Silver Honourable Mention III

Wow! This comes as a lovely surprise – I’ve got a Silver Honourable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest for the first quarter of their 2022 year (which runs Oct 2021 to Sep 2022). Link to results here. My congratulations to all winners – all their stories will have something special about them.

This is my third one! Yay! It means having achieved this standard of writing, I seem to be maintaining it. For those who want to have some idea of what gaining a Silver Honourable Mention means, see my previous blog on the subject (link here).

This particular story is set on Mars in the same universe as The Martian Wind. The heroine of this story does have a bit part to play in the new story, but is not the main protagonist. So yes, I have been building on this universe. And no, it is nothing like The Expanse. My stories are more technology-driven, by which I mean the extrapolated technology from our current time drives the way society has developed and is effectively a main character in the story (i.e. no alien intervention or magic of any sort).

An SF-nal Resonance

I came across a lovely phrase in one of Greg Egan’s stories – ‘Humanities students are so myopic.’ This rings so true to me! Let me explain…

Humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, religion, and art: basically anything except the sciences and mathematics.

The thing about the humanities is they rely on being, comparatively speaking, close to real life experience. Even fairy tales are derived from experience, but come with a twist away from the unhappiness of reality. For example, Snow White derives from the history of Margaretha von Waldeck and King Phillip II of Spain when he was still a prince. Even fantasy has its derivation in reality, such as Tolkien’s orc which is derived from Old English meaning a goblin, spectre or hell-devil. It is all very limited in outlook.

Science and maths on the other hand postulate their rules, check them and if no real-life exceptions are found, are accepted as true. That truth extends to simple infinity and beyond (yes there are things beyond simple infinity – look up Cantor’s infinities). People who are understand the necessary parts of science and maths can and do use their imaginations to visualise and understand what those physically unreachable parts of the universe / multiverse are like. They are guided by the science and maths laws local to us. And believe me some of those extrapolations into the far away are weird, beyond easy comprehension.

It is the job of a science fiction to explain what those far away existences are like in simple words, so that the ordinary person in the street can have a chance of understanding it better. A friend of mine who is definitely not into science fiction kindly bought Best of British Science Fiction 2020 anthology in which my short story, Rings Around Saturn appears. She volunteered the comment that my description of the unusual scenery was so good she could actually visualise it. It made me suspect this is the reason the story was included in the anthology. But there is no way such scenery can exist on Earth. In fact it is way out of anyone’s experience. I certainly could not have described it had I not had the benefit of understanding the physics behind such a phenomenon, which adds credence to my assertion about the sciences letting us sense farther and deeper into reality than the humanities. And it backs up Greg Egan’s sentiment about humanities being myopic.

Science fiction has many definitions. One that I believe the majority of people are happy with is that it answers a ‘What if?” question.

But in reality science fiction is more than just a ‘What if?’ Science fiction does not take someone in the here and now going against an expected decision. That is the contemporary literature of our experience in its various genres of romance, mystery, etc. Science fiction does not take historical facts and answers the what if we were looking through the eyes of this person or that? That’s historical fiction. Instead science fiction takes us to far beyond our reach places, takes up viewpoints from well outside human experience, puts us into situations far from those we are familiar with and more. The common feature of answering the famous ‘What if?’ is the far beyond our experience aspect no matter what that aspect is.

I’d therefore like to amend the popular definition to: Science Fiction answers the ‘What if?’ question that takes us way beyond our collective experience.

There is a price to pay for such a genre. Some people do not like being taken out of their comfort zone of their experience. They will refuse to have anything to do with the genre, being scared of what they might read. Others might think science fiction is a load of nonsense because they find the question too incredible to believe it can come anywhere close to reality. This can lead to the genre being given a detrimental reputation putting yet more people off reading it. Whatever the reason, there will always be a cadre of people who think science fiction is a waste of time. There is nothing that can be done about it.

For those like me who can accept the unlikely, the obscure or interacting unusualities, science fiction offers wonderful virtual realities not entered into up until now. It offers the excitement of the unknown, an enrichment of experience and stimulates serious thinking. Which is why I find Greg Egan’s ‘Humanities students are so myopic,’ statement so resonating.

