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) can 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…

Bristolcon 2015 – Another Success

27 09 2015


I thoroughly enjoyed Bristolcon 2015. It’s one of those nice friendly small local science fantasy cons – if you can call going on for 300 attendees small! And I know a lot people who attended weren’t local either!

One of the reasons for this success is the hard work done by the organisers behind the scenes to make it all run smoothly on the day. They start the year by organising guests and ghost of honour and build up to it. A BIG THANK YOU to all those involved to make things run smoothly, and an especial thank you to the organising committee who coordinate things (despite the best efforts of traffic snarl-ups and other similar gremlins to make things otherwise).

Bristolcon has two panel streams and a kaffeeklatsch room. So obviously I can’t report on everything, nor did I try to rush around like a mad idiot trying to get to everything – a mistake in previous years.

I attended Crossing the Genre Boundaries, which discussed the implications of literary writers coming into the genre and winning the prizes. The general feeling was that, whilst the literary works were indeed beautifully written, they tended to have less emphasis on what makes a science fantasy book genre specific. There was concern at the ‘watering down’ of the genre. But – yes there was a big BUT – science fiction is now the genre to be writing. Look at the way the film industry is concentrating so many films in this area. In the end, whilst it is nice to win prizes, the financial impact for the author tends to be minimal, with one exception. If you win a short story prize, you are looked on far more favourably by publishers if you are pushing to get a novel published.

Personal Note: Having seen what technology is around the corner for our society, our society is going to need all the help it can get to cope with it. This includes writing science fiction to introduce people to what they can do. And even then, science fiction is going to need all the help it can get – and that includes the use of literary techniques to help explain what the tech is doing and how it is going to change society.

I then stayed for half of the the Libraries, Past, Present and Future (because I had to be somewhere else). The panel reminisced about their libraries of the past and their favourite libraries in science fiction. What I found interesting was a lot of the libraries tended to come from the fantasy end of the genre, rather than the science fiction end. Hm…

Next up was me running a workshop in the Kaffeeklatsch room on ‘Real Technologies Futures Report and Discussion’. This was a report back on the Future Technologies Summit in London held on the Thursday and Friday beforehand, followed by a discussion and workshop to develop a story line based on the report. I was rather pleased that it was a fully signed up workshop – and I have a suspicion that a local builder will be using some of the technology I talked about in his work, and someone else was going to take the ideas of another technology away to help her personally. 

Lunch followed with a calming down after all the workshop excitement. (You’ll be hearing more about this in due course, said she with a evil grin!)

I attended the talk by Professor Ian Stewart on Time Travel and Real Physics. After introducing us to how time travel science fiction stories came about in science fiction, he took us through the issues of the faster than light limitation, black holes, white holes and the impact of quantum physics on trying to build a faster than light travel machine.

Having other stuff to do, I didn’t do anything until I was up on the panel, Faster Than Light moderated by Gareth Powell (though we did not get up to any monkey business). We went through the various faster than light themes in fiction and edged a little bit into reality. All I’m going to say is that I hope I gave the audience some interesting thoughts (said she with another evil grin).

The Reboots panel where amongst the fun questions were some serious questions. What sticks in my mind is that everyone agreed that a reboot should not be done unless there was something fairly different about the reboot e.g. going from black and white film to colour film, and the basic characters should remain the same.

The evening was light-hearted entertainment – quiz and film.

I met and caught up with a loads of friends in between times. And that is part of the beauty of Bristolcon… it has room to let you do just that!

Bristolcon next year will be going back to its normal October slot – October 29th. Keep that date! Be there! It’s fun or as they say up t’north, it’s a grand do.

Bristolcon 2015

8 09 2015

The programme for Bristolcon 2015 on Saturday September 26th has gone live and can be found here.

I will be appearing on a panel 1800 – 1845 in Programme Room 1…

Faster Than Light

If we can go anywhere, any time, what are the implications? FTL Travel will come at a cost: financial, political and socio-economic. How do you choose an FTL system, and why? Our panel fill in the stars on a google map of the universe. May include really cool spaceships!

with Gareth L. Powell (Mod), Dean Saunders-StoweMisa BuckleyRosie Oliver and Steven Poore

And… wait for it… I will also be running a kaffeeklatsch / workshop 12:00 until 12:45:

Real Technologies Futures Report and Discussion

The report will be from a Technology Futures convention which will be held in London on the Thursday and Friday beforehand. So this stuff will be hot off the press. Spaces will be limited and I suspect that there will be a sign-in sheet at the front desk. They may even put one on-line – not sure about this. After the report, I hope to have a discussion and/or exercise as to how to apply this to science fiction. [The exercise is dependent on the time available.]



