part of my planning, I performed a test flight where I filled a set of ore tanks with 2350 units on the ground, used a booster to lift it to about 10,000m altitude, and tried to bring it back in one piece with several parachutes and an inflatable heat shield. Since apparently the ore that landed didn’t have to be the same ore that was mined, the rest of the contract was thus completed. Maybe it wasn’t entirely honest, but who was I to complain?

Now I could focus on something more interesting: further interplanetary exploration. While I was working on Moonbase 1 and the ore contract, I had already sent two probes – Titan 1 and Titan 2 – on their way to the green gas giant Jool, the in-game equivalent of Jupiter. Titan 1, the smaller of the two, would fulfil another contract by placing itself in a very high orbit around Jool, ten times further out than the planet’s most distant moon. Titan 2, laden with scientific instruments and a landing stage, would conduct a more in-depth exploration of Jool and its five moons, before concluding its mission by landing on the innermost one, Laythe. It was going to take the two probes a long time to get to Jool – about three years, in fact – so I had plenty of time for other work. This included a plan for my first manned mission to the planet Duna.

The auspicious mission, Watney 2, would be launched in two stages that would dock in Kerbin orbit. The first would carry the main engine, the solar panels, and most of the fuel; I named it Hermes, after the mothership in The Martian. The second stage would perform the landing, and carry the scientific instruments and crew: pilot Jebediah, engineer Bill, and scientist Bob. Both stages were launched uneventfully, docking was achieved, and Hermes’s engine was lit up. Shortly afterwards, Jebediah, Bill and Bob became the first Kerbals to escape the gravity of their home planet and go into orbit around the Sun. Bob then performed the first of many EVAs where he collected data from the scientific equipment and stored it in the command module, allowing the equipment to be re-used at different stages of the flight.

It was a long journey of over 200 days to get to Duna, though thankfully Kerbals don’t have to worry about solar radiation or muscles that atrophy in zero-gravity. The crew didn’t even complain about being limited to a single small command module. If they were uncomfortable, then surely arriving in Duna orbit and seeing the magnificent planet up close made up for it. But before landing on Duna, Watney 2 made a detour, having enough fuel to go into orbit around Duna’s single moon, Ike. There was, after all, science to be had.

Ike Walk

Ike is smaller than the Mun but bigger than Minmus, so landing required slowing down from a moderately fast orbit. It also featured extremely rugged terrain: even the final landing site, in the relatively flat midlands, turned out to be on a slope. After some initial scientific readings, Jebediah, Bill and Bob took the first steps on a world outside the Kerbin system – though not on a planet, but on its moon. They planted the flag, stretched their legs, then got back inside the lander. At that point, it was found that a contract had become available to plant a flag on Ike, so Bill got out again and stuck a spare flag next to the first one. Then it was back into Ike orbit for the second of three dockings with Hermes, and back into orbit around Duna.

The same lander was soon falling through Duna’s thin atmosphere; big and heavy as it was, five parachutes and two drogues slowed it efficiently, though a little burst from the engine was also used just in case. The slope on which it landed was even steeper than the one on Ike, causing the lander to slide ominously for a moment before coming to a stop. It was also in the middle of a featureless desert, but what did that matter to the crew? They were still on another planet!

Duna Landing

But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make one little mistake that threatened to bring disaster. The main reason why Engineer Bill had come along was so that he could repack the parachutes which were used to land on Duna, allowing the same spacecraft to land back on Kerbin at the end of the mission. I had not realised that an engineer had to be at least Level 1 to do this, and Bill was not quite there. The crew could get back to their home planet alright, but any success up to the point of re-entry would be rather redundant if the capsule had no parachutes. Fortunately, I was able to come up with a plan, but it would be some time before I could put it into action. For one thing, the crew – once back in orbit and docked with Hermes – now had to wait for their transfer window back to Kerbin. For Kerbin and Duna to move into suitable positions took so long that before the window opened, Titan 1 and Titan 2 were arriving at Jool, so I shifted my focus to them.

Both probes had made course corrections on their journey which ensured they would pass as close to Jool as possible. This was to take advantage of some real-world physics called the Oberth effect, which states that when a spacecraft is travelling faster (e.g. when it is closer to a planet), it has more potential energy and is able to make a more efficient engine burn. Titan 1 was passing so close to the massive Jool that if it did not go into orbit, Jool would catapult it into an orbit around the Sun so wide that it would practically fly out of the game; it would not reach periapsis for 1,496 years. But that would be of no use to me, so I burned the engine and with minimum delta-V, placed Titan 1 in orbit, before expanding said orbit to fulfil the satellite contract.

