Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Space Exploration' Category

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

Sunday, May 1st, 2016


Today is the day!  Spread the word, To Shape the Dark is spreading its wings. Focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, the anthology is sister to The Other Half of the Sky, which won unprecedented accolades.  This family of feral astrogators may eventually have a third member — keep frequencies open!

The book, both print and digital, is available on all major online venues (Amazon, B&N, etc) but Candlemark combines the print version with a DRM-free bundle. More direct sales also make it likelier that we’ll break even. Relevant sites:

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews

Analog SF said of To Shape the Dark: “…these stories make the reader think. // They challenge us to question some cherished conventions of the field… // If you like well-told, intelligent science fiction that respects the search for knowledge, you can’t afford to miss this one.”

As I say in the introduction, “Scientists are humanity’s astrogators: they never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn while they attend to the hydroponics. To Shape the Dark is part of that vigil.”

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

Music: End of “Love” theme from Joss Whedon’s Serenity (composer, David Newman)

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

Saturday, April 16th, 2016


Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space


Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (; bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

Drums in the Deep: A Ninth Planet?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016


[Click images to embiggen]

From the first moment humans looked at the sky, their eyes — with or without aids — could see five wanderers against the celestial backdrop: Mercury, fleetingly visible outside the Sun’s glare; Venus, so bright it can cast a shadow (Eosphóros at dawn, Phósphoros at dusk); Mars, its brick-reddish hue apparent even at aphelion; Jupiter, second to Venus in brightness; and Saturn, about as dim as Mercury – though someone with exceptional vision might just discern the slightly elongated shape that would later prove to be its rings.

And there the count of the solar family remained until the late 18th century, when telescopes and the mathematics of trajectories got sophisticated enough to enable astronomers to make and test predictions. At that point, the Herschel siblings established that Uranus was not a star but the planet next out from Saturn. A little less than a century later, Le Verrier noticed the “tugs” at Uranus’ orbit. Based on these, he predicted, then visually found, Neptune. But Neptune’s orbit showed irregularities also, plus its mass did not totally account for the Uranian perturbations either.

So the search started for Planet X (pedantically speaking it should have been IX, but X is the standard denotation for an unknown). And that’s when things stopped being simple.

The next iteration of the methods that had added Uranus and Nepture to the solar herd yielded Pluto. The problem with Pluto, which led to its eventual dethronement as a planet, is that there are many Pluto-sized planetesimals in the asteroid and Kuiper belts and in the Oort cloud — several with accompanying moons, like Pluto has Charon. Amusingly, many carry names of female gods or heroes and/or from mythologies beyond the Roman in a belated effort to change the heavily skewed naming ratio of the major planets.

So either Pluto of tiny mass and eccentric orbit did not deserve the distinction of being called a planet – or Vesta, Ceres, Eris, Sedna et al had to be included in the roster (side note for SFF doofs like me: Eris, named after the goddess of discord, was originally called Xena; its attendant moon is officially called Dysnomia, the Greek term for Lawless… as in Lucy Lawless, who played Xena the Warrior Princess; personally, I think they should have stuck with Xena and Gabrielle, but I’ll admit to some lack of objectivity). To the relief of both astronomers and astrologers, scientists drew the line at entities so small that, even if they’ve attained roundness, don’t have the oomph to either fling or pull planetesimals in their vicinity.

Yet the idea of a giant planet or brown dwarf hiding in the outer darkness has too strong a hold on our imagination. Starting with paleontologists Raup and Sepkoski, scientists proposed such a distant lurker whose orbital movement might have caused impact events resulting in the mass extinctions that occur on Earth about every 27 million years. For obvious reasons, they called this hypothetical planet Nemesis (Retribution). The long, systematic hunts for Nemesis yielded nothing except the conclusion that nothing larger than Saturn is rolling for several thousand AUs beyond Neptune. That’s disappointing, but there’s a large size gap between Saturn and Pluto where a respectably sized outcast can still dwell.

The productive game of checking for orbit irregularities and sweeping/herding behavior got applied again recently, when several astronomers (first Sheppard and Trujillo, then Batygin and Brown – all Kuiper aficionados and decisive influences in demoting Pluto) noticed a pattern in six “sednoids” – largish denizens of the Kuiper belt. Their behavior indicated that they had been disturbed by something large. So Brown and his collaborators fed the pertinent details to a simulator… and out popped the prediction of a planet at least 10 times as massive as Earth (i. e. Neptune-sized) with a highly eccentric, off-center orbit – a victim and survivor of ejection from the inner regions of the solar system during the early stages of its formation.

Brown was meticulous in exploring and evaluating all other possible explanations of the planetesimal disturbance pattern, just as Boyajian and her co-authors did with the anomalous brightness dips of KIC 8462852. The hypothesis of a Neptune-sized planet at that region passes the Occam’s razor criterion. But only one thing will make Planet Nine move from hypothetical to real: seeing it with a telescope. So some astronomers have been sweeping the starry dark with high-powered wide-field telescopes, while others have been comparing time-lapse photos to see if a bright needle has moved relative to the rest of the haystack.

If Planet Nine proves to be real, it will give us important insights into the workings of our solar system and will help us judge how unusual it is compared to other systems found by the industrious Kepler telescope. And if its existence is confirmed, the arguments about its specific details will pale in comparison with those over what to name it. Some want it called Jehosaphat; others, Janus. But I propose Tiamat, the exiled Great Goddess of the Deep.

Orbits Planet X

Primary sources

Trujillo, Chadwick A.; Sheppard, Scott S. (2014). A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units. Nature 507: 471.

Batygin, Konstantin; Brown, Michael E. (2016). Evidence for a distant giant planet in the Solar system. The Astronomical Journal 151: 22.

Related article

Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, current view of the solar system (credit: NASA’s Space Place via; bottom, the predicted orbit of Planet Nine (credit: (data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (diagram) A. Cuadra/Science)

Starry, Starry Night

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Julian Kay - Conjunction, Oct 2015

This morning, an hour before dawn, I put a coat over my sleeping togs and went outside.

In the west, the Hunter and his Hounds were accompanying the near-full moon, Sirius as bright as a mithril coin. In the east, where the black was starting to turn to indigo, was the jagged procession of the three bright candles – silvery Venus, golden Jupiter, bronze Mars.

It never ceases to grip me, this beauty that floods my breastbone with longing.

Part of this yearning is our eternal quest for companionship, recently sharpened by the report of odd light dips of the F-type star KIC 8462852 — nicknamed Tabby in honor of Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author of the study and the head of the crowdsourced Planet Hunters project that sifts through the Kepler Space Telescope findings.

About 1,500 light years away in the direction of the Cygnus constellation, the star is too old and stable to have a dust accretion disk. The dips could be the result of a cometary collision or gravity darkening from rotational flattening… but for the first time the SETI community uttered the words “Dyson swarm” with the slight, slight likelihood they might be more than fond wishes.

We have to be dispassionate and rigorous in this, as in all other scientific explorations – especially ones that we’re vested in. After all, pulsars were first designated LGM (Little Green Men) before the non-sentient basis of their regular pulsing was deciphered. But now there’s at least one reputable paper out that outlines how to distinguish megastructures from natural planetary bodies.

If there was a civilization around Tabby that was advanced enough to create sunlight-capturing structures, what we see may no longer exist or may have evolved into something “rich and strange”. More time on different types of telescopes may resolve this. In the end, the yearning will remain; we’re wired for wonder. There’s a reason (beyond the fact that I sorely miss my own beloved father – ally and confidante since toddlerhood) why the alien in the guise of Ted Arroway caressing Ellie’s cheek in Contact brings tears to my eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

Ross Andersen, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy” The Atlantic, October 13, 2015.

Boyajian et al, “Planet Hunters X. KIC – Where’s the Flux?” Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. (preprint)

Wright et al, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures”. Submitted to Astrophysical Journal (preprint)

Conjunction 2015 photo by Julian Kay. Left to right: Jupiter, Mars (faint), Moon, Venus.

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

by C. W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.


Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.


Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.


[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.


Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.


Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Comet-Hale-Bopp“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

As before, I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony.

All the protagonists are scientists who transcend the usual SF clichés about that vocation, especially when undertaken by women. I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves.  For those eager for more, the projected launch is early spring 2016.

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Let the storytelling begin:

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

After all our weeks of travel, those final few miles in a wagon drawn by ox beetle seemed the longest of all. The wagon reeked of peat, and the ox beetle periodically dug its claws into the mud and surged forward to free up the wheels. McMurrin, our dour driver, actually managed a chuckle as his insect’s motions flung me and Gwen back and forth. Gwen kept her pet project, a custom high-eye, cradled protectively in her arms.

