Friday, March 13, 2009

Bring It On

'The science fiction writers are going to be challenged to imagine the diversity that we could expect to find.' Debra Fischer, San Francisco State University, commenting on the Kepler space telescope.
If Kepler turns up a swarm of ringworlds flying out of the galaxy ahead of an exploding black hole, I'd agree. And I can't wait for the catalogues to start filling up with weird new worlds. The only challenge will be working out how to make full use of their reality.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

All These New Worlds Could Be Yours

The Planetary Society, wise and generous to a fault, has put up a catalogue of known exoplanets. It's stuffed full of fact-based goodness, including planet sizes and orbital data, the type of star they orbit and its distance from the Solar System, and neat animations that show their orbits. So far, they list than 330; that number should increase considerably once the Kepler Mission goes live, and starts to detect Earth-sized planets around other stars.

Now I've turned in Gardens of the Sun, I'm beginning to think about the next novel. One of my ideas is building on the exploration and colonisation of the Solar System in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun by ramping up that future history's time-scale from decades to millennia, taking a hard look at the possibilities of interstellar colonisation and the adaptations human beings will need to make, and the consequences if human stock frays into a dozen or more species. This direction is kinda sorta implied in the two novels. If I go with it, I'll be ravaging the Planetary Society's catalogue and other places for hard data, but in any case I find this stuff intrinsically fascinating. Actual worlds, orbiting actual stars, real as the chair I'm sitting on.

Since handing over Gardens of the Sun to my editor, I've been wandering about in my usual post-parturition daze, although I did manage to somehow write a short article on my favourite science-fiction film for BSFA booklet (2001: A Space Odyssey), write a review for Foundation (which because it's for the journal of the very learned Science Fiction Foundation meant that I had to work up solid arguments for why I thought the novel in question worked or it didn't, and also involved checking up on William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and The Night Land (some of you might be able to guess which novel I was reviewing)), and also blurt out a couple of very short stories, one of which might be good enough for publication. Do you need to know about my Grand Fun with wi-fi broadband, or the post-modern cold that deconstructed itself in my sinuses for a couple of weeks? Nah. Pretty soon, I'll get around to cleaning up the office and taking long pointless walks; then I know I'll be on the beginning of the long and roundabout process by which I begin to stalk the interstellar colonisation idea, or the thing that's been tickling my imagination for the past year or so, or something else completely. . .

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Live From Space

NASA TV has a new channel which broadcasts live views from the International Space Station when the crew isn't working. Your best bet is to check it out between 6pm and 6am GMT. Follow this link and click on the Live Space Station Link tab to the right of the screen. (Via Universe Today.)

Taipei Theme Restaurants

Airplane, hospital, toilet, Hello Kitty . . . Wonder if there's a 2001 theme restaurant? You sit in a booth watched by a glowing camera eye, a solicitous voice assures you everything is fine and asks if you'd like to play chess or watch BBC 37, you eat pastel-coloured gloop on plastic trays, and the cabaret is an uplifting act by a black monolith.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Future Now

A couple of interesting links from the ever-reliable Science Daily site.

First up, a method of creating millions of functional synthetic ribosomes that can transcribe information coded in DNA and create functional proteins. A major step towards plug-and-play biology and artificial life.

Second, a way of trapping and storing and releasing photons in quantum donuts. "This has significant implications for the development of light based computing which would require an effective and reliable mechanism such as this to manipulate light." As the article says: Slow Glass!

Just to remind you that science-fiction writers don't always have to make stuff up.


Last month, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took time out from mapping the surface of Mars to take high-resolution photographs one of the red planet's two small moons, Diemos. Like Phobos, Diemos is probably a captured asteroid, and it's relatively small, with a semi-major axis of just 12 kilometres. Pictures just released show a smooth, reddish surface pockmarked with old and more recent craters. Apparently, the surface darkens and reddens when exposed to vacuum and sunlight, so the paler areas have been recently disturbed (in relative terms), either by impact or by material sliding down the slopes of ridges. Many asteroids probably look more or less like this; dusty desert mountains pitted and battered by impacts. The old science-fiction notion of hollowing them out into giant cities isn't viable - they're basically huge rubble piles cemented by gravity - but it would be easy enough to excavate cut-and cover tunnels in the dusty durface, or maybe throw up a tent over that sharp-rimmed crater in the centre. It's about two kilometres across, not a bad size for a town...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Girls Of The Golden Myth

