Neptune as Never Seen Before!

C.A.T. here – well my author isn’t exactly in her usual chatty mode, but then I’ve been keeping her busy and her typing fingers are rather tired! So you’re all going, ‘Ah’. Why does she get all the sympathy?

Let’s forget about her, shall we? I’m the important one!

Did you see the new photos from the James Webb telescope of my home planet, Neptune? WHAT? You didn’t? Must I do everything. Well here’s the wide view:

And here’s a closer view with labels added:

You can see where my latest published adventure took place, Galatea.

What do you mean you don’t know about the Galatean adventure? Buy a copy of Felis Futura at once. I’ll even provide you with the Amazon UK link here.

Of course, you all know what these pretty pictures mean. There’s going to be some serious research done on Neptune, especially those storms – the bright ovals within the wind bands. It might even give you humans a clue about is going on deeper in the atmosphere, apart from raining diamonds that is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious pretty picture gazing to do, in between making my author do some editing to make me into a magnificent robo-cat!

Receiving Too Many Rejections? What To Do!

There is a story out there in the wilds of the writing community that surfaces every so often. It goes like this..

An author had been writing novels. On completion of each novel, said author would send it round to literary agents in the hope of getting representation. Yet all the author got were rejections. The agents watched the author improve with each submitted novel. With his latest novel the agents knew the author’s next novel would be publishable. So they waited for it. And waited. And waited.

One agent contacted the author asking when the next novel was coming. The author said it was not. He had given up writing novels and moved onto something else. Horrified the agent asked why? The author replied he had had so many rejections he thought he would never become a published author. Nobody had told the author his next novel had been eagerly awaited by the agents because they were going to get it published.

Of course the agent tried the author to write one more novel, but no the author really had moved onto something else.

Whether this sad story is true or apocryphal, it shows the need for realistic encouragement – otherwise people just move onto something else. Every author goes through heaps of rejections before they get published and they still get rejections after they are a success story.

Take Robert Heinlein for instance. He had had a string of stories accepted by John Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction. Robert had made it a policy that if he ever began to slip in ratings or be offered less pay or start to collect rejections he would quietly retire. Eventually Campbell did reject one of his stories, so Heinlein stopped sending the editor more stories. In the end Campbell chased Heinlein to find out what was going on and had to persuade to go back to writing. The rest, they say, is history.

Stephen King’s story about how his wife persuaded to turn down a job for desperately needed money so he could write Carrie is well known. Yes, by that stage he too had a stack of rejections and seemed to be getting nowhere fast with earning much money from his writing.

Rejections are part of a writer’s life. A writer gets them and there is nothing they can do about except move on either to submit the story elsewhere or write something new, preferably both.

But when authors finally finds success, they are more likely to stay with the publishers that helped made them successful. Those publishers that rejected authors without giving them any hope of future success will be very much less likely to get a submission from them, thereby missing out on the profits they could have had publishing their work.

But there is an awful stage in an author’s career – the stage where the author regularly gets published in minor publications and tries to get their stories into the go-to publications. In the case of Science Fiction we are talking about the likes of Analog and Asimov’s for stories up to novella lengths. For novels everyone wants to get theirs published by one of the big five –  Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, who have imprints like Gollancz, Tor, DAW and Orbit.

The author keeps on trying to get accepted by these great publishers and the rejections just pile up over time. It is as if there is this secret glass ceiling beyond which authors cannot rise. They watch as familiar author names get published time after time wondering if they will ever get their turn. It gets to the point that that glass ceiling feels like an immovable object with no way round it. What can an author do in these circumstances?

Well, writing more of the same will obviously not solve the problem, and yet for many authors it is so easy to fall into this trap. It gets them published. People can read their work. What is the point of making the effort to these great publishers if they only dole out rejections? Might as well continue submitting to those publishers that are enthusiastic about the work.

If an author wants to improve their chances of getting published elsewhere, they have to be willing to experiment, both in theme and style. I say theme here because a publisher does not want to publish a theme that has already been done by one of their own authors, so copying theme-wise what is out there is a no-go.

With experimentation comes the danger of being perceived of going downhill in quality of writing. I deliberately used the word perceived here. What is really happening is the author is learning which new techniques are successful and adding them to their writerly toolkit. It gives the author the wherewithal to add more variety into their prose. This is true of both technique and subject matter.

