Friday, 22 November 2013

How would humanity fare in a galactic trial?

When I grew up my first moral influence was actually Tarzan - he was a good guy living in a jungle full of animals who were okay - if dangerous - and humans, who were often bad, deserving their murky death in quicksand. Then along came Star Trek, where humans were mainly the cause for good in the galaxy, and aliens usually weren't. Then I'd read the newspapers, watch the news on TV, and wonder which of these visions of humanity was most accurate.

In Star Trek Next Generation (ST-NG), humanity is put on trial several times during this epic series, right at the very beginning, a couple of times during various seasons, and right at the end, by the advanced alien 'Q', played by the irrepressible John De Lancie. Less patronising than its predecessor, ST-NG never lets humanity off the hook - the trial is never actually over.

It was no coincidence therefore that I addressed this in my science fiction series. In the first book, The Eden Paradox, we encounter a vicious alien race, the Q'Roth, and come off pretty badly. Injustice, you might think. But when the matter is brought before a galactic court in book 2, Eden's Trial, the other races don't necessarily see it that way; they have different value structures. They are alien...

I suppose I was influenced by Greg Bear's Hammer of God / Anvil of Stars duology, wherein Earth is attacked, and in the second book mankind heads out to find out who exactly attacked us, why, and of course to exact revenge. Bear's concept was also brilliantly depicted by Stargate Universe: in the second (last) season, they encounter attack drones who relentlessly seek out and destroy sentient life (the image at the top of this blog).

But even if aliens did have a similar sense of justice to ours, how would we look to them? As a race, we kill each other a lot of the time, and we have staggering gradient between rich and poor, for example, and there is always a war going on somewhere, not to mention corruption, a whole spectrum of injustices, etc. etc. Why should an alien race care about us or our planet when we don't seem to?

In the trial in my second book, one of the characters is interrogated by an alien inquisitor; not by asking questions, but by going inside his mind. That's what you'd do, right, if you could, because then you avoid all the lies, even the ones we tell ourselves. Midway during the interrogation, the character realizes his mind maybe doesn't present the best case for humanity...

Micah had no body. His mind floated like a two dimensional sheet of plazfilm, flapping on the winds of a featureless emerald space. He heard sounds: his own voice, as a child, as an adult. He perceived other sheets drifting, slip-sliding in the windless space like a dropped sheaf of paper, each one containing a scene, a memory, voices, people he knew, things he’d seen, things he’d said, more than a few he wished he hadn’t. As they tumbled, he knew the Tla Beth had complete access to his mind and memory. There was no question of lying or even trying to hide anything. He heard his mother crying, his father raging at him when he was a kid. He saw again the aerial nuclear detonations over LA, his younger self sprinting for the shelter to beat the vaporising blast wave; huddling there with his mother when he couldn’t stop shaking; his father calling him a coward; Louise about to kill him; Antonia; Sandy… He wrenched himself back from it all. It was too easy to drown in his own life. His Optron training helped him. He took the astrosurfer’s viewpoint, and witnessed thousands of sheets peppering the green sky: a man’s life dissected – his life.
He discerned a common thread in the Tla Beth search strategy: Micah had always been a misfit as a kid, had hated his father, and had been a bit of a geek during adolescence. In the defence case for humanity, his head wasn’t the best brochure available.
            Abruptly he was back in his body, in a white space. He was standing on something but couldn’t discriminate between floor and space and wall: everything was solid white. A figure emerged and walked toward him.
            “Oh no, not you,” he heard himself say, as an image of his father approached, in his grey military uniform. At least he didn’t have that disappointed look plastered across his face.
            The image of his father spoke. “We see in humanity destruction, greed, conflict, injustice, and other disharmonious emotions associated with Level Three and below races. Such comportment is dangerous for the Grid Society. The Grid Council, chaired by the Tla Beth, sanctioned the Q’Roth request.”
            Micah knew he had to remain as dispassionate as possible; anger would be a fast-track to humanity’s final demise. “Look at our technological achievements, our advances, they –”
            “Are dangerous without mental and emotional discipline. Why is humanity worth saving? You don’t seem to believe in it yourself, Micah.”

It's like in one of my favorite scifi films, Contact: if aliens came a-knocking, they might not talk to Presidents and the like, they might just pick one person, like you or me, and then make up their mind about us all. So, if they picked you or me, what would they decide about humanity? 
So, how does humanity come off in Eden's Trial? Well, let's just say it's not the end of the series, and perhaps like Q's judgement in ST-NG, they're never quite let off the hook.            

The Complete Series:
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame

Friday, 15 November 2013

Scuba Diving as Inspiration for Science Fiction

I was lucky enough recently to go diving in the Indian Ocean off Mauritius, an island paradise surrounded by coral reefs. When I dive it inspires me to write more science fiction. This surprises some people. What does ‘inner space’, as our oceans are sometimes called, have to do with outer space?

