In 2013, when I heard that Iain M. Banks had passed away at the tragically young age of 59, I was devastated. As I wrote at the time, it’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. But in the years since Banks’ death of terminal cancer, I’ve spent more time reading and re-reading his science fiction works, somehow uncovering new detail and surprises in each chapter. His epic Culture series is as impactful now as it was when he wrote his 1987 novel “Consider Phlebas.”
I’ve also been researching the man himself, learning about his motivations, political opinions and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to find we share many of the same views about the state of the world. And recently, I came across his final “Raw Spirit” interview with Kirsty Wark of BBC Scotland that he did in the weeks before he died.
The interview is excellent and well worth the watch.
One discussion I found particularly poignant was at around the 35 minute mark when Kirsty asks Iain about his views on life elsewhere in the universe:
There’s so many stars in the galaxy and there are so many galaxies … it seems highly unlikely there’s just us. It’s one of the things that I regret a great deal is that I’m not going to live long enough to see the results come in from the really good telescopes that we’re putting in space, in particular. They’ll actually be able to analyze the composition of exoplanets, their atmospheres, and be able to tell whether they’ve got life in them. You know exactly what the spectrum is of the star, as the star starts to slip behind the planet, the way the spectrum alters … will tell you how much carbon, how much oxygen, carbon dioxide and so on is in the atmosphere of that planet. It’s astounding to think we might know this in 10, 20 years. Yeah. It’s damned annoying! (laughs)
Iain’s views on life elsewhere in the universe are hardly surprising, especially considering all the alien civilizations he’d created through his decades of writing. And his point about detecting chemicals in exoplanetary atmospheres is rooted very firmly in science fact. I can’t begin to imagine his annoyance at knowing we’re only years away from probing alien atmospheres when his life was almost up. (For added poignancy, Iain hints that he has months left to live, but as indicated at the start of the interview, it turned out he was in his final weeks.)
I found Iain’s humor and energy inspiring in life, and despite facing his imminent mortality during this interview, he delivered some thought-provoking ideas and views with grace that will live on well beyond his death.
825 light-years away, in the constellation of Perseus, hides one protostar and three previously unseen gas concentrations that are undergoing gravitational collapse — basically embryos of soon-to-be baby stars. Found through the analysis of data from radio telescopes by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), this tiny cluster of baby stars occupy a small volume only 10,000 AU across — meaning that they’d all easily fit within the confines of the boundaries of our solar system (yes, the Oort Cloud is the solar system’s outermost boundary).
This is exciting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this little ‘stellar womb’ has given astronomers an opportunity to study the genesis of a multi-star system. Indeed, most stars in our galaxy belong to multi-star systems, whether that be binary or greater, and astronomers are currently trying to figure out whether they were born this way or whether, over time, stars jostled around and eventually became gravitationally bound. After analysis of the velocities of the protostar and stellar embryos, it appears that the masses are gravitationally interacting. In other words, it has the potential to mature into a quadruple star system in around 40,000 years, a minute amount of time in cosmic timescales. Although it is likely that the system will become unstable, possibly ejecting one or two of the stars in the process, it does provide observational evidence that multi-star systems can be born in a gravitational embrace.
But as I have a habit of linking astrophysical studies with science fiction imaginings, when I first saw this research, I immediately thought of the awesome re-imagined series’ Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.
Battlestar Galactica is set in the years following the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, which almost wiped out humanity in this far-flung part of the galaxy. The remaining survivors, headed by William Adama (Edward James Olmos), take to the stars in a fleet of ragtag spaceships in search of the fabled Earth. One of my favorite scifi storylines and favorite scfi TV shows. But I digress.
The Twelve Colonies consist of four stars — Helios Alpha, Helios Beta, Helios Delta and Helios Gamma — each with their own systems of planets, 12 in total, including capital world Caprica.
So that poses a question: Just because Battlestar Galactica imagines a quadruple star system (well, two binary systems in a mutual orbit), is it possible to have such a stable system of planets evolve in a multi-star system? Or are the gravitational interactions too complex for anything to coalesce and slot into stable orbits? Well, by understanding how multi-star systems evolve by finding examples like this embedded inside star forming molecular clouds, we may start to appreciate how common and how stable they are and whether accompanying planetary systems are a reality or something that will forever be confined to the Twelve Colonies.
