Category Archives: Science fiction

Life on Mars in fiction

For today I am going back to my series looking at how writers have thought about life elsewhere in the solar system… and it’s the turn of Mars this week.

Cover - The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover – The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

It’s fair to say that Mars has been a firm favourite of writers for a long time. The discovery by the 19th century astronomer Schiaparelli of surface markings which he called canali – immediately if incorrectly Anglicised to canals – spurred a vision of Mars as a dying planet. In this vision, the inhabitants were desperately husbanding their dwindling water resources to delay their inevitable fate. This picture of a dying world drove HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and a host of other books including CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, though in his religious reworking, the cause of decline had less to do with natural process than spiritual.

The question that authors faced, then, was how long ago had the surface been benign and habitable? Authors like Leigh Bracket pictured open lakes and oceans in the past, providing a lush surface life  a few million years ago, but all now swallowed up by the deserts.

Cover - Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)
Cover – Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)

Oddly enough, this is not a very different picture to that painted by scientists from the data returned by surface and orbital probes… though the timescale is hugely different. Yes, it seems that Mars did once have running water, but instead of the time period that Leigh Brackett (Sea Kings of Mars) proposed, we are looking at an interval much longer, more on the scale of billions of years. Surface features such as rocks formations shaped by running water have been found, as well as exposed layers of ice threading in between rock strata. Most recently, evidence has been shown that a large salt-water lake may still exist at a considerable depth below the Martian south pole. All this water has kickstarted the debate about life on Mars, by analogy with microbial life found here on Earth in the seemingly inhospitable cold under the Antarctic ice.

A number of authors have tackled the question of terraforming Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson for one, with his (extremely long) trilogy beginning with Red Mars.  This basically looks the other way at the situation – rather than how a once-habitable Mars declined into its current state, how might we reverse this process and restore a decent atmosphere and surface water? If possible, it would be a very long-term goal, and it’s not clear how the process would resolve some of the other Martian issues such as excessive radiation. It seems more likely to me that, at least for the foreseeable future, living on Mars will have to be done under domes, not out in the open air.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Meanwhile, here’s an extract from my own vision of a near-future Mars, taken from Timing. Mitnash and Slate are on Mars, at a financial training school. One of the staff members, Linnea, has come to them and is describing a recent hack during which the school was held to ransom…

She hesitated for a long moment, then nodded.

“That will have to do. That night, the system locked up completely. The infra team tried their best to recover, but they had no idea what was wrong. Neither of the main hubs would boot up. It’s some sort of paired system, I don’t know the details, but they’re twins, certainly. One of the technicians said it was like they had gone catatonic. In a coma. Now, four or five days before that, every staff member had received the same message, an ultimatum threatening to close us down if we didn’t pay a ransom. Principal Pulkkinen told us all to ignore it, said it was just a prank. Well, we all thought he was right. Nobody would have done anything different.”

She glanced around. I tried to look reassuring.

“So what happened then?”

“Well, that night, just when the message predicted, that’s when the system crashed. And all the staff screens showed just one message which couldn’t be cleared, with a countdown timer and a single button labelled ‘Pay Now’. And there was a ticker showing that the credit being demanded was going up every second that the clock went down. Look, nobody wanted to find out what would happen when the timer ran out. The principal got the department heads together, and they decided quickly enough they would just pay up.”

“But you have backups, surely? Why not call their bluff and let the timer run out?”

“That was the first thing we thought of. You don’t get it, any more than we did at first. The whole system was locked, everything. We couldn’t get at the backup storage, or the main comms network, or anything. The techies had no idea what to do. Then we started wondering about the life support. If that was compromised, it’s not just teaching records that would be gone. They say you can’t survive more than about a minute unprotected on Mars. You couldn’t get anywhere safe in that time. And your body would be ruined long before the minute was up. We don’t have suits for everyone. I think we could all get into the trucks at a pinch, just squash in together on the way over to the shuttle groundstation. But what if the trucks wouldn’t work either? What if they had been hacked and wouldn’t go where we wanted? It was a nightmare.”

