Author Archives: Thomas L. James

Synthetic Meat – Coming Soon to a Burger Joint Near You?

Well, maybe not all that soon – they’re predicting 10-20 years, which would fit nicely with our timeline for In the Shadow of Ares: Scientists Prepare Test-Tube Burger
Eat mor vat meat!

Starting with bovine stem cells, the Dutch researchers have grown muscle fibres up to 3cm long and 0.5mm thick. The fibres are tethered and exercised as they grow, like real muscles, by bending and stretching in the culture dishes. They feed on a broth of vegetable proteins and other nutrients, equivalent to the grass or grain diet of cattle.


At present the fibres are a pallid yellowish-pink colour, rather than the red of raw ground beef, because they do not contain blood, but Prof Post plans to improve their appearance.

Hopefully not by adding a bunch of dye to it.

The comments on the linked article are disappointingly luddite (and predictably smug  and preachy in the case of the vegetarians/vegans), but they did prompt me to wonder just how “natural” such synthetic meats might end up being. It’s a fair point that if you’re eating all the hormones and such required to grow the meat in vitro, it’s probably going to be less healthy for you than the real thing.


The Disappointment of “Star Wars”

Over at PJM Kathy Shaidle lays out Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks.

Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”. 

Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression of the character as being a wise and noble mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, a father figure whose efforts to help the latter learn his true nature and value are cut tragically short. In November I watched Episode 3 and most of Episode 4 back-to-back, and found Kenobi now comes across as dishonest and incompetent hack (or worse):

  • His incompetence and inattentiveness regarding the young Anakin’s training and his failure to recognize the blatant, flashing-neon warning signs of the latter’s willfulness and disobedience led to Anakin’s temptation to disallowed romance and his corruption to the Dark Side. He was too young, inexperienced, and headstrong himself to take on such an important and demanding task, but he did it anyway, even begged for it.
  • He walked away and left the maimed and burned Anakin to die, without properly finishing the job of killing him – finishing Anakin off was his responsibility, since his failures had led to Anakin becoming what he had become and because he was the one who had cut him to pieces. It was his duty to make sure the threat was eliminated, and having gotten to the point he did, and being a supposedly noble Jedi, it was his duty to exercise the virtue of mercy by finishing Anakin off instead of leaving him to suffer in agony for minutes or hours longer. This is where the “or worse” comes in – his incompetence let Anakin survive long enough to be rescued, but his leaving Anakin in agony revealed a cruel indifference to the latter’s suffering if not a vindictive satisfaction with it.
  • When he first meets Luke in Episode 4, he lies to him regarding the fate of Luke’s father. In hindsight, this is as much a self-serving lie to cover up his own involvement in Anakin’s fate as it is the white lie for the not-quite-ready-to-know-the-truth Luke that it always used to seem.
  • If we accept that his duty while in exile (as established at the end of Episode 3) was to conceal and protect Luke, how do we reconcile that task with the fact that Kenobi lived in a remote dwelling far away from the Lars farmstead, too far to keep watch on Luke, and that he had apparently never had contact with Luke for the first eighteen years of his life? Why was the Jedi master not training the boy from childhood to use the Force to protect and conceal himself incase he himself were to be discovered or to die? Again, incompetence…had Luke been better prepared, he would have been more effective in confronting the challenges that faced him.
  • When entering the cantina, Kenobi would have been smarter to have used his “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade Luke’s two harassers to leave him alone rather than to lop off one of their arms and thereby draw unwanted attention to himself and his companions. Incompetence, and another instance of indifference to the suffering of others (specifically, others he has maimed with a light saber).
  • Finally (though there are no doubt more instances to be found), Kenobi lies to Vader when he boasts that he will “become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. It was all braggadocio – he never followed through on that threat.

It was all very disappointing to notice these elements in a character I used to like. But, it just goes with the territory when you’re talking about the Star Wars franchise.

UPDATE: Brian Preston responds, on behalf of science fiction fans. I should add for my part that I don’t agree with Shaidle’s attacks on science fiction as a genre, just with some of her criticism of the Star Wars movies. Some were good, and fun, but not great, and when you look at them with a critical eye towards character development and such, they really suffer.


Indian Migrations and Space Settlement

I’m doing some reading in Indian history as part of my research for the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares. In John Keay’s India: A History, I came across this interesting passage in his discussion of the ‘epic age’ of the Mahabharata and Ramayana:

As for the retreat into exile, the other central theme in both epics, this is taken to indicate the process by which clan society resolved its conflicts and at the same time encroached ever deeper into the subcontinent. Eventually population pressures on land and other resources would encourage greater social specialisation and he assertion of a central authority, two of the prerequisites of a state. But during the first centuries of the first millennium BC, these same pressures seem merely to have encouraged a traditional solution whereby clans segmented and split away to explore new territories. [emphasis added]

In the context of the chapter, he is taking a common thread of the two epics (the exile in the wilderness of their respective protagonists) as a hint as to how the ?r?an colonists gradually spread to the east and south from the Indus Valley.