Titan 2 Bop

Titan 2, upon arrival in Jool orbit, had a more complicated and fun time of it. After a brief encounter with Jool’s second moon, Vall, it headed out for low-altitude flybys over the two smallest and most distant moons, Pol and Bop. A great deal of science was transmitted back to Kerbin, and one new achievement after another was logged as the probe encountered new bodies. Unfortunately, Titan 2 did not have quite enough fuel to encounter all the moons, so it then headed straight for its final stop, the watery world of Laythe. Laythe’s atmosphere proved surprisingly thick, surrounding Titan 2 with intense flames as it descended. And as it neared the sea, the lander’s parachutes seemed to be guiding it to a smooth splashdown – until the probe abruptly turned upside down, coming to rest with its heat shield pointing to the sky and its solar panels rendered useless. It transmitted a good chunk of science before its batteries ran dry, but it was an ignominous end for such a successful probe.

Laythe Laythe Landing

Back to Duna. Once the transfer window was open, Jebediah, Bill and Bob were first treated to the sight of Duna receding into the distance, then – after another long 250-day journey – to their beautiful home planet reappearing. A couple of aerobraking manouvers in the atmosphere were enough to place them back in orbit. The plan had been to leave most of the lander at Duna, drop the command module into Kerbin’s atmosphere, and place Hermes in orbit for future use; but thanks to their lack of parachutes, the crew had to hang around in Kerbin orbit, and retain their lander engine which would bring them down again. I had to recover the spacecraft as well as the crew, so what to do about the parachutes?

Fortunately, Kerbin’s astronaut office did have a Level 1 engineer, Maxbeth Kerman. She lifted off in a small spacecraft, docked with Watney 2, and performed an EVA to repack all the parachutes. Soon after that, Watney 2 landed in style, holding onto its landing stage through the descent, and coming down on its legs. Upon touchdown, it received even more distinctions, having returned from Duna, Ike and solar orbit!

After all that, I now have twice as much money as I did before Watney 2 launched, and enough science to unlock every component in the game. That part of the game, at least, is complete, but there’s still plenty out there to explore. Still, I’m going to do a couple of nice, simple tourist contracts before I decide where to go next.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Day Seven

I thought I’d give an update on my NaNoWriMo progress, though to be honest, there’s not a great deal to report. As of tonight, I’m at 12,121 words, so I’m on track. I’ve been to two write-ins, and it’s been great seeing my writing friends again.

The section of the story I’ve been covering in this first week has been the simplest to write, but I haven’t had a great deal of enthusiasm for it. The content I’m moving onto now – tonight, my protagonist actually began her journey to Russia, getting terribly seasick on a ferry across the North Sea to Bergen – will be more exciting, but also more difficult as I draw upon the historical research I’ve done and my own imagination. I may have an outline, but I still have to fill in the little details, and there’s already been a few surprises and new developments as I’ve done so.

Even though this is my ninth year doing NaNoWriMo, it’s still very satisfying to see the word count on the document rising steadily day by day. Having produced over 12,000 words of a novel in the space of a week still feels good, regardless of their quality (though I’m pretty sure I have gotten better as the years have passed!) Since I don’t look back over what I’ve already written unless I need to check details for continuity, it feels a bit like playing a very long game of Consequences as the whole thing builds up.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, let me know how you’re getting on in the comments!

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Kerbal Space Program: Moonbase 1


When I select a contract in Career Mode on Kerbal Space Program, it’s usually when it’s offering something new, challenging and hopefully fun to try out. Relatively early on in the game, a contract came up to build a surface outpost on the Mun, which I accepted. It was only later, as I learned more about my own capabilities in the game, that I wondered if maybe I should have waited for something less ambitious. To fulfil this contract, my base would need to have:

  • An antenna, docking port, and the ability to generate its own power
  • Three pilots onboard, and total space for seventeen Kerbals
  • 6000 units of liquid fuel
  • 7500 units of electrical charge

Even as my experience built up, I had no idea how I was going to manage this. The accommodation and liquid fuel were the most problematic; that was a lot of weight to get down to the Munar surface. It was also surely too much weight to launch from Kerbin in the first place, meaning the base would have to be launched and assembled in modules. But what method should I use? Should I construct the base through docking in Kerbin orbit, then send it to the Mun and land the whole giant structure? Would I be better off doing the assembly in Munar orbit before landing? Or should I land each module one at a time, and through the use of motorised wheels, link them together on the surface? What if I got them all that way and they didn’t line up properly? I watched several tutorial videos on YouTube, but there seemed to be no simple method.

