Water, water everywhere….

30 09 2015


The news channels have been full of it – that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. The scientists have deduced this is possible by the changing patterns of dark streaks on the planet’s surface over the past 15 years. Even better they have identified salts lying on the surface that induce the water (magnesium perchlorate, chlorate and chloride) to drop the freezing point of water to 80 degrees and the vaporisation by a factor of 10. It is thought these salts actually pull water out of the thin Martian atmosphere. Which all adds to liquid water sticking to the surface. 

But what about the implications that where there’s water there’s likely to be microbial life? Will they not contaminate any humans who happen to drop by? And what us contaminating Mars?

Well here’s the thing…

We have for a long time been receiving meteorites from the Martian surface. Although a lot of material is open to vacuum during flight that would kill off air-breathing microbes, we know some microbes exist that don’t need to breath any air. These microbes could have tucked themselves into the meteoroid’s deep crevices and made the journey to Earth. That means Mars’ ordinary microbes could have found themselves still alive after reaching Earth. Either way cross-contamination will have occurred between Earth and Mars. So there should be no problem with sending humans to Mars.

But how can we find out for sure?

The scientists could re-examine the meteorites known to have come from Mars to Earth for any evidence of the transfer of microbial life. There would know far better than I what evidence to look for.

It’s the obvious next step, so I’m surprised that I haven’t found any announcement to that effect amongst all the fanfare.

The data download from New Horizons continues to amaze. Quite a lot more detail has been identified on Pluto and its biggest moon Charon.

Whilst there are 17 known solid crystalline phases of water, the only one that is likely to found on the surface is Ice XI – An orhtorhombic low-temperature equilibrium form of hexagonal ice. It is ferroelectric i.e. has a spontaneous electric polarisation that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field. Ice XI is considered the most stable configuration of ice Ih

I’d love to know what the electromagnetic interaction between the solar wind and Ice XI is, and how it is affecting Pluto, particularly as it has such an eccentric orbit around the Sun and actually spins on its axis. This is a major difference from Triton, which comprises similar materials, but within Neptune’s magnetosphere.

[I have an interest in Triton because of the C.A.T. series of books, so it’s only natural that I should do a comparison.]


What this solar wind to Ice XI connection means is there is room for an interesting short story. I’m sure someone somewhere must be writing one…

QED – Quid est dixit!

8 02 2015

I came across an interesting article regarding the question: ‘Is scientific proof a story?’ You can find the article here.

It reports on a discussion panel between Marcus du Sautoy, Ben Okri, Roger Penrose and Laura Marcus.

I must be one of the very few people who has a foot in both the mathematics and writing fiction camps. (I’ve got Master of Arts in both… yes I did say Arts and I did say both!)

The panel came to the consensus was that narrative and proof were not, after all, the same thing. 

I beg to differ. The development of fuzzy logic in mathematics, led by Lotfi Zadeh in the sixties, is a way of describing ideas and concepts that do not have a precise meaning and how they can interrelate to each other. For instance what one person describes as big, another person will describe as medium. The english language is made of hundreds of thousands of works that have such an imprecise meaning, as well as ones that have a precise meaning. It is quite feasible to view the language as one very large system of fuzzy logic.

So a narrative can boil down to a proof by fuzzy logic. And like all proofs they can be right or wrong. It was interesting to note that Ben Okri said that literary creativity is highly rigorous (which in a sense aligns with my point about language being a fuzzy logic). You know what? He’s right. Literary creativity boils down to being right or wrong. (It’s also one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a story.)

Where does science fiction come into this picture? Science fiction uses science as a basis for its narrative. Science has some of the feel of mathematics with all its proofs to it. It also has a foot in the literary creativity camp. You would think that the disciplines required for both these camps would make it easier to move from one to the other.

Not really. Why? Because the discipline of literary creativity is different from that of mathematics. Or putting it another way, mathematics has not yet come up with the theorems to describe ‘the logic’ behind literary creativity.

C.A.T. jumping in here… why do you people think I can exist? 

It’s that BSFA Awards Time of the Year

9 01 2015

Ho hum… it’s BSFA award nomination time – and will continue to be so until 31st January 2015 for those works published in 2014. So for the record (not that I expect any nominations) those short stories of mine that are eligible are:

  • Under the Red Moon, Nebula Rift, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2014

[Mrrooooowwww…. you’ve forgotten my C.A.T.-mas 2 short story…. how can my author do such a silly stewpid thing as forget me…I’m going to sulk, you useless lump of meat that considers yourself part of the human race… hhhiiiiiisssssss… change that list now and I mean NOW! ]

Oops… I think I’m in trouble… correction I KNOW I’m in trouble. So I had better add the other short story that I published this year

How to nominate can be found here.

The list of current nominations can be found here.



So that was 2014 SF-wise

19 12 2014

It’s that time of year when Christmas is upon us and we look back at what we’ve achieved during the past 12 months. As happens with most of us, not as much as we planned or hoped for, but one or two unexpected surprises put into the mix.

The year started out with a lot of promise, having two short stories published in succession. And then nothing until December. The last would have been November, had it not been for the unfortunate SpaceShipTwo crash on 31st October, which killed the co-pilot and badly injured the pilot. At the time it was due to be published there was a lot of speculation that the cause was a fuel leak. My story started out with a potential fuel leak on and experimental spacecraft. So out of respect for the family, friends and work colleagues of the pilots, its publication was delayed until December. You can find Tyrell’s Flight here.

The spring saw a couple of nice surprises. The first was my first semi-pro sale of a short story to Ian Sales’ Aphrodite’s Terra anthology. Hopefully this will now get published next year. The second was C.A.T.’s 4th novelette getting an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. I got a nice little certificate, which I’ve now framed. I suspect for various reasons this will be the only certificate I’ll get from that illustrious organisation.


Of course I was there at Loncon3 in August – where else would I have been – and I was actually on a panel alongside the more famous writers like Adam Roberts, Hannu R and Elizabeth Moon. For me the highlight was Friday evening’s concert by the symphony orchestra. They played all the expected pieces and of course we heard the first public performance of the piece in memory of Iain M Banks, may he rest in peace.

The other con I attended was of course the local Bristolcon. This year I did not put myself forward for any of the panels etc as I wanted to let others have a chance to do the talking and commenting. Nevertheless, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day catching up with old and new friends.

Other activities included readings at the Bristol Fringe in March and September, the latter being on the theme of The Kraken Rises anthology. I also helped run a Fun Palaces science fiction workshop at the start of October and can only hope that everyone enjoyed their time down at the Watershed in Bristol.

What of next year? Well it looks like it is starting out much the same as 2014 did with two short stoires being published in quick succession. After that, who knows?

Newsy ‘Stuff’

19 06 2014

I got my Loncon3 draft programme. I didn’t put in for much (had other things to do on my list), but I’m on one panel:


Duelling by Starlight: The Joyful Poetry of Space Opera

Space operas are stories of freedom: from the quotidian, or the logic of history, or the constraints of physics itself … and, often, freedom of the imagination, freedom of the pen. It’s sometimes said that the futures of space opera are fantastical, but when are they poetic? Consider the wit of Iain Banks’ Culture, the baroque of Justina Robson’s Natural History, or the ceaseless invention of Yoon Ha Lee’s mythic tales: how do these writers, and others, use language and narrative structure to liberate and excite us? And in our liberation, what do these writers let us see more clearly?

Robert Reed, Jaine Fenn, Adam Roberts, Elizabeth Bear, Hannu Rajaniemi

Please remember this is DRAFT only.

On another score, my fourth C.A.T. story Space Blind got an honourable mention from the second quarter of the Writers of the Future 2nd quarter contest (and that’s without Terry, bless him, at TWBPress having any editorial input!) So I must be doing something right!!!! Well pleased about this for other (rather complicated) reasons.

Aphrodite Terra Anthology on its way…

5 06 2014

Ugh! That was a nasty parasitic viperous spam attack and hence my silence over the last couple of weeks or so. But it seems to have abated. So I’m back!

And back with a grin….

I’m delighted to say that a short story of mine has been accepted by Ian Sales for his Aphrodite Terra anthology – see here for details.

And like  him, I’m delighted to see five of the six stories are by women! I know he will have picked each story on grounds of merit, so this is a genuine result to show women can do better then men sometimes! I’m looking forward to seeing what the others have produced.

On a personal note that makes six out of the eight planets in our Solar System where I’ve had a story published as you can see from the table. [Ian has not announced the title of my short story yet and hence the asterisks.] I find it really crazy that two of the most interesting and therefore easiest to write about planets are still waiting to be written.

Slide1For the record the order of publication was: Mercury, Neptune, Earth, Jupiter, Mars and now Venus.

And yes, I’m aware Larry Niven’s first published short story was also on Mercury… ahem… this is where I tiptoe away…

Traditionalism of Science Fiction

15 05 2014

In general, science fiction has become far too traditional for my liking.

Think about it… what new themes and ideas have we had since the 1980s? At least then we had William Gibson start the cyberpunk movement and Larry Niven come up with his Ringworld and Integral Trees.

Can we say the same for the last two decades?

Um… err… precisely.

I’ve tried to bring new ideas to the fore. The idea of self-learning software and how its struggle to get a grip of dealing with its surroundings (see Agents of Repair and the C.A.T. series) is one. How to develop a natural way to survive underwater (see Cold Pressure) is another. How humans can view 3-D graphics is a third (see Getting There).

But those interested in reading this kind of science fiction are small in number compared to those wanting to read other sub-genres.

We even see this effect in the film industry. Star Trek, whilst admittedly good entertainment, still works on the science principles that were developed for the first series. Basically, its science is stuck in the time bubble of the 1960s imagination. The Terminator series has a similar time bubble for the 1980s. We are getting rehashes of old TV series e.g. The Tomorrow People.

Of course there are exceptions. There is the TV series, Person of Interest. But the ratings have I understand not been brilliant and hence it being moved to less favoured time slots. Then there was the TV series, Flash Forward. Now that did get a lot of interest. But these are the exceptions.

Why is this happening?

  1. Well, those in the golden age of science fiction and before, basically had a clean slate to write on. The ideas had to be invented; they could not be rehashed from what other authors previously wrote. We have the space opera of E.E. Smith, the robots of Isaac Asimov and hollowed-out spaceships, like Rama, of Arthur C Clarke.
  2. Also the science fiction writers have to learn their craft. In one sense it’s easier for them as they can take previous themes and redo them in their own voice / style. It’s only natural for them to offer these stories to the publishers.
  3. The public and hence the publishers reacting to their wishes want a ‘guaranteed good read’, which usually means a variant of what they already know about
  4. People as a rule don’t like change. So anything new tends to be treated with caution.
  5. Science as a subject of interest has become so vast that for many people it is difficult to spot what is a new idea amongst those that have come before. So they don’t have chance to appreciate what is new when they see it.
  6. A lot of writers are being forced to churn out stories at such a pace that they don’t have time to sit back to search for / come up with new ideas.

There are of course exceptions today, like Greg Egan and John Meaney, but they are, because of some of the reasons above,  not getting the buy-in from the public that authors in other sub-genres are getting. You only need to look at the publicity campaigns for their books to see this (given that the publishing houses respond to where they think the profit will be).

Can anything be done about this?

Maybe. The first step is to categorise what ideas have gone on in the past. We can start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and move forward from there. (O.K., some of you are going to add various pre-1800 voyage to the moon stories). It is a vast field to cover and how would you set up the structure to start with? I know of the Ward-Shelley diagram that takes science fiction through to 2009, but that deals with significant titles, rather than ideas.

But it would act as a starting point for the exploration of how to put the structure together, wouldn’t it? To know what we’ve done so we can move forward… into the unknown.




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