Nano-robots in Science Fiction

Like all science fiction writers I occasionally look round other SF writers’ blogs to see what their current interests are. One such blog is run by Gareth L Powell – he of the Embers of War trilogy fame. A recent post of his particularly caught my eye. It’s about the recent progress in using swarms of nano-robots. Apparently Bath and Birmingham Universities have collaborated to find that coating soft material in ‘active matter’ allowed them to control its movement and function more effectively. He then goes on to list potential uses for such technology starting with medicine and surgery, and build-your-own machines from components. Certainly the possibilities he mentions are fascinating. Link to his post is here.

But I also had to inwardly groan. How many times have we seen in science fiction the computer wizard single-handedly come up with a sophisticated app in the matter of seconds (not that Gareth is suggesting this for the developments he mentions in his post)? Far too often to be realistic. Given enough time and resources, then yes, these suggested apps for nano-robots could well happen. It reminds of the promise that we would have built colonies on the Moon by the end of the last century, which of course never happened. And then there’re the safety processes that some nano-robot applications have to go through to ensure that the software is safe to use. That really does take time. And will have to be applied to medicine and surgery, and transport in any substantive form.

Despite the instantiation being resource intensive, I felt there were important uses he missed out on. One such use is central to The Martian Wind novella I wrote an published. Namely the nano-robots help keep breathable air in the chasms of Mars. There is no need for domes and it is a much easier and more practicable to do from and engineering perspective. I even throw in protection from Solar radiation for good measure, which will make at least part of Mars habitable for us humans. It would take too long to write out the details of the system in this post – it;s best you read The Martian Wind.

Amazon link to The Martian Wind is here.

So extrapolating what nano-robots can do is nothing new in science fiction. Ideas for what they can do maybe. But nano-robots have a rival technology for some applications – 3-D printers. As to which technology will be chosen for what application will depend on economics or the eccentricity of the super-rich. The latter is easy to incorporate in SF stories – just look an Iron Man in the Marvel comics. The former, economics, is far more difficult to predict and get right. On the other hand it is far more realistic to incorporate such constraints into the story. The use of nano-robots to help maintain breathable atmosphere is one such realisable achievement, in part due to the starting small and building up that can be done with this technology.

The interesting thing is that if you can take the element of how long things take to develop out of your mind, the stories based on realistically achievable technology are just as awe-inspiring as those that use hand-wavium to fantasise their tech. Perhaps even more os, because they are more realistic.

Uranus Bound?

As every schoolchild knows, Uranus is the seventh planet of our Solar System. And it sure is an oddball! It’s tilted on its side, has one set of closer moons in orbit around its equator and another set further out whose orbits are aligned to the Sun’s elliptical plane. The further moons are captured moons.

It was discovered by William Herschel in 1781 from his back garden at 19 New Kings Street, Bath (now a museum dedicated to the Herschels). While observations from Earth have improved over time, it was only ever visited by one single proble, Voyager 2 in January 1986. And that was only a brief fly-by.

Photo taken by Voyager 2 on its Flyby

One thing for certain is that it is nightmare working out what the days, nights and seasons are on the moons and even the planet itself, especially if you’re writing science fiction about it. Fortunately for me, most of my action took place underground, which made my life much simpler.

But Uranus has been in the news recently. An influential panel of scientists have recommended in its decal review that NASA should make visiting the planet a priority. There is a launch window in 2031/2 that could take advantage of a slingshot manoeuvre using Jupiter.

Why the interest? Because we understand so little about planet formation of planets of this size. Yes, we understand how gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn can develop, and also how rocky planets like the inner four of our Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). But Uranus’ and Neptune’s developmental path remain a mystery. Understanding that better would then help us understand our stellar neighbourhood much better – and we all know where that can lead!

For further details, link to Uranus article here.

When it comes to science fiction, Uranus is one of the most neglected planets of our Solar System.

