Flame of Desire

2 08 2015

Kraxon Magazine have published my short story Flame of DesireI don’t know how they manage it, but they always pick the pictures to go with the story. My thanks go to the editor and his team.

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This story came about as a result of scientific discovery and what I call a giggle moment. The scientists found that a candle flame produces and throws into the air tiny tiny diamonds. The giggle moment was the idea that a man proposes to his girlfriend, but instead of of offering a diamond ring, offers her a flaming candle.

The story went through several iterations and there’s nothing about diamonds in it. You’ll just have to go and read it to find out what it’s all about.





A Small Improvement in Technology Means a Great Change in Society

30 07 2015

[I had finger-trouble setting up the original… hence the re-post.]

Wow! That’s quite a statement to make! It has shades of that famous quote: That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

But that is exactly what has happened in technology, over and over again. Take for instance Edward Jenner’s proof that the cow pox vaccine prevented smallpox, which led onto the whole field of vaccinations. It is him we have to thank for for our flu jabs today, and we all know the benefits of those. Then there was Sir Alexander Fleming noticing antibacterial qualities of penicullium bacteria, which led to the whole field of antibiotics. How many lives have antibiotics saved? Then there was Sir James Watt’s work on improving the Newcomen steam engine that lead to efficient steam engines, which apart from benefitting the mining and manufacturing industries, led to steam trains and railways and you know where we went from there. (By the way the Flying Scotsman is due to finish its refurbishment towards the end of this year – so fingers crossed we should see her back on the rails next year). Of course there zillions more examples like these. But in each case there has been a profound shift in the way society functions. The shift did not happen overnight, but it didn’t take more than a couple of decades before its effects were easily noticeable by the ordinary man in the street.

We are now in an age where governments of developed countries encourage research and development, because it leads to greater economic prosperity. There is research going on into all kinds of things at the moment. To take but a few (of my favourite) examples: the SABRE engine and the Skylon space plane; robotics and artificial intelligence; implanting chips into brains so that people can see again; and so on. These are the ones that grab the headlines and are known about. And any one of these will have a significant impact on society… I’ll leave this as an exercise for your imaginations.

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It’s not surprising that science fiction writers latch onto these and spin them into their stories.

But there is a lot of technology going on that does not get the glamorous press coverage. Take for instance the research going into developing very small machines that clean the artery walls of clogging. Or what about the research that has been going on into both cold and hot fusion? Or all that research going on into how to apply quantum mechanics to useful things?

These are the things the science fiction writers, for whatever reason, rarely if at all latch into.

Yes, i have seen all the examples mentioned in passing – a kind of convenience for the story, but what about their impact on society? Again I’m going to leave this as a exercise for your imaginations. Yes, I know it’s going to a little bit tougher than the previous exercise, but you’ll enjoy it… go on, have some fun!

Obviously there are some very obscure areas of research and development, like magnetohydrodynamics. And yes, i was crazy enough to put a short story together based on magnetohydrodynamics. And yes, I pushed the boundaries of what that could do, and had some very interesting insights. And yes it’s going to have some very interesting impacts on society.

But I’ve had an editor come back (and it was done with the kindest of intentions I may add) with a comment to the effect that the science seems a bit questionable. My reaction after I got over the shock… piscillating pussy cats type of unprintable…

And it got me thinking. I have a second story dealing with an obscure aspect of quantum mechanics that I have given up hope of seeing it in print and have therefore retired from doing the submission rounds.

So I now have two stories based good new, but obscure, technology that are having great difficulties finding a home. Both these technologies will have an impact on society and each of those stories was trying to point the way. It’s as if the science has gone out of science fiction. Let me repeat that…

The science has gone out of science fiction.

What we are seeing today are accepted science themes that have been around for some time. Any new science that is coming into the genre is well publicised and being used or in the later stages of development. What I am not seeing is the really new tech.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. This new tech, once it is introduced into society, will have an impact on society.

It has been the accepted job of science fiction to comment on the implications of new technology. And to me, it is falling down on this aspect, and judging by my experience, badly so.

Obviously one person commenting on a post can have very little immediate influence on this state of affairs. But if others, like yourselves who are reading this, pass the comments around, maybe, just maybe things will start to change.





We now know what happened to SpaceShipTwo…

28 07 2015

As noted previously on this blog, my story Tyrell’s Flight was originally due to be published on 1st November last year. However, SpaceShipTwo crashed on 31st October, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot, Peter Siebold. At the time there was speculation that the crash was due to a fuel leak… and my story also started with what looked like a fuel leak. In view of these circumstances, the Kraxon editor quite rightly postponed the publication of the story.

Well, the investigation into the crash has come up with its conclusions, namely it was a combination of the co-pilot releasing the feathering too early and there not being any in-built safety checks to make sure this could not happen. The details are reported here.

