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Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Interstellar to Underwater

An interview of Barry Kirwan by Dimitri Keramitas
Dr Barry Kirwan grew up watching the Apollo missions, goggling at Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon at a friend’s house, because his parents had color TV. He decided to become an astronaut. But he had childhood asthma, so when he tried later to get into the air force, he was rejected. Instead he became a psychologist working in aviation safety, and a writer. He also discovered the next best thing to space travel - scuba diving.

"When scuba diving, you are essentially weightless. You can drift with the current and soar over coral outcrops that look like alien cities festooned with myriad fish of all shapes, colors and sizes, more varied than any Star Wars bar. You can freefall through sheets of darkening blue in search of deep wrecks, just as ominous as finding the Prometheus on a faraway planet. And you can meet big sharks that are every inch the killing machine, scarier than Alien, because underwater, you can’t run."

He became an open water instructor with the British Sub Aqua Club (more or less equivalent to a PADI DiveMaster) and was an Advanced Training Officer at a BSAC club in the UK. Kirwan has dived all over the UK, Norway, Holland, Brest in France, Corsica, Malta, Bulgaria, the Red Sea, Kenya (Watamu - whaleshark territory), Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Monterey, Palau (in the Pacific, Jacques Cousteau's favorite place), and Truk Lagoon (also in the Pacific, a wreck-diver's haven). But his favorite site is Sipidan, Borneo.

"As you walk in," says Kirwan, "the reef plunges 2000 feet. It is full of large turtles and reef sharks, and if you want to see bigger sharks, you just swim away from the reef. The South China seas have the most varied fish in the world."

Several years ago, Kirwan wrote a short story called Trouble in Eden, which grew into a novel, which grew into a series called The Eden Paradox. Many of the ideas, whether for aliens or cities or spaceships, came from his scuba diving. Even the modern diver's gear, with its plethora of electronic and computerized equipment, resembles that of an astronaut.

"While obviously an astronaut's equipment is far more complex, you do kind of feel like an astronaut, especially with the Darth Vader sound effects when you breathe. And you need to know your equipment well, as you can't always see what you're doing, and your life literally depends on it. Water is almost as unforgiving as a vacuum." In creating a multitudinous cast of alien creatures he relied on his encounters with undersea species, including some veritable "monsters".

"Octopus always seem fun until they start entwining themselves around your arm, sucking your mask off your face and drenching you in a cloud of ink. I don't mind sharks, but have dived with large ones, e. g. 5-metre sharks out in Borneo. Those I swim away from fast, back to the safety of the reef. Stonefish are scary because they are so well camouflaged, and to touch one can be fatal. I loosely based the Q'Roth, humanity's nemesis in the Eden novels, on the mantis shrimp, which is 4-6 inches long, and sits in crevices and waits until a fish goes by. Then it lashes out with its claws, incredibly fast, and shreds the passing fish, then eats it. If it was 10 feet long and walked on land, you'd probably run away, screaming your head off, which in this instance would be entirely forgivable.

Kirwan travels a lot for his work, and if it’s anywhere near water, he takes some extra days to go diving. In 2012 he had a back operation, and was unable to dive for 18 months. To say he missed it is an understatement. He began writing a story with a strong scuba diving context, which was a kind of therapy, as he could immerse himself in the writing of the underwater scenes.

When Kirwan showed his latest science fiction manuscript to an agent she wasn't interested, but asked him what else he was writing. He told her about the diving story, thinking she’d dismiss it. "Send it to me when it’s done," she said. What started out as a bit of fun grew more serious. He honed the adventure story into a cold-blooded thriller called 66 Metres, about the hunt for a top-secret device called the Rose, able to divert nuclear submarine codes, which has found its way into a sunken wreck.

Its heroine is Nadia, a young Russian woman forced into a heist that goes wrong, leaving five dead. She ends up with the Rose, but has to ditch it in deep water. If she doesn’t retrieve it her sister will be killed. Three other unsavory characters are after the device, more than happy to kill anyone who gets in their way. This work also made use of Kirwan's rich diving experience: "I've explored many wrecks over the years. Some of the top ten: the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea, the Talumben wreck off Bali, the SS Yongala off Townsville in Austra- lia. Also many of the wrecks in Scapa Flow in Scotland, and the San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. All of them stunning!"