The Good Sisters, Millie and Dolly, were a popular duo in the 1930s and 40s, singing in beautiful close harmony about the mythical American West. Their manager had them dress in cowboy outfits, claimed that they were from the little ol’ town of Muleshoe, Texas, and named them (after the Puccini opera) The Girls of the Golden West. They really were sisters, that much is true; but they were from East St. Louis, not Texas, and their real names were Mildred and Dorothy Goad. Nevertheless, accompanied by Dolly’s guitar, they sang like angels and had the rare ability to be able to yodel in harmony, became stars of the Boone County Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride, and recorded sixty-four tracks for RCA-Victor. They sang with plangent nostalgia for a West that had never quite been, already hazed by the silverlight of Hollywood.

Compare the wistful sentiment of ‘Let Me Sleep On The Edge of The Prairie’, in which the land provides a lovely grave site (albeit with the caveat ‘bury me deep, O so deep, that coyotes and wolves will not find me’), with the existential terror implicit in ‘O Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie’ (sung here by Carl T. Sprague). This ballad was one known to and sung by working cowboys, and first published by cattleman Jack Thorp, who spent some twenty years collecting cowboy songs and poems, in Songs of the Cowboys (1908). Based on a sailor’s ballad ‘The Ocean Burial’, aka ‘Bury Me Not In The Deep, Deep Sea’, a dying cowboy pleads with his companions not to abandon his body in the unpeopled wilderness, scared that the coyotes will harrow his bones, fearful that his soul will be forever trapped in that dreadful place. But his companions are practical men, and can’t spare the time or energy to heed 'his dying prayer’ and confess that they buried him where he died ‘in a narrow grave, just six by three’. It’s a stark, merciless vignette.

For the real cowboys, the prairies were as wide and boundless and as untameable as any ocean, a place they visited to work, but not to make any kind of home. For the Girls of the Golden West and others who burnished into the myth, the wilderness is analogous to Heaven; they’re content ‘to look up into those high mountains, until it’s time to arise once again’. The West of the myth is a place where ‘the deer and the antelope play, and seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day’; a boundless frontier blessed with abundant beauty where simple hard-working folk lived upright lives of enviable freedom and adventure. Within a generation, while men who’d worked the range yet lived, the myth supplanted reality. It would take a couple of generations more before the bones of historical reality would begin to work their way back to the surface.

The pulps of modern science fiction (H. Gernsback, prop) were coeval with the first great flowering of popular recorded music in the 1920s and 30s. But unlike the songs of the west, sf was shrouded in its own myths from the outset, and continued to add to them during the Golden Age of John W. Campbell Jr’s Astounding Stories. Those myths cling yet. The future is an homogenous place where technology works, and empowers those who comprehend it. Where scientific problems are best solved by iconoclasts who become deservedly rich and powerful because they precisely fill the hero-shaped holes in their stories. Where it’s the destiny of humanity to conquer the galaxy and lay low fearsome aliens, or prove to wise ancients that we are somehow unique - we laugh, we cry, we hiccup! Where there are a million worlds that will be all the better for a sturdy dose of Western capitalism. Where the means always justifies the ends, and death is optional. And so on, and so on.

A plethora of writers have attempted to counter the comforting fogs of myth with a bracing dash of reality, or subvert them with satire, or use their cover to smuggle in some uncomfortable truths. But even hard sf falls back on the seductive haze - how much easier it is, after all, to imagine that aliens have conveniently cached magic technology within easy reach, or that sturdy ships can flit from star to star in the blink of an eye. Small wonder, then, that we too often recoil from the inconvenient truths revealed by Actual Science, when we should rush eagerly to embrace them, and make them our own, and use them in all kinds of inventively subversive ways.

We are beginning to understand, thanks to the unblinking camera eyes of robot probes, exactly what Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn look like. We know that they can’t support a direct transposition of the old American frontier. We know that they are stranger and more exotic than we ever dreamed; that they will radically change anyone who attempts to live out there, and out old political models simply won’t do. The songs of the Golden Girls of the West are beautiful and beguiling, and the truth is as pitiless as the coyotes of the lone prairie. But I know which I prefer.
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