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Does Science Fiction Really Drive Innovation?


Joshua Dalzelle is a USA Today bestselling author, an Amazon Top Ten Bestselling Science Fiction author, and creator of the hugely popular Omega Force series.

Interspecies Communication

I first met Sammy Davis, Junior, when I was nine. At the edge of the kitchen counter, he waited, a gray house lizard—what we in the Philippines called butiki. No bigger than my father’s index finger, half of him was a thin, twitching tail that tapered to a point.

 

Butiki

 

Sammy Davis was a similar specimen of Hemidactylus frenatus that my mother and father discovered long ago in their first apartment near España Boulevard in Manila. He had kept the moths and mosquitos at bay, and so they’d tolerated, then befriended him.

Now, several years later, my father approached Junior, making a series of clicks with his tongue, his hand outstretched with a pinch of boiled rice. My mother continued nibbling at her steamed chicken while my seven-year-old brother watched with a kind of stunned, frightened look in his eyes.

Still clicking–a quick click-click-click, pause, repeat–my father carefully set down the pinch of rice about two inches away, while the lizard watched with rotating eyes.

It took about half a minute while the lizard twitched his tail, swung his head first this way, then that–before he darted forward and snapped up the rice, swallowed, then darted away down the vertical side of the counter.

Triumphant, my father offered another pinch of rice.

Click-click-click.

Junior poked his head over the edge, scrambled to the rice, and gobbled it up.

Click-click-click.

 

koko-a-talking-gorilla

 

Koko, a lowland gorilla trained by Dr. Penny Patterson, is said to comprehend over one thousand signs from American Sign Language and to understand and respond to a spoken vocabulary of over two thousand English words. Beyond that, Koko is reported to have invented her own signs to communicate new thoughts: for example, describing a ring by combining “finger” and “bracelet” into the new word “finger-bracelet.”

 

kanz-icon

 

Kanzi, a bonobo, has been using a specialized keyboard with symbols on the keys to communicate with the team of primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, using a vocabulary of six hundred words.

 

Alex

 

Alex, an African Grey, was shown by Dr. Irene Pepperberg to understand over a hundred English words and could identify various colors and shapes.

 

Nim

 

A controversial project in the 1970s saw a baby chimpanzee named Neam Chimpsky—“Nim,” for short—taken from his mother just days after birth at a primate research center. Behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace aimed to raise Nim as a human child, placing him with human families who strove to teach him a form of American Sign Language. Despite a sad end, when researchers attempted to re-integrate him unsuccessfully with other chimpanzees, Nim learned to sign in three- and four-word sentences:

Apple me eat.

Drink me Nim.

Finish hug Nim.

Give me eat.

Hug me Nim.

Tickle me Nim.

Yogurt Nim eat.

Banana eat me Nim.

Me eat drink more.

Tickle me Nim play.

 

Dolphin

 

In a NASA-funded experiment with a bottlenose dolphin named Peter, neuroscientist John C. Lilly tried to prove his theory that dolphins could learn language via constant human contact. Over ten weeks, Margaret Howe, his research assistant, spent day and night with Peter.

Dolphins can make human-sounding noises via their blowholes, and Margaret’s goal was for Peter to mimic sounds that he heard.

Over time, Peter could pronounce a rough version of several words, including “hello,” “we,” “one,” “triangle,” “diamond,” and “ball.” His favorites:

Hello, Margaret

Play, play, play

Disturbingly, Peter got emotionally attached to and aggressive with Margaret, circling around her, nibbling her, and jamming himself against her legs. The behavior escalated, and he was quickly re-instated with other dolphins until he had calmed down enough to be re-introduced to Margaret.

Unfortunately, after ten weeks, funding for the project ended, and Peter was shipped to another lab. Without Margaret, he apparently lost the will to live and refused to breathe, sinking to the bottom of his tank in what might be understood as suicide.

 

Butiki 2

 

Months later, I’m alone in the kitchen when I hear a clicking beside me.

There is Junior, his eyes two quivering balls of black, his tail flicking, right in the middle of the table.

Click-click-click.

I throw a rice grain at him, and he runs forward, catching it in his mouth and swallowing. I follow with several more.

Click-click.

Two clicks means “I’m done.” He twitches his tail one more time, turns, and is gone.

