Goodbye 2022 – Hello 2023

It’s that time of the year when nominations need to be in for the Best of Science Fiction Novel/Story/Artwork/Non-fiction/etc. One novel that deserves a shout out this year is The Flight of the Aphrodite by S. J. Morden. Certainly the ratings on Amazon say so as well. I was ever so pleased to be able to pick up a copy at Waterstones in Bath and by gum it’s an interesting read for the near future science fiction.

So what has 2022 been like for science fiction?

The post-Covid chaos in the publishing industry has not helped the genre. There are exceptions, but windows for novel submissions for unagented authors remain thin on the ground. Some magazines have stopped publishing, sadly. It all boils down to less opportunities for new and mid-list authors. This lack will feed through into the publishing industry for a few years to come.

I was lucky enough to have six stories published during the year – the best ever total for me to date. I put it down in part to being able to continue writing during the lockdowns when the creative inspiration of other authors faltered.

2022DecTaxedPenumbric – Vol 6, Issue IV, Dec 2k22
 JuneSeers of NeptuneThe Martian Wave – June 2022
 JuneGrey HaloNewMyths – Issue 59
JuneA Woman of Many Facets365tomorrows
JuneSpace BlindFelis Futura anthology
MarA Way with WordsCosmic Crimes Series – March 2022
Science Fiction Story Publications in 2022

There should have been a 7th story out, but unfortunately the said magazine stopped publishing in Autumn this year. So yes the publishing chaos did affect me directly. But I do have every sympathy for those involved in this magazine – they really did not have any other sensible choice.

What are the prospects for 2023?

Well we all hope for a better year and wish for things like an end to war Ukraine (with Ukraine having all its country back), a halt to horrendous cost of living crisis, the last restrictions because of Covid being lifted, all strikes being sensibly resolved (especially here in the UK), a readily accessible health service, etc. Even if these can’t be solved, taking steps towards them would help. With all this disruption to life and the universe going on, I can’t see the publishing industry taking priority in people’s lives.

So yes, science fiction will continue to recover from Covid issues in their various guises, but not as fast as many of us had once hoped. And yes, the high profile authors will continue to get their novels published because that is what brings in money for the industry. Publishers may continue to be choosy as to what they publish of these authors, but they are looking for a guarantee on return on investment in these times when readers in general have less money to spend. Bascially until the cost of living crisis and its causes are resolved, it is going to be a difficult year ahead for science fiction.

Previously when the publishing industry has taken a downturn, the authors suffer a squeeze in income. It has now got to the point when authors in general will not accept such a reduction in their pay. They will look elsewhere for income, because they have to, even if it is only stacking shelves in the local supermarket. So I would expect the pool of authors and hence stories publishers can choose from to reduce in number. By how much I am unsure, but it will be notable.

So far what I have suggested for 2023 is common sense. But history has taught us that when there are tough times, expect surprising solutions. I have no idea what they may be for the science fiction genre. Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that we will not just have more of the same, even if the quantity is reduced because of cost constraints.

A friend did suggest, ‘I think it still needs one massive SF seller and things will bounce back.’ Yes, science fiction has been in the doldrums for a few years now. All I’m going to add, I have no idea what that massive SF seller will look like.

Have a Happy and Interesting 2023.

pp

Short Story in Penumbric!

Delighted to have Penumbric publish one of my science fiction stories – you could say there is something of a Christmas spirit about it, especially with the title, Taxed.

Link to Penumbric here.

As to the background of the story – all I’m going to say is the facts about some of the flowers are true, which I learnt from an elderly neighbour of mine who loved her gardening. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but I’m sure she’ll be smiling about it, wherever she is.

Season’s Greetings to one and all!

The Everest of Short Story Submissions

Every now and then I review the status of the stories I’ve submitted to various prospective publishers and not yet found a home.

One of the principal reasons why some do not find a home is because they don’t follow any accepted science fiction theme (e.g. space opera, dystopia) that editors can easily recognise and relate to. They are what I call my ‘breaking new space’ stories, with themes and ideas nobody seems to have thought of. For instance in my Seers of Neptune kindly published by Tyree Campbell in The Martian Wave magazine (UK Amazon link here), I place a quantum computer on Triton, Neptune’s principle moon, because it is the coldest place with a significant amount of gravity, which will allow that computer to function. Yes, Triton is even colder than Pluto! So which science fiction writers do you know would come up with an idea like that? I’m sure there must be someone other than me, but I can’t think who.

