Thursday, May 09, 2024

The End of the Affair

 Yesterday, 14 months after its inception, I finished the final draft of a new novel. It's called Loss Protocol. A fantasy novel about the perils of misusing fantasies, set a few decades ahead. An Anthropocene novel that breaks one of Elmore Leonard's (partly tongue-in-cheek) writing rules by beginning with the weather. But the weather is omnipresent, now.  And the one thing we know about the future is that the weather will be bad and crazy and will keep getting worse  for the rest of the century, and almost certainly for centuries to come, along with everything else driven awry by global heating and the thinning of the biosphere and the general trashing of the planet. And since Loss Protocol is also about the worldgrief many of us feel, as well as several kinds of personal grief, I wanted to put the weird things the weather is doing and will continue to right at the beginning.

I began by saying that this one took 14 months to write, but I started a novel by the same name two months earlier, and quickly gave up on it because although the character was interesting, the story wasn't, especially. It was too transparent, held none of the inner mystery that informs everything without necessarily ever being revealed. So although that aborted attempt shared a couple of themes with Loss Protocol, nothing of it remains. I don't write long-running series and am blessed or cursed with the need to keep trying something new, something different. Every novel presents different problems to solve. The only thing I really know is that I've done this trick before, and if I keep going day after week after month, as long as I can get to the hinge-point where everything seems to move of its own volution towards an ending, I can finish the current work-in-progress before it finishes me.

Although, of course, it isn't finished. Story and scenes and themes and variations are in place, but there's still work to do. It's kind of like the production of a high-end fashion garment. The concept has been sketched, materials have been chosen and cut and shaped and gathered and stitiched, but there are still many microadjustments needed before it's a perfect fit. And so here. The manuscript needs to be read through and tweaks made at sentence level, so the meaning of each one is plain and each one builds on what's gone before. I have to persuade my agent that it's worthwhile, he has to persuade my editor, and my editor has to make its case to sales and marketing. And after that, there's the post-editing rewriting, and copy-editing, and proofing. So the affair is far from over, and yet, as far as all the heavy lifting is concerned, it is.


Saturday, February 24, 2024




Very pleased to announce that my climate-change novella 'Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene', first published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine last year, is one of the finalists for the Readers' Awards. Many thanks to all who voted for it.

Details and links to all the finalists for best novella, novelette, short story and poem can be found here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Shrimp Fishers

Part of writing a novel -- one of the most important parts of writing a novel -- is cutting out extraneous material. Sentences, paragraphs and scenes which, while perfectly fine, no longer fit the narrative as it evolves. The novel I'm presently working on is somewhat different in form, subject and angle of attack than its predecessors and has accumulated a considerable amount of this 'below the line' material. False starts, diversions, an entire secondary storyline that grew like kudzu vine and threatened to overwhelm the main structure. The piece below is one of the diversions. A puzzle-piece left over after the picture was completed.

It was something he’d found in the wreckage of the internet. A silent film clip from the early days of cinema, no more than 45 seconds long. Enfants pêchant des crevettes. Seventeen metres of 35mm film hand-cranked through one of the Lumière Brothers’ cameras. He’d been watching it over and again recently. Summer, 1896. Getting on for two centuries ago. An English beach in Kent or Sussex. Possibly Margate. There was a colourised version, but he preferred the original black and white, muting the whimsical music someone had added. Forty-five or 46 seconds of activity. Children in antique costume dragging long-handled shrimping nets through a shallow channel of seawater, a donkey cart in the background moving off, passing a small group of onlookers, the scene abruptly cutting when the spool of film in the camera ran out. And he’d tell his agent to play it again, the light of the lost world flickering on his face, throwing shadows across the ceiling of the narrowboat’s cabin.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Return To Mars

What did I do last year? Amongst other things, published two novellas. 'Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene', appeared in the March/April edition of Asimov's SF Magazine. And 'Blade and Bone', set on Mars, in the Quiet War universe, was published in the November/December 2023 edition of Asimov's. It was recently included on Locus magazine's Recomended Reading List, and Asimov's has put up a free version, along with other RRL nominees it published last year.

