North Sea Eco-Friendly Energy Generation

A long, long time ago … 1993 to be precise… I wrote a small descriptive science fiction piece about the North Sea. The edited version is below:

The View

That strange interregnum between the last of the winter storms and the first blossoming of spring held sway over the land. The dull clouds portended yet more rain, dampening the air and drowning the hope of better things to come.

Occasional beams of sunlight broke through. One such shone on the extensive glasshouse canopy to the southeast, turning it into a solitaire diamond on a low grassy plateau.

From it, a black line of road curved down and made a beeline for the west. Behind it a yellow sandbank, with its grey-green patches of saltwort and marram grass, rose up to the abrupt horizontal line of the seawall’s hidden rampart. Without either sandbank or wall, the land would have long since sunk beneath the battering waves of the North Sea. The road disappeared into a wind farm that, at this distance, had the aerofoils looking like delicate white toy windmills, their blades ceaselessly turning.

The road reappeared, to come northward on a ridge to a village, where the orderly terrace houses with their immaculate vegetable plots and scrappy chicken runs surrounded the village hall, general store and hotel. All were bedecked with the dark blue sheen of solar panels, much needed to ward off the biting cold of the winds. At the northern end of the village, the preserved wreck of a wooden ship stood with quiet dignity beside a long low hut that housed a maritime museum.

Spurs of gravel embanked tracks led off the road to various farmhouses and barns. Their owners were custodians of the precious green and brown acreage that stretched out in every direction, even encroaching to the very edge of the nearby fish pools. This agricultural land was broken into regimented squares and rectangles by dark chilly-looking canals, a lot mere drainage ditches, but a few were large enough to carry barges. Near some farms, power-generating waterwheels fitted snugly in the step down in levels along the canals.

Fields were linked at one or two corners by grass covered bridges wide enough to hold farm gates whose design had stood the test of centuries. On the odd green field slowly wandered the white, cream and black blobs of sheep, ducks and geese. Most of the fallow fields were lined with the furrows from the plough and were awaiting their spring seeds. Here and there, were lines of trees; straight bare plane trees were lower down whilst the gnarled and twisted willows were higher, acting as wind breaks.

The four fish pools, remnants of the days when this was just a fish farm, were covered by a fine translucent netting to ward off the ever-squawking, wheedling gulls. The wind ignored the obstacle to make the pools ripple and dance in pretty patterns.

Such was the view now through the window of the old lighthouse on Dogger Isle, once the Dogger Bank twenty metres and more below the North Sea.

Now comes the news that the National Grid are in talks over a plan for an energy island in the North Sea. (See link here.)

It seems to be just a wind for now, which given my description above is disappointing. After all, why not use other mechanisms in the same sea space to maximise the energy output? It would make a lot of sense from the engineering and maintenance viewpoints. For instance, they could use the same transmission cables to transfer the energy. And if they’re going out there to do maintenance anyway, why not add some fish farms or shellfish infrastructure. Then they could minimise the number of journeys made.

Yes I applaud the idea of a wind farm in the North Sea, provided it is done with respect to the sea habitat. But where is the joined up thinking with other potential industries to maximise the use of the infrastructure that they will have to put in place?

This is where science fiction could have helped, had the above piece been published. (Oh yes, I did try to get it out there – but that is another story not for this post.) After all, science fiction is the speculation about what is possible in the future. Now I fear the plans are too far advanced to be able to do anything about the energy island.

Does its Golden Age Overshadow the Rest of Science Fiction?

Science Fiction’s Golden Age cannot not be pinned to definitive publications for its start and end. But everyone agrees it happened somewhen between 1938 and the end of the 1950s. It saw an outpouring of ideas and enduring science fiction stories that grabbed the attention of the person in the street. Authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, James Blish and Robert Heinlein became household names. Stories like Nightfall, Childhood’s End, Starship Troopers, The Martian Chronicles were must reads. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics became a byword.

According to one Science Fiction’s historians, Adam Roberts, “the phrase Golden Age valorises a particular sort of writing: ‘Hard SF‘, linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom.” In other words the stories were straightforward and solved or at least identified technological problems with ‘new’ science or gizmos. This was all during the era of fast technological change. World War II started with armies relying heavily on horses and the 1950s ended with launch of satellites such as Sputnik into space. Science fiction and science were closely intertwined to make such progress happen.

