Half Sick of Shadows audiobook giveaway

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

It’s just over a year since I published Half Sick of Shadows, and just over a week since the audiobook version came out!

And in celebration of all that, I have a number of giveaway book tokens for audio version – 5 each US and UK Audible tokens to be precise.

To be in with a chance of winning one of these, listen to the extract below and discover what two ideas the local people said about The Lady’s identity. Then email me on books@kephrath.com – or message me on Facebook if you prefer – telling me also whether you would prefer a US or UK token. The preview extract is also available at the three stores listed below.

I will draw the results randomly in a couple of weeks, and if you’re a lucky winner then you can decide for yourself who The Lady is!

If you’re not already an Audible member, then you get a free month’s trial, with free book as a perk for signing up. So don’t let not having membership put you off – you can sample it at no cost, and cancel it later if you decide it’s not for you. And you can also access the audio version at iTunes if you prefer using that source to Audible or Amazon.

Sample extract:

The full book is  available at:

Half Sick of Shadows as Audiobook – now available!

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

Good news awaited me first thing this morning – an email saying that the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows has been approved and is now being distributed to Audible, Amazon and iTunes (link available soon).

The free sample is here:

and is also available in the usual way at the abovementioned sites.

Once again, vocal credits are due to Menna Bonsels – for a real treat, listen to the way she steadily alters The Lady’s voice as the penultimate chapter Metamorph unfolds.

For those who would like the Audible version but do not have an account, one of the perks of setting up a free one-month trial is that you get your first title completely free (and then one credit per month after that). If you’re also an Amazon Prime member, you get three free months and three free titles! Why not take out the free trial and use it to listen to Half Sick of Shadows! Great for you, and also great for author and narrator both!


Free sample: http://datascenesdev.com/Alexa/voicefiles/HalfSickOfShadowsAudioBookSample.mp3

Audible: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Fiction/Half-Sick-of-Shadows-Audiobook/B07D9S3JTL

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Half-Sick-of-Shadows/dp/B07D9TQF3P/

iTunes: Available soon

Planet 9?

Another space blog post today, complete with some thoughts about life out there, and an extract from my work-in-progress The Liminal Zone.

First, though, the elusive Planet 9. For some time now, astronomers and space scientists have been speculating that an additional planet, of considerable size, lies out beyond Pluto. The evidence is indirect, in that such a planet has not been observed via telescope. Hence the matter is currently unresolved. But a recent paper argues that its presence would solve several unexplained issues, while its absence would create several more.

Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)
Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)

So what are the problems? Essentially, they come down to the logic of orbital dynamics, which says that you can’t just put a bunch of planets in random orbits around a star and expect them to be stable. Even though the gravitational attraction between two planets is small, it nevertheless exerts a steady regularising influence on the two paths around the sun. So the orbits of our sister planets show all kinds of patterns of ratios which at first sight seem remarkable (they’re still remarkable when you take gravity into account, but in a different way). And the more patterns that you see, the more you can infer about things you can’t see.

This, for example, is how the outer planets beyond Saturn were deduced before they were observed. The planets from Saturn inwards have been known since prehistory. But when careful observations with a telescope could be made, small but noticeable perturbations in their tracks were found. These pointed to the existence of unknown planets further out. The same principle explains why the orbits of Neptune and Pluto are synchronised – two of Pluto’s orbits match 3 of Neptunes. So, although Pluto dips inside Neptune’s orbit for a couple of decades every 248 years (one Pluto year), they are never at risk of colliding. These synchronisations happen all over the place – for example within the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn, within the asteroid belt, or forming the delicate internal patterns of Saturn’s rings.

Now, Pluto is the first major body in the Kuiper Belt, a disc of space outside Neptune which we now know contains a decent number of small asteroids and similar objects. So it starts around 30AU from the Sun (AU = Astronomical Units, the distance between Earth and Sun). But it then Belt stops, quite abruptly, around 50AU. Why should this be? Why not feather off gradually?

Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)
Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)

Additionally, as we have built up a catalogue of these asteroids, a picture is emerging in which a surprising number have orbits around the sun which are aligned with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to suppose that some sizeable, but as yet unknown, object is synchronising them.

