Exploring Alien Worlds on Netflix (Ep4)

Image Credit: Dr. Philip Kramer in the Austrian Alps by Marco Di Marcello

SPOILER WARNING!

Floating predators. Googly-eyed monkeys. Sky cows. Brain matter in tanks. Sentient robots. 

Netflix’s new series Alien Worlds covers them all. Each episode dreams up a fictional planet and the creatures who call it home. When you first see the fantastical critters and colorful plants on each world, you might dismiss the show as pure science fiction, but Alien Worlds is rooted in biology and evolution here on Earth.

What would happen to life on a planet where gravity was twice as strong? How would animals adapt to a planet around a dimmer star? Are we doomed to become a hive mind? Biologist and award-winning science fiction author, Philip Kramer, PhD, and Margaret Reeb, who works at the SETI Institute, have teamed up to break down the series. 

Episode 4

Philip: This is where the scifi nerd in me really rejoiced. 

Margaret: Me too. This was my favorite episode. 

Philip: When it comes to our first encounter with aliens, I do think they will be of the metal and wire variety and not flesh and blood. It seems like the inevitable next step when biology can no longer keep up with the demands of a civilization. This episode really explores why a species might decide to go this route. 

Margaret: As much as I like thinking about life overall, thinking about intelligent life that could exist in our universe is so much more compelling. And who knows what form that life will take.

Philip: Or how many of them are out there.

Margaret: Andy Frank who we meet in this episode jots down a formula on a napkin. It’s similar to the Drake equation, which was meant to start a scientific dialogue about quantifying how many advanced societies could exist in the milky way. Andy’s equation is concerned with the total number of technological societies that could have evolved in the observable universe. 

Philip: Then the obvious question is why haven’t we heard from them and how do we go about contacting them?

Margaret: As someone who is very passionate about SETI, I do appreