Category Archives: Science fiction

Emotions

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

In my science fiction stories, I write about artificial intelligences called personas. They are not androids, nor robots in the sense that most people recognise – they have no specialised body hardware, are not able to move around by themselves, and don’t look like imitation humans. They are basically – in today’s terminology – computers, but with a level of artificial intelligence substantially beyond what we are used to. Our current crop of virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and so on, are a good analogy – it’s the software running on them that matters, not the particular hardware form. They have a certain amount of built-in capability, and can also have custom talents (like Alexa skills) added on to customise them in an individual way. “My” Alexa is broadly the same as “yours”, in that both tap into the same data store for understanding language, but differs in detail because of the particular combination of extra skills you and I have enabled (in my case, there’s also a lot of trial development code installed). So there is a level of individuality, albeit at a very basic level. They are a step towards personas, but are several generations away from them.

Now, one of the main features that distinguishes personas from today’s AI software is an ability to recognise and appropriately respond to emotion – to empathise. (There’s a whole different topic to do with feeling emotion, which I’ll get back to another day). Machine understanding of emotion (often called Sentiment Analysis) is a subject of intense research at the moment, with possible applications ranging from monitoring drivers to alert about emotional states that would compromise road safety, through to medical contexts to provide early warning regarding patients who are in discomfort or pain. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is coming into use during recruitment, and to assess employees’ mood – and in both cases this could be without the subject knowing or consenting to the study. But correctly recognising emotion is a hard problem… and not just for machine learning.

From the article ‘Emotion Science Keeps Getting More Complicated. Can AI Keep Up? ‘ by Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere

Humans also often have problems recognising emotional context. Some people – by nature or training – can get pretty good at it, most people are kind of average, and some people have enormous difficulty understanding and responding to emotions – their own, often, as well as those of other people. There are certain stereotypes we have of this -the cold scientist, the bullish sportsman, the loud bore who dominates a conversation – and we probably all know people whose facility to handle emotions is at best weak. The adjacent picture is taken from an excellent article questioning whether machines will ever be able to detect and respond to emotion – is this man, at the wheel of his car, experiencing road rage, or is he pumped that the sports team he supports has just scored? It’s almost impossible to tell from a still picture.

From a human perspective, we need context – the few seconds running up to that specific image in which we can listen to the person’s words, and observe their various bodily clues to do with posture and so on. If instead of a still picture, I gave you a five second video, I suspect you could give a fairly accurate guess what the person was experiencing. Machine learning is following the same route. One article concerning modern research reads in part, “Automatic emotion recognition is a challenging task… it’s natural to simultaneously utilize audio and visual information“. Basically, the inputs to their system consist of a digitised version of the speech being heard, and four different video feeds focusing on different parts of the person’s face. All five inputs are then combined, and tuned in proprietary ways to focus on details which are sensitive to emotional content. At present, this model is said to do well with “obvious” feelings such as anger or happiness, and struggles with more weakly signalled feelings such as surprise, disgust and so on. But then, much the same is true of many people…

A schematic learning network (from www.neuroelectrics.com)

A fascinating – and unresolved – problem is whether emotions, and especially the physical signs of emotions, are universal human constants, or alternatively can only be defined in a cultural and historical context. Back in the 1970s, psychological work had concluded that emotions were shared in common across the world, but since then this has been called into question. The range of subjects used for the study was – it has been argued – been far too narrow. And when we look into past or future, the questions become more difficult and less answerable. Can we ever know whether people in, say, the Late Bronze Age experienced the same range of emotions as us? And expressed them with the same bodily features and movements? We can see that they used words like love, anger, fear, and so on, but was their inward experience the same as ours today? Personally I lean towards the camp that emotions are indeed universal, but the counter-arguments are persuasive. And if human emotions are mutable over space and time, what does that say about machine recognition of emotions, or even machine experience of emotions?

One way of exploring these issues is via games, and as I was writing this I came across a very early version of such a game. It is called The Vault, and is being prepared by Queen Mary University, London. In its current form it is hard to get the full picture, but it clearly involves a series of scenes from past, present and future. Some of the descriptive blurb reads “The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.” There is a demo trailer at the above link, which looks interesting but unfinished… I tried giving a direct link to Vimeo of this, but the token appears to expire after a while and the link fails. You can still get to the video via the link above.

Meanwhile, my personas will continue to respond to – and experience – emotions, while I wait for software developments to catch up with them! And, of course, continue to develop my own Alexa skills as a kind of remote ancestor to personas.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Future life in space

Two quick bits of space news this week that – all being well – could make their way into a story one day.

Prototype of steam-propelled space probe (University of Central Florida, via Independent.co.uk)

The first was an idea of powering space probes by steam. Now, at first read this sounds very retro, but it deserves some thought. In space, you can’t move along by means of steam pressure turning wheels – there is nothing against which to gain traction. Steam-propelled rockets work like any other rocket – something gets ejected at great speed in one direction, so as to accelerate the rocket in the opposite direction. The steam engine part of the probe is a means of converting the fuel supply into something that can be directed out of the thruster nozzle. The steam, heated as hot as possible to give a high nozzle exit temperature, is the propellant.

The cool thing about pushing steam out of the back, is that it comes from water, and in particular ice. And, as we have been discovering over the last few decades, water ice is extremely common throughout the solar system, and more widely through the universe. So as and when the steam-powered spaceship starts to run low on fuel, it can land on some promising object and collect some more ice. The fuel supply, while not strictly unlimited, is vastly common wherever we’re likely to go. As and when needed, solar panels or (further from the sun) a standard radioactive decay engine can give a boost, but the steam engine would do the grunt work of getting from one refueling station to the next.

