Capturing our First Planetary Snapshots

 

Kepler has confirmed more than 1000 planets outside our solar system, but so far only a few of Earth-like size and in the habitable zone — rocky planets with just the right temperature for liquid water. And none of those potential Earth-analogues have been observed directly, but through the interpretation of astronomical data, such as the wobble of the star, or the dimming on the star’s light due to planetary transit.

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So far, some pictures of other planets have been taken from ground-based telescopes, but those planets are large, bright and orbit far from their suns — not like potential Earth-twins which will be far smaller and orbit closer to their suns.

NASA scientists and engineers are working on two new technologies to help look for new planets, a starshade and a coronagraph, which will both work to block the light of the star, allowing the telescope to examine the reflected light of the planet itself.

This means we can not only take pictures of prospective Earth-like planets, but also use spectrographic analysis to analyse what in their atmospheres as well. This will give us clues to what might exist there. For example, evidence of plant life and animals similar to those on our Earth would show up as a series of simple signature compounds in the planet’s atmosphere: such as oxygen, ozone, water and methane.

A starshade is a type of spacecraft that actually flies in front of the telescope to block the light of the sun under observation. Despite the fact it will be only tens of metres wide, it will fly quite a bit in front of the telescope — in fact around 50,000 km away — more than four Earth diameters. Getting it into space is a challenge. It will be folded up like a super-origami prior to launch to unfurl in space,  somewhat like an unwinding spring, into to a crazy-sized sunflower. The pointed petals are crucial to its design: they control the light the right way to reduce the glare to levels where planets can be seen. The petal-fringed shape creates a softer edge that causes less bending of the light waves.

Both the starshade and the telescope will be independent spaceships, allowing them to move into just the right position for observations. The petals of the starshade need to be positioned with millimetre accuracy.

Blocking out the starlight while preserving the light emitted from the planet is called starlight suppression.

The light of a sun can be billions of times brighter than the reflected light from the planet. Our own sun is 10 billion times bright than Earth.

Coronagraphs were originally introduced in the early 20th century to study our own sun, blocking out the light from the sun’s disk to allow scientists to study its outer atmosphere, or corona; hence coronagraph. They are much smaller than the starshade, located within the telescope itself.

These starlight-blocking coronagraphs will be more sophisticated.

These new generation coronagraphs uses multiple masks as well as smart mirrors that can deform, to suppress starlight in sequential stages. There are many other challenges in delivering the coronagraph technology, including being able to suppress or compensate for the warping and vibrations that all space telescopes experience.

New Calvanni Review

Writer Tracy Joyce recently published a great independent review of The Calvanni. Here’s the whole review from Tracy’s blog:

The Calvanni (Book 1, The Jakirian Cycle) by Chris McMahon – Monday 27th July 2015

Calvanni front cover (Small)

“If you’re after a fast paced, complex adventure with detailed world building, politics and characters, then The Calvanni may be just what you’re looking for.

The Calvanni is set upon the world of Yos – a world where all metal is magical and cannot be forged. The weapons and armour must be made from natural materials and special ceramics – a nice point of difference from other novels I’ve read. The magic system has been well thought out and for those who like a lot magic in their reading, this book has plenty and some excellent battle sequences.

When the story opens the reader is plunged into the scene dealing with the assassination of the Sarlord of Athria. The depth of the political intrigue and old rivalries within the novel are quickly revealed. McMahon has also created a world with complex social and religious classes and many unusual animals.

This detail is one of the greatest strengths of The Calvanni, yet it may also be an initial obstacle to reading enjoyment for some. There is an array of unique terminology for this world within the novel. Fortunately, there is a glossary at the beginning of the book, which many may find useful. I actually enjoyed all the new terms and creatures that McMahon adds to the world of Yos – for me it added to its sense of authenticity. If you find this initially difficult, then persevere because your patience will reward you with a great read. The pace and the construction of the story are such that you just keep reading and pick up the terminology, or what is implied by it quickly.

On first glance the cover of The Calvanni seemed to me to be more akin to the type of illustration one would see on the cover of an romance novel that masquerades as epic fantasy – Don’t let that fool you because this is a high fantasy with some of the most original and intricate world building I have read in long while.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Four Stars!”

