Science Fiction Writer

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In many popular science fiction works habitable worlds often seem plentiful. Every week, or in every movie, some new world and race is brought on stage (and sometimes ushered off equally quickly). Star Trek has its Klingons, Vulcans, and Andorians, among numerous others, while Star Wars has its Wookies, Hutt, Mandalorians, and of course, the despicably evil Ewoks. A lot of other SF is similarly populated, and in some ways alien worlds are one of the central themes of certain sub-genres within the broad category of science fiction.

Not too long ago, this was all speculation. Although astronomers were pretty sure that planets would exist around other stars, they had no way of actually knowing for sure. The famous Drake Equation made a stab at determining the number of worlds and depending on the pessimism of the probabilities used, typically resulted in the estimation that the number of the planets in our galaxy was in the millions.

Then in 2004, something incredible happened. The HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph installed in ESO’s 3.6m telescope in Chile did what many had thought would be forever impossible–it detected the first ever exoplanet. For the first time ever we had conclusive proof that planets existed outside our own solar system! I remember reading the news and literally trembling with excitement at the possible implications!

Since then HARPS has gone on to discover hundreds more exoplanets. Not only that but in 2009 the Kepler Space Obervatory was launched, which soon added many more worlds to the point where the number of confirmed observations now surpasses 3500 planets! The question of whether planets are “out there” is well and truly answered with a resounding “Yes!”

Despite this wealth of information, something still eludes us, and will do for some time. As yet we don’t know of any truly earth-like planets, nothing that we can say could definitely sustain life of some kind. We’ve found a few that maybe close, but nothing overwhelming. What’s more as we examine these distant star systems, they look less and less similar to our own. There are systems with hot-jupiters, huge gas giants that sit close to their stars and block the potential for forming what we would consider habitable worlds. There are also so-called super-earths, planets of a similar rocky composition as ours, but rarely in the star’s habitable zone, but again nothing that really stands out.

It seems the chances of finding an earth analog are in fact getting less the more we discover. In recent analysis, the “Goldilocks-zone” where a planet could possibly maintain liquid water (seen as a prerequisite for life), seems to be possibly bigger than was thought but the question of habitability also seems a lot more complicated. Not only that but astronomers also believe that the larger planets in our own solar system must have undergone “migrations” to get to their current orbits, leaving the predictability factor difficult indeed.

And other recent research suggests that even if a planet lies inside the habitable zone, there’s a strong chance that it would be “tidally locked”–where one side permanently faces its star. For us here on earth, the moon acts as a counter to the otherwise slowing of planetary rotation that occurs due to gravitational “drag” when a small object orbits a much larger one. Without a significant moon, this drag effect slows the planets rotational period quickly (in astronomical terms). On such a world live may still be possible in the very border between the constantly overheated side facing the star and the frozen “back” side. This narrow strip of moderate climate could result in what has been named a “ribbon world” (a phrase invented by the prolific science fiction author, Isaac Asimov) but the chances of life developing there are obviously seriously limited.

In my novelette, Three Lives Of Mary, the lead characters–a married cybernetic couple (CySaps) are scouts, looking for valuable planets. In the story I mention the idea that while planets are relatively common, habitable ones are far more rare, and I believe that this is an accurate reflection of reality. This idea features in several of my stories (though I’m certainly not against having some fun with the idea alien races too!)

While it’s always fun to think about the universe being full of all kinds of weird and wacky lifeforms (with or without pointy ears!), the truth is likely to be a little disappointing in comparison. In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch, with a light collector five times larger than the Hubble. Given its power we will get a lot more information on planets around the closest stars, and who knows? Maybe, with luck, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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When people write science fiction, they’re often extrapolating current technology and devices and looking into the future of what they may become. This can lead to some quite odd parallels as science catches up with what the authors once just dreamed about.

For instance, in 1945 Arthur C. Clarke wrote about “extraterrestrial relays”–geostationary artificial satellites–which were the inspiration for the subsequent development of communication satellites that we now rely on so much.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov started to write his now famous series of robot stories. Okay, my Roomba vacuum doesn’t quite resemble R. Daneel yet… but as development progresses, you can bet that Asimov’s laws of robotics will figure heavily in ethics debates. And the company U.S. Robotics , which builds high technology devices, including robots, was actually named after Asimov’s fictional “U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.” after being inspired by the Good Doctor’s stories.

Honda’s Asimo Robot

That wasn’t the only score for Asimov. He also created the concept of “Multivac” and used it in several stories. Multivac was a giant computer that straddled the world and contained all of human knowledge. People could access it from anywhere and ask any questions they wanted to–big, small, profound or impetuous. Doesn’t that sound remarkably similar to what we now call the internet and search engines?

Beyond books, Star Trek has inspired many now real-world technologies. First were the automatic doors–the ones that swooshed elegantly out of the way when people wanted to pass through them. On the show these were pulled open on cue by prop handlers, but the TV company had many requests from people asking where they could buy them. At the time they couldn’t, but soon they were being produced and are now seen everywhere from airports to hospitals to shopping malls.

Another Star Trek technology now coming in real world is the medical scanner known as the Tricorder. This device allowed a person (or creature!) to be scanned for a number of readings related to their health and well-being. Again, as life imitates art, a group of doctors are now working to make the device a reality.  Their version is a little more limited than the fictional counterpart, but who knows what a few years of development will bring.

And most recently a new inspiration has appeared from the classic TV show. Who can forget the fantastic “turbolifts” on board the Enterprise? These clever boxes had a similar function as ordinary lifts, but could move not only up and down, but sideways too! Well, German elevator producer ThyssenKrupp is now taking inspiration from this for a new system being tested that would do exactly that–by making use of linear induction motor technology!

Thyssenkrupp multi-direction elevator

In fact the number of devices on Start Trek that now closely resemble actual technologies is remarkable, from computer tablets, small hand-held communicators (cellphones–you can even buy a Bluetooth replica of the original!), Uhura’s wireless earpiece, security applications of biometrics (retina scanning), and even the Universal Translator.

Bluetooth cellphone handset

This is the incredible thing about science fiction. When you create it, you’re not just creating something cool and fun–sometimes you are literally creating the future!

Which are your favorite examples of science fiction entering into the real world?

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In a little while we’re going to have the “Great American Eclipse”–say it loud and proud and wave those flags! This will be the first eclipse contained entirely within the US, and as such offers the people there a fantastic opportunity to steep themselves in understanding the science and physics behind the event. Unfortunately, some people can’t apparently deal with that..

A few days ago, I stumbled across a video on youtube (I’m not going to promote it by linking to it), claiming that the moon is only seventy miles wide and that the eclipse was some kind of NASA promoted hoax. The “why” aspect of this is naturally 100% sense-free).

The argument goes something like this. If you look at children’s science books discussing the sun’s rays hitting the earth, they are parallel (or as someone put it “at ninety degrees”–hmmm on a curved surface?).. If the sun’s rays are indeed parallel, then the shadow of an object can be no smaller, than the object itself and so, as the path of totality (total eclipse) is around seventy miles wide, then the moon can be no larger than that.

It sounds reasonable at first glance perhaps. But the truth is very different. Here, I’ll let Father Ted explain it:

In simple terms, the moon is very small (compared to the sun) and very close, while the sun, is MUCH larger than the moon (or the earth for that matter) and much further away. The one time that a shadow can appear smaller than the object itself is when the light source is bigger than the object producing the shadow. The light rays”creep” around the edges of the object, producing an area not fully shadowed (the region of partial eclipse called the “penumbra”) and an area fully shadowed (called the “umbra”). Here’s an explanatory diagram:

Pretty straight-forward, huh? Yes, this is a Father Dougal eclipse explanation! 🙂

The other thing that has apparently fueled the shrieks of “conspiracy” is the fact that the eclipse will start in the west and travel across the US to the east–with cries of how can this be, when the moon rises in the east and sets in the west t (like the sun).

The explanation for this is just as simple. The eclipse is nothing more than the moon’s cast shadow hitting the earth’s surface. So when the moon is to the east with the sun, the cast shadow can only be in the west. Like this:

The sun and the moon BOTH rise in the east, so the cast shadow is over to the west. Then, as the sun moves further overhead during the eclipse, the shadow is cast more directly down on the earth’s surface, having moved to the east.

Finally, the sun’s position relative to the earth and moon has moved west, casting the shadow east. I think even Father Dougal could understand that!

No conspiracy required, just a basic understanding of the real world. The big blunder in all these conspiracy theories is this. The first person (known) to estimate the size of the moon was the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who used some clever geometry (and an eclipse!) to estimate the moon and sun’s relative distances and size.

The figure he got for the moon was between 0.32 and 0.40 times the diameter of Earth–which would give the moon a diameter of about 4000-5000kilometers–not a bad estimate considering the limits of the instruments and data he had available (the actual size is around 3500 kilometers.)

