Tuesday, 24 January 2017

An interview with Saurabh Dashora, author of Starship Samudram

As a warm up to this interview with Saurabh Dashora, breakthrough author of the science fiction novel Starship Samudram and a Senior Software Engineer from Bangalore, I’d like to share with you a little of the enthusiastic avalanche of progress in real space engineering in India today:
      The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) placed a craft in orbit around the Moon in 2008, which is impressive enough, then became the only country to send a space craft to Mars at the first attempt, in 2014. This was swiftly followed by the successful test of the Indigenous Cryogenic Engine, 2014, which can regulate the power of its rocket thrust to allow greater payloads and fuel efficiency. The ISRO then launched a record 20 satellites from a single rocket (2016) but has now announced the planned launch of 103 satellites from a single rocket next month (Feb 2017), which former ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair described as “No big deal”. You think so? What would be a big deal?
      India has a government ministry, The Department for Space, placing space development at the heart of its public agenda. Critics may say that space programmes are a luxury but India earned £97 million from the launch of other countries’ satellites last year and has brought more overseas investment to India than the agricultural industry. The ISRO has declared planetary exploration a main intent, coupled with positioning the space industry to progress national development, which suggests it plans to make incredible explorations and use what it does and learns to repay the costs. Right now, India is designing and building a reusable launch vehicle, a heavy lift vehicle and a unified launch vehicle and it’s planning more lunar arrivals, footsteps in moon dust, starting with the Chandrayaan 2 combined lunar orbiter, lander and rover (mission date 2018).
      Okay, some of that’s been done but the next one certainly hasn’t. India is building a solar space craft called Aditya (Sanskrit for sun) which will be put into halo orbit at Lagrangian point 1, a stable point of gravity between bodies of in this case non-equivalent mass, to be our planet’s first uninterrupted and comprehensive solar and space environment observatory. Aditya will be our platform to monitor the solar corona, analyse particles in the solar wind, map magnetic fields in real time and provide ‘storm warnings’ as sun spots form and prepare to discharge towards us.

Faith: Saurabh Dashora, I’m so pleased that you found time from your two busy jobs to answer some questions. You are writing science fiction at a time when your country is assuming the initiative in turning space exploration fiction into space fact and that must be pretty exciting. Are you and has your book been inspired by these great space travel projects growing up around you?

Saurabh: Definitely, one automatically gets a lot of inspiration on seeing the tremendous progress India has made recently in space exploration. What I personally feel is that a writer is always inspired by his/her surroundings and the information from various sources until that one big thought strikes and then, he/she is left with no option but to sit and start writing. For me, Starship Samudram was a culmination of several years of love for science fiction and the real world space exploration activities happening all over the world and in India. Reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos some ten years ago was also a pivotal moment for me in building interest in space travel.

Faith: I can see from your work that you have a great interest in Saturn and have made a detailed study of the atmospheric moon Titan as a potential terraforming opportunity within our solar system. What conclusions have you reached and, if given all the resources you need to make something happen, what would you recommend that we do?

Saurabh: Saturn had always attracted me from childhood. Everything about it is amazing, mesmerizing, and majestic. When I read about Titan, I couldn't help but feeling intrigued. We see all sorts of fascinating but imaginary places in science fiction movies or books. But, here is a place in our very own solar system, which is so enigmatic and so full of mysteries. I also found that Titan does not get as much love as other places like Mars or Venus even though it has been always thought by scientists that after Earth, Titan is the most Earth-like place in the solar system.
      What I would recommend is that we should start thinking about establishing full-time colonies on Titan and other places like Jupiter's moon, Ganymede and our nearest neighbour, Mars. It wouldn't be a one-day task. We would need to build technology capable of assembling starships in Earth orbit, think about sustainable life in space, and preservation of human body during space travel. We should at-least try to definitely establish a permanent colony on our own Moon, something which I've considered as the most logical step for humanity in my novel Starship Samudram.

Faith: In your story, the Starship Samudram completes a lengthy voyage with around a thousand people on board. As all human space flights so far have involved just a handful of crew, what is your vision for sustaining and supplying large numbers of space mariners or colonists on future journeys of this size and distance?

Saurabh: It's important to see such voyages as mostly one-way journeys. First thing we would need to think about how to make starships that can sustain life on their own. For example, in Starship Samudram, most of the ship functions are taken care of by computers. There are farmlands within the ship's biomes, there are waste recyclers, there are power production facilities. Once the colonists left Earth, they didn't hope to return and hence needed that kind of security and assurance to take the plunge.
      Next big thing that needs to be achieved is to stop ageing. For a typical human life-time, space travel can be a huge hurdle. It takes almost three years to reach Titan, even if you are powered by nuclear energy. No one wants to get old travelling in space and doing nothing productive. Add to it the psychological effect of space travel and you're seeing a recipe for disaster even before reaching the destination.
      Another important thing is to have a chain of command. Come to think of it, a starship that can transport a thousand humans is like a mini-city and you can't hope to run it without some authority. But, it's always a thin line. That was one of the important themes I wanted to explore in Starship Samudram. Can human law and order created on Earth prevail a billion miles away? Will people even follow it? And what will be the effect of space travel on the hierarchical structure we are so comfortable following on Earth?