Back to Dune

I recently set myself the task of reading all of the Frank Herbert Dune books, and the additional prequels written by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert. Fourteen books in all. What spurred me on to do this was coming across the first set of Dune prequels in a second-hand bookstore and reading them for the first time. These prequels — House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino — sustained my interest and re-ignited my enthusiasm for the Dune Universe.

So here I go. This is not a formal review — I don’t pretend to be a SF critic — this is just me with a journal, sitting in a coffee shop, writing down my thoughts after reading the book; as insightful, incomplete or tangential as they were . . .

Dune – Frank Herbert

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Herbert’s world has amazing scope, and its creation is an incredible achievement.

Re-reading this book after so many years was a different experience. I can see now how frustrated I would have been as a younger reader at the lack of action.

As an older reader, I could appreciate Herbert’s writing much more.

I would have to say though, for all the confusing wordage of his pre-chapter ‘wisdom’ excerpts and his in-prose philosophical insertions — which occupy much of the prose and dialogue — I have taken away no powerful insights. For me there was no true transfer of wisdom, no higher knowledge. At worst I felt the Herbert was sewing confusion and word-games that sounded profound, but which he himself had no personal stake in. His own beliefs and thoughts remain unstated. Basically, these extended sections of dialogue were literary smoke and mirrors. I concluded that this is in effect a form of delayed resolution to draw the reader on, where many questions are raised, yet no conclusion is ever delivered. And no truth.

The main focus of Dune’s narrative is the inner experience and transformation of Paul. I was impatient with this when I first read Dune. On this second read, may years later, I appreciated Herbert’s prose expression, yet felt he failed to convey a true transformative experience, falling back into word-puzzles and a philosophical mish-mass that implied significance without delivering.

The fact of genetic memory is a central premise of this world. I cannot accept this as a credible basis. This does not make sense to me from a scientific point of view.

Herbert’s novel implies telepathy through contact in the spice ritual that creates the Reverend Mothers, yet the mechanism or actuality is unclear.

The idea of a Mentat is sound, yet Thufur fails to convince me as a character. We are told he is a master assassin and mentat, yet he never actually shows us anything to convince us of this. And believe me — I wanted to believe it! I wanted to see it!

The Bene Gesserit are done well – you can see directly how their training gives them advantages. You can credit this, and it is shown directly through Jessica as a character. The Bene Tleilaxu are vaguely presented in this first book, but intriguing.

All up I enjoyed the return to the world of Dune, and enjoyed Herbert’s prose. He has created a in-depth and convincing world that has remarkable texture and is a pleasure to visit.

My SF Short Time Pump Just Published in Dimension6

I’m very excited to announce my SF short Time Pump has just been published in Keith Stevenson’s Dimension6 ezine! Click here to download a free, DRM-free epub or here to download a mobi file!

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The story was born from an intriguing SF idea and gradually took shape through various edits and critique sessions. I’m sure quite a few of my former Vision and Edge writing group partners will remember this one.

Time Pump has always been one of my favourite stories. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say it raises some interesting questions about time travel. Time Pump was great fun to write, and the SF idea aside, it is a classic survival story set on a frigid ice-world. Originally it had a lot more backstory about the central character MacPherson and why he ended up on the planet like that (and who betrayed him), but various critique partners encouraged me to focus and shorten the story. So if you’re wondering about that deeper mystery . . . blame them for never finding out:)

The prequel novella to my three-book Heroic Fantasy series Jakirian Cycle, Flight of the Phoenix, is also available as a free download from my website. Haunted by terrible visions, and battling his own fear of Sorcery, the aging weaponmaster Belin must face the magical assassins that stalk the capital Raynor and bring the newborn son of the fallen Emperor — the last of the Cinanac line — to safety. Check it out — it’s a great way to get a taste for the series.

Here is the cool cover by Daryl Linquist

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The Jakirian Cycle is Heroic Fantasy in a world of ceramic weapons, where all metal is magical. It’s had some great reviews and is available through my website in either print versions or in a variety of electronic formats and platforms. My favourite review tag line is ‘Think Kill Bill meets Dune!’ – I mean, how cool is that? Here are the covers, also by Daryl.

Calvanni front cover (Small)Scytheman front cover (Small)Sorcerer front cover (Small)

 

Judging Your Own Work

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Now this is something I find almost impossible to do.

Every single time I sit down to write I make the journey from ‘My God this sucks’ to ‘this is starting to hang together’ to ‘I’m liking this!’ and back to ‘this is total crap.’

