Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Horizon - life in the extreme

This post originally appeared on Greig Beck's Facebook page as part of the Horizon blog tour.


It’s a thrill to be visiting Greig’s page, because I’ve been a fan since reading Beneath the Dark Ice, the very first Alex Hunter novel. So I thought I’d write about something that is close to Greig’s heart and which he’s explored in his own work: the topic of extremophile life.

Whether it’s giant monsters living beneath the Antarctic ice, creatures from another dimension or bacteria living far below the South American jungle, it seems life can be found everywhere. Recent reports from the International Space Station have even found sea plankton living quite happily on the outside of the station’s windows.

While Earth today is mostly benign to life, there have been a number of mass extinction events, most famously the meteor strike 65 million years ago that supposedly ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

When I was creating the planet Horizon, the target for my stellarnaut explorers, I imagined what life might be like there, what extinction events might have occurred and how life might have survived. Certainly on Earth, the two key necessities of life are liquid water and oxygen. And you can add heat to that mix if there’s an ice age scenario: the most common cause of mass extinctions.

Without giving too much away, there is life on Horizon, but it’s very hard to find because it became imprisoned within a relatively small part of the planet’s biosphere during an ice age that almost turned the planet into a giant snowball. Even aquatic life wasn’t immune to the severity of the cold that gripped the world, and it was forced to seek what warmth it could around ‘black smokers’.

These hydrothermal vents exist on Earth’s ocean floor as well. The deepest yet discovered is five kilometres below the surface of the Caribbean Sea. Life at that depth is very sparse due to the darkness, cold and pressure, but the vents, which are large chimneys sitting astride underwater volcanic rifts, provide a haven for creatures that have become uniquely adapted to the extreme conditions there. Some bacterium have been found near black smokers living in blistering temperatures of 121 degrees C.

Unfortunately these environments are sometimes lacking in oxygen, as the vents pump out large volumes of sulphides. But life can exist even without oxygen it seems. In the North American Great Lakes, scientists have found cyanobacteria that derive energy by photosynthesising sulphur instead of oxygen, and other such bacterial communities have been found around hydrothermal vents.

The mystery creatures on Horizon survive through a symbiotic relationship:
‘Imagine one small group of sea-going creatures seeking to escape the cold and taking up residence around the vents of an underground volcano. Pickings are slight down there, and what oxygen is available is badly tainted with smoker gases. The survivors are looking at slow, inevitable extinction. That is until something wonderful happens. Something totally unexpected. A symbiotic relationship is struck up between an extremophile microbe of the deep ocean and some of the surviving creatures, which allows them, through progressive generational mutations, to derive energy directly from a new source — the hydrogen sulphide cycle.’ 
Of course, what those creatures are, how they survive and what that means for the mission, I can’t reveal. But their existence has repercussions not only for the crew of my explorer ship, but for the rest of humanity back on Earth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Horizon - planet-building

This post originally appeared on Sean Wright's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.


Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining the worlds that space travellers visit. The way I see it, there are four key elements in creating a believable world to serve the needs of the story:
  • spatial location 
  • physical attributes 
  • geological past, and 
  • current environment. 
To make sure my crew is sufficiently isolated from the rest of humanity — and cut off from any possible outside help — I needed a star that was quite a distance away. Iota Persei is a main sequence dwarf star 34.4 light years from Earth. The sun is slightly bigger than our own. Although no planets have been detected around it so far, that could change. Planetary discovery is a ‘boom industry’ at present, with the Kepler telescope alone responsible for discovering 978 confirmed planets and over 4,000 potential candidates in the five years since it launched.

