The actual release date is set at Monday November 23rd. The paperback copy will be along at about the same time depending on the vagaries of the process. And here also for your pleasure is the cover, created for me as usual by Ian Grainger. With real asteroidal textures from Vesta and elsewhere blended in to the image.
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Welcome to the Scilly Isles, a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. This remote and isolated habitat is home to a diverse group of human settlers, and a whole flock of parakeets. But earth-based financial regulator ECRB suspects that it’s also home to serious large scale fraud, and the reputation of the islands comes under threat.
Enter Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to investigate. Their ECRB colleagues are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who on Scilly to trust. How will they cope when the threat gets personal?
This is a development on from my earlier blog on this topic which generated a number of interesting comments at different places. The issues which aroused comments were mainly to do with the numbers quoted:
Dawn achieved an acceleration of around 1/100,000 that of Earth’s gravity…I am assuming that advances in technology bring that up to 1/20 gravity, which leads to a top speed around 130,000 m/s.
First, the top speed I was thinking about relates to my Earth-asteroid belt journey, not any sort of absolute maximum. My main concern when I wrote it was that it was a tiny fraction of the speed of light. Even for an Earth-Pluto trip the turnover speed is only about 1% of light speed – which makes life and calculation a lot simpler. If you were able to carry on with the drive over a period of months or years – say in an attempt to travel to a nearby star – then you would have to take Einstein’s relativity into account.
A brief digression on how rockets work. Basically you propel something in one direction in order to travel in the opposite one – the larger the objects you throw out, the faster you get to go, but on the other hand you run out of fuel quicker. Or, the faster you propel them in that direction, the faster you go, but that needs good engine design. In principle you can throw large objects very slowly, but it would be a frustrating business – much better to throw small objects very fast! The fastest ‘propellant’ would be a beam of light, and the most efficient engine would completely transform some piece of matter into that light energy. The Dawn probe used atoms of xenon as propellant, on the grounds that they are easy to ionise (and hence use as propellant) and are also unreactive while being stored prior to use. The exhaust velocity was in the region of 20,000-50,000 meters per second.
Now, so long as you have fuel, you can go on accelerating, and since your ship is continually getting lighter as you burn fuel, the acceleration tends to increase, unless you throttle back to achieve greater efficiency. The next question is – how long does your fuel last? There’s a trade-off here – if you had a more powerful engine then it would use fuel at a higher rate, but since you get to your destination quicker, you might still come out ahead. When Dawn left Earth orbit, about 1/3 of the mass was fuel (a little over 400kg), but then the engines have been used multiple times to achieve all kinds of exploratory moves.
A solution which is popular in science fiction is to gather your fuel as you go along, typically by sucking up interstellar hydrogen in an arrangement of electromagnetic fields called a Bussard collector – the theoretical science is real, though to date we have not actually built spaceships which use it. Star Trek’s Enterprise claims to be equipped with these, alongside the vastly more exotic warp drive to achieve faster than light travel.
If you had a total conversion engine firing, let’s say, a laser beam from the ship, your fuel cost is very minimal for journeys within the solar system – the Earth-asteroid trip costs you only a few grams of propellant, which presumably you would just carry in your pocket. In Far from the Spaceports I have deliberately not gone to that extreme. Nor, in fact, have I quantified the mass required for these journeys, but have made the assumption that it is a real though not dominant consideration. Mitnash has to purchase “reaction mass” at a spares yard after arrival at his destination St Mary’s, but the design of his ship, the Harbour Porpoise, is not overwhelmed by fuel tanks. Imagine something like a few tens of kilograms of fuel – say the equivalent of a few large suitcases.
Finally, none of these figures take into account getting away from the surface of a “proper” planet like Earth. That is a separate problem, involving high impetus. An ion drive is fantastic at maintaining low impulse for long periods of time, but nearly useless at the high levels of thrust needed for lift-off from a planet. I have assumed that there are regular shuttles of some design which take travellers from Earth’s surface to Low Earth Orbit (broadly speaking at a similar altitude to today’s International Space Station), and that the ion-drive ships take over from orbit on the long haul trips.
