I watched in awe as SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, put a Tesla Roadster into an orbit that will see it visit Mars and then to cap it all recover two of the rocket assemblies in a perfectly synchronised landing.  After all that, the SpaceX team would be quite justified in thinking they had had a pretty good day – it was amazing!

spacex boosters returning

SpaceX boosters returning to Earth (not lifting off!)

All this technology has very practical uses today in terms of resupplying the International Space Station and launching satellites, but that would appear only to be a means to an end – a way to fund the much bigger dream of turning humans into a multi-planetary species and to become a truly spacefaring civilisation.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”


And I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.  If you read science fiction you’ll know that this idea was a done deal years ago – we will become a spacefaring civilisation – C J Cherryh outlined one vision as to how this will come about in “Earth and Outward: 2005-2352” at the start of Downbelow Station.  So what is the big deal?  Well the difference is how some people, like NASA, the Russians and Elon Musk have the ability (and resources) to connect the vision to its physical implementation.  They take that vision and through hard work, skill and shear bloody minded perseverance, step by step, make it real.  It’s fantastic and inspirational.  I have great ideas all the time and most of them evaporate by the time I get to kitchen and am told that somebody needs to do the washing up.  Thank the Maker that there are organisations who get beyond those kind of problems.

People say we should fix the world’s problems before we start spending a fortune on space travel.  In an ideal world we would have already done it.  But our political structures don’t give us the mechanisms to solve these problems.  If an African dictatorship is siphoning off the wealth of a country and letting it’s people starve, who are the “they” who can stop them?  If a poor Asian country decides to ethnically cleanse one of its provinces again who is the “they” to call them out?  There is no magic “fix it” squad that can charge in to solve these problems.  The best we can do is to support and strengthen the institutions we have and be relentless in our fight against corruption at every level.  In the meantime though we shouldn’t stop the rocket men and women building their dreams.

Now I’ve only got two gripes about this whole endeavour:

  • We’re still using chemical propellants.  Where’s the Gravity Plate?  We came up with that idea decades ago.  Granted the implementation may be a little problematic, but seriously get on to it guys!
  • I would have preferred that the car SpaceX sent into space was better looking – something like a Jaguar XK8.  I’m not going to labour the point though – given that it was Elon’s Roadster built by his own company you could say that’s fair enough.
spacex starman

This is just so cool!  A Tesla Roadster, David Bowie and good advice from Douglas Adams

The one thing I do know is that I’m probably too old now to make the trip to Mars.  By the time it’s all up and running I’m sure I will have shuffled off this mortal coil.  It would have been fun though to watch the Sun set over a Martian mountain range whilst sipping on a Gin and Tonic.  What there will be time for however, is to watch the next Hollywood Sci-Fi blockbuster where the ship has to rendezvous with the Tesla Roadster and use its still functioning battery to save the life support system.


Gratuitous action shot of a Jaguar XK8.  Yeah baby, yeah!




Getting stuck on the Hugos and Nebulas

I’ve always loved science fiction – so much so that with the Orlando Jax book I actually tried to write some.  But if you have limited time for reading where do you go to get the best “bang for your buck”?  How do you know the book you’re about to invest time with is worth the effort?  There are so many good books out there!  Well back in 2009 I stumbled across a list of Hugo and Nebula award winners from the second hand book selling site  Now if a book has picked up that kind of award it has to be worth reading – surely.  So I set about working my way through the list.

Hugos and Nebulas

My recent Hugo and Nebula winning reads

Having read forty of these books now (up to 1982/1983) I’m struck by the huge variety in the subject matter, and the sheer breadth of imagination of these authors.  From full on space battles in “The Forever War” and “Starship Troopers” to the mysterious and disturbing “The Left Hand of Darkness” to the scale in time and place of “Dune” and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – it is quite amazing.  I’m currently reading “Startide Rising” by David Brin and in this book we’re stuck on an unfriendly water-world being chased by any number of hostile aliens with a space ship crew most of whom are dolphins!  But it all makes perfect sense in its own way.

Now forty books in the space of about nine years is not a great reading rate – so I wondered what was going on, and it became obvious that there were times when I got really stuck on a book – sometimes for over a year.  The worst culprits were:

  • Time Scape – Gregory Benford – 31 months
  • Downbelow Station – C J Cherryh – 20 months

Now both these books are great stories but there was something about them that made me have to work hard to get through them – and that after several false starts.  Other books you can just pick up and fly through.  I don’t know why this happens – but I guess that it comes down to the way the narrative grabs your attention.  If you find that subconscious link in the subject matter or the literary style then you can pull yourself along at a cracking pace.  If you’re working hard to read the book it probably means you haven’t made that link yet – and may never.  I look upon it as another fascinating dimension to the way we tell stories.

If you haven’t tried it, is a great place to find old and out of print books.  The books themselves are usually very cheap ($1) and all the book sellers I have used have delivered as promised.  The only downside is the postage – the book may be a dollar, but getting it to you costs seven.

As soon as I have dealt with the stranded dolphin crew I’m off into the cyberspace world of Neuromancer.  I have read that before and remember loving it – the start of the whole cyber-world genre which has developed into such a rich seam of ideas.

Other Dimensions

I’m always on the lookout for a cunning device that is going to let us move at speeds greater than the speed of light.  I recently re-acquainted myself with Douglas Adams‘ fantastic idea of the infinite improbability drive in the spaceship “The Heart of Gold”.  It’s amazing what you can do with a good Brownian motion source (a really hot cup of tea).

Putting the tea aside for a minute, I stumbled upon an idea recently that might show some promise.  Before I go there though, let’s remind ourselves as to the basic problem.  This is a form of the Lorentz Transformation equation for mass:

Mass increase equation

where m is the actual mass of an object, v is that object’s speed relative to an observer, c is the speed of light and m’ is the object’s mass as measured by the observer.  For a better explanation of this and other equations, have a look in the book “Relativity for the Layman” by James Coleman.  In the diagram below I’ve plotted what happens with the m’ result as the speed increases – and very little does till we get close to the value of c – and then it all goes horribly wrong for the interstellar traveller:

Mass incease calculations

As you get close to c the Universe catches up and plays speed cop – your mass gets infinite, and in accordance with F=ma you then need an infinite amount of force to nudge yourself over the c limit.  All very frustrating.  The thing I would love to know is what property or characteristic of c makes it so controlling?  I think I begin to understand thanks to Brian Greene and his book “The Elegant Universe“.

Up to now, when people have referred to the speed of light as being a barrier, I’ve wondered why would a simple speed be so important?  But Brian in his book spells out another way to look at this – c is not just a speed, it’s a quantity that defines how we are able to move around the world we can see and its four dimensions.  It’s an upper limit on all combined movement within forward-back, left-right, up-down and time.  I guess we express it as a speed because that’s the usual way we see its effect, but actually it is a multi-dimensional quantity.  I still don’t really understand why that it is the case, but it makes a lot more sense than a simple speed limit.

But then Brian tells us about the work of a Polish mathematician, Theodor Kaluza:

Einstein had formulated general relativity in the familiar setting of a universe with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. The mathematical formalism of his theory however, could be extended fairly directly to write down analogous equations for a universe with additional space dimensions. Under the “modest” assumption of one extra space dimension, Kaluza carried out the mathematical analysis and explicitly derived the new equations.

He found that in the revised formulation the equations pertaining to the three ordinary dimensions were essentially identical to Einstein’s. But because he included an extra space dimension, not surprisingly Kaluza found extra equations beyond those Einstein originally derived. After studying the extra equations associated with the new dimension, Kaluza realised that something amazing was going on. The extra equations were none other than those Maxwell had written down in the 1880s for describing the electromagnetic force! By adding another space dimension, Kaluza had united Einstein’s theory of gravity with Maxwell’s theory of light.

After that it wasn’t quite the success story it seemed to be but regardless of that, is this the cunning device?  For us to be able to build galaxsia class ships we need a new form of propulsion system that we can build and control, that is going to take us beyond the speed of light.  Simple mass-reaction engines are never going to be enough.  We need something that can literally “grab hold” of spacetime and manipulate it.  If this fifth dimension has electromagnetic properties that we recognise, can we not create a field generator that allows us to access and use this fifth dimension?  Who knows, it could be the sliding door that allows us to step around the c limit.

Throughout the history of science fiction, authors have created any number of field generators to achieve all sorts of goals.  On Earth now we have truly massive ones – look no further than the Large Hadron Collider.  Perhaps what we need is a bit of inspired lunacy and for somebody to plug one of these things into a good Brownian motion source – a really hot of cup of tea – and then stand back.


One of the most exciting aspects of travelling is thinking about it before you leave.  But what inspires you to make that trip?  For me it can be the advertising, but not the glossy “here is a video of the resort” type stuff.  I find most appealing those adverts that just hint at something exotic or beautiful without really showing you what it is – your mind takes over and fills in the rest.

Some of the best examples of this is found in the poster art produced for the new airlines that appeared in the 1920s and 30s, a time when aircraft were just becoming large and safe enough to make commercial flights a real possibility.  Some of these posters are gorgeous in the way they juxtapose a sleek craft against a desirable destination – a destination that can now be reached in a few hours rather than the days it would have taken by boat and train.  For some excellent examples of what I mean have a look at the book “Art of the Airways” by Geza Szurovy.

Fast forward and NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have done a similar thing, but this time those desirable destinations are other planets discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope.  This amazing machine detects planets by measuring the tiny variations in light given off by stars as planets track in front of them.  NASA and JPL commissioned a team of artists to render travel posters for a number of these new world and the results are fantastic.  Click here to see the posters in the context of the planets, and here to see what the creative team were thinking when they designed them.  The one I find quite spooky in a way is PSO J318.5-22 – the planet with no star, a rogue, or free-floating planet.