Here's something I wrote about it for Asimov's blog:

Where do writers get their ideas?

Four years ago, I re-visited one of my favourite places in America: the high Californian desert, and what is now Joshua Tree National Park. The location for some of Hollywood’s classic Westerns, it’s unlike any European landscape. ‘An aridity that drives out the artificial scruples of culture, a silence that exists nowhere else,’ as Jean Baudrillard observed in America. Almost Martian, in its inhuman sublime. 

I’ve visited Mars before, too, in novels and stories. First, in the science fantasy mode, in Red Dust, and some years later, closer to realism, in middle part of The Secret of Life, where characters follow actual waypoints on maps got up from orbital images. ‘Blade and Bone’ combines the two modes. Several of the places mentioned are actual Martian locations, as in The Secret of Life, although the terrain has been altered by the impact of spent cores of comets used to aid the terraforming of the red planet. And just as cowboys ride herd on yaks across ancient Martian sea beds in Red Dust, ‘Blade and Bone’ references the kind of Westerns, like Bud Boetticher’s Comanche Station and Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, in which a hard-bitten, flawed hero guides people through landscapes haunted by hostile inhabitants or, as Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, by their own delusions. The story’s landscapes are similarly hostile, haunted by old wars and unspent grudges of a thousand years of contested history that are dwarfed by the vast uncaring Martian sublime. 

‘Blade and Bone’ is also a Quiet War story, sharing the same future time line as four novels and a fistful of stories. The series ranges across much of the solar system, but apart from a couple of pieces of flash fiction, this is the first long-form Quiet War story I’ve set Mars. It features one of the series’ signature tropes, artificial vacuum organisms which somewhat resemble giant lichens, and like lichens can grow and utilise native resources in hostile habitats, and also enlarges an idea raised in Evening’s Empires, the fourth and last Quiet War novel: if current or near future billionaires can extend their lives by downloading simulations of their minds, what role might they play in the further reaches of the future? Finally, it borrows from one of the pieces of flash fiction the Samurai-like Knights of Cydonia: the bone and blade which are the story’s contested prize have been stolen from one of their tombs. The roots of its story, as its protagonists discover, go way back.

Thursday, January 05, 2023


Over at that very fine SF magazine Clarkesworld, I do my best to answer some interesting questions about Beyond the Burn Line and more. Link is here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Brief Review: The Coral Bones, by E.J. Swift

The philosopher Timothy Horton described global heating, climate change species loss and all the other upheavals of the Anthropocene, as hyperobjects 'massively distributed in space and time relative to humans'. Although we can see evidence for their existence, the totality of these hyperobjects is much harder -- if not impossible -- to comprehend, and attempting to depict them from the default close third person point-of-view presents obvious difficulties for the novelist. One solution is to distribute the story amongst multiple characters scattered across time, a technique used to fine effect in E.J. Swift's novel about three women who in different centuries observe the unspoiled beauty and the decline and fall of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In the nineteenth century, before the onset of the Anthropocene and global heating, Judith persuades her father to allow her to join his survey expedition of coral islands along the length of the reef. In the present, Hanna, a marine biologist trying to find ways to save the reef from climate change while coming to terms with the break-up of a relationship, becomes involved in the mystery of Coral Man, whose white-painted body is found adrift in an inflatable painted with a message: This is what it looks like when coral dies. And in a future where the interior of Australia is a hostile furnace and most of the reef is dead, Telma sets out along the coral ruins to investigate rumours of a seemingly impossible sighting of an extinct fish species. 

There are detailed, immersive passages describing reef biology, geology and history, and measuring the destruction and loss in the present and the consequences for the future against the unspoiled abundance and beauty of reefs in the before times of Hanna's explorations, but the narrative is very much character driven. Its three strands contrast the sacrifices each of the women make to pursue their obsessions, and despite the justifiable anger at the destruction and loss caused by human greed and carelessness, links subtly spun between their lives offer something a little more hopeful than a default dystopian wasteland.


Thursday, October 20, 2022


Up on Interzone Digital, Simon Morden asks me some very good questions about Beyond the Burn Line, what's cool in science, the longevity of libraries and more. Check it out here!

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Science and Fiction


Once upon a time (it was in the last century), I was a scientist. My field of research was symbiosis, using green hydra as a research model for interactions between animal hosts and single-celled algae inside host cells -- reef-forming corals are the most well-known example of this kind of relationship, but hydra are easier to grow in the lab, and because they mostly reproduce by asexual budding, you can cultivate relatively uniform clones. I had a couple of incubators stacked with glass trays of one particular clone, and another incubator that gently rocked flasks of a cultured strain of their green algal partner. I had amino acids laced with radioactive isotopes used to track metabolic uptake in the fridge, and an HPLC set up to separate and measure levels of amino acids in animal and algal extracts. One of my postgrads maintained an aquarium containing corals, sea anemones and a couple of clown fish. And so on.

I was also, in the later stages of my science career, a published science fiction author. The Secret of Life, published a few years after I became a full-time writer, and just now republished as a Gollanz Masterwork, is my attempt to write a novel that tapped into my life in the labs, foregrounding the practice and culture of science through the career of its central character, Mariella Anders. It's also a science thriller turning on the speculation, advanced by Peter Davies and others, that all of life on Earth may be decended from microbial life that first evolved on Mars, and the rivalries, politics and commercial chicanery Mariella must navigate to arrive at the truth.

This edition has been lightly edited to make a couple of topographical corrections and fix inconsistencies, continuity glitches and minor rough patches that for the most part are noticeable only to me. Some of the science has dated, as science often does, and we know far more about Mars now -- especially what it's like to rove about on its surface -- than we did at the turn of the century. But the idea of a global biological crisis involving a protean organism that thwarts attempts to control it does, perhaps, have an interesting resonance with one of our present ongoing crises.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Bognor Regis, Flying Saucers and Me

Beyond the Burn Line is, in part, a kind of First Contact story that's set in the aftermath of the Anthropocene and employs tropes from the UFO literature of the last half of the twentieth century. How did I, somewhat unwillingly labelled a 'hard' science fiction writer (that is, someone whose fictions find various uses for actual science), get involved with that flying saucer stuff? We have to go a long way back. The third quadrant of the twentieth century to be precise. The groovy late 1960s, in not-so-groovy Gloucestershire.

I was a bookish child, hooked on science fiction from an early age. My family was pretty poor, I couldn't afford to buy many new books and there were no secondhand bookshops in my little town, so my main sources of supply were libraries, church sales and Woolworths' trays of cheap American paperbacks. Allegedly shipped across the Atlantic as ballast, there were a scattering of science fiction novels and story collections amongst the florid romances and remaindered copies of Thrilling Detective Stories. I still have a few of them -- John Jake's Asylum World, Clifford Simak's All the Traps of Earth and other stories, Theodore Sturgeon's A Way Home -- but most were lost to moves and years of strategic winnowing, including the only non-fiction title I bought, back then. A slim paperback by George Adamski: Inside the Flying Saucers. I was expecting some kind of gee-whizz space adventure; instead there was a plodding linear narrative interspersed with tedious lectures and steeped in a stifling sense of virtuous self-importance. Even at age 12 or 13 I wasn't much impressed, and that was it, for me and flying saucers, until the summer of 1970.

We were poor, but an aunt owned a boarding house in the south-coast town of Bognor Regis, where my mother's family came from, and that's where we went on holiday for a fortnight every other year. It was, and still is, a somewhat low-rent resort, but there was a park with a boating lake, a miniature railway and a small zoo, and a long promenade with a theatre, a pier and miles of sandy beaches from which, on clear days, the misty coast of France could be glimpsed at the horizon. As far as we were concerned, not knowing any better, it was a kind of paradise.

