Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Slow Bullets wins Locus award

Although I couldn't be there in person, I was delighted with the news that Slow Bullets had won the novella category in this year's Locus awards, held in Seattle. I've never won a Locus award before, although I did get close with Revelation Space, so this was doubly welcome, especially as I've always found the Locus staff to be excellent company.

Locus has the complete breakdown of results:


Congratulations to all.

And here's a photo (picture by Patrick Swenson) of Jacob from Tachyon Press kindly accepting the award on my behalf:



I wrote a few words for Jacob to say on the night:

"Thank you to all who voted for my story. I'm overjoyed to have won this award, especially for a story
that was written as a personal project over a very long period, with no real idea of what the world would
make of it. Marty Halpern did his usual meticulous job as editor, and I couldn't have hoped for a more
enthusiastic and committed publisher than Tachyon, who did a superb job in making sure the story got
noticed and read. Thank you to Jacob, Jill, Jim, Rick and all at Tachyon for giving the book such an excellent
push. I'd also like to thank those writers, including Michael Bishop, Allen Steele and Michael Swanwick who
were so kind as to provide endorsements for the book. Once again I was blessed to be part of such a welcoming
and generous field as ours. Thank you!"

I can only reiterate that it was a pleasure from the word go to work with such people, and everyone else who had any involvement in the distribution and promotion of the book, including Subterranean Press and the Washington Science Fiction Association.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Why I'm for the UK remaining in the EU

In a very short while the UK will be holding a referendum on the country's continued membership of the EU. At the moment, judged on the polls (which are of course often inaccurate, as with the last general election), things seem to be heading the way of a vote to leave.

I think it would be a great shame were this to happen. As a young scientist, I benefitted tremendously from the freedom of movement allowed within the EU. I'm not talking about my time within the European Space Agency, which is a non-EU organisation, although that experience certainly helped frame my views on European cooperation and integration. But having left ESA in 1994, I was immediately able to take up a two year postdoctoral position at a Dutch university, and I did so with the minimum of hassle and paperwork. Once again I was immersed in a pan-European working environment which I found stimulating and encouraging.

After my postdoctoral position expired in 1996, I found myself unemployed. There were a handful of possible job opportunities back in the UK, but I had grown fond of the Netherlands, and my partner at the time, who later became my wife, had a full-time job. She too had benefitted from freedom of movement within the EU. Disinclined to leave Holland, therefore, I signed on for unemployment benefit from the Dutch state, while continuing to look for work opportunities within the area where we lived. I applied for one job in Delft, working on satellite monitoring of the Earth's atmosphere, but was not made an offer.

Luck eventually intervened, in that I saw an advert in Nature for a newly founded business in Haarlem, which would revolve around developing scientific software for astronomical applications. It seemed right up my street, almost literally so, in that Haarlem was only a short train ride from where we lived near Leiden. I applied for the job and was suitably astonished to learn that the driving force behind the business was an old colleague of mine - and a Welshman, like me, who had settled in the Netherlands. We met for an interview, which went well. While there was a strong prospect of working for the company in the future, though, there was still going to be a few more months of unemployment. I therefore continued to sign on, while going through the motions of looking for work. It was an odd, unsettling time, but - in hindsight - a blessing, because it enabled me to dust off the abandoned manuscript of Revelation Space and finally give it the polish it needed prior to submission. That was early 1997, and the book sold two years later. Those months of unemployment were therefore literally life-changing, and I owe them to the Dutch state and EU regulations on worker's rights.

Many of the arguments for and against membership of the EU seem to revolve around economics, which seems to me to be an extremely narrow metric. Even if we are better off out of the EU, which we probably won't be, so what? This is already a wealthy country, and leaving the EU won't mend the widening inequality between the very rich and almost everyone else. More than that, though, look at what would be lost. Friendship, commonality, freedom of movement, a sense that national boundaries are (and should be) evaporating. When many countries (including the Netherlands) moved to the Euro, it was a joy not to have to pack Guilders, Belgian francs, Deutschmarks, for a simple drive to visit to family in Germany a few hours away. The eradication of visible borders did not lead to a smearing out of regional cultures, but instead it made it much more easy to sample those cultures and gain a deeper sense of European history. I never stopped feeling that living in the EU was a thing to be proud of, and more than ever I am content to think of myself as European before British. I therefore hope that the Remain vote will win the day.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Medusa Chronicles at Foyles







"Saturday 4th June 2016 3pm - 4:30pm 107 Charing Cross Road Literary Event, Chargeable Event
In association with The Arthur C. Clarke Award and SFX Magazine.


Join us for a conversation with two leading figures in science fiction, Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, as they discuss their new collaboration The Medusa Chronicles. Inspired by the classic Sir Arthur C. Clarke's short story ‘A Meeting with Medusa’, The Medusa Chronicles continues the story of Commander Howard Falcon over centuries of space-exploration. One of the most compelling novels of either author’s career, it combines moments of incredible action with an intricately-realised depiction of an expansive universe."



http://www.foyles.co.uk/Public/Events/Detail.aspx?eventId=2819

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 http://nova.astrometry.net/ 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:

http://nova.astrometry.net/

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:

http://www.sf-foundation.org/