Somewhere through that process I actually get a buzz – usually when I forget to think critically at all.

I’ve won prizes and been shortlisted for genre awards. Other writer friends say I write well. Every now and then I will get a shock when a dedicated critiquer who does nothing but criticize me and my work introduces me as a ‘fine writer.’

It seems that I have no capacity for objectivity. When I look at the work that I have done I see the prose through a microscope (showing ugliness usually) and the story from a lightyear away – focused on the shape of the whole thing and its various subplots.

Getting critique is one way to get feedback. Reviews on published work are another. I’m not sure which one is crueler, probably the reviews since they are public and liable to effect sales.

On a day-to-day basis, how are you supposed to get any sort of handle on your work? I guess writing is a never-ending series of judgements you make – is the sentence too long, is there enough description, should the clown really kill the president, how big are his shoes etc. Yet when the high of actually being in the flow fades, all I am left with is a sense of unease.

How do you go about judging your own work as you progress? Is it actually impossible?

 

Tattoos in Fantasy

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I’ve always been intrigued by tattoos. The awesome finality of having your skin inked has made me even more fascinated by traditions where tattoos carry a special meaning, such as the Polynesian cultures.

In my fantasy world of Yos, tattoos carry very particular meanings. Men and women are tattooed with a totem on coming of age, which has a religious meaning and marks inclusion in a particular sect and tradition – men inked on the chest and women on the cheek.

Then, both men and women gain tattoos that show their chosen path in life, their achievements and honours. This is so central to the cultures of Yos that to cover your chest (it’s a warm world) is a sign of deceit. Warriors will only wear armour in full-scale conflict.

In a world where many cannot read or write, the tattoos give a person’s history at a glance, where honour – and dishonour – is written in ink.

Here’s the cover from The Calvanni, that shows some of the tattoos of the Way of the Calvanni – or knife-fighter.

Calvanni front cover (Small)

Do you have any special tattoos that carry a particular meaning for you?

What’s Your Favourite Fantasy Weapon?

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One of the great things about writing fantasy is the fun you can have with weapons:)

In my fantasy world Yos, where my three-book Jakirian Cycle is set, all metal is present as a magical crystal called a glowmetal. These glowmetals are a naturally occurring blend of light and metal that cannot be created or destroyed. So in the development of weapons, swords and metal armour were out. Instead I developed various classes of composite ceramic.

Lanedd – which can be used for blades. This holds a razor-sharp edge, yet avoids the brittleness of pure ceramics.

Mought – incredibly tough material that can be cast into shape as armour or used for the haft of various weapons.

The longest practical lanedd blade that can be cast using the techniques available to Glassmiths in Yos is the ‘calv’ or long-knife. This is where the world ‘calvanni’ or knife-fighter derives.

On Yos the dualist’s weapon of choice is the greatscythe. This is a staff-like weapon with twin concealed blades, one at either end. The blades shoot out and lock into place. It is operated by a mechanism central to the haft . It is also the weapon of the Suul nobility.

I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how the greatscythe worked. After all – with no forged metal – I could not very well have conventional coiled springs.

Here’s what I came up with:

The greatscythe has a central fighting grip and a release grip slightly wider than this which is operated by twisting two rings. These have a thread on the inside that operates a rod moving parallel with the axis of the greatscythe. This movement switches what is known in knife-talk as an Out-The-Front or OTF mechanism.

To make this work I needed two separate types of springs in the internal mechanism, both which had to be some sort of natural material. The first I solved with small bone ‘leaf’ springs for the catches that lock the blade into position. For the main spring that drives the blade back and forward I used a rubber strap-spring.

The greatscythe itself tapers to the ends. Two cover plates attach to a hollow cast core and cover the dual mechanisms – sealed in place with a special mought (ceramic) that melts at a much lower temperature than the mought of the haft. So if the mechanism needs to be fixed the sealing mought can be melted away to free the plate.

What your favourite Fantasy weapon?

 

 

Need Dry Ice? Try Mars.

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A new study on the Red Planet suggests that the sharply etched channels that crisscross its surface may have been cut by frozen CO2, rather than water.

The contention is that these gullies are very much active, and continue to form on Mars even now in cold weather. If that’s the case, than it is almost certainly ‘dry ice’ or frozen CO2 that is developing this geological feature.

