BSFA Awards Short List Announced

8 02 2016

Yep – the shortlist for the BSFA awards has been announced – you can find the full details here.

They had changed the voting system this year. One of the aims was to stop a small group of people clubbing together to pile their votes onto the favourite person to get them onto the short list. This year, the first round was nominations as usual, but limited to four per person per category – so you had choose if you were putting in a multiple set. The second round was voting on the nominations – again a limited number of votes per person per category.

And now that we’re into the final round, the shortlist makes very interesting reading.

The list of novels are those you would expect see given the comments I’ve seen around the bazaars – there’s no real surprises.  For me, it’s a choice between Ian McDonald’s Luna New Moon and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight.

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But one thing that is good to see – Interzone has some entries. Although I’m not as much of fan of Interzone as I used to be, it’s still good to see a British stalwart in the listings.





Progressive Science Fiction – Another viewpoint

7 02 2016

Well, I’ve let two major open doors slip by without putting in a submission (Gollancz and Angry Robot). Instead I continued to work on my novel (which has now reached 40% of first draft) and my novella (which has also reached 40% of first draft mark). There was no point in putting in my old completed novels – the first being the one where beginners make all their mistakes and the second has already been turned down by various agents – well if it can’t get to the agent stage, what chance does it have with a publisher?

So this state of affairs naturally begs the question of why do I continue to write science fiction?

Well, let’s work from the premise that nobody does anything unless they believe it will do them some good, especially when it comes to doing things in their free time. So why do people read science fiction?

  1. Science Fiction, amongst other things, extrapolates what science might be able to do in the future. It gives us warnings about how not to use or curtail certain sciences or ideas of how we can use science in different ways. It helps the legislators put laws into place before we really need them for the embryonic science. It helps point to how we can use science to improve the quality of our lives.
  2. Science Fiction has and continues to be used for putting dilemmas into settings where those dilemmas stand out. Think about H G Wells’ The Time Machine for instance. Here we have the Morlocks thriving off the gentle Eloi. Or the Capitalists thriving off the Workers? The mechanism is to get rid of the unnecessary surrounding detail and personalise the arguments of the dilemma into characters of the story.
  3. Science Fiction lets us visualise places we can’t yet reach – like being on the surface of Pluto for instance. It’s for those who want to see the universe, but can’t get there.
  4. Finally science fiction helps the technologists identify the products that people would most like to have, but can’t yet. It gives the investors a way of identifying which research and development topics to pursue, and know that they are likely to reap a return on their investment.

There is a fifth type of science fiction – the adventure story. It’s the space operas, the dystopian survivalism, the geek superhero… well you get the idea. But these stories could be set in any genre providing the plot is right for that genre. This allows a person to dream of what they want to be, rather than face the reality of the day to day drudge or whatever.

So why aren’t there more science fiction magazines? What’s happened to the novel scene, where novels covering the first four types seem to be overwhelmed by the fifth?

As you know, I have for some time been advocating progressive science fiction – the happy ending with the help of progress in technology type of fiction.

The main problem it seems to me is that readers want characters, and what’s more they want characters they love and know. It doesn’t matter what their name is, so long as the character is someone they have come across in the here and now, like Juliet, Hamlet, Shylock, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc….

This is where I scratch my head rather. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen characters change. My father’s parents were born into a class society (my Grandma was a cook before she got married and my Grandpa was a carpenter) and would have had difficulty in understanding that I got into University. Today’s kids take computers for granted. Each generation has a different perspective. So will each generation following on from our great great grandchildren. And yet, where are the science fiction books that discuss these kind of issues?

They don’t (with perhaps a few exceptions) exist because we are too busy wanting our characters in the here and now.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel, a dim one maybe, but it’s there. I today had the pleasure of seeing a short story (not yet published, so won’t say who wrote it) where the characterisation fits in with the potential future.

We need more stories like these… they are important for those of us who want to guide and help build a better future.

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UK vs USA?

1 02 2016

Given the title of my last post, I was highly tempted to put the title of this post as February Drips, but common sense got the better of me.

One of the things I didn’t realise as a writer is that your stories can and do sell long after you would think they’d be of no further interest to readers. C.A.T. (published 11/03/2011 – the day of the awful tsunami in Fukushima) and the follow on stories continue to sell, and we are now nearly five years down the line.

You would expect C.A.T. to sell better in the UK than the USA because of the home-grown factor wouldn’t you? Well actually C.A.T. itself sold roughly the same number of copies in the USA as in the UK.

What intrigues me at the moment is that the Aphrodite Terra anthology seems to be selling much better in the USA than UK, if my understanding of the way Amazon rankings work is correct. This is despite the editor, Ian Sales, and at least 2 out of the 6 authors being UK based.

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It could be put down to having at least one American author amongst us. [You know the old story of what they had to do to get the 007 films selling well in America… they had to add a CIA agent in. Not sure how true this really is.]

And are the Americans really more interested in literary science fiction than us Brits? If so, science fiction as a genre could become very interesting in the future.

