Saturday, 30 April 2016

Galaxy Quest

At last, an image of M101. This is a quick and dirty stack of six ten minute sub-frames, aligned using Photoshop. There is a lot of electronic noise in the frames which I would like to remove.

A pass through confirms the pointing:

And here's a crop, with some contrast tweaking, of the galaxy itself:

The string of stars in the lower left corner (and elsewhere) is the result of individual hot pixels being shifted and duplicated as I did the manual alignment. This is the kind of electronic noise which I'd like to remove when I get a bit more time.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Slow Bullets on the Hugo ballot

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the Hugo administrators to let me know that my novella "Slow Bullets" would be one of the finalists in that category. I was pleased, but not without some obvious misgivings. I'd been unhappy about the inclusion of my story on the recommendation lists of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, especially given that the latter was to all intents just another slate, designed to encourage block voting. At the time no one really had a clear idea about how dominant the Puppy factor was going to be in this year's shortlists.

Trying to have my cake and eat it, I suggested to the administrators that I'd gladly accept the inclusion now, but that I might change my mind when I saw the extent to which Puppy choices had (or not) dominated the ballot. The best case I was realistically hoping for would be one or two obvious Puppy candidates showing up, but an otherwise fair selection which didn't show blatant signs of block voting. I'd had high hopes for Slow Bullets, after all. I considered it a strong story, and it had picked up enough positive reviews and recommendations throughout the year that it didn't seem beyond the bounds of possibility that it might make the ballot. That's not to say I was confident, but that just that the omens were about as good for that story as they had been for any of my recent pieces.

The adminstrators, quite reasonably, wanted a clearer, less ambiguous commitment from me. After a friendly and productive transatlantic phone call, I came around to the view that I'd not only accept the nomination, but take whatever came after it.

As several commentators have noted, the eventual ballots are quite strongly biassed in favour of Rabid Puppy choices. The unpalatable conclusion to be drawn from this is that my story, good as its chances were, probably wouldn't have made the cut were it not for the RP block vote. However, I didn't ask for those votes and in fact I expressly requested that my story not be slated. Kate Paulk (of the Sads) and Vox Day (of the Rabids) both declined my requests.

Since the announcement of the ballots, there's been quite a lot of discussion about the rights and wrongs of the finalists withdrawing their stories. Quite honestly, I'm very sympathetic to both sides of the debate. If I knew then what I know now, I'd probably have declined the initial nomination. But I didn't, and beyond that I made a commitment to the administrators not to withdraw at a later stage. On that basis alone, therefore, I'm keeping "Slow Bullets" on the ballot. I can't say I'm exactly over-joyed about this decision, though - from my point of view it just feels like the least worst choice of a very bad hand. Compare and contrast to the situation when my only other nomination happened, for "Troika", and my mood couldn't be more different.

Let's hope things are better next year.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Pattern Recognition

Technology marches on. Sometimes I find myself caught entirely unawares by some capability which not only works flawlessly, but which has become almost freely available to the consumer or enthusiastic amateur. I still remember buying a digital SLR camera which had face recognition built in almost as an afterthought. I'd given it no great thought until - with the camera sitting powered-up on a coffee table - I noticed that it was locking in on the picture of the queen's head on a five pound note! It was a shock to realise that this supposedly futuristic image-processing functionality was not only highly robust, but so cheap to implement that it was barely mentioned in the camera's sales material.

I had a similar experience earlier today. After a long run of cloudy nights, I've finally been able to get outdoors with the telescope and attempt to continue my long-running adventure in astronomical imaging.

This being Spring, one of the obvious candidates is M13, the globular cluster in Hercules. It's easily visible in telescopes and not hard to find in binoculars. I've looked at it many times over the years, but only this week did I manage to get a picture of it.

