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Friday, 25 December 2015

Humanity's place in the galaxy


I've just come back from a scuba-diving holiday in the Indian Ocean. On land, there's no question that humanity is top dog. But underwater it's very different. On my last dive, in strong current, four of us were surrounded by a dozen sharks, each around 5-6 feet long, and they were close. On another dive I was engulfed by a school of trevally (also called Jack or Kingfish). These fish are pretty aggressive and have razor-sharp teeth, and look like piranha. I was reaching for my small three inch tungsten knife, but they decided to leave me alone.

After doing some deep dives in an area where a lone bull shark is known to be active, and has made an attack in the past six months, my buddy and I had to do twelve minutes of decompression, hanging fifteen feet underwater, constantly looking around, trying to see into the endless blue beneath and all around us. Did we feel like top dog? No, we felt like bait.

But I love diving. The menagerie of fish and coral is just breath-taking, an underwater Serengeti. The comparison is valid, because there is a hierarchy of fish, sharks at the top, but all these fish live in a pecking order. Some creatures live to a ripe old age, by which I mean thirty years, for example maybe one in a thousand turtles make it that far, and quite a few barracuda, whereas others barely make it through the first day of their lives.

What if the galaxy was like that? Not where we are, out on a lonely spiral, but closer in. That's the premise of my Eden Paradox series. Except that the social order is more strictly observed, and is based on intelligence rather than on a species' capacity to be a predator. Well, mostly.

While sunbathing (aka decompressing, if you're a diver) on the beach, I was reading Jack McDevitt, one of my favourite scifi authors. He writes two types of scifi, one in which we (humanity) are alone, the other not. I was reading one of the latter books (the Alex Benedict series), and there is almost a loneliness as humanity ventures out into the galaxy and finds no alien life to speak of. Arthur C Clarke also pondered the issue, in one of his books where humanity has searched the entire galaxy and has found no other intelligent life to speak of. But of course the alternative might be disastrous for us.

For me the Scifi TV series that comes closest to the 'alien menagerie' in which we may one day find ourselves embroiled, is Babylon 5, the very name Babylon conjuring up a multi-species space landscape rather than one composed of vast distances interspersed with barren planets.

Babylon 5 did not presume we were top dog either, with for example the wonderfully enigmatic Vorlons (and possibly the best-looking ships ever on the silver screen - which I borrowed from for my own books) way more intelligent than us.

As we begin to seriously look out into the galaxy and discover ever more planets in the Goldilocks zone, and send probes out there broadcasting our address - like looking for a friend on galactic Facebook - then if there are other intelligences out there, it's a matter of time before they come a-knocking. Maybe we'll be lucky, maybe they'll be friendly. In my first two books, unfortunately they are not, and we are pretty low down in the pecking order. But we make allies, and end up playing a pivotal role in the defense of the galaxy.

While most scifi readers and certainly writers secretly hope there are aliens out there, we all know deep down that it could also be very bad for us. So, while looking upwards, I can also recommend looking down into our oceans, where - trust me - it is very alien, and you can feel like you are in an alien environment without too much personal danger. If like me, you always wanted to be an astronaut, then diving is a pretty good substitute.

I leave you with a short extract from the final book, Eden's Endgame, in which Blake is present at a War Council meeting, and encounters the richness of alien life on a vast alien ship.

Oh, and I'm making book 4 (Eden's Endgame, kindle version) free over the 2015 Xmas period, for those who haven't yet acquired it. As I'm publishing this post, it's currently in the top 5 in both US and UK Free SF markets. But be quick, Santa doesn't hang around :-)

Merry Xmas to scifi lovers everywhere in the galaxy!


Blake found he was no longer in the lozenge, but back in the clam on the inner surface of the sphere. He sat up. The others were all still immersed. One of the sphere's central anemone’s eyes watched him, but he ignored it. On impulse he stood up, and began walking around the inner surface of the sphere. None of the other aliens paid him much attention, except the reptilian Ranger Manota, whose yellow eyes flickered once in his direction.
            He passed a pack of Ossyrians, mankind’s guardians on Esperia these past eighteen years. The collie-like aliens, in full ceremonial headdress of horizontal bars of gold, garnet and lapis lazuli, were huddled together in a single clam, snouts upright, quicksilver eyes flashing shapes at almost subliminal speed. One of them turned its head towards him. Its eyes stilled. Blake walked on.
Next he came upon a Finchikta; a birdlike upper half atop a forest of centipede-like legs. The third eye on the top of its head opened, a sad pale blue, and watched him independently while the bird’s beak emitted squawks and shrieks.
He stopped dead two metres from a Q’Roth Queen, her swollen, armoured blue-black belly resting on the floor, curling upwards to end in a square head with six blood-red slits serving as eyes, her gash of a mouth open, hissing in the direction of the anemone. A Q’Roth warrior appeared in front of him, barring the way. Blake’s hand automatically slipped to his holster only to find it empty; his pistol hadn’t whisked with him. That figured. The warrior wasn’t armed either, not that it needed to be with those mandible-like upper claws and six-inch thorns along its middle and lower pairs of legs. Blake took another path.
After passing a dozen other alien species too weird even for drug-induced nightmares, his eye snagged on something on the opposite side of the sphere, almost back where he had started. Blake didn’t know if it was one alien or many. A set of pale globes the size of soccer balls were joined together by arm-width purple blood vessels, and each globe had fronds sticking out of it, waving in the air, puffing out short jets of green gas. Blake moved closer. It reminded him of an ancient Greek fable about a woman with a head full of snakes; Medusa. The creature shied away from him, then advanced. Blake didn’t move. There was something unsettling about it…  
A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye made him turn. One of the Spiders was walking on a parallel path. Blake recognised him, the friend who had been down with him on the surface. The Spider scuttled along in his usual stop-start manner, which should have attracted attention from the other aliens, but it didn’t. They can’t see him. The Spider passed Manota, but even the Level Fifteen female Ranger seemed oblivious. The Spider’s communication band was a dull brown, when suddenly it flashed a message to Blake. It took Blake a half-second to translate, then he dived to the ground as several of the Medusa’s fronds lashed out, spear-like, to where his head had just been. Blake looked up to see the Q’Roth Queen looming over him, all six eyes blazing. The Medusa withdrew.
“Not safe here, human.” The Q’Roth Queen’s voice was like the rustling of dry leaves; Blake didn’t speak Q’Roth, and assumed the anemone was translating, which should be a two-way process. Good, he’d always wanted to address one.
Blake rose to his feet fast, fire in his veins, confronted by the leader of the race who had culled both humanity and the Spiders. He thought about punching her jaw, knowing he would break his hand in the process. The fact that she might have just saved his life didn’t stop him calling her to account.
“You destroyed my world. Seven billion dead.”
She reared back on her hind legs, her mouth opening slowly like a razor cut.

“One more, then,” she hissed.

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