Thursday, November 27, 2014

Horizon: Engage engines!

This post originally appeared on Joanne Anderton's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining exactly how the ‘props’ that support the main action could actually function.

When I imagined the mission of the explorer ship Magellan to the Iota Persei star system thirty-four light years from our own planet, I knew I had to work out how the ship could get there. I wanted the trip to be short enough so the crew would still be relatively young when they reached their destination. That meant they had to travel at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light. It also meant the ship needed access to considerable amounts of energy in order to accelerate to that kind of speed and maintain it for the length of the journey.

The availability of fuel is a major limiting factor for any journey beyond the ‘small’ volume of space around our own solar system. There are no service stations in the interstellar void, and the problem with having a huge fuel tank is that a lot of the fuel is used up just moving the fuel. NASA estimates if you wanted to send a space shuttle to the nearest star to our sun using current rocket technology, you’d need more mass in fuel than currently exists in the universe. And even if you did find enough fuel it would take 900 years to get there.

So I had to cast around for a powerful source of readily available energy the ship could tap into. Luckily it seems the vacuum of space is full of energy, if you know how to find and extract it.


Zero-point energy is one of the effects predicted by quantum theory, an idea so mind-bending it can argue strongly that a cat inside a box is both alive and dead at the same time. This theory also predicts that each cubic centimetre of ‘empty’ space actually contains enormous amounts of randomly fluctuating energy.

The effects of zero-point energy can be observed in the laboratory, most notably in the Casimir effect which creates an attractive force between two plates that are close together. Scientists believe the attraction is due to the closeness of the plates excluding certain wavelengths of zero-point energy (because they’re too big to fit between the gap). As a result the energy density between the plates is lower than the energy density around the plates and this energy gradient pushes the plates together. See what I mean about the mind-bendy bit?

Another effect of zero-point energy is the Lamb shift which shows that zero-point energy fluctuations ‘shift’ electrons orbiting a nucleus into different — higher or lower energy — orbits.

Now a lot of this is ‘left-field’ science but Horizon is a work of fiction, so I’m happy to run a ‘what-if’ scenario for the good of the story.

The drive in Magellan takes advantage of these two observable effects of zero-point energy. Feeding molecules into a tiny tube, a buckytube, cuts those molecules off from some of the zero-point wavelengths (the Casimir effect) which means the electrons fall into a lower energy orbit (the Lamb shift) and that ‘energy loss’ from the atom is harvested by the Magellan’s drive.

Here’s an extract from the novel describing the effect:
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 midline 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 that 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.

‘If this crashes in a heap, we won’t know what hit us,’ she said into the suit mic.

‘If this crashes in a heap, I’ll quit my job.’ 
So where do the molecules come from? Hydrogen is present everywhere in space, but perhaps not in the quantities required to drive the ship, although recently there’s been reports of rivers of hydrogen flowing through the galaxy. However Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle implies that particles are continually popping into and out of existence even in the vacuum of space, and that may mean there are enough particles at any given instant to be harvested by Magellan. It’s also possible that the ship recycles the harvested particles, releasing them from the buckytubes to be ‘re-energised’ by the zero-point energy wavelengths before being fed back into the tubes.

More recently NASA has been looking at a different kind of zero-point energy drive, manipulating the connection between mass and spacetime to lower inertia through an interaction with the zero-point energy fields and somehow drive the ship forward. And then there are theories around harnessing cosmic background radiation, dark energy and dark matter that go way beyond the counter-intuitive drive of the Magellan. If your mind was bent before, this new stuff will leave it well and truly twisted.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Horizon - Futureshock

This post originally appeared on Lee Battersby's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by Harper Voyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining the world of the future and how future events shape characters and create a believable background.

The explorer ship Magellan takes off on its mission between sixty and eighty years from now and the ‘in-flight’ time is fifty-five years (from our perspective). I’ve been deliberately vague with the starting point of the timeline in case actual historical events trip me up. But the world of 2075 (assuming we are all still here) has been mapped out to some extent already.

Certainly, unless certain intransigent governments come to their senses, we will be facing a climate disaster by then. The UN predicts we will reach a population of 9.1 billion by 2050, with population peaking in 2070 at 9.4 billion, and the great majority of those extra billions will be born into the poorest nations. Food security will be a major issue as the planet struggles to feed those billions. In today’s world, already over a billion people are going hungry.

In the short- and medium-term, the problems we see emerging in the Middle East following the Arab Spring look set to continue. Ethnic tensions are also leading to fracturing borders across Europe and elsewhere. It is a tense time for the world right now and our geopolitical map is in flux. And yet we are also witnessing amazing advances in all areas of science.

So here are the elements I have to play with: climate change and environmental degradation, population growth and impact on infrastructure, racial tensions and war, technological development and advances — I took all these factors and pieced together a future history that maps out key events in the fifty or so years leading up to the point when Magellan launches from Earth on its mission of exploration:
 
No. of years before wake-up near Iota Pesei
Event
110
Nuclear bombardment of selected targets in the Middle East and Asia by the United States of America, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
109
War on Terror officially declared ‘at an end’.
107
Compact of Asian Peoples formed. Compact petitions for UN membership. United States of America exercises its veto.
104
Pro-EU factions win UK government in landslide election.
96
Significant shrinkage of polar icecaps recorded for the fifteenth successive year. Effect of rising sea levels felt worldwide.
94
Fuel-cell boom sees formation of the Union of Northern States to protect sensitive patents.
94
Kyoto III finally ratified.
93
Compact coalition cuts all trade ties with Australia.
90
EU governments consolidated under a single body.
88
Hurricane Ivan lays waste to the eastern seaboard of United States of America and a large part of Central America.
87
United States and Australian governments ratify creation of Pax Americana, effectively merging the two countries into a consolidated trade, defence and diplomatic entity. The wastelands from Florida to Pennsylvania are officially excluded from the Pax.
85
The first fully fledged Pax election sees an increase in pro-Green elected candidates as a result of increasing environmental degradation and the legacy of Hurricane Ivan.
84
Pax Americana vetoes the Compact’s petition for UN membership.
79
To meet its Kyoto III targets, Pax Americana switches exclusively to fuel-cell technology for all public and an increasing percentage of private power utilisation.
78
The Pax oversees a massive retooling and retraining effort to gear its industries for the new information economy. The need for a larger skilled workforce prompts employment lotteries in the marginal eastern seaboard colonies. Thousands of former USA citizens are resettled in the Pax.
74
The Union of Northern States develops second-generation fuel-cell technology, halving cost and mass and doubling output of the new cells.
72
The Pax economy takes off on the crest of the fuel-cell revolution and the rebirth of Silicon Valley.
66
First bio-jack experiments yield amazing results in quadriplegic subjects.
64
The UNS uses its voting block to force Pax Americana to approve the Compact’s petition for UN member status. Compact granted member status of United Nations.
63
Pax American Space Administration (PASA) formed, with its headquarters at Woomera, Australia. Near-Earth asteroid mining commences. Limited trial and use of deepsleep for asteroid-belt mining sorties.
63
UN aid program to the Compact finds health infrastructure is ‘primitive’ and in need of immediate assistance. Pax, UNS and EU pledge six billion U-dollars to build and equip fifteen hospitals and train over three hundred doctors.
61
EU scientist Earnhard Godel develops the picopulse black-box propulsion system. Wins Nobel Prize.
60
Environmental studies conclude that the depletion of the ozone layer has halted.
60
PASA announces the Explorer Ship program. International Space Station brought out of mothballs to coordinate the search for a target star.
57
Testing of Magellan prototype explorer ship complete. Crew selection includes Pax, EU and UNS members; however, the UNS representative is injured in training. The Pax government requests a replacement and UNS suggests a Compact citizen.
55
Magellan launches from Earth orbit.
 
Of course, the fact that the crew comprises members of the Pax Americana, the Compact and the European Union, means they are all heavily invested in this future history and moulded by the climactic events that took place in the decades before launch. But the world has not stood still while they’ve slept on the way to Horizon, and there’s a whole swathe of future history they need to catch up on when they wake, not all of which will be to everyone’s liking.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Horizon - welcome aboard Magellan

This post originally appeared on Darkmatter Zine's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse.

It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth. While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining exactly how the ‘props’ that support the main action could actually function.

In my post Engage: Tinkering with a Quantum Drive, I’ll talk about the theoretical drive that boosts the explorer ship to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light in order to reach the Iota Persei system in a reasonable time — i.e. before my ‘stellarnauts’ grow too old. But the drive is only one part of the ship, which has to provide space, life-support and light for the stellarnauts inside, possibly for decades. So what does it look like?

In general configuration, the outside of the Magellan is a stubby cone packed with everything the crew need. The hull is metal, of course, but covered with ice, just one defence against a myriad of dangers, as Mission Leader Cait Dyson knows.

The Pax Americana ship Magellan fell steadily towards Iota Persei and its retinue of planets. Its hull was coated in a thick mantle of water-ice. Cait knew the interplanetary ‘vacuum’ was anything but empty. At 0.6 light speed, even a tiny fragment of rock crossing their path could cause major damage. So far, statistical probability had been on their side. But serious collision was only one of a million things that could kill them without warning. She’d been appalled at first and then finally bored by the seemingly endless catalogue of hazards laid out in the mission pack. Looking at Bren now, though, she couldn’t shake the feeling the list may not have been as exhaustive as she’d thought. 
The main habitat area is a large drum rotating within the hull to create a faux gravity due to centripetal force. Cait and her fellow crewmembers spend most of their time inside as long-term exposure to weightlessness not only causes loss of bone density but muscle wastage as well. Even with the drum, the crew are in less than peak physical condition when they awake from their long deepsleep. So what about the rest of the ship?

The port still flagged computer and life support. She cleared the screen with a wave and began checking internal sensors, bringing up a schematic of their craft. The familiar stubby cone of the explorer ship Magellan flashed up in cross-section and she worked the sensors from stern to stem. First came the thickest portion, the massive hold containing the zero-point drive, partially open to the vacuum. Next the aft storage area, hard up against the revolving drum of the main habitat ring. Nothing. Hull integrity, atmosphere, ambient temperature, servos, relays, all okay. Ahead of them was the fore access tube and the six segmented bulkheads of the forward section tapering towards the nose: auxiliary command, clean room and lander lock, bot tubes and launcher, computer core, environment plant, and long- and short-range sensors and communications — each segment lined with additional storage bins wherever clearance allowed. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Which meant whatever had gone wrong was outside their ability to easily define. 
Of course not all of this is ‘important’ to the story but, as I mentioned above, the props are vital in sci-fi and the author has to do a lot of work to imagine the smallest detail so they can speak to the reader with authority about how the ship functions and how the crew moves through it. That’s why I created a schematic to help me plot the action and movements of my crew through the interior of the ship.


Welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy the trip more than the crew of Magellan do.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Horizon - Meet the Crew

This post originally appeared on Trent Jamieson's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Photo: NASA
Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

A lot of the action in Horizon takes place inside the cramped confines of the Magellan explorer ship, so the interactions between the characters are intense. As part of the development process, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted Horizon to be about. This was my first attempt at writing a science fiction novel, and I knew from the start that I wanted to explore a number of scientific concepts relating to space travel, planetary exploration and alien environments. But I also wanted to make sure my characters were as ‘real’ as possible. Here’s an extract from my original proposal:
While the plot will be the main driver, the characterisation will also play a major part in developing the themes of the story. The characters will not follow the stereotypic ‘space hero’ mould. As much as possible they will be real people with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses placed in an extraordinary situation. Specifically, their characterisation will be used to explore:
  • the reasons individuals may have for abandoning a life on Earth for an extremely dangerous mission from which they may never return
  • the feelings of loss etc. that they experience when they are faced with the reality of being fifty-five years out of step with the rest of humanity and the culture clash that this involves
  • the paranoia, mistrust and power struggles that can emerge very quickly even among the most well-balanced individuals, and
  • how the characters face the ethical dilemma of being asked to help a humanity that some of them no longer feel any connection with, and what they must do in order to live with their decision. 
So let’s meet the crew.

Flight Commander Cait Dyson — Mission Leader / Astro Sciences (Pax Americana)
‘Earth, the Pax and the Compact are light years away now. There’s only us, and we need to depend on one another, because at any instant our lives can turn on what each individual does.’ 
When we first meet Cait, she’s choking to death and her ship is out of control. Yet she manages to deal with the immediate dangers and rouse the rest of the crew. She’s more than competent in a crisis, but she’s increasingly isolated as the mission unfolds and she doesn’t always trust her own judgement. Several times she wishes she could just give up, but she knows none of the other crew are up to the task: either because they lack the perspective a commander needs or because they just can’t be trusted. Before the flight began, some at Mission Control thought she was too indecisive, but Cait has her own way of dealing with problems. She prefers not to act until absolutely necessary, waiting and watching as issues play out so she can identify the most effective intervention at the right time. Despite what she might think of her own abilities, she is a great leader, willing to put her own personal interests and fears aside and look at problems from all possible perspectives. She believes in ‘win-win’ but others among the crew, and on Earth, don’t necessarily support her efforts to achieve it.

Mission Specialist Nadira Coomlah — Planetary Physics / Climatology (Compact of Asian Peoples)
‘It sickens me that people with so much can want so much more, while we had so little and shared what little we had.’ 
Nadira was a late addition to the Magellan crew, and not a popular one. History between the United Pacific States and the Compact has been complicated in the decades leading up to Magellan’s launch [see my post Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow], and during the initial outward leg of the trip before the crew went into deepsleep, the thin veneer of civility between the UPS crewmembers and Nadira rapidly broke down. The fact that Nadira is rightly proud of the Compact’s achievements and how it has raised the living standards of the poorest nations in the world, despite what she sees as UPS antagonism, does not endear her further to the crew. Cait alone does her best to build a common understanding with Nadira, particularly when the news they receive from Earth on waking brings a whole new, and potentially destructive, political dynamic to shipboard life. Despite the hostility directed at her, particularly from Mission Specialist Tom Harris, but also from Lex Daziel, Nadira is an effective member of the crew and works diligently on her mission goals, and it’s Nadira who first alerts the crew to the hypercane raging across the face of the planet Horizon, and the dangers that it poses to the viability of the world’s biosphere.