Actually, the lack of it – when you dive, you are neutrally buoyant. It’s not quite weightless, since you still know which way is up and which way is down, but it’s close enough – which is why astronauts train in large tanks full of water. The feeling of ‘flying’ is one of the things divers love, and despite having twenty kilos of weight on your back, you feel far lighter than when on land.

Flying through space
One of my favourite dives here is called 'Tuna Wall', off the coast of a small town called Trou aux Biches. The top of the wall begins 37 metres down, and descends to around 60 metres; so it’s only for advanced divers, usually just me and another instructor. To get there, you take a short ride out from Trou aux Biches, then get off the boat fully kitted and freefall through the blue, equalising the pressure in your ears every five metres, watching the depth on your wrist computer, staring down into the blue: falling, flying, dropping. After what seems a long time, something looms towards you – the top of the reef. That feeling of flying through space, albeit blue, then arriving at the reef makes me think about flying through space and then arriving in a solar system.

Alien landscapes
The wall, as with most coral reefs, is festooned with corals of all different shapes and sizes, overlaid by a carpet of fish and other creatures. It’s like landing in an alien city, surveying it from above. There is whip coral, staghorn coral, brain coral – the names give you enough of an idea – and if you imagine the scale to be different you start thinking of alien domes, transport chutes and networks of unknown function. The coral ‘floor’ itself is often jagged and full of crevasses and fissures, hiding small fish or shrimps inside their caves.

Alien relationships
There are anemones that have their symbiotic relationships with clownfish, cleaner wrasse who swim into the mouths of much larger fish to clean their teeth by eating sticky morsels trapped there, as well as removing parasites on the fishes’ skin. But most impressive is how schools of fish move together as if they were one organism, particularly when there are predators around.

Alien space-ships
While here, I dived a well-known wreck, the Stella Maru, an old fishing vessel. It has an external ‘corridor’ like you normally have around larger boats, that experienced divers are allowed to swim through (you have to be careful and good with your buoyancy or else you are likely to cut yourself on rusted iron edges). This time, it was full of trumpetfish of varying colours (normally yellow or grey-blue). They have two pairs of small of fins that look totally ineffective, and a tailfin; but just try and touch one. They are often tantalisingly close, but if you try to touch they move just out of reach; one of them actually cart-wheeled away from me down the corridor, which was a first. After the dive it got me thinking how a space vessel with an aft propulsion system and only a few directional thrusters would be highly manoeuvrable in space.

Mention diving and predators, and everyone thinks of sharks; but there are many more. One of my favourite is a six-inch long fish known as the Mantis Shrimp. It sits in a crevasse and watches the fish go by. When one gets close enough, it lashes out with its claws, lightning fast, and threshes the fish, then devours it. There are also masters of camouflage such as scorpion-fish and stonefish, as well as ‘bottom-dwellers’ who hide beneath the sand, sometimes luring prey with a small wriggling fish-like protuberance just above their upper jaw. I saw some large lionfish on another wreck this week (the Water Lily). These are beautiful fish with poisonous spines. I used to wonder how they hunted, since they drift along like sailboats (they are going to be the basis for a space-ship design in my next book). But when they hunt, they leap forward in the water, so fast it is like watching a film that ‘jumps’; they only shoot forward a few inches, but that is enough to swallow a small fish.

Okay, and there are sharks, reckoned to be the ultimate predator on the planet, particularly the larger ocean-going (pelagic) ones. I didn’t see any this trip, though I usually do. I’ve been quite close to sharks of most variety, though not the Great White ‘jaws’ variety, nor Tiger sharks. The bigger sharks, by which I mean 4 metres or more, are scary, powerful, and fast, and you don’t take your eyes off them.

There’s another place I’ve dived called Sipadan, a tiny island off the coast of Borneo. You walk out into the ocean and after ten metres it plunges two thousand feet down. You get big sharks there, off the reef. Me and another few instructors used to play ‘Sipadan Roulette’: you swim parallel to the reef, about twenty metres below the surface and about fifteen metres from the edge of the reef (like being in orbit), and stare straight ahead into the blue, and you fin. After a minute or two, a shape appears, at the same depth (altitude) coming towards you. It’s a shark, a pelagic, a blue shark for example, and it isn’t there by accident – it detected you long before you saw it. You see it head on, and it is big, and you reckon if it opened its jaws you would fit right in… You then swim like hell back to the reef. That feeling of threat from something alien and immeasurably more powerful, in its element when you are not in yours, can translate nicely into tension in a science fiction story. By the way, in case any divers are reading this, the reason you fin (go forward) in the above ‘game’, is that if you don’t, the sharks will approach you from the rear…

Camouflage is a defence, as is safety in numbers (why many fish ‘school’), but there are some more interesting defences. The parrotfish, for example, exudes a semi-transparent sheath at night, cocooning itself in a shield with an unsavoury taste while it sleeps in amongst the coral. Many other small fish, such as the colourful ‘nudibranch’ are also poisonous. For most fish, however, they live on their instincts and reflexes.

Alien hierarchies
What you notice when diving on a reef, is that they all seem to get along with each other, or rather, the ‘society’ you are witnessing works and functions relatively smoothly. There is a definite ‘pecking order’, with sharks at the top of the food chain, and many layers underneath. This social structuring became the template for my Eden Paradox series where there are many species but each lives according to a strict hierarchical arrangement on Nineteen ‘levels’. Humanity, incidentally, is a relatively poor relation, only reaching ‘Level 3’.

Of course many aliens can be designed around different types of undersea creatures, and not just fish. I’ve used the Mantis Shrimp (the Q’Roth), squids (Nganks), rays (Shrell) to name but a few. In the book I’m working on now one of the planets being attacked is nine-tenths water, so practically the whole society lives in the oceans.

Fish are not pets, right? They don’t bond with us, despite some recent cute cartoon films that give them human traits and characteristics. When you are down there, you are definitely a tourist, an observer, in an alien world. You may try and play with the fish (okay, some like dolphins and even whalesharks may play back a little), but fish and sea creatures are not playing back, they are surviving, and if you dulled their instincts they would not survive very long. As a science fiction writer it is important not to fall into the ‘Star Trek trap’ where aliens are basically humanoid with some interesting facial bone ridges etc., and still behave according to templates we can understand. I try hard to keep my aliens alien, so that they don’t always do what you expect them to do, and they are not particularly sympathetic to our human ways.

The converse of the last point is that when writing ‘space opera’, wherein there are many alien races around mankind, that very contrast can highlight humanity’s traits – good and bad. Several of my key (human) characters understand themselves better due to their relationships and encounters with aliens, and sometimes aliens neatly define what makes us so ‘human’.

So, in case you are thinking by now that I go diving with a laptop and sit on a rock composing chapters, let me disavow you of any such thoughts. When I dive, I generally stop thinking, and become a lot more zen. I remember getting nitrogen narcosis at fifty metres in Sulawesi, while diving with a school of tuna. For about a minute, due to the narcosis, I felt I was part of that school, and I swam with them, turned when they turned (there were sharks around), and they let me join them. I’ll never forget that feeling, of my human-ness submerging, and becoming alien, if only for a minute. That is something else I write about…

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, but quickly realise it wasn’t going to happen. But seriously, scuba diving is the next best thing.

The Eden Paradox Series
The Eden Paradox
Eden’s Trial
Eden’s Revenge
Eden’s Endgame

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Eden is out there...

The news has been reading a lot like science fiction recently. India has just launched its satellite mission to Mars (called Mangalyaan) which will take about a year to arrive. It's interesting to me that India is attempting to join the space super-powers, since in my first book I have India being the first to reach Eden...

The second news item is an estimate that there are up to 20 billion planets in our galaxy in what is known as the Goldilocks zone, i.e. capable of sustaining life (these are known as extrasolar planets). The nearest could 'only' be twelve light years away. These estimates are based on statistical research linked to NASA's Kepler plamet-hunting satellite over the past few years. It does not mean they are all teeming with life, however, since there are a range of factors that need to be in the right state for life to happen (and we don't know them all). But even so, if one in a thousand did have life, that would still mean 200 million planets with some form of life (not necessarily intelligent).

So, hang on a minute, if this is true, why haven't they been here (of course some people think they have  been here or are here)? Part of this relates to what is known as Fermi's Paradox, which I did a blog on a while ago. The second part relates to another recent news item in the Economist about interstellar travel (the cartoon is from The Economist), pointing out how difficult it is to travel to other stars and their planets, because the galaxy is so mind-bogglingly big, and the distances between stars almost incomprehensible (we've also been spoiled by Star Trek and other SF visions wherein intersteller travel is routine). But various groups of scientists are working on it, including astrophysicist / SF writer Gregory Benford, considering options from nuclear detonations to laser-powered sail-ships. These ideas are of course theoretical, but the relatively recent discovery of so many extrasolar planets has given such research more focus.

One important point that links India's Mars mission to interstellar travel is that we would probably need to colonise our solar system (or at least have bases on Mars and/or Jupiter's or Saturn's moons, for example) before we could engage in interstellar voyages). As in the film Contact (based on Carl Sagan's novel), where Jodie Foster made a deeper impact than in the recent Elysium, meeting aliens involves taking small steps, one at a time.

What does all this add up to? Basically, we live in very interesting times, although it might be a long time - or even never - before we get to find out if we are really alone in the galaxy.

But if, in about fifty years time, we find a planet that appears to be Eden-like, and we have developed a means of getting there, I hope someone in charge has read The Eden Paradox...

The Eden Paradox series available from Amazon in paperback and ebook

The Eden Paradox - where we find out we are not alone, and we have been betrayed...
Eden's Trial - where we are judged, and found wanting...
Eden's Revenge - where it gets personal...
Eden's Endgame - where it all ends... (due Spring 2014)
© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot