A Difficult Year 

It is the year 2021. Hopefully an improvement on the year 2020, though it seems almost to have taken the attitude of 'hold my beer'. On a personal level, 2020 saw my books reaching an increasing audience and progress on two more and a couple of other projects. It has also been a year of near isolation, thanks to the Covid-19. Mind you, that has had its advantages as well. Reflecting on the isolation aspect, I have to acknowledge that it has, at times, been difficult, though with video calls now (BIG SciFi idea of the 1970s ...) it is much easier to interact with friends and family without being face to face.

The year saw the loss of some old friends and acquaintances thanks to the Covid, and the death of my only sibling -- not due to the Covid. In an age when we are used to being able to travel relatively freely at such times and for such events, it has been particularly hard to have not been able to do so.

So what does 2021 hold in store? A good question, and my crystal ball seems to be at least partially on the blink. The one area for which I don't need it is my new title to be launched around June or July. A spin-off from the Harry Heron Series, it follows Harry's distant relative as he prepares the new Starship NECS Vanguard for completion and commissioning. He has a lot to cope with including sabotage, an assassination team and plenty of action as he recovers from the death of his wife, and finds companionship and support from an undercover agent, part of the team trying to catch the saboteurs and agents working for the emerging enemy.

Captain James Heron: First to the Fray is an exciting and fast moving story and will, I hope, fit into the Harry Heron universe to the satisfaction of my readers. Watch this space for more news!

The Harry Heron Series 

With the publication of Harry Heron: Hope Transcends, the story arc is complete, though I have at least one spin-off book in the making. For now, though, I am focussed on ways to bring the six books together as a "Boxed Set" in both print and Kindle versions. First will be the Kindle set as, for the moment, a paper version will probably be rather expensive. Step one in the process has been to get Kindle Direct Publishing to group the books in their system as a series, so we now have The Harry Heron Series listed on Amazon and accessible through the links they have kindly provided ...

US: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08HR67M15

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08HR5NB96

DE: https://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B08HR5NB96

JP:  https://www.amazon.co.jp/gp/product/B08HR67M15

 

American Book Fest ... 

Two of the Harry Heron titles are currently displayed on the American Book Fest site under the heading of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is always a great feeling to see your books on display on another site, and I hope to see more there at some stage. For the moment however, my attention is all on getting ready for the publication of the final (for now!) book in the Harry Heron series -- Harry Heron; Hope Transcends. It is scheduled for publication in late July, and it will be the culmination of quite a journey with Harry and his friends.

Once again Harry finds himself at the centre of a complex web of intrigue involving political upheavals, corrupt individuals in league with pirates and an alien race looking for a new host. His plans for his marriage to his long term girlfriend and fiancee, the professional concert pianist Mary Hopkins are unexpectedly derailed by his being the target of an assassination contract because he may have unwittingly exposed a major threat to the democracies. His disappearance triggers a major upheaval ...

Keeping Busy 

Funny how things seem to pile up when you're busy, and with Spring now Sprung and Summer upon us, the garden is making demands that keep me away from the keyboard, the woods and my Shelties insist on outings (strictly local and strictly within the 'lockdown' rules here!) ... All of which means that writing is currently something done in snatches when the muse is upon me, or an idea has taken shape for one of the books I'm working on. Plus there's always work needing doing on something around the house besides the process of checking the corrections and edits of the next book in the Harry Heron series, Harry Heron: Hope Transcends.

So the merry month of May has now departed and June is upon me and I somehow never quite got around to posting anything here last month. It wasn't a case of not wanting to, but rather one of having too many other little tasks to get organized. Looking back I had intended to write something about how the Covid 19 made me ponder the chances of humanity encountering a lethal virus on a distant planet -- when we eventually do start to travel. According to scientists it is extremely likely that we will, so it will pay us to learn a great deal more about how to prevent it before that happens. H G Wells had a point in his War of the Worlds when the Martian invaders are ultimately defeated and killed by what we call the Common Cold. This latest version of the coronaviral family, is perhaps, a timely reminder of our vulnerability.

This is one of the reasons I think that we will have to live inside a sort of biosphere, or biodome, once we do move onto a new world. It will serve two purposes, the first, obviously, being to provide a habitat to which WE are fully adjusted, and secondly, to protect the biosphere of the new host planet from us and our pathogens. I rather suspect that this may prove to be the toughest test in any move into space and new worlds. It is also a problem that will require a multi-disciplined solution involving a lot of expertise in ecological, biomedical and engineering fields just to mention a few.

