Friday, 31 January 2020

Things Science Fiction Takes for Granted

I've been on a bit of a sci-fi kick recently, if not in reading in what I've been researching in my spare time. I've noticed we take a few things for granted when it comes to reading or writing sci-fi, no matter what type it is. In brief, I'm going to list out the things we don't even bat an eye at.

1) FTL, Faster Than Light Travel

This seems perhaps an obvious one, space opera tends to be impossible without some measurable means of transiting the stars in a reasonable time frame, but it is one that, until recently, was even theoretically impossible. With the cultural popularity and theoretical applications of the Alcubierre Drive, it seems that we can justifiably speculate on how an FTL civilization would function. However, before this, when breaking the light speed barrier was beyond the realm of plausibility, we had to simply invent it as science fiction.

I don't think too much needs to be said about this one, as its premise is quite simple and the scope for storytelling it grants is pretty broad. That said, I don't think that writers should fall into the trap that you can only tell good space opera with FTL. The solar system is vast enough that we can tell many stories inside of it, without ever having to leave the heliosphere. That space is big is an understatement, and so we can do much to fill up the void between planets.

2) Artificial Gravity

This one is also a standard feature, but the one that seems least likely to ever be feasible within the realm of known physics. Gravity as we know it is generated by the spin of an object exerting force on the items upon it, essentially pulling on them. To do that you need something which can artificially replicate that force. In most science fiction though we seem to see artificial gravity being a standard applied everywhere. The mechanics of this are usually poorly explained, and well beyond the scope of our physics. Thus, one is forced to conclude that this is an unfeasible prospect based on our current understanding of modern science.

However, we can generate artificial gravity through things like centrifugal force, or simple thrust. The books in The Expanse series (and television series) show this through both aspects, and it is fascinating to watch the differences in gravity and problems it creates for our characters when they must do without it on occasion. Knowing that this is a plausible thing too, might change many people's perspective on what is 'realistic' and 'unrealistic' in science fiction.

I personally look forward to the day when we have a rotating habitat in orbit around Earth to start to get some hard data on this.

3) Interplanetary Colonization

One thing that is practically taken as gospel in almost every piece of science fiction is the idea that humanity will spread to the stars and plant our flags on other worlds and terraform them to suit our needs. Now, we have a history here on Earth of spreading across the continents, from the early Polynesian peoples to the Age of Discovery when Europeans began planting flags all over the world. It would make sense then that we would seek to expand that process to the final frontier. But does it really?

For one thing, space is big. Really, really, big. It would take centuries to travel to even some of the closest stars near to our solar system without FTL. Even travelling between the various planets in the solar system at the moment would take months or years with current technology. Even with some future technology it would take a long time to reach some place like Proxima Centauri, our closest star.

Even then, once we got to another solar system, would we even be able to colonize it? Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora has some interesting answers on that. However, even assuming that we could terrform another planet, it would take a long time, centuries or millennia. So why not just build some islands in space?

This brings you to the idea of the O'Neill Cylinder! At its simplest this is a large tube, either built independently or into a hollowed out asteroid, and spun up to provide gravity. Something like the terrarium from 2312.  The idea was originally floated in the book The High Frontier by physicist Gerard K. O'Neill, which talked of building rotating habitats in Earth/Moon orbit, or at the stable Lagrange points in Earth's orbit. These can be of varying sizes, but the advantages are you can create and settle them however you like! Want an arctic like location? No problem! Eternal tropics? No problem! All you need to do is create a cylinder with a certain diameter and length, spin it up and light it and voila!

And O'Neill's design isn't even necessarily the only one. You could build even larger, potentially with the truly massive McKendree Cylinder. Unlike O'Neill's more modest island in space, here you would practically be building a continent in space. Measuring 460 km in radius and 4600 km in length per the original proposal, you could have a living area inside with the same land area as Russia! You could even build it bigger with stronger future materials!

Building something like this turns into decades, or maybe a century, of work. Something far removed from the travel times between the stars or the length of time it might take to terraform somewhere like Mars. We could have continent sized living space in the future, yet this seems to get overlooked fairly easily. Perhaps we should start thinking of those types of stories more. You don't even need to leave the Solar system to have an 'interplanetary' adventure!