Mission Specialist Lex Dalziel — Life Sciences / Ship’s Medical Officer (European Union)
‘I didn’t travel all this way to put up with this sort of bullshit. I say we ignore the whole bloody broadcast. Earth’s too far away to bother about now.’ 
Although from an unspecified part of the European Union, in my mind, by name, and certainly by disposition, Lex is Scottish. A brilliant scientist, he could do a lot better in the social skills department, and he delights in setting up conflict among the crew just to see how it unfolds. But Lex also has some deeply held core principles which shape his actions. First and foremost he believes in the importance of the science he performs and the absolute necessity of ensuring the environment of Horizon is not contaminated as a result of the presence of Magellan. He also feels that — since Earth is a one hundred and ten year round trip away — the needs of Earth and whatever orders they may issue to the crew are a distant second to what he believes is right. When Earth re-establishes contact, and things don’t go the way he thinks they should, he challenges himself to show the courage of his convictions and for that he needs an ally. Cait and Lex were close on the initial outward journey until she understood his predilection for troublemaking. Now their relationship is difficult, and so he tries his best to enlist Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood, the bio-jack, to help him.

Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood — Computer Control / Remote Sensing (Pax Americana)
‘And now everyone needs me again. You, Cait, Earth . . . Where were all of you when I needed someone?’ 
Bren is a bio-jack, which means she has a chip in her head that lets her interact with and remotely control a range of ship’s systems. The transhumans of Earth’s future are often viewed with distrust and fear. Tom Harris is certainly no lover of bio-jacks and worries about Bren’s ability to ‘meddle’ with the systems he controls by more conventional methods. Bren was an unlikely addition to the crew, but Cait lobbied hard to have her included, firstly because she likes the younger woman, but also because they both had difficult upbringings in the desolate former USA. Bren feels like an orphan. Cut off from humanity because of the chip she carries, and cut off from other transhumans because of how far she’s travelled from Earth, she can only rely on herself.

Mission Specialist Tom Harris — Ship’s Drive / Life Support Systems (Pax Americana)
‘And as for the others . . . well, you know what I think about them, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for the sake of shipboard harmony. As long as they do the same.’ 
Harris is a talented engineer. He understands technical systems a hell of a lot better than he understands people and he doesn’t have much time for the niceties of social interactions. He’s also an old-fashioned patriot and resents Nadira’s presence on board and Lex’s apparent disregard for the orders coming out of launch control. But for all his faults he’s a straight shooter and what you see is what you get. He recognises Cait is trying to do her best to follow mission requirements, and he respects the lengths she has to go to in order to bring the rest of the crew with her. He knows he couldn’t do what she does and so he does his best to support her, even though it’s hard to keep a lid on his own temper sometimes.

Phillips — Computer Interface Personality for Magellan
‘You have something that belongs to me, Thurgood. For everyone’s sake, I suggest you give it up.’ 
Modelled on Launch Director Dan Phillips of the Pax Air and Space Administration, Phillips is essential to Magellan’s operation, maintaining integrated control of all ship’s systems as well as balancing the drive and performing the billions of calculations required to create and control the pico-pulse thrust cascades that allow Magellan to travel at 0.6 lightspeed while ensuring the safety of the fragile humans on board. He’s also — when the crew wake from deepsleep — acting very strangely indeed.

And there you have it: five souls and one artificial intelligence as far away from the rest of humanity as you can imagine, with the fate of two planets hanging in the balance.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Horizon - Interview - Blog Tour day 11

To cap off the Horizon blog tour, Marianne de Pierres interviewed me about the book and what's up next

Like a lot of my shorter fiction, Horizon came out of a strong image that popped into my mind. I’d been reading a New Scientist article about suspended animation in frogs and I suddenly saw... 
Read more on Marianne de Pierres's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
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 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Horizon - life, but not as we know it - Blog Tour day 10

Greig Beck writes amazing fiction that often features very strange lifeforms. Over on his Facebook page, Greg has kindly given over some space for me to talk about life on Horizon in day 10 of the blog tour

When I was creating the planet Horizon, the target for my stellarnaut explorers, I imagined what life might be like there, what extinction events might have occurred and how life might have survived...
Read more on Greg's Facebook Page.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
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 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Horizon - how to build a planet - Blog Tour day 9

Sean Wright has kindly given over some blog space to help me talk about building a planet in day 9 of the Horizon blog tour

The way I see it, there are four key elements in creating a believable world to serve the needs of the story:
  • spatial location 
  • physical attributes 
  • geological past, and 
  • current environment
 Read more on Sean's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
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 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins