Category Archives: science fiction

Sci-Fi Didn’t Warn Us About This

A lot of predictions have been made in science fiction, some that happened and some that didn’t. There were predictions of humans replacing body-parts, lost or otherwise, with cybernetic machines; there were predictions of regrowing lost body parts; even predictions of people growing clones for use as spare parts. However, I don’t remember any story predicting that body-parts would be simply printed as they’re required.

3D printing breakthrough produces functioning human-scale bone and muscle tissue

From: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

From: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

ITOP tackles the problem of structural integrity by printing a biodegradable plastic structure onto which living cells are applied using a water-based gel ink.

The problem of keeping the cells oxygenated and fed was solved by building microchannels into the structural plastic so nutrients and oxygen can reach all cells.

Tissue printed this way can be kept alive long enough to be implanted into a patient and for the patient’s body to grow necessary blood vessels as the structure dissolves.

So, that’s pretty awesome.

Apparently I missed one:

A Viable Future

The wealth divide looks like it’s going to keep growing, and if you’re on the wrong side of it you – and your kids – could have a pretty tough life. It’s the age-old battle of the business-owning capitalists trying to increase profits and the working class trying to earn enough to live. A simple way around this is to blend the two – have the workers own the company.

For example, let’s take a factory that manufactures auto parts, and employs a hundred workers. There is constant stress between the workers, who want higher wages, and the owners, who want higher profits. Then a new robotic system is developed that allows the owners to operate with 50 workers instead of 100. This is clearly bad for workers, half of whom will lose their jobs. Maybe they’ll go on strike, maybe they’ll convince the transport union to not do deliveries to the factory…that’s not good for the owners.

Now, if the workers owned a significant portion of the factory that conflict goes away. Maybe instead of pushing for a pay raise they arrange an area for children of the workers to spend time after school so they don’t have to pay for a sitter. They might band together and get cheaper rates on a doctor coming to give them a check-up. They can see that they’ll have to automate their process or be out-competed by other factories, and they check their options. Some might be nearing retirement age, and figure they can live on the dividends of their shares. They might decide that everyone will work part-time so no-one gets laid off, and they can pursue other interests. Maybe they’ll go for broke and keep all 100 employees working full-time and double the output, or expand into a new line of business. The point is that the better the factory does the better the workers do, so there’s no internal conflict. Maybe they’ll make stupid decisions and run the factory into the ground, in which case their business will go to other factories with smarter workers – just the way capitalism intended. If the factory gets fully automated, the workers still get an income because they own shares in the automated profits.

I was pleased and invigorated with hope when I saw this model is actually in play in more than tech companies – Publix is a grocery chain and pharmacy store in America that has apparently got better metrics than Walmart and Kroger. Why is this? Well, a main point that fans of capitalism make is that people will work harder for their own benefit than for another benefit, which is why capitalism > communism. But if someone is on a fixed income they’ve only got an incentive to work hard and smart enough to not get fired, whereas if their income increases based on how well they work because they own part of the company, they’ll put in more effort.

You know it makes sense.

My Work Here Is Done

Buying a License to Print Money

You can buy a share of a license to print money! (conditions apply)

Australian company Bitcoin Group is having an initial public offering, planning to sell 60.7 percent of their company for A$20 million, as outlined in this press release. Bitcoin Group is a bitcoin mining operation, which means it runs the calculations that produce new bitcoins, thereby printing new money – albeit virtually. It’s a fairly risky investment, though, since the equations that create bitcoins are specifically designed to make it harder and harder to get new ones; so the company’s profit will fall unless the value of bitcoins keeps rising or they find ways to mine them more cheaply.

But there’s more! Some interesting stats in the releases, such as that around the world there is the equivalent of 400,000 specialised mining machines performing 400 petahashes of calculations and using A$1 million worth of electricity per day supporting bitcoins. So Bitcoin Group, which claims 6.1 to 6.3 petahashes of mining equipment, spends roughly A$15,250 on electricity per day – although obviously there’re ways to reduce this. At least, you’d hope so, because the company earned A$431,000 in the first six months of 2015, which by the numbers they’ve given would have used $2,745,000 of electricity. Let’s hope they’ve been ramping up production exponentially, and haven’t been using that amount of electricity for the whole six months. My point is that there are costs to printing money, even virtual money. At some point it’s quite possible that it will cost more to produce bitcoins than they’re worth.

