Plutomania Strikes Again

9 10 2015

Oh squeeeeeeee…… isn’t it a gorgeous picture of Pluto’s blue sky?


So why am I so excited about it?

Well, according to the scientists, the blue colour shows that not only is the planet’s atmosphere mainly made up of nitrogen, but also the solar ultraviolet light has interacted with that nitrogen to produce what are called tholins.

These tholins can also be found in the planetary atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune, and on the icy surfaces of their moons, and in Titan’s atmosphere. So they have been studied for quite a while. These tholins can protect surfaces from ultraviolet radiation that would help life to survive, but can also act as food source for carbon for certain types of microbes.

Now we know that Pluto has a very eccentric orbit that lasts 248 years. At the moment, Pluto is experiencing its summer, which is why we are seeing ices being melted and boiled off. The solar wind then drags these gases away from Pluto. So in effect we have a thin scattering of tholins beyond Pluto’s orbit.

If you get to this part of the post without having any interesting theories about what could be happening out there, then you’re not a natural science fiction writer. So let me spell it out for you… there could be microbial life scattered beyond Pluto’s orbit. Story ideas that come to mind:

  • a human spaceship enters this microbial shield only to find the microbes are dangerous to humans. Humans end up trapped in the Solar System and they have to find a way out to be able to go to the stars
  • the discovery of ice creatures on Pluto – what are they? – how do they look?- how do they react to the seasonal changes?
  • could there be a process that involves the tholins and some types of ice that keeps Pluto warm-ish? The discovery of this process could be beneficial to Alastair Reynolds’ light huggers, making them more efficient and economical. So could we have some sort commercial rivalry story here?

O.K. I could go on and on and on ad nauseum. I’m happy for anyone to use the above ideas for science fiction stories. Of course, I’ve kept one lovely gorgeous wonderful idea for myself!

Science Fiction – What’s Missing?

7 10 2015

Sometime in the 1950s one of the last houses in Cornwall (a country in England) to be connected to electricity was owned by a lady. Up to then she had candles for light and fires for heat. The electricians carefully checked everything was in working order before they left. After about six months, the electricity company noticed that hardly any electricity was being used by the lady. They checked the meter was in working order and could not find anything wrong with the supply to house. So they asked if the lady was happy the electricity supply. She said she was very pleased because she could light the candles later in the evenings by switching on the electric lights for a minute or two.

This, I’m told is a true story. In fact I even know roughly where the house was and yes it was in the backwoods, near Norway Inn (previously Norway Hotel).


So why am I telling you this story? Because it shows that people are reluctant to change their habits once they’ve settled into a certain routine in life.

Fast forward to last month. I attended the Future Technology Summit in London. What struck me was there was so much technology about to  hot hit the streets I could not take it all in, let alone work out the implications of how those technologies would combine into something else useful.

But what was brought home to me was that the data technology we are using is changing the way we will lead our lives. A good example is 3D printing. There is a network of people who are willing (for a price) to 3D print various designs. It’s almost as if the cottage industries are coming back to life, using modern technology. But it’s different from the traditional cottage industries in that knowledge of developments are being shared very quickly.

But there is more to it than just knowledge sharing. Another speaker indicated that manufacturing was based on the same principles that the Victorians used, which required what he called ‘linear thinking’ – basically one thing leads to another that leads to yet another type of thought process. The distributed networking via the Internet leads us to work and think in a more distributed way.

A new way of thinking? Whoa… hold on a moment. Has this ever come up in science fiction?

Well, not to my knowledge.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised how much of a rut science fiction had got itself into. What science fiction has done is take technology trends, extrapolated or otherwise manipulated them and put the same type of humans into the new situation. Science fiction changes with the changing technology, but not with the changing humans.

And when it does come across different kinds of behaviour, it turns them into aliens. A good example is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turning turning up as Mr Spock in Star Trek. (Doyle got away with letting Sherlock be human because he had based the character on one of his medical professors.)

Interestingly, the stories I have difficulty selling are the ones where I’m introducing new-ish characteristics into my humans. I’ve known beta readers get terribly confused by this. They are looking for the same old types of reactions and emotional resolution to problems. I had been driven to writing such stories because I put people in situations where they had to change their behaviours in order to survive. All I did was answer the question: “What traits would make lives easier in the environment?”

Not only are we on the cusp of a change in way society lives and operates, we are about to start colonising space which will make its own demands on way humans live.

What will happen is that society will break up into many different cultures – a kind of fragmentation. At the same time information will act as the glue to keeping the human race reasonably cohesively working together.

And I keep coming back to – where are the science fiction books that describe these possible changes?

Water, water everywhere….

30 09 2015


The news channels have been full of it – that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. The scientists have deduced this is possible by the changing patterns of dark streaks on the planet’s surface over the past 15 years. Even better they have identified salts lying on the surface that induce the water (magnesium perchlorate, chlorate and chloride) to drop the freezing point of water to 80 degrees and the vaporisation by a factor of 10. It is thought these salts actually pull water out of the thin Martian atmosphere. Which all adds to liquid water sticking to the surface. 