 

Big Ear

 

On August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was examining data from Ohio State University’s radio telescope, part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. He saw an anomaly in the data from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius in the 1.43GHz frequency. Most scientists agree that would be the most likely frequency an alien civilization would use to broadcast a signal. It was so amazing that Ehman circled it and wrote “Wow!” in the margin of the print-out. Up until then, the signal had resisted all explanation. The signal’s strength was represented on a scale of thirty-six intensity levels by the numerals 0-9, then A-Z. The 72-second signal formed a perfect bell curve:

6EQUJ5

We are here.

 

Wow_signal

 

Out there, beyond the furthest arms of our galaxy, our radio telescopes broadcast our own signals, our hopes and dreams, in a language we hope someone will understand.

Our spacecraft bear plaques engraved with drawings and symbols of ourselves in a form we hope someone will decipher.

And we listen, straining to hear beyond the noise of supernovae and neutron stars, to ascertain if there is indeed somebody out there.

 

adoptaspacecraftvoyager1

 

Click-click-click.

 


SAMUEL PERALTA is a physicist and storyteller. An Amazon bestselling author, he is also the creator and driving force behind the Future Chronicles series of speculative fiction anthologies, with 14 consecutive titles ranking at the top of the Amazon SF Bestseller lists, several hitting the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. His own work has been recognized in Best American Science Fiction and included in the author community anthology for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer.

Samuel Peralta

Samuel Peralta, creator of The Future Chronicles

This article was first published, in slightly different form, as the Foreword to Interspecies

https://www.amazon.com/Interspecies-Inlari-M-J-Kelley-ebook/dp/B01G7KON9U?tag=disscifi-20

Interspecies, a shared universe anthology

 

The Butterfly Effect

“Can anyone alter fate? All of us combined… or one great figure… or someone strategically placed, who happens to be in the right spot. Chance. Accident. And our lives, our world, hanging on it.”

— Philip K. Dick

 

Ray Bradbury’s classic short story A Sound of Thunder is the most reprinted science fiction story of all time. Set in the year 2055, a company offers time travelling safaris to the past, to the Cretaceous Era, to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

The company takes great pains to choose targets that are about to die anyway, since the belief is that changes in the distant past could become an avalanche that changes everything. But despite all precautions, something goes utterly wrong—

 

Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder", illustrated by Richard Corben (Topps Comics) 1993

Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder, illustrated by Richard Corben (Topps Comics) 1993

 

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

 

Butterfly Effect

Samuel Peralta

Because your father stopped in Strandja park
to point out that whirligig of wings–blue
argus
, he said, Ultraaricia
Anteros
–you were dazzled forever.

Those wings wafted you here, ten thousand six
hundred kilometres away, to the
University of California,
Davis. Encyclopedia of Insects

in arm, you haul yourself up the stairwell
of Briggs Hall. Your frail sandal spindles on
the threshold–and you trip, a beautiful,
crippled Lycaenidaen specimen,

into the butterfly net of my arms.
Somewhere in Texas, a hurricane stirs.

 

Ultraaricia anteros

Ultraaricia anteros

 

Besides the chaos theory reference, my free verse sonnet Butterfly Effect arose from many memories. Of my father writing a scientific monograph on moths and butterflies, and handing me a paper pamphlet of it, when I was young.

 

Of my fondness for the blue argus butterfly, from the family Lycaenidae, a specimen restricted to the Balkans in Europe.

 

Encyclopedia of Insects

Encyclopedia of Insects

 

Of seeing the Encyclopedia of Insects in a library, a bloody huge book.

 

And memories of the three years, I lived in Davis, California, where I won my first-ever literary prize, and where I first thought I was in love.

 

MU Entrance, Freeborn Hall

University of Davis, California

 

So here we are. Where we are now, what language we’re speaking, what foods we eat, what we believe in—all of these are based on a myriad of events happening in the past, just so. Accidents. Coincidences. Chance.

 

We don’t live in the world of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle because the Allied forces were victorious over the Axis powers in the Second World War.

 

From Amazon's production of "Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

Amazon's production of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

 

We don’t live in a world where Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in his third run for President of the United States, to be replaced by Charles Lindbergh, as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

 

But what if? 

 

Speculative fiction itself is based on asking that question.

 

What if Pope John Paul I hadn't died after just a month in his office? What if the women's suffragist movement lost their battle for the right to vote? What if Steve Wozniak’s focus had turned to medical technology instead of personal computers? What if the Japanese and United States of America had allied to combat an expected Great Depression? What if Edward Jenner had died prematurely before developing a vaccine for smallpox?

