Colonising Mars?

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has made no secret of his plans for facilitating a colony on Mars for a long time now. But last September, in a public presentation, he explained it all in considerably more detail. The reasoning, and the raw logistical figures behind it, are still available. His credibility is built around the SpaceX programme. This in turn is based on a concept of reusing equipment rather than throwing it away each launch, and it has had a string of successes lately. The initial booster stage now returns to a landing platform, there to go through a process which recommissions it for another launch.

SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)
SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)

Quite apart from any recycling benefits, this then allows SpaceX to seriously undercut other firms’ prices of putting satellites into orbit. It still couldn’t be called cheap – one set of figures quotes $65 million – but that’s only about one sixth of the regular cost. If you’re happy to know that your equipment is going into orbit on a rocket that is not brand new, it’s a huge saving. Every successful launch, return to base, and relaunch, adds to buyers’ confidence that the procedure can be trusted.

But the big picture goes well beyond Earth orbit. Musk believes that the best way to mitigate the risks of life on Earth – global warming, conflict, extremist views of all kinds, and so on – is to spread out more widely. In a recent lecture, Stephen Hawking has said essentially the same thing. And in Musk’s  vision, Mars is a better bet than the moon for this, for a whole cluster of reasons including the presence of an atmosphere (albeit a thin one compared to here) and a greater likeness to Earth in terms of gravity and size.

So reusable rockets into Earth orbit are simply a starting point. Once you have a reasonably-sized fleet of such things, you can build larger objects already in space, and fly them over to Mars when the orbital positions are ideal. The logic of gravitational pull around a planet means that the hardest, and most energy-intensive part is needed to get you from the surface up to a stable orbit. Once there, much gentler and longer-lasting means of propulsion will get you onward bound.

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

To take a contemporary situation, NASA’s Dawn probe is currently orbiting the asteroid Ceres. Its hydrazine fuel, which powers the little manoeuvring and attitude thrusters, is nearly exhausted. The mission control team are trying to decide on the best course of action. In its current high orbit only a few months of fuel remain. A closer orbit, which would give better quality pictures, would use it up in a matter of weeks. But using the main ion drive, a different power source altogether, to go somewhere else would probably give a few years of science. Fairly soon we should hear which option they have chosen, and where they consider the best balance is between risk and reward. The message for here is that staying close to a planet, or taking off from one, is costly in terms of fuel.

So Musk reckons that over the course of a century or so, he can arrange transportation for a million Martian colonists. In terms of grand sweep, it is so far ahead of anyone else’s plans as to seem impossible at first sight. But if all goes according to his admittedly ambitious plan, the first of many journeys could take place ten years from now. He – and I for that matter – might not live to see the Martian population reach a million, but he certainly expects to see it firmly established.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

With Far from the Spaceports, its sequel Timing, and the work-in-progress provisionally called The Authentication Key, I deliberately did not fix a future date. It’s far enough ahead of now that artificial intelligence is genuinely personal and relational – sufficiently far ahead that it is entirely normal for a human investigator to be partnered long-term on an equal basis with an AI persona. None of the present clutch of virtual assistants have any chance at all of this, and my guess is that we are talking many generations of software development before this could happen. It’s also far enough ahead that there are colonies in many locations – certainly out as far as the moons of Saturn, and I am thinking about a few “listening post” settlements further out (watch this space – the stories aren’t written yet!). However, I hadn’t really thought in terms of a million colonists on Mars, and it may well be that, as happens so often in science fiction, real events might overtake my scenario a lot quicker than I thought likely.

Back with Musk’s proposal, one obvious consequence of the whole reuse idea is that the cost per person of getting there drops hugely. This buy-in figure is typically quoted as something like $10 billion. But the SpaceX plan drops this down to around $20,000 – cheaper than the average house price in the UK. I wonder how many people, given the chance, would sell up their belongings here in exchange for a fresh start on another planet?

I was wondering what image to finish with, and then came across this NASA/JPL picture of the Mars Curiosity Rover as seen from the Mars Orbiter (the little blue dot roughly in the middle)… a fitting display of the largeness of the planet compared to what we have sent there so far.

Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)
Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)

Birds of intelligence

Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)
Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)

I often think about – and blog about – machine intelligence, both its current state and future possibilities. But artificial intelligence is only one small field of study in a very large and open-ended terrain. News articles on the topic of possible extraterrestrial intelligence are relatively common, even though we have not yet detected anything that can confidently be ascribed to alien sources. Closer to home, we still don’t really understand the spectrum of human intelligence in all its different manifestations, including emotional and social astuteness as well as problem solving and pattern matching.

To add to that, I’ve been reading a fascinating book exploring the various kinds of intelligence seen in the bird world – The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. Perhaps many of us have watched videos of tool-using corvids such as the New Caledonian crows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbSu2PXOTOc), or grey parrots demonstrating feats of speech and language comprehension going way beyond simple repetition. But avian intelligence goes well beyond these exploits, which we instantly relate to because they mirror human acts and occupations.

For a long time it was thought that since birds have no cerebral cortex, they were necessarily incapable of reasoning and abstract thought. The cortex appears in the tree of life after mammals and birds parted company. But recently it has become clear that birds simply use a different organ in their brain – the dorsal ventricular ridge, which in fact develops from the same part of the embryonic brain in a bird, that the cortex does in a mammal. The way that neurons cluster, connect, and participate in learning is the same in a bird brain as a mammal. Basically, both the birds and the mammals had to adapt to new circumstances after the natural disaster that killed off the dinosaurs – and they did so using remarkably similar strategies. The different biological frame of the two families disguises many places where a common solution has emerged.

What has this to do with writing? Well, birds can be routinely found in my science fiction stories – I assume that at minimum the more adaptable ones would find ways to survive as we spread out beyond Earth. It’s interesting to speculate which ones will accompany us.

Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale
Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale

This post is far too short to describe in any detail all the various ways in which birds display intelligence. If you want an overview of that, I recommend the book! But in brief, birds show their intelligence in a variety of ways, just like humans do. There are huge differences between species – corvids are good at problem solving, sparrows and members of the tit family are excellent at group dynamics, chickadees can remember and accurately mimic hundreds of sounds, Arctic terns are prodigiously good at navigation, herons spend considerable time and effort training their young in the art of catching fish. And so on. We tend to notice the exploits of birds which most resemble our own – like crows and parrots – but it’s always worth taking a step back to question our own blind spots. Even the birds we often dismiss as particularly stupid, often have some particular faculty at which they excel.

But as well as variation between species, individual birds of the same kind differ in particular ways. One is bolder, another more cautious. One solves particular problems much more easily than his or her siblings. Again, not very different from human beings.

Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)
Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)

It’s a sobering thought. Along with a handful of animals, a few birds have found their way into folklore. Odin had his ravens. Several Egyptian and Indian deities have bird emblems or companions. Hawks and eagles have frequently being used as symbols, though more often for their martial prowess than their wits. But by and large, we have rather looked down on birds, especially in the last century or so, imagining that their behaviour was driven purely by instinct rather than rationality. With the cumulative weight of evidence that has emerged over the last few decades, ancient anecdotal tales are metamorphosing into a consistent picture.

So while we’re trying to find intelligence out elsewhere in the galaxy, or to build it with our own hardware and software, let’s also give a thought for the surprisingly clever and adaptable creatures who already share our environment.