Is there wine on Mars? (JPL/Caltech via livescience.com)

Secondly, pursuing my occasional theme of alcohol in space, I read about a firm from Georgia (the country, not the US state) that wants to develop grape varieties that would survive on Mars and, in due course, be convertible into decent wine. This would be a serious challenge, given the low air pressure, high carbon monoxide levels, and wide temperature swings of said planet. As a rough rule of thumb, the air at the Martian surface is about the same as at 20,000′ here on Earth. Apparently, white varieties are reckoned to be more adaptable than red, but I suspect that we are a little way away from resounding success here.

Other attempts to ensure that future space travellers will not have to go without booze include Budweiser sending barley seeds into space to identify the effect of microgravity on germination, steeping and kilning – three steps in the production of malt. See this link. Allegedly, also, a bottle of Scotch Whisky spent three years on the ISS before returning to Earth for analysis… the resulting taste was said to be disappointing. I hope the ISS crew got a few measures out of the bottle before sending it back down again.

That’s it for today, except to wonder again how each of these ideas could be storified. My own near-future science fiction books assume an advanced version of today’s ion drives for propelling spacecraft, but there’s no reason why steam propulsion might not appear as a previous experiment. As to wine in space, well I have already assumed that the problems of fermenting beer in microgravity have been resolved, so again this would have to be a retrospective view of historical developments. Basically, both of these innovations are set between today and my own future world. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they get sorted out in the next decade or two…

Some thoughts on poetry

Neolithic bone flute, China (Wiki)

I thought it was long overdue time that I wrote something on poetry – my historical fiction books lean heavily on poetry, and my various science fiction and fantasy books are regularly built around music and singing – something I reckon will forever be a part of human experience, wherever we end up living. Music has transformed itself many times over since our prehistoric forebears first accompanied their own voices on wind, string or percussion instruments. We have listened to and participated in music played solo or in groups, small and large.

The Muses (greekmythology.com)

But today I am writing about poetry, not music, though the two are very closely related – probably the topic of another blog sometime. Six of the nine Greek muses were explicitly involved with music and poetry, and the focus of the other three was on pursuits which depended heavily on them. In the myths, the muses were not just engaged in fun and celebration – they also turn up to defend their reputation and avenge themselves on mortals who presume to challenge their primacy.

When most people in the modern world think of poetry, we typically imagine lines of regular beats with some sort of rhyme scheme – either adjacent lines rhyming in an AA-BB pattern, or alternating lines sounding like AB-AB, or the looser version AB-CB. For example, the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, uses ABAB for the first four lines of each stanza, and AA-BB for the last four. At the casual end of the scale, Mary had a Little Lamb uses AB-CB. We all know that “real” poetry does not always adhere to these basic patterns, but if asked to come up with a rhyme on the spur of the moment, these basic schemes will probably come to mind.

Musicians from ancient Egypt (British Museum – Wiki)

Most of the earliest poetry that we have, however, is not built around rhyme, nor indeed around a regular pulse or metre. Instead, early poetry from Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed later all around the ancient near east and so also appearing in the Hebrew Bible, was built around the idea of parallelism. (Ages ago I wrote a post about how this pattern also turns up in the much more recent Finnish epic Kalevala) Pairs of lines expressed the same idea in different ways, without special regard for the exact number of syllables or metrical beats, or any rhyming pattern. Something like the start of the Ugaritic epic poem of king Keret:

The clan of Keret died out;
the house of the king was destroyed

Now the advantage of parallelism, from the point of view of other people trying to understand it, is that it is comparatively easy to translate. There will almost certainly be subtleties of the language, word plays and the like, which don’t translate, but the basics certainly do. But poets rapidly wanted to make their work richer and more complex. So variations of parallelism arose – words omitted or added in the basic couplets, changes of word order to invert the second line, triplet forms extending the basic pairs, and so on. The parallelism of words was enhanced by using alliteration of consonants to reinforce the connecting sounds.

Reproduction of an ancient Irish horn from Armagh (
http://www.ancientmusicireland.com)

So the stage was set for end-rhyme to make its appearance in poetry – the pattern that we are most used to today. You can look at end-rhyme as just another form of parallelism – but instead of the line endings being signalled by words with parallel meaning, something opposite is happening. The correspondence of rhyming words at the line ends makes us put them in parallel, and so establishes links between words which otherwise would remain separate in our minds. The more appropriately creative the rhyme, the more striking becomes the connection between words in our minds. William Blake’s Tyger has the following lines, provoking us to make connections between spears and tears

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

And again, poets play with our expectations of rhyme in order to jolt us into a different interpretation. Sometimes called a “censored rhyme”, it is often used to suggest politically subversive or sexually risque themes – the actual words themselves are typically innocent, but the expectation aroused in the listener is not. My favourite example is Sweet Violets… almost every line sets the listener up to expect a particular rhyming word, and then diverges away…

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture
On horses and chickens and eggs
And told her that she had such beautiful manners

That suited a girl of her charms
A girl that he wanted to take in his
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They could get married and raise lots of

Sweet violets
Sweeter than all the roses…

An authorised version of these songs (cover image – Caedmon Songs – see https://www.discogs.com/release/1039597)

