Monthly Archives: January 2011

Move Over, Taco Bell, Here Comes Vat-Meat

Walter Russell Mead sings the praises of those entrepreneurs who might one day bring us an environmentally-friendly and guilt-free source of protein: synthetic meat.

Now I don’t know whether this particular technology will ever pan out, so that PETA activists will be stopping in at the local McDonalds for a tasty shamburger. Dr. Mironov might be wasting his time, or he might really be onto something.

But the point is that there are hundreds of thousands of Dr. Mironovs working on all kinds of unconventional inventions and ideas in labs and garages all over the world.  Most of them may never produce very much but, especially with the tremendous advance of knowledge in biology of recent decades, some of them are going to get some very remarkable, life changing results.

Whether we will get delicious juicy shamburgers and sinfully salty, crisp facon (fake bacon) anytime soon is beyond me.  But that the future will be full of surprises that change the basic rules of the energy game is almost certain.  This is why I don’t think the prophets of doom have it right.  Human ingenuity has been getting us out of tight corners and making life unexpectedly better for thousands of years; I don’t think we’re done yet.

Those who have read In the Shadow of Ares already know of one possible market for this technology. Indeed, a grow-it-at-home version appears in the opening chapters of the book. If the technology works, and can be packaged into a reliable system with reasonable space and resource requirements, it would be a wonderful source of protein and familiar foodstuffs in an early Martian settlement, where raising livestock would be impractical for many years until sufficient habitable volume and related infrastructure had been established.

Indeed, if it works well (by which I mean it produces something more palatable and less monotonous than just a synthetic form of Spam), the technology would eliminate the need to ever raise livestock on Mars…if anyone would ever seriously consider doing such a thing.

Not Forgotten

This week marks the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, and the 8th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

Abandon in Place

Each of these accidents were heavily publicized and widely mourned, with the latter two happening (essentially) live on television. Even though much time has passed, the accidents are well known to the general public, and even many people who are not space buffs could probably at least come close to identifying the official cause of each accident.

In each case, though, the wreckage was retrieved and studied, lessons were (mostly) learned and put into practice, and the affected programs continued on. But what would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?

This is exactly the problem which confronts the fictional Ares Project two decades before the events of In the Shadow of Ares. So how did they handle it?

The program was halted for four years so that the habs and Earth-return vehicles under construction on Earth could be thoroughly inspected and their designs reassessed for hidden flaws. Finding none, and still having no solid evidence of what happened to the Odysseus and its crew, the project proceeded cautiously with the remaining two missions. And as it turned out, the program was right to accept the still-unknown risks inherent in exploration rather than give up and stay home.

One big difference between then and then: with no images of the accident, and no wreckage found by the subsequent missions, the public soon forgot about Ares III. Except for a few who kept the memory alive until an answer could be found…

(For those who have read the book and may be wondering, we devised Odysseus‘ demise exactly fifty weeks before Columbia met her own.)

Is Science Fiction Getting More Conservative?

Patrick Richardson asks that question over at Pajamas Media, and triggers a lively discussion.  It’s a thought-provoking piece that includes insights from four authors, including Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, whom Tom references in the comments to the On E-Publishing post below.

Politics aside, I feel a bigger shortcoming of today’s Science Fiction is a lack of hope and wonder, traits that once defined the genre.  It’s our hope that In the Shadow of Ares fills part of that void.

The Mysterious Mr. Rana

There’s more to Rajiv Rana than we let on in In the Shadow of Ares:

He paused, then added simply, “You’re quiet today.”

“Am I?” she asked coolly as she pulled on her immersion goggles and rings.  You’re part of it.  Margolis said so herself.  I know you’re hiding something.  That’s why none of the Green’s survey data from the past two years is available.

“Yes, you are,” he replied, noting the tone in her voice with a slight narrowing of his eyes.  “But, if you don’t want to talk to me, well, that’s okay.  We can talk again when you’re in a better mood.”

She yanked off her goggles and turned to face him.  “What makes you think I’m in a bad mood?”

He shrugged.  “Your…moodiness?”

“What?  Oh.  Well, maybe I am mad.  Shouldn’t I be?  I know you’re hiding something…” She stopped short when she saw his face suddenly become an expressionless mask.

There was an uncomfortable pause.  “Hiding?” he asked cautiously.  “What is it you think I am hiding?”

“I…uh…”

His dark eyes bored into her own.  “Go on.”

Me and my big mouth. “The, uh, the cavern…”  If possible, his face became even more expressionless when she mentioned the cavern.

“The cavern?  What is it you think I am hiding about a cavern?”

Think fast. “I, uh, I know you’re hiding something down there.  There’s…  something down there, isn’t there?  That’s why Grantham won’t let anyone go in?”

“Oh, that again.”  Rana pursed his lips and rolled his eyes.  The tension between them seemed to evaporate suddenly.  A little too suddenly, perhaps.

What could he be hiding? And how did he really break his nose?


On E-Publishing

Sarah Hoyt has come to the same realization that we did regarding e-publishing our novel:

But the field is opening, expanding, and offering a lot of other chances.

As for writers? Well, while there are books I’m not willing to let go small press or e-only – not yet – that is changing, too, and ask me again in three years and it could be quite different. For years now, being published anywhere but by the big boys/gals was an admission of failure. Just the lifting of that taboo is huge. As is the fact that being self-published is not the end of the world, anymore.

As she and several of her commenters point out, one risk in e-publishing is that a solid editorial influence is not necessarily present. An author can side-step the seemingly closed circle of the traditional agent-publisher route, but they then bear the responsibility of thoroughly editing their own writing (which for most of us is a risky proposition) or finding and paying out of pocket a suitable freelance editor to do it for them.

What convinced me that e-publishing was not the kiss of death to our book’s prospects, or a mark of failure (ie: “your book’s so terrible you can’t get it published for real“), was actually seeing a Kindle. Before that, I figured it was a gimmick that would be resisted by established authors and publishers in the same way that studios and record labels resisted digital media to one degree or another. But after trying one out, I started paying more attention to e-publishing. Soon, I was seeing news items about this or that author publishing their books directly to Kindle, getting urged by friends to go straight to Kindle ourselves, and seeing people using readers in airports and other public places.

By August, it had occurred to me that what happened to the music industry with the emergence of iTunes was happening in similar fashion to the publishing industry with digital readers. The technology was right, the public had accepted it, and now serious content was becoming available.

The post above briefly discusses how – far from being a threat – e-publishing could actually expand business opportunities for the traditional publishing industry if they are wise enough to embrace them. As an outsider, that makes a lot of sense to me…with the cost of “printing” books reduced almost to nothing, and the demand for new material always increasing, publishers who embrace e-books as (if nothing else) a farm team for their more traditional publishing business will be well rewarded. The cost to a publisher of editing and marketing an e-book may be little different, but with the overhead associated with preparing, printing, and distributing a paper book eliminated the overall investment in a new book is reduced, and taking a chance on a new author or an innovative story is therefore less risky to the bottom line.

Another opportunity that might emerge (and I would be very surprised if it did not, given precedents) is for e-book “small label publishers”. These would be akin to indie film houses and small/personal record labels, bringing to market unknown or niche titles and authors who would otherwise go overlooked or ignored by the mainstream publishing industry. The benefits these small labels could provide might include streamlined versions of the editing, preparation, and marketing functions provided by traditional publishers, but more importantly, they could confer a degree of respectability to overcome the stigma of “vanity publishing”. The label would serve as a secondary brand-name, helping inform potential readers that the book they are considering downloading has been through some sort of selection process and (as their familiarity with the label grows) serving as an indicator of the quality they can expect even from an unknown new author. One of the commenters on the linked post indicates this is already happening with Baen Books, so it would not surprise me to see it happen soon with new, start-up labels as well.

