David M. Kelly

Science Fiction Writer

Recently I’ve been researching and world building for an upcoming novel and came up against an interesting problem. If you’re writing science fiction that’s set in a galaxy “far, far away” then you can just make up any setup you want, but my novels are intended to be more realistic than that and so I need to reference real star data.

If it was just a case of setting the story on another planet around another star, this also wouldn’t be too much of an issue. There are numerous very good star charts and references available online or for download, and if you want something less outwardly shiny, there are also plenty star catalogs with all the astronomical information you could ever need.

The problem with these systems is that they don’t let you see very easily how things connect. Although they are in 3D they often limit the manipulation of the star fields. They also don’t allow you to add in your own information, such as the Stryxx homeworld actually orbits 20 Leonis Minoris  or that Bob is exploring Gliese 414 nearly 15 light years away in that direction. Or maybe I want to plot trade routes or document an expanding Terran empire.

In these cases more traditional astronomy software doesn’t help. Up to now I’ve managed to avoid this necessity, but this latest story is taking me right into the mire of needing realistic, flexible mapping and positioning of stars as well as the ability to plan out star systems, worlds etc. In other words I need a realistic science fiction world building tool.

After much frustration and searching I finally found NBOS’s AstroSynthesis 3.0 software. This appears to have been originally designed for those in the role-playing game community, but it works well for scifi writers too.

The software provides a 3D viewing space similar to that seen on many movies and games and allows you to select the stars in the view to examine details about them. If that were all it did though it would have little over the more usual star catalog software. Where AstroSynthesis stands out is that it not only allows you to add your own notes to star systems, but you can mark them for such things as political groupings, population, check travel distances and lengths, and even generate entire star systems complete with realistic planet formations. What’s more you can customize these by adding ships, space stations, fleets, and many more items that will help you track what is happening in your universe.

AstroSynthesis Overall Sector View

AstroSynthesis Overall Sector View

AstroSynthesis Zoomed In Sector

AstroSynthesis Zoomed In Sector

As for the star systems and their positions, you can generate them using built-in random routines. Or there are several downloads available from the site that make use of real-world astronomical data and include information such as a star’s mass, size, spectral type and much more.

General Star Properties

General Star Properties

Star Orbital Properties

Star Orbital Properties

With that in mind I downloaded one of the star data packs and started customizing it for my story world. The process is somewhat involved, but easy enough once you get to grips with the software’s idiosyncrasies. Overall the software does pretty much what it claims, but I found it a little unstable and would recommend saving your file frequently. The view navigation is a little limited too and it would be nice to have a mouse controlled “slide” feature. This would make it easier to see the area around your star(s) of interest (there is a “slide” feature, but it doesn’t do that).

Wide System View

Wide System View

Zoomed System View

Zoomed System View

Close System/Planet View

Close System/Planet View

One area the software falls down on is being able to easily filter the views. For instance it would be extremely useful to have a configurable distance filter (again to help with clarity), but this isn’t available and the somewhat fixed view center (as mentioned in the slide comment above) is also troublesome.

A useful feature that helps overcome some of these limits is that AstroSynthesis contains a built-in scripting language, so you can program your own additional functions and filters. This is based on VBScript so should be accessible for anyone with a little development experience. Unfortunately this is also one of its weak points, as the documentation on the scripting is poor and lacks information, though so far I’ve been able to puzzle out everything I needed.

Support also seems weak. There is a customer forum, but it seems to get little response from the developer and its basic functionality seems troublesome (even after registering I couldn’t manage to even post a question for example).

One unusual feature is the ability to program animations traveling through the 3D starmap and rendering them out as video files. I’ve not really got a use for this at the moment, but it’s certainly an interesting “extra.”

Given these short-comings I can’t recommend AstroSynthesis without reservation. If you can live with it’s limits and have some development knowledge, you’ll probably be fine. If you haven’t, then I’d suggest doing a thorough evaluation to ensure it will meet your needs.