But in August 1970 the weather for the first week of our holiday was wet and windy, and my sister, my brother and I mostly stayed indoors. In one of the sea-front cafes, in the pier's penny arcade (with its mechanical depictions of a haunted house and a hanging, and the head and torso of a sailor that, for a penny in its slot, would roll its eyes and laugh so horrendously and relentlessly that we'd shriek and flee after triggering it), or in my aunt's cosy kitchen, where my great-grandfather was a benign presence beside the cast-iron grate and we sat at a table covered with green oilcloth, listlessly fiddling with jigsaw puzzles, squabbling and listening to my sister's transistor radio. She was into pop music far more than I was, back then, but I remember one song that came around frequently, that August: Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi'. You know, the one about paving paradise to put up parking lots, visiting trees in a tree museum, and saving the birds and bees from DDT. A perfect miniature anthem that fused environmental and personal loss in two minutes fifteen seconds. Meanwhile, the rain didn't stop, and after I exhausted the handful of books I'd brought with me, emergency measures were required: I persuaded my aunt to help me join the local library.

It was in a modern brick-and-glass building a few streets away from my aunt's boarding house, and one of the first libraries in the UK to install an electronic ticketing system, which meant that you checked out books yourself, rather than having them approved and stamped by a librarian. I'd already read most of the books in the science fiction section, but there was a short shelf of UFOlogy literature nearby, and perhaps prompted by that purchase in Woolworths a few years before I borrowed several likely looking volumes.

During the rest of the fortnight I read my way through that shelf, five books at a time, even when the rain stopped and the sun reappeared, just in time for the opening of the third and last Isle of White festival -- it was just a few dozen miles west of Bognor, but as far as we were concerned it might as well have been on Mars. Amongst others, it featured the Who, the Doors, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimmy Hendrix (one of his last shows; he died of a barbiturate overdose a few weeks later) and Joni Mitchell, who was given an especially hard time by a bellicose crowd which had swelled to over 600,000 after French anarchists and other mutineers tore down the security fencing. At the end of our holiday, the coach to London, where we'd change to another coach that would take us back to Gloucestershire, made an unexpected stop, and a band of what looked like yetis recently returned from the trenches of the First World War clambered aboard. There was an empty seat next to me, and as these revenants shambled down the aisle I sent up a prayer to the cosmic overlords that none of them would sit next to me. But one inevitably did, wearing a damp Afghan coat whose damp, uncured goatskin smelled exactly as you'd expect, and that was as close as I ever got to the summer of love.

I don't remember much about those UFO books now. Apart from a few which attempted to give impartial overviews of the phenomenon, most were, like Adamski's book, eccentric personal revelations of contacts, kidnappings, cosmic secrets and conspiracies to keep the truth from the public. About fifteen years later, I interviewed the physicist John Barrow for the SF magazine Interzone (several of his books, notably his collaboration with Frank Tippler, the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, informed some of my early writing), who noted that members of the green-ink brigade who sent him their Theories of Everything only ever used algebra to explain the entirety of creation. There was definitely that kind of aura about those flying saucer tracts. But they were also utopian, hopeful, imbued with a need to understand the vast otherness of the universe and deliver outlines of utopias that could solve our all too human problems. As Jack Womack puts it, in his fine survey of UFOlogy, ... Flying Saucers Are Real, they were, like science fiction, 'ways to see beyond the neighborhood.'

I mostly forgot about the books I devoured in that reading marathon, but not entirely. One of my first attempts to write a science-fiction story was about UFO sightings in an idealised Cotswold village, which didn't go anywhere because (I know now) I took the subject far too seriously. Several of my early novels, and a couple of later ones, involved encounters with aliens whose minds and motives remain teasingly enigmatic* even when (or especially when) they arrive to help us. And some fifty years after my first contact with UFOs, when it's become all too clear that we really shouldn't have paved over paradise, I finally found a way to make use of those earnest chronicles of sightings and contacts, and their odd, short-lived cults.