In short, our perceptions of “self-publishing” have completely changed in the past year, thanks to Kindle and other e-readers. E-books no longer seem to be a flash-in-the-pan fad, and the traditional agent-publisher model may as a result be forced to change to something a bit more open.

This Ares is Not Part of Constellation

A common question about In the Shadow of Ares concerns whether the “Ares” of the title is connected to the NASA Constellation program. It isn’t. In fact, our use of the name precedes it’s adoption by NASA for it’s now-mostly-cancelled rocket family by at least two years.

In the backstory, the Ares Project is a series of joint US-Russian exploration missions to Mars, based on the “Mars Direct” plan developed by Robert Zubrin. Beginning in early 2025, a series of six missions were planned, of which five were ultimately carried out:

  • Ares I: first manned landing on Mars, described in the scene aboard the Penelope;
  • Ares II: explored the area where Port Lowell is located at the time of the story;
  • Ares III: the hab Odysseus disappears immediately after landing, leading to a short program hiatus;
  • Ares IV: resumed the Ares program with an ambitious 6-astronaut effort to demonstrate settlement construction techniques (one result of which is the Jacobsen homestead);
  • Ares V: the final exploration mission before commercial settlement began, during which Amber Jacobsen is accidentally conceived and born.

In our case, Ares is (like Apollo) the name of the program rather than a particular piece of hardware.

Life Imitates Art: Smart Goggles

Something akin to what we use in In the Shadow of Ares as part of the telepresence control system made its appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show this past week:

The Android-powered micro-LED screen in these goggles turns average skiers into cyborgs, displaying everything from GPS-enabled trail maps to your current speed and altitude. If that’s not cool enough, it can sync with Bluetooth compatible devices, creating an in-goggle viewfinder for a camera, or display songs or incoming calls.

No word yet on whether they’ll be useful in controlling swarms of semi-autonomous mining robots.

Life Imitates Art: Portable DNA Sequencers

FuturePundit points to a NYT article describing something very similar to a piece of technology readers might recognize from the Oasis scene of In the Shadow of AresTaking DNA Sequencing to the Masses:

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice…

Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use…

While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person…

Dr. Rothberg acknowledged that the existing model was good for sequencing a virus or bacterium or a handful of genes, and indicated that future models would be more powerful.

Indeed. Just imagine what forty more years of technological evolution might do to this device, in terms of cost, power, speed, and size.

Opportunity Knocks

The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are nearing another impressive milestone:  Martian Odyssey: Rovers Set to Celebrate 7 Years on Red Planet.

Spirit got stuck in sand and hasn’t communicated since March of last year, but there’s hope that the arrival of Spring may provide a revival of sorts.  Opportunity, however, is still going strong–not bad for being over 1300 “sols past warranty”.  Better yet, we can hope for even more from the next generation rover scheduled to launch later this year, nicknamed Curiosity

While robotic craft continue to play an important part in space exploration, hopefully their most important role will be paving the way for human exploration and permanent settlement.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A driving force behind In the Shadow of Ares, going back to our 2001 decision to write the novel, was a desire for more optimism in science fiction.  We wanted to provide a vision of a hopeful future, as a counterbalance to all the negative, anti-human, post-apocalyptic stories that seem to dominate the genre today.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of outstanding stories that include some of those elements.  Still, a hallmark of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” was certainly the bright, shiny future that was ours to grasp.  I for one miss that hopeful optimism.  Not only does the current wave of negativism drive away younger fans, but it’s unhealthy for society at large to fear technology and lack hope for the future.

There are a few others who see the same deficiency and are trying to fill it with the occasional positive novel or anthology.  I recently came across an interesting, if dated, discussion thread on Asimov’s Science Fiction, appropriately titled “Canon of Optimistic Science Fiction“.  One comment included the following observation:

A good deal of “Libertarian Science Fiction” is optimistic though and so is some Young-Adult SF.

Hey, we’re both!