What is Science Fiction?

What is science fiction? I suspect there are more definitions than authors writing the genre. But one that caught my eye was a definition that Adam Roberts came up with in his History of Science Fiction:

Science Fiction is: stories of travel through space (to other worlds, planets and stars); stories of travel through time (into the past and into the future); and stories of imaginary technology (machinery, robots, computers, cyborgs and cyber-culture).

The examples stated for each is, in my view, limited. Space is what we have seen and in most cases measured. Surrounding our seeable universe is a ‘soup’ of big-bangness stuff – I’m not sure you could call it material – that as far as I’m aware has never been explored (as opposed to mentioned in the background) in science fiction. Time could involve parallel universes – like the what ifs of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Keith Roberts’ Pavanne. Imaginary technology extends beyond the implementation of machinery and use of data to understanding of the impact we can have on the real world such as how we as a race cause climate change (which involves none of the list cited).

Roberts then goes on to indicate that, although he doesn’t add it to his science fiction groups, utopias. He argues they are used as a mirror to reflect what is going wrong in our society. As they can take any method, it is not surprising that they use science fiction themes to produce their satire.

So when did these three streams of the genre start?

Space travel can find its roots in the ancient world stories such as Jason and the Argonauts. Francis Godwin is credited with publishing the earliest story of travelling to the Moon in his The Man in the Moone: Or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638). It was more about a Utopia than anything else, which is why people consider it proto-science fiction. The first serious attempt at realistic space flight was made by Jules Verne in From the Earth to the Moon (in French 1865, in English 1869). Science fiction space flight really took off in the era of Hugo Gernsback pulps, more because of the realisation of so many possibilities, rather than specific breakthrough story. 

Time travel was first significantly employed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.  However, I would argue that time travel has its roots in a real event in Falun, Sweden. In 1719, miners in Falun’s copper mine found an intact dead body in a water-filled, long-unused tunnel. When they brought the body to the surface, it was identified by his former fiancée, Margaret Olsdotter, as Fet-Mats Israelsson, who had disappeared 42 years earlier. However, the first novel to use a device to travel in time was, of course, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. 

The third category, imaginary technology, does have a definitive point of origin, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. This story was based on the newly discovered property of galvanism, where a frog’s leg could be made to twitch by passing an electric current through it.

The interesting thing in listing those novels I mentioned above are is that apart from Verne and Gernsback, all the initial science fiction forerunners were English authors. Of course being British, I may have a natural bias towards this, but I think there is something else at play here. Not sure what though.

Turning now to the modern day, and bearing in mind that I view today’s e-publishing as yesterday’s pulp fiction.

It is not surprising given the increase in worldwide population that there are more science fiction authors being published today. Science fiction has, like other aspects of society, splintered in factions or sub-genres. For instance, can you see the Alastair Reynolds’s or Peter Hamiltons writing about climate change? This splintering, along with the volume of new stories in each sub-genre, leads to pigeon-holing, by and for both writers and readers.

Which has led to the rise of crossovers between science fiction sub-genres. But that’s what they are limited to, cross-overs between two, and occasionally three of them. But to be fair to the authors, anything more is a humungous task… or is it?

Free to Enter Science Fiction Short Story Competitions

Below is my (kind of, but never works out) six-monthly list of free to enter science fiction short story competitions:

  • Futurescape, up to 8000 words, end date October 13th 2017, theme – ‘Blue Sky Cities’
  • James White Award, between 1000 and 6000 words, closing date for 2018 to be announced, but usually early in the new year
  • Jim Baen Memorial Award, up to 8000 words, usually 1st February each year, theme space in the next 50 to 60 years

There seems to be preponderance of near future stories being asked for in these competitions. Why? Well, some of the big businesses have cottoned on to the fact that such science fiction helps show up potential useful future innovations which they can then go and invest in. I would expect to see more near future science fiction stories coming out shortly, and i’m not just talking about my two little pet projects here either – more about those at a later date.

Introduction to Rocket Science Day!


Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the British Interplanetary Society’s An Introduction to Rocket Science day at the Royal Institution’s Faraday Theatre (yes, the same as where the BBC’s Christmas Lectures are broadcast from). Below are the lectures with the blurb from the invite and a comment or two from me.

nigel Why can’t we simply fly to space in a plane?

Dr Nigel Bannister of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester will explain all this with the help of isopropyl alcohol!

This lecture was how we get to space with chemical rockets and why they are so limited. Bottom line was with the know materials we got, rockets have to have stages. The demonstration of how to produce thrust using an empty water dispensing bottle was spectacular!  

kenyon How to build a spacecraft
Building satellites, propulsion and power – a “Haynes manual”. Shaun Kenyon, Chief Engineer at Sen Corporation will explain all.

This lecture explained what propulsion options were currently available – chemical and nuclear fission. He also explained the need for many different science, engineering and project management specialists to get spacecraft doing what they need to do. 

stuttard So what have satellites done for us?
Satnav, satcom, weather forecasts and whales in the cloud. Matthew Stuttard, the Head of Advanced Space Projects at Airbus, Stevenage takes the helm.

A good example was monitoring the health of crops of space by measuring chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b (the chemical used to turn sunlight into plant energy through photosynthesis).

647 Open Innovation – disrupting the space industry
Dr Olesya Myakonkaya, Senior Innovation Scientist will talk about how citizen science and start ups change the way we innovate.

The emphasis seemed to be on biological technology innovation at the moment. One example was of a new method to prevent the destruction of DNA from radiation. A second method was to prevent effectively what was biological slime build up – which came from an observation of how coral reefs prevented slime build up! 

cawthorne  Observing our planet from above
EO, LEO, GEO. There are lots of acronyms to do with space. Earth Observation – EO; the first of these acronyms – enables us to monitor global warming, see land use changes such as urbanisation and more. Andrew Cawthorne, Head of Earth Observation at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited will explain EO (LEO and GEO too!)

The before and after examples what was going on in say the Amazon Rain Forest were spectacular.

welch Beyond Earth orbit
Designing better rockets and using new technology help us explore new worlds. Professor Chris Welch, Head of Astronautics and Space Engineering at the International Space University, Strasbourg will look further into the Solar System.

Given the politics at the moment – the speaker made a note to say that the Brexit vote does not affect the UK membership of ESA (European Space Agency). He should know!

We currently have chemical and nuclear fission spacecraft. He described electro-propulsion methods that are being used and developed further. It was interesting to note that the last were responsible for the slow to get there spacecraft because they could only produce limited power, which in turn means that they are likely to be robotic spacecraft!

He also described the new small spacecraft that are able to do cheaper missions and the like.  

hutty How to go to Mars
Abbie Hutty, Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team at Airbus, Stevenage will talk about building a rover to explore the Red Planet.

A good demonstration of the problem of distance of getting to Mars!

pollacco  E.T. Phone Home!
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there? The Drake equation, life, methane, alien mega-structures and the Goldilocks zone are explained by Dr Don Pollacco of the Department of Physics, University of Warwick.

A good talk about the Drake equation and the impact of finding exo-planets on its values.

714  What’s it like living in space?
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman will give an illustrated talk about her life aboard the International Space Station.

A good talk about life on the space station, in terms of both work and pleasure. Interesting point is that the most precious resource up there is the astronaut’s time. Sounds to me as if we could do with another space station up there, but I hope with the advancement of technology since the original was built, costing less money.

zarnecki Space exploration
A guide on where we’ve got to so far and where we are going next. Dr John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society will take us on a tour of the galaxy.

A good whizz through of space exploration. Concentrated on the Cassini-Huygens probe in which he had a lot of involvement.

bridges What’s next?
Nearly fifty years ago now, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon. Are we on our way to Mars now or even further? Or will robotic missions take us further to other solar systems? Dr Chris Bridges, Lecturer in On-Board Data Handling at the University of Surrey takes us on a tour.

This concentrated on getting data from space telescopes and what the problems of getting ever bigger telescopes up there was. It was especially interesting to see the way the telescopic mirrors were being built up – piece by piece. The latest telescope will be able to adjust mirrors automatically rather than have astronauts needing to go up there and do the adjustments as they had to do on the Hubble telescope. 

tate We’re doomed! Or are we?
At any moment, Earth could be hit by an asteroid or comet which would wipe us out as happened to the dinosaurs. But Jay Tate, Director of The Spaceguard Centre is here to tell us if we might be safe after all.

A good walk through of the problems and issues of possible asteroid impact on Earth. 


My thanks to all those who helped made this day a success. It not only gave a good introduction to space technology and exploration to those newly interested in the subject, but also gave a good overview of what the state of play in the UK space industry was today – something every science fiction writer writing about near future space needs.

Science fiction wise I came away with an idea for a new story  ( 🙂 ) .

I was also saddened by a fact that came out during one talk (I won’t say which). I had come across something by pure accident in my science fiction writing that would have added further enlightenment to that talk. Despite my best efforts, I could not get that story published and having exhausted all the reasonable ways of getting it into print, it will now never be published. This is just one case where the science will be the poorer for the lack of science fiction. I suspect there are quite a few more such examples.

Science fiction deals with future possibilities. The publishing industry does not have the capacity or the will to publish all the new possibilities that the genre writers are presenting. It has now got to the stage where the scientific bodies are setting up competitions for short stories to get those ideas. (For example, there is a current competition call from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute – see here.) That such institutes are willing to go to the effort of doing their homework and setting up such competitions means only one thing to me. The publishing industry has failed the science community.

The most interesting oddball fact of the day was that Isaac Newton invented the cat flap! I’ve got a funny feeling C.A.T. may have something to say about that! (It’s like George Stephenson inventing the cucumber straightener!)

Now back to that crazy idea I had…

“I may be some while”

Someone was cheeky enough to call a general election in the UK yesterday. Which means that at least in this country most people’s attention will on persuading others and being persuaded which way to vote. Why? This is very much a crossroads election i.e. whichever way the vote goes, it will have a significant impact on the future of the country.

I count myself amongst those people, in my case trying work my way through the ramifications and ifs, ans and buts. So I suspect I will be doing very little blogging over the next few weeks.

Add to this the fact that my blog appearance doesn’t show how to get to my publications, unless you click on the bars in the upper right corner, I thought I would at least leave you easier access to my short stories. Just click on the cover.

Before you ask, they’re all my favourites – each one is special in its own way.




DIscoveries, Engineering Progress and Science Fiction

Of course the highlight news is the astronomers have found a planet that has atmosphere. It’s GJ 1132b, which is 1.4-times the size of our planet and lies 39 light years away, and in the Vela constellation. As it has a surface temperature around 370C, it won’t be habitable. However, that does not rule out it being habitable at some layer in the atmosphere – just like our neighbouring planet, Venus. Observations  suggest that it has a thick atmosphere containing either steam and/or methane. More details here.

This of course is only the start of finding the composition of atmospheres on close planets, but it is a step in the right direction if humankind is ever to travel to our neighbouring stars.
In other news, Norway has announced it is going to build a 1.7km tunnel to allow ships up to 20,000 tonnes to pass through. It’ll mean that these ships would not have to go the long way round through hazardous waters. In a way this could contribute valuable knowledge to building tunnels and indeed habitable spaces in hard rock on our Moon and Mars.

Sometimes science fiction can inspire scientific research. Do you remember film or novel The Martian? (The novel was written by Andrew Weir.) Some scientists have now grown a potato in Martian conditions. More details here. It is an important step to being able to sustain ourselves off-Earth in the future. That includes the Moon.

One of the points Robert Heinlein made in his novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was that the soils / dust on the Moon were virgin i.e. they had never been farmed. Therefore they are full of all the good nutrients that would go to making quality food. In the novel, Heinlein has the people growing grain crops and literally throwing container loads of the stuff from the Moon using an electromagnetic rail system i.e. the containers had no onboard fuel whatsoever. With water ice deposits being found in the Shackleton crater towards the South Pole, the idea of economic farming on the Moon starts to become feasible. You never know, with further discoveries and scientific advances it could even become economically feasible.

Talking of living on the Moon… if we are to go there, the economics has to stack up. Rich people can visit it for fun. Scientists can visit it for setting up and running experiments to advance our knowledge of science. Neither reason gives any permanency. One possible reason was the mining of helium three for nuclear fusion reactors. That is on hold until we can such a nuclear reactor working more cheaply than current power generation methods. So farming might be just the driver to get us permanently on the Moon, depending on how things go.

… and the more science fiction can come up with ideas of how we can improve the economics of setting up a permanent base, the quicker we might there.

Writing Real Science Fiction!

I have been struggling with writing that all important first draft of a chapter in my C.A.T. novel. I ended up editing and re-editing it numerous times. Compared to the previous 6 chapters it was a darned brain-acher of a struggle to get into shape. And I found myself asking, ‘Why was this chapter a real pain?’

So over a convivial cup of decent coffee, I settled down to do some analysis. The answers surprised even me.

We are talking here about chapter 7 out of 9 chapters. So the story is over the two-thirds mark and crossing the three-quarters mark. The obvious question was, ‘Could it be because I was failing to start to pull all the story threads together to make a satisfying ending?’

I was still keeping to my outline strategy for the novel and the main characters were all on course to reach their fulfilment goals. So the answer had to be no.

Could it be because one or more characters had gone off on a tangent, thereby taking longer writing-wise to achieve their story arc?

At this stage of writing the novel, i.e. first main draft, I was within my acceptable wordcount for where I was in the strategy and story arc. So again the answer was no.

What about world building? Was what I was supplying as background throwing some spanners in the work?

Being a science fiction novel means that there is a lot of background world building. A lot is already known about the place and is being drawn on for the novel, in spades. It’s like having a barren canvas to paint a picture on. A lot of what needs to be added comes from natural extrapolations of technology trends and human reactions to living in those habitats. Those of us immersed in the tropes of science fiction grab what to us is obvious and add it in.

Sometimes in these situations, the little details throw some profound implications of what should be included in the world building. It’s like small ripples spreading out and end up coming back as large tidal waves. Could I be fighting off such tidal waves?

I produced a couple of lists for the chapters. The first was a list of which significant technologies were based on standard science fiction technology themes that had been extrapolated further for the novel agains the chapter they were introduced in. The second list, again by chapter, comprised what I call the disruptor ideas. These are science and technology ideas that I have not seen elsewhere in science fiction, which have the ripple to tidal wave effect in the novel i.e. they start out as small one line comments, but by the time the implications of the one line has wormed its way through the rest of the chapter, the whole chapter has significantly changed in flavour and impact.

The first list of extrapolated ideas were scattered throughout the chapters on a fairly even basis. The second list of disruptor ideas were in chapter 1 and restarted in chapter 4, and from then on increased in prevalence. Chapter 7 produced two major disruptor ideas.

It was at this point that I realised that I was having a lot of problems getting the interaction between these two disruptor ideas working properly together. I was out on my own, with no references to look back on in the science fiction genre, for each of them. And putting the two together was pure nightmare.

At this point, that old sneaky enemy, self-doubt reared its ugly head. Had I got the combination right? After all the work, checking the ifs and buts, fitting both in with the plot and the characterisation, you bet I got it right. Was it too ambitious to include both ideas? Well the result was so jaw-dropping in terms of ‘going where no science fiction has gone before’ that I would have to say no. Would the result be credible to new readers of the novel, if and when it gets published? Well, looking back on the disruptor ideas, they are kind of obvious. They make sense in the setting of the novel, which is what counts.

So where does this leave writing chapter 8?

As it so happens, the ‘theme’ for chapter 8 leads naturally to another disruptor idea. The emphasis here is naturally. Taking the existing disruptor ideas through and following them to their ‘obvious’ conclusion will be a nightmare in its own right, because there are now quite a few them. I’ll be asking questions like, ‘Does this disruptor idea impact that disruptor idea, and if so, how?’ One thing I can be certain of is, that although this will require work and effort, the result will be eagerly anticipated on my part, and I hope any future readers will feel the same.