But then I look around at what UK science fiction short story magazines are available. Well, there is Interzone, Nature Futures and Kraxon. Of course there is the James White Award which is an annual competition. And now I’m struggling… really struggling to identify any more magazines. This could be my ignorance showing…

I sometimes wish we had the old days of Interzone back, when it was under the editorship of David Pringle. I remember eagerly waiting for the next copy, wondering which worlds it would take me to this time. Yes, Interzone is more professional and glossy looking, and yes there are some very interesting stories, but it doesn’t give me the buzz it used to do. To me, it’s become too literarified and darker. But then having seen too much real horror in my life and heard about others’ horror stories, going darker would put me off.

Which means that there is room for another magazine in the market place. But I can understand why it hasn’t appeared to fill the gap the old Interzone left behind. It’s a heck of a lot of work.

There has been a suggestion that the UK hold another Worldcon in 2024. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a regular magazine, other that Interzone, coming out in time for that?

 





January Blues…

29 01 2016

January, for those of us who live in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere can bring on the blues, big time. It’s due to several factors – the long nights of darkness, the Christmas celebrations are well and truly past (with many of us still having outstanding bills to pay for these celebrations), paying the income tax bill, and so the list goes on…

In my particular case some of the blues comes from dealing with a sick pussy cat, having to spend money on new tyres, coping with the miserable succession of rain storms we’ve been suffering this winter and getting a rejection from a submitted short story.

Normally, in the last case, I would shrug my shoulders and send it out to the next potential market on my list. Only this one had several special aspects to it…

  1. The science fiction story used technology that, for various reasons, I have ended up understanding very well and therefore found it (for me) easy to extrapolate it into the future
  2. I had written the story with this market in mind
  3. When I look at the Grinder’s statistics, I should have by the law of averages had acceptance from that market by now
  4. The editor commented that he really enjoyed the story and looked forward to my next submission, but he still turned this story down

I very much doubt the editor realised that points (1), (2) and (3) were in play so to speak. And I’m sure he really meant to be encouraging with point (4). But the bottom line is that I really want to give up on this market for the simple reason that our aims for science fiction short stories are clearly not aligned.

Should I?

The sensible answer ought to be no. The emotional answer feels like yes. And the instinctive answer is definitively yes.

I currently have nothing to send to this market and the way things look at the moment, I don’t expect to write for this market any time soon. I’ve got three and a half massive writing projects to concentrate on. Writing a short story on the side would only end up taking time out from one of these projects. And I really want to move ahead with these bigger projects.

What about submitting in the longer term, after I’ve finished my projects? These projects all deal with big interesting science fiction topics, which are of little interest to the short story market concerned. I’ll be diverging away from their area of interest. It really does look like goodbye to this market.

The editor concerned has more than enough short stories to choose from. I doubt he’ll notice my absence. In fact it would save him time as he doesn’t have to read through my stories any more. So it’s a win-win situation here, at least for him and me.

The potential losers are the readers. Only the readers would be able to judge that, and only then, if I published the said story. I’m not going to do that. The story has important message attached to it about the technology concerned, and is therefore of some value. This means I’m not going to publish it as freebie. So we won’t know whether the readers would win or lose here.

What’s on the plus side of all this?  I sat in the coffee shop this afternoon, eyes gazing into nowhere, and came up with a very interesting sub-plot for one of my projects, one that fits right into the theme I’m examining. It was one of those WOW moments.

With any luck, you’ll see this project published sooner rather than later.

…and no more wasting time writing stories that will only end up in the black hole of unproductive fiction writing.

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Evidence for a ninth planet in the Solar System

23 01 2016

Well the BIG news of the last few weeks is that there is now almost certainly a ninth planet in our solar system. The evidence is based on the apparent shepherding of half a dozen Kuiper Belt objects, including Sedna. I say apparent because there is a very very small probability that the group could have formed naturally without the help of a planet. But it’s very small. So the telescopes, including the big Subaru one,  are pointing in the direction where that planet is likely to be.
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Calculations show that mass-wise it’s about the weight of Neptune.

Now let’s look at Bode’s Law which states that:

The law relates the semi-major axis a of each planet outward from the Sun in astronomical units:

a=0.4+0.3 \times 2^m

for m=-\infty,0,1,2...

Earth is one astronomical unit away from the Sun. For the outer planets, each planet is predicted to be roughly twice as far from the Sun as the previous object.

This bears out the current known planetary distribution – note as Pluto crosses Neptune’s orbit, it is accepted they are in the same slot for the purposes of Bode’s law.

So where would this new planet sit in the Bode’s law regime of things?

Well estimates say that the new planet’s closest approach is 200 astronomical units (aus) and its farthest is between 600 and 1200 aus.