I shot this using a telescope on a GoTo mount. The mount contains a computerised database, and provided it's set up reasonably well at the start of a night, the "kit" enables the telescope to automatically locate and track astronomical objects. So, although I can find M13 for myself, I didn't need to: I just typed "M13" into the handset and off it whirred. The pointing accuracy was such that the cluster ended up close to the field of view and there was no difficulty obtaining images,

M13's fairly easy game, though, and I fancied a stiffer challenge. High in the Spring sky, near the "handle" of the Plough, is M101 - a "grand design" spiral galaxy of quite exceptional beauty. It's also very faint and a reportedly tricky object to see by eye alone, even through a telescope. With light pollution and a bright moon, there was no chance of that - but I was still optimistic that I could obtain an image. After all, at least I didn't have to worry about the pointing part - the telescope and its GoTo mount could take care of that for me.

However, I didn't succeed. Here's one of several frames I took over two clear nights:

Fascinating stuff, eh. Some random stars and electrical noise, and no sign of anything resembling a spiral galaxy. Now, I mentioned that the GoTo mount does need to be set up properly at the start of the night - accurate polar alignment and all that - so there's always a possibility that it isn't quite aiming in the right direction by the time it thinks it's found M101. Compounding that, the digital camera that I attach to the telescope samples a smaller field of view, so the object of interest might be falling just outside the camera's reach.

It was then that an astronomer on Twitter, Andrew Gray, mentioned that there is such a thing as "plate solving", The idea is that a sufficiently powerful pattern matching algorithm can analyze an image of some stars and work out exactly where in the sky they correspond to. That's an incredible feat of computation, especially if you don't know in advance little niceties like angular scale, brightness calibration and so on. Now, I was distantly aware that something like this capability existed, but I had no idea it was now easily within reach of the amateur such as myself.

However, within minutes I had uploaded my frame to:

And almost as quickly I had a set of annotations for my frame:

This is ASTONISHING. Not simply because it comfirms that M101 was indeed within my field of view - but presumably too washed out by glare to show up - but that this capability exists and is free for use, and returns results quickly enough to be useful for astronomers actually sitting at their telescopes, trying to find stuff. I didn't even have to submit the image in some fancy, astronomy-only image format, either - I just sent a Jpeg.

For the sheer hell of it, I also ran my M13 image through the processor:

I'm amazed, and impressed, and excited by the possibilities. Truly we are blessed to be living at a time when such miraculous feats of technology are easily within our grasp.

Just to end, here's a close-up of M13:

The light I caught had travelled 25,000 years to reach my telescope. If there's ever a day when that sort of thing doesn't send a shiver down my spine, please feel free to shoot me.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Foundation 123

Will Slocombe of the University of Liverpool has kindly contributed two articles to the current issue of Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction. There's a lengthy interview with me - which we did face to face on a park bench in Cardiff last year - and two reviews, one of Poseidon's Wake and the other Slow Bullets.

"What both Poseidon's Wake and Slow Bullets suggest is that Reynolds has yet again managed to switch tones and styles in his writing, but retain his sense of perspective and invention to still keep readers hooked."

I am very grateful to Will for these contributions.

Foundation is published three times a year by the Science Fiction Foundation:

Monday, 21 March 2016

New stories for old universes

Pleased to announce that I've sold a pair of stories set in two of my established universes. The first, "Belladonna Nights", takes place in the House of Suns timeline a few million years earlier than the events of the novel. Campion plays a part in the story. This will appear in an as-yet-untitled original anthology with an exceedingly interesting conceptual premise, and I was really thrilled to be able to contribute something.

The second, longer piece, is entitled "The Iron Tactician" and is a new novella featuring my long-running character Merlin. Previous Merlin stories were "Merlin's Gun" (1999), "Hideaway" (2000) and "Minla's Flowers" (2007). The very tentative plan at the moment is that the novella will appear as a standalone chapbook, but we should have a firmer idea in a few months, and of course I'll give fuller details on where these stories will appear in due course.

It was enormously enjoyable to dig back into these two universes, after nearly a decade away from them, and in both instances I felt the distant glimmerings of new story ideas. So we'll see.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

"Slow Bullets" and the Sad Puppies

I was away for a few days without internet access and discovered when I returned that my novella "Slow Bullets" has been included on the "SP4" Sad Puppies list for Hugo nominators.

At this point it's of no concern to me whether this is a slate or a set of recommendations. Given the taint left by last year's antics, I don't care for any work of mine to be associated with any list curated by the Sad Puppies.

