Predicting the Predictions in Science Fiction?

Last night during a zoom meeting I heard that someone claim that mathematicians can see a hundred years into the future, certainly far better than scientists, technologists or engineers. If true, that’s a stupendous super-power.

The example was cited of a French mathematician, Laplace, predicting the existence of black holes in 1796. Yet in 1939, Einstein was trying to prove they could not exist.

Science fiction is supposed to add to the debate of how progress in science will affect the future. That means is too has to predict what could happen in the future.

Where is the link between mathematics and science fiction?

There have been science fiction stories about mathematical concepts like the Moebius strip and tesseract – geometrical figures where the protagonists can have fun or be in trouble with exploring or using. There have been fun logic problems to solve in the postulated futures. There have been maths wizards that magic up answers to the protagonists’ problems.

But as far as I’m aware there has never been a prediction about the future of predicting futures. This covers both science fiction and mathematics. It’s like asking, ‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’, a conundrum the Romans were well familiar with.

So how can the future, or to be more precise, aspects of the future be predicted now?

There is identifying a pattern using information about the past and following that pattern into the future. The big word for this is extrapolation. Except people have found in some cases that extension into the future cannot continue indefinitely. Take miniaturisation of computer cores. What happens when the component size reaches molecular limits? The improvements come to an abrupt halt and a new technology must be sought to continue this trend. In this case one was found in quantum physics. But, as it turns out, a new type of algorithm becomes available in this technology that will change certain aspects of our prediction capability and eventually bring online a whole new types of products, which will in turn modify societal behaviours. Predictions here worked the extrapolation correctly, but did not anticipate the disruptor capability of the new types of algorithms.

Most science fiction writers who are trying to discuss the future based on technology development use extrapolation as their main tool for world-building.

[Note – the caveat on science fiction writers here is to distinguish them from the writers who use known science fiction tropes to discuss political issues or to give more sense of reality to fantasy tales.]

There are other prediction tools in the science fiction writers’ armoury. Some of them happen due to luck e.g. serendipity. Others can be worked on. It is the use of this set of tools that distinguishes a great science fiction writer from one that follows what is considered normal science fiction. Some writers do not know they are using them, more they are following some in-built instinct. Others actively look for what has not been written about before.

Where does this leave the predictions of predictions? Extrapolating the extrapolations is the easy bit, relatively speaking. It is these other tools that are causing the problems. They are not so easy to predict how and when they are going to be used. Some take effort on the part of the writer. When will a writer come along and make that effort, especially when you consider our society is built on the premise of producing as cheaply s practicable and acceptable to customers?

Which brings me back to the question of how mathematicians do their predictions. They observe and then build their mathematical model around what they see. They do not assume a model is to hand that will do the job. Yes, they may use standard models, but only after they have checked the assumptions behind those models hold true for what they have observed. In other words, they start from scratch with every new problem.

Most science fiction don’t that. They cannot afford to because it takes extra work, the readership want some familiarity with what is in the story and well, to be blunt, most people are scared of stepping into the unknown including writers.

Mathematicians are trained to take the unknown in their stride. They can and do tackle the unknowns. Occasionally they get interesting answers. Isn’t it time science fiction writers did the same? That includes predicting the predictions in science fiction.

SF Publishing Industry – Where Should It Go?

The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated the fault lines in the science fiction publishing industry.

There were already too many new books being submitted to agents and publishers. Furloughs let people have time on their hands to finish the novel they were in the middle of writing and start submitting them to agents and publishers. One agency stated that their submissions had gone up by sixty per cent before they closed their door.

On the other hand a publishers were obliged to postpone their new publications to comply with lockdown rules. Unfortunately some publishers had to permanently reduce their capacity because their cashflow model was broken beyond repair. This drop in capacity for new books meant that fewer books were being accepted by publishers.

In short there is a greater supply of proposed novels going up against a more restricted pipeline of book publishing.

The good news is that those books that were published before and during the pandemic have enjoyed a wider audience, and I suspect bigger sales as a result. I was in Waterstones on 3rd September when over 600 new books hit the market in one day. It felt like Christmas as far as sales were concerned.

Where now for the science fiction publishing industry?

Those publishers that continued working throughout the pandemic are those who kept their audience and will continue to do so. They have also perhaps added new readers to their readership. The picture is different for those that dropped out o the market temporarily. They missed out on the extra market opportunity and if they continue will have to build up their clientele from a lower base.

As for agents – they have a bigger pile of submissions to go through. And the chances of an author getting their novel into the market is significantly reduced for now – it will take at least a couple of years for this part of the industry to get anywhere back to normal levels of working.

What I have written so far should not come as a surprise to people with an eye on the publishing industry.

As Winston Churchill said when he was helping to set up the United Nations after World War II – Never let a good crisis go to waste.

And let’s face it, with all the upheavals imposed on the publishing industry, it is in crisis. The opportunity should be taken for it to reinvent itself to appeal to both the old and new readerships.

Easier said than done. But it might be easier for science fiction than most other genres. I have long been of the opinion that science fiction has been stuck in a rut for these last few years. Progress in new ideas has been very rare over the last decade. It has been mainly variations on a theme. And yet, science, technology and engineering have been advancing at an unprecedented fast pace. We have not seen the pull through from science into science fiction that the genre was set up to expose to readers.

Let me give you an example – Elon Musk wants to set up glass domes as habitats on Mars. The engineer in me screams – What about Mars quakes? What about meteorite damage? What about radiation from the Sun? What about – well the list becomes very extensive. But this glass dome technology has been around so long that it is taken as inevitable. Is there another way? Alastair Reynolds in The Great Wall of Mars had to build a 200km high wall to keep the atmosphere at the surface breathable. And it still didn’t solve all the problems. But it did point the way to offering a partial solution. I built on that solution with a mix of manageable technologies that resulted in a system that could work. Being engineered rather that relying on scientific principles, it takes into account possible failure modes for which I designed in viable automatic contingencies. That system is described at the point where it interacts with the people in The Martian Wind. It does not go into the background techie detail that would bore many readers to numbness. The engineering of this ‘habitat’ when compared to the glass dome habitat is like the step up to a diesel engine from a steam engine.

This is the kind of thing the science fiction publishing industry should be pushing into the shops – it is new, refreshing, considers a possible future and adds usefully to the debate of where humanity should head towards.

Space Command in UK

Today brought the announcement that the UK is setting up a Space Command that hopes to launch a rocket by 2022. This timing coincides with the opening of a spaceport in Sutherland Spaceport to launch rockets. This is in the very north of mainland Scotland.

Work is ongoing for a second rocket launch spaceport in the Shetlands and a spaceplane spaceport at Newquay in Cornwall.

But why should the UK military be interested in space?

The answer is rather simple. The UK is leaving the EU, and with that comes the expectation that it will not have full access to the EU’s Galileo Global Positioning System (GPS). Therefore the country needs its own accessible GPS for defence purposes. That means procuring the satellites and having the capability to launch them into space.

Compared the to the standing up of the USA’s Space Force, this is a rather limited enterprise. Nevertheless it is a welcome step in the right direction.

Of course there are as yet no UK manned spaceflights planned. That will only come when the UK has spaceplane capability like that of the planned Skylon spaceplane.

There is however one major issue looming – too much space debris in Earth orbit. It has been building up for over 50 years now.

There is an old Yorkshire (a county in the UK) saying, ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass,’ or translated into modern words, ‘Thrown away materials can be worked to make a profit.’

What is desperately needed is the ability to collect up space debris and use it sensibly. There are several reasons why space debris might be useful:

  • to recycle the materials to build new spacecraft
  • to mine for rare materials to send back to Earth
  • to examine foreign technology and learn from it

All these tasks can be done using unmanned vehicles controlled from the ground. Sending up large vehicles is cost prohibitive. Small ones? Another matter. Even better if you can get several small ones to work together to collect space debris. Whoever can make the breakthrough technology to make collecting space debris cheap enough to gather will end up being a major player in orbital space around Earth. And that leads to political power.

There are enough ideas above to produce several ‘what if?’ novels here. And yet, ‘Where there’s muck, there’s no imagination.’

However, I can envisage UK’s Space Command eventually having to take on the role of space debris collector because they will need the clear space to travel through.

Time to Stand and Stare

A week ago today I was in the BristolCon virtual event where Chris Lintott gave a talk about The Crowd and the Cosmos – Adventures in the Zooniverse. It was a fascinating talk and BristolCon have said they will put a recording of it on Youtube.

One of Chris’ comments made me sit up and take notice. One of the beauties of the Zooniverse is that people working through all the observations have the time to notice things that the researchers who put up the project are not looking for. It led and still leads to new investigations and deeper understanding of various phenomena.

The organisers did at one time try incentivise the number of observations made by individuals. Whilst it was successful in this aim, the number of observations of extra interesting stuff went down. It stopped people from doing the ‘stand and stare’ mode of observation. And the number of new discoveries went down.

Looks like incentivising narrows a person’s vision to focus only on what they are rewarded in seeing. It misses out on the strange and wonderful.

Which brings me to science fiction authors. How many times have we seen a new author come onto the market with a magnificent novel or trilogy, and their next novels that come out within a year or two disappoints? How many famous authors produce novels at the fast tempo of one a year only for their readers to see their imaginative scope reduce with each new publication?

It’s as if once an author gets on the treadmill of publishing one new novel after another, the quality of their stories is bound to fade. They have no time to stand and stare at the universe to let the imagination reign.

When you add in the issue of it takes longer to write a science fiction novel than a fantasy one (because of all the background fact checking), you can probably understand why the fade in science fiction authors might be steeper. Could this be the reason why science fiction is lagging behind fantasy in book sales? Which in turn puts publishers off bringing out new science fiction novels?

I know from experience taking my time to enrich the world-building and subtleties in my stories takes time. It’s part of the reason why my story publication rate is slow. Another part is that I enjoy thinking up new things to say in science fiction, as opposed to some authors who stick to the tropes and vary the story lines. Thinking up new things and then working out their implications takes thought-time. I just cannot rush it. And I never intend to either – it makes my life more interesting – and I hope my readers’ too.

Contact with Intelligent Aliens?

Do intelligent aliens exist and why haven’t they contacted us? This question has been around for over half a century at least and we still seem no further in getting an answer.

Frank Drake in 1961 wrote an equation, more to stimulate discussion than give and estimate of the number of intelligent species in our Milky Way galaxy…

The number of civilisations with which communication might be possible is the multiplication of a number of factors:

  • Rate at which stars are born in our galaxy
  • fraction of these stars that have planets
  • the average no. of planets per star that can support life
  • fraction of those planets that could support life that actually go on to develop life
  • fraction of planets with life that go on to develop intelligent life / civilisations
  • fraction of civilisations that develop a technology to release detectable signs of their existence into space
  • length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space)

Estimates have varied from 15,600,000 contactable civilisations down to virtually none. We do not have the data yet to make that reliable estimate.

Of course there have been variations and suggestions on how to improve the Drake equation, such as looking biosignatures instead of technology. But we are no further forward in getting result.

This easy to understand method is what I call weltanschauung method, i.e. one that looks multiversally across all factors. It goes for the big picture of understanding.

Science Fiction – Where is it Going in this Pandemic?

We live in strange times indeed. We have had to change our normal behaviour in order to save lives and protect ourselves. Gone are the times when you would travel extensive distances to explore new interesting places for the fun of it. Gone are the days of being part of large crowds with a lot of people close to you. Gone are expectations and hopes of so many people because they cannot see a way forward to achieve their dreams. And all this comes with the sadness of unexpectedly losing relatives and friends, and seeing people being laid low for long periods of time because of the debilitating disease.

All we can do is make the best of what we have got and can do safely. Even so, we still produce strange situations.

Publishers are currently reporting a good trade in selling books. Yet I’m hearing from people in the know of books having their publishing dates pushed back and an apparent lack of medium to long term planning by the publishers. This is a contradictive situation. On the one hand things are going well for the book trade and on the other the book trade does not seem to want to take advantage of this opportunity.

The latter will put off people thinking about trying to write fiction, any kind of fiction including science fiction. I hope the talented ones decide to ignore such detrimental signs and write those stories regardless.

I am also starting to see subtle signs of change when it comes to creativity – or should I say the creativity mechanisms used by writers.

Let us take serendipity as an example. We all know that serendipity can by the close observance of two items accidentally placed together produce some wonderful ideas. But with the lack of adventurous travel the opportunities for those lightbulb moments have become very much reduced.

I will go further to say that new ideas are coming from the more analytic methods of idea generation methods. Those writers who rely on the fortuitous idea generation methods will see the number of opportunities for idea generation reduced, and therefore we will see a lack of expectedly interesting stories being written. Those writers who rely on the more analytic methods will continue with their idea generation as if nothing has happened. There will be a slight reduction in the interesting because science discovery and technology development are not going at as fast a pace as had been hoped for – but this will have a very minor impact.

So what kinds of science fiction stories will come more to fore?

Ones that are rich in world-building. This could space opera on the grand scale or a country village on the small scale – what will be different is the background detail behind the story, which in turn will in its own drive the story. It’s the difference between working with an initial sketch and a finely richly detailed picture. Place will again come to the fore as a protagonist in science fiction stories.

Another type of story that will come to the fore are the puzzle solving ones. We are talking detective stories of one form or another, finding out more about how the unknown fits into the world and asking why a pattern is broken.

This pandemic has now gone on for so long that the psyche of humanity has altered in many subtle ways. Those changes are here to stay even when they a honed back once the pandemic is over.

And this will mean the rise in rich world-building and detective / puzzle stories will be here to stay for quite a while. Readers may wish it otherwise, but the science fiction writers can only do what they are able with the opportunities (or lack of them) they are given.

As for the medium to long term planning of the publishers – I hope some of them take note of the above and work out the implications for themselves.

A New Normal?

Late last century a story did the engineering rounds…

Volvo is a Swedish car manufacturer producing sturdy cars that could survive their cold winters and hot summers. In fact it was so sturdy that it was often used by farmers as their work car to travel over the roughish terrains on their farms. So it had captured a corner of the market.

In those days they had teams to produce individual cars and management in their wisdom dictated it had to be put together in a certain way and in a certain order. Of course the cars were of a standard and people were well pleased with the product because they continued to buy the Volvos.

Then one day, management said to the teams put the car together in your own way. And the teams did. If one person turned out to be particularly good at attaching the passenger door, that person always attached it.

And productivity improved… and team happiness improved… and life was all round better in Volvo.

The morale of this story is that people are different, have their strengths and weaknesses, and have learnt best what they are good at and what makes them feel comfortable.

Let us now turn to modern day Britain – in fact the world where countries have gone into lockdown in the face of this awful pandemic. Those workers that can have been asked to work at home. A lot welcomed this during lockdown because they had children who had been sent home from schools as they were closed to all but those whose parents were key workers like nurses and doctors.

Some of those who worked at home had to make adjustments – for instance they got their firms to buy ergonomic chairs so they didn’t have to sit on the bed to do their work. Many felt isolated and had to learn a new way of communication and distance team-working. But after the initial hiatus of adjustment, productivity generally remained the same or went up.

Post lockdown people could return to work. Some have asked to come into work for the full week. Others have said they are happy working full time at home, and the management have let them getting them to come into the workplace only once or twice a month to deal with necessary face-to-face stuff. And productivity is again up.

It seems when it comes to the workplace, the world has been learning the lesson that Volvo did at the end of the last century – people are individuals and it’s best to give them as much freedom as the job allows so they can work out what is best way for them to get the job done.