But I hear you say there is nothing new to written about. While I agree a lot of authors write variations on a theme and crossover themes, there is the occasional new topic to be written about. Science does keep on coming up with new discoveries and technology with new inventions. Yes, I know much of the science and technology is now being done on the molecular down to quantum physics scales and applying that to what ordinary people experience is difficult. If an author can come up with a way of doing it, then you can bet that a sufficiently polished story will get published somewhere, just because the idea is new!

Now for a few tips:

But make sure you stick to one idea per story! Putting multiple new ideas into a story leaves publishers baffled – many just cannot keep up with the new and don’t expect their readers to either.

What about changing style? Well if you learn new techniques in writing, sometimes it is worth going through the heap of unpublished stories to change the writing style to make the story more effective.

While combining really new ideas is a no-no, putting a lot of cliche ideas around the new idea adds the sense of wonder to the story and makes the new idea far more acceptable. Trust me on this!

Ignore the rejections that encourage you to submit something new to the publisher. Some are just standard replies and it is difficult to judge between the standard rejections and the genuine ones trying to help. Keep writing what you want to write and judge where to submit that story based on what the story does and how it is written.

Above all, don’t give up hope that one day you might make it into the ‘big league’ of writers. An author will not know which of their stories will do the trick, but they will have a small group that they know are promising. (I had a spate of writing better stories and every single one of them has been picked up by a publisher – that spate derived from trying to work a particular theme – every single one of them got picked up with one publisher requesting a follow-on story be submitted.)

Techno SF? What Techno SF?

A long time ago – no this is not a fairy tale or anywhere near fantasy – it just feels like an age to me… Along time ago, way back in 2013, John Turney published a paper Imagining Technology, his work being at least partially by NESTA – National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. (Link Here – of you want to read the full paper.)

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Abstract:

This review of the evidence about influences which science fiction may have on technology and innovation touches on a series of questions: does imagining technologies and societies in which they are used make innovation more or less likely? Easier or harder? Does it increase or decrease the chance it will take particular forms or that specific ideas will be realised in practice? Can it help forestall undesirable innovations?

The later part of the paper concentrates on how the answers to these questions can be put to practical use. It builds on two observations. One is that, over time, our technological societies have become more conscious (and self-conscious) about the way we tell stories about technology yet to come.

The second is that there are already scattered efforts to make more direct use of story -telling as an aid to thinking about new technological possibilities, or even direct inputs into development. This goes beyond conventional science fictional media  –  in print and on screen  –  and includes a range of ideas conveniently gathered under the heading of “design fiction”.

The typical result of such efforts is a proposition, or a provocation, sometimes in the form of a designed object, sometimes not. Invariably, it is an invitation to ask, if the world contained things like this, how might life be like? That is a science fictional question, but there may be new ways of asking it which can usefully be taken further.

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Design Fiction – hm – it’s a good description of what s effectively white-boarding ideas via story telling. And it serves the useful purpose of identifying those technology innovations that are likely to take in the market place if the price was right.

Does published science fiction include design fiction? Notice the caveat ‘published’. A lot of design fiction is done for companies who insist on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) being signed if you are producing such design fiction for them. That ids just common good business sense. Of course once an author has signed the NDA, they are stopped from writing about whatever the company thinks it could invent. This is just common sense for those writers who do not want to get into trouble with the firm concerned. Even if the author would have come up with the idea without the firm’s prompting, said author would still not be able to write about the idea. Basically, indirectly firms are constraining SF writers not to write about certain things in their near future science fiction.

I don’t know how much of this is going on, but it’s certainly some proportion. (I still remember putting a proposal into my firm for a certain invention that fulfilled an obvious need and it got turned down flat. A few years later, guess what? Another firm had invented the same thing and were selling it. So had I been writing science fiction in the interim, I certainly would have avoided writing about that invention. Yes, I’m still bitter about the stupidity of the management.)

The other problem for near future science fiction is the long turnaround time from acceptance to publication for longer works. Yes, short stories can have a very much quicker acceptance-to-print process. But because the longer works are medium to long term future or encroaching on fantasy, the short story editors feel they need to follow suit to be part of the in-publication crowd.

Of course there are exceptions in the novels. The Expanse by James S A Corey certainly starts out in the relatively near future with realistic technology. The Luna trilogy by Ian McDonald is a trilogy set on the Moon and looks at how the colonies are developing there. (Luna , the first book in the trilogy was published in 2015 – the fact that I’m explaining this suggests that I think it does not have as wide a readership as I think it should have.) Gallowglass by S I Morden, Thin Air by Richard K Morgan and The Martian by Andy Weir are also recent publications. But in each case, it either turns into a thriller or something extraordinary happens, like alien intervention.

