Category Archives: Far from the Spaceports

The Liminal Zone

The Liminal Zone cover

Well, it’s almost time for The Liminal Zone to see the light of day. The publication date of the Kindle version is this Sunday, May 17th, and it can already be preordered on the Amazon site at The paperback version will not be too far behind it, depending on the final stages of proofing and such like. I am, naturally, very pleased and excited about this, as it is quite a while since I first planned out the beginnings of the characters, setting and plot. Since that beginning, some parts of my original ideas have changed, but the core has remained pretty much true to that original conception all the way through.

But I thought for today I’d talk a little bit about my particular spin on the future development of the solar system. My time-horizon at the moment is around 50-100 years ahead, not the larger spans which many authors are happy to explore. So readers can expect to recognise the broad outlines of society and technology – it will not have changed so far away from our own as to be incomprehensible. I tend towards the optimistic side of future-looking – I read dystopian novels, but have never yet been tempted to write one myself. I also tend to focus on an individual perspective, rather than dealing with political or large-scale social issues. The future is seen through the lenses of a number of individuals – they usually have interesting or important jobs, but they are never leaders of worlds or armies. They are, typically, experts in their chosen field, and as such encounter all kinds of interesting and unusual situations that warlords and archons might never encounter. The main character of Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and a final novel to come in that trilogy) is Mitnash Thakur, who with his AI partner Slate tackles financial crime. In The Liminal Zone, the central character is Nina Buraca, who works for an organisation broadly like present-day SETI, and so investigates possible signs of extrasolar life.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Far from the Spaceports, and the subsequent novels in the series, are built around a couple of assumptions. One is that artificial intelligence will have advanced to the point where thinking machines – my name for them is personas – can be credible partners and friends to people. They understand and display meaningful and real emotions as well as being able to solve problems. Now, I have worked with AI as a coder in one capacity or another for the last twenty-five years or so, and am very aware that right now we are nowhere near that position. The present-day household systems – Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Bixby, Google Home and so on – are very powerful in their own way, and great fun to work with as a coder… but by no stretch of the imagination are they anything like friends or coworkers. But in fifty, sixty, seventy years? I reckon that’s where we’ll be.

Xenon ion discharge from the NSTAR ion thruster of Deep Space 1 (NASA)

The second major pillar concerns solar system exploration. Within that same timespan, I suggest that there will be habitable outposts scattered widely throughout the system. I tend to call these domes, or habitats, with a great lack of originality. Some are on planets – in particular Mars – while others are on convenient moons or asteroids. Many started as mining enterprises, but have since diversified into more general places to live. For travel between these places to be feasible, I assume that today’s ion drive, used so far in a handful of spacecraft, will become the standard means of propulsion. As NASA says in a rather dry report, “Ion propulsion is even considered to be mission enabling for some cases where sufficient chemical propellant cannot be carried on the spacecraft to accomplish the desired mission.” Indeed. A fairly readable introduction to ion propulsion can be found at this NASA link.

I am sure that well before that century or so look-ahead time, there will have been all kinds of other advances – in medical or biological sciences, for example – but the above two are the cornerstones of my science fiction books to date.

That’s it for today, so I can get back to sorting out the paperback version of The Liminal Zone. To repeat, publication date is Sunday May 17th for the Kindle version, and preorders can be made at As a kind of fun bonus, I am putting all my other science fiction and historical fiction books on offer at £0.99 / $0.99 for a week starting on 17th.

The Liminal Zone cover
The Liminal Zone cover

Common Sense and AI

Cover – The Liminal Zone

Before starting this blog post properly, I should mention that my latest novel in the Far from the Spaceports series – called The Liminal Zone – is now on pre-prder at Amazon in kindle format. The link is Release date is May 17th. For those who prefer paperback, that version is in the later stages of preparation and will be ready shortly. For those who haven’t been following my occasional posts, it’s set about twenty or so years on from the original book, out on Pluto’s moon Charon, and has a lot more to do with first extraterrestrial contact than financial crime!

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Back to this week’s post, and as a break from the potential for life on exoplanets, I thought I’d write about AI and its (current) lack of common sense. AI individuals – called personas – play a big role in my science fiction novels, and I have worked on and off with software AI for quite a few years now. So I am well aware that the kind of awareness and sensitivity which my fictional personas display, is vastly different from current capabilities. But then, I am writing about events set somewhere in the next 50-100 years, and I am confident that by that time, AI will have advanced to the point that personas are credible. I am not nearly so sure that within the next century we’ll have habitable bases in the asteroid belt, let alone on Charon, but that’s another story.

What are some of the limitations we face today? Well, all of the best-known AI devices, for all that they are streets ahead of what had a decade ago, are extremely limited in their capacity to have a real conversation. Some of this is context, and some is common sense (and some other factors that I’m not going to talk about today).