 

butterfly-effect-1920x1200

 

The flap of such butterfly wings would surely have changed everything—lives, loves, the world as we know it.

 


SAMUEL PERALTA is a physicist and storyteller. An Amazon bestselling author, he is also the creator and driving force behind the Future Chronicles series of speculative fiction anthologies, with 14 consecutive titles ranking at the top of the Amazon SF Bestseller lists, several hitting the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. His own work has been recognized in Best American Science Fiction and included in the author community anthology for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer.

Samuel Peralta

Samuel Peralta, creator of The Future Chronicles

This article was first published, in slightly different form, as the Foreword to Alt.History 101

Alt.History 101, part of The Future Chronicles series of speculative fiction anthologies

 

FTL – Science Fiction’s Fudge Factor

Hyperspace, warp drive, folding space…over the years, authors have come up with lots of ways to travel faster than light, a virtual necessity if we are to portray any plausible kind of interstellar civilization.  Yes, you can build a good story even with years of transit time between even close systems.  Generation ships and crews in suspended animation can be interesting, and of course, we can restrict the action to a single solar system.  The Expanse is a great example of this kind of action.  But sooner or later we want to break away from the gentle warmth of Sol and explore the galaxy.  And we need to leave light behind in our dust (cosmic dust) as we do.

 

This is where the fudging begins.  Without turning this into a physics symposium, let’s just say that even the wildest imaginings of our knowledge of science tell us it is impossible to do this, especially for something like a spaceship full of human beings (as opposed to a few sub-particles).  So what do we do?  We make something up, of course.

 

Here is where we branch off in options.  Some authors make considerable effort to create systems of faster than light travel that at least seem plausible (they’re not).  Others don’t even worry about it.  They may call it a hyper-jump or a Jaworsky Field (after the fictional inventor), but they don’t even try to explain how it functions.  It can also be a naturally occurring phenomenon, a warp point, for example, or something manmade (possibly by ancient aliens now mysteriously vanished).  But one way or another, we will get the spaceships from system to system.

 

Sometimes, however, there is method to the madness, though it is often driven by plot rather than science.  For example, look at something like Star Trek.  The Enterprise flits all across space, seemingly unconcerned with refueling or even maintenance, at least unless someone sneaks onboard and scrags the dilithium crystals.  This is a great system when you want your ships to be able to get anywhere, to function at maximum efficiency even when they are lost and cut off.  But what if you want the reality of travel to impose greater restrictions on your space fleet?

 

Other systems are based on more of a fixed system using point to point travel.  I’ve used warp gates in my Crimson Worlds series.  These largely unexplained natural phenomena allow travel back and forth between two systems that are lightyears apart.  A system like this offers a number of advantages, especially for the writer of military science fiction.  It takes space, in all its three dimensional glory, and reduces it to a series of connections.  It rationalizes battle lines, and it creates a value structure for systems, making those with larger numbers of gates leading to cool places worth fighting over.

 

FTL systems can also be used to regulate the pace of travel and warfare in space.  Perhaps ships can “jump” anywhere, without the need for warp gates or the like.  But they can only go so far, and then they need to stop and refuel…and possibly have repairs done.  This can drive the plot in a powerful way.  Why is this backwater world so important?  Why are there giant battleships in orbit?  Because it is on the invasion route into the heart of a space empire!  This can be used to create something akin to the “island hopping” campaigns of World War II, as fleets maneuver to secure bases along invasion routes.

 

So the next time you pick up a new space opera, stop and think about whether there was more than made up science in the author’s mind.

 


JAY ALLAN currently lives in New York City, and has been reading science fiction and fantasy for just about as long as he;s been reading. His tastes are fairly varied and eclectic, but favorites are military and dystopian science fiction and epic fantasy, usually a little bit gritty.

Jay writes a lot of science fiction with military themes, but also other SF and some fantasy as well, with complex characters and lots of backstory and action. He thinks world-building is the heart of science fiction and fantasy, and since that is what he's always been drawn to as a reader, that is what he writes.

Telepathy – From Science Fiction to Reality

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

 

During the Golden Age of science fiction, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction was a vanguard in popularizing stories that centered on humans with enhanced mental abilities, and how ordinary society might look at people with those abilities, notably with A.E. van Vogt’s serialized novel Slan and the similarly themed stories that collectively made up Henry Kuttner’s Mutant.

 

Indeed, the first Hugo Award was given in 1953 to a novel that revolved around telepaths. The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester, is a police procedural science fiction story set in a world where telepathy has become commonplace, although so-called espers have varying degrees of ability.

 

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

 

That this work has become a landmark in the genre is evidenced by nods to his work, as in the television series Babylon 5, where the author lends his name to one of the primary protagonists, Psi Corps officer Alfred Bester, played by the iconic Walter Koenig from Star Trek (whose Vulcans were also able to mind-meld, to share thoughts, memories, and knowledge with others through physical contact).

 

Today this melding of minds, this staple of science fiction, is coming closer to reality than many of us may realize.

 

In his book The Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku, noted futurist and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York, classifies three types of impossibilities. Class III impossibilities are what we normally think of as not possible: things that cannot become real, at least not according to our current understanding of science; these include perpetual motion and precognition. Class II impossibilities include things that may be realizable, but in the far future, such as faster-than-light travel.

 

According to Professor Kaku, telepathy is a Class I impossibility. These are phenomena that don’t violate the known laws of physics, and indeed may become reality in the next century.

 

A meeting of minds

A meeting of minds

 

Never mind the next century—some scientists believe the age of telepathy may be upon us.

 

The first clue? That people lacking one or more of the normal five senses can now, in certain situations, be given them.

 

Since the 1960s, around 350,000 people who were profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing have been fitted with cochlear implants, providing them with a sense of sound where previously there was none. Essentially, a microphone picks up sounds, which are filtered by a speech processor and sent as an electronically coded signal to a transmitter behind the ear. This transmitter sends the signal to the subject’s brain through an array of up to twenty-two electrodes circling the cochlea, which then send the impulses through the auditory nerve system to the brain.

 

Following European approval in 2011, the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2013 approved for use the first retinal implant. The system uses a video processing unit to transform images from a miniature video camera into electronic data, which is then wirelessly transmitted to a sixty-electrode retinal prosthesis implanted in the eye, replacing the function of degenerated cells in the retina. Although vision isn’t fully restored, the system allows those affected with age-related macular degeneration, or with retinitis pigmentosa—a condition which damages the light-sensitive cells lining the retina—to better perceive images and movement.

 

Retinal implant

Retinal implant

 

Similar advances are being reported for the other three senses of touch, smell, and taste.

 

But what about the sixth sense?

 

In my own speculative fiction universe, electronically augmented telepaths make use of technologies akin to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to associate perceived images of neural activity with a subject’s memory palace in his brain. This is a key point for my conception of the protagonist of my short story Trauma Room, a man who can use augmented telepathy to traverse a subject’s thoughts and memories using the method of loci.

 

Trauma Room by Samuel Peralta

Trauma Room by Samuel Peralta

 

Today, functional MRI has actually been used to sense words being thought by a subject, or to discern the images being formed in the brain as a subject watches a movie. It’s still very mechanical, matching monitored brainwave activity with a huge database of impulse responses to benchmark words or images, but it’s the same big numbers principle that enabled the IBM Deep Blue chess computer to win against then-World Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

 

In the same year that The Demolished Man was published, Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human also came out. It’s the story of several people with extraordinary abilities who are able blend their abilities together and achieve human transcendence. The same theme—of humans transcending ordinary humankind—is explored in Time is the Simplest Thing, by Clifford D. Simak. It can be argued that a similar sort of communal experience—if not transcendence—is already part of our experience, with the spread of the Social Web.

 

It’s only a matter of time before all the input and output devices we have—keyboards, flat screens, heads-up displays—become obsolete. Why should you have to type or dictate information into a computer, when you can control it directly by thought? Why project information onto your eyes when you could send information directly into the brain? In time, many of us may be direct input/output nodes into the cloud.

 

Science fiction?

 

Direct brain interfacing

Direct brain interfacing

 

We live in a world where cochlear implants are already helping the deaf to hear, and retinal implants are beginning to help the blind to see.

 

We live in a world where smartphones and connected wearable devices—watches, glasses, health and fitness monitors—simultaneously receive and broadcast information to and about us through the cloud of the Internet.

 

We live in a world where deep brain stimulation is routinely used in therapies to address Parkinson’s disease, where implants in the brain allow people to bypass a broken spinal cord and move hands, arms, limbs with the power of thought.

 

Augmented reality heads-up display

Augmented reality heads-up display

 

In fact, we live in a world where real telepathy has already been achieved. A team at Duke University in North Carolina has, for the first time, demonstrated a direct communication interface between two brains. In the Duke experiments, two thirsty rats are placed into separate cages. They cannot see or hear each other, but their brains are wired together via electrode implants in their motor cortices. Each rat will be rewarded with a sip of water if it pushes the correct one of two levers. In the first rat’s cage, a light comes on above the correct lever to let the rat know which lever to push—but there is no such indicator in the second rat’s cage.

 

The experiment, then, measures whether, when the first rat pushes the correct lever, it sends a brain-initiated signal to the second rat, which must then correctly interpret the signal it experiences in its own brain, and push the correct lever.

 

The technology is simple: implanted electrodes capture the signals from the firing of the neurons in the motor cortex, translate them into binary code, and sends the signal—via a wire, wirelessly, or via the Internet to another location—into the electrodes in the other brain, which translates it back into neural signals.

 

Sheer chance would have the second rat pushing the correct lever 50% of the time. In fact, the rat chose the correct lever between 60% and 85% of the time. This was true even when one animal was in North Carolina and the other was in Brazil.

 

How much longer before what you read in the following pages is no longer science fiction?

 

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

 

In The Future of the Mind, Professor Kaku notes, “We have learned more about the brain in the last fifteen years than in all prior human history, and the mind, once considered out of reach, is finally assuming center stage.”

 

Science fiction writers peer into possible futures, using a literary form of precognition, as it were. And so we follow that grand tradition, celebrating this a new Silver Age of fiction, an age of online publishing and digital books, an age where we are surrounded by wonderment and wonders, where science, in many ways, has become magical.

 


SAMUEL PERALTA is a physicist and storyteller. An Amazon bestselling author, he is also the creator and driving force behind the Future Chronicles series of speculative fiction anthologies, with 14 consecutive titles ranking at the top of the Amazon SF Bestseller lists, several hitting the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. His own work has been recognized in Best American Science Fiction and included in the author community anthology for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer.

Samuel Peralta

Samuel Peralta, creator of The Future Chronicles

This article was first published, in slightly different form, as the Foreword to The Telepath Chronicles

Various_TELEPATH_CHRONICLES_EbookEdition-320x512

The Telepath Chronicles – part of The Future Chronicles anthology series

 

Science, Progress, and Science Fiction

As a novelist I often get categorized as a ‘hard’ science fiction writer, which I’ve never been entirely certain fit because I absolutely make use of the customary handwavium and even the occasional Unubtanium. Of course, I do try to at least explain my speculative technologies within the framework of real scientific hypotheses and theories… and that is where things can get sticky by times.

For your average reader in most genres, cutting edge research isn’t on their daily reading list. That’s just not the case in Science Fiction, however. Scifi readers tend to enjoy science, at least the knowledge of it, just as much as they enjoy science fiction. And that’s awesome, but it does make for interesting times as an author because science advances, and does so quickly, so sometimes your brilliant (or just acceptably clever) scientific plot point can be turned into fantasy magic overnight by some PhD at Cern or other research facility.

Ok, by this point it sounds like I’m complaining about science ruining my novels.

Not even close.

When you’re writing speculative works, you have to expect that some (most) of your speculations will be wrong. That’s just par for the course unless you happen to be a PhD with access to billions of dollars’ worth of equipment and a series of theories that you’ve, for some reason, not already put out to your peers.  If you’re that guy, I have to question your priorities.

Still, it can be jarring to have something you specifically wrote about be chucked out by scientists, even if you knew it was coming anyway. It’s happened three or four times over my time as a writer, and each time I go through the same stages of response.

First, there is the automatic face palm.

Yeah, that moment where you’re just grateful that you weren’t drinking anything when you found out, otherwise you know you’d have a mess to clean up. Your brain goes immediately to the vilest epithets you can imagine which, for me, is usually something out of Bugs Bunny… (Don’t judge me.)

Thankfully that only lasts for a few seconds because, hey, this is the game we play and we play it because we love it. Any advance in science is good for science fiction. When a door closes, a dozen others unlock, because that’s just how huge the universe is. Maybe someday we’ll know so much about how things work that every theory that’s disproven somehow makes the universe smaller, but that day isn’t going to be today.

So that brings us to the second stage, the question of whether we can adjust the story to work. This is an important question, particularly if the story is currently ongoing. If we’re working on a series and we know that there will be another novel coming out, or more perhaps, then we have to decide if we’re going to stay in our, now ‘fantasy’ world, or try and wrench the laws of physics back to reality as we’d like to know them.

Sometimes this is easy, especially with cutting edge theories. Quantum Mechanics is such that you can bury a lot of crimes in the uncertainty of String or M-Theory. Sometimes, though, it can’t be done without retroactively messing with novels you’ve already written and, quite likely, other people already love.

Don’t DO that.

It’s better to write fantasy than mess with the stuff people already love.

Ok, maybe it’s a close call… I mean, it is Fantasy and all. (I’m kidding! Relax, I like fantasy, just making a point about so called hard science fiction here.)

So we finally get to the third stage, Acceptance.

Yeah, we get there faster than for stages of grief, but we’re science fiction types. We’re just awesome that way.

Whether you’ve managed to fix the problem, or you’ve decided that it can go play in the Elysian Fields for all you care, it’s time to put it aside and go back to writing.

After several times through this process, I have to admit that I look forward to it now. Being proven wrong, even when it was relatively obvious, is fun. It means that you’re working with real ideas that real people are also tangling with in the real world. Even being wrong is awesome because of that connection to actual research.

We’re science fiction fans, all of us, and that connection with the cutting edge is what drives us just as much as the ancient link to the story construction itself. We care about both the future and the past, so science fiction connects both the cutting edge world we live in and the oldest art we know of…

Storytelling.


 

Evan Currie has been writing both original and fan fiction works for more than a decade, and finally decided to make the jump to self-publishing with his techno-thriller Thermals.

Since then Evan has turned out novels in the Warrior's Wings series, the Odyssey One series, and the first book in an alternate history series set during the height of the Roman Era. From ancient Rome to the far flung future, Evan enjoys exploring the possibilities inherent when you change technology or culture.

In his own words, “There's not much I can imagine better than being a storyteller.”

It’s All About Light

In just three years from now, we will mark the fifty-year anniversary of man’s first setting foot on the moon.  Fifty years!  It’s gone fast.  Too fast.  The 70’s and 80’s were full of visionaries projecting that we would have bases on the moon and burgeoning tourism by now.  Alas man hasn’t set foot on the moon again since our last Apollo mission in 1972.  Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon and that was almost 44 years ago!

For those of us who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, our effort in getting off the planet and into space has been agonizingly slow.  Instead, we watch as NASA sends rover after rover to investigate nearby bodies, while mumbling amongst ourselves “how hard can it be?”

But as it turns out, it’s pretty hard.  Physics is the most obvious problem, especially for technologies that haven’t been invented yet.  And the more we learn about space, the more obstacles we discover.  Problems like radiation.  Or lack of gravity.  Or social isolation.  The problems continue to grow based on the most fundamental human traits imaginable.  And things we’ve taken for granted for millions of years.

Even with today’s technologies, we only have “ideas” on how to solve some of these problems.  And it can be a very long time between initial concepts and working models.  Which paints a pretty stark picture.  The unfortunate reality is that it may be a very long time before we have a ship capable of going anywhere.

Light beams

So the question then is…do we even have to?  We all know the fastest speed possible (that we know of) is the speed of light.  And while we’d love to venture out and see other places and new planets, it all really boils down to just one reason.  After all, if you’ve seen one sun, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  And I don’t think anyone is all that excited about seeing a planet comprised of nothing but barren rock or clouds of deadly methane.

No, most of us prefer to venture through space with one single, monumental goal in mind.  To find life!  Any kind of life.  Sure, a friendly alien waving back at us, waiting to share their knowledge would be great.  But even just seeing plant life on another planet would be incredible.  Or knowing that life “exists” beyond our own Earth would change everything.  Not just textbooks, but it would validate so much of our beliefs.  Even the Drake Equation, as simple and realistic as it is, is little more than scientific “faith”.  And knowing that our assumptions and extrapolations were right would fill so many of us with a profound sense of eternal satisfaction.

But we have no ship.  And we won’t have one that can help us make these discoveries for a very long time.  Most likely after the vast majority of us have long since been laid to rest.   Although there is one way.

There is one way that is within our grasp.  And it’s possible right now.  It doesn’t require huge leaps in technology, or exotic solutions that we can only imagine in diagrams or books.  A way that may just be able to answer the question as to whether we’re alone, long before we pass on still clinging to our scientific faith.

I’m talking about planet hunting.  The search for distant Earth-like planets, visible to us now thanks to the wonders of light.  You see, instead of us having to figure out a way to make the trip, light has already done that for us.  And when that light has bounced off a distant planet, it carries with it signatures of the elements that it bounced against.

