Science Fiction’s Real Barrier to Development

Above the atomic level, our universe is defined by limits. We can’t go faster than speed of light. We can’t escape the event horizon of a black hole. We can’t break the laws of physics. It’s very frustrating.

But there were times in our history when we thought we couldn’t do things and ended up doing them anyway. The classic example is breaking the speed of sound. There are many more such instances. With such a track record of doing the impossible, it is only natural that science fiction asks the what if we break through these limits?

Only breaking through these limits can lead us to directly experiencing these states. We might have some idea of what expect from extrapolating scientific theories, but until we get there, we can never be certain we are right. So anything goes.

The most common barrier to break in science fiction is the speed of light. We have had wormholes, quantum physics portals, warp drives, or just straightforward accelerating through the barrier by brute force to demonstrate our knowledge of physics is wrong. What lies on the other side of this barrier? A grey light from our universe. That’s what the theorists say. Not the stars streaking into lines so beloved of Star Wars imagery. Yet, this fictitious image has entered humanity’s psyche and persisted.

Some science fiction themes need to be unlearned before science fiction of the true to our known science can progress and develop. Any teacher will tell you that is hard. It leads to a phase of confusion by the pupil where little can be absorbed. But the pupil does eventually break through to the truth and move on with learning.

Anything goes in these ultra-lightspeed-verses. Writers however tend to tell stories that can resonate with human experience. They tend to world-build environments similar to what we are already used to. Earth-like places abound. It is rare that world-building stretches our sense of wonder into the interestingly strange.

Of course the ultra-lightspeed-verses are not the only verses to allow this. There are the intra-black-hole-verses, minuscule quantum-physics-verses and goodness knows what else verses. These are rarely explored because humans would find it hard to exist in most of these verses. One such author who does attempt this is Greg Egan and he has come up with some interesting results as in Schild’s Ladder (see Greg Egan’s Website here).

The common cross-over between these strange verses is sentience, the means of understanding one verse by another at the very least, preferably understanding each other’s verses so that some form of communication can exist to allow for explanation in the fictional text.

Sentience has always and continues to be difficult to define. Worse its definition is tied up in philosophical debate, which tends to be obscure at best, gobbledygook to most.

Yet defining sentience is the barrier science fiction must break through – or putting it another way we have to understand the way sentience can work before we can move into strange verses in order to describe these verses satisfactorily.

I know this is a deep thought that needs mulling over – so I’ll leave the discussion of what what sentience is and is not to another post. In the meantime I’ll end with saying it again:

Defining sentience is the barrier science fiction must break through if it is to progress and develop.

Space between Galaxies

One of the things I enjoy seeing about this time of the year are the winners of the Astronomy of the Year photos, and this year there are some very beautiful ones. The overall winner, Nicholas Lefaudeux, used a clever technique of positioning his camera at an angle to his telescope to gain this image of the Andromeda Galaxy:

You can see the other wonderful category winners here. Congratulations to all winners.

Whilst this photo makes the Andromeda Galaxy look so close, it is in fact 2.537 million light years away from us. That is a lot of space between us. In fact there is a lot of intergalactic space (relatively) near us as this diagram of the local galaxies shows.

The names in yellow are the big galaxies, white the smaller ones.

Some of that space is filled with dark matter which we have only been able to infer from gravitational calculations exist i.e. we have not been able to detect it directly.

There may be dark energy out there – there is a lot of discussion going on as to whether it is or not i.e. it is possible but unproven.

All in all there is a lot we have yet to learn about the dark spaces between galaxies. And where there are unknowns, there are mysteries. These should be a source of inspiration for science fiction, yet it is difficult to find something to say about empty spaces that leads onto a good story that will find a publishing home. Yet these empty spaces are there for the fictional taking.

Where would the inspiration for such stories come from? And how easy would it be to get the relate to such stories?

When it comes to dark matter, many people don’t know about it and those that do, think it is intangible. The only way you can feel it is by gravitational pull. I call sensing gravity or the sense of balance our sixth sense, the original five being sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Many people still think of the original five as THE senses. They do not consider we have other abilities. This in part is the fault of relying on teaching of traditional theories at schools.

