Monday, July 21, 2014

Horizon and climate change

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

Horizon: Starship Propulsion

In my novel, Horizon, the Explorer Ship Magellan uses a 'zero point energy' drive to accelerate to 0.6 times the speed of light on its journey to the Iota Persei star system. Here's an extract describing the ship's drive:

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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding Horizon: writing process

The way to Horizon (my first novel) was very different to how I approached the Lenticular Series. Horizon was conceived as a novel from the very first, mainly because I had to come up with an idea for the novel module of the Professional Writing and Editing course I did at Holmesglen TAFE.

So while the Lenticular grew out of a series of short stories and was written, at least in first draft, in a more 'stream of consciousness' way, albeit following a loose structure, Horizon was very much 'planned' rather than 'pantsed' because that's what the course required.

Before I even wrote my first line of dialogue I had to think hard about what I wanted Horizon to be about, what themes it would follow. This meant I had to write an outline, and here's an extract of what I had to provide to my course tutor, Ray Mooney:

The premise of the story thrusts the crew of the Explorer Ship Magellan into a pivotal role in deciding the fate of humanity, even though they are very far from Earth. 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 encounter 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 they no longer feel any connection with, and what they must do in order to live with their decision.

The story by its very nature will also convey a number of scientific concepts which are currently at the boundaries of technological discovery including:
  • the use of quantum effects to extract propulsive energy from the vacuum of space
  • the advances which allow a long range deep space mission to take place, including developments in space medicine and the prolongation of human life
  • developments in computing which allow the construction of fully fledged artificial intelligence capable of learning and developing independently of its original programming, and
  • the sociological effects of advances in human/ computer interfaces which will allow people to vastly augment their cognitive functions and ultimately exist in cyberspace.

 First and foremost however the story will be an exciting action adventure of the near future.
Looking back on this now, I'm pleased the current draft of Horizon is able to deliver on all of these intentions. And you'll also see from the above that I wanted as far as possible to address the hard science aspects of my story. That meant a lot of research, far more than was required for the Lenticular because Horizon is a far more grounded future history of humanity. So I leant heavily on New Scientist articles, Scientific American and also a well-thumbed copy of World-Building: A Writer's Guide to Constructing Star Systems and Life-Supporting Planets by Stephen L Gillet which was one of Ben Bova's Science Fiction Writing Series books. For a guy who keeps The Complete Idiot's Guide to Astronomy close to his writing desk, I needed all the help I could get when it came to 'real science'. 

As part of the planning process I also needed to produce a detailed plot summary up front. Of course that didn't mean I had to follow it slavishly, but certainly for a first-time novel writer I appreciated the security of knowing where I wanted to go. While I haven't been so organised with the Lenticular Series this was slightly different because I had a series of short stories to rely on. However there are still times when I break off from writing and take some time to plot in detail the major beats that I want to get to as I write.

The other important element of writing Horizon as part of a TAFE course, was the deadlines and regularity that imposed. Every two weeks I had to submit a minimum of 3,000 words which was then workshopped. That meant by the end of the year I had a good 60,000+ words which is well on its way to novel length.

Of course even with all this pre-planning and structured writing, Horizon has had to go through a number of rewrites, edits and major and minor changes - and no doubt still has more to come if it gets picked up for publication. This writing practice is essential, and the passage of time between drafts is also an important part of my process. Firstly because my writing (hopefully) gets better with time, but secondly because when you're in the middle of creation sometimes you gloss over something just so you don't get held up or stymied. You may not even be conscious you're doing it. It's only with hindsight you can see the flaws, or come up with a more elegant way to deal with the plot issues you see or the characters you have in play. Write, edit, repeat. That's what it comes down to. And finally, publish.

You can find out more information about Horizon on the Horizon Page

Monday, June 30, 2014

#theN00bz - The Freedom of Free

In April this year I started Dimension6 the free, and DRM free, Australian electronic magazine of speculative fiction. Issue 2 is out this week on 4 July and will be free for immediate download on the website as well as a host of affiliate sites.

I've been an independent publisher since 2006 and worked for Aurealis Magazine before that, following the traditional (and costly) publishing model.

But the standard way of publishing is full of barriers. The thing that really fired me up about creating and launching a free electronic magazine was just how many barriers the idea of 'free' removed:
  • Free means there isn't a paywall between the consumer and their impulse to consume.
  • It means other websites and publishers are happy to carry my magazine and tweet and blog about it because it doesn't 'compete' with their own product. They can use the magazine to drive traffic to their site and offer it as an added extra. 
  • Free means I don't charge for advertising but I do ask for contra advertising deals i.e. I'll advertise you if you advertise me. It fosters business to business cooperation.
  • Free means I don't have to worry about people copying and disseminating my magazine wherever they want. In fact, I actively encourage it!
  • I can also give authors who appear in the magazine a free, unfettered copy of the file to use on their own website or to give away to others.
  • Free means I can demonstrate how passionate coeur de lion is about promoting talented writing and encourage others to do the same.
  • Free means we garner a LOT of goodwill, from readers, authors, other publishers and websites. 
  • Free hopefully means consumers look kindly upon coeur de lion and the authors we promote through Dimension6.
Of course being electronic means there are a whole bunch of other free things I can take advantage of, like free and instantaneous delivery and the freedom to print big stories and give the authors room to spruik and talk about their work and promote their books, because I don't have to worry about page count or printing costs. 

