Abduction Report

Mad Genius Club

Hi, everyone. Apologies for my lack of reply to last week’s UFO post, but I was abducted by magical Sidhe folk living in the forest behind my house. As always, time spent in the Sidhe realm follows different rules. Thankfully I did not emerge a day or so later having aged to a ripe old age, but there was definitely some time slippage. Even now I’m not sure if a week or a year has passed.

I’m fascinated to learn that UFOs are pushing up house prices in Canberra (thanks Dave), perhaps some of our politicians are also being robotically controlled? Julia Gillard’s hair colour can’t be real, surely? I also used to often wonder about John Howard’s eyebrows.

I tend to think much the same as many of the post-responders last week in terms of the reality of alien visitations. The pattern of UFO sightings, which exploded post-WWII, corresponds…

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UFO Buzzes International Space Station!

As the UFO flew past the ISS earlier in the week, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy was quick of the mark. He caught the object on video as it passed. Of course it did not stay unidentified for long – Russian ground controllers identified it as an antenna cover from the Zvezda service module. See the footage here.

This comes after the US government recently confirmed the existence of Area 51 for the first time. Of course, they confirmed it as a testing area for spy planes, and did not say anything about aliens or crashed alien spacecraft.

The ISS incident got me thinking about UFOs in general, and whether there really has been any alien visitations of Earth in modern times.

Given the vastness of space, and the constraints of physics, I think the most likely alien visitor would be of the robotic kind. Perhaps there has been a probe or two fly past and take so photos. If so, then its next move would be a high-intensity beam communication back to its point of origin. Once more, given the vastness of space, its home civilisation may not pick up the message for hundreds or thousands of years. This of course assumes no advanced SF-type goodies like navigable wormholes or warp drives.

So what do you think? Have aliens visited? Have you seen any truly weird UFOs yourself?

Dealing with the Cast of Thousands

I’m pleased to announce that my fantasy series, the Jakirian Cycle, is finished! All the last edits are done and it should be hitting both the real and electronic shelves around October.

It’s exciting to have completed the trilogy, and it will be great to end the wait for those who started the series with The Calvanni, either in its 2006 Australian print incarnation or its later 2009 electronic version.

One of the things I grappled with Jakirian Cycle (typical of fantasy series) was the considerably wide scope of the story. Without giving too much of the plot away, at the start of The Calvanni the Eathal – the cavern dwelling cousin-species to humans – are launching a major offensive on the remnants of a once vast human Empire. But this is very much in the background.

In the first book the central characters are struggling to survive amid civil strife and assassination attempts (Ellen), while dealing with the emergence of their own unique magical powers (Cedrin).

In the second book, the first major engagements are taking place between the Eathal and the last few human Legions, but the focus is still on the characters and their personal journeys and the mystery of the Scion (the lost heir to the fallen Empire).

In Sorcerer – third book of the trilogy – the clash of human and Eathal occurs on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of human and Eathal troops are fighting across two major fronts. From the PoV of the central characters, they are being drawn more and more into the centre of power in Yos. Both Cedrin and Ellen find themselves right at the core of the reestablished Bulvuran Empire. Amidst all this are the various Warlords who divided up the fallen Empire. The most powerful of whom is facing the Eathal in southern Yos while being heavily outnumbered and under strength in the magical department. To do justice to this, I needed to make that Warlord a PoV character, and needed to portray these major engagements.

Various subplots that have been in the background since the first book all come to the fore in Sorcerer. All of this led to the introduction of a lot of new characters. Each is important to the story in some way, but most are not central or point-of-view characters. Trying to control this crowd, and do them justice was certainly a challenge!

Numerous times I’ve had to scramble back through the book and insert a few key paragraphs. ‘Oh, Damn! Such-and-such was still with Cedrin in that scene.’  or ‘Oh, crap. Where were they when that combat was happening?’ I need to keep them in the picture, but without diluting the thread of the main character too much. There were so many of these minor characters it really proved a teeth-grinding experience. Oh for a simple story! I am my own worst enemy with this. Yet with book three  I also tried to lay the foundation for the ultimate conclusion of what might extend to a possible six books series. Don’t worry – Sorcerer ends with a great climax and the first three books stand as a trilogy.

If you love battle scenes, Sorcerer will definitely be your sort of thing. In that regard it is my homage to David Gemmell:) Using the unique magic of Yos, including the glowmetals, on that scale was a real buzz.

Back to dealing with multiple characters: I always try to maintain the focus of the story through a small number of key point-of-view characters. There may be many other characters introduced to support the story, or to give the setting the feel of the political landscape, but I try to have these experienced through the viewpoint of the key characters. I think it can even aid the tension in the story to have the motivations of these characters unclear – and that’s hard to pull off if they are the narrator. It’s also surprising how much you can convey objectively, without having to make them a PoV character.

It is a tricky balance though. It’s hard to do them all justice, to convey their motivations and to give the reader a sense that these minor characters are moving through the story not just being present as a background cut-out. More than once I shook my head writing Sorcerer and said ‘What the Hell have I got myself into?’

Still, I think it’s worth it to see the various sub-plots come into effect. It gives the whole thing a depth and complexity.

Have you ever been frustrated by the Cast of Thousands? How do you deal with it? Kill them off? Limit their appearances? Tear up your draft?

Is There a Role for Passive Text?

