This is why I read Science Fiction #sfrb #scifi

Lately I’ve been sharing my views on what I think science fiction romance is. And I said that if you take the science fiction out of SFR, all you have left is romance.

Science fiction takes me away to places I’ll only ever see in photographs. This graphic is a NASA image of Alnitak and the Flame Nebula, one of the three stars of the belt of Orion. The other two are Mintaka and Alnilam, and those three names alone show what an important place Arab astronomers have in our knowledge of the stars. I suspect the names should be written Al Nitak and Al Nilam – but that’s another story.

But a photograph is just a pretty picture. And here’s another quote from the same book, to illustrate that sometimes a picture isn’t worth more than a thousand words. A skilled writer can take you there, ignite a fire in your soul, show you the very edge of infinity. I wrote a sort of review of Slow Lightning. Should you be interested.

Orion Slow Lightning copy

The one Rule of Writing you should never break (IMO)

Those who know me would realise that I raise an eyebrow at the mere mention of the Rules of Writing. You know the ones; thou shalt not use passive voice, thou shalt avoid ‘that’, ‘as’, ‘just’ and ‘there was’, thou shalt not use adjectives and yay, verily, thou shalt not use adverbs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. They are sensible guidelines to consider, NOT “rules” Somebody was supposed to have said, “There are three rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

BUT… the title says it all, doesn’t it? There is one rule you break at your peril, and that is

 

Do Your Research

I was involved in an interesting discussion with writers of science fiction, based on a blog post about whether the ‘science’ was important in science fiction. Specifically, the author discussed a scenario in a novel where a spaceship in deep space begins to slow down when the engines fail. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over how important it was that this would not happen. Without any drag in the almost complete vacuum of space, inertia would keep the ship travelling at a constant speed unless something else intervened. It transpired that the writer of the novel had based her ‘research’ on a few science fiction movies. This is not a great move when you consider films like Star Wars, where basic physics is either misunderstood (this ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs) or ignored. Think fighters zooming around in space as they would in atmosphere, and making a quick trip to Bespin without a hyperdrive, just to mention a couple.

People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds.

A similar thing can be said of historical fiction, which I have also written. Before I wrote about a lad beheaded with a sword – just for fun – I found out how this could be done and what would happen. If you’re interested, here’s the answer – murder by decapitation. When I needed to write a scene where muskets were used, I researched muskets. Here’s the post about that. Writers of crime novels face the same situation. You’re going to kill somebody. Is the mode of death feasible? How long does it take? What evidence is left behind etc etc.

I suppose not everybody will agree with me. After all, the story is the thing, is it not? And since I’m a Star Wars fan, I can hardly disagree. But I still think Lucas et al could have done their homework and come up with something more accurate and still just as exciting. Even a few nose thrusters in the fighters would have helped. And maybe the hyperdrive could have been damaged, in need of repair, but still barely operational. Sure, there’s a little more room in speculative fiction for invention. After all, it is ‘fiction’. But I think there’s a limit. Even when I wrote Black Tiger, which is about a were-tiger, I took care to find out about real tigers, the legend of were-tigers in India, and the role of tigers in Hindu theology.

So what do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Do you expect to find real science in science fiction? Real history in historical novels? Or doesn’t it matter to you?

Is telepathy science fiction – or should we shove it in the fantasy basket?

I’ve always had a thing about telepathy in a science fiction novel. To me, it smacks far too much of ouija boards, mind reading and charlatanism. So when I come across telepathy as a skill in an SF book, I roll my eyes, sigh – but if it’s somebody whose work I like, I’ll keep reading. One such is Linnea Sinclair. Her book Games of Command has two story arcs, one which is high tech SF, the other concerning telepathy. I really enjoyed the book, but I much preferred the high tech action half. Because of my preferences, it took me a long time to actually get around to reading An Accidental Goddess. And again, while I enjoyed the book, the whole mental powers higher human thing required me to not analyze too deeply.