Every moment I knew that we were getting closer and closer to haunted, hated Can’t-Go-Home Bog, right on the southern fringe of settlement, where no other botanist had ever set foot.

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

“Afternoon, Dr. Yamamoto.” The old woman looked up from the flower seed display she had been studying while waiting.

“Afternoon, Billy. How’s your mother?”

“Good! She told me to thank your partner for the lotion, if I saw you. Her hands are much better.”

“I’ll tell Hina you said so. And how’s your skin doing?”

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

She smiled kindly. “Good. I’ll tell her that, too. Did my order come in?”

She trundled her round frame closer to a display of wind chimes. Hina would like one of these new copper ones, she thought, brushing her calloused hand against the metal pipes. A ceramic frog mounted on the top remained stoic as the chimes tinkled.

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

Yora spends her first night in cultural realignment training thinking about the isolation of a life lived between stars.

The Tagli came to Ila, her planet, ten years ago, having crossed unthinkably vast distances in slow increments, bodies and vacuum separated by a mere skin’s breadth of material. Full generations had passed with no knowledge of ground and sky. And then they came, a bombardment of unfamiliar life on Yora’s planet, their twisting ships suspended over fourteen cities like itinerant gods.

Kristin Landon – From the Depths


Rinna Heinonen turned, one hand on the hatchway that would let her out of the family quarters, and suppressed a groan. Her fifteen-year-old daughter stood across the small common room from her—in her iso suit, fluorescent orange, its hood and mask dangling around her shoulders.

Rinna sighed. “Just where do you think you’re going?” Sealed in, Petra would be ready to leave Hokule’a with a minimal chance of contaminating the air and sea with her human DNA and microflora.

Petra’s long mass of tight braids was tied back in a ponytail, and she carried her backpack. She smiled tentatively at her mother. “I thought you might need a hand today.”

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

“Grandma, do you think Ada Lovelace baked cookies?” We were in her kitchen and the scent of the cookies in the oven had nearly overwhelmed my childhood sensibilities.

“I don’t think so sweetie,” Grandma Fritzie replied. “She was English.”

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

Grandma Fritzie shook her head. “There wasn’t any good food when she was young.”

“Did her Mama bake?”

“Maybe. But not after they left Earth. They only had packaged food on Europa, and no ovens or hot cookies or anything good. That’s why your Mama is so tiny. We’re going to make sure you get plenty of good things to eat so you grow up big and strong.”

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire

I have been falling for most of my life. I see my village in dreamtime: an enormous basket, a woven contraption of virrum leaves and sailtrees, vines and balloonworts, that drifts and floats on the wind. On the wind are borne the fruits from the abyss, the winged lahua seeds that always float upward, and the trailing green vines of the delicious amala — windborne wonders that give us sustenance. But the village is always falling. Slowly, because of the sails and balloonworts, but falling nevertheless. We hang on the webbing, the children and babies tethered, shrieking in joy — and we tell stories about what might lie below.

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it – thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later – after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet – she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

It has been more than a decade since I first set foot in Anketil’s tower, and three years since she gave me its key. It lies warm in my hand, a clear glass ovoid not much larger than my thumb, a triple twist of iridescence at its heart: that knot is made from the trace certain plasmas leave in a bed of metal salts, fragile as the fused track of lightning in sand. Anketil makes the shapes for lovers and the occasional friend when work is slow at the tokamak, preserving an instant in threads of glittering color sealed in crystal, each one unique and beautiful, though lacking innate function. It’s only the design that matters. I hold it where the sensors can recognize it, and in the back of my mind Sister stirs.

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

“Thermoplastic,” said Kavi, working her mouth as she considered our architectural model, “is not sand.”

I relaxed. If that was her biggest grief, then we were in good shape for tomorrow. It was almost one-thirty in the morning, which meant that only eight hours remained before our final projects were due.

Knock on the door. Then Zeenat popped her head in, her round sleepy face indicating what she was about to ask. “Chai, guys?”

“Yes,” said Kavi.

“I’d like to look over the drawings one more time,” I said. “Make sure it’s habitable. The design is only—”

“She’s trying to say no,” Kavi explained to Zeenat. “You go ahead.”

“So let Velli look over whatever needs to be looked over, we can go have chai.” And then Zeenat added, “My treat.”

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

It was a milestone, no matter what, and so the lab celebrated. Roberto looked abashed as they toasted him. “Hey, guys,” he said, fidgeting, “I should get back to work.” Everyone laughed. Their supervisor Ms. Thalivar called out, “How fast can you do the next thousand?” and Roberto said, “Well, now that I’ve finally got the hang of it…”

Luo Xiaoxing, the publicist sent over from Shanghai, went around taking images and videos. She squeezed past a couple of technicians and stopped at Edith’s station with her all-in-one raised. “Do you mind?”

Edith shrugged. “The company sent you. But shouldn’t you…?” She pointed with her chin to Roberto.

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

The afternoon wind, cool and rain scented, lifted Bret’s hair away from her neck as she gazed down at the Isar where it slid green and quick beneath the bridge. Her vision was blurred and distorted one moment, absolutely clear the next. Her palms rested gently on the pitted granite of the railing. It was familiar, safe. But though she had done her graduate work at the Planck Institute in Germany, years before, she still could not remembered what she was doing in Old Munich. Something to do with her work? She touched her face, probing gently at the swollen cheek. The eye itself seemed undamaged, though the area around the left socket and the left side of her face were bruised. The cheekbone probably had been cracked. Her cheek was wet, and pain made the eye tear again, distorting the green park along the green river. The wind was picking up. Hoping to reach shelter before the storm broke, she continued across the bridge toward Mariahilfplatz and the frozen spire of its church.

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

The man from HR was speaking. She could not recall his name, even though it glinted from the bronze-coloured badge he wore below his left lapel. That was because the badge always seemed to catch the intense sunlight coming in through the south-facing glass wall, to which the HR man himself seemed immune, even though it was hitting the back of Vera’s neck so precisely that she felt as if the rays were burning a line on her skin above her collar. Both room and man were unfamiliar to her. Employees from the medicinal chemistry division of Gleich Enterprises rarely got summoned here. But her presence was “imperative”, she had been told, her offence too severe to be overlooked this time.

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One


Meherenmet glared across the room as she watched an attendant feed Amagasat dates and tiny sips of beer from a serving tray. Disgust spiked through her body. She looks like an aging child, Meherenmet thought.

Morning light filtered into the eye-shaped antechamber, bathing Amagasat in a soft glow. She shimmered in her iridescent blue robe and golden collar and wrist cuffs—all intentionally worn, Meherenmet thought, to boast of her success. But Amagasat’s tremors—that fierce trembling of her hands—overshadowed her finery. Meherenmet doubted that Amagasat could still dress herself, or even attend to her own elimination.

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

I was sitting on the porch of the End Times Hotel with Abe Willis when the message from Harlow came in: Ronda, we might have aliens. Seriously. We picked up a radio transmission yesterday from the Sigmund Cluster. It tracks to ISKR221/722. A yellow dwarf, 7,000 light-years out. We haven’t been able to break it down, but it’s clearly artificial. You’re closer to the Cluster than anybody else by a considerable distance. Please take a look. If it turns out to be what we’re hoping, try not to let them know you’re there. Good luck. And by the way, keep this to yourself.

“What is it?” asked Abe.


Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

She introduced herself by firelight, while the calm breakers on the shore kept up a background music – like the purring breath of a great sleepy animal. It was warm, the air felt damp; the night sky was thick with cloud. The group inspected her silently. Seven pairs of eyes, gleaming out of shadowed faces. Seven adult strangers, armed and dangerous; to whom she appeared a helpless, ignorant infant. Chloe tried not to look at the belongings that had been taken from her, and now lay at the feet of a woman with long black hair, who was dressed in an oiled leather tunic and tight, broken-kneed jeans; a state-of-the-art crossbow slung at her back, a long knife in a sheath at her belt.

Image: Comet Hale-Bopp (NASA, JPL).

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

As people know, I’ve been working on the successor of The Other Half of the Sky.  It focuses on women scientists doing science not-as-usual and is titled To Shape the Dark — because that’s what scientists (should) do.

I spent this past weekend doing final passes on about half the stories that will appear on the anthology.  If things continue at this rate we’ll have a finalized TOC by the first week of June.  Until then, here are the occupations of the stories’ protagonists, to whet people’s appetites. People took my injunction not to flood me with computer programmers and psychologists seriously!