He's also been in dangerous situations as a diver and had to be rescued on one occasion (he also carried out five rescues of other divers). He blacked out once during a very deep dive in Norway (this is the basis of one of the chapters in 66 Metres), and got pinned down in Sipidan by a school of 4-metre hammerheads, at 76 metres. One time he even got lost inside a large wreck, and was running out of air. Concerning the Rose, Kirwan said that it was invented - but not a mere figment of his imagination. "The Rose is maybe not so fantastic, as cyber-terrorism is continually gaining new ground, and the algorithms used in Big Data are very powerful. The basic idea was developed by the best cryptologist since Alan Turing."


Even after many years Kirwan can still feel like he's in an extraterrestrial world: "The undersea world can always surprise you. Fish are never pets or friends, despite cartoon films suggesting
otherwise. When you're surrounded by sharks in strong current, you're acutely aware that if they decided to attack, you'd stand no chance. A potentially tasty tourist. But it is such a wondrous place, and you are cut off from the surface world, no phones, no email, no talk. Just you, the fish, and the sharks. So, I'll keep diving as long as I can."

66 Metres was launched by Harper Collins in August 2016, as the first in a 3-book deal, under a slight pseudonym (JF Kirwan). For details see here

Monday, 15 August 2016

Glimpsing the devil

If you glimpse the devil, look away before he sees you.

What follows is an extract from the next Scifi book, When the children come. I've already shown the first two chapters in this blog, this section occurs a bit later, when Nathan and others have detected the spaceship responsible for the catastrophe afflicting Earth (children are being eradicated, though no one yet knows why). Nathan, a vet from Afghanistan, actually detests kids, but he's the only one who can save them. In this scene he travels with his recent girlfriend and Dave, an astrophysics professor, to try to see what they are up against. Almost all infrastructure is shut down worldwide. Trescoe is Nathan's ex-sergeant, who never made it back from Afghanistan, and Raphaela is Dave's wife, who is interested in Nathan.


Fatigue dogged Nathan’s footsteps as he climbed the hill to the observatory, its dome outlined by the stars. He paused a moment to survey the surrounding terrain, seeking the warm electric glow of cities. But it was as dark as the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
Dave cursed, tripping on the steps.
            “Maybe you should hold the handrail,” Lara offered, directly behind Dave. Edris and another of Akhbal’s men had stayed in the Hummer, to keep watch.
            “Holding handrails makes us less safe,” Dave retorted. “Turns us into idiots, like most safety measures.” He dug out a hip flask, popped it open, and inhaled deeply. Nathan caught a whiff of strong coffee on the air.
            “Then again,” Lara tried, but Dave cut her off.
            “Animals do fine,” he said. “We superior beings, on the other hand, mollycoddle ourselves to the point we’re clueless on how to survive when things… things like this happen.” He took three gulps.
            Lara gave up. Nathan had some sympathy with Dave’s point of view, having had to survive in the mountains for two weeks after his platoon had been ambushed. He hoped never to have to eat bugs again. A taste never acquired.
            Dave stooped down to a wooden box and fiddled with something. Floodlights ignited from the surrounding lawn and bathed the building in stark white light. The dome was turquoise, sections marked by meridians curving down from its apex, two sections raised above the rest. Nathan guessed they could open to allow the telescope inside to peer upwards. He’d always looked to the stars as a source of comfort. Now they sent a chill down his spine.
            “Dave,” he said. “I know it’s pretty, all lit up, but maybe not such a good idea.”
            “Wanted to take one last look at my baby.” Dave shut off the lights.
Nathan waited until his eyes re-adjusted, to find Dave unlocking a door. Nathan caught up with Lara, and followed them both inside, rifle at the ready.  
            Once Dave found the interior lights, it was clear the place hadn’t been touched. Whoever had been here had simply left. Nathan was relieved he wouldn’t have to deal with any corpses or ‘infected’, as the Colonel had called them. He leant the AK-47 up against a table covered in sheets of print-out, and pulled out two chairs on wheels. He and Lara sat down facing the centrepiece, the shaft of a large diameter slate-grey telescope that stretched diagonally from head height to just shy of the domed roof. It was mounted on massive brass-coloured gears. The smell of hydraulic oil was sharp in his nostrils.
Dave wandered about purposefully for a couple of minutes, flicked switches on a tall dark cabinet panel with pulsing small red diodes, then plumped himself into a well-worn black leather office chair. He folded his hands on top of his belly. Grinding noises filled the air. Dave was in his element, a motionless conductor commanding the choreographed movements around him.
            Nathan gazed upwards as a slit opened in the domed roof, revealing stars. The gash widened as it tracked anti-clockwise, even as the telescopic shaft drifted clockwise and extended, giving Nathan the illusion he was moving. Dave’s seat reclined and a boom slid towards him with a split keyboard. The lights dimmed, and Nathan half-expected a planetarium show. But things slowed down and stopped. A thin brass tube extended towards Dave’s head. He peered into the eyepiece. 
            Nathan held his breath, but as time ticked on, he returned to breathing normally, and then began getting bored. Maybe there was no alien spaceship after all. “Dave, what can you –”
            Dave jabbed a finger twice to the left of him, towards two broad computer monitors. Lara got there first. It was hard to make out anything. It looked to Nathan like a series of blocks fixed around one long cylinder which branched into two stubby cylinders at one end – the engines he assumed, though he really had no clue, just banal ideas based on comics he’d read as a kid. No lights. What had he expected? A window with a little green man staring back at him?
            “How big –” he began, then stopped as three white axes superimposed themselves around the shape.
            “Holy shit! Is that scale in miles?” Lara asked.
Dave’s non-reply affirmed it. Nathan measured the object. Ten miles long, by two to three wide, with shorter and fatter sections here and there. The size of an island. Even if the long cylinder was all engines, that still left an awful lot of living space. Words echoed back to him. When the children come. Would a single nuke missile be enough?
“What’s my next question, Dave?” Nathan asked. Something Trescoe used to say.
Lara gave him a quizzical look.
Dave took his eye from the lens. “First intelligent thing you’ve asked.” He clambered out of the chair, and gesticulated towards the vacated seat. Nathan didn’t move, so Lara climbed into it, pulling the eyepiece closer, though she still had to arch her back to reach her eye to the lens. Nathan’s gaze lingered on her.
“Electromagnetic waves, emissions, things we can’t see with the naked eye, but…” Dave operated another keyboard at a different desk, and an image formed on its wide monitor, first the object in black, and then a slow motion explosion of garish colours radiating outwards. Dave hit some more keys and the image zoomed out, showing the radiation – or whatever it was – flowing towards Earth, but always the dark side. Another monitor showed the ship’s position relative to the Earth and the sun. It remained behind the Earth, always in the darkness. What would ‘they’ see? A permanent eclipse. A sleeping vulnerable world. He wanted to reach out and crush the ship with his bare hands.
Nathan peered over Dave’s shoulder. “How far away is it? Could the orbital rail gun shoot it down?”
Dave’s brow creased as he peered at a smaller monitor to his left with rows of figures slowly climbing from bottom to top, like ultra-dense film credits.
“Yes,” Dave murmured, apparently deciding the questions were linked. “Though a ship that size…”
“Several nukes?”
“Mechanical engineering’s not my strong point. Nor materials science.”
Nathan stood up straight. “What?” Dave didn’t answer for a while. The big telescope moved, the gears grinding and whining. Lara’s left eye clamped to the brass eyepiece. She was operating a small joystick with her right hand. She seems to know what she was doing, and Nathan reminded himself he knew almost nothing about her.
“You see,” Dave said, still staring at the figures, “the ship seems to be made of one incredibly long piece of material. Its tensile strength is unlike any element or alloy on this planet. I can’t say how it would react to a nuke.”
“Does the ship have any weapons?” As soon as he’d asked, he knew it was a dumb question.
Dave turned to face him, and said, deadpan, “None that I can see.” Then, “Why did you send my wife back?”
Lara disengaged and turned to face him, and Nathan felt his cheeks redden slightly. “Division of tasks,” he said, a little loud. “She needs to get started with her equipment, we need to be here.”
“Is that all?” Dave seemed to have lost interest in the spaceship.
“That’s all.” He said no more. Lara returned to her scope, and Dave turned back to his screens.
Talking of the mission – and Raphaela – reminded Nathan they were on the clock. “What else can we do here, Professor?”
“What I’m doing. Won’t take long. I’m as anxious to see my wife as you are, Nathan.”
Nathan’s eyes flicked to Lara, but there was no reaction. “Seriously, what are –”
“I’m tagging the spaceship. It has a unique spectroscopic signature that the rail gun’s missiles – assuming they’re functional and have sufficient range – can home onto. But I’m giving them an extra hand. I’m using a micro-laser pulse to determine its precise position relative to Earth, since it stays in exactly the same place. Probably optimum for firing its neural attack on us.”
The gears ground into action again, the telescope tracking back towards its original location, as far as Nathan could tell. There was a short but loud click.
“There,” Dave said. “Gotcha!”
“Did you see that?” Lara said.
They both turned to her. “What did you see?” Dave asked.
“A flash, from the ship. It’s gone now.”
Nathan gripped Dave’s shoulder. “Can it detect us?”
Dave didn’t answer, but his brow creased and he began chopping his two forefingers onto the keyboard. The printer burst into action again, hammering ink onto hole-punched paper.
Nathan swallowed. The laser. The ship now knew where they were. “How long have we got? Did it fire at us? Some kind of ray?” It sounded stupid, but he didn’t care. Lara was out of the chair, suddenly next to him.
“No, we’d be dead already, Dave said. “A missile, most likely. A minute maybe. I don’t know.”
“Then let’s go. Lara, run back to the car. We’ll be right behind you.”
She didn’t move. They all stared at the printer. No need to ask. The signature. Dave pulled out a data key from the computer. The printer stopped. He dashed to it, read it once, tore it off, and ran for the door. Outside, Nathan and Lara were faster. Dave thrust the paper towards Nathan, the key towards Lara.
“Run! I’ll catch up!”
They ran, ignoring the curving walkway, instead running straight down towards the Hummer. Nathan yelled to Edris to start the engine. Lara slipped and fell headlong and slid down the grassy slope. Nathan braked and went back for her, and they set off again. Dave was making slow progress, shuffling along, zig-zagging down the walkway, having to use the handrail. Lara shrieked “Come on Dave!” as they reached the Hummer and jumped inside.
“Get ready to get the hell out of here!” Nathan said to Edris. They watched Dave’s bulky form, lit by the car’s headlights, loping down the slope towards them. He had an almost boyish grin, as if he was somehow enjoying this. Thirty yards. He was going to make it.
A bolt of blue lightning shattered the dome three hundred yards away. A sound like an axe cleaving a block of wood rang loud in Nathan’s ears. The observatory imploded, like a macabre conjurer’s trick, a whole building sucked in on itself. Dave kept running, his grin replaced by fear. Blue light blossomed around the hole where the observatory had been, and then rushed outwards in all directions.
“Reverse!” Nathan shouted. “Now!”
“No!” Lara screamed.
But Edris slammed the transmission into reverse. The wheels skidded at first, then found traction. The Hummer barrelled away from Dave, who slowed, and stopped. He turned to face the blue wave. He opened his arms. It swept over him.

Edris kept going, the engine shrill in Nathan’s ears. Luckily the road was dead straight. Edris only stopped when the blue light had faded. Nathan and Lara got out of the car and ran back. A crater, half a mile wide. Smooth and empty, steam rising from its vitrified surface. Lara handed him the data key without saying a word, and they both headed back to the car. On the way back, he tried to think of the right words to say to Raphaela. He came up with nothing.
 
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