Because my target planet Horizon is Earth-like, I imagined a ‘typical’ system with seven planets, including Iota Persei F, a gas giant twice the size of Jupiter, which the ship briefly orbits. Here’s a description of that close meeting:
Space closed in all around, stars piercing the darkness as the leviathan to port threatened to swamp her senses. It seemed much too close.
Microlasers tracked eye movement and the helmet induced a slew of orbital data directly onto her optic nerve, overlaying the information on the roiling clouds of Iota Persei F. She blinked it away, preferring to focus on the swiftly moving bands of cloud, watching tendrils weave and curl around each other where they met, like smoke from an incense stick. The colours were striking: emerald greens, oranges, electric blues, all interspersed with fingers of white. Nothing like this existed in their backwater solar system: twice as big as Jupiter and far more garish.
An ominous purple eye hoved into sight, a gigantic anticyclone standing proud of the surrounding cloud deck. It stirred up the bands where they touched, shredding them, sucking them into its vortex and scattering them back along its path to slowly reassemble and await the approach of the next storm. 
The main prize in the system is the planet Horizon or, more correctly, Iota Persei B, which is second from the sun. As I wanted Horizon to be Earth-like, it had to possess similar physical properties to Earth, so it’s approximately Earth-sized. From that follows similar gravity and air pressure. It also meant positioning the planet in the ‘goldilocks zone’ — where it’s not too hot, not too cold, but j-u-u-u-st right — so it has suitable surface temperature variations as well. And like Earth — and indeed any other planet — Horizon also needed a geological history, a history that is written across the face it presents to the world:
Day was dawning over a wide, undulating plain. Purples, pinks and golds shifted across the sky and seemed to ripple in reflected glory across the land. The effect lasted only an instant and then the sun broke over the horizon, a diamond flash that arced across the sky, banishing the last of the shadow to reveal a desolate kind of beauty that stole Cait’s breath away. Even from a cruising altitude of one hundred metres, she could see that the ground was covered in a white aggregate, no doubt the source of the colourful dawn reflections. Spindly grasses pushed their way through the landscape, but apart from that the view was uninterrupted all the way to far-off low, rolling hills. The bot executed a turn and a river came into view, snaking into the middle distance. Its banks were covered with lush vegetation, which quickly gave way to sparse grasslands again. 
In its far prehistory, Horizon was subject to massive glaciation — far more than Earth. In fact there was a point where the surface was all but entirely covered by a thick mantle of ice: a snowball planet. That type of pressure, and the abrading force of the glaciers, created undulating plains out of the previously thrusting mountain peaks, which are now scattered across the land as aggregate. The sparse plant life is another clue to the effects of that glaciation, with only the hardiest plants surviving the ice age and perhaps only now beginning to reassert their presence on the landscape. It’s an important element of the story that planetary environments are subject to massive change on a geological timescale, and what appears Earth-like (even our own Earth) was not necessarily as supportive of life in the past, and may indeed change again in the future through natural processes. Which brings us to climate, and as Magellan arrives, Horizon is certainly feeling the effects of a massive weather event:
He tapped the controls and the bot’s-eye view on the screen rolled as it dropped towards the storm.
‘There’s a lot of water vapour up here,’ Nadira said, almost to herself.
And then the bot entered the central column of the hypercane, accompanied by an eldritch flash that almost swamped the photosensors. Inside was darkness strobed with lightning that picked out patches of purple and green among the greys of the surrounding eye wall. Cait imagined how deafening the storm must be, even in the relative calm of its centre. 
Placement, properties, history and current environment: shorthand for building a dynamic, changing world. One where the crew of Magellan are faced with a whole raft of problems.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Horizon - Inside a Transhuman

This post originally appeared on Alan Baxter's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

One of the most interesting themes in science fiction, and one of the most exciting advances happening in medical research today, is how humans will become augmented through interfacing with technology.

In the real world, there are amazing advances that enable paraplegics to control the environment around them. In 2012 in the UK, a woman had an aspirin-sized array of electrodes implanted in her brain which picked up signals from neurons in her motor cortex enabling her to control a robotic arm. In sci-fi movies, humans interfacing with technology has brought about a variety of dystopian scenarios from (the now somewhat laughable) Saturn 3, to (the now very laughable) Lawnmower Man, as well as the Matrix movies and the more recent Transcendance.

One of the best books about the future development of humanity is Damien Broderick’s The Last Mortal Generation. It explores not only how the life of our physical body can be extended, but also how technology might free the mind from its time-limited physical form. The mind is the key to so much — our emotions and sense of self. What would it be like to transplant your mind outside of its fleshy architecture into the elegant symmetry of a computer? Would you feel any different if your brain was replaced neuron by neuron by ‘silicon brain cells’? Would you lose your humanity? What about extending the reach of your mind resting within its physical confines by hooking it up to a wider cognitive network that’s faster, richer, and electronic?

In Horizon, Systems Specialist Bren Thurgood is among the first couple of generations of transhumans: people who accept an implant that allows them to interface with computerised and artificial intelligence systems. It makes her very good at what she does, and she’s an indispensable member of the crew. However even though I’m an optimist, I find it hard to imagine a future where humanity doesn’t attack what’s different in society. And given the current controversy about metadata and government snooping, I think the reasons behind a widespread mistrust of transhumans are compounded. They are ‘creatures of the internet’, able to breach firewalls and hack sensitive systems as easily as breathing. As a result, ‘chipheads’ are the target of racist — or maybe that should be ‘specist’ — intolerance from the ‘norms’.

 I think the most interesting aspect of interfacing directly with the electronic world, the world of data and numbers, is how our minds would interpret and present that augmented reality to us. We’re not digital, we’re analogue, which means — perhaps — we’ll take a figurative rather than literal approach to the datastream. Bren explains it best:

Lex pressed the patches to her temples and flicked the monitor into life. He picked up a metallic wand. ‘You shouldn’t feel any discomfort. I’m just going to send a range of harmonics through the soft tissue and see what the sensors pick up.’ He touched her chin and turned her head to the left. The wand hummed in his hand. ‘What’s it like anyway, the link?’

Bren snorted and a smile spread across her face. ‘You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that.’

‘Then you should have a good answer.’

She turned towards him and he gently turned her head back into position. ‘A lot of people can’t get used to it. There’s the increased cognitive capacity, of course. You’re totally aware — of everything. When you’re linked, you can instantly understand concepts, complex equations, programming, the works. You access information, formulate solutions, in the blink of an eye. But the perception change can really get to you. Some things you encounter are actual representations, like when I saw Phillips in the ring. Some things you can template and construct yourself. But every now and then something will come at you that’s totally figurative.
Like the interface has tapped into your subconscious imagery and selected something that embodies completely what you’re experiencing intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. It can freak you out if you’re not used to it.’

‘Like that package ticking?’

‘Yeah, but that’s a simple example.’

‘Look to the right, please,’ Lex said and swapped the wand to his other hand.

‘Anyway, it’s helped me become more than I ever could be. But Harris and people like him will never understand. And they’ll never trust what they don’t understand.’ 

No matter how augmented they become, I believe transhumans will retain their own human and individual ways of looking at the world. It may have to work that way to prevent their brains from overloading. It’s a fascinating concept to think about, and it almost makes me wish all this was a reality right now.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Horizon - time travel, relatively speaking

This post originally appeared on Rjurik Davidson's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.


Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of their ship, the Magellan, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining exactly how the ‘props’ that support the main action could actually function.

In my post Engage: Tinkering with a Quantum Drive on Joanne Anderton’s blog on 7 November, I talked about the theoretical drive that boosts the explorer ship to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light in order to reach the Iota Persei system in a reasonable time — i.e. before my ‘stellarnauts’ grow too old.

It was important for the story that the world of Horizon was far enough away from Earth for the crew to be entirely isolated from any direct interference — or chance of assistance — from their home planet. That’s why I chose the Iota Persei star system which is thirty-four light years from Earth.

To work out how long it would take Magellan to get there, I had to perform a number of mathematical equations. For someone who failed higher maths at school, it was a bit of a stretch and the results have a fair degree of fudge factor, including not accounting for the time taken for the ship to accelerate from rest, but I think they work well enough to support the story.

Firstly, how far is it to Iota Persei? Saying it’s thirty-four light years away really only means it takes a particle of light thirty-four years to get there. Light travels in a vacuum at a speed of 299,792,458 metres per second, commonly referred to as ‘c’. There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year, which means there are 1,072,224,000 seconds in 34 years (thanks, Excel!). That means the distance to Iota Persei is ‘c’ times the number of seconds in 34 years, which equals 321,444,668,486,592,000 metres, or a little over 321 trillion kilometres.

Secondly, how fast does the crew of Magellan need to travel to get there and not be geriatrics on arrival? The drive of the ship is (kind of) grounded in real world physics. I didn’t want to have a super-sci-fi hyperdrive or warp drive because the launch is only set about sixty to eighty years in the future. I felt that travelling at 0.6 ‘c’ was probably reasonable for technology of that time. Dividing the distance to Iota Persei by 0.6 ‘c’ equates to a travel time of 1,787,040,000 seconds or 56.6 years. Still quite a long time. A crew with an average age of thirty would be well into their eighties on arrival. But I had a couple of extra tools to apply to the problem: one due to relativity and the other, I’ll admit, is a bit of hand-wavy sci-fi.

Special relativity allows that a person who is moving experiences time differently to a person who is at rest. The faster the person travels, the slower time passes for them. This ‘time dilation’ can be worked out by using the Lorentz factor, which, for all you maths nerds out there, is 1 divided by the square root of 1 minus the square of the velocity of the ship over the square of ‘c’. For my crew, travelling at 0.6 ‘c’, the Lorentz factor is 1.25, which means the amount of time that passes on the ship during the journey is 56.6 years divided by 1.25, which is 45.3 years. A little better, but the crew would still be pushing seventy-five on arrival.

So I had to deploy a kind of suspended animation for my crew. Once they leave Earth, the crew enter harnesses, which protect them from the acceleration of the ship and also significantly slows their metabolism. The effect of this is to cut ageing by a factor of seven, so the 45.3 year trip only amounts to about 6.47 years of ageing, which is much better for the purposes of the story.

The thing about writing science-based science fiction is that it takes a lot of work in the background to justify a few words on the page. The explanation above took over five hundred words. Hopefully it’s interesting to read as a blog post, but would be dull as dishwater in a novel. Here’s what all that work ended up looking like in the finished novel:

She still had no idea how long they’d been in deepsleep, and Phillips wasn’t around to tell her. She looked closely at Bren, trying to detect any signs of ageing. The mission was scheduled to take fifty-five years, slightly more than forty-five years’ ship time. On average, deepsleep slowed physical processes by a factor of seven so the whole journey should see them age by a little over six years. Bren’s bleached buzzcut had grown out to a shoulder-length, mouse-brown cloche with a wistful frizz of blonde at the tips. But apart from that and her sickly condition, she looked pretty much the same. Hell, they might be no more than a couple of years out from Earth for all Cait knew.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Horizon - Stormy Weather - climate change and planetary development

This post originally appeared on ben Peek's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by Voyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

Today I’m talking about the themes of environmental disaster and climate change that support a lot of the action in Horizon, so let’s get one thing out of the way upfront. Anyone who still believes the jury is out as to whether humanity is having a lasting and negative effect on Earth’s climate is plain wrong. That rocket left the launch-pad long ago.

One of the primary aims of science fiction is to interrogate what’s happening right now, and one of the methods it uses is to project current effects and trends into the future.

In the world of my novel, humanity failed to rise to the challenge of climate change — just as it appears to be doing now — and we almost lost everything. It was only when a hurricane event driven by global warming laid waste to much of the eastern seaboard of the United States of America that a unified, global political action managed to make a positive change, retooling industry and ending our reliance on fossil fuels. But many millions lost their lives before that happened. I hope the reality is a lot less grim.

The thing is, on a geological scale, environments also change without the ‘help’ of humanity. Europe enjoyed a significantly warmer period from 900–1300 CE thanks to an unusually strong North Atlantic Oscillation, and between 1350–1850 the Little Ice Age chilled parts of the northern hemisphere, causing — as one example — the Great Frost of 1709, which saw Venetian lagoons freeze over and fish die off in English rivers. Paris enjoyed temperatures of -15 degrees centigrade for fourteen days in January of that year.

So while ‘man-made’ effects on Earth drove climate degradation, on the world of Horizon, I wanted to explore the effects the natural system has on weather and climate.

On approaching Horizon, the crew observe a massive hurricane over the ocean. In fact it’s more accurately a ‘hypercane’. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 reached Category 3 (the highest category) when it made landfall in Cuba. That equates to sustained winds of 178–208 Km/h. Hurricane Sandy is peanuts to what’s happening on Horizon.

‘Sensors operational,’ Nadira said. ‘Full spectrum.’ 
‘I have two bots in the tube,’ Lex said. ‘Launching at your discretion.’ 
‘Launch bots,’ Cait ordered, and the hull rang with their leaving. She watched the shrinking flare of their engines as they arced together towards Horizon and then split, one heading for daylight while the other streaked towards the terminator and the waiting storm. 
She pulled off the data helmet and stowed it below her acceleration couch, and concentrated on the screens overhead. The left showed white cloud blurring past, the image brightening and darkening as the bot plunged through thicker concentrations. The right-hand image was breathtaking. The moon was directly over the storm now, and as the bot scudded closer, the top of the spiralling vortex was picked out in greys, silvers and whites. It turned majestically around the dark central eye in a stately ballet that belied the violence beneath.
‘Bot One to automatic overflight. Levelling Bot Two at seven kilometres above sea level,’ Lex said, leaning on the control panel next to his couch. ‘I’ll bring her in over the eye.’
Nadira shifted in her seat to view the telemetry coming in. Cait craned her neck around as she heard the geophysicist take a sharp breath. 
‘Doppler’s showing sustained surface winds of over three hundred kilometres per hour,’ she said, her voice almost a whisper. ‘There are close to forty convective storms in the main body.’ She looked up at Cait. ‘We have to get closer to the surface.’ 
‘Closer!’ Lex barked a short laugh. ‘I know this is an interesting phenomenon, but we don’t have an unlimited supply of bots, and they’re not designed to withstand three-hundred-kilometre winds.’ 
‘It’s calm in the eye,’ Nadira said. ‘You won’t encounter any turbulence as long as you steer clear of the eye wall. You can manage that, can’t you?’ 

The problem with hurricanes is that they kick a lot of water vapour into the upper atmosphere. Water vapour is a strong greenhouse promoter because it absorbs heat that would otherwise be radiated out into space, so the planet is becoming hotter as a result. Of course hurricanes generally blow themselves out after a while but this one keeps regenerating because of unusually high ocean surface temperatures, which — well, I can’t say too much about right now.

Horizon is Earth-like when my crew of stellarnauts arrives there, but may not remain so. Certainly our own planet used to be deadly to human life. Up to about 2.4 billion years ago our atmosphere had very little oxygen and was predominantly nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. It was only due to the rise of a cyanobacteria capable of consuming carbon dioxide and water and ‘excreting’ oxygen that the atmosphere slowly became able to support air-breathing life.

On Horizon, that trend seems to be working in reverse. But news from Earth means the crew have to confront an ethical dilemma: when is it okay to tamper with the natural development of an extraterrestrial environment? As scientists, the crew are there to observe, not to interfere. But Earth is in the grip of a new disaster, despite our success in halting climate degradation, and asks for help. What the crew discovers on Horizon makes it far from certain that help is possible.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Horizon: Engage engines!

This post originally appeared on Joanne Anderton's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining exactly how the ‘props’ that support the main action could actually function.

When I imagined the mission of the explorer ship Magellan to the Iota Persei star system thirty-four light years from our own planet, I knew I had to work out how the ship could get there. I wanted the trip to be short enough so the crew would still be relatively young when they reached their destination. That meant they had to travel at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light. It also meant the ship needed access to considerable amounts of energy in order to accelerate to that kind of speed and maintain it for the length of the journey.

The availability of fuel is a major limiting factor for any journey beyond the ‘small’ volume of space around our own solar system. There are no service stations in the interstellar void, and the problem with having a huge fuel tank is that a lot of the fuel is used up just moving the fuel. NASA estimates if you wanted to send a space shuttle to the nearest star to our sun using current rocket technology, you’d need more mass in fuel than currently exists in the universe. And even if you did find enough fuel it would take 900 years to get there.

So I had to cast around for a powerful source of readily available energy the ship could tap into. Luckily it seems the vacuum of space is full of energy, if you know how to find and extract it.


Zero-point energy is one of the effects predicted by quantum theory, an idea so mind-bending it can argue strongly that a cat inside a box is both alive and dead at the same time. This theory also predicts that each cubic centimetre of ‘empty’ space actually contains enormous amounts of randomly fluctuating energy.