This all has a lot to do with writing. Some authors want to include real poems in their books, as opposed to saying something along the lines of “then they sang a song”. So then you have to decide how your poem is to be structured in a formal sense, and whether you want that to mirror the conventions of the time of the setting. So a book set in the ancient near east – if it is to be authentic to its era – would not use rhyming couplets, but parallel ones. A story set in Anglo-Saxon times would use the conventions of Germanic poetry, built heavily around word alliteration and stock verbal images with little if any rhyme. A fantasy or science fiction book is free to build up its own conventions as to how poetry in that world is created – but would be enriched by making those fictional conventions fully integrated into the wider world-building . It’s a habit of thought that Tolkien was a master at – he had the advantage of being able to draw on a wide variety of early conventions of song and poetry, and he deployed these conventions so carefully that you can tell almost at first read of one of his poems, which of the various peoples of Middle Earth are in focus (see the Open Culture web site for some readings)

To close, here’s a video of ancient Irish music, found at http://www.ancientmusicireland.com. A wealth of information and live demonstrations, with (to my ears) odd resonances in the music of Bladerunner

Living on Someone else’s land

The finished item…

Many of you know that last week I was heavily involved in getting some refurbishment work done to a bar in Grasmere, Cumbria. It really did get finished on time, albeit needing a couple of long days and late nights. But I’m not going to blog about that. Nor – though I did consider it – an I going to blog about how pretty much every project pushes the envelope on its expected finishing time (even Gandalf apparently suffered from this, judging by his complaint in the film version of Lord of the Rings, “Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time”).

One of the jackdaws…

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that occupied my mind during several journeys from the bar back to our storage area in some former barns late at night. It is pretty dark in that part of Grasmere, and I didn’t bother with a torch or anything until I was actually poking around trying to find some small-but-essential gizmo to take back. And as I walked down the cul de sac which is Lake View Drive, across the lawn, and down the rough track to the barns, with empty fields on one side going down to the lake, the night was alive with all kinds of animal and bird noises. Of course we have herons and jackdaws as regular visitors – uninvited, but normally welcome – along with a bunch of regular garden birds. Buzzards drift overhead every so often. At this time of year the lake shore is full of geese, swelling the regular swan and duck population. And so on. These are all familiar.

Three badgers playing…

But as well as these, there are the nocturnal creatures that we share the land with, but don’t interact with very much. I’ve mentioned the badgers before, and right now we often get what look to me to be a group of juveniles playing – this night-camera picture shows them beside one of the apple trees, complete with protective fence. A few minutes later they all headed off in a group towards the barns. Maybe they wanted to sample the batch of lager we had just started off?

Why protect the apple trees? Well, that has to do with another of our nocturnal visitors – a small herd of deer. These are very much less welcome. On the night camera I have seen up to half a dozen at a time, led by a rather splendid looking stag. They have been steadily decimating a row of laurel bushes, which we don’t mind so much as they will bounce back, but also various bulbs and small plants which we want for the spring. According to local rumour, several of the local farmers are suffering rather more serious commercial loss from this little bunch.

One of the deer…

Anyway, all this set me thinking that we are only one of the occupants of this piece of the British landscape, and that deer, badgers, rabbits, herons and whatnot have in all likelihood been wandering around the area much longer than we humans have. And this has been true for most of human history. As we spread out, ages ago, from Africa and the Near East, we were perpetually coming into contact with the existing occupants of land which, to us, was unknown. We met predators and prey, and reacted accordingly. We met other hominids – Neanderthals , Denisovans, and others. Sometimes we settled peacefully and mated with them, other times we met in war. But until very recently, we knew that the land we moved across and settled in was not really our own – we were simply a recent arrival, joining others who had lived there for many years already. A lot of that sense of shared occupancy seems to me to have evaporated. We frequently assume these days that we are the sole – or at least the single most important – residents in any particular patch of the planet. That’s a big subject, and one for another day.

Turning now to writing, most novels set in the past should have this as part of the background. Different cultures at different times might express that idea differently – birds and beasts , angels and demons, selkies and spirits – but it should always be there. And it’s kind of regular stock in trade for fantasy literature.

Mars (NASA/JPL)

But, as usually happens, this propelled my thoughts forward into science fiction. How can this sense of shared living be captured in that medium? As and when we move out from this planet into the other worlds of the solar system, and potentially beyond, will we recover that sense of having to share the environment with others? This might, of course, be in the most overt and incontrovertible way – an unequivocal meeting with intelligent aliens. But it might also be something much less obvious, such as microbes living in the sub-surface oceans of some of the larger moons circling the outer planets – Titan, Europa and Enceladus for sure, Ganymede and Callisto possibly. Or maybe forms of bacterial life in underground salty lakes on Mars. Or some manifestation of life that as yet we don’t know how to recognise.

How will it be, I wonder, to recover an everyday sense that we are shared occupants of the universe, not solitary ones?

Preparing to build

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about aluminium smelting. Today’s topic is a little more prosaic, but historically has been a much more frequent part of building projects.

The various bits of wood – house beams in front, oak timbers behind

One part of remodelling the bar at The Good Sport is to replace the bar worktop. The old one was a hybrid affair with some chipboard and some stone – the new one is made of wood taken from various sources. There are former house timbers dating from some time in the mid 19th century. They’re very cool, not least for the history they have witnessed. Then there are frame support pieces made just from builders’ merchants supplies, probably pine or something similarly quick growing. But the best sections are two large pieces of oak, rescued by a local craftsman when the tree was felled. These are cut top to bottom along the trunk, so you cannot count the rings and find out how old they are – but my guess is that they considerably outdate the rest of the installation. (The top-to-bottom orientation means that the grain runs along the counter top).

