Science, Science Fiction and the General Election

22 02 2015

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of listening to some academics from a notable Oxford college talk about funding. What caught my attention were their comments about getting funding for postgraduate studies.

The sciences could find the funds to get gifted students to research various topics. It came from both government and direct from industry. This is a definite turn around from not so long ago, when scientific research was really scratching around for support. But it seems the government has learned that it pays dividends for the future of this country’s prosperity.

On the other hand, the funds of the postgraduate studies for the arts was said to be now dire. Very gifted students could not find the opportunities to do research. Why is there this shortage of funds for the arts? Well, I could argue that unlike the sciences, there is usually no obvious way to identify the research with this country’s future prosperity. My gut feel is that a lot of successful postgraduate courses involve developing some form of product, which could then be turned out onto the market to sell. This includes things like advancing computer graphics, designer clothes and novels. But the pure academic research into literature, or any art form that cannot see a turn around to some form of financial advantage for this country is very rarely funded.

With an election due in the United Kingdom in May this year, I thought it was time I put an argument to fund a certain area of arts-based research… namely science fiction and its relationship with science and technology.

It would be advantageous to understand how science fiction helps progress science. The relationship is far from simple as I noted in my post here. In fact, I believe there is still a lot to learn as to how that relationship works. Once we can understand those mechanisms better, we can use them to encourage more useful inventions that society needs, or in many cases, just wants. This in turn would accelerate the prosperity of this country.

If we don’t do this, then other countries will, and as a country we will be left lacking behind, picking up the crumbs from beneath the banquet table.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

So why aren’t we doing it already? Is it part of those famous money-saving measures? Or could it be we just don’t have enough science-based members of parliament?

Or is it that people see science fiction has diverted too far into the realms of fantasy? So much so, that no real impact could be felt by the scientists, technologists and engineers? At least that is the perception a lot of people have.

Which is why I was heartened by the high proportion of BSFA nominated novels that had their main basis in the science of science fiction.

So the message to the person in the street – the days when fantasy still clings to science fiction are coming to an end. Fantasy and science fiction will separate to become very distinct entities. This will happen sooner if the government funds like the relationship between science and science fiction sooner rather than later. It will happen later because the continuing rush of scientific discoveries gathers pace will entice writers back to exploring the future impact of science. And believe me, there’s a lot coming of new science and technology in the pipeline…





Dwarves, a Unicorn and some Magic Dust?

19 02 2015

Well, we are still being showered by astronomical discoveries, and I’m not talking about meteor showers either!

In the constellation of Monoceros (the Unicorn, which is east of Orion, south if Gemini, north of Canis Major and west of Hydra) there is a dim star called Scholz’s Star. In fact it is so dim that it was only discovered in 2013!

It is currently about 20 light years away from us and speeding away from us. The star is a red dwarf with only 8 percent of the mass of our Sun. It has a companion brown dwarf that is about 65 times the mass of Jupiter.

So what’s the interest in this star? It’s the one that travelled through the Oort Cloud 70,000 years ago and was within 0.8 light years of our own Sun. As some news reports have it, it might have been the red star of the Neanderthals. (Does the red star remind you of an Anne McCaffrey novel by any chance? At this point thoughts of dragons also come to mind… ahem…).

Voyager_1_Goes_Interstellar-940x459-620x264Note the horizontal scale is logarithmic.

The other news is the dust cloud seen on Mars. It has the scientists baffled, at least for now. You can find a picture of it here. But it does bring interesting questions about the manned mission to Mars. Have they taken into account any damage such a dust cloud might cause to the mission? And are there any other interesting surprises lurking on the planet that we ought to beware of before we go there?

I did postulate one such surprise in my short story, A Fate of Dust, and it’s one that might just be feasible too, at least on a smaller scale.

 





C.A.T.-iverse and another-verse

15 02 2015

 

With the news breaking that Iain M Banks had asked Ian MacLeod to carry on his culture series after he died (though whether Ian will take up that mantle is another matter), I started wondering about science fiction authors and the series they generated.

Apart from the Culture series, there’s Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, Anne McCaffrey’s Talent and Dragons of Pern series, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series and so the list goes on…

Most of these series have been written in sequence. Usually the first makes a big splash and the sequels are disappointing by comparison. I suspect it’s because in a lot of cases there are no really new ideas being added to the series for the second and subsequent novels. And again with a few exceptions, an author tends to major on one series only. It’s as if they have put everything into the one universe and stopped there.

But what makes a good series?

Well if you look at the list I’ve come up with, they’ve all got seriously new (at the time the first in the series was published) concepts.

So why have I got two series on the brew writing-wise?

Well one you all know about…

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There is a fourth story not yet published (for good reason I hasten to add) called Space Blind. And of course the precursor to all these was Agents of Repair published in Jupiter issue 29.

But I’ve been recently working hard on another series. Well it turned out to be another series. It all started with a description of a moon, which grew into a novel, which I could not get any agents or publishers interested in. [That’s not strictly true, but you wouldn’t believe me if I told you…].

