The Hugo Book Club posted a great review of Light Chaser on their blog. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a quote:

…the novella is very welcome for its implicit criticism of complacent feel-good neoliberal end-of-history ideology that leaves major portions of the human race trapped as part of low-wage low-rights pools of exploitable labour. The metaphor was both incisive and perfectly woven into the story. 

Light Chaser is an absolutely essential text for fans of either author, offering the punchy dialogue and sprightly pacing of Powell’s best work and the quirky-big-space-idea think pieces of Hamilton’s. It will likely find a place on several of our nominating ballots next year. 

Herders of Mars

Photo: NASA

With the maiden flight of NASA’s Ingenuity, we celebrated one of the most significant engineering milestones of recent times. Despite having to contend with lower gravity and a thinner atmosphere, an aircraft flew on Mars for the first time. It was the first powered, controlled flight of a human-built vehicle on another planet—a significance celebrated by the onboard inclusion of a tiny scrap of material from the Wright brothers’ first flyer. 

The Ingenuity flights were relatively modest in duration, but they were a proof of concept. What comes next will be interesting. The Wright brothers’ first hop was shorter in length than the wingspan of the Boeing 747, which first took to the skies only sixty-six years after Kitty Hawk. Who knows what we could have flying through the Martian clouds sixty-six years from now?

The first thought I have is of a massive blimp carrying several dozen of these helicopters. Being solar powered, there’s little reason it can’t stay aloft for days, weeks, maybe even years. Every time the scientists on Earth identify a location of potential interest, the blimp dispatches a helicopter to investigate, soaring over any intervening rough terrain with more ease and speed than a rover.

A helicopter has the potential to get up-close and personal with the strata in a cliff face—something that’s obviously difficult for a ground-based vehicle. A fleet of them could traverse and map the length of the great Valles Marineras canyons without worrying about the bumpy topography.

But why stop with an automated blimp? Viewers of The Martian will remember long sequences of Matt Damon bouncing around in a rover for weeks as he treks towards salvation. But what if he’d been able to jump in a helicopter and fly there in a day? When humans start building bases on Mars, helicopters would be as valuable to them as they are for bases in the Artic and Antarctica. They could be used to airlift personnel to areas of potential interest identified via satellite survey. They could fly missions to resupply forward outposts, and rescue explorers stranded by injury or technical malfunction. They could even—god forbid—be used for security and defence. 

Science fiction writers get a lot of mileage from imagining worst-case scenarios. We find drama in the idea of things going wrong. So, while I hope that in the near future we as a species will outgrow our childish infatuation with war, Mars is an entire planet filled with currently unclaimed resources and territory. A bright red jewel hanging just within our reach. Can our acquisitive monkey natures resist squabbling over such a prize? Only 15 years after Wilbur and Orville showed powered flight was possible, squadrons of biplanes were dogfighting in the war-torn skies over France. So, now I’m imagining a drone war on Mars, fought remotely by competing governments or corporations, each vying for control of profitable ore deposits or water sources. Helicopter gunships whispering through the thin air, hunting for enemy rovers. Mass accelerators on Phobos and Deimos wiping out mining installations with meteoric bombardment from on high…

Air travel shrank the Earth. Instead of spending months sailing to Australia, it is now possible to get there in a matter of a day or two. The same will be true of Mars. If we build the right aircraft, we’ll be able to go anywhere on the planet—and don’t forget how much smaller Mars is already. Where Earth’s diameter is 7,926 miles, the diameter of Mars is only 4,220 miles. So, while the technical challenges are huge, the distances are shorter and the gravity is lighter.

But why stop there? Now we know we can engineer machines able to fly in different gravities and through different atmospheric compositions, we should be building choppers capable of exploring the cloud tops of Venus. Huge machines with rotors the size of wind turbines could track the storm systems in Jupiter’s atmosphere, or cruise the ochre skies of Titan seeking life in its hydrocarbon lakes.

However, I’m going to end this post with a truly science fictional image. Imagine, if you will, a Mars in the not too distant future, where a combination of terraforming techniques have thickened the atmosphere enough for hardy plants to grow and specially adapted animals to roam the surface. And on this new tundra, shaggy herds of reindeer and buffalo graze the tough, wiry grass, watched over by autonomous helicopter shepherds, while overhead, two moons shine in the afternoon sky.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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How will automation affect global trade and travel?

Scanning through April’s issue of The Engineer, several articles caught my eye. The first was about the inaugural flight of Boeing’s Loyal Wingman autonomous aircraft, and the second concerned the lighter-than-air blimps being developed by Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK. As a science fiction writer, I immediately concatenated the two notions and began to imagine AI-controlled airships carrying passengers and cargo around the globe, plying their routes without need for human guidance.

I was still pondering this idea when I came to an article about the new wave of electric boats, and in particular the Scandinavian container ship Yara Birkeland, which is the world’s first battery-powered autonomous vessel. Automated logistics will load chemicals and fertiliser onto the ship at the Yara International headquarters in Herøya; then the vessel will steer itself to the nearby container port in Brevik, where more automated systems will unload it.

Of course, this chimed with my notion of self-piloting airships, and I began to imagine an entire infrastructure in which machines harvest raw materials at one end, which are then shipped to automated factories, and the resulting products delivered to where they’re needed without human intervention at any stage. You want more flat-pack sofas? The robots go out into the forest, cut down the trees and transfer the logs to a processing ship, which delivers ready-cut pieces to a packaging plant that bundles them up and arranges for self-driving trucks, ships and airships to deliver them to stores around the world. 

Beyond that, the article on hydrogen-powered trains suggested such arrangements could also be provided for passengers. Trains, after all, don’t have a lot of choice about their routes. All they need to do is follow the rails and not hit anything. So, we could easily factor in a network of automated public transport, with major cities as hubs, in which a Londoner could order a self-driving taxi to take them to Paddington, from where they could catch an automated train to Heathrow, where they might board a passenger airship bound for New York…

The final article that caught my eye concerned the developments of freeports in the UK, where the Chancellor recently announced the creation of eight such entities. He defined a freeport as ‘An area inside the UK geographically, but legally outside of the UK customs territory.’ This means goods and raw materials can be imported, assembled and exported without paying domestic duties or tax.

Freeports would naturally become nodes in the automated passenger and freight networks we have been imagining. Advocates imagine them becoming centres of innovation, with the economic ripples spreading out into the surrounding communities and attract people to live and work near the freeport zones—while critics worry these freeports could become cut-off from the regions in which they sit, thriving whilst the rest of the country withers economically. 

As a science fiction writer, I immediately imagined the famous freeports of the genre: Mos Eisley, Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine… They are portrayed as romantic, slightly disreputable places, with thriving black markets and an underclass of hustlers, scoundrels and smugglers taking advantage of the facility’s interstitial legal status. Would modern freeports attract such people? A thriving port would certainly need the support systems provided by the hotel, food and leisure industries. Wherever wealth is generated, a secondary economy arises to provide for the workers and itinerant travellers. 

My science fiction brain pictures these places in a hundred years. While much of the country exists in agrarian poverty, these freeports are enclaves of prosperity, served by automated cargo systems that connect them to similar ports all over the world: a global meta-nation of trade and travel freed from the states within whose borders they nominally sit. 

It sounds exciting, but with control of the ‘roads’ of this new empire, the freeports would be able to dictate terms to their hosts. If the government became too interfering, the ports could threaten to cut off their supplies of certain items, maybe even redirect them to other markets. In this way, the ports themselves could become the seats of political control, endorsing certain parties or candidates in order to strengthen their own positions.

That’s a hell of a setting for a modern retelling of Casablanca.

But I wasn’t done yet. I found myself picturing a dystopia future scenario set a few years later, in which the human race had succumbed to a new, deadlier pandemic and our automated supply chains still rattled along oblivious of our demise, creating and shipping goods no one would ever use; where empty buses and trains still ran their scheduled services—at least until their batteries expired or their solar panels degraded. A melancholy vision of the slow breakdown of unthinking systems in an empty world.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Natural selection on the unmanned battlefield

Forget the “Terminator scenario”. The future of AI based warfare could be far weirder than that.

Two articles recently caught my eye. The first was about the Royal Navy’s decision to test extra-large autonomous submarines with a view to incorporating them in its fleet, and the second concerned the MOD’s acquisition of five unmanned ground vehicles for battlefield resupply missions.

Now, as I’m a science fiction author, you might be expecting me to leap straight to the conclusion that these automated vehicles will somehow rise up against us and destroy the world in a Terminator-style apocalypse. And while that may be a fun scenario for a Hollywood blockbuster, frankly any species dumb enough to place its entire offensive capability in the charge of a single artificial intelligence deserves everything it gets.

No, in this post, I want to look at some of the stranger implications of this technology.

To start with, let me state the obvious: war produces casualties, and if we’re deploying autonomous vehicles into active theatres, they are going to get damaged. It’s easy to imagine automated ambulances ferrying human casualties away from the front line, but what about unmanned tow trucks and drones equipped to repair autonomous vehicles? Machines repairing other machines without human intervention.

If those machines can be repaired on the battlefield, perhaps they can also be improved and modified in situ to cope with unexpected changes in terrain, mission requirement, or threat level? Throw in some simple learning algorithms for the tow trucks, and that sounds like something I could write a story about: a fleet of war machines that are turned loose and adapt to the needs of the battle as it happens, undergoing a rapid Darwinian machine evolution dictated by the circumstances in which they are operating.

What might such machines look like by the end of a protracted conflict? If the other side also uses similar technology, would the evolution be accelerated as each side became involved in a race to outclass the other? A simple unmanned supply truck might evolve into a heavily armoured stealth vehicle with fat mesh tires that allow it to traverse any kind of rough terrain, while being almost immune to IEDs and other hazards.

Earlier, I mentioned how unwise it would be to place your entire military capability under the command of a single artificial intelligence. However, the ‘smarter’ an unmanned vehicle is, the more chance it has to survive, so an ongoing upgrade of its onboard processing power wouldn’t be unreasonable. But how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Assuming we somehow manage to avoid insurrection in the ranks, we face another potential problem when machines start upgrading machines on an ad hoc basis. We run the risk that sooner or later, they might become too complex for us to understand. We’ll lose the ability to repair our own creations, as they diverge into a multitude of sub-species, each with its particular specialisms and evolutionary history. What started out as a tank might come back to us as a swarm of complex drones or a slick of nanotechnological goop. At that point, even if they don’t evolve the intelligence to become disloyal, could we still really claim to be in control of them? If we can’t understand how they work, can we trust them to make the life-or-death decisions that are necessary on a battlefield? If an unmanned vehicle decides the success of its mission would be increased by the neutralisation of civilian targets, would we be able to convince it otherwise?

Some of you may remember the talking bomb in the movie Dark Star, which discovers philosophy, decides it’s god, and with the words, “Let there be light,” detonates while still attached to the ship that should have dropped it. That is something we definitely want to avoid.

We also want to avoid the situation described in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Second Variety’, where the few remaining human soldiers on both sides of a conflict discover that their automated weapons have gained sentience and joined forces, and are now lying to their former masters about the progress of a war that’s no longer happening.

Leon Trotsky claimed that, “War is the locomotive of history.” If our unmanned vehicles go on to evolve beyond us, then perhaps war will also provide the future of the locomotive.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Victorian Rocketmen

My eye was recently caught by A profile of the Victorian railway pioneer, Robert Stephenson, who is probably best known as the designer of the innovative steam locomotive Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials and achieved the distinction of being involved in the first railway fatality after it struck and killed an MP who was standing on the tracks.

Stephenson designed railways in the United Kingdom, Columbia, and Egypt, and bridges, such as the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits between mainland Wales and Anglesey. Like his friends, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Richard Trevithick, he was one of that breed of Victorian engineer who were seemingly able to turn their talents toward any challenge, be it steam locomotives, railway bridges, or steamships.

Brunel, famous for his railways, steamships, tunnels and bridges, was also responsible for designing prefabricated hospitals, forceps, viaducts, and Paddington Station.

With such talent in play, the science fiction writer in me can’t help but wonder what might have happened if circumstances had been subtly different.

For instance, what might have happened if Stephenson and Brunel had been recruited by the military? With their knowledge of steam-powered locomotion, it is not unreasonable to imagine they might have produced the first tanks to the battlefield decades before their actual debut appearance in World War I. How that would have affected history is a question for the scholars, but it’s not hard to imagine such an innovation kicking off an arms race between Great Britain and the other imperial European powers, and thereby precipitating the Great War in the late 1800s rather than the early 1900s.

The same goes for Brunel’s revolutionary steamships. When the ss Great Britain was launched in 1843, she was more than just the first iron-hulled steamship; she was also the largest vessel afloat. At a time when the majority of the world’s warships were still constructed of wood and reliant on wind power to get around, she could have cut a mean swathe had she been equipped for battle instead of passenger transport. And if the Admiralty had commissioned another two or three identical vessels and installed cannons, Britannia really would have ruled the waves—at least, until the other powers caught up with the technology.

But these changes, while interesting to consider, aren’t really all that world-shaking. Had they happened, it’s likely our present would look much the same as it does now. All that would be different would be that a few conflicts happened slightly earlier. The general progression of history wouldn’t have been unduly affected. It is only when we start to consider weaponry that there is the potential for drastic change.

Imagine for a moment that Stephenson and Brunel are building a warship. Would these great minds not also turn their attention to increasing its firepower?

The aeolipile, also known as Hero’s Engine, dates back to the 1st century AD. Considered by some as the first steam engine, it consists of a radial turbine spun by steam jets. Using the same principle, it may have been possible to produce a steam-powered projectile—either some form of rocket or a torpedo—capable of delivering a devastating payload.

From there, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine such technology following a similar developmental process as the Nazi rocketry programme, with larger and larger steam-powered rockets being built. In our timeline, it took 24 years from the end of WWII to the first moon landing. If you apply a similar timescale here, driven by a Cold War between the British and German Empires (and maybe influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 popular classic, From Earth to the Moon), we can wildly speculate about Victorian astronauts in orbit by the turn of the century, and maybe a moon landing by the early 1910s.

Now, I’m picturing a union jack on the surface of the moon, with two astronauts wearing cumbersome diving suits, their air supplied by thick hoses that run back into their spacecraft—a huge contraption built of riveted steel plate and powered by the exhaust from gigantic coal-fired boilers within.  Now, that would have changed history!

The discovery of nuclear power would have led to steam rockets of increased efficiency and power and, by now, people might have been living on Mars for the past seventy-five years. There might be half a dozen settlements on the moon, and great steel ships lumbering out towards Jupiter and Saturn—and all because two Victorian gentlemen were persuaded to concentrate on the military rather than civilian applications of their inventions.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Why a Dystopian Future isn’t Inevitable

A recent issue of The Engineer contained stories about wind power being considered for commercial shipping, hydrogen for long haul trucks, and a call-to-arms from Professor Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, for engineers to start addressing the problems that may lead to our extinction.

We live in a time of great uncertainty, with a rising population and changing climate, and many worst-case projections seem increasingly likely to come to pass. But that doesn’t mean we should give up hope. After all, engineering is all about finding solutions to problems, and what greater problem could we face than the extinction of our species!

To counter all the doom and gloom, I decided to look ahead to a world where political and industrial inertia have been conquered, and engineers set free to tackle the challenges ahead. So, come with me to the world of 2100 AD. Many of our children and grandchildren are still alive, and have families of their own right now, but their way of life is as different to ours as ours is to that of the Victorians.

Cities are greener spaces. Trees line the centre of every street; vertical gardens adorn the south side of every building; and solar panels cover every roof. There’s very little traffic noise or pollution, because all the cars are self-driving electric models and most people travel by clean and affordable public transport.

Much of the Green Belt surrounding the cities has been turned over to agriculture, much of which is fully automated, while huge reforestation programmes have returned the wilds of Wales, Scotland and the Lake District to the densely wooded state they enjoyed in the wake of the last ice age, before they were cleared to make way for livestock grazing.

You certainly don’t see many cows, chickens, sheep or pigs anymore. Ninety-nine percent of the meat in our diet is grown in vats, cloned from the finest animals and produced with minimal environmental impact. It’s also healthier, requiring fewer of the medicines and hormones currently pumped into our food animals.

International travel is also rarer than before. Business can be done online and via video link. There are still a few airliners, but they now use biofuels. The majority of passengers and freight travel via airship or wind-powered sea-going vessels.

Overhead, vast tissue-thin orbital mirrors reduce the amount of heat reaching the Earth from the Sun. Space tourism never really took off (if you’ll pardon the pun), but microgravity turned out to be a great place for science and manufacturing, and there are now several large commercial and governmental space stations in orbit, along with power satellites that collect the sun’s rays and beam them down to earth as microwaves, to collectors on the equator, that then make them available as clean, unlimited electrical power.

Looking down from one of these satellites, parts of the Pacific and the Sahara shimmer with huge solar farms. Floating wind turbines harvest the jet streams, and even the ocean’s tides provide us with the energy we need.

But it isn’t all good news. Some climate change was inevitable. It took us too long to act and respond.

Storms are worse and more frequent. New York now exists below sea level, protected from inundation by a huge sea wall. Other cities have been less fortunate. Venice has become a modern-day Atlantis, and much of Central London floods twice a day at high tide. But people are adapting. Huge infrastructure projects aim to reclaim land from the sea. Climate refugees move north from the scorching equator, seeking shelter in the newly temperate open spaces of Russia and Canada. The population of Greenland is rising at an incredible rate, and there are even some hardy souls scraping a living from the exposed soil on the fringes of Antarctica.

A failed attempt to colonise Mars has shown the world’s billionaires that it’s easier to terraform the Earth than try to adapt the red planet to our needs. So now, they’ve thrown their resources into projects that benefit us all, rather than just themselves—including the development of artificial intelligence capable of regulating the Earth as a single organism, moving food, clean water and other assets to where they are needed, while simultaneously managing the balance of gasses in our atmosphere through carbon capture projects, and the global mean temperature, through manipulation of those solar mirrors I mentioned earlier.

Instead of ransacking the Earth for resources and financial gain, humans have become stewards of their world, engineering the planet to keep it habitable for its ten billion inhabitants. Yes, there are still problems, and yes, much of the above is pure speculation—but speaking as an author, of the two possible fates awaiting us, I know which one I would rather write about.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Be Your Own Starship

Today, I’m honoured to present a guest post from author J. Dianne Dotson

As a writer of space opera novels (The Questrison Saga®), sometimes I’m asked about how I began writing, and how I published my books. I don’t think my process is a traditional one, but I will elaborate on it.

Back in the 1980s, I was a nerdy girl growing up in semi-rural Southern Appalachia, specifically a community called Gray, Tennessee. I was a massive fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Aliens. I bristled over the fact that no space operas featuring a woman main character existed on the screen. Later, I would learn to appreciate She-Ra and Jem and the Holograms for filling that void a bit. Still, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted my own set of planets, starships, aliens, superheroes and supervillains, androids, and a kickass woman leader. I did not, however, want her to be human…she would look it, but be essentially ageless, and made of sterner stuff, so to speak.

And with this woman, who I named Galla-Deia, I knew I had to wrestle with topics such as immortality, and long expanses of time, and trying to fit in with actual humans. At the time, I felt very much like her in that regard: I might look normal, but I was very much a fish out of water. That feeling didn’t go away until adulthood, and still, it’s often there, simmering just below the surface. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I don’t need to fit in. I just need to be me.

I began writing a space opera featuring all these characters and places, their outrageous fashions (which I drew alongside, in vivid detail and hue), travel guides, maps, glossaries…I threw it all in with gusto. I leaned into both science fiction and fantasy, because I wanted to project a sense of fun and wonder and push the envelope of what science knew. I also wanted to draw upon my readings of mythology, encouraged by my late father. And I finished two full-length novels by the time I was 14 years old. While I balked at submitting them for publication, I pecked away at these stories for decades, reworking them, teasing out origin tales, etc. 

At one point someone I cared about told me straight up, “You need to let that go and do something else.” No. Absolutely not. I might have flagged a bit, and been distracted by education, relationships, and parenting, but the desire to tell my stories never dimmed. And I would not accept being told to let go of my dreams. No one should. 

I wrote the series in earnest beginning with a new origin story, Heliopause, which would become the first book in The Questrison Saga®. In this book, the central character is a man named Forster; Galla-Deia does not make her debut here except in teasing, and with her powerful stone, the diamethyst, influencing the story’s events. Another parent encouraged me to finish this story and get it out into the world. Listen to those who lift you up, who never fail to believe in you. Absorb that encouragement, and then give it to yourself when you feel like you’re waning. 

“How did you find the time to write?” That is a common question. I carved out the time. I would sometimes nap so that I could stay up late after my kids went to bed. I would sneak off to a café and write in spurts. I just did whatever I could to finish that first book. 

I chose to self-publish, but only after looking at all options, and having come close to signing with agents. I felt very strongly that this series alone should be told the way I wanted it. I hired professionals to edit the book and to design the cover art. None of this was cheap, but neither was my writing. I wanted to make the best quality books possible. And I feel that I accomplished this, by investing in the project and by never wavering in my vision.

After Heliopause came out, I did not stop to rest. I jumped into its sequel, of which part had been written prior toHeliopause, and took narrative risks with the time placement of the book: this is Ephemeris), in which you learn Galla-Deia’s origin. 

And I did not sit on a book release. I actively promoted it across all social media. I was brazen. I approached bookstores, conventions, anything I could. The worst that happens when you do this is to get a “no” …but you would be surprised how many times you might get a “yes.” Don’t sit back and assume the world will find your work. Shout it from the rooftops! You wrote those words, and they deserve to be read. Find the audience for them.

I wrote Accretion, the third novel, shortly after the publication of Ephemeris. Two days after Accretion arrived in now-infamous 2020, my father passed away. The devastation from that resulted in a cross-country move (which I am now in the process of reversing), and a disjointed period of time in which I found it difficult to write. But I persevered. 

Now, the final book in The Questrison Saga® has arrived: Luminiferous. It is a relief that I got the book out into the world, and with things opening up again, I can now go back to in-person events and participate in panels. If you have the opportunity to do that, take it when offered. And seek it out! 

Don’t wait for these things to land in your lap. You can launch yourself out there in the world, find your readers, and meet wonderful contacts along the way. I believe in you and your possibilities. You’re in command. Be your own starship. Ad astra!

You can learn more about J. Dianne Dotson on her website

Tomorrow’s Transit Technologies

A recent news item on magnetic product delivery caught my eye. In it, the London-based start-up, Magway, proposed a nationwide network of pipes along which freight could be moved using magnetic waves of electrical current. The idea is to remove freight from the roads and eliminate tonnes of CO2 emissions.

As a science fiction author, I’ve heard similar schemes before, from the pneumatic passenger tubes of the 1940s to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. But the difference with this idea is that it doesn’t require a vacuum or low pressure in the tunnels, nor is it trying to solve the problem of transporting humans at supersonic speeds. Instead, its pallets trundle along at 31 mph, milliseconds apart.

London already has a low speed tube-based network for transporting passengers. It’s called the Underground, and it handles around 2 million people per day. Creating a network for freight makes a lot of sense. Rather than entrust the delivery of your takeaway dinner to a cycle courier, you could order it from a restaurant and collect it, still hot, at your local terminal. And if companies such as Amazon took to the new system, you could get almost anything you wanted delivered by underground tube.

Better yet, if each pallet carries its own RFID chip, you would be able to track its exact position as it made its way towards you beneath the streets. No more waiting in for delivery drivers who may or may not show up within the time window they’ve given you. Instead, you can see your new flatpack armchair has just passed under the Thames and will be ready to collect in ten minutes.

