Friday, 24 June 2011

Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

I loved Larry Niven's Known Space series when I first encountered the stories in the late 1960s, and the jewel in that crown - Ringworld - remains one of my favourite SF novels. I thoroughly enjoyed a re-read a few years ago. It's been a long time since I read a new one, though, and I approached Fleet of Worlds with some trepidation. Not only because of the length of time since the concept was fresh but also because this one (first published 2007) was written in partnership with another author. In my experience, sequels of much-loved books written in these circumstances are generally not worth bothering with. Fortunately, this one proved to be better than I feared. However, prospective readers should read Ringworld and preferably some of the earlier Known Space stories first, otherwise they will miss a lot of the references.

The story is set 200 years before Ringworld but the prologue takes place 500 years earlier still, on a human sub-light speed starship with a cargo of thousands of embryos on its way to colonise a planet of a distant sun - a voyage which is abruptly interrupted. The setting then jumps forward 500 years to the Puppeteers' cluster of Home Worlds in their long flight from the supernova explosion in the galactic core (as described in Ringworld). But the Puppeteers are not the only inhabitants of their worlds - one of them contains a large colony of humans who work for them. It becomes apparent that the humans are the descendents of the colonists in the starship. The Puppeteers had taught them English but, anxious to keep the location of their Home Worlds a secret from any potential threat, had preventing them from discovering anything about their origins or the location of Earth.

The plot concerns the efforts of some of the humans to outwit the Puppeteers and discover their origins, mixed with internal politics of the Puppeteers (in which the character of Nessus, familiar from Ringworld, has a starring role). There is also some Puppeteer meddling with affairs on Earth, where they are already known for selling the invulnerable General Products spaceship hulls. The paranoid Puppeteers are desperate to prevent their tame humans and the Earth humans from finding out about each other, for fear of the reactions on both sides. They are prepared to go to any lengths to preserve their security, revealing a darker side to their engaging personalities.

Inevitably, the story lacks the freshness and originality - and the sheer sense of fun - of Ringworld and the other original Known Space books and it took me a while to get into it, but I became increasingly engaged as I read on. Not a ground-breaker, but worth the read. I note that there have been three sequels: Juggler of Worlds published in 2008, Destroyer of Worlds in 2009, and Betrayer of Worlds in 2010. I'm not going to be buying all of these in one go, but I think I'll try the next one to see how the series develops.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

How to Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Philippo

I have a small collection of "How to Write…" books and analyses of how novels work (two of the latter having been reviewed on this blog HERE ), of which my favourite is Bob Shaw's How to Write Science Fiction. This is a practical guide full of examples from Shaw's own work, and the value I place on it is enhanced by the fact that I have always enjoyed his writing (you'll find a couple of his novels reviewed here, too).

This essay by Paul Di Philippo (henceforth PDP) may share a title with Shaw's book, but the purpose and theme are very different. First, he considers the issue of the number of new ideas to include in one story. Some authors hold the view that these should be limited to just one novelty, everything else following logically from that. One reason given for this is to allow the writer to focus on all of the implications of this idea rather than produce a confusing mess which might overtax the reader's suspension of disbelief. (Another, less laudable reason is practical parsimony: to parcel out a finite stock of ideas over as many books as possible.) Other authors pack in as high a density of ideas as they can.

PDP gives many examples of the two approaches, but the two which struck me were Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama , in which the one novelty is a giant alien spaceship heading into the Solar System, and Niven's Ringworld : which includes several different alien species (one in the process of moving their entire system away from a galactic core explosion), immortality, indestructible space-ships, a vast artificial world in the shape of a ring around the sun, and lots more besides. I find this intriguing because both feature on my list of twenty favourite SFF novels, so clearly I believe that both can work very well - it's all in the execution!

It soon becomes clear that PDP is a firm supporter of the high density approach - and then some. He provides a history of high density SF, including Harness's Flight into Yesterday and the works of Rudy Rucker. It isn't just packing in lots of ideas that PDP favours but complexity in general: in the plot structure, the viewpoints, and in a wide range of characters. He also admires new styles of writing, and references Bester's The Stars My Destination (another favourite of mine) as well as the more recent cyberpunk, and he stresses the value of borrowing from other media - including poetry, pop music and paintings. A detailed analysis of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a complex, varied and high density novel which clearly had a dominant influence on PDP's writing career, is included as an annexe.

PDP then goes on to illustrate how to write such stories by analysing his own novel Ciphers (if prospective writers gain nothing else from this essay, they can at least be encouraged by the author's graphic description of Ciphers' painful, decade-long, rejection-filled gestation). He set out to construct a story of high complexity, with many bizarre characters, ideas, situations and subjects, the last including Information Theory, Gnosticism, Buddhism and serpent worship.

I was intrigued and informed by all this, but only convinced up to a point. I enjoy SF with a high density of ideas, as long as they are germane to the basic plot and not simply thrown in for the sake of it. Indeed, one of the reviewers of my own novel Scales complained that I had packed in too many, and that they could have been spread over a trilogy. However, adding complexity at every level is a different matter. There is undoubtedly a place for such fiction and our literary culture would be the poorer without it, but it is an approach to writing which I only enjoy in small doses and can rapidly lose patience with.

Perhaps the main issue I have with this essay is the title. Science Fiction is a very diverse field, I suspect more so than any other genre, ranging from near-future techno-thrillers to wild fantasies. Di Philippo's essay focuses on promoting and explaining one particular type of SF, very much on the outer fringes of the genre. It might be more accurately titled "How to Push the Boundaries of Science Fiction Until They (Almost) Burst".

The essay is published by the Italian digital publishing house, 40k .

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Interzone 234

An early post this time, since I'll be otherwise occupied later in week. So while you read this one, you have to imagine that it's next weekend....

Among the regular columnists in the British SFF magazine is David Langford, whose Ansible Link is a compilation of news items about SFF and authors, usually with an amusing twist. There's always something to raise a smile, but one item in the May/June issue of Interzone made me roar with laughter, so here it is, from Australia's Herald Sun:

A 'Sci-Fi and Fantasy Friendly Church Service' near Melbourne, encouraging fans to come in costume and hear moral lessons from The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars, was frowned on by a rival pastor: "I don't have a problem with people enjoying sci-fi, but church isn't the place to encourage escapism and fancy dress," Mentone Baptist minister Murray Campbell said.

The featured writer is David Wingrove, author of the Chung Kuo series, interviewed by Ian Sales who also reviews his book Son of Heaven. Another author who is new to me; the name Chung Kuo rings a distant bell but I've never read any of the books. Those who do recall the eight-volume series (published 1989-97), set in a future dominated by China, may be interested to know that Wingrove has revised and extended his world - to no fewer than twenty volumes. Son of Heaven is the first of two prequels which explain how the present Western civilisation ends, while the final four books will be added to the other end of the timescale. Since I am something of a completist and don't like starting a series I might not finish (although I must admit I do that a lot more than I used to), I regard such a massive work with some trepidation, but it sounds as if it might be worth a try.

Five short stories this time:

Sleepers by John Ingold, illustrated by Mark Pexton. An intermittent conversation between a monk and an elderly man, set in a future in which a lightgate established in the Solar System by a past alien civilisation had been discovered a century before and used to travel to Centauri. But the habitable planet they discovered offered such challenges as to destroy the attempted colonisation, leading to the shut-down of the lightgate. Now, as the protagonists discuss the past and the future prospects of such exploration, another attempt is to be made - but do the rumoured hostile Centaurons actually exist?

In the Season of the Mango Rains by Lavie Tidhar. A short, atmospheric piece about a doomed emotional relationship in a strange future world.

The Ceiling is Sky by Suzanne Palmer, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A far-future dystopia in a crowded and cheerless world, in which those who have not achieved the dizzy heights of a permanent job have to compete ferociously for short-term contracts which just might, if they are very good and very lucky, lead to a job offer. Such a contract worker is recruited onto a team to plan the technicalities of a project to strip-mine a beautiful world against the wishes of the residents. He is the best at his job, but is targeted for special attention by the residents.

Her Scientifiction, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A long story, set in a generations-long part-virtual medieval world controlled by an AI. There are some human inhabitants who live their mock-medieval lives for the benefit of huge numbers of "expers" who experience their world through full-immersion virtual reality. Kris is a teenage princess and, a rarity, someone who was actually born in that world. She would also much rather be somewhere else. But there are complications with dragons, chivalric knights, and an AI which could turn nasty if enough of the expers decided that they didn't like you…

Incompatible by Will McIntosh, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A mysterious and terrifying affliction has ruined the lives of two people, but when they happen to discover each other they both have to face up to their fears.

An interesting variety of unusual stories, as Interzone often manages to deliver. Sandford's story is (as usual) outstanding, but I also liked Palmer's tale, despite my usual prejudice against dystopias.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Alien civilisations - less likely?

A couple of years ago I posted a review of a non-fiction book by Stephen Webb: Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox . In this book, the author considers the Fermi Paradox; that given the number of stars in this galaxy alone and the length of time it has existed, there should be swarms of high-technology Extra-Terrestrial Civilisations (ETCs) around, so why haven't we detected any? He examines a wide range of possible explanations before concluding that our planet is uniquely fortunate and may host the only technological civilisation in the galaxy.

My own conclusion was slightly different from the author's, in that I speculated that given the age of this galaxy, with the average age of its stars being some two billion years older than our sun, there have probably been plenty of ETCs around but that it could be rare for more than one to be in existence at any one time, since they may not last all that long.

One of the unknowns, until very recently, was how many stars have planets - particularly planets like ours, rocky and in the CHZ (continuously habitable zone): which is to say, at the right distance from its sun for the billions of years needed for not just life (or our understanding of it) but advanced intelligence to evolve. The habitable zone is popularly known as the "Goldilocks" zone: not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface (i.e. average surface temperatures within the 0-100 degrees centigrade range). However, this gap in our knowledge is rapidly being filled by astronomers who, by using highly sensitive instruments and sophisticated data processing techniques, have discovered over 1,200 exoplanets orbiting nearly 1,000 stars, with the numbers steadily growing. What they have discovered so far has been summarised in a couple of recent issues of the New Scientist magazine (Astrobiology supplement by Caleb Scharf, 7th May; and No Place Like Home by Lee Billings, 14th May) and is discouraging to those keen to find ETCs.