But the thing I want to talk about today is not the age of the wood, but the preparation that has gone into it. The two pieces had been supplied to us reasonably smooth – but “reasonably smooth” menas “not smooth enough” when it’s a thing that people will be leaning on. So one of my jobs these last few days has been to turn “reasonably smooth” into “really smooth”.

One of the pieces of wood, together with the belt sander

Now, since this is 2019, I used a selection of power tools to effect this change, mostly a belt sander with a number of different grades of sandpaper. Even with that, it took a decent time to go over the top surface multiple times, working from coarser to finer passes. I was extremely happy with the result, but it also led me to consider how things might have been in the many ages of our world before power tools were invented. After all, sanding wood is an activity which lends itself to thinking about other things while you’re working away. How long, I mused, would this have taken me if I was doing it all by hand? And would the final result have been anything like so pleasing? After all, wood-smoothing is not something that I have done much of in my life to date, and I wouldn’t call myself especially skilled at it.

Swimming reindeer, c.13,000 years old (BBC)

Human history is full of exquisitely crafted objects, meeting needs somewhere between religion, art, and practical necessity. This swimming reindeer figure was made around 13,000 years ago – I don’t know how long it took the original artist to fashion it, but I’m guessing that it was rather longer than the time I put into smoothing two essentially flat pieces of wood. Not to mention the huge number of practice hours he or she had put in since childhood.

Now, I only smoothed one side of the wood – the pragmatic nature of today’s world means that I wasn’t motivated to do much to the hidden side except to make sure it was proof against various kinds of wood pests. But back in the day, if the kings or the priests felt it important to take just as much care on the hidden side as the visible one, then you would just have got on with it.

Which brings me to the future. There’s a developmental principle in some games – those in which the time frame of the game is spread out over many years – that items which are available only to the wealthy in one era get diffused more and more widely through the population as a whole as you go forward in time. I guess the standard example is computing power – back in the 1950s and 60s, computers could only be owned by large institutions or extremely wealthy individuals. Now we all have much more powerful machines we carry around in our pockets. Similarly for smooth bits of wood – once upon a time it took real skill and craft to create something smooth and shapely from a rough-hewn piece of timber. Nowadays anyone who wants can go out and buy power tools and achieve something similar by themselves (not necessarily with artistic flair, but certainly with polish).

The world’s first 3d-printed house (BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44709534)

Now, as and when we get to build colonies and habitats in various places around the solar system, my bet is that we will use 3d printing as our construction technique. After all, it’s way simpler and cheaper to ship out a large printer to wherever you’re going, and use that to construct tools, equipment, and habitat sections – much cheaper than paying for the fuel to send actual construction materials. That’s very cool, but unless the technology advances in aesthetic ways as well as practical ones, I can’t see 3d-printed building materials having a wood grain that can be sanded and then picked out with oil. On one level it doesn’t really matter – you’d prefer that your house on, say, the asteroid Ceres was airtight and warm, even if that meant not having a wood grain to look at. Or maybe we’ll have a printer add-on that will simulate the grain in whatever direction you want.

After preparation…

Ultima Thule

A very quick blog today, as I have been occupied all day in wood preparation (of which, more another day).

So this is to celebrate the safe passage of the New Horizons space probe past Ultima Thule, a small rock out beyond Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. The flyby – at some 44 kilometres per hour – happened around 5:30 am UK time on January 1st, when I suspect most of us were still in bed after the New Year’s Eve celebrations!

The journey from Earth (Johns Hopkins University)

So far all we have had back are a few low-resolution images on the final stages of approach, and a post-flyby signal confirming that the probe had survived. This survival was by no means guaranteed – nobody knew if Ultima Thule was accompanied by clouds of dust or smaller rocks, and hitting them at 44kph would have been fatal.

However, there is something like 7GB of data waiting to be sent home, all to be sent by a transmitter much less powered than the average light bulb, with each signal taking over 6 hours to get home. It’s rather extraordinary that we can pick up the data download at all, and at such a low data rate it will take the better part of two years to get the whole lot back safely.

New Horizons – until now – has been best known for the remarkable pictures of Pluto and Charon, which we enjoyed back in 2015. These have radically reshaped our views of these bodies, and vastly enriched our understanding of them. Not only that, but they inspired large parts of the setting of The Liminal Zone, which could not have existed in its present form without this additional knowledge.

Charon, from New Horizons (NASA/JPL)

So here by way of celebration is a short extract from The Liminal Zone, using geography that would have been pure guesswork before 2015.

In the approach vid, Charon was rapidly changing from a remote celestial body into a diversely coloured and textured terrain. From a bright point of light, to a disk which filled the sky. From a name, to a home, however temporary. She gazed intently at it, trying to fix the setting in her mind. The habitat was situated on the interface between the largely flat expanse of Vulcan Planum on one side, and rugged folds of hills alongside Serenity Chasma on the other. She had briefly skimmed the original surveyors’ reports; so far as she remembered, the location was a compromise between stability and ease of construction.

As yet, I have no plans to set a book out in the Kuiper Belt, but who knows what might happen when the full data set comes back?

Metal Working

Civilisation Box Art (Wiki)

Since I first discovered it – many years ago – I have loved the game of Civilisation. I was introduced to version 1 of the computer game by a work colleague, and since then have played various variants of both the computer and the board game. Of course there are all kinds of opinions about which is best, which I don’t propose to go into. But one of the key features was the technology tree – the very very long series of inventions and ideas you pursued in order to build new stuff and so develop your culture.

Now, one of the very early developments was Bronze Working (which allowed specific kinds of military units and civic wonders). This was a prerequisite for Iron Working and – after a very long time – Metallurgy.

The smelting fire
The smelting fire

So, what has this to do with today’s blog? Well, yesterday, as a small part of a sizeable remodel of The Good Sport bar, we had cause to do some invention ourselves. We weren’t working with Bronze or Iron, but rather Aluminium. Now, a purist will perhaps object that Aluminium is not on the Civ tech tree – at least, not any of the variants I have played – which is true. And also that we were not starting from bauxite or any other naturally occurring raw material, but rather from some handy spare aluminium sheets that were lying around. All that is true: nevertheless we did have to melt said stuff and refashion it for our own purposes.

Now, aluminium melts at just over 660° C, which is well above the temperature of a domestic oven, or camp fire. So our solution was an old beer keg, lined with cement to retain heat and equipped with an air inlet to one side. Inside was a charcoal fire, and a handy air compressor pushed air in through the tube to keep the charcoal burning fiercely. Aluminium was cut into small strips and put in a steel jug – steel having a much higher melting point. And then we waited, entirely unsure whether the whole thing was doomed to failure.

About to pour the liquid aluminium
About to pour the liquid aluminium

But as you can see, it all worked! Slowly but surely the aluminium melted into the rather fine puddle that you see in this picture. It would be nice to say that we had been totally confident in all this, but not so – we were as amazed as anyone when this happened. We felt, just for a few moments, like real discoverers. Yes, all the technical data about melting points is easy to obtain these days, and yes we had those handy aluminium sheets as starting point, but even so the sense of triumph when it turned into liquid was extraordinary!

Pouring the liquid aluminium
Pouring the liquid aluminium

So what did we do with our liquid aluminium? Well, here it is being poured into a surface hole in a piece of wood. Why that destination? Well, that will all become clear – hopefully – over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, this all set me thinking about metallurgy in general, and how it has affected human society. Of course Civilisation focuses on just a few things – military units that can now be built, particular buildings that facilitate further development, and “wonders” which enhance your prowess (ie score) and make your people happier. But in reality, metal working permeates every aspect of life.

We take it for granted now that a household object is made of whatever material is most suitable – metal, ceramic, fabric or whatever. We have whole fields of study concerning the various properties of these materials, such as their hardness, ability to transmit or suppress noise, colour, safety, electrical conductivity, and so on. But starting way back in the mists of time, and carrying on through all of our history until now, people have had to find these things out by trial and error. What were the properties of those shiny veins in rock layers? Why could I shape one metal easily and not another? Would my camp fire soften them? How must I change my camp fire so I can work with the more intransigent metals? How can my sword edge be sharper, or my armour tougher, or the wheels on my vehicle stronger? In a very small way, we felt something of the same exhilaration that our hugely distant ancestors must have felt, seeing copper melt for the first time, and be shaped into something new – something distinctly human.

Spacehounds of IPC cover (Wiki)

Looking ahead into the future, we generally assume that we will carry the ability to fashion metals (and other useful substances) with us wherever we go. But every so often you get stories where someone is stranded and has to build it up again. This was an especially popular theme in the 1930s and thereabouts – Spacehounds of IPC being a classic example. Our Hero, forced by circumstance onto an uninhabited moon (with breathable atmosphere) has to start from next to nothing except a small tool pack, and build his way up through small camp fires to blast furnaces and ultimately the ability to recharge the power banks on his derelict lifeboat. Until yesterday, I was totally sceptical about this storyline… but having turned an old keg, some charcoal, and a handy air compressor into something that could melt aluminium, I became slightly more convinced!

More of this another time: for now here is a final picture of the “forge” as it died down in the late evening. You can easily imagine us around it, feeling foolishly triumphant…

Around the camp fire
Around the camp fire

Laws, qualifications, and the drinking of alcohol

University of Cumbria at Barrow - where I took the course
University of Cumbria at Barrow – where I took the course

I heard today that I had passed the study element of a Personal Alcohol Licence, which (after I have gone through a police background check and a few other formalities) allows me to authorise the sale of alcohol in England and Wales. Not in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

Now, this is far from my most advanced academic qualification, but the intriguing thing about this one is that it legally entitles me to supervise – and therefore take legal responsibility for – the public sale of what is undoubtedly a kind of drug. Without the licence, I can work under someone else’s supervision, but cannot just set up and flog booze on my own account. With it, and subject to a bunch of other constraints, I can do just that.

You can imagine that a fair proportion of the material, and the final test, focused around UK law relating to drink. There are obvious things to do with the age of the drinker, but I also learned that it is a specific legal offence to sell alcohol to someone who (in the considered opinion of the seller) is already drunk. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel, I suppose. Most of the laws fit around common sense, though as with any body of legal material you are left a little perplexed as to why specific conditions were imposed.

Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)
Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)

Anyway, all this set me thinking about law and qualification. The government of the day, however it was decided, has for a very long time indeed decided that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the profits from various kind of sales – and alcohol has typically been way up the list. And of course where rulers try to enforce a ruler, some subjects will concoct cunning schemes to get around the additional expense – excise duty spawns groups of smugglers almost by definition. But you only risk smuggling goods where the financial equation makes sense – small, easily concealed items where the tax duty is high enough that you can pocket a decent cut for yourself, while still leaving the buyer feeling they have done very well out of the deal.

So customs duties, and the body of regulations which underpin them, have been around for millennia. And – typically – part of those regulations consists of ways to appoint specific individuals as those few who are allowed to make transactions. In days of old, one suspects that many of these appointments were based on nepotism or bribery… if you had the right connections, or could stump up enough starting cash, you could find yourself in a comfortable position and set up for life. Nowadays the process is rather more transparent, and the barriers to entry are very much lower.

The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)
The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)

But equally, things have been tightened up in other ways. A couple of hundred years ago, it was fairly common for ex servicemen to use their prize money, or sign-off pay, or whatever they had saved up, to buy a little inn somewhere, and make a tidy living brewing or distilling booze of widely varying quality, and plying locals with the results. (Any pub you find called the Marquis of Granby recalls charitable donations by this 18th century gentleman who donated money to wounded servicemen). Provided you could afford a small building and a few bits and pieces to do the fermentation, you could set yourself up, no questions asked. These days, you have to go through hoops like planning permission, health and safety, police, plus of course getting a premises licence. There are all kinds of reasons why an apparently sound business plan might be rejected by officialdom.

The ISS (NASA/JPL)
The ISS (NASA/JPL)

So that is looking back… but what about forwards? Right now the only human outpost we have away from the Earth is the ISS. It’s not very far away – about 400km above the surface of the Earth, less than the distance from one end of England to the other. And I don’t suppose that the occupants have much privacy or opportunity to set up fermentation or a distillery up there. Though I did hear today that Budweiser has funded one of the science experiments on board, seeking to improve strains of barley with increased resistance to environmental stress. So maybe next year someone wil fund a experiment to make beer up there and see how yeasts behave in microgravity!

Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo
Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo

But let’s assume that within the next couple of decades we have an outpost or two somewhere else – the Moon, say, or Mars, or even a privately operated space station. How likely is it that nobody will attempt to ferment fruit or vegetable juices? And whose laws will be applied to regulate such an operation? Now run the scenario on a few more years, into the solar system I imagine for Far from the Spaceports and its sequels. There are a decent number of scattered habitats, each separated from the others by at least days, often weeks, and sometimes months of travel time. It will, I suspect, become impossible to try to enforce some kind of uniform system of laws.

Alexa Timing logo
Alexa Timing logo

My guess is that each habitat will have its own local set of laws and customs – no doubt broadly consistent with each other, but differing in detail. Sure, you can send a message anywhere in the solar system within a day at most, but if you get a tip-off that the habitat on Charon is bootlegging some kind of moonshine drink that is not allowed on the Moon, it’s going to take your police three or four months to trek out there and investigate. Will they bother? In that kind of situation, I don’t think it is feasible to try to maintain a single unified system of laws and regulations. So now suppose I have trained for my personal alcohol licence here on Earth (which in fact I did), and then decide on a whim to travel out to Charon. Will a publican out there recognise my licence? Or will he or she make me study for a duplicate one, ending up with a signature of someone on Charon rather than Earth? Right now, in the present day, it is extraordinarily hard to transfer qualifications between countries in professions like teaching, nursing, psychotherapy, and so on – will things be any different when we’re scattered across a few dozen habitats? I suspect not, especially as my own new licence doesn’t even allow me to do stuff in Scotland!

All of which is why I like writing about that near-future band of time, when there is no Federation, no Galactic Empire, or whatever – only local enforcement of issues according to moral and social principles which makes sense to the occupants. I suspect the chief coordinating factor would be economic – if you felt that some particular habitat was doing things the wrong way, you wouldn’t trade with them. They would become isolated, and there’s nowhere in the solar system away from Earth that can actually be self-sufficient. Hence I write about economic and financial crime, as these are the things that seriously threaten lives and livelihoods.

Mars Insight lander and Elysium Planitia

A quick post today as I have been buried deep in coding web applications for Lake View Country House and its sister businesses. As an added bonus there will be an extract, this time from Timing.

Artist's impression, Insight on Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Insight on Mars (NASA/JPL)

First though, the NASA Mars Insight lander. This is well on its way to Mars, and is due to touch down on November 26th (at around 3pm Eastern Time, or 8pm UK time). Landing on Mars has traditionally been a hazardous affair, and something like half of all probes sent there have not done so successfully. But things have improved recently, so let’s hope all goes well on 26th.

Now, Insight has a couple of primary science targets, both relating to the interior of the planet. One instrument will measure heat flow under the surface, and another will detect seismic changes – earthquakes if you like, though perhaps Marsquakes might be a better word. The overall intention is to get a better idea of what Mars is like once you probe below the dusty surface. To that end, various drills will work their way several metres down below wherever the probe ends up landing.

The site area on Elysium Planitia chosen for landing (NASA/JPL)
The site area on Elysium Planitia chosen for landing (NASA/JPL)

But it was the landing place that particularly caught my eye – a flat plain called Elysium Planitia, roughly straddling the equator. This was chosen for scientific reasons – it is mostly flat and has a suitable kind of surface layer for the instruments to work well. But interestingly, Elysium Planitia features in Timing (Far from the Spaceports Book 2) as the site for a developed, and particularly lively, habitat.

In that book, Mit and Slate visit a couple of places on Mars, as well as its tiny moon Phobos. Their first target is a training college close to the mountain Olympus Mons, and from there they move across to Elysium Planitia in order to meet an old adversary… who claims now to be an ally. The two sites are in stark contrast – the training college is austere and frankly dull (though helpful for Mit and Slate in deducing what has been happening), but Elysium Planitia is exciting to the point of excess… Insight will have a very staid experience in comparison…


The quayside at Elysium Planitia was busy and bustling, and didn’t exactly feel safe. I kept all my pockets sealed shut, held my bag in front of me all the time, and tried to stay alert. Slate had promised to keep a eye out for anybody trying to infiltrate at a virtual level. I was used to crowds in London, but they were well-behaved, in which individuals knew where they were going, and made a habit of slipping past each other without interaction. And, as Slate kept reminding me, I had been away from that environment for a considerable time now, and the various habitats I had visited more recently were comparatively empty. I was out of practice.

Here, there was a lot of intrusion into personal space. Men and women jostled past each other, and there was a sensory bombardment on every side, offering all kinds of goods and services. Nothing was free, and the price of the more personal interactions was, literally, astronomical.

The habitat was much the biggest one I had been to, making even the south lunar pole settlement look small. I focused on threading my way through the hustle, following Slate’s internal prompts for some distance from the dock towards a quieter, cheaper row of guest houses. All I wanted – all that Elias would expense for – was an economical, no-frills hideaway. All being well, I would be back to Phobos soon.

The place I selected had no human greeters, just an automated checkin service. I wasn’t paying enough to warrant a real person’s presence. Out in space, Slate had sighed about the frequent partings our job required. I was much more basic in my needs, and this was my complaint. I particularly loathed the need to keep staying in dingy soulless rooms.

My heart sank slightly when the welcome screen spiralled brightly coloured words at me: “We’re Like Vegas Used To Be! Only In Space! And Better!!” But the process of getting access to the room was easy to follow, and it didn’t take long. You just had to focus away from the vivid ads which pressed in from the edge of the screen just as soon as the system had decided that I was an adult.

Once I had successfully navigated that, I was given access to the room. It was secure and reasonably comfortable, and it got me off the streets well before the really busy evening time. I had no particular desire to just go wandering round in a fit of exploration. There was going to be quite enough excitement just meeting Jocasta tomorrow.

 

Dawn, death, and ion drives

Dawn takes off, September 27th 2007 (KSC/NASA)
Dawn takes off, September 27th 2007 (KSC/NASA)

Last week, NASA’s Dawn space probe, which first launched back in 2007, finally ran out of fuel and has been declared dead. Regular readers will know that Dawn has been a great source of information and inspiration for me as I have been creating the future world of Far from the Spaceports, Timing, and the in-progress The Liminal Zone. So it seemed fitting to me to do a kind of tribute to Dawn here.

So here’s a timeline of key events:

  • September 2007 — Launch
  • February 2009 — Mars Gravity Assist
  • July 2011 — Vesta Arrival
  • September 2012 — Vesta Departure
  • March 2015 — Ceres Arrival
  • June 2016 — End of prime mission
  • July 2016 — Start of first extension
  • November 2017 — Start of second extension
  • November 2018 — No remaining fuel: mission ends

Enhanced colour image of Ceres (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Enhanced colour image of Ceres (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Of course, Dawn is not going anywhere – it will remain in its current orbit around Ceres for decades at least, until some combination of inevitable gravitational perturbations distorts that orbit enough that it eventually crashes into the surface. But there will be no more navigation from Dawn, no more course correction, no more photos or science information.

I want to talk a bit about Dawn’s ion drive, in the connection of storytelling, but if you want pictures and information about the mission findings, the best place to start is the NASA site, which has separate pages for Vesta and Ceres.

So, the ion drive. Most craft up to now have used chemical rockets – two or more chemicals are stored separately, then mixed to form a high-energy burst of propulsion. For example, the latest SpaceX SuperDraco engine uses the two liquids nitrogen tetroxide and Monomethylhydrazine. The net effect is that the spacecraft is pushed with high acceleration in a particular direction. After this engine burn, the craft coasts with no further propulsion for days or months, until it’s time for another correction. Astronauts in the craft have to endure short periods of high g-forces, followed by long periods of weightlessness. The engine burns have to be very precisely calculated for direction, force, and duration, so as to minimise the need for subsequent burns. Once the fuel is gone, it’s gone, and each burn takes a fair proportion of the fuel stores.

Falcon Heavy launch, February 6th 2018 (SpaceX via Wikipedia)
Falcon Heavy launch, February 6th 2018 (SpaceX via Wikipedia)

What does this mean for storytelling? Well, most of the journey is spent at zero acceleration, coasting towards your destination without burning fuel, and without any sense of up or down. It took the Apollo astronauts about three days to get from the Earth to the Moon (and the same back again, after doing stuff on the lunar surface). As and when SpaceX or whoever sends another rocket there, it will still take about three days – the time taken is a result of the coasting period without power, not the force of the engine. And because of the long zero-gravity sections, you need to be fairly well-trained to manage this.

SpaceX 'Starman' orbit (SpaceX Twitter feed)
SpaceX ‘Starman’ orbit (SpaceX Twitter feed)

Now consider a trip to Mars. In February of this year, SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy rocket, with payload of a Tesla car and suitable contents. It left Earth orbit and headed out on an orbit that goes out past Mars, but at a slight angle so that the two never intersect. Each orbit takes 557 days to complete, so at this point not even one has been finished. The payload – a Tesla car – passed by Mars orbit a few days ago, after about eight months.