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

The flood of data from the solar system probes has led to tectonic shifts in our understanding of our neighbors. High on that list has been the discovery of liquid water in the large moons of the gas giants: Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus. By many strands of evidence – which include geysers – all three have large subsurface salt-water seas below their icy surfaces (Saturn’s Titan has surface oceans but they’re made of methane and ethane, liquid at Titan’s ambient temperature). In Europa and Enceladus this water may be in contact with a complex silicate core that could supply both directional scaffolding and building blocks; and the orbital friction between the moons and their primaries generates heat dynamos that could give rise to deep hydrothermal vents.

Salt water with a steady supply of dissolved nutrients; an energy source; complex silicates that – according to Cairns-Smith’s clay hypothesis – could act as anchors and template propagators for chiral organic molecules. The simultaneous presence of all these components is a recipe for the development of life.

Life as we know it is based on carbon and uses water as its solvent. Both are unique within their respective categories. Carbon is the best foundational element for complex chemistry by several orders of magnitude: the number and variety of organic compounds exceeds that of all the rest combined. Like its fellow occupants of the fourth column of the periodic table, carbon has an outermost electron orbital that is exactly half-occupied. So the fourth column elements are equally good as electron donors or acceptors, and as a result they can form compounds with just about every other element.

Carbon has an additional almost-unique characteristic: its unoccupied orbital is at such a distance from the nucleus that it can form bonds of the exactly correct strength to create very large and complex compounds. In particular, carbon bonds with itself more or less with the same proclivity that it bonds with anything else. Whatever can be imagined, of any size, shape, taste or smell, can be found among organic compounds, from diamonds to nucleic acids, from limonenes to fullerenes. If a carbon atom’s four available positions have distinct occupants, the resulting compounds are chiral (“handed”), another apparent prerequisite for biomolecules – certainly a decisive attribute of all terrestrial ones.

Silicon, the next foundational candidate after carbon, is a distinctly inferior also-ran. The radius of its outer electron shell is larger, which means that it forms weaker bonds, especially with itself. Generally compounds with more than three silicon atoms in a row are very unstable, unless they are forced into a crystal lattice. And if oxygen is anywhere near it, all available silicon funnels itself into silicates, precluding all other combinations.


In turn, water has several properties that make it the most potent and versatile solvent. This includes its tetrahedral structure (due to its two free electron pairs, which make it a polar compound), phenomenal heat capacity (which makes it a stabilizer), high heat conductivity and surface tension (vital for many cellular structures and processes), transparency to visible light (crucial for photosynthesis) and the anomalous property of becoming less dense when it solidifies into ice (hence a reservoir and refuge). The runner-up, ammonia, shares some of these attributes (including the tetrahedral structure) and might be the solvent of choice at the lower temperatures of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Such a configuration is fully deployed in Joan Vinge’s justly famous Eyes of Amber.

If we encounter life elsewhere, it’s a foregone conclusion that its details will differ significantly from ours – and that its differences will dwarf what SF has come up with. Non-terrestrial life may not use DNA or RNA as its basis of genetic transmission; it may use a different kit of starting blocks for energy, scaffolding and catalysis. It will have a totally different repertoire of body plans, sensoria, mental processes, reproductive modes, ecosystems. But it will be based on carbon and will almost certainly use water as its solvent. And just from current percentages, it’s possible that most planetary life may have developed in “roofed ocean” worlds like Europa, instead of the open atmosphere of Earth.

Walking rightward (as is customary) in the Drake equation, the question is: if they emerge, would roofed-ocean lifeforms evolve to complexity? To sentience? To use of technology, whereby they might send the unambiguously civilizational signals still eagerly awaited by SETI? Of course, our horizons are limited by our own intrinsic parochialisms. We cannot easily visualize technology that’s not based on metals and fire. We cannot easily imagine how sentients that never see the stars might nevertheless deduce their existence.

Many of these perceived hurdles are in fact easily overcome. In Forerunner Foray, André Norton postulated a species that directed the building activity of coral polyps. The solution of water-dwelling lifeforms would be direct-to-biotech, bypassing metal forges. Terrestrial cephalopods are remarkably intelligent and are known to use technology (cetaceans are revenants to water, so their intelligence springs from the same foundation as ours). As for guessing the existence of the stars, a species with sensors in the right bracket of the EM spectrum would rapidly become aware of the overwhelming nearby presence of Jupiter or Saturn. Such species might eventually build starships from tissue, like Farscape’s Moya. Beyond that, the specifics of such species might go a long way towards explaining the over-invoked Fermi Paradox: if they sent signals, they would automatically choose their own waterhole frequency.

So far, we’ve seen the exteriors of roofed-ocean worlds. Missions have been planned for investigations of interiors, though their launch dates keep slipping further into the future. In the end, our own vaunted ability to see the stars may not avail us if we choose to turn inward, eventually running out of the metals and fuels that keep our window to the universe open. If we do send out exploratory vessels, we have to be extra careful not to mar the worlds we touch, that may harbor their own tinkerers and dreamers. But it’s my fond fantasy that, before my own life sets, we get to hear of filigree manta rays swirling under Europa’s ice to the radio pulse beats of the giant overhead.

Giant Manta Getty

Images: Top, the Europa system (NASA/JPL); middle, water, the marvelous solvent; bottom, a manta ray pirouetting in its element (Getty Images).

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.


*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.


Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Scorpion Laughs

In the last few months there have been spikes of the age-old arguments about the interactions of authors, reviewers and fans. When the three overlap, as is increasingly the case in several genres, it’s no wonder that the injunctions are for discussions to be as uncritically gushing as they’re in fanfic.

It should be no secret by now that I don’t care if people dislike my re/views. Furthermore, my attributes and experiences make it unlikely that I’ll hold a majority view very often even within communities like SFF, futurists, space aficionados, etc. Not that I’m prone to hermetic hermeneutics: after fifty-plus years of avid reading, film watching and gaming, I remain firmly in favor of art being accessible. I like plenty of scifi and fantasy films, even Hollywood ones, even ones that are glaringly imperfect – as long as they’re not in-your-face insulting; as long as they show a scintilla of originality and love of craft.

Recently, people used terms like “curmudgeonly” and “jaundiced” to characterize my dislike of Interstellar of which I briefly said the following, as I deemed it too crappy (in all “five dimensions”) for a full-length review: “Having now seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness, regressive triumphalism and sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway and Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even McConaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]

There have been similar tantrums whenever I’ve disliked a fave-du-jour, although nobody (yet) has called me “a harlot” as someone called Stephanie Zacharek for daring not to have orgasms over Guardians of the Galaxy. But you know what? Even something as smarmy as love standardized for US audience palatability can be done right in SFF films. Love is not McConaughey chewing the scenery, his neck veins throbbing like harp strings. This is love — across several dimensions yet, but without self-satisfied trumpeting:

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

This makes my eyes sting, even while I know it’s meant to tug at my heartstrings. And if you cannot tell why this is light years ahead of Interstellar‘s “love transcends space and time” pretentious blather, don’t bother reading my (unabashedly unibrow) reviews.

Image: The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who knew how to deal with tantrums.

Curmudgeonly Reviews of Other SFF Films by Yours Truly

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade (Samurai Champloo, Mononoke Hime)

Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned (District 9)

Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art (Avatar versus The Secret of Kells)

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” (the Planet of the Apes reboot)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings? (The Piano, Whale Rider)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy)

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Authentic Ethnics (all films about Greek mythology)

Parallel Universes

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

What Are They? Do They Exist? How Do We Find Out?

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado. The article first appeared at Science That.


Two physicists decide to visit Las Vegas to try their luck at gambling. One of the pair plays craps, where he proceeds to rapidly lose their limited funds as he continually throws one poor roll of the dice after another. His companion, none too pleased at watching their money disappear, demands to know from his friend why he keeps playing this game despite losing every time.

“I may be losing at craps in this universe,” replies the first physicist, “but in an alternate reality, my duplicate is making a fortune!”

Among the biggest mysteries of modern cosmology is the question of whether other universes beyond our own exist in the Cosmos, or Multiverse, as it would be called should they prove to be real.

The general public is aware of the concept of parallel or alternate universes largely through popular science fiction, where they have been a plot device for a long time. Perhaps the best known of those imagined alternate existences is the Mirror Universe of the Star Trek series, where we meet the “bad” versions of the main characters from our universe – or their own fictional “reality” parallel to our real reality.

But do parallel universes truly exist? Are they composed largely of varying degrees of the people and places we know from this reality? Or could they be something far more complex and vast than most science fiction has ever attempted to portray?