Eventually, I decided to launch what I considered to be a flexible core stage, consisting of a Mobile Processing Lab with scientific instruments and two docking ports attached to the outside, and a Hitchhiker Storage Module. That alone would be enough for six Kerbals. I also gave the module wheels, so it would be able to drive about if that was the approach I went with. With a rookie scientist named Halmore Kerman onboard, the science lab of Moonbase 1 (I suppose I should have called it Munbase 1, but what does it matter) successfully lifted off and made it all the way to Munar orbit. At that point, however, it had only a sliver of fuel left, nowhere near enough for a safe landing; and the thrusters I had aided in the hopes of aiding the descent just caused uncontrollable spinning when I tested them out. With no clue where to go from there, I preoccupied myself with other missions, leaving Halmore floating around in Munar orbit for the better part of a Kerbin year.

Finally, I decided to sit down and sort out the contract once and for all. A logical approach was needed: Moonbase 1 had a docking port on either side, so I can add two identical modules to the core. If each of these modules had space for six Kerbals, 2400 units of electrical charge, and enough tank space for 2500 units of liquid fuel, I would fulfil the contract (provided I remembered to bring three pilots along too). These modules could have the same booster attached as the core, and with the three of them docked together in Munar orbit, they could share fuel and hopefully have enough to land. This would probably mean that Moonbase 1 would touch down at a vertical angle, so I added a little rocket at a right angle to each module, to soften the impact if necessary.

But what with needing plenty of fuel to land, Moonbase 1 probably wouldn’t have anywhere near 6000 units left by the time it reached the surface. Luckily, there was a solution to that: excavating ore. With the right equipment, it is possible to drill for ore, then convert it into liquid fuel or oxidiser. This not only requires a lot of power, but generates a lot of heat, so you need to include radiators along with everything else. After building an excavator and practicing with it on Kerbin, I felt confident enough to use the final setup for Moonbase 1. I also launched a small probe with a resource scanner, which told me there was a high quantity of ore in the Mun’s Northwest Crater, so that became the designated landing site.

So then the time came. First, the left module was launched, with pilot Josa Kerman onboard. Thanks to a bigger – though more expensive – booster, it arrived at the Mun with more fuel to spare than the core stage. Rendezvous was fairly simple, but then came the tricky part: the two modules would have to dock side to side. This would have been difficult enough with two small spacecraft, let alone two big, unwieldy ones. Things were made a little easier by selecting the ‘Control From Here’ option on the docking port itself, allowing me to control the spacecraft as though the docking port was the front end. It required some practice to re-learn the controls, but finally, thanks to their magnets, the two docking ports came together. It came as a great relief: now I knew that the same could be done for the right module, which – carrying Jebediah and Elliot Kerman – was launched and docked in just the same way.

Orbital manouvres weren’t quite over yet, though, as the modules were not parallel to each other, so their engines were not facing in the same direction and their wheels wouldn’t all be touching the ground on the surface. The only way to fix this was to undock the side modules, rotate them, and re-dock before they could drift too far away; it was fiddly, but I managed it. Now, the moment of truth: I lit up the engines and aimed for a descent into the Northwest Crater. Moonbase 1 slowed down and approached the surface all right, though as I had anticipated, it did so vertically. I turned off the engines and waited to see what would happen. After an agonising moment, it came to rest upside down, shattering the radiators and solar panels, and most certainly not going anywhere.

So I re-loaded and tried again. This time, Moonbase 1 came to rest inside a crater, on a slope facing in the opposite direction from last time – and it came down the right way up, in one piece, without me even having to use the backup rockets! I could hardly believe it. I was even more surprised when it was able to move under its own power and drive out of the crater onto flatter terrain. At that point, it could start drilling, and after some time warping, it had excavated enough ore to convert into 6000 units of liquid fuel, fulfilling the contract! Meanwhile, I allowed Halmore to get out first and plant the flag; he deserved it. He did accidentally fall on a solar panel and break it, but Moonbase 1 had three more, so he could be forgiven.