So, why has it not yet been found? Well, first of all, as Douglas Adams said, space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 8). So although the potential planet is several times larger than the Earth, it is on average 20 times further from the sun than Neptune is – 600AU – with an orbit that is quite noticeably elliptical rather than circular. That means that there is a lot of space to search in, and also that it is dark and cold out there. There is not a lot for optical or infrared telescopes to detect. But each new discovery helps narrow the search window down, and some lucky group of astronomers may well announce a discovery soon.

Or, of course, not. It may be that the apparent alignment we see will be eroded by more observations. Which would be a bit of a shame, in that it is always nice to have unknown things to discover. It would also leave several other problems unresolved. Other things being equal, I’d like Planet 9 to be found!

Artist's impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)
Artist’s impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)

So, what might it be like to live there? For one thing, cold and dark. Our sun is still the nearest and brightest star by a huge margin. But at 20 times further away than Pluto, it gets just 1/400 of the solar radiation of any kind. Or if you like, 0.0003% of what we enjoy on Earth. You’d want to know you had reliable sources of heat and light, if you went there. And it will take a long time to get there. It is not a place for a quick jaunt. For reference, Voyager 1 is a little over 100AU from Earth and has spent about 40 years getting there.

Could there be indigenous life out there? Well, life as we know it depends on liquid water, and the surface of Planet 9 is way too cold for that. But possibly, there could be subsurface heat turning ice into water at some depth? Or perhaps, there might be a moon which would be subject to gravitational flexing, just as happens to the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This could – maybe – provide enough heat to give us water. We’ll have to wait and see.

I haven’t yet written anything going that far out from the sun. In the universe of Far from the Spaceports, an Earth-Mars trip takes a couple of weeks. An Earth-Pluto trip takes a few months. An Earth-Planet 9 trip would take anywhere from seven or eight months up to just over a year, depending on whereabouts in its orbit it happens to be. Not a journey you’d make lightly.

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

The Liminal Zone takes place on Charon, the main moon of Pluto. The New Horizons probe returned some fascinatingly detailed pictures to us of these two, transforming them from hazy blobs to detailed worlds. New Horizons is currently en route to an object further out in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69, popularly known as Ultima Thule, and is due to arrive early next year. Finding a second destination more-or-less on the flight path after Pluto was a remarkable thing in itself, as objects are so exceedingly thinly spread out there. Anyway, The Liminal Zone is not a financial fraud book like Far from the Spaceports or Timing – it’s more of a voyage of discovery, both personally for the main character, Nina, and more generally for the society she is part of. So here is a short extract – Nina is talking to Percy, one of the Charon residents, about events surrounding an emergency several years ago…

Something about his expression made Nina stop.
“But you didn’t actually see anything?”
He drew back a little.
“Seeing’s not everything. Haven’t you ever just known something for sure?”
His eyes held hers, suddenly very intense, and she felt a little internal quaver run through her body. She had hoped it wouldn’t show, but then she saw the trace of a smile cross his eyes.
“I’ve got Welsh blood, you know. It helps me comprehend things which maybe can’t be seen with the naked eye. And what about you, Nina? Where do you come from?”
She went blank.
“I grew up in Lacus Gaudii. On the Moon.”
He shook his head.
“Not that recent. Go back a few generations. Where did your family live? Before they came up to settle in that lunar lake of yours.”
The noise of the kettle was maddening. She withdrew inside herself, trying to escape the pressure.
“I… I don’t know. I suppose I could find out. It’s never mattered.”
He looked away, letting the moment pass.
“Ah, but it just might make a difference here.”
She took a long breath and tried again.
“But did you actually see anything?”

I’ll be posting more on progress into The Liminal Zone as it comes along…

Half Sick of Shadows as Audiobook

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

An exciting bit of news today. After a good period of preparation and hard work, the Audiobook version of Half Sick of Shadows is almost ready for distribution. Currently it’s with the ACX approval team, who check various technical production details, and all being well the book will be generally available by the end of the month.