Talking about writing rules, one of the first that got drummed into me (actually, more like beaten into me — around the head with what was left of my frayed manuscript) was the importance of active writing; making the prose immediate, rather than passive. The shorthand for this is ‘Show don’t Tell’. You could do a lot worse than plough through your manuscript with this mantra repeating in your head. Certainly for action, it’s an absolute must. But it really got me wondering — is this really universally applicable?

Some of the books I admired most as a young reader, such as Lord of the Rings, were full of passive text. Huge wads of backstory and enormously long sentences that would never get past a modern editor. Yet it worked. Another book I admire tremendously is Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. Accustomed to more modern prose, the passive style put me off initially, but it did not take me long (about two pages), to get sucked right in. That book is an absolute classic.

I guess one of the things that is really attractive about passive prose (often combined with an omniscient PoV) is that it has a sort of reflective power, enabling a deeper level of insight to be injected into the work — be it on the level of character or life, the universe and everything. That sort of thing is difficult with strictly ‘active’ prose. Often tongue and cheek humor also works best in a passive mode (outside of dialogue that is). I think this is one of the things that I tried to emulate in my first attempts to write fantasy, which in my case came off as excessive backstory with overly grandiose metaphors (hey – don’t say anything about PoV!).

The other thing about active prose is that is takes space. I often wonder if there is a case for a blend of active and passive prose, just for the sake of economy. Its a lot faster to say ‘Joe survived the battle, running from the fiends of the Hegemon with his sword between his legs,’ than to go through the whole scene recounting every shiver of fear and blood-filled drop of sweat. If the scene is not really that crucial to the story, but merely a bridge, does it really matter?

Is just makes me wonder. Is passive text total taboo, or is it just one more tool, and perhaps a valid one in some cases?

200 Year Old Technology Makes it into Space – The Stirling Radioisotope Generator

For those of you who have not heard about the Stirling engine, the technology was first proposed by Scotsman Robert Stirling way back in 1816 as an alternative to nasty steam engines, which had a habit of exploding and killing people with high-pressure steam. In nineteenth century steam engines, water inside the pressure vessel was in two phases – steam vapour and pressurised liquid, so in the case of a rupture there was an instant expansion of hot liquid into steam.

Often called an ‘external combustion engine’, Stirling engines are a sealed system with the cylinders inside working with a gas, such as air or nitrogen, which exists in a single phase.

The physical layout of the Stirling engines varies, but all have a ‘power’ piston and a ‘displacer’ that works in concert with the power piston to maintain the constant volume conditions. Each engine has a hot and cold end, with a heat exchanger at each. Inside the engine is a ‘regenerator’,  which is a physical material that stores part of the heat as it flows inside the engine and is crucial to its operation.

Stirling engines have been demonstrated at temperatures well below 100oC. The Ultra Low Temperature Difference Stirling engine was demonstrated to operate at a hot side temperature of just 0.5oC. Like any heat cycle, it is driven by temperature difference, so a low hot side temperature must be balanced by an even lower cold side where heat can be rejected. In practice low temperature differential Stirling engines require a very large surface area for heat transfer and are consequently more expensive to manufacture than high temperature Stirling engines.

The real advantage of Stirling engines lies in their heat source flexibility. The same Stirling engine can operate with a wide range of fuels and over a wide range of temperatures.

NASA have been working for some time on a small Stirling engine for use as a power supply on spacecraft. Called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), it is driven by the heat from radioactive decay.

Around 1kg of Plutonium 238 forms part of the module. This generates a thermal output of around 500 Watts. The heat drives a small, single cylinder Stirling engine that produces around 140 Watts of electrical power.

Like all Stirling engines, the ASRG is a closed-loop engine. It’s internal working gas will be helium. In its single cylinder the up-down motion of the power stroke is converted into an AC electrical output by a linear alternator. This is then converted to the DC required by on-board systems.

Why would NASA bother putting something with that many moving parts on a spacecraft? Well for a start, Stirling engines are very reliable, and a large part of the work the NASA is undertaking is focussed on reliability studies for the ASRG. But primarily, the ASRG will be four times more efficient per unit mass than the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) it replaces. That is an impressive increase in efficiency. The RTG modules have been standard on spacecraft for the last 40 years, and use the temperature differential in thermocouples to produce power.

To reduce vibration, two ASRG  units will be mounted opposite each other and synchronised so their pistons move in opposite directions to eliminate mechanical noise.

An RTG system has a typical efficiency of around 5-7%, disappointingly low considering it is driven by 850oC from the Plutonium power source. The ASRG’s Stirling generator would operate at around 38% efficiency with the same 850oC hot end (with heat rejected the lonely depths of space at 90oC). In practice the ASRG’s hot end temperature, and consequently, net efficiency is expected to be a little lower.

The ASRG was demonstrated for the first time in 2012 – the first demonstration of a new nuclear system for power production since 1965. There are also moves to produce more Plutonium, again for the first time since 1965.

The ASRG could be available as early as 2015, and is designed to have a 14 year mission life.

Larger versions have been proposed to power a potential Moon base, and also a Mars base under the NASA Fission Surface Power project. So far a 40kWe version has been trialled in NASA labs (minus the nuclear fuel source i.e. just the Stirling engine component with conventional heat applied). This 40kWe version is likely to be the size of a trash can, and would provide surface power for decades with little or no maintenance.

Around 40 kWe is about the size of generator you need to power a small hybrid-electric vehicle. Maybe NASA would consider selling Plutonium cars to the public? It would be cool to drive around for a couple of decades and never fill up. When you are not driving you could plug it into your house and power both you and your neighbours.

Hey, it’s nice to dream:)