*Wittgenstein famously wrote 'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.' By which he didn't mean that we couldn't understand, at a basic level, the lion's need to communicate, but because his world and ours only partially overlap we could never intuit the full range of his feelings and emotions; we couldn't grok him as we can another person. And lions have much more in common with us than aliens, which is perhaps the major fault of much UFO literature, in which Venusians and Saturnians are simply idealised versions of ourselves.

Friday, September 23, 2022


Where do writers get their ideas? Anywhere and everywhere they can. In the case of Beyond the Burn Line, it began with something so slight it barely qualified as the ghost of a notion. A throwaway remark by a minor character in one of my earlier novels, The Quiet War, who wonders, as nations struggle to fix the damage to ecosystems caused by previous generations, if Earth might not be better off without humans. ‘In time, some other species might start to look at the stars and wonder. Bears, perhaps. Or raccoons. Perhaps they will manage things better . . .'

Something I more or less forgot, at least on the conscious level until more than a decade later, when I remarked on Twitter, during a brief to and fro about waves of galactic colonisation or some such, that by the time an extraterrestrial civilisation discovers Earth, the human species may well have managed to extinguish itself, and some other species of Earthling will have to deal with First Contact instead.

The fusion of these two notions was the inception of Beyond the Burn Line, and an early, fleeting interest in UFOlogy gave its first half development direction and purpose. It wasn't the novel I was intending to write. That one, set in the near future, was in the early stages of development when COVID-19 began to spread across the globe; because of the uncertainties created by the pandemic (still not settled), I set it aside, recalled the remark about post-Anthropocene First Contact, and began to tinker with what became, after a couple of false starts, the story of a scholar who doggedly pursuing his late master's research into glimpses of strange visitors and stumbles on a greater truth. As for my brief flirtation with UFOs and their cults, it involves summer thunderstorms, my aunt's boarding house, one of the first libraries in the UK to have an electronic ticketing system, and Joni Mitchell. But that's another story.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Publication Day!


Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Brief Review: Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman

The two central characters in Ned Beauman's dark comedy are, broadly, personifications of the commonest reactions to the great thinning of the world's ecosystems: grief and anger. Emotions which in this case are generated by the accidental destruction of what may have been the last breeding grounds of a 'bumpy and greyish fish' that's obscure and distinctly uncharismatic, but also the second most-intelligent species on the planet.

Karin Resaint, the animal cognitive specialist who was studying the venomous lumpsucker, experiences a kind of existential collapse; Mark Halyard, who works for the extinction industry which commodifies endangered species, is furious not because of the loss, but because it threatens to ruin him over an unwise bet he made with company money. The two of them form an uneasy odd-couple relationship as for very different reasons they try to track down rumours of surviving populations of the lumpsucker. Their search spans the collapsing ecosystems of the Baltic and the North Sea, a pirate nation plagued by a rapture of gnats, and the self-willed isolation of the Hermit Kingdom (whose refusal of the outside world and enthrallment to an imaginary past is all too recognisable), and uncovers the machineries of a grandiose scheme in which the lumpsucker was an accidental casualty.

Although nominally an author at the literary end of the spectrum (he was selected as one of Granta's best young British novelists in 2013; his second novel was long-listed for the Man Booker prize), Beauman hasn't been shy in listing in genre influences; the deep-grained noirish cynicism of Venomous Lumpsucker reminds me of Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's satires of American mid-twentieth century hyperconsumerism, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law, and there's a truly science-fictional twist to this densely realised ecothriller. Combining high-end farce with an acerbic portrayal of a world in which technology fails in various terrible ways to counter the effects of uncontrolled plundering of finite natural resources, it's unsparing in its deconstruction of global capitalism and the fallibility of well-intentioned attempts to preserve the myriad species that knit together the world's ecosystems, and pivots on an urgently topical question. We're a clever species, noble in reason, infinite in faculties and so forth, but are we clever enough to save the world from the worst of our nature?