The solar system is a big place, and journey time is a big issue with present technology. The Apollo capsules took just over three days to go from the Earth to the Moon, and the several current proposals for sending people to Mars involve months of travel time. The New Horizons probe which recently flew past Pluto took the better part of ten years to arrive there after leaving Earth.
Now, for narrative purposes in Far from the Spaceports, I wanted journeys between planets to last weeks rather than months or years. This gives a reasonable sense of remoteness, without the drawback of having settlements separated so far from each other as to make meaningful interaction virtually impossible.
Almost all contemporary space journeys are based on the principle of critical burn points. The vehicle performs a small number of high energy rocket firing sessions at key stages of the trip, typically at start and end, with smaller mid-journey corrections. The rest of the time is spent in free fall, unpowered. This saves fuel, and is the only feasible journey choice for chemically based rockets.
Here, for fun, is a NASA artist’s impression of the Dawn probe using its ion drive near Ceres.
But this occasional burn pattern also means that speed is limited, especially for human travellers. A person can only withstand acceleration of a few multiples of Earth’s gravity, and the total change in speed is therefore limited. You are stuck at whatever speed your short burns can achieve. Logically, it is far better, once away from the immediate vicinity of Earth, to maintain a low acceleration rate all the time. This doesn’t appear to do much over the course of a few seconds, but the cumulative effect adds up to something quite impressive. There have been experiments with this already, using a technology called the ion drive, of which more later.
For the moment just assume that there is a technology able to drive a spaceship with an acceleration of 1/20 the surface gravity of Earth. That gives the occupants a sense of up and down, and generally makes life easier. The recent film The Martian, following from similar ideas in 2001, used a rotating wheel idea to give a kind of pseudo-gravity to the astronauts, but their engine design was on the current occasional burn pattern. But if you had a drive which could be always on at a low level, then the quickest journey time to some remote point is to accelerate at constant rate to the half-way point, and then flip over and decelerate the rest of the journey. With that drive and flight plan, the average Earth-Mars trip takes about a month (just two weeks at the point where the orbits bring the planets closest together). The trip out to the asteroid belt takes four or five weeks, and a trip to Pluto about 4 months. Nicely in the range of what I want in a story.
What about reality? NASA has trialled ion drives on a couple of small probes, notably the Dawn mission which travelled to two destinations in the asteroid belt – the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Currently it is still in orbit around Ceres sending back scientific data. Dawn did not burn its ion drive engines full time, but it did trial them for blocks of hundreds of days at a time. Using this regime, Dawn took around four years to reach Vesta, having travelled inwards towards the sun first to acquire a gravity assist from Venus. After some science work at Vesta, Dawn took about two more years to migrate to Ceres. That’s longer than I want for the book, but it’s a whole lot better than just coasting there after a high-energy burn leaving Earth orbit.
In comparative terms, Dawn achieved an acceleration of around 1/100,000 that of Earth’s gravity, which is roughly equivalent to going from stationary to 60 miles per hour in four days (!). Even at such a low value, Dawn currently holds the speed record for spaceships sent out from Earth, with maximum speed around 11,500 meters per second. I am assuming that advances in technology bring that up to 1/20 gravity, which leads to a top speed around 130,000 m/s. I feel those are credible goals for technological advance of the hardware, given that I am also assuming that we have the ability and motivation to establish settlements on various rather inhospitable locations throughout the solar system.
Now, the actual distances between planets vary considerably depending whereabouts in their orbits each of them are – for example the Mars-Ceres trip can take anywhere between 20 and nearly 40 days with this engine. But the main thing, and the one I really wanted, was that you can go places within a month or so.
A few days ago I finished a complete draft of Far from the Spaceports which I was happy with. It’s not quite a final version, and there’ll be another couple of edit sweeps, but it’s nearly there.