Then the pulp market disappeared in favour of cheap mass produced novels. Straightforward stories were no longer the writers’ bread and butter. Stories became literary in style. They veered away from the techno-gizmos to the psychological impacts. Simultaneously the apparent progress of science slowed down.

There are still stories today that follow Adam Roberts’ Golden Age template, but finding them in among the New Wave, Cyberpunk, anything-punk and literary stories from authors outside the genre is a Herculean task. To get a gizmo tory published these days, the writer has to come up with something new that will make a significant difference. Even then, the chances of getting the story published are slim verging onto nothing.

And yet… there is that nostalgia for the Golden Age Science Fiction. In part it is brought on by the invented gizmos of that heyday still waiting to become reality today and in the future. We want the true humanoid looking AIs, the ability to visit and live elsewhere in the Solar System, the cure-alls for diseases and so much more. They are in-built to our global psyche that we no longer need to remind ourselves of what can lie ahead. We expect these things to happen because some of science fiction’s gizmos have already become a reality – like landing a man on the Moon.

And this is the issue. The person in the street is stuck in believing the future will be along the lines of the Golden Age’s inventions – the inventions of the middle of last century, over seventy years ago.

Science has changed a lot since the 1950s. Yes it continues to deliver on the promises of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. But science has opened up new possibilities that are hardly touched upon in modern science fiction. Where are the stories about the impact of graphene on our society? What will happen to international politics and power when we fully understand the mechanisms of climate change? How will finding new minerals formed in near-zero gravity change our industrial base?

These questions are only a very tiny sample of those we authors should be pulling from current science innovation. There is one exception to this – the information revolution with all its computers and chips. The Cyberpunk movement saw to that. But even here, the one opportunity to use data to help invent gizmos has been missed.

The long shadow of Golden Age Science Fiction built into our global psyche is preventing us as a species looking at what can now be done in the future, which is far more than we could have believed possible in the middle of the last century.

Science Fiction Needs to Come Out of the Ghetto!

I had the pleasure of zooming on a few items and the combined BSFA and SFF virtual convention yesterday. Like any such variety of events, some were better than others. But two things stuck out for me.

The first was the seemingly unanimous condemnation of The Guardian’s article on Cli Fi that was published yesterday. (you can read it here) This is not a new wave of Cli Fi as the article claims. In fact there have been loads of comments pointing out loads of science fiction fictions on climate change that have been written since the middle of the last century. The list of such novels seems endless. The point being made here is that the author of the article chose to ignore all the science fiction that is cli fi.

The second thing that stuck out was one of the guests of honour made a point that science fiction is the poor relation of other genres. Tade Thompson has now been elected Vice President of the BSFA. When asked what he would be doing in his role, he indicated that he wants to bring science fiction out into the light to be alongside other genres. I wish him every success in his endeavour.

Both these things point to science fiction still being in the ghetto, the genre everyone does not want to admit to publicly reading. Well that’s not quite true. People will admit to reading science fiction if they don’t think their listeners or readers will laugh at them for reading such a genre. I’ve had quite a few people say they’re interested in reading it and wish there were more good novels out there.

Hm. I suspect they’re shy of being caught reading the novel unless it is a widely acknowledged masterpiece.

But I hear you say, if science fiction is a ghetto genre, how can it produce masterpieces? Or do I hear you say, if it doesn’t produce masterpieces, how can the genre get out of the ghetto? A truly vicious circle. In the meantime, the literary cli-fi novels coming from big names outside of the genre are making the profits. Science fiction is once again being starved of the income, both authors and publishers alike.

I personally haven’t really touched cli fi, except in a short story, Ripple Effect, published in Jupiter Issue 37, Pasithee in 2012. It’s more about the politics behind climate change rather than the impact and consequences of climate change.

And herein is the lesson – climate change will not be solved until there is a global political will to solve it. If only the politicians had listened to the science fiction authors sooner!

Latest Review of Space Force: Building a Legacy

I was alerted to a review of Space Force: Building the Legacy this morning. It made my day with the following being about my story:

“Slivers of Hope” by  Rosie Oliver

Wow. Just wow. This is a story of human resilience. It is a story about human brilliance. It’s something I wish I had written, but didn’t. I’m not sure about the science here, but it makes sense from a layman’s point of view. Yeah. This one is going to haunt me.

And to think the genesis of Slivers of Hope was observing a con trail while driving home from work on a cold winter’s stare night. My immediate thought was it was a pity we could not use that con trail as a road to Low Earth Orbit. Some convoluted lateral thoughts later, I wrote Slivers of Hope.

