Nightwind Follow-Up: Chapters 1 and 2

I’ve already started rewriting Nightwind. It’s actually pretty funny, since I haven’t made too many substantive changes[1] to the intro or the first two chapters. This is going to get awkward, as I think I want to start writing about how my re-reading of the current state impacts my understanding of the future state. At its core the book is a really good space adventure. In execution, however, it requires work.

That’s really why I’m doing this. I already knew that I had some readers back in the day who would care and want to talk about writing. I hoped that some would show up again even after my long absence.[2] So I guess that this has turned into a self-directed writers’ workshop. Neat.

Most of the problems with the original version of Nightwind pop up in the first couple of chapters. Many have already been noticed and pointed out. This is one of those things where editors/friends/strangers on the internet are useful as an extra set of eyes. It helps immensely if that extra set of eyes belongs to someone who reads speculative fiction. For that matter, I now count myself as an extra set of eyes, since it had been so long since I read the book and I’ve read so much more in the intervening years.

It’s humbling, really. The biggest problem a lot of artists have is that they get attached to their work and don’t want to hear criticism. Seeing something that I got wrong, then having someone else come in and point that out, then also point out something I hadn’t even thought about has already taught me the importance of listening to others. Especially if they’re subject matter experts in the logistics of space travel.


Either way, we met two key characters yesterday: David Anderson and Robert Laird. Anderson is our main protagonist and Laird is our main antagonist.[3] Both are characters I was happy to meet again and both are characters who are going to be hurt badly by the biggest mistake I made when I wrote the book.

That mistake is one that was already discussed last week. The Nightwind universe is just too small. It’s both too small spatially and temporally, which is fascinating to me. Moreover, Anderson gets hurt as a character primarily because it’s too temporally small and Laird gets hurt primarily because it’s too spatially small. Meanwhile both characters have fairly simple fixes that are best helped by expanding the axis that doesn’t hurt them as much in the initial story. Did that make sense? No? Good.

We also met two of the most important secondary characters yesterday in Admiral Belden and General Schroeder. Belden really needs to live in a temporally bigger story while Schroeder is one of the few characters who actually gets a suitable backstory that not only needs no changes but that actually allows me to tell the bigger story that Nightwind requires. That, in and of itself, is a little strange, as Schroeder is actually almost unnecessary in the universe I originally built.

Furthermore, we get our first hint of two of the other characters who will factor in to the story: Captains Elizabeth Turner and Robert Hunt. They exist in a space that’s more-or-less correct but that space is hurt by the fact that the universe they inhabit is too small. Everything comes back to that.

This puts me at an impasse, though. I already know what I should have done and am doing to fix the problem. I know where all the stories went and know how the changes will influence them. Telling too much about the mistakes also opens up the possibility of spoiling things I don’t want to spoil just yet.

Whatever shall we do?

Aw, fuck it. Let’s talk about the new Nightwind universe.


I basically made one change: I moved Dr. Porter’s deciphering of the Deimos language forward by about three decades. Everything cascaded from that one decision. Jason Tanaka finds out he’s going to get to design his dream ship a decade earlier than in the original. The Winged Messenger is destroyed right on schedule. Anderson still gets command of Nightwind three years later.

Sometimes you don’t need to rebuild from scratch. I think that’s what I was afraid of with Nightwind. I was delighted to discover that I had a strong building with a horribly compromised foundation rather than a weak building. While writing a foundation can sometimes be fixed with a single word.

When my universe was too small it invited too many questions. How did the Earth Command Navy build FTL ships in three years? How did the Earth Command Navy keep the program secret while building three ships that all require three times the crew of the rest of the navy combined? Why would there be a strong nativist movement on Earth ready to take advantage of the destruction of the Winged Messenger? Why does Earth Command have an army? All of these things are incompatible with the notion of the United Commonwealth as a big, happy, peaceful family.

That said, I still want the United Commonwealth to be a mostly utopian world.

On a purely authorial intent level nature we’ve got way too much dystopian sci-fi. Everything’s a gritty origin story or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Every utopia is secretly a dystopic nightmare waiting to be discovered and torn down by a plucky hero. This was not my opinion back when I first wrote Nightwind, as the rest of the plot will bear out. Now, though? I want some hopeful sci-fi.

On a mechanical level I think that I have the chance to ask an important question. What happens if we solve all the problems? What happens if we get fat and happy and complacent but still have to function in a larger universe? I find this particular set of questions fascinating, as I originally conceived of and wrote the book in a pre-9/11 America. In the ‘90s in America it looked like we had solved all the problems. A decade and a half on and the Vandals are at the gates while the creaky top level moves forward purely on inertia and denial.

The United Commonwealth as an institution makes more sense in 2015 than it did in 1999.[4] It’s moving forward on inertia and responding to the cracks that are appearing in the foundation with lies and obfuscation. Laird represents a crack. The Nightwind project is an obfuscation. These statements don’t make any sense in the universe I originally built because that universe was too small. Now the universe is much, much larger.

