Saturday, 24 December 2011

Festive wishes

It's that time of year when I wish my readers the best of the festive season, and a happy 2012. Thanks for following the blog through 2011. Here's a seasonal watercolour by my wife.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Read it in books

Yesterday I recieved a big brown box containing the first copies of BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH. It's always a bit of a kick to get the finished product. It's not why I write (and I definitely don't do it to see my name on bookshelves - that particular thrill lasts about five minutes, in my experience) but it's one of the high points, and it would be churlish not to enjoy it. Especially, in this case, when the book itself is so lovely to behold. I've had some gorgeous covers in the past, and it's been both a thrill and an honour to have my work illustrated by the likes of Chris Moore. This cover, though, is by Dominic Harman - old friend and a much admired artist. We do go back some way - Dominic illustrated several of my stories for Interzone, back in the 90s, including a particularly lavish and evocative set of pictures for "Galactic North". I don't think either of us would have quite believed that Dominic would be illustrating my tenth novel, here in what is shortly to become 2012. But he's done a grand job, and I think the cover very effectively sets out the themes that will continue into the second and third books.

I've posted it before, but here's the cover in all its maximum sumptuousness.

Lovely, isn't it? I mean, c'mon. That's a fantastic bloody cover.

More on Dominic Harman here.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Blue Remembered Earth trailer

This is officially very cool. I was thrilled when I learned that Gollancz intended to commission a promotional trailer for Blue Remembered Earth; even more so when I saw the treatment. Two days ago I saw the final product and I'm stunned; it's a lovely piece of work, and very true to my mental image of the characters and their world. Magnificent!

You can watch the trailer by going to:

or at

Or on Youtube:

Either way, enjoy. For now, this as close as you're going to get a film of one of my books. I'd like to thank everyone involved at Gollancz, including Simon and Marcus, but with a special nod to Jen who has been involved in this from the outset, and very keen to get the right look and feel. The effort and imagination that has gone into this is definitely appreciated at my end. And if you have any comments on the trailer, I'm sure they'd be welcome at any of the links above, or here.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Belgian Incident - a true story.

"...but though even words like jujuflop, swut and turlingdrome are now
perfectly acceptable in common usage, there is one word that is still
beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the
publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts
of the galaxy except one, where they don't know what it means.
That word is... BELGIUM."
(Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Tenth)

What was it about Belgium that had such an effect on Douglas Adams? I've often wondered what (if anything) Belgian people make of that little slur against their country, however innocently intentioned it may have been. Did Adams just pluck the name out of the air, or was there something more to it? My recollection is that many of the ideas for the Guide were said to have originated while Adams was hitchhiking his way around Europe in the early seventies. Did something especially formative happen to Adams while travelling through Belgium? Was the experience so bad that the only way to achieve catharsis was through the medium of a science fiction radio series?

Speaking for myself, three of the worst hours of my life happened in Belgium. That experience most definitely coloured the way I think about the country – but in rather a different way to Adams. What follows is the true story of those three hours – but before we get to Belgium it is necessary to deal with the small matter of the trip to Paris without which the Belgian Incident would never have happened. Along the way we shall encounter the case of the impacted tree, the Spiral of Doom, the night watchman and the wandering vagrant, the dead woman, the interchange from hell, and the two Belgian drinkers.
* * *

It was the autumn of 1994. I’d been living in the Netherlands for three years and had just succeeded in getting my driving license. It had been an uphill struggle. There were times when I thought I would never learn to drive.

I’d started taking lessons while still living in Wales in the 1980s, but lack of time and money (and, frankly, interest) meant that I never got very far. I went away to do my degree studies in the north of England and another three years passed. Once I’d got my degree I had another go at getting my license, just before moving to the wilds of Scotland. I failed that attempt (can’t remember why, but I don’t think there were any fatalities) and put my motoring ambitions on hold for another three years, while I soldiered through to my doctorate in observational astronomy. In truth I didn’t really need a car, and couldn’t have afforded to run one anyway. But in 1991 I left Scotland and moved to the Netherlands, and after settling down for a few months I decided I really needed to tackle this driving thing. My new job with ESA, the European Space Agency, was likely to take me abroad quite often, and it would make life much easier if I could drive while on those trips.

There followed two years of total frustration. The first thing I needed to know was the rules of the road in the Netherlands, which differed in a number of ways from the British system. The good news was that there was an English translation of the Dutch driving manual. The bad news was that a number of key rules had just been changed, and they hadn’t yet printed a translation incorporating those changes. I had to make do with the up-to-date Dutch version and the out-of-date English version, comparing the two and trying to spot the differences, all the while struggling with a language I’d only started learning a few months earlier.

Despite this I passed the theory part of the test on my first go, with a respectably high score. Passing the practical part of the exam was another thing entirely. My first attempt was abysmal, and I wasn’t surprised to be failed on it. The second and third attempts went a bit better, but I still didn’t come up to the grade. Learning when and when not to give priority to cyclists was my big problem. However I did eventually pass – was it on the fourth or fifth attempt? I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember – I’m already getting a Vietnam-style flashback about the whole traumatic experience. What I do remember is that I still managed to drive the car into a tree during the examination, and pass, which really takes some doing. It was during the parking of the car back in the test centre, which technically is still considered part of the examination. There was a bit of a crunch. The examiner turned to me and said: “That really wasn’t very clever, was it Mr Reynolds?”

Anyway, I passed, and spent the rest of the summer slowly building up confidence. I drove to and from work. I drove from Noordwijk to Leiden. I drove from Leiden to Den Bosch. So far, so good. Then came the Paris trip, of which the Belgium Incident is but one part.

It began like this. J and I had somehow become involved with a charity that had arranged the collection of unwanted children’s clothes (unwanted clothes, not unwanted children) for forwarding to a needy country somewhere in the world. People where we work had kindly donated a huge amount of clothing, and now someone needed to drive it all to the headquarters of the charity in Paris. J and I had agreed to do this part, and after finishing work on a Friday we picked up a rental van, loaded it with the clothes, and set off on the long drive between Noordwijk and Paris. I’d had my licence for three or four months by then, so felt reasonably confident about taking over the driving every now and then – although I definitely wasn’t going to be driving when we actually got to Paris, having already heard more than enough nightmare stories about Parisian traffic.

Everything went very smoothly. Too smoothly, as it happened. We got to Paris late on Friday evening. ESA has one of its sites in Paris, so we’d arranged to park the van in ESA’s underground car park until Saturday morning, when we would collect it and drive to the headquarters of the aforementioned charity, where we’d arranged to meet a woman who would take the clothes from the van. We quickly located ESA’s building. The night watchman on duty was expecting us – he told us to drive around to the back of the building, where we’d see the ramp that led down to the underground car park. Everything was looking very good. Park the van, walk the short distance to the hotel. Have a beer. What could be easier?

Unfortunately we drove the van down the wrong ramp. It was my fault entirely: I was navigating, not J, and she had reservations about the ramp I insisted we drive down. “Are you sure it’s this one?” she asked. “The next one along looks much more promising.”

“Trust me,” I said – always a bad move.

The ramp took the form of a spiral, circling through seven hundred and twenty degrees as it bored its way underground. It was very steep and very tightly curved, but we took things slowly, inching the van down until we reached the bottom of the ramp and the locked metal gate that prevented us continuing further.

“Maybe it isn’t this ramp after all,” I mused.

No, it clearly wasn’t the right ramp. There was nothing for it to drive back up the spiral. That, however, was where our problems began. There was no room to turn the van around, so we had to reverse back up. This would have been tricky enough – rear visibility was poor – but we soon found that the van couldn’t get back up the ramp. It had been raining, and the rainwater had run down the smooth concrete surface of the spiral, making it slippery. The van simply couldn’t get enough traction to reverse to street level. The rear wheels spun impressively, the clutch made a lot of smoke, but nothing happened. So there we were – late on a dismal Friday night in Paris, with our van stuck down a hole. So much for the beer I’d been looking forward to…

J had an idea. Since the problem was one of getting enough grip onto the rear wheels, why didn’t I stand on the rear bumper while she tried reversing the van? This we duly tried. I got my feet onto the bumper, gripped the roof of the van above the rear doors, and hung on for dear life – terrified that the van was suddenly going to gain traction and lurch backwards. But although matters improved slightly, it wasn’t enough to get us out of the hole. We were still stuck.

That’s when we remembered the night watchman. While I waited with the van, J sprinted back up to street level, around to the front desk of the building and explained our predicament. Five or ten minutes later, she arrived back with the night watchman. Since we hadn’t had any brighter ideas, we decided to pursue the ‘standing on the bumper’ methodology. Now there were two of us – me and a lightly built French night watchman. J gunned the van and tried reversing again. By now a worrying quantity of smoke was coming from the clutch, but the van was making slow but definite progress in the right direction. Unfortunately it still reached a slipping point, unable to reverse any further. That was when the night watchman had a bright idea. Since two of us hanging on the rear bumper wasn’t enough, we should enlist a third man. So off went the night watchman to wander the streets of Paris until he found a willing volunteer. Quite how he persuaded this complete stranger to follow him down a dark spiral into the ground I don’t know – but somehow he did, and the man obliged by joining us on the rear bumper.

Success! With three of us, the wheels had just enough traction to do the job. It still took an eternity, inching back to the surface, with the engine and the transmission making horrible sounds. But finally we reversed the van onto the street again and were directed to the ramp we should have gone down in the first place. We thanked the night watchman and his nameless accomplice.

Half an hour later, I got my beer. “That’ll be quite some story to dine out on,” we told each other, imagining that nothing else likely to happen to us in the same weekend could possibly compare to that.

Little did we know…

The morning of the day after, we collected the van (which was still drivable) and navigated the streets of Paris until we reached the headquarters of the charity. But no one was there. The place was closed, with no message to redirect us elsewhere. We waited and waited – half an hour, then an hour. What were we supposed to do now? Finally, J found a contact number (I forget where) and then a public telephone and enquired about the woman we were supposed to be meeting.

J returned to the van. “She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“The woman we were supposed to be meeting is dead. She died yesterday.”

Somehow or other, we did manage to find someone from the charity who was willing to take the clothes out of the van. By around the middle of the day, therefore, we’d finished our obligations. We returned the van to the underground car park, did a bit of shopping, then arranged to meet a friend for dinner. Dinner went very well, and we told her all about the ‘ramp’ incident. The day after, Sunday, our friend took part in the Paris half-Marathon, so we stood at the starting line to wave her past. Later we checked out of the hotel, returned to the van and began the drive back to the Netherlands. It must have been around five or six in the afternoon.

We had a plan for the drive back. J drove the first half hour or so, until we were safely out of Paris. Then I took over. The intention was that I’d drive until we had crossed the border into Belgium, at which point we’d be needing fuel anyway. It was a damp, foggy night, but the roads were not too busy, and the drive out of France went uneventfully. After a couple of hours we crossed the border and I saw signs for Kortrijk. I’d never heard of “Kortrijk” before, but then I was completely unfamiliar with the route: J was doing all the navigating, and she knew this journey very well. Around about then we also saw a service station, where we would be able to tank up and have a cup of coffee.

I pulled the van off the motorway, drove slowly through the service area until we reached the line of pumps. I stopped the van and turned off the engine. J got out of the passenger side. She filled up the van while I waited in the driver’s seat.

“I’ll go and pay,” she said, indicating the kiosk next to the line of pumps. “You go and park the van, and then meet me in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.”

I nodded: this seemed like an excellent plan. I waited until I could see that she had paid the man in the kiosk, then I started up the van and began driving away from the pumps. A few moments later icy terror gripped my heart. I realised that the road I was driving down led back to the motorway we’d just been on. There was no way to get back to the service area! By now I was quite some way from the pumps and didn’t like the idea of reversing, especially with all the fog. Trying to stay calm, I resolved not to do anything rash – I’d only just got my license, after all. I would get onto the motorway, drive as far as the next exit, then return down the other direction and double-back until I reached the service station again.

This too, seemed like an excellent plan. But when I reached the next junction my hopes shrivelled. Here was a major interchange, with roads sweeping in from all directions. I didn’t even know the number of the road I was on: all I knew was that we’d come from the general direction of Paris. But we weren’t even in France now. I took the exit, and kept my eyes peeled for any sign with ‘Paris’ on it. No such luck! The best I could do was try and judge when I’d driven through one hundred and eighty degrees, and take what I hoped was the slip road back onto the same motorway. With the fog, landmarks were few and far between. But after I’d been driving for a few kilometres, I saw nothing that I recognised: certainly no sign of a service station. Clearly I was on the wrong road; hopelessly lost.

Real panic began to set in. What was I going to do? I didn’t even have a map: J knew the route so well she hadn’t packed one. All I knew was that I was somewhere in Belgium – and that I’d abandoned my partner in the service station. What was going through her mind now? Keep in mind this was 1994 - no widespread use of cellphones or satnav back then (and I'm a late adopter at the best of times).

Presently I saw a sign for Kortrijk – the same town we’d been approaching just before the services. In a fit of hopeless optimism, I pulled into Kortrijk and set about looking for some kind of street map which might give me a clue as to how to get back to the service station. By now it was a thoroughly dark and miserable Sunday evening. I drove a little way into town (unsure of how big Kortrijk was) until I saw a sign indicating the direction to the police station. They might be able to help, if nothing else. But I couldn’t find the police station. Time and again I returned to my starting place and tried to find it, but no matter how far I drove, the police station refused to emerge out of the night before the town thinned out to countryside. How big was Kortrijk, exactly? In all my driving around, I’d never once seen anyone out walking, or even much other traffic.

In desperation I spotted a bar with lights on. At least someone might be able to help. I walked into the bar. It was obviously doing quiet Sunday evening business: two or three regulars at the bar, not much else going on. I tried English and didn’t get very far. In my faltering Dutch I made a tiny bit more progress. I explained my predicament as best I could: that I was lost, that I’d abandoned my partner at the service station, and that I was trying to find the police station. One of the men at the bar gave me directions to the police: it seemed I’d been heading in the right direction, but I just hadn’t gone far enough. I thanked him and returned to the van. Once more I set off for the police station. Once more the kilometres ticked by and the town began to thin out until I was driving through fields. What the hell was going on? I began to hate Kortrijk, and – by implication – Belgium. It began to feel as if the entire situation was somehow the fault of the country and everyone living in it. Douglas Adams was right, I thought. Bloody Belgium!

I returned to the bar. By this time I’d really reached the end of my tether. A phone call to some friends in the Netherlands provided no clarification: they hadn’t heard from J, and their map didn’t offer much of a clue as to what road I must have been on. The men at the bar looked surprised to see me again. I told them I still couldn’t find the police station. They looked at me with incomprehension, as if I had some kind of mental impairment. Then one of them asked if I had a car. “Yes,” I said. (I forget whether this was in English or Dutch). “A van.”

He said he’d drive to the police station. All I had to do was follow him. I returned to the van, and sooner or later his car appeared out of the fog, with his drinking mate in the passenger seat. He flashed his headlights and I slipped the van into gear and set off behind him. At least I didn’t have to worry about running out of gas, I thought ruefully: that was no problem.

It was a long way to the police station: far longer than I’d expected. But eventually we arrived and parked our vehicles outside. I still didn’t know what kind of help the police were going to offer me, but I liked to think it would involve a bustling incident room, a crisis hotline and several hovering helicopters with infrared cameras. Unfortunately all I got from the officer on duty was an indifferent shrug, as if I’d come in to report the loss of a pencil. Thinking I had no more Belgian money on me (this turned out not to be the case, but it was what I believed at the time) I asked if I might make another telephone call to the Netherlands, in case J had rung our friends. But the officer wouldn’t let me use the telephone.

I began to feel genuine despair again. I’d got to the police station, after two hours of effort. But I was still no closer to finding my way back to the service station. Those two hours felt like entire months of my life. It was beginning to get late. Was I better off spending more time trying to get back to the service station, or should I just accept the inevitable, drive on to the Netherlands and trust J to find a way home on her own? She’d travelled to Nepal and Afghanistan on her own, after all: getting home from Belgium was hardly stretching her talents. But had she even picked up her coat from the van before going to pay for the fuel?

That was when one of the two Belgian drinking mates had his own bright idea. He’d spotted a big map pinned up on the wall of the police station, showing all the roads in the area. “You said you were coming from France?” he asked me. “And that you stopped at the first service station after the border?”

“Yes,” I said.

He stood before the map and pondered it for a few minutes. “The way I see it,” he said, “there’s really only one road you could have been on. And there’s only one service station on that road within twenty kilometres of here. Could you have driven further?”

“No,” I said, doubtfully.