Monday, September 12, 2022

More Promotion


Another positive review of Beyond the Burn Line (have I mentioned that it will be published on the 22nd of this month?) in the Guardian. 'The book is an absolute delight: evocatively written, surprising, thought-provoking entertainment.'

Friday, September 09, 2022


 My story 'Gene Wars' ('Geenisõjad') as been translated into Estonian for Reaktor magazine's special biopunk edition. I haven't been keeping track, but this little story, first published in 1991, has been reprinted at least twenty times (moral: 2000 word short stories are popular with editors). You can read it in English here.


Thursday, September 08, 2022

First Review

 It's two weeks before publication of Beyond the Burn Line (you can, if you wish, pre-order), and the first review has appeared. In The Times, no less, as its SF book of the month. The review is over here, albeit beyond a paywall, and concludes:

'McAuley’s eccentric retread of late 19th-century science (Saltmire’s kind are just wrapping their furry heads around the concept of adaptation through natural selection) provides the intellectual framework for a spirited tale of travel, manners and professorial skulduggery ... McAuley is not a showy writer, but his fiendishness gets under your skin.'

Will definitely take fiendishness.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

The Thing Itself


Friday, September 02, 2022

Brief Review: Pupa, by J.O. Morgan

 'Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I.' The Fly (dir David Cronenberg).

The first novel by poet J.O. Morgan, Pupa is set in an alternate world predicated on a single what if? -- what if human reproduction resembled that of insects, with larval forms hatching from eggs, and changing, via pupae, into the adult form? Sal is a larval who tells himself he is content with his lot. He's an unambitious office drone with a necessarily unrequited friendship with another larval, Megan, and has no intention of willing the potentially fatal transformation to adulthood. As he tells Megan, 'You can't know if you'll like how you'll turn out.' But by a single uncharacteristic act, he precipates Megan's decision to change, and puts his own assumptions to the test.

Morgan allows the differences between Sal's world and ours to unfold at an unhurried pace that eschews infodumps and exposition for glimpses of complexities and consequences that Sal, like other larvals, often doesn't quite understand. The prose is unadorned yet precise, accentuating the impact of pivotal moments of body horror; the story turns on individual decisions and actions without overplaying the considerable metaphorical power of its central conceit. Cool, restrained, quietly affecting, it's an impressive novelistic debut.

Thursday, August 25, 2022


 ... on page 63 of the first draft of a Quiet War novella. Which was supposed to be a short story but grew, as they say, in the telling. I've been working on it since the beginning of this month, and now the ending's in sight (or, at least, the steps of its final tango have been blocked out). It's called, for the moment, 'Blade and Bone'. As is usual for me, these days, I kind of felt my way into it and although I knew the beats of the story before I began, I didn't realise what it was really about until some way past the midpoint. I'm quite excited by it now.

Meanwhile, I'm accumulating bits and pieces for what might be the next novel: the one I was going to try to write before the plague intervened, and I wrote Beyond the Burn Line instead. This new thing is mostly incomplete scaffolding and some pieces of furniture in storage, but I do have a good opening paragraph, at least.

(These are mostly encouraging notes to myself, by the way, and shouldn't be mistaken for actual news.)

Monday, July 18, 2022

Early Light/Early Life



Last week NASA released the first images acquired by its new James Webb Space Telescope, including this infra-red image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. The field of view is tiny, about the size of a grain of dust held at arms length, but it's packed with galaxies shining with light 4.6 billion years old, around the time the solar system was condensing out of a swirl of gas and cosmic dust. And amongst those galaxies are redder, fainter, fingernail arcs that are the light of even older star clusters and galaxies, distorted by the gravity of nearer, younger galaxies. That reddened, distorted light is around 12.8 billion years old, according to NASA: a window into the very deep past, around a billion years after the Big Bang and the universe's creation.

What was it like, then? The universe was still somewhat hotter and denser than it is now, and star formation was more intense, but there were stars and recognisable galaxies, even if they were small and irregular or simple spirals rather than elliptical giants like the Milky Way. Given what we know now about the abundance of exoplanets, some of those stars may have had planetary companions. But was there any life* on those first worlds? Was anything splashing about in some primordial ocean, under a sky crowded with stars and cauls of hot gas giving birth to stars, and pocket-sized galaxies smashing into each other?