Firms are now talking of continuing the working at home practice after the pandemic. This will have the benefits of more worker contentment and better productivity. This in turn will give the economies who can allow this work-at-home flexibility better productivity.

It will also allow for greater individualism among people. You never know, we may even see the return of the great British eccentric – people who make life interesting in society.

This is an aspect of society that I have not seen written about in science fiction. It is a great hole in the canon.

A lot of the lack of variety in people has been limited by the storyline. For instance a military science fiction story has a group of people trained to act as a team. They are taught to think the same way so they can act together instantly in a crisis without having to take time out to go into explanations. There is a kind of sameness about the military. You see similar common behaviour in many manufactories because of the nature of what they produce – and we’ve seen a fair share of such in science fiction. And when it comes to living on space stations on in enclosed habitats, the needs of survival like making sure there is enough oxygen and water for people makes for a sameness in their way of life.

This is not to say that these way-of-life groups should not be written about in the future. In fact they should at the very least be there in the background of the science fiction stories as they are necessary background like planets, asteroids and stars. It is the foreground of the story that needs the variety.

Is it not time to bring the tradition of great British eccentric into science fiction?

Saints of Salvation needed for SF Agents?

The other day curiosity got the better of me and I went in search of literary agents who welcomed science fiction. And I got a bit of a shock.

While there are agents welcoming submissions, a lot of the ones I had known about previously were closed to new submissions. In fact far too many for it to be due solely to things like life intervening.

The Covid-19 effect has definitely reached the agents. With fewer open for submissions, we can expect that down the line there will be fewer novels for publishers to choose from. This in turn means less variety of science fiction books available for the reader.

I know that some publishers have reduced their staff numbers and other small publishers have decided to call it a day, but the fall in agent numbers seems to be a greater proportion than the loss in publishing capacity.

In the meantime I’m enjoying what novels I can get my paws on… and at the moment I’m reading Saints of Salvation by Peter F Hamilton. The novel is due out on October 29th, but some kind people let me have an early copy for review purposes. Saints of Salvation picks up the story from immediately after Salvation Lost.

Peter is doing a virtual tour to celebrate the publication of the third novel in Salvation trilogy, as you see from the poster below.

Unfortunately the BristolCon event on All Saints Day has sold out, which of course is great news for BristolCon, Peter and Gareth. But the other two events still have places available.

All I’m going to add is that science fiction writers will need the Saints of Salvation to help get them a literary agent these days.

A fun invention for science fiction writers to play with!

Once in a while an invention or discovery comes along that leaves the mind ‘gawping with wonder’. Scientists have shown they can float toy boats the wrong way up beneath a levitating body of liquid.

That’s right liquid on top of air and toy boat sailing on the lower surface of the liquid. A kind of upside down thing. This is effected by the use of the right kind of vibrations. Details here. More details here.

So here we have something that looks like antigravity, only it isn’t. Other forces make it look like antigravity.

I’m just waiting for a science fiction writer to come up with a world comprising an air (or other gas) layer underneath an ocean that effectively forms the sky.

Even better if they figure a way to do on one of the Solar System’s oceanic moons e.g. Enceladus or Europa! Guess what I might be doing over the Christmas break… or at least trying to!

Newsy Bits and Bobs

I am absolutely delighted to see Sir Roger Penrose be awarded half the 2020 Nobel Physics prize for his work on black holes. He has done so much for mathematics and physics that I feel it is rightly deserved. As an undergraduate I was fortunate enough to attend his lectures on special relativity – those lectures were so clear that I have never forgotten the theory since – he was that good a lecturer.

Recent visualisation of a black hole by NASA

A copy of the Distaff anthology is now lodged at a college library in Oxford, with the librarian threatening to read it herself! That anthology sure does get around!

One thing this Covid-19 business has done is give me a chance to catch up on some reading. If you want a fun near future science fiction thriller I can recommend Space Station Down by Ben Bova and Doug Beason. It really is Die Hard on the International Space Station.