So to celebrate that, here’s a longish extract from near the start, as Mitnash discovers something of why he is being sent out from Earth to investigate some fraud. The scene takes place on Earth, at Mitnash’s place of work in Finsbury Circus, London. The actual release date is a few weeks away yet, as I run through final edits and the process of getting kindle, epub and physical copies ready.
Elias swirled an ident onto the wall screen. It dissolved away the ECRB logo to show instead a top-down view of the asteroid belt, unevenly coloured. There was a deep red area to the left, fading quickly through orange to yellow and green. There were a couple of other red patches, but nothing so striking as the first one. I looked at it for a few seconds. It seemed perfectly graduated at first glance, but as you studied it, little irregularities appeared here and there, anomalies in the superficial smoothness.
Little white blobs appeared roughly where you might expect them. Ceres was well away from the centre of the red area, about a radian anticlockwise. Mars was almost opposite Ceres, as well as a long way in-system. Jupiter and a whole shoal of moons were almost directly out into the cold from that red epicentre.
The Jovian data was almost all green, and bore no resemblance to the glaring red directly inwards. I blinked. Elias laughed.
“Funnily enough, we did think of comparing that ourselves. But full marks for thinking of it.”
“Why the difference?”
“There’s actually no reason they would be the same. The Jovians get a separate feed from any of the belt settlements, or Mars for that matter. Reutberg sends out EOD London rates and benchmarks to all the outstations at the same time, plus all of the calc methodologies to derive the rest. Of course the arrival time varies per station in exactly the way you’d expect, but there shouldn’t be time for anyone to take advantage.”
“This is just arbitrage?”
It sounded a disappointing end to what had started out as an interesting problem. Arbitrage was an old business – it went back at least as far as when our ancestors were trading goats for grain or shiny beads. If you were a shiny bead trader with a quick pair of feet and an appetite for moderate risk, you could juggle the trade in goats and grain to your advantage and – with a good dollop of luck – go home a richer man. But it was hard to do in a massively connected world, and friction in the margins meant that those who tried it today regularly lost the game.
There were no short cut alleyways that the modern shiny beadsman could take to get ahead of his more ponderous fellows. Reutberg sent all the information out in synchronised fractalised packages, all at the same time, and everything went at light speed. The fastest systems available kept all of the triangulated rates aligned. Unless somebody had quietly invented a wormhole, or figured out how to curve space to order, there was no way to get ahead of the system. And if someone had come up with such a thing, I was quite sure they would be using it for more than a bit of petty market fixing in the asteroid belt.
I leaned forward, touched the white blob closest to the red centre.
“I suppose I’m going there? Is that Pallas?”
“No, not even close. Pallas is round again from Ceres, in the bottom right of the plot. Those are called the Scilly Isles. There are a good number of people scattered on those rocks. It should be easy enough for you to blend in. Somewhere on those islands you should find the root of the problem. Or at any rate some good leads.”
“Who am I this time?”
“Bored coder, wannabe miner with what you think is a foolproof way to find precious metals. Rare earths in particular. Learn all you need to about commodities for the rest of today, from extraction to dealing. And it would do no harm to refresh on benchmarks too.”
He looked again at the timepiece.
“Time’s up. You have an orientation session on rare earths from one of our economists in twenty minutes on level five. Then another one with an ex-miner who will tell you all about detectors and display analytics. Then another one with me straight after that, when we’ll go over the details in the secure pod on level three. You leave tomorrow morning.”
Look out for Far From the Spaceports in just a few weeks now…
And here for fun is an ESA picture of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen by the Rosetta probe…
It’s a good week for science fiction, what with the film version of The Martian coming out in a few days. Not that I am cashing in on that or anything, and the draft itself is not quite finished, but here is a first cut at the back-cover promotional blurb for Far From the Spaceports. It may well change over the next few weeks… comments welcome.
