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Literature / Aristillus

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What is a large ocean shipping freighter doing on the Lunar Surface? The book makes good on its cover.

The Aristillus Series is a (mostly) hard Science Fiction series of novels by author Travis J.I. Corcoran, taking much inspiration from Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress but asking, among other things, "what if every moon colonist had an anti-materiel rifle?" Set in and around the year 2064 at the start of the series, it portrays earth as a stagnant economic power in the midst of a decades-long depression thanks to the iron-fisted/velvet-gloved global government that has complete control over the planet's productive capacity. Rather than a prison colony where malcontents are exiled, the moon colony was founded by the CEO of an earth corporation and the scientist who invented the AG drive escaping the nationalization of earth companies (and likely prison sentences for each CEO), and the lunar 'culture' reflects their entrepreneurial spirit. The colony, located in the Aristillus crater, has become economically independent and is drawing more and more settlers, which is causing the Earth powers to finally sit up and take notice.

The series largely focuses on the Founder of Aristillus and CEO of a tunneling company Mike Martin, and his immediate associates including girlfriend Darcy Grau, who pilots the ''Wookkiee'', as they try to navigate through the increasingly dire threat posed by the earth's military forces, even as the colony continues to grow. The Book also follows a quartet of dogs and their friend/rescuer John as they undertake an expedition to circumnavigate the moon on foot, which quickly becomes a dangerous endeavor as the conflict with earth heats up.

The technology featured in the series is mostly accurate to real life but for three "special" techs: an anti-gravity drive, talking dogs with genius level intellect, and a pre-singularity AGI. As Corcoran takes consistency and realism seriously, anytime a ship (or other object) is entering or leaving orbit you can bet that he's done the math and made sure it would work in real life, so expect absolutely minimal handwaving of any implications of the technology at play here.

The series so far includes the following novels:

  • The Powers of the Earth (2017)
  • Causes of Separation (2018)

both of which won the Prometheus Award in their respective years.

There are more Novels in progress:

  • Right and Duty
  • Absolute Tyranny

The short stories Staking a Claim and The Team take place shortly before the events of the novels and explain the backstories of certain main characters.

The Aristillus series contains examples of:

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     The series in general 

  • Accidental Discovery: Several technological breakthroughs in the series occur through serendipity, showing how innovation can be unplanned and unexpected. This reflects the series' emphasis on the benefits of free experimentation and exploration.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Played with. John constantly wonders if Gamma is working towards an imminent "hard takeoff", even as Gamma tries to assure him that it has reached the limit of its intelligence. In fact, Gamma worries more about itself going out of control than any other character, as it preemptively destroys any instances of itself that slips beyond its control so as to avoid a power struggle later.
  • Alien Sky: The lunar landscape, with Earth prominently visible in the sky, is a constant reminder of the distance between the colonists and their home planet, reinforcing the theme of isolation and independence.
  • Author Appeal: Radical libertarianism, arguably taken even further than Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, since this time around the moon colony wasn't founded by the government as a penal colony but was built from the ground up, John Galt style, by a handful of driven and competent entrepreneurs using only the sweat of their own brow and the wealthy they rightfully earned.
  • Artificial Intelligence: Gamma was an AI rescued from destruction by John and brought to the Aristillus colony. Able to wax philosophical but also very reluctant to reveal too much to its "friends", Gamma drives much of the plot of the first two books.
  • Author Filibuster: Almost entirely averted: The first ideological speech is made midway through the second volume by Selina Hargraves, a young woman from Earth. She doesn't agree with the Aristillans' libertarianism but condemns Earth's extreme coercive measures (such as aggressive war and torture of prisoners).
  • Ban on A.I.: Earth's explicit policy, as enforced by the Bureau for Sustainable Research.
  • Benevolent A.I.: Gamma's actions during the story are all beneficial to the Lunar Colony, but its real intentions and goals are not revealed.
  • BFG: The Gargoyle Rifle. Firing a round twice the diameter and eight times the mass of a .50 BMG, this gun is designed to fully take advantage of the moon's lower gravity and lack of atmosphere, making it essentially a man-portable cannon. Comes in handy on many occasions.
  • Canine Companion: The uplifted dogs in the series aren't just pets but are intelligent beings who play a crucial role in the narrative, showcasing themes of friendship, loyalty, and the moral implications of bioengineering.
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: Thanks to the AG drive, it is explicitly stated that there are regular smuggling runs from the moon to earth and back, all using jury-rigged container ships. In the second book, an open-source design for a vessel capable of traveling from earth to the moon is distributed, which can be built by civilians with the proper tools.
  • Crapsack World: While we don't get much view of the conditions on Earth until the second book, all indications point to this applying. Decades long recession, rolling brownouts, California suffering from an earthquake that has left the entire state without power, and major conflicts ongoing in various places around the globe. This serves as a large motivation for many people to immigrate to Aristillus.
  • Dramatis Personae: Each book has one, and thankfully so as there are dozens of characters making regular entrances and exits, so the handy reference helps remind us who is who.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: Earth is depicted as having declined into economic stagnation and authoritarianism, contrasting with the dynamic and innovative lunar society and highlighting the consequences of different political and economic systems.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: Aristillus has few aboveground buildings; the entire city is made from tunnels cleared by tunnel boring machines, which was easier than building on the surface. To the earth forces, it has all the appearances of a supervillain lair.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: The dogs hide on Aristillus because the earth Government sought to destroy them, and still does, and their entire species was rescued by one heroic human, John, and his team. John is extremely protective of the dogs as a result, and the dogs are mostly extremely respectful towards John.
  • Humans Are Flawed: The series portrays humans, both on Earth and the moon, as complex and morally ambiguous, avoiding simplistic portrayals of good versus evil. This is highlighted by the presence of the intelligent dogs *and* the superintelligent AI.
  • MacGyvering: Most of the main protagonists are extremely good at problem solving on the fly with limited materials. In book 1, the dogs need to check on some satellites in lunar orbit, but don't have a telescope. They make one using cameras from their spacesuits and some coding to interpolate the image.
  • Noodle Incident: The CEO trials are repeatedly referenced and is explained as the earth Government's arrest and trial of the executives of various earth companies as part of the process of nationalizing all industries. We have an idea of what they were like but the process is never actually explained.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The lunar colony's lax approach to safety regulations, in contrast to Earth's overbearing rules, showcases the trade-offs between freedom and security.
  • Oppressive States of America: America remains nominally a democracy but has succumbed to one-party rule for decades, and the economy is now fully nationalized, with all economic ills now scapegoated on a handful of rebellious territories.
  • Privately Owned Society: Every single inch of land on Aristillus is held by one private entity or another, and the whole colony works on the principles of private property.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Blue considers his own species to be this.
    Blue: He had to admit the truth: his entire species was a band of misfits - Max always ranting about genocide and fighting back, Duncan playing RPG's when he should be paying attention, and Rex was hacking anything and everything from cameras to -well- piss bags.
  • Settling the Frontier: The Moon Colony represents the next step in human expansion, even if most people on earth don't even know it exists. By the time of the novels, the colony is self-sustaining and isn't far from turning into an economic power in its own right, but is explicitly stated to lack advanced fabrication capacity and other accouterments of a developed city/nation. The concept of settling a frontier is given much philosophical examination in the second book.
  • Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism: Aristillus is about as far up the Libertarian Scale as you can imagine. The Earth occupies the opposite extreme, although it wears a friendly face.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: Despite being technologically and numerically outmatched by Earth, the lunar colonists, through their resourcefulness and determination, often manage to outwit or overcome challenges posed by Earth's forces.
  • Uplifted Animal: Dogs were granted sentience and intelligence by a government agency, resulting in a whole species that can talk, program computers, and work to understand their own place in the universe
  • Vast Bureaucracy: Implied to exist on Earth and the U.S. government in particular, numerous agencies are mentioned by name, especially the Bureau of Sustainable Research, which prevents any innovation that might disrupt the planned economy. Many times in the story it is implied that to get anything useful done on Earth you must contend with miles and miles of red tape. Those mentioned by name include: The Internet Control Bureau.