It’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. And for me, there are only a handful of people beyond my circles of family and friends who have, in some way, shaped my thinking.
But through his novels, Scottish writer Iain Banks had such a powerful impact on my teenage years that he, in no small way, gave me a new appreciation for science fiction and in doing so helped me pursue a higher education in astrophysics. Sadly, as he announced with his trademark wit only two months ago, Iain had terminal gall bladder cancer and today has died at the heartbreaking young age of 59. He will be sorely missed by the fiction and science fiction communities — he was a plain-speaking, powerful voice in life and a skillful genius when describing the worlds he created on paper.
Now, I’m not the biggest of readers, but when you pick up an Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels) book, it’s hard to put down. His first science fiction novel Consider Phlebas introduced us to the epic Culture universe — a vast interstellar multi-species civilization, of which Earth and humanity had been enveloped. The very notion of a post-scarcity, pan-galactic race seemed to hit the sweet spot of my imagination, so I hungrily read all of Iain’s Culture series, feeling the very notion of what science fiction is change in my brain. In a particularly tumultuous period of my life, I took on Iain’s fictional writing too, reading the deeply unsettling The Wasp Factory.
Iain’s writing is a constant source of surprise to me — he has this unique ability to shock, enlighten and entertain while creating such a fine tapestry of plot twists and deep characters that you quickly become lost in his words.
But for me, Iain’s imagination forced the very limits of science fiction, expanding my thoughts on what is possible in our Universe. This is why, while struggling with mathematics in my undergraduate years at the University of Aberystwyth that Iain M. Banks’ work became a welcome escape. When I began questioning some of the fundamental ideas behind physics and developed a thirst for advanced and, quite frankly, unfathomable concepts in astrophysics, Iain’s books became a huge source of inspiration.
Although many facets of my life threw me on a course that would eventually see me tackle a PhD in coronal physics and send me on a life-changing trip to Hawaii and ultimately land me in California, with my beautiful wife Debra, 5 rabbits and a job with the task of communicating awe-inspiring space science to the world, Iain’s fictional universe has always been there, complementing my life in a very real way.
I will always remember Iain and will continue reading his novels so that inspiration endures beyond his death. People who inspire you are few and far between, so when someone changes the way you think through the medium of their writing, you should never let them go.
Goodbye Iain, the Culture will forever be my inspiration.
It would appear that scientists have confirmed that the outer edge of the Milky Way is a bad location for life to even think about existing.
This research reminded me of the “Galactic Rim” in the 90’s sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The Rim is the mysterious region of space right at the edge of our galaxy where only the hardiest of explorers dared to venture. As explained in the season 2 episode of B5, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers that his wife (when exploring The Rim) went missing on a planet called Z’ha’dum. It turns out that an angry ancient alien race — called the Shadows — lived on this mysterious world and their discovery led to them being used in all kinds of plots during the latter four seasons of this awesome sci-fi show.
However, the existence of any kind of life (let alone life as complex as the evil Shadows) in the badlands of the Milky Way is looking very unlikely.
Located some 62,000 light years from the core of our galaxy (over twice the distance of the Earth from the galactic centre), two very young star clusters in the constellation of Cassiopeia have been studied. Chikako Yasui, Naoto Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, found these clusters in a vast cloud of gas and dust called Digel Cloud 2. The stars inside these clusters are only half a million years old, and the majority of them should possess proto-planetary disks (which is characteristic of local star-forming regions). However, it would appear that these stars contain very little oxygen, silicon or iron (i.e. they have very low metallicity) and only 1 in 5 of the 111 baby stars analysed in both clusters have disks.
If proto-planetary disks are rare, this means there will be a rarity of planets. This is an obvious bummer for life to form. After all, Life As We Know It™ is quite attached to evolving on Earth-like planets.
So why are these young stars lacking proto-planetary disks, when local star forming regions don’t seem to have this affliction? The authors of the paper, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggest that these stars did have disks, but some mechanism is rapidly eroding them.