But what about the implications that where there’s water there’s likely to be microbial life? Will they not contaminate any humans who happen to drop by? And what us contaminating Mars?

Well here’s the thing…

We have for a long time been receiving meteorites from the Martian surface. Although a lot of material is open to vacuum during flight that would kill off air-breathing microbes, we know some microbes exist that don’t need to breath any air. These microbes could have tucked themselves into the meteoroid’s deep crevices and made the journey to Earth. That means Mars’ ordinary microbes could have found themselves still alive after reaching Earth. Either way cross-contamination will have occurred between Earth and Mars. So there should be no problem with sending humans to Mars.

But how can we find out for sure?

The scientists could re-examine the meteorites known to have come from Mars to Earth for any evidence of the transfer of microbial life. There would know far better than I what evidence to look for.

It’s the obvious next step, so I’m surprised that I haven’t found any announcement to that effect amongst all the fanfare.

The data download from New Horizons continues to amaze. Quite a lot more detail has been identified on Pluto and its biggest moon Charon.

Whilst there are 17 known solid crystalline phases of water, the only one that is likely to found on the surface is Ice XI – An orhtorhombic low-temperature equilibrium form of hexagonal ice. It is ferroelectric i.e. has a spontaneous electric polarisation that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field. Ice XI is considered the most stable configuration of ice Ih

I’d love to know what the electromagnetic interaction between the solar wind and Ice XI is, and how it is affecting Pluto, particularly as it has such an eccentric orbit around the Sun and actually spins on its axis. This is a major difference from Triton, which comprises similar materials, but within Neptune’s magnetosphere.

[I have an interest in Triton because of the C.A.T. series of books, so it’s only natural that I should do a comparison.]


What this solar wind to Ice XI connection means is there is room for an interesting short story. I’m sure someone somewhere must be writing one…

Bristolcon 2015 – Another Success

27 09 2015


I thoroughly enjoyed Bristolcon 2015. It’s one of those nice friendly small local science fantasy cons – if you can call going on for 300 attendees small! And I know a lot people who attended weren’t local either!

One of the reasons for this success is the hard work done by the organisers behind the scenes to make it all run smoothly on the day. They start the year by organising guests and ghost of honour and build up to it. A BIG THANK YOU to all those involved to make things run smoothly, and an especial thank you to the organising committee who coordinate things (despite the best efforts of traffic snarl-ups and other similar gremlins to make things otherwise).

Bristolcon has two panel streams and a kaffeeklatsch room. So obviously I can’t report on everything, nor did I try to rush around like a mad idiot trying to get to everything – a mistake in previous years.

I attended Crossing the Genre Boundaries, which discussed the implications of literary writers coming into the genre and winning the prizes. The general feeling was that, whilst the literary works were indeed beautifully written, they tended to have less emphasis on what makes a science fantasy book genre specific. There was concern at the ‘watering down’ of the genre. But – yes there was a big BUT – science fiction is now the genre to be writing. Look at the way the film industry is concentrating so many films in this area. In the end, whilst it is nice to win prizes, the financial impact for the author tends to be minimal, with one exception. If you win a short story prize, you are looked on far more favourably by publishers if you are pushing to get a novel published.

Personal Note: Having seen what technology is around the corner for our society, our society is going to need all the help it can get to cope with it. This includes writing science fiction to introduce people to what they can do. And even then, science fiction is going to need all the help it can get – and that includes the use of literary techniques to help explain what the tech is doing and how it is going to change society.

I then stayed for half of the the Libraries, Past, Present and Future (because I had to be somewhere else). The panel reminisced about their libraries of the past and their favourite libraries in science fiction. What I found interesting was a lot of the libraries tended to come from the fantasy end of the genre, rather than the science fiction end. Hm…

Next up was me running a workshop in the Kaffeeklatsch room on ‘Real Technologies Futures Report and Discussion’. This was a report back on the Future Technologies Summit in London held on the Thursday and Friday beforehand, followed by a discussion and workshop to develop a story line based on the report. I was rather pleased that it was a fully signed up workshop – and I have a suspicion that a local builder will be using some of the technology I talked about in his work, and someone else was going to take the ideas of another technology away to help her personally. 

Lunch followed with a calming down after all the workshop excitement. (You’ll be hearing more about this in due course, said she with a evil grin!)

I attended the talk by Professor Ian Stewart on Time Travel and Real Physics. After introducing us to how time travel science fiction stories came about in science fiction, he took us through the issues of the faster than light limitation, black holes, white holes and the impact of quantum physics on trying to build a faster than light travel machine.

Having other stuff to do, I didn’t do anything until I was up on the panel, Faster Than Light moderated by Gareth Powell (though we did not get up to any monkey business). We went through the various faster than light themes in fiction and edged a little bit into reality. All I’m going to say is that I hope I gave the audience some interesting thoughts (said she with another evil grin).