Bits and Bobs – C.A.T. Novel, Medical SF Competition, Spinning Black Holes and Mars

30 08 2015

I know I have been rather quiet on what my writing projects are about recently, but that’s in part because I have been ‘heads down’ ‘typing away’. It’s better not to say too much about projects. This way, when stories get published, they can be read with a fresh eye and enjoyed as an unexpected experience.

So what have I been writing recently? Well, apart from one short story that had a deadline to meet, I’ve been writing my C.A.T. novel. It has been long in development. C.A.T. started out as a walk-on-walk-off part, quite literally. I used it later in the novel because it was convenient. Then it started taking over the novel. So we had to come to an agreement. It could have its own story, provided it left my novel alone. Well, you know the history of the C.A.T. stories…

catcoverneptunesangelcoverlargeGuard Cat Full Detail

Of course, prior to that was Agents of Repair, published in Issue 29, Thyone by Jupiter.

Well, you guessed it… C.A.T. has taken over the novel, lock, stock and smoking barrel laser.

Now, I’m not going into details about the story line or anything like that. But a few things are worth mentioning. First off the novel lends itself to an interesting structure. It is, for good reason, being told as a series of novelettes. The first of these, Space Blind, got an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future competition. Or at least an early draft of it did.


I have just now completed the first draft of the second novelette, Eternal Vigilance. Normally I wouldn’t say too much about this, but something very interesting happened in the writing of this story (in fact, after due editing and polishing, I think this is definitely going to be a ‘corker’).

I was checking up on my facts, when a stumbled across a science report describing an aspect about a place. It was something that was of no immediate use, but fascinating in itself. Ching.

“It was one of those ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could use it this way?’ questions. After all, engineering-wise it would be a great improvement on another idea in that great series by a great writer had! Hah! Don’t be daft. You can’t get it into that state.” went through my head.

What followed was like going forever round a revolving door from ‘yes it can be done’ to ‘no it can’t be done’ and back again. Being dizzy was an understatement.

in the end, one little tiny engineering detail, allowed me to do it. And I went WOW!

The moral of this little story is that if an idea is attractive to you as a science fiction writer, then not only ought it to be in the story, but also engineering may make it plausible.

… I’m not saying will, but may, and it is worth the effort of trying to so.

Whilst that idea appears in Eternal Vigilance, it won’t get fleshed out until the next novelette in line to be written and not fully until towards the end of the novel itself. What it has done in my mind, is turned a good story into something that might be considered ground breaking. (Only readers can make this judgement – hence the might.)

In other news, I picked this free to enter competition up from BSFA website. It closes 31st January 2016. Stories up to 3000 words and a limit of two entries per person. What for me made interesting reading was the list innovative medical  science fiction themes (and I’m quoting from their website here):

  • Frankenstein – reanimation 
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau – surgery, tissue grafting  
  • Brave New World – eugenics 
  • Flowers for Algernon – disability 
  • I Am Legend – contagious disease 
  • The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – terminal illness 
  • Woman on the Edge of Time – psychiatry 
  • Never Let Me Go – cloning, transplantation

I’m not saying that the ideas all first appeared in the novels mentioned above, but they are what people naturally turn to when talking about them. Good luck to anyone who is entering the competition.

Finally there has been loads of interest in space recently. Mind-bending discoveries. But this picture is awesome…


It is of two black holes spinning round each other. More details can be found here. I would like to know why we have the connecting lines of light and matter inside that that general ring of light and matter. What’s going on here? Is answering these questions good enough to generate a science fiction story?

Finally, I’m going to turn to Mars. They have just begun a year long experiment to see how people would react to a simulated environment on Mars. Of course similar experiments have been done in the past where valuable lessons have been learned, and I’m sure the same will be said of this latest in the future. However, two things bother me about Mars.

The first is how are they going to deal with the radiation problem? You either protect people from radiation or find a cure for cancer. The former is going to be very difficult. It will require quite a bit of effort. Similarly the latter. Which solution will get there first? If I had to guess, it would the cancer cure.

The second is the reports about there being evidence of life having once existed on Mars. There could eb consequences of this – see here for my short story A Fate of Dust. In the meantime here’s the picture of what Beagle II should have looked like on landing on Mars… and yes the inventions that were made for Beagle II have been used elsewhere in the space programmes.


Bias against Women Science Fiction Writers – More Proof

23 08 2015

The evidence about the bias against women science fiction writers continues to mount up. This time it is in relation to the Hugo awards. See here for what Nicola Griffiths has to say about it. Basically the graph (yes we are talking hard numbers and facts here) she produced shows that after about 2000 the proportion of women members of SFWA is higher than the proportion of Hugo Award Nominations.

