Category Archives: Science fiction

A research snippet

I thought today I’d share some research I have been doing for my WIP science fiction book, The Liminal Zone.

Full moon (NASA/JPL)
Full moon (NASA/JPL)

For various plot reasons I needed to know the answer to the following problem. Suppose you were standing on the surface of Pluto’s moon Charon, looking up at Pluto, fully lit by the sun… how bright would that be compared to looking up at the full moon from Earth?

This depends on a few factors:

  1. How bright is Pluto compared to our Moon?
  2. How big are Pluto and Charon compared to Earth and the Moon?
  3. What is the separation between Pluto and Charon compared to that between Earth and Moon?
  4. How much light from the sun falls on Pluto or Charon compared to Earth and Moon?

The relationship between these various factors boil down to a fairly simple equation – comparing everything to the full moon brightness, which is fairly familiar to us, you have to:

  1. Scale up by the ratio of intrinsic reflectivity of the two bodies (called the albedo)
  2. Scale up by the ratio of the apparent area of sky covered by the two bodies
  3. Scale down by the square of the relative distance from the sun.

The apparent area can be calculated relatively easily knowing the radius of the body in question and the distance apart.

At this point you start looking up the raw figures from any of several science sites (a handy list follows below).

Earthrise from lunar orbit (NASA/JPL)
Earthrise from lunar orbit (NASA/JPL)

Let’s first think about the simpler problem of how bright a “Full Earth” is as seen from the Moon. The Earth is, on average, 2.5 times as reflective as the Moon (that’s averaging over cloudy and clear skies, land and water, etc), and the area of sky it covers is about 14 times that of the Moon. So a Full Earth as seen from the Moon is about 35 times as bright as the Full Moon as seen from Earth. Quite a sight.

Charon from New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/JPL)
Charon from New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/JPL)

Let’s move out to Pluto, and imagine we are standing looking up at a “Full Charon”. Charon is brighter than the Earth, is much smaller, much closer to Pluto than our Moon is to us, and much much further away from the sun (forty times further on average).

When you put all those figures together you find that the apparent diameter of Charon in Pluto’s sky is nearly eight times that of our Moon, so nearly sixty times the apparent area. Scale up for the extra brightness and down for the distance from the sun, and you find that Charon has about 1/6 of the brightness of our full moon. Probably still just enough to cast shadows.

Pluto from New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/JPL)
Pluto from New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/JPL)

And finally, looking up at a “Full Pluto” from Charon. Pluto is about twice the size of Charon so about four times the area. By way of comparison, that means Pluto would nicely fit inside either the top or bottom half of the constellation Orion – between belt and shoulders, or belt and feet. Pluto is also brighter than Charon. Put that all together and you find that Pluto’s full light is about two thirds that of a full moon here.

I found this quite a remarkable fact when I crunched the numbers. Go all the way out from our Earth to the furthest of the standard nine planets, and the experience of standing on Charon looking up at Pluto is almost the same – in terms of brightness – as standing here looking up at the Moon. A useful comparison for my character, who is doing just that.

Facts and figures for the curious…
Albedo values (average)
  • Moon 0.12
  • Earth 0.3
  • Charon 0.45
  • Pluto 0.6
Radius values
  • Moon 1737 km
  • Earth 6371 km
  • Charon 606 km
  • Pluto 1187 km
Distances from planet to moon
  • Earth-Moon distance 384,400 km
  • Pluto-Charon distance 18,384 km
Apparent angular size
  • Moon from Earth 0.5 degrees
  • Earth from Moon 1.9 deg
  • Charon from Pluto 3.8 deg
  • Pluto from Charon 7.4 deg




Mostly about YouTube

Just a short post today to highlight a YouTube video based around one of the Polly conversations from Timing that I have been talking about recently. This one is of Mitnash, Slate, Parvati and Chandrika talking on board Parvati’s spaceship, The Parakeet, en route to Phobos. The subject of conversation is the recent wreck of Selif’s ship on Tean, one of the smaller asteroids in the Scilly isles group…

The link is:

While we’re in YouTube, here is the link to the conversation with Alexa about Timing…

It’s slow work, but gradually all these various conversations and readings will get added to YouTube and other video sharing sites.

More about Polly… and Pluto besides

Today’s blog is mainly about the mp3 conversation extracts from Timing, which I talked about last week. And right up front here are links to my favourite two…

  • On board Rydal’s ship, the Heron…
  • On board Parvati’s ship, the Parakeet…


While talking about Timing, it seems a good idea to remind everyone about a recent review which captured neatly a great deal of what  was trying to convey in the story: “a story that provides questions as well as answers, thrill and satisfaction, and an adventure that can’t be beat“.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks they’ll be uploaded to YouTube, but for now they are just audio links included below and on the appropriate blog page. You’ll find more about this below. In passing, there’s a small prize available for the first person who correctly spots what’s wrong with the voice selection for Chandrika! Also, and unrelated to that, you’ll hear that not all of the voices are equally successful. I shall continue to tweak them, so hopefully the quality will steadily improve.

But before that, NASA just released two YouTube videos to celebrate the two year anniversary of when the New Horizons probe was at nearest approach to Pluto and Charon. They have turned the collection of images and other telemetry into flyby simulations of the dwarf planet and its moon, as though you were manoeuvring over them. Both the colours and the vertical heights of surface features have been exaggerated so you can get a better sense of what you are seeing, but that aside, it’s as close as most of us will get to personally experiencing these places.

  • Pluto:

  • Charon:

OK, back to Polly. As well as specifying which of several different voices you want, you can give Polly some metadata about the sentence to help generate correct pronunciation. Last week I talked about getting proper nouns correct, like Mitnash. But in English you also get lots of words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently – homonyms. The one which I ran into was “minute”, which can either be a unit of time (min-nit) or something very small (my-newt). Another problem case I found was “produce” – was I expecting the noun form (prod-yuce) or the verb (pro-deuce)?

In all such cases, Polly tries to guess from context which you mean, but sometimes guesses wrong. Happily you can simply add some metadata to say which you want. Sometimes this is simply a matter of adding in a tag saying “I want the noun”. Other times you can say which of several alternate senses of the word you want, and simply check the underlying list until you find the right one. And if all else fails, there’s always the option of spelling it out phonetically…



More about AI and voice technology

A couple of weeks ago I went to a day event put on by Amazon showcasing their web technologies. My own main interests were – naturally – in the areas of AI and voice, but there was plenty there if instead you were into security, or databases, or the so-called “internet of things”.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for Alexa, and perhaps will also know about the range of Alexa skills I have been developing (if you’re interested, go to the UK or the US sites). So I thought I’d go a little bit more into both Alexa and the two building blocks which support Alexa – Lex for language comprehension, and Polly for text-to-speech generation.

Alexa does not in any substantial sense live inside your Amazon Echo or Dot – that simply provides the equivalent of your ears and mouth. Insofar as the phrase is appropriate, Alexa lives in the cloud, interacting with you by means of specific convenient devices. Indeed, Amazon are already moving the focus away from particular pieces of hardware, towards being able to access the technology from a very wide range of devices including web pages, phones, cars, your Kindle, and so on. When you interact with Alexa, the flow of information looks a bit like this (ignoring extra bits and pieces to do with security and such like).

Alexa information flows (simplified)
Alexa information flows (simplified)

And if you tease that apart a little bit then this is roughly how Lex and Polly fit in.

Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)
Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)


So for today I want to look a bit more at the two “gateway” parts of the jigsaw – Lex and Polly. Lex is there to sort out what it is you want to happen – your intent – given what it is you said. Of course, given the newness of the system, every so often Lex gets it wrong. What entertains me is not so much those occasions when you get misunderstood, but the extremity of some people’s reaction to this. Human listeners make mistakes just like software ones do, but in some circles each and every failure case of Lex is paraded as showing that the technology is inherently flawed. In reality, it is simply under development. It will improve, but I don’t expect that it will ever get to 100% perfection, any more than people will.