Even if you accept sensing gravity as the sixth sense, the pull of dark matter is so weak, we would barely notice it. Unless… for some obscure reason it was concentrated into a (relatively) small volume. So what if there are intergalactic patches of dark matter between galaxies which are too small to be picked up by our sensors back here on Earth?

Did you notice that what if question sneak in just now? That ‘what if…?’ is the normal start of any science fiction story. All it needs are people/aliens, plot and a conflict of some sort.

But dark matter is not the only thing that exists between the galaxies… there is the small matter of quantum physics. What if there is an unusual interaction between quantum physics and dark matter? Oops, there’s another ‘what if…?’ question sneaking in.

Of course the dark matter and quantum physics is on top the traditional possibilities of the occasional asteroid or mini black hole. What if they are out there in their lonely outpost roles doing something really strange? Oh dear, another ‘what if…?’

There really are too many ‘what if…?’ questions for there not to be some science fiction stories written about the depths of intergalactic space, and yet most science fiction writers light-jump through it as if it is nuisance to the story they are writing.

Of course getting faster than light travel is an obstacle that must be overcome to get to these interstellar spaces. Below is a summary diagram I pulled together a few years back. Blue is unlikely, green considered possible but extremely difficult and yellow would require the miracle of convenient placement as well as being extremely difficult.

So maybe the real issue of not writing about the space between galaxies is that it requires a double near-big-impossibility to be believed by the reader, or in old speak a bridge too far.

This in a sense is true of most published science fiction. Most stories only use the one bridge of near impossibility principle. Anything more becomes hard to believe, even if clearly described.

Maybe it’s time for science fiction to boldly go into these issues.

Near Future Science Fiction ‘Datorial’

I needed to go to the shopping mall on Thursday and of course I looked into Waterstones. It was what I call Christmas-busy. The assistants were always dealing with a customer and there a lot of people browsing the bookshelves. The age ranges went from children to elderly. It is good see the business doing well.

What I found interesting is that there seemed to be little in the way of promotion of novels that were were being published on that day – 600 books. It looks as if it does not pay the book publishers to publish books all on the same day. Someone I know who owns a small bookshop said they could not afford to stock all the new books and asked customers to order any newly-published books.

I browsed the science fiction / fantasy shelves – a must for me to see what’s being sold. (This particular Waterstones keeps Horror on separate bookshelves – and quite rightly too – you don’t want the youngest generation buying a horror book by mistake and end up having nightmares.) I inwardly groaned at seeing the overwhelming majority were fantasy. I had another groan at there being so few newly published books. It left me feeling as if nothing has changed over the last five years, and maybe a lot longer.

Science fiction has had a few interesting good novels over recent years from authors like Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth L Powell. But I want more, many more. And from conversations with friends, I am far from alone in this.

Let me give you an example. The Leviathan Wakes, which was the first in The Expanse series, whilst exciting now feels dated to me even though it was only published a decade ago. That is due in part to my exploring some interesting technology in Slivers of Hope published in the Space Force: Building the Legacy anthology. Basically my story shows how to supersede the spacesuit as shown in there and the technology is feasible. This means that technology can be available in the timeframe of The Expanse.

Of course I do what I can to change this state of affairs in science fiction with getting short stories about technology possibilities published where possible and advocate changes via this blog. But one person like me cannot shift the established science fiction publishing industry behemoth. (Yes, I’m using an old-fashioned world deliberately here.)

The bottom line is that science fiction of the technological futures kind has underestimated the power of data and systems engineering in our world. Let me give you an example from my past – late 1980s if you want the rough date.

In those days computing power was limited. We could only do so much. So we had to be careful how we coded certain models of the real world. Any quick computing methods were looked upon as valuable. Graphics was just coming into its own. Nothing like what we have these days, but it felt like that then. And covering the screen’s pixels as quickly as possible was one of those areas that needed improvement. Being a mathematician I was playing round fractals at the time and realised there were some that could fully cover a screen, and importantly, there was no need for time breaks between line scans. When we looked closer into the method, a friend pointed out that the way these fractals could be coded meant very quick calculations. Another win. So handling the data the right way gave us something very worthwhile then.

This simple example of the impact of data and systems engineering can be varied and used on the more powerful tools we have today to great effect. And yet, nobody seems to be writing about the good it can do. Part of the issue is the Terminator problem, well the problem as portrayed by science fiction that caught the imagination in the 1980s. It’s probably why a lot of writers shy away from it and refuse to examine it or only writer further bad things about it.