That said, all in all it’s looking very useful–certainly the closest I’ve found to a good science fiction world builder and worth the money — 3.5 stars

A little while ago I set myself the challenge to only use open-source tools for all my graphics work. The reasons for this were varied. Some tools that I’ve used in the past such as 3DS Max are simply way beyond my reach, while some others (Adobe’s Creative Cloud)–while not completely unaffordable– are still expensive and have numerous usability issues (over-riding Windows settings for someone with visual impairments being the most insulting). Plus I don’t like the endless Pay-To-Play syndrome where you’re treated as nothing but a cash-cow to be regularly “milked”.

The replacements I chose were Gimp for image processing and Blender for 3D Modelling/Rendering. I’ve been working on them over the last few weeks to try out their features, stability and overall functionality.

The best proof of any software is in the results you can achieve Continue reading

In recent months we’ve seen the historic flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons probe, a remarkable achievement in space exploration that has produced some amazing imagery and scientific information. A little known fact: the probe carried with it a small portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who first discovered the planet (Okay… dwarf planet–happy?)

tombaughTombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 while Continue reading

The recent news that Kepler K2-72 may be home to two earth-sized planets in the star’s habitable zone make it an exciting time for astronomers and fans of exo-planets. Whenever I see these stories I always wonder what the star systems might look like if we could travel there.

With that in mind I decided to have a go at something I’ve had in mind for a while–simulating a star-system!

I made use of publicly available data regarding the star itself and newly discovered planets. The data we have is a little sketchy, but enough to get a reasonable approximation. Throw in a little computer simulation wizardry and we have:

As part of my open-source challenge I made use of Blender to do the video editing, with a little help in the titles department from Gimp. The music is a royalty free piece I found on Incompetech. This was assembled (roughly!) in the Blender video editor and I’m pretty pleased with the results.

I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate, but I think it’s reasonably close given the software and data limitations I worked with. It makes me tingle thinking that this is an actual idea of what the real system might look like!

Last week I had further foot surgery and am currently laid up, with limited mobility. This got me thinking about the history of  surgery, and reminded me of a joke I read in one of Isaac Asimov’s books:

The Oldest Profession

A doctor, an engineer, and a lawyer were in their favorite watering-hole discussing who among them had the oldest profession.

The doctor said, “According to the bible, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and used it to create Eve making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession.”

The engineer replied, “Yes, but before that, God created the heavens and earth out of Chaos, surely a feat of engineering. So, mine is the oldest profession.”

The lawyer smiled, then spoke up. “True. But who do you think created the chaos?”

That always made me laugh (and it’s a perfect excuse to have a cheap dig at lawyers!)–but what about the real history of surgery?

Pre-history

pic147We tend to think of surgery as a relatively modern invention, Continue reading

Today I’m sharing a post from Dianne Lynn Gardner, the multi-talented author of The Ian’s Realm Saga on the intricate and spell-binding topic of fantasy map-making. High fantasy can be confusing. It’s little wonder that readers find the inclusion of a map a welcome relief. I know as a writer, it definitely makes it easier to keep track of my characters and which way they are headed.

But map making has also become a beautiful addition to fantasy literature. Not only does it help the readers understand where a story’s characters are traveling, what sort of dangers lie ahead, and illustrate Continue reading

Your typical summer reading list is chock full of the heaving chests and gun blazing action that you find in romance and thrillers. Now, I don’t have anything against those, but what about the poor deprived science fiction fan? Don’t we get to read on the beach too? So, especially for you (well okay, and for me too…) I’ve scoured the web in search of your essential SF summer reads. Continue reading

“And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
  You never get rid of the Dane.” – Rudyard Kipling

There’s been a recent trend where many companies, especially in the area of software, to make their products subscription-based. Some of the big names have gone down this path, such as Adobe with its “Creative Cloud” option. Likewise, Autodesk introduced a subscription option for its famous 3DS Max software a year or so back and Continue reading

Drones are fascinating technology and these days seem to come in all different sizes and prices. People are flying them racing them, using them to film movies and weddings. You name it and there’s probably a plan to use a drone for it.

20160604_120902Apart from the sheer pleasure of flying one of them there’s also the lure of technology behind them. Drones wouldn’t exist without it in fact. The ultra miniaturized GPS and accelerometer sensors that makes smartphones work is also what enables drones to be so small and feature-rich.

Recently my local library held a “Lunch & Learn” event for people to Continue reading

Dead Reckoning "...a wonderful introduction to a fun, new Canadian author." Click for excerpt

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