The closest thing we have to the vacsuit in the Spinward Fringe series is the wetsuit, which has managed to reduce itself down to a staggeringly thin 0.5mm, thanks to more recent advancements. The picture to the left is from Scubastore.com, and depicts a Mares Varadero 0.5mm Trilastic tropical suit for men and women.
According to the Spinward Fringe books, humanity has gone well past the bulky space suits of today, and space protective wear has evolved into something that looks like any kind of clothing you would see today. In the beginning of The First Light Chronicles: Freeground (2.0 edition), I mention people who have re-shaped their suits to look like dresses, looser clothing, and other garments. Primarily you'll find them on characters as uniforms, or under clothing, however.
This post is meant to serve as an answer to all the questions I've received in email about the vacsuit and everything it can do.
Only one reader has asked; "Why does everyone wear them?"
This answer comes straight out of the Spinward Fringe Encyclopedia, a document I keep up to date as I write that includes all the technology, people, places and major events that take place inside and outside of the books.
In Freeground the most common form of dress is the vacsuit. It serves as a uniform as well as civilian clothing. Most of the residents in the outer station are still paranoid about being flushed out into space thanks to terrorist bombings that were wide spread during the All-Con Conflict [before Freeground]. For some people the vacsuits also serve as protective gear (engineering / technical fields), or armor (security, space station or star ship officers). Freeground is much like most space bound places in the universe where some kind of vacuum protective clothing is worn most of the time by residents who spend a lot of time in the outer areas of the station. Most crews wear a crude or more advanced type of protective clothing or underclothing while serving on ships. The suits can be reshaped as non-form fitting clothing that can automatically cover the wearer completely to protect them from the conditions of space or other lethal conditions.
In the Spinward Fringe series I make the assumption that mankind has developed some technologies more than others because they are more critical to survival. There's nothing convenient about a human being in space, you have to bring absolutely everything with you and space faring clothing is exceedingly difficult to devise and construct. History proves that humanity strives to make objects they have to use most often easier to utilize, more adaptable and convenient instead of changing the solution. I've extended this philosophy to the extreme development of the vacsuit.
Vacsuits in the Spinward Fringe series, and all the other futuristic details:
In Spinward Fringe, the vacsuits are worn as uniforms, armor, or as a style choice. Ashley is a good example of this, especially since she's the only character in the series who modifies her suit by adding images - a golden dragon on her back - and by making sections of her suit transparent or a different shape while off duty. The vacsuit that the Captain wears is primarily practical and serves as thin, reactive armor that can absorb or deflect physical and energy damage, for the most part. [He and military units in the books add a bulkier emitter layer on top of their suits, which is a completely different collection of technologies.]
Stephanie wears a vacsuit given to her by the Captain for protection as well, and has a more practical point of view than her friend, Ashley. The rest of the crew see these suits as a reward, since they offer the best protection and were given to the lead pilot and most seasoned boarding officer. The suits worn in Spinward Fringe: Resurrection and Awakening are made partially by the Captain's materializer and partially using nano construction technology. Versions that are purchasable from port side stores are very expensive, so the rest of the crew generally make due with more basic protective clothing that isn't form fitting or as comfortable as a vacsuit.
The technology behind the vacsuit is simple in principal. It's a many layered garment that can be re-shape and conform to the wearer's desires and needs. A basic vacsuit will protect from extreme cold and the more commonly found radiation of space. A Freeground vacsuit is made by energy to matter materialization technology. The actual construction process is very similar to today's high technology, where the circuits, protective materials, pigments, functional interactive computers and other objects are printed on to a thin, flexible base material that can change its shape. The result is a garment that feels like cloth and is between half a millimeter and a centimeter thick depending on which applications the suit is made for and the tastes of the wearer.
Layers that are built into a vacsuit include electronics with redundant circuitry, energy conversion layers (like solar panels but able to convert the user's motion, body heat, and even gravity into usable energy), a battery layer, radiation protection, displays (the dragon on Ashley's back and other patterns are made using this layer, and yes, they can be video), heating, cooling, extreme absorbency layers on the inside, carbon monoxide to oxygen conversion layers, kinetic reactive levels, and many other devices for various practical and impractical purposes.
The answer to anvils, wrecking balls and other crushing objects:
The most controversial part of the vacsuit with readers is its ability to save crew members from being crushed and react to impacts. I think it's about time for me to answer their questions and address their skepticism with this Encyclopedia entry:
The kinetic reactive layer is a dense level of the suit that lays under the armored layers. In the space of several microseconds it can react to a sudden change in pressure, causing the normally flexible armored layer on top of it to harden. The reactive layer is only a few microns thick, while the armor layer can be one or more millimeters in thickness and weigh up to 50 kilograms in military vacsuits or only grams in basic protection. Once the armor hardens, a small circuit determines whether or not it is safe for it to soften again based on information it receives from sensors or other sources that are in direct contact with the suit. If no information is available, it will remain hard by default (in vacsuits based on the Freeground design).
What changed between the First Light Chronicles and Spinward Fringe?
Before I wrote Freeground I did extensive research and wrote most of the above Encyclopedia entry. The video and image display capabilities were added in Spinward Fringe Broadcast 1: Resurrection, when I asked myself: "if a civilian were to live in this thing, what would we see them doing?" I started to answer that question by adding the dragon design to Ashley's suit, as seen in this fan-art. [Here's the rest of his site.] The answers to that simple question were staggering, and I realized that I could get bogged down by describing how everyone changed their uniforms whenever they were off duty or on a planet with an atmosphere where they didn't have to worry about sudden decompression. Thankfully, Wheeler and most of his crew wore the suits as underclothing, Minh, Jonas, Ayan and others wore over-garments that were made of the same protective material so that provided a simpler answer: Most vacsuits automatically expand for full coverage in an emergency and are the size of a one piece swim suit in volume. That made the whole idea of what a vacsuit looks like simple and broad, a vacsuit could look like anything.
That brings about another fact. Characters in the Spinward Fringe books who wear vacsuits as uniforms do so because they have to wear a uniform. It's that simple. If the uniform was a bear costume or a bikini and a tutu (just imagine Oz in both for a laugh), it could be. Thankfully, their uniforms are a little more practical. Even in the future created for Spinward Fringe a vacsuit can't move to cover bare skin in time to protect from the emissions of an energy weapon, so the uniforms have to have more coverage.
The Reality Behind the Vacsuit
There's good news for everyone who wants to wear one of these things (and I was surprised to hear that many people do). Research is under way in textiles and microscopic technology that will make the vacsuit and all the technology built into it a reality. The results of my queries when I was getting ready to write Freeground in 2007 were astounding. I quickly realized that my original idea of the 'one size fits all space suit' were severely limited and redeveloped my notion into the one Spinward Fringe readers know now.
Some of the existing, working technology include:
UV Protective clothing
Ultra thin solar technology
Kinetic battery chargers
Light emitting shirts
Shape changing clothing [High Fashion Not safe for work!]
Some creative Google searching will reveal even more real worlds examples of what you'd find in a vacsuit. The ongoing research is amazing.
Here's a question for everyone: How important do you find research is when someone is writing about futuristic science fiction? Please take a minute to answer in the comments.