Actually the problem is soluble… and yes I wrote a novel about how, but can’t garner the interest of the science fiction industry to get it published. It’s not the obvious solution as it requires one of those massive connective jumps across the spectrum of science. (Phew, that was a phrase and a half!) Putting it another way, the answer came out of lightbulb moment connecting two very different results of science.

But I still come back to the important point – science fiction of the technological futures kind has underestimated the power of data and systems engineering in our world.

Additional Note: Since this post was written, I had chance to read Gary K Wolfe’s review of Paper Hearts by Justina Robson over at locusmag. I’ve not read the novella, but from what Gary says, this is exactly the kind of newly published story I find so upsetting. The issues raised about robots are so old and worse, they are so out of date with current technological thinking. I really want to cry at this waste of novella publishing. Instead, I’d like to thank Gary for calling out his novella for what it is. Gary gives me hope that there are people out there who think the same as me and are willing to do something about it.

A couple of random SF thoughts…

A couple of random thoughts about writing science fiction…

An overwhelming science fiction slush pile is a sign of an unhappy frustrated people. A lot of novels are protest novels rather than adding to the debate about human existence. Editors are rightly wary of these safety valves for a person’s frustration or anger.

Ideas & creativity – A theme needs the writer’s interest to write that novel, not the creativity. Creativity is the flesh on the skeleton of the theme. Creativity to theme is like invention to deal with human need.

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‘Oumuamua

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Artist’s Impression of Oumuamua

Remember this, the first discovered object in our Solar System from interstellar space? The saga continues.

Recap – Oumuamua was discovered in 2017. Although initially thought to be a comet from the Oort Cloud, further observations changed its past and predicted trajectory  to one of being an interstellar visitor. Work on the intensity of light reflected from the object showed it is very likely to be an 8:1 cigar shape or a 6:1 disc shape. This is a very unusual shape among planetary objects. Mid-2018, astronomers reported it undergoing a non-gravitational acceleration, which was consistent with a push from solar radiation pressure. It was initially thought to be due to comet off-gassing (portions of the object are ejected as the Sun heats the surface), despite there being no visible tail normally associated with the phenomenon. A critical re-assessment of the comet hypothesis found that, instead of the observed stability of ʻOumuamua’s spin, outgassing would have caused its spin to rapidly change due to its elongated shape, resulting in the object tearing apart. In short Oumuamua is one big mega-puzzle for astronomers.

It is not surprising that thanks to Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama novel the popular imagination latched onto it being an alien craft or at least a relic of one.

However, most scientists think it is a natural object that requires investigation to understand it. I count myself in this group for the simple reason the behaviour of Oumuamua appears to have no obvious purpose if it were operated by an alien intelligence. 

What is being done to resolve the mysteries about Oumuamua?

Well, theoretical studies continue. This is based on generating hypotheses and then examining in depth with modelling of one form or another to see if the hypothesis are sound.

One of the latest hypothesis is that Oumuamua contains a significant amount of hydrogen ice, which would point it to originating in the core of an interstellar cloud. The sun’s heat would cause the hydrogen to sublimate, which would in turn propel the body. The hydrogen ‘comet tail’ would be difficult to detect from Earth-based telescopes, as the atmosphere blocks those wavelengths. However, new analysis shows such hydrogen icebergs would quickly evaporate during their journey in interstellar space. 

So we are back to square one for trying to explain the strange acceleration.

This is now an area where science fiction could contribute to, but the writer would have to know some detail about trajectories and what phenomena could cause changes in trajectories.

The only alternatives to working up and analysing hypotheses into  get bigger and better telescopes to view it (remember it is now going away from our Solar System, so will become harder to see) or to send a space probe with experiments to go there. Telescopes take time to build and there is very little in the way of helpful telescopes coming on line in the near future. That leaves Project Lyra.

Project Lyra is being developed by the Initiative For Interstellar Studies (i4is). Their latest research and development can be found here. And a summary of what it involves can be found here.

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At the moment Project Lyra seems to be the only chance of explaining what Oumuamua is and how it has done what it has done. Whether it will get off the ground remains to be seen, but I suspect it will only do so if it is crowd-funded. The costs which I suspect are small by space probe standards, but still large by normal human project standards, would make such a crowdfunding difficult to say the least.