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Welcome to the Scilly Isles – a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. They are a good home to a varied and unique group of settlers. But now, someone is accumulating credit by fraud on a large scale out here. Nobody knows how or why, and the reputation of the islands is under threat.
Meet Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to find out what is happening, and fix it in the best way they can. Their colleagues on Earth are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who to trust. Then, as soon as they start their investigation, the threat gets personal.
For fun, here’s a NASA picture of the asteroid Ida, which to everyone’s surprise turned out to have its own little moon, Dactyl.
Here’s a bit of fun from the Work-in-Progress science fiction novel Far From the Spaceports. Mitnash is one of the main characters, and he is talking to the lady running the guest house on the asteroid Bryher where he is staying:
“Get away with you, Mr Mitnash. I’ll wager that can’t be done. Look now, were you wanting the chicken or the fish tonight?”
I hesitated, not being very sure. She laughed.
“No point spending too long deciding. It’s all guinea-pig anyway. I just prepare them a mite differently and you’d never know they’re the same animal. And it’s what you’ve been having everywhere else on Scilly.”
“To be sure. Tell me now, where did you eat when you arrived on St Mary’s?”
“And what did you have? His Venusian azure duck wrap?”
I nodded, and she carried on, “So did you really think he pays to ship real duck all the way out from Earth? Just to cook it and put it in a wrap? No, Mr Mitnash, all his menu is actually guinea-pig, but he’s very good at disguising it. For just me here, I only need one male and half a dozen females. Taji has three males and thirty females. Or something like that. So now, would you like the chicken or the fish?”
Look out for more extracts, and further news of Far from the Spaceports over the next few weeks. All being well, it will be published this year…
Meanwhile, here’s a recent NASA picture of the asteroid Ceres.
In celebration of the NASA New Horizons spacecraft making its closest approach to Pluto today, I thought I would celebrate with a short extract from Far from the Spaceports. The action takes place in the asteroid belt which is still a very long way from Pluto but is at least en route.
Mitnash, the main character, is actually on a group of asteroids in closely linked orbits named after the Scilly Isles. He is actually there to investigate financial fraud but has a cover story of prospecting for minerals. He has just arrived on Bryher.
I looked round the room, and noticed a man’s picture through the open door. “And is that your husband, Mrs Riley?” She followed my gaze and nodded. “Oh yes, Mister Mitnash, that’s Riley. He’s a miner, you know, he’s out near Jupiter somewhere just now. Comes back once a year to see us all here on Bryher.” “Oh yes? What does he go for? I’m here to do some mining myself. Rare earths. There’s a good patch out here near the Scillies. At least, I think there is.” She snorted. “And who have you left back home waiting all the long hours in the night for you to get back? Still, if you doing it keeps her out of want then maybe it’s a good thing. Now Riley there, he goes out for the heavy metals. Anything heavy at all, really. He brings back huge great lumps in tow behind his ship. The Selkie, he called her.” She laughed. “That’s what he calls me, too, his selkie, when he’s had a few jars. That he does. But it’s the metal that glamours him, not my own self, I’m thinking.” She looked at the picture for a few moments, then sighed and glanced back at me. “I’m also thinking you don’t look much like a miner, Mister Mitnash.”
More news regarding Far from the Spaceports will follow through the summer. Meanwhile, congratulations to the entire New Horizons team for the culmination of effort spanning well over a decade. At the time of writing, they are still waiting for the craft to come out of its radio silent mode…
As readers will know, much of my time recently has been put into getting The Flame Before Us ready for publication. It is now available for Kindle pre order at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon India, and elsewhere. The softcover version is going through the last stages of production and will be available at round about the same time.
But outside that I have been involved with a range of other things. One that I was particularly pleased to take part in was a contribution to Suzanne Adair’s “Relevant History” blog. Entitled Stamped on these Lifeless Things, it was an exploration of early writing. A lot of fun to write, and judging from the comments, readers enjoyed it too. One lucky reader got a free copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land which at the time of writing has just successfully made its way across the Atlantic.
