Chinese space

Returning to the subset of science / sci-fi focussed posts on Writer’s Block, I came across these wonderful Chinese posters, glorifying the Chinese Space program. I understand that the program started in earnest after a satellite was successfully launched in 1970, which continuously broadcast Dongfang hong (δΈœζ–ΉηΊ’, The East is Red), one of the best known Chinese tunes, which eulogizes Mao Zedong. The program stalled during the 1970’s with the Cultural Revolution, and these posters date to that time and the early 80’s.

Rather like traveling, they give you a bewildering glimpse into a different culture, don’t they? I can’t help but wonder if they would have been received more cynically in the West, although of course I don’t know what the reception was within China either. I do love the colour palettes used. Can’t miss the appeal of socks and sandals teamed with a space helmet though! πŸ˜‰

My thanks to http://www.chineseposters.net for this information.

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Dinosaur unearthed, inspiration refreshed

New species of giant dinosaur unearthed

I realise that this is perhaps a little off-topic for my blog of late, but I just had to share this wonderful new discovery. They have found a new dinosaur which they have called Dreadnoughtus schrani, and it’s a seriously big beast. As the scientist in the video says – “It had a really big butt.” πŸ˜‰

New species of giant dinosaur unearthed.

What I love about this is that even now, when we think we know so much about the world, there is still something as gigantic as this to discover. Writing fantasy or sci-fi is really about imagining new worlds for me, and if we start to think that there is nothing left to explore and discover, inspiration can evaporate.

Knowing that there are still 26m long dinosaurs out there to find is a truly wonderful thing. πŸ™‚

Dwarf planet Ceres has water vapour

Dwarf planet Ceres has water vapour

To break from the tradition of the last few posts, and back to my love of science and science fiction…

In news recently released, it turns out that scientists have observed two plumes of water vapour on Ceres – a moon in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

You can find out more here:

Dwarf planet Ceres has water vapour.

Ceres asteroid vents water vapour

Article in ‘Nature’

I find the possibilities of this pretty exciting. As the search for life seems to centre around a search for water – perhaps because we find to too hard to imagine life forms which aren’t carbon-based and organic – then this discovery has fascinating implications.

Not only does this add to the argument that water and life arrived on Earth via some sort of asteroid impact, but also raises the possibility of alien life really quite close to our own.

I’m sure there is a fascinating story just waiting to be written about it, once we consider all the implications of being in the asteroid belt, that far from our Sun….

Are we aliens?

alien-life-1Are we aliens?

If you’re looking for something to change your perspective on things, take the time to read this article. Not only have they found organic life in space, they think that all life on Earth may have originated from space. Curiously, I wrote a short story on this basis a while ago, but now it looks like it might be true after all.

We’re aliens after all. Great thought for a Friday. πŸ™‚

Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

200px-Mieville_Embassytown_2011_UK

‘Embassytown’ is the first of China Mieville’s books that I’ve read, but based on this sample, I’d certainly be interested in trying some more of his work.
That said, at first I was far from convinced. It starts off with a lot of apparently made-up words and concepts without explanation, which is one of my pet peeves of sci-fi. Call me dull, but I don’t find this kind of thing intriguing. I’m torn instead between irritation that I don’t understand what the author is talking about, and a sneaking suspicion that they are doing it to seem clever.

Courtesy of xchd.com

Courtesy of xchd.com

However, in this case, once you plough on through the first few chapters, it is hard to see how Mieville could have written this story without the jargon, and remained true to the voice of his narrator, Avice. It is a slow seduction of a book. After a while, you realise that it is genuinely hard to put down, and that all the strange terms are second nature to you.
To give you some idea of the story, Avice comes from Embassytown – a place on the edge of the navigable universe. It’s a place very much locked within its own boundaries, both physical and political, as the human inhabitants are there only by the generosity of their very alien Hosts. Even the atmosphere is rigged up within the city to be breathable by humans, but it’s a tiny bubble of humanity in a very alien world. One oddity of the Hosts is that they speak with two voices simultaneously, and there must be a mind behind the words. Generations of Ambassadors – perfect human clones – have been bred to be able to speak to the Hosts with minds so close that they are effectively one soul. When a new Ambassador comes from their ruling planet and speaks Language, everything goes horribly wrong.
In fact, over and over again, just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. It does keep you on tenterhooks.
This is a highly political story, and also one which at its core has a fairly technical linguistic point. The story is not short of action, but it’s certainly not for dummies either. I think this would actually be a terrific book to study at school, although the act of studying it might kill the story, because there are so many aspects of society, empire, and political systems which could be studied, on top of the impressive world building and finesse of linguistics.