Nevertheless such a project could also be the basis of science fiction stories. It would certainly help popularise the concept, which in turn may help to put pressure on politicians to support Project Lyra.

Interestingly while writing this post, I have come up with a weird idea that just may explain the strange behaviour, all because I’m working up a short story about something else entirely!  Of course, I have to look into it to see if it’s viable, or is just another one of those crazy notions that is a no-goer. I suspect it’s somewhere in-between – a contributor factor is the best way I can describe it as. Serendipity strikes again!

Constructor Science Fiction!

A new, well new since 2014, theory has been gaining interest recently – Constructor Theory. See here for a implied explanation. Basically instead of as in the laws of physics that deal with the predicted, constructor theory deals with the laws of the possible.

Constructor Theory rose out of quantum physics thanks to Professor David Deutsch. Therefore you could say it is applying a view consistent with quantum physics process to the world we live in and understand. And like quantum physics, it can predict some properties of the future, not usually with as much precision as the laws of physics or general relativity.

Sadly I have yet to come across a quantum physics story that is not restricted to one or two its effects, one of the favourite seems to be quantum entanglement. I can only speculate about the reasons, but I suspect that quantum physics as a topic can be very hard to understand at the instinctive level.

Science fiction deals with what might be possible in the future. There is an obvious kinship between it and constructor theory. Of course science fiction has no easy way of identifying all that is possible in the future, but it does concentrate on what is considered the most relevant to use humans.

This leads me to believe there could be a useful synergy that would lead to a greater understanding of both Constructor Theory and the Science fiction genre.

I have over time through personal observation developed my theory on idea generation mechanisms – where the ideas generated would act as points of interest in the what is possible space. It comprises four basic mechanisms. The closest the Constructor Theory comes to is my Weltanschauung mechanism that is basically a technique used in systems engineering to understand the world and what the issues are with the world.

I believe techniques in the Weltanschauung method are heavily used by fantasy writers to build their worlds and from there develop their stories.

What all this means is there seems to be a take of similar methods in developing understanding across a wide range of areas.

I’ve seen this before in engineering development and the results have been extremely useful. Consequently I see this push for what for now I’m calling quantum-physics-theory-into-constructor-theory could have benefits in the science fiction genre. I’m not sure what, but it feels hopeful and exciting times could be ahead for science fiction.

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Is it time for a rethink in Science Fiction?

The pandemic has thrown the world into confusion and chaos. Sadly there have been too many deaths and people who have ended up being permanently damaged by this horrible disease. The devastation has extended to all parts of our society, and that includes science fiction.

Like the rest of the publishing industry, science fiction has struggled. Big publishers have reduced their publishing list during the pandemic, small publishers have ended up with book stocks they cannot move on because conventions have gone virtual, a few have gone out of business and those with print of demand capability have complained they are not selling their books through the likes of Amazon. It is not helped that this is also election year in the USA when traditionally book sales go down in numbers. There is a hiatus in film production with live actors and of course unless people can work from home, there has been limited access to production facilities for animated films.

It will take quite a few months to see the full impact of all this. One thing we do know is that in the publishing industry as a whole, an unprecedented 600 books will be published on 3rd September – a combination of delayed publishing and hoping to catch the Christmas market. On the minus side a lot of people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, which means people will not have as much to spend. So it is a greater number of books chasing a smaller pot of people’s spare cash for entertainment.

Yes, you could counter-argue that reading books is a safe pandemic activity and therefore more likely to be taken up. But people have missed socialising, as the boom in the next best thing, zooming over the internet has shown. And it is socialising that will take priority over home entertainment for people in general.

One side effect of the pandemic is to make people aware of how science can and does advise society, and more importantly that going against of science can cost people dearly. The focus at the moment is quite reasonably on surviving and beating Covid-19. It’s the nearest crocodile snapping at everyone’s feet. But the point is well-made. You ignore science at your peril.

Of course science fiction will supply a tranche of new stories based on the pandemic. This is what writers are experiencing at the moment and they have to write from experience too a greater or lesser extent. I view that more as a way of recording the impact of the pandemic through story. And we need to record this pandemic because this is the first time such a devastating virus will be fought not just with the traditional  quarantining, but also in due course and soon as safely possible with a vaccine.

Science fiction stories based on the pandemic will also provide a wish list of what we wanted to see during the pandemic, like for example the vaccine being developed far more quickly. This will help develop a roadmap for the research scientists for tomorrow and many decades to come.

What of other not so pressing global problems?

Another close snapping crocodile is climate change due to pollution. Yes, work is being done to reduce the projected pollution of so many substances, including carbon dioxide, methane, plastics… this list can go on for quite a bit.

We have seen quite a few stories about the impact of climate change, written as warnings for our future society. Yes they have had an impact, but not nearly enough for solving the overall problem. All that has been done is delay the inevitable.

Part of the issue that we do not fully understand all the interactions and impacts of climate change. Research is ongoing, and every so often there is a significant new piece of research that alters our perception what is actually going on, and therefore we must act in a slightly different way. (Slightly here refers to method rather than quantity of action.)

What is needed is solutions. Science fiction writers can suggest some of those, based on the science and understanding of what is going on in climate change. The point here is that a science fiction writer has to understand the subject they are writing about before they can make viable suggestions.

This is true of any subject. If you look at the very successful science fiction writers of today, you’ll find a lot have studied the subjects they write about before they even put fingertip to keyboard. Alastair Reynolds with his degrees and work in astrophysics, Adrian Tchaikovsky with his understanding of insects to name but two.

A science fiction writer also needs to keep up with the latest thinking in their subject area. They need to read about the advances to build on what they already know. Also science fiction writers need a basic understanding of the effects of the development of other sciences. They need to read the science news columns about what things can do in the near future. Where to find these columns?

Yes they are few and far between, but they are there where you know to find them. Only issue is that their coverage of the science subjects is rather hit and miss. They go for the spectacular ideas that catch the imagination, not the little detail that makes all the difference downstream.

What is really needed is a go-to place for such reports. This was the original idea behind the New Scientist magazine. But commercial pressures have slimmed it down in terms of content over the years. It has more the feel of specialist magazine commercially than the general magazine it wants to be to the public, certainly judging by the price.

A true hybrid between science reporting and science fiction stories does not really exist. Yes there are science commentary columns in some science fiction magazines or a thread for science topics tucked away on some science fiction websites. But a balanced offering? Not really.

Maybe now is the time to produce such a hybrid science and science fiction magazine or website, particularly as the value of science has recently been shown to have an impact on society.

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Climate Change, But Not As We Expect It To Be!

It seems like a lifetime ago since lockdown began. It was about that time that Zooniverse’s Rainfall Rescue project started, where volunteers would transcribe UK’s old handwritten records into digital forms. We volunteers had a nice thank you e-mail posted to us yesterday that includes:

The exciting news is that the first small batch of data from Rainfall Rescue is already being used by the Met Office to improve reconstructions of past UK rainfall variations. On 31st July, the Met Office published their latest update to the ‘State of the UK Climate’ with a focus on the context of the weather of 2019. Mark McCarthy, head of the National Climate Information Centre said:

“The incredible effort from contributors to Rainfall Rescue has made a genuinely important contribution to our efforts to monitor our changing climate here in the UK. A crucial part of understanding our current and future climate is to be able to accurately document the past. In recent years the digitisation of early records has meant that the Met Office national rainfall series now goes back to 1862 capturing some periods of particularly notable extreme events including the UK’s wettest (1872) and driest (1887) years on record. These data contribute directly to the findings that we report in our annual State of the UK Climate publication that is used to inform UK Government and public about our changing climate.”

Full details: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/climate/maps-and-data/about/state-of-climate

You could say I’ve done my little bit towards helping understand climate change a little bit better.

I have tended to avoid climate change as a main topic in my science fiction because I always had this feeling that there was stuff we did not know about, which would significantly affect the climate change outcomes. Over the years I’ve seen discoveries made that would change our understanding of what was to come. I also noted that we needed a lot more computational power to get the kind of accurate results we need to understand what is facing us. We are on our way to improving that computational power, but there is still a long way to go.

The one exception is my short story Ripple Effect published in the Autumn of 2012 by Jupiter magazine (Issue 37, Pasithee). UK Amazon    US Amazon … and its serious message was hidden in a fun story.

But here’s the thing. There seems to be an assumption in climate change theory. If we reverse what poisons we put into our environment, we reverse the effects of climate change. It’s not an unreasonable assumption for minimal changes. It’s the best available theory we have got to go on. But for larger changes like those we are starting to see these days?

Absolutely no way. We have to assume straightforward reversal of effects will not happen. One reason is that we need to take into account how to deal with the products left in the environment. We have to get rid of those products and until we do they will have an impact on the climate.

Worse those polluting products can produce other polluting products or change things permanently in our environment. We have to counter those effects as well.

On top of all that there are the longer term astronomical cycles that impact our climate.

The bottom line for all three of these changes is that we need insight and innovation to sort our climate and environment out.

Some of that can come from terraforming studies, but it will only supply a small part of the understanding we need. Some of it will come from improved computer modelling that will come from improved computers. But even here this will far from supply the answers. Both are steps in the right direction though.

Science fiction can supply some more insights – if the science fiction cohort will let it. How about gathering up all the plastic in the oceans and sending it out into space to help build an orbiting space hotel? (Yes there is a cheapish way of getting the stuff up there, it’s not obvious, but I want someone to publish my novelette before I go public on it!)

Another technology that could help forms part of the terraforming system I put forward for the chasms of Mars in The Martian Wind. That technology can be adapted to do several other things, a few of which would help bring back the climate to what we want it to be.

So yes, science fiction can supply some of the answers to climate change if the writers have the insight and the publishers are willing.

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Is Fantasy’s Reign Starting to End?

The ‘monthly’ Guardian review of science fiction and fantasy novels has an all science fiction selection this month. This goes a little way to making up for the all fantasy selections that has been made in other months. See here. It certainly makes a welcome change.

I recently had a list of science fiction and fantasy books to choose from. It was noticeable that they were overwhelmingly fantasy. I really had to sift through the list to find the science fiction. But that is what the person in question had been sent for review by the publishers. A brief discussion with said person elicited the fact that publishers seem to be more reluctant to send out science fiction books for review. Why the difference? It’s not as if said person has got more since fiction reviewers than fantasy ones to deplete the to read pile.

When I look at the to be published lists on the likes of locus magazine, there is a again a heavy bias towards fantasy. A few years ago the number ratio of fantasy to science fiction books being published was roughly six to one. The circumstantial evidence suggests this ratio has got worse since then – but it is what I perceive at the moment.

And yet when I talk to people, they want to read science fiction rather than fantasy.

This contradiction between wants and offers does not stack up for me.

Even more so with technology making advances that means significantly different tech will become available in the near future from what was anticipated only a few years ago. There should be a drive to use this new tech to drive new stories that will be different from anything that has gone before in science fiction. The genre should be seriously refreshing itself.

Let’s hope this is the case soon!

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Change of Colonisation Futures in our Solar System

In more interesting news from Mars… its night sky pulses and glows with ultraviolet light. See here for more info on the research results.  This of course makes an even better argument for using the recently developed bright fluorescent objects I mentioned in my last blog.

But there is even more interesting news. Ceres, a minor planet in the Asteroid Belt has a reservoir of brine below its surface. See here for how the discovery was made.

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Between these discoveries our projected likely future in expanding into the Solar System has suffered a major shift from what we have come to know and love in science fiction. Shortage of water is significantly reduced – we know how to extract pure water from brine, and it looks like brine is scattered much more round the Solar System that we previously thought – Ceres is unlikely to be the only large Asteroid Belt object with brine beneath its surface.

The solids making for energy conversion from ultraviolet have several uses, including reducing the danger from that particular radiation, as well as making light available in the tunnels. But apply the principle to other solids that can do energy conversions… you get the picture.

Just as DNA is to life and mathematics is to robotics, so is energy converting materials to Solar System colonisation. 

In other words, it is time for a major new wave of Solar System colonisation stories. The recently published ones, lovely and entertaining though they are, are now sadly transferred to the realms of fantasy. We don’t have any published stories that use these technologies as the basis for colonisation.

Of course, the above is only the start to the science fiction world building that will be involved. There will be synergistic developments and knock-on effects. There may also be new discoveries coming shortly that will result in another paradigm shift – but the ones mentioned above are already big enough to justify writing stories of a new Solar System order.