From this we can infer that science fiction that examines the impact of a potential future technology cannot be published without spicing the narrative up in some way. This means the the technological innovation is thrown into the background of the story, usually making only a fleeting appearance before the author returns to the mayhem of the thriller or the weird fascination.

That is what the publishers are pushing. All I’m going to say, they are missing out on a heck of a lot, even in our backyard of a Solar System. It also means science fiction is not doing its job of informing us about potential futures, which can’t be doing society any good.

Time to Accelerate Beyond the Speed of Light!

Even science fiction reader wants to explore the universe and beyond, not only in the imagination but also in reality. That means being able to travel faster than the speed of light.

Of course Einstein put the final nail in that ability when he published his special relativity paper in 1905. It explained the Michelson-Morley experimental results and has been since proven through experiment far too many times to not be believed. Einstein then went onto publish his general relativity paper ten years later, where he shows how gravity curves the fabric of our universe. But this in no way contradicted his special relativity theory. Or did it?

Fast forward to 1994. Miguel Alcubierre publishes a research paper claiming that theoretically at least there is way. He proposed changing the geometry of space by creating a wave that would cause the fabric of space ahead of a spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. A spacecraft could then ride this wave inside the region of flat space, known as warp bubble, and would not move within this bubble but instead be carried along as the region itself moves due to the actions of the drive.

Alcubierre Drive Design in Warp Bubble

Turns out there is a bit of a problem with that. The drive would require negative energy. Yes, that is right NEGATIVE energy. Further research has however shown that we have a drive that is quite efficient at getting much closer to travelling at the speed of light with normal positive energy. So Alcubierre’s theory has some promise, but not as much as was originally hoped.

Fast forward to 2021 (that dreadful second year of Covid) and Erik Lentz offers an alternative method. He describes a warp bubble as a soliton – a phenomenon that has been known about in physics since 1834 when John Scott Russell observed it travelling along the Union Canal in Scotland. He constructs his faster then the speed of light solitons not using negative energy, but using stress-energy of conducting plasma and classical electromagnetic fields. In short the soliton / warp bubble can be generated using conventional physics that we all know and love. He is saying faster than light travel is possible on paper.

You can bet the scientists and engineers on Earth are working away at trying to improve the theory and making this a reality. But will it really happen? Your guess is as good as mine.

But this little history proves one thing – humans never give up their dreams and they will try to achieve them no matter how hopeless those dreams are in reality. And it is science fiction that keeps on fuelling those dreams.

But the interesting thing is that science fiction today takes faster than light travel for granted (unless the story is set in the near future before faster than light travel has been developed). It will happen. What is missing from science fiction these days are stories about how to make it happen without it being handed to us humans on a plate by aliens (as in James S A Corey.s The Expanse series).

Me thinks it’s time for making faster than light travel stories to be written and published, if only to encourage the scientists and engineers along, and maybe even give them ideas of how it is done.

8 Planets

At the start of my writing science fiction I had a simple aim that I thought was was within my capabilities – to publish a story about each of the eight planets within the Solar System. (I had never thought of Pluto as a separate planet because of its two to three orbital resonance with Neptune.) It would give me a chance to explore the very different planet-scapes from the rock exposed to vacuum to the tenuous extremely cold gaseousness of Neptune and what they could do. Consider a kind of exercise in stretching my descriptive capabilities.

Fortunately, I also made a point of keeping a record of all my published stories on the just in case basis. Some of these stories only deserved their flash in the pan glory. Others that faded out of print, deserved better but too were gone after their brief moment of glory.

I have pulled together eight stories into an anthology and self-published a paperback version of it on Amazon. Some (those about Venus, Saturn and Uranus) are still available in their respective original publications. The anthology has turned into something more. You can see the journey of literary improvement as well. It acts as a lesson to wannabe writers of the kind of journey they might expect to take from first publication to being accepted as part of the genre community. Enjoy!

The Blurb:

8 planets in our Solar System – 8 near future science fiction stories, one each for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Each story explores an unusual aspect, from the double sunrise of Mercury’s dawn to experiencing normal Earth gravity in Neptune’s upper atmosphere. What impact can they have on ordinary people? On humanity as a whole?

UK Amazon link.

USA Amazon link.

Creativity versus Analytics in Science Fiction

The other day I attended a hands-on workshop on for doing a flower arrangement in a teacup – the wonderful result now stands pride of place on my dining table. There were lots of tips on how get the best out flowers, putting together the arrangement and recycling oases. It seems the only way is to let them dry out and use them make composts etc lighter. (I wouldn’t because my composts end up on the vegetable garden and I don’t want my vegetables to suck in the plastic molecules – but that’s me.)