If certain physicists who study this concept are correct, then parallel universes exist on a number of “flavors” or levels. Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says there are four levels of parallel universes. They range from the first level, where alternate realities exist at distances well beyond the observable Universe we live in, to the fourth, where all mathematically possible universes can and do exist. Many if not most of those universes would not resemble ours at all, obeying entirely different laws of physics. The universes envisioned by Tegmark would be virtually impossible to visit, barring some breakthrough in physics and technology.

Another type of alternate universe is known as the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI). This theory was first proposed by Hugh Everett III in 1957 and later became the Level Three type of alternate universe in Tegmark’s catalog of parallel existences. Utilizing quantum physics, MWI claims that every action by every person and object creates an infinite number of alternative actions that branch off into their own universe. In this scenario, every possible history and future becomes reality in its own existence separate from our own. This idea was the plot device for the science fiction television series Sliders, which had a group of people travel to alternate Earths every week from 1995 to 2000 via a machine that generated a wormhole.

Could we ever detect or visit these parallel universes? If the theories of current physics are proven true, then the answer would be not any time soon in most cases. However, there has been speculation that four “cold spots” or “bruises” in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation – the surviving remnant of the Big Bang which began our universe some 13.8 billion years ago – are alternate universes which either once quantum entangled with or “bumped” into our reality at some point in the distant past.

If there were parallel universes which collided with our own Universe, one has to ask why they did not create a new Big Bang as predicted by the ekyprotic cosmological model: In this scenario, a physical property in string theory called branes has the branes of several universes collide perhaps once every one trillion years or so. Their collision releases huge amounts of energy to create a new universe. This is what some scientists say is what brought about our Universe in contrast to the current Big Bang model of creation.

There are those who disavow the idea of other universe beyond our own. They correctly state that there is no scientifically empirical evidence for their existence, only theories and mathematical models. While these skeptics are correct in their reasoning, one also has to ask if they need to take another look at our perspectives on the Cosmos over the centuries. Not too many centuries ago, only a few people dared to speculate there were any worlds beyond our Earth or that the Sun was just a very close member of those myriads of twinkling stars in the night sky.

As late as 1920, astronomers were still debating whether the Milky Way galaxy was the ultimate cosmic structure or just one of many billions of stellar islands in the Universe. We now know the latter to be true, adding to our list of cosmic “demotions” from thinking we were the literal focus of existence to just being residents of a rather small world circling a typical star in a galaxy of hundreds of billions of suns, all of which is part of an immense and ancient Universe with at least one hundred billion galaxies if not more.

So are we part of a vast, singular Universe, or is our reality just one of an infinity of alternate existences on a scale far beyond what even our current knowledge can determine? Just as with the possibility of there being extraterrestrial life now that we know many billions of worlds exist in our Milky Way alone, or the historical precedent of Copernicus and others claiming that Earth is just one planet orbiting its sun and not the other way around, it is very tempting to conclude that even something as massive as the Universe might not be the only one in reality. However, we must temper our conclusions on this exciting possibility until the day science determines their existence – or lack thereof.

Evil Spock

The Wind Harp Sings

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Two months ago, I mentioned I had made my first fiction pro-rate sale. The story was The Wind Harp, part of a far larger universe that I have been slowly bringing out in the world (Dry Rivers and Planetfall also belong to that universe). I read excerpts of Planetfall and The Wind Harp at this year’s Readercon.


The Wind Harp appeared in today’s Crossed Genres Deadlines issue. Because it was my first pro sale, they also feature an interview with me. For those who read the story I have a small gift: it had a brief coda, excised to meet length requirements. If you leave a comment about the story, either at the magazine site or here and I like the comment, I will send you the longer version of the story, accompanied by Heather D. Oliver’s stunning full-color depictions of its main characters. The image here shows Heather’s preliminary sketches of the story’s two pivots: Antóa Tásri of Ténli and Dor-Nys Teg-Rav of Gan-Tem.

Postscript: My friend Francesca Forrest read the story when I first wrote it and her comments on it made me very happy. Here is her incisive outline of The Wind Harp.

The Other Half of the Sky Is Casting a Shadow

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

other half  web“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of the Reckless (“Planetfall”).

Cover art and design: Eleni Tsami

The Other Half of the Sky is leaving a small but steady wake. Below are some of the ripples it created. I will post these periodically; they are also being updated both at the book site and on a sidebar page on this blog.


Founding Fields
Publishers Weekly
Geek Exchange (preview)
Victoria Hooper
Library Journal (behind paywall; transcript here)
Geek Exchange
The F Word


World SF
Book Smugglers
Victoria Hooper

Round Tables

The Book Smugglers, Part 1
The Book Smugglers, Part 2


Sue Lange at Book View Café
Athena Andreadis at Bull Spec

Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 2

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado. The article first appeared at Centauri Dreams.

Part 1

Public Perceptions of ETI

Professional SETI researchers and other scientists tend to avoid the public perceptions about aliens, which they find to be full of undisciplined ideas and a tendency to buy into stories and reports about sightings of alien spaceships and their occupants. A fear of being lumped into the fringe realm of pseudoscience is among the top reasons why SETI has stuck with remote searches of distant star systems. However, there is a slowly opening acceptance that some ETI might send probes to our Sol system to observe us discreetly, perhaps in the Main Planetoid Belt or using nanotech devices or even smaller observing and data collecting technology scattered across Earth.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to polling the general public on the subject of alien life. Unrestrained by scientific parameters and paradigms, their theories and beliefs range from having aliens be the saviors of humanity to our destroyers. They also tend to be much more accepting of the idea that many ETI may already be here monitoring us.

In an ironic twist, the public often thinks of the physical appearance of alien beings as essentially humanoids with a large head and eyes, no visible ears, and slim bodies. On the other hand, scientists who focus on exobiology see life taking on many different forms on different worlds due to evolution. Nevertheless, because we know so little about life beyond Earth, a wide variety of viewpoints can be a welcome thing, as there are times when a different perspective on such a subject could be the key to discovery.

Among the most interesting papers in this collection were the ones where different human cultures interact with each other in space and time. In “Encountering Alternative Intelligences: Cognitive Archaeology and SETI”, Paul K. Wason looks at one of the fifteen humanoid species which have shared this planet with us, namely the Neanderthals. Although they existed in Europe around the same time with modern humans and even interbred with each other, their branch of the family tree died out roughly thirty thousand years ago. Clues from the archaeological record indicate that Neanderthals were quite different in many fundamental ways from current humanity despite being hominids which evolved on Earth. Even though their brains were a bit larger than ours, Neanderthal was not as sophisticated in many ways if we go by the evidence that has survived the ages. Regarding how scientists have learned as much as they do know about Neanderthals, Wason said: “Could it be also that one of the best ways of preparing for interstellar communication with other intelligences would be to engage in more study of how human intelligence works?”


Several centuries ago, there were two genetically related but otherwise very different human cultures which did interact with each other and for which we have extensive records of those encounters. In “The Inscrutable Names of God: The Jesuit Missions of New France as a Model for SETI-Related Spiritual Questions,” Jason T. Kuznicki, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, describes what happened when a group of Roman Catholic Jesuits sailed to North America starting in the Seventeenth Century to convert the native tribes living around the Canadian side of the Great Lakes region.

Armed with the tools of their religion, which included the presumptions of French philosopher Rene Descartes and Saint Thomas Aquinas that reason would inevitably bring everyone to the conclusion that the Christian God and souls exist, the Jesuit missionaries soon discovered that the Native Americans they met did not share these views or come to any of the same conclusions as the Jesuits thought would happen in matters of deities and the afterlife.

Here were fellow humans separated by a few thousand miles of ocean and yet the two cultures not only had wildly different views on many things, they also lacked the words of their languages to clearly get across their ideas on spiritual and religious matters. Now imagine what might take place between two entirely different species from separate worlds light years apart. Would an alien species even have a religion?

One aspect of Kuznicki’s paper which was not touched upon were the underlying motives for the Jesuits being in North America and attempting to convert the natives there: The French wanted to secure the New World for themselves from the competing British and Spanish powers. Having the Native Americans as allies would certainly help their cause, either through assimilation or coercion. Should an ETI contact us via interstellar transmissions or arrive in person at our world, this is one aspect of such an encounter that requires the study of historical precedents from our species. The scientists would assume the alien visitors are just explorers, but the historian might think otherwise. Even an ETI that came here with the purpose of doing what it thinks is good for us might have unexpected consequences for humanity.

The Question of Artificial Intelligence

Civilizations Beyond Earth does have its limitations. The focus is mainly on biological entities, which makes sense considering the authors. However, to not offer at least a few papers by some computer experts on artificial intellects, or Artilects as coined by Hugo de Garis, is hardly advancing our knowledge base of all scientific aspects of ETI. In this respect it is no better than focusing on radio as a means of interstellar detection and communication while ignoring Optical SETI and searching for Dyson Shells and alien probes in our Sol system.


Granted, there is a paper by William Sims Bainbridge titled “Direct Contact with Extraterrestrials via Computer Emulation”, which proposes the idea that a person could have themselves downloaded into a computer simulation as an avatar, or at least a psychological reproduction of themselves. Bainbridge envisions the avatars being beamed into space via radio waves to do the exploring and contacting with ETI.

Presumably this would have to be an enhanced version of the humans who choose to go this route, otherwise we encounter the limits of understanding an alien mind that would be little different than if we tried to comprehend an ETI with our own selves. Other chapters do deal with the complexities and difficulties in trying to communicate even basic concepts to an alien species, especially if we have few frames of reference. Would an Artilect with its faster computing speeds and much larger data storage do this better? Would sentience be required for this task or just a highly sophisticated simulation resembling awareness? Perhaps a revised edition of this book will add papers devoted to these questions concerning Artilects.

As Seth Shostak says in his article “Are We Alone?” regarding the Drake Equation, but which could also mirror what is missing and incomplete from this book:

“In other respects, [the Drake] equation might be too cautious. It assumes that all transmitting cultures are still located in the solar system of their birth. This ignores the possibility of colonization of other star systems (difficult, but not forbidden by physics), or the possible deployment of transmitting facilities far from home. In addition, it does not deal with the development of synthetic intelligence – thinking machines that would not be constrained to watery worlds orbiting long-lasting stars. In short, it makes the assumption that “they” are much like “us.”

For those who might argue that we may be unable to deduce the thought processes and motives of artificial minds far larger and faster than our own, the same could be said for any kind of biological alien species: Such beings could take on many forms and be just as inscrutable as an Artilect, yet that has not stopped many humans of all stripes on this planet from offering their views on organic ETI. One advantage with Artilects is that we can work towards actually creating or simulating them and thus have direct access to another intelligent mind.

Unfortunately, many people fear that Artilects could use their superior intellects to dominate or destroy humanity, just as they also expect advanced ETI to arrive in starships with similar goals. Whether that may ultimately happen or not, this general fear combined with a limited education on and cultural ridicule about the subjects relevant to SETI/METI have made their “contributions” to the reality that over half a century after the first serious SETI program, traditional searches continue in a largely sporadic fashion with limited funds, seldom expand beyond the radio and optical realms, and remain dominated by astronomers and engineers.

Human Expansion into the Galaxy

These views and paradigms also extrapolate to interstellar efforts such as Worldships, self-contained vessels carrying thousands of people on multigenerational journeys to other star systems. The goal of these Worldships is to colonize suitable planets and moons in the target system or at least collect resources from them before moving on to other galactic destinations.

How those who will remain onboard for perhaps many centuries will survive and adapt has been studied far more in the pages of science fiction than anywhere else, for obvious reasons. Will those who arrive at their intended worlds be radically different from their ancestors back on Earth? Will their interaction with any ETI they encounter diverge from the initial intentions of those who sent them off into the galaxy? As said earlier regarding Artilects, perhaps a revised edition of this work or a new book altogether devoted to very long term exploration and its consequences on those who make the voyage both aboard the Worldship and upon the places they settle will make inroads to answering these questions.

There is a strong desire or perhaps even a natural reaction to colonize any Earthlike exoworlds as part of some cosmic manifest destiny. Unless we terraform some barren rock, a planet similar to our own will be so not only in terms of size and environment, but also due to having life upon it. Even if none of the organisms on this alien world are sentient (and how exactly will we define that?), do we have the right to introduce terrestrial species there? If the situation was reversed and an ETI arrived at Earth to set up a new home, even if they desired a peaceful coexistence, imagine the reaction from humanity.

Even a robotic mission could cause unforeseen issues in the future. Already at this early stage in our expansion into space we have five probes and most of their final rocket stages heading beyond the boundaries of the Sol system into the wider Milky Way galaxy. Although none of them will be functioning by the time they could ever reach another star system, their very existence drifting and tumbling uncontrolled and aimless through deep space might one day become a problem for beings of which we are completely unaware at present.

We can declare that the galaxy is much too vast and these probes far too small to ever gain notice by any intelligences out there. We can say that any beings who could find these emissaries from Earth would have to be quite sophisticated and savvy with the ways of the interstellar realm and thus capable of dealing with a comparatively primitive, ancient, and inactive derelict from a species such as us.

In the end, however, the truth is that we do not yet know who or what is occupying the galaxy with humanity. We cannot say with certainty how an alien species might react and respond to an unexpected visitor from another world – though we can make some pretty good guesses as to how our civilization would behave in a similar scenario.


As we have already discussed with regards to SETI and METI, again the astronomical scientists and space engineering and technical fields often differ in their views on these matters compared to the anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians. At least some of the gaps between the disciplines were bridged by the incorporation of messages and information packages on the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons space probes. Whether these “gifts” will be recognized and understood by the recipients is yet another unknown factor, but they are a step in the right direction.

The issue of our physical intrusion into the Milky Way will become even more prominent and serious as we develop and launch probes – operated by Artilects most likely – designed to reach and explore other solar systems. In this case, humanity may receive responses from other intelligent beings in a matter of years or decades as opposed to millennia. What may happen and how our descendants might handle an ETI reaction will depend on how far our culture has come in terms of being more wide ranging and inclusive in our understanding of the Cosmos.

Civilizations Beyond Earth may be a slim book, but it is a good introduction to fields that need to be vital parts of any serious discussion of the scientific activities regarding extraterrestrial intelligences. If SETI and METI remain lopsided in their thinking, methods, and executions, the stars will likely continue to remain silent for the human species for a long time to come.

Not to know if we are either alone or one of many living beings in the Universe when we finally have the awareness and ability to answer this very important question would be a tragic shame, an affront to the very reason we have science and a civilized society in the first place. Let us not answer the L portion of the Drake Equation too soon from a lack of wonder, education, and funds.

Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 1

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.  The article first appeared at Centauri Dreams.

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has traditionally operated on the premise that there may be beings in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond who are smart, aware, and interested enough to deliberately attempt to contact other similarly advanced societies in the Universe.

The primary purpose for such an effort would be to alert any potential celestial neighbors to their presence for the exchange of information and ideas about themselves, their home world, and their take on existence. Their methods of transmission would include certain forms of electromagnetic radiation which the various parties should have in common, such as radio and light waves. This Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligences, or METI, is considered to be not only less complex and faster than sending a robotic or crewed vessel from one star system to another – barring the discovery of a way to move faster than light (FTL) – but also far less expensive and much safer for both sides.

The alien version of METI is presumed to be conducted by scientists using not their native language but rather some form of basic mathematics for the initial efforts at getting our attention and conducting basic conversations. This remedial arithmetic would serve as the assumed common key to eventually allow both species to use their own conventional languages to exchange more detailed information.

imgcarl sagan1

This thinking is strongly reflected in the 1985 novel Contact (and the 1997 film version), the only major work of science fiction produced by astronomer, science popularizer, and SETI/METI pioneer Carl Sagan. In his story, Sagan envisioned a highly advanced, vast, and ancient alien technological civilization which transmits an initial message via radio waves to species they deem potentially worthy of dealing with. One day humanity receives this opening greeting from them in the form of the first one hundred prime numbers, which are digits divisible only by themselves and one. Prime numbers are a pattern produced by no known natural phenomenon.

On SETI Assumptions

If the bipedal residents of the planet Earth can detect and recognize the artificial nature of the primes being sent (“mathematics [is] the only truly universal language” declares the main character Ellie Arroway at one point in response to a visiting senator who wanted to know why the aliens didn’t just speak English) along with the subsequently more complex information which then follows, then one day we might be able join an entire galactic community of civilizations. This society would be similar to the United Nations, only on a celestial scale and with members of many different species from a diversity of alien worlds across space and time, yet somehow all managing to work together for the common cosmic good.

These assumptions, while not implausible, do reflect a particular scientific take regarding SETI, METI, and the nature and behavior of technological alien beings. The question is, does the fact that we have yet to confirm a recognizably artificial signal of extraterrestrial origin after six decades of modern SETI (and a handful of METI) activities mean that our scientific assumptions about intelligent aliens need to be revised, or have we just not been searching long and hard enough? Or perhaps both?

Since astronomer Frank Drake performed the first modern extraterrestrial hunt program in 1960 with a radio telescope search he called Ozma, SETI has traditionally been dominated by radio (and later optical) astronomers, as they are the ones who have conducted the majority of the searches for alien signals to the present era. Their parameters were and are still dictated by the contemporary limitations of what humanity can accomplish when it comes to interstellar distances and the paradigms of their fields and views on intelligent life elsewhere.

As for relevant disciplines outside of astronomy involved in SETI, there have been token representatives present going back to the first modern era SETI conferences, thanks in large part to Sagan. But usually the conferences and the projects were dominated by astronomers, who focused heavily on radio SETI and the technical details of such interstellar communications. Often they would use the famous Drake Equation (N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L) as their template but tend to gloss over the parts of that linear equation which were hard to quantify, which included most of it. This was especially done with fc and L, the fraction of civilizations that develop the means to let others in the galaxy know they exist and the overall lifetime of such technological societies, respectively.

Like most scientists, they felt comfortable with numbers, tangible facts, and mechanics. Why would an alien signal us? Well, because they could, so they would. They wanted to exchange knowledge because the operators had to be fellow scientists, which meant that even though they were alien, they had to think similarly to us, otherwise they would not be conducting METI/SETI. We were looking for versions of us, very specific versions if truth be told.


The accuracy of the statements is attested by Mark A. Sheriden’s excellent and insightful work titled SETI: A Critical History. From Chapter 10, Sheriden gives this quote from Dr. Jill C. Tarter, the recently retired director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California:

Not long after the [1979 NASA Life in the Universe] conference Jill Tarter, a key member of SETI’s second-generation leadership team, acknowledged that SETI was, indeed, “tuned” to find humanoids. “Those forms that we do find in this manner [i.e., a SETI-style search] will be more similar to life as we understand it than other forms that may exist. We put a filter on the problem.”

When asked what she would do differently if starting over again to study ETIs, Tarter responded with an echo of Shklovskii’s complaint prior to Byurakan-II, that the American SETI scientists failed to acknowledge the “complexity” of the problem they faced and, in particular, were ignoring the “humanities and biological aspects.” Tarter said, “I neglected biology, and civilizations, and paleontology.” In other words, she would have paid more attention to the “nature” aspects of the opportunity SETI represented.

Puzzling Out Alien Motivations

Why would an alien intelligence want to contact the stars? The possible motivations for such actions – or lack thereof – are just as important for the success of SETI and METI as figuring out how beings from another world (assuming the majority live on a planet or moon in the first place; another paradigm, perhaps?) might go about sending out signals into the galaxy.

Anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians might have a clue in this area. At present they may have the native dwellers of only one planet to base their research and ideas upon, but at least it is a world with a very wide variety of life and an ancestry dating back at least 3.8 billion years.


These fields and their practitioners are given their due in the book Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert A. Harrison and published by Berghahn Books (New York, 2011). Vakoch, who also edited the book Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SUNY Press, New York, 2011) is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Harrison is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Reading through the collected papers in Civilizations Beyond Earth reminded me of one of the first works I came across that was directly critical of the parameters modern SETI had laid down in its milestone years of 1959 and 1960, The Inner Limits of Outer Space by Dartmouth professor John C. Baird (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1987). The author of the first major book on SETI by a professional psychologist, Baird was also part of Project Oasis, a NASA plan in 1979 to help design the multi-channel spectrum analyzer to be used in the space agency’s own burgeoning SETI project.

Baird pointed out how those involved in searching for extraterrestrial intelligences were spending a great deal of their time and resources in designing and building the instruments they planned to use, but not nearly as much in turn when it came to really thinking about what kind of beings might be out there and why they might want to conduct METI at all. Baird’s words and thoughts throughout The Inner Limits of Outer Space mirror what one finds twenty-four years later in Civilizations Beyond Earth. Neither work wants to do away with SETI so much as redefine it to improve the chances for success based on a more realistic or at least more open approach to alien life. The similarities also include the conclusion that even though current SETI is problematical in terms of detecting an actual extraterrestrial signal, it cannot hurt to keep trying for, to quote the current advertising motto of the New York State Lottery: “You never know.”

Among the highlights of Civilizations Beyond Earth which take it beyond the usual examinations of SETI and its related fields is the focus on what the general public, or laypersons, think and say about extraterrestrial life, in particular the intelligent kind.

Part 2

Steering the Craft – Reprise

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Preamble: In October of 2010, I wrote an essay for the blog of Apex Magazine in response to a then-regular columnist’s whinings about  “quality compromised by diversity and PC zombies” in life as well as speculative literature.  Later on the Apex site was hacked, and its owner decided not to go through the laborious work of restoring its archive.  In view of the recent discussions about women in SF (again… still…) and as a coda to The Other Half of the Sky, I’m reprinting the essay here, slightly modified.

Remedios Varo, The Creation of the Birds (1957)

In honor of:
the Mercury 13 astronauts, who never got past the gravity well;
Rosalind Franklin, who never got her Nobel;
Shamsia and Atifa Husseini, who still go to school after the Taliban threw acid on their faces.

Cultural standards of politeness vary widely.  In the societies I’m familiar with, it’s considered polite (indeed, humane) to avert one’s eyes from someone who has pissed himself in public, especially if he persists in collaring everyone within reach to point out the interesting shape of the stain on his trousers.  At the same time, if he also splattered on my great-grandmother’s hand-embroidered jacket to demonstrate how he – alone among humans – can direct his stream, I’m likely to ensure that he never comes near me and mine again in any guise.

Yet I must still put time and effort into removing the stain from that jacket, which I spent long hours restoring and further embroidering myself.  It’s not the only stain the garment carries.  Nor are all of them effluents from those who used it and its wearers as vessels into which to pour their insecurity, their frantic need to show themselves echt members of the master caste du jour.

The jacket also carries blood and sweat from those who made it and wore it to feasts and battles long before I was born.  Unless it’s charred to ashes in a time of savagery, probably with me in it, many will wear it after me or carry its pieces.  Whenever they add their own embroidery to cover the stains, the gashes, the burns, they won’t remember the names of the despoilers.  And when my great-grandniece takes that jacket with her on the starship heading to Gliese 581, her crewmates will admire the creativity and skill that went into its making.

So gather round, friends who can hoist a goblet of Romulan ale or Elvish mead without losing control of your sphincter muscles, and let’s talk a bit more about this jacket and its wearers.

If you insist that only sackcloth is proper attire or that embroidery should be reserved only for those with, say, large thumbs, we don’t have a common basis for a discussion.  But I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets.  I’ve glimpsed my nephews wearing that jacket, sometimes furtively, often openly.  They even add embroidery patches themselves.  And strangely enough, after a few cyclings I cannot guess the location of past embroiderers’ body bulges from the style of the patches or the quality of the stitches.  I like some much more than others.  Even so, I don’t mind the mixing and matching, as long as I can tell (and I can very easily tell) that they had passion and flair for the craft.

In one of the jacket’s deep pockets lies my great-grandmother’s equally carefully repaired handmade dagger, with its enamel-inlaid handle and its blade of much-folded steel.  When I see someone practicing with it, on closer inspection it often turns out to be a girl or a woman whose hair is as grey as the dagger’s steel.  They weave patterns with that dagger, on stone threshing floors or under skeins of faraway moons.  Because daggers are used in dance – and in planting and harvesting as well, not just in slaughter.  And they are beautiful no matter what color of light glints off them.

But before we dance under strange skies, we must first get there.  Starships require a lot of work to build, launch and keep going.  None of that is heroic, especially the journey.  Almost all of it is the grinding toil of preservation: scrubbing fungus off surfaces; keeping engines and hydroponic tanks functional; plugging meteor holes; healing radiation sickness and ensuring the atmosphere stays breathable; raising the children who will make it to planetfall; preserving knowledge, experience, memory while the ship rides the wind between the stars; and making the starship lovely – because it’s our home and people may need bread, but they also need roses.

As astrogators scan starmaps and engineers unfurl light sails while rocking children on their knees, the stories that keep us going will start to blend and form new patterns, like the embroidery patches on my great-grandmother’s jacket. Was it Lilith, Lakshmi Bai or Anzha lyu Mitethe who defied the ruler of a powerful empire?  Amaterasu, Raven or Barohna Khira who brought back sunlight to the people after the long winter sleep?  Was it to Pireus or Pell that Signy Mallory brought her ship loaded with desperate refugees?  Who crossed the great glacier harnessed to a sled, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, or Genly Ai and Therem harth rem ir Estraven?

Our curiosity and inventiveness are endless and our enlarged frontal cortex allows dizzying permutations.  We shape the dark by dreaming it, in science as much as in art; at the same time, we constantly peer outside our portholes to see how close the constructs in our heads come to reflecting the real world.  Sometimes, our approximations are good enough to carry us along; sometimes, it becomes obvious we need to “dream other dreams, and better.”  In storytelling we imagine, remember, invent and reinvent, and each story is an echo-filled song faceted by the kaleidoscope of our context.  To confine ourselves to single notes is to condemn ourselves to prison, to sensory and mental deprivation.  Endless looping of a single tune is not pleasure but a recognized method of torture.  It’s certainly not a viable way to keep up the morale of people sharing a fragile starship.

In the long vigils between launch and planetfall, people have to spell each other, stand back to back in times of peril.  They have to watch out for the dangerous fatigue, the apathy that signals the onset of despair, the unfocused anger that can result in the smashing of the delicate machinery that maintains the ship’s structure and ecosphere.  People who piss wantonly inside that starship could short a fuel line or poison cultivars of essential plants.  The worst damage they can inflict, however, is to stop people from telling stories.  If that happens, the starship won’t make it far past the launchpad.  And if by some miracle it does make planetfall, those who emerge from it will have lost the capacity that enabled them to embroider jackets – and build starships.

We cannot weave stories worth remembering if we willingly give ourselves tunnel vision, if we devalue awareness and empathy, if we’re content with what is.  Without the desire to explore that enables us to put ourselves in other frames, other contexts, the urge to decipher the universe’s intricate patterns atrophies.  Once that gets combined with the wish to stop others from dreaming, imagining, exploring, we become hobnail-booted destroyers that piss on everything, not just on my great-grandmother’s laboriously, lovingly embroidered jacket.

The mindset that sighs nostalgically for “simpler times” (when were those, incidentally, ever since we acquired a corpus collosum?), that glibly erases women who come up with radical scientific concepts or write rousing space operas is qualitatively the same mindset that goes along with stonings and burnings.  And whereas it takes many people’s lifetimes to build a starship, it takes just one person with a match and a can of gasoline to destroy it.

It’s customary to wish feisty daughters on people who still believe that half of humanity is not fully human.  I, however, wish upon them sons who will be so different from their sires that they’ll be eager to dream and shape the dark with me.

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, “Artemis” (from Beginning with O)

Susan Seddon Boulet, Shaman Spider Woman (1986)

Related blog posts:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Standing at Thermopylae
To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

To Boldly Go…Where We’ve Been Before

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and The Game of Thrones.

Single Crash

Last summer while staying with a friend, I watched reruns of the TV series Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as Paladin, a mercenary gunslinger and “problem solver” in the Old West.  The series presented a classic example of the myth of redemptive violence: Paladin preferred to solve problems without violence but was handy with a gun or fisticuffs when forced, and by golly more episodes than not the bad guys would still pull a gun or a knife and poor Paladin would be forced, just forced to kill them.

Violence has been and always will be part of our cultural narratives and entertainment, but the myth of redemptive violence resonates strongly with Americans. This is not surprising, give the birth of the American nation and concept of liberty in a violent revolution, as well as our self-perception as coming to the rescue of the world in two world wars.  Redemptive violence, and in particular the image of villain lunging forward with a weapon forcing the hero to kill him or her (see, for example, Dirty Harry, Fatal Attraction, even Jody Foster’s Anna and the King, and many, many, many more movies and TV shows), has become a ubiquitous trope in American entertainment; no wonder we, as a nation, are puzzled when our attempts to solve political problems by violence backfire.

Nonetheless, I found Have Gun Will Travel interesting, in part because the series provided a training and testing ground for a generation of television directors, not least of whom was Gene Roddenberry, whose Have Gun Will Travel episodes strongly reminded me of the morality plays he would later create in Star Trek.

Although Captain James Tiberius Kirk threw a mean punch and knew how to fire a phaser, in Star Trek Roddenberry sought occasionally, though not always, to undermine the myth of redemptive violence. In multiple episodes it is revealed that malicious aliens manipulated characters into fights, whereupon Kirk highhandedly throws down his arms and refuses to go along with the narrative of violence.

I don’t mean to overpraise Roddenberry and Star Trek, but in many respects it (and the science fiction of the 1960’s and ’70’s) was a high point for science fiction television and media, attempting to thoughtfully probe culture and society. Unfortunately, the late 1970’s and early ’80’s brought forth Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator, movies with science fiction tropes which didn’t just embrace redemptive violence but pledged unending love for it, and made bucketloads of money.  Thereafter Hollywood came to accept science fiction = blowing stuff up as an axiom.

Therefore it was disappointing, though not surprising, that the 2009 reboot of Star Trek was all redemptive violence all the time. The explosions and the snarky banter entertained the younglings for whom the original series of Star Trek was a vague topic their aged forebears enjoyed, in the same category as morris dancing and landline phones; but for those of us who grew up on it, it felt like a cynical betrayal.

Despite my disappointment, I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment by J.J. “I’m not a fan of Star Trek” Abrams, on opening night. And I’ll confess, I enjoyed it, at least while I was watching it. It was only later, upon reflection, that it became clear this was cultural cannibalism, along with the attendant cultural kuru.

Much of the cleverness and delight was situated in off-hand references to well-known characters and incidents (Nurse Chapel, Harry Mudd), and the remainder in the reciting and reversal of classic lines, to the point where I could whisper to my wife the line before the actor said it–and this was my first viewing of the movie.

Spock is well-written and well-acted by Zachary Quinto, and his struggle with his dual heritage handled deftly; and Simon Pegg’s comedy chops have pushed him to the forefront as a major player in this film.  While Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has more screen time and more agency, she is still one-dimensional, as if the white male writers had decided “We’ll write a Strong Black Female” and thought that ended their job; she was actually better drawn in the 2009 movie.  McCoy, who had been a vital part of the triumvirate of the original series, has now been relegated to the position of Comic Series of Overblown Signature Lines, which wouldn’t have been bad if Uhura had been allowed to truly take his emotional place in the Kirk-Spock-X triad.

Worst of all, Chris Pine’s Kirk comes across not as a brash, flawed leader, the Bill Clinton of outer space as it were, but as a whiny, know-it-all teenaged horndog. It makes William Shatner’s performances, by comparison, look nuanced and subtle.

And then there is plenty of blowing stuff up.

The writers and the director seem dimly aware that a Star Trek movie ought to be about more than blowing stuff up: characters are restrained from killing other characters, not out of morality but out of necessity; the militarization of Starfleet is deplored; and the movie ends with a belated speech against revenge.  But this seems to have looped back to the days of Have Gun Will Travel, excuses for violence with a veneer of a morality play.

Interestingly, Star Trek: Into Darkness echoes closely a theme found in another current blow-em-up movie, Iron Man 3. In both films acts of terrorism are revealed as rooted in the evils of the industrial-military complex, though Ben Kingsley makes a much more twisty and interesting villain than Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison.

While Kirk is slowly evolving into the wiser, more strategic Captain of the original series, and while, despite my complaints I found Into Darkness less irritating than the 2009 reboot, afterwards I found myself hoping against hope they don’t make a third movie. Unless they can find a director who can take it to a new level. I’d vote for Alfonso Cuarón, whose Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Potter series, demonstrated both a nimble visual flare and a strong sensibility for characters.

But that would mean to boldly go in a  new direction, something Hollywood is, alas, loath to do.

Carol Marcus

Athena’s footnote: I have thoughts of my own on STID that parallel Calvin’s and Devin Faraci’s in Badass Digest. I’ll share them if I get a spare moment but they’re encapsulated in the images I chose to accompany this entry.

Images: 1st, summation of the reboot ST (aka ST||) universe; 2nd, Dr. Carol Marcus as comparison shorthand between ST|| and the original ST.

Planetfall in Nowa Fantastyka

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

NW coverSome may recall that, back in January, the reprint of “Planetfall” at the World SF site caught the eye of Nowa Fantastyka, a prominent, long-lived Polish SF/F magazine. They asked me if they could publish the story in Polish.

I asked fiction editor Marcin Zwierzchowski if it was all right for my friend Aneta Bronowska to vet the translation, since my Polish is non-existent. Aneta combines three attributes that made her ideal for this task: she was born in Poland and has lived there all her life; she has exquisite antennae; and she’s intimately familiar with the Spider Silk universe. I knew the translation was good when Aneta said it made her cry, like its English original.

