Out now from Total E-bound.
Before I started writing, "Isolation" I saw my characters trapped on an alien Space Station near Neptune (our outermost planet) with their ability to go anywhere else totally out of their control. This obviously led to questions about why they were there, how they got there and when would they be "rescued".
Answering these and other questions led me to research, and if you keep enough true science in science fiction, then the whole scenario of inter-stellar and even inter-planetary travel becomes mind boggling.
I mention the Voyager probes in my story and they are the best way to get a handle on the whole distance and time thing. According to astronomers, solar wind made up of electrically charged atomic particles, composed primarily of ionized hydrogen, streams outward from the sun. However, there is a sort of a barrier at the edge of our solar system. A point where the stuff between solar systems - the interstellar medium - restricts the outward flow of the solar wind and confines it within a magnetic bubble called the heliosphere. Near the edge, this wind (which is carrying along the Voyager probes) is travelling at an average speed of 300 to 700 kilometers per second (700,000 to 1.5 million miles per hour).
Before they reached this "boundary" (expected in the next couple of years) Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 encountered termination shock where the solar wind has been slowed by pressure from gas between the stars and becomes denser and hotter. After being launched in 1997, Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock entering the solar system’s final frontier on December 16, 2004 . The spacecraft then entered the heliosheath, the region beyond the termination shock at 8.7 billion miles from the sun. They are still there but are both expected to "break free" sometime in the next couple of years. Scientists are hoping that both spacecraft will continue to operate and send back valuable data until at least the year 2020. For those interested, there is some fascinating reports on the NASA site about this record breaking project and this document was very comprehensive: www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/voyager.pdf
This aspect is only touched upon very briefly in the book, but it's a handy fact to know when reading about space travel.
Our solar system is huge. But we know we are just one of many, and the existence of extra-terrestrial life has been the subject of speculation and study for years. Seeing we've had no success finding any other forms of life outside our planet using things like SETI, the next most obvious question is how would anyone find us? For alien life forms to find Earth, it would be like finding a lost diamond in the Sahara. The best hope you might have is if the sun glints off it.
In a way, this is what happens in my book. Back in 2009, NASA and their European equivalent announced plans to launch robotic orbiters to study Jupiter's moons in 2020, reaching there in 2026 and carrying out studies for three years. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/20090218.html
Astronomy is one field where amateurs and students make a huge contribution. Elsewhere, I'd read about the concept that students can send signals to probes that are currently out of operation, so that gave me the whole starting point about how this first contact could come about.
But how would we communicate? Picture for yourself beings in a spaceship who have never landed on Earth, never seen a cat, a tree, a house or even a human. Now picture Westerners meeting some of the isolated tribespeople of New Guinea where "First Contact" didn't occur until the early part of last century. At least they could both point to a tree and use their mutual word. How could two beings who have never seen each other's "trees" interact? That set up a whole new range of research and thinking if I wanted to make this futuristic rather than pure speculative science fiction. Juliette Wade did a great blog on this subject once: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com.au/2009/03/when-you-have-no-translator-or-babel.html
Then there was the problem about the time travel takes. Personally, I hate being stuck in a seat in an aircraft for longer than ten hours. If the vessel isn't large, how would they cope with the huge distances involved? Then came the concept of "Hypometabolic Stasis" which is currently being researched by the European Space Agency.
But then came the biggest problem of all. Finding the balance between what the audience needed to know, what they wanted to know and what I wanted to tell them. Heather Massey in her blog "The Galaxy Express" talked about this at least once: http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2009/05/7-unnecessary-science-fiction.html
Yikes, I can hear the reader say now. Don't tell me that "Isolation" is filled with these boring facts!
Rest assured it isn't!!!
I attended a lecture on world building that maintained that research was all about what not to put in, rather than what to put in. This is so true. By the time I finished, I cut out heaps of info dumping . Research I'd done on weapon development, immune systems etc etc. In fact, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, did a great post on that topic too: http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/source-of-expository-lump.html
Back story and, in science fiction, world building was described to me once as like dropping a huge stained glass panel on the ground, then inserting each fragment into the relevant piece of story. Hopefully, I've done that successfully and the reader gains a feeling that "this is possible" rather than "ho hum, another boring piece of crap I don't care about!"
How much is "too much" depends on the intended audience. Because this is a cross genre story where many readers are more interested in the romance and action, the science is not as detailed or as pertinent as it might be for a pure scifi novel. Linnea Sinclair was a great teacher in this regard. In fact, I can safely say, if it hadn't been for Linnea, I would never have written "Isolation".
I'd be interested on readers thoughts on the subject of how much science is too much science in science fiction. As an incentive to contribute, I will give away a copy of "Isolation" to a random pick from comments left either here or on the linked Goodreads site before the 21st March.