The effects of zero-point energy can be observed in the laboratory, most notably in the Casimir effect which creates an attractive force between two plates that are close together. Scientists believe the attraction is due to the closeness of the plates excluding certain wavelengths of zero-point energy (because they’re too big to fit between the gap). As a result the energy density between the plates is lower than the energy density around the plates and this energy gradient pushes the plates together. See what I mean about the mind-bendy bit?

Another effect of zero-point energy is the Lamb shift which shows that zero-point energy fluctuations ‘shift’ electrons orbiting a nucleus into different — higher or lower energy — orbits.

Now a lot of this is ‘left-field’ science but Horizon is a work of fiction, so I’m happy to run a ‘what-if’ scenario for the good of the story.

The drive in Magellan takes advantage of these two observable effects of zero-point energy. Feeding molecules into a tiny tube, a buckytube, cuts those molecules off from some of the zero-point wavelengths (the Casimir effect) which means the electrons fall into a lower energy orbit (the Lamb shift) and that ‘energy loss’ from the atom is harvested by the Magellan’s drive.

Here’s an extract from the novel describing the effect:
The drive chamber took up the rear quarter of the ship and fully two-fifths of its volume. Most of that was filled by the six huge plasma thrusters that channelled the engine’s output. Cocooned in space suits, Cait and Harris stood on the gantry running along the midline of the rear wall. The vast superstructure surrounded them, and out past the thrusters lay the infinite. The starfield crowded into an ellipse, as if viewed through a thick lens. Cait knew that at this speed the view was blue-shifted as well, but she couldn’t tell the difference. The combined effect made her feel like an ant clinging to a very small ledge. 
Her eyes drifted back to the featureless black heart of the drive. Their survival depended on balance — macro and quantum, thrust and inertia. The black box was the fulcrum, fed by the vacuum surrounding it. On one hand, it sucked hydrogen atoms into its nanotubes, cut them off from the quantum wavelengths that kept them spinning, and fed the energy released to the huge plasma thrusters. And on the other, it generated a quantum field that enhanced the push and decreased the inertia just enough so the harnesses could absorb the residual V-shift from the drive pulses. Exactly 189 x 1030 bucky-tubes sat inside the box, cycling ten times that number of hydrogen atoms through every second. The processing power to keep it balanced was tremendous, and it all relied on the proper functioning of the neural network that made up the Phillips persona.

‘If this crashes in a heap, we won’t know what hit us,’ she said into the suit mic.

‘If this crashes in a heap, I’ll quit my job.’ 
So where do the molecules come from? Hydrogen is present everywhere in space, but perhaps not in the quantities required to drive the ship, although recently there’s been reports of rivers of hydrogen flowing through the galaxy. However Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle implies that particles are continually popping into and out of existence even in the vacuum of space, and that may mean there are enough particles at any given instant to be harvested by Magellan. It’s also possible that the ship recycles the harvested particles, releasing them from the buckytubes to be ‘re-energised’ by the zero-point energy wavelengths before being fed back into the tubes.

More recently NASA has been looking at a different kind of zero-point energy drive, manipulating the connection between mass and spacetime to lower inertia through an interaction with the zero-point energy fields and somehow drive the ship forward. And then there are theories around harnessing cosmic background radiation, dark energy and dark matter that go way beyond the counter-intuitive drive of the Magellan. If your mind was bent before, this new stuff will leave it well and truly twisted.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Horizon - Futureshock

This post originally appeared on Lee Battersby's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by Harper Voyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining the world of the future and how future events shape characters and create a believable background.

The explorer ship Magellan takes off on its mission between sixty and eighty years from now and the ‘in-flight’ time is fifty-five years (from our perspective). I’ve been deliberately vague with the starting point of the timeline in case actual historical events trip me up. But the world of 2075 (assuming we are all still here) has been mapped out to some extent already.

Certainly, unless certain intransigent governments come to their senses, we will be facing a climate disaster by then. The UN predicts we will reach a population of 9.1 billion by 2050, with population peaking in 2070 at 9.4 billion, and the great majority of those extra billions will be born into the poorest nations. Food security will be a major issue as the planet struggles to feed those billions. In today’s world, already over a billion people are going hungry.

In the short- and medium-term, the problems we see emerging in the Middle East following the Arab Spring look set to continue. Ethnic tensions are also leading to fracturing borders across Europe and elsewhere. It is a tense time for the world right now and our geopolitical map is in flux. And yet we are also witnessing amazing advances in all areas of science.

So here are the elements I have to play with: climate change and environmental degradation, population growth and impact on infrastructure, racial tensions and war, technological development and advances — I took all these factors and pieced together a future history that maps out key events in the fifty or so years leading up to the point when Magellan launches from Earth on its mission of exploration:
 
No. of years before wake-up near Iota Pesei
Event
110
Nuclear bombardment of selected targets in the Middle East and Asia by the United States of America, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
109
War on Terror officially declared ‘at an end’.
107
Compact of Asian Peoples formed. Compact petitions for UN membership. United States of America exercises its veto.
104
Pro-EU factions win UK government in landslide election.
96
Significant shrinkage of polar icecaps recorded for the fifteenth successive year. Effect of rising sea levels felt worldwide.
94
Fuel-cell boom sees formation of the Union of Northern States to protect sensitive patents.
94
Kyoto III finally ratified.
93
Compact coalition cuts all trade ties with Australia.
90
EU governments consolidated under a single body.
88
Hurricane Ivan lays waste to the eastern seaboard of United States of America and a large part of Central America.
87
United States and Australian governments ratify creation of Pax Americana, effectively merging the two countries into a consolidated trade, defence and diplomatic entity. The wastelands from Florida to Pennsylvania are officially excluded from the Pax.
85
The first fully fledged Pax election sees an increase in pro-Green elected candidates as a result of increasing environmental degradation and the legacy of Hurricane Ivan.
84
Pax Americana vetoes the Compact’s petition for UN membership.
79
To meet its Kyoto III targets, Pax Americana switches exclusively to fuel-cell technology for all public and an increasing percentage of private power utilisation.
78
The Pax oversees a massive retooling and retraining effort to gear its industries for the new information economy. The need for a larger skilled workforce prompts employment lotteries in the marginal eastern seaboard colonies. Thousands of former USA citizens are resettled in the Pax.
74
The Union of Northern States develops second-generation fuel-cell technology, halving cost and mass and doubling output of the new cells.
72
The Pax economy takes off on the crest of the fuel-cell revolution and the rebirth of Silicon Valley.
66
First bio-jack experiments yield amazing results in quadriplegic subjects.
64
The UNS uses its voting block to force Pax Americana to approve the Compact’s petition for UN member status. Compact granted member status of United Nations.
63
Pax American Space Administration (PASA) formed, with its headquarters at Woomera, Australia. Near-Earth asteroid mining commences. Limited trial and use of deepsleep for asteroid-belt mining sorties.
63
UN aid program to the Compact finds health infrastructure is ‘primitive’ and in need of immediate assistance. Pax, UNS and EU pledge six billion U-dollars to build and equip fifteen hospitals and train over three hundred doctors.
61
EU scientist Earnhard Godel develops the picopulse black-box propulsion system. Wins Nobel Prize.
60
Environmental studies conclude that the depletion of the ozone layer has halted.
60
PASA announces the Explorer Ship program. International Space Station brought out of mothballs to coordinate the search for a target star.
57
Testing of Magellan prototype explorer ship complete. Crew selection includes Pax, EU and UNS members; however, the UNS representative is injured in training. The Pax government requests a replacement and UNS suggests a Compact citizen.
55
Magellan launches from Earth orbit.
 
Of course, the fact that the crew comprises members of the Pax Americana, the Compact and the European Union, means they are all heavily invested in this future history and moulded by the climactic events that took place in the decades before launch. But the world has not stood still while they’ve slept on the way to Horizon, and there’s a whole swathe of future history they need to catch up on when they wake, not all of which will be to everyone’s liking.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Horizon - welcome aboard Magellan

This post originally appeared on Darkmatter Zine's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse.

It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth. While the main focus of the story is the tense drama that plays out between the crew in the cramped confines of the ship, a lot of the grunt work in good science fiction goes into imagining exactly how the ‘props’ that support the main action could actually function.

In my post Engage: Tinkering with a Quantum Drive, I’ll talk about the theoretical drive that boosts the explorer ship to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light in order to reach the Iota Persei system in a reasonable time — i.e. before my ‘stellarnauts’ grow too old. But the drive is only one part of the ship, which has to provide space, life-support and light for the stellarnauts inside, possibly for decades. So what does it look like?

In general configuration, the outside of the Magellan is a stubby cone packed with everything the crew need. The hull is metal, of course, but covered with ice, just one defence against a myriad of dangers, as Mission Leader Cait Dyson knows.

The Pax Americana ship Magellan fell steadily towards Iota Persei and its retinue of planets. Its hull was coated in a thick mantle of water-ice. Cait knew the interplanetary ‘vacuum’ was anything but empty. At 0.6 light speed, even a tiny fragment of rock crossing their path could cause major damage. So far, statistical probability had been on their side. But serious collision was only one of a million things that could kill them without warning. She’d been appalled at first and then finally bored by the seemingly endless catalogue of hazards laid out in the mission pack. Looking at Bren now, though, she couldn’t shake the feeling the list may not have been as exhaustive as she’d thought. 
The main habitat area is a large drum rotating within the hull to create a faux gravity due to centripetal force. Cait and her fellow crewmembers spend most of their time inside as long-term exposure to weightlessness not only causes loss of bone density but muscle wastage as well. Even with the drum, the crew are in less than peak physical condition when they awake from their long deepsleep. So what about the rest of the ship?

The port still flagged computer and life support. She cleared the screen with a wave and began checking internal sensors, bringing up a schematic of their craft. The familiar stubby cone of the explorer ship Magellan flashed up in cross-section and she worked the sensors from stern to stem. First came the thickest portion, the massive hold containing the zero-point drive, partially open to the vacuum. Next the aft storage area, hard up against the revolving drum of the main habitat ring. Nothing. Hull integrity, atmosphere, ambient temperature, servos, relays, all okay. Ahead of them was the fore access tube and the six segmented bulkheads of the forward section tapering towards the nose: auxiliary command, clean room and lander lock, bot tubes and launcher, computer core, environment plant, and long- and short-range sensors and communications — each segment lined with additional storage bins wherever clearance allowed. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Which meant whatever had gone wrong was outside their ability to easily define. 
Of course not all of this is ‘important’ to the story but, as I mentioned above, the props are vital in sci-fi and the author has to do a lot of work to imagine the smallest detail so they can speak to the reader with authority about how the ship functions and how the crew moves through it. That’s why I created a schematic to help me plot the action and movements of my crew through the interior of the ship.


Welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy the trip more than the crew of Magellan do.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Horizon - Meet the Crew

This post originally appeared on Trent Jamieson's blog as part of the Horizon blog tour.

Photo: NASA
Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.

A lot of the action in Horizon takes place inside the cramped confines of the Magellan explorer ship, so the interactions between the characters are intense. As part of the development process, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted Horizon to be about. This was my first attempt at writing a science fiction novel, and I knew from the start that I wanted to explore a number of scientific concepts relating to space travel, planetary exploration and alien environments. But I also wanted to make sure my characters were as ‘real’ as possible. Here’s an extract from my original proposal:
While the plot will be the main driver, the characterisation will also play a major part in developing the themes of the story. The characters will not follow the stereotypic ‘space hero’ mould. As much as possible they will be real people with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses placed in an extraordinary situation. Specifically, their characterisation will be used to explore:
  • the reasons individuals may have for abandoning a life on Earth for an extremely dangerous mission from which they may never return
  • the feelings of loss etc. that they experience when they are faced with the reality of being fifty-five years out of step with the rest of humanity and the culture clash that this involves
  • the paranoia, mistrust and power struggles that can emerge very quickly even among the most well-balanced individuals, and
  • how the characters face the ethical dilemma of being asked to help a humanity that some of them no longer feel any connection with, and what they must do in order to live with their decision. 
So let’s meet the crew.

Flight Commander Cait Dyson — Mission Leader / Astro Sciences (Pax Americana)
‘Earth, the Pax and the Compact are light years away now. There’s only us, and we need to depend on one another, because at any instant our lives can turn on what each individual does.’ 
When we first meet Cait, she’s choking to death and her ship is out of control. Yet she manages to deal with the immediate dangers and rouse the rest of the crew. She’s more than competent in a crisis, but she’s increasingly isolated as the mission unfolds and she doesn’t always trust her own judgement. Several times she wishes she could just give up, but she knows none of the other crew are up to the task: either because they lack the perspective a commander needs or because they just can’t be trusted. Before the flight began, some at Mission Control thought she was too indecisive, but Cait has her own way of dealing with problems. She prefers not to act until absolutely necessary, waiting and watching as issues play out so she can identify the most effective intervention at the right time. Despite what she might think of her own abilities, she is a great leader, willing to put her own personal interests and fears aside and look at problems from all possible perspectives. She believes in ‘win-win’ but others among the crew, and on Earth, don’t necessarily support her efforts to achieve it.

Mission Specialist Nadira Coomlah — Planetary Physics / Climatology (Compact of Asian Peoples)
‘It sickens me that people with so much can want so much more, while we had so little and shared what little we had.’ 
Nadira was a late addition to the Magellan crew, and not a popular one. History between the United Pacific States and the Compact has been complicated in the decades leading up to Magellan’s launch [see my post Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow], and during the initial outward leg of the trip before the crew went into deepsleep, the thin veneer of civility between the UPS crewmembers and Nadira rapidly broke down. The fact that Nadira is rightly proud of the Compact’s achievements and how it has raised the living standards of the poorest nations in the world, despite what she sees as UPS antagonism, does not endear her further to the crew. Cait alone does her best to build a common understanding with Nadira, particularly when the news they receive from Earth on waking brings a whole new, and potentially destructive, political dynamic to shipboard life. Despite the hostility directed at her, particularly from Mission Specialist Tom Harris, but also from Lex Daziel, Nadira is an effective member of the crew and works diligently on her mission goals, and it’s Nadira who first alerts the crew to the hypercane raging across the face of the planet Horizon, and the dangers that it poses to the viability of the world’s biosphere.

Mission Specialist Lex Dalziel — Life Sciences / Ship’s Medical Officer (European Union)
‘I didn’t travel all this way to put up with this sort of bullshit. I say we ignore the whole bloody broadcast. Earth’s too far away to bother about now.’ 
Although from an unspecified part of the European Union, in my mind, by name, and certainly by disposition, Lex is Scottish. A brilliant scientist, he could do a lot better in the social skills department, and he delights in setting up conflict among the crew just to see how it unfolds. But Lex also has some deeply held core principles which shape his actions. First and foremost he believes in the importance of the science he performs and the absolute necessity of ensuring the environment of Horizon is not contaminated as a result of the presence of Magellan. He also feels that — since Earth is a one hundred and ten year round trip away — the needs of Earth and whatever orders they may issue to the crew are a distant second to what he believes is right. When Earth re-establishes contact, and things don’t go the way he thinks they should, he challenges himself to show the courage of his convictions and for that he needs an ally. Cait and Lex were close on the initial outward journey until she understood his predilection for troublemaking. Now their relationship is difficult, and so he tries his best to enlist Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood, the bio-jack, to help him.

Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood — Computer Control / Remote Sensing (Pax Americana)
‘And now everyone needs me again. You, Cait, Earth . . . Where were all of you when I needed someone?’ 
Bren is a bio-jack, which means she has a chip in her head that lets her interact with and remotely control a range of ship’s systems. The transhumans of Earth’s future are often viewed with distrust and fear. Tom Harris is certainly no lover of bio-jacks and worries about Bren’s ability to ‘meddle’ with the systems he controls by more conventional methods. Bren was an unlikely addition to the crew, but Cait lobbied hard to have her included, firstly because she likes the younger woman, but also because they both had difficult upbringings in the desolate former USA. Bren feels like an orphan. Cut off from humanity because of the chip she carries, and cut off from other transhumans because of how far she’s travelled from Earth, she can only rely on herself.

Mission Specialist Tom Harris — Ship’s Drive / Life Support Systems (Pax Americana)
‘And as for the others . . . well, you know what I think about them, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for the sake of shipboard harmony. As long as they do the same.’ 
Harris is a talented engineer. He understands technical systems a hell of a lot better than he understands people and he doesn’t have much time for the niceties of social interactions. He’s also an old-fashioned patriot and resents Nadira’s presence on board and Lex’s apparent disregard for the orders coming out of launch control. But for all his faults he’s a straight shooter and what you see is what you get. He recognises Cait is trying to do her best to follow mission requirements, and he respects the lengths she has to go to in order to bring the rest of the crew with her. He knows he couldn’t do what she does and so he does his best to support her, even though it’s hard to keep a lid on his own temper sometimes.

Phillips — Computer Interface Personality for Magellan
‘You have something that belongs to me, Thurgood. For everyone’s sake, I suggest you give it up.’ 
Modelled on Launch Director Dan Phillips of the Pax Air and Space Administration, Phillips is essential to Magellan’s operation, maintaining integrated control of all ship’s systems as well as balancing the drive and performing the billions of calculations required to create and control the pico-pulse thrust cascades that allow Magellan to travel at 0.6 lightspeed while ensuring the safety of the fragile humans on board. He’s also — when the crew wake from deepsleep — acting very strangely indeed.

And there you have it: five souls and one artificial intelligence as far away from the rest of humanity as you can imagine, with the fate of two planets hanging in the balance.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Horizon - Interview - Blog Tour day 11

To cap off the Horizon blog tour, Marianne de Pierres interviewed me about the book and what's up next

Like a lot of my shorter fiction, Horizon came out of a strong image that popped into my mind. I’d been reading a New Scientist article about suspended animation in frogs and I suddenly saw... 
Read more on Marianne de Pierres's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Horizon - life, but not as we know it - Blog Tour day 10

Greig Beck writes amazing fiction that often features very strange lifeforms. Over on his Facebook page, Greg has kindly given over some space for me to talk about life on Horizon in day 10 of the blog tour

When I was creating the planet Horizon, the target for my stellarnaut explorers, I imagined what life might be like there, what extinction events might have occurred and how life might have survived...
Read more on Greg's Facebook Page.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Horizon - how to build a planet - Blog Tour day 9

Sean Wright has kindly given over some blog space to help me talk about building a planet in day 9 of the Horizon blog tour

The way I see it, there are four key elements in creating a believable world to serve the needs of the story:
  • spatial location 
  • physical attributes 
  • geological past, and 
  • current environment
 Read more on Sean's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Horizon - the next step in evolution - Blog Tour day 8

Alan Baxter is kindly hosting an article on the next step in directed evolution, on day 8 of the Horizon  blog tour.

One of the most interesting themes in science fiction, and one of the most exciting advances happening in medical research today, is how humans will become augmented through interfacing with technology... 
Read more on Alan's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins

Monday, November 10, 2014

Horizon - near light-speed and time travel - blog tour day 7

Over on Rjurik Davidson's blog I talk about the time dilation effects experienced by the Magellan stellarnauts as they cruise at 0.6 light-speed

It was important for the story that the world of Horizon was far enough away from Earth for the crew to be entirely isolated from any direct interference — or chance of assistance — from their home planet. That’s why I chose the Iota Persei star system which is thirty-four light years from Earth 
 Read more on Rjurik's blog.

Follow the Horizon blog tour:
3 November - Voyager Blog - Horizon Chapter One (extract)
4 November - Trent Jamieson's blog - Character Building: Meet the Crew
5 November - Darkmatter Fanzine - Welcome to Magellan: Inside the Ship
6 November - Lee Battersby's blog - Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow
7 November - Joanne Anderton's blog - Engage: Tinkering With a Quantum Drive
10 November - Ben Peek's blog - Stormy Weather: Facing Down Climate Change
11 November - Rjurik Davidson's blog - Time Travel: Relatively Speaking
12 November - Alan Baxter's blog - Consciousness Explorers: Inside a Transhuman
13 November - Sean Wright's blog - From the Ground Up: Building a Planet
14 November - Greig Beck's Facebook Page - Life Persists: Finding the Extremophile
17 November - Marianne de Pierres' blog - Interview 

The Horizon ebook is available for purchase from Amazon, Amazon Australia, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Bookworld, Angus and Robertson, HarperCollins