     The Powers of the Earth 

  • Almost Out of Oxygen:
    • Befalls John and the dogs when they lose contact with the colony and are too far from anywhere they could walk to before they run out of Carbon Dioxide scrubbers.
    • Tudel and his Troops also face this fate when the Wookkiee begans to launch into space while they are stuck on its open-air deck
  • A Storm Is Coming: This is Mike's constant refrain for about the first act of the book, where he tells anyone who listens that they're at best a few years out from an invasion by Earth. It consumes his thinking, and when the first waves come earlier than expected, it is Mike's preparations that save the day. Through the second act, his message remains mostly unchanged, except that he now believes a bigger storm is coming.
  • Augmented Reality: The Dogs code an augmented reality overlay for their spacesuits to spice up the barren terrain on their trek across the lunar surface, so they can pretend to be hiking through African desert, snowy mountains, a magical mushroom forest, a dusty southwestern trailer, or a hardwood forest. Later they add in AI monsters which can be battled and 'killed' for experience points, RPG style. Their game is then connected to an existing MMORPG so they can interact with other players and they gain a significant following.
  • Black Market: Smuggling operations between Earth and the Moon, like those conducted by Darcy Grau in her ship the Wookkiee, illustrate the demand for goods restricted by Earth’s government and the need for resources on the growing lunar colony.
  • Blinded by the Light: When US/UN Peacekeeper forces board the unarmed Wookkiee, the crew catches them in the act by turning on the Klieg lights, causing a couple of the soldiers to freeze. The crew unconvincingly demands a surrender, but without any other weapons their only option is to attempt a launch.
  • Boom, Headshot!:
    • During the hostage standoff between Mike and PK forces, members of Mike's militia are executed via headshot when Mike attempts to call their bluff.
    • Tudel finishes Rex by shooting him in the head, after landing a few shots center of mass.
    • John encounters a landing party of PK troops and pulls off a few long-distance headshots while engaging them.
  • The Cassandra: Mike constantly foretells of invasion and subjugation by Earth forces, which generally prompts eyerolls from his friends, who think he's either exaggerating or going completely mental.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Tudel breaks Captain Kear's fingers one by one solely for the purpose of revenge.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive:
    • Leroy Fournier sees nothing wrong with employing dirty tactics, blackmail, and sabotage to beat his rival, Mike Martin, and worst of all he's petty about it, believing he's just claiming the success to which he's entitled.
    • from the perspective of the U.S. Government, every single CEO on Aristillus is corrupt, dodging taxes and "stealing" productive capacity. This is after Earth imprisoned many executives and nationalized their companies.
  • Emergency Authority: Gamma mentions that an "Emergency Powers Act" was passed sometime ago in the U.S. after Baltimore was nuked by the Sudan Alliance. Given what else we see in the novel, it is unlikely that this act was ever repealed or expired.
  • Energy Weapon: Earth uses ground-based lasers to fry Gamma's satellites so Gamma can't spot the incoming invasion force and to prevent the lunar forces from communicating.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Multiple times during the battle on the Wookkiee. First a PK fails to spot Iosif who is hovering above him in the room. Then Iosif fails to spot the PK Sergeant with a grenade launcher, the grenadier then fails to spot Luka, who takes him out with a wrench, and then Luka misses the last PK, who ends his rampage.
  • False Reassurance: When Gamma answers a question it is usually truthful, but also words its answer specifically so as to avoid divulging information it might want to keep secret. John doesn't buy it, but there's not much he can do.
  • Groin Attack: Captain Kear kicks PK Captain Tudel in the crotch after overpowering him, as vengeance for Tudel breaking his nose.
    Captain Kear: Monopoly of Force my ass. Fuck you, you statist asshole.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Mike Martin, to the extent that it hurts his interests when someone takes advantage of him or he can't effectively fight back against dirty tactics. Indeed, his direct approach makes it difficult for him to pull off the political maneuvering necessary to prepare Aristillus for war.
  • Hostage Situation: The RTFM, an AG-drive cargo ship seized by UN/US forces, lands on the moon with sixty troops and captures members of Mike Martin's militia to use as hostages and human shields to demand a recharge so they can return to earth.
  • Howl of Sorrow: The dogs engage in a very literal howl of sorrow when Rex is killed by Tudel.
  • If My Calculations Are Correct: Darcy and Wasseem work on figuring out whether they can land the off-course Wookkiee safely on the moon and, if their calculations are correct, conclude that they can, barely.
  • Impeded Communication: Earth forces destroy communications satellites in orbit around the moon, cutting Gamma off from it's other sites, cutting John and the dogs off from Aristillus, and the City off from the rest of the Moon. For Aristillus this is inconvenient, for John and the dogs its life-threatening, for Gamma this literally splits its mind into pieces.
