Friday, December 07, 2012

Links 07/12/12

A global view of the lights of Earth's cities, assembled from images taken by the NASA-NOAA Suomi satellite.

Images of new craters on Mars created by the impact of two tungsten blocks and the cruise stage of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The crater formed when the Apollo 14 S-IVB stage was intentionally impacted into the Moon. The locations of other Apollo-related Lunar impact sites are listed here.

The rock sculptures of Michael Grab use gravity as glue.

The working group on the Anthropocene.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Cranes of London

I can see two tower cranes from the window of the room where I write. At night, one fades into the darkness, leaving behind a solitary red star fixed above the horizon; the stalk of the other rises from a spotlit construction site like a rocket gantry. The image of cranes as Martian fighting machines, signalling to each other across the simmering basin of the occupied city, is obvious and more than a little trite, I guess. But it's still startling to turn a corner in central London, as I did yesterday, and be confronted by a boarded construction site with a crane looming over a deep pit where once some solid, respectable Victorian office building stood. Part of the boom in high-rise building that's significantly altering the city's skyline. Volumes of air solidify into real estate stacked inside shimmering glass curtain walls. A restless re-imagining of the city that reminds its scurrying inhabitants of their own transcience.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


To mimic this architectural complexity in their engineered tissues, the researchers embedded a mixture of brain cells taken from the primary cortex of rats into sheets of hydrogel. They also included components of the extracellular matrix, which provides structural support and helps regulate cell behavior.

Those sheets were then stacked in layers, which can be sealed together using light to crosslink hydrogels. By covering layers of gels with plastic photomasks of varying shapes, the researchers could control how much of the gel was exposed to light, thus controlling the 3-D shape of the multilayer tissue construct. 
'Precisely Engineering 3-D Brain Tissues', MIT News (2012)
"This brain isn't frozen," said Tiga-belas indignantly. "It's been laminated. We stiffened it with celluprime and then we veneered it down, about seven thousand layers. Each one has plastic of at least two molecules thickness. This mouse can't spoil. As a matter of fact, this mouse is going to keep on thinking forever. He won't think much, unless we put the voltage on him, but he'll think. And he can't spoil..."
 'Think Blue, Count Two', Cordwainer Smith (1963)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

An Experiment

After finishing Evening's Empires, I find I'm not quite done with the Quiet War universe, or future history, or whatever you want to call it. Evening's Empires is the fourth (and, I think, the last) Quiet War novel, and although it's thematically related to In The Mouth of the Whale it's a stand-alone. Those two novels are set about 1500 years after the diptych* of The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun; there's a lot of history scanted in between, including the golden age of the Great Expansion and the rise and fall of the True Empire. After posting a couple of stories extracted from Evening's Empires, I've decided to write a few more. Condensed stories. Quick sketches. Fables. Tall tales. Experiments. Glimpses of ordinary lives in strange places.

I hope to post one every week. The first two are already up. I had a lot of fun writing them and hope to write at least ten more. That's twelve stories in twelve weeks - a season's worth. When I've finished, I should, with a couple of much longer pieces, have enough for a short ebook. That's the plan. That's the challenge.

I think that anyone who's starting out writing should find exercises like this useful. Think carefully about what you want to write - a character sketch, a situation, a dialogue - and then get it down in a couple of hundred words. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two. Stick closely to the original idea; omit all that's inessential; write straight through from the beginning to the end and only then go back and start cutting and tweaking.  If it doesn't work, try again. As with reading, a great deal of writing uses skills that can only be improved by practice.

*A diptych is essentially a trilogy with the difficult middle volume omitted.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Ghost Of The Holloway

As Saturn’s icy moons swung around the gas giant, their leading faces were bombarded with high-energy electrons that over thousands upon thousands of years compacted the original surfaces of fluffy water-ice grains to hard-packed ice. Human beings following paths around the moons had altered their surfaces, too. Over the centuries, walkers wore down the ice and created holloways that in the most heavily-trafficked parts were depressed a metre or more beneath the original surface. Sunken paths or grooves with branching tributaries that linked present walkers to all the walkers of the past.

The equator of every large moon was girdled with at least one holloway, worn by countless people who trekked around them on wanderjahrs, seeking adventure or enlightenment, or escaping from the noisy crush of civilisation. There were races to circumnavigate the moons by foot, while others engaged on solitary pilgrimages. Sky Saxena was one such pilgrim, a clever, headstrong man in his early twenties. After fleeing from his family and the obligations of his inheritance, he had decided to impose shape and order on his life by attempting to walk around the largest of Saturn’s regular, icy moons – Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Iapetus. A quest only a celebrated few had completed since the Saturn system had first been settled more than four centuries ago.

Sky had set out from Camelot, Mimas, twenty-two days ago, travelling east. A straight path girdling the little moon’s equator would have been a little more than twelve hundred kilometres long, but there were no straight paths because Mimas’s frozen surface preserved the cratering caused by the period of heavy bombardment, and one especially large crater, Herschel, was about a third of Mimas’s diameter and floored with a chaos of ridges and tabular mounts and canyonlands that circled a gigantic central peak. There was no easy route across it, and despite the help of his suit’s eidolon Sky discovered that he had spent six hours trekking down a long and crooked canyon that ended in high cliffs impossible to climb. It was night. His air was low, barely enough to make it back to the shelter he’d set out from that morning, and a fault in the lifepack’s catalytic purger meant that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide was building to critical levels. Faint and dizzy, with twenty kilometres still to go, he sat on a block of pitted ice under the pitiless stars, and by starlight saw a shadowy figure beckoning to him from the top of a steep slope of tumbled ice blocks, and heard a faint voice on the common channel.

Come with me if you want to live.

With the last reserves of his strength and resolve, Sky followed the figure across a series of ridges like frozen waves to the lee of a cliff. There was a narrow passage, an airlock hatch, and a small, utilitarian shelter beyond: cell-like rooms off an H of short corridors dimly lit by failing lamps, the air chill and stale but breathable. Sky’s rescuer was an old man with a shock of white hair and a bent back who moved restlessly amongst the shadows, instructing Sky on how to link his p-suit’s lifepack with the shelter’s antique machinery, showing him where ration packs were stored. The shelter dated from the Quiet War, according to the old man, built by the resistance to the occupying powers from Earth three centuries ago.

After he had eaten, Sky sat in a slingbed in one of the little rooms, and fell asleep listening to the old man’s stories of the war. When he woke, he was quite alone. The old man was gone, although his p-suit remained in the airlock’s dressing frame, with his name, Leonardo Santos, stencilled across its stout, scarred chestplate.

When Sky told the story of his rescue at his next stop, a farm tent, there was a short silence as the farmers studied him, and then one of them said that he’d been rescued by a ghost.

‘My mother told me that he had been a Greater Brazilian trooper in the old war,’ she said. ‘He and his comrades massacred twenty resistance fighters, and after the war he became a hermit, living in one of the old shelters, helping travellers. He died at least two hundred years ago, but people still claim to glimpse him now and then. He’s said to have led several people to safety after they became lost in the canyonland, but you’re the first to have met him that I know of.’

There were rational explanations, of course. Sky thought long and hard about them as he walked on the next day. He had been suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning, and the old man had been an hallucination, or some kind of dream. In reality, his p-suit’s eidolon had led to the shelter, or perhaps the eidolon of the old man’s p-suit had somehow reached out to him. But whether he found the shelter himself, or whether he had been led to it, Sky knew that owed the old man his life, and knew now that there was no need to define himself by solitary pilgrimages, no need to become a kind of wandering ghost. He was too proud to return to his family, not yet, but knew that he could find some good and useful work in the cities and settlements of the Saturn system, and walked on along the holloway in long bounding strides, light as a bird in the minimal gravity, the rugged little moon wheeling away beneath his boots.
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