Personally, I rather like the idea of being able to order a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich on a Sunday morning and have them arrive within minutes from my favourite café.

Science fiction has always been full of ingenious mass transit systems—some more plausible than others. Larry Niven wrote about moving pavements, which he dubbed “slidewalks,” while British author Peter F Hamilton envisions trains utilising a network of wormholes to travel around the globe, and even to other planets!

One of the most mindboggling concepts to have been dreamed-up is the space elevator—an idea used by scores of writers, including Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alastair Reynolds.

First proposed in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the space elevator is simple to describe but harder to build. It involves a length of extremely strong material—maybe carbon nanotubes, maybe something else—reaching from the surface of the Earth to geosynchronous orbit. A counterweight on the far end keeps the structure taut. Passengers and freight can then be moved up and down in pressurised elevator cars, without relying on the uncertainties of rockets or parachutes.

Such a structure would drastically lower the cost and risk of shipping materials into orbit. Half a dozen towers, placed strategically around the equator, might make it economically feasible to move most of our manufacturing off-planet, cutting down on industrial pollution. It would also open the way for space tourism and travel to the moon and other planets—a true engineering marvel.

Can you imagine taking an elevator from an equatorial nation, and then watching as it rises smoothly into the air? The ground drops away, and then the curvature of the Earth becomes visible. And still you rise, until you’re 22,236 miles high. This is geosynchronous orbit. A satellite at this height will take the same amount of time to orbit the Earth as the Earth takes to revolve, so the satellite will appear to remain motionless above the same spot. Here there will be a space station. Maybe a luxury hotel, some corporate offices, and a staging area for transfer to some of the nearby stations and factories that share this orbit, strung between the various elevators like a diamond spider’s web.

It sounds like something out of Star Trek, but the realities of our strife-based world mean the ownership and operation of these towers would need to be carefully agreed in order to stop one group or nation gaining a monopoly on orbital access—and to stop the towers themselves becoming targets during wartime. In Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson depicts the fall of one such elevator after a terrorist attack. The falling cable wraps itself twice around the planet’s equator, causing huge amounts of death and destruction. Trust me, you do not want to be standing under one of those when they come crashing down!

Personally, I think I’ll stick with the London Underground. It has its frustrations, but also its charms—and unless you fall asleep on the Circle Line, you don’t have to travel 22,000 miles to get to work!

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Beating the blank page: How to jumpstart your story

Have you ever sat in front of a blank page, intimidated by its pristine white emptiness? Sometimes, you want to write but you just don’t know where to start. You don’t know how to jump into the story.

I know the feeling. Sometimes I get it at the start of a new book, sometimes at the start of a chapter. The good news is, I’ve developed a little hack that gets the words flowing.

Firstly, try not to worry about despoiling the page. You’re not the first explorer in an antarctic wilderness. You can always delete everything and start again. Empty pages aren’t sacred spaces; they’re expendable. They’re ammunition. So, put away any guilt you may have about messing them up.

The second thing you must realise is that in the long run, the first words you write today don’t matter. You will come back and edit them later. You may even decide to delete this whole first chapter. But right now, the important thing is to get the story going. You can’t edit words that aren’t there.

In physics, objects at rest possess an inertia that needs to be overcome in order to move them. It takes more energy to start something moving than to keep it moving. And stories are the same. So, what we need it a jumpstart to get the ball rolling.

We aren’t going to aim for perfection here. We can’t know what the perfect opening for our story will be until we’ve written a good chunk of it and its shape becomes clearer.

Are you ready?

Okay, open your document and write a single word. Any word at all. Don’t overthink it; just write the first one that comes to mind, whatever it is.

Now, put that word in speech marks, and suddenly it’s a line of dialogue.

On the next line down, write “What?”

Now, you have the start of a conversation, keep it going. Don’t worry about writing descriptions or attributes at this stage. You can fill them in later, once this scene’s achieved the momentum it needs to keep going. Simply alternate lines of dialogue, one after the other, until the conversation starts to acquire a shape and you begin to get a feel for the identities of the speakers.

As I said, you can go back later and edit or delete all this; for now, its purpose is to start you moving. Just keep the voices talking, and see where it leads.

Do you have any hacks to get over writer’s block? Why not share them in the comments below?

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The future of wearable exo-skeletons

A recent issue of The Engineer carried a story about a tetraplegic man who has taken his first steps in a laboratory thanks to an exoskeleton suit developed by biomedical research centre Clinatec and the University of Grenoble. On the same page, it also mentioned that Birmingham University researchers have developed a new self-healing polymer-based hydrogel that can be used to print soft biomaterials to repair defects in the body.

Mention exoskeletons to any science fiction fan, and they will immediately think of Ripley’s clunky yellow power loader from the 1986 film Aliens—a kind of wearable JCB that gets repurposed in the finale as a suit of armour. But might these new developments offer us the opportunity to do something a little more radical than reinvent the fork-lift truck?

While both the US and Russia are developing military exoskeletons to improve the strength, speed and stamina of their soldiers, these essentially amount to a series of struts and motors strapped to the limbs of the individual. Add in one of the jet packs currently also under development, and we have the beginnings of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.

However, if these exoskeletons can be controlled by wireless electrodes in the brain (as they are in the case of the man who just took his first steps in the prototype mentioned at the top of this article), it begs the question: do we need the human present at all?

If we can print biomaterials and a workable skeleton, could we combine them to form synthetic bodies controlled by a living operator some distance away? It could certainly be one solution to reducing air travel. Instead of flying across the Atlantic, you would hook yourself into an artificial body designed to resemble you, and attend your business meeting, publicity junket or political summit remotely—with the advantage of being able to shake hands and physically interact with the other attendees.

Another application, assuming the haptic feedback from the synthetic fingers could be made fine enough to enable a genuine sense of touch and dexterity, could be in the construction of disposable bodies for bomb disposal experts, or clean-up crews in radioactive or otherwise toxic environments—maybe even construction crews on the seabed. Imagine being able to walk around the wreck of the Titanic or explore the depths of a deep ocean trench.

As the technology matures and the interface between the machine and the nervous system gets better, these remote bodies could be used for more intimate purposes, such as maintaining a long-distance sexual relationship.

And who says we even have to stick with making them human? Perhaps you could roam the forests of India in the body of a tiger or ride the Rocky mountain updrafts as an eagle. Maybe we could even replace the bulls at Pamplona with synthetic bulls controlled by gamers from around the globe, allowing thrill seekers to brave a trampling while sparing actual animals the stress of the event—and who wouldn’t want to remotely gore a few tourists, just for fun?

On a more serious note, might it be possible to create tiny creatures that could allow surgeons to remotely explore the inner workings of the human body in order to diagnose and combat tumours and other disorders—although the cognitive dissonance of ‘inhabiting’ such a creature might take a bit of getting used to!

William Gibson famously wrote that, “The street finds its own use for things.” The same goes for the military. Any technology allowing a doctor to enter and fix a human body could also be used to allow an assassin to infiltrate and wreck one from the inside. Snip a couple of blood vessels in the brain, the results will resemble a stroke, and your opponent will have died from apparently natural causes.

So far, all these speculations have been earthbound. As a science fiction writer, I have to look higher and think weirder. Yes, we could have remote astronauts walking barefoot across the Sea of Tranquillity, but that seems rather tame. Instead, picture jacking your consciousness into a balloon-like creature riding the winds of Jupiter, or maybe a swarm of tardigrades on the surface of Titan.

Thinking bigger still, we could print a whale-like organism, equip it with fusion motors, and set it off into interstellar space. The ‘lag’ between operator and ship would gradually grow unmanageable as distance increases—by the time it reached our nearest star, a signal from Earth would take four years to reach it, and another four years to return—it would still be theoretically possible to access the remote and experience what it experienced four years previously; ideal if you wanted to feel you were gazing on an alien star system with your own eyes!

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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