She shivered at the memory, her arms wrapped round herself. I could empathise with her. I was imagining the situation – the teachers at a loss what to do, the students still oblivious, the senior staff ensconced in a room trying to make a difficult decision. With a deeply inhospitable world just outside the dome, and no guarantee that the environmental controls would continue to function.

“So Mikko decided to pay?”


And I couldn’t possibly close this blog without linking to Dave Bowie… Life on Mars?

 

Embleton Bay (and an extract from Far from the Spaceports)

Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay
Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay

Last weekend I was up in Northumberland, and on the last day – Sunday – visited Embleton Bay. The last time I was here I was walking the Northumberland coastal path, heading north towards Lindisfarne. This time it was just a short walk along the beach, and for some of the family, a splash in the sea.

Embleton Bay is one of the many scallop shaped dips in the northeast coastline. It is low, with dunes on the landward side rather than cliffs, and the view to the south ends with the splendid ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, dark against the vivid blue sky.

Embleton Bay, looking south
Embleton Bay, looking south

Embleton Bay happens also to be the location of one of the flashback scenes in Far from the Spaceports. Here, we meet Mitnash and Shayna camping (in what is admittedly a very high-tech tent), before Mit gets sent offworld to the asteroids called The Scilly Isles. Looking at the view last Sunday, it was not too difficult to imagine the two of them pitched here on the border between dunes and beach. It was a last opportunity to enjoy each other’s company – and in Mit’s case, the delights of open air and water – before being parted. I’ve added an extract below…

Shayna has probably had the thin end of the story so far, but as and when I write the third book in the series, provisionally called The Authentication Key, she should get more narrative attention!

And just to keep the Northumberland theme going, here’s Mark Knofler from YouTube, with a rather different mood than his better known riffs…


And here’s the extract…

I was away in the Northumbrian national park, walking the Bernician Way with nothing but one of the recent model v-tents and Shayna. Neither of us were at all interested in walking long-distance footpaths, but we both liked the absence of neighbours. A couple can make a lot of noise out in a national park, without thinking someone else might be disturbed.

But there it was, that morning, the message alert blinking silently on my shirt lapel where I’d discarded it for swimming in the North Sea last night, almost hidden by Shayna’s NuFleece. She might not like long distance walking, but she loved the prospect of skinny-dipping in sea water not far above freezing, and then thinking of inventive ways to warm up. That was so much easier when you could come out of the water and straight into a v-tent micro environment set at whatever climate you wanted. Right now we were in a Middle Egyptian May – temperature, humidity, everything.

Shayna liked to say that the chosen location was part of her genetic heritage, and she was in search of her roots. I was never sure about that, but I had no great preference myself. She had configured it just as soon as I had set the tent up, and it had taken under a minute to climatise itself.

So all through the night, with a North Sea winter gale blowing up and down outside, there we were in the Valley of the Kings. You didn’t mind so much going into cold water with all that warmth waiting. We’d polarised the fabric, silver from the outside and clear from the inside, and we lay together watching the half moon slide in and out of the curving clouds.

We’d arrived at low water, but I’d pitched the tent well up the beach, on a strip of pale sand between some levels of flat rock. High tide was in the early hours of the morning, and the waves had washed close up against us in the cosy dark.

I scowled at the lapel badge, wondering if there was any way to pretend I had not seen it. There wasn’t, not really. Slate would have acknowledged receipt of the incoming at the same time as redirecting it, and would have tagged its reception with all kinds of logging. It was far too late for me to try hacking anything. The real question was whether I could get away with avoiding it for more hours than I had already, but I already knew the answer to that one as well.

I tapped the lapel, and listened to the message sullenly. Recalled to London… first opportunity… Twelve hour SLA. I sighed, and entered the release commit. Slate would do the rest for me. Then I turned to look at Shayna. There she was in the morning light: brown skin enjoying the warm air, dark hair spilling over the pillow, and dark eyes opening with an air of frustration as she saw me working the lapel.

“I suppose you’re going to say there’s no more holiday now.”

