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.

Science Misrepresented in Science Fiction

I was idly pawing through stuff over a nice cup of coffee when I came across this interesting article written in 2018 (link here) on the relationship between science and science fiction. The takeaway bite-size chunks are:

  • people from the artistic side are afraid of scientific things
  • the requirements of drama are very different from the requirements of science
  • the genius has become the kind of ideal scientist, but the reality is never like this
  • some science fiction is perhaps better called technology fiction

I know people that as soon as you say science, technology or word of similar ilk they turn away, switch off, refuse to even try to understand the simplest of science ideas and so on. They just refuse to engage. And lives are the poorer for it.

There are some people who want to know more about science but are genuinely incapable of understanding. Heck, I’ve known a brilliant physicist be actually maths-blind. It was as if his brain wiring for maths was just missing. I can see the same happening for science. But let me make one thing clear – this only applies to a very small percentage of people, and I mean very small. The rest who refuse to engage in science are just plain lazy.

What I found interesting is that there are artists who genuinely want to know more about science and technology. Some are too scared of being found to be wrong in the company of the techno-cognoscenti – um – how can I put this? – give a scientist or technologist or engineer any excuse to talk about their subject, and they’ll be away, chatting nine to the dozen.

It’s actually very lonely being a techno-geek. There are so few people who show interest in your subject. So come on artists – show the geeks some love and get them to talk about techno-stuff. You’ll be surprised how quickly they find your level of understanding of the subject and go to that level to talk. After all they had to learn their their subject from scratch too.

Science requires a lot of dedicated people to make progress. This is the reality. The super-geek does not exist. Even Sir Isaac Newton relied on the work of previous scientists to come up with the laws of motion and gravity. Similarly Einstein did with his great discoveries – his genius lay in asking the right questions about what he was reading up on. The super-geek is artistic license to allow the artist to condense the input of science into a few sentences or scenes. It’s a short-cut away from reality. Treat it as such. and be aware the truth if it were to occur would be far more fascinating – trust me, I’ve been in research and development.

Technology fiction ought to be defined as being a story that requires a gizmo is realisable from the laws of science, without which there would be no story. This is different from science fiction – which must include postulated laws of science that can sit alongside the known laws of science.

Now gizmos, or if you must, magic wands are used likes the techno-geek I mentioned earlier to take shortcuts in the narrative. And once again the author ends up missing a lot of the fun out of the story.

Publishers of course want to make their publications accessible to as wide an audience as possible. It gives them a chance to make more profits. Logic then dictates making science fiction as stripped out as possible of the science to attract the art audience.

In fact the publishers have in general been doing this so much for so long that they have lost sight of where the science is currently going. In other words a lot of science fiction is out of date the day it is published. This publishers are wimping it, and in the process doing their readership a grave disservice.

There is a whole heap of reasonably extrapolated and engineered science missing from science fiction.

It’s got to the stage where every time I draft a new science fiction story, techno-newness drops into my lap. That means there is a lot of reasonably extrapolated and engineered science that the readership needs to catch up on.

In fact so much so that I’m quite happy to predict that the world in 25 years time will be vastly different from the world we live in today. And the sad thing is that the readership will have no warning of what is coming down our timeline. They will have no time to anticipate or prepare. My brain hurts just thinking about it all.

The Martian Wind does give a smidgen of hints of what might be in store for humanity. (Amazon UK link here.)

Science Fiction – Shortage of New Books?

A science fiction reviewer I know rations himself on reviewing newly published science fiction books because not enough of them are being published for his voracious reading appetite.

Emma Newman is author of the Planetfall series of novels – After Atlas was shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke award and the 3rd novel, Before Mars, shortlisted for a BSFA Best Novel. The overall series was shortlisted for the 2020 Best Series Hugo Award. And yet she says on her website, ‘I would dearly love to write another book in the Planetfall universe, but at present there are no publishing offers to support that.

There are plenty of upcoming science fiction books listed on Amazon that are being published over the next 90 days. You would think science fiction is a healthy genre.

Some will be new issues of previously published books (e.g. Neuromancer) and books associated with fandom such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr Who. More are issues in another format such as paperback when the novel has already been published in hardback. Some are the next instalments in long running space operas where the milieu is all too familiar and type of story will have a familiar ring to it. And herein lies the problem. A lot of books are one way or another a regurgitation of what has been published before. You can’t blame the publishers for this – they are businesses wanting to make sufficient profit to pay their workers.

So you have to sift through the lists to find out what is really new. As a general rule if a book is being published as a hardback it is either a classic or a new book. But there are many good books that are first published as paperbacks.

The only really sure way of finding out whether a book is newly published is to go to the publishers’ websites. Way back in the middle of 2019 I did put together a powerpoint of UK speculative fiction publishers in the UK, which is below. Please note some of the entries may unfortunately be out of date and not all of them may publish science fiction.

But yes, it can be tedious regularly checking up on all these websites. What about a central website that pulls together a list of new books? The one I know about does not seem to cover all these publishers. There are likely to be others, if you can find them. But the point remains, there is no one go-to site for a list of every science fiction book published by publishers.

