Saturday, September 05, 2009

Deadly Beauty

I love this set of beautifully accurate glass sculptures of pathogenic viruses (above: smallpox), created by Luke Jerram. Viruses are basically weaponised DNA (or RNA), so simple that they're not even considered to be alive, but they have an intricate beauty that these pieces fully reveal. There's an example on display at the Wellcome Collection (one of my favourite museums in London) and he has a solo show at the Smithfield Gallery, London, opening September 22nd. (Via Carl Zimmer.)

Your Moment Of Zen

A 'mutual event' involving Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea, via the Planetary Society blog, where Emily Lakdawalla has posted a set of amazing animations based on multiple images taken by Cassini. Check 'em out!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Two, Chapter Three

Pluto was currently approaching perihelion. Its highly elliptical orbit was not only carrying it inside the orbit of Neptune; it was also about as close to Uranus as it would ever get -- currently, the ice giant and the dwarf planet were separated by less than two billion kilometres. As far as the Free Outers were concerned, there would never be a better time to pay a visit.

The expedition consisted of two ships equipped with fast-fusion motors, Newt Jones's and Macy Minnot's tug Elephant and the shuttle Out of Eden, carrying twenty-four people, six of them children. The presence of children another reminder to Macy that space was the Outers' natural habitat: not something to be endured or survived but the place where they lived, so they saw no problem in taking their children off on a voyage into the unknown in ships powered by incompletely tested motors. Of course, the older children had more experience of ships and moonscapes than Macy, and could probably cope with any emergency better than she. And the Pluto System wasn't exactly terra incognita, for it had been visited and mapped and sampled by robot probes and human explorers over the past two centuries. Even so, the dwarf planets of the outer dark were strange and incompletely understood, and a long way from anywhere else if something went wrong; Macy admired the Outers' fearless can-do attitude and didn't doubt their competence, but she knew that this wasn't exactly a stroll in the park.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

All Of These Worlds Are Yours . . .

. . . is the title of an essay I wrote about new discoveries in the Saturn System, just published in Clarkesworld magazine. It starts like this:
On July 1 2004, seven years after its launch, the Cassini spacecraft crossed the plane of Saturn's ring system. Its chunky body, wrapped in gold-colored Kapton insulation and crowned by the dish of its high-gain antennae, bristled with instrumentation; an independent instrument package, the Huygens probe, clung to it like a limpet. After falling through the gap between the F and G rings, it fired up its engines for ninety-six minutes, skimming just 100,000 kilometers above Saturn's cloud tops as it ended its interplanetary trajectory and inserted itself into an elliptical orbit.

I had some small personal interest in Cassini's success. In the year it was launched, 1997, I published a short story, "Second Skin", set on Proteus, a tiny moon of Neptune: it described an attempt to assassinate an enigmatic but fearsomely accomplished gene wizard, and was the overture to a long love affair with the outer regions of the Solar System. I wrote eight more stories that shared the same future history, and began to plan a pair of novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, about life in the outer regions of the solar system . . .

READ ON . . .

Also, there are books to be won. And wait! There's more! Although the official publication date is a little under three weeks away, you can now buy the Pyr edition of The Quiet War via

Son Of Cover Pimpage

All five of these fine titles are published today in a new uniform edition. Buy the set! And if you already have them, well, they'll make a great present. EDIT: the cover for Red Dust is actually red in real life; messing about with colour values hasn't made any improvement, alas...

(When Fairyland was first published, I suggested that the silhouette of a certain magic castle in a certain large theme park outside Paris could be used on the cover, because a large part of the action in the second section takes place in its ruins. Unfortunately, the large media corporation which owns the theme park and others like it around the world had copyrighted the image of the chateau, and because you don't mess with the mouse, we went for another concept instead. And now the new paperback sports a fine cover with an evocative angle on an even more famous Parisian landmark.)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

When It Changed

There are, at bottom, two kinds of sf disaster novels. In the first, the disaster is so complete and overwhelming, and so sudden, that it forms a distinct and abrupt break with its past (our present). There is a before, and there is an after, and after the before everything is changed. Some sf novels (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, for instance, or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids or Stephen Baxter’s Flood) deal with the break itself, and the aftermath. Civilisation is wrecked, more or less noisily, messily, and quickly. A comet hits the Earth; there’s a nuclear war or a plague or an outbreak of grey goo; the sun flares. Things fall apart and a plucky few survivors begin the hard task of starting over; not rebuilding the civilisation that’s been lost, but creating something new. In a rare few novels, notably Ballard’s early work (aside from his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, which is a far more conventional disaster narrative) - The Drought; The Drowned World; The Crystal World - the characters embrace and internalise the disaster. They are not the founding fathers of a new kind of civilisation; they are the last of the humanity, accepting with various kinds of grace or resentment their doom. But for the most part, sf writers view catastrophe as a chance to start over. Even in many sf novels that don’t deal with directly with disaster, some kind of radical break with the present is implied. It is a part of the back story. Things changed sometime in the past, but the effects of those changes are implied. They are absorbed into the texture of the novel.

The second kind of sf disaster novel is less dramatic. The catastrophe is not caused by one thing but is woven from many causes. And these do not cause an abrupt change and a clean break with the past, but drive a slow and complex process of transformation with an unclear endpoint. They are, in other words, heightened versions of what’s happening right now - Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, my own Fairyland. They tends towards the satiric mode; lean towards the dystopian but don’t entirely embrace it. I’m thinking about writing another one.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Two, Chapter Two

The spy spent more than four hundred days looking for Zi Lei on Iapetus. It should have been easy to find her. There were only ten thousand indigenous inhabitants, plus a few hundred people who'd fled from other moons or had been stranded there by the war. And he knew where she'd been born: the farm at Grandoyne Crater that her family still owned, the very first place he visited. Her family welcomed him warmly, for he was a friend who'd known her when she'd been living in Paris, Dione, someone who could tell them what she had been doing before the war and how she had escaped from prison when it had started. But they claimed that they did not know where she was now and said that they'd lost contact with her when she'd left Iapetus more than five years ago.

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