Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Little Robots That Could

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity* were successfully delivered to Mars five years ago today. Designed to last just three months, after surviving dust storms and hibernating through five winters of freezing temperatures and low sunlight the solar-powered robot explorers are still going strong (although thanks to a faulty wheel Spirit is now forced to forge on backwards). As NASA proudly reports:
The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them.
It's a fantastic achievement. And let's not forget that while the two little robots have been climbing mountains and descending into craters and crossing sand dunes, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft is still working away in orbit, on its third two-year extension of its original mission, ESA's Mars Express has just celebrated its fifth year, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently completed its primary, two-year science mission, taking high-resolution photographs of Mars's surface (including shots of Spirit and Opportunity, and a great photograph of the descent of this year's lander, Phoenix).

Yeah, it would wonderful to see the first astronaut (or taikonaut) stepping onto the surface of Mars. And I hope I'll be around to see it, despite arguments that NASA should focus on the Moon rather than Mars in the near future. Meanwhile, the two brave little rovers and their robot companions are doing some wonderful science, and have helped immeasurably in turning Mars from a remote blood-red dot in the sky to a real world crammed with real wonders.

UPDATE: Well, Spirit landed on January 4. Opportunity followed three weeks later on January 25.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Fireworks Over London

The last burst of this rather fantastic display was just visible from where I live.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Turn Turn Turn

A Happy New Year to all my readers.

The future's as uncertain as ever (luckily enough for me, or I'd be out of business); let's hope that it won't be anything like this (via Jack Womack), but more like this.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Getting Personal

I was reading through the proofs of my short story ‘The Thought War’, which is included in Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 3, when I received an email from Gardener Dozois, who wants to use two of my stories, ‘Incomers’ and ‘The City of the Dead’ in The Year’s Best Science Fiction 26. Gosh.

I was amused to note that the introduction to ‘The Thought War’ asserted that I was living in Scotland, a meme that’s proving rather difficult to eradicate. It’s true, I used to live in Scotland, but I moved to London when I quit my job, more than twelve years ago (the longest continuous period I’ve ever lived anywhere; I was born in Stroud and lived there for seventeen years, but spent one year in the middle of my childhood elsewhere). Again: gosh.

Author’s bios are odd little packages of information. Those of established writers generally list their bestselling novels and prizes they have won: proof of pedigree. Those of new authors often list previous jobs (the more exotic the better) to make them seem like a regular citizen of the world. Some attempt humour; a few even succeed. One of the best of the latter is Jonathan Lethem’s bio for his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music:
Jonathan Lethem was born in the sixties, watched television in the seventies, and started writing in the eighties.
Neat, huh? Almost all bios note where the author currently lives. Often it’s the only piece of personal information - something that has no bearing on the novel in hand unless it’s actually set in the author’s home town. My current bio is unexceptional. It lists the the prizes I’ve won, and mentions that I’m a former scientist (although that in no way qualifies me to write science fiction), and that I live in London. Although only three of my novels have been set in London, and I wasn’t living in London when I wrote the first of those, Fairyland. No, at the time, I was living in Scotland.

UPDATE: 'City of the Dead' will be included in Infinivox's audiobook "year's best" anthology, The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction.
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