 Bode’s formula gives:
  • Mercury – 0.4 (actual – 0.39)
  • Venus – 0.7 (actual – 0.72)
  • Earth – 1 (actual – 1.00)
  • Mars – 1.6 (actual – 1.52)
  • Ceres – 2.8 (actual -2.77)
  • Jupiter – 5.2 (actual 5.20)
  • Saturn – 10.0 (actual 9.54)
  • Uranus – 19.6 (actual 19.2)
  • Neptune / Pluto – 38.8 (actual Neptune – 30.06 and Pluto – 39.44)

According to Bode’s Law the next planets out, if there are any, should appear at (in aus):

  • 77.2
  • 154.0
  • 307.6
  • 614.8
  • 1229.2

Clearly ninth planet would fit in with those marked in bold i.e. 307.6 and 614.8 aus.

So what has happened in 77.2 aus and 154.0 aus slots?

I argued in a previous post that Eris would fit the 77.2 aus (at 67.8 aus from the Sun), particularly if it had, as yet undiscovered, companions in that slot like we are seeing with the Neptune-Pluto pairing. See here for more details.

So what is going on in the 154.0 slot? That kind of needs answering.

That’s the kind of question that can lead to interesting science fiction stories. Go forth and write!





Faster than light travel… can’t… maybe… can…

16 01 2016

Over at the Guardian Damien Walter has written an interesting piece about faster than light travel in science fiction. See here for the article. In it, he encourages science fiction writers to write about how people could experience faster than light travel.

We’ve all seen the traditional filmic view of faster than light travel – stars become streaks / lines emanating from a central point, which is where the spacecraft is heading. When this view was first proposed, we didn’t know any better. It could have been right. It turned out to be wrong. Apparently the light actually blurs to form an omnipresent greyish light. Yet, the latest films persist in the star-streaked effect.

This story has its own lesson. Once something becomes popular in science fiction, it is difficult to shrug the image off when the scientists prove it is wrong. There is a real disconnect between scientists and science fiction writers. Or putting it another way, science fiction readers and writers don’t keep up to date with the science.

But we have seen evidence of what happens when matter goes faster the speed of light in a medium – it’s called Cerenkov radiation, discovered in 1958. This is when an electron travels faster than the electromagnetic waves in a medium. It’s the blue light we see generated in nuclear power stations. We could use this knowledge to help us describe what faster than light travel could be like.

There is one very interesting point about Cerenkov radiation – it was predicted by Oliver Heaviside, the english polymath, in a paper in 1888-89. [Reference: Nahin, Paul J (1988). Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age. pp. 125–126.ISBN 9780801869099.] 

If Oliver Heaviside could do this kind of thing, then surely others can to? Which means that there can be science fiction writers who are able to foresee what faster than light travel could really be like.

So why don’t we science fiction writers do this?

Let’s look at the recent thoughts / advances in faster than light travel:

  • Tachyons are particles that can move faster than light. They were first proposed in 1962, but most physicists now believe they do not exist because they would break the laws of causality. [Tachyons are not to be confused with tachyon condensation, which does exist, but moves at slower than the speed of light.]
  • Quantum entanglement is where once particles have been entangled, if one particle changes its state, then the other particle changes its state. So you would think that we could have faster than light communication wouldn’t you? There is the small matter of the particles having to travel away from each other as well as other constraints.
  • Quantum tunnelling is a kind of group velocity result where waves can appear to travel faster than the waves they are composed of. However the waves they are composed of still travel at below the speed of light.
  • Spacetime engineering using general relativity has suggested ways, or to be more precise shortcuts, for travelling faster than the speed of light including:
    • transversable wormholes – you need to find a wormhole and then, how do you navigate through it?
    • warp drives – including the theoretically possible Alcubierre’s drive and developments thereof, but would take quite a lot of time and effort to build.

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Going through this list of possibilities looks very depressing, but then I’m reminded that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity relies on Riemann geometry. That is one heck of an assumption about our universe!

I know from bitter experience what happens when people neglect to acknowledge the impact of such assumptions. So what happens when you break this assumption… um… oh heck… where’s my notebook…

But getting back to the main point of this article, checking the assumptions behind the theories is one way to suggest ways of getting round what is seemingly impossible physics. By taking away the assumption you add into the richness of the world you are building, by saying what is there. From there it is easy to describe things.

So yes, there is room to add more into the faster than light travel science fiction methods. However, it takes people with the understanding of the current faster than light restrictions to understand what is possible and that means people who understand physics. Those writers are few and far between.

So watch this space… (sorry about the pun…)





Free to Enter Science Fiction Short Story Competitions

10 01 2016

This is my six monthly update on free to enter science fiction short story competitions. This seems to be the time of year when the annual competitions usually want their entries. So instead of my normal format, I’m putting them in order of the deadlines.

  1. James White Award – closing date January 24th 2016 (it’s earl this year because Easter and hence Eastercon when the award is announced is early). Word limit – less than 6,000. See their website for details.
  2. Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award – closing date February 1st 2016. Word limit – no more than 8,000 words. Subject limited to showing the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned space exploration. See their website for details.
  3. Writers of the Future Contest – this is a quarterly contest and their next deadline is March 31st 2016. See their website for details.

This seems to be all that are showing signs of activity at the moment. Good luck to anyone entering them.

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