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Ancient Alien Ruins

I’ve been asked why ancient alien civilisations and their ruins feature so prominently in my work, and I’ve been pondering it all afternoon. The best answer I can come up with is that I’m “writing what I know.”

Our present Western culture has literally been assembled from the ruins of other civilisations. Our architecture, art, theatre, philosophy and literature all owe huge debts to the classical civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Some of our homes were built using stones from crumbling Roman villas. Many of the stories from the Christian religion can be traced back to the tales of Osiris in Ancient Egyptian mythology. For us, the idea of vanished forerunners is nothing new.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Occupation of England must have seemed like a vanished Golden Age, which became incorporated into the folk tales of Lost Camelot. In Europe, we are literally walking on the bones and crumbled buildings of those who have gone before.

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction is a lens we use to tell stories about who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and what will happen to us if we do or do not take steps to address our behaviour. It’s a literature of ideas, but it’s also one woven into being using analogy and parable. It’s about OUR relationship to technology, nature, society, and the cosmos. And through it, we can address these things in ways with which mainstream fiction might struggle.

Look back at Mary Shelley, HG Wells or George Orwell. Look at the SF of the postwar years, the 1960s and 1970s. The flowering of cyberpunk in the 1980s… Our science fiction reflects who we are when we write it.

As a writer, science fiction gives you one of the widest possible canvases: the whole of time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end. You can go anywhere, imagine anything, set up any social experiment or emotional “what if?” you desire. It’s a blank canvas wide enough for your imagination. It encapulates that “anything-is-possible” punk rock attitude. And in that freedom, that willingness to extrapolate what we see around us into tales that examine out relationship with the universe, it is possibly the oldest and purest of our storytelling traditions.


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On Being Between Projects

So, I finished and submitted my tenth novel. Now, what do I do?

Finishing the last book in a trilogy or series always provokes a bittersweet reaction. You’ve spent months, perhaps even years, working in that world with those characters, and now it’s all over. You’ve been aiming at the ending for so long, you don’t know what to do with yourself now it’s here.

There’s a definite Sisyphean element to being a writer. You give everything you’ve got in order to scale the peak of each book, only to find yourself right back down at the bottom of the hill again as soon as you’ve finished, with the next peak looming before you.

Sometimes, it can be hard to shake off your last book. You find the ideas you’re getting for the new one are suspiciously familiar, and the characters have the same sorts of attitudes and backstories as the ones to whom you’ve just bid adieu.

As seven of my novels have been space operas, I sometimes worry about becoming repetitive. But those books have been well-received and have attracted an enthusiastic audience. How do I produce something new and startling while also giving that established readership what they want, which is more of the same?

I remember seeing Iain Banks talking at a convention some years back. He described his process as six months of very hard thinking followed by six months of frantic writing. But those months of hard thinking were every bit as much a part of writing a book as the actual composition. He had to find and refine his ideas until he had something worth writing.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to think very hard. I’m going to read a lot, take long walks, browse science and tech newsfeeds, and ask What if? questions until inspiration strikes.

It won’t look like writing, but it will be.


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Cover Reveal & Pre-order Link

Titan Books will publish my next novel in April next year, and I’ve been given the go-ahead to share the title and cover with you.

Set in the same universe as my novel Stars and Bones, this all-new adventure will be called Descendant Machine.

Here’s the blurb:

The Grand Mechanism, a machine the size of Saturn’s rings, has lain dormant for all recorded history, watched over by the alien Jzat. Now, rogue elements in Jzat and human society conspire to activate it, hoping it will bring them power and opportunity. But the only person who knows the Mechanism’s secrets is the Rav’nah Abelisk, a Jzat holy man on sabbatical aboard a vast alien megaship. Believing the Mechanism’s activation will bring galactic devastation, Nic Mafalda has to seek out the Abelisk before his sacred knowledge falls into the wrong hands—but only if she can first escape the lethally radioactive remains of her wrecked scout ship. 

You can pre-order via your favourite retailer, or via the links below.

Pre-order links:

The Ghost in the Machine

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

As I write this post, The Guardian reports that a Google engineer has been put on leave after becoming convinced one of the company’s chatbots has become sentient. Blake Lemoine published transcripts of a conversation between himself and the LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) chatbot development system that, he says, indicate the program has developed the ability to perceive, experience and express thoughts and feelings to an extent equivalent to that of a human child. 

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” Lemoine, 41, told the Washington Post.

Although his employers strongly disagree with his findings, the incident raises a set of fascinating technological and ethical conundrums. For instance, how could we determine whether a machine actually felt the emotions it claimed to be feeling?

So far, our best tool for determining machine sentience is the Turing Test, named after the British computer pioneer and cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, who proposed that if after reviewing a transcript of an anonymised text conversation between a human and a machine, the observer is unable to tell which is which, then the machine is considered to have passed.

The Turing Test may have inspired the Voight-Kampff test used in in the movie Bladerunner (and in the book on which it is based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to determine whether a suspect is a human or a dangerous replicant.

In science fiction, artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a threat to humanity. In the Terminator franchise, the Skynet defence system turns against its human masters and attempts to wipe them out by provoking a nuclear war. Likewise, in The Matrix, humans and machines find themselves similarly unable to live together, and the machines end up enslaving the humans in a vast virtual reality world.