Anne McCaffrey had her telepath type series, too. That was To Ride Pegasus and its sequels and it didn’t press buttons for me. In fact, it was a did-not-finish.

So this article in io9, entitled how much longer until humanity becomes a hive mind, left me somewhat bemused. Because a form of mental telepathy does seem to be… well… just around the corner. Granted, you need electronics to make it work, but even so. Lots of novels (including mine) foresee humans enhancing their mental capability with a neural chip. Not many novels consider the dangers, though. One of my regular readers mentioned the idea of Facebook playing in one’s head. And, of course, viruses, worms and the like. Then there’s who controls the systems? And what about privacy?

But as far as the nuts and bolts are concerned, the thing about this article which really had me thinking was the transmission of ideas. Let’s take something really simple, like colour. As it happens, my husband is colour blind. I’ve often wondered what he sees when he looks at (say) a red rose. I know the flower sort of disappears into the foliage for him, so I’m guessing that his brain sees that wave length the same as what I call green. But really, I don’t know, because his brain is interpreting the signals in a different way to my brain. The same thing takes place when we talk about objects such as trees, or mountains – or anything else you care to name. As the article points out, we use a thing called language to kind of code what we’re talking about. The fact that the tree you visualise in your brain isn’t the same as the tree I visualise in mine, doesn’t matter. So given all that, speech is much, much easier to transmit than a mental picture.

So has all of this changed my mind about telepathy in SF? Show me how its done – with some sort of neural net or nanotech or a chip or something, and yes, I’ll go along for the ride. Otherwise – it sits over in the corner marked ‘magic’, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, though. It’s in good company. The Force is lurking around over there, too.

Thoughts? Telepathy in SF – yes, no?

A little bit of moonshine in the night

A lunar eclipse happened in my part of the world on 28th November, hard on the cosmic heels of a solar eclipse earlier in the month. As it turned out, the penumbral eclipse was a huge disappointment. No shadow across the moon’s disc, not even a reddening of the light. So the cirrus cloud partially obscuring the view didn’t matter much. We had moonshine as we always do and the photos were a fizz.

However, it got me to wondering about moons; ours, and other moons in general. To start with, let’s mention the eclipse – the truly spectacular solar eclipse that happened earlier this month. It was a partial eclipse in my part of the world, but even so it is a special event. But why is it so? The moon is tiny compared to the sun.

An extraordinary cosmic coincidence

The sun is about 400 times the moon’s diameter and about 400 times as far way from the Earth and that ratio means that when the moon comes between the sun and the Earth, that shadow is just about a perfect fit.  That relationship is a coincidence. Evidence indicates that the Moon was once closer to the Earth and is gradually moving away, so enjoy your cosmic moment, knowing that in the distant future, there will be no total solar eclipse.

That factoid is not the only extraordinary thing about our moon. Not at all.

It’s not the largest moon in the solar system. In fact, going by this list it comes a creditable fifth after Ganymede (Jupiter iii), Titan (Saturn vi), Callisto (Jupiter iv) and IO (Jupiter i). Indeed, Ganymede and Titan are both larger than Mercury and let’s not talk about poor Pluto. Really, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the largest planets have collected the largest moons.

Except ours.

Why is this so?

I have in my possession a tattered little paperback, a collection of essays on astronomy by Isaac Asimov (Asimov on Astronomy, Coronet, 1974). One of the things I loved about Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry and an interest in everything scientific, was that he could explain complex physics in a way that an interested amateur with absolutely zippo mathematical ability could understand. He wrote papers regularly for magazines and the like and subsequently, they were published in book form. This little volume is a treasure trove of scientific fact and some intriguing speculations. True, some of it is now dated, since it was published before the epic discoveries of Voyagers I and II. Pluto had not yet been demoted. And yet before it could be proved he predicted that many planets other than Saturn would have rings.