4) AI

Artificial Intelligence, or the reasonable facsimile thereof, has been an expectation of science fiction since at least the 1950s. Presumably most well known is Robert Heinlein's "Mycroft" who was birthed when an engineer on the moon progressively plugged in more and more computers until they gain sentience as one single being. Sadly, to some people the idea hasn't advanced much beyond that.

There is a strange belief in what is known as "The Singularity" in which computers will advance so quickly and so fast that just one day they will "wake up" and AI will be born. Now there's a few problems with this idea. Firstly that our rapid advancement in technology and efficiency is nowhere near as rapid as proponents even 20 years ago predicted. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted in his 1999 book The Singularity is Near that by 2010 we would have a computer capable of emulating human intelligence, and by 2020 such computers would be available for "one-thousand dollars" to us. Well, it's 2020 and barring some massive change no such computer is on the horizon.

Largely the idea is a vast misunderstanding of Moore's Law, which even the observer himself said was not a hard fast law, but an observation. It is even clear today that the rapid increase of processing power in computing is reaching a state of diminishing returns. Exponential growth cannot continue forever.

Even overlooking the issue of the Singularity, what would an AI actually look like? Would it have human level intelligence? Maybe, but would we recognize that intelligence? That last question is probably the most important when considering the issue of AI, would we even recognize it for what it was if we had it? Let me be clear, creating an 'artificial brain' which can solve complex problems is already within our grasp, whether it be made to play games of go or jeopardy. However, one which will be able to complexly interact with and communicate/reason with its human creators will take time and we might not even realize it was self aware as it wouldn't have the same desires/fears/ambitions as we do.

This is why I personally tend to dismiss out of hand fears of 'god like' AI destroying either humanity or the planet. In fact, I think AI will probably be far 'simpler' than we imagine when/if it does show up. For now though, its a highly theoretical concept with some wild out there ideas which fiction has almost done a disservice to.

5) Space Capitalism

So this is an important one. In many, many future scenarios it is hundreds or thousands of years in the future and everyone is either still working a 9-5 job, or working towards getting a pension or government benefits. Now, this makes sense since it would take a lot to put readers in a frame of mind where they grasp a post-capitalist society. However, is this the best way to try and imagine the future?

There have been many attempts to imagine a post-capitalist society in science fiction. Whether it was Gene Roddenberry's post-scarcity Federation of Planets, or the Mondragon Accords put forward by Kim Stanley Robinson. Now, each of these do depend on future technologies to be feasible (the magic replicators in the former and quantum computing in the latter) and it isn't far fetched to believe that our future economic systems will be driven by post-scarcity concerns or technological advances.

One future technology with the potential to upend the current economic order as we understand it is fusion power. An expected massive leap in power production and orders of magnitude more efficient and safer than our current atomic power generation. This could, almost overnight, upend our way of producing power as we know it and put the current hydrocarbon power generation methods the world largely depends on in decline. That would change some key economic inter-dependencies, such as on foreign oil or even the whole natural gas industry.

Now some of this does depend on the idea of a 'post-scarcity' society. It should be understood that 'post-scarcity' does not mean that we have everything, it just means that obtaining resources and a high standard of living is not impossible for the average person as goods are produced cheaply and available to all. This would though, arguably eliminate the need for traditional capitalism as we know it and lead to something close to the UBI (Universal Basic Income) that has been mooted around the last few years. Even just the UBI would undermine our understanding of politics and economics as it stands.

The future though, might not be more egalitarian but more corporate. With men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos driving the current future of space travel, it seems like we're possibly going to have shares be more important in the near future than any sort of workers cooperative in space.

However, the ideas for a post-capitalist future are many, and even here I can only list some ideas for why writers ought to be imagining a post-profit driven society.


These of course, are just a few things that science fiction is often using as a standard for the genre. They aren't the only big tropes, but I think they are at least the top five. What do you think, and what would you like to see more of in science fiction?

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Battle for the Wastelands

Recently I got to read a book I have wanted to read for a long time. Fellow blogger and writer Matthew Quinn had talked about his full length novel Battle for the Wastelands for many years. After a long process of submissions, Mr. Quinn finally went the self publishing route and made his novel available to the public! Here's my full review of Battle.

