FUTURE VISIONS: VOLUME 3

Future Visions Vol3.jpg

My newest published short story goes “live” this week at Amazon.

Future Visions: Volume 3 offers prophetic visions from 12 of the most promising sci-fi minds, curated from all over the world. My story “Elysium” is a good example:

While the terminally ill cheat death by uploading their consciousness into a digital simulation, young people are falling victim to a series of freak fatalities. An ex-cop discovers critical clues to the mystery in his personal life, if he can survive long enough to decipher them.

Some of the other offerings include:

A better version of you, courtesy of AI...

A grieving husband willing to do anything to bring his wife back...

A universe where story and reality no longer stay separated.

All this, plus a swarm of killer mechanical bees, add up to a thrilling collection from writers peering into the future.

A Century of Faults by Evan Scott Edwards

A Lament for Marla by Mike Adamson

After All by Bret Carter

Another Life by Margery Bayne

Elysium by Scott Overton

Last Contact by Joseph Aitken

New World by Michael W. Clark

Pollen by P. R. O'Leary

Space Witch by Yolanda Ryle

The Man in the Sci-FI Suit by Robert Jeschonek

The Removal of Blue Sky by B. A. Paul

The Running Mill by Nolan Janssens

The Future Visions Anthologies will bring you stories like these every three months, and much more. Pick it up this week at special introductory pricing! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07LD7CRX9

A NEW GOLDEN AGE OF SPACE EXPLORATION?

  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unless you keep up with current space news, it may be easy to feel that the Golden Age of space exploration is behind us. After all, the last time humans set foot on the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Heady stuff, but really, there hasn’t been much going on since, has there?

Actually, the amount of space exploration that’s been happening in recent decades is astonishing. It’s just that almost none of it has involved human crews. The one major exception is the International Space Station, which recently marked twenty years in space (its first components and first occupants were launched in November 1998). It’s been continuously manned since November 2000, and has hosted 227 crew and visitors, some as many as five times. It’s operated by a partnership of five space agencies (representing 17 countries) and has been visited by citizens of seventeen different nations. I’m not sure which is its most important contribution: the amount of data the ISS accrues every single day about how humans can live and work in space, or what it teaches us about the international cooperation needed to make us a spacefaring species. Nonetheless, because the ISS has been around for twenty years, and we can even watch it go by overhead, the general public probably underestimates its importance and may simply have lost interest.

So what else has been going on?

2004 may seem like a long time ago, but do you remember the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko? We watched its Philae lander drop toward the barbell-shaped object with fascination, and held our breath as it bounced and ended up at a angle that prevented it from collecting solar energy, which spelled its doom. But we did witness comet off-gassing and a snowstorm. Then in January 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited two other comets, 9P/Tempel and 103P/Hartley.

The Dawn spacecraft was deactivated just one month ago after visiting the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres (in the asteroid belt), producing amazing photos and detailed maps of these remnants of the solar system’s formation (or possibly fragments of a planet that broke up). It was also an important test of ion thrusters for propulsion instead of standard rocket motors.

NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was a huge success in 2015 when it sent back photo after brilliant photo of the icy world and its moon Charon, after already providing fantastic imagery and data from Jupiter and the Jovian moons in 2007 en route. But New Horizons isn’t done yet. It’s speeding its way toward a Kuiper Belt object designated as 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule, meaning beyond the farthest horizon) and will reach it this coming New Years Day (Jan. 1, 2019). Such objects are also thought to be leftover material from the solar system’s formation, probably slush and ice balls—after all, that’s the region most comets come from.

Although it met its end a little over a year ago (Sept. 15, 2017), deliberately plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, can we forget the awesomely majestic pictures provided by the Cassini-Huygens probe? It spent thirteen years exploring Saturn, its moons and its rings, and the results were astounding.

Fast forward to this year: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 and will fly through the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as its corona, seven times closer to our star than any spacecraft before it. But the big attention this week was the successful arrival of the InSight lander on Mars, which is tasked to penetrate into the Martian soil and probe the crust of the planet for the first time. Because of the high risk of failure, the landing got ‘live’ coverage and lots of media attention when it succeeded.

Yet we shouldn’t forget two more asteroid missions: the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which has dropped a small lander onto an asteroid named Ryugu and is still in orbit there, and the NASA OSIRIS-REx probe that will arrive this Monday Dec. 3, 2018 at the asteroid Bennu. (Both of these asteroids are called “diamond-shaped” but they remind me of those old pressed charcoal briquettes for the barbecue!)