To get back to the point, one of these essays is entitled “Just Mooning Around” in which Asimov talks about the gravitational effects of the sun, the planets and the moons in the solar system have on each other. Without going into all the details of the paper, he talks about the ‘tug of war’  ratio, which argues that in most cases, the gravitational attraction of a planet on its moons is vastly greater than the pull of the sun on those same moons. There is also a kind of ‘goldilocks’ zone around a planet in which a true moon would exist (as opposed to loosely captured satellites like Neptune’s Nereid). A moon must be between a minimum Roche limit and a maximum ‘tug of war’ distance. For the mind-bending number-crunching, go read it yourself – I told you I can’t do maths. However, I can appreciate logic. And you will see it is so.

According to his theory, of the four innermost rocky planets, Mercury could not have a moon because it has no ‘goldilocks’ zone. The other three are highly unlikely to have moons because of the narrowness of the ‘goldilocks’ zone. And indeed, Mercury and Venus do not have satellites, and Mars’s Phobos and Demos are overlarge potatoes which are expected to disintegrate.

I see you jumping up and down. What about us? Earth and that thing up there?

Ah, Asimov argues that the Earth/Moon pair is not a true planet/moon relationship because the Moon is so much larger in comparison with its primary than any other such relationship in the solar system. By a long way. He suggests that the Earth/Moon combo is really a binary planet, waltzing its way around the sun. Of course, all planets with moons have a wobble in their orbit but the Earth/Moon shimmy must be quite pronounced. Certainly I don’t think there’s much disagreement these days that our Moon was derived from the same stuff as the Earth. This article suggests accepted theory is that a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth, aggregating the material and spewing off a portion which later formed the Moon.

The next thing you have to wonder is – how important is that massive moon to life on Earth? But that’s another topic, isn’t it?

Isn’t science wonderful?

What would you weigh on an exoplanet?

picture of an exoplanetI was reading an article from somebody, all enthusiastic about the exo-planets the Kepler probe keeps finding. They’re all many times larger than planet Earth even if they’re in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. You know the one – not too close, not too far, just right. That is, a planet neither too close to its primary nor too far away, where liquid water could exist. My immediate reaction was ‘sure, but we’d weigh too much’.

Then I began to wonder how much more. I’m not a mathematician – never have been. In truth, I can’t add up to save my life. So I’m counting on you (ha ha) to correct me if I get this wrong.

I discovered this site http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/weight/ and learned that gravitational pull weakens by the radius squared. So let’s say you weighed 60kg on planet Earth. Planet Gliese 581g is estimated at 2.6 Earth masses and 1.4 Earth radii. So yes, you’re going to weigh more on Gliese 581g, but not 2.6 times as much. If I’ve got this right, the increased diameter of the planet means you’ll weigh about 1.3 times as much – so about 78kg. That’s certainly not a huge imposition. And all of a sudden, I’m bouncing in my chair, going oooh oooh.

Here’s some estimated figures about Gliese 581g, taken from this fascinating website http://phl.upr.edu/projects/habitable-exoplanets-catalog

Mass = 2.6 Earth Radius = 1.4 Earth  Temp = average surface temperature, so this place, at 10, is rather cooler than our 15 degrees (NASA’s figure from 2008), but the estimate of average temperature assumes an Earth-like atmosphere, which is a pretty big assumption. On the face of it the planet zips around its sun in a fraction of the time it takes ours, taking only 32 days as compared to 365. But that might not be the case, since the Gliesean day may be much longer than Earth’s. The figures don’t mention period of rotation, which I find a tad surprising. As a comparison, Venus’s ‘day” (the time it takes to rotate on its axis) is actually longer than its year (the time it takes to orbit the Sun.) (http://www.universetoday.com/14282/how-long-is-a-day-on-venus/)

So there you have it. I found out today that a candidate for Torreno (capital of the Coalition of Worlds in Morgan’s Choice) may be only 20.2 light years away. And with the shift drive of the future, that’ll be a place to add to your holiday plans.

Ain’t science grand?