Set in an indeterminate period after a post apocalyptic event, we find our protagonist Andrew Sutter, traversing the wastes along the Iron Desert within the fertile Basin. His home. Carroll Town, is ruled over by the despotic and terrifying Flesh Eating Legion under the command of rebel turned warlord Jasper Clark. With a terrible drought afflicting them, a heavy tribute is demanded, sparking a minor rebellion and when Andrew takes up arms, he finds he might not know what true battle holds.

Meanwhile, the ruthless warlord Grendel, first lord of the Northlands, is struggling to hold his fledgling empire together. Though he has largely crushed all his foes, his underlings are now clashing with one another. It threatens to split his tenuous hold on the Basin lands into splinters and destroy everything he has built. Within his new realm he has friends and enemies. One being his concubine and former woman of the ruling Merrill family, Catalina, who seeks a way to plot against him. The other is Alonzo Merrill, leader of a ragtag rebel army opposing Grendel and his cronies, but fighting a losing war along the Southern Wall, a series of fortifications designed to drive the remainder into the desert.

Can the rebels manage to beat the first lord of the Northlands? Or will they be swallowed up by the progress of empire?

I definitely found that the novel was fast paced, which was good for the amount of information you receive when reading it. It starts off with a brief introduction into the Iron Desert and Caroll Town, but then its hard fighting and lots of dying!

Andrew is, without a doubt, our main viewpoint character. He is the audience surrogate seeing the issues of the world at large. Young, headstrong, and very unsure of himself he finds himself thrust into a war he barely understands until it gets personal. Seeing the despotism of Grendel's empire up close, he throws himself whole heart into fighting it.

While I enjoyed Andrew, I actually don't think he was the most interesting character in the book. His young naivety and limited scope for viewing the problems in the Basin as a whole, made him have only a one track mind. That is, the specific struggle against the Flesh Eating Legion under Jasper Clark. This was an engaging story, with a great cast of supporting characters (who had a terrifying life expectancy) that kept me hooked.

Many of Andrew's scenes were where the action in the story shone through, and it starts off bloody. It then gets up close and personal. Largely, this is where the meat of the story excels, with it being well described and satisfyingly bloody. From knife to bayonet wounds, to the after effect of mortar bombardments, you aren't left in the dark about the horrors of combat. Though after a point, some of the description did feel perfunctory, especially in the first third where it didn't come off as quite as strong.

The use of old vs. new style weapons was pretty clever. The dirigibles flying around give any enemy a massive advantage in both scouting and firepower, but there are ways to defeat this. The most obvious course is to have a dirigible of your own, but there are other ways. I think one of my favorite visuals from the book is when Andrew and other Merrill troops are waiting behind a rise in a hill, all rifles aimed skyward with a 'balloon popper' cannon to try and blow a patrolling dirigible out of the sky if it spots them. Coupled with the rarity of Old World weapons (automatic rifles and machine guns) you get some pretty awesome steampunk action with bolt action rifles going against SAW weapons on occasion and all the imbalances that creates.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect though, is the politicking in the villain camp. While the good guys are (largely) united in purpose, the bad guys are quickly devolving into fighting amongst themselves. Grendel is after all, a warlord, and the people he works with or conquered were also warlords. And much of Grendel's time is now spent dealing with his uppity subordinates.

In the neo-fuedal future setting of the world, this works quite well. This is why I really appreciated Grendel as a character. All of Grendel's scenes are deliciously Machiavellian as we see the tyrant plotting and outsmarting opponents while trying to crack the problem of how to pass on his empire to his heirs. His son Falki (who will be starring in an upcoming novella) is something of a pain in the ass for the tyrant. Though Falki is clever in his own right, he is still a boy used to immature outbursts and doesn't quite understand the fine art of terror and politics the way Grendel does. The two competing view points between the two makes for some nice tension in Grendel's plot, and it makes me look forward to how they will play out in the future.

Grendel of course, keeps a bevy of concubines, and they too have their own politics. Trying to get their sons higher in the line of succession, and in Catalina's case, trying to get him to remember his Merrill heritage rather than the role Grendel is trying to set for him. Of course, Grendel is not entirely blind to that either. Catalina will hopefully be a major character in the future, and I look forward to seeing her use her position to her advantage as well as she possibly can.

In these scenes we also get useful world building. We learn how Grendel runs his empire, the various (and myriad) factions he employs, and even delightful little details like union/guild systems which can do things like go on strike! It makes for some fascinating interplay, and at the end of the novel seems to be setting the scene for intrigues and struggles for the good guys! I really look forward to seeing more of that in the future.

The one place where I think the world building did not shine though was establishing the overall setting. I had actually believed this was a future Earth, and while I couldn't match the geography in my head, things began to break apart as I read more. The exact nature of the Old World is left mysterious, and with little tell for how it fell apart or what technology was left behind. Much of this was based off of the world 'moving on' in the Dark Tower series, but I think that more explicit calling to the different nature of this world and then a smidge more info or theories about the Old World would have helped ground the setting.

Enjoyable little nods to the Old World abounded, one scene where Andrew is wandering through the Iron Desert and finds the remains of an abandoned house was a fun aside. The weapons and their rarity/effectiveness was a fun jump in any action scene. I did find myself hoping that other Old World tech which wasn't just weapons would come around, and maybe that will be a future plot point. Fingers crossed.

If I had to make one criticism of the novel, it was that I found the first act to not be as strong as it might have been. Andrew's early arc is well established, but we wait a while for anything to come involving Grendel or the Flesh Eating Legion (which itself could probably have been fleshed out more too) and their overall place in this world. Once we get past the initial Caroll Town arc though, the story picks up, snagging your attention and never letting go. The second and third acts I breezed through as I had time.

As a story though, it makes a valid argument for steampunk not being dead or unusable as a genre. Dirigibles, trains, telegraphs and machine guns are all intelligently and compellingly used. The Western look and feel is never wasted, and the clever plots and compelling characters are well put together. If you're looking for some great action and a really, really fascinating villain, I cannot recommend Battle for the Wastelands enough. And with a novella coming out in the near future, you won't be waiting for more from this fascinating world! Check it out!

Friday, 17 January 2020

Ottawa Underground Legend

Some urban legends have more truth to them than we think. My own city, I discovered recently, has a few as well. Way back in 2012, there were reports of an abandoned rail tunnel, complete with train, compiled by an enterprising journalist of the Ottawa Citizen. He looked into rumors that someone had found an entire train just abandoned beneath the earth. So he went digging.

Bar side tales told that there was an abandoned train tunnel in the depths of Ottawa. Perhaps from an original attempt to get the city an underground rail system for its street cars, or maybe it was from an old brewery. For the latter, it was out of use since 1967, and no one had seen it since.

That was, potentially, until 2015 when some workers literally fell through the floor into the old tunnel. Needless to say, they were quite surprised and no one could figure out why it had been hidden. Mapping it out on old municipal maps, the rail line was discovered to extend perhaps as far as Carp and Rockland either way.

Now, its not clear from this latter article whether the tunnel in question refers to the conclusions of the 2012 Citizen article that the 'abandoned subway' is a part of the old brewery tunnel, or whether this is a completely different small rail system. There has been precious little follow up journalism on the subject, and it seems that it may well fall into the topic of urban folklore once more.

However, the fact that one has just happened to turn up is both fascinating and perhaps a little alarming. It should make us pause at just how many secrets cities, even small ones of only over a million, can hold after so many years. What else could be lying just beneath our feet?

A special shout out to Voices in the Attic for originally sharing and bringing this to my attention. They've got a great spooky Twitter feed to follow too. Definitely check these guys out!

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Leviathan Wakes

So, we come to the first book of the 2020 re-read. I originally read this novel in the span of three days while I was in Australia after my brother recommended it to me. I was a bit skeptical, but I picked it up and I literally couldn't put it down. I don't think a book has ever had me going "holy crap" as I finished chapter after chapter of the book as much as this one did.

That book, was Leviathan Wakes.

From wikimedia commons

The premier novel in the Expanse series was actually written by two authors under the pen name James S. A. Corey, the pen names for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The work originally began as a setting for a large role playing game, but author Abraham said "People who write books don't do this much research," and so the genesis for this now eight book series was born.