It’s something that’s worth thinking about when writing science fiction stories – currencies won’t be the sole domain of the government, but any currency that is set up with require an infrastructure to support it, and the expense that comes with that.

And Now I’m Back

Thanks to my ISP I haven’t really had for an extended period of time (Telmex, never use this company if you move to Mexico). Apparently they haven’t built their network to withstand a light drizzle, or a slight breeze. The good news is that today there was no extreme climatic conditions, such as clouds, and I have internet, and I’ll post something quick.

10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break

This is a wish list by Charlie Jane Anders based on the idea that you have to know the rules of whatever you’re doing, but you don’t have to follow them. If you are going to break them, break them effectively. So let’s have a look at them, and consider them in the light of my novel Faer Play which I’m unexpectedly doing rewrites on.

1) No third-person omniscient
None of that here, the novel is “limited third” – although in my first draft I apparently jumped around a lot between this and omniscient and “ironic narrator”. That’s all be edited for consistency. Yay editing.

2) No prologues
It was actually suggested that I put in a prologue, specifically making my dream sequence a prologue because it is full of action. The dream sequence was originally a flashback sequence, which an agent at a conference told me was a no-no because it was “backstory”.

3) Avoid infodumps
This is something else I removed from the first draft based on the advice of this agent at a conference, with the result that all my beta-readers commented they had no idea what was going on nor how the world worked. Getting that page-and-a-half of information back into the story has been rather more difficult than I imagined, but I think I’ve succeeded with the idea of performance art.

4) Fantasy novels have to be series instead of standalones
I agree with this, a thousand times yes. If I see “Book One of…” on the cover my first thought is “if the rest of the series isn’t out yet, it would be better to wait until it is so I can read all the books at once”. This rule was instituted after I tried to read From Hell, an excellent comic series that I had to start reading from scratch every time an issue came out because of the time between them. Twelve issues over seven years…yeah, I’ll just get the phone-book version, thanks. My book is a standalone, although there are sequels. Sequels or other novels set in the world of the first are great, I love them, but writing a series just because that’s what is done often goes wrong. Take Robert Asprin and his MythAdventure series. I love this series, the first six books are amongst my favourite books of all time. Funny stories with great plots and interesting characters, not to mention funny… I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at any other books, including Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide. Up there with the best. Books 7-12, in my opinion, left a lot to be desired. They didn’t seem as funny, the plots weren’t as tight…I’m not going to complain here. My point is that after I finished reading them I found out that Asprin published the first six books independently, but got a publishing contract for the second set of six books, which allowed him to “plan more”. I think he worked a lot better as a pantser.

5) No portal fantasy
I understand that this trope is overused, but it’s the only way to tell a certain type of story. My novel is reverse portal fantasy, if such a thing exists.

6) No FTL
Not really relevant to my novel, but definitely a rule that can be broken because it is so restrictive. If you think science fiction can’t have FTL travel, just call it science fantasy. Everyone happy?

7) Women can’t write “hard” science fiction.
I had no idea this was a rule. It seems, on the surface, stupid, and digging a little deeper doesn’t reveal anything intelligent to comment on.

8) Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world
Let me guess…this is the result of an influx of the literary crowd who insist they would never read genre? They can all piss off. If you’re going to write a story where everything is exactly the same as Earth, you may as well just set the story on Earth. Or would that require too much research and knowledge so that readers don’t get thrown out of the pretty prose by proclaiming “well, that’s ridiculous, that’s not how tigers behave”?
My novel has magical beings, and them being magical is kind of their distinguishing feature, but I don’t know if that counts as being a “minor part”… I’m going to say it breaks this rule because I think it’s a stupid rule.

9) No present tense
I think this is often considered a problem in any type of writing, along with second person. I actually agree with this one – if it’s done well, present tense and second person can be awesome, but it’s really hard to do well.

10) No “unsympathetic” characters
Well, I understand that it’s difficult to write a story where the protagonist is unsympathetic, but no character? This is a pointless rule, because what is unsympathetic to one person can be entirely sympathetic and relatable to another person. My novel certainly has bit characters who are treated with nothing but contempt (this is to add realism), but the main characters are flawed, but hopefully personable. I’m going to say that I half-broke this rule. I fractured the rule.

So, I only broke two-and-a-half “rules”. That’s good, I guess?

Source: NASA

The Irrelevancy of Logical Fallacies in Mathematics

Scientific American is focusing on Einstein in September, it being 100 years since he came up with the general theory of relativity. It briefly describes how he came up with the theory, which makes it a lot easier to understand and is interesting to me because it contains a logical fallacy.

Einstein claimed that the happiest thought in his life was: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” To be honest, this sounds like his personal troubles were causing depressive episodes. However, he noted that if a man was in an enclosed chamber in free fall, he would feel weightless. He would not be able to tell if he was in free fall or if he was floating in zero gravity. Likewise, if the chamber was in zero gravity and a constant force was pulling the chamber up at an accelerated rate he would feel his feet pressed to the floor, and would have no way of telling if he were in a stationary chamber under gravity or was being accelerated in zero gravity.

Einstein dubbed this “the equivalence principle.” The local effects of gravity and of acceleration are equivalent. Therefore, they must be manifestations of the same phenomenon, some cosmic field that accounts for both acceleration and gravity.

This seems to be an invalid argument. It takes the form:

If A, then C.
If B, then C.
Therefore, A = B.

Just because two things have the same effect doesn’t mean they are the same thing. For example, saying “if an elephant sat on me I would die, and if a rhinoceros sat on me I would die, therefore an elephant is a rhinoceros” is clearly incorrect.

Of course, this insight of Einstein’s allowed a theory that is very good at explaining the universe that we observe. That could be because it got translated into mathematics, and in mathematical logic it is actually true. If A=C and B=C, then A=B must be true.

This might indicate something very profound about mathematics and its relation to the universe, but I’m not sure what.

Review: Homeworld Blues

This debut novel by A.J. McMillan is a cracking good read. The writing style is fast and fresh, the characters mostly well-written and the world-building brilliant. It’s a good length, too.

Homeworld Blues is in the science fantasy genre, which combines technology and magic-as-science-we-don’t-understand…like the Force in Star Wars. In this universe, Earth as we know it shares an interdimensional axis with two other planets in two other worlds (or dimensions, or branes, or planes, or however you want to think of them) and certain people know how to leap between the worlds, which ability they use to transport refugees from Earth to the paradisiacal Breorl, via the hellscape of Darsa. All the locations are richly detailed and realistic, and I often paused my reading and spent a while imagining what I would do in each place. The books starts off in a claustrophobic colony ship, jumps quickly to a desert world, then to a magic jungle tree with dizzying rapidity that often made me wish McMillan had spent longer in each setting.

Still, this is the first book in a trilogy (the second one is planned for 2015 some time) so I’m sure the plot will return to each place over the course of the series. The characters are fleshed out and likeable – and you’ll find some annoying and some pretentious and so on based on your personal preferences, which is a sign of diverse characters. McMillan follows the lead of George R.R. Martin in being perfectly willing to kill off characters that the reader has become attached to and which appeared as if they would have a major role to play throughout the series.

Apart from a few minor scientific errors, the few things which jolted me while reading concerned a couple of characters. Zepp is a great character, but a touch inconsistent. At one point he looks at a woman “in a whole new light” because she was wearing a sexy and revealing dress; but he had the hots for her the moment he met her and his increase only increased throughout the novel, so I’m not sure what the “whole new light” would have been. At another point he admitted to himself that he deserved to be distrusted because of his actions, but he’d never been anything except completely open and honest throughout the novel – to the point where some other characters chastised him on his openness. At one point I got the impression that Zepp had originally been two characters that had been merged in editing.

Trayia, the protagonist, is awesome. She’s a strong character – not just a strong personality, but a character with good depth and believable motives and beliefs. Still, she gets accepted as the leader/saviour pretty easily by everyone else despite her extreme inexperience and lack of broader knowledge. One guy got told by the Goddess that she’s “the one”, so that’s fair enough, but a lot of other experienced and highly capable people give her undying loyalty based on not very much. I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, just that her actions in this book didn’t really warrant it.

All in all, they’re minor issues in a well-written book, and I think we can expect McMillan to get better as the series progresses. So if this is a genre you like, buy the book.

A.J. McMillan’s blog is here.

The Multicellularity of Alien Life Forms

The latest news out of biology (well, it’s been building for quite a long time) is that the tree of life is very different from how we thought it was. The bit that got me excited?

