Friday, November 30, 2012

Links 30/11/12

'At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.'  After days of fevered media speculation, NASA gets around to killing a rumour with the facts.

NASA hasn't found plastic beads on Mars, either.

On the other hand, the Messenger spacecraft has identified water-ice and organic material in permanently shadowed regions at the north pole of sunblasted Mercury.

'Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?' Talking of internet rumours, a long article in the New York Times about a lone, eccentric scientist who may have discovered the key to immortality in a species of jellyfish, is swiftly and thoroughly critiqued.

Apparently, my story 'The Choice' didn't win an award I didn't know it was shortlisted for.  Oh well.

Still, in his roundup of the best science-fiction novels of the year, Adam Roberts says some nice things about In The Mouth of the Whale and picks M. John Harrison's Empty Space as his book of the year. Mine too.

This is not a Rubik's Cube.

But these are fish.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Operation Deep Sounding

Cash was falling free through Saturn’s vast skies at a steep angle, making slow S-turns to bleed off excess velocity. He eyeballed Vera Jackson’s singleship falling ahead of him, about fifty kilometres to the east, looked for and failed to find any sign of the pod dropped by the shuttle, uploaded a status check to mission control and acknowledged the congratulations of the mission commander.

‘On my mark,’ Vera said, and counted down from ten.

Cash deployed his drogue parachutes at zero and there was a thump and a tremendous corkscrewing jerk as the parachutes swung him around and checked his forward momentum, and then he was falling nose down through a vast clear ocean of hydrogen and helium at just under a hundred kilometres an hour, in a prevailing air current that was taking him eastwards at about five times that speed. In about ten hours, if he kept falling at his present rate, he would reach the beginning of the amorphous boundary between the gaseous atmosphere and the deep ocean of hot metallic hydrogen that lay beneath, although long before then the singleship would have been crushed and scorched to a cinder by tremendous pressures and temperatures. Not even tough, heavily shielded robot probes had ever penetrated to more than half the depth of the gaseous phase of Saturn’s atmosphere. The two singleships would fall for only three hours, dropping through the liquid-water zone before igniting their motors and departing.

If everything went well, they’d pass close to their target. And even if they missed it, the packages they planned to release contained autonomous drones that could ride the winds of Saturn for months while they tracked it down and searched for other anomalies. Meanwhile, Cash had a few moments to enjoy the tremendous panorama wrapped around him. It was early morning. The sky was deep indigo and seemingly infinite, the sun a tiny flattened disc that glowered at the hazy horizon, the centre of concentric shells of bloody light that rose towards zenith. In every direction, the crystalline hydrogen atmosphere stretched for thousands of kilometres, broken only by a few wisps of cloud formed from frozen ammonia, looking just like ordinary cirrus cloud and tinged pink by dawn light. He felt like a king of this whole wide world, an emperor of air, and told Vera that this place was definitely made for flying.

‘I hear that,’ Vera said.  ‘Check out the storm. We’re right in the pipe.’

Below, halfway to the eastern horizon, a creamy ocean of cloud rifted apart around the storm’s great oval eye. With interrupted arcs of cloud and clear air curved around it, it looked much like a hurricane back on Earth. In fact, everything seemed eerily familiar. Blue sky, white clouds, the sun gaining a golden hue as it lifted above the horizon. It took an effort to remember that the distance to the horizon was more than ten times that on Earth. That the storm was two thousand kilometres across. That the sky was hydrogen and helium a thousand kilometres deep, with cloud layers of ammonium ice above and decks of ammonium hydrosulphide and ammonium-rich water-ice and water-droplet clouds below, endlessly blowing around this vast world.

From The Quiet War (2008)

Image taken by the Cassini spacecraft on November 27th.  More here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


So apparently the Mars rover Curiosity has found something very interesting in the soil it scooped up in Gale crater, but we won't know what it is until the science crew have finished double- and triple-checking their results. The consensus is that it is some kind of organic material, and over on his blog my pal Oliver Morton points out that this isn't unexpected, given that have been meteors delivering organic matter to the surface of Mars for billions of years.