“Then it must have been the one I’m thinking of. Tell you what: we’ll drive there. It’ll only take us twenty minutes, and if she isn’t there, we haven’t lost anything.”

The two drinking mates talked to each other. One decided to sit with me in the cab of the van while the other drove his car. We set off. We drove a long way, on main roads. By now it was seriously foggy, with visibility close to zero. We reached a large intersection and then what looked suspiciously like the motorway I’d been on all those hours ago. We went down it, and then up the other way. Then the service station appeared out of the fog. It was a desolate scene: most of the lights were off, there were no cars waiting there, no sign of life at all. But it was clearly the right place. And there, standing shivering in the fog, was J. The cafeteria had closed hours ago; they’d turfed her out into the night without a coat.

I stopped the van, overjoyed that we’d found each other again. I think the Belgian drinking mates were just as pleased with the happy outcome. I remember both of us being desperate to communicate our gratitude, but the Belgians simply got back in their car, gave us a cheery wave and disappeared into the night. J and I quickly exchanged stories about what happened, although she had more or less worked out my side of events for herself. Amazingly, two different people she knew had both pulled into the service station over the course of the evening and offered her a lift the rest of the way – but she’d declined, trusting I’d somehow find my way back. As we drove on in the warmth of the van, I remember experiencing a delirious sense of relief. It was a minor adventure in the scheme of things – laughable, really, since neither of us had been in harm’s way. But I still remember exactly how it felt to be lost in Belgium, on a foggy Sunday night.

As for our two Belgian drinking friends, I hope they got back to the bar in time to have another beer and a bit of a laugh. I must have spoiled their evening for them, but they never showed the least sign of annoyance. J and I have been back to Belgium many times in the ten years since this happened, but I don’t think a single time has gone by when we haven’t thought about that night and how helpful those two men were. I often wonder about them and think about their kindness that night. Say what you like about Belgium – and I still don’t know quite what it was that annoyed Douglas Adams so much – but I can think of worse places to get lost in the world. Even the police were helpful.

Actually, no, they weren’t, were they? But they did have a very nice map.

Adapted and updated from a piece I wrote for the Blakenberg Beneluxcon program book in 2004.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

New Art Riot - Strange Horizons

The last for a while, this, but here's a brand new one, and for once I will be giving it away. This picture was done for Justin, one of the winners of the Strange Horizons prize draw. I'd offered to illustrate a scene from one of my books but Justin was good enough to let me do whatever I liked - although doubtless you could find a scene somewhere that more or less matches this picture, if you looked long enough (I mean, spaceship, gloomy planet - how hard can it be?)

Acrylic and airbrush, A3 size. I had a blast doing this and enjoyed working with a more restrained palette than usual.

Monday, 28 November 2011

New Art riot # 6

My wife found this one - it's mid 90s, acrylic and airbrush. No, I don't know which way up it's meant to be. I've uploaded a few other images to the website in the last week; more on the way.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

New Art Riot # 5

Asteroid miner, monochrome gouache and Letratint - mid 90s.

Monday, 21 November 2011

New Art Riot # 4

Pen sketch of alien structure and explorer, 1997.

Spacer 1998

Spaceships 1997

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

New Art Riot #3 - lighthugger

A little while ago I did this sketch for a correspondent who was interested in building a scale model (well, I hope it was a scale model) of the Nostalgia for Infinity. To my surprise (and delight) there are already quite a few sketches and models of lighthuggers out there on the web - some of them very close to my mental image.

You can view the image at full size by clicking on the version at my website. I couldn't find a way to link to a bigger one from here.

I semi-pinched the name "lighthugger" from Ian Watson and Michael Bishop, by the way. Their excellent first contact novel "Under Heaven's Bridge" has relativistic ships called lightskimmers. And look - it's available to download:

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

New Art Riot #2

Explorers with some kind of levitating alien city in the background.

Monday, 14 November 2011


It's done. Over the last week I've been proofreading the 500-plus pages of Blue Remembered Earth, and a couple of hours ago I was able to email my notes back to my publisher. That, barring the small business of promotion, is where my obligations to the book end. It should be a time for celebration, but as always it feels faintly anti-climactic. This is my last chance to make any changes to the text, but since the typesetting has already been done, such changes cannot be substantial. My approach has always been to resist the urge to make wholesale alterations (which would be neither welcome nor economic at this point) but I will allow myself the odd word change here and there, and perhaps the recasting of a sentence or short paragraph provided those changes have no consequences to the rest of the text. What that means, obviously, is that a sentence can only be trimmed if it is clear that in doing so, the next sentence doesn't jump forward a line. By the same token, a sentence can only be lengthened if it doesn't spill over onto a new line. The only minor relaxation to this rule (in my eyes) is at the end of the chapter, where the effects of any changes will be confined to one page only, some part of which is already blank. But even so, you don't want to go around making extensive changes. They'll cost money, and perhaps more germanely, time. It certainly won't make you popular.

Besides, at this point the last person with any objectivity on the book is the writer. By the time I get to proofreading, the story is all but dead to me. It's a piece of timber and plywood stage scenery that I've walked around too often, kicked too much, and seen from entirely the wrong side. I've lost any real sense of what works and what doesn't; I can't judge pace or tone because all I can see are paragraphs and paragraphs of words that I know all too well. It ought not to matter, either, because ideally there shouldn't be much to debate, after all the drafts and rounds of editing that the book has gone through. It doesn't work like that, of course. A book like Blue Remembered Earth is 200,000 contingent decisions lined up one after the other. I think I might have managed to write one or two pieces of short fiction where at the time of submission I was happy with every word, but a novel is an order of magnitude more complex. At this stage in the process all one can do is accept that this is the finished product, and another year or two wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference.

If there's one crumb of consolation to be extracted from all this, I've found it really helpful to be forced back into BRE while in the middle of writing the follow-up. As much as I resented the interruption in my flow of work when it arrived, it's been good to be reminded of characters and themes that might profitably be referenced or developed in the new book.

My method of proofreading, incidentally - in the remote event that it might be of interest - is roughly the following. I get a large bundle of typeset pages through the post. I sit and read them, as carefully as I can, in chunks of no more than 20 - 30 pages at one go. Any longer, and my eye starts skating over the page, no longer attentive to missing words, typos and so on. When I find an error, wish to make an alteration, or flag a query, I mark up the change in green felt-tip and then add a mark to the top right corner of the page. I then continue reading, until I'm done with the book. Only then will I go back through the manuscript, noting these changes back into a document on my PC. Reading the book takes about a week, since for obvious reasons it can't be rushed. Compiling the changes into a file takes about a day; I then email it back to Charlie at Orion. No one but me gets to see the annotated manuscript, and on the second pass I'll generally decide that some of my changes are merely changes for the sake of it, and bring nothing to the novel. One of the running queries in the current book was to check that I'd spelled "Oort" correctly; I had, but it's good to be sure.

And that's it - job done. Until the next one.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Literary inspiration

I'm hoping these two gentleman will guide my hand during the writing of the Doctor Who novel.

"My dear fellow, you appear to have a large black cable growing out of your shoulder."

Monday, 31 October 2011

New Art Riot

Uploaded a few "new" paintings to the SF Artwork section on my website. Actually this one is new; I started it last monday and finished it four nights later.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Coode Street Podcast

I'm on the Coode Street Podcast, with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe. We recorded it in Reno back in August. It had been a long day - I'd flown in from LA, via Oakland, and then had a rush to check in to my hotel and then get over to the convention centre in time for a meet-up with the Locus crew. After a few beers with Ian Mcdonald and various parties, I then headed for a wonderful but eyewateringly expensive steak, and then Jonathan, Gary and I repaired to a hotel room to record the podcast. I don't think I was firing on all cylinders by that point, but playing it back, and allowing for the odd thoughtful pause, I don't sound quite as slow-witted as I remember feeling, so maybe all was well after all. As always, Jonathan and Gary were terrific company - I could spend all day talking about SF with these guys - and indeed we did continue the discussion, down in the casino bar.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Radio 5

For those not following my twitter feed, I'm going to be taking part in Dr Karl's live science phone-in, tonight, on BBC Radio 5's Up all Night with Rhod Sharp. Our segment is supposed to go out between 2.30 and 3.30 AM although it might shift a bit depending on the running schedule. The program will be available on iplayer for those in the UK.

Dr Karl and I did a couple of radio shows back last year and had a great time. We were in the same studio in Sydney then; now we're a tiny bit further apart...

Solaris Rising

It’s a terrible and beautiful thing I’ve done.

I suppose I already had it in mind, when the last uplink came in. Not that I’d come close to voicing the possibility to myself. If I’d been honest about the course I was on, I might well have requested immediate committal to stasis.

The right thing to do, in hindsight. And maybe we’d be on our way home now, back to the gratitude of a thousand worlds. Our house would have crumbled into the sea by the time we got back. But we could always have built a new one, a little further from the headland.

Let me tell you something about myself, while there’s still time. These words are being recorded. Even as I speak, my suit’s mouse-sized repair robot is engraving them onto the suit’s exterior armour. Isolated in this cavern, the suit should be buffered against the worst excesses of cosmic ray and micro-particle damage. Whether the inscriptions will remain legible, however, or whether in some sense you’ve already read them, I won’t begin to speculate. There’s been enough of that already, and I’m a little burned out by it all. Deep futurity, billions of years – the ultimate futility of any action, any deed, enduring for the smallest fraction of eternity – it’s enough to shrivel the soul. Vashka could handle that kind of thing, but I’m made of less sterner stuff.

Imminent, on both sides of the Atlantic, is Solaris Rising, the new all-original SF anthology edited by Ian Whates. It includes my 7000 word story "For the Ages", about diamond planets, pulsars and the ultimate knowledge limits of cosmology.


"A Smart-Mannered Uprising of the Dead" by Ian McDonald
"The Incredible Exploding Man" by Dave Hutchinson
"Sweet Spots" by Paul di Filippo
"Best SF of the Year Three" by Ken MacLeod
"The One that Got Away" by Tricia Sullivan
"Rock Day" by Stephen Baxter
"Eluna" by Stephen Palmer
"Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?" by Adam Roberts
"The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara" by Lavie Tidhar
"Steel Lake" by Jack Skillingstead
"Mooncakes" by Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom
"At Play in The Fields" by Steve Rasnic Tem
"How We Came Back From Mars" by Ian Watson
"You Never Know" by Pat Cadigan
"Yestermorrow" by Richard Salter
"Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions" by Jaine Fenn
"Eternity's Children" by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke
"For the Ages" by Alastair Reynolds
"Return of the Mutant Worms" by Peter F. Hamilton

Monday, 24 October 2011

Cloud Restructured Earth

Word frequency cloud for a large chunk of BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH, via

created at

Friday, 14 October 2011

Elephant Talk

You'll have likely seen this already but here's the cover of the new book:

I'm delighted with it; I think it does a fabulous job of not only capturing the main themes of Blue Remembered Earth, but also of hinting at the elements (should that be elephants?) that will come to play an increasingly significant role in the successive books. And the colours are gorgeous. I've seen a door-sized blow-up of this cover and it's a thing of real beauty.

As for the next book, I'm well into it. It's a skewed take on very slow interstellar travel, picking up the threads of BRE a few centuries down the line. The main character, like Geoffrey and Sunday in BRE, is an Akinya - but it's a bit less straightforward than that. It's also about humans and machines, longevity, memory and identity, alien intelligence, exoplanets, and elephants.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Support Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is one of the best places on the web to find intelligent discussion about science fiction - as well as SF itself. The magazine is free to read but still manages to pay its contributors. In order to keep afloat it relies on fund drives. Along with many other writers and SF people, I've offered a prize in this year's drive.

If you value SH, please consider making a donation:


Monday, 26 September 2011

Can the Camm

This man:

Contributed to the design of this:

The Hawker P1127, prototype for the Harrier jump jet, the AV-8B derivatives of which were still being manufactured in 2003, and remain in service.

Camm also designed the RAF's first monoplane, the Hawker Hurricane. Not bad for a career...

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Fifty years (redux)

As a science fiction writer, I'm as equally interested in the stuff that won't change, as the stuff that will. Many of the technologies in our day to day lives are ephemeral: my camera is not the same one I had ten years ago. My television is not the same one. My main car is not the same one (although we still own one made in 1989; we just don't drive it anywhere). My kettle is not the same one. My mobile phone is not even the same one I had two years ago. My PC is nine years old, but that's because I'm freakishly uninterested in computers other than as tools to do a given job.

There are of course classes of technology that don't change very rapidly, like furniture, houses, common tools and simple appliances, as well as cheap, mass-produced consumer goods like biros and paperclips. But actual branded models of things, such as makes of cars, are perceived to have woefully short lifespans. This is something that SF seems to accept unquestioningly, with a few notable exceptions. An SF novel set 50 years in the future might refer to a "Jeep" or a "BMW" but it's implicitly not the same Jeeps or BMWs we know today - unless the author makes a point about the protagonist being a classic car enthusiast, with his lovingly tended period roadster from 2011. Bladerunner, which got so much else right, was also one of the first films to show a future in which old stuff was still hanging around - although with the fish-tailed cars, it was strangely stuff that was already quite elderly at the time the film was made.

As we slide into the second decade of the 21st century, though, it's interesting to take stock of things that not only haven't changed radically in the last few decades, but show every sign of sticking around for a few more. I'll restrict myself to two examples, both from the world of aviation. The B52 is now a very old design indeed. It's been in operational service since 1956, flying since 1952, and the program dates back to 1948. The "youngest" B52s now flying are a mere half a century old. What's interesting, to me at least, is that there is no reason for them not to keep flying for much, much longer - possibly until the middle years of this century. Granted, the operational B52s have had various bits swapped and improved over their service lives, and may yet see more changes - but they'll still be B52s, and recognisable as such to anyone who witnessed the birth of the program six decades ago.

The other example is the 747 - now well into its fifth decade - and they're still building them. Granted, the 747s we see flying around today, or perhaps even fly in ourselves, do not date back to the 1960s. But, stretched and modified as they are, they are recognisably the same machines. By the same token, passenger or freight 747s will still be flying somewhere in the world decades from now, even if they aren't the dominant long-haul carriers that is now the case.

It would have been a brave SF writer who wrote a book in 1970, set in 2020, in which people were still flying around in 747s and in which a major element of the USA's bomber capability was still vested in B52s. But did anyone get it right, I wonder? Are there SF novels that correctly nailed the fact that, while lots of other things change, some major technologies just stick around?

And are there any other examples of very long lived, familiar technologies that ought to be part of the background furniture of any SF novel set in the mid 21st century?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Fifty years

I wrote Pushing Ice in 2005, setting the main action in 2057 - a little over fifty years from the time of writing. When I started developing the book, mid way through 2004, the story took place a good century further into the future. But I quickly got bogged down in stuff that, while interesting, was a sideline to the main event - this rapidly moving tale of space exploration and first contact. By moving the action much closer to the present, I was free to assume that a lot of stuff had not changed greatly in the intervening years. Spacesuits were still more or less as we know them. Medicine had progressed, but it was not magically advanced compared to our own time. Computers were squishier, but there was no AI or matter-transforming nanotech. People still listened to rock music, played poker and watched global news channels. I was happy with these choices, as they allowed me to present the protagonists as being people much like ourselves. If I could have set it even earlier, I would have.

I did get (and continue to receive) criticism, though, for presuming that there would be huge nuclear powered mining ships scooting around the solar system a mere 50 years from now. Here's a recent example:

"I found Reynolds' timeline a bit absurd, though. I'll be impressed if we've managed a manned mission to Mars by 2057 - for humans to be mining comets on an industrial scale by then would require an incredible revolution in space travel."

Now, I have no problem with that criticism - it's a perfectly valid point of debate. And yes, from the standpoint of 2011, I'm markedly less sanguine about our chances of establishing an extensive human presence off-Earth by the middle of the century. Blue Remembered Earth is purposefully vague about the next couple of decades, but I do state that there will have been one hundred people on Mars by the year 2059 (and despite the similarity of those two dates, it's not remotely the same future).

But really - 50 years. That's a long old time. It's enough to go from:


To this:

Which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. Even more so when you appreciate that many of the key technologies of the Apollo program were essentially mature by the start of the 1960s. The Saturn F1 main engines were part of a program that originated in 1955, a full 14 years before the Moon landings - and a mere 36 after Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy.