As for play? The final video is of a snowboarding crow in Russia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dWw9GLcOeA)

Some thoughts on The Expanse

The Expanse Series 1 - poster (IMDB)
The Expanse Series 1 – poster (IMDB)

Last weekend I watched the first episode in the Netflix series The Expanse. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, since it’s a rare example of a science fiction story set in the moderately near future, when humanity has begun colonising parts of the solar system out to the asteroid belt. In it, people have not invented anything truly extraordinary like warp drive or matter transporters, nor discovered aliens and the like. Travel between the various settlements – the moon, Mars, and the asteroid Ceres in particular – is slow, and you have to think carefully about the consequences of a planned trip or course correction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

To that extent, it’s broadly the same as the world I have imagined in Far from the Spaceports and the follow-up books. The differences arise mostly, I think, because of the need to have a long TV series with cliff-hangers at roughly hourly intervals. Solar system society is much more militarised than I imagine, and is also split into warring factions.

So the Earth-moon system, under the control of a more aggressive UN, is at odds with Mars, which wants self-rule and has already tooled up for war. The inhabitants of Ceres and elsewhere in the asteroid belt appear to be living a kind of slave existence controlled by both Earth and Mars. This control appears to be exercised largely through throttling the supply of air and water, threatening to cut it off if the voices of dissent get too strong. As I’ve blogged before, this kind of economic domination would have seemed credible a few years back, but available evidence indicates that water can be found just about anywhere in the solar system that we might choose to go. If future Earthlings try to economically dominate the other planets and moons, water would be a singularly bad resource to pick!

That said, the first episode flowed well, with three major plot strands which I suspect will start to become entangled at some stage. I found several things encouraging about the presentation. For one thing, problems of distance, speed, and inertia are real problems that aren’t just magicked away. Moving in low gravity was presented better than I’ve seen in most other programmes. Bodily adaptations to low gravity make sense, as does the awfulness of having to survive on Earth for a person brought up in microgravity.

Sparrow on Ceres, episode 1, The Expanse (Netflix)
Sparrow on Ceres, episode 1, The Expanse (Netflix)

I was particularly chuffed to see that the show’s presenters included bird life within the habitat on Ceres! Not the lively and personable parakeets of Far from the Spaceports, but the humble sparrow cheerfully making its own changes and learning to fly in low-g.

The Expanse shares a problem with a great many modern series, especially those coming across the Atlantic. The dialogue is spoken very quickly and quietly, and you feel you could easily be missing important clues. Along with that, many of the sets are gloomy to the point of frustration (gloomy in the obvious sense, quite apart from any metaphorical one). The screen writers are obviously aware of this, as they have one character asking why it is that when humans cane out into the darkness, they didn’t bring more light with them!

But worth watching, and I shall be following the series over the next few weeks. It’s also based on a series of books, and I’ll be following up on them as well to see similarities and differences… first impressions are that the books are easier to follow than the TV series…

Cover - Leviathan Wakes, The Expanse #1 (Goodreads)
Cover – Leviathan Wakes, The Expanse #1 (Goodreads)

Language and pronunciation

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

I’ve been thinking these last few days, once again, about language and pronunciation. This was triggered by working on some more Alexa skills to do with my books. For those who don’t know, I have such things already in place for Half Sick of Shadows, Far from the Spaceports, and Timing. That leaves the Bronze Age series set in Kephrath, in the hill country of Canaan. And here I ran into a problem. Alexa does pretty well with contemporary names – I did have a bit of difficulty with getting her to pronounce “Mitnash” correctly, but solved that simply by changing the spelling of the text I supplied. If instead of Mitnash I wrote Mitt-nash, the text-to-speech engine had enough clues to work out what I meant.

So far so good, but you can only go part of the way down that road. You can’t keep fiddling around with weird spellings just to trick the code into doing what you want. Equally, it’s hardly reasonable to suppose that the Alexa coding team would have considered how to pronounce ancient Canaanite or Egyptian names. Sure enough the difficulties multiplied with the older books. Even “Kephrath” came out rather mangled, and things went downhill from there.
Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So I took a step back, did some investigation, and found that you can define the pronunciation of unusual words by using symbols from the phonetic alphabet. Instead of trying to guess how Alexa might pronounce Giybon, or Makty-Rasut, or Ikaret, I can simply work out what symbols I need for the consonants and vowels, and provide these details in a specific format. Instead of Mitnash, I write mɪt.næʃ. Ikaret becomes ˈIk.æ.ˌɹɛt.