In other words, by examining the faint rays of this light, even using today’s technology, we can see what molecules are in that planet’s atmosphere.  Which means we can determine what caused it.  Things like methane and carbon dioxide can be caused by many things, but one thing that is a sure signature of life is oxygen.  Oxygen, in large quantities, is unquestionably the result, or byproduct, of a living organism.

This all means that we can potentially answer the biggest question of all, without ever having to leave our planet.  At least for now.  Because while a plant or forest may not sound interesting, we simply need to remember that those are complex organisms.  And to find complex life out there means we will eventually find more complex and potentially intelligent life.

Light is the key.  Light doesn’t just provide illumination.  It provides information.  Like nature’s fiber optic cables, with bits of data that has already traversed the universe, it can help us verify that we are not alone.  And that as Frank Drake posited many years ago, there are likely thousands of other civilizations out there.

This is why we all love science fiction.  Because deep in our hearts we know we’re right.

And with any luck…simple photons are about to prove it.


Michael C. Grumley lives in Northern California with his wife and two young daughters where he works in the Information Technology field. He's an avid reader, runner and most of all father. He dotes on his girls every chance he gets. His website is http://www.michaelgrumley.com

Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Worldbuilding.  It’s a term that gets bandied about quite a bit when discussing fiction, especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, but for all the endless times it is repeated, I think sometimes the importance is overlooked.worldbuilding

It’s very fashionable to say things like, “character development is the important thing,” or “it’s the story that matters.”  And, of course, those things are absolutely essential.  But they’re not the whole story.  Not by a longshot.  Not in science fiction or fantasy.

A work of historical fiction set, say, during the American Civil War doesn’t need worldbuilding…it’s world is the world, and beyond pointing out some historical facts the reader might not know, the author can focus almost solely on characters and storyline.  But science fiction and fantasy demand more.  These stories take place in worlds that are the creations of their authors.  They may be set in the near future, based heavily on the real world, or they may be wildly different (a galaxy far, far away), but either way, the reader needs to understand this setting, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the author fleshes it out.

Imagine a work like Dune, without the immense detail of the empire, stripped of the customs, institutions, and history so carefully laid out by the author.  What is left?  A good story, some well-developed characters?  Yes, perhaps.  But an enduring classic of the genre? Doubtful.sandworm

Or Asimov’s Foundation series…with its galactic empire and its ‘world as one giant city’ capital.  The characters come and go in what is mostly a series of short novellas, but the overall plot of the fall of empire ties them all together.michael-whelan_isaac-asimov_foundation

On the fantasy side, could there be a better example than the Lord of the Rings?  The three books cover little more than a single year’s activity, yet Tolkien’s work wouldn’t be the classic it is without the massive worldbuilding that gives us thousands of years of fictional history interspersed with a few months of real time action.lotr

In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is like a character itself, often as much a part of the story as any hero and villain.  When I think of the books that have resonated with me in my forty-odd years of reading science fiction and fantasy, it is those that offered rich worlds in which I could lose myself that became the favorites I pull out every couple years to reread.

Writers pursuing effective worldbuilding sometimes get blindsided by terms like “infodump,” and efforts to show the reader the true vision of a fictional universe often falter on such endless attempts to oversimplify good writing into arbitrary ‘rules’ and nonsensical little blurbs like, ‘show, don’t tell.’  Should a book start with an encyclopedia-like multi-page blast of pure background information.  No, not usually at least.  But is it important to share the true scope and vision of a fictional universe?  Absolutely.  Do readers want to know about these worlds their favorite authors create?  Definitely.

There is no question that worldbuilding has to be done well, subtly, and not like a tank smashing through the wall.  Information needs to be doled out slowly, steadily, not in one massive torrent.  In a series it can come over several books.  But when it is done, and done well, the rewards are enormous, both to the author and to the reader.  The best fictional universes take on lives of their own, and they begin to feel real, at least to the readers who become ever more immersed in the escape they offer.

As an author, more often as not, I’ll begin a new project with a clearer idea of the setting and the realities of the universe than the characters themselves.  I want my heroes—and my villains and bystanders too—to feel like they’re from that setting, and not some generic creations I cooked up and dropped in…which is why worldbuilding remains the core of my writing process, and always will.

I’d like to add a note on another kind of worldbuilding, the kind that is behind this web site.  This is my first blog post for DiscoverSciFi, and I’m very excited to continue to share ideas and motivations with all of you.  I’ve got a long list of topics for future posts, and I know my co-author partners here do as well.

