Tag Archives: sci-fi

My new sci-fi book: Space Anchor

I haven’t blogged for a while. That’s because I have been busy writing my first sci-fi book, which is now out.

ISBN-13: 978-1491220023 in paperback

FrontCover

and as ASIN: B00E9X02IE in ebook form, with a lighter cover:

kindle cover

It is a not-too-serious book, set towards the end of this century, and is first one I have written on the adventures of Carbon Girl and her partner Carbon Man, who manage to make an entire superhero lifestyle using carbon and not much else. Although it is meant to be a bit light-hearted, most of the tech in it is supposed to be reasonably plausible. I have had to make a couple of concession to artistic license for the space bits – a sad fact of life in sci-fi is that if you want ships to go any distance in a short period, you have to invent some pseudo-scientific way of side-stepping what we currently think of as basic physics. It has AI romance and zombies in it too.

With recent complaints in the media that most sci-fi has a severe shortage of female characters, my book tries to improve the balance a bit, and uses Carbon Girl as its main character. A couple of examples of its general flavour so far:

“When a sexy woman puts on a figure enhancing cat-suit and lethal stilettos, usually people fall in line. Just in case they didn’t, she also took her whip. Now she felt right. She was Carbon Girl again. She was dressed to kill. No, today, they would probably form a queue to be killed by her.”

“It isn’t every day that your arch-nemesis becomes your lover, but then again, as Carbon Man frequently observed “Sometimes, things come right back and bite you on the bum.””

“Corel surrendered totally and unconditionally to temptation, invited it in and told it to make itself feel at home.”

It is available in paper and e-book form. Both available from 2/8/13 via Amazon.

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).

Glyph

Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/how-to-actually-make-a-star-wars-landspeeder-or-a-back-to-the-future-hoverboard/

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Vampires are yesterday, zombies will peak soon, then clouds are coming

Most things that you can imagine have been the subject of sci-fi or fantasy at some point. There is certainly a large fashion element in the decision what to make the next film about and it is fun trying to spot what will come next.

Witches went out of fashion a decade ago even while other sword and sorcery, dungeons and dragons stuff remained stable and recurrent, albeit a niche. Vampires and werewolves accounted for far too many films and became boring, though admittedly, some of them were very good fun, so it’s safe to bury them for a decade or hopefully two.

Zombies are among the current leaders, (as I predicted several years ago, in spite of being laughed at back then). It is still hard to find a computer game that doesn’t have some sort of zombies in it, so they have a good while to go yet. The zombie apocalypse is scientifically and technologically feasible (see http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/zombies-are-coming/and that makes them far more disturbing than vampires and dragons, though the parasites in Alien are arguably even scarier.

Star Trek and the Terminator series introduced us to shape shifters. Avatar and Star Trek enthused over futuristic Indians. Symbionts and proxies are interesting but that’s really quite a shallow seam, there is really only one idea and it’s been used already. Religion and New Age trash has generally polluted throughout sci-fi and fantasy, but people are getting tired of it – American Indians and Australian Aborigines have been apologised to now. Recent Muslim backlash however suggests that the days are numbered for Star Wars, Dune, Mk 1 Klingons and others tapping into middle eastern stereotypes, so maybe  that will force other exotic cultures into the sci-fi limelight. The Cold War has already been done in overdose. South America has already been fully mined too. It’s a good while since the Chinese and Japanese cultures had a decent turn and I suspect they will come back strongly soon, whereas Africa doesn’t hold enough cultural identification points yet. Homophilia is having recurrent effects from Star Wars to Dr Who, but apart from gender-hopping, there isn’t really very far it can go. You can’t make many films from it.

So if those are the areas that are already showing signs of exhaustion  what comes after zombies? Gay zombies? Chinese zombies? Virtual zombies? Time travel zombies? Yeah, but after that?

Here’s my guess. Clouds.

Clouds are the IT Zeitgeist. They are the mid term future for sci-fi. There are a few possible manifestations and some tap well into other things we are getting to like. Clouds are a deep seam too. Not just one idea there. We have self-organisation, distribution, virtualisation, hybridisation, miniaturisation, self-replication, adaptation and evolution. We have AI, biomimetics, symbiosis, parasitic and commensalistic relationships. We have new kinds of gender, new kinds of intelligence, new physical and electronic forms. We have new kinds of materials, new ways of reproduction, new forms of attack and defense. I could write dozens of sci-fi books based on clouds. So could other people, and some of them will. Books, games, films, lots of them. About clouds.

You heard it here first. Clouds are the future of sci-fi.