Group Photo

The final stage was to build an unmanned lander which could hold three Kerbals, and send it to pick up the three pilots. It had been a while since I had built a lander from scratch, however, and the first time I tried it, I neglected to put the landing legs lower than the engine, so the engine blew up upon touchdown. Once a better designed lander had made it to the Mun, I aimed for a pinpoint landing, and ended up coming down three kilometres from Moonbase 1. That would still be a long, slow walk – were it not for the fact that Moonbase 1 was mobile and could drive to the lander! While Jebediah, Josa and Elliot took off bound for home, Halmore remained behind to operate the laboratory and generate more science.

Armstrong 9

So I now have my own giant laboratory/rover/drilling platform on the Mun. It can go wherever it wants, and if it runs out of fuel, it can just dig up ore and make more! I feel very proud of it; it’s probably my best achievement in this game so far.

The next task is to figure out how to excavate 2350 units of ore from the Mun and bring it back to Kerbin. But I’m sure there must be a way…

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Sputnik 2: 60 Years On


On 3rd November 1957, a month after Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union launched the second man-made satellite into Earth orbit: Sputnik 2. It was a very different construction from its predecessor: cone-shaped, 4 metres tall and weighing 508kg, it also carried proper scientific instruments for measuring cosmic rays and particles. Its most important cargo, however, was a little dog named Laika. Laika was not the first animal to go into space – that was a collection of fruit flies, launched to an altitude of 68 miles on a V-2 missile by the United States in 1947 – but she was the first living creature to orbit the Earth, and her story is a sad one.

Following the success of Sputnik 1, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted another satellite launched as soon as possible, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. Chief designer Sergei Korolev and his engineers considered what would be both impressive and feasible in the time available, and decided to launch a satellite with a dog onboard. They already had some experience to back up this concept, having launched dogs on sub-orbital rocket flights since 1951, to test the effects of such flights on living animals. But it was known from the outset that Sputnik 2’s passenger would be going on a one-way trip: the technology to bring a satellite safely back from orbit had not yet been developed.

Three dogs received training for the flight, which involved being habituated to small spaces and put through a centrifuge to simulate the G-forces of liftoff. The chosen dog was a small mongrel who had originally been found as a stray in Moscow: she was named Laika, meaning “barker”, and was regarded as a particularly even-tempered animal. For the flight, Laika was placed inside an oxygenated cabin with just enough room to stand up or sit down, and enough food for about a week.

Following the flight, the Soviet Union officially reported that Laika had remained alive in orbit for several days, only expiring when her oxygen ran out. However, records released many years later, after the collapse of the USSR, told a different story. Sputnik 2’s environmental control system, which was supposed to keep Laika cool, failed to perform as it should, and by the fourth orbit, the temperature inside her cabin had risen to 43 degrees Centigrade. Six hours after launch, the sensors monitoring Laika’s pulse and breathing showed no signs of life; she had succumbed to heat exhaustion.

Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth until 14th April 1958, whereupon it re-entered the atmosphere and was destroyed.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Ready to Begin Again

Every year, I seem to worry about whether I’ve done enough to prepare for NaNoWriMo. This time, I feel reasonably confident that I’ve got enough outline and historical information to work with – I certainly have just as much as I did last year.

After finishing Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport, I then read Runaway Russia, an account by the American journalist Florence MacLeod Harper, one of the central figures in Rappaport’s book. The Internet can give me the dry facts of how the Russian Revolution proceeded, but I feel these books have given me a good sense of what it was like on the street. There can be no doubt that it was a crazy and difficult time: the more I learn about Petrograd in 1917, the more guilty I feel for sending my protagonist there. It’s not like I haven’t put her through enough already: when I first wrote about her, I killed off her father and brother, and she came pretty close to death herself in last year’s project.

Compared to my other historical fiction projects, I wasn’t as familiar with the Russian Revolution going in as I was with the Titanic and the Lusitania. This has made it difficult to judge how much research is enough, something that Sarah Zama talks about in this blog post. It was certainly easy to get carried away, but based on my rough outline and what I know right now about the characters, I feel I have the right amount of background notes. Any further research will depend on how the story develops. While the history will unavoidably influence the direction of the story at certain points, and has been useful in helping to build my outline, I mainly want it to serve as a backdrop, hence why I’ve given the protagonist her own little quest rather than simply dropping her into the Revolution and having her deal with whatever conflict that generates. I would probably find it difficult to maintain enthusiasm for that story.

Meanwhile, I’ve also made three YouTube videos on NaNoWriMo which I hope people may find helpful. First, explaining the concept for newcomers:

My tips on how to generate ideas and prepare for November:

And my tips on how to keep going through the month:

Good luck, everyone!

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