It is set centuries in the future, roughly in 2350. Earth supports a large and bloated population of 30 billion. Mars is Earth's wayward daughter colony and eternal terraforming project, or one giant science experiment. Meanwhile on the lesser asteroids and planetary bodies, Ceres, Ganymede, Eros and hundreds or thousands of smaller asteroids and stations, the people of the Belt struggle to survive in the most hostile environment known to man. But into all this, a massive spanner is thrown into the works by a man named James Holden.

Minor spoilers follow this point.

The story is told through two viewpoint characters, the first being the XO on an old icehauler the Canterbury after being drummed out of the navy. Righteous and sure of humanities good side, he has a dangerous habit of speaking his mind too freely. Secondly is a native "Belter" and detective Josephus "Joe" Miller who works the beat on Ceres for the resident police force Star Helix Security. Cynical, jaded, and something of an alcoholic, he works to keep people breathing and enforce the laws on the Belt's busiest port when he gets a strange case on his desk.

With two characters who have such diametrically opposed views of humanity, it is fascinating to see them put in similar situations time and time again, while also overcoming amazingly Herculean odds to accomplish their goals. The two are perfect foils for one another, and I don't think I've encountered a duo like them for a while.

They fit organically in the established setting described above. It is a world rich with political tension, inequality and for the reader, utter wonder at how far it seems mankind has come in colonizing the Solar System. However, as they show, this isn't without cost as the Inner Planets (Earth and Mars) squat on the neck of the Belt (the various moons and asteroids) giving them no representation of their own. Instead a myriad of resistor groups has formed the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), terrorists, pirates or freedom fighters and a government all their own, depending on who you ask.

Into this ugly mix is the destruction of Holden's ship the Canterbury, with only a small batch of surviving crew members, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Amos Burton and Shed Garvey, surviving as they were on a shuttle at the time (these secondary characters also helps round out the story as well) This one act kicks off a round of violence solar system wide, and poor Detective Miller gets stuck in the middle of it on Ceres with his Earther partner Dmitri Havelock.

Each chapter in the story ups the stakes further and further, ratcheting the tension higher in each chapter. Even the few precious scenes where the characters feel slightly safe are few and far between as they end up thrust from one system spanning disaster to another. Like I said, I was almost invariably saying "holy crap" as each one ended since things seemed like they couldn't get worse.

The interplay of themes like government, representation, freedom of information, revenge, coupled with Holden's quintessentially optimistic view of humanity versus Miller's pessimistic view of it presents a nice play by play between the chapters. With Miller at first analyzing Holden through various lenses as either an insane optimist or eventually or as a righteous man with a big mouth. When the two do finally meet face to face it makes their interactions just that much more interesting!

In terms of science fiction the authors have intentionally gone for 'Wikipedia level plausibility' being that the technology and ideas you see in the series are not so far-fetched that they distract you from the story while also being real enough they can work plot points out through contemporary understandings of science and physics. I appreciated that as it let me have a base understanding of the setting, as well as seeing what technically worked and guessing at how some events might play out. I ended up being pleasantly surprised more often than not.

This also shines into the action of the series. With ship to ship combat having to take into account things like high gee maneuvering, which could accidentally crush the human body. Dodging around point defense cannon shots, torpedoes and railgun rounds is serious business, but the forces involved are similar to those put on modern fighter pilots. Power armor also makes an appearance as the modern militaries want their soldiers to survive in the airless radiation of space. That makes gunfights even more interesting! Though old fashioned gunslinging is the norm for this first installment.

Quite honestly the interplay between characters and ideas, and the massive solar system spanning implications of the meta plot kept me hooked to the point I was just unable to set the book aside either the first or the second time. Even with a second, perhaps more jaded, read through I really can't say I find anything wrong with the book. It comes together on numerous levels, the story rising and falling, giving you time to breath and then whipping you forwards on a break neck pace. It just works in all the right places I think.

I'm glad that I started the year with this book, as it is definitely one of the best science fiction books I have ever read. It will forever stand out in my imagination as a book which has set the standard for stellar science fiction!

Friday, 10 January 2020


My first review of 2020 is not on any of the books from my big re-read. It is instead one I began in 2019 but just finished now in early 2020. That book is another of Kim Stanley Robinson's, but on a different track. Here we follow people travelling across the interstellar void between the stars in a generation ship. They travel towards Tau Ceti, and aim to establish a new colony for mankind.