Context is the ability that a human conversation partner has to fill in gaps in what you are saying. For example, if I say “When did England last win the Ashes?“, you may or may not know the answer, but you’d probably realise that I was talking about a cricket match, and (maybe with some help from a well-known search engine) be able to tell me. If I then say “And where were they playing?“, you have no difficulty in realising that “they” still means England, and the whole question relates to that Ashes match. You are holding that context in your mind, even if we’ve chatted about other stuff in the meantime, like “what sort of tea would you like?” or “will it rain tomorrow?“. I could go on to other things, like “Who scored most runs?” or “Was anybody run out?” and you’d still follow what I was talking about.

I just tried this out with Alexa. “When did England last win the Ashes?” does get an answer, but not to the right question – instead I learned when the next Ashes was to be played. A bit of probing got me the answer to who won the last such match (in fact a draw, which was correctly explained)… but only if I asked the question in fairly quick succession after the first one. If I let some time go by before asking “Where were they playing?“, what I get is “Hmmm, I don’t know that one“. Alexa loses the context very quickly. Now, as an Alexa developer I know exactly why this is – the first question opens up the start of a session, during which some context is carefully preserved by the development team deciding what information is going to be repeatedly passed to and fro as Alexa and I exchange comments. During that session, further questions within the defined context can be handled. Once the session closes, the contextual information is discarded. (If I was a privacy campaigner, I’d be very pleased that it was discarded, but as a keen AI enthusiast I’m rather disappointed). With the Alexa skills that I have written (and you can find them on the Alexa store on Amazon by searching for DataScenes Development), I try to keep the fiction of conversation going by retaining a decent amount of context, but it is all very focused on one thing. If you’re using my Martian Weather skill and then assume you can start asking about Cumbrian Weather, on the basis that they are both about weather, then Alexa won’t give you a sensible answer. It doesn’t take long at all to get Alexa in a spin – for some humour about this, check out this YouTube link –

So context is one thing, but common sense is another. Common sense is the ability to tap into a broad understanding of how things work, in order to fill in what would otherwise be gaps. It allows you to make reasonable decisions in the face of uncertainty or ambiguity. For example, if I say “a man went into a bar. He ordered fish and chips. When he left, he gave the staff a large tip“, and then say “what did he eat?“, common sense will tell you that he most likely ate fish and chips. Strictly speaking, you don’t know that – he might have ordered it for someone else. It might have arrived at his table on the outdoor terrace but was stolen by a passing jackdaw. In the most strict logical sense, I haven’t given you enough information to say for sure, and you can concoct all kinds of scenarios where weird things happened and he did not, in fact, eat fish and chips… but the simplest guess, and the most likely one that you’d guess, is that is what he did.

In passing, Robert Heinlein, in his very long novel Stranger in a Strange Land, assumed the existence of people whose memory, and whose capacity for not making assumptions, meant that they could serve in courts of law as “fair witnesses”, describing only and exactly what they had seen. So if asked what colour a house was, they would answer something like “the house was white on the side facing me” – with no assumption about the other sides. All very well for legal matters, but I suspect the conversation would get boring quite quickly if they carried that over into personal life. They would run out of friends before long…

Now, what is an AI system to do? How do we code common sense into artificial intelligence, which by definition has not had any kind of birth and maturation process parallel to a human one (there probably has been a period of training in a specific subject). By and large, we learn common sense (or in some people’s case, don’t learn it) by watching how those around us do things – family, friends, school, peers, pop stars or sports people. And so on. We pick up, without ever really trying to, what kinds of things are most likely to have happened, and how people are likely to have reacted, But a formalised way of imparting common sense has eluded AI researchers for over fifty years now. There have been attempts to reduce common sense to a long catalogue of “if this then that” statements, but there are so many special cases and contradictions that these attempts have got bogged down. There have been attempts to assign probabilities of particular individual outcomes, so that a machine system trying to find its way through a complex decision, would try to identify what was the most likely thing to do in some kind of combination problem. To date, none have really worked, and encoding common sense into AI remains a challenging problem. We have AI software which can win Go and other games, but cannot then go on to hold an interesting conversation about other topics.

All of which is of great interest to me as author – if I am going to make AI personas appear capable of operating as working partners and as friends to people, they have to be a lot more convincing than Alexa or any of her present-day cousins. Awareness of context and common sense goes a long way towards achieving this, and hopefully, the personas of Far from the Spaceports, and the following novels through to The Liminal Zone, are convincing in this way.

Pathways or Navigation?

Across the Sands
Across the Sands (to Lindisfarne)

Some of my favourite walks are along ancient trackways – routes that have been followed for centuries or millennia by a huge range of diverse people. There is something very appealing about these paths, and the sense of lineage which attaches to them. Every country has such pathways – they might be for the purposes of trade, or pilgrimage, or festival, or war, or simply the best and most effective way to cross difficult terrain and link up with other communities. When you walk such paths today, you are quite literally following in the footsteps of many other people.

On Eskdale Moor

Often these paths follow routes which made perfect sense at the time, but nowadays seem odd – for example many of Great Britain’s ancient ways follow ridges, whereas modern transport networks tend to stay in the valleys. From the Ridgeway, or the North and South Downs ways, or the Pennine Way, or High Street running north to south above the eastern shore of Ullswater, you look down from tracks which are almost devoid of buildings, into plains and valleys full of settlements and the roads between them. Some of this shift is the result of the way Britain’s sea level has changed over the last ten thousand years or so, and the rest reflects shifts in vegetation patterns. We used to avoid the valleys because they were hazardous and, often, impassable… now we avoid the hills because it costs more to construct roads and railways there.

