We live in an era when a spacecraft can send us pictures of the surface of Pluto that are nearly as good as what we’d see out the window of a jetliner flying over our own planet. Take a look at some of the newest images processed by NASA’s New Horizons team—they’re astonishing. Mountains, gulleys, long running cliffs. As a science fiction writer I could place an astronaut on the dwarf planet, maybe climbing out of his crashed utility ship and hiking toward the nearest outpost, and I could describe real ridges and crevasses he’d have to cross on the Sputnik Planum, foothills and passes between ice mountains that he’d have to traverse. No invention necessary, just a close look at some high resolution photographs. What’s more, I would do that to add authenticity. The downside? No playing fast and loose with Pluto’s geography or geology now that we actually know what it is. If I had written such a story a few years ago I’d be second-guessing myself and wondering if I’d blown it by featuring a feature that’s not really there.

Of course, that’s been the case for stories set on Mars for decades now and the Moon before that. Still, Pluto?

Oh well, at least there are other solar systems to play with, right? Sure, except now with the Kepler Space Telescope and new sensing techniques, scientists have found nearly two thousand planets around other stars (as of this writing the count according to NASA’s Exoplanet Archive is 1,916 confirmed with another nearly 5000 candidates). We know a lot about some of these planets, like roughly how big they are, whether they’re likely gas giants or rocky worlds, how close they are to their sun (giving a good idea of their surface temperature) and sometimes more. I’ve written stories and novel manuscripts that feature an expedition to another star system or even a colony there. Until they’re published I have to keep checking to see that reality hasn’t overtaken fiction—if it suddenly turns out that there are no planets where I’ve placed mine, or even that I’ve put an Earth-type world where there’s actually a Neptune-like planet, some major rewriting would be in order (once they are published I’m stuck eating crow, at least until the next edition!) The writers of the new Star Trek series will have to check the latest stats on each star system before the Enterprise warps in and sends an away team down to the surface of a planet that doesn’t exist, because you’d better believe there are viewers who will check (and probably flame them on social media if they screw up).

As if the situation weren’t tricky enough, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in October 2018 and will not only be able to see small planets that Kepler and the Hubble telescope can’t, it’ll be able to study the atmospheres of planets Kepler can barely detect. That’s power. It will be amazing. It could also be responsible for a sudden rash of science fiction writers with strange patches of missing hair.

You might say, no big deal, we still enjoy stories by Arthur Conan Doyle even though we know there are no hidden plateaus in South America where dinosaurs live. True, but no science fiction writer wants their work to be relegated to that category in their lifetime, believe me.

What’s to be done? I suppose we could set our stories farther and farther away from Earth, decreasing the likelihood that new facts will outdate our old fiction, but to my mind the near impossibility of reaching somewhere like the far side of the galaxy would be a more serious breach of scientific knowledge than the odd invented planet. Perhaps we could create tales of human beings placed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but then you’re entering the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Really, though, it’s no different than having to keep up with the amazing progress being made in other branches of science—all we as writers can do is embrace the excitement of new discoveries, be inspired by them, rejoice in our progress as an ever-curious race, and do our level best to get it right. And readers can forgive us our transgressions. We hope.

Here’s to new eras of scientific discovery and great science fiction.


Writers get our ideas in different ways. We may not even know where an idea came from. But for science fiction writers it’s fun to take a look at the newest science stories and try a “science fiction take” on the story—imagine what kind of fictional tale could make use of the new facts. Here are a few examples:

The news story: The New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto was the biggest space story of the past month. Although it will still take a long time for NASA to receive all of the data, we’ve learned that the surface of Pluto includes glaciers of nitrogen ice, as well as frozen methane and carbon monoxide. The mission has reawakened interest in the dwarf planet and how it came to be part of our solar system, with its wonky orbit so far from the sun (most of the time).

The science fiction take: Two centuries from now, human crews are mining nitrogen and methane on Pluto when it’s discovered that another body the size of a dwarf planet is swooping out of the far reaches of the Oort Cloud on a collision course for Pluto. Engineers try desperately to come up with a plan to deflect the newcomer, and colonists are just about to evacuate Pluto when the incoming planetoid slows down and it’s found to be home to an ancient race of explorers who use rogue planets to travel the galaxy.

The news story: Out of the nearly 2,000 planets that have now been discovered orbiting other stars, it seems as if every other week a new candidate is being named “most earth-like”. Generally that means that it’s a rocky planet (as opposed to a gas giant) orbiting a star not too different from our own sun in the “habitable zone” (not too hot, not too cold because it must have liquid water) and is somewhat close to the Earth in size. The most recent most earth-like is known as Kepler-452b, but here’s a good look at some of the best candidates by Scientific American.

The science fiction take: Fleeing an exhausted home planet, human colonists travel to colonize new planets called New Earth, Earth 2, and Terra Nova around other stars. But because of the impediments of slow space travel and a lack of resources among struggling new colonies, the planets lose touch with each other. On one of them, a catastrophe knocks the civilization down a few rungs and space technology (and knowledge) are lost. When progress once again permits the inhabitants to venture into space, they try to find planets like their own. The most promising candidate found is (drum roll please) the original Earth, refreshed and once again able to host its human children. (Awwww.)

The news story: In recent years, China and Russia have put a lot of effort into developing anti-satellite weapons, and have had no interest in negotiating the peaceful use of space, so the Obama administration in the US has budgeted $5 billion over the next five years to enhance the American military space program. “Space wars” could become a reality.