Free. It really is liberating. You should try it some time.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cool science shows of the 20th century

There were a lot of very cool science  shows on TV when I was growing up. Now - not so much, as we seem to be more interested in what the Kardashians or the Wives of (insert practically any city on the planet) are doing. But I credit those shows with firing my passion for what things will be like in the future...

Tomorrow's World

The show had some great presenters, the greatest of which was Raymond Baxter who was a former spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain, but it also introduced James Burke who had an amazing talent for explaining the complexities of scientific development (and who went on to bigger things below).

The show demonstrated cutting edge inventions, and because it was broadcast live, sometimes those inventions didn't behave as expected (which all added to the fun and excitement). Kraftwerk debuted on the show(!), and the presenters demonstrated such marvels as the breathalyser, ATM, pocket calculator, digital watch, CD player and barcode reader. Heady stuff! But to a young kid growing up, if felt like tomorrow was here.


Dr Richard Dawkins - Horizon: The Blind Watchmaker (1987)
Horizon, which is still running today, began in 1964 as a fifty minute documentary series to, 'provide a platform from which some of the world's greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.'

With shows on the latest theories of the universe, advances in medical science or technology, or environmental threats, Horizon exposed us to how fundamental science was to our daily lives.

The Sky at Night

Another long running show, starting in 1957 and hosted by the legendary Sir Patrick Moore until his death in 2013. The Sky at Night told us what was going on in the heavens right above our heads. Moore's style, complete with monocle and quick-fire delivery, was one of the great drawcards as he covered everything from the first moon landing to the launch of the Voyager space probes, the space shuttle and beyond with an infectious enthusiasm for space.


Presented by James Burke (from Tomorrow's World), Connections demonstrated how today's advances had their roots in the past and charted the sometimes tortuous, sometimes unbelievably fortuitous route of scientific discovery. It was storytelling science porn at its best.

One example showed how telecommunications exist because Normans developed stirrups to better ride their horses into battle, which led to further warfare-centric technological advances. You couldn't watch Connections without being blown away by how things came to be.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Waiting in the Wings

It's easy to lose faith in a piece of writing you've produced, particularly when a fair amount of time has passed since you wrote it. We all look back in horror at those dreadfully earnest works of fiction we penned in secondary school or university and wonder, 'how on earth could I have thought that was any good?'

Horizon is a novel I wrote a number of years ago. It's a deep space exploration story which is also a political and ecological thriller / murder mystery with some cool science. After sitting on it for a while, I subbed it to the Harper Voyager Digital Submission callout in October 2012.

Like everyone else I waited. And waited. To be fair the Voyager bods were absolutely overwhelmed with the response. They got literally thousands of manuscripts and while at last update they promised to get back to everyone by end of January 2014 by the looks of the site there's still a few people waiting.

In any case I am one of the lucky ones, being contacted a few weeks ago to say Horizon was under active consideration. So it's back to the waiting game. Although having subbed the piece way back in 2012, I did start to worry that now - after writing another 170-odd thousand words in my Lenticular cycle - the writing from pre-2012 Keith Stevenson may be embarrassing to the 2014 Keith Stevenson.

There was nothing to do but read the blooming thing in anticipation of a call from Voyager, and - happily - Horizon does not suck. Some dialogue needs a tweak here and there, and I'd really like to get a professional insight from a Voyager editor on any improvements they think might be possible, but at least - if it does get picked up - I'm not going to embarrass myself.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The fear of writing - actual effects may differ

I don't know about other writers, but for me the act of writing is fuelled by fear - which makes it an oddly masochistic pastime.

I've talked elsewhere about the the mild anxiety that I feel every morning when I start to write. Depending on what I'm doing, the feeling either falls away when I get started or stays with me. It's more likely to hang around if I'm tussling to understand a character motivation or finesse a plot point.

Quite simply, it's the fear of writing. Let's face it, there are a lot of things to be fearful about when you're putting together a story. Can you make it hang together? Will it make sense? Will it be 'good'? It takes a long time to write a novel. Well, it does for me. And even if I manage to create something that doesn't fall apart and actually entertains, there's no guarantee that anyone is going to read it (other than my significant other), let alone actually like it. With all the investment of time it takes, that is one scary prospect.

But reflecting on that 'normal' level of anxiety I experience, it's also very helpful. It makes me work harder. I know I'm experiencing this feeling because there's something not right about what I have down on paper: either because it's not finished or I've made a misstep, skipped over something I need to focus on, or taken a wrong turn. As long as I'm worried, I know there's work to be done. It's not 'finished'. And as long as I'm worried I know that - even if it's not front of mind - my subconscious will be fretting away at whatever it is until I have a solution.

Currently, I'm expanding out the storyline of my secondary protagonist in the Kresh books. I'm in uncharted territory, working out motivations, interactions and 'linchpin' points to help me turn my characters and set them on new (and necessary) courses. It's scaring me a lot, because of all the work I've already put into this thing. If I can't make this piece work, the whole novel will suffer. The stakes are high. The fear is just as high. But I think I'm edging closer to the resolution, one worried step at a time.