I nodded.

“Recall at first available. Back to London for me.” I paused. “You could stay here?”

“Oh, Mit. Where’s the fun in that?”

She closed her eyes again briefly, but I could see the little muscle movements in her face as she interrogated her Stele. Rocky, she called him, and he was male in persona as well as voice. It was fair enough: Slate was undeniably female.

“We have three hours before the east coast express stops at Alnmouth. A quarter hour to pack up, half an hour to Craster, quarter hour transfer. That gives us another swim and time to warm up again afterwards.”

I loosened a vent a notch or two, listened to a sudden gust of wind, imagined what the air and water would be like.

“We could miss out the swim and just stay warm?”

She reached past me and tapped the door release, inviting the gust inside the tent where it contended unsuccessfully with the thermal regulation.

“Wherever it is they are going to send you now, you won’t have water like this. Out you go and enjoy it one more time.”

I shook my head, but got out and stood up anyway, naked in all that volume of cold rushing air. The tide had fallen again, and the sea froth was a little way down the beach. Shayna pushed past me and ran, arms waving above her head, shrieking with excitement as the wildness of the wind encircled her soul. I followed on, but she reached the water well before me, and threw herself in to the tumble of the waves.

Twenty years ago I would never have done this, but things had changed. Anyway, she was right: wherever I was going, it wouldn’t have wind and waves like this. I followed her.

It had been a long day. An icy bathe first thing in Embleton Bay, followed by Egyptian warmth. Then down to London for the first briefing, and some intense training sessions on commodities. Slate had uplinked a whole library of reading material on the subject, from finding the stuff right through to trading it. But I stopped at the point of trading, and even today I have very little idea how rare earths are actually used. But by the end of the journey I would sound totally convincing on the important parts of the subject. Finally, a second briefing with Elias, and a scramble to Euston to catch the overnight to Findhorn.

I had intended to gaze forlornly out of the window as I hurtled past Alnmouth again, this time heading north. However, fatigue had got the better of me and I was dozing at the time, propped up in a corner. I surfaced again somewhere well north of Dundee, just as it was getting light. On the east coast line, most of the trains stopped in Edinburgh, but this was the Spaceport Special, non-stop right the way through.

 

AI in space… or, how close are we to Slate?

There has been a whole bundle of space news this week – so much, in fact, that I had to temporarily postpone my series of going through how the different planets have been portrayed in fiction. Instead, I picked a couple of key stories which most appealed.

The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The first – and much the shorter – is to do with the Dawn space probe. Readers may remember that a few months ago, the decision was taken to use the remaining fuel to lower the orbit as far as safely feasible. This means better images (and results from other instruments) as the orbit now goes down as low as about 20 miles. The first pictures have started to appear, and very striking they are, and over the next few months I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the surface chemistry. The first approach to Ceres revealed enigmatic bright spots on the surface (known as faculae), which are now recognised as salty deposits of carbonates – the largest such deposits away from the Earth, in fact. But do they ooze up through cracks and fissures from deep underground, or is there a reservoir of brine just below the surface? It is possible that the new low orbit wil shed light on this.

But the main story-telling event of interest was part of the contents of the Soyuz shuttle which docked with the ISS a little while ago. As well as three crew and a bunch of science experiments, a mobile AI called CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile Companion) arrived…

CIMON - the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)
CIMON – the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)

CIMON is powered by the IBM Watson software, has a digital “face”, and is capable of interacting with the Station crew via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.  Excitingly – so far as I am concerned – CIMON is European in origin, having been developed by Airbus. The enclosing shell was 3d printed, and weighs about 5kg (which only matters if it collides with something, as the ISS is routinely in microgravity). It wil remain free-flying and able to navigate to the various parts of the ISS at need.

CIMON has several purposes – first, it gives the internal neural networks plenty of new material to learn from, but the intention is that the crew will work with the AI to find collaborative solutions to problems. The science objectives are listed as:

The Pilot Study with the Crew Interactive MObile companioN (Cimon) is a technology demonstration project, and an observational study, that aims to obtain the first insights into the effects on crew support by an artificial intelligence (AI), in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space. Spaceflight missions put the crew under a substantial amount of stress and workload, and it is thought that AI could provide operational support to crew members.