This story is Aurora. Published in 2015, it is a great take on the idea of a settler society sent out to colonize the stars on behalf of those from Earth and it tries to examine the plausibility and morality of such an action as well as setting out the plausibility of a functional generation ship.

Does it tell a good story and bring mankind to faraway places? Read on and find out!

Now, I'm very interested in the concept of a generation ship, how it could be made to work, and how it could even stick on its original mission. I've been fascinated by the idea ever since I saw the show "Ascension" which deals with an interesting take on the idea. By its nature, Aurora appealed to me. An examination of a society which has grown up over a century on what amounts to an artificial floating environment in the depths of - for lack of a better term - a void is fascinating. I really do believe that the novel captures the challenges and problems in keeping such a society going quite well.

The unnamed ship is divided into two rotating rings (A and B) and each contains a number of biomes. These biomes have been designed to carry a minimum human population while supporting the maximum amount of biodiversity possible in a 2 by 4 kilometer space which can bring as much of Earth to their potential new home world around Tau Ceti as is practical while keeping up a good chunk of biodiversity to support the various ecosystems.

Our main protagonist is the daughter of the de-facto chief engineer of the ship Devi. The girl, Freya, is out main view point character besides the Ship itself. The ship is a sophisticated AI based on a quantum computer system. Even this AI (Ship) does not really know if it is self conscious or not, which forms a running background to the narrative which is rather fascinating to watch unfold as the plot goes on. Say one thing for Robinson, but he writes a damn fine speculative AI.

The plot follows Freya from her childhood in the biome of Nova Scotia to her eventual rise to the position her mother held and the leadership role that plays.

Though this is ostensibly a story about colonization of another planet, it deals far more with the ethics of a generation ship (even if the original crew were willing volunteers, is it just that their descendants must carry out their mission?) and the sustainability of such an endeavor. Over a century into the journey, the systems seem to be breaking down. There is legitimate fear that the people on the ship are de-evolving or undergoing serious genetic strain. Poor Freya is seen by her mother Devi as 'slow' in comparison to her forebears.

With space and carrying capacity on the ship limited, the population is capped at just over 2,100 people. This in and of itself is a cause of consternation and concern for many as they will be legitimately unable to start families or have children. It has led to problems in the past, and some even try to cheat the system - with occasionally fatal results, as in the case of the parentage of one character Jochi.

These struggles are all highlighted against the uncertainty of what their arrival in the Tau Ceti system will bring, and whether they will even be able to terraform the planet upon their arrival. The looming question of whether it will all be worth it hangs over them as it is a certainty that Freya's generation will be the ones who set foot on their potential new home world.

Despite this, only some of the novel is given over to discussing the issues of terraforming or interstellar colonization and much more is focused on the issues of keeping the ship viable, how such a society can function in the face of a complex and multi-generation mission and the ethics of such a plan originally.

In typical style, none of the characters we see are particularly deep, and much more time is devoted to the systems and problems facing the generation ship and the Ship itself in a slow evolution from an advanced quantum computer to a potentially self aware machine, even if Ship itself doubts the whole truth of this assertion.

The considerations of how exactly one would go about manning and sending off a generation ship, and how to keep it running are all very well explored. The potential pitfalls, the biological and potential generation problems are also examined in often grim detail. Even things such as missing enough of a noble gas like bromine for completeness sake is looked at! Would these small biomes be able to get away from the problems of a limited biosphere and small gene pool? Would humans be able to develop well on what is essentially a small island? We have some exciting rides and questions to keep us going to the end.

However, the ending ultimately fizzles out in comparison to the action of the second and early third acts in the story. Their are high stakes, but the issues, fates and even original ideas which launched the whole plot centuries in the past are not really explored, and we ultimately end up on a confusing series of incomplete feeling epilogues rather than a concrete ending for any of our characters.

While an exciting novel for its content, it does almost end up being a polemic against its very premise. There will be no spoilers in this review, as I would encourage people to look to the book to understand its arguments. I would recommend it to anyone keen to look at an interesting story of the ethics and logistics of a generation ship. Despite a strong opening, it doesn't quite stick the landing.