The earliest such works, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum‘s 1935 short story The Planet of Doubt and Clifton B. Kruse‘s 1936 short story Code of the Spaceways. These both assumed Uranus was a solid planet where aliens lived.

Celcelia Holland’s only science fiction novel, Floating Worlds, published in 1976, correctly depicted as a gas giant. It had floating cities – but the planet was white, not cyan as it was photographed in 1986.

Other famous stories include “Dies Irae” by Charles Sheffield published in 1985 about life in the atmosphere and the 1999 short story “Into the Blue Abyss” by Geoffrey A. Landis where there is life in the ocean below. Finally there is Ben Bova’s Uranus, which is the first of the Outer Planets trilogy, which sadly he did not have chance to complete.

Of Uranus’ moonsAriel  appears in J. Harvey Haggard‘s 1930s novella Evolution Satellite, and Miranda in the 1993 short story Into the Miranda Rift by G. David Nordley and Falling by Martin McGrath in 2004. Miranda also made a brief appearance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars.

This may seem like a a good list, but when compared with other planets, it really is underwhelming.

And yet it is so strange that I’m surprised not more has been made of it in science fiction.

Shortening of the Human Race’s Time of Existence Shows Up Showfall in Science Fiction Genre

Frack! The news at the moment is beyond horrific and there are no words to describe the depth to which some purported human beings have gone. I say purported because I can’t believe they’re human any more. I’m of course talking about the horrors that have been reported in the Ukraine. May those poor innocent victims rest in peace.

It is not only the murdered people who have suffered. There will be unhealable physical injuries and mental scars for far far too many people. Living with the limiting physical abilities and permanently damaged and emotional washed-through mental capabilities is unthinkable to those who have not seen or experienced the results.

But I fear more horror is to come. This is the season when a lot of crops should be planted in the Ukraine. A lot of them are not. This will impact the amount of food available for export to other countries. Like the UN Secretary General noted earlier today, those in the poorest nations will go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food at the inevitable higher prices. So not only has the Russian invasion badly affected the Ukraine in indescribable ways, but it will cause human suffering in 74 other countries.

Regrettably those are not the only problems. The scientists are saying we must do something about reversing climate change NOW! Yes they have said similar things in the past, but we’ve already had a slight taste of the changes in store if we do nothing. Things like unprecedented flooding, droughts and storms. They will get worse. No ifs or buts. Efforts should be made to slow the climate change down at a minimum. It would be even better if we could reverse it. Instead we’re having to deal with the unwarranted invasion of Ukraine by mindless thugs. Effort that could be used to give the human race longer on this planet.

Science fiction has had a long history of describing some of the effects of climate change, ever since the 1960s to my knowledge and probably even further back. Some writers got some of it right, but not all. There are so many different effects and we cannot be sure what their overall interaction will be in reality. So it is best to think of the climate change described in science fiction as being far too mild compared to what we will really experience.

Let me give you a simple example. Gyres can be considered as wide area whirlpools in the sea. We have two such gyres operating in the North Sea. As sea levels rise, you would expect coast to gradually eaten away. We’ve already seen coastal erosion down England’s east coast – think of the amount being eroded away as accelerating due rising sea levels alone. But add in the effect of the gyres to the rising seawater. The force these gyres will give the rising seawater will eat away the coastline even faster. It’s a multiplicative compounding effect, not one effect added to another. This is what I mean by not fully working out the interactions between the individual effects of climate change.

Before everyone becomes alarmist, please remember at the moment that the sea levels are rising slowly and we can take steps to deal with retreating from the coast in an orderly manner. It’s the longer term future that the compound effect accelerates the damage.

We have seen a lot of cli-fi (climate change science fiction) in recent years. The stories have taken on board new research as it has become available and veered the impacts of climate change away from single issues, like sinking cities. But has anyone taken any notice?

Well the only notice anyone takes of climate change is when the products are economically cheaper or government backed. The harsh reality of economics trumps long term self preservation interests every time. And with the war in Ukraine, there is an even harsher economic situation in the world today. I’ll say it again, the Russian invasion is shortening the life of the human race.