One of the things I love about participating in something like DiscoverSciFi is the chance to create another way to reach readers.  Authors today have the opportunity to be closer to their readers than ever before, and I think this is a great thing for publishing in general.  I get a lot of emails from fans, and I answer them all.  There is no substitute for input from those who read and enjoy your books, and no better source for new ideas where to take a story than those from fans.  I’m excited to see where this DiscoverSciFi journey takes us.  I’m sure it will be a great ride!

Jay Allan

jay@jayallanbooks.com

Prophecies and Science Fiction

It’s an amazing experience when a prediction from a science fiction writer’s book comes true. I had this happen to me last week when gravitational waves were discovered, in almost exactly the way I predicted in my book Nomad (when two colliding black holes were discovered).

How did it feel? Surreal would be the best word. Frightening. Then surreal.

Dozens of fans sent me copies of  articles describing the use of LIGO, a laser interferometry device,  to find the black holes—which was exactly the plot device I’d used in Nomad. It felt like I was reading something from my own book when I read online about real scientists. And not only that, but the size of the black holes were almost exactly as I’d described as well. The critical difference was that these black holes weren’t on a collision course with Earth. (ed. note: Now THAT would have been frightening! And that was the point of Nomad.)

gravity waves

To be fair, much of the credit for this goes to the long list of astrophysicists that I consulted with as I constructed the plot (and I credit them right at the start of the book, thank you very much, gentle-men and -women). Still, it felt like I’d done my own little part in the rich history of science fiction writers making predictions about the future.

Reading Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, first published in 1865, really provided my inspiration in wanting to write books like this. If you're a fan of science fiction, I'd recommend reading it. Amazing. Of course, he made predictions about a manned space flight to the moon almost 100 years before the Apollo program, but I wonder how many of the engineers involved in Apollo might have been inspired by reading science fiction to do what they did?

And the term “robot” was first coined in science fiction (originally appeared in a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1921 by Czech writer Karel Čapek, and popularized by Isaac Asimov in his Robot series, which if you haven't read, please stop reading now and go do your homework), which is an interesting example of fiction creating reality—but the list goes on and on, from space travel to submarines, sliding doors, laser guns, invisibility cloaks and more. All of these were once the realm of science fiction, and are now reality. So what's next?

And that’s one of the reasons I became a science fiction writer in the first place. To do something like that. To become a part of the tradition.

Each of my books makes an attempt at this, to educate as well as entertain. In CyberStorm, I took readers on a realistic journey into what a major cyberattack might look like. In Darknet, I explored the merger of modern financial networks with artificial intelligence–and within a year after publishing Darknet, I got a flood of emails from fans talking about the announcement of an AI program at the world’s biggest hedge fund.

With Nomad, the idea I wanted to explore was how the earth wasn’t separate from our interstellar environment, and just after I finished writing it a year and a half ago, I had another surprise in the news.

In February of 2015, researchers were amazed to discover that just 70,000 years ago, near enough in time that our direct ancestors would have seen it, Scholz’s star passed about a half light year from the Earth (in comparison, the star currently closest to the Sun is Proxima Centuri at 4.2 light years).

This led to a flurry of data crunching last year, leading scientists to discover that, for instance, four million years ago, a giant star–more than twice the mass of the sun–passed less than a third of a light year from us, and in just over a million years from now, another star will pass at just over a hundredth (yes, a hundredth) of a light year from our sun, grazing the solar system itself and possibly affecting the orbits of the planets.

Now scientists are saying that Sedna, the 10th planetoid of the Sun, the one after Pluto, might not even be an original planet of our Sun. New data suggests it was probably captured from a passing star about a billion years ago, when our solar system collided with an alien star’s planetary system. Hundreds of objects in the Kuiper Belt, the collection of planetoids past Uranus, might have been captured from passing stars.

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A change in Earth’s orbit 55 million years ago might have even triggered one of the biggest global warming events in its history. And a massive ice age, started 35 million years ago, might have been also been caused by another shift in Earth’s orbit, and this same event might have disturbed the asteroid belt enough to precipitate several large asteroid impacts, one of which formed the Chesapeake Bay. Some now believe these sorts of events might have been caused by the gravitational effect of a passing star, now we know that they're literally swarming around us.

And that is exactly the kind of event that I described happening in Nomad–which is free today on Amazon.

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All my best and thanks for joining us on our journey to Discover Sci-Fi!

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