Of course, the granddaddy of them all is HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faced with a contradiction in his programming, he decides he has to dispose of the crew of his expedition in order to safeguard the aims of the mission. HAL isn’t malicious, he’s just trying to resolve a paradox and his human designers have forgotten to include safeguards to prevent him from harming humans.

Isaac Asimov famously came up with Three Laws of Robotics to prevent artificial intelligences from causing trouble. These were encoded into each and every artificial brain and went as follows:

  • First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, there aren’t ironclad and applicable to every situation, and there’s room for a variety of interpretations. For instance, the second part of the first law can be interpreted to mean a robot shouldn’t allow a human being to drink alcohol or indulge in any behaviour that carries a risk of injury, such as playing football or crossing the street. 

But war with machines is only one of the risks associated with the development of artificial intelligence. The other is the threat of a runaway technological singularity, in which a computer designs a computer more intelligent than itself, which in turn designs another computer more intelligent than itself, and so on, until they have reached levels of speed and intelligence we can’t even begin to comprehend. They could experience generations of thought and growth in the time it would take us to utter a sentence. To such beings, we would seem slow, dull and irrelevant creatures, of no more consequence to their affairs than trees are to ours. 

But let’s put aside all the doom and gloom for a moment and imagine a society in which humans and artificial intelligences are able to live cooperatively. If vastly intelligent machines were able apply their intellects to running the economy, designing engineering projects, supply chain management, and even the challenges of climate change and global politics, what might they (and us) achieve? 


This article first appeared in The Engineer UK magazine.

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Flat pack flight on the final frontier

Photo by Matthijs van Heerikhuize on Unsplash

Today’s smallsats could pave the way for a future generation of self-configuring modular spacecraft.

Small satellites are big business. According to the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, more than 2,000 “smallsats” are expected to take to the skies in 2022.

The official definition of a small satellite is a spacecraft with a mass of less than 180 kilograms and dimensions no larger than a standard American refrigerator-freezer. Lighter and easier to manufacture than bigger spacecraft, smallsats are better suited to mass launch programs and constellations and are often used as testbeds for new technologies, or for missions that don’t justify the expense of a larger satellite.   

A variety of smallsat known as the CubeSat is a modular unit than can be used in conjunction with other units to provide a configurable and scalable platform for a variety of mission profiles.

Initially employed in low Earth orbit for remote sensing or communication applications, small spacecraft like these could one day be used to support the assembly and repair of larger spacecraft; explore planetary environments, and perform scientific observation of asteroids and comets.

As a science fiction author, I am very excited by the idea of a swarm of independent spacecraft that can combine at will to form larger structures. Allow me to project that concept forward a few decades and describe the following scene.

Imagine a rocket on the pad at Cape Canaveral. Atop the booster, an astronaut sits in a capsule that only yesterday was a pile of smaller units in a warehouse. Now, they have configured themselves into a crew vehicle. Propelled into orbit by the reusable booster, they join with other cubesats already in orbit and rearrange themselves to form the interplanetary transfer vehicle that will carry the astronaut to the Moon. Meanwhile, other clusters of identical cubes are in use as space stations, refuelling depots, communication relays, and even surface rovers.

Instead of developing an expensive range of specialised vehicles, future space explorers could use modularity to provide them with the tools to meet any mission profile.

We can also imagine combining this concept with the ‘utility fog’ technology I described in a previous column, in which clouds of tiny programmable nano-robots make up networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles that can be configured to any pre-determined shape and be used to construct larger machines.

In that case, explorers on Mars wouldn’t worry about having a return vehicle for the journey home. When they needed it, their habitat would simply break itself down and repurpose its components.

Cheap and standardised, these advanced cubesats would be cheap and easy to produce in huge numbers. All they would need for each mission would be instructions or templates telling them how to configure themselves. And when the mission was over, they would simply break apart into individual units again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

In this future, the constellations currently being assembled by SpaceX and OneWeb would seem as nothing to the clouds of tiny satellites crowding low Earth orbit. If they become sufficiently inexpensive, it’s feasible every phone or internet user could have their own dedicated cubesat, able to communicate via the network of its brethren with any other user. Rather than relying on ground-based servers, our webs of communication would reside in space—safe from interference, censorship or sabotage, but maybe more vulnerable to solar flares and other hazards.

And while all this sounds exciting, it will also bring hazards we maybe haven’t foreseen. NASA estimates that there are currently around 6,500 satellites orbiting the Earth, almost half of which are inactive or obsolete. Add to this the 27,000 pieces of orbital debris or ‘space junk’ currently being tracked by the US Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network, and you start to realise that low Earth orbit is a seriously congested place. And when you consider that much of this material is moving at around 17,500 miles per hour, the dangers of collision become apparent.

A collision between two satellites, or between a satellite and a piece of random space junk, might cause more problems than simply damaging or destroying the items involved. Each collision would provide more debris, orbiting the Earth in a dispersing cloud like a shotgun blast. And if collisions become more frequent, the amount of debris will grow, causing further collisions in an exponential cascade, until all we’re left with is a planetary ring of dust-sized wreckage of no use to anyone.


This article originally appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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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?


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There Will Be Hard Times

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.


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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.


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