At the end of the session we had a chance to look round what each of us created. Despite a limited supply of types of foliage and flowers we all came up with radically different arrangements. They were all so beautiful. But you could see those that followed a distinct pattern and those that were on the perhaps the ‘wilder’ more artistic side, with things like colour or shape balance predominating to give the design cohesion.

I briefly discussed the artistic versus patterned designs with the workshop leader. She looked at mine and decided, quite correctly, I was a mixture of both, in other words a mixture right brain creativity and left brain logical and analytics. It was at that moment I decided the left-right brain theory is significantly oversimplified for what is really happening in our world.

One of the reasons is that as an organ the brain has high plasticity – the ability to renew and change itself to need. It has to in order to lay down new memories and be able to learn from the past and to deal with the new in our environment. It changes and will continue to change. And that includes moving centres of ‘expertise’ around in the brain.

The more important reason is that in order to progress in our lives, we need both the analytical and creative. Those that have more of one than the other probably have more experience of that particular one and therefore seem to lean more that way. In other words environmental factors play an important part as to whether you are a creative or an analytical.

What does this means in terms in science fiction?

Well both analytical and creative processes have advantages when it comes to helping to survive. But in a heavily technological environment, having the analytical skill would be much more preferable. So as the human race hopefully expands out onto the Moon and Mars, and on into the rest of the Solar System, the need for the analytical is much greater than the creativity. It is only where there is a great abundance and variety of materials that creativity can really come into its own – which basically means living on a planet or large moon. This is where the creatives can invent things that will help them survive.

So we’re going to end up with more analyticals in space and more creatives on rich varietal planets and moons. This would bring a natural tension into any science fiction story.

But this is for the extrapolated short term – the one everyone expects. But there is something else that could be going on here. Let’s ask the question, what is the effect of combining creativity and analysis?

A kind of hyper-inventiveness that is useful – the kind we’ve been seeing since the times of ancient Greece and Rome, which has been accelerated by the scientific and industrial revolutions that gave us access to greater understanding and resources. These trends have been accelerating and we have have taken this into account in extrapolating what our future is likely to be.

And yet, something else lurks hidden. Let me explain this in a bit by bit fashion.

I have long been fascinated in understanding how we see things. Development in the animal kingdom has been along the lines of seeing in black and white, then being able to see red, then green, then blue and finally ultraviolet. We humans have not got to the ultraviolet stage – bees etc have so they can find nectar in flowers. There is evidence in the literature of the time to suggest some early Romans may not have been able to see blue. This in turn makes me believe that eyesight development is continuing at pace even to today. (I know it begs all sorts of questions of genetics – but that is entirely another debate.) Equally if we look at the history of how we have grown taller over the last few centuries because of access to better resources, we can see things in us humans can change rapidly.

It is as if there is within us, and indeed with the animal kingdom, the ability to adjust ourselves to circumstances. The way we would expect this to happen is from generation to generation. It is worked in the past, so why should it not continue to work in the future? Of course, it will.

But hold on… what about this business of plasticity in the brain? Could not we change ourselves to a limited extent within our lifetimes? And what about the longterm effects of brainwashing, or not?

Um… those with science fictional imaginations can see where this could go… enjoy your speculations!

Seers of Neptune – A Convergence on Triton

Wow! I have another short story that has been published, the fourth in the space of a month.

It is Seers of Neptune published in June issue of The Martian Wave, edited by Tyree Campbell at Hiraethsffh. UK Amazon Link Here.

This is super-exciting for me, because it is the breakout story of a whole new theme I’m exploring.

It helps that the setting is on Triton, the largest moon orbiting Neptune, which I have learned a fair bit about over the years. Yes, it is the home of that lovely ginger robo-cat, C.A.T., but it is a story totally separate from his adventures.

Talking of C.A.T. … I got a copy of his latest adventure in paper! It is a major first for him. Even better, he is in hardback! It’s a real privilege for him (and me).

Proof of Hardback!

BSFA Panel on the State of SF in the UK

Yesterday I zoomed into the BSFA panel about the state of science fiction in the United Kingdom. The chairman was the BSFA President, Allen Stroud and the two panellists were Stark Holborn and Stewart Hotston. It was a fun and relaxed panel, but some serious points did come out of it.

