by David D. Levine
This doesn’t come up often, but my college degree is in architecture. I’ve never used it professionally (I graduated in the middle of a recession, couldn’t find work as an architect, and stumbled into high tech, where the money was so good I never looked back) but architecture remains a life-long interest and my training has shaped my worldview, and in particular it affects my science fiction worldbuilding. The spaces in which we live affect us on many levels: physically, by encouraging or discouraging certain activities; psychologically, by affecting our mood with space, sound, and light; and physiologically, by the effects of chemicals and other factors which affect our bodies.
One of the hot-button issues in architecture when I was in school, which has in some ways become even more important since then, is accessibility: the design of spaces to better support people with different abilities. The ADA has been a huge factor in America, requiring most buildings and public transportation to include amenities for people with certain mental and physical medical conditions. But above and beyond these regulations, there has been an enormous increase in public awareness of the need for accessibility in our physical spaces.
There has certainly been some resistance to this movement toward increased accessibility. But the thing about accessibility for people with different abilities is that it improves life for everyone. If you’ve ever pushed a hand cart or rolled a suitcase, you’ve benefited from ramps and step-free access provided for the benefit of people with limited mobility. Even though my hearing is fine, I turn on closed captioning on my television to help me understand British accents and to watch TV without disturbing others around me. And almost everyone who lives long enough will encounter reduced capability, whether through medical issues or simple old age, and will be glad of amenities which they ignored or even opposed when they were young and healthy.
These issues were in my mind when I was writing my story for the forthcoming Wild Cards volume Joker Moon, which concerns itself with an attempt to create a homeland for jokers on the Moon. (That shouldn’t be a spoiler; it’s kind of in the title.) My story is specifically about building the moon base — my character Tiago Gonçalves, the Recycler, is recruited to use his ace powers to help build it — and I had to give some consideration about the physical characteristics of such a place. What would it have to be like to serve a population with widely varying sizes, shapes, and abilities (far wider variation than the real world’s human population) while simultaneously dealing with the harsh lunar environment and the engineering requirements of safety, strength, and efficient use of materials?
Tiago is a joker/ace; beneath his protective shell of “recycled” materials his skin is a jigsaw patchwork of colors. But apart from his unusual appearance and the stigma of infection, which in the slums of Rio is substantial, the Wild Card virus hasn’t impaired him. But some jokers, such as my character Eddie Carmichael, the Cartoonist, are severely hampered by virus-induced changes that make their bodies weak, fragile, and awkward. Other jokers have wildly unconventional bodies, including one major Joker Mooncharacter who resembles a gigantic snail, which are not hindrances as such but do make living in a world built for “nats” difficult.
To address these varied needs I imagined a moon base with broad, high corridors and doors, using ramps and elevators rather than stairs or ladders in order to accommodate jokers who walk, roll, and slither in many different ways. Elevators are large and
have panels of buttons near the floor and ceiling as well as the usual location at waist level, as well as accepting speech commands. Individual quarters are widely varied, but no one has more space than they need to turn around and lie down. The watchword is “equity” rather than “equality;” the ideal is to accommodate everyone’s unique requirements rather than trying, as the nat world does, to hammer every round, hexagonal, or amoeba-shaped peg into the same square hole. Living in this base would not be pleasant, exactly, but I think this design would make it a lot more tolerable for everyone.
This spacious design is at odds with the usual cramped space base found in fiction, featuring narrow spaces and ladders, respecting the need of space architecture to make extremely efficient use of materials (which must be boosted from Earth at enormous expense). I justified the design in two ways: one is that the intent of the project is to create a joker homeland, free of all the constraints imposed upon jokers by nat society, and the expense is necessary; the other is that the base is built almost entirely from local resources.
But that last requirement created a very specific problem for my character: Tiago’s power, which allows him to pull junk and trash to himself and incorporate it into his body, works only on organic materials — organic in the chemical sense, meaning molecules containing a carbon atom. This was a restriction I placed on his power when I first created the character, to keep him from being too powerful, and it couldn’t be changed because it had already appeared in published stories. But the Moon, it turns out, has only trace amounts of carbon! (The lunar surface, or regolith, is roughly 43 percent oxygen, 20 percent silicon, 19 percent magnesium, 10 percent iron, 3 percent calcium, and 3 percent aluminum.) The idea I had that Tiago would be able to help build the base by using his power to lift and shape beams and panels made of locally-produced plastics foundered on an inescapable fact of cosmology: you simply can’t make anything organic — anything that could be affected by Tiago’s power — from the materials available on the Moon.
I could, of course, simply have ignored the problem; probably nobody but me would even have known it was an issue. Alternatively, I could have said that the Moon has a different composition in the Wild Cards universe. But either of these solutions would be offensive to my hard-SF writer sensibilities, so I came up with another: I invented a plastic-like material I called “regolene,” a rigid polysiloxane which couldbe made from lunar materials.
Polysiloxane, aka silicone, is not technically a plastic; it’s a synthetic rubber that is used in all kinds of applications including caulk and cookware (you probably have some silicone spatulas or bakeware in your kitchen). Its chemical backbone is based on silicon, rather than carbon as in true plastics, but it may contain some organic side groups. Truly rigid silicone is not a material that exists in the real world, but I’m positing that the Joker Moon project’s scientists have come up with a way to make a structural building material from elements available on the Moon, possibly with the addition of small amounts of carbon brought up from Earth. This would result in a material that’s only slightly organic, so Tiago’s power can affect it but it feels weird to him. This weirdness, which manifests as a painful electric shock sensation, makes Tiago’s life harder, which is a thing writers love to do to their characters.
So that’s a little glimpse into the life of a Wild Cards writer: personal history, real-world issues, architecture, planetary science, and chemistry all folded together into what I hope is a cracking story. I can’t wait for you to read it!