In the new vision — based on increasingly sophisticated genetic analyses — people and other animals are closer cousins to single-celled choanoflagellates than to other multi­cellular organisms. Giant kelp that grow as wavering undersea forests off the California coast are closer relatives to single­-celled plankton called diatoms than to multicelled red seaweeds or plants.

This is because it obliterates the notion that multicelluarity evolved only once. In fact, Wikipedia claims “complex multicellular organisms evolved only in six eukaryotic groups: animals, fungi, brown algae, red algae, green algae, and land plants. It evolved repeatedly for Chloroplastida (green algae and land plants), once or twice for animals, once for brown algae, three times in the fungi (chytrids, ascomycetes and basidiomycetes) and perhaps several times for slime molds, and red algae.” This is cool because it removes one of the bottlenecks for intelligent life: The chances of life spontaneously evolving are vanishingly small (once that we know of), and the chance of eukaryotic life developing is also vanishingly small (once that we know of). However, where in the past it was thought* that multicellularity evolved only once, now it seems a common, and therefore inevitable, occurrence.

Which means, if we do find extraterrestrial life, it will almost certainly be multicellular in some way.

*At least by me, and it seemed to be the general thought when I went through uni 20 years ago. I don’t know how long scientists dedicated to the field have been aware of this.

For more alien life science, see Life In Cryogenic Conditions.

Settings And Geographical Privilege

I’ve been having difficulty with my stories lately people people keeps saying they want to know where they’re set – which city as opposed to “America”. Which is a problem, because I’ve never lived in America and don’t know anywhere well enough to set a story there. So I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia and Google Earth and the like, with the big problem being that it’s entirely possible I’ll spend a week researching a city only to realise my story can’t be set there for some reason.

And I had this thought: “It’s getting the point where I’m just going to say ‘bugger it’, and set my future stories in places I’ve actually lived.”

This was followed by the thought: “Why the hell didn’t I start off doing that?”

As far as I can tell, the answer is that all the stories I read are set in America (or sometimes England) and there’s this idea that Americans don’t want to read stories about non-Americans in other countries, because it’s too confusing trying to figure out what American state those other countries are in (or something).

But is this really true? I don’t know, I’m not American, but one thing gives me hope. I’ve just finished reading Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, following on from Women Destroy Science Fiction last year, which were obviously very popular. This breaks down the notion that people don’t want to read about characters of a different gender or sexual orientation because they won’t be able to relate – a concept I could never get my head around, since reading about characters that were very different from myself was one of the main attractions of science fiction and fantasy. So maybe people really don’t care, and they’ll read a story set in Australia or Mexico, because it’s not really that great a stretch.

And who wants to write for the lowest common denominator anyway?

Non-Polar Membranes

Life In Cryogenic Conditions

A pretty interesting resource for science fiction writers just popped up. It considers the evolution of life in extremely cold places, such as Saturn’s moon Titan where the surface temperature is about –179 Celsius, specifically what sort of membranes might be available for life to use. In addition to the extremely low temperature which would insta-freeze most molecules into solids, at that temperature the liquid oceans are composed of methane, which is non-polar… so that has to be taken into account.

The researchers at Cornell University ran a computer model with the compounds that we’ve detected in Titan’s atmosphere, and come up with acrylonitrile as the best candidate to form membranes in those conditions. They’ve termed these membranes azotosomes (as opposed to the liposomes that make up our cells) and have calculated they have pretty much the same characteristics as liposomes. Acrylonitrile has three carbons, three hydrogens and a nitrogen, which makes the membrane a lot thinner than liposomes, but that’s pretty much a requirement for working at such a low temperature. The other main difference between azotosomes and liposomes is that in terrestrial liposomes the oxygen-powered polar head is on the outside, interacting with water molecules, while the non-polar tails create the inner barrier, while azotosomes have the nitrogen-powered polar head on the inside of the membrane, and the short non-polar carbon tails interacting with the liquid methane. This can be seen in the image above, where A is a lipid membrane and B the hypothesised acrylonitrile one.

This is not proof of life on Titan, of course, but it’s evidence that at least one of the necessary components for life – compartmentalisation – is possible on that moon. The other components of metabolism are still necessary, and I wonder how they’d run at that temperature; would reactions necessarily be far slower than those of life on Earth, and if so how would that affect the organisms? How would that affect a sentient organism?

Scientific American Article
James Stevenson, Jonathan Lunine, Paulette Clancy: Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome, Science Advances Vol 1, No 1.