The analysis was done on the Hugo awards to see what would have happened had we not had the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies placing bloc nominations and votes. See here for details. But I will pick out one quote:

“Looking deeper into this replacement ballot, one sees right off the bat that the non-slate ballot would have been far more equal when it comes to gender representation, which brings it more in line with the ballots from 20142013 and 2012.”

More general statistics have been gathered over at Strange Horizons. In this case it shows the bias against women is worse in the UK than the USA!

Whilst gathering the evidence with solid hard facts is good… it stops people who believe otherwise or, worse, trying to pull the wool over your eyes in their tracks… it does not identify why the bias exists or how to solve it.

My real fear is that with the Hugo debacle (I can call it no other), is that things will get nastier before they get better.

Science Fiction Writers Development Arc?

21 08 2015

A ‘what if…?’ question has been nagging me for days, but I was too busy on other things to kick it into the dust. I finally had a few minutes of peace and quiet (that is if you can get peace and quiet in a coffee shop). Out came the piece of paper and pen, and the doodling started. By the time I finished my americano, I had a new world, a new society and a fairly good idea where in the universe I would site it! And I had a very basic story that would naturally fit in, or putting it another way, the world lent itself to an obvious story arc.

Now all I need is the the plot and the characters… and the time to write it… and one nagging question of ‘how did that happen?’ Well, it’s not every day you end up with the whole basis for a science fiction novel!

I can only assume that my subconscious has been rather busy gnawing away at something obscure, to produce something as fully fledged as that.

Then I thought back to my three novels that I’ve written and how they came about. Let’s call novels 1, 2 and 3.

Novel 1 is a typical beginners novel where you work a massive number of mistakes out of your system, which is why this novel will never see printer’s ink. That novel began as a short 500 word description of a place that did not exist. At it doesn’t exist these days, but may do in the future. That came about as a result of a call for a competition. And what did I choose as a basis for the competition… a crazy discussion while travelling by car through the wild countryside of Wales, you know, one of those silly glib comments made about the passing scenery. Things just kind of grew out of that comment.

Novel 2 grew out of why can I displace this thing to that place kind of question. Then the engineer in me got busy playing around to see if it was possible. The detail just grew and grew and grew and…. well you get the picture. I have had some short stories published that are good background stories to this novel. Pulling those together helped solidify my thoughts about that universe.

Novel 3 started out a description of a place, written as an exercise for my creative writing course. Only of course some of the patterns I saw in the on-line pictures brought other things to mind, which of course led to the basis of the storyline. Only one slight snag with that one. At one point, early during writing the first draft of the novel, I realised that not only did I invent one world, I had to bring together a kind of second world so you could get to the world I first thought of. It’s a kind of you get two seriously detailed new worlds for the price of one novel type of thing.

So we come to Novel 4. Interestingly this did not start with a place, but with a question about the impact of certain trends in the development of society, and then moulding the place around the society.

There are basically two trends in this little history:

  1. Each novel has started with a trigger, which only took a few moments to happen. But those triggers were intriguing  enough for me to want dig or develop further. This seems to be a constant in the instigation of my novels.
  2. The triggers have moved from what I call experiencing reality close at hand through finding out about distant places that I’ve never been to to coming up with totally imaginary places. Or putting it another way, I have shifted my way of working from how do places affect societies to where do I find certain types of societies.

This has left me wondering if other more advanced science fiction writers experience a similar kind of development arc?

Your guess is as good as mine.

More Science Discovery – Rocks of Light

18 08 2015

No this is not a title of a story, but I wish it was…

Sometimes collecting odd facts come together to form a nice little theme… the ‘final’ fact was the discovery of what causes baryte to glow. See here for the details. What is special about this stone is that if exposed to sunlight or flames it glows in the dark for hours.


But there are other stones that do things light-wise. There’s a very rare gem called Alexandrite. And look how it changes when it is moved from daylight to incandescent light…


And then there’s amethyst. It is generally believed that natural lemon colour of citrine may have occurred as a result of heat from magnetic bodies in close vicinity transforming the color of amethyst. In fact there are some stones where one end is amethyst and the other is citrine. I was told by others that amethyst naturally turns to citrine over a look period of time.


So what has all this got to do with science fiction?

Well, I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singers, even though today’s technology has made the novel feel outdated. Beyond her series I can’t off hand think of any stories that involved what I’m going to call scientific crystal technology.

Yet, with each of the above stones, stories do suggest themselves, based on their respective properties. The baryte could be the stone in a ‘wizard’s wand’ – think Gandalf in the mines of Moria. The Alexandrite could be used as camouflage and the Amethyst in a subplot to have the stone change colour without being touched by anything.

Over to you writers… I’ve other projects I must be working on… don’t ask…


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