In the meantime, there have been lots of missions within the Earth-Moon system, and the U.S. is working with private companies and other countries toward a return by humans to the Moon by 2023. Closer to home, there have been important advances in rocketry, especially from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is capable of launching satellites, and then landing safely back on Earth, enabling it to be re-used (most recently on Nov. 15th). This is a vital advancement toward making commercial uses of space affordable. And, of course, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in current use, ostentatiously launched a Tesla Roadster into space Feb. 6, 2018 on its first test flight, carrying a mannequin nicknamed Starman in a space suit at the wheel.

Why is all of this important? What are the benefits?

If you’re reading a blog like this, you probably don’t need a sales pitch. But the more we learn about how the cosmos, our world, and our species came about, the more we can predict where we will all go from here. That’s just good survival protocol. Exploratory missions to comets and asteroids in particular are potential goldmines of information about the early solar system, but also may answer the question of how life arose on Earth, since scientists speculate that life here may have come from “out there”. They could also bring us closer to understanding how to protect ourselves from extraterrestrial microorganisms drifting down onto our planet from the far reaches of space. Not to mention identifying potential collision risks to our home from all of the celestial objects whizzing through the solar system.

The more we can learn about how humans can survive, thrive, and work in space environments, the closer we come to making use of them in ways that will benefit all of us. Conditions of zero-gravity, readily-available vacuum, and deep cold can facilitate the production of medicines and other exotic substances very difficult to make on Earth. Mining of asteroids, the processing of ores, and other manufacturing processes performed in space could bring much needed relief to the stressed environment of Earth. If we can find other places to live, or adapt other places to make them liveable for humans, we can help ease the population pressure on our home planet and, maybe more importantly, ensure that humanity would no longer be at risk of extinction from a planet-wide disaster.

Even the process of all this exploration is beneficial. Partly because of the cost in resources, material, monetary, and mental, large-scale endeavours like these demand international cooperation at government and corporate levels, but also one-on-one between members of space crews. Our best hope of survival as a species is to curb our tendency toward conflict and live together peaceably.

Exploration? Oh yes! And I haven’t even mentioned astronomical endeavours like the Hubble and Kepler telescopes that have peered into the farthest depths of the universe and confirmed the existence of planets around other stars.

A Golden Age? Actually, that’s selling it short. This kind of exploration is priceless.

CAN WE RESTORE THE SPECIES WE'RE MAKING EXTINCT?

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For 20,000 years and more the skies of North America darkened Spring and Fall with the migration of from three to five billion birds. They were called passenger pigeons. Deforestation and hunting through the 1800’s changed that. In 1914 the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The American bison once numbered as high as 30 million. By 1889 humans had reduced their population to about a thousand animals. Fortunately, some humans found reasons to reverse that trend and there now might be as many as half a million bison living on the continent.

We have the ability to destroy the animals, birds, reptiles, and fish with which we share the planet like no other species in history, but we also have the power to stop the destruction, and are now even learning to bring species back.

There have been five mass extinctions on Earth beginning with the end of the Ordovician Era 444 million years ago that saw the end of 86% of all life forms at the time. You’re more likely to think of the last one, the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago that saw the demise of the dinosaurs. Most of those extinctions have been blamed on sudden climate change, including the asteroid strike that wiped out Dino and his buddies. It takes millions of years for the number of species to reach pre-disaster levels. And, needless to say, those are replacements—the original creatures are gone for good.

Now, many scientists believe we’re undergoing a 6th extinction event, this time caused by…guess who?

The passenger pigeons and the dodo are just two of the 140 bird species, 34 types of amphibian, and at least 77 mammals that scientists say have become extinct since the year 1500, thanks to human activity, especially the destruction of their habitat. Those are the ones we know about. There are still a lot of species, especially insects, reptiles, and amphibians, that have never been classified and could very well be gone before we ever know about them. Some estimates suggest the planet loses hundreds of species a year. And as our powers to shape the environment grow, intentional and not, the rate of extinctions is quickly rising. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently predicted that virtually all species currently considered critically endangered and more than two-thirds of endangered species will be gone within the next century. Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark have calculated that it would take up to 5 million years of evolution to return the planet’s diversity to current levels, and 7 million years to return it to what it was before modern humans showed up and began our path of destruction.

Is there hope? Of course there is. We can curb our out-of-control consumption and stop so much habitat destruction, razing of rainforests, scouring the bottom of the oceans, and spewing plastic and pollution everywhere. Will we? Well, that’s a whole other question.

What about the species already gone, and those it’s likely too late to save? That’s where human technology can actually have a positive side. There are a number of exciting initiatives that point the way to a brighter future.

I’ve mentioned the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in previous blogs. Built ten years ago to preserve and protect the world’s plant diversity from disaster, it’s reputed to contain a million different varieties now. Seeds evolved to remain dormant when required, so they store pretty well. But what about animals and birds? Projects like the Frozen Ark in Nottingham, UK and the Australian Frozen Zoo in Victoria are working to preserve large collections of frozen DNA from the creatures of the world. That has its challenges certainly. So what if you didn’t have to physically preserve the DNA? For some years now it’s been possible to sequence DNA—transcribe the whole chemical code that determines a species (and an individual’s) cellular makeup. The UK’s Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens and Wellcome Sanger Institute have joined together in the Darwin Tree of Life Project to sequence Britain’s 66,000 species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi. Harvard University and other partners around the world are undertaking similar initiatives in the hope that the genetic codes of one-and-a-half million species will eventually be mapped.

Mind you, all of that is like having the full blueprints of a house without the tools or materials to actually build it. We don’t have the technology to recreate plants or animals from scratch like building a Lego set from the instructions. But one day we will.

In Melbourne, Australia, an American scientist named Ben Novak has been working to recreate passenger pigeons by engineering the DNA of ordinary rock pigeons. A team at Harvard is attempting to produce a woolly mammoth by splicing mammoth DNA into the genome of Asian elephants. The tool they use is called CRISPR-Cas9, a combination of repeating RNA (to use as a guide) and the protein Cas9, which allows scientists to basically “cut and paste” DNA in existing sequences. Inserting DNA from an extinct species into the genome of a genetic relative species is how the fictional dinosaurs were created in Jurassic Park (though if anyone’s trying to do that in real life, they’re not admitting it!)

So with all of these efforts to preserve and some day recreate plants and animals, we could theoretically re-introduce forms of life to our planet after they’re gone, or even take them to a new planet somewhere and reform that world in Earth’s image to some degree. That’s very hopeful. Does it excuse us for causing these extinctions in the first place? Absolutely not!

Surely it would be so much better to get our ravenous impulses under control and actually share our beautiful planet with the other species that belong here just as much as we do.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE AN E.T.?

 NASA, JPL

NASA, JPL

In my last blog post I looked at some of the reasons it’s not surprising that we haven’t yet discovered signs of life elsewhere in the universe. Life signs are hard to unequivocally identify as such, because other things might be the cause. Alien species might be so different that we can’t recognize the energy signatures or communication transmissions their societies produce. And space is so incredibly vast that our search efforts have covered only a miniscule portion of even our own galaxy.

But let’s say we ultimately succeed. What will we do if we encounter life on other planets and in other solar systems? Will we protect it? Exploit it? Or destroy it out of fear of contamination, or simply because it’s in our way?

The questions get even bigger when it comes to advanced, sentient life forms. Will we look at them as friends or enemies, benefactors or threats? It’s much too facile to say that it will depend on how they treat us. We should know ourselves well enough to understand that what we bring to a relationship, on whatever scale, is what we’ll probably take from it. When Europeans arrived in North America, some looked for harmonious cooperation with the indigenous peoples and got along well with them (though their arrival still wasn’t good news for the original inhabitants). Others sought to conquer and subjugate, and immediately made enemies. And that was among fellow humans. Concepts like friendship, kinship, cooperation, loyalty, duty, authority, and many other critical social dynamics may have no equivalent at all in an alien culture, or radically different applications and priorities. We can’t know ahead of time, so does that mean we shouldn’t prepare at all?

No, that would be foolish. Even though alien mindsets are by definition hard to predict, we have to try. Even more importantly, we need to be clear about our own motivations, and establish strong rules about how we will behave regarding alien life at all levels of development. Just as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forms the basis of how we deal with local space bodies, we need similar laws to be established governing our interactions with alien life forms. We need this before we make such a discovery. It’s no good locking the barn door after the horse is gone. Whether the aliens we discover are benevolent, malevolent, or ambivalent, our relationship with them will get off to a better start if we can demonstrate that our species abides by strict laws that ensure we’re not reckless aggressors or exploiters ourselves, and that we’ve built a good foundation toward understanding and cooperating with others.

Where would we begin to formulate possible responses to extraterrestrial life forms, in all their potential variety? Laugh if you like, but I think a great start would be to gather all of the human/alien encounter stories in science fiction and evaluate the interactions described in them! Who has given more thought to such scenarios than us? It would be a large task, I admit, but so is scanning 33,000 light years of space.

Speaking of which, although SF stories over the decades have gradually prepared our minds to accept the idea of alien species, those depictions haven’t all been positive, to say the least! Conclusive evidence of a civilized race beyond our planet would panic many people and send shockwaves through our global economy. Even the most optimistic of us won’t be able to totally shrug off movies like Alien or Independence Day. So we have to prepare ourselves and our society for that reaction—if we can’t, then we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to draw attention to ourselves. For the past century, we’ve been spewing radio and TV signals out into the cosmos like a giant locator beacon. Even worse, much of its content would give an observer the impression that we’re unrelentingly warlike and violent. We can’t call those signals back, but maybe it’s past time to find a way to block them from going beyond our atmosphere (although internet-based entertainment sources like Netflix are helping).