It’s important that in the future people do make the trip to see new worlds or Orlando Jax would have nobody to steal from.  The book opens with the attack on the pleasure cruiser the Eversence.  The back story behind this is that the Eversence is a space cruise ship operated by Cerulean Space Lines, a company that has been trading since the days before faster than light speed, when all that was possible were visits to the planets within the solar system.  Once the pride of the fleet was the Archangel, a ship that picked up passengers from the MBX space elevator for a direct run to the resort on Olympus Mons, Mars.  This is my contribution to future travel poster art.  For an A2 pdf version click here.

Small poster bitmap

Time II

The truth is life aboard a Pirate Spaceship must be pretty dull.  If you’re not fighting somebody, or planning a raid; if you’re not at a beach somewhere enjoying some R&R, then what is there to do when you’re stuck in a big spun diamond ship in deep space?  The closest equivalent on Earth would probably have to be the sailors in a nuclear missile submarine.  As far as I can tell they move around the world, submerged for periods of up to six months at a time.  That must be challenging – no sunlight, recycled air and no real sense of night and day.  Apparently some boats operate on six hour watch cycles.  This lead to me to think again about ship time – the time they would keep on The Claw.  Our concept of a day is only relevant on Earth – what time cycles would you keep in deep space?  Is the idea of a day and night time useful?  I tried to answer these questions by designing The Claw Chronometre – the clock that Orlando Jax uses to run his ship.

The Claw Chronometre

The Claw Chronometre

This clock operates on the idea of a “standard decimal day”.  There is a ship’s lighttime and darktime, and a ship’s watch dial.  I created it so that the watches drift out of sequence with lighttime and darktime.  There is also a time dilation indicator.  In real space this would have to take into account Einstein’s time-space laws.  In my version it simply indicates when time appears to be going fast slow – you know those afternoons which just seem to drag on?

I’ve built this in Java and you can download it from here.

A first review

I’m thrilled to have my first review on

It’s great to have some feedback, and max has been very generous:

What is it about a good pirate novel? There is an ageless draw to these stories and I found this particular transportation of the classic tales of high sea treachery and piracy to a long distant and space based future simply great fun. The novel has played with the genre well, modernising where necessary and introducing a strong female lead that reminded me of novels such as “Pirates’ by Celia Rees or “Target Lock” by James H Cobb.
There is originality to the writing although Brown never steps far from the honest foundations for this type of story, feeding from the genre rich worlds of Blackbeard and Treasure Island. Playing with elements of the humour from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the space born loneliness and uncertainty of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series, there is even the occasional fine dining experience to add to the eclectic mix.
A surprising and enjoyable short novel of high-tech piracy mixed with scurrilous characters, culminating in inevitable hidden treasure. Thoroughly recommended.

Time I

Time is a concept I struggled with when writing the book.

There are two problems with time.  The first is the way we use it in our language.  The second is the way time really works when you’re travelling at or near light speed.

I’m not sure who first came up with the idea that there are 24 hours in a day, and 60 minutes in an hour.  This Wikipedia entry suggests that it has its origins in ancient Egyptian times.  Now we are so used to that framework, that we use references to it constantly; things like “give us a second” or “I’ll be there in a minute“.  The reality is that these phrases are very Earth specific.  There is no guarantee that a “day” on another planet will be 24 hours – it could be a couple of hours or several years.  I worked on the assumption that, as we move out to and live on other planets, we would need to try and keep some kind of standard unit of time – that we would need the concept of a “standard day”.  To that end, talking about hours and minutes no longer really makes sense, so I used the term “cron”.  A standard day becomes 2 kilocrons (2,000 crons).  There are 20 hectocrons in a standard day, and these become analogous to our “hour”.  A cron is the equivalent of our minute.  If a standard day is the same length of time as our Earth day, a cron is actually 0.72 of a minute.  That all sounded very good in principle, but turned out to be quite clunky in execution.  It made me think hard about how we use references to time in our language.

The other problem with time, as Einstein so neatly pointed out, is that it is relative and the time you experience very much depends on what you’re doing relative to everybody else.  If you shoot off from Earth and approach light speed, your clock will run slower than a similar clock on Earth – you will age less.  This idea was explored in the recent film Interstellar.  One of the best novels that explains the practical consequences of time dilation is the Sci-Fi classic The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  The truth is that trying to weave the consequences of time dilation into the narrative of a space romp would make the story very complicated.  I went with the understanding that yes – making the jump to hyperspace would have profound consequences, but in this case we’re just going to ignore them.  If Orlando Jax had been whizzing around the galaxy, he would have aged so slowly compared to Jezebel that they would have never seen each other again.  And much like the gravity plate, somebody has to be able to create the “absolute time framework”.

If you would like to remind yourself about the metric prefixes for numerical quantities, have a look here.