  • Information Wantsto Be Free: Mike releases open-source designs for the AG drive as well as a ship that a civilian could possibly make at home. Justified in that the earth forces are inevitably going to reverse-engineer the tech soon and the colony needs a glut of immigrants to increase its chances at survival.
  • Luxurious Liquor: Both Mike Martin and Leroy Fournier, each quite wealthy have interludes that involve drinking whiskey or gin while engaging in introspection.
  • Manipulative Editing: Leroy uses some footage of Mike and his old friend Kevin Bultman to make an attempt at blackmailing Mike with reputational damage. The out-of-context footage makes it appear that the two are agreeing to fraudulently alter some drilling records, which is ironically exactly what Leroy did.
  • The Mole: Captain Matthew Dewitt is given the task of infiltrating the colony for the purpose of gathering intel and acting as a saboteur in preparation of a full-scale invasion. By all appearances, he succeeds.
  • My Instincts Are Showing: Toyed with constantly with the dogs, as their enhanced intellect is often at odds with their canine proclivities. Rex programs an application that not only simulates the sound of urine splashing when peeing in a spacesuit, it geotags the location so that it can be 'marked' as territory.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Hugh is young and inexperienced, but is especially out of his element in the unregulated and unrestrained capitalistic colony that is Aristillus.
  • No Gravity for You: Captain Kear and couple of the Wookkiee crew take advantage of the ship's transition to microgravity to get the jump on PK soldiers who have captured the ship, and have not trained for zero-g manuevers.
  • Nuclear Option: Ordered and initiated by the U.S. government when the USAF/UNAF ship Paul-Henri Spaak crashes after losing a philosophical then military confrontation with one of Gamma's facilities. The ship is 'scuttled' via nuclear blast with the intention of preventing the expats from seizing cryptography hardware, but whether the action was actually justified is somewhat left as an exercise for the reader.
  • Pet the Dog: Used literally when Darcy rescues John and the dogs from eventual death by asphyxiation. Duncan and Rex enjoy affectionate scratches.
  • Political Overcorrectness: The U.S. military has quotas for so-called "alternately-abled soldiers" wherein disabled soldiers, even those in wheelchairs, are included in military combat operations, along with all the accommodations this requires.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Driving off the first UN invasion force and rescuing a handful of hostages seems like an unambiguous win, except that Aristillus is completely unprepared for the full-scale war that will inevitably follow, and now the UN forces have the AG drive which will enable them to send an overwhelming force the next time.
    Mike Martin: The war was starting way too soon. He'd won a battle- no, not even. A skirmish. A fistfight. He'd won nothing.
  • Shout-Out: Gamma directly references The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and its 2019 movie when talking about sci-fi models of successful revolutions, then snipes a reference to Starship Troopers from Max while debating the merit of violence as a means to an end.
  • Sole Survivor: U.S. Army Captain Frank Tudel, who is the only member of his whole unit to survive the otherwise successful attempt to capture a Lunar ship with an AG drive. Although the deaths of his soldiers were largely his fault, he only mourns the loss of his career, though his incompetence is rewarded by his superiors because of the unique intelligence he now possesses, and his continued incompetence helps save the Lunar colony.
  • Pretext for War:
    • Very early in the story, the U.S. President Themba Johnson lays out various causes for invading the expat colony; tax evasion, theft of productive assets, and most importantly gaining support to win the next election.
    President Themba Johnson: These people think they can take advantage of the schools and roads and everything that our society provides, then just leave without paying their fair share? That, general, is the point of all this.
    • During the first UN invasion, a PK captain justifies holding prisoners by calling them smugglers and terrorist combatants in possession of illegal weaponry.
    • After the Colonist's open defiance of the UN forces, the case for invading is, from the Earth government's perspective, made stronger.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Mark, a devout Mormon, wants to enforce morality and a family-friendly society, even if that means creating a government. Mike is utterly opposed to even entertaining the "suggestion" of a government. Both men work together to fight the war against Earth, even while fighting over the personal issues.
  • Waving Signs Around: A boardroom group meeting is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of protesters with masks, cameras, banners and rocks.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: The colonists' ability to creatively use their limited resources in a variety of situations, such as repurposing mining equipment for defense, exemplifies their ingenuity and adaptability. Also, application of high-caliber firepower is good for solving many problems.