I’m all in favour of passively searching for signs of life in space. I am most definitely not in favour of deliberately calling attention to ourselves. Let me simply ask: if the native North Americans of the 15th Century had suspected that there was even one chance in a hundred that the arrival of Europeans on their shores would have the effects it did, would they have built big signal fires on the beaches inviting one and all to come and visit? (They didn’t—it’s a metaphor for what some scientists suggest we should do, which is just incredibly naïve.)

It might not be possible to ever fully prepare ourselves for First Contact with an alien species. Lets not blindly rush into it!

There’s another reason that might explain why we haven’t yet detected signs of civilization elsewhere, and it’s a disturbing one. It’s possible that, once species advance in technical knowledge to the point where they can control planet-changing chemical processes (like human carbon emissions) and hugely destructive energies, they may destroy themselves. If that’s true, and inevitable, or even quite common, the span of time during which their civilization might be detectable from light years away could be quite short. Humans are now capable of annihilating ourselves, but that’s only been true for a century or so. What if most highly-advanced technological societies don’t make it much longer than that? Consider that we’ve only had instrumentation capable of scanning the heavens over multiple wavelengths of light and radio frequencies for a half-century or thereabouts. If there were an advanced civilization radiating lots of energy into space from a solar system fifty light years from Earth, they would have to have been doing so within the past century for us to even know they existed. And only if their radiations were aimed this way, and if we were looking in the right place!

What if, when we venture out into interstellar space, we encounter the remains of such extinct cultures? Science fiction is full of such things, from Clarke’s Rama, to Niven’s Ringworld, Pohl’s Gateway technology, to the Stone from Greg Bear’s novel Eon. Scientists (and SF fans) get excited about what we could learn from alien civilizations, dead or alive, that would advance our technological capabilities. If you ask me, there are deeper lessons that are much more important for us to learn. Such as how such cultures interact peacefully with others. And how to survive our own ever-increasing planet-killing powers.

We want to know if we’re alone in the universe. Okay. While we’re looking, let’s do everything we can to prepare ourselves for the answer.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE E.T.'S GONE?

Close Encounters mothership.jpg

It’s strange that, living on a planet that teems with millions of different species, humans wonder if we’re “alone in the universe”.

The question usually refers to conscious, thinking beings like ourselves, not just any form of life. But the first step to knowing if there are other sentient beings in the cosmos is to find out if there is any kind of life beyond Earth at all. That’s not an easy search.

For one thing, it’s only in the past few decades that we could say for certain there are planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. It didn’t make sense that our sun would be one-of-a-kind, but it took modern astronomical equipment and detection methods to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets. Now astronomers speculate that most stars probably have planets, and most likely have one or two planets in the so-called habitable zone, which we define as habitable because their orbits should provide surface temperatures that allow for liquid water. It bears saying that the liquid water temperature range is what we humans and similar life forms require for survival, but even here on Earth we’ve discovered life forms that exist in hellishly extreme conditions, like deep-sea volcanic vents and under Antarctic ice. Plus we can imagine life based on elements like silicon instead of the carbon molecules that construct Earth organisms, increasing the number of planets that might be inhabitable by some kind of life. Given that there are hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, the number of possibly-habitable planets is… really, really high! And let’s not forget that uninhabitable planets, like gas giants, might have habitable moons. (Jupiter’s moon Europa is a strong possibility for hosting life.) That multiplies the numbers yet again.

All of this should give a boost to science fiction writers because, in all the vastness of the universe, every one of our stories about strange alien species and civilizations could be reasonably plausible.

The skeptic will ask, “So where is everybody?” (known as Fermi’s Paradox.)

Which brings me to my second point, that signs of life are really hard to identify as such because they could have other causes. For example, living species are known to have provided Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen, but it can be produced by other chemical processes, too—oxygen markers in the spectral analysis of a planet’s atmosphere are no guarantee of life. So when it comes to basic life in general, we can identify places that have conditions we believe would support life, but we can’t know it’s actually there until we go and take samples. Look how challenging that’s been on Mars, and it’s the planet next door!

It should be easier to find signs of advanced alien life-forms because we expect civilizations to give off indications of high energy use, or even radiate electromagnetic transmissions like the TV and radio signals we’ve been shooting off into the void for decades. Except we have no reason to expect that an alien species would have senses comparable to our vision and hearing—they might not even be able to detect our TV and radio signals, much less interpret them, and we might not be able to detect their forms of communication. There could be lots of civilizations relatively near to us, yet communicating and using energy in ways so different from our own that we don’t recognize what we’re looking at. Or we’re not using the right instruments to distinguish them at all.

The difficulty is made many times worse by the vastness of the universe. In a recent study published in The Astronomical Review, the researchers wondered how much of the local galactic neighbourhood had actually been searched by SETI efforts (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), listening for potentially alien radio signatures. They picked a zone of space roughly 33,000 light years across, comprising a good portion of our galaxy’s densest part plus nearby globular clusters, and they determined that, proportionally, the area that had been effectively searched was the equivalent of a bathtub of water compared to all of Earth’s oceans. I guess there’s a chance we could have missed something!

SETI was relegated to a back burner for a few years, but has now been welcomed back into the astrobiology fold, and there’s no doubt we will continue to expand the areas of space that we’re searching and improve our search methods.

Technology can be great. But will we put as much effort into the implications of all this? There are lots of big questions to be answered. How will our society cope with the knowledge that life exists elsewhere, especially if it’s an advanced species? How will we, as a race, behave when we encounter such life?

I’ll get into those things a little more in my next post. So keep your fingers crossed that ET doesn’t show up before then!

HITCH A RIDE TO THE MOON?

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You’ve just opened an invitation: it says you’ve got an exclusive seat reserved on a spacecraft that will soar to the Moon and back. But you have to give an answer in five minutes. GO!

Would you do it?

I’m not talking science fiction this time. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket-building company intends to send their Big Falcon Rocket (say it with a slight slur and yes, the name’s an intentional joke, but it’s also real) out around the Moon carrying nine passengers as early as 2023. The passengers will be Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and perhaps eight artists of various disciplines. Maezawa has booked the flight at a price tag rumoured to cover most of the project’s five-billion-dollar cost, but he hasn’t said who he has in mind to invite along. Maybe just artists. But maybe not. What if he changes his mind? What if he decides to hold a lottery?

One time, many years ago, in my radio career, I was doing the commentary at an air show. A parachutist approached and asked if anyone wanted to join him on a tandem jump—right then. If I’d said yes, I’d have been in the air ten minutes later ready to fall out of a plane and plummet toward the Earth, trusting my life to a stranger and a big sheet of fabric. I wanted to go—I’d always said I’d like to try sky-diving. But I didn’t. For one thing, the air show commentary was my responsibility and finding someone to fill in on such short notice wouldn’t be easy, or considerate to the organizers. For another, my young son was with me, and would be watching if I went splat. So I passed.

I have to admit that if I had the same offer today, I’d probably just plain chicken out, no excuse required.

But would I like to ride a rocket and pay a close-up visit to the Moon? I’m a science fiction writer—of course I would!

In theory.

The reality is that travel by rocket is still really risky. Rockets do still explode on the pad or during launch, sometimes destroying satellites and probes worth many millions of dollars (SpaceX itself has seen a half-dozen of its rockets explode, though a number were while attempting to land on their tails—a technique that has more recently become consistently successful). Lives aren’t usually lost because human flights are a very small percentage of rocket launches, but it has happened and could happen again. You could beat the odds to get a seat on the flight, only to beat the odds in a much more unfortunate way. And the launch is not the only dangerous part by any means. Maezawa and his companions will be flung out on a round trip of nearly 800,000 kilometres—four days on their own, far beyond any hope of help should they get into trouble. The FBR is big, designed to eventually ferry up to one hundred commercial passengers at a time, but on this first jaunt the surplus space will be used to carry extra fuel and food supplies in case something goes wrong.

What could go wrong? Anything. Everything. Failures that would be meaningless on Earth might be critical in the freezing vacuum of space hundreds of thousands of kilometres from home.

Hang on…is science fiction writer Scott Overton hinting that he might turn down a chance to travel to the Moon?

I don’t think I’m a coward. I’ve happily flown in all kinds of different aircraft of various sizes and vintages, and would once have ridden shotgun with Canada’s Snowbirds aerobatic team if the weather had cooperated. At some point, commercial flights to the Moon will have a track record of safety, and there will be an established infrastructure for rescue missions. That sounds worth waiting for, doesn’t it? The Maezawa junket won’t land either—it won’t even go into Moon orbit, but just swing around once and head back to Earth. If I ever go that far, I’ll darn well want to land and walk around! Otherwise, although I’m sure the view will be mind-boggling, there just might be an element like when I visited the Grand Canyon and didn’t go down into it. After taking in the “breathtaking vistas” I realized that it looked just like all of the pictures I’d seen of it. It was too big. Untouchable. So the experience was ultimately lacking.

But isn’t there something irresistible about being among the first private citizens to go to the Moon? Well, we all remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and maybe Michael Collins (who stayed in the Apollo 11 command module and didn’t land), but 21 other men went to the Moon. How many of the others can you name? Maybe some of the artists who accompany Maezawa will be remembered if the art they produce is of lasting value, otherwise they’ll just be “also along for the ride”. And before you judge me too harshly, Maezawa has invited Elon Musk himself along, and Musk has indicated he might go. Only might. This from the guy whose company actually builds the rockets. In his words, “When you’re pushing the frontier, it’s not a sure thing.”