On early Earth, the limiting factor for the kindling of life was temperature and the availability of liquid water. The earliest undisputed trace of life are fossilised microbial mats 3.5 billion years old. There are also traces of what might be stromatolites and biologically formed graphite in rocks 3.7 billion years old, and there's a claim that eyelash-sized iron-rich tubes may have been formed by microorganisms living 4.28 billion years ago. Their age and biogenic nature is still disputed, but if they really are fossil traces of life, then life on Earth began very soon after its formation by violent accretion 4.54 billion years ago: as soon as the first oceans appeared. Could life* have arisen somewhere in the universe as quickly? Here's some artless speculation.

In the early universe, the limiting factor for the first appearance of life was not temperature, but availability of water and necessary elements -- carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so on. A brief universe-wide flare of fusion processes in the first few minutes after the Big Bang produced mostly hydrogen and helium, with a vanishingly small smattering of lithium and even tinier traces of beryllium. Everything heavier than hydrogen and helium (called metals by astronomers, so both oxygen and carbon, for instance, are metals) had to be forged by fusion in stars, so the very first stars that formed in protogalaxies a few hundred light years across were composed entirely of primordial hydrogen and helium.

Those first stars, known as Population III stars, started to form 0.2 -- 0.4 billion years after the Big Bang. None have yet been imaged (it's one of the tasks planned for the JWST), but it's likely that they were large, 30 - 300 times the size of the sun, and burned hot and briefly, lasting only a few million years. Any more than 250x the mass of the sun collapsed into black holes; the rest either burned out or blew up in supernovae that scattered newly-forged metals into space. And in addition to forging heavier elements, their fierce radiance, most of it UV light, turned the opaque soup of neutral hydrogen and helium that filled the universe into a transparent plasma by reionizing hydrogen atoms, a process that was largely over a billion years after the Big Bang.

By then, the universe had begun to be enriched by metals, too, including the stuff of life. But the composition of surviving members of the subsequent Population II generation of stars suggests that around a billion years after the Big Bang the universe was still extremely metal-poor;  even the oldest Population I stars, formed 2 - 3 billion years later, contain only a tenth of the metal content of youngers stars like our sun.

So it's likely that those dim red crescents imaged by the JWSR are ancient light from a prebiotic universe, because as far as the building blocks of life and their universal solvent, water, were concerned, that early universe was a desert. And even if a few planetary systems of early Population II stars condensed out of dust and gases excessively rich in water and the stuff of life, there'd be only a few scattered oases containing the unicellular equivalents of bacteria and archaea. It wasn't until much later (how much later is still being debated)** that cosmic metal enrichment reached levels that could support life across the universe.

And of course, there's a chance that life on Earth is the only life in the universe. That until it arose here on this little blue planet, 10 billion years after the birth of the universe, the universe contained no life at all. But given that all the galaxies in the JWST's grain-of-sand peephole are just a fraction of the two trillion or so galaxies in the universe, each with their several hundred billion stars and several thousand billion planets, how likely is it that the spark of life caught fire only once, in the billions of years following the emission of the red-shifted, gravity-lensed light of the early stars captured in that extraordinary image?

*That is, squishy carbon-based life-as-we-know-it, not life based on (say) space-time defects or dark matter, like the Xeelee and the Photino Birds in Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence.

**Update July 19: it turns out the JWST was able to capture the red-shifted spectra of several of those ancient proto-galaxies, which will give insights into their chemical composition and how that changes over time. It seems that even the oldest of the galaxies imaged contain oxygen and neon, but differences in relative abundance of that element between galaxies of different ages aren't yet clear.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Cover Me

Cover for my post-anthropocene First Contact novel, out in the UK in September. Credit to the designer, Tomás Almeida. Hope you like it!
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