The Hermes rocket from the film The Martian (http://the-martian.wikia.com)
The Hermes rocket from the film The Martian (http://the-martian.wikia.com)

Now, this rocket had not reserved enough fuel to slow down and enter Mars orbit – it was a vivid proof of concept for SpaceX, not a real attempt to land on the Red Planet. But basically, if a human crew does the same journey in the same rocket, it will take them about eight months to get there – eight months of zero gravity, unless rocket design changes to include a kind of pseudo-gravity produced by rotation, as in the Hermes spacecraft in The Martian.

Getting out into the solar system on chemical rockets just prolongs these figures. Potential astronauts have to cope with months, if not years, of isolation and low gravity. It is just not viable to send people there, which is why the present focus has been on sending hardware and instruments.

Schematic diagram of ion drive (NASA/JPL)
Schematic diagram of ion drive (NASA/JPL)

Enter the ion drive, as used on Dawn and a handful of other craft. It is, in some ways, the opposite of a chemical rocket. It produces small amounts of drive thrust continuously for a very long time. NASA estimates that the thrust of the engines on Dawn is roughly the same as what you feel when you hold a piece of paper on the palm of your hand. It’s quite useless for getting off the Earth’s surface – you really do need something powerful for that – but as a way to get you from Earth to Vesta… or Vesta to Ceres… From a standing start in free space, Dawn would take about four days to go from 0 to 60 mph. But that ion drive just keeps piling on speed. Dawn’s engine ran for a total of about 2000 days during the mission – over 5 years.

Artist's impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)

Now, if you have an engine that is always-on, your whole picture of the solar system changes. Let’s suppose you keep accelerating to the mid point, then flip over and decelerate the rest of the way, so that you get to feel a constant gravity all the way. Then further is more efficient. In twice the time you can go four times the distance. Or, to put the same thing another way, to go twice the distance takes less than one and a half times the time.

Of course, Dawn’s motors were still early versions of the design, with a low thrust output even at maximum. For my stories, I’ve assumed that the design can be enhanced to give an acceleration equivalent to 1/20 of that at Earth’s surface – considerably less than what you get on the moon. It would take some getting used to, but it means that your body and brain have a clear sense of up and down, and all those physiological functions that need gravity have a good chance to keep going! What does this mean for travel time?

  • Earth to Mars takes between ten and twenty days, depending on their relative position at the time of launch
  • Earth to Ceres takes about 3 weeks
  • Earth to Pluto takes about three months

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

That works for storytelling – it’s not very different from journeys that people would take by sail back in the day. For example, an 18th century trip from England to India would take something like four to six months. Once the Suez canal was open, this reduced to about two months. People will put up with a journey like that for all kinds of reasons. So that’s roughly how you can imagine the solar system of my science fiction novels – a bit like our world was in the days of sail and early steam ships.

Here’s a short extract from Timing, in which journey time gets discussed a bit. Meanwhile, RIP Dawn!

Then, quite suddenly, I had been sent all the way to the Jovian system. That would have been fair enough after the local jobs, but it turned out to be a false alarm. One of the analysts thought he had seen a recurrence of an old scam, running out of the Callisto hub. So off we had gone – a long journey for both Slate and I, and when we left Earth orbit the planetary alignment meant there were no friendly stopovers to break the journey.

Once we got there, the two of us had poked around, wormed our way into this module and that, but found nothing. To be sure, we confirmed that the reported irregularities were real. We had easily managed to find the batch runs where the credit had gone missing, by comparing input and output. It happened every time a specific input value was missing or unreadable, and a default value had to be assumed. But the chosen default looked right and we couldn’t find root cause. The code was non-standard, and frustratingly weird, but there was nothing obviously suspicious. The logs were so skimpy as to be almost useless. It did not seem to be the kind of task that needed our skills, nor to be as much of a problem as the analyst had first thought.

When it was over, and having drawn a blank, we sent a summary report down to the Finsbury Circus office, suggesting that perhaps it would be more effective to send an accountant. We had managed to get four weeks out of the work, but it still felt like a long drag for not much return. To be fair, it was unusual for the analysts to make a mistake like that, so I was professionally polite rather than curt. Then it was time to warm up the engines of our sloop, the Harbour Porpoise, and off we set on the homeward leg.

I was all set for a boring journey back down the gravity hill to Earth, but Slate found an orbital option which would take us right past the Scilly Isles. That settled it. We deserved a reward for our fruitless diligence. So we changed the navigation plan, sent some messages ahead, and here we were. Elias, my manager back in London, had made a token protest at the diversion, but I told him that the Harbour Porpoise needed servicing and the delay was unavoidable.

Anyway, a couple of hours signal lag meant that we were already en route by the time his answer came back. We just said that we didn’t have enough reaction mass for such a radical course change. It might even have been true, though I was careful not to ask Slate for a technical analysis, and she was just as careful not to offer one.

Regardless of that, we weren’t minded to listen. Slate and I both reckoned that we deserved the break. Six weeks of voyage out to Callisto, and four weeks of fairly dull work had not made us receptive to a tedious trip straight back home again. It would mean nearly three months’ travel time for just one month of work, and we weren’t about to just put up with that without an argument.

Tesla Starman (SpaceX Twitter feed)
Tesla Starman (SpaceX Twitter feed)