Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Super-sized crops

One of the issues facing the Earth of the future that I touch on in Horizon is food security.

With global population set to soar between now and 2050, particularly in third-world countries, it's a real problem working out how we can feed everyone. Science, of course, has a way of finding solutions, but these can throw up a host of other technical and ethical issues.

An article in the current New Scientist discusses a new process that could supercharge plants by swapping out their naturally evolved photosynthetic 'engine' with a genetically engineered replacement that will increase crop yields by 25% and reduce the amount of irrigation required.

It sounds like a miracle cure, but there has long been resistance to Genetically Modified (GM) crops due to the fear that GM plants escaping into the wild could wreak unforeseen havoc with the biosphere.

Certainly supercharged plants that escape would rapidly outcompete wild varieties for space and sunlight, but rising food pressures may mean we're forced to take that chance. There's also the important fact that supercharged plants will suck up more CO2 as part of the photosynthetic process, which could have a significant effect on climate change.

One possible solution to the problem is to supercharge wild varieties of plants as well, in order to level the playing field while reaping the benefits.

Given the alternative, this is an issue to watch closely.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Horizon - cover reveal

HarperVoyager Impulse have produced a beautiful cover for my SF thriller Horizon that really illustrates some of the themes of the book (amongst other things). Horizon is out 1 November.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On the Horizon...

Horizon is beginning to make its presence known and is now available for pre-order on a number of sites. So if you have a lazy $2.99, there are a few places you can splurge:

Amazon Australia
Apple iBooks
Google Play

Also with the launch on 1 November, I'll be running a series of articles about the book, the characters and the science behind the story as part of the Horizon Blog Tour. Here's a rundown of the blog tour dates and sites and I'd like to say a hearty thank you to the wonderful authors and supporters who are making space available for me on their blogs.

3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview

So I hope you drop by for the blog tour!

Monday, September 1, 2014

The books that stay with you

A few days ago, author Adam Browne tagged me on a Facebook post to deliver a list of the ten books that influenced me most. I don't generally go in for 'top tens'. For example I couldn't constrain myself to just ten favourite movies, but this list was a little different. From eleven years old and all through my teens I read voraciously. It was - looking back - a great period when I had more than enough time to sit around and read. One holiday I was pretty much reading a book a day! So the list made me think of those books I read as a youngster that I still think about today. I'm not saying they're all brilliant 'must-reads'. No doubt many of them have dated now but here they are.

Stand by for Mars - A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure (!) - Carey Rockwell.
I found this book at a church fete. A hardback with spaceship design paper on the inside back and front covers and a few internal illustrations of our young space adventurer. It was pretty gung ho as you might imagine, but it was, I think, the first science fiction I'd read. Up to then I'd been into Armada Ghost Story collections and Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators. After Stand by for Mars, I was a goner. Anyway at some point I lost my original copy but managed to find another one a few years ago through Amazon.  I've since given that copy to my son. Looks like he's infected too now.

Foundation - Isaac Asimov
This is, of course, a no brainer. The archetypal galaxy-spanning space opera with a very clever idea at it's core: the science of psychohistory. I loved the book and the two that followed - not so much the later Asimov-penned add-ons or the ones that followed. The trilogy just feels so complete in and of itself. I also love the BBC Radio 4 adaptation, beautifully realised by some brilliant British voice actors and clever sound effects. In fact the thing that struck me about the radio play is how they could use Asimov's dialogue pretty much word for word.

The Man in the High Castle - Phillp K Dick
I've returned to this novel a number of times: a reality shifting alternative history that is also infused by Dick's particular ability to create the feeling of being misplaced and out of kilter. I read a LOT of Dick when I was growing up, and no doubt a lot of it didn't make sense to me as a teenager, but somehow I didn't seem to mind. I guess I knew I was reading something which had a frankness and a truth about it.

The Seedling Stars - James Blish
Another author I read a lot of growing up, and in fact it was a toss-up between including this book or his Cities in Flight quartet. The Seedling Stars is a collection of stories around the idea of genetic engineering of humanity to survive different alien environments. The concepts and the 'solutions' to the dramatic problems presented in the stories really thrilled me when I first read them.
Protector - Larry Niven
Another solid, ideas-based novel from a great writer. Protector imagined a whole other stage of human evolution that left us poor homo-sapiens looking like a bunch of dolts. It must have been as fun to write as it was to read. Niven was a big favourite growing up and I loved his Tales of Known Space, Ringworld and (a bit later) his Integral Trees/ Smokering books. It was the stuff of a young boy's dreams.

The Zap Gun - Phillip K Dick
More Dick madness, with typical themes of secret alien invasion set against cold-war paranoia and a fake war to feed the massive military industrial complex. Looking at the world today, you begin to see how prescient Dick was...

Norstrillia - Cordwainer Smith
The poetry, sheer invention and weirdness of Smith's work was instantly attractive to me, particularly coupled with an ability to create and conjure images of a vastly advanced instrumentality. And apart from all that, Norstrillia is a lot of fun; an insane coming of age story of a boy who surely has one of the oddest inheritances in science fiction history. Thinking back on it now, it's kind of like Dune but with more joi de vivre.

Tau Zero - Poul Anderson
Blish called it 'the ultimate hard science fiction novel' and he should know. Totally idea-driven and spanning the life of the universe. Mind blowing.

Time Snake and Superclown  - Vincent King
Probably not a lot of people have read this. It was published in 1976 and is a kind of psychedelic sci-fi adventure. Funnily enough io9 call it 'the most demented novel of all time' and it's certainly pretty far out there, though I was used to reading Dick so I just went with it at the time. Some of the imagery used has stayed with me since that first reading.

The Twilight of Briareus - Richard Cowper
This is a pretty frakked up story too. I guess I liked me some weird growing up. A near-future dystopia where the effect of a far distant supernova has doomed humanity. There's a strong Christ-like element to the tale and it's suffused with an overwhelmingly bleak feeling.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Big Sky: The SF Masterworks project

Since 1999, Millenium and, subsequently, Gollancz has been publishing the very best science fiction novels in the SF Masterworks series, starting with Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1975), right up to the latest addition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Monday Begins on Saturday (1965) and stopping off at other science fiction greats like Phillip K Dick (multiple times), Robert Silverbert, HG Wells, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Arthur C Clarke on the way.

It's a fantastic series of 'must reads' for anyone who loves SF. As part of the LonCon3 celebrations, science fiction enthusiast Peter Young has put together a beautiful two-volume fanzine containing over 250 reviews of all the SF Masterworks published to date. It's an amazing achievement and I'm proud to say my review of Christopher Priest's mind-bending Inverted World is included in the second volume.

The collected reviews appear in Big Sky #3 and Big Sky #4, which you can download for free right now at http://efanzines.com/bigsky/index.htm.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Breaking news - the quantum drive that shouldn't work

I'm more than a little excited by the news coming out of NASA that tests on a so-called microwave drive appear to produce thrust that is theoretically impossible.

This from the news.com.au site:
While criticism of his concept was abundant, nobody has managed to prove it wrong.
Behind it all is some pretty speculative quantum physics.
At the tiniest of all known scales, the universe does not seem to obey its own rules.
One of the concepts this drive claims to exploit is an effect called quantum vacuum fluctuation: Where particles spontaneously create themselves in the vacuum of space, before quickly blinking out of existence again.
Somehow, these rare — here one minute, gone the next — particles are being captured and turned into plasma inside the microwave drive. This plasma, when directed, imparts thrust.
If true, it’s a source of fuel delivered direct to the engine — without weighty or dangerous fuel tanks.
And it’s constantly re-creating itself.
The theoretical physics behind zero-point energy has been around for years and the drive of the ship in Horizon also makes use of spontaneously created particles.

One of the big problems in stellar space travel is how much fuel a craft would need to carry to travel any appreciable distance in a relatively short space of time, the weight of that fuel and the difficulty of replacing it when it's gone. If this works, it could remove a major barrier to space travel.

The Lenticular - one third there

Today I put the finishing touches on book one of The Lenticular series, at least insofar as I feel I’ve done all I can with it, the story is in good shape and it’s time to move onto a more detailed redraft of book two. I’d originally called book one The Way of the Kresh but I’m not sure I’ll stick with that. The three books could easily be called Invasion, Rebellion and Annihilation. Book one deals with the invasion of the Kresh homeworld by the Earth-based Hegemony and book two covers the fight by the Kresh to take back their planet. As for book three – well, let’s just say things don’t go well for any of the parties involved.

Anyway, whatever I end up calling the books, today is a big milestone in bringing the Kresh story together.