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!

WATER AT HOME AND OUT THERE

At a time of year when my part of the world gets its fresh supplies of water in the form of snow, water was on my mind because of a number of science news stories.

People writing about climate change often mention the estimate that if all of the ice pack on Antarctica were to melt it would raise the sea level of the world’s oceans by about twenty-three feet. That figure can certainly be argued, and I don’t think most scientists expect all of the ice to melt (a controversial study released last year claimed that at least parts of the Antarctic continent were gaining ice), but a new report is cause for concern. Until now, it was thought that Antarctica’s ice structure itself would buffer much of the ice melt and slow the melt water’s progress to the sea. That’s because much of the continent is covered with a thick layer of very porous ice called firn that lies on top of the hard glacial ice and is capable of trapping a lot of melt water in its spaces. But new research says that heavy melting, particularly in 2012, filled the upper layers of firn and then refroze to create hard ice. That new hard layer is preventing melt water from getting down to the porous spaces beneath it so a lot of potential storage space is out of reach and the water is running off into the ocean more quickly than expected. What the results will be, no-one is sure.

The cloud cover over Antarctica also affects the rate of melting, and for the first time since the late 1960’s scientists will be doing extensive in-place measurement of those clouds in a project called the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement West Antarctic Radiation Experiment (AWARE), which got underway a couple of months ago and will run until early 2017. Predicting the effects of climate change is incredibly complex, and every bit of data will help. (A voice in my mind just started humming, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…”)

I have a great idea for a novel that involves tunnelling through the ice of Antarctica (no, I’m not going to call it Firngully) but so far just thinking about on-site research has given me chills.

While on the one hand climate change is a threat because of rising seawater (and the unknown effects of large amounts of fresh melt water on salty ocean currents), a hotter climate also poses a serious threat to the planet’s fresh water supplies. California’s recent drought years could be just a taste of things to come.

Maybe we need to hijack one of Jupiter’s moons.

A Scientific American article reminds us that there is a lot of water in our solar system. Jupiter’s moon Ganymede alone might contain as much as thirty times the amount of water in Earth’s oceans, and that’s liquid water beneath ice. It’s not alone—there’s good evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus have liquid water, and a number of other moons probably do. Of course, to bring any of it back to Earth would be a formidable technical challenge, but liquid water “out there” improves our prospects of creating colonies, farming installations, or manufacturing facilities elsewhere in the solar system. There ought to be more science fiction stories about that—maybe fewer spaceships and more submersibles, fewer spacewalks and more extraterrestrial swims!

Aaah, just picture it: tying up the boat and putting away the waterskis, then cracking open a brew while you sit on the dock and look up at Jupiter waxing overhead. That’s the life!

OK, so maybe the snow is getting to me.

CLIMATE AND SCIENCE FICTION

Photo from Architecture 2030

Climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University has sounded the alarm: the rate of melting of Antarctic ice as recently measured means that, if rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide aren’t soon reversed, large coastal areas of the planet could be flooded within as little as fifty years due to increases in sea level as much as nine meters.

It’s not science fiction. If you live in a coastal city, you should be concerned, along with millions upon millions of the world’s citizens.

This is far faster and much more drastic than earlier predictions of sea level rise, and it’s based on a global average temperature increase of just 2 Celsius degrees. That figure could go much higher if something isn’t done soon to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet when it comes to supporting solutions to the problem, governments lumber like dinosaurs in a tar pit (one of the sources of planet-heating fossil fuels perhaps?)

There are a number of web resources that show reputable assessments of how coastal population centres will suffer as sea levels rise. The NOAA has a good one here, and there’s a more complicated one here. National Geographic has a page to show what the world would be like if all of the ice melted, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (and even that won’t make you think you’re in a certain Kevin Costner movie). All of these will give you a chill, or possibly a thrill in a disaster-movie kind of way. Looking at them reminded me of all of the science fiction that has dealt with climate over the years.

One of the first to make an impact on me was J.G. Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere, a 1961 novel that painted the terrible effects on human civilization of a non-stop hurricane force wind. It was probably one of the first books to get me hooked on apocalyptic scenarios. But it was far from alone. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers a pretty good overview of the SF written on the subject of climate disasters, and you can find other pop culture references here. Maybe we’re fascinated with the topic of weather disasters just because we’re obsessed with the weather. We talk about it every time we have nothing else urgent to say, and much of the rest of the time too. It’s so prevalent in fiction that “man vs. nature” is one of the four main types of conflict taught in every literature class. (In case you’ve forgotten, the others are man vs. man, man vs. society, and man vs. himself.)

Perhaps there’s a special poignancy in vicariously witnessing a human being’s struggle against something awesomely powerful for which he or she is not to blame. Ah, except this time there’s plenty of evidence that, collectively, we are to blame. The climate change James Hansen warns about isn’t caused by solar flares, or a black alien cloud that blocks the sun, or an asteroid strike. We’re doing it to ourselves, and to others. Each of us could do something to stop it, but we have to make that choice. Which means that the current climate scenario incorporates all four of the classic forms of conflict mentioned above.