The most likely scenario is that low metalicity proto-planetary disks are more susceptible to photoevaporation. Simply put, these disks evaporate when exposed to EUV and X-ray radiation from their parent stars far more rapidly than disks that are metal-rich.
Therefore, if an alien race was able to form, they’d be very rare or they’d be very different from what we’d expect “life” to be like (i.e. they thrive in low metalicity star systems). Sounds like the mysterious Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum would be a very rare sight on The Rim of our Milky Way after all.
Oh dear. Just when I was actually beginning to care about the cast of Defying Gravity, it was cancelled half-way through the first season. I was a little annoyed about this as #DefyingGravity on Twitter was fast becoming a weekly ritual; a group of us die-hard sci-fi viewers scoffing at the science atrocities the ABC show was inflicting on us. In fact, the bad science, when coupled with a spaceship full of horny crew mates (a.k.a. friends with benefits… why not?) almost made it compelling viewing (almost).
Apart from hammering home the inevitability of astronauts having sex in space, I almost stood up and cheered when, in the last episode (called “Love, Honor, Obey“), the cast did a great job at explaining the quantum physics thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat. As the crew was stuck inside a shielded compartment to protect themselves against an impending solar flare (it turned out to be a false alarm), mission control had no way to communicate with the crew. Steve Wassenfelder, the out-of-shape physicist, likened the crew to Schrödinger’s cat; to mission control, as they had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead, the crew were in fact alive and dead. Clever.
The show also handled the solar flare event pretty well, although they avoided a lot of the details (but kept it within the realms of possibility, as opposed to some movies I won’t mention).
Then, after some fractal tomato plants (I didn’t say all the science was kosher), the crew opened mysterious Pod 4 to see…
…I don’t know what they saw as that was the cliff-hanger of the last episode. I’m sure I’ll end up watching it on Hulu.com, but I don’t think it will be the same without mocking it live on Twitter with the #DefyingGravity contributors (you know who you are).
Then, as quickly as Defying Gravity dropped off our screens, another compelling sci-fi series appears on ABC featuring a competent-looking cast (led by Joseph Fiennes and John Cho). It’s called FlashForward, and after only the first episode, I’m hooked. It’s actually the same feeling I had when I watched the very first episode of Heroes.
In FlashForward, we start off in Los Angeles, looking into several people’s lives, when suddenly the entire planet blacks out for 2mins 17seconds. During that time, everyone has a vision of 6 months into the future.
The series is based on the 1999 novel Flashforward by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and the premise is pure sci-fi joy. In fact, I was lucky enough to be sent a behind the scenes video by Times.com science comedian Brian Malow (be warned, there’s a fairly huge spoiler, but it’s an awesome spoiler that will get you nodding with joy… but you’ve been warned):
Robert J. Sawyer calls himself a “hard science fiction writer,” so it will be very interesting to see how the show deals with the speculative quantum-conciousness link. Still, it has to be better than that silly mag grav idea in Defying Gravity.
In other news: The lovely Eliza Dushku will live-tweet during the season 2 premier of Dollhouse (on FOX) if she gathers 100,000 Twitter followers before it airs… in 20 minutes on the West Coast. She’s only on about 92,000 at the moment, so it’s not looking likely. Still, I’ll be watching!
I managed to watch District 9 last night, and it was awesome. I may as well tell you my conclusion up-front, just in case you don’t want to read on, because I’m not going to be able to avoid mentioning some spoilers. So, if you haven’t already done so, get down the theatre now to watch a unique and enthralling sci-fi docu-action-thriller (but beware, there’s lots of exploding heads and alien gore, so go easy on the popcorn and fizzy drinks).
Generally, it looks like District 9 has received good reviews and a robust nod from the science fiction community, and now I’m going to weigh in with a review from Astroengine.com.
First and foremost, I think D9 surpassed pretty much all of my expectations, which is rare for Hollywood produce these days. It was little surprise then, that this movie wasn’t of the Hollywood brand, it came from the genius mind of the South Africa-born director Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson‘s production company Wingnut Films. The whole thing was shot in the gritty South African city of Johannesburg.
Setting the scene
An alien spaceship breaks down on Earth and comes to a stop over Johannesburg. After several weeks of not seeing any sign of life, the authorities decide to cut their way into the ship. They find hundreds of thousands of malnourished insect-like, human-sized aliens inside. Humans do the right thing by setting up a makeshift shelter in Johannesburg, called District 9 (it is of no coincidence that there’s a similarity with the real events in District Six during the 1966 apartheid government rule). So far, so good.
After a couple of decades of living in the D9 shanty town, the local human populous is getting fed up with their alien neighbours (they derogatively call “prawns”). As it turns out, these aliens don’t appear to be very smart and they are certainly not organized. They have no leader and they are thought to be the “workers” of their alien race. They are far from being the sophisticated invasion party one would expect a technologically advanced race to be like.
This is the coolest thing about this movie; the aliens are cast as the unfortunate underdogs that are being forced to stay on Earth by their human captors. Why? Technology, of course.
A military organization called Multinational United (MNU) is put in charge of moving the million-plus alien beings to a new concentration camp housing facility 200 miles away. The whole operation is led by a bumbling MNU field operative called Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley). Wikus is your standard trying-way-too-hard-to-please-and-failing guy with a loving wife (who can somehow see past his many social flaws) and tough father-in-law (who is the head of MNU and responsible for giving Wikus this “big break”). Wikus is almost like a South African hybrid of Steve Carrel, Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg.
There are some fantastic moments when an overly confident Wikus knocks on doors serving eviction notices to the aliens. It is an awkward, yet captivating scenario. The MNU, an organization that obviously has absolute power over the situation, has decided to make the eviction of the aliens seem “legal” by getting them to sign (or “scrawl”) their signature on a small piece of paper. Naturally, the aliens aren’t too happy about all this and Wikus is met with a variety of responses (one where the alien slaps the paper out of his hand and storms off — Wikus triumphantly points out that a tentacle hit the paper, it is therefore signed). Another funny legality is that the aliens have been given human names (such as “Christopher Johnson”) to make their very existence bona fide.
In the first third of the film there are several reminders that the MNU isn’t a tolerant organization. If the armed units are faced with any resistance, they kill on-site. However, they are faced with an impoverished, desparate alien populous that will do anything for a tin of cat food. They are more concerned about chewing on car tires than being shot at. The cat food actually becomes a commodity in District 9, a currency the local Nigerian gangs use to trade for weapons. There is also a hilarious reference to “inter-species prostitution.”
The movie starts off in hand-held documentary style (not in an annoying Blair Witch Project way), following Wikus on his alien eviction adventures, but the atmosphere of the story changes after he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a black fluid in an unidentified cylinder. There is then an altercation with one of “Christopher Johnson’s” friends who tries to distract attention away from the shack that contained Wikus was sprayed in.
Cue alien death, execution style, by the bald-headed bad-ass special unit military guy.
A dodgy stomach and a broken arm later, Wikus is stuck in a situation he can’t get out of. You remember that spray? It turns out that it’s not only a special, highly refined spaceship fuel, it’s also a way to really mess up your day if you breathe it in. Wikus has started to change into an alien.
This is probably one of the weaker parts of the story. How a nasal spray is going to tinker with your genetics in such a way that will turn you into a human-alien hybrid, I don’t know, but District 9 didn’t start with a claim that it was going to be totally scientifically accurate. Somehow Wikus’ left hand also turns into a clawed alien appendage. I’ll turn a blind eye to the fudged human-alien biology lesson.
So we’re locked in a race against time as MNU agents track down and capture Wikus as Wikus becomes more and more prawn-like. From being a flawed MNU officer, he has now become the most valuable human on the planet; he is the only one capable of operating the alien technology (their weapons only react to alien biology).
During the period when Wikus has been captured and is being experimented on, the MNU shows itself for what it really is; a weapon research facility with little regard for human life, let alone alien life. In one particularly tough scene, Wikus has to fire an assortment of alien weaponry at animal carcasses against his will…
[If you told me before watching District 9 that I would feel shocked by the death of a CGI’d alien being, I’d assume I would have been drinking heavily beforehand. But no, I hadn’t had a beer (although the Pepsi was quite syrupy).]