Wars are predicted as the climate change effects begin to bite, fighting over basic things like food and water. While we may not like this, we can at least understand the motivation of the warmongers in these cases. But equally nations and bodies like the United Nations can and do identify such flash points, which allows them to be mitigated. But again with efforts being rightly concentrated in sorting the Ukraine issue, it means these other flash points will not be dealt with. The Ukraine invasion could be the start of a chain reaction of minor wars across the globe. All because Russia decided to invade the Ukraine. I hope this will not be the case, but the extra pressure will be there for these local wars to flare up.

Note I have said Russia throughout this blog. Putin is not alone in sanctioning the invasion. If he were, he would no longer be president. His government is behind him and therefore behind the invasion. There is no hiding from this sickening fact. Every decent caring person has a right to be really angry at the Russian government for making their lives miserable in various different ways.

Which brings me back to science fiction. Did science fiction predict this socio-political situation? Hell no. One of the downsides of story writing is that it focuses on the individuals in the story, not the grand panorama of worldly events. It is a shortfall in the genre, one that perhaps should be remedied sooner rather than later, though of course it was too late to stop or at least warn of the situation in Ukraine, directly or indirectly.

From Now into the Future – How?

Well, this is turning out to be an extraordinarily tough decade, first Covid-19 and now the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The peace of the turn of the millennium seems to have evaporated. Nor can I see returning any time soon. Why? Talking from experience, it takes at least two generations for people to forgive and forget the horrors of war. The first generation have too many personal memories to be able to emotionally let go. The second generation are so inherently believing of what their parents taught them that they will act with hatred to the old enemy if only at a subconscious level. Breaking down the barriers between old enemies when the conflict has been needlessly devastating and brutal will take a long, long aeon.

The scars left by Covid are no less horrendous though of a very different nature. Many need people around them to keep them going, but they lost that in lockdowns. Yes, using the laptops for zoom meetings helped alleviate the isolation, but it is not the same as actually meeting people face to face. It has left mental scars on far too many people. They are not the confident outgoing people they used to be. The mental scarring for those in the medical services is of a different nature and more intense. Once things ease off for the medics, I expect some kind of backlash that will result in many leaving the profession. They are exhausted and need a break, and many will not be able to face up to returning.

A big thank you must go to all the heroes and helpers in these two crises, not matter how small their contribution has been. Condolences and sympathies to all who have lost loved ones, suffered injuries or other health problems as a direct result, and have lost their dreams and property. There will come a time to put memorials in place, but that is best done when both crises are over.

Even so, some small good can come out of this. At the start of the first lockdown in the UK, everyone was looking for things to do. One such opportunity came via the Zooniverse website. Just as the pandemic was starting to strike a whole load of British rainfall records had been scanned in and needed transcribing into digital form. The typing on of all these records was expected to take a long. The British public did it in 16 days. And yes, I contributed. Now the first results of the computer analysis have become available, having extended the records back to 1836.

You can see the summary of results in the graphic above taken from UK Met Office/University of Reading via the BBC website. Interesting things like the year of greatest drought in Britain changed from 1870 to 1855. If you look at the black line – the 10 year average, you can see there are definitely some trends going on. More can be read about at this link.

I reiterate – if it weren’t for the pandemic we would not have seen this graph for a few years yet. And there will be consequences on understanding the impact of climate change more quickly like this. I just feel that it is a great shame that the extra time the human race has gained through doing this analysis earlier than expected is to some extent being thrown away by the war in Ukraine – dealing with this situation has taken some of the effort away from dealing with the climate crisis. Make no mistake about it, the climate crisis will be on top of us shortly.

All these crises reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel. There the human race suffered a series of crises. one after another that they had to get through to rebuild the empire in a quicker time. Only we know from the subsequent novels in the Foundation trilogy that help was there on hand to guide them through the crises if need be, because those crises were predictable. Not the exact timing of when they would happen, but what type of crises they had to face an in which order.