So, if there’s some kind of “NASA conspiracy,” it had to start back in ancient Greece–around 2500 years ago!

I’ve been working on some of the assets that I’ll be using in the book trailer for the sequel to Mathematics Of Eternity. Although the first book is largely earth-based, the sequel sees more off-world locations, including a facility near Mercury, Lunar Free State, and also has our heroes heading off to the asteroid belt.

I decided it would be fun to put together a little scene using some of these assets, and below is the result. All work done in Blender 3D as usual, with a little bit of post production using Gimp. I used the opportunity to learn and practice a few more techniques, and I’m pretty happy with how it’s come out.

Click on the image to see it at a larger size.

I’ve bought two Garmin hardware GPS units in my time. The displays were a little small by modern standards, but they worked well enough and were a wonderful enhancement to our frequent road trips. The additional comfort of knowing you can always find your way somewhere (even if you miss the occasional turn) is very liberating and a definite safety benefit as it frees you from worrying about maps etc. The GPS turned our sometimes frazzled cruises into carefree joyful pleasures.

A few years ago I decided to buy the Garmin Viago phone app. This looked very promising–offering the same navigation software as the dedicated units but in the handy package of your phone. I tried it a few times and it was okay. The app was a little glitchy perhaps Continue reading

I was at the Sudbury Graphic-con yesterday and had a great time. There were some amazing costumes that must have taken so much effort to make. It was great to meet everybody and make new friends and I hope everyone enjoyed themselves as much as I did.

To anyone who picked up my free ebook postcards, there’s been a glitch in the free status on Amazon. It was free yesterday but isn’t today when it should have been. It will be back to free status tomorrow, so if you check then you’ll be able to get it. If you ended up inadvertently buying it, please get in touch so we can work something out. You can contact me via email on: writing@davidmkelly.net.

It’s safe to say that as a writer, I spend a lot of time at the keyboard. Actually let’s rephrase that; actually I spend huge amounts of time at the keyboard…. nope, that’s still not accurate… Being an author, I live on the keyboard. Every single day, in fact I’m attached to my computer in a symbiotic relationship like Jadzia had with Dax. There is literally not a single day goes by where I am not here click-click-clicking away.

The first keyboards I used were the old IBM model M keyboards. Man those things were heavy, I mean physically heavy. So heavy that there were special versions of Clue(do) where the result of the whodunit was Colonel Mustard, in the living room, beaten to death using an IBM Model M keyboard.

And that sound they made was awesome. Clack. Click. Clack. Clackclick. You really knew you were in the business of typing something important just from the sound alone. The typing equivalent of a Rolls Royce door shutting. Click Click, Clack Clack Click. Thirty years on, these are still available and even now make a great choice for any committed keyboard ninja.

After that, most PCs switched to the cheaper, membrane keyboards. Those horrible blancmange-filled devices worked… sort of… I mean they put letters on the screen when you pressed them, but it wasn’t the same.

So when I started writing professionally, I looked around for something that would bring back that rich auditory memory of serious typing. This wasn’t entirely self-indulgent (honest!) — a good keyboard can really help your typing speed, your creative thought, and they last significantly longer than those cheap membrane things.

After much research I settled on the incredible DAS Model S professional. This stout beastie makes use of the Cherry MX Blue switches, to give you that resistive feel and satisfying CLICK whenever you press a key, and I quickly fell in love with it. I’ve used it happily ever since I bought it several years ago. (If you want the firm feel without the click go with the MX Brown switches.)

DAS does a range of keyboards from the (extremely daunting) Ultimate models with no lettering, to more friendly professional models like the one I chose. Here it is:

While it looks extremely stylish and feels great, more recently I’ve found the small lettering difficult to read. Also the text is more of a gray on white effect that isn’t obvious in the photo and that also makes it awkward for me (I struggle a little with low contrast colors).

So what to do?

I shopped around and found some vinyl sticker overlays in a large font that looked like they would do the trick and initially I was quite pleased with them. They weren’t especially cheap, but after a few months of (ab)use, I found the downside. The glue isn’t very robust and they started to come unstuck, sliding around on top of the key like an unruly child and needing regular re-positioning. Not ideal for a permanent keyboard jockey like me. Here’s a picture of the mess:

Notice how the lettering isn’t straight and that several are twisted and overhanging? (especially the left CTRL key and in the W and E areas.) And yes, this is a wired keyboard! 😉

So recently I did more research (Yeah! Writer research!) and found several companies that make custom keycaps for Cherry MX switches. In particular, Max Keyboard offered a wide range of styles that looked good, and when I contacted them were extremely helpful and friendly. I didn’t want anything very complicated–large font, pure white on black keys but it turned out that there was a slight hiccup.