So you can do quite a lot in 50 years, if you put your mind to it.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Check one, check two

Atul Gawande is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. A surgeon, he writes with unsparing honesty and insight about the realities of modern day medical treatment - with particular emphasis on the things we get wrong, and the things that, with little effort, we could easily improve. I picked up his first book, Complications (2002), in a Boston airport bookstore and found it compulsive and fascinating. I'm a sucker for medical case histories, especially when they're recounted in such lucid, humane terms. What I found instantly refreshing about Gawande's work was his willingness to document his own errors and fallibilities, even when they had had potentially fatal or debilitating consequences for those under his care. He's the opposite of the Surgeon-as-God: Gawande is simply a normal human being trying to do his best in a staggeringly complex and ever-evolving field. His second book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (2007) was just as interesting, although it broadened the scope of discussion far beyond Gawande's own case histories. If you're a reader of the New Yorker, you'll likely already have encountered some of Gawande's lengthy and engrossing essays on modern medicare.

If you have been keeping up with Gawande's writings, his third book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009) can't help but feel over-familiar in places. But it's worthwhile all the same: it;s a book about an amazingly simple and yet potentially world-changing idea: the notion that the checklist is one of the most powerful tools we've yet designed to enable us to cope with complex tasks. Gawande talks about the introduction of the checklist in aviation circles as a consequence of the sheer difficulty involved in flying the B-17, which at the time of its development was by far the most complicated aircraft ever developed. When the best pilots in the military couldn't cope with the number of tasks needed to get the thing in the air without crashing, there was no option but to define the necessary actions in a written-down sequence. After the introduction of the checklist, Gawande notes, B-17s proved extraordinarily reliable and airworthy. But they were almost unflyable without it. The checklist culture - involving not only physical lists, but also the devolution of responsibility to many individuals, not just one big, all-powerful boss - has infiltrated many walks of life, from building construction (modern buildings are amazingly safe, but only because of the culture involved in their construction and assembly) to high-end restaurants. Strangely, though, it had not been widely implemented in the medical world - at least not at the level of surgeons and anaesthetists (Nurses, apparently, were much better at realising the value of this tool). Gawande's book is essentially a document of the slow process of persuading medical professionals that checklists not only have value, but can lead to astonishing improvements in basic care. It can be as simple as making sure everyone really has washed their hands, or that the lines fed into patients really have been changed when they're meant to be.

It's fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, and as always it's a model of clarity, elegance and the basic understanding that patients are people, not black boxes.

Monday, 19 September 2011


I remember (or think I remember) reading a description of Colson Whitehead's first novel over on Rick Kleffel's The Agony Column. At the time, as is so often the case, I thought "wow, that sounds right up my street ..." and then promptly forgot all about it. The Intuitionist appeared in 1999, so I'm guessing I heard about the book around ten years ago, give or take. I should pay more attention: it was on Rick's site, for instance, that I first saw mention of David Mitchell's first novel.

In the intervening years, as it is wont to do, my ailing brain began to insert Caleb Carr's The Alienist in the mental slot that should have been reserved for Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist - clearly not comparable books at all, other than in their vaguely similar titles and the "C" in the author's forename. But at some point in the last few months I chanced upon a reference to The Intuitonist, alluding to its theme, and I immediately remembered that this was a book I very much wanted to read. Although I still couldn't remember the name of the author, I broke my usual conditioning to ask a question in a bookstore. It turned out they had a copy of The Intuitonist. I bought it, and I'm glad I did. It's a marvellous novel.

The premise is genius, the kind of gobsmackingly brilliant idea you could spend a lifetime searching for and not get anywhere close. In a nameless American city, seemingly around the middle of the twentieth century, elevators have become so central to modern life, so vital to its smooth and efficient functioning, that elevator inspectors have taken on something of the authority and stature of police officers, complete with uniforms, cars, internal affairs divisions, and ruthless factional warfare. There are two competing schools of elevator inspectors: the Empiricists, who make all their checks by the book, using tools and rigidly defined methods, and the Intuitionists, who basically just feel their way into a diagnosis of an elevator's safe functioning, in an approach akin to meditation. When the book opens, the heroine - Lila Mae Watson - is an Intuitionist with an unblemished record. But Lila Mae isn't just the youngest female inspector in the department. She's also black - "coloured" - and as an Intuitionist she's about to be set up for a fall, when an elevator she's just signed off as being in perfect working order undergoes an inexplicable malfunction. In order to clear her name, Lila Mae has to dig back into the history of elevator inspection - and the Intuitionist school.

On the surface, The Intuitionist is a stunningly rendered slice of noir-drenched alternate history - think Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or the Coen brother's The Hudsucker Proxy, and you'll have some idea of the grey, midcentury sheen so effectively conveyed here. It's all rain, skyscrapers, hats and radios. But it's much more than this. The Intuitionist is also a clever examination of race and the prospects for "elevation", or lack thereof, faced by someone of Lila Mae's status in the real twentieth century. It's also slyly funny, and the writing is never less than magnificent. In terms of its evocation of the textures and perspectives of urban life, the only thing it came close to reminding me of was China Mieville's The City and the City, another novel where the detective structure is both the point and not the point.

I liked The Intuitonist enough to rush off and order some more Colson Whitehead, and I'm intrigued by the news that Zone One, his next book, is basically a post-apocalyptic zombie novel. It'll be interesting to see whether it picks up much discussion within genre spheres, because one senses that The Intuitonist, were it to be published now, would make a considerable splash in the SF&F world.

Monday, 12 September 2011


Just a minor heads up to say that I've given the website a dust over and will be looking at adding some additional content over coming weeks. Not sure how many people actually read author websites these days, but hopefully there's some vaguely useful stuff there. As always, I'm not looking for help with running or designing the site (I know it's not slick, but that's kind of the point - it's mine, all mine, and has been for 16 years), but any suggestions will be taken on onboard.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Back in the saddle

I'm back on a horse! It's been far too long - about 18 months since the last time, and maybe as long again before that - and I do miss it terribly. My wife and I used to ride regularly in Holland, but for various reasons found it difficult to keep up the habit once we relocated to Wales (even though we imagined that the exact opposite would be the case). It's even longer since I rode Western, although again I used to do a fair bit of it. This is Tonto, a quarter horse. And I suspect I may be the only person in LA modelling a T-shirt proclaiming the virtues of "Barry, the bracing South Wales resort".

Sod-all relevance to SF, of course, although I have had some good ideas while in the saddle. It's a great place to let your mind wander.

Once again, thanks to Barbara Bella (who rode with my wife and I) for the photo.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


So I'm still in the States, although our trip is nearly at an end, and in a few days we'll be packing for the long flight back to London. I enjoyed Renovation, the 2011 worldcon, a great deal. Reno was ... well, Reno. I sort of knew what to expect and on that basis I can't say I was disappointed or surprised to any great degree. Las Vegas has never appealed to me (I absolutely don't get the gambling thing, on any level) so the idea of spending time in a downsized Vegas didn't exactly rock my world. But, the worldcon is only ever partly about the physical location. It's the meeting of a community, or a number of marginally overlapping communities, and in my experience the quality of the event spaces and hotels, and ease of transit between them, counts for at least as much as the charms of the host city. In that respect Reno wasn't too bad. I, like most of my colleagues, ended up in the Peppermill, a vast, warren-like resort hotel stuffed with slot machines and bad-taste decor. But, my room was excellent and spacious, it was a manageable walk to the convention center, and I didn't find the heat nearly as oppressive as it had been in LA before my departure. A shuttle bus ran throughout the day, although it mostly managed not to be there when I needed it, but if there wasn't time to walk the taxis were quick and relatively affordable.

Conventions are odd things, and I can easily understand why people either never give them a go, or are put off after one or two bad dealings. My first convention, 1991's Mexicon in Harrogate, was not a particularly joyous experience. I did not know many people and while I'd been published, my handful of stories hadn't yet earned me any kind of name recognition, and certainly not the very minor level of "celebrity" which comes from being an SF pro. Although I met many friendly people, including a number who have remained good friends (and was driven there and back thanks to the kindness of Paul McAuley, who happened to be living near me in St Andrews at the time - we were both writing for Interzone) I still left the convention feeling like an outsider knocking on the door, rather than feeling part of the scene.

I did not return to an SF convention until 2001, by which point I had sold many more stories and had a novel under my belt. It was a vastly different experience. Although still relatively new to the big grown up world of novel publishing, I'd already made enough contacts that it was hard not to walk into a room and spot someone I knew well enough to cadge a pint off. That's been my experience ever since, certainly in the english-speaking world. I've been to foreign conventions where I didn't know anyone at the start, but since I'm usually there as a guest, and therefore being chaperoned, it's not an issue. My wife has often accompanied me to conventions, and still does on occasion, but it's been a while since it was just the two of us, talking to ourselves in one corner of a room.

By the time Reno rolled around - my fifth worldcon - I already had tentative meet-up plans scheduled before I arrived. Before very long I was sitting down with a pint before me, chatting to old and new friends, and not long after that I was into the swing of my program schedule, making sure I was where I needed to be for panels, readings and so on. Since I wasn't attending Renovation as a "guest" writer, my workload was fairly stress-free. As a guest, I often end up delivering talks and these can and do require a large measure of preparation, often weeks in advance. I moderated one panel (the moderator is the one who keeps the panel on track, makes sure everyone has time to talk, takes questions and so on) but that isn't usually too onerous - I normally sit down some time beforehand and scribble some bullet points for discussion in case the conversation flags, but as often as not they aren't needed.

The only part of the con I wasn't looking forward to, in fact, was the Hugo award ceremony. It's a long, long evening and it starts early enough that it's difficult (for me at least) to eat beforehand. There are nibbles at various points in the evening, but also a lot of alcohol, so it's easy to over do it if you're not careful. This time, as well, I had a horse in the race. It was my first Hugo nomination, and a big enough personal deal that it was essentially the reason I was in Reno. I was surprised, in fact, at the number of times I was asked how many of these things I'd lost, as if I had some extensive history of Hugo nominations. Well, no. That was my first, and as far as I was concerned I was going to assume it was just as likely to be my last as well. Now, I didn't think it likely that I was going to walk away with the award. People had liked Troika well enough to nominate it, and there were even some who liked it best of all out of all the novellas, but it was by no means the favorite in what was generally perceived to be a decent set of stories. But, but. We've all seen awards go to stories that were not the favorites, or even the next-best favorites. So - for myself, at least - while you try to chill out and convince yourself that you can't possibly win and therefore need not get nervous as the winning announcement draws near, there's always that small voice at the back of your head that says, but it could still happen. So for me, award ceremonies are a combination of anticipation, discomfort, terror, and (generally speaking) the quiet let-down as the moment passes and it becomes clear that, no, you haven't won. There's an element of disappointment, but it doesn't last too long and I can't say I've ever lost an award to a writer or work I genuinely disliked. Losing the novella category was perhaps more of a let-down that it would normally have been, given that it was the last of three awards that Troika had been shortlisted for (it had lost the Locus and Sturgeon awards earlier in the summer). But, you know, no biggie. The whole shebang - the ceremony, the party afterwards, the treatment of the nominated writers - was faultless, in my experience. Hell, I even got a nice laminated certificate and a neat brushed-steel kaleidoscope to take home. So, no complaints from me.

As to the bigger question - was the whole Reno trip worth it? That's no easier to answer than it ever is. As mentioned, I've been to five worldcons now. Four were on different continents, and the one that took place in Europe was also in a different country to me. Like most of the people who show up, I'm there on my own ticket. That's a long-haul plane flight, hotel accommodation before and after the con (as a jetlag sufferer, I'm not going to the States, particularly not the west coast, for anything less than a couple of weeks) as well as the basic cost of membership and accommodation at the con itself. That's a lot of money. Is it worth it? I'm attending the worldcon because I enjoy the immersion in that community, the discussions, the meetings with old and new friends. But that's only part of it. I'm also there to promote myself as a writer, to (hopefully) reach a few new readers, booksellers and other industry insiders. Speaking for myself, it's much harder to judge whether or not that investment is really cost-effective. Because, aside from the purely monetary side of it, which is not small beer by any means, there's also the fact that I'll be lucky to get any writing done while I'm on the road. Yes, there are writers who can work anywhere, anytime. I don't think I'm particularly precious about my working habits but I'm not one of those. Give me a day in a hotel and I might get something done, but the odd hour here and there just doesn't cut it. Not when I'm also trying to get the gym, fight jetlag, deal with the hundred and one minor complications of being abroad (In my case this included forgetting to pack my driving license). But it's not just the lost time while I'm away - it's the time spent preparing for the trip, the time spent recovering. The last phase of productive writing for me was early August, and I doubt that I'll get back into the swing of things until a good week into September, given that I'll be hit just as thoroughly with jetlag on the return leg. So: it's a big, gaping hole out of my year, and last year I did two big conventions, both of which needed intercontinental travel. Yeah, pity poor me, forced to endure the glamorous jetset lifestyle of the internationally published novelist. Honestly, there are elements of it that I never stop enjoying, and I'm grateful for what SF has given me. Realistically, though, I'm still not at all sure that the time and effort of attending the big cons are justified in terms of maintaining or expanding my profile. That doesn't mean I'd stop going - there's still the friends and community side of the equation, the mere fact of being able to talk SF with people who care as deeply about it as I do - but it does give one pause for thought. That said, I suspect that I go through these contortions every time I come back from a big con, and I don't doubt that I'll be going through them again, this time next year, after Chicago. I hope to be there.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I'm so Hollywood

Griffith Observatory, LA. On my way to Reno for the World Science Fiction Convention, my wife and I flew into Los Angeles and sent a few days with some old friends of ours in Burbank. We only get to see them every five or six years and it's always great to hook up and renew our acquaintance with the area.

Built on the edge of Mount Hollywood, the observatory is a short drive from Burbank and on a clear day offers magnificent views across town and out to the sea. There was low-lying haze when we drove up, but the observatory buildings were still gloriously sharp and bright against a pure blue sky, doubtless as impressive and inspiring as when they were first built in the mid 1930s.

Griffith Observatory has never been a working observatory, but rather a place of education and outreach. In that respect it still seemed to be doing an excellent job, judging by the many children and adults evidently stimulated by the well constructed and informative exhibits inside. Even as someone with a background in professional astronomy, I found much to enjoy and think about.

In the public imagination, Griffith is perhaps best known for its use as one of the locations in Rebel Without a Cause (it had apparently been used in earlier films, but never in its intended function). Fitting, therefore, that there should be a small memorial to James Dean on the Observatory grounds.

Thanks to Barbara Bella for the photographs, all of which remain her copyright.

I'm in Reno now, which is another story. I'll probably not have too much to say about the convention until I get back, but for now I'm enjoying it tremendously - although one does get rather tired of the sound of ones own voice after a day of panels and general discussion.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

This is great.

We could argue the toss about whether it's "science fiction", given that the book is marketed as urban fantasy, and takes place in an alternate 2011 in which shamanism functions well enough to permit the targeted scrambling of SMS texts, and in which criminals are psychically bound to magic animals. What matters is that Zoo City is fantastically good on its own terms. It's blisteringly well written, heartbreaking and funny in the right places, ice cool, and paced like a runaway bastard, and with a sense of place - and culture - that rips you out of wherever and whenever you happen to be sitting and reading. For me that happened to be a transatlantic flight, but I still read it in pretty much one sitting, and finished it with tremendous satisfaction. I look forward to catching up with Moxyland next.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Of battleship turrets and pulsars

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova which exploded - or rather was seen to explode - in 1054AD. The pulsar at the heart of the nebula - the neutron star left over when the star's core collapsed at the moment of the supernova - was discovered in 1968, very shortly after Jocelyn Bell's discovery of the first pulsar using the Cambridge radio telescope.

The pulsar, and its associated nebula, have been and continue to be of great interest to astronomers. But the pulsar itself has a direct practical application, in that it's a very precise and well-studied clock. Rotating once every 33 milliseconds, the pulsar acts as a cosmic lighthouse, sending out beams of electromagnetic energy which happen to sweep across the Earth. Visible in both the optical and radio bands, the pulsar offers a reliable means of determining the accuracy and precision of time-based astronomical observations.

S-Cam, the instrument I helped work on, was a photon-counting detector. Each of its supercooled pixels was connected to a complex chain of electronics which enabled S-Cam to record not only the energy and position of incoming photons - individual particles of light - but also their arrival times. As each photon arrived, it triggered a cascade of electrons which rose and fell in a well understood fashion. The amplitude of that electron burst gave one an idea of the energy, or colour, of the photon, and the onset of the burst told one about the arrival time. S-Cam's electronics were connected to a GPS receiver, a piece of hardware which provided a definitive timestamp, accurate to millionths of a second, for each photon.

The raw output data of S-Cam, in simple terms, therefore consisted of a long list of sequential photon events. There would be an arrival time - referenced to some offset zero point - then the X,Y coordinates of the pixel which had seen the event, and finally a parameter which was proportional to the energy of the photon.

In other words, something like this:

0.0045 3 5 15
0.0067 1 4 28
0.0143 2 5 09

... and so on. A typical observation could easily contain more than a million photon events, but we didn't need to concern ourselves with the individual lines of data; we had software to chew the numbers and spit out processed data in astronomically interesting formats: spectra, time versus intensity curves, and so on.

Occasionally, though, we had to dig down really deeply into the data, because something didn't quite make sense.

The Crab pulsar was a high-priority target for S-Cam for one simple reason: it offered us the only independent, microsecond-level test of our time-tagging. It was almost impossible to verify that the electronics chain was working well in the lab. We couldn't use the GPS hardware to generate a test signal because the GPS hardware was already part of the electronics chain - it would have been like trying to use a ruler to measure itself. We were confident that the instrument's absolute time-tagging was good to within a second, and we had no reason to doubt the precision of the individual photon events. But only an observation of the Crab would settle matters.

To our relief, all seemed well. The "heartbeat" of the Crab, as revealed by our instruments, looked the way we expected it to. Importantly, the main peak - the higher of the two "blips" in the pulse profile - was arriving bang on the nail. We could be sure of this because the main dish at Jodrell Bank makes regular observations of the Crab, and the small variations in the Crab's rotation period are tracked and published from month to month.

As an aside, the big dish at Jodrell - now the Lovell Telescope - was completed in 1957. The two hinge points, on which the dish swivels, incorporated components from the gun turret mechanisms of the British battleships HMS Revenge and HMS Sovereign.

So, all well and good. We had our well-calibrated instrument with a reliable time-tagging system. We could then go ahead and do lots of actual astronomy, safe in the knowledge that the individual photon arrival times could be trusted.

But it wasn't that simple. Much later in the program, some of our colleagues raised an interesting point. While our Crab pulse profile looked fine from a standpoint of absolute phasing, there was something a bit fishy about it. If the profile was a heartbeat with two spikes, then the spikes themselves were about 30% fatter than they should have been.

We performed an exhaustive analysis of the system and its data processing software, trying to make the pulse profile conform. But nothing we did fixed the problem. And the deeper we looked into it, the more troubling the discrepancy began to look. That "fattening" of the pulse profile was a hint that, down at the level of the individual time tags, something was going wrong. Some percentage of the photons - some, but not all - were being assigned erroneous timetags.

It only showed up in bright objects. If we go back to that list of photon events above:

0.0045 3 5 15
0.0067 1 4 28
0.0143 2 5 09

and imagine a small error - an addition or subtraction of some small number - being applied to the timetags. Now, those photons can't break the laws of physics - they must arrive in strict time order! And indeed, that's what appeared to be the case - most of the time.

But occasionally we'd see a timetag where it appeared as if a photon had come in earlier than its predecessor:

0.0045 3 5 15
0.0067 1 4 28
0.0059 2 5 09

Now, this made no sense. And it only "showed up" in observations where we were getting a sufficiently high flux of incoming photons for one to hop the queue and seem to arrive earlier than the one before it.

It took weeks to get to the bottom of the problem. And in the end it turned out to be due to a fault at the actual hardware level. A piece of electronic circuitry was not behaving properly, due - it eventually became clear - to a piece of stray conducting material bridging two parts of the electronics board. This component was a set of binary registers designed to convert the raw arrival time of the photon into a different data format, using something called a "Gray Code".

Now what the hell is a Gray Code? I had no idea, but I quickly got an education. A Gray Code, or "reflected binary code" is a very clever mathematical procedure. Incorporating a Gray Code converter into our electronics made very good sense, because what a Gray Code ensures is that there are no sudden "spikes" in the data transmission system.

Imagine sending pulses down an electronic line, encoding arrival times. If your photon events happened at nice intervals, you might get:


... and so on.

But that "roll over" from 0.999 to 1.000 is bad news, because instead of just one digit changing, four have changed. And (at least far as I understood it) that's not good in the context of electronic signal processing, where you want things to be as smooth as possible.

The Gray Code solves that. It cleverly ensures that two successive values will only differ by exactly one bit, meaning that - as far as the electronics cares - there is nothing to hint that there has been a "roll over". Later, when you want the data to be intelligible, you apply a reverse Gray Code to put it back into its normal format. And that's exactly what was going on in S-Cam.

Except that, during the Gray Code conversion, that stray bit of conducting material was screwing things up. Basically, if a digit appeared in one register, it would "contaminate" the one next to it, propagating an error throughout the data analysis.
But this effect was so subtle that we had not seen it until someone noticed that our Crab pulse profile was too fat.

Once we understood what was going on, it was relatively simple to construct some simulation software. This verified that we had a complete, self-consistent grasp of the problem. Of course, that didn't help us fix the data that was already affected by the fault.

But actually, it did! By applying our understanding of the Gray Code issue, we were able to build a piece of software which took old datasets and unscrambled the erroneous time tags. It only worked for relatively bright, high-photon output objects - but those were exactly the ones where correcting the time tags really mattered. It was hugely satisfying, at the end of this months-long analysis, to be able to regenerate our original Crab pulse profile and see what we should have been all along.

That's almost it - but for one curious twist. The Jodrell Bank observations were crucial to our understanding of the problem, and I've already mentioned that the Lowell Telescope rides on battleship turrets. Gray Codes have many real-life applications, but one of the most useful is in position encoders - especially for rotary shafts.

Think of a shaft sticking up from the floor to the ceiling. Now imagine parts of the shaft painted in an insulating material, and other parts left in bare conductive metal. Now also imagine metal brushes contacting the shaft at different positions. As the shaft rotates, the brushes will either touch a conducting patch or an insulated patch. The question is, can you design a shaft such that these brushes always give an absolutely unambigous reading of the shaft's momentary rotation angle? Well, you can - but you have to use Gray Codes to do it. And one of the first uses for reliable position encoders was in ... you've guessed it ... battleship turrets.

Monday, 8 August 2011

My life in science

Here's a short piece, slightly expanded from one I wrote for the program book of Norcon, which I attended earlier this year - hope it's of interest.

From science to science fiction...

In 2004 I turned full-time writer after more than a decade doing science. If there's a question I get asked more than any other, it's why did I quit my day job?

Here's my attempt at answering that. It might help, though, if I said a bit about what that day job concerned, and how I got into it.

I'd always been fascinated by science on some level, but it wasn't until my early teens that I started giving serious thought to the idea of doing it as a career. On the face of it, this was a bit of an odd choice. My natural talents, such as they were, lay far more in the direction of the arts than the sciences. From an early age it was clear that I had an aptitude for writing, and beyond that I was also quite a precocious artist. Most of my family and teachers assumed that I'd end up either involved with words or paint, or some level. But I had other ideas. Inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series, and the non-fiction science books of Asimov and Clarke, I had my heart set on being some kind of scientist. By the time I was forced to narrow down my choice of school subjects to maths, physics and chemistry, I was increasingly determined to become an astronomer. The fact that I wasn't particularly good at maths or physics - and even worse at chemistry - did not deter me in the least. Nonetheless my teachers were prepared to give me a chance.

It wasn't plain sailing by any means. I was offered a place at university in 1984, but that was contingent on getting a minimum set of grades. As it happened, I failed in spectacular fashion. I went back to school for another year, while most of my friends left home. It was a humbling experience, but in hindsight a really good one. That third year taught me a lot, and although I struggled to get the university offers that I wanted a second time round, I did apply myself to study with a lot more determination than in the previous two years. Unfortunately I was not able to find an astronomy course willing to offer me a place, but I settled on working with lasers, which at the time struck me as fantastically exciting, given that I'd only seen one in my entire life. As luck would have it, though, after getting three respectable passes, I was offered a position on an astronomy course at Newcastle. I'd never applied to that university, or even been to the city, so when I showed up on day one with my belongings in a rucksack, it was truly the start of an adventure.

I had a good time at Newcastle, and graduated with a decent degree in 1988. The friends I made there are all still close ones, and we keep in touch regularly. Importantly, three years of university life hadn't dented my enthusiasm for science. I decided to continue my studies by embarking on a PhD course. Newcastle didn't offer the doctoral level subjects I was interested in, and in any case I felt that a change of scenery would do me good. In the Autumn of 1988, therefore, I found myself on the way up to St Andrews, Scotland, to begin another three years of study.