I won’t say how many rejections I got for Seers of Neptune , except to say it quite a lot. It amounts to a lot of effort on the part of the short story writer. Sometimes I think I spend more time sending out my stories than I do actually writing. While I can understand this for writers learning their tradecraft, the effort spent on submissions should diminish with the improving writing. That is the theory and common sense, but not my experience.

I can understand why short story authors want to write and publish novels, once they’ve had their first novel published (getting that first novel published is a different nightmare – the agents issue alone is a sheer space elevator to climb). It takes less business effort on their part, so they can spend more time writing.

One of the reasons why it is difficult for any writer to get their short story published is the ratio of submissions to stories that can be accepted. The publishing system is sinking under the story files’ weight. Editors are human (well, a lot of them pretend to be) and if they can take shortcuts or come up with quick ways to reject stories, they will. Can yo blame them?

The real question should be how can the whole publishing industry reduce the ratio of submissions to allowable acceptances?

I’ve seen various mechanisms where authors are asked to jump through preliminary hurdles e.g. write a query that the editor checks before the editor will allow the author to send in their manuscript. It started with novels and I later saw it used for short stories. But this is more work for the author! Sorry, this ploy does not work with me for short stories.

Another ploy is the limit the submission windows. That from the author’s point of view is more than a damned nuisance. If when the author thinks a story is ready to submit, then they will only look at those publishers that are open for submission at the time – blow the ones that are temporarily closed to submissions, even if they might be a good match for the story. (The exception here is when the editor is on holiday – remember editors are human – but that should only be for a short duration and the author can wait that long.)

A further ploy is to require a story to be within narrowly-scoped theme. That would usually mean writing a story from scratch in a relatively short time scale. Well, those themes tend to be uninteresting compared to the stories the author is already writing, especially to the author. Where there is no or little interest in writing a story, it tends to end up being substandard compared to the author’s other works. Those narrow theme calls tend to get ignored by many authors because they are too busy with something far more interesting.

Basically with the increase in submissions, publishers and editors are coming up with ploys to lessen their workload, but it ends making more work for the author. This shifting of the workload cannot continue. Authors are human too – they need their sleep like everyone else. It is time editors and publishers realised this!

Of course in the good old days in England the Arts Council gave a small grant to Interzone to encourage and publish up and coming authors. That was last century, when David Pringle was its editor. I don’t know of any such grants being given in England, which makes me all the more miffed that the English National Opera is complaining about its grant being slashed unless it moves out of London. At least they have a chance of having a grant.

But now? Well you know the state the short science fiction story market is in (and I’m not talking about fantasy here). Do I need to say more?

Science Fiction should Thrive in Times of Crises

Why does the need for new science fiction remain as strong as ever, if not stronger, when the publishers are all veering their novels, anthologies and magazines to fantasy? It’s a good question, especially as this trend has been going for decades and you would think by now the ceaseless push towards fantasy must have had some effect on readers.

Before I can even start to answer this question, I need to talk about background pushes and that includes a little bit of economic history.

The Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989. Literally, the political world-scape changed overnight. It allowed West and East Germany to reunite and West Germany to pump loads of resources to bring East Germany’s infrastructure up to Western standards. It allowed many countries, like Poland and Hungary, to throw of the influence of Soviet Union. This included many of their workers from the East Bloc to come to Western Europe to earn money to send back home. Yugoslavia disintegrated into its constituent nations. The Soviet Union also broke up into constituent countries e.g. Ukraine, Belarus, Russia. All this upheaval resulted in many things, but it was all summed up in the term, ‘Peace Dividend‘.

After all the work of readjustment to the new order and ensuring access for many people to things they could only once have dreamt of, came a period of relative stability in the naughties. Notice, I said relative here, because of course there was reaction to the outright extremism and terrorism in the Middle East to contend with – basically dealing with issues for which resources had not been previously available.

People in general settled down to lead ordinary lives, having routines and not wanting any nasty surprises. This also occurred with the rise in popularity of the fantasy genre. It felt like science fiction was sinking behind the facade of immersive ordinariness of fantasy.

Yet if you look at the new novels published stats, it was fantasy taking off in popularity, leaving science fiction where it was. However, something else insidious was happening. The fantasy genre was eating into the SF genre. There were more cross-over fantasy-SF stories and less straight SF, yet these were being counted as SF, some justifiably so, others not. Why did they get the latter wrong? Basically the SF label sells.