Will there be a sequel to this story? There has to be. I can’t leave the ideas in this story alone. They are huge, world-bending in the sense it points to our species taking a different path from what is currently extrapolated and therefore expected, and most importantly innovative even by science fiction standards.

It just shows you how a small incident or observation can lead to greater things if you just let it grow.

From Science Fiction to Fact?

I’m looking forward to the new Revelation Space novel by Alastair Reynolds to be released by Gollancz in the summer. Of course I moseyed round to look at the cover on the publisher’s website.

My first reaction? That spacecraft looks awfully like the Skylon spaceplane, a spaceplane concept developed by the British firm, Reaction engines Limited (REL) – picture below:

Then the engineer in me took over. Couldn’t help it. It’s instinctive in me.

The main difference is that the novel’s cover shows the plane in space. It does not have to fly in atmospheres. The Skylon does. But let us assume for now that both planes have to fly through the air.

The major differences are the Inhibitor plane has wing tips on top of the engines (used to reduce drag in subsonic flight), has what appears to be intakes in the nose and the fuselage is sqarish with aerodynamic cornering. On the other hand the Skylon has canards (those controls at the nose) and a rudder..

The comparison leaves me wondering two main things. How does the Inhibitor plane control its flight through the air? (Skylon does this via the rudder and canards.) And why doesn’t the Inhibitor plane maximise its internal volume to skin ratio, which reduces the amount of skin heating in atmospheric flight to a minimum for the amount of cargo or number of people on board.

Let us deal with the latter question first. If the Inhibitor plane is small (we’ll have to see if that is the case once the novel is published), then it may have to fit around the shapes of specified objects such as human sitting in a cockpit. So we have what is called a constrained minimum of fuselage surface area.

But there may be another reason why the fuselage is squarish. The whole body could be acting as a rudder to control the horizontal turning in the air. O.K., let us take this idea a step further. The Inhibitor plane could be using its horizontal surfaces as the equivalent of a vertical rudder. That is all well and good, but how would both the horizontal and vertical rudder be controlled I hear you ask?

Remember those nose intakes? If there is a control to vary the amount of air taken on board through them, it will create a differential pressure, which means the space plane will turn. It’s a kind of short term instability like fly by wire, but this affects the engine fuel supply instead.

But I hear you say, there are only two nose intakes, so the atmospheric control can only be in one plane. That is true if the nose intakes only take in air. What about pushing out air in an aerodynamically controllable way, especially in the vertical direction? See those strange ridges on the back of the plane? They could be out-takes. Now we are talking.

Clearly up to now I’ve been talking about atmospheric flight. Spaceflight is another matter and would have to rely on directional vector controls within the engines. This could always act as a back-up in atmospheric flight. So now we have two systems in air – good safety feature here. Equally in space, the air ejection controls could help manoeuvre the space plane. Also a good safety feature here. I’m beginning to really like this design.

Of course there are a lot of features in common between the two plane designs – for the purposes of supersonic flight – black material for atmospheric heating control, long noses for sending the supersonic booms into ultrasonics so that people do not hear them and engines set close to the centre for good aerodynamic control.

Of there is a lot more engineering to this than I have discussed here. My next step would be to look at the centre gravity position relative to the centre of aerodynamic pressure – which incidentally can be controlled by moving the fuel around the plane. This was used successfully in Concorde – yes this particular technology goes all the way back to the 1960s. The real technological development would the internal engine, intake, out-take and fuel co-ordination, especially reducing the reaction times to commands and changes in the external environment. This is data heavy, but it can be done with the appropriate amount of development work.

See what I’ve done with the artist’s design of the Inhibitor plane? Identified what the good points are and how they might work in reality. And sometimes humanity needs the artists to come up with suggestions for the scientists and engineers to look at to see if they are feasible.

This is one of the reasons that science fiction exists and is popular in certain circles.

Political versus Tech-led Science Fiction

The Guardian’s roundup of the best recent science fiction and fantasy novels has been published today. (See here.) I’m pleased to see 3 out of the 5 novels are science fiction. Yay!

What I found interesting was the SF novels look like they act as a commentary on current political issues. Sorrowland is about racial inequality, Dark Lullaby about women’s rights and responsibilities, and We are the Satellites about the imbalance created by personal enhancements, in this case the implants that improve brain power. Thus makes these novels very relevant to the here and now.

Science Fiction has a long history of political narratives that goes at least as far back as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. Some have acted as warnings about the future by exaggerating what might happen to bring the message home. Others have been making the world simpler so we can see the issue more clearly that is going on today. What I also find interesting is that The Guardian’s choices have avoided the two biggest problems of today, the pandemic and climate change.

Both are current global work in progress, where the situation is changing comparatively rapidly. Certainly the pandemic has shown us that the reality was not quite as science fiction predicted it might be, even if UK’s Health Minister, Matt Hancock, did take on board lessons portrayed by a science fiction film on the subject. Could it be these rapid updates in reality have stopped novels being published on these subjects?

I know from experience how quickly technology can catch up or overturn near future science fiction. It was not how the technology extrapolated into the future that went wrong, but its timing and how technologies come together to form a new technology its own right.

What really worries me is how many new technologies from combing existing ones we science fiction writers are missing. A good example is the air system I invented for the Martian Chasms that I wrote about The Martian Wind

A variation of it can be found in Slivers of Hope in Space Force, Building the Legacy. Of course there is much more I can do with this combined technology, but haven’t got round to writing about yet.

It only takes one rich combo to upturn the world building big time. And I’m sure there are quick a few such combos I haven’t yet stumbled on.

It is therefore not surprising that review columns like those in The Guardian tend to steer away from technology-led science fiction novels. They fear those novels will become out of date very quickly and therefore lose the interest of the readership.

There is a BIG BUT! There is a tsunami of new combo tech on its way. We’ve already seen a similar revolution with the Internet of Things, and look how that drastically changed our lives.

If the science fiction publishing industry cannot start to comment on them… do I need today more?

Bat Crazy on Kraxon

Nature versus near future technology is the theme of my new science fiction short story, Bat Crazy.

The wonderful people over at Kraxon magazine have chosen it as this month’s story. How the editor can find such an appropriate and wonderful picture to go with it is beyond my understanding(not the bat picture here) . But he did! Read Bat Crazy here.

The story was inspired by a visit to the Universeum in Gothenburg, Sweden. It has a bat cave you can walk through (as well as a small rain forest). Let’s just say the experience was remarkable. The Universeum is well worth a visit.

The Missing Question for Science Fiction.

Everyone has heard Reward Kipling’s saying: I keep six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When , And How and Where and Who. These are the six questions every journalist should ask when pursuing a source of news.

These are the question s every author should ask when they are putting together their story. But I would go further and add a seventh question: Measurement? Annoyingly there isn’t a single question word that describes, which is why I have had to resort to a noun with a question mark.

The science and technology development is based on the ability to measure things like distance, time, quantity of an object or fluid, temperature, any property you can think of that has a variation of some sort. And yet, this is not what J. Bloggs naturally thinks of as a query when investigating something.

But it is what a science fiction writer has to think of when they are pulling together their story, because they have science somewhere in that story. This is the only genre that is forced to use measurement. Other genres like fantasy and horror can have it there, but they don’t need science or technology of whatever. (Crime thrillers strictly speaking don’t need measurement. Yes, it makes their plot easier to have a specific measurement, but it is not necessary. If the crime is committed in a modern setting, it is far more natural to use a handy measuring stick of some sort, which is why there is so much technology in crime fiction.)

So a good litmus test of whether a speculative fiction novel is true science fiction is whether the story is dependent on measurement of some sort, and I mean dependent in the sense there is no way that story could be written without that measurement. If the answer is no, then it is not science fiction in the true sense. It is probably horror or fantasy veering towards science fiction.

As you will surmise, a lot of faster that light space opera does not meet the measurement litmus test. Star Wars for instance has long since been recognised as fantasy, enjoyable though it is.

Measurement as far as I can tell does not appear in any definition of science fiction. That is because the essential measurement property to the plot may in what I call the hidden layer of assumptions in the world building. Which of course can lead to endless arguments among the fans.

For now it is simpler to say the science fiction must have some element of science that is essential to the story. This by default includes the measurement criterion. But if you do identify the measurement criterion of a story, then you know you have science fiction, or the real kind.

Gollancz Fest at Home – Thoughts on the Science Fiction Panel

Wow, it’s been sixty years since Gollancz have started publishing science fiction novels. Who would have believed it has been that long. To celebrate they have today been holding a Gollancz Fest at Home. Their schedule is below. Don’t worry, you haven;t missed it. You can see the recording on YouTube. Link to Part 1 here. And Link to Part 2 here.