So although CIMON can certainly provide early warning of particular categories of technical problems, and will assist with a number of predefined experiments, the goal is to provide social interaction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Which brings me, naturally, to Slate! Slate, the main persona AI in Far from the Spaceports, is several generations of AI beyond what we enjoy today. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana and so on are currently Earth-tethered in the sense that the software and database needed to comprehend and respond to a user’s request lives in cloud-based servers here on the planet. Even a trip to the moon (just over a second light signal time each way) would seriously strain conversational ability, and a trip out to the asteroids – say half an hour signal lag – is entirely out of the question. I don’t know whether CIMON relies on Earth-based data to understand what the astronauts will say, or whether a data source has been uploaded to the ISS itself. Keeping tethered to Earth would certainly be feasible at the ISS orbital height – but to go further afield we will need to crack the problem of large-scale localised data storage (maybe using DNA?).

I’ve never committed to an exact year for the events of Far from the Spaceports or Timing, but my feel is something like a century. I feel that probably I have been a little too cautious with this, and that in reality there’s a fair chance that AI having close to Slate’s capabilities could be around within my lifetime. On the other hand, my guess is that human colonies out at and beyond the asteroids won’t be around for a few years after my guess, so maybe it evens up!

Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video (at https://youtu.be/KnpJI3WeiBg for those getting this through email) showing part of CIMON’s development…

 

 

Mercury and fiction

Last week we looked at how views of Venus had changed in fiction: this time it’s Mercury’s turn. Like Venus, Mercury is never visible far above the horizon – indeed, it never gets above 17 degrees here in London, less than half that of Venus. It’s another morning and evening star candidate, though far fainter than Venus, and far easier to miss unless viewing conditions are good. In classical times, Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, presumably because of his elusive presence, rapid shift across the sky, and proximity to the sun.

North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Once telescopic study of the planets began, it became obvious that Mercury was going to be pretty inhospitable. It orbits at just over 1/3 of the Earth-Sun distance, has virtually no atmosphere, and experiences temperatures up to 450°C on the sunlit side (oddly,  that is much the same as Venus, but for quite different reasons). Lead, zinc, and a whole bunch of other metals would melt under these conditions. Bizarrely, even here, there are a few shady places where water ice can still exist on the surface – water is one of the most persistent and universal features of our solar system.

“Lava Falls on Mercury”, cover art by Ken Fagg for If magazine, June 1954

For a long time it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, always showing the same face to the sun. More recently we have found that this is not the case – Mercury’s day is 59 Earth days, while its year is 88 Earth days – 2 Mercury years contain just 3 Mercury days. The combination means that every time Mercury is closest to the Earth, we see the same surface features… one of those mutual rhythms which appear all over the solar system.

Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)
Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)

You’d think that fiction writers would struggle to place a story on Mercury, but numerous people have tried. ER Eddison, in his fantasy series starting with The Worm Ouroboros, located his events there – though he was singularly unconcerned with the real planet, and simply used “Mercury” as a handy, mysterious location, at which very Earthlike deeds took place. In his writing, Mercury is simply an elsewhere location outside his readers’ everyday life.

When it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, several authors assumed that humans would build a settlement somewhere on the dividing line between unbearable heat and implacable cold. Plots often revolved around the (supposed) vast difference between light and dark sides. For example, Hugh Walters’ Mission to Mercury supposes that the extreme heat (and cold) would lead to different personality problems (interestingly, this book also features another occasional trope, that of identical twins who can communicate telepathically).

Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)
Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)

The discovery that Mercury actually does rotate put paid to the idea of a temperate band, leaving us with a largely undesirable planet! It is a long way “down” in the sun’s gravity well, so needs a disproportionate amount of fuel to get there and back. Unless there turns out to be plentiful and easily accessed resources of some kind – gloopy patches of pure platinum, or some such – then it’s hard to see why it would ever be more than a solar research base. Authors and technologists have contemplated terraforming Mars (of which more next time) or Venus (AE van Vogt suggested that it could provide an exotic home for the elite in The World of Null-A) – I can’t think of anyone who has suggested terraforming Mercury! Kim Stanley Robinson, in several novels and short stories, suggested one solution would be a city built on rails which very slowly moved around the planet and hence always stayed in the twilight zone.

In fiction, it has become, and most likely will remain, a hostile place which might contain or provoke mystery. And in keeping with that, I’m not (currently) planning any books in my science fiction series which are set there.

Finally, you’re not (quite) too late to take advantage of the giveaway offer on the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows – details in a former blog post

The changing view of Venus in storytelling

Before starting, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There are just a few copies left on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)
Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)

The planet Venus has played an important part in our imaginative view of the solar system. Originally recognised and personified as the Morning or Evening star, visible at certain times of the year as a bright companion to the sun, it came to represent something beautiful but elusive. The logic of orbital movements means that it never rises more than about 36 degrees above the horizon (here in London), and is frequently much lower. It is also easily lost in cloud, haze, or the ambient glow of the sun as it rises and sets. All of which added to its allure and air of secrecy.

The early telescopic age only added to the mystery. Unlike the other planets, Venus revealed no constant surface features, and so allowed no mapmaking. Astronomers knew that Venus was like a sister planet to Earth – the size is about 3/4 of our own, the year is about 2/3, the surface gravity is 90% – but came to realise that the surface was hidden behind a dense veil of clouds. Indeed, the cloud cover is so sustained that Venus is the most reflective body in the entire solar system.

Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus - Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)
Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus – Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)

Many early science fiction authors – including authors such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as late as the 1940s and 50s – envisioned the planet as covered by ocean – in keeping with some scientific models of their day. Others chose a desert planet, or one covered in swamp: all trying to make sense of the perpetual cloud cover.

One example is the second book in the science fiction series by CS Lewis, Perelandra. Lewis trod a middle road regarding accuracy – quite apart from any astronomical input, he wanted the veil of cloud cover as a vivid symbol of the secrets held within. He wanted Perelandra to represent a younger planet than Earth, in contrast to Mars (Malacandra) which he paints as older, more long-suffering. So Perelandra is almost entirely an ocean planet, with almost no fixed land. Perhaps one of the most striking descriptions of the planet is “the queen of those seas views herself continually in the celestial mirror“.

Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)
Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)

When space probes like the Soviet Venera and American Mariner series started exploring the solar system, a wholly different picture of Venus started to emerge. The idea of an aquatic world was so prevalent that early Venera probes were designed to splash down in water. However, as data began to arrive, the surface was exposed as vastly inhospitable. Air densities up to 90 times that of Earth, average temperatures over 450°C,  typical wind speeds up to 200 mph, and an atmosphere containing acidic gases like sulphur dioxide all added up to a seriously inhospitable environment. The winds at ground level are sufficiently strong that they cause changes in the day length where they rush over mountain ranges.

This looked like the end of the line for fictional life on Venus… but recently there have been suggestions that although the surface may be uninhabitable, the upper atmosphere might be a suitable habitat. You might imagine rafts of tiny organisms, drifting in sheets well above the rigours of the surface. We don’t yet know, but it’s a sufficiently real possibility that science teams have started thinking how we might detect and recognise life in that floating environment. If we ever decided to colonise Venus, then high above the ground might be a better bet than contending with the surface conditions!

But maybe our better bet for habitats is in orbit anyway. Given that conditions on Venus – or Mars, for that matter – are so difficult as to need major levels of protection, why go to the effort of constructing some sort of protected dome, when we necessarily have such a thing in orbit anyway? I read an interesting statistic the other day. There are at most a few hundred people living in Antarctica. But at any time, there are something like a million people travelling on air flights. The environment outside a plane is even less hospitable than the south pole, but large numbers of us are willing to move about in it, with only the comparatively frail protection of an aircraft. Perhaps – at least until we can pursue exotic solutions like terraforming – orbital stations are the way to go.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a story to appear based around finding upper atmosphere life on Venus…

Dunes

With The Liminal Zone foremost in my writing mind just now, I’m always eager to read space news about Pluto. And just recently another paper has been published analysing the surface features as revealed by the New Horizons flyby back in July 2015.