Heinlein’s answer to the Foundation series, was Friday. Friday is the name of the main protagonist who has had their genes designed. She turns out to be a whizz at predicting the most likely future give sufficient information about the state of the human race. You could say she is a kind of human super-AI.

The basis of any prediction is the extrapolation of identified patterns. We knew there was going to be a pandemic before it happened, just not the exact when or nature. We knew that Russia had its eyes on gaining the Donebas region in the Ukraine because of their encouragement for the locals to obtain Russian citizenship. We just did not exactly when they would act to grab it and how they would try to do it.

We know a lot of things that are likely to happen in the future, though not the exact when or how they will happen. If only we could refine our prediction analysis, like Heinlein refined Asimov’s fictional method. We are already dealing with a complex system that needs predicting – Earth’s climate. We just need to extend its methodology to other domains of the real world.

Science fiction has done a good job of pointing the way on this already. It’s time a science fiction writer took it to the next level.

World Events Have Their Consequences…

This being a science fiction blog, I have stepped back from commenting on the horrific situation in the Ukraine. Until now, because there are consequences for the science fiction community…

Russia as a country is becoming more isolated from the western countries and those that support Ukraine. It will become more dependent on those countries that have not imposed sanctions for vital imports and services. Those countries include China. While China has maintained a policy of not interfering in our countries’ business etc, Russia will inevitably turn to it to help supply those needs that it has lost through sanctions, In time, I can see Russia effectively becoming a vassal of China, even if at first it may be a troublesome one.

Russian science fiction will veer to Chinese interests – and that is in the main rather conservative. Russian SF writers will be persuaded to write within constrained topics. That means that full panorama of science fictional debate will not take place.

There are other more serious consequences to the Ukraine situation. Dealing with this situation, whether it be supplying humanitarian needs or trying to prevent World War III means that effort is taken away from other pressing problems. The one that comes to mind is climate change and countering the devastation it will cause.

We are already seeing science fiction themes veering towards happy ending because of the horrors of Covid-19 and now what we see coming out of Ukraine. Add the floods, droughts, harvest failures, wind damage and other destructive climate change effects to what is happening round the world and I can see an even greater turning to the happy ending science fiction stories. Pure escapism will become the main science fiction theme.

As with any escapism, there will be more flights of fantasy than realistic extrapolations of current science and technology. Unless… I’m going to leave you to fill the dots… but breakthroughs have happened under stranger circumstances.

C.A.T. Elevenses…

It’s my birthday, so I’m taking over my author’s blog. Eleven years since I was first published in C.A.T. – yes, that’s me, the one and only magnificent robo-cat of any worth! Here’s the lovely cover Terry Press did for me… don’t you love my gorgeous red eyes? (Amazon UK Link here.)

Oh those were the heady days when one story came out after another – what do you mean you don;t know anything about them? There’s Neptune’s Angel (UK Amazon Link here) published in April the following year and Guard Cat (UK Amazon Link here) published inOctober the lear after that.

Don’t I look so, so cattish in all these covers? Pur, purr, purrrfect.

Then silence publishing wise. It’s not that my author wasn’t writing about me. My claws held her hand as she typed. Oh boy did we have fun together. The rascal put me into some interesting scraps that I had to get her out of. And as for the number of Honourable Mentions the Writers of the Future contest gave me story… all eight of them – each for a different story – lovely peoples.

Looks like I’ll be having elevenses for my elevenses. Yippee. Oops, did me dancing on my tail make a hole in the floor. Better not tell my author. There, that’s mended. She won’t notice when she comes back here.

Now what was I saying… elevenses, that’s it. If all goes to plan, my fourth story will be published later this year. Another fun adventure, C.A.T.-style! Will sneak back here to let you lovely people know where it’ll be published when the publisher makes the announcement! Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday, C.A.T., Happy elevenses to me!

Science Fiction Will Not Be What You Think In The Future!

I’d like to for a few moments take you back in time to middle of the last century to view what science fiction was like then.