I f you’re like me, you would have found some items more interesting than others. Of course I made a geodesic beeline for the science fiction panel at 14:30 with Adam Roberts, Elizabeth May, Alastair Reynolds, Laura Lam and Stephen Baxter, with Gillian Redfearn as chair.

I’m not going to summarise what was discussed – you can watch the video for that. More this is about my reaction to some of the points they made.

The first was that the panel as a whole pointed to science fiction being more about the impact of technology on people than science on people. The difference between science and technology these days is that science is done in the lab, or on specialised machines that the person in the street has very little access to, or is too far away to handle while technology is hands on gadgets or infrastructure bringing goods or services in through the front door.

I do sometimes wonder whether we should have a genre, Tech Fiction. It would mean distant space opera could remain as science fiction because it isn’t going to impinge on our lifestyles any time soon. Within Solar System near future space opera would become Tech Fiction – think The Expanse here. The readership will naturally fall into one or the other: those seeking escapism will naturally veer towards Science Fiction, while those who want to debate and understand what the near future might be like will turn towards Tech Fiction. The differentiation between the two is basically serving different readership needs and so is a natural marketing strategy.

One comment I picked up was that one of the effects of the pandemic has been for people to make life decisions that they weren’t going make for a few years now. It rings true with me because I have heard such stories from local people e.g. a local gardener deciding to take retirement now instead of waiting a few more years.

But it is not just individual life decisions that have changed their timing. The pandemic has resulted in a massive push in medical research to get the vaccines we need and find medication to mitigate the worst effects of suffering from Covid-19. Some of the research would have normally taken five years to complete, instead of months it did. The success has been nothing short of spectacular.

And the medical researchers are not going stop there. In the process of doing the research and gaining their newfound knowledge, they have identified possibilities of curing other diseases, like some forms of cancer. This is only at the theoretical stage. But given the success of dealing with the pandemic, the researchers are more likely to attract the investment to test the hypotheses they have come up with. But it is not just doing the reproach that will be accelerated. The process for approving medication has been streamlined so as to avoid wasting time. Note I did not say any corners were cut in ensuring patient safety, just the time-wasting was stopped. You can bet these processes will be adapted in the future.

Of course we are also see societal changes. Home working has become more acceptable. Firms are now looking at moving people out of offices into home-working. Obviously, you cannot do without the meeting places in offices, but the actual part where you sit down at a desk to do whatever work is needed that does not need interaction with colleagues, has been shown to be a real possible way of working in the future. It has the added benefits of less commuting and less work-induced stress, which bring all sorts of other benefits with it.

Then there’s the hike in shopping online. This trend was already present before the pandemic hit, but the wretched diseases has accelerated its implementation. There will be more zoom conferences, allowing us to listen to people round the world. For instance the Herschel Society that normally meets in Bath has recently had two speakers on zoom from America without anyone having to travel or pay the expenses of travelling. There is now talk of combining in-person conventions with internationalising tech. Goodness knows what the impact of this will be in the longer term.

Yes, we are going through a major societal upheaval. Just like we as a society went through a major upheaval at the end of Second World War. During the war there were major technology advances. It always horrifies me that the UK’s Army relied heavily on horses when the war started, but by the end it was quite happily tanks and other vehicles. Changes were happening everywhere during World War II and they are too many to list in this piece, but change did not stop when the war ended. It went on for two decades afterwards.

I expect the changes that this pandemic kicked into action will also continue for a couple of decades. Where those changes might end up is a Tech Fiction or Science Fiction writer’s job to portray.

Blog postscript: By the way the article in Etaerio SF Issue 1 on AI identifies some not so obvious near future trends for AI.

For Science Fictioneers – New Pamphlet, Etaerio SF, Issue 1 is Out

Drum roll… Fireworks… Jubilations… There is a new quarterly science fiction pamphlet out today – Etaerio SF.

Etaerio SF is for science fictioneers of the near future…Issue 1 has two short stories by John A. Frochio and Sarah Hovorka. Articles for writers on how to generate ideas and new science fiction words. A discussion forum on how technology is likely to develop – this issue covers artificial intelligence (AI).

Etaerio SF is available in both paperback and print formats from Amazon.

Amazon UK Link Here.

Amazon US Link Here.

A website has been set up for Etaerio SF, that will keep you updated of new issues and plans. Etaerio SF website Link Here. And yes, there are plans. This is only the start…