Meanwhile, scientists studying Lake Vida in Antarctica have discovered a rich bacterial ecosystem in its frigid, briny water, considerably extending the definition of 'hospitable to life'. At -13 °C, Lake Vida has been locked beneath a cap of ice twenty metres thick for almost three thousand years, permanently dark and lacking free oxygen. Without light and photosynthesis, the microbes need some other energy source. It's possible that they can utilise energy produced by chemical reactions between the briny water and iron-rich sediments, so that, unlike most ecosystems on Earth, they don't need organic material ultimately produced by capturing sunlight.  Which has obvious implications for the kinds of life that may exist in brines that might be found deep beneath the Martian surface, or in the cold and sunless oceans under the icy surfaces of moons like Jupiter's Europa, Saturn's Enceladus, or Neptune's Triton. But it's also possible that the microbes have been ekeing out a living by scavenging a bare residue of dissolved carbon compounds.  Which makes me wonder if there might not be icy worldlets in the outer reaches of the solar system, or in dust and debris belts around other stars, whose subsurface oceans are intermittently penetrated by meteorites. As the ice around the impact site seals over, there's a sudden blooming of life as microbes and other organisms - meteorphages - compete for organic material dissolving in the frigid brine, frantically growing and reproducing until the material is exhausted. The brief meteor spring is over, and everything switches to survival mode and shuts down, waiting for the next impact in a thousand or ten thousand years . . .

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Photographing The Future

It's easy to see or to photograph the past: just look up at the night sky. Because of the immense distances and because light can travel at no more than 299, 792, 458 metres per second, everything you see up there is a message from the past. Our views of the Moon from Earth are 1.28 seconds in the past. The Sun is, on average, 8 minutes 17 seconds in the past. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4 years 80 days in the past. And so on. The deeper you look into the sky, the deeper you look into the history of the universe.

But photographing the future is much harder. I've been trying to capture scenes illuminated by future light using a large format camera at maximum aperture in a completely darkened box subject to different temperatures, pre-exposure protocols, etc, but so far I haven't been able to resolve anything. It isn't because there's a lack of light - of information. It's there, but it's scattered, and each photon is subject to interference from uncertainty 'ghosting'. As a result, almost everything we think we perceive is due to pareidolia, as our brains try to impose order on vague and random structures mostly drowned in lightfog. So far, our few glimpses of the future have been little more than consensual hallucinations, which is why I think my naive photographic experiments, sponsored by the Mundane Science Fiction Society, are important. After all, to paraphrase the motto of the society, it is important to prevent imagination from influencing the truth about what hasn't yet happened.

 The future, earlier today.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Barbara Allen And Sweet Billie

When Barbara Allen stopped at Ceres to sell a load of janky machinery ripped from a derelict biome cored through a small rock-pile, she was visited by an eidolon of her first lover, Sweet Billie, who told her that he was dying. And she decided, what the hell, to pay him a visit. She’d grown up with him in the domes of New Old London, Pallas, they’d run away together to become junk peddlers, and she still had unresolved issues about the way he’d treated her while they’d been celebrating their first real coup on Tannhauser Gate, twenty years ago. When they’d been very young and everything had been new and intense, and love had so easily turned to hate, and they’d broken their partnership and each had sworn never to see the other again. And that was the first thing she told him, when she reached his dying bed on a terrace overlooking the cold blue waters of the Piazzi Sea.

‘The way you looked at other women when you were with me, it broke my heart,’ she said. ‘The way you looked at them, and praised their beauty. And the way you danced with them.’

‘I remember how cruel and foolish I was,’ he said, ‘and that’s why I invited you here. I lost you, and I’ve bitterly regretted it every day, and now I’m dying I want to beg for your forgiveness.’

He was gaunt and naked, and the right side of his body had been transformed into coralline stone by mites he’d caught while fossicking in some old ruin in the outer belt.

‘You’re right about one thing,’ Barbara said.  ‘You’re dying. But you will have to die without my forgiveness.’

And she turned and left him and caught a rail car that travelled halfway around the little world, back to the elevator head in Stumptown. But she hadn’t gone more than a hundred kilometres when Sweet Billie’s eidolon appeared, and told her that he was dead. And she felt something cold and dark break apart inside her, and started crying. By the time she reached Sumptown, her right arm was paralysed and her skin was cold and growing hard and scaly. Within two months, she died of the same mite sickness.

Some said that Sweet Billie had infected her, either in revenge for her heartlessness, or out of foolish and selfish love, so that they would finally be together. Others said that Barbara had broken quarantine protocol and deliberately infected herself, out of remorse. She died, they said, calling for her dead lover, and was buried next to him in the great old graveyard on the cold stone plain beyond the domes of New Old London. And on her grave they planted a sunflower vacuum organism, and on Sweet Billie’s grave a vacuum organism that somewhat resembled a red briar. And in the long cold years the two vacuum organisms grew slowly and surely together, and twined in a true lovers’ knot, the sunflower and the red briar.

But others said that was no more than an old song from the long ago, and that Barbara Allen did not fall ill after she left her old lover’s death bed, but went up and out to search for salvage amongst the thousand thousand ruins of the belt, and either died in some accident, alone and unmarked, or made her fortune and bought an exoship and set out for one of the far colonies around a distant star, and is travelling still, dreamlessly asleep in a glass coffin.
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