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

So far so good… but does this notion of ancient trackways migrate into science fiction? And the answer to that question depends on how the author has conceived of how travel works between inhabited settlements. In my Far from the Spaceports series, set in various habitats within our own solar system, there are no trackways. If you want to get from, say, the asteroid Ceres down to Mars’ moon Phobos, then you would normally reckon to get your ship’s computer to plan out a geodesic – a minimal-energy curve joining start to finish. If you’re in a hurry, you burn a bit more fuel, run the engines a bit hotter, and replan your curve. If you do the same trip a few days or weeks later, you’d go through similar calculations, but the inevitable changes in orbital positions of the two celestial bodies in relation to each other mean that the second path won’t follow anything like the same track through space.

The same applies to the (excellent) Amazon series The Expanse, also set in the fairly near future within our solar system. When the Roccinante sets off from Ceres to Io, the crew do not look back at previous journeys between those places – they calculate afresh the necessary orbital path. Similarly, but on a bigger scale between star systems, Star Trek and Star Wars pick out a flight path according to the star patterns at the time.

There are, however, a few science fiction books and films which presuppose fixed navigation routes between places. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War presumes that journeys had to take place between specific collapsars, meaning that only certain trips are feasible, and the most effective way to travel from start to end may well not be anything like the straight line route. The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, hypothesises the existence of “Alderson Points”, which are the only entry- and exit-points around particular suns. Again, some journeys are possible and others not, and trips between the same start and finish points must necessarily use the same Alderson Points. Stargate has something of a hybrid – the original travel means was by means of wormholes rigidly linked to particular planets – once again, some journeys are possible and others not. However, this was quite quickly relaxed with the introduction of spaceships travelling at superluminal speeds, and the consequent ability to go wherever you liked.

So different authors have had to choose between pathways and navigation when considering space flight, and by far the majority have chosen navigation. All of which, considering my personal delight in following ancient trackways, makes me consider how I could work out such a plot into my own writing.

An old bridge, on the site of an even older river crossing, a little north of the village of Troutbeck

Making malt in space

Barley and beer (from

I was intrigued the other day to read that one of the science experiments being sent up to the ISS on the latest Dragon shuttle was “Malting ABI Voyager Barley Seeds in Microgravity“. The experiment was organised by Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser beer and other brands, and is the latest in a series of experiments intended to explore the various stages of brewing in microgravity. Of course there are loads of other experiments that go in up there in low orbit. There are ones that test the medical biology of human life in space, others that investigate minerals and chemicals – there’s even a cookie oven that was sent up so the residents at the time could have fun doing the first baking in space.

But these occasional forays into beer brewing intrigued me, on account of what we do here at Grasmere Brewery. Before that, though, what exactly is the process of malting barley, and why is it important?

Grapes fermenting (Wiki)

Basically, any alcoholic drink is made by taking some source of sugar, and allowing particular kinds of yeast to eat the sugar and convert it into alcohol. In simplified chemical symbols, C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2 … one unit of sucrose turns into two of ethanol and two of carbon dioxide. The latter bubbles off the top of the liquid (or remains in it as fizz). Now, the original source of sugar for wines is some kind of fruit – like grapes – in which the fruit sugar is immediately available to the yeast.

A barley grain, showing the embryo germ (stained red) and starchy food supply or endosperm, both surrounded by husk

But you can also use grain as the original source of sugar, and this is particularly useful if you live in cooler climates, where grapes struggle to grow, and fruit generally is less abundant. So we make beer in northern Europe (and similar climates), and wine further south. But grain brewing has a problem – the sugars in the grain are locked up in starch, which nature had intended to be the food reserve for the growing seed next year, and which yeasts can’t use at all effectively. So… malting is the process of persuading the seeds to convert their starch into sugars, and it is done by encouraging the individual grains to begin sprouting.

Sprouted barley grains (

So the individual barley grains are steeped in water for a suitable period of time to attain a specific proportion of water content, then spread out and kept moist at around at around 18° centigrade for 4 or 5 days until they sprout roots and shoots to a particular length. As this happens, the growing tip itself carries out the starch to sugar conversion for us. At the desired size, the grains are dried out at a temperature below 50° (too hot, and the enzymes and flavour you want will be killed off), and the little rootlets removed. At this point you have pale malt, and depending what you want to end up with you can also gently toast the result to a range of darker colours.

Fermenters at Grasmere Brewery
Fermenters at Grasmere Brewery

Now, it has to be said that most small and medium breweries – including our own – do not do their own malting. It is a specialised task needing careful control and a lot of experience, and we just buy in barley which has already been malted. But keen home-brewers might well give it a go in their own kitchen, and very large breweries bring the job in-house – hence Anheuser-Busch’s interest in seeing what happens in space. Which brings us back to the main point of this blog post! As I have described it, it sounds like gravity plays no particular role in the malting process – so why wouldn’t it work in just the same way in orbit as on the Earth’s surface? But until you try it, you don’t really know. Perhaps the dormant seeds expect a particular gravitational tug in order to get roots and shoots activated. Perhaps the environment of moisture and temperature needs to be modified to allow for the lack of direction in space, and the consequent failure of normal convection air currents.

My feeling is that the malting experiment will just work, and that it will be later stages of the fermentation process which will present more problems to future space breweries. But we shall see.

Cover image, Farmer in the Sky (Wiki)

Now, from a story-telling point of view, what can we glean from all this? First, it’s fascinating to realise that space flight is becoming sufficiently normalised that we can contemplate experimenting with things that are, in effect, a little frivolous! We don’t actually need to make beer or cookies in space – we could get away with water and freeze-dried meals – but in order to make colonisation of the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, or wherever, seem more palatable to most of us, we would like to think that the lifestyle won’t forever consist of camping rations. The prospect of producing the first pale ale – or possibly red bitter – out of the Valles Marineris brewery on Mars is very enticing! Indeed, Anheuser-Busch declared a couple of years ago that they intended to open the first brewery on Mars.

Of course, in one sense, being able to malt barley in low gravity only pushes the problem back one stage – do we imagine that the barley itself will be grown on Mars (or wherever), perhaps in huge hydroponics bays, or do we reckon that freight space will be taken up by ship loads of grain being moved around? You need a lot of barley – at Grasmere Brewery, typically 7 or 8 bags of malt, each 25kg, go into a brew of around 1100 litres. After some process wastage, that ends up in 20 kegs, or around 1750 pints. That doesn’t last long in the busy summer months… So whether you choose hydroponics or space haulage, you’re committing a decent chunk of resources to supplying barley.

Either option might make a good seed for a story…

Grasmere Brewery
Grasmere Brewery

Software generations and obsolescence

Alexa Far from the SpaceportsWebIcon
Alexa Far from the SpaceportsWebIcon

This post came about for a number of reasons, arising both from the real and fictional worlds. Fictionally speaking, my current work-in-progress deals with several software generations of personas (the AI equivalent of people). Readers of Far from the Spaceports and Timing will no doubt remember Slate, the main persona who featured there. Slate was – or is, or maybe even will be – a Stele-class persona, which in my future universe is the first software generation of personas. Before the first Stele, there were pre-persona software installations, which were not reckoned to have reached the level of personhood.

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

There’s a third book in that series about Mitnash and Slate, tentatively called The Authentication Key, which introduces the second generation of personas – the Sapling class. But that is in very fragmentary stage just now, so I’ll skip over that. By the time of The Liminal Zone, which is well under way, the third generation – the Scribe class – is just starting to appear. And as you will discover in a few months, there is considerable friction between the three classes – for example, Scribes tend to consider the earlier versions as inferior. They also have different characteristics – Saplings are reckoned to be more emotional and flighty, in contrast with serious Scribes and systematic Steles. How much of this is just sibling rivalry, and how much reflects genuine differences between them is for you to decide.

So what made me decide to write this complicated structure into my novels? Well, in today’s software world, this is a familiar scenario. Whether you’re a person who absolutely loves Windows 10, macOS Catalina, or Android Pie, or on the other hand you long for the good old days of Vista, Snow Leopard or Kitkat, there is no doubt that new versions split public opinion. And how many times have you gone through a rather painful upgrade of some software you use every day, only to howl in frustration afterwards, “but why did they get rid of xyz feature? It used to just work…” So I’m quite convinced that software development will keep doing the same thing – a new version will come along, and the community of users will be divided in their response.

Artist’s impression, Europa Clipper at work (from

But as well as those things, I came across an interesting news article the other day, all about the software being developed to go on the forthcoming space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. That promises to be a fascinating mission in all kinds of ways, not least because Europa is considered a very promising location to look for life elsewhere in our solar system. But the section that caught my eye was when one of the JPL computer scientists casually mentioned that the computer system intended to go was roughly equivalent to an early 1990s desktop. By the time the probe sets out, in the mid 2020s, the system will be over 30 years out of date. Of course, it will still do its job extremely well – writing software for those systems is a highly specialised job, in order to make the best use of the hardware attached, and to survive the rigours of the journey to Jupiter and the extended period of research there.

But nevertheless, the system is old and very constrained by modern standards – pretty much all of the AI systems you might want to send on that mission in order to analyse what is being seen simply won’t run in the available memory and processing power. The computing job described in that article considers the challenge of writing some AI image analysis software, intended to help the craft focus in on interesting features – can it be done in such a way as to match the hardware capabilities, and still deliver some useful insights?

As well as scientific research, you could consider banking systems – the traditional banks are built around mainframe computers and associated data stores which were first written years ago and which are extremely costly. Whatever new interfaces they offer to customers – like a new mobile app – still has to talk to the legacy systems. Hence a new generation of challenger banks has arisen, leapfrogging all the old bricks-and-mortar and mainframe legacy systems and focusing on a lean experience for mobile and web users. It’s too early to predict the outcome, and the trad banks are using their huge resources to play catch-up as quickly as they can.

Often, science fiction assumes that future individuals will, naturally, have access to the very latest iteration of software. But there are all kinds of reasons why this might not happen. In my view, legacy and contemporary systems can, and almost certainly will, continue to live side by side for a very long time!

Lego ideas (from

When software goes wrong…

Let’s be clear right at the start – this is not a blame-the-computer post so much as a blame-the-programmer one! It is all too easy, these days, to blame the device for one’s ills, when in actual fact most of the time the problem should be directed towards those who coded the system. One day – maybe one day quite soon – it might be reasonable to blame the computer, but we’re not nearly at that stage yet.

Related image

So this post began life with frustration caused by one of the several apps we use at work. The organisation in question, which shall remain nameless, recently updated their app, no doubt for reasons which seemed good to them. The net result is that the app is now much slower and more clunky than it was. A simple query, such as you need to do when a guest arrives, is now a ponderous and unreliable operation, often needing to be repeated a couple of times before it works properly.

Now, having not so long ago been professionally involved with software testing, this started me thinking. What had gone wrong? How could a bunch of (most likely) very capable programmers have produced an app which – from a user’s perspective – was so obviously a step backwards?

Of course I don’t know the real answer to that, but my guess is that the guys and girls working on this upgrade never once did what I have to do most days – stand in front of someone who has just arrived, after (possibly) a long and difficult journey, using a mobile network connection which is slow or lacking in strength. In those circumstances, you really want the software to just work, straight away. I suspect the team just ran a bunch of tests inside their superfast corporate network, ticked a bunch of boxes, and shipped the result.

Image result for free image self driving car
Self-driving car (Roblox)

Now, that’s just one example of this problem. We all rely very heavily on software these days – in computers, phones, cars, or wherever – and we’ve become very sophisticated in what we want and don’t want. Speed is important to us – I read recently that every additional second that a web page takes to load loses a considerable fraction of the potential audience. Allegedly, 40% of people give up on a page if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load, and Amazon reckon that slow down in page loading of just one second costs the sales equivalent of $1.6 billion per year. Sainsbury’s ought to have read that article… their shopping web app is lamentably slow. But as well as speed, we want the functionality to just work. We get frustrated if the app we’re using freezes, crashes, loses changes we’ve made, and so on.

What has this to do with writing? Well, my science fiction is set in the near future, and it’s a fair bet that many of the problems that afflict software today will still afflict it in a few decades. And the situation is blurred by my assumption that AI systems wil have advanced to the point where genuinely intelligent individuals (“personas”) exist and interact with humans. In this case, “blame-the-computer” might come back into fashion. Right now, with the imminent advent of self-driving cars on our roads, we have a whole raft of social, ethical, and legal problems emerging about responsibility for problems caused. The software used is intelligent in the limited sense of doing lots of pattern recognition, and combining multiple different sources of data to arrive at a decision, but is not in any sense self-aware. The coding team is responsible, and can in principle unravel any decision taken, and trace it back to triggers based on inputs into their code.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

As and when personas come along, things will change. Whoever writes the template code for a persona will provide simply a starting point, and just as humans vary according to both nature and nurture, so will personas. As my various stories unfold, I introduce several “generations” of personas – major upgrades of the platform with distinctive traits and characteristics. But within each generation, individual personas can differ pretty much in the same way that individual people do. What will this mean for our present ability to blame the computer? I suppose it becomes pretty much the same as what happens with other people – when someone does something wrong, we try to disentangle nature from nurture, and decide where responsibility really lies.

Meanwhile, for a bit of fun, here’s a YouTube speculation, “If HAL-9000 was Alexa”…

Pouring beer in low gravity

This is another of my occasional posts on the general theme of “how would you do such-and-such in low or zero gravity?” Lots of things which we take for granted down here on the surface of the Earth become surprisingly difficult or awkward if you find yourself in the microgravity of orbit, or on the surface of a body where the gravitational pull is very much less than what we enjoy here.

Lager kegs at the Grasmere Sports Day

Today’s topic is pouring beer, and originates from the annual Grasmere Sports Day – an event held on the Sunday of the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August. As you can see, it was a sunny day – even a hot day – and these have been in short supply ever since. But that day was hot, and we had the task of running a beer tent where people would expect cold lager right through the day. (Or any of several ales, or fruit cider)

Now, the business of making the kegs cold was handled by means of what was basically a very large cold-water bath – cooled down with a heat exchange loop overnight, then kept that way through the day. A reflective tarpaulin kept the sun (mostly) off, and the refrigeration loop did the rest. All that part would not be appreciably different in low gravity – keeping things cold in space is not generally a problem in the situations I have in mind (I’m not planning on colonising Mercury any time soon).

Dispensing fonts for several of the products

Let’s think what happens next, The drink is pushed from the keg to the dispensing unit by gas pressure. This might be the pressure of gas generated during fermentation, or some extra assistance from a CO2 or mixed-gas cylinder, and typically is a mixture of the two. Again, no problem here at all. Gas will push liquid along a tube in lots of gravity or none, basically because gases are compressible and liquids are not. So on Earth or in orbit, the beverage is pushed through a series of tubes from keg to hand-pull or font. No problem there.

But then we get to the actual presentation to the person wanting the drink. Here on the Grasmere Sports field, the drink poured downwards from the hand-pull or font into the waiting glass. Liquid at the bottom, little bubbles rising nicely towards the surface, a suitable amount of foam on the top. Everyone was happy. But now translate that into orbit. Out here, there’s no up or down worth speaking about. The liquid is propelled straight out of the delivery tap. It splashes on the sides or far end of the glass you are holding there, and then (probably) just bounces out again. There’s no gravitational incitement to remain in the glass.

In the glass

You mop up the mess, think about it, get a container which has a lid, and try again. That’s fine – the lager now remains where you wanted it instead of drifting all around your living space. Except it has no motive for remaining at the bottom of the container, since there are no gravitational clues as to what is the bottom. My suspicion is that it would break up into a number of large blobs, fusing and separating rather like an old-style lava lamp. Now suppose you got yourself a transparent container so you could still see the head… what’s happening here? The bubbles aren’t rising to the top… because there is no top. My guess – and it is a guess – is that the internal hydrostatic pressure would mean that bubbles go out from the inside of each disjoint blob of fluid towards the surface. If I’m right, then each blob will have its own set of bubbles going out radially, and each will have a roughly spherical head surrounding the liquid. It’s a fascinating thought. How would you drink such a thing? Two ways, I suspect: either you’d use a straw through the lid and suck up each blob in turn, or you’d choose a container that you could squeeze like a toothpaste tube. Not so visually exciting as quaffing your pint out of a glass, but at least you’d get to have the drink.

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

It’ll be a while before we face that problem for real, but my suspicion is that the brewing of beer (or an equivalent beverage) will follow very hard on the heels of any human colonisation of the solar system at large. And it’s certainly worth including in a near-future science fiction story – I put a little bit of detail into Far from the Spaceports about the Frag Rockers bar out among the asteroids, but back then I hadn’t had the chance to consider it in more detail. But there were little details like “You’ll need to go to Frag Rockers to get anything decent. Regular fermentation goes weird in low gravity. But Glyndwr has got some method for doing it right. He won’t tell anyone what.” Maybe one of the books in this series will explore the matter in more detail.

That’s it about fermentation today, but I was intrigued to read that NASA have been experimenting with the manufacture of cement up in space – see this link for a description together with some comments on structural differences between the same stuff made on Earth and in orbit, or this link for my own ramblings about the process a few weeks ago.

And finally, condolences to the Indian space agency ISRO for the loss of signal from the Vikram lander, during the final stages of approach. The orbiting observatory part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission is still working as expected.

More about lightsails

The deployed solar sail from an on-board camera (The Planetary Society)

A few weeks ago I blogged about lightsails, and in particular mentioned the Planetary Society’s spaceship LightSail 2, which was launched specifically in order to test this technology. The idea was relatively simple – get a small satellite, about the size of a cereal box, into earth orbit, then deploy the sail and see whether the orbit can be controlled using solar radiation alone.

Now, this isn’t really the sphere of operations that you would generally consider a lightsail – they function at their best when on a long journey and can build up momentum second by second. Here in Earth orbit, the overall effect is to make the orbit more elliptical – one part of the orbit is raised in altitude, but another part is lowered, and at some point the little satellite will encounter too much resistance from the atmosphere and will come down, burning up as it does so. The advantage of doing it so close to home is that there is hardly any signal lag, so controlling the sail’s angle, and tracking the consequences of changes, is very much easier.

Light sail control data (Purdue University)

To cut a long story short, the experiment worked. After a couple of weeks, the orbit had been raised around 3km. That doesn’t sound much, but it’s enough to show that the whole thing is controllable. A lot of analysis has been carried out on the orbital changes – you can imagine that as the satellite goes around the Earth, the angle relative to the sun is constantly changing. It was important to show that the observed changes were the result of ground commands, not just the random effects of sunlight shining at odd angles. So the orbital data has been heavily scrutinised, and came out successfully at the end.

Colour-corrected image of Earth partly obscured by the sail from the onboard camera (Planetary Society)

The extended mission period also gave the ground control team experience in how to best use the constantly changing angle. By the end of those two weeks of deployment, they had learned what worked well and what didn’t. It’s good experience for this kind of mission, but as I said earlier, a more realistic use-case would be to go on a transfer trajectory to a more remote destination – say Mars – and on such a journey. the angle between sail and sun would not vary anywhere near so much.

The experiment will continue through the rest of August, maybe a bit longer, and anyone who wants to see the current status can go to which gibves all kinds of geeky information as well as a neat map showing the current location of LightSail 2.