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

But before that, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There were 5 copies each on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Back to Pluto. The specific surface feature that the report found was dunes. Not, of course, sand dunes, but ones made of ice granules, moved about very slowly by the extremely light winds which stir the extremely thin atmosphere there. It’s a remarkable tribute to the way physical phenomena tend to mirror each other. The conditions on Earth and Pluto are radically different in ever so many ways, yet they share the ability for dunes to form on their surfaces. Like everything on Pluto, it all takes place on an immensely slow timescale – I doubt that these dunes move appreciably over a human lifetime. But nevertheless, there they are, adding to the richness and complexity of the surface features of a world which, not so long ago, was assumed to be utterly boring.

Cover - Dune (Goodreads)
Cover – Dune (Goodreads)

A science fiction reader’s first reflex, on hearing of dunes, is naturally to jump to Frank Herbert’s Dune. That world was bakingly hot, dry, and life was absolutely dominated by the survival need for water. The dunes there – sand dunes – covered the vast majority of the desert world’s surface, and concealed both exotic wildlife and a radical human culture. It seems unlikely that much life frequents Pluto, with a surface temperature around -230° Centigrade. But these days, it would be a brave person who would say it’s impossible. And The Liminal Zone is – among other things – about the human settlement on the margins of our solar system.

Finally – and since my main enthusiasm is not so much for Pluto as for its largest moon Charon, here is a video put together by NASA from the New Horizons flyby. It’s partly for fun, and partly because next week – June 22nd – is the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Charon! It’s only short, but quite cool.

After enjoying that, don’t forget the giveaway for Half Sick of Shadows!

Where would be a good place to live?

Cover - Perelandra (Goodreads)
Cover – Perelandra (Goodreads)

It’s a question which besets many science fiction writers! Now, in the former days of the 20th century, when not nearly so much was known about other star systems, writers were free and easy with their destinations. C.S. Lewis, who anyway had other motivations in his writing than script scientific accuracy, cheerfully placed parts of his science fiction trilogy on Mars and Venus. E.E. (Doc) Smith had alien habitations all over the solar system, with a wild array of biological adaptations to high gravity, strange atmospheres, or whatever. And when writers got their characters out of the solar system into the galaxy at large, the diversity just kept on growing (except for those authors like Asimov, who for various reasons carefully avoided alien life altogether).

But these days we have a vast amount of data to steer our fiction. In some cases this means that environments get excluded – it would be a brave author indeed who would place a novel like Perelandra on the surface of Venus these days (unless they have a back-story of extensive terraforming). On the other hand, new opportunities for life in previously unconsidered places have emerged – like high up in the Venusian atmosphere, or in liquid oceans underneath the ice coatings of various outer system moons. These are not likely to be, as they say, life as we know it…

Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)
Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)

On a wider scale, we have a good idea what to look for as regards planets that might support life. Most thinking on the subject supposes that liquid water would be necessary – it’s just too useful a chemical in all kinds of ways to see how it wouldn’t participate in life’s chemistry. So we can plot the Goldilocks Zone for any given star (too close in, and water boils and evaporates… too far out, and it freezes)… but we know from our own solar system that this does not cover all the bases. Close-in planets are probably tidally locked to their sun, and so have a cooler side. Far-out planets may well have orbiting moons with sub-surface water, kept from freezing by a variety of factors.

Back in the day, people used to look for stars relatively similar to our own sun, on the grounds that we kind of knew what we were looking for. But these days, following the extraordinary success of planet-hunting space missions like Kepler (soon to be followed by TESS), we know that many planets circle dim red dwarf stars. For sure, the heat output is much less, but that just means that the Goldilocks Zone huddles close in. And red dwarf stars are immensely long-lived, which gives life time to develop. On the other hand, many red dwarfs also go through erratic flare cycles, potentially blasting their associated planets with X-rays. But for my money, the first place we may find life elsewhere is likely to be circling a red dwarf.

So from the writer’s point of view, it’s a great time to be postulating life elsewhere, but also a rapidly-changing one. New data is pouring in, and new ways of analysing and comprehending that data. It all adds up to a wealth of new ideas and imaginative leads…

Artist's impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)

How close are personable AI assistants?

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me an article talking about the present state of the art of chatbots – artificially intelligent assistants, if you like. The article focused on those few bots which are particularly convincing in terms of relationship.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, as regular readers will know, I quite often talk about the Alexa skills I develop. In fact I have also experimented with chatbots, using both Microsoft’s and Amazon’s frameworks. Both the coding style, and the flow of information and logic, are very similar between these two types of coding, so there’s a natural crossover. Alexa, of course, is predominantly a voice platform, whereas chatbots are more diverse. You can speak to, and listen to, bots, but they are more often encountered as part of a web page or mobile app.

Now, beyond the day job and my coding hobby, I also write fiction about artificially intelligent entities – the personas of Far from the Spaceports and related stories (Timing and the in-progress The Liminal Zone). Although I present these as occurring in the “near-future”, by which I mean vaguely some time in the next century or two, they are substantially more capable than what we have now. There’s a lot of marketing hype about AI, but also a lot of genuine excitement and undoubted advancement.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So, what are the main areas where tomorrow’s personas vastly exceed today’s chatbots?

First and foremost, a wide-ranging awareness of the context of a conversation and a relationship. Alexa skills and chatbots retain a modest amount of information during use, called session attributes, or context, depending on the platform you are using. So if the skill or bot doesn’t track through a series of questions, and remember your previous answers, that’s disappointing. The developer’s decision is not whether it is possible to remember, but rather how much to remember, and how to make appropriate use of it later on.

Equally, some things can be remembered from one session to the next. Previous interactions and choices can be carried over into the next time. Again, the questions are not how, but what should be preserved like this.

But… the volume of data you can carry over is limited – it’s fine for everyday purposes, but not when you get to wanting an intelligent and sympathetic individual to converse with. If this other entity is going to persuade, it needs to retain knowledge of a lot more than just some past decisions.

A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)
A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)

Secondly, a real conversational partner does other things with their time outside of the chat specifically between the two of you. They might tell you about places, people, or things they had seen, or ideas that had occurred to them in the meantime. But currently, almost all skills and chatbots stay entirely dormant until you invoke them. In between times they do essentially nothing. I’m not counting cases where the same skill is activated by different people – “your” instance, meaning the one that holds any record of your personal interactions, simply waits for you to get involved again. The lack of any sense of independent life is a real drawback. Sure, Alexa can give you a “fact of the day” when you say hello, but we all know that this is just fished out of an internet list somewhere, and does not represent actual independent existence and experience.

Finally (for today – there are lots of other things that might be said) today’s skills and bots have a narrow focus. They can typically assist with just one task, or a cluster of closely related tasks. Indeed, at the current state of the art this is almost essential. The algorithms that seek to understand speech can only cope with a limited and quite structured set of options. If you write some code that tries to offer too wide a spectrum of choice, the chances are that the number of misunderstandings gets unacceptably high. To give the impression of talking with a real individual, the success rate needs to be pretty high, and the entity needs to have some way of clarifying and homing in on what it was that you really wanted.

Now, I’m quite optimistic about all this. The capabilities of AI systems have grown dramatically over the last few years, especially in the areas of voice comprehension and production. My own feeling is that some of the above problems are simply software ones, which will get solved with a bit more experience and effort. But others will probably need a creative rethink. I don’t imagine that I will be talking to a persona at Slate’s level in my lifetime, but I do think that I will be having much more interesting conversations with one before too long!

Last year on Goodreads

At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…

In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.

Goodreads 2017 stats
Goodreads 2017 stats

In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.

The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably.  And in case it’s not obvious, I should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.

Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.