For the moment, however, I plan to focus on getting Harry Heron: Hope Transcends onto the market, completing the revisions I want to make to another book in the same genre, and get the rough draft of another historical story completed. I think that ought to keep me busy until next year!

The Problem with 'Alien' Environments 

I guess one thing the Coronavirus (Corvid-19) is teaching us is that the more we get around, the more likely we are to encounter something we have no natural resistance to. This has been a major theme for science fiction writers for years. A quick glance at Wikipedia's list of disaster and "end of the world" fiction in books, television and film gives a good overview. I think the first such story I read must have been War of the Worlds by H G Wells, the twist there being that the technologically superior Martians were killed off by what, for us, is "The Common Cold". I think it was the Andromeda Strain that first really got me thinking about it, and this pandemic moves the whole thing back into focus.

Like it or not, until someone comes up with a way to treat it, or to prevent anyone getting it, we have all got to be super careful. Social distancing can only work to a point, and isolation of entire communities is not only difficult, but can produce a whole new raft of problems. As I've suggested already, this is a scenario many SciFi writers have addressed, H G Wells being among the first to do so. In his War of the Worlds, the invading Martians are defeated, not by superior human weapons or technology, but by the Common Cold. Ironic, because the "Common" Cold is a coronavirus ...

In my stories this is something I have tried to deal with by assuming that the spacefaring humans have discovered medical ways to render themselves immune, or at least less likely to be attacked by an alien bug. A bit of a leap of faith, but I touch on it (and the whole of this problem) in Harry Heron: Into the Unknown when Harry and his friends first find themselves aboard the NECS Vanguard. The ship's Surgeon Commander remarks that the trio have anti-bodies in their bloodstreams for diseases humanity has long left behind. The suggestion is made that these, coupled with their 'ancient' DNA may be useful in protecting humans from anything they may encounter on a new world. We can but hope this will be so when we do venture forth "into the unknown."

The current threat to humanity is, however, not from some future world, but from this one. I suppose we could argue that the lockdown is good in one respect in that there is less pollution in the air at present, but there is also the frustration of being confined. The perfect opportunity then for some reading while we wait for someone to come up with the medical means to render this Corvid 19 less of a threat to us all. Dare I commend Harry Heron: Awakening Threat to those who have not read it? Or the whole series to those have haven't encountered Harry and his friends before this?

Stay safe, and above all, stay well.

Do Stories Shape Our Outlook? 

There are a range of opinions on that question! in the years I was growing up a great deal of science fiction was in the dystopian field (a lot still is!), and it certainly influenced some of us. Like the 'western' genre it often promoted the lone hero who triumphs through determination, ability and courage. It certainly has a huge influence on those who still follow that idealised view. There is certainly some evidence to suggest that certain types of story do colour our view of the world, though perhaps not quite as heavily as Sir Terry Pratchett's concept in his book "Witches Abroad." Certainly the so called fairy tales we are told as children shape our view of the world to some extent, probably as they were meant to. The stories of the Brother's Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and others all have moralistic and cautionary aspects, and that is true of other tales as we expand our literary horizons. Writers like Enid Blyton left many of us with a certain 'vision' of Britain, as did some of our less cerebral reading matter, like the Beano, the Lion, the Tiger and later more weighty weeklies like Look and Learn. Some of us will remember the more anarchic magazines like Mad ... They all played a part in framing some of our early views of the world, and how it functioned.

As I wrote in an earlier post, writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Clark and other scifi giants toyed with ideas for a future world, sometimes a rather dark and dystopian vision. It struck me recently that in several of those authors' portfolios there were some visions of future political developments which could be seen as being predicative of our present. In those stories the course of history is altered by the triumph of ideologies or 'players' the founders of the particular society in the story had failed to anticipate, or had anticipated, but believed could be constrained. Certainly the course of our societies is currently apparently taking a path I suspect very few would have predicted ten or fifteen years ago -- or, if they did, kept it quiet. It is certainly true that any writer wishing to create a fictional world or society has to look at the political philosophy prevailing and try to see where it might lead, what could change it, or possibly overthrow it.

Which brings me back to the question in the title. How much do 'stories' shape our outlook? In one sense it appears to be quite a large influence on us, but it depends on our choice of reading matter. A person who reads exclusively horror genre is not necessarily going to turn into a monster, nor will someone who reads extensively in the crime genre become either a career criminal or a policeman. It is much more subtle than that. The essence of the impact is in the subtle background of the story -- as one writer put it, it's the texture of the wall the painting hangs upon that enhances the idea it conveys. Consider Dickens as an example. Many of his stories are rather bleak, but they all contain an element of hope and of courage in difficulty. Dickens managed to convey a sense of injustice, and a desire to see justice done without hitting his reader between the eyes with it. He let the circumstances and the characters convey it all through their actions. This is also true to the original versions of the fairy tales we heard as children (and the element Pratchett plays with so masterfully in his discworld fantasies). Many, in their original versions, were seriously looking at major political and societal issues of their time, some, if not all, of that has been lost in the 20th Century 'sanitising' the Grimm's tales (and the rest) have undergone.

