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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Imagining utopia


Particularly in young adult speculative fiction, there's a current trend to represent dystopias. And it's a valid reaction when we look at our world today. One of the primary functions of science fiction is to interrogate the present and show us the potential outcomes of what we see out of our window. That's certainly true for the worldbuilding I did in Horizon.

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

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