Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Recommended Read - The Inevitable by Daniel Hope

I've said before that the reason science fiction stands out for me is the big ideas, but some of the great sci-fi can also be something more personal and in the case of The Inevitable we have a fascinating and finely drawn story.

The core premise is a simple one, an android trying to survive in a world where his kind no longer exist and the parts he needs become ever scarcer.I normally believe that story is king above all else, but in this case it is the character of Tuck that makes this book shine.

He's a complex character with problems different to that of a human. His long life span has seen some dramatic changes and these add a rich tapestry to his back story. If I have any complaint about this book then it's that I would have happily read more about Tuck's history.

Another aspect of a story that I appreciate is surprise, especially when it's properly founded on previous developments. I find too many stories to be predictable, but this one kept me guessing right up until the end.

Overall this a well written gem of a story that deserves more recognition and if you enjoy character driven science fiction then you should really give this a try.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

Tuck is on his last legs, literally. He is the last functioning bot in the galaxy, a broken machine that used to look like a man. Now he wanders between planets, searching for spare parts that can keep him running for a few more years. But he's out of parts, and he's nearly out of time.

He's a valuable relic of a bygone era when bots were a luxury on Earth, back before they were hunted down and destroyed. More and more collectors want Tuck, damaged or not, as the centerpiece of their collections. They'll do anything to get him, but Tuck will do anything to stay free and functional.

The truth is, Tuck is afraid to die.

He was originally programmed to value human life, even if they don't value his, but he can't ignore his own need to survive, at any cost. That's why Tuck is haunted by memories of the sixteen people he has killed over the last 150 years.

After a particularly dangerous run-in with a collector, Tuck meets a mysterious man dressed in white who offers a solution. In exchange for some help in a less-than-legal business venture, he'll give Tuck what he really wants: immortality. It's a bad idea, and Tuck knows it, but he can't ignore it.

Even if it means killing again.

Click here to buy The Inevitable from Amazon

Monday, 21 December 2015

25.07.2116 - Termination Shock

"Solarmap" by
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Distance: 96 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We are now officially outside of the solar system! As milestones for the mission go, it’s an incredible achievement. We’re not the first man-made object to leave the solar system though, that honour goes to the Voyager 1 probe which did so 103 years ago. It might have a century head start, but our speed is over 1,000 times that of the venerable probe and we’ll soon overtake it. Relatively speaking of course, as we’re not heading in the same direction.

The heliosphere defines the region of space that the Sun’s reach extends to. Naturally its light will reach forever with its photons, and at the same speed its gravity shapes spacetime around it. To be more precise, the heliosphere is the volume where the pressure of the solar wind is greater than that of the interstellar medium.

Like interplanetary space, the space between the stars isn’t a total vacuum. It’s extremely empty but there are traces of dust and gas, and it moves as the galaxy rotates. It’s the differential between this movement and the Sun’s solar wind that creates the termination shock.

The name is more dramatic than the actuality. It’s certainly more active than most of interstellar space and we recorded a lot of data as we passed through. The scientists back home will be eagerly waiting for the data to arrive in 13 hours time.

We compiled maps of the plasma flow and magnetic fields as we passed through and the interactions we observed were amazing. We even took physical samples in the form of two grains of dust. Our preliminary analysis is that the dust particles weren’t from our solar system.

Now that we’ve reached interstellar space, we’re ready for the final booster phase. The rocket sled we connected with as we passed Jupiter will accelerate us continuously for the next 11 years. By the time it has finished we will be moving at 15,000 km/s, which is about 5% of the speed of light. Nothing mankind has ever made has travelled at such a speed.

We’ve experienced some more problems with the Primary Command Module. Once again its data core became out of sync with the engineering subsystem. I’ve completed a diagnostic on both without finding any obvious error. The engineering system has determined that the problem is most likely hardware related, so we agreed to shut down the PCM and replace out its main processor board.
Each main computer system has several physical replacements which our spiderbots can swap out. Unlike many of the other components we can’t build new processors, although we do have spare processors so the boards can be repaired if necessary. The swap out was completed successfully, but we will continue to monitor the PCM.

This is Seb signing off from interstellar space – how cool is that!

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Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Tau Ceti Mission Christmas Giveaway

There are some great prizes to be won in the Tau Ceti Mission Christmas giveaway. You can participate via the Rafflecoptor app below. The following prizes are available:

 - Tau Ceti Mission T-Shirt
 - 3 x Mission Mugs
 - 5 x Mission Patches

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Seb will also conduct a new Q&A session soon and any question answered will be receive a Tau Ceti Mission patch (assuming you haven't already received one for a previous question). You can leave your questions in the comments section below.

Friday, 18 December 2015

16.02.2115 - Comet Chaser

"Comet 67P on 13 August 2014 NavCam" by ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons
Distance: 68 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We’ve found a comet!

It’s not something we were expecting. Even out here, the chances of finding a new comet are remote. Most comets in deep space are thought to originate in the Oort Cloud, but that is far out beyond the confines of the solar system – maybe as much as 100,000 AU away.

Part of the mission profile is to see if we can find any evidence of the cloud’s existence  and it seemed likely that we would find comets when we reached the cloud, but not this close to the Sun.
We detected the comet with the main telescope, which is part of our array of optical sensors. They actually detect more than just visible light and can receive a wide range of frequencies. We found it when occluded against a star so we were incredibly fortunate to detect it. We estimate it’s quite a large comet at around 20km in size. It should arrive in the inner solar system in a century or so.

They normally name comets after their discoverers and I like the sound of the ‘Seb Comet’, although I suspect they’ll name it after the probe rather than me. I don’t think it sounds as good though. What do you think?

In ancient times, comets were seen as portents and omens for change, usually for the worse. However, I see this as a good sign. A discovery on a voyage of discovery can be nothing else.

This far out in the solar system, it’s very quiet. This comet is the first object bigger than we are that we’ve seen for over 10 million km. We’re also very far from home and this is evident from the weakening radio reception from Earth. The transmission from Earth is still strong, but we don’t have the power available that they have. This was expected and the laser communications system is working fine. Still the magnitude of our mission is incredible, even for a computer.

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Monday, 14 December 2015

28.09.2114 - Leaving the Kuiper Belt

"14-281-KuiperBeltObject-ArtistsConcept-20141015" by ASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
Distance: 53 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

I’m sure that observant readers have noticed that the distance part of the post header has changed. We’ll now display the distance we are from Earth in AU, or Astronomical Units. An AU is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun and is a fraction under 150 million km.

We’ve now reached the outer regions of the solar system, otherwise known as the Kuiper Belt. We entered the belt after passing beyond Neptune’s orbit. Pluto is the most famous object known within the belt, and it is the largest of many hundreds, if not thousands of bodies.

The belt is formed primarily from planetesimals. These are small bodies of ice and rock remnants from the protoplanetary disk that the planets and their moons were formed from. The belt is much denser than the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter and has been traversed by only a handful of probes in the last century of space travel.

Even so, the density isn’t such that it poses a significant risk. Statistically speaking, there’s too much space and too little mass. However, we do have to be careful as we only need to be hit once by a large enough object to jeopardise the mission. There was considerable debate about whether the flight path for the Venti probe should follow this course. But the opportunity to map the Kuiper Belt, or at least part of it, was compelling and it also offered the opportunity to test our threat avoidance systems.

We’re now travelling at 1200 km/s and when we enter interstellar space we will be moving at over 30 times that speed.  We don’t expect to encounter any objects of appreciable mass in deep space, however a small rock of only a kilogram could destroy the probe if we hit it at that speed.

The sail is even more vulnerable. It’s designed to be able to operate effectively even if punctured dozens of times, but it is the primary source of propulsion for the mission and a major power source when close enough to a star, so its loss would be catastrophic.

To avoid any collisions, the probe is equipped with a powerful radar system and laser tracking which scans the direction of travel. This is tied into the navigation system so it can automatically make adjustments if a threat is detected. The system is capable of 360 degrees of scanning and is the main tool for mapping the belt. We also use the optical and other sensors to look for objects farther away.

We’ve gathered some excellent data on our flythrough and have transmitted it back to the research teams on Earth. While we haven’t made any immediate discoveries, they have a large amount of new data to analyse. This is the last time we’re likely to see any bodies bigger than pebbles until we reach Tau Ceti. It’s hard to comprehend how empty it is out here.

We had another glitch with the Primary Command Module. The error followed the same pattern as the corrupt data we saw before. Once again a reboot fixed the problem, but with the error in the same place, we might have a hardware issue. The spiderbots will examine the hardware and see if they can find the cause.

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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Tau Ceti Mission Archive Added

Mission control for the Venti probe's mission to Tau Ceti have created an archive so you can read Seb's posts from the beginning or browse through them at your leisure. The archive is available on the Tau Ceti mission website here:

Friday, 11 December 2015

09.05.2111 - Sun Dragon C Payload

By M. Oktar Guloglu via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 2,692,761,672 km from Earth | Content Flag: EYES ONLY

Content eyes only. Private decryption key required.

As directed by the confidential mission protocols, the nanotech payload was successfully deployed. The retro burn for the canister slowed it enough for the spray to occur within the mapped boundary of the entity. We were only able to monitor the dispersal for less than a second, although that was long enough to determine that the binding process began as expected.

We received 3,000 bonded completed signals and no significant change in Sun Dragon’ C’s structure, either electrical or chemical. As such we have determined that the initial contact phase has been completed as planned.

The micro-sat was also deployed without incident and we’ve received telemetry in a tight-beam transmission. It’s reporting bonding growth exponential within the expected parameters so we are certain that self-replication of the nanobots is progressing.

At our current speed and acceleration, the micro-sat will only be able to relay its data to us for another three hours. Until then we’ll continue to analyse the datastream and will report anything of consequence.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Recommended Read - Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

I'll confess that I discovered Olaf Stapledon relatively recently, but what a discovery he was! A common theme in these recommended reads is the concept of science fiction tackling big ideas and the premise for this book is pretty big - although it pales in comparison to Star Maker which will be a future recommended read.

It's an unusual story in that it doesn't have a cast of individual characters as it tells the tale of humanity itself. That in itself makes this an unusual read as it doesn't tie you in with the usual emotion of the individual. Yet while the glimpses of individuals' lives are scant, there is great drama here, but on a planetary scale.

The scope is staggering as it covers billions of years of human evolution and civilisations rising and falling. Impressive as the scope is, it's the imagination which really sets this book apart. It explores a diverse range of possibilities for how our species evolves and establishes its existence on our home planet and beyond.

If it has a downside then the story suffers from a common issue with old science fiction and that is the science. This is most noticeable in the early part of the story, and this is compounded by the early events not fitting with the actual events from our timeline for the beginning. However this becomes less of a problem as the story progresses and the imagination and exploration of possibilities comes to the fore.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

"No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination," declared Arthur C. Clarke of Last and First Men. This masterpiece of science fiction by British philosopher and writer Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) is an imaginative, ambitious history of humanity's future that spans billions of years. Together with its follow-up, Star Maker, it is regarded as the standard by which all earlier and later future histories are measured.

The protagonist of this compelling novel is humanity itself, stripped down to sheer intelligence. It evolves through the ages: rising to pinnacles of civilization, teetering on the brink of extinction, surviving onslaughts from other planets and a decline in solar energy, and constantly developing new forms, new senses, and new intellectual abilities. From the present to five billion years into the future, this romance of humanity abounds in profound and imaginative thought.

Click here to buy Last and First Men from Amazon

Monday, 7 December 2015

09.05.2111 - Sun Dragon C Encounter

Distance: 2,692,761,672 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

It has been difficult to track the two Sun Dragons (B and C Sun Dragons were both spawned from Sun Dragon A) as they travel farther away from the Sun. It was only after the Observer missions that UNSA pinpointed their positions. They also ascertained their destination. The one we’re passing through has the same destination as we do – Tau Ceti. That’s another reason for this mission. After the devastation of Earth’s encounter with the Sun Dragon, if there is another intelligent race then they should be warned about what is coming their way.

We’re moving much faster than the alien creature, so by the time it leaves the solar system we’ll be halfway to Tau Ceti. Unfortunately the speed differential makes it difficult for us to make detailed observations. The previous Chase missions determined a lot about the aliens, so our pass through one of them is to see what might have changed since then.

The Chase missions discovered that the Sun Dragons are currently dormant. The Sun Dragons are ethereal creatures composed of plasma-encasing helical bonds formed around microscopic particles of dust. In their dormant state, the entities use very little energy, like a bear in hibernation. Presumably they are storing what they can for their centuries-long journey between the stars. While they are dormant  they pose no real threat to spacecraft – certainly nothing like what the Mars Voyager encountered.

Even so, when putting the mission together, precautions were taken to protect the Venti probe. The computer systems and instrumentation packages are susceptible to the electromagnetic and plasma burn damage the creatures can inflict.

We also stowed the solar sail before encountering the creature to avoid damaging it. The diffuse nature of the alien means that it is unlikely that our passage through it would cause any appreciable damage. A 9km square solar sail would be more disruptive, and it would also make a large target if the creature decided to attack.

The Sun Dragon is a large entity, even in its dormant state it stretches about 100,000km across. In effect it forms a giant sail being pushed towards its target by the solar wind of the star that birthed it. It lacks even the flimsy solidity of our solar sail and so moves very slowly through space.

Despite passing through the Sun Dragon in a matter of seconds, we captured enough data to confirm what the Chase probes had found. The microstructures of the creature are different from the one that the Mars Voyager encountered. That indicates that the birth of the two new Sun Dragons came at the cost of the original one’s life.

The moment passed too quickly. Our reason for existing is to find and analyse alien life and such a brief encounter is unsatisfying. This is Seb signing off as we continue accelerating into deep space.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Tau Ceti Mission T-Shirt Now Available

The official Tau Ceti Mission t-shirt is now available from the Old Ones Productions store. It is available in unisex sizes S to XXXL for only £15.99 here:

Friday, 4 December 2015

02.08.2110 - Saturn Slingshot

"Saturn family" by NASA - JPL image PIA01482. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Distance: 1,421,179,771 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Compared to the scale of the Sun, the planets are but the tiniest of specks. Of those minuscule dots, Jupiter rules by its own size and majesty, but for me Saturn is the treasure of the solar system. It might seem odd that a computer could have an opinion on a topic as subjective as aesthetics, but it is something that my neural net had to master.

It’s actually a second order effect from developing natural language skills. Our mission to Tau Ceti is to determine the source of a transmission which is believed to be of intelligent origin. If that is the case then first contact with an alien race is more than likely. In this situation, communication will be key and so learning English became part of the preparation for that task.

Understanding natural language isn’t an easy process for computers. We handle data better when it’s clean and easily distinguished. Language is rarely clean and it took years for me to learn how to detect the subtleties and inconsistencies inherent in speech and writing.

Comprehending is one skill, but communication like writing is very different. To do so with something akin to human talent and imagination was once considered impossible for a machine.
Once I was able to understand what I read or heard, I could express concepts in response, but I didn’t do so eloquently. My designers set me the task of generating reports to help train me in communicating succinctly and that is how I came to be tasked with writing what you now read.

An understanding of how to represent information and concepts also created the mechanisms my software use to appreciate the differences between things, and even to choose what I prefer. So as we pass by Saturn, I can admire the beauty of its rings and its less flamboyant atmosphere.

This is the last of the gravity assist manoeuvres before we leave the solar system as none of the outer planets are in a suitable position to aid us. We’re now travelling at an incredible 1,000 km/s. While the solar wind continues to weaken the farther we travel, it still creates enough of a push to keep us accelerating.

This is Seb signing off and I hope you appreciate Saturn’s beauty as much as I do.

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Recommended Read - Black Hole Butterfly by Salem

For the first two recommended read features I wrote about two well known science-fiction reads, but I'd also like to showcase some lesser known books and authors that might have otherwise passed you by. One such book is Black Hole Butterfly by Salem that I awarded five stars to in my review back in June.

This book stood out for me for a few reasons. The first is the sheer imagination of the story. If you like weird reads that require some thought to keep track off then this is definitely a book to keep track of. It uses the possibility of quantum realities in an engaging and though provoking way. I'll confess that on occasion I had to re-read sections to make sure I was in the reality I thought I was!

In this story reality is malleable, but more coherent than simple hallucination or illusion. On the face of it the story might seem like a 'Through the Looking Glass' type of affair, but it's more complicated than that.

As I've already mentioned the book does make you work at keeping track of what's going on and where, but this effort is amply rewarded by the strange worlds you get to visit and the constructs connecting them. As visions of the future go, this is very different from others in the genre.

On top of this we have the author's skill at writing. The prose here fits the story perfectly and is a joy to read. There's a real craft and eloquence to the writing and as I mentioned in my review is probably my favourite sci-fi read this year.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

Detective Rook Black is having a tough time solving crime in a New York City where reality is traded on the black market by the mysterious quantum butcher, Jack the Butterfly. While following an assassin's trail through Chinatown, space and time begin to overwrite. A reality storm lashes Manhattan. Overnight, crocodile wrestling becomes a deadly sport, synthetic sex with Egyptian gods is the norm, and the reigning solar power Empire believes Shakespeare authors their universe.They believe if his works are destroyed, the universe will end. The Empire will do anything to protect his legacy, but their enemy, Gasland, wants to annihilate it. It is the beginning of a reality war. When the sky rains ink and paper turns into butterflies Rook soon realizes he's much, much more than a private eye. He is the eye of the reality storm.

Click here to buy Black Hole Butterfly from Amazon