The bottom line really is that any writer must inevitably paint a backdrop of the sort of society his story is set in. If the writing has an historic setting, one has to be careful not to introduce 'modern' ideas or philosophies, whereas in a 'future world' scenario one has the liberty to explore alternative concepts or to extrapolate current political or ideological ideas to see where they lead. Orwell's 1984 fits that category -- and there is a book that has certainly focused some minds on a really dreadful possible society!

Ideas have power, but unless they are put into words, they remain 'just an idea'. Once given expression in a story, those ideas can become an inspiration, a force to be reckoned with if you like. Writers like Orwell were aware of that, and used it to good effect. I would certainly not put myself in anything like the company of authors like him, Tolkein, Dickens, Asimov or King, but I would hope that at least my worlds in my books at least appear plausible, perhaps recognisable. If perchance they also make one think about our real world I would be delighted.

The fun of writing SciFi 

Science fiction is a curious genre in many ways. Thinking back to some of the books and authors that introduced me to the science fiction field, it often strikes me how much of what they wrote was impractical or simply outside the realms of physics. Among those is one story which centred around a ship propelled by light, and others that envisaged rocket propulsion systems. Others, notably Asimov, Heinlein, Vonnegut, built on the science then available. Unsurprisingly many of the things they wrote about are now "science fact", though some, like Heinlein's Thorsten Tubes - his concept for AI programming memory storage - haven't come up, we do have AI now becoming ever more prevalent and ever closer to something akin to C3PO of Star Wars. Who knows where quantum computing will take us?

I think we are still some way off things like artificial gravity or the giant space stations some of us dream of, but I suspect there are already people working on such concepts. Already there are concepts being developed for building human habitats on places like Mars and the Moon, and once again, some of the ideas for such spaces draw on concepts first mooted by science fiction writers. A lot of the work in that field is already following the concept of domed, fully enclosed 'environments' which would also employ modified plants. We already know that those depend on a number of other insects, animals and even bacteria to thrive, so all of that will need to be thought through. Alongside of that there will need to be ways to produce food and, if water is not available, to recover and recycle what can be transported there. And then there is oxygen ...

Asimov envisaged miniaturised atomic power plants and what we now call ion engines. Heinlein wrote about time travel, space travel and a range of related topics, with his concept of huge ships that converted water into fuel for engines capable of accelerating the ship to close to the speed of light. An interesting concept for these, was to push a ship sized lump of ice ahead of these ships as a 'shield' in case of stray asteroids, comets and other stray objects. In theory such ships are possible, but, once again, a lot of development is still needed - and the incentive to build them.

One of the problems any spacefaring vessel needs to deal with is radiation. The Earth has a magnetic field around it which traps or deflects the ionising particles that make up things like Gamma radiation. Any long term space habitat, be it a space ship or a station permanently manned needs some form of shield that will reduce exposure to radiation, and which will not have any adverse impact on the people it is protecting. There are ways this can be achieved, some may even tie in with finding ways to generate a form of gravitation without having to use a rotational section of any hull. As a writer of science fiction stories these are all matters one has to keep in mind as one writes a story. With what we now know and understand about gravity - thanks to Mr Einstein - the kind of scenarios created by some of the early SciFi authors like Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burrows simply won't be accepted by most readers today. Perhaps that is why the genre is often lumped together with "Fantasy", but that is another article ...

So what about ships that travel in that scifi concept of 'hyper space'? There are a lot of arguments both for and against it being possible (assuming such a space as hyper space exists) and which you hear depends on whether you are talking to a quantum physicist, an astrophysicist or a physicist. The last two will probably argue against it, the first will more likely enthuse about 'string theory' or 'M-theory' and the possibility of parallel universes, multiple universes and even holographic universes. At which point science fiction starts to sound like reality. One of the latest theories from Quantum Physics, is the concept of everything we regard as 'solid' and 'physical reality' is, in fact, a holographic projection, a la The Matrix. The proponents of this theory have used mathematical modelling to 'test' the idea and conclude that their model shows that our reality is a 3D projection from a 4 or 5 dimensional reality. Re-enter the realms of "String Theory" and "M-Theory". Maybe I'm just weird, but I find all of this fascinating.

What makes a good scifi story? Tastes differ, obviously, but the mix is fairly wide. Asimov and Heinlein managed to include a fair bit of 'social commentary' alongside the obvious story element. Several authors in the 1950s and early 1960s even managed to explore such sensitive issues as gender switching and the whole issue of sexuality. There are large elements of political discussion, wrapped up as plot elements, which explore political ideas and directions in the 'safe' field of fictional worlds and places, and all of them contain some dystopian elements. Those who followed Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape and Star Trek will recognise the political discourses even though they are set in an 'other world' context. In the best SciFi there is a mix of humour, adventure, believable characters, human frailty, political commentary ... and, of course, the 'science'.

It's a great genre, and very under rated. It can be no surprise to learn that the heyday of science fiction writing coincided with the period of tremendous advances in scientific progress. The period in which we moved from sails and horses, to steam powered transport, from small under powered fabric covered 'flying machines' to supersonic flight and men on the moon. I firmly believe we are standing on the brink of the next great leap forward. I'm not sure where it will take us, but I'm pretty sure it will be one hell of a ride!

See you on the launch pad I hope!

   
 

Future Human Habitat 

With climate change so much in everyone's mind it seems appropriate to examine a few ideas on how humanity might end up having to think about our future habitations on our world. As you would expect, writing Science Fiction a writer needs to give the way humans might need to live on a different world a lot of thought. Personally I think we are a very long way from being able to "terraform" another world to fit our rather specialised needs, so, how would we adapt? What would we be realistically able to do to live on a planet like, say, Mars?

NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and others are already applying their minds to this, and coming up with some interesting answers. One of the biggest questions is what would such future settlements be able to find and use that is already there, and what would they have to get from Earth? Obviously, the more they need to get from 'home' the more difficult, and the more expensive the whole exercise becomes. So, ideally, we would initially send the absolute basics, and then develop and adapt what is available there. That's where it starts to get tricky, since extracting metals from ore is an energy intense operation. Mars being geologically all but inert, means there will be nothing like the transfer of minerals that occurs in our own soils (which is also hugely dependent on soil bacteria, insect activity, and so on ...). Then there are small problems like water, food production, atmosphere regeneration and so on, all things we often (or most of us) fail to give much attention to unless compelled by something like the climate change protests, or the impact of changing climate itself.

Once one starts to look at all these things you very quickly realise that our "environment" is a lot more complex than we think. Simply building a habitat on Mars is the easy bit. In order to get plants to grow there is going to require a great deal of effort. Even assuming we can get a soil 'culture' going with the right bacteria, and all the things that control them, we then run into the questions of pollinators, things that control them, and so on and so on. Then we need plants that will grow there in sufficient quantity to feed us. It is encouraging to note that there are scientists working on that one, and not just for future space colonies. Without getting into an argument about it, the climate is changing. That has huge implications for us (and everything else) as a species. Which brings me back to my starting point.

If humanity is going to survive what appears to have the potential to bring about a mass extinction and completely change the Earth as we know it, we need to do one of two things. Adapt very quickly, or change the way we currently live and use the planet in order to "buy time" to adapt or find some solutions. I would suggest that our first step is going to be changing the way we build towns, houses, commercial and industrial centres. I think we may need to look at creating "Habitation Centres" which provide an enclosed environment that concentrate commercial and industrial activities with housing and recreation and community areas. Think of a very large sports stadium, with the tiers seating replaced by tiers of 'housing units' atop commercial premises, atop industrial operators. the centre remains a park, perhaps with swimming and other recreational spaces, and the whole interior is a controlled atmosphere space.

An example of the type of structure I suggest could become a closed habitat

Recycling water, heat capture and reuse, waste recycling would all play a part. "Wind Towers" would be used to ensure the air circulation is good, and they can also be used to generate electric power to supplement solar accumulators. The general idea would be to create, rather in the manner of the Eden Project in Cornwall, an enclosed habitat dedicated to providing an "Ark" for as wide a bio-diversity as possible alongside humans. Transport would have to be by centrally managed autonomous 'trains', monorail systems and, of course, direct linking transport to other such habitat 'domes'.

By making each of these domed towns as self-sufficient as possible it should be possible to reduce the human impact on the surrounding countryside. That would allow better land usage (assuming the climate allows it), and reduce the problem emissions. Hopefully it would also permit the currently worst affected land and forests to recover.

Well, it's a long shot, so I guess it just becomes a question of when (and if) someone will make a start at trying to change our thinking on it all. Oh, and just to get people thinking, I suspect that when we do get to Mars, a lot of human activities and accommodation will have to be located below ground ...