Meet Michael Smorenburg.
Michael Smorenburg (b. 1964) grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. An entrepreneur with a passion for marketing, in 1995 Michael moved to Southern California where he founded a business consultancy and online media and marketing engine. In 2003 he returned to South Africa where he launched then sold a security company. He now operates a property management company and writes full time.
Michael’s greatest love is for the ocean and the environment. His passion is science, understanding the cosmos, and communicating the urgent need for reason to prevail over superstition.
Guest Post – “The Magic in Reality”
The mere act of writing a book, and publishing it of course, bestows the lofty title “author”.
Of course, ‘author’ denotes ‘authority’ and unless one is an authority, as advertised, the descriptor—for me anyway—sits awkwardly.
So… to climb out of the ordinary ‘writer’ designation and feel like I’m somewhat worthy of authorship suggests unusual dedication to detail.
Or rather, I think that, out of respect for my readers’ intellect, it should.
That said, a squiz at today’s Best Seller list does appear to rubbish the quaint notion I harbor for authenticity of facts. Out there on the shelves there is no end to the paper-thin veneer of factual probability that writers get away with in serving up.
All it takes, for instance, to convince readers that time travel is possible is to step into the right cupboard or give a magic stone a good polish.
Heck. These days even that is passé… there’s probably an app where your protagonist can dial in the desired space-time destination and pop out right on target.
The much beloved DeLorean, I will confess, gets a free pass in Back to The Future, because the story was so charming.
But I digress.
The fact is, I wish I could write that kind of simplicity and still feel I’d done my readership a service.
I realize here that I’m risking a scoffing rejection of my thesis in putting down the time honoured tradition of invoking magic into fiction, but perhaps I can convince you that there is even more magic in investing a bit of time into staying with the actual details of reality and giving them only the smallest twist to make a plot really hop.
When an author writes, her or his voice speaks inside of the reader’s head. And, the last thing I as a writer want my reader to hear is something improbable and ‘magical’. That is too easy and a copout on my part.
So… I write the kind of thing I like to read. I write about cultural clashes, hilarious situations, confounding mysteries and their solutions. Time is a precious commodity and the price of a book could buy alternative entertainment, so that I feel obliged to fill my pages with ideas that spark the imagination and dare the reader to learn a little something about… well… anything that is grounded.
Might I give you an example:
My latest work in progress, Ragnarok, is about how we are products of our epoch and environment, how getting perspective on this fact can destroy the basis for prejudice, and how morals and ethics are a reflection of culture and progress.
In my opinion, these are important messages. We are a fragmented species trying to navigate our way into an uncertain global future and out of the dangerous territory of provincialism and xenophobic suspicion.
Now… that is darned boring thesis to call entertaining writing, you have to agree.
So the challenge is to make the writing exciting, to take the reader on a romping adventure where they learn something, and yet avoid the cringe-worthy territory of pulp that it could so easily derail into.
Here’s the setup… I need a group of our ancestors plucked through time into our era, juxtaposed in their behavior to our own clinical sense of fairness and reason.
I think a boatload of Vikings are just the ticket as candidates.
And at that, I rightly hear you groan with a vision of all the clichés from the genre that have gone before me.
You cannot help but envisage over-bulked musclemen and superheroes wearing perhaps horned helmets and covered in the muck of an oxcart squalid existence.
But I won’t give you that.
I’ll give you authenticity; and here is how.
This really won’t work if I drop them into the present day of their native Scandinavia… that island of civilization in a crazy world is too congested and leaves me with no room for my antagonists to cause strife.
I want them on a sparsely populated outpost of modern civilization.
I want them in present day Newfoundland—their Vinland.
Newfoundland provides me with enough place for them to hide undetected for weeks. Instinct tells me that it lends me a tapestry with fishing hamlets to give my time travellers a chance to express the mores of their epoch.
Having never travelled in that territory, whether my opinion on the character of Newfoundland is true or not as a setting, I turn to the Internet to find out.
More about that in a second.
The word ‘Viking’ comes to us wrapped in a powerful prejudice.
History has painted these seafarers as almost super-human, as brutal, fearless, murderous and callous.
I doubt any and all of these labels fit to them.
I want the reader to see my characters as mere men trapped in and by the circumstance of their epoch, and I want our morals and ethics of today to be put to the test.
But I need to get my boatload into our timeline; so, without magic portals, how to do it?
Fortunately, NASA are providing me a possible route.
As I write this, NASA are reputed in science literature to be taking something called a ‘Warp Drive’ very seriously.
So for my fictional tale, NASA are testing a prototype device – on the opposite side of the planet to Newfoundland – south of Australia.
You’ve probably heard of Warp Drive in Star Trek – but it is a concept built on real scientific principles.
It involves collapsing space between two physical points some distance apart, so that a vehicle of some kind can travel across the collapsed distance before the space rebounds and opens up that space again.
The science of this is still speculative, but I can make it sound plausible enough in a fiction setting… but some research helps.
Clearly, in my fictional account, this kind of experiment needs to be done very far from civilization – so we’re looking at deep in the southern oceans between Australia and Antartica; which, helpfully, is directly under the feet of Newfoundlanders.
A quick examination of a desktop globe of the earth shows that this works supremely well, because I need the experiment to go wrong and warp time rather than warp space within a small perimeter of ocean on the opposite side of the globe – off the coast of Newfoundland.
I hope you’re still following me 😉
A quick research uncovered that the term for establishing the precise reciprocal coordinates on opposite sides of the earth is antipodes. Rather than approximate it, the precise reciprocal coordinates can be acquired through something called map tunneling… This I didn’t know, but Google is our friend.
A quick research revealed a site where, very interestingly, you can see precisely what is on the direct opposite side of the globe from any spot on earth.
Try it, it’s really fun.
Next… I needed a plane flying from Europe to the USA; I won’t bother you with why—but whereas some planes are lost in this imagined incident, my protagonists will be placed on a plane very close to the event… surviving the shock wave and stimulating them to become personally involved in figuring out what is going on.
Picking up flight paths is relatively easy research.
I plugged the coordinates I found into the map tunneling and got my coordinates on the opposite side of the globe from Newfoundland. This then put me in the general region on the opposite side of the globe to set up an oilrig-type of contraption that will do the warp-drive experiment.
A quick digression: the rig will fire an immensely powerful laser into space at a precisely timed moment when a satellite detonates in the path of the laser. The laser causes the detonation to spin and, VOILA, momentarily become a sort of black hole in collapsed space, with one of its spin-axis aligned down the laser’s path back into the earth. It is that feedback path that punches my time warp ‘beam’ right through the earth.
So… to lend it some authenticity, I needed satellites to travel slowly over that rig-location, but I needed them to move in tandem on the same trajectory, one 3-seconds behind the other – and I needed them to not be moving too quickly overhead from the perspective of the rig .
There is a concept called ‘geo stationary orbit’ which means a satellite is travelling around the earth once in precisely 24-hours (actually, once in 23h56m04s).
Because this matches earth’s 24-hour rotation on its own axis, from a location on earth it will always seem that the satellite is at one fixed spot in the sky… this is why your TV satellite dish can be fixed for years aimed at one spot in the sky.
To achieve a geo-stationary position a satellite must travel at a very specific speed (Newtonian physics) and that speed will put it at a very specific distance from the earth.
Again – research throws up these numbers.
For your interest: 35,786km (22,236 miles) out into space, and clipping along at 3.07km/second.
I didn’t want my satellite stationary from the rig’s perspective, so I merely changed its speed and altitude to 32,786 kilometers out into space and travelling at 11,486km/h.
Back off Newfoundland… I needed my boatload of Vikings fleeing from Vineland circa BCE 1027* – being 1,000 years before the setting of my novel in 2027, slightly into our own future.
At the instant of detonation, the Viking’s location is in the direct path of that black hole’s axis pointing at them from the other side of our planet; albeit a long time into their future.
They’re also in an approximate location, though divided by a millennium, from two modern jetliners a thousand years later.
As a sub-plot, these jetliners will get bumped out of the year 2027 to… well… who knows ‘when’… while my Vikings are pulled into our epoch.
So off to Google Earth for me again.
*For a precedent and authenticity, the Viking, Eric the Red, fled Vineland back to Iceland about 50 years prior to my fictitious date. He did so after his band could no longer cope with the Skræling–the indigenous ‘Indians’ of that region.
Airplane flight speeds are easy to research, as is a Viking the boat’s sailing speed; and therefore its requisite distance from the coast to give it a 1 to 2 day travel time out and back to the coast after my event.
This is all easily done with Google Earth – GE provides a nifty measuring tool, so that, together with a calculator and a bit arithmetic, I had all the positions of planes and boat plotted and named with markers plotted on Google Earth.
With the markers off Newfoundland in place, my map tunneling provided the precise “X” on the map in the Southern Oceans to place my Rig.
It’s a hell of a long way of saying that if you want to check any detail of my novel, you’ll find that everything I say thus far is true.
After the event, after the Vikings find themselves in the modern world with “Odin drawing his finger across the roof of the sky” (ie… jet trails heading from Europe to the Americas) telling his Vikings that they dare not run from a fight with the Skræling, I needed the boat and men to go into hiding on a fairly deserted section of Newfoundland coast – but I needed at least a little human habitation in order for my antagonists on that boat to interact with.
Of course, Google Street View was invaluable in this regard. Google Earth allowed me to find the perfect actual existing crag in a sea cliff with beach and plausible landing site. Then Street View allowed me to scope out the small community just a few miles away for my antagonists to come ashore and raise hell. If you read my book and went to these locations, you would swear that I’d been there… and I have… sort of.
I needed some Canadian accents and turns of phrase – Youtube provided these.
I needed to understand crime stats for the territory, because of course when the attacks inevitably come, the authorities don’t realize they are dealing with seaborne threats, and they begin clamping down on those other hairy miscreants… the biker gangs; which, fortunately for my story, seem to proliferate in that territory in our real world. Wiki filled me in on these facts in a handsome way.
My protagonists who were on a plane close to the mess feel compelled to try to figure out what is going on; while the authorities bumble.
As another byline, I needed my protagonists to have lunch in a quiet location close to MIT – again, Google Earth and Street view, and my consultation of the perfect existing restaurant’s menu will make swear that I’m a local writing about my own neighbourhood.
This long explanation of what I’m up to these days…
There is no excuse for poorly set novels.