If all this sounds like sour grapes because I’m not likely to be aboard the FBR for its epic journey, I’m not saying I would turn down an invitation, just that it might not be the automatic Yes that my chosen vocation would seem to dictate. If I’m honest.

Still, Yusaku Maezawa, if you’re reading this…it never hurts to talk, right?

A DOUBLE-FEATURE EBOOK SALE

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If you’ve visited this page and become curious about my fiction writing, there’s an exceptional opportunity to get a taste of it this week with not one, but two sales promotions from the ebook platform Kobo.

Until Sept. 23, 2018 my e-anthology BEYOND: The Stars is free through Kobo. It features three space-themed stories (and if you like it you should also take a look at my other e-collections BEYOND: Time and BEYOND: Technology, or the print compilation BEYOND: Time, Technology, and the Stars which features fifteen stories).

Before I turned exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, my mystery/thriller novel Dead Air was published and nominated for a Northern Lit Award in my home province of Ontario, Canada. It not only has an insightful story mixed with lots of action and suspense, it’s also a rare insider’s view of the radio business (I was a broadcaster for more than thirty years). This weekend, until Monday Sept. 24, 2018, Dead Air is a page-turning bargain at half-price—just $2.49 from Kobo.

Normally I’d send you to my own web Bookstore, but I like Kobo a lot, and I’m grateful for it’s global reach. This week I’ve picked up new readers in at least sixteen countries (and it isn’t over yet!)

Join the fun.

MORE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES

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In my last blog post I announced the publication of BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars, a print collection of fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which had been previously published in magazines and anthologies across North America, and some not. For extra interest (because I enjoy that kind of thing myself) I also wrote a bit about the first five stories’ origins, intent, and publishing history. So here’s a little about the rest of the collection.

“Tartarus Rising”: I’m a huge fan of disaster stories and apocalyptic fiction, so I was delighted when this story was chosen for an anthology called Doomology in 2011. Such high-stakes stories provide an opportunity to show the best and worst of humanity as nothing else can. Alien invasions are a dime a dozen, but what if there was a race of beings sharing the planet with us, yet clever enough to remain hidden all these centuries even from our scientific instruments? I’m pretty sure the idea for “Tartarus Rising” came from a traumatic childhood event of mine involving a mysterious stranger who suddenly appeared at a window of our house on a dark night when my parents were away. If you have a frightening memory that haunts you, write a story about it!

“Marathon of the Devil”: I’d read an article about the famous Marathon des Sables in Morocco, a grueling race that makes you question the sanity of the participants! Naturally, being an SF writer, I imagined such a thing on an alien planet. But why put yourself through something like that? Because of a deep desire to be somebody special? Just for fun, I decided to have things work out right by going all wrong.

“Body Of Opinion”: We think of memory as being a function of the brain exclusively, but there has been lots of research into genetic memory, especially lessons and behaviours learned by one generation and passed on to the next through genes. What if other memories are encoded into our DNA? Combine that thought with ever-improving organ transplantation techniques and you end up with this story about a man who discovers that his new body he thought was cloned was actually “previously owned” and harbours a dark secret. A premise like that cried out for a noir fiction approach, which was a lot of fun to do.

“Democracy”: Our current political systems are so badly broken that we end up getting terrible leaders elected by much less than half of the people who voted. Yet we live in an era unlike any other in history, when virtually every citizen of developed nations has some access to the internet. If we wanted to, we could have true democracy, in which everyone could vote on every important issue of government. That’s what I’ve created in the fictional country of Devis Varta, although with tongue in cheek. Because, humans being humans, our lofty dreams almost never turn out the way they should.

“Saviour”: It’s easy for me to see the influences on this one. The movies Deep Impact and Armageddon both came out in 1998 as the world worried about asteroid strikes that could devastate the planet. But by the time I felt the urge to write my own story about saving the world from a giant killer rock, I’d seen the 2006 movie Sharkwater about how humankind is decimating the shark population and endangering the entire ocean ecosystem. Humans are a threat to pretty much every form of life on Earth these days. So a real hero might not do the expected.

“Node Of Thought”: I’ve done a lot of research into the mind…consciousness…the nature of thought—it’s been at the centre of a number of my novel plots. There’s no one who really knows what thought is, what consciousness is. There are only people who think they do. One day, embroiled in thought (as they say) I asked myself: what if thought has a physical form we know nothing about? Could we trail it behind us like hairs and dandruff? Could it be gathered like cosmic dust by some powerful source of energy? What would happen if you encountered something like that in deep space in a spaceship that responds to thought commands? Nothing good!

