Making Fiction Into Fact

Read the opening pages of Stargate’s latest novel:  THE DRIFT.

Where in the World is the Ancient Outpost?

Lord Yu's Dragon Guard at Antarctica's Ferrar Glacier
Dragon Guard Huang Sun Tzu at Antarctica’s Ferrar Glacier

It’s a tricky thing – setting a science fiction novel in an actual existing location on Earth.  It’s even trickier when you place your novel in one of the most alien regions of Earth.  Add on to that the weight of working with pre-existing material (in this case, the entire Stargate franchise) and the task becomes daunting.

But who doesn’t love a good challenge?

As writers, one of the first things we must help the reader to do is suspend disbelief.  It’s one thing to do that on an alien planet.  It’s a completely different kettle of fish when the story takes place on Earth in a real setting (in this case, Antarctica).  And forget helping the reader suspend disbelief — I’m the kind of writer who needs to build my story on realities in such a way that (other than the Stargate technology) could be possible.   Using facts, bending them, pushing them, exploring their very edges of possibility…  Isn’t that what storytelling is about?  My ultimate goal is to give the reader a sense of wonder, but in order to do that, I need to have it myself.

I knew I wanted to do another SG-1 book that explored what happened to the Antarctic weapons platform AFTER the Stargate Atlantis pilot.  Operating the chair required two things:  1) High level clearance, and, 2) the Ancient genetic markers needed to activate the alien technology.  Most folks who fit that criteria left on the Atlantis expedition.  Where would our government (in the fictional world of the franchise) replacements?  Since Jack had repeatedly demonstrated his aptitude to Ancient technology, wouldn’t the president and General Hammond want him involved in training those replacements?    Out of this was born the primary setting for The Drift and yet, I knew I needed more.  A source of antagonism.  A threat.  And a way to further the spirit of the franchise and its ability to weave threads from through-out the series into a new tapestry with each and every story.

When I completed work on SG-1: Four Dragons, I knew there was more story to tell.   The thorn I’d created in SG-1’s side — otherwise known as Huang Sun Tzu, a cloned descendant of Sun Tzu and devoted Dragon Guard for System Lord Yu — didn’t just take a cargo ship to Earth and set up shop as a Chinese ambassador to the U.S.  As Sam rightly theorized in Four Dragons, he had to have come through the Antarctic Stargate.

Okay, that’s a good start, but how the hell did he get from the coldest, driest, most desolate location on Earth to China?  He couldn’t just walk there.  How would he survive?  What would he eat?  Where would he take shelter?  (How he entered the Chinese Diplomatic Corp is a blog post for another day).   More importantly, if I wanted The Drift to explore his struggles upon exiting the Antarctic gate, wouldn’t I need to know WHERE in Antarctica that gate (and the Ancient outpost) were located?   Easier said than done.

FINDING THE ANCIENT OUTPOST began with a review of what breadcrumbs had been dropped throughout the series.   The first time we discover a tie between Antarctica, the Ancients, and the Stargates appeared early on in Season One:

Walter pinpoints Sam & Jack’s location.
From SG-1 “Solititudes”
Image copyright – MGM-TV

From Stargate SG-1 “Solitudes”
written by Brad Wright

WALTER: We got it! Antarctica!  The timing of the event is to the second, including the event that Dr. Jackson experienced a few hours ago!

HAMMOND: Latitude and longitude?

WALTER: Yes Sir! It’s only about 50 miles out of McMurdo!

Okay – that doesn’t sound hard, does it?   Then I looked up McMurdo:

  • McMurdo is a research station, not a military base.  Yes, it receives military support.  Yes, it is American-run, but the National Science Foundation is in charge.  Not the Air Force.  (The Antarctic Treaty prohibits militarization)
  • McMurdo is actually not on the continent’s mainland.  Located at 77 degrees 51 minutes S, 166 degrees 40 minutes E, is the largest Antarctic station. McMurdo is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island between the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound.
  • While McMurdo Sound is most definitely frozen over in the winter months, it doesn’t stay that way.  As we learn with later breadcrumbs (Lost City, SGA’s Rising), the Ancient outpost is some 200 feet (or more — depending on the episode) down within the ice.  So clearly, the outpost couldn’t be “in” the sound.
So where was it?
The next crumb dropped by Stargate‘s writing team (Brad Wright, Robert Cooper, etc.) came in the sixth season.  “Frozen” investigates the discovery of an Ancient woman frozen in the ice in Antarctica near where they found the Stargate.  There’s even some nice exterior shots of the research base.  Only problem is:  Those are shots of the Amundsen-Scott Research Station which is located 850 miles away from McMurdo.  I know, I know.  It’s fiction, but still!  I was determined to pinpoint the location of the outpost if for no other reason than to make sure that the chapters covering Huang’s struggles to survive in Antarctica had a feeling of legitimacy to them.
Happily, the next breadcrumb supplied an image of inspiration.    In season seven’s “Lost City,”  Jack O’Neill (and the Ancient Repository) uses the team’s cargo ship to drill an entry-way down into the Ancient Outpost.   See the mountains in the background?  Notice the flat ice.  If we take away the possibility of this being McMurdo Sound (or the Ross Sea), that leaves a few possibilities.  Narrow it down to being 50 miles away from McMurdo Station and there’s only one conclusion:
Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a glacier for those unfamiliar:
A large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation (melting and sublimation) over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km2 in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight. Crevasses, seracs, and other distinguishing features of a glacier are due to its flow. Another consequence of glacier flow is the transport of rock and debris abraded from its substrate and resultant landforms like cirques and moraines. Glaciers form on land, often elevated, and are distinct from the much thinner sea ice and lake ice that form on the surface of bodies of water.

And here’s a map of the region to give you a sense of distance and location:
Finding the location was just the beginning.  Now that I “knew” where to place the outpost, the next thing to do was to figure out what resources would have been available to Huang in the 1950s.  That meant food, shelter, and eventually… civilization.  There’s a logic to my madness in his finding all three and I’ll post more on that in a few days.  Suffice it to say, the Ancients weren’t the only litterbugs.  Our early Antarctic explorers (Scott, Shackleton, and others) left behind quite a few goodies that helped Huang survive.