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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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
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.
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.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
But as well as reflecting the fears we feel today, science fiction can also support the creation of positive visions for tomorrow. And it's worthwhile every now and then to lift our eyes from the doom and gloom and imagine what a world where things have gone right would look like. And in imagining it, work out what is needed to get there.
So I'll get the ball rolling with a few ideas in no particular order. Feel free to add to it, disagree or turn it upside down. All views are equally valid.
The environment is protected
Climate change is the biggest threat to our continued survival. It's hard to live on a world where there isn't good air to breathe, fresh water to drink and fertile soil to grow stuff and raise livestock. That's a no brainer.
Getting there: Governments, business and social groups put short-term gains and competition aside to agree on and implement effective means to halt climate degradation and work to improve our environment. We all pitch in, accepting that lifestyle changes are inevitable and worthwhile if we want Earth to be viable in the long term.
Enablers: the Climate Council, the United Nations
The vulnerable are safe
Disadvantage is as old as humanity but that's no reason to carry it with us into the future. Whether it be social, financial, geographical, physical, mental or any other kind, we all deserve the right to access assistance that allows us to play an active role in civil society.
Getting there: Social services are funded and prioritised to ensure that effective protection and support is provided to anyone who needs it, and people are encouraged despite their disadvantage not punished because of it. We support a world where those who need receive, even if that means there's less for us.
Enablers: Australian Council of Social Services.
Everyone has a home
I don't think even I can imagine a utopia where war no longer exists and people can accept their differences and live in peace with each other. But where wars, revolts and uprisings (or even natural disasters) do occur, the victims of those catastrophes deserve the right to a place where they can live in safety.
Getting there: Governments everywhere cooperate to ensure that people who are displaced by war or natural catastrophes are provided with swift access to the support and services they need to pursue fulfilling and productive lives and are not victimised, vilified or otherwise denied aid. We learn to look for the good in people rather than hate them for being different.
Enablers: the United Nations (you seeing a trend here?), the Refugee Council of Australia.
Information is free
Regardless of whether you think the current moves to change how the internet works and how surveillance agencies interface with it are 'necessary evils' because of terrorist threats or 'attacks on our civil liberties', an effective community is one where every member has free and unfettered access to information that does not infringe individual privacy or proprietary knowledge.
Getting there: The internet remains in the hands of all of us, and those who seek to fetter it for commercial gain or hobble it in the misguided belief that it will produce a nett benefit in the war against terror fail to gain a foothold.
Enablers: Electronic Frontiers Australia, Electronic Frontiers Federation the United Nations.
So that's my two cents. What else can we imagine into existence in our future utopia?
Monday, July 21, 2014
There’s a strong story element running right through Horizon about environmental collapse and climate change. It’s a topic that has emerged in recent years as the key political issue of our times, as some governments show a commitment to sustainable living and climate-friendly activities while others appear to be going backwards.
The accumulated scientific evidence of the past decade has proven beyond any doubt that humanity is responsible for the deterioration of our climate today, and failure to act is not an option. But in the future Earth of Horizon, it takes a sustained weather event that renders most of the eastern seaboard of North America uninhabitable before governments finally come together to act. Hopefully that won’t come to pass, and our elected representatives will put aside short-term political posturing for long-term, effective solutions.
In the novel, concerted action proves successful in staving off the worst effects of climate change. Earth can breathe easy, at least for a while, and the new found spirit of cooperation leads to the creation of a magnificent enterprise: the development and launch of the first interstellar explorer ship — Magellan — with a multi-national crew set on a journey to the Iota Persei star system that will take over half a century to complete.
But even the best intentions can sour, and when Magellan’s crew awaken from deepsleep, they learn that Earth is facing a new environmental catastrophe and their mission of exploration may have to become a survey mission to assess their target planet for colonisation as humanity prepares to flee a dying Earth.
But if mankind has trashed its own environment, what gives us the right to appropriate — and potentially ruin — that of another planet? A planet which may have its own indigenous life? And what of those who will be left behind because there’s not enough room on the arks? The crew of Magellan is by no means reconciled to do what Earth asks, and some of them are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to save Horizon from human settlement…
You can find out more information about Horizon on the Horizon Page.
Friday, July 18, 2014
The drive chamber took up the rear quarter of the ship and fully two-fifths of its volume. Most of that was filled by the six huge plasma thrusters that channelled the engine’s output. Cocooned in space suits, Cait and Harris stood on the gantry running along the mid line of the rear wall. The vast superstructure surrounded them, and out past the thrusters lay the infinite. The starfield crowded into an ellipse, as if viewed through a thick lens. Cait knew at this speed the view was blue-shifted as well, but she couldn’t tell the difference. The combined effect made her feel like an ant clinging to a very small ledge.
Her eyes drifted back to the featureless, black heart of the drive. Their survival depended on balance — macro and quantum, thrust and inertia. The Black Box was the fulcrum, fed by the vacuum surrounding it. On one hand, it sucked hydrogen atoms into its nanotubes, cut them off from the quantum wavelengths that kept them spinning, and fed the energy released to the huge plasma thrusters. And on the other, it generated a quantum field that enhanced the push and decreased the inertia just enough so the harnesses could absorb the residual v-shift from the drive pulses.
Exactly 189 x 1030 bucky-tubes sat inside the box, cycling ten times that number of hydrogen atoms through every second. The processing power to keep it balanced was tremendous, and it all relied on the proper functioning of the neural network that made up the Phillips persona.
The process described derives energy from the vacuum of space. It's been theorised but is not considered possible at this stage. But this is science fiction, and we don't know what might be possible in the future.
For a discussion of zero point energy and bucky-tubes, have a look at the following sites:
Carbon nanotubes on Wikipedia
Zero Point Energy on Wikipedia
Nasa on a Zero Point Energy Star Drive
Zero Point Energy on the Space Exploration Day website
You can find out more information about Horizon on the Horizon Page.