Faith: With the combined effects of climate change and increasing population, our planet will at some point run short of habitable land. Should we be looking off-planet for our solution, either to grow food in orbit or to establish colonies beyond Earth, or will it never be cost effective?

Saurabh: My resounding answer to this is a yes. Earth isn't going to last forever—no matter how much we are able to sustain it. If human race has to survive for a really long time, we've to definitely start looking off-planet. We've to establish colonies on the Moon, the Mars, maybe Titan, or maybe some other places. Even a permanent space station bigger than ISS will go a long way in advancing human race. The way I see it is that we've to somehow make it cost-effective. We can start by commercializing space exploration, probably to fulfil the need of natural resources, or acquire more land for the burgeoning population, or growing food. That will make it easy to get funds. 
      Over the centuries, humans have always thrived by migrating from one continent to another, extending their reach on Earth. The next logical step is our own solar system. It might not happen in our life-times but it should happen in the next generation or the next after that.

Faith: Many machines and concepts we make use of today have been invented first in science fiction. As an imaginative writer and futurologist, which of your ideas would you like to see established in reality?

Saurabh: There are two specific things. Firstly, I would very much love to see a starship like Samudram someday take off from Earth-orbit for a journey to another planet. I would also very much like to see a Thermo-Suit like the one explorers from Samudram use on Titan to be available in the real world. It would be really cool to have something that can extend our reach to harsher places than Earth.

Faith: A quick prediction please. I know the Earth is already in space but would you mind giving us your prediction of the year in which the first human child will be born in outer space?

Saurabh: If I've to just give a quick guess, I'd say three to four decades from now.

Faith: Can you please tell us more about your book Starship Samudram and what this story means to you?

Saurabh: Starship Samudram is my first book that I've thought worthy enough to be published and as a result, it's definitely the most important one for me. 
      From a genre point of view, one can call it a Science Fiction and it certainly is. But, it is also an adventure story, more in the category of space exploration. It also has elements of fear, mostly related to a fear of the unknown and how human mind reacts to situations outside its control. One of the recurring themes in Starship Samudram is also about humanity's place in the cosmos and whether we can evolve to a higher level in the future. 
      The main protagonist of the book is a geologist, Akshaj Parth, who has lost a lot in life and wants to escape Earth. Samudram was his last chance to do so because Earth is fast slipping into anarchy and disorder. There are several other important characters like the authoritative Commander Moody, Officer Xara, First Officer Cassie Lewis, and the Commander's own son, Jonathan Moody. The journey holds many promises for the various characters and each one has their own reason to be on the last voyage from Earth. They hope that Titan will give a new meaning to their lives. 
      Ultimately they find that the starship is not an exact utopia because too much of humanity's weaknesses have also found their way on-board. Neither is Titan similar to what they had initially anticipated. The book tells about their struggles on a totally alien world and how they uncover the mysteries shrouded within its dense atmosphere.

Faith: Indian literature is, of course, world famous but not many science fiction writers from your country have established themselves internationally. Could you recommend a few of your favourite national sci-fi novelists that should be better known internationally?

Saurabh: Unfortunately, science fiction is an often overlooked segment even though I feel the readers in India are highly interested in science fiction. Jayant Narlikar is one of the earliest Indian sci-fi writers that come to mind. Then, there's Satyajit Ray. However, there are also a lot of new writers, who are exploring Science Fiction and we might see a lot of activity in the coming years.

Faith: What would you want to write about next and why?

Saurabh: Of course, science fiction is my favourite and I'm now planning on a sequel to Starship Samudram. Those who've read Starship Samudram will know that even though the story ended on a logical level, there's a lot more going on in the Universe than what the protagonists thought. 
      However, I'd also like to write in different genres to explore different types of stories and themes. I'm currently working on a contemporary romance novel about first love, heartbreak, and chasing your dreams. More on that will come soon in the middle of 2017 if things go according to plan.

For readers who would like to find out more about Starship Samudram, here are links for the novel and to Saurabh's author page on Goodreads: 



1 comment:

  1. Hello...
    Nice article...well researched...incidentally, I had the pleasure of reading Starship Samudram recently as an ARC and it was quite intriguing...nice to read about the author's thoughts regarding the book and the various topics