…At this point, a live alien is dragged out with an X painted on its torso. When stood, shivering at the end of the shooting range, Wikus is ordered to shoot the alien. He refuses, crying. You see that Wikus does have a certain degree of respect for the aliens and he is certainly adverse to killing them. Unfortunately, tied in place, and alien weapon pushed in this hand, he’s forced to fire the gun at the frightened “prawn,” who explodes in a bloody mess.
It’s pretty grizzly and also a little upsetting. I think this is the moment in the movie that you know you are dealing with a different kind of sci-fi storyline and Blomkamp does an amazing job to shock, but not to go over the top.
Agony and terror
Also, you realize Sharlto Copley’s acting ability is nothing short of outstanding. Before the weapon testing scene, there’s a fair amount of humour angled at his character, afterwards you can feel his agony and terror.
Needless to say, Wikus escapes and runs to the only place he can find refuge: District 9. Fortunately, we are allowed a little time to recuperate after the MNU experiments as Wikus turns into a convict running through his own city.
After a period of making friends with the smart “Christopher Johnson” and little (and quite cute) pint-sized alien son, Wikus and “Christopher” work out they need each other to find a solution to the problems they are facing. “Christopher” needs to retrieve the mysterious cylinder from the MNU HQ to make the command ship (hidden under District 9) function, and Wikus needs alien technology from the mothership hovering overhead to stop him from going 100% prawn.
And so begins an orgy of human-popping. In the best human-alien buddy pairing since Han Solo and Chewbacca, Wikus and “Christopher” assault the MNU HQ with the best alien guns Wikus could steal from those Nigerian “inter-species prostitution” gangs (with a fetish for drinking alien blood and collecting alien junk they can’t use). Of course, now that Wikus can operate these guns, he can have some fun.
A clip from District 9: Wikus uses an alien weapon for the first time (language NSFW):
Many reviews of District 9 are critical of the amount of action in the rest of the film, but I thought it was pretty cool. Science-lite, but it sure was a tour de force of movie action imagination. My particular favourite was Wikus’ energy-lightning-bolt gun that had no difficulty in snuffing out MNU personnel in a cloud of blood vapour.
A few gun battles later, and we return to District 9, plus fuel cylinder. Quite a lot happens, but to cut a long story short… there were a lot of explosions. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was fairly routine, with a couple of minor plot twists. When I say routine, I don’t mean it was boring, the movie simply went its course without too many surprises. Well, there might have been one or two…
I have no clue how I didn’t notice this film was in the works, but it would appear I’m not quite as well plugged into the sci-fi pulse as I used to be. Announced last year, “Moon” is set on the lunar surface where a lone contractor is manning the Helium-3 mining operation. Acted by Sam Rockwell, the setting looks like a visual treat, bound to get any science fiction enthusiast’s taste buds excited. However, yesterday the trailer was released ahead of its June 12th release… and it looks good… Continue reading ““Moon” Movie Trailer Now Online”
I’ve been writing a science fiction novel about Mars for the best part of a decade. I have always had a fascination with the Red Planet and all the sci-fi possibilities the planet holds for my creative writing. Unfortunately, it’s taken me ten years to put my imagination into words, and it will probably be another ten before it’s completed! No, for now, I’m focusing on factual science writing, hence the forthcoming Astroeconomics book I’m co-authoring with Greg Fish.
This is possibly one of the reasons why I have such a fascination with artists who have a vision and then draw what they see. There’s a faster turn-around than writing, and the results are more vivid. Today, I had the good fortune to have stumbled upon (quite literally) Jason Zuckerman’s “Mars” creation. I have been following Jay’s website (Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day) for a while now with the help of his brother and my online buddy, Adam (a.k.a. madhollywood on SU).
Jay is a very talented and productive artist who constantly surprises me, and “Mars” was certainly a surprise! He posted this piece last year, but I thought I’d share even though I missed it first time around. The image portrays a future Mars astronaut standing in awe of a Martian structure, totally captivating. Although this is science fiction, it certainly drives my imagination, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with that…