The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, lost his life. May he rest in peace in the knowledge that he will have made space flight safer for future generations.





And the science keeps on rolling in…

23 07 2015

Hey! Maybe I ought to run a column with that title here the way things are going…

Of course you are all familiar with the announcement that they have found Earth-2… I mean Kepler-452b – orbiting a G-Class sun (i.e. much like our own), only 1.5 billion years older than our own Sun. The planet has 4% greater gravity than Earth’s, 5% farther from its parent star than Earth, 10% larger diameter than Earth, and 385-day orbit (compared to 365.25-day orbit for Earth). And it’s in the Goldilocks zone for human habitation!

So what’s the problem?

It’s 1,400 light years away from us. In other words it will take us a VERY long time to travel there.

Even so, finding it means the astronomers and astrophysicists can concentrate their attention on it and find out more about how Earth-like planets are formed etc. Which means we can then focus our search even more for other Earth-like planets.

In the meantime there NASA has released even more information on Pluto – and this time they are saying they found craters! Who would have thought that finding craters in the Solar System would be so important… it shows that Pluto has suffered from asteroid impacts and that some of its surface is not all that new. But what it does mean is there is a mechanism that is renewing the polar cap (the heart shape) and the question now is what and how? As well as Pluto itself, there are pictures of Nix and Hydra.

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Notice that reddish patch on Nix? It probably means tholins – same as what they think are on Pluto. And there is a theory that tholins are but one step in the chain of events that lead to life existing.
So where does this leave science fiction? [Apart from having missed the trick of publishing Pluto related stories before the New Horizons flyby of course.] [And apart from having missed the trick of stories about the impact of the news of finding such exo-planets on the population.]
In the doldrums for being behind the curve…
Will that continue?
Your guess is as good as mine…




Looks like we’re going to the stars….

18 07 2015

With all the excitement about the results coming back from New Horizons about Pluto, it was easy to miss the ‘little’ news snippet that they have found a Solar System similar to ours. To quote the article: Our potential match lies about 200 light-years from Earth near a star called HIP 11915 that is very much like our sun. The star can be seen using binoculars near the constellation Cetus in North America’s southern night skies.

749px-Cetus_constellation_map

200 light means that we can get there with generation ships! Consequences of this announcement are enormous… it will gradually dawn on people that we can have a back-up to own Solar System that could sustain life without being under a dome or in an airtight habitat underground or waiting a long time for terraforming. Obviously more observations and research are needed, but this is a great start! Returning to Pluto… there have been people moaning that sending a probe to Pluto was and still is a waste of money, which could have been better spent on feeding the hungry or helping with much needed medical supplies or other such good works. My answer to this comes in several parts:

  1. We don’t know enough about our Sun yet to be certain that it will continue to shine in a stable configuration, which in turns means giving the wherewithal for food etc to be farmed. By sending a probe to Pluto we will gain a better understanding of the Solar System’s history, which in turn will help the scientists work out more about how the Sun works, which in turn could be used to pre-empt any detrimental effects the Sun might throw at us.
  2. We don’t yet know how life formed. Which means we don’t know how aliens can form and where to look for them. Those aliens may be hostile to us (hopefully not, but it’s possible) in which case we need to know if and when we need to take suitable measures to protect ourselves. Remember Alastair Reynolds’ light-huggers? They would look like ice-balls to us if they were incoming from another system.
  3. Finally, we need to know what real estate people can settle on in the future. The population on this planet despite best endeavours by some governments to limit the numbers, continues to rise. People need to live somewhere, somehow. The next step in the Moon or Mars (depending on which school of thought you come from), but we would eventually head out to the Kuiper Belt where Pluto is the King. As Pluto has a 248 year orbit that his highly eccentric, we need to know now what is going on with the dwarf planet. We won’t get another chance for another quarter of a millenium, which when engineering considerations are taken into account could be too late.

As if to back-up what I have been saying, Pluto has been full of surprises for the astrophysicists. They are not seeing what they expected to see. Here are some of the pointers to date:

  1. The lack of craters on it proves that it has a comparatively young geology. That means there is active cryo-volcanism going on.
  2. There is now a suggestion that complex hydrocarbons are forming and finding their way into the cracks of the surface where liquid whatever exists. Speculation in the past has suggested that life could be based on methane. Could this be the place where it could be found?
  3. The methane ice coating is more complex than they scientists expected. It’s going to take some real explaining.
  4. The surrounding nitrogen atmosphere reaches out from Pluto much further than expected.
  5. Then there is that strange mountain – the scientists are baffled as to how it could have come into being.