“The Cleansing”: Disaster again, inspired by the worrisome population cycles we’ve witnessed recently among creatures like frogs, bats, and especially bees, on whom we depend for so many of our food crops. Rouging (now more often called roguing) is a process of removing plants from crop fields when they’ve produced unwanted mutations. In coming years I believe we’ll be able to engineer crops to cull themselves to maintain their genetic purity. But what if, by pure bad luck, all of the crops were to enter such a “die-out” phase at the same time?

“The Rift”: Although I consider myself a spiritual person, this is my only story that really reflects that in a big way. And, because I’m a science junkie, I struggle to reconcile theory and experimental evidence with belief. Not surprisingly, that takes my mind in strange directions. One editor rejected this story because he thought it was too much like a Star Trek episode. I take that as a compliment!

“Hurricane”: I’m all in favour of renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal—and if we could harness the energy of hurricanes we’d hit the mother lode. Perhaps as much as the total worldwide generating capacity of humanity, in one storm! Writing a story about that, you just have to place your protagonist right in the thick of things, especially if he hates to fly, which gave me an excuse to research the amazing crews who willingly enter such hellish conditions in Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Plus, as I speculated about what would happen, I realized that I had the answer to one of the greatest occult mysteries of them all!

“Once Upon A Midnight”: Some years ago my good friend, prolific author/editor and all-around-nice-guy Mark Leslie Lefebvre issued a call for SF stories inspired by works of literature. I came up with one, and Mark liked it, but that anthology project didn’t come to pass. That was OK because some months later it was accepted for an anthology called In Poe’s Shadow (2011). Fast forward a few years, and Mark was invited to edit an edition of the well-respected Tesseracts series of anthologies and chose to resurrect his literary-inspiration idea. He also still wanted my story. So “Once Upon A Midnight” got a second life in one of Canada’s most successful SF franchises (Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound) and I was thrilled. Deliberately over-the-top, it’s black humour with a dark warning at its core.

Once again, you can buy BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars through Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the US, or in Canada through Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca, or via many online outlets worldwide. Or if you're devoted to your favourite independent bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Have a great read!

BEYOND STORIES NOW IN PAPERBACK!

Open your eyes.jpg

Over the past couple of years I’ve made fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy short stories available in affordable e-book form (the e-anthologies Disastrous!, Body Of Opinion and other stories plus the series Beyond: The Stars, Beyond: Time, and Beyond: Technology, can all be purchased through my bookstore). But I know that a lot of readers are still devoted to physical books. So I decided to gather all of those 15 stories into one tasty paperback.

BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars is now available to buy through Amazon and other online retailers. Your favourite independent bookstore can also order it through the book distributor Ingram. It’s 362 pages of thoughtful and imaginative fiction that I think any SFF fan will love, but one thing I didn’t include (and maybe that was a mistake) was an Afterword explaining how each story came about. Lots of readers enjoy those—I do too.

So here, for what it’s worth, is a brief look at the stories and my reflections on them.

“No Walls”: This wasn’t my first story sold but it was the first one to make it into publication, in the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis Issue #18, so it will always have a special place in my heart. I even named my publishing company after it (lots of wider meaning, after all). As a fan of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, I hit on the variation of a man who suddenly gains the ability to walk through walls. But what real benefit could such a gift provide, except to a criminal? Or a secret operative. The story was rejected by editors a few times, and I realized that it needed to be darker, grittier. So if you’re squeamish, I apologize for the torture scenes, but without high stakes there’s no high drama!

“Shakedown”: My first science fiction novel manuscript is an SF thriller called The Primus Labyrinth, inspired by the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage about a submersible and crew shrunk to microscopic size to travel through the bloodstream of a scientist and save his life. I don’t think shrink rays will ever be possible, so I wanted a more realistic way such an adventure could take place. My novel is very different from the movie, and my literary agent is currently gauging interest among publishers. But I originally considered self-publishing it, and thought that getting a prequel story published would help promote the novel. “Shakedown” is that prequel, about my prototype nanoscopic submersible and its first pilot, and the question: could a human mind ever cope with reality at a microscopic level? It was published in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Fantastic (2011).

“The Long Commute”: Most time travel stories focus on going back to a single momentous event and putting all of history at risk. But what if time has a kind of inertia instead, and it takes many small changes to have an impact on the timestream? Would there be people whose job was to do that every day? I was intrigued by the possibilities of  mixing a mind-bending concept with a daily routine. I also borrowed a character’s name from the family of a US president at the time, but then decided that a more overt link would be too corny.

“Lockdown”: It’s a huge expenditure of resources to support criminals in prisons, but the public must be protected. The answer? A device that temporarily paralyzes a parolee if he or she even thinks of committing another crime. Mind you, that would put the criminal at the mercy of passersby, and I have a feeling that could get ugly (as the story shows). That was the focus when I first wrote “Lockdown” but, as with “No Walls”, there needed to be more drama. So I threw in a dash of revenge for seasoning.

