Friday, December 21, 2012

Links 21/12/12

NASA has named the site where twin agency spacecraft impacted the moon Monday in honor of the late astronaut Sally K. Ride, who was America's first woman in space and a member of the probes' mission team.

A little over 40 years after the last Apollo astronauts left the Moon, the two spacecraft comprising NASA's GRAIL mission impacted on the surface.  After mapping the structure of the lunar interior, the spacecraft, Ebb and Flow, were commanded to alter their orbits and fly in formation on a trajectory that caused them to impact with a mountain near the Moon's north pole, well away from any of areas of interest, including the Apollo landing sites.

The impacts of Ebb and Flow add to the debris left on the Moon, whose surface was first modified by human activity when the Soviet Union crashed its first spacecraft to reach the Moon, Luna 2, as well as its third rocket stage, near crater Archimedes in September 1959.  In addition to lunar module landing stages, lunar rovers, scientific instruments, tools and flags, the Apollo astronauts left behind a huge variety of trash, including two golf balls, a falcon's feather used in a demonstration of Galileo's theory of gravity, bags of urine and excrement, and a photograph of astronaut Charles Duke's family.

(Image credit: Charles Duke/NASA)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rendezvous With Indifference

(Note - this was written - for no payment beyond the enjoyment of renewing my acquaintance with the novel - for a volume of essays celebrating Arthur C. Clarke's work that more than a year later appears to have run aground before publication. So it goes. I've been thinking a lot about aliens recently, so this is a kind of starting point for further developments.)

Rendezvous With Rama (1973), written at the height of his fame, winner of just about every award in the science-fiction field, is Arthur C. Clarke’s third novel about first contact. In the first, Childhood’s End, devilish aliens arrive on Earth to uplift the children of humanity and supervise their fusion with a cosmic overmind; in the second, 2001: A Space Odyssey, aliens represented by enigmatic monoliths gift the ancestors of Homo sapiens with the capability for abstract reasoning, and thousands of years later signpost the way to a star gate that transmits an astronaut to a place where he is transformed and given the key to the next stage in the evolution of human intelligence. Rendezvous With Rama takes an entirely different approach. Its theme is not cosmic awakening, but the vastness of the universe and its indifference to human endeavour.

In the first chapter, set in 2077, a relatively small meteor smacks into Northern Italy, ‘destroying in a few flaming moments the labour of centuries’ and killing six hundred thousand people. To prevent similar cosmic accidents, the people of Earth create Project SPACEGUARD (a nice example of Clarke’s prescience: a decade after the novel was published, the name of his fictional project was borrowed for a NASA study on how to protect Earth from a serious meteor strike). Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD spots something hurtling through the Solar System on a sun-grazing trajectory: an alien starship, named Rama by its human discoverers. Only one spaceship is capable of matching Rama’s velocity. The race is on to explore it and attempt to make contact with its crew before it passes too close to the Sun.

Rendezvous With Rama is by no means a perfect novel. Despite the problems of having one wife on Mars and another on Earth, the leader of the exploratory team, Commander Norton, is oddly bloodless, and the rest of his crew are only lightly sketched, and include rather too many people who just happen to possess the right kind of expertise required to solve the problem to hand. References to the voyages of Captain Cook and the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb contribute to a quaint, Boy’s Own Adventure feel that’s reminiscent of Clarke’s early stories, in which astronauts fry sausages in their moon buggies and alien treasures are dispatched to the British Museum rather than the Smithsonian. Ideas are interjected via the talking heads of the Rama Committee, which appears to operate out of a Pall Mall club. The notion of using genetically altered monkeys to carry out the routine tasks aboard a spaceship finds no foothold in the story.

None of this much matters. Clarke’s alien starship is a potent and iconic artifact. There’s a nice passage describing the rescue of a stranded explorer, and an attempt to inject some drama when the aggressive colonists of Mercury decide to park a precautionary H-Bomb next to Rama, but most of the novel’s power comes from carefully calibrated revelations about a pharaonic project that embodies the vast effort required to traverse interstellar distances without violating Einsteinian physics, and investigation of its strange landscapes, described with Clarke’s characteristically lucid precision. Rama’s huge cylinder is hollow, with what appear to be cities on its inner surface, a world-girdling circular sea dividing it in half, and a cluster of huge, mysterious spires at the far end. At first it appears to be derelict, but as the heat of the Sun penetrates its thick hull the human explorers witness a brief spring as the lights come on, the Circular Sea melts, and biomechanical robots, biots, appear and busy themselves with mysterious tasks.

But despite the best efforts of the explorers, Rama remains enigmatic, and impervious to human intervention. They fail to have any meaningful interaction with the biots, and learn almost nothing about the nature and purpose of the ship’s builders, who ‘would probably never even know that the human race existed’. The Solar System is merely a way point on an interstellar voyage that has already lasted longer than the span of human civilisation, with a destination that is nowhere in galaxy; instead it is ‘aimed squarely at the Greater Magellanic Cloud, and the lonely gulfs beyond the Milky Way.’

Much science fiction – especially much American science-fiction – is driven by bumptious optimism. The universe is our oyster; all we need to do is figure out the right tools to crack it open. Rendezvous With Rama is a necessary corrective: a grand adventure, and a fine and rigorously thought-through lesson in humility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

About This Year

I'm very pleased to announce that two of the stories I published this year will appear in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction, Thirtieth Annual Collection (full table of contents here). 'The Man' was first published in issue 1.2 of the new science-fiction magazine, Arc Infinity; 'Macy Minnot's Last Christmas On Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden' was first published in the anthology Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which collects thirteen stories about the colonisation of the Solar System (my contribution is a Quiet War story that frames a set of Quiet War stories). 'Macy Minnot . . .' was also selected by Jonathan Strahan for his The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Seven, which also includes many and various stories from an eclectic range of sources.

I also published two stories in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, ‘Bruce Springsteen’, and 'Antarctica Starts Here', and contributed a self-contained story, or chapter, or segment, to Stephen Jones' mosaic novel Zombie Apocalypse! 2, which is by no means as tongue-in-cheek as the exclamation mark suggests: a lovingly designed collection of journal and diary entries, emails, newspaper headlines, internet posts and other documents that detail the ongoing struggle between surviving humans and increasingly intelligent and organised zombie hordes. Also wearing my other hat, or William Shatner mask, of horror writer, I contributed to the portmanteau play 'The Hallowe'en Sessions'. With a framing story by Kim Newman, and other episodes by Stephen Volk, Maura McHugh, Anne Billson, and Sean Hogan, it had a short, sold-out run in the West End's Leicester Square Theatre, directed by Sean Hogan.  It was somewhat daunting, but in the end enormously enjoyable, to be a small part of this energetic and imaginative collaboration. An audiobook version of the play may well appear next year.

This year also saw the publication of my third Quiet War novel, In The Mouth of the Whale, and the completion of the fourth, Evening's Empires. That's gone through the first edit stage, and at the beginning of the year I'll be dealing with the copy edit and the proofs. It's scheduled for publication in July 2013. I've also dealt with the editing and proofreading stages of a big retrospective collection of my short stories, A Very British History, which PS Publishing will be releasing in April 2013. There'll be a Jim Burns' cover, and a couple of limited editions with various extras.

I also published two short ebooks for Amazon's Kindle, a spooky novelette set in early Victorian London, Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple, and another collaboration with Kim Newman, the post-alien invasion story Prisoners of the Action. And regular readers will know that I'm currently publishing more Quiet War short stories here on the blog, at the rate of one a week. When I have twelve or so I'll collect them in a new ebook, along with two or three longer stories and other pieces.

All of this fiction writing meant that, apart from a couple of book reviews, I had little time or energy left to pursue my ambition to write more nonfiction. Maybe next year. First, and somewhat behind schedule, I have to work up my plans for several new novels.  But before I do that, somewhat exhausted by contemplating this list, I might sit down with a cup of tea and a mince pie . . .

Monday, December 17, 2012

Life As We Know It

It was a slow night at the Still Point. A little after midnight, Aeshma was thinking of closing up when an old man ankled up and slid onto one of the stools and asked for a shot of Bluewater Collective pear brandy.

'You still carry that stuff don’t you?’

‘This is the only bar in Paris that does,’ Aeshma said, although yo had to root around at the bottom of the racks before yo found the dusty bottle.

The old man closed his eyes after the first sip, saying at last, ‘That’s so like your classic Proustian moment it isn’t even funny.’

He was dressed in red leggings and a black jumper cinched with an antique utility belt. A narrow seamed face, white hair shaved at the sides to leave a crest along the top of his scalp, in the manner of pilots a century ago.

‘I thought I’d stop by, like I did in the old days,’ he said, after taking another sip from his tube of brandy. ‘See if this place was still here. And here it is, exactly as I remember it. Amazing.’

It was a small place, the bar, tucked into the corner of a cut-through in the low-rise neighbourhood of bars, teahouses, restaurants, theatres and song clubs around the Central Market. A bamboo and canvas shack with a counter of polished impact glass and four stools, a little hotplate on which Aeshma prepared snacks, and bottles racked in front of a big mirror, many labelled with the names of regular customers. Aeshma’s grandsire had rebuilt it after the war, and it had been handed down from sire to scion ever since.

The old man introduced himself, Herschel Wu, and said, ‘I guess you must be Aeshma’s kid. Yo’s scion, as you people have it.’

‘You knew my sire?’

‘About a hundred years ago. No, closer to a hundred fifty. Before the Quiet War.’

‘Then you knew my great-grand sire, Aeshma One. I am Aeshma Four.’

‘Yo didn’t call yoself “One”, but yeah. You look just like yo. I guess that isn’t surprising, the way you people do, but that robe of yours, that green leaf pattern, you wore one just like it. Aeshma, Aeshma One, is he still around?’

‘Yo died in the war.’

‘Yeah?  I’m sorry to hear it. A lot of people did. And those that didn’t, most of my friends and relatives, mostly just died of old age while I was away. Back then, before the war, I was a free trader. Mostly lived on my ship. But whenever I was in Paris I’d come here, shoot the shit with your great-grandsire, catch up on news, gossip, tips. And then the Greater Brazilians and the other political gangsters from Earth moved on the Outers, the Quiet War and all that, and some of us took off before they rounded us up or killed us. The Free Outers, we called ourselves. You heard of us, maybe.’

Aeshma shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. It’s ancient history. We moved to Uranus at first, and then the Greater Brazilians caught up with us there, so we moved on to Neptune. And then to one of the Centaurs. Nepenthe. We built a nice little garden there. I raised a family, but my partner died and I got the itch to move on. Ended up doing a little tour of the Kuiper belt, which is why I’m here. A science jamboree wants me to talk about what I found out there, what some people call the progenitor bug. Maybe you’ve heard of it.’

Aeshma apologised again, saying that he didn’t keep up with science.

‘No reason why you should, I guess. What are you drinking, Aeshma?’

Aeshma hesitated.  He didn’t like the way Herschel Wu had referred to ‘you people’, as if androgyne neuters were a separate species of human being, suspected that he harboured an ancient prejudice to neuters and their cloned lineages Outers had mostly forgotten. But the old man was an old customer of the Still Point, he’d known Aeshma One, and beneath his bluster he seemed lonely and a little lost. So Aeshma said that he would also have a brandy, and dispensed a shot into a fresh tube and refreshed the old man’s, telling him it was on the house.

‘That’s mighty kind of you,’ the old man said, raising his tube. ‘To your great-grandsire.’

They talked about Aeshma One, and Paris in the old days, the days before the war, before the defeat of Earth’s Three Powers and the re-establishment of the Outers’ hegemony.

‘They tell me this is a golden age of peace and prosperity,’ Herschel Wu said.

Aeshma shrugged. ‘Business here is much as it always was.’

‘You always worked here?’

‘I helped my sire until yo retired, three years ago.’

‘And you’ve always lived on Dione, in Paris.’

‘Of course.’

‘Never went on a wanderjahr, took off on a whim to some other city, some other moon?’

‘We are happy here.  Life is good.  Why change it?’

‘Something I asked myself a hundred years ago,’ Herschel Wu said, ‘when I decided that I’d grown too comfortable, in Nepenthe. That I hadn’t seen all I needed to see. Some of us had been to Pluto, in the old days, and we went back. But there were already people there, and I decided to go further out.’

‘To the Kuiper belt.’

‘There are people in the Kuiper belt, now. But back then, not so much. I plotted a grand tour, skipping from kobold to kobold all the way to the far edge of the belt, sleeping out the transits. I had a good motor on my ship, but distances between kobolds are very large out at the edge, and I used minimum-energy courses to conserve reaction mass. I visited eight in all, over the course of a hundred years. And on one of them I found this,’ Herschel Wu said, and conjured a small sphere of translucent plastic between finger and thumb. ‘The progenitor bug. Go ahead, take a look. It’s laminated. Quite safe.’

Ghostly soap-bubble structures flashed inside the plastic sphere as Aeshma turned it in the glow of one of the star lanterns strung along the fringe of the bar’s canopy.

‘It’s a bacterial cell,’ Herschel Wu said. ‘A specimen of a very big, very strange, very old species of bacteria. They grow in a little subsurface sea I discovered in one of the kobolds I visited. Place almost as big as Pluto, with a moon as big as Pluto’s biggest moon. The sea’s rich in ammonia, kept just the right side of freezing by warmth from tidal friction and residual radioactive decay in the kobold’s core. And these big old bacteria live there. Although strictly speaking they’re not really bacteria. They use RNA instead of DNA, like some viruses, a zoo of short RNA strands in a cytoplasmic matrix. They cleave hydrogen from sulphides, use the energy to fix primordial inorganic carbon dissolved in the sea. And they grow very very slowly, divide once in maybe a hundred thousand years. The scientists are very excited by them. Some claim they are the progenitors of all life in the solar system. You know how life was supposed to have started on Mars?’

‘Not really.’

‘Mars is smaller than Earth, so it cooled more quickly after it formed, and life got started on it while Earth’s oceans were still boiling. And some of that life, Martian bacteria, fell to Earth inside rocks knocked off Mars by big impacts, and kick-started Earth’s biosphere. Also Europa’s. So you might say that we’re all Martians. But then I discovered these RNA bacteria, and now there’s an argument about whether they’re a separate evolutionary domain, or whether they’re the true progenitors of life in the Solar System, unchanged because there’s no evolutionary pressure to change, in their cold little sea. That’s what this jamboree’s all about,’ Herschel Wu said. ‘I’m one of the keynote speakers. Funny
how life turns out, uh?’

‘It’s quite a story,’ Aeshma said, and handed the plastic sphere back.

‘Isn’t it? And it’s better than most traveller’s tales because every word is true.’

They sipped their brandies and talked a little more about old days Aeshma knew only by hearsay. After the old man had gone, Aeshma closed up the bar and drifted home.

Halfway there, yo paused on a slender bridge that arched over the river that ran through the quiet, dark city. Yo was a little dizzy from the brandy, and the cool air above the black water was refreshing. Slow fat waves reflected the webs of little lights strung through the chestnut trees along the banks. Saturn’s big crescent gleamed through the tent’s panes, slanting above flat rooftops. Two people went by on the far bank, shadows under the constellations of the trees. One of them, a woman, laughed at something the other said.

Two lovers in Paris, under Saturn. Aeshma thought of fat, slow globs of slime floating in a frigid sea under the icy skin of a planetoid in the outer dark, undisturbed for billions of years until Herschel Wu came along.  Remote, ancient, strange, nothing at all to do with ordinary life, but why did yo find the thought of them so disturbing?

Aeshma lived in a commune with yo’s scion, yo’s sire, and the members of four other androgyne neuter lineages.  Yo perched on the edge of the sleeping niche of yo’s scion, watching the small child sleep. Three years old, cute as a bug, thumb socketed in yo’s mouth, stirring when Aeshma stroked yo’s fine blond hair. In the commons, Aeshma Three reheated some soup from the stockpot, asked about Aeshma’s day.

‘Oh, you know. The usual.’
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