So that solved the immediate problem, and over the next few days my Alexa skills for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us will be going live. Being slightly greedy about such things, of course I now want more! Ideally I want the ability to set up a pronunciation dictionary, so that I can just set up a list of standard pronunciations that Alexa can tap into at need – rather like having a custom list of words for a spelling checker. Basically, I want to be able to teach Alexa how to pronounce new words that aren’t in the out-of-the-box setup. I suspect that such a thing is not too far away, since I can hardly be the only person to come across this. In just about every specialised area of interest there are words which aren’t part of everyday speech.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

But also, this brought me into contact with the perennial issue of UK and US pronunciation. Sure, a particular phonetic symbol means whatever it means, but the examples of typical words vary considerably. As a Brit, I just don’t pronounce some words the same as my American friends, so there has to be a bit of educated guesswork going into deciding what sound I’m hoping for. Of course it’s considerably more complicated than just two nations – within those two there are also large numbers of regional and cultural shifts. And of course there are plenty of countries which use English but sound quite different to either “standard British” or “standard American”.

That’s for some future, yet to be invented, dialect-aware Alexa! Right now it’s enough to code for two variations, and rely on the fact that the standard forms are recognisable enough to get by. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to insert some extra tags into dialogue in order to get one character’s speech as – say – Cumbrian, and another as from Somerset.

Bugs, faults, and writing

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Today’s blog looks at bugs – the little things in a system that can go so very wrong. But before that – and entirely unrelated – I should mention that Half Sick of Shadows is now available in paperback form as well as Kindle. You can find the paperback at Amazon UK link, Amazon US link, and every other Amazon worldwide site you favour. So whichever format you prefer, it’s there for you.

So, bugs. In my day job I have to constantly think about what can go wrong with a system, in both small and large ways. No software developer starts out intending to write a bug – they appear, as if by magic, in systems that had been considered thoroughly planned out and implemented. This is just as true of hacking software, viruses and the like, as it is of what you might call positively motivated programs. It’s ironic really – snippets of code designed to take advantage of flaws in regular software are themselves traced and blocked because of their own flaws.

Cover - I, Robot (Goodreads)
Cover – I, Robot (Goodreads)

But back to the practice of QA – finding the problems and faults in a system thought to be correct. You could liken it, without too much of a stretch, to the process of writing. Authors take a situation, or a relationship, or a society, and find the unexpected weak points in it. Isaac Asimov was particularly adept at doing this in his I, Robot series of stories. At the outset he postulated three simple guidelines which all his robots had to follow – guidelines which rapidly caught on with much wider audiences as the “Three Laws of Robotics”. These three laws seemed entirely foolproof, but proved themselves to be a fertile ground for storytelling as he came up with one logical contradiction after another!

But it’s not just in coding software that bugs appear. Wagon wheels used to fall off axles, and I am told that the root cause was that the design was simply not very good. Road layouts change, and end up causing more delays than they resolve. Mugs and jugs spill drink as you try to pour, despite tens of thousands of years of practice making them. And I guess we have all come across “Friday afternoon” cars, tools, cooking pans and so on.

1947 bug found and taped to the engineering logbook (Wikipedia)
1947 bug found and taped to the engineering logbook (Wikipedia)

Bugs can be introduced in lots of places. Somebody thinks they’ve thought up a cool design, but they didn’t consider several important features. Somebody thinks they’ve adequately explained how to turn a design into a real thing, but their explanation is missing a vital step or two – how many of us have foundered upon this while assembling flat-pack furniture? Somebody reads a perfectly clear explanation, but skips over bits which they think they don’t need. Somebody doesn’t quite have the right tool, or the right level of skill, and ploughs on with whatever they have. Somebody realises that a rare combination of factors – what we call an edge case, or corner case – has not been covered in the design, and makes a guess how it should be tackled rather than going back to the designer. Somebody adds a new feature, but in doing so breaks existing functionality which used to work. Somebody makes a commercial decision to release a product before it’s actually ready (as a techie, I find this one particularly frustrating!)

And then you get to actual users. So many systems would work really well if it wasn’t for end-users! People will insist on using the gadget in ways that were never anticipated, or trying out combinations of things that were never thought about. A feature originally intended for use in one way gets pressed into service for something entirely different. People don’t provide input data in the way they’re supposed to, or they don’t stick to the guidelines about how the system is intended to work – and very few of us read the guidelines in the first place!

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

All of which have direct analogies in writing. Some of my books are indeed focused on software, and in particular the murky business of exploiting software for purposes of fraud. That world is full of flaws and failures, of the misuse of systems in both accidental and deliberate ways. But any book – past, present or future – is much the same. A historical novel might explore how a battle is lost because of miscommunication, human failings, or simply bad timing. Poor judgement leads to stories in any age. Friction in human relationships is a perennial field of study. So the two worlds I move in, of working life and leisure, are not really so far apart.

Now, engineering systems, including software engineering – have codes and guidelines intended to identify bugs at an early stage, before they get into the real world of users. The more critical the system, the more stringent the testing. If you write a mobile phone game, the testing threshold is very low! If you write software that controls an aircraft in flight, you have to satisfy all kinds of regulatory tests to show that your product is fit for purpose. But it’s a fair bet that any system at all has bugs in it, just waiting to pop out at an inopportune moment.

As regards writing, you could liken editing to the process of QA. The editor aims to spot slips in the writing – whether simply spelling and grammar, or else more subtle issues of style or viewpoint – and highlight them before the book reaches the general public. We all know that editing varies hugely, whoever carries it out. A friend of mine has recently been disappointed by the poor quality of editing by a professional firm – they didn’t find anywhere near all the bugs that were present, and seem to have introduced a few of their own in the process. But just as no software system can honestly claim to be bug-free, I dare say that no book is entirely without flaw of one kind or another.

Life elsewhere – for real and in fiction

Artist's impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)
Artist’s impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)

A few days ago there was an international conference held at Stanford University, at which dozens of scientists gathered to discuss how current instruments might be fine-tuned to scour nearby planetary systems for the signs of life. This in itself is a huge step forward from the situation in my teens. Back then, although people were still landing on the moon, probes to explore other planets were somewhat hit and miss, and the only thing we could do about other planetary systems was speculate. I remember earnest debates about the probability that planets might be reasonably common, but solid information was totally lacking.

Three recently confirmed planets - artist's impression (NASA/Caltech)
Three recently confirmed planets – artist’s impression (NASA/Caltech)

Then in 1992 the first planet outside our solar system was confirmed, by means of the small variations in light as it moved periodically between us and its star. Such planets are now called exoplanets, and known ones range in size from smaller than Earth, to much larger than Jupiter. The count has continued to climb, and we now recognise around 3500 of them, with another 1000 or so candidates being evaluated. The optimistic estimates of the past were correct – it seems that planets are everywhere. The search has steadily refined, and has now moved from the basic question of “are there any planets?”, through to the more subtle issues of “what are they like?” and “could anything live there?” Some are (in stellar terms) very close, including at least one circling Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us.

Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)
Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)

Science fiction writers have swayed in both directions. EE (Doc) Smith was lavish in his depiction of extraterrestrial life, especially in his Lensman series in which multitudes of planets teemed with intelligent life forms of huge variety. Asimov, on the other hand, assumed a galaxy which had planets for sure, but with essentially no life other than humans. I have read that this was because John Campbell, the editor of the magazine he contributed to – Astounding Science Fiction – was hostile to the idea for both scientific and literary reasons. Be that as it may, Asimov painted an empty universe throughout his life, and in his extensive writings hardly ever touched on the chance of meeting alien life.

In general, authors have tried to think across the whole spectrum of alien response. Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud described a life form which was scarcely even aware that planetary life was possible. Solaris (by Stanislaw Lem, spawning two films) was based around a sentient ocean, and the rather unpredictable responses of people encountering it.

Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

Well known first-contact films have, as a rule, dwelt on the possibility that aliens would be hostile. Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Predator, and the sundry Alien films have all supposed that our dealings with extraterrestrial life would be violent and difficult. It is a lineage that goes back to HG Wells and War of the Worlds. Arrival is a recent counterexample, where the hostility was in the minds of us humans rather than the newcomers. Star Wars set a trend for wild diversity, though it is striking that humanoid life forms tend to be in charge!

Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)
Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)

Television series, with the need for ongoing plotlines, have been more varied. Star Trek again assumed that we would find lots of variety, and even the original series explored the possibility of silicon-based life. Alien species here might be friendly, hostile, or indifferent, and you never knew what to expect. Other series have followed this pattern, steadily eroding (for the most part) the idea that humanoids are automatically the best).

Meanwhile, the quest for what is actually out there continues. Nothing has been found yet which would unequivocally indicate life exists outside our solar system: what we can say is that the preconditions for it are very abundant.

Half Sick of Shadows and a giveaway…

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Tomorrow (May 1st 2017) is the release date for the Kindle version of Half Sick of Shadows, to be followed by the paperback version in a couple of weeks once the final details are sorted out.

For reference, here are the preorder links, which should still continue to redirect to the final purchase links as soon as the book goes live!

Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

And to celebrate the release, I am running an Amazon reduced price offer on all my previous books, science fiction and historical fiction alike, timed to start on May 1st and run until May 8th. So you can stock up for the reduced cot of 99p / 99c for all of these. Links are:

Far from the Spaceports:

Timing (Far from the Spaceports 2)

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Scenes from a Life

The Flame Before Us

Enjoy the whole experience!

 

King Arthur and the north – part 2

Today’s blog about the link between King Arthur and Cumbria looks at his death, and the mysterious circumstances of the Lady of the Lake. But first, a link between a figure who was definitely real, and the Arthurian tales – the Matter of England, as it has been called.

Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon
Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon

For this, you have to walk a little way up from the southernmost tip of Ullswater, from the villages of Glenridding or Patterdale. Follow what is now the Coast to Coast walk up the long valley until you get to Grisedale Tarn, in the saddle point between the summits of Fairfield and Dolly Wagon. From here, if you wanted, you could drop down again into Grasmere. And here, according to rumour, Dunmail, the last British king of the region and possibly the whole country, ordered his crown to be flung into the tarn rather than fall into the hands of his victorious enemies (see an earlier post I wrote all about this). When the time is right, just like Arthur, he and his men will reclaim the crown and return to England’s help./ Now, Dunmail (probably) died around 975 AD, a few hundred years after the (probable) time of Arthur, but this shows that the connection was firmly in people’s minds.

Lady of the Lake on Ullswater
Lady of the Lake on Ullswater

Returning back down the Grisedale valley to Ullswater I found, to my surprise, there is a belief that this was the Lake from which Arthur’s sword came. Now, once again this part of the overall story had always been linked in my mind to the south. But not by everyone, apparently. One of the Ullswater passenger steamers is, in fact, called The Lady of the Lake to commemorate this. But how old is the tradition?

Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale
Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale

Like so many other things about these events, written evidence is comparatively late and almost certainly cannot be relied upon. We have to just look at possibilities.

King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)
King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)

Indeed, The historian Michael Wood went on record to the effect that the original stories “surprisingly, do not take us to the South West or to Wales, but to Cumbria, southern Scotland, and the ancient kingdom of Rheged, around the Solway”. Arthur’s final battle – at Camlann or Camboglanna  – has been variously placed in Cornwall, near Cader Idris in Wales, or near Carlisle – if we follow the norther trail, then the Roman fort of Birdoswald is a very good candidate. Those who watched the 2004 version of King Arthur may remember the whole northern setting. Several other events from Arthur’s life can be credibly located along the Roman Wall, and if he really was mortally wounded here, then a retreat down to Ullswater is feasible. Carlisle to Pooley Bridge, the nearest point of Ullswater, is only about 20 miles.

I must admit that back in the days when I was committed to the southern theory, I could never reconcile the two mental images this last episode conjures up. One is of a moorland battle, with Arthur gazing round at bodies strewn among heather and gorse. The other is of the lakeshore where the sword was finally given back. Down south there are comparatively few places where these images could be reconciled. But a battle near the old wall, followed by a retreat to Ullswater, makes much more sense.

Water, mist and hills...
Water, mist and hills…

The setting is undoubtedly atmospheric, especially of a morning when mists hover over the waters, with the mountain peaks rising darkly above. When you’re there, it’s actually quite easy to imagine the Lady’s arm emerging from the waters, or Sir Bedivere standing on the shoreline, sword in hand, torn between obedience and desire. I could go along with that.

The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)
The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)

What of his resting place? Again there is plenty of variety in the tradition to choose from. You have the romantic vision of him that artists often pick, in which he is carried away in a barge, tended to by queens. But there are other options. And according to one of these, Arthur, and possibly a selection of his followers, ended up in caves below Blencathra, also called Saddleback.

Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies
Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies

Blencathra is north east of Keswick, and only about 8 or 9 miles from the closest part of Ullswater. And it’s a comparatively easy 8 or 9 miles, across open land not particularly broken up by hills and valleys. It’s also an exceptionally bleak area to cross in the wrong sort of weather conditions. Now I have to admit I have never climbed Blencathra in all my many visits to the region – it’s a bit shapeless at its summit, overlooked by the rather more interesting Skiddaw. And part of it – Sharp Edge – is one of the most hazardous locations of the region, resulting in more deaths, injuries and mountain rescue call-outs than anywhere else.  For a different and much more upbeat view, real mountaineers such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonnington have said it is one of their favourite climbs. Either way, some say that this is where Arthur rests.

There are lots of competing stories and interpretations, but for me the whole process has been one of realisation that the north-west has a very good claim to Arthur.

Half Sick of Shadows – “final” manuscripts submitted

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Over the weekend I worked on both Kindle and paperback versions of Half Sick of Shadows and have queued up what I think are the final versions of both. Kindle release day is May 1st, and I have a window of only a couple more days to make changes before it is frozen ready for deployment. As for the paperback version, a proof copy should be on its way to me very shortly, and, all being well, that will go live not long after the ebook.

Meanwhile, preorder links are at:

There are also a couple of other ways you can get a Half Sick of Shadows fix:

Alexa Half Sick of Shadows logo
Alexa Half Sick of Shadows logo

On Alexa: enable the Alexa skill for Half Sick of Shadows on the UK or US Alexa stores – listen to extracts and hear about the book directly.

Or on Issuu:

And finally, here is the latest version of the blurb (which may change yet again over the next few days):


Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

King Arthur and the north – part 1

Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki - By Martin Kraft - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16639627)
Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki)

Being brought up in the south of England, I had always assumed that King Arthur was basically a southerner. After all, there was Tintagel, Glastonbury, even Winchester, though I knew from an early age that the round table hanging in the castle there had no real connection with him (dendrochronology has set a date around 1275). If I thought about the north at all with reference to Arthur, it was only that maybe he’d gone up there once or twice to trounce some band of malcontents.

But then, rather later, I discovered a strong Welsh connection, and my perspective started to shift a little. I found out that more places, over most of the country, had a claim to Arthurian material, and the southern homeland idea got seriously knocked.

Of course, Arthur is a national symbol, irrespective of any historical reality, so it is natural that associations would be nationwide. And it’s clear that some suggested links are wildly speculative, presumably made by hopeful locals wanting to be attached somehow to the person of the king. But not all of them can be dismissed so quickly.

Daniel Defoe's memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington
Daniel Defoe’s memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington

I’m going to talk in this post and the next about a few links up in Cumbria. Until recently the Lake District had been completely off my Arthurian map, but no longer. But calling it The Lake District brings to mind quiet walks by placid waters, and this is only half of the story of the region. The names Cumbria or Rheged evoke a much more robust image. Until comparatively recently, the area was better known for its rugged and apparently impenetrable mountains, than its placid waters. In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote that it was “bounded by a chain of almost unpassable mountains which, in the language of the country, are called fells“. So what better place could there be to symbolise the wild unconquered parts of the land?

Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)
Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)

One of the two easy routes in to the wild heart of the region is from the Eden Valley, via Penrith (the other is up north from Kendal along the shores of Windermere). And indeed, signs of Arthurian connections begin in the Eden Valley. A few miles south and east of Penrith is Pendragon Castle, built, according to legend, by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. Allegedly Merlin tried to alter the course of the River Eden to make a moat, but his powers were insufficient, and the river stayed where it was. Perhaps with a little more historical footing, Uther is said to have died there after some of his Saxon enemies poisoned the well.

King Arthur's Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)
King Arthur’s Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)

Closer to Penrith is the Neolithic henge known as King Arthur’s Table. Of course the monument itself is vastly older than any probable time of Arthur – probably about 2500 years older. In its day, and long after, it would have been a stunning sight – it is some 90m across, originally with two entrances though one has been obliterated by modern buildings and a road. I can easily imagine a post-Roman leader stopping by to establish some link with ancestral glories. Much later, the site was linked explicitly to Arthur when it was believed that the circular space was used for jousting. In fact we have no idea what the original purpose was, but the area has several henges within a small area, so was presumably a significant location to our remote ancestors (the second henge in the old engraving is long since lost, but nearby Mayburgh Henge still remains).

1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki - Museum of Wales - By John Parker - This image is available from the National Library of WalesYou can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47585043)
1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki – Museum of Wales)

After that, move a few miles south-west to Ullswater, arriving first at Pooley Bridge. It’s an easier and more obvious route to follow into the hills than today’s A66, although the trail along the 10km of the lake ends in a series of abrupt and dramatic valley ends. Ullswater is one of the longest and deepest of the Cumbrian lakes, and has its own set of monster-in-the-deep tales, reported from early times through to modern visitors. But let’s stick reasonably close to Arthur.

Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above
Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above

At the northern end of the lake, not far from Pooley Bridge, is Tristamont, or Trestamount, shown on many maps as Hodgson Hill. Local legend has it that this was the burial place of Tristan. Now most of the Arthurian stories present Tristan as a Cornishman by birth (born of Elizabeth to Meliodas, king of the lost land of Lyonesse), but linguistically the name can be linked to Old Welsh, and so directly to the Cumbric language. So a connection with the north-west is far from impossible. The idea of an actual castle, not just a grave, goes back to the antiquarian Rev Machell, who in the 1630s described walls and fortifications here. Now, although it is true that many standing stones and ancient walls in the region have been robbed for building, modern archaeologists are very sceptical that Machell recorded anything more than natural deposits of glacial rock. Under the right conditions, these can indeed look artificial. About the only definite sign of human construction is a ditch around the east side of this hill.

Aira Force (Wiki)
Aira Force (Wiki)

From medieval times – much later than any original King Arthur, though broadly consistent with his reimagining in courtly chivalric terms – we have the tale of Sir Eglamore and his fiancee Emma, probably originating from somewhere around the 13th century. They lived near the waterfall at Aira Force, but the knight was absent on the Crusades for a very long time. Returning unexpectedly, he startled Emma as she was sleep-walking, so that she slipped down the waterfall to her death. Eglamore lived out his days as a hermit beside the falls. It’s a very Arthurian tale, even if not directly linked to the tradition.

So that’s got some of the peripheral details out of the way – next time I’ll be looking at the central details surrounding Arthur’s death and the Lady of the Lake…

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)
Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)

Writing, ancient and modern