“A Taste Of Time”: This one could not be more different from “Lockdown”. It’s a contemporary fantasy story about an old woman with sad memories and a cheerful young girl with an insatiable craving for wild blueberries. I’ve spent many happy hours picking wild blueberries myself and, knowing that the bushes can pick up flavours from the soil and surroundings (as wine grapes do), I speculated about what other things such berries might impart. The story was not only published by On Spec magazine (#88 vol 24 no 1 June 2012) accompanied by a feature author interview, but, to my delight, was also chosen for On Spec’s 25th Anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories. Talk about being in great company!

There are ten more stories in the collection and I'll write about them in a few days. In the meantime, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in Canada to Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca. Or if you're devoted to an indy bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Enjoy!

 

ARE FOREST FIRES OUR DEFAULT FUTURE?

 Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

In my part of the world (Ontario, Canada) we’ve had a summer of devastating forest fires, but we were far from alone in that. The Canadian province of British Columbia has been hit even harder, and the US state of California has been on fire all summer. Siberia has been ravaged, Greece endured a fire that killed 83 people, and Berlin firefighters are now battling a blaze that includes the threat of unexploded WWII ammunition. NASA’s Worldview imagery appears to show “A World On Fire”. Surely this extraordinary heat and drought is the result of human-caused climate change, some will say. But others in my province will refute that, pointing out that this past winter persisted for a month longer than usual (True).

These seeming contradictions are why scientists now use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”. It’s most likely that the addition of extra heat energy to Earth’s atmosphere is behind these weather extremes, but it doesn’t (yet) mean that we’ll have warmer days all year long. It does mean that weather patterns in the coming decades will be a whole lot different from those of the past century and more.

Earlier this month, William Gibson (@GreatDismal)—author of SF classics like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the recent The Peripheral—tweeted this:

All imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted. Virtually the entire genre will be seen to have utterly missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.

It’s hard to argue with that, unless you’re a stalwart climate change denier. Humans have done some big things: inventing the wheel, crop cultivation, electricity, space travel. But we’ve never done anything as momentous as changing the weather systems of the whole planet long-term. To set a story in the future and ignore climate change seems lazy, at best, and irresponsible at worst. A case might be made that to ignore climate change is to deny climate change, and science fiction writers like to think of ourselves as devoted supporters of rationality. The world desperately needs voices of reason, not flat-Earth types. (I speak from some experience: Canadians elected a climate-change-denying prime minister for two terms, and the newest premier of my province has just muzzled all of his government ministries on the subject. Hard to believe.)

We’ll almost certainly see more summers like this one, and worse. Journalist Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future describes the combination of factors that have seen the number, intensity, and size of forest fires steadily escalate and the cost of fighting them soar. More and more people are visiting and building communities within the boreal forest. Plus our very act of suppressing fires produces forests full of tinder-dry debris just waiting for a match or a bolt of lightning. In May of 2016 88,000 people were evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray when a raging wildfire destroyed more than 2000 homes and buildings, and continued to burn for three months. Experts predict more fires like that will happen. Especially in hot, dry climates such as California’s—that state has been home to seven of the ten costliest wildfires of the US in the past twenty years. Struzik also points out that subarctic and arctic areas of Sweden, Siberia, and even Greenland are suffering huge fires that not only produce lots of smoke and carbon monoxide, but also thaw swaths of permafrost, releasing vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide, boosting the “greenhouse effect” and raising global temperatures still further. So we should expect a future with even more fires.

But does it have to be that way? And should SF writers be manacled by that outlook when we write about the future? William Gibson seems to suggest that such scenarios are the default future of the planet Earth. But SF writer and futurist Karl Schroeder wrote an insightful blog post for Tor.com recently called “Escaping The Default Future When Writing Science Fiction”. His main point (like a recent post of mine about having kids) is that economic, political, technological, and (yes) climate-related factors will all push the human population downward. And lower population will reduce the relentless pressure toward some kind of human-created apocalypse. We might not ruin the planet after all!

Schroeder doesn’t dwell on climate change per se, but his hopeful outlook includes the kind of post-scarcity society that Star Trek is known for. And, just maybe, the lower demand for fossil fuels and industrial processes that stimulate global warming will come in time to give human efforts to mitigate climate change a chance to work.

I’m not optimistic enough to say that we’ll escape a century or so of very difficult times caused by the way we’ve messed up the atmosphere, but at least it might not be permanent. We might not be forced to undergo an exodus into outer space—it’s still possible that the Earth of a few centuries from now will be a pleasant place to live.

So I hereby give myself permission to keep some hope in my SF.