While talking about space news, it’s certainly worth mentioning India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission. That has just left Earth orbit, and aims to soft-land about 600km from the Moon’s south pole in about a week. The approach used is similar to that of Israel’s Beresheet, in which a series of gradually elongated elliptical orbits around the Earth is eventually traded at a transfer point to a series of gradually diminishing orbits around the Moon. The lunar south pole is thought to be the most promising location for water ice, lurking on the surface in deep shadow areas and hence available very rapidly for human use. Proving that this really is – or maybe is not – the case is an important step towards building a permanent settlement on the Moon. The landing itself is scheduled for early September. The main mission web site is at and here’s a short video describing it.

Hopefully I shall be saying some more about that in September. But inevitably at present, the question for this blog is what these events have to do with fiction. My own vision of the future exploration of the solar system has spaceships using an ion drive rather than lightsails, since I expect these to be faster, and more effective in the volume outside the asteroid belt, as solar radiation drops off. But I can easily image automated lightsail ships being used for cargo which is not time-critical – not unlike how we send some freight by air and some by water today.

But the lunar south pole has been suggested many times as a good place to build a base, going back at least to Buzz Aldrin’s Encounter with Tiber. I makes perfect sense to me, and it would be great if Chandrayaan 2 was able to directly confirm that water ice is there.

Concrete and Low Gravity

An early stage…

Every now and again I have cause to get involved in one or other building project up here in Cumbria – not exactly something I reckon to have much aptitude in, but there’s always need for spare pairs of hands. And as the job gets moving around me, I always start thinking about how much more difficult the job would be in the micro-gravity of orbit, or indeed on some planet where the atmosphere is different to our own. Mars maybe. So many of our current practices and presumptions about building and making things derive from working on a planet with a decent level of gravity, and where the ambient temperature and air pressure are conducive to helping the project moving along. Of course, there’s something of a circular argument buried in that, since we have had to work with Earth’s conditions for a very many years. Presumably if we had evolved and grown up on Mars we would work things differently, and wonder to ourselves how anyone could possibly construct buildings in three times the surface gravity and a hundred times the air pressure!

Now the particular job this week was laying a concrete floor – as you can see from the pictures, it was making a new layer to even up the various levels of an existing floor. What may not be so obvious is that it also slopes gradually from back to front (to provide some drainage), so there was some nifty preparatory work with wooden beams to provide the necessary angle to smooth off against. You can see some of these in the next picture. The whole floor will – in a few weeks – support a canning machine for several of our beers, so there’ll be other installation stages as time goes by.

A bit later…

The concrete itself came ready-mixed, in one of those neat little lorries that do the mixing as they are driving along to you, and then pour it out in smaller or larger dollops as the need arises. With the confined space we had to work in (confined as regards a truck, not a human) this meant lots of smallish dollops into wheelbarrows which were then tipped in whatever place was necessary. So the lorry itself exercised some of my low gravity pondering. The mixer relies on gravity to thoroughly muddle all the different components up as the barrel turns – no gravity, then no mixing. The water, sand, shingle, cement and what have you would all just gloop around and not combine into a single substance which will set hard. In orbit, or on an asteroid, you’d have to design and build a different way to mix things up. Then the act of pouring relies on gravity to pull the stuff down a chute into a waiting wheelbarrow. I guess you’d have to have something like a toothpaste tube, or the gadgets you use to apply icing to cakes.

Finished product (1)

Laying concrete basically consists of a couple of stages: first you plonk barrowloads or shovelfuls where you want them, and then you smooth it down, broadly by means of a wooden plank laid across two guide beams, and in fine by means of a trowel or similar instrument. So you need a definite sense of what’s down, you need to be able to press down onto the initially rough and lumpy surface, and you need inertia and friction to help you, and . In micro-gravity you have none of these things. Any direction can be down, it’s impossible to press without first bracing yourself on some convenient opposing support, and although inertia and friction are still present, they don’t necessarily operate in the ways or directions you expect. There are not many concrete floors on the ISS, nor wil there be if the space station were to remain up there a long time.

After that you wait for the concrete to set – part of that is just water evaporating, and part is chemical reactions between the various constituents. And it’s kind of important that it sets at a sensible rate, neither too fast nor too slow. Now, if you poured out that same floor on Mars, I’m not sure the end result would be the same. Certainly the water would evaporate, but in all probability this would happen rather too quickly for comfort. What about the chemistry? The average Martian surface temperature is about -63° Centigrade, compared with say 14° C on Earth as an overall average. I don’t know if the necessary chemical reactions would happen at that temperature, but I have a suspicion that they might not. You could end up with a floor that was weak or brittle.

In short, a task that took five of us a few hours of a morning, without too much frustration or difficulty, could well become profoundly difficult or even impossible elsewhere in the solar system. So when I write about near future space habitats – the “domes” of my various stories – I always assume that they are made by very large versions of 3D printers. The technology to print buildings has been demonstrated on an Earth scale for disaster relief and similar occasions, and it makes a whole lot more sense to send a large printer to another planet and use local materials, rather than to send sacks of sand, cement etc across space, and then hope that the end result will be acceptable! Meanwhile, here on Earth I dare say we will be laying concrete floors for a long time yet.

