Touching The Future

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

As you can imagine, The Engineer’s recent report on the development of a robot hand with a tactile fingertip set off all kinds of science fictional trains of thought. For instance, the first thing that sprang to mind was a scene from the movie Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Borg queen tries to tempt Commander Data by grafting human skin onto his android body, allowing him to ‘feel’ for the first time.

Luckily, the team from Bristol Robotics Lab aren’t the Borg. Instead of using skin taken from their victims, they’re creating their tactile fingertips using advanced 3D printers that mix soft and hard materials to create biomimetic structures. Professor Nathan Lepora from Bristol’s Department of Engineering Maths, said, “We found our 3D-printed tactile fingertip can produce artificial nerve signals that look like recordings from real, tactile neurons.”

The implications of this are huge. If we imagine that over the next decade, this technology will be improved and refined, we can postulate all sorts of unexpected uses for it.

For example, if a surgeon could plug into a pair of robotic hands that were as dextrous and sensitive as their own, they could theoretically perform surgery remotely. A specialist in Tokyo could undertake a heart operation in Paris without leaving their office. Trauma surgeons could work on patients in dangerous or hostile environments, such as disaster areas or warzones.  

And talking of warzones, remote bomb disposal might become more effective if the technicians sent to defuse the explosives could sense the feel of the mechanisms without having to put their own hands at risk.

But let’s think bigger.

If you placed a pair of robotic hands on a Martian rover, for instance, a geologist could ‘feel’ the surface of the red planet without having to spend a year travelling through space to get there. Yes, there would be a lag of around fifteen minutes as the signal travelled across the gulf of space from the artificial hand to his brain, but that could still be workable.

There would be less of a lag if the artificial hands were at the bottom of the sea, allowing marine biologists to examine the life that exists at those crushing depths, or marine archaeologists to excavate and handle delicate relics from ancient shipwrecks.

Providing the artificial hands can be constructed from robust-enough materials, all kinds of difficult environments could then be explored, from hydrothermal vents to magma chambers. But perhaps the greatest use of all would be in the location and treatment of survivors trapped in rubble following earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

Of course, as William Gibson famously wrote, ‘The street finds its own use for things.’ Just as the printing press, the video cassette, and Internet streaming were eagerly pounced upon by the porn industry, it seems inevitable that this virtual tactility will be used to provide long-distance sexual gratification. After all, who said the sensors have to remain on the fingers? Other body parts could be made to ‘feel’ things remotely. Such a set-up may eventually become as commonplace as Zoom or FaceTime, allowing couples to maintain intimacy while apart, and enabling paying customers to experience sex with prostitutes from the safety and comfort of their own houses.

Now, if that last bit grossed you out, you might want to skip this next section, because I’m going to be talking about miniaturising the process.

There’s no reason our artificial hands have to be the same size as human hands, as long as the nerve signals correspond to the same areas. So, let’s assume that once the technology has matured, it will be possible to create sensors of any size. In that case, those surgeons I mentioned earlier could insert tiny robots into a patient via keyhole incisions, and then ‘feel’ their way through tiny operations, locating damage to the heart or arteries, and repairing it without the need for more invasive surgery. Imagine being a doctor and being able to sew-up a burst blood vessel with (what feels like) your own two hands. But why stop there? Maybe one day, expectant parents will be able to ‘touch’ and begin to bond with their babies while they’re still in the womb?

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The ability to extend the grasp of our curious ape fingers beyond the reach of our arms will have profound and unexpected effect on the way we think of ourselves, and the way we interact with the world around us.


This article originally appeared in The Engineer.

Coffee Shop Productivity

When I first started writing, I thought only poseurs wrote in coffee shops. And while you may still find a lot of performative laptop users in your local branch of Starbucks or Costa, it turns out they’re also pretty good places in which to get stuff done.

This morning, instead of heading home after taking my daughter to school, I made for the nearest coffee shop instead. I haven’t done this since before the first lockdown, and it was even better than I remembered.

I deactivated the mobile data on my phone and didn’t bother connecting my laptop to the free Wi-Fi. Thus cut off from the distractions of home and social media, and buoyed by readily available quantities of tea, I managed to get done in a morning what would usually take me all day.

There’s something about the ambient background noise in a coffee shop that screens out distracting thoughts, promotes creativity, and improves concentration.

The other patrons can also be a source of inspiration. You can steal a description from one, a speech pattern from another. Snippets of conversation percolate down into your work. But most of all, especially in the morning, there’s a buzz of energy to the place that can lift you up with it.