There are a few reviews which have appeared on other sites recently –
Will Poole’s Island (Tim Weed) – again in America, but this time in the early colonial days, exploring different interactions between the settlers and original inhabitants.
Turwan (Richard J Carroll) – over to Australia and a fact-based account of one man’s relationship with aboriginal groups.
The last two had a lot of points of similarity, setting personal cross-cultural friendship in contrast to a background of social prejudice.
The Review Group
Splintered Energy (Arlene Webb) – a near-future first contact science fiction book taking a different approach to the subject. This book is only the first in a series of four, so is far from complete at the end – plenty of material for enthusiasts to get their teeth into.
All of the above reviews are live at the sites indicated, and will be making their way onto Amazon and elsewhere shortly.
Other books – reviews planned but not yet written –
Camp Follower (Suzanne Adair) – again in the US, exploring military actions and intrigue in North and South Carolina in the War of Independence. I am slowly getting my head around the twists and turns of American history. I am part-way through Suzanne’s Hostage to Heritage at the moment, also exploring the same context from a different perspective.
Lincoln at Gettysburg (Garry Willis) – not a work of fiction, but rather an analysis of the rhetorical and social background to Lincoln’s speech. As a non-American I found this fascinating, particularly the place in American thought of this and other early documents, in contrast to our own British attitude to things like Magna Carta.
The Oblate’s Confession – monastic life in Northumbria after the synod of Whitby, tackling both personal and religious life.
Post seven interesting things about yourself — these are listed below
Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why you’ve nominated them) – also listed below
Inform them of their nomination (probably via comment on their blog unless you have their email!) – about to do this
Now, trying to think of fifteen blogs I regularly follow is not easy. Still less when you cross out the ones who have already joined in this. So, I am going to lean heavily on the “up to” qualifier…
Seven interesting things
Well, I decided this didn’t have to be seven things nobody knew, which would be either extremely difficult or overly exposing! Here we go… some of these may already be familiar to you.
I first got interested in the ancient Near East through the twin routes of Christianity and chronology. But the chronology side soon yielded to the vastly greater allure of language and poetry, for which I retain a great love – really, there was no contest once I could appreciate the poetry on its own terms.
I love learning how languages work, ancient or modern, but am lazy about learning vocabulary, so never get anywhere near fluent. My latest excursion, spurred on by wanting to communicate with workmates in India, is Hindi.
I started to enjoy reading as a child, and for many years the public library in Godalming was a favourite destination, along with a wide range of books at home. My Narnia books have a cover price of 3 shillings and 6 pence in the UK’s pre-1971 old money (17 1/2 pence new money, or about 27 cents US for those who prefer to count that way).
I have enjoyed watching birds since childhood, and at one time owned some old vinyl records with birdsong on them. I was also a junior member of the RSPB, and had a beautiful card game with pictures of British birds. Our garden in north London is a great place to see birds, and I am perpetually surprised at the range of visitors (both regular and occasional) we get.
But as a child I was too noisy and impatient to wait for the birds to appear, so it took over forty years until I finally saw a goldcrest in the wild. I have even seen a bittern, which given that they were expected to go extinct in my teens was a great treat – but the goldcrest was much prettier!
As well as historical fiction books set in the ancient Near East, I am working on a near-future science fiction book, with provisional title Far from the Spaceports. It’s an entirely different experience to the historical fiction series – which is definitely continuing, and for which I have one novel approaching release (The Flame Before Us), and another one taking shape in my head.
My favourite places in the world are at three of the corners of England – the Cumbrian Lake District, the Isles of Scilly, and the north Northumbrian coastline near Bamburgh. I’m planning to get two out of these three into my writing before too much longer, but the Lakes are determinedly resisting being caught up in a net of words!
OK, now for some blog links. At the time of writing this I have no idea who will want to take up this opportunity, but here are some of the blogs I enjoy on a regular basis.