Let’s Hunt – 9th Planet, Lunar Tunnels and Strange Galaxies

The hunt for the 9th planet in our Solar System is asking for the citizen scientist’s help. The project will be launched by Prof Brian Cox as part of BBC Two’s Stargazing Live which begins on 28 March. Why not join in? See here for more details. It is currently thought to be gaseous, much like our planets Uranus and Neptune. An artist’s impression is below.


This is clearly of interest to me because it might (depending on various factors, blah, blah, blah…) affect the science fiction novel I’m writing… uh-oh, just thought, given one of the surprises I’ve put into the novel, it will do. (Colour me very excited!)

The novel I’m talking about is what I call my C.A.T. novel. There’s already a series of three stories published about the cheeky little rogue. If you want some idea of what it’s about click on the image below to read the first part of the first story.

In other news… recent discoveries about the Moon would suggest that a lot of science fiction about the Moon is becoming outdated. (That science fiction had its uses, pointing the way to what the scientists might like to look for and why, so I’m not knocking that science fiction.)

The latest is that the deep pits the Japanese discovered near the Marius Hills on the Moon are close to, if not directly connected to hollow spaces tens of kilometres long. Given the need to live underground on the Moon to avoid nasty things like radiation, these could end up being the home to future Lunarians. Details here.

Turning now to galaxies far far away… the further away the galaxies are, the younger age we’re seeing them at (all to do with the limiting speed of light). These galaxies are not behaving in the way that scientists had expected. Gravitationally speaking, we need the idea of dark matter to explain the fast speeds of stars orbiting the centre of galaxies. However, these young ones don’t have those speeds. So the hunt is on to find an explanation how the stars and galaxies can evolve to produce this effect. The answer may, or may not, get rid of the idea of dark matter.

British Science Fiction Magazines

Buried in my last post was a list of British Science Fiction magazines, which I thought I would bring to the fore. I’ll keep this post for about a year before deleting it – things move on and old posts like this could end up being misleading.

Interzone – see here – the acknowledged premier British science fiction magazine. It has a leaning towards what I call the literary, which to my mind, puts off the idea-generating science fiction. Nevertheless it is useful in honing writing technique.

Nature Futures – see here – they have a specific purpose for their science fiction, which is basically being on commentary on the impact of future science and technology on our society. So it’s understandable that they have a very narrow definition window of what they want. (Whilst Nature Futures is owned by an American company, its editor is based in London – hence its inclusion here.)

Kraxon Magazine – see here – you need to be a member of SFFChronicles to be able to submit a story here. It was set up to encourage up and coming writers. It certainly makes you concentrate on keeping to within the wordcount.

The Singularity – see here – is as I write this is temporarily closed to submissions. Not sure when it’ll reopen. So watch this space.

Kzine – see here – publishes three times a year.

The Future Fire – see here – a social political speculative cyberfiction publication.

The Far Horizons – see here – is where you can showcase your science fiction.

Compelling Science Fiction – see here – they have just reopened for submissions 

Why the lack of ZING in British SF?

Robert Sawyer recently wrote: “Truth is, there’s very little ambitious science fiction left; most of what little is still published is fungible military SF or space opera, with no intellectual or emotional heft. The genre that was once rich with speculation and social comment has shrunk to a tiny puddle of escapism.”

He’s right. Where are the science fiction novels that blazed a trails through our imaginations or gave banquets for thought? Where are our modern day replacements for Frankenstein, The Time Machine,  The Day of the Triffids, Rendezvous with Rama, Consider Phlebas?

Today we have writers like Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Adam Roberts and Ken MacLeod. But, apart from Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, do they have the same ‘zing’ as the previous great novels?

By now, most of you will have twigged that I’ve limited my choices to British Science Fiction. Nevertheless, it reinforces what Robert Sawyer is saying.

Like any other artist discipline, such greatness is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a whole supporting structure that nutures the up and coming writers. It’s where they hone their art, experiment with different ideas and techniques, and generally let themselves be extended to achieve things they would not have thought possible.

I certainly started out with brittle writing, conventional themes that were already in the public domain and the cack-handedness of crashing around to find my ‘writing voice’. I now recoil in horror at the standard of my early fiction pieces. It was only with the encouragement of my tutors and fellow students on my MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa University that I started my forays into the science fictional unknown. So yes, I can see the iceberg from the writers’ point of view.