What struck me as interesting is that much the same thing could happen with space settlement, especially given some TBD mode of practical interstellar travel.

In the near term (say, the next 100 years), if efforts to commercialize space access pan out and we begin building colonies in space, on the Moon, and on Mars, we will have established a new “wilderness” in the sense Keay describes elsewhere in the chapter: an untamed space where danger may lurk away from the safety of established civilization, but where the freedom exists to build afresh. The process of settlement and ongoing development will due to resource and labor shortages limit the degree to which a central authority can be asserted, providing a breathing space for innovation between the continuously expanding frontier and the expanding boundary of civilization trailing behind it. Political or social conflicts unresolvable in the civilized regions can be defused through one or another party choosing to escape to the freedom of this breathing space or the wilderness beyond, thereby pushing the frontier further outward — versus being kept bottled up in a finite arena where the intractability of the disagreements and the inescapable proximity of the conflicting parties can foster discontent, unrest, and violence lasting generations.

In practice, this might mean expanding to lunar colonies as near-Earth orbital habitats become too regulated or restricted by Earth governments or international treaties. On the Moon, disaffected individuals or groups frustrated with their circumstances in an existing settlement might decide to start their own settlements on or beyond the fringes of areas already settled or explored. As the lunar frontier ‘closes’ due to Keay’s “social specialization and assertion of central authority”, similarly frustrated settlers might decide to try their fortunes on the martian frontier, then among the asteroids, and so on through increasingly less-desirable properties.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened already, in our own history. The story of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims, the Mormon migrations to Utah, and the “Go west, young man” ethos of the Old West were clearly manifestations of this same concept.

In the longer term, given some means of practical interstellar travel, this process of expansion-by-exile into the wilderness could happen on a vastly larger scale. If this turns out to be true, the ‘wilderness’ becomes effectively infinite.

Of course, this depends on a conservative view that we will continue to be recognizably human over such long time scales, as the development of new frontiers will likely result in an acceleration of technological innovation – including ‘transhuman’ technology like cognitive enhancements, targeted genetic improvements, or even ‘uploading’ into non-biological (or who knows, even non-physical) forms. What makes the expansion-by-exile concept useful for science fiction is that it can avoid the trap of having to tell a story from the difficult-to-conceive perspective of these transhumans by giving an author the choice among worlds on a spectrum of development — after all, given the Amish as a present-day example, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of those irreconcilable differences that might drive settlers into exile in the wilderness would concern the adoption of certain transhuman technologies, resulting in worlds (whether at the center or the periphery of civilization) whose inhabitants are still relatably human.



What I Did On My (Last) Summer Vacation

After about eleven months of problems with my DSL connection at home, I’ve finally finished uploading the HD video I shot while in Iceland at this time last year. The playlist is here, but this is probably the most relevant video for MarsBlog in the sense that aside from the prominence of water, it best captures the Martian-like feel of the place:


Feeding Martians

An interesting project at the South Pole, involving agriculture in a controlled (and in this case, sunless and soil-less) environment: To the moon…South Pole greenhouse model for growing freshies on other worlds

Crops of lettuce, kale, cucumber, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cantaloupes and edible flowers comprise many of the plants grown in the climate-controlled chamber. Because the importation of soil is restricted by the Antarctic Treaty External U.S. government site, dirt is not used to grow the plants. In fact, the closest local dirt is nearly two miles beneath the ice on which the station sits. The plants are grown in a hydroponic nutrient solution instead — no dirt needed.

For that matter, no sunlight is needed either. The growth chamber, which was built in the winter of 2004, makes its own light via 13 water-cooled, high-pressure sodium lamps. In this bright environment, it is not uncommon to find people, like the plants, dwelling happily under the intense light produced in the chamber during the dark polar winter.

Carl and I put a lot of thought into extraterrestrial agriculture while writing In the Shadow of Ares, not least because the primary setting for the book is a very large agricultural settlement. Interestingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), we came to some of the same conclusions as these researchers. Of particular note, the morale benefit to settlers in an inescapably indoor environment of having an open green space (or Greenspace, if you’ve read the book).


On the Radio

I’ll be on 850KNUS here in Denver on Sunday, talking about In the Shadow of Ares with my PPC co-blogger Ross “Rossputin” Kaminsky.

The show is on from 5 PM to 8 PM on 710 AM KNUS in Denver and 1460 AM KZNT in Colorado Springs. I will be on between 7:00 and 7:30PM. For those outside the Denver area, you can listen to the show online by clicking HERE.

Science fiction fans might want to tune in a little earlier, as one of Ross’ other guests this weekend is SF author and Tea Party figure Andrew Ian Dodge.


“In the Shadow of Ares” – Now Available!

“In the Shadow of Ares” (formerly known around here as “Labyrinth of Night”) is now available for download at

In 2029, the third exploration mission to Mars vanishes without a trace. Two decades later, the success of human settlement of Mars and the life of a young girl hinge on the secret of what happened to the Ares III mission.

Twenty years later, Mars is a growing outpost of humanity, and 14-year-old settler Amber Jacobsen is a minor interplanetary celebrity – ‘the First Kid on Mars’.  Pioneering Mars is hard, unglamorous work, though, and Amber secretly wishes she were just an ordinary girl living on Earth.

When her family’s homestead is destroyed in an apparent accident, the Jacobsens relocate to an independent settlement located on the northern fringes of Noctis Labyrinthus, a vast and largely unexplored canyonland.  Their new home promises new opportunities, and Amber looks forward to being just another member of the community. Instead, the other settlers dismiss her as a burdensome child and refuse to accept her as the responsible young adult she has become.

In order to prove the value of her unique knowledge and perspective, Amber vows to uncover the fate of the Ares III mission, whose loss had largely been forgotten in the rush of the Martian settlement boom.  But this seemingly harmless challenge thrusts her into a deadly conflict: those who know the truth will kill to keep it hidden, while those who destroyed her family’s homestead would use the secret to secure their dominance over all of Mars.

In solving the mystery, Amber could destroy everything the Martian settlers have worked to create.

It’s priced at an affordable $6.99, and would make a wonderful Christmas present for the science fiction reader or young adult on your shopping list. Especially if you’re buying them a Kindle or they already own one (remember, you can also download the free Kindle app for various electronic platforms if you/they don’t have a Kindle reader).

While I’m going to be occupied for much of the weekend with writing a business plan and attending Christmas parties, I do expect to get the blog at up and running again in the next few days. We will use that forum to discuss the book, the backstory, etc.


Name Change

Small change in plans: in order to avoid confusion with the twenty-odd other science fiction books set on Mars which use the same name, the book previously known as Labyrinth of Night will now be titled In the Shadow of Ares.

And yes, I’m still struggling to get it ready for Kindle. Almost there…

UPDATE: formatted and uploaded now. Turned out to be a pretty painless process, much to my surprise. Just haggling over what price to set, and then we can publish it.

And before anyone asks, no, the title does not have anything to do with Constellation. Sad to say, we actually had the book half-written and most of the backstory laid out well before NASA applied the name Ares to Mike Griffin’s misbegotten launch vehicles. After I catch up on a few things, I intend this weekend to revamp the book’s website so that we can start giving out tidbits of the backstory and how we came to write the book.

Here’s the cover art:

Bonus points to anyone who guesses where the image is from…


In the Shadow of Ares: Story Synopsis

I thought I posted a summary of the novel here, back when we entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. But since I can’t find it in the archives, here’s the description we used for the contest entry:

The world was shocked and saddened by the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters.  But after the memorials, recovery efforts, and detailed investigations were over and the hard lessons were learned, we moved on.

But what if a spacecraft and its crew simply vanished, with no explanation?  What if, years later, you had an opportunity to solve the mystery of this disappearance?  And what if someone else knew what happened – and would do anything to stop you?

This is the challenge facing 14-year-old Amber Jacobsen in “Labyrinth of Night”, a mystery set on frontier Mars.  Amber is an interplanetary celebrity: ‘the First Kid on Mars’…and so far, the only one.  Pioneering on Mars is hardly glamorous, though, and Amber secretly wishes she were an ordinary girl living on Earth.

When their homestead is destroyed in an apparent accident, the Jacobsens relocate to a new settlement located on the northern fringes of Noctis Labyrinthus, a vast and largely unexplored network of canyons.  Their new home promises new opportunities, and Amber looks forward to being accepted as a regular member of the community rather than a celebrity.  Instead, the settlers treat her as a burdensome child and not the responsible young adult she is.

In order to prove herself, Amber vows to uncover the fate of the Ares III mission, which vanished near Noctis Labyrinthus.  As she digs into the disappearance, however, she discovers that those who destroyed her family’s homestead want power over the settlement she now calls home — and ultimately the entire planet.  By solving the mystery, she could hand them the tools to destroy a free and prosperous Mars.