    Causes of Separation 
  • Caffeine Failure: Mike Martin's reliance on coffee to fuel his work marathons becomes a running joke, as if the fate of the moon colony hinges on the steady supply of his favorite beans.
  • Fish out of Water: Hugh, with his naïve Earth upbringing, reacts to lunar life like a cat at a dog show - completely out of his element but too curious to leave.
  • Going Native: Captain Matthew Dewitt, originally tasked with infiltrating the colony to aid the invasion, starts to befriend the locals and eventually comes to prefer their way of life, or perhaps their standard of living.
  • Shell Game: Darren Hollins pulls off a very smooth operation to remove all the gold from the colony prior to the U.N. invasion, without anyone knowing it was gone. Important since seizing the gold was a large factor in the decision to invade.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Earth’s forces, while nominally better equipped, continually underestimate the moon colonists, who have a particular level of grit due to surviving the harsh moon conditions, as well as a serious motivation to defend their home.

     Staking a Claim 
  • The Determinator: Robert trudges agonizingly over miles of lunar surface nonstop in order to protect his claim from the jumper.
  • MacGyvering: Robert is locked in his habitat on the moon, far from the main lunar city, and his spacesuit doesn't contain enough oxygen to get him there on foot. Luckily, his hab has a workshop with plentiful tools and materials, and he is resourceful and more than a little desperate. Mac Guyvering ensues.
  • Prospector: Robert is a very technologically advanced version, but the basic premise and the risks are pretty much identical to the 1849 job description.
  • You Can Barely Stand: Robert completes his journey to Aristillus in the nick of time, but can't even move a step further. He manages to sling a hammer at the claim jumper before collapsing.

    The Team 
  • Destroy the Security Camera: John makes sure to do so with a smuggled drone before posting a false bomb threat at the labs he guards.
  • EMP: Doug's foresight to include an EMP mortar in his kit bag saves the whole plan.
  • Government Conspiracy: The existence of the uplifted dogs is kept secret from the public and even the soldiers assigned to guard the laboratory.
  • I Gave My Word: John feels obligated to rescue Gamma because of a spur-of-the-moment promise he made to one of the young dogs.
  • Time for Plan B: Since the original escape plan is FUBAR, John has to improvise and go with their backup while government forces are closing in.