And yet… the publishing industry continues its bias towards immersive fantasy…

I know some publishers say they are eager to accept near future SF – sorry, my personal experience suggests otherwise – mainly because the publishers have surrounded themselves by fantasy-loving suppliers and closed themselves from access to SF.

But my main point in all this, is that we have had two decades of relative peace in the world that has induced a ‘laziness’ bias towards fantasy.

Now we’ve had a couple years of hell with Covid, Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. Around the corner are the consequences of climate change with floods, droughts and goodness knows what else. Science and technology can and does help alleviate some of these nightmares. The Covid vaccines are a good example – but when the formal enquiries are done, they will show that had we invested more in science, we would have have been able to shorten the need for lockdowns – trust me on this. Had we had the imagination of what science could do supplied to us by science fiction, we might have encouraged the missing investment etc.

Science Fiction is one area to look for answers in times of crises. Now that we’ve got the majority of Covid restrictions out of the way (because they’re no longer needed) and a whole heap of crises heading humanity’s way, you would expect an uptick in SF publications, wouldn’t you.

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!

Time Travel?

Time travel is a popular science fiction and has been so since at least 1895 when H. G. Wells published The Time Machine. Many see the main problem with time travel being the grandfather paradox – this is where someone goes back in time and kills their grandfather before he could have sired his parent and therefore he can no longer exist.

I would like to put this paradox in a different light. What we have here is a continuity problem. Let me take you step by step through the thinking.

We all experience time going forward. It is like going along a single thread and as we do, we undergo change from and implement change to the world around us. We cannot sense what is further along the thread, but we carry with us the memory of what has happened in the past. But that thread is continuous. We slip smoothly from one moment to the next. The changes are never abrupt, but gradual in their properties. Even switching on a light is gradual, just we are not quick enough in sensing the change.

If we were to travel back in time, we can theoretically do in one of two ways.

The first is to abruptly jump from our current time to say a century ago. In your existence we have a continuity of existence, but suddenly we are gone in the present. The present has now developed a discontinuity of a sort, which goes against the whole ethos of continuity of the world through time.

The second is where we ‘gradually’ and continuously travel back through time. This means that between now and then we exist in the world. We have not seen such people travelling backwards int time. So if they do, they must do it at sub-luminal, sub-audible, sub-everything levels. But nobody has noticed such a phenomenon. True we could be going faster than light, except we would weight a humungous amount and block the way of something in the normal world going forward in time. Or whilst the phenomenon may be possible, nothing is travelling back in time. How likely is that given the way human technology is developing?

You can see why from an existential point of view, I find time travel hard to believe on. The continuity of existence is just not there or highly improbable for it to exist.

At the end of the day, all the time travel science fiction stories I am aware of involve discontinuity, and the physical universe abhors discontinuity.

Consequences of Some Politics on Science Fiction

Progress in scientific discoveries is now set to be slower than originally planned. The reason is quite simple. The collaborative Horizon-Europe funded projects are no longer allowed to have British scientists as leads in their projects because Europe refuses to ratify the Horizon agreement. The reason behind this is generally believed to be that the Europeans are holding back the ratification as part of the negotiations over Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol. (Link here for more background.) Whatever the reason, it means the best scientists are not being used to further the research, which in turn means that progress will on aggregate across all the projects be slower or not happen at all. The loss will in the short to medium term of course be small, but it will be there.

But over time it will make a difference as to when knowledge and technology improvements can become available. For us science fiction writers it means we have to stretch our future history timelines of our science and technology maps further into the future.

But there is more to that. Access to resources play a major interactive part of future histories. The longer we as a race as a whole put off our science and technology discoveries, the more chance we have of exhausting some types of our resources. For instance, we are today and have since the 1970s been feeling the effects of oil and gas shortages. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had access to wind, solar and wave power in the 1980s. It would have meant oil and gas reserves would have stayed in the ground longer and there would be less climate change effects today. (Yes, this is simplification of the issues involved, but it brings the message home.)

So we have the lack of science and technology progress will add to us lurching from one shortage crisis to another.

For futuristic science fiction writers this may at first seem like a welcome thing as we have more chances of writing headline grabbing and emotion enabling stories. But there is only so much ‘doom and gloom’ readers will take. Recently I have been detecting a swing away from such stories. For instance, dystopia is not as fashionable a theme as it used to be. Readers want more happy endings. The tradition of science fiction giving warnings about what to avoid in the future will not be as welcome. This will have its own consequences.

We are now in a situation where we should have more science fiction warning about future problems, but less of it will be published.

Interesting times ahead as they say…