The narration has been carefully and beautifully done by Menna Bonsels. She has brought the bits of dialogue alive with a Welsh accent, which is just what I wanted for these early parts of British history before the Saxons came. Back then, my best guess is that our conversations all sounded rather like today’s Welsh. She has done a fantastic job. And the progressive ageing of The Lady, particularly in the later sections, is a real delight.

Anyway, you’ll be able to tell for yourself soon. Of course I’ll post the final purchase links here when they are available – this should be on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

Meanwhile, here’s a short sample of the whole to give you a taste…

For those reading this on email where the mp3 player will not show, this is the link to the file.

“The eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety”

I was at the annual Amazon technical summit here in London last week, and today’s blog post is based on something I heard one of the presenters say. On the whole it was a day of consolidating things already developed, rather than a day of grand new breakthroughs, and I enjoyed myself hearing about enhancements to voice and natural language services, together with an offbeat session on building virtual 3d worlds.

Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)
Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)

But I want to focus on one specific idea, contrasting how we build human-computer interfaces quite differently for the eye and the ear. In short, “the eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety“. Look at the appearance of your typical app on computer or phone. We have largely standardised where the key elements go – menu, options, title and so on. They are so standardised that we can tell at a glance if something is “in the wrong place“. The text stays the same every time you open it. The icons stay the same, unless they have a little overlay telling you to do something with them. And so on.

Now in the middle of a technical session I just let that statement drift by, but it stuck with me afterwards, and I kept turning it over. Hence this post. At face value it seemed a bit odd – our eyes are constantly bombarded with hugely diverse information from the world around us. But then I started thinking some more. It’s not just to do with the light falling into our eyes, or the biology of how our visual receptors handle that – our image of the world is the end result of a very complex series of processing steps inside our nervous system.

House By Beach - quick sketch
House By Beach – quick sketch

A child’s picture of a face, or a person, is instantly recognisable as such, even though reduced to a few schematic shapes. A sketch artist will make a few straight lines and a curve, and we know we are looking at a house beside a beach, even though there are no colours or textures to help us. The animal kingdom shows us the same thing. Show a toad a horizontal line moving sideways, and it reacts as though it was a worm. Turn the line vertical and move it in the same way, and the toad ignores it (see this Wikipedia article or this video for details). Arrange a dark circle over a mouse and increase its size, and it reacts with fear and aggression, as though something was looming over it (see this article, in the section headed Visual threat cues).

Toad: Mystery Science Theatre 3000

It’s not difficult to see why – if you think you might be somebody’s prey, you react to the first sign of the predator. If you’re wrong, all you’ve lost is some time and adrenalin. If you ignore the first signs and you’re wrong, it’s game over!

So it makes sense that our visual sense, including nervous system as well as eyes, reduces the world to a few key features. We skim over fine detail at first glance, and only really notice it when we need to – when we deliberately turn our attention to it.

Also,there’s something to be learned from how light and sound work differently for us. At a very fundamental level, light adds up to give a single composite result. We mix red and yellow paint to give orange, or red and green light on a computer screen to give yellow. The colour tints, or the light waves, add up to make a single average colour. Not so with sound. Play the note middle C on a keyboard, then start playing the G above it. You end up with a chordyou don’t end up with a single note which is a blend of the two. So adding visual signals, and adding audible ones, give completely different effects.

Finally, the range of what we can perceive is entirely different. The most extreme violet light that we can see has about twice the frequency of the most extreme red. Doubling frequency gives us an octave change, so that means we can see one octave of visible light out of the entire spectrum. But a keen listener under ideal circumstances can hear a range of seven or eight octaves of sound, from about 12 Hz to nearly 30kHz. Some creatures do a bit better than us in both light and sound detection, but the basic message is the same – we hear a much more varied spectrum than we see.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, the technical message behind that speaker’s statement related to Alexa skills. To retain a user’s interest, the skill has to not sound the same every time. The eye prefers repetition, so our phone apps look the same each time we start them. But the ear prefers variety, so our voice skills have to mirror that, and say something a little bit different each time.

I wonder how that applies to writing?

The Music of Iluvatar – part 2

Cover, The Two Towers (Goodreads)
Cover, The Two Towers (Goodreads)

Last week I talked about one of the “standard patterns” of poetry that JRR Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. That was where the poem was written in successive pairs of lines each with 4 metrical beats – stressed syllables. That form is used by elves of Rivendell, and also hobbits, men, and even barrow wights, with varying levels of irregular straying from the basic pulse. The rhyming schemes vary a little, and seem less fundamental in Tolkien’s thought than the metre. My belief is that Tolkien used this commonality of pattern as a tangible outworking of his mythological position that the world was created by musical harmony.

But not all poems – not even all elvish poems – use this 4+4 pattern. The second common form is 4+3, where the second line of each couplet has one less stressed syllable than the first. Some of my absolute favourite poems of the entire trilogy are built on this pattern. It comes into full flower with the elves of Lorien, but in fact we first meet it in Sauron’s ring poem (albeit quite irregular):

One Ring to rule them all
One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them

And also with Tom Bombadil, who amongst all his apparently nonsense rhyming actually turns out a lot of metrical regularity:

Hop along my little friends
Up the Withywindle
Tom’s going on ahead
candles for to kindle

The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)
The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)

But it is after we leave Rivendell, and especially when we start to cross the Misty Mountains that this pattern comes into its own. A whole string of poems, sung by different people from different cultures, use the 4+3 pattern to build their poetry.

For example, Legolas sings of Nimrodel on the borders of Lothlorien:

An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.

And, perhaps preeminently, it appears in Galadriel’s song:

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold,
and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came,
and in the branches blew.

The Lament sung for Boromir, partly each by Aragorn and Legolas, is based on 4+3 with occasional unstressed syllables thrown in:

Through Rohan over fen and field
where the long grass grows
From the mouths of the Sea the South Wind blows
from the sandhills and the stones
From the cradle of Kings the North Wind blows
and past the roaring falls

And when we move across to the forest of Fangorn, we find that the Ents are also adept at 4+3:

When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf,
and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild wood stream,
and wind is on the brow


O rowan fair, upon your hair
how white the blossom lay

Both of these are laments, or at least sad songs, and the Ents certainly could create 4+4 songs as well:

To Isengard, though Isengard
be ringed and barred with doors of stone

– of course, this is a marching song so pretty much has to have an even pulse.

But others on the eastern side of the mountains use 4+4 as well: Gimli’s song at the start of the journey through Moria is like this:

The world was young, the mountains green
no stain yet on the Moon was seen

Others too, including Gandalf and Galadriel, turn out 4+4 when the occasion requires.

So, although I was originally speculating that Tolkien had intended the change in Elvish poetry patterns to be geographical – West and East of the Misty Mountains using different rhythms – this does not seem to be systematically followed through. It seems to me that it is more likely to be related to mood or subject matter. Many of the 4+3 examples are laments, or describing the decline of the old ways, whereas the 4+4 are more historical or didactic in nature. Either way, we have two clear root metrical patterns for the various ancient inhabitants of Middle Earth. Are these the first two themes of the Music of Iluvatar?

Which all brings us to human poetry,  especially as our slow read has just brought us to Edoras, and the poetry of the Rohirrim. As I hope I have convinced you by now, the 4+4 and 4+3 metrical patterns dominate the poetry we have seen up until now. But you’ll have to wait a while to find out what will happen next. I’m going to leave human material for another post when our slow read through the book has got further into the kingdoms of men…

The East Gate of Moria (The Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)
The East Gate of Moria (The Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)

The Music of Iluvatar – part 1

The Fellowship of the RIng, cover (Goodreads)
The Fellowship of the RIng, cover (Goodreads)

Since the start of the year, I have been reading through The Lord of the Rings with an online book club, with the restriction that we only read a couple of chapters a week, and then discuss them. It has proved to be an immensely rewarding experience, and a frequent comment has been how much more detail we are each noticing by reading this way. We have recently finished the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, and are making inroads into the second book, The Two Towers. So there’s still a long way to go.

Today’s blog, inspired by this read, is looking specifically at the poetry that Tolkien wrote into the book. The last time I “properly” read it, rather than just dipping into it here and there, was before studying poetry in a serious way. So all kinds of things have popped out at me this time around as a result.

The Silmarillion, cover (Goodreads)
The Silmarillion, cover (Goodreads)

In Tolkien’s mythology, the creation of the world, and its primordial history, is governed by song. The Silmarillion describes how the supreme god Iluvatar initiates the original theme, and little by little the other gods and spirits join in according to their ability and comprehension. Even the great adversary Morgoth (then called Melkor) participates in this, though he tries to divert the music to suit his own purposes. Three themes were set in motion by Iluvatar, one after another, challenged in turn by Melkor, until the whole concludes in a  grand chord.  Fundamentally, the same music permeates all of creation, and every creature living in it. I think that Tolkien made this concept concrete in the poems and songs which are liberally strewn through The Lord of the Rings. So this little series of posts will look at these poems and use them to illustrate what I mean.

For one thing, poetry is taken to be a universal thing. Even the great enemy Sauron (servant and successor to Morgoth) writes poetry which scans and rhymes. But also, as we have read through The Fellowship of the Ring, it has increasingly struck me that all of the poetry we have met so far – whoever had written it – has been built around the same small number of patterns. To this point in the story we have only met elvish poetry, or else that made up by other cultures but heavily based on elvish patterns – we start to encounter human poetry in the second volume, which I’ll tackle in another post sometime.

I’ll list specific examples as I go along, trying not to interrupt the flow, but the gist is that there are really only two main basic patterns so far, and both are based on counting stressed syllables in a line. There are, to be sure, some minor variations, but these really serve only to highlight the common patterns.

Beowulf, translated by Tolkien, cover (Goodreads)
Beowulf, translated by Tolkien, cover (Goodreads)

Now, this is surprising. Tolkien was, in his academic life, thoroughly steeped in poetry from the dark ages and medieval periods, much of which was based around different principles. Typical Anglo-Saxon poetry was built around alliteration, and since Tolkien translated Beowulf and wrote extensively on it, one might have expected the conventions of such poets to have made their way into his writing. Tolkien’s own translation has lines which seek to faithfully reproduce the original  form – plenty of alliteration but no attempt to keep a regular metre:

On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.

Another form of poetry that he would have been familiar with, that found in the Hebrew Bible, is built around parallel lines and structures, and place very little emphasis on either rhyme or metrical patterns. Both of these are entirely different to the poetry he weaves into Lord of the Rings.

Instead, Tolkien chose one of two “templates” around which to build his elvish poetry, both based around pairs of lines – couplets. One template has equal lines with four stressed beats in each line – I shall call this 4+4. The other has four beats in the first line and three in the second – this will be 4+3. Some people might recognise that second pattern from English ballads. When you scan through the various poems set out in the book, there is a tendency for the equal-length pattern to be used in more formal contexts, and the unequal one in more emotional ones. On top of that metrical pattern there are also some different rhyming patterns, which I’ll comment on, but think are secondary to the metre. This post is going to focus on the 4+4 pattern.

I have no doubt that Tolkien chose these patterns deliberately. Reading through the book slowly convinces you that most of the content has been very carefully and systematically thought through (barring the odd hiccup here and there, which I am willing to overlook in any author). It is abundantly clear that he planned the vocabulary aspects of his books very carefully, to the extent of inventing several linguistically sound languages: it seems to me altogether likely that the same is true of the poetry.

Drawing, The Road Goes Ever On and On, from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/The_Road_Goes_Ever_On_and_On
Drawing, The Road Goes Ever On and On, from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/The_Road_Goes_Ever_On_and_On

Let’s look at a few examples. The first poetry or song which we meet is that of hobbits. It is usually casual, often folksy, with irregular beats and rhymes here and there, as though the speaker was making it up on the spot. But nevertheless it retains clear memories of something more disciplined and regular, especially when delivered by someone more learned, like Bilbo. Bilbo recites

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can

– perfectly regular, with 8-line verses and a rhyming pattern ABABCDCD – and contrast this with Pippin’s bath song

Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
That washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he who would not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

– which although still 4+4 has various metrical irregularities like extra unstressed syllables, and the simpler rhyming pattern AABB.

When we meet “proper” elvish poetry, this tendency comes to the fore. The first elvish poem which the hobbits hear, sung by Gildor, is early in their journey:

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us who wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

– again, perfectly regular, this time with 4-line verses and rhyme pattern ABAB.

Edith Tolkien's gravestone, on which she is called Luthien (Wiki)
Edith Tolkien’s gravestone, on which she is called Luthien (Wiki)

And here is part of the lay of Beren and Luthien, which Aragorn recites from memory, just before Frodo is wounded under Weathertop:

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

He refers to this as “hard to render” but from an analytic point of view the difficulty lies only in the more complex rhyming pattern (ABACBABC), not the metre which is regular 4+4.

I’m going to leave the 4+3 metre for another post, as it is most evident in the second half of the book.

It seems to me most important that other beings use the same patterns. The Barrow Wight who imprisons the hobbits uses a spell built on 4+4 (with some irregularities)

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:

We’ll see some more examples of this in the 4+3 post…

A drawing of Rivendell, by Tolkien (PInterest)
A drawing of Rivendell, by Tolkien (PInterest)

Now, poetry is hard to translate for several reasons, including the tendency to use dense vocabulary, with several possible meanings and plays on words. It is extraordinarily hard to preserve the conventions of verse in one language into another. Yet Tolkien does exactly this on those occasions where he gives us a poem in elvish. I am very very far from being an expert in that language, so I’ll present the poems as I believe a native English speaker would, without carrying out any deep study. Here’s an example from Rivendell…

A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna miriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-diriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, si nef aearon!

The 4+4, 8-line verse, with rhyming scheme AABABCC, is quite familiar, and so we can see that Tolkien was quite committed to this pattern.

So what does all this mean? Well, my theory is that Tolkien wanted to thoroughly embed his mythology into his world. So if the world was created by a musical theme, which affected and shaped all living things, then that should be reflected in the poetry and music that those living things make.

This post has explored the 4+4 pattern… another one will look at 4+3, and anything else that emerges as we progress through the books.

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)

A recent read

Cover, The Last Phase Shift (Amazon)
Cover, The Last Phase Shift (Amazon)

Time to get back to regular blogging again, and I thought I would start with a recap of a recent review of mine, for The Last Phase Shift, by David Frauenfelder. This is the third in a particular series of books, set in and around The Continent, a mysterious land in the Indian Ocean which – among other things – has the curious feature of intermittently phasing out of sync with our world. Until this book, we have not really known where Borschland and the other cluster of nearby countries go to during the phase shift: this book explores that, as well as a number of other fascinating issues.

The full review is at Amazon or Goodreads.

How to describe this book? It’s not easy, and a random collection of facts may not be the best way to introduce you to the charms and delights of Borschland. There are intelligent beasts, including the superb bears who are beginning to feature increasingly in their own stories. It might be called steampunk. It could be classified as a sports story, specifically ice hockey. Weirdly (for those who know me), this book got me quite interested in said sport, to the extent that I started becoming familiar with the jargon, and even watched some YouTube videos showing some of the most striking and skilled moves in the game… called dangles, for the uninitiated (see below for a sample). And it’s also a story telling how the older generation of central characters – the ones who drove the storyline of the first two books – are starting to take a back seat and let the younger generation have their say. But as mentioned above, none of these individual facts can really do justice to the wide-ranging wealth of The Last Phase Shift.

A map of Borschland (from an earlier book in the series)
A map of Borschland (from an earlier book in the series)

I have read the first two books, but am reasonably convinced that this one can be read in isolation. There are enough snippets of contextual information, woven into the tale very neatly, that you can find out anything you need to know to make sense of it.

Be warned… you might easily find yourself being drawn into the bizarre charm of Borschland, and starting to crave more stories set in and around The Continent.

The YouTube video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MJyWhkK9vw…


There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)

Writing, ancient and modern