The world was recovering from World War II, building back all it had lost in terms of buildings and other physical assets. When the war started, the armies had relied heavily on horses, but by the time it had ended the world had seen massive changes in how warfare was conducted. The war had also seen the miracle of antibiotics and the effects of having all the population properly fed. People had seen the effects of these strides in science and technology first hand and wanted to continue with those that made life more comfortable and easier for everyone.

In this backdrop of great promise to come for everyone, science fiction thrived. Why?

One reason was that changes and the consequences of changes needed to be explained to the person in the street as they were grappling with their own futures and what they might look like. Many science fiction stories fulfilled this role. You only need to think of the Heinlein juveniles or how Asimov explained some interesting science.

Another reason was to have some idea of how to experience new discoveries. The sensors developed for war purposes turned to the skies and ocean depths. They were detecting things we had no idea up until then existed. It all needed to be explained to those who had little grasp of science and technology. People like the astronomer, Patrick Moore, gave wonderful descriptions of the new. Science fiction writers latched onto these descriptions and included them in their their stories. It gave people a better understanding of the world around them, made them in a way feel reassured.

The better understanding of science and technology also brought with it warnings of consequences of our activities. You only need to think of climate change novels or nuclear war armageddon novels. They warned that of this happens or nothing is done about that, then people will suffer. Some heed was taken of them. There were amateurs who worked up designs for renewable energy, which meant we could access those energy sources sooner than would have been otherwise the case.

Basically, there was a hungry audience for science fiction stories who read voraciously because it was reassured or directed their efforts for a better world.

What changed and why? After all, science and technology was still developing at a fast pace in the latter part of the last century and in this century. Why wasn’t there the pull-through from the discoveries and inventions into the science fiction stories?

The writers seemed to have mostly exhausted the experiential of astronomical discoveries and the deep oceans. I still remember wishing there were more stories like The Integral Trees (published 1983 in Analog) in the late eighties.

Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars had been taking over our science fictional screens since the early screens, sending us to worlds that were put together from scratch by ideas and imagination. They waved a magic wand, took us through a portal to a total elsewhere and elsewhen. The connection with our reality was only there so people could understand the show. That connection did not have to make to coherent sense. They continued and built on the sense of wonder that people had become addicted to, an escape from their ordinary and struggling lives. Science fiction turned into space opera that became an intellectual drug to fog out reality, because in reality we feared for our futures.

Nobody was tackling climate change. Nobody was stopping pollution, especially plastic waste. Nobody was stopping population growth. True, there have always been the few who tried to tackle these issues, but it feels like they had very little impact on life in general.

And this is the point… impact on life in general. The discoveries and inventions over the last fifty or so years have in a way held our way of life in stasis. Yes, the internet has made worldwide communication faster and therefore easier. But that worldwide communication was already there in terms of TVs, telephones and the postal system before that.

Part of the issue is that the promise of sixties and seventies were not fulfilled. Where is the colony on Mars or the base on the Moon that was planned for then? Where is the total body replacement that the first heart transplants of the sixties heralded? Where are the fusion reactors the scientists were working on to develop? And those few things like supersonic passenger air travel that happened have since disappeared. Is it any wonder that many people lost interest in a realistic science fiction?

In turn, scientists and those that support science research and technology development have become cautious. They only back those areas that show promise and commercial potential. Science and technology progresses only in small steps these days, certainly at a much slower pace in terms of impact on our lives than the middle of the last century.

All it will take is one major breakthrough to change that situation…

They say a mathematician can think realistically about the world a hundred years ahead of their time. There is a reason for that… the extrapolative nature of maths theories in all their forms. Mathematical history is littered with such reasoned examples. What does mathematics say about the future now?

We all know about climate change predictions, resource predictions and the like. But what about the surprises lurking under all this heavyweight assessments of the future?

I’m not going to answer that question because there are quite a few potential surprises lurking behind the predictive results that are being reported. It’s a case of which one appears first to affect our reality as to which way the human race will develop, And yes, I’m writing some stories about those.

But the point is science fiction is waiting for that major breakthrough to happen before it withdraws from the genre fantastification back into reality.