Today, people were stopping in on their way back from dropping their kids at school, or pausing for a drink on their way to the gym. The sun was shining and everyone seemed in a good mood as they took a few minutes to meet and catch-up with friends before starting the week – such a contrast from the dreary Monday stereotype of office life.

Talking of office life, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain focus as a freelancer, but I’ve found the other patrons fulfil the same function my co-workers used to fulfil in the days before I went freelance. Their presence keeps me accountable, as I don’t want them to see me slacking off – or worse, mistake me for a posturing hipster.

So, now I have a new routine. I’m going to try to get out every morning and get my daily words written before I return home to tackle the housework, admin, and million other distractions that might otherwise derail me.

How about you? Will you join me, or do you find writing in public unproductive? Where do you need to be to avoid distractions and actually get work done?


Buy me a coffee

There Will Be Hard Times

Gareth L. Powell at The Cube, May 2022

I spend a lot of my time online providing aspiring authors with tips, advice and general encouragement. I even wrote a book to help them. But too much positivity can be dangerous, and sometimes we all need to feel the cold draught of reality blowing under the crack in the door.

And, as the title of this post suggests, there will be hard times.

CONSTANT GRIND

Some people have a romantic notion that being a writer involves sitting around in your pyjamas all day, sipping tea and trying to decide which glamorous party to attend that evening. And to be honest, pyjamas and tea do play a large part in the process. But there’s also an absolute crapload of work.

Nobody’s going to pay you to sit on your ass doing nothing all day.

You have to write. You need to get your words out there. If you’re represented by an agent, you need to give the something to sell to publishers. If you’re self-published, you need to get the product in front of the book-buying public. And writing a book is a hard slog that can take anywhere from three months to two years. It’s not an easy option. In fact, you might need to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, and it will eat into the time you have to do other things.

DOUBT

There will be days and weeks where you feel discouraged. Your prose will sound flat and your characters like idiotic sock puppets. You’ll forget what you were trying to say, or run out of plot halfway because your pacing’s off. Imposter syndrome will whisper doubts into your ear, telling you that you’re awful and nobody’s ever going to read a word you write. And when you add in the strains of constant work, rejection, poverty and bad reviews, the writing life can be brutal for your mental health.

POVERTY

The reason we hear about debut novelists scoring six-figure deals for their debut novels is because those kind of successes are rare enough to be newsworthy. The truth is, you will probably struggle financially. The majority of authors don’t earn a lot of money. The average advance for a first novel is around £5,000, which isn’t a big return for a year’s work. If your book does well and earns out its advance, you’ll start to receive royalty payments. Selling the translation rights in different countries can bring in more money, but you really need to have several books out there and selling well before you’ll start to make a sustainable income.

But…

You didn’t think I’d end this on a depressing note, did you?

I never felt happy or sane until I became a writer. It was all I ever wanted, and I was more than prepared to endure all the pitfalls I’ve mentioned above. I went into it with clear eyes. I started small, with stories in Interzone magazine, and gradually worked my way up, learning as I went.

If you genuinely, absolutely, definitely want to be a writer, there’s no reason you can’t do it, if you’re prepared to work your butt off and have a survival plan for the lean years.

Accept there will be hard times, and adjust your expectations accordingly. You can do this; it might just be tougher than you hoped.


Did you find this helpful?
Buy Gareth a Coffee
Get New Posts via Email

Who Are You Talking To?

One of the things authors get asked most frequently is to name the other writers who have most strongly influenced their work, and I think it’s a fair enough question. No one writes in total isolation, after all. Our work always forms part of a conversation between the ourselves and the wider culture, and we are influenced, either positively or negatively, by every piece of fiction we consume. 

So, with that in mind, I have been asked to write a few words about the influences behind my forthcoming novel, Stars and Bones.

The book presents us with a scenario in which the human race has been evicted from the Earth and set adrift in a fleet of gigantic arks. In this respect, it bears a superficial resemblance to Battlestar Galactica, but the creation of the vast, intelligent arks probably owes more to my love of Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels. As in the Culture, the citizens of my fleet exist in a post-scarcity civilisation where nobody goes hungry and everyone has access to anything they need, watched over by the superior minds of their intelligent starships. Reading Iain M. Banks taught me that it’s okay to let your imagination off the leash and dream big. The Culture novels spoke to me because they are so well written, with such memorable characters. They are the sort of books it’s easy to be immersed in. I love the ships, and the way they argue and scheme and bicker; and I love the idea of writing about a utopia. In science fiction, most writers seem to find it easier to write about dystopias. Banks’s genius lay in taking a perfect society, and wringing drama from it.