The iceberg is more than just the writers. It includes the publishing industry. The recent financial crisis has forced many to publish with restraint. They’ve had to cut costs, guarantee returns on investment and pander to the desperately needed escapism. But industry can only survive on doing mediocre for so long before it becomes repetitive and boring. It will have to change eventually. It’s a case of when, not if.

Meanwhile, the new writers have to find the best way they can with what is available. The usual route to science fiction publishing is through writing short stories before moving onto the richer more in depth novels. Here’s a list of British science fiction short story publications (with thanks to help from fellow chronners on SFFChronicles):

Interzonesee here – the acknowledged premier British science fiction magazine. It has a leaning towards what I call the literary, which to my mind, puts off the idea-generating science fiction. Nevertheless it is useful in honing writing technique.

Nature Futuressee here – they have a specific purpose for their science fiction, which is basically being on commentary on the impact of future science and technology on our society. So it’s understandable that they have a very narrow definition window of what they want. (Whilst Nature Futures is owned by an American company, its editor is based in London – hence its inclusion here.)

Kraxon Magazinesee here – you need to be a member of SFFChronicles to be able to submit a story here. It was set up to encourage up and coming writers. It certainly makes you concentrate on keeping to within the wordcount.

The Singularitysee here – is as I write this is temporarily closed to submissions. Not sure when it’ll reopen. So watch this space.

Kzinesee here – publishes three times a year.

The Future Firesee here – a social political speculative cyberfiction publication.

The Far Horizons see here – is where you can showcase your science fiction.

There may be other magazines I am not aware of any other science fiction magazines – note I have not included those magazines that deal primarily with fantasy or horror such as Black Static. There are of course also calls for anthologies now and again. It’s a case of keeping a lookout for them.

These magazines provide a vital service to all writers. In the case of new ones, it helps give them the judgement of knowing what can be published and what can’t, and helps, through the editing process, improve their style.

But as you can see, they are few in number. So the iceberg on the magazines’ front is not all that big in Britain. Which is a contributory factor the lack of the ‘zing’ in science fiction.

Techno Science Fiction Possibilities

Technology understanding and development continues to throw surprises. Some of them come from obscure effects. Others come from improvements in mechanisms once thought inferior to other technologies. It’s these kind of odd obscure things that can be the basis of a good science fiction story.

A couple of such interesting techie things have come to light.

The first concerns the aurora and the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), which includes GPS. Aurora is caused by charged particles in the solar wind from the Sun colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. This results in reactions that form new gases and releases energy such as the light displays. It had long been thought the resulting plasma (charged particles) turbulence was the cause of interference in the GNSS.

The engineers and scientists at Bath University, England, have now shown this is not the case. The bottom line is they don’t know what in the aurora is causing the interference. It’s one big unknown. See here for details.

This is one of those opportunities for the science fiction writer to put together short stories to speculate what the cause is. And, if you come up with a good idea, you may be able to transfer the effect to other planets.


Given the emphasis these days on reducing pollution from fossil fuels, it is not surprising that engineers are revisiting a whole bunch of other propulsion forms for cargo ships. We’ve had designer kites placed on tankers to reduce the fuel usage. Now we are revisiting the rotor sails invented by a German engineer, Anton Flettner. In fact he went on to build a couple of ships in the 1920s with these rotor sails. However, the cost of using these sails was greater using the conventional screw propellors.

But now with the improvement in technology, these sails can reduce a ship’s fuel costs by 7% to 10%. See here for details.

You can see from the above 1920s image what a visual difference the rotor sails make to a ship. It seems so bizarre to what we’re used to, and it’s this strangeness that can be used in science fiction stories. This comes on top of the actual effects of rotor ships.

In fact, there was a proposal to build 1,500 robotic rotor ships to mitigate global warming. The ships would spray seawater into the air to enhance cloud reflectivity. A prototype ship has been built.

I’m sure there other such technology quirks that could be used as a basis for a science fiction story. It’s a case of finding and using them.