Anyway, let’s suppose that Lex has correctly interpreted your intent. Then all kinds of things may happen behind the scenes, from simple list lookups through to complex analysis and decision-making. The details of that are up to the particular skill, and I’m not going to talk about that.

Instead, let’s see what happens on the way back to the user. The skill as a whole has decided on some spoken response. At the current state of the art, that response is almost certainly defined by the coder as a block of text, though one can imagine that in the future, a more intelligent and autonomous Alexa might decide for herself how to frame a reply. But however generated, that body of text has to be transformed into a stream of spoken words – and that is Polly’s job.

A standard Echo or Dot is set up to produce just one voice. There is a certain amount of configurability – pitch can be raised or lowered, the speed of speech altered, or the pronunciation of unusual words defined. But basically Alexa has a single voice when you use one of the dedicated gadgets to access her. But Polly has a lot more – currently 48 voices (18 male and 30 female), in 23 languages. Moreover, you can require that the speaker language and the written language differ, and so mimic a French person speaking English. Which is great if what you want to do is read out a section of a book, using different voices for the dialogue.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

That’s just what I have been doing over the last couple of days, using Timing (Far from the Spaceports Book 2) as a test-bed. The results aren’t quite ready for this week, but hopefully by next week you can enjoy some snippets. Of course, I rapidly found that even 48 voices are not enough to do what you want. There is a shortage of some languages – in particular Middle Eastern and Asian voices are largely absent – but more will be added in time. One of the great things about Polly (speaking as a coder) is that switching between different voices is very easy, and adding in customised pronunciation is a breeze using a phonetic alphabet. Which is just as well. Polly does pretty well on “normal” words, but celestial bodies such as Phobos and Ceres are not, it seems, considered part of a normal vocabulary! Even the name Mitnash needed some coaxing to get it sounding how I wanted.

The world of Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the in preparation Authentication Key) is one where the production of high quality and emotionally sensitive speech by artificial intelligences (personas in the books) taken for granted. At present we are a very long way from that – Alexa is a very remote ancestor of Slate, if you like – but it’s nice to see the start of something emerging around us.

Friday June 30th was International Asteroid Day!

Artist's impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)

And no, I hadn’t realised this myself until a couple of days before… but NASA and others around the world had a day’s focus on asteroids. Now, to be sure most of that focus was looking at the thorny question of Near Earth Objects, both asteroids and comets, and what we might be able to do if one was on a collision course.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

But it seemed to me that this was as good a time as any to celebrate my fictional Scilly Isle asteroids, as described in Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the work in progress provisionally called The Authentication Key). In those stories, human colonies have been established on some of the asteroids, and indeed on sundry planets and moons. These settlements have gone a little beyond mining stations and are now places that people call home. A scenario well worth remembering on International Asteroid Day!

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

While on the subject of books, some lovely reviews for Half Sick of Shadows have been coming in.

Hoover Reviews said:
“The inner turmoil of The Lady, as she struggles with the Mirror to gain access to the people she comes in contact with, drives the tale as the Mirror cautions her time and again about the dangers involved.  The conclusion of the tale, though a heart rending scene, is also one of hope as The Lady finally finds out who she is.”

The Review said:
“Half Sick of Shadows is in a genre all its own, a historical fantasy with some science fiction elements and healthy dose of mystery, it is absolutely unique and a literary sensation. Beautifully written, with an interesting storyline and wonderful imagery, it is in a realm of its own – just like the Lady of Shalott… It truly is mesmerising.”

Find out for yourself at or

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

Or chat about the book with Alexa by enabling the skill at the UK or US stores.

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 ( credit SpaceX)
SpaceX booster stage returning to land ( 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 (, 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 (

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.

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.