The United Commonwealth first came about as an extraordinary response to an existential threat to humanity. On the verge of World War III a critical mass of people realized that the path humanity was taking ended only in madness and mutual destruction. They joined together under the banner of a commonwealth and for the next century or so turned their energies outwards. The Solar System was colonized and the dream of colonizing the stars was realized with a tiny foothold in the Tau Ceti system. The mastery of near instantaneous communications devices made it look like faster than light travel was just around the corner. That promise was never realized. The first contact with an alien intelligence ended in an act of senseless destruction.

This is a fascinating universe to step into. I did not realize at the time just how fascinating it could be because I was a kid writing his first book. This is a huge universe with a vast collection of potential characters and I made everything teeny tiny. I was afraid that I couldn’t even handle that teeny tiny universe. Now I see that a universe that’s too small is much worse than a universe that’s just too big to handle.

So let’s take a fleeting glimpse at a larger universe.


It’s the beginning of the 23rd Century and humanity now occupies Earth, the moon, Mars, and several moons in orbit around Jupiter and Saturn as well as semi-permanent mining facilities on various asteroids and smaller moons. A single extra solar colony has a foothold on the third planet of the Tau Ceti system.

At one point the colonists believed they might actually arrive in the system and find humans were already there because the ever expanding human spirit would crack the secrets of FTL travel and take the universe by storm. No humans greeted the colonists. The people on the Winged Messenger instead found out they were among the last humans to look to the stars and see a home. Their descendants hadn’t unlocked FTL travel and instead decided that they were better off fat, happy, complacent, and stationary.

Then an alien base built into one of the Martian moons changes everything. At first the discovery creates a tech boom. The Earth Command Navy announces that it’s going to expand and renovate the old Venus Shipyards that were supposed to build the vast fleet that would take humanity to the stars. Some records leak that indicate the aliens on Deimos might not have been benevolent. A certain sector of Earth start questioning the validity of even having colonies across the solar system. This combination of nativist movement on Earth and secrecy surrounding the extent of the plans for the Venus Shipyards spooks the colonists and they form the Colonial Alliance. The stated purpose of the Colonial Alliance is as a political counterweight to Earth and nothing more, but they also authorize the refit and arming of a trio of freighters to “supplement” the Earth Command Navy.

News of the destruction of the Winged Messenger at the hands of an unknown alien force rocks Earth Command. Earth’s nativist population ups their program of agitation. The Colonial Alliance starts openly questioning Earth’s ability and desire to protect humanity.

Earth Command decides there’s only one way to calm everyone down and reassert their authority once and for all. They will release to the Solar System the news that they have built not one but three faster than light battlecruisers. Furthermore, one of the ships has already traveled out of the solar system and brought back news of the exact circumstances of the destruction of the Winged Messenger.

In one last attempt at the ultimate public relations coup the powers that be decide that the captain of that first ship cannot be from Earth. They bypass several more senior officers and give the job to a relatively young Martian by the name of David Anderson. As he is an excellent officer with a sterling academy record making a symbolic gesture everyone assumes he’ll be fine and the announcement will mollify all angry parties.

That’s a story I want to read. More than that, it’s a story I want to tell.


[1]It needs more than a little TLC in the basic proofreading area, though. I was reasonably grammatically precise and did all that sort of thing a long time ago, so what I’m talking about is next-level stuff revolving around word choice and the fallout from my tendency at the time to rely on passive voice and the way I was obsessive about avoiding repetition in language, thereby creating some really awkward word usage. That, in turn, makes the passive voice thing overly apparent in places.

[2]By the way, thanks for that. No, really. I was super happy to almost immediately see some familiar handles down in the comments.


[4]I’ve often read books or watched TV from ten or twenty years ago and thought, “Holy shit, how did they predict the future in such a scary accurate way? The Simpsons and Babylon 5 have a knack for those moments. As someone who just realized that many years ago I was blindly groping towards the profound realization I just made…sometimes it’s a matter of luck. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, after all.

One thought on “Nightwind Follow-Up: Chapters 1 and 2

  1. It’s really hard even to proofread one’s own work. (I get my wife to read over anything important that I write, and vice versa – we may or may not know each other’s subject matter, but the sentences should still be understandable.)

    The anti-space movement seems like a very Niven/Pournelle sort of thing. In the real world space was never so important as to attract protesters. What is the positive thing they want?

    I think that a virtue of this sort of serial exposure, rather than just posting the full draft in a lump, is that I can give you my reactions immediately – things that trip up the reader and throw him/her out of the story can often be addressed without too much trouble.

    Do you have population numbers for your off-Earth colonies? Because I would be very surprised if it’s as much as 1% of all of humanity (spacelift costs). In that respect the Earth Now people have already won: all the important cultural stuff does happen on Earth, because that’s where all the people and money are. (Consider how many symphony orchestras there were in pre-revolutionary America.) The flip side of that only cuts in if you get a big selection pressure – all the engineers leave for Mars because Earth doesn’t want engineers any more, something like that – at which point the colonists start looking significant.

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