In Star and Bones, humanity comes into contact with an entity capable of infecting, subverting and absorbing anything it touches. Suddenly, no one knows who is real and who is fake. To be touched is to be corrupted, so how can you trust anyone else? Some readers are going to assume this aspect of the book is some sort of reaction to the global pandemic we’ve been living through these past couple of years, but the truth is it owes more to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror movie, The Thing—especially in the way the entity is able to reshape flesh and bone into whatever deadly combination it desires.

As for the sentient scout ship Furious Ocelot, whose adventures form the heart of the story, it would be very hard not to acknowledge the influence of Anne McCaffrey’s 1969 novel, The Ship Who Sang, and every other novel or short story that has featured a lone ship exploring the ragged edges of known space.

Science fiction authors have always been in conversation with each other. As we write, we take tropes from earlier works and subvert or reinvent them. We provide rebuttals to the arguments of other authors, and find new ways to explore topics. For instance, if we’re writing about alien invasion, it’s hard to do so without a tip of the hat to H.G. Wells—but that’s okay. The most fascinating thing about science fiction is the way it constantly rebuilds itself.


Throw a coin to your writer
Get alerts when I post new stuff

Emergency Protocol

Now the Twitter hoo-hah seems to have died down (at least for now), I thought it would be a good idea to list all the places you can find me online, in case one of them (including this one) unexpectedly disappears.

I post similar content across my various accounts, but please feel free to connect with me on one or all of the platforms below, should you want a fallback option if your favourite gets bought by a billionaire and becomes unusable:

1. Website: http://www.garethlpowell.com

2. Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/garethlpowell

3. Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/garethlpowell

4. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/garethlpowell1/

5. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/garethlpowell/ 

The Trouble with LinkedIn

The trouble with LinkedIn is that it’s an echo chamber of bullshit. Someone will come up with a buzzword or phrase, and then everyone will use it, irrespective of its actual meaning. I mean, is anyone actually “passionate about cross-platform synergy in the customer journey”?

The thing is, I quite like LinkedIn, but the manure is waist-deep. So, I wrote a mission statement of my own and posted it on there. Some of you may not like it, but here it is:

#

I’m not on LinkedIn to tell you transparently made-up “inspirational” stories about how I tipped a waitress $500 or gave a homeless person their car in order to encourage their development. Neither am I here to post inane “thought leadership” articles or drown you in a tsunami of meaningless buzzwords. I’m not here chasing jobs or trying to impress anyone. Rather, I’m guided by the following quote, which I want to share with you. It’s from Patti Smith, who says William Burroughs told her:

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

I’m here because I’m an author. I’m not making compromises or false claims. I’m not pretending to live up to any weird corporate ideal. With me, what you see is what you will get. I can’t pretend to be anyone else. But I hope I can share some encouragement and useful writing tips with you all, and be of help somehow. And maybe – just maybe – convince you to hire me for an interesting project some time, or at least pick up one of my books now and then. 


Drop me a tip
Subscribe to this blog

WORKING OUT THE RULES OF INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Space travel is one of the staples of science fiction. Characters move from one planet to another. They set out into the starry unknown in search of adventure, glory, or vengeance—but as a writer, knowing how their starships work has a profound effect on the type of story we’re trying to write.

For instance, our first decision—whether our spaceships can fly faster-than-light or not—dictates the timescale of our story. If we decide to stick with the currently accepted laws of physics, it’s likely our heroes will have to enter some form of cryogenic sleep in order to prevent them dying of old age before they reach their destination. And if their journey takes more than a couple of decades, the world they left will be profoundly changed by the time they return, and some of their friends will have died in the interim.

Good examples of this temporal displacement can be found in Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge. Peter F. Hamilton and I used it in our novella Light Chaser, in which it became the basis of the story, allowing our “immortal” space trader to re-visit various societies over the course of millennia to see how they had (or had not) changed.

However, if you’d like to move your characters from one place to another on a scale of days or weeks rather than centuries, you’re going to have to invent some sort of faster-than-light drive.

But, just as fantasy writers have to invent rules and limitations for the way magic works in their worlds, so SF authors have to work out a set a guidelines for how their spaceships behave. After all, if a ship can just go anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye, there would be no way to defend planets or bases from attack. Hostile armadas could pop into orbit, unload a thousand warheads, and be a hundred light years away before the first one had exploded. Space battles would be impossible if ships could just leap away at any second. And how would economies function if you could import fresh produce from Betelgeuse as cheaply as buying it from the farm up the road?

Now, before you panic, I’m not asking you to describe exactly how your starship’s jump drives actually work. If you knew that, you wouldn’t have to write a book as NASA would currently be showering you with money and asking you to build one! Instead, I’m suggesting you come up with some limitations. After all, you don’t have to be able to describe the inner workings of an internal combustion engine in order to know that your average car can’t travel at 8,000 mph or operate under water (unless you’re writing about James Bond, of course.)

Classic ways of limiting FTL include putting upper limits on the distance a ship can jump at any one time, and forbidding jump engines from working inside a planet’s gravity well. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s classic first contact doorstop, Mote In God’s Eye, resonances between stars mean jump engines only work if activated at a particular point within a system. In Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, in which the remnants of a defeated navy have to travel the long way back through occupied territory, most ships have to use a network of star gates, and only the largest ships have the power to open their own ‘gates’ into hyperspace. In both cases, it becomes possible to blockade a star system by occupying the jump point or star gate—and it can also lead to thrilling chases and battles, as ships try to slog across the system to reach the next gate or jump point.

In my novel, Embers of War, I allow ship to take shortcuts through the ‘higher dimensions’—a place where the usual laws of physics are mutable and the speed of light can be exceeded. I liken the process to a dolphin leaping out of the water into the air. For a moment it finds itself moving through a different medium, where it moves faster because the water no longer drags on it.

However, in order to give my characters time to interact and get to know each other, I’ve had to impose a speed limit on higher dimensional travel. It isn’t instantaneous. In order to make the jump, a ship has to build up speed, kind of like the Delorean in Back To The Future. Then, once it’s in the hypervoid, its engines power it forward at roughly five light years per day. This means journeys can take days or weeks, and regular fuel stops need to be made to keep the engines working.

Whatever you decide, the way your starships move will shape your story, for good or ill. But learning to live with the limitations you impose will help make your story more interesting and authentic, and give your characters more obstacles to overcome.


Drop me a tip
Subscribe to this blog

My Position on Twitter

You’ve probably seen all the fuss on Twitter over the past two days. People are concerned that Elon Musk is going to wreck the site by reinstating all the banned right-wing accounts in the name of ‘free speech.’ They’re also worried he’s going to make it a pay-to-play experience, and some are understandably nervous about giving him access to all their data.

The result of this has been a lot of people jumping ship for other social media sites. I’ve lost over a hundred followers this morning alone.

But while I share some of the above concerns, I’m going to stick around for now. I’ve made too many good friends and gathered a supportive community of writers and book fans. I can’t just walk away. So, I’m going to carry on doing what I have been doing all along, and continue being positive and supportive, and hope it makes a difference.

If you’re leaving Twitter, you can find links to all my other social media at the bottom of this page.

The Fog of Utility

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

I’m a big fan of Lego. As a kid in the 1970s, I had a cardboard box filled with bricks of all different shapes and colours. Individually, the pieces of Lego were small and not very useful, but with a little imagination, I could use them to build almost anything.

On 14th March, The Engineer reported that physicists at Bath University, in collaboration with a team from Birmingham University, found that coating soft material in ‘active matter’ allowed them to control its movement and function more effectively. 

Imagine a ball of soft material, such as rubber. Left to its own devices, it will remain in a sphere. But if you coat that sphere in a layer of nano-robots, and programme the robots to work together, you can distort the ball into any pre-determined shape you require. And if you use a lot of these ‘soft robots’ together, then just like with Lego, you can use them to construct larger machines.

Going forward, the researchers will apply this concept to design robots with soft appendages, better able to manipulate delicate materials—which would appear to open up all sort of possibilities in the field of surgery and internal medicine. They also intend to study what happens when several active solids are packed together, with an eye to developing a new generation of machines constructed by individual units cooperating to determine the way the machine operates.

Extrapolating this idea into the future, we can imagine a time where construction crews wouldn’t need a whole fleet of lorries, JCBs, drills, and other tools, each designed to perform a single function. Instead, they would use a ‘utility fog’ of remotely programmed matter to construct the tool or machine they needed for each particular task, in exactly the way I used to build diggers and cranes out of Lego. And when we’ve finished with them, they would dissolve back into their default state again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

Or perhaps, in a time of natural disaster, we could use this kind of directable matter to create temporary shelters, mobile hospitals, and rubble-clearing machinery. The fact softer materials are at the heart of these programmable balls means they could be used to treat casualties without the need for risky field surgery, forming casts for broken limbs, and maybe even installing stents in heart patients without the need to crack their chests.

The Bath University researchers also plan to consider applying this technology to create self-swimming materials. Such a construction, able to propel itself through water and capable of using delicate appendages to manipulate materials, might well resemble an amorphous octopus. Schools of them could be sent out to tend fish stocks, farm seaweed, and maintain underwater cables. Planes could carry reserves of soft robots that could form self-propelled lifejackets or rafts in the case of a water landing.  

Taking this all a step further, we can speculate about the possibility of filling the atmosphere with programmable nano-robots. Wherever you are on Earth, you can summon a device from apparently thin air. Need a hammer? Use your phone to programme nearby machines to form one.

A team of scientists at the University of Toronto are developing smart and adaptive materials with self-healing properties. These materials are made up of networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles. When one of the particles is damaged, the surrounding particles send it signals to help it heal. The team has already created a prototype of a self-healing material that can be used to coat objects like car bumpers and door handles, but we can also imagine future generations of this tech being used to create self-repairing car tyres, solar panels, and aircraft hulls.

Today’s potential applications for smart matter include, but are not limited to, communications devices, energy storage and generation systems, biomedical implants, and environmental remediation technologies, but the possibilities for the future are almost limitless.

However it’s used, utility fog is sure to play a big role in the future of science, engineering and technology.


This article was originally published in The Engineer.

Subscribe to this blog

Ten Eighties Movies That Shaped The Way We See The Future

Was the 1980s the greatest decade for SF&F movies? That’s debatable, but it certainly produced a few classics. The following is a list of movies that have shaped the way movies have looked and felt ever since.

Blade Runner

Very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, this movie turned Los Angeles into an overpopulated, rain soaked, future noir ruled by large corporations, where the rich live in luxury and the poor scrabble to survive amidst the neon signs and holographic billboards.

Aliens

What made Aliens different was the way all the clothing and equipment had been recognisably extrapolated from modern day technology. The marines, their weapons and their dropship were quite obviously direct descendants of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam in the 1970s; and this gave the whole thing an air of authenticty which had been lacking from previous sci-fi films. The future depicted in Aliens was dirty and scuzzy and improvised, and everybody worked for “the company”. Nobody was a princess or freewheeling space pirate; there were no Captain Kirks: the characters were all ordinary people trying to hold down jobs; and the film gave us plenty of time to get to know them all before they came face-to-fang with the alien horde.

The Terminator

Along with its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, this movie employed effects that were revolutionary for their time, and set a standard for action movies to follow.

Robocop

The privitisation and militarisation of the police reaches its logical conclusion when a megacoporation upgrades a fatally injured Detroit officer into a robotic killing machine. Essentially a satirical metaphor for the role of human compassion in the enforcement of law and order, this movie spawned numerous sequels and a TV series.

Brazil

In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the human race stifles beneath a suffocating layer of bureaucracy. Visually similar to Blade Runner in some respects, this movie takes the box-ticking minutiae of every day life and posits a world in which a visit from a rogue air-conditioning repair man can have fatal consequences for the hapless consumer.

The Thing

“Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.”

Akira

Set in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, Akira set an aesthetic that has shaped subsequent works such as Ghost in the ShellBattle Angel AlitaCowboy Bebop, and The Matrix.

Tron

The film that introduced CGI to a mass audience, Tron inspired creators as diverse as Pixar and Daft Punk.

Outland

In this gritty space western, a marshal on a Jupiter mining colony has to go up against both workers and management when investigating a drug ring on the fringes of human expansion, suggesting that humans will always be slaves to greed, corruption and their baser natures, no matter the setting.

Escape From New York

Manhattan Island has been converted into a kind of open air maximum security prison, which is all fine and dandy until the president’s plane accidentally crashes into it and the inmates hold him to ransom. Cyberpunk godfather William Gibson cites the film as an influence on his 1984 novel Neuromancer, which itself went on to redefine how an entire generation of written science fiction saw itself.

***

Did you enjoy this? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/garethlpowell