Recent photographs captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have enable a new look at the phenomenon, allowing researchers such as lead author Colin Dundas to examine the timing of gully formation over the last couple of years.

downhill-end-martian-gully

The conclusion was that the gully formation is occurring in winter, when the Martian atmosphere is condensing out as a solid. Unlike Earth, where the temperature and pressure conditions for the formation of dry ice does not occur in nature, on Mars they occur every winter, most notably in the form of a seasonal polar ice cap.

As many as 38 sites have now been identified as showing active gully formation. All at times when it would be too cold for liquid water to flow.

So if your heading out the Red Planet – don’t forget the Beer Cooler. The dry ice is free :).

 

Building a Story – Plot Elements

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I will be the first to admit there are about a million ways to skin a cat.

When it comes to writing, there are as many valid approaches as there are writers. In fact, I am always fascinated by the varied processes of other writers. I never tire of hearing about it, as though each unique method is like another peek under the hood of some amazingly magical, complex machine. A machine I’ll never have a hope of truly understanding.

That said, I am pretty structured in my own approach. So if I’m going to pass on what I know, it’s going to be an organised method. That’s going to be a godsend to some, perhaps an annoying thorn in the creative brain to others. Either way, I hope you enjoy hearing about it.

OK. Plotting.

In formulating a story, I work around three basic elements. Character, Conflict and Setting.

In a good story, each of these elements should be integral to the others — i.e. the elements of the setting should be unique and have some interrelationship with the characters and their main conflicts. The conflict should be unique to the relationship between character and setting etc. But don’t strain your brain about that too much now.

Starting to put together a story is a time for free-flowing thought – anything goes. There is time enough to scrutinise later (believe me).

When I started putting together plots, it was all pen and paper (I was going to say clay tablets and stylus just for fun, but hey – I’m not that old).

Nowadays I put everything into a single Word file. All plot related notes, the actual plot flow, and all the research notes. Why? It’s so damn easy to find everything! Gone are the frustrated hours trying to find that key handwritten paragraph amidst a mountain of scrawled notes. The Word search function is a bit of code blessed by the Writing Gods. All you need to do and insert some key characters, or just make a mental note of the heading you need and presto, you are there. Between the search function and the ability to split Word into two screens, the power of that single Word document to facilitate the development of your story is truly amazing.

Right. Back to plotting.

I usually start by sketching out all the headings. When I say I have an organised approach, it doesn’t mean my mind is linear — not by a long shot — let’s face it, all creative people have thoughts like supercharged ping-pong balls, all of which insist on going sideways. It makes regular work meetings a nightmare.

What the structure enables me to do is capture these thoughts and ideas as they come, fleshing out the story background, then the story itself.

Here are the general headings I use:

General Notes & Ideas

What is the Book about?

Setting

Character

Conflict

Plot Flow

Specific research I put after these sections, under its own headings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is usually some key creative spark – that initial conception – that is your way into the story.

Right at the beginning I start with the General Notes and Ideas section, jotting down all the ideas that relate to the story. I am a visual person, so something in the act of writing these things down helps to solidify and expand the whole storyline. These notes could be plot ideas, character ideas or even worldbuilding. Anything really, just to get the creative juice flowing.

Then, depending on the book, I might need to do some specific research. How much? This is really a gut feel thing. As a general rule, I would say be guided by your own instinct about what you need to read. Don’t be too dogmatic to yourself. Don’t say: ‘Right. If I’m going to X I really need to research Y’. Choosing research is as much part of the mysterious craft of writing as anything else. This is a fact that many people miss. That same itch, or instinct, that makes you want to write in the first place will direct your attention to the work you need to pursue. You will know. It’s like that scene in Dragon – the Bruce Lee Story — where he is in the dream sequence with the demon. He is getting the snot knocked out of him in the graveyard (in the rainJ) and then suddenly there is a beam of light, showing Bruce a pair of nunchucks in the mouth of a lion statue. It’s exactly the same. There will be some beam of mental illumination or gut instinct that will tell you what you need to be reading and researching as background or aid to your work.

Of course, if your world is completely invented, your ‘research’ might be creating things from scratch, although I would usually put that under Setting.

Your research notes can be as clunky and disorganised as you like. The beauty of search function is you can easily find it if you need it.

At this stage I am usually bouncing back and forward between pursuing some research thread (again based on gut instinct) and scribing down ‘light bulb’ moments under the General Notes & Ideas heading as they occurred to me.

I am creating a mosaic of the work to come.

After doing this for a while I reach some sort of threshold and I begin to get more concrete ideas for the book. Often the first area to fill out is the Setting for the world. I have a particular love of Worldbuilding, and I often go pretty far down the rabbit hole sketching out culture, history, life forms, weaponry and of course — magic systems :).

But it’s never the same. A good chunk of the plot flow might come in one piece. Or perhaps the particular conception for this piece of work might actually revolve around a piece of conflict. In this case I might spend some time sketching out the warring parties, the internal dilemma, or even the scene I see.

I do sketch down thoughts on characters in much the same way. But I guess of all the areas I am more deliberate in my approach to Character. Apart from those initial ideas I might get on the fly, I usually have to make a conscious choice to walk down the character development path. I suspect this is very different from pantser writers, who are dragged by the nose by characters who very much take a life of their own from the outset.

In order to flesh out characters I use a number of key category areas to tease the story out of them (more in later posts on that). I work on each of the major characters until I have a really good idea of their personal history, what motivates them, what their current challenge is, and what is driving them in the story.

I usually find that I cannot properly build up the Plot Flow until I know the characters. The secrets of the story – the nuances and the key forces that comprise the narrative momentum — are lurking inside the characters. I’m with Stephen King on that one.

The vast advantage of being able to construct a plot flow before engaging in the actual process of writing as that you can add complexity. Multiple sub-plots. Red herrings. Tiny stories that happen in the background that are living part of setting.

As a reader their is nothing more satisfying to me than being surprised by a satisfying ending where multiple threads come into alignment. That is a truly thrilling part of this art to me, and it cannot happen without structure. To pull that off without sketching out the plot before hand, you need astounding luck and a story sense that is most likely bringing out structures that have been absorbed from other works of fiction.

Again, this is what works for me and my approach is structured.

I have other more specific headings I have not included – the exception being What is the Book About? This is a pretty key thing to give some attention to. It’s usually something I have to consider deliberately, and quite a bit down the track of story development. This is all about theme. It’s critical to get clarity on this. It helps to solidify your thinking, and is vital to later efforts to market and communicate your work. This is the raw material from which you will distil the ’25 words or less’ that sums up your work, often dubbed the Elevator Pitch. This is where you find yourself in an elevator for 2min with a publisher and have only a brief moment to convey your concept. The most memorable being the one used for the movie Twins with Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pitch was simply. ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny Devito — Twins.’ That was enough to sell a movie.

Anyway, I hope some of you found that helpful. I describe my own method to get your brain working. Use what works for you – but never stop listening to your own instincts. Remember, there are as many approaches to writing as writers.

Next (I’m doing the longer posts on Writing Craft every two weeks) I’m going to look closer at Conflict.

What Space Tourism Needs

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Want to get into space? Heck – who doesn’t!

In the early days of space exploration the vehicles were the equivalent of experimental coupes with no room in the back. Rockets like the Saturn V had a lot of power under the hood, but the capsule had no seats for the kids or friends.

Kudos to Virgin Galactic for taking the next step, with vehicles for up to six passengers. These lucky six will be paying anywhere from US$95,000 to US$250,000 depending on the length of the journey. This upgrades us from two-seater to an Orbital Minivan, but really this is still only an extreme sport for the super wealthy. Maybe not the spouse in the passenger seat and kids in the back — more like the CEO and his lucky executives.

True space tourism would be closer to the model we have today with commercial aviation, opening up the unique travel and leisure opportunities for a wider population. That would require something akin to a tourist bus.

Interestingly, the designers of the Space Shuttle originally intended it to be used as far more than a cargo carrier, with some designs carrying up to 74 passengers in a modified rear compartment or ‘passenger module’. Check out the graphic below (attribution: chron.com blog).

the_future_of_space_tourism_6 - chrondotcom blog

Even more fascinating is the fact that the Shuttle was also originally conceived with a reusable manned booster. The problem was the manned booster was about the size of an aircraft carrier. Yet if they had managed to build it, the overall cost of spaceflight might have dropped substantially, taking advantage of the fact that the fuel is only about 1% of the cost of getting into orbit.

It is interesting to note that the development of reusable boosters (unmanned), is the key focus of Space X for this exact reason (i.e. that the hardware is where the real cost is, not the fuel).

If only. . .