First, I had better summarise the three different indirect methods by which exoplanets are detected (even the biggest of them around the closest stars are far too small to observe directly).

The first method used is the Doppler or radial velocity technique. This relies on the fact that planets do not, strictly speaking, orbit their stars. The planets and their stars orbit a common axis whose position is determined by their relative masses; if a star and planet were both of the same mass, the axis would be half-way between them. Generally, stars are vastly more massive than any of their planets so the common axis is within the star, but not in its centre. The star therefore wobbles slightly as the planet moves around it, and this can be detected. The speed of the wobble indicates the period of the planet's orbit and therefore its distance from the star; the size of the wobble indicates the relative mass of the planet. Obviously, if a star has several planets, each exercising its influence on it, then its pattern of wobbles can be very complex and require lots of number-crunching to resolve. This method favours the discovery of large planets orbiting very closely around their stars, as these create the biggest wobbles. This may mask the existence of smaller planets further out.

The second method is known as transit photometry, which is based on measuring the slight dip in a star's brightness as a planet passes in front of it. The degree of the dip indicates the planet's size, the time period involved indicates its speed and therefore distance from the star. This method also has its disadvantages. An obvious one is that the planet's plane of orbit has to be side-on to us, otherwise it wouldn't pass between its star and our planet, so any planets with different orbital planes will fail to be detected. It is also necessary for three transits to be observed to be certain that this is a genuine effect, which in the case of a planet the same distance from its star as ours means that it will take two to three years to confirm. Jupiter's orbit takes twelve years, so confirming the observation of a similar planet would take 24 to 36 years. So once again, bigger planets close to their stars are the easiest to detect.

The third method is called gravitational microlensing, which relies on the fact that massive objects bend the fabric of space. In practical terms, it means that a star exactly in between us and a far more distant star will act as a lens, focusing the light of the distant star. If the nearer star has planets, these can produce a subsidiary focusing effect which can be analysed to determine the planets' masses and orbital distances. However, the opportunities for such observations occur very rarely.

I find it amazing that no only can such miniscule observations result in confident estimates of the size and mass of planets orbiting distant stars but that the nature of the planets can also be deduced: whether they are rocky worlds or gas giants. Data from their stars also allows astronomers to deduce whether or not a particular planet is within the habitable zone.

At first only the largest planets were observed, but more recently (and especially with the use of the Kepler telescope launched into orbit in 2009) it has become possible in some cases to start building up a picture of entire solar systems, identifying the number, size and orbits of several planets orbiting the same star. The results are demolishing some long-held beliefs.

The theories of solar system formation which have developed over the centuries have of course all been based on a sample of one: ours. They tended to conclude that all of the planets will be more or less in the same orbital plane with close-to-spherical orbits, and that planets in close orbits will be small and rocky, with gas giants further out. All of these conclusions have turned out to be flawed.

What astronomers have observed so far might be summarised as follows: planets and panetary systems are the norm, but while some systems have an even more regular structure than ours, others can best be described as chaotic. Gas giants are found in close orbits, the most spectacular example being Upsilon Andromedae which has a planet 1.4 times the mass of Jupiter so close to the star that its orbital period is just 4.5 days! Furthermore, that same star has a super-massive gas giant, 14 times the mass of Jupiter, with its orbital plane at a 30 degree angle to the first one. And there is a third giant in that system, 10 times the mass of Jupiter, in an extremely elliptical orbit with a different orbital plane again. This kind of chaotic structure would have a huge effect on any smaller planets in the system, wildly disturbing their orbits and making it impossible for them to remain in the habitable zone for any length of time.

One possible consequence of such gravitational instability is that planets can end up being flung out of their solar systems altogether, presumably accounting for the recent discovery of many such homeless planets floating around our galaxy, only detectable via their gravitational lensing effect. In fact, a later New Scientist news item suggests that so many of these loose planets have now been discovered that they must be considerably more common than planets which are still orbiting stars.

This is really significant since in order for life to evolve to a human level of intelligence on any particular planet, that planet has to remain within the Goldilocks zone for billions of years. And that means above all that stability is required. Not only does the orbit of the planet have to be fairly circular and the star itself be stable, but other planets in that system have to be in stable, near-circular orbits in more or less the same orbital plane.

Of the 1,200 planets detected so far, only 366 are rocky and of Earth or super-Earth size (the initial requirement for supporting Life As We Know It). Of these, just six are in the habitable zone. While most seem to be in reasonably stable orbits at present, that does not mean that they have been, or will remain, in that zone for the length of time required to develop intelligent life.

Exploration continues and conclusions are sure to change as more data comes in, but initial indications are that our Earth's characteristics and history have been unusually favourable to the development of intelligent life. Which suggests that it is unlikely that other civilisations exist anywhere near us.