  1. We’re seeing a lot of novels being published now that were written during the pandemic – they tended to be about society coming to an end and people being alone. [I don’t think this should really come as a surprise, but it is nevertheless disappointing. I had hoped with all that extra time and space to write novels, authors would have taken the opportunity to build some wondrous stories.]
  2. Space opera a few years ago was more hopeful, fun and exploring ideas. Now it’s more about dealing with antagonists, military SF, cosmic element to the threat or smearing into fantasy. [This is in some senses a continuation of the above into the space opera sub-genre.]
  3. Overall there is more of a focus of on smaller scale introspective relationships. [Again this is a consequence of point 1 above.]
  4. There is also more of a focus on keeping Earth going rather than moving off planet. [And yet again another aspect of point above.]
  5. They’re seeing a lot more trans-humanism and post-humanism. [This is worrying. It is time to move beyond trans-humanism and post-humanism because there is so much more in terms of ideas and kind of realities to explore – why is this area being neglected?]
  6. Tendency for publishers to publish novels that tick boxes rather than risk innovative stuff i.e. the need to ensure making money leads to novels with conservative themes etc. [I’ve been saying this for years now in previous posts. Whilst it is nice to have my view independently confirmed, I find this very sad.]
  7. A lot of innovative SF is coming in through translations of novels first published abroad.
  8. General feeling of panellists is they was new ideas etc. which is sadly lacking at the moment. [This has been a complaint of many readers on and off since the 1960s. With so much potential out there for new ideas to enter science fiction, it is disappointing to see this issue resurface.]

From the above one can deduce that in the United Kingdom, publishers are not supportive of innovative native science fiction authors and are instead importing innovative science fiction from abroad because those novels have got the support of their local publishers.

Yes, that statement does beg a lot of questions of the science fiction publishing industry in the United Kingdom.

..and to the future SF…

What a whirl the last few weeks have been – final checking and getting three, I repeat three, science fiction stories published in one week. Been on cloud illion for a few days and now slowly coming back down to earth! Of course I’m particularly pleased to have a follow-on story published about C.A.T. after a break of nearly decade. (He’s snuggled up in his favourite corner, purring loudly away!)

But one thing bother me about all this. Two of the publishers that kindly accepted my stories are based in the USA. I’m not sure about the third, but suspect a global cohort of editors is involved. My previously published story to that was also put out there by an American publisher. It seems the American market like me more than my home UK market. Why should this be?

Well, I write science fiction. Some stories may tend towards other genres, like thriller, action, mystery or dare I say it, fantasy, but in the main they are deep-rooted in the science fiction genre. No ifs, no buts, definitely science fiction.

When I look into possible UK markets for straight science fiction, my heart sinks. A lot of such magazines have fantasy or horror in their pages alongside the minority of sides of science fiction. If feels like science fiction is only there to get the notice of new would-be buyers, which they then suck into their fantasy and horror worlds. I don’t want journey stories twiddling with deus ex wherever magic or descent step by agonising step into the depths of revulsion stories. I want stories that debate potential aspects of the future about issues we might have to tackle all too soon, about how inventions and new ideas might make our lives better and how we as people might develop into something better than we are now.

This is exactly what quite a few publishers are doing over in the States. Which may be why I’m finding more opportunities for my stories over there.

There will be consequences to this big international divide in the genre. For one thing, the more developmental ideas that are published, the more people have access to them and the more likely that some of those ideas will be turned into reality by people who’ve read the stories. In short the States has one of the necessary building bricks in place to develop a better future for themselves. This will as a by-product enhance people’s optimism, which will in turn give them confidence to dare. And that will lead to more ideas. In other words, the States have what I call a positive feedback loop involving science fiction.

I also think the Chinese have come to understand, which is why they have been pushing to get more of their own science fiction publications out on the market place.

If such a feedback loop exists in the UK, it is minute compared to what they have in the States. The rest of what I’d say about this I will leave to your all too vivd imaginations.

… in which to find C.A.T.’s 4th adventure!

NewMyths publishes Grey Halo!

Absolutely delighted to have a third story published within a week! I doubt it will ever happen again, so I’m thoroughly enjoying the moment!

NewMyths has been kind enough to publish my short science fiction story, Grey Halo in their Issue 59. It is my first story about dark matter – yes, that mysterious ‘stuff’ that helps keep our galaxies together. Nobody knows what dark matter is and therefore it is a good theme to explore in science fiction. Grey Halo is one such exploration – the story can be found here. Enjoy!

My thanks go to the editor of this issue of NewMyths, Susan Shell Winston for looking after my story so well!