The scope of imagination which Mieville brings to this book is truly awe-inspiring, and I’d highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars

five-stars

D.I.Y. solar system

Long live Coursera!

For those of you who haven’t stumbled upon it yet, it’s a series of on-line courses offered by Universities throughout the world. The courses run from about 6 to 12 weeks, generally, and you can view the video lectures and do the homework at any time you choose. This is great for me at the moment, as sometimes I need to do them at 3.30am. The courses are not for dummies – this is real education, by respectable institutions. Best of all, it’s free! I am currently doing a course called ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’, which I’ll discuss in a later post. However, my partner has been putting his brain through the wringer with ‘Introduction to Astronomy’. It’s a tough course, but so far rewarding.

screenshot solar

One of the most interesting parts has been some of the on-line astronomy tools which they point you towards. This one, called My Solar System, simulates the different orbits that you can achieve with a different setup of planets, moon and comets. I encourage you to follow the link and have a play for yourselves. You can vary the size, positions and velocity of each body, and watch as the orbits play themselves out. I should warn you, it is rather addictive – it should perhaps be subtitled the ‘Timewaster 2000’. The graphics are quite simple, but achieving a highly elliptical orbit, or managing to slam a comet into the sun is pretty cool.

It strikes me that this is potentially a terrific inspirational or planning tool for those people who like to write hard sci-fi. Asimov would have absolutely adored it. It just oozesΒ  story possibilities. Think, for example, about being a civilisation on one of those planets, as it slowly circles the sun, and then suddenly coming into the influence of one of the other bodies, especially a highly unpredictable one. How would the seasons, the harvests, and weather be affected? Seasons may be longer, or more intense. Alternatively, picture a planet which is slowly being dragged towards the sun by the orbit of its own moon. It gets even crazier when you think about being on a planet within a binary system.

I find science like this quite fascinating, and I wish that I could incorporate more of it into my stories, although they tend more towards the quirky than the purely scientific. πŸ˜‰

How about you? What inspires you? Would a tool like this be useful in thinking about new stories?

Humans or robots?

Marvin courtesy of Wikipedia

I found this great article recently, which I thought I’d share with you. It discusses the future of space exploration, and whether it will be carried out via robotic probes (like Curiosity currently prodding at Mars), or by humans.

The next giant leap: humans or robots?

Opinion seems to be falling more in the Robot camp than the Human.

There are a few reasons for this: it is easier and cheaper to get a robot to other planets, and when they get there, they have capabilities than no human does. They don’t need to be kept warm, breathing, or fed while they are performing their mission, and perhaps most importantly from the point of view of complexity and cost, we can leave them up there. No-one is going to mind too much if they never come home. Spare a thought for the Voyager missions – just over thirty five years on, they are up to 11 billion miles away from Earth, on the edge of the known solar system, and still heading away into the darkness.

On the other hand, scientists in favour of humans point out that a person can do more in a minute than a robot probe can do in a whole day, and with a lot less instruction. Think of the frustration the Russians must have had when on their mission to Venus, the Venera 13 probe which was to sample the soil came down exactly on the spot where the lens cap from their camera had landed. You’d hope that a human astronaut would have the ability and sense to move the probe!
Humans obviously also have abilities when it comes to maintenance, both of themselves and of other equipment, which a robot would struggle with. Best of all, they are more open to all their senses, not just the ones they are programmed to be aware of.

One (perhaps minor) facet of this argument, it seems to me, is that if in the future we do go down the trail of fully robotic missions, quite a lot of science fiction is going to look pretty silly. So many stories are based around the experiences of people on long space journeys, traveling to and settling other worlds. This perspective, it has to be said, is probably a good deal more interesting than reading about the adventures of robots (Marvin the Paranoid Android being a clear exception!)

I wonder if it is possible to write a genuinely interesting story where the protagonist is a robot, programmed to carry out a specific mission from Earth? Any suggestions? πŸ™‚