The Reboots panel where amongst the fun questions were some serious questions. What sticks in my mind is that everyone agreed that a reboot should not be done unless there was something fairly different about the reboot e.g. going from black and white film to colour film, and the basic characters should remain the same.

The evening was light-hearted entertainment – quiz and film.

I met and caught up with a loads of friends in between times. And that is part of the beauty of Bristolcon… it has room to let you do just that!

Bristolcon next year will be going back to its normal October slot – October 29th. Keep that date! Be there! It’s fun or as they say up t’north, it’s a grand do.

Another Bath Spa Publication

24 09 2015

After her hugely successful best selling debut novel, Daughter, Jane Shemilt has had her second book published. I’ve even seen this novel advertised on the London Underground! You can get it from Amazon here.


The blurb:

Emma and Adam are doctors at the top of their fields and so when they are offered the chance to take their three children to Africa for a year for a research placement it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s going to be an experience they’ll never forget.

But for all the wrong reasons.

When Emma arrives home one night to the sickening sight of an empty cot, their family’s dream adventure turns into their worst nightmare.

Thousands of miles from home and from anyone who can help, they must discover the truth. Is this a random abduction, a tragic accident or something far more sinister?

I will only add that I read an early piece of what this novel turned into whilst on the Bath Spa MA creative writing course. If the rest of the novel is as powerful as that piece, then all I can say is Wow!

Bristolcon 2015

8 09 2015

The programme for Bristolcon 2015 on Saturday September 26th has gone live and can be found here.

I will be appearing on a panel 1800 – 1845 in Programme Room 1…

Faster Than Light

If we can go anywhere, any time, what are the implications? FTL Travel will come at a cost: financial, political and socio-economic. How do you choose an FTL system, and why? Our panel fill in the stars on a google map of the universe. May include really cool spaceships!

with Gareth L. Powell (Mod), Dean Saunders-StoweMisa BuckleyRosie Oliver and Steven Poore

And… wait for it… I will also be running a kaffeeklatsch / workshop 12:00 until 12:45:

Real Technologies Futures Report and Discussion

The report will be from a Technology Futures convention which will be held in London on the Thursday and Friday beforehand. So this stuff will be hot off the press. Spaces will be limited and I suspect that there will be a sign-in sheet at the front desk. They may even put one on-line – not sure about this. After the report, I hope to have a discussion and/or exercise as to how to apply this to science fiction. [The exercise is dependent on the time available.]



Review of my Short Stories To Be… I hope…

3 09 2015

There are some short stories that are rehashes of old story lines. Any writer, unless they are blessed with stylistic writing talent, should ditch those i.e. not submit them for publication and accept they were just exercises in improving their writing skills.

There are other stories that have a significant twist on what has already been written story-line-wise or have something new to say. These are the ones that should be polished and pushed out there.

There is a catch though. Sometimes what you have to say is so new that readers just don’t get it without incorporating a long explanation into the story. Those catches are when they involve technology beyond what is currently known in today’s society and beyond what the human race wants as a tool or some kind of service. I have reluctantly retired one such story, because it is way beyond day to day human experience… well, sometimes my imagination just gets carried away.

But what of the rest of my short stories that are at various stages of development?

Below is a table of those that have something very interesting to say. I’ve kept the titles to initials only because some would give away the theme, which might spoil future readers’ enjoyment.

 No. Title Wordcount   Status
1 P 3000 Editing
2 TT 1500 Submitted
3 TIMC 12000 Writing
4 E 1500 Submitted
5 SoH 4000 Editing
6 D 1500 Editing
7 Te 11000 Editing
8 SF 3000 Idea
9 SB 11000 Reserved
10 EV 11000 Reserved

The last two have been written and are reserved for a special purpose. They will not be doing the submission rounds for quite some while.

All the rest of the stories I have ever started to write or written are being ditched. It’s both ruthless and sad. There are some nice little pieces amongst these, but they are just that, pieces, not stories of interest. I am even considering ditching SoH, because the technology in there could be considered a little ‘too advanced’ for the readership. And I may even consider ditching Te because it could be considered ‘far too progressive’ for the readership – there is only so much explanation a story will take before it is considered more of an essay than fiction, and that is after doing somersaults in showing what I can about the characterisation.

Apart from these stories, I’ll be concentrating on writing novels. The amount of effort that goes into writing a short story is disproportionately high compared to that of writing a novel. But there again, I’ve got to the stage where I’m developing stories that have the strength and richness to be novels compared to my early days of writing, when I strictly limited myself to short stories. And that was because I was learning the art of writing.

The short stories listed above are one-off ideas that can be portrayed those lengths. But what if I come up with an idea that is only has the legs for a short story? It’s possible. But I have noticed my stories have been increasing their wordcount, despite heavy editing. It’s a natural tendency, so why should I fight it?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 286 other followers