Monday, 4 November 2013

David Brin, Thinker.

Robert Sawyer mentioned his friend David Brin, the SF author.

 I'm right now listening to one of David's 4 videos on the future of space exploration. And this guy's got the knowledge - Wikipedia says about him:

In 1973, he graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science in astrophysics.[8] He followed this with a Master of Science in applied physics in 1978 and a Doctor of Philosophy in space science in 1981, both from the University of California, San Diego.
Brin is a 2010 fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.[9] He helped establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (UCSD). He serves on the advisory board of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group and frequently does futurist consulting for corporations and government agencies.

On the subject of Mars, he's thinking of the 'expedition' profile of mission, not the 'one-way-ticket' espoused by Mars One and others. Still lots of common sense - cache supplies, use resources out there, formulate a wise overall goal for space exploration that will work economically. Warning: you need time and spare brain power to listen to this guy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Is There Hope In Science Fiction?

So I went to the event and it was great to hear the authors Dr. Vincent Lam, Robert J Sawyer (or Rob, as he prefers) and Ania Szado talk about their books and read from it. The Airlanes Hotel ballroom was packed. Thunder Bay's literary community was out in force tonight. The Northern Women's Bookstore was represented on the back tables, selling the authors' books and some local writers' works too - yes, mine was there as well. I gave the store three copies some 10 months ago and they are still faithfully tending all three of them! Maybe the northern women customers don't like kids' sci-fi much.

Anyway, perhaps you're wondering if I asked any or all of my dazzling questions. I managed to squeeze one in right under the wire, when I thought all three writers must be exhausted from talking so much. It came to me in the car, fizzing along the expressway at 7:01 pm. I once read an interview of Kim Stanley Robinson (Stan to his friends, of whom Rob is one) in which he said that the backdrops of SF writing tend to be dystopian, dark, and in response he tries to write in such a way as to inspire hope, to awaken a vision in scientists and others that points to ways in which people could use science and technology to solve some of the big issues facing the human race today. I think he's certainly done that, to the extent to which I've read his stuff. His Mars trilogy points to one way in which all sorts of people might make Mars their home against all the odds and carve out a new kind of community for themselves.

So I asked something like this to all 3 writers - How can writers inspire hope through their writings, or is it even their function? Should we really write about the world 'as it really is'? And the answers were very thoughtful. Rob counts himself as one of fairly few SF writers who write hopefully of the future; Vincent and Ania said in different ways (as I dimly remember) that they write about life as they see it, be it sad, funny, hopeful or whatever. I think Vincent said that if someone tells a writer how they should write, usually a writer will react by writing the opposite!

Rob Sawyer sees our present age as much, much better than those that precede it, and expects the future to be even better in many ways. I'm sure his thoughts are more complex than that; forgive me Rob if I over-simplified there. Looking at today's news in horror and comparing it to past centuries may be like telling my dog his breath only smells from close-up. The horrors of history were undoubtably awful to live through; perhaps today 'we've never had it so good.' Yes... and no. Mankind today has, I think, much more potential for good and evil than ever before. I think the stakes are being raised every day. Are we becoming a race of TV- and web-educated fools, led by the blind? Hmm. I'll have to think about that.

Comments gratefully received below.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Robert J Sawyer plays the Blues!

Just got my ticket today for the International Festival of Authors, to be held this Sunday at a local hotel here in Thunder Bay. My neighbour Bill is coming too - he moved into the neighbourhood recently and turns out he's a keen SF reader, preferring the classic  oldies like Heinlein and Asimov. Has boxes full of the stuff in his basement, 'Come on in and help yourself!'

But I digress.

So this Festival is hosting  Vincent Lam, Ania Szado and Robert J Sawyer and they will read from their current works. Do you wish you were here? Admittedly, SF-head that I am, I have not heard of the other two, but I have read some of Robert Sawyer's novels and short stories. You can read the opening chapters of Sawyer's latest, Red Planet Blues, here. I started it, began enjoying the mid-future Mars he paints with deliberately grimy brush, then I had to get back to work. Ahem.

It's set maybe 100 years in the future, when Mars is settled to some extent, and the main character is a hard-up private detective starting on a missing-person case. One major technological breakthrough that plays a major role in the plot is the idea, in vogue amongst many SF types these days, that sooner or later we'll be able to upload our personalities onto computer hardware or into replacement bodies, thereby extending our lives tremendously. A kind of ultimate hard-drive backup.

Here's a snippet of dialogue as he visits the local police force which is renowned for its sloppiness and inattention to duty:

The NKPD consisted of eight cops, the junior ones of whom took

turns playing desk sergeant. Today it was a flabby lowbrow named

Huxley, whose blue uniform always seemed a size too small for

him. "Hey, Hux," I said, walking over. "Is Mac in?"

Huxley consulted a monitor then nodded. "Yeah, he's in, but he 

don't see just anyone."

"I'm not just anyone, Hux. I'm the guy who picks up the pieces 

after you clowns bungle things."

Huxley frowned, trying to think of a rejoinder. "Yeah, well ..." 

he said, at last.

"Oooh," I said. "Good one, Hux! Way to put me in my place."

He narrowed his eyes. "You ain't as funny as you think you are, 


"Of course I'm not. Nobody could be that funny."

So I am plotting. What one question should I ask the author, if I get the chance? Here are some contenders:

  • If Microsoft launched a technology to upload the human mind onto a computer, would you do it?
  • When you invented your future-Mars, how much did current Mars colonisation ideas affect your planning?
  • Have you signed up with Mars One for a one-way ticket? That would be a great inspiration for a future novel!
  • Do you know a friendly publisher I could talk to?
Actually I wouldn't dare ask quite as bluntly as this, except the second question. Not in public. Perhaps afterwards, after Bill has got his autograph.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Everybody's Into Space These Days!

This is a link to the article over on The Calling giving some links to all sorts of wise and wacky things that ordinary people are doing these days in the arena of spaceflight, space exploration, space colonisation and so on. Hope you enjoy it.

Here's an extra pic - my favourite Earth-to-orbit launcher, Skylon.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Plethora of Home-made Rockets!

I believe some people call it 'down the rabbit hole'. When you start clicking things online you never know where you'll end up - having tea with the mad hatter, or arguing with the Queen of Hearts.

I experienced something comparable while doing a little background research for the Chapters book-signing event (see this link). Looking into the many and varied efforts people are putting into private space travel ventures is like old-style barn dancing - who will be your partner next time around? And the next? I looked again at SpaceX on Wikipedia (bless their cyber-socks) and clicked on a link that said 'private spaceflight'. Way down the bottom of that page under the exciting 'External Links' section I found two intriguing companies called 'Starchaser Industries' and 'Astrobotic'. Who could resist finding out about names like that? Starchaser is building its own rocket to launch two people up to 100,000 feet - that's about 30 km - not quite 'real' space which is 100 km, but still impressive. Here's what it looks like:
Thunderbirds Are GO!
And they're recruiting astronauts to fil the navigator's seat! Need I mention that it's based in the UK, in Cheshire to be exact, where they make such good cheese.

Sadly, Astrobotic's page didn't load. Oh - wait a sec - I tried again and here's a picture of one of their planetary exploration rovers.
Anyway, you get the idea. I spent a few other web crawls finding out about the advantages of orbital tethers, LEO refuelling depots, the Outer Space Treaty of 1951 and its ramifications for private space investors, and the Mars Society. It's all out there. Isn't it wonderful that so many people are taking the initiative? My favourite of the week is the Danish engineer who is building Denmark's first manned space program in his (rather large) garage, along with some buddies. They're called Copenhagen Suborbitals. Look!

Shiny rocket cones! I like! This is the liquid oxygen tank.
The most dazzling item these Danes have produced? A steam-powered fuel pump! Yes. Watch their video on how they designed it. (Did you know you can produce steam by throwing hydrogen peroxide at potassium permanganate? No boiler required.) Innovation, and the simpler the better. Brilliant people.

I'll be adding a whole list of similar links after the book signing that's at Chapters, Thunder Bay, Friday October 25th at 7pm.

What fascinates me with all these is the standard science-fiction starter question: "What if...?" In this case, what if some of these amazingly creative, perseverant people are successful? Wouldn't the world be a better place if people like you and me were travelling the airless corridors of the sky above our heads? If it wasn't just the governments of a very few nations sending their ex-Air Force pilots and top scientists? Granted, most of the private space ventures with more chance of success are funded and run by billionares such as Elon Musk (developer of PayPal and Tesla Motors) with his SpaceX, and Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic. Not exactly your average Joe Public. Still, even many of these are enabling many others to join in a Space Race characterised by friendly competition and inspiring goals, rather than the Cold War era frantic race for orbit and the Moon which has left us so little lasting legacy.

I remember reading a great SF novel about a disgraced alcoholic astronaut and some keen, bright teenagers who build a spacecraft out of a disused railway tanker-truck (and many other bits and pieces) and fly it to Mars and back. But I can't remember the title or the author's name! Can anybody help me? It's about the only attempt at fiction I can recall on this subject. My only real gripe with the storyline is that it involves an unrealistic method of propulsion invented by the astronaut's reclusive, genius relative. (As another rabbit-track, maybe the author was thinking of this attempt  by NASA researchers to squeeze the fabric of the universe behind and in front of the spacecraft and propel an object in a bubble of warped space-time.)

On the subject of propulsion, here are two more "What-ifs":
  1. An ion thruster is under development which could make manned interplanetary travel faster. It's called VASIMR, which stands for (take a deep breath) : Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. Read about it here. Wikipedia says: "Costa Rican scientist and former astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz created the VASIMR concept and has been working on its development since 1977". All it needs is a lightweight power source and a bit more development. Oh, and perhaps a wealthy billionaire to get it built and into orbit!
  2. Orbital tethers. Imagine two satellites attached by a 4km tether. Each one could be at a different altitude above the Earth, and thus would be in a different orbit, placed under different gravitational force. The transfer of momentum that can then take place is a keen topic of study for some of those bright mathematicians, because it holds potential for cutting down drastically on the amount of chemical rocket fuel required to change a spacecraft's orbit - perhaps allowing craft to begin their journey to Mars or the Moon at a much lower cost. A conducting tether in orbit around Earth can also generate electricity, or if a current is passed through it, will exert a force on the spacecraft that it's attached to! The possibilities of that are huge.

 Well, that's enough of that for now. I must get back to work. I have a large barrel in my garage filled with baking soda, and I am about to pour in the vinegar, strap into the flight seat and open the skylight for lift-off....

(just kidding!)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Posting Elsewhere

Briefly, here's a link to a post I wrote on the blog of a writer named Jade Kerrion. The post, like my recent one here, is about writing 'in the shadow of Star Wars'.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Science Fiction that Kids Love

Not that I'm an authority on what children love about sci-fi adventure, but it's one of those global phenomena that bears closer inspection. My main sources of data are my two sons, aged 7 and 9, who have been Star Wars(r)  fans for as long as they could lisp 'Pew, pew!' and wave a piece of Duplo Lego (r) .

Yes, it has a lot to do with those annoying little  (r) symbols - the commercialisation of playtime. But look at it through the child's eyes without so much cynicism: 'It's so cooool! I am only a fairly small person, but here I am swept into a huge adventure where giant-sized heroes and villains battle it out - and in space! With loud laser bolts, huge spaceships and stuff.'

A scene from the latest epic the boys and I are producing: "Too Many Droids" !!

But is it so different from swords and dragons? Is it actually 'science' fiction at all?

There is still quite a element of futurity, of techy stuff, even in Star Wars which is so notorious for unscience. (eg. Han Solo has this unfortunate line shoved in his mouth when boasting about his ship's speed, something like: 'She's the only ship to have done the Kessel Run in under 3 parsecs.')  I've ended up chatting with the boys about androids, light-years, fusion, and all that, because the words are sprinkled into Star Wars the same way I heedlessly fling oregano over everything I cook. Good science fiction is a kind of innoculation against future-shock. So when they're teenagers or in their 20s and riding in driverless cars and living perhaps through the AI singularity and so on, they'll tell each other, 'We knew about all this when we were little!' And perhaps the future won't be such a scary place to live.

As I write for mid-grade and YA, I have felt a certain amount of responsibility how I make the story world and set my characters romping into orbit. Some of us adults may feel that technology is nibbling away at our humanity, or twisting it into new and frightening shapes, but I don't feel a compulsion to paint it that way in my story. So I ease off on the half-human, half-robotic cyborgs; I let the people pilot their spacecraft even though computers are already doing a better job than most of us could do, here in the 21st century.

I think I can see something! It's a...
A great deal of good science fiction is about looking ahead. For the future to be a good place to live, where people still care for each other, we have to make good choices now - we as voters, as consumers who buy so much electronic stuff, as scientists - and we need to encourage our kids towards better choices. Often in our family this includes saying 'no'. There are so, so many dark places out there in the catacombs and battlefields of kids' SF. Just see the games on sale, the movies some watch. To create something brighter, to pass a flaming torch of inspiration into their eager hands, that's what I want to do. But to do that I need to keep feeding my soul on the light. You can't give people what you don't have.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Blog Etiquette

Perhaps blogs have been left behind in the dust of Facebook and Twitter, those children of brevity and (often but not always) shallowness, but I think not. I think there are many people out on the cyberavenues who are glad to dally long enough to read a blog post, perhaps actually think about something meaningful, before passing onwards to the next click.
If you still value blogs and other forms of more solid content on the internet, then hear my plea! Cultivate us bloggers! Here are a few ways you can do that.
  • Leave Comments! This could easily be points one, two and three, but I'll spare you that artless form of emphasis. Even if you say nothing but 'Hi!' it will encourage a writer to keep on crafting words for you. If you find a thought-provoking post, be the first to comment - perhaps you'll start a lively debate!
  • If you disagree or dislike what the blogger is saying, then go ahead and tell them... but use at least the same tact and consideration you would if talking face-to-face with someone you respect.
  • Mention good posts elsewhere. Spread the good stuff around! Just copy the link from the address bar, and paste it into your next Facebook thing. Or if you Twitter, look up 'bitly', a useful site (one of many, I suspect) which allows you to post greatly shortened web addresses into a Tweet, thereby saving you characters.
  • Most of all, treat everyone you meet on the internet as real people! Think about it.
Bye for now... I have to go and say 'goodnight' to two younger 'real people' of my own!

Content to craft?

If ever you grow good enough at something to feel like you've made it, think again. This is the sort of warning I hope you will echo back to me one day when I've reached a higher level of writing. I certainly have no room for complacency.

In fact, I've recently started a job in which I become a trainee, knowing very little, rubbing shoulders with the experts, spending most of my days nodding while others speak pearls of technical wisdom... feeling smaller than I'd like to. And this is at age 47. 

But that's fine. Computer Service Manager - in - training is a good place to be. It is a full-time job, though, so that my writing is reduced to a couple of hours every few evenings. This could discourage me, but I think that work is a great environment in which to gather more story material.

Have you found Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing site yet? It's not hard to find online. One beginner lesson of his that I read reduces the process of writing to this outline of a writer's prime requirements:

  1. Content
  2. Craft
  3. Connections.
At work I can soak up more Content: this is the life-lesson and real-life character material that you pick up by meeting people, doing new things, failing, labouring, making decisions, and so on. You know: real life. Then I aim to keep improving my Craft and Connections in my spare time.

But don't hold your breath waiting for my next book...