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Scarily Timely: A Q&A with Edward M. Lerner

Tor/Forge Blog

Energized by Edward M. Lerner

Edward M. Lerner discusses Energized, his newly released near-future, alternate-energy thriller.

Question: Energized has a very striking cover – but what is that thing in the foreground? Besides, apparently, big.

Answer: It is big: a square two miles on a side. And although it’s wafer thin, it masses three times as much as the International Space Station.

As for what: a solar power satellite. In a few words, it’s an orbiting power plant.

Q: And in a few more words?

A: Let’s start with the solar part. We all know that sunlight is free, and that solar cells turn sunlight into electrical power. Solar farms are, if not common, no longer the rarity that they were a few years ago. What’s not to like?

A lot, it turns out. Solar cells don’t produce power at night, or in the rain, or covered in snow. Nor is sporadic output a solar cell’s only drawback. The “fuel” to solar farms is diffuse, because the atmosphere scatters sunlight (as in: why the sky is blue). A solar farm must be huge to produce as much power as, say, a coal-fired plant of equal capacity. The rain- and snow-free areas where solar cells work best (saylike, southwestern deserts in the US) aren’t where people live and consume power. Widespread use of solar farms (or, for that matter, wind farms) must entail vast upgrades to the national electrical grid.

But that’s solar farms on the ground. A solar power satellite – an orbiting array of solar cells – captures unscattered sunlight 24/7. It beams that power, converted to microwaves, wherever it’s needed. The same SPS that heats Boston in the winter can cool Atlanta in the summer. Or, a few years hence, that SPS might recharge electric cars in places where the local power infrastructure has lagged behind the surge in demand.

Q: Sounds neat. Why don’t we have any SPS?

A: Launch costs. A one-gigawatt SPS (and the US uses terawatts of power) might weigh a couple million pounds, and – alas – it can cost more than a thousand dollars to put one pound into orbit. But in Energized (not a spoiler: this emerges in the prologue), NASA has captured an Earth-threatening space rock.

Imagine a trillion tons of supplies and building materials already in orbit…

Q: I know a segue when I hear one. You’ve called Energized an alternate-energy thriller. I get the alternate-energy part: SPS. What about the thriller?

A: Consider some recent energy problems: an oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Chaos, revolutions, and oil-supply disruptions across the Middle East. Meltdowns of Japanese nuclear power reactors. Four-buck-a-gallon gas. Together they can’t match the Crudetastrophe, the (as yet fictional) petro-crisis that sets the story into motion. The crisis from which a fleet of SPS might provide relief –

If the countries that control the remaining oil, more precious than ever, don’t get their way. They’ll do anything to keep Powersat One from succeeding – and Our Hero will do anything to stop them. Or he’ll die trying.

Q: Disruptions to the world’s energy supply. That sounds eerily familiar. Coincidence?

A: Not at all. Too much of our energy comes from unstable, even hostile, regions and regimes. Too much energy infrastructure – refineries and power plants, pipelines and electrical distribution – is old and rickety. It’s in a novelist’s nature to extrapolate worrisome trends. In Energized, I hope to point the way to solutions.

Q: Thanks, Ed. I enjoyed talking with you.

A: It’s been my pleasure.

Energized by Edward M. Lerner was released by Tor on July 17th. Learn more about Ed and his work at the Edward M. Lerner, Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers website and at his blog, SF and Nonsense.


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Worlds Colliding? That’s Nothing

Worlds Colliding? That’s Nothing

Place holder  of - 79Edward M. Lerner discusses Betrayer of Worlds, his newest collaboration with Larry Niven, released on the fortieth anniversary of Niven’s classic Ringworld.

My first exposure to a Really Big Idea was an ancient and tattered—nay, disintegrating—copy of When Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, encountered in my school library. Merely the title blew my mind. I remember coming to a halt, thinking: Worlds can do that?

Ah, the power of science fiction.

Years later, I came across another Really Big Idea: a ribbon-like structure a million miles wide and looped into a circle 600 million miles around. A star like our sun shines at the center of the circle. The loop spins at 770 miles per second to provide Earth-like gravity on its sun-facing side. Walls at the loop’s two edges—walls towering a thousand miles high—retain an atmosphere above the surface. And what a surface: its area equals that of about three million Earths. That’s some ribbon! Now populate the surface with trillions of alien inhabitants. And consider the power wielded by whoever built such an artifact ….

I’m referring, of course, to Larry Niven’s Ringworld, forty years old this month, and the centerpiece of the wildly popular Known Space future history.

The artifact is, in fact, so huge that Larry took his readers on a detour—let us expand our minds in stages—before arriving on the actual Ringworld. That stretch-your-mind stopover was the Fleet of Worlds, a cluster of worlds zipping through space at near-light speeds—a large and fascinating artifact in its own right. Only (grumble, grumble), we hardly saw the Fleet. We met but one of its trillion alien inhabitants.

In the fullness of time (not to be confused with The Wheel of Time) I became an SF author myself. I convinced Larry that the Fleet of Worlds must have its own story—from which arose our first collaboration, Fleet of Worlds. (A Really Big Idea makes for a Really Good Title.)

We never set out to write a series, but Fleet, like Ringworld, generated its own following and led (for lack of new Really Big Objects to serve as additional titles) to Juggler of Worlds and Destroyer of Worlds. Each time, the Puppeteers of the Fleet of Worlds face a new existential threat. Each story highlights different alien species (Fleet: the Puppeteers of the Fleet and a lost human colony. Juggler: the liquid-helium-based Outsiders. Destroyer: the xenophobic Pak.) As with any series, there’s something to be gained by reading every installment, but each book stands alone.

And with each story, we came closer in (future) time to the events of Ringworld ….

Readers met Louis Wu, the hero of Ringworld, on his two-hundredth birthday, recruited by the Puppeteer named Nessus for an expedition into the unknown. Nessus offers only the most general of reasons why he wants, specifically, Louis on his team. Even after four books of the Ringworld series, we know little about Louis’s life before Nessus appeared.

Betrayer of Worlds finally reveals why Nessus selected Louis. Because the Ringworld was not Louis Wu’s first epic adventure …

Which is to say, Betrayer of Worlds is Louis Wu’s long-awaited back story. The novel is much more, of course. The Fleet of Worlds faces yet another existential danger, this time at the hands—well, tentacles—of the scary-smart Gw’oth. There’s interstellar warfare, and Puppeteer political machinations to put Machiavelli to shame, and fiendish new technologies. For those who have read Ringworld or any of its sequels—there will be plenty of “Aha!” moments about this or that mystery.

And if you haven’t read Ringworld? First: no problem. Betrayer of Worlds takes place seventy years prior. Second: why not? Ringworld is a classic. It’s a great story. And did I mention that this month is its fortieth anniversary? Either way, consider heading over to Tor.com where this month a group of fans begins a series of “Ringworld Reread” articles to observe the occasion.


Betrayer of Worlds (978-0765326089; $25.99) by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner releases from Tor Books in October 2010. Lerner’s latest solo from Tor Books, the medical nanotech thriller Small Miracles (978-0765360700; $7.99) was re-released in paperback in August 2010.


Learn more about Ed and his work at the Edward M. Lerner, Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers website and at his blog, SF and Nonsense.


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