The other issue I have is fantasy has been more and more lumped in with science fiction. The distinction between these genres is now blurred so much that even the sellers can’t cope. With about six fantasy books published for every science fiction book these days, it is not surprising that science fiction seems to be lost under a tonne of paper that had nothing to do with the genre. These days going to bookstore means reading all the titles and quickly (at least in my case) discarding the obvious fantasy ones – a bit of a time waster if you ask me.

Between these two issues it is not surprising it is difficult to find new science fiction. All I’m going to say is that when a new good science fiction does com out, it is likely to be noticed.

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.


The Numbers Game

Naturally I got the the Gollancz Festival at Home ebook 2021 that celebrated the publisher’s 60th birthday. It contained excerpts from novels it is publishing from the end of 2020 to mid-2021. One, Gallowglass by S J Morden I had already read. Yum! It’s a darned good science fiction novel and I would recommend it. I am also looking forward to its sequel Aphrodite that is due to be published later this year..

The contents list showed an interesting issue:

  • Fantasy – 13
  • Science Fiction – 7
  • Horror – 1
  • Crime – 1

In other words Gollancz is publishing almost twice as many fantasy novels as science fiction novels at the moment.

I looked through EasterCon’s 2021 programme. EasterCon covers both science fiction and fantasy. It does not annotate which items are fantasy, but it list 12 items being science fiction. Looking through the titles of the programme, i was left with the impression that there is far more fantasy than science fiction.

To be utterly fair to both organisations (Gollancz and EasterCon), they have both kept going as best they are allowed to in this pandemic and it is a tribute to all concerned in the organisations that they have produced their products. They are to be congratulated on such an achievement in tough times.

But I come back to the point that at the moment fantasy out-produces science fiction as far as the readership is concerned. I would put the ratio as two fantasy for every science fiction.

And yet I recently heard of one science fiction and fantasy short story publisher is swamped by science fiction stories and has a shortage of fantasy stories. I have seen science fiction authors switch to fantasy, though I have now noticed a couple of fantasy writers go the other way.

Of course I have added my own contribution for science fictioneers to the offerings – the Etaerio SF with short stories by John A Frochio and Sarah Hovorka.

Historically speaking, the end of the last century saw roughly the same number of new science fiction novels published as fantasy ones. The popularity of fantasy rose from about 2000 onwards. Science fiction carried on producing at roughly the same rate for the first decade of this century while fantasy forged ahead. It is only from about 2010 onwards more science fiction novels were published, but the genre has been in playing catch-up ever since.

The real question therefore has to be why did science fiction output stagnate in terms of quantity in the noughties when fantasy became more popular?

One of the things science fiction does is be a commentary on scientific discoveries and technological inventions. Science fiction takes them and goes through the what-can-go-wrong, how-can-it-be-fixed and how-it-ends-up-embedded-in-society cycle. The 90s saw the peace dividend of the ending of the Cold War, and with that came a reduction in research and development. It was left to the commercial players to make money out of what had become available, and the only noticeable changes to the person in the street was the internet. It was almost inevitable that with people wanting to spend their money on something, that anyone who came up with an internet product would end up making money, even become super rich. In a way science fiction lacked the discoveries and innovations to comment on in the first decade of this century, and that hampered its growth.

Things have only really changed within the last five years, when the internet billionaires started seeing results on their investment in big technological products. We have recently seen a whole tranche of novels of science fiction in Solar System space because of the successful flights of new rockets and spaceships. Gallowglass is one such novel.

As to the future science and technological input into science fiction… I’ve been on the lookout for commentary on the Covid-19 vaccines. Even before the pandemic hit, I knew about the research at Oxford University into corona viruses that caused the cold, and more importantly, that progress albeit slow was being made. Well Covid certainly speeded up that research to produce a result – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Now I’m hearing about that same research has developed insights into how other diseases might be cured. So expect a science fiction reaction cycle to kick in when notable results happen and are announced. It will help to keep the number of new publications up.

The other thing science fiction is good at is doing world-building to amplify or focus better on a political message such as Rose Macaulay’s What Not, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and H G Wells’ The Time Machine. The pandemic has certainly highlighted the difference between the politics of various countries, enough to write commentaries on. But has politics developed or changed enough to push for a big wave of political novels? We’re not out of the pandemic yet, so the answer is not available. There will certainly be some novels on this theme in the offing.

So yes the future for science fiction looks bright as it has material it can work on made recently available and coming up. But will it come from being in the shadow of its sister genre, fantasy? Only time will tell.

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…

Etaerio SF – Issue 1 Coming Soon.

Yes I know I’ve been very quiet. But there has been a good reason… in fact one that all science fictioneers will want to hear about.

I’m publishing a new science fiction pamphlet, which I hope to publish on a regular basis. The first issue will be out shortly. And yes I will announce it on this blog.

So be on the lookout for:

Etaerio SF

I have set up a blog for this pamphlet – etaeriosf.wordpress.com , though I’m still in the process of building it!

This pamphlet is not to be confused with the short story Etaerio that BSFA have kindly said they would publish in their first issue of Fission. I have a thing about the word, etaerio, and this was just a coincidence of timing.