The list was announced at Kate Paulk's website Late last night I left a comment asking - politely, I hope - for the story to be removed, but after I checked the site in the morning I couldn't find my comment and the story was still listed. I've tried to leave another comment to the same effect.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Hey Joe

Here are some one-line plot synopses from a TV series set close to the present day.

After a military coup, a dictator misappropriates global aid funds to develop drone warfare technology to use against his own citizens. A stricken submarine ends up in the territorial waters of a Central American failed state, threatening to derail international peace talks. In a Middle Eastern Sultanate, a political assassination leads to a constitutional crisis, imperilling the progressive, democratic policies of the rightful successor to the throne. In the Arctic, a nuclear accident heightens an already tense East-West standoff…

Failed states. Democracies. Autonomous weapons. Middle East crises. Rising nuclear tension. The East and West at each other’s throats …

Sound familiar?

This is the world of 2013 – or rather the world of 2013 as envisaged in 1968, when Gerry Anderson began making Joe 90, the last of his series to be based exclusively around Supermarionation. Never as popular as Stingray, Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 nonetheless remains strikingly prescient in its vision of a messy, mixed-up twenty first century, neither entirely good nor entirely bad, neither simplistic utopia nor grimdark dystopia. The storylines may be rudimentary, and there’s seldom any real sense of jeopardy in Joe’s adventures, and yes, it’s puppets (you have to get past the puppets, I’m afraid) but the world presented here is a much closer fit to our present than that predicted by almost any other TV series of similar vintage.

No one wears shiny suits or shoulder pads. People wear normal clothes, live in normal houses or thatched cottages, they drive on normal roads with normal road markings and road signs. There’s still a Dorset. They go on skiing holidays, fishing trips, attend piano recitals and so on. Even the vehicles, while futuristic, look perfectly plausible to modern eyes. Unlike Star Trek, which presented a flawless post-monetary future completely detached from our own, Joe 90’s future was built on the present. This was something Gerry Anderson got right in almost all his puppet shows – a sense that, even decades hence, a lot of old stuff would still be hanging around, and while global institutions might come and go, the world would still be as busy and complex as it is in the present. There would still be money, and where there was money there would still be bank robbers and forgers.

The Anderson shows didn’t necessarily share the same future, although it generally looked as if they did – but what they did share was a common idea, a unifying notion that, for all the gadgetry and hardware, some things just won’t change. It shouldn’t be a radical notion, but it’s one that Gerry Anderson alone seemed to really take on board. Of course there are lots of things missing from the series – there’s nothing like the internet, there are no digital media, there is no hint of climate change – and the race and gender politics is at times very dated, although no more so than in any other series from the same timeframe.

But the central triumph is that Anderson created a future one could believe in, rather than some idealised daydream of starships and warp drives. Even the world of Captain Scarlet, overshadowed by the ultimate War on Terror, is fundamentally our own. Apart from the Mysterons threatening to blow up stuff or assassinate people, life goes on for most people – as it does in ours. Much the same applied to Thunderbirds: unless you were caught up in the disaster of the week, the world of the Tracy Brothers seemed a fairly livable place. Especially if you were stupidly wealthy, and could afford to hang out in Monaco.

Thunderbirds is coming back, of course – this time it’s Thunderbirds are Go! – and while I’m quite indecently excited at the prospect (can you tell I’m a diehard Anderson fan?) I also hope that the new series doesn’t stray too far from the spirit of the old. I’m not talking about puppets versus CGI, or whether the new vehicles look better or worse than the old – I mean the setting, the larger world in which the action takes place. I want that same sense of continuity with the present, looking forward but also acknowledging that the future will be just like Now, only with more stuff. Anderson got that splendidly right in the sixties, and by the time I came to his shows in the early seventies – via battered old Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet annuals, Dinky toys and the occasional blink-and-you’ve-missed-it TV re-run – it made the twenty first century seem exciting. I wanted to live long enough to see Gerry’s world.

Now it seems I have.

This piece originally appeared in SciFi Now magazine in 2015.