The science fiction take: An orbital war sparks and the major powers destroy each other’s satellites thereby killing all GPS systems and causing most telecommunications and the internet to collapse. The resulting financial fallout causes a full-blown global economic collapse too. The warmongers still have their conventional and nuclear weapons, but only those that can be guided without satellites. Devastated populations worldwide know who’s to blame, rise up against the makers of war, and forge new alliances, heralding an unprecedented era of peace (but poor availability of TV channels).

Call these ideas cheesy or dumb or maybe brilliant, I have no plans to write any of them into stories (at present). Some of them have probably already been done. The point is, it’s a good exercise for the imagination and it’s fun.

Try it yourself. There might be a science fiction writer lurking inside you. (And for heaven’s sake let him out, because it’s dark in there.)


NASA photograph--The last taken before the New Horizon spacecraft flew past Pluto.

On July 14, 2015 one science news story dominated all others: the NASA New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto. Considering that the last time Pluto got so much attention was when it was demoted from full planet status to the demeaning designation of “dwarf planet”, you might easily wonder why there was so much excitement about New Horizon. Commentators have even sometimes neglected to stress the dwarf planet thing, almost as if the former ninth planet had regained its status. It hasn’t. But it is a star in terms of fame.

New Horizons was launched in January 2006 (ironically, the same year as Pluto’s demotion) and after traveling nearly five billion kilometres finally raced past Pluto at a speed of more than forty-five-thousand km/h, so there wasn’t a lot of time for sightseeing. Much like your last budget bus tour of Paris. It couldn’t even send pictures “live”—NASA was forced to wait a while for them (remember dropping off the film of your bus tour at the drug store for processing?) In fact, New Horizons is gathering so much data that it will require sixteen months to send it all back to Earth. That’s what you call shutter happy.

Why so much interest? If you ask me, most of us still think of Pluto as the ninth planet, and it was the only one left that hadn’t received the up-close-and-personal paparazzi treatment. Even in the Hubble telescope, Pluto was little more than a blurry white ball. Now we’ve seen its cracks and craters, wrinkles and blemishes, in high resolution, finally completing our solar system postcard collection. But Pluto has had a special allure because it was the most distant of the planets and so the most mysterious. It also has an orbit very different from the rest of the family, leading to speculation that it’s an adopted child born somewhere else and then captured by our sun. If so, learning as much as we can about Pluto will also help us to learn about things much farther away.

Pluto is part of the outer fringe of the solar system, known as the Kuiper Belt. If we ever hope to travel to other stars we should know as much as we can about that stretch of space and the more distant Oort Cloud. Our spacecraft will have to travel through them. Maybe we’ll want to use Kuiper Belt objects as fuel depots or rest stops, or maybe we’ll just want to know how to avoid all of them, but knowledge is the key. It could be that Pluto and other dwarf planets like Eris (almost twice as far away) will actually become launch stations from which freshly-fuelled interstellar spaceships will begin their long voyages.

Pluto might seem too far away to consider it as a candidate for industrial mining, but then we don’t know what’s there. It might turn out to be rich with resources. If it really did come to our system out of interstellar space, it might have significant quantities of elements that are otherwise rare in our neighbourhood. Exploratory missions like New Horizons will help to provide those answers.

So let’s give Pluto its time in the spotlight. The poor demoted planet deserves a break.


If you’re reading one of my posts for the first time, it may be because you’ve joined my new Scott Overton page on Facebook. Welcome! I’ve been posting/blogging on my webpage for some time, and you’re welcome to check out previous posts there as well as some samples of my short stories. Mostly I post about science and science fiction, sometimes about the writing process and the publishing business. I hope you enjoy them.

This week I’ve been thinking about the fact that I don’t see much science fiction that’s actually about space travel anymore. A big part of the reason might be that it’s becoming harder all the time for writers to keep up with new developments.

The publishing industry can be very slow—I’ve seen it take a year and a half for one of my stories to go from acceptance to its actual appearance in the magazine. Believe me, scientific research doesn’t wait!

I wrote a story that I set in a solar system known officially as Gliese 581—it’s a red dwarf star that got a lot of attention because one or two of the planets discovered around it are believed to be in the star’s habitable zone, meaning at the right distance for liquid water to exist on the surface, and therefore maybe Life As We Know It (also known as the Goldilocks zone: not too hot, not too cold). I cleverly placed a human colony on the fourth planet, Gliese 581d, but while I was sending the story out to magazines, another planet was discovered in the system, Gliese 581g, that’s a better candidate for a habitable planet. Fortunately, I’d made up my own names for the planets and my story didn’t have to be changed, but the news could easily have screwed up a story already in the publishing pipeline, and left egg on my face.

There have been lots of other developments like that in recent years, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, and numerous space probes to various corners of our solar system (including the Dawn probe that just went into orbit around the asteroid Vesta between Mars and Jupiter last week, and will eventually land on it). These are exciting times, but….

Have you written a story that takes place near Pluto? You think you’re up to date because you don’t call it a “planet” anymore, just a “dwarf planet” since its official demotion? Well, how many moons did you give it? Four, I hope. Most of us knew about Pluto’s moon Charon. But two more—Hydra and Nix—were discovered in 2005, and now the Hubble telescope has found a fourth moon probably only a few dozen kilometers across. Flip a coin before you give Pluto a ring, like Saturn’s—that’s not conclusive yet. Or maybe you should just wait until after 2015 when the New Horizons probe will visit Pluto’s corner of the solar system, and might shake things up even more.

It’s enough to give a science fiction writer a migraine.