There’s more… but when all the information has been gathered and analysed, our understanding of science and what exists in the Solar System will have come on in leaps and bounds. This whole venture will act as an inspiration to the children of today to take science and technology subjects. There are too few of us now, let alone in the future when those who were inspired by the science fiction of Golden Age (1940s / 1950s / 1960s) are heading for retirement.

What surprises (and saddens) me greatly is that there has not been a whole load of science fiction stories published in anticipation of the New Horizons encounter – like there was with Viking landings on Mars. I am not sure of what the reasons for this are… and it is certainly something that needs to be looked into. Edit: A summary of what has been discovered about Pluto and its moons so far can be seen here





And the science keeps on coming…

14 07 2015

Of course the big news story for today is the fly-by of Pluto…

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…and they’re already getting more information about it. First off, they have confirmed that it is bigger that Eris, which makes Pluto the biggest Kuiper Belt object we know about. Also it has a thin atmosphere of nitrogen around it that goes out much farther than expected. I’ll be particularly interested in the ice and rock make-up. Just how much ice is evaporated each time it closes in on the Sun in its highly eccentric orbit? And difference does that make to the ice and rock formations? How different is it from Triton, which is supposed to be a captured moon with similar ice and rock features? All questions that we will have to patiently wait for answers. But one thing is for sure… it should be an inspiration for more science fiction stories.

In other news, there’s two new letters have been added to the DNA alphabet of four – G, C, A and T. They are P and Z and have been artificially made. See here for more details. What this could mean is that we can design creatures that could not exist on Earth. Frankenstein and his ilk may have to move over to give way to some extreme DNA based exotica… certainly a fruitful area for new ideas in science fiction.

Finally comes the news that we are heading for a mini ice age, much like the one that occurred between 1645 and 1715. See here for more details. It’ll give us humans a little bit of breathing space as far as global warming is concerned, but the rise in temperatures will outstrip this mini ice age. But this discovery does go to back up what I have been saying about global warming. We do not know all the factors that could affect global warming, yet. I reckon governments are waiting to find out more about the such factors as the Sun and volcanic eruption frequency, before they make a move. Now here’s the thing… the government that gets the answers first is likely to use that information for its national advantage. There are several ways this could be done, any of which would make a good basis for a science fiction story.

With all this science coming in now, and more on the horizon, why oh why aren’t there more science fiction books exploring the impact of these things?





Edge-Lit 4 – Summary Report

11 07 2015

Yes, I was lurking around Edge-Lit 4 in Derby today. And it was in some senses eye-opening.

Naturally I could not attend all the events, but here are some pointers…

Thanks to Knightwatch, Terry Jackman was able to launch her book here in the UK. She read the second chapter, more because of the limited time she was allotted more than anything else. If you want to see the first few pages, look here. But this comes with a health warning… once you start reading it, you won;t want to put it down. The books that Knightwatch launched are more to do with horror than anything else, so not what you would call my cup of tea. Others are best left to judge those.

Ashamet-Cover

The workshop ran by Gav Thorpe on Pushing the Edges – How to be Inventive, proved useful and entertaining. So if he does another workshop on this theme and you are short of ideas, it would definitely be for you.

The other workshop I attended was on World Building, cultures and Societies. The workshop lead, Adrian Tchaikovsky, pointed out that a lot of fantasy is based on history e.g. Game of Thrones on the War of the Roses. But for those that want to avoid history, there is a lot of work required in world building. Boy, do I know what he means. See here – page 158 – for the start to my novel, A Void Dance. And this is only the tip of the iceberg… please excuse the puns in this instance, one was intended, the other not! What it does mean is that what I want to develop next in science fiction is going to be a nightmare of the darkest kind… I must be absolutely mad to even think of attempting it!

I did sit through the panel on Breaking Boundaries – Are Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction Closer Than Ever? Panel members tended to point towards a them and us culture existing between the two. What I found interesting was that other than associating certain parties with a vested interest in retaining the superiority of literary fiction over genre fiction, there was no definition of literary fiction. This led naturally onto the way women writers continue to be badly treated in science fiction. We had a couple of stories from panel members, which to put it bluntly, were horrifying and should not have happened.

I also sat half way through the panel on The Future is Now – Has Science Fiction Started to Become Reality? [Had to catch the train back.] The panel members indicated that various inventions had first been suggested in science fiction, but none of the worlds science fiction had come up with had actually come to pass or looked likely to come to pass. As an engineer, I was disappointed with the quality of some of the scientific discussions, to the extent that at one point I sucked my teeth. I know they are science fiction writers and a lot of what they said was right, but the basis of their knowledge fell short. If they had looked into the subjects further, they would have realised that they were getting the consequences of the way technology was developing wrong. So I found this panel particularly disappointing.

So basically 3 out of 4 good panels / workshops, which means it was a good convention worth going to.








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