Anyway, I had a Eureka / lightbulb moment and decided I would rewrite that novel. But to gain confidence that what I was thinking of would work, I wrote a lead in novelette with a completely new lead character.

Then I had an idea for a standalone short story and looked round for a character… and that lead character fitted perfectly into the part. Two stories, same lead character… this is starting to look like novel to me – a precursor to the one I’m writing.

So now I have three novels to write –

  1. C.A.T. (and his nine lives… excuse while a chortle at my own pun — but the stories above all happen before the novel starts – now you know where Space Blind is heading)
  2. Combining the two precursor stories into a new novel (the novelette left a nice loose end for me to carry on writing the novel, into which I could fit that short story)
  3. Rewriting my old novel.

Obviously novels (2) and (3) are the start of a series, and C.A.T. can easily be developed into a series.

For reasons too convoluted to go into, the first quarter of the novel I’m rewriting is effectively being written from scratch… a whole eight chapters.

Now here’s the thing… I know the first chapter is good given the comments I’ve had from a couple of friends. The second chapter is better than the first, and crazily enough I’m now only half way through the first draft of the third chapter and I already know it’s better than the second.

What’s going on here? This novel rewrite is getting better and better. I also know that when it comes to writing the chapters for the second quarter, I’ll be using the best chapters from the old novel (some of which got me shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbit prize).

I’m seriously scared I might have something really wonderful and inspiring on my hands. And it’s certainly a novel I don’t want to spoil by rushing it. Even so, I’m sure as heck excited by it.

 

 





It’s all a matter of speed….

13 02 2015

Scientists in Scotland have shown how to slow the speed of light in vacuum. See here for details.

What? Wait a mo… slow the speed of light in VACUUM!

And they did it by ‘changing the shape’ of the photons…. but, But, BUT THAT MEANS…

OK…. before I do a logic dump on this blog, let’s do a science fiction list of stories where the speed of light has changed.

Let’s try Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep, which won the Nebula in 1993. This identifies four zones. The inner two zones of our galaxy cannot initiate faster than light travel, whilst the outer two can. This is more about the effects of what can and cannot be done about travelling faster than light, than changing the speed. So this really does not change the speed the light.

How about Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave? This is about Earth moving out of an inhibiting field to allow  certain ‘electromagnetic and electro-chemical processes to speed up. This could be taken as increasing the speed of light. But the book concentrates on the effects on intelligence.

There was also a short story C-Change by Charles Sheffield, published in the Probability Zero column of Analog November 1992, or so I’ve been told. I don’t know what the story is about.

[Many thanks to all who pointed me in the direction of these stories.]

I’m sure there must be others… surely there must be… anyway, there are implications about the fact that the speed of light can no longer be proven to be constant at a distance. That means light could be travelling at a slower speed elsewhere in our universe, or even as closer to home, within our galaxy.

Right it the speed of light is slower, what does it mean for black holes and event horizons and all that sort of thing? It means black holes will be bigger.

Now, if we observe these larger black holes caused by the slower light speed, but still believe or assume that the speed of light is as we experience it locally at the faster speed… then we would deduce that the black hole has more mass than it really does. This of course means that our universe would have more mass than it really does.

Does this remind you of another problem? The missing dark matter. If we assume this problem is due to the variation in the speed of light, it would mean that there are places where the speed of light is faster than what we know it as. So that means there must be a mechanism to alter the speed to light to go faster… um… maybe we can travel to the stars faster than we think we can now… um… who’s going to write the science fiction story that does that?

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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? 





And the Rings have it….

3 02 2015

Even more excitement from the astronomy circles…. they’ve found a planet outside the Solar System that has very large rings around it. A kind of super Saturn. More details here.

The planet is larger than Jupiter, which I suspect means that it will one day in the very distant future become a brown dwarf star. But what intrigues me is how can the rings get so far out from the planet and in total contain so much mass. There must be some interesting physics going on here. Of course, if work is done to discover the reasons behind all this, it might shed some light on the ring systems in our Solar System (and yes I have designs for one particular set).

Just to give you some idea… Ron Miller pulled together this artist’s impression…

 

 

ron-miller-super-saturn

Wow! You see what I mean about the questions I’m asking! And answering those questions could lead onto interesting stories.

Talking of rings, in a sense I’ve had my own ring published… or at least my short story Air of Freedom has been published in Jupiter 47:

issue47

And what a cover! Thank you Ian!

… and no you’ll have to find out what kind of ring I mean by getting the story… it’s not what you eould expect. Oooooh the excitement….





Another Bath Spa Success!

30 01 2015

I am absolutely delighted that one of my fellow students on the MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa University will have the second book published in her DI Mike Lockyer series this coming March No Place To Die.Unknown-1

 

This follows on from the first in the series, Never Look Back that was published last March.

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Yes these are police procedurals rather than science fiction, but knowing Clare, her new book should be a darned good read. Third and fourth books are planned for the series… and fingers crossed that they will decide to make a TV series some time in the future.








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