The Nowa Fantastyka issue with my story just appeared: here’s a link to a promotional copy of the magazine that shows selected pages. This is the second translation of my work — To Seek Out New Life came out in Japanese — but the first one of my fiction. The promotional file does not show that the story bears an illustration that Aneta was kind enough to scan and send me. It’s a lovely, otherworldly rendition that encapsulates nearly all the elements in the story – except for the amulet/command module that traverses each portion of the story like a falling star.

Planetfall NF W

My thanks to Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Newton, Marcin Zwierzchowski and Aneta Bronowska, who made this possible.

My Fictional To-Do List

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Whistling Wind

A while ago I saw this question: “What’s on your fictional To Do list?” Here’s a partial list of what I’d pursue if I had a semi-infinite lifespan and equivalent resources. The list doesn’t include real-life wishes, like learning a dozen languages and to play the bagpipes or refurbishing my advanced physics knowledge and small airplane pilot skills.

1. Become the astrogator of the first ship to Alpha Centauri;
2. Decipher the Minoan language and its script, Linear A;
3. Comprehend and translate cetacean songs;
4. Engineer biological nanobots that we can truly trust;
5. Identify the woman who wrote The Song of Songs.

Those of you who have read my fiction (whose published portion is the tip of the iceberg) know that in fact I pursue this list in it. In Planetfall we catch brief glimpses of how starship Reckless arrived at Koredhán (Glorious Maiden) under the leadership of Captain Semíra Ouranákis (Skystrider), how the travelers modified themselves genetically to fit the planet and how this choice eventually made them able to communicate with the mershadows, the native aquatic sentients.

What few have seen is the driven, haunted, blade-sharp loner who started the work that resulted in the genmods of the Koredháni, launched the Reckless, and decreed that Minoan (deciphered by her family, who are also part of this large universe) would be the ship’s lingua franca.

So here’s a tiny bribe: to those who read The Other Half of the Sky I will send Under Siege, a short screenplay that features the first captain of the Reckless. As proof, email me ( one of the unabbreviated names of the protagonist in Christine Lucas’s story. The screenplay file contains another reward layer: a link to my earliest published stories. Of course, reading the anthology should be its own reward… but consider this a coda, given the parameters I specified for the collection.

To whet appetites, here’s a passage from Under Siege:

Let’s try it on Loki.
(A few beats later)
It works!  I can’t believe he used a single encryption system.

(skimming the file, aghast)
I can’t believe what I’m reading either. Somehow they attached thruster engines to the space station without anyone noticing. Armed it with nukes, too!

Subtle. Anyone adopts an agenda the Agency disagrees with, death rains from the skies. Or a solar flare hits the station’s gyrostabilizers, same result.

They also sequestered all the first and second generation biological nanotech reagents up there.

Ah. That might explain why I suddenly couldn’t renew any of my grants.

You were involved in nanotech research?

Involved? I was the first one to use biobots to successfully regenerate brain neurons. Turns out they also augment brain function… not something the brass was happy with.
(Jonathan looks at her, stunned for once. She smiles tiredly, points at her head)
What did you think this was for, decoration?

Music: The Time Machine, Eloi by Klaus Badelt

Damp Squibs: Non-News in Space Exploration

Saturday, January 5th, 2013


Biologists interested in space exploration are consistently delegated to the back of the stellar tour bus, if we’re allowed on at all. We’re Luddites who harsh everyone else’s squee, you see. We keep pointing out that radiation is not kind to living tissue, whether gametes or neurons; that uploading to silicon chassis is not possible as an alternative to carbon bodies; that human babies cannot be hatched and reared by robots at planetfall; that living on extrasolar planets poses huge problems and dilemmas even if they’re quasi-compatible. And that since FTL and warp drive are and will always remain science fiction, we need to at least tackle, if not solve, some of these issues before we launch crewed starships for long exploratory or migratory journeys. This year, there were two non-news items in the domain that brought these matters once again to the fore.

The earlier of the two was the disclosure that “NASA scientists might achieve warp drive” based on Alcubierre’s theoretical concept (by using a Jovian weight’s worth of exotic matter as likely to exist as stable wormholes). Beyond its terminally wobbly foundation, the concept also doesn’t take into account that such folding of space would destroy nearby star systems (and almost certainly also the starship) via distortion of the local spacetime and/or massive amounts of radiation. It’s also unclear how the starship could be steered from within the “negative energy” or “tachyonic matter” bubble. This means that even if fast space travel were possible using this method, it would still take lifetimes to safely reach a planet within a system because local travel would by necessity be at sublight speed.

More recently came the non-news that radiation causes… brain malfunction, as if the term “free radicals” and “radiation damage” were not in the biomedical vocabulary since before I entered the discipline in the mid-seventies (let alone the in-your-face evidence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts or the Chernobyl meltdown). Radiation, especially the high-energy portion of the spectrum, breaks atomic bonds directly and indirectly by producing free radicals. Free radicals start chain reactions: lines of descendants, each of which can damage a biomolecule. Radiation causes mutations in the DNA, which is bad enough, but it can also result in other errors: protein misfolding, holes in cell membranes, neuron misfiring. And although cells have several repair mechanisms to counter these insults, they have evolved for the radiation burdens of earth.

All these effects at the molecular/cellular level converge into two large rivers: for dividing cells, cancer; for non-dividing cells (most prominently gametes and brain neurons), death. Kill enough cells, past the brain’s ability to rewire and reroute, and you get neurodegeneration: if the most affected region is the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s; if the cerebellum, ataxia; if the hippocampus and parts of the cortex, Alzheimer’s; if the frontal lobe, frontotemporal dementia; if the Schwann cells of the myelin sheath, multiple sclerosis. Incidentally, radiation also affects electronic devices – something to keep in mind for even short interstellar journeys.


On earth, we are subject to a good deal of radiation from natural causes (radon, solar flares) as well as human-made ones (industrial, occupational, medical, airport X-ray machines). Cosmic radiation constitutes about 5-10% of our total exposure. That will be very different in space, where bombardment by galactic cosmic rays will be both chronic and acute. And whereas cosmic radiation on earth is moderated by the solar wind, the earth’s magnetic field and the layers of atmosphere, none of these protections will be present on a starship. Shielding options are inadequate or, like warp drive, sheer fantasy – which makes this risk one of the major showstoppers to star travel. The best candidate is the most low-tech: water.

Scientific papers that discuss these outcomes, from both inside and outside NASA, have been around since at least the early nineties. So what exactly is new in this study that is making the customary rounds in various space enthusiast sites and blogs? In a word, nothing. In fact it’s a bits-and-pieces study that reaches miniscule, non-surprising conclusions. The adage “labored as if for an elephant and brought forth a mouse” is particularly apt here. As for the originality of its discoveries/conclusions, it’s like hitting someone’s head repeatedly against a cement wall and concluding that such blows eventually cause, um, skull fractures.

At the same time, the authors of the study decided to gild their tinfoil lilies. They used a double transgenic mouse strain engineered to develop amyloid plaques of the Alzheimer’s-associated variety. Despite this loading of the dice, they saw changes in plaque size and numbers and in amyloid processing only in the male irradiated mice. Even the small shifts they saw are far less important than laypeople think: for a while now, the consensus in the field is that plaques may be neutral warehouses. In particular, plaques seem to be a sidebar for sporadic Alzheimer’s which is 90-95% of the disease cases. Many people have heavy amyloid plaque loads with zero cognitive impairment. As is often the case with mice studies, they subjected them to overwhelming amounts of the perturbing parameter (in this case, iron nuclei) that nevertheless represents a simplified subset of what they’d encounter in a real journey. Finally, they saw neither inflammatory microglial activation nor changes in amyloid clearance. They did see changes in a couple of behavioral tests, although in most of them the error bars overlap, which means “not statistically significant”.

The obvious experiment that might give remotely useful results would be to do such studies with a mouse strain that is not merely wild-type but aggressively outbred. However, that would still be superfluous, even if we set aside the limited usefulness of mouse models for human brain function. We already know what would happen during long interstellar journeys, and more or less why. I propose that we use the time and funds spent on irradiating guaranteed-to-develop-disease mice to develop effective, and preferably low-key, shielding. Radical-clearing drugs are also an option, although the favorite defaults bristle with their own host of problems (teratogenicity for retinoids, tumorigenesis for mitochondrial boosting). Like most complex problems, there are no silver bullets to counteract the iron-nuclei ones of galactic radiation. It will have to be done the hard, slow way – or not at all.


Relevant papers:

H White (2012). Warp Field Mechanics 101.

JD Cherry, B Liu, JL Frost, CA Lemere, JP Williams, JA Olschowka, MK O’Banion (2012). Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased A? Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS One 7(12):e53275