I didn’t realize when I bought the DAS Pro that it had a slightly non-standard key set-up that didn’t match the keycap layouts offered by Max. I thought I was out of luck, but after a few emails were exchanged, I found they could do a custom set to match my keyboard for a modest price. The helpful and quick responses made it an easy choice, and I ordered my set happily. The great service continued and the keycaps arrived quickly, despite my out-of the-way location. Then all that was necessary was to swap the keys over.

This was relatively straight forward. First, I arranged all the keycaps in their correct layout to make it easier to swap them over correctly. Max supplied a puller to make getting the old keys off fairly easy. One thing to be aware of on the DAS keyboard:the larger keys (Shift, Enter etc.) have a wire stabilizer that hooks onto two white “eyes” that plug into holes on either side of the central mount that presses onto the actual switch itself. Unhooking these and reattaching them is a little tricky. Also, the eyes have to be transferred from the old keys to the new and they’re “handed” –they have an offset that only works if it’s the same way as the original way they were mounted –so make sure you copy the way they’re facing when you move them. If you don’t, the keys will bind.

Overall, it took me about an hour to switch everything. Be prepared to find out just how much gunky debris there is under the keys on a typical keyboard and clean it out!

Here’s the final result:

I’m very pleased. The keyboard looks much better than the vinyl stickers and feels just as good as ever. Plus with the large font and pure white, they’re easier to see than the original ones. All in all, a great update.

Max Keyboard does a range of colors styles and even graphic designs if you want. They also offer a complete bespoke service if you want to go wild, or have a keyboard that matches a specific app, or set of gaming keys, I’d heartily recommend them. Here are a couple of the more brightly colored options:

Have fun upgrading your keyboard and feel free to share pics of your custom set-up if you upgrade! And if you don’t have a mechanical keyboard yet… well, what are you waiting for? Max Keyboard offers their own version that looks just as good as the DAS version, but with all the benefit of the custom options.

And if that doesn’t convince you, how about this?
Yes, old -school typewriter keys on a modern cherry MX keyboard! You can find these on Ebay and similar sites, I have no idea how good they are, but they sure look cool!

And to think, at one time a keyboard was just something for typing on! Have fun!

It’s time to announce the official release of my short-story, Atoll. It’s not my latest story written. I’ve had it ready or a while but wanted to get my novel out before releasing this one.

The story is loosely connected to my novel Mathematics Of Eternity, taking  place a few decades before the events in the novel. Both stand alone, fully independent of each other–you don’t need to read one before the other, and there are no spoilers. Atoll partly shows how the world got to be the way it is in the novel and in that sense provides some extra detail and history. Here’s my cover design.

That’s not the only news though…

The cover on my short story collection Dead Reckoning And Other Stories has always had a mixed response. Personally I like it (or I wouldn’t have used it!) and think it suits the lead story well, but others have seen it as not being “sci-fi” enough, and some have said it looks more like a horror cover. So I’ve been working for a while on giving it a makeover.

As I’m planning to go to a sci-fi conference in a couple of months, I thought what better time to give it a makeover in time for that. So without further ado (or adon’t!) here’s the new cover. I hope you like it and makes the genre more obvious.

The new design is still taken from a scene inn the lead story. How that ties in to the original cover, I’ll leave for you to figure out 🙂

The new version is available now in ebook and will also be available soon in print.

One of the things that frustrates me sometimes is the limited functionality of the author platform on Amazon. Sure you can log in and monitor things, see how many sales you have and check for reviews, but it’s a pain having to switch between the different local sites.

I think a lot of indie authors, especially in the early days, hang on every sale, and every review they get–these are like golden nuggets to treasure and celebrate because they’re signs that you’re making progress.

Well, being a curmudgeonly somewhat ex-techie, I decided I wanted a better way to spot these things as soon Continue reading

It’s my birthday and you can help me celebrate! How? By reading one of my short-stories that I’ve posted free for everyone to read on my site.

Atoll is a sister story to my recently released novel Mathematics Of Eternity. It’s set a few years before the novel and shows some of the situations that led up to the world you can see in the novel. Be quick, though, it’s only there for today and tomorrow!

Have fun reading 🙂

(No, that’s not really my cake, but I wish it was!)