David Frauenfelder, http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/ – Breakfast with Pandora, for a diet rich in mythos and logos – an eclectic mix of classical Greek and Latin, commentary on modern creativity, and fantasy set in several eras.
Ian Grainger, http://www.bigemrg.co.uk/ig-photography/blog/blog.html – mostly about photographs and photography, with some specialism into macros and the like – the water splashes are well worth a look. Ian also provides creative and technical know-how for my book covers.
Brian Rush, https://brianrushwriter.wordpress.com/ – a provocative and stimulating exploration of spirituality, writing, politics and social issues. Brian would (I think) be disappointed if anyone agreed with everything he said, but the content is varied and always worth the read.
The Review Group, http://thereview2014.blogspot.co.uk/ – a bit of a cheat here as it is a collaboration between lots of people, including me now. However, I do always make a point of reading it, whoever contributes.
Jude Knight, http://judeknightauthor.com/ – Regency era historical fiction and general information. The Napoleonic era avoiding the obvious battlefields, and focusing on relationships back in England.
Anna Belfrage, https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/ – all kinds of historical snippets, with a particular focus on unusual and interesting women, plus some contemporary thoughts and musings. Great stuff.
That’s it for today. I’ll be emailing the next group of bloggers to see who wants to join in… Look out for the next cover portion for The Flame Before Us before too many days have passed!
Exodus is set in a near-future earth in which today’s threat of global terrorism has pushed America into virtual dictatorship. Although still nominally democratic, personal freedom has been almost entirely sacrificed to military and economic interests. But this is simply the stage for the book’s real plot – securing an escape route to another solar system for a small group to avoid the consequences of a late-detected asteroid strike. Like so many stories these days, Exodus is part of a trilogy, and the story is left on the verge of the next stage.
The plot is quite diverse, dealing with political machinations in the US as well as the selection process for the passengers, a glimpse of the scientific advances needed for the journey, and a little about the shipboard life on the way. A striking feature of Andreas’ writing is that she is not afraid to skip over spans of time where nothing much happens, in order to focus on the next key event. So for example very little is said of the actual journey through space.
The characters are almost exclusively American, but of quite a limited range – Hispanic names are there, but I don’t recall any native American, Indian or far-east Asian names. Perhaps this was supposed to mirror the generally paranoid thinking of the society, but it felt rather unreal to me. As regards the rest of the world, Europe is largely there to provide scientific know-how for the project and then wave the ship goodbye, and no other countries get a look-in at all. One scientific goal of the journey was to secure genetic diversity on the new world, and I suspect that in this regard, one would have to class the mission a failure. But again, perhaps this is really saying that political agenda always trumps scientific ideals.
I felt there were some odd omissions. Interpersonal relationships are almost entirely platonic – in a bunch of about 1600 people who think they are the last representatives of humanity, about the closest we get to romance is one man musing to himself that one of the women “didn’t look too bad”. More seriously, having had a careful explanation before launch of the compelling need for exponential population growth from the start, nothing is then done about this. I feel sure that, especially in a centrally dominated society but for sound survival reasons as well, some fraction of the women would have been pregnant before landing. But so far as the plot of the book is concerned, only politics, seen as the pursuit of authority and dominance, is important.
Technically the Kindle version has been reasonably well produced. There were a number of typos, only a few of which interrupted reading. The prose style is very plain, and coming from a historical fiction background I prefer something richer. The main obstacle was the paragraph length which through most of the book was huge, often spanning multiple Kindle page turns I would strongly recommend that another edit trims this down into digestible chunks which fit better with an ereader page.
I thought a lot about a final rating and felt in the end that the interest value of the plot just about pushed this from three to four stars. I was never at serious risk of giving up and I did want to see the travellers through to their destination. But I would have liked Exodus much more if the issues mentioned had been tackled, and I did feel that parts of the story didn’t quite hang together as they should.