That makes for a heck of a story, but it’s one I’d rather read than live, thanks very much.

PREDICTING THE FUTURE IS HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT CLIMATE CHANGE

Any science fiction writer placing a story in the near future pretty much needs to mention that most overworked term these days: “climate change”. We can build expected changes into the future environment, or we can say it all turned out to be a hoax, but ignoring it entirely will probably make readers think we screwed up. There’s a big risk either way you call it, though, because those in the “hoax” camp will probably look like fools before many more years have passed, while those who try to predict the changes have a really tough challenge ahead of them.

As if predicting the future wasn’t already an exercise in masochism.

Most analysts who try to guess how countries will cope with climate change have painted a fairly rosy picture of my home country of Canada. After all, warmer temperatures will extend our growing season, give us hot summers and warmer winters, increase tourism and immigration, right? Not to mention thirsty markets for our abundant fresh water. Except the winter of 2013-2014 showed a different side of climate change. And this year is following the same frightening path so far, leading Canadians to stock up on Valium or booze, whichever is most likely to preserve our sanity through a winter that just won’t end.

So how do warming global temperatures add up to longer, more vicious winters?

The Jet Stream is a huge westerly current of air caused by the rotation of the Earth, and it affects virtually all of our weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Well, it’s been going all wavy lately, allowing Arctic air to flow much farther south than it ever should, bringing record cold and brutal early winter storms (just do a Google Image search for “Buffalo snowfall”). A new study published in Nature Geoscience blames the disappearing Arctic ice pack: larger amounts of dark water (instead of white ice) absorb more sunlight and the warmer air above it pushes the Jet Stream far to the north, but the downswing of that new loop extends much farther south. The loop to the south can sometimes allow Arctic air to flow all the way to the southern U.S.. And the effect isn’t in any hurry to move on, so these unusual cold snaps can last for weeks. A good summary can be found here.

I’ve read other explanations, but the effect is the same: foot-long nose icicles and citizens ready to strangle each other by March.

There’s a good chance that some of the results of warming temperatures will be pleasant ones. We can only hope. Because if these harsher winters do become the new normal, winter-weary Canadians and New Englanders won’t even be able to make our usual desperate escape to Florida for a few months.

’Cause most of it will be under water.

When Is Good News Bad News?

When is good news bad news? When the good news is about climate change.

Some leaked reports obtained by the Associated Press indicate that the rate of global warming has slowed down in the past fifteen years, even though greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have continued to rise. The rate of warming from 1998 to 2012 was only about half the rate of the years since 1951. That’s good news, right? Well, not if it gives climate change deniers yet another opportunity to attack the science and encourage everyone to keep burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow.

Friday September 27, 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will begin to present its latest update, and as scientists have gathered in Stockholm to prepare, there has been disagreement on how to deal with the awkward fact of the slower warming rate, and whether or not to even exclude it from the report. Countries have objected to the short 15-year length of the measurement. Others say 1998 was an exceptionally warm year, and a bad starting point. The U.S. is pushing the favourite explanation: that the deep ocean is absorbing more heat than originally expected. But it would be a mistake to hide or obscure any findings. The deep pockets of the oil companies and other industrial interests will ensure that there are lots of voices willing to twist the truth, hide it, or outright deny it. Climate scientists must show that they’re above that and adhere to the strictest standards of full disclosure. The coming report will likely assert that scientists are 95% certain that humans are mostly to blame for the rise in global temperatures over the past sixty years. In science 95% is huge.

Let’s not forget that, in spite of a slower warming rate, the past decade was still the warmest on record and this decade is on track to beat it. Let’s not forget the shocking number of extreme weather events of the past few years, especially massive storms and devastating flooding, even though the rate of warming was slower than expected. Climate science has to be among the most complex of all areas of study, with an unthinkable number of variables to account for. So predictions are bound to have a margin of error. If the rate of warming was an error, at least we’ve come out on the good side so far, but it is no excuse to discount the rest of the science and stay complacent about climate change, doing nothing. (And believe me, as a citizen of Canada, a country that’s gone from having one of the best environmental reputations in the world to one of the worst in the span of one administration, I’m not pointing fingers.)

I’m struck by the fact that millions of people have sacrificed their lives in wars to stop oppressive forms of government—fascism, Nazism, communism, and other –isms—for the sake of future generations. Yet we’re not even willing to make sacrifices to our lifestyle to save our children and their children from a global climate that no form of government will be able to alleviate.

Science fiction writers and fans imagine apocalypses for fun, but when faced with real threats we turn to our faith that science will provide a solution. Well, sometimes science can only offer a warning.

The rest is up to us.