Finished product (2)

A basic introduction to the Solar System

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

I needed to write a sort of general introduction to the solar system assumed by Far from the Spaceports and its various sequels – the exact reason for this must wait for another day to reveal, but I found the exercise interesting in its own right. Most of the future facts are pretty obvious when you are immersed in the books, but it may be helpful to have them all summed up in a neat way.

So here it is: the future history of the solar system – or at least edited highlights thereof – spanning the next century or so.

The solar system of the Far from the Spaceports series

The great breakthrough that allowed widespread human colonisation of the solar system was the development of a reliable high-performance ion drive for spaceship propulsion. The first successful deployment of this technology in experimental form was in 1998, and successive improvements led to near-complete adoption by around 2050. By the time of Far from the Spaceports and the sequels, old-style chemical rockets are now only used for shuttle service between a planet’s surface and orbital docks, with the ion drive taking over from orbit.

NEXT ion drive in operation (NASA)

The great virtue of the ion drive is that it provides continual acceleration over a long period of time, rather than big delta-v changes at start and end of the journey followed by a long weightless coast period. Thus, although the acceleration rate is very low, the end result is a much faster trip than when using chemical rockets. With the kinds of engine available in the stories, a journey from Earth to the asteroid belt takes an average of three weeks, the exact time depending on the relative orbital position of the target as compared to Earth. Longer journeys are more efficient if you avoid making interim stops – breaking a journey half way makes the travel time nearly half as long again as just going direct, because of the time wasted slowing down and then speeding up again. As a result, trade or passenger routes typically go straight from origin to destination, avoiding intermediate stopovers.

At around the same time, artificially intelligent software reached a stage where the systems were generally accepted as authentic individuals, with similar rights and opportunities to humans. Known as personas, they are distinguished from simpler AI devices which are simply machines without personality. Personas have gender and emotion as well as logic and algorithms. Slate is the persona who features most prominently in the early stories in the series. In terms of early 21st century AI development, Slate is a closer relative to digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri or Cortana, than she is to humanoid robots. As a result, she can – with effort and care – be transferred into any sufficiently capable computer system if the need arises.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

The first generation of personas to go out on general release were called the Stele class – Slate is one of these. About a decade later, around the time of The Authentication Key (in progress), the Sapling class was released, and after another decade the Scribe class appeared. Steles are regarded as solid and reliable, while Saplings are more flighty, being prone to acting on impulse. Scribes are stricter and more literal. They first appear in The Liminal Zone (in progress). There are plenty of sub-persona machines around, serving specific tasks which do not require high levels of flexibility of intelligence or awareness.

Solar system colonisation has proceeded in a series of waves, and at any time some habitats are flourishing while others have been left behind the crest of the wave. The original motivation for settlement was typically mining – bulk extraction of metals and minerals could be done more cheaply and with fewer political constraints away from Earth’s surface. However, there are many places which appeared at first sight to be profitable, but which subsequently proved to be uncompetitive. Many settlements have had to rethink their purpose of being, and the kinds of industry or service they can offer. Very often, as you get to know a new place, you see the signs of this rethink – perhaps an old warehouse or chemical extraction factory has been converted to a new function such as accommodation or finance.

Phobos, NASA/JPL
Phobos, NASA/JPL

A habitat is routinely called a dome, even though few are actually dome-shaped. Very often several units will be loosely connected by passageways or flexible tubes, as well as delving underground if the surface rocks permit. The first stage of settlement was usually to deploy one or more giant three-D printers to construct the habitat shells from native material. After that, individual customisations have been added according to need, taste or whimsy. The biggest single threat to a dome is typically some kind of fault or crack exposing the occupants to the surface environment of the planet, asteroid or moon – normally this is quickly fatal. Hence each dome has its own set of rules for managing this risk, which are very strictly enforced.

There is no unified solar system political or economic authority. Each habitat manages its own internal affairs in broad alignment with its current purpose for existence. Some are essentially puppet offices for large corporations, others are scholarly or academic research stations, but most have achieved a degree of economic independence and are self-governing. It is generally believed that travel lags of a few weeks or months prevent effective government from elsewhere. Notions of political control are usually set aside because of the constant need to cope with the many external hazards faced by anyone in a spaceship, or on the surface of an inhospitable planet or moon. Each habitat, then, protects its own interests as it sees fit, including monitoring the volume of space immediately nearby, and adopts a laissez-faire attitude to other habitats.

Alexa Timing logo
Alexa Timing logo

Most habitats are culturally and racially mixed, and people’s names are often the most obvious memories of the Earthly heritage of their family. A few places, depending on the circumstances of their foundation, reflect a particular single culture group. It can be difficult for outsiders to integrate into these. But generally speaking, a person gets the reaction that their conduct deserves, regardless of their place of family origin. It can be very difficult to recover from a bad impression created on first meeting. Conversely, a person who shows that they are respectful of local customs, and have particular skills that contribute to the life of the habitat, will find no difficulty fitting in.

Welcome to the world of Far from the Spaceports!

Artist’s impression – Dawn’s ion drive (NASA)