Doing a PhD was very different to degree work. For the first time I was expected to show initiative, to develop my own research interests. I found the transition from formal study quite difficult at first, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed the first year. By the second year, though, I had some data to work on and more importantly a sense of direction. Equally significantly (to me, if not to anyone else) I'd also just broken into science fiction publishing. In the summer of 1989 I sold my first piece of short fiction, to Interzone magazine. I was over the moon. Not long after they also took a second piece from me. The stories wouldn't appear in the magazine until the following year, but for the first time I felt the faint stirrings of a possible second career.

My work at St Andrews involved observations taken with an instrument mounted above the main observatory building itself: the 0.5m Leslie Rose Telescope. Although small by international standards this was a big scope to be using in the UK, although not the biggest at St Andrews, and with the right approach it was capable of doing first class work. I spent many, many nights in the dome, often wearing four or five layers - it got cold in winter! Generally I had a radio for company and got through the night on multiple cups of coffee. This was real astronomy: the telescope's data-acquisition system was electronic, but ensuring that the instrument was correctly tracking the target star meant that an observer needed to keep returning to the eyepiece at regular intervals. The dome also needed to be moved manually throughout the night.

I also made use of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, New South Wales, as well as some data collected remotely from the Canary islands. I've written a couple of stories with an Australian theme and they both stemmed from those exciting visits to the country in 1989 and 1990 (I returned in 1994, but that run was a total washout - we spent both nights playing pool and waiting for the rain to stop, if memory serves).

At the end of 1991, after three years in St Andrews, I handed in my PhD thesis, entitled 'Optical Spectroscopy of Massive X-ray Binaries'. Staying on to do further research wasn't really an option, so I was obliged to look further afield. After seeing a job vacancy I hopped over to the European Space Agency's establishment in Noordwijk, Holland for an interview. Though the job I'd applied for was now filled, they offered me another one. With the bank breathing down my neck, it didn't take me long to accept. I went from being unemployed, to having my future mapped out for at least the next year. That was a great feeling, although I was a little apprehensive about relocating to a foreign country.

The job concerned EXOSAT, an ESA satellite that had orbited the Earth between 1983 and 1986, studying the sky in the X-ray part of the spectrum. X-ray astronomy is a vast field in its own right, with its own language and concepts. Coming from a very different astronomical background, I had some catching up to do...and some pitfalls to watch out for.

To give an example: it's usual to study the distribution of starlight from a given astronomical object by means of a spectrum. A red star humps in the red part of the spectrum, a blue star humps in the blue part, and so on. In optical astronomy, it's normal to plot the units of 'colour' in terms of wavelength, which means that the 'blue end' is to the left of the 'red end'. In X-ray astronomy, however, the spectrum is plotted back to front! No problem if you work exclusively in one or other disciplines, but hopping between them needs a bit of mental agility, especially in the high-pressure environment of a telescope control room where you're comparing plots and trying to assess the feasibility of some observation with the clock ticking and your liquid nitrogen running out...

It gets even worse when you start thinking about the units used to measure the intensity of a given colour - are we using Janskys today, or Crabs, or photon counts? If it's photons, is it photons per second, or photons per second per KeV? Sound of man bashing head against wall...

Most of the science I did in my first three years in the Netherlands concerned data that was already in the EXOSAT archive - observations that the satellite had made, but which still hadn't been analysed in any detail. My studies focused on neutron stars in binary systems, trying to work out details of their magnetic fields, and how the fields interacted with the gas streams being dragged off the other star. The neutron stars all happened to pulsars - emitting regular 'ticks' of X-ray flux akin to a very accurate clock. However, as the gas stream from the other star crashed into the magnetic field of the pulsar, there could be a braking or accelerating force which would cause the ticks to slow down or speed up. Once you'd disentangled the effects of orbital motion you could use the remaining variations to say something about the details of the magnetic field and the complicated gas flows. Needless to say, there were a lot of messy details that got in the way of a clear picture.

I really enjoyed working at ESA, but it often seemed like the database management side of my job was squeezing out any time to get to grips with the science side. My bosses kindly gave me a third year as a fellow, but at the end of 1994 I left to spend two years commuting from Noordwijk to Utrecht, where I worked in the university's astronomy department. Working in a purely academic environemnt was another culture shock and I unfortunately I didn't find that I got significantly faster in my paper writing than at ESA. I often got horribly bogged down in a particular stage of the analysis, fretting over error bars or something, details holding me back for months when I should be surging forward. I could see trouble brewing unless I either changed my career plans or became magically prolific overnight. At the end of 1996 I completed a telescope run in Chile, and then my partner (now my wife) and I took a week's holiday in the Atacama desert. By the time we got back to Holland, I was out of work.

It was scary but liberating. I used the spare time to finish my book, which I eventually managed to sell. At the same time, 1997 was the year when I finally felt that I was getting somewhere with my short fiction. I'd been writing and publishing for what seemed like years, but up to that point nothing had seemed to make any kind of splash or attract the wider attention of other editors in the field. Between 1997 and 1998, though, things started happening. My stories began to be noticed a bit more, and I started picking up interest from the American magazines.

I was also fortunate: I'd applied to work for a small company based in Haarlem, who claimed to have something to do with space science. As it happened, the firm turned out to be run by an amiable welshman I'd already known as a colleague in ESA. The firm took me on, and after a few small contracts spread over the next two years, I ended up working as a contractor on an ESA program named S-Cam. That was 1999, which was a fairly significant year for me. Ten years on from my first short fiction sale, it was the also the year when I managed to sell three novels. One written, one sort of written, the other no more than some vague intentions. It was all very exciting and I was lucky to have the support of my colleagues, many of whom turned out to be closet science fiction readers.

Working on S-Cam was fascinating. It was a project to develop a new detector technology for use in ground and space-based astronomy. S-Cam (abbreviated from STJ-Cam, or superconducting tunnel junction camera) would basically be the ultimate, all-singing, all-dancing camera, with a capability to not just count every single photon of starlight arriving from space, but to also log its arrival time with microsecond accuracy, and also determine its energy or colour. What would have been intractably difficult observations could now be made very easily, almost in a point-and-click fashion.

That was the idea, anyway, but S-Cam was also cutting-edge technology with all sorts of teething troubles that needed to be overcome. Not only was the instrument temperamental - it needed to be cooled to within half a degree above absolute zero, which is pretty cold - it also demanded a completely new approach to data analysis, all of which had to be invented more or less from scratch. I found that my dual background in optical and X-ray astronomy came in very handy, as S-Cam was basically an optical camera that behaved like an X-ray detector. Despite the technological difficulties we still managed to collect a lot of data with S-Cam, hooked onto the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary islands. Along the way we made some very neat observations of eclipsing binary systems, measured quasar redshifts and the temperatures and chemical compositions of stars. Between 2000 and 2004 we worked to upgrade to a larger version of the detector, with 120 pixels rather than 36. The 120 pixel array saw first light in the summer of 2004, just after I left ESA, and performed well despite less than brilliant weather.

So why did I leave? Not because I didn't enjoy the job, but because the demands of writing had increased to the point where I had little time for anything else. It was also deeply unfair on my wife, who hadn't had a holiday or much of a social life since I signed my novel contract. I was sad to give up science, but at the same time excited at being able to give writing more time. I'd found myself turning down approaches to write stories for anthologies - exactly the kind of offer I'd spent most of the last twenty years dreaming of getting! Now at least I'd be able to say yes to a few things that took my fancy.

I do miss some aspects of the day job, especially the banter around the coffee table in the morning. Doing science was also the kind of job where you never really knew what you were going to be working on from week to week, and the challenge of thinking analytically was obviously very different from the kinds of mental process involved in writing. That said, I think I'm reasonably well suited temperamentally to sitting at home all day, and it's surprising how quickly the hours go by. Also, you don't stop being a scientist just because they stop paying you. Science is a state of mind, not a job definition. I'm still fascinated by the entire edifice of modern science, and an avid reader of New Scientist. All in all, then, I'm happy enough with the way things worked out. In my old day job, I got to have fun and work with some amazingly talented and generous people. Now I get to write about other planets and other times for a living, and I'm more delighted than you can imagine that some of my readers are scientists and astronauts, still out there doing what I always dreamed of doing. Being a science fiction writer has probably opened more doors for me than being a paid scientist ever did...

The only thing that hasn't improved is the vast amount of coffee I still drink, but you can't have it all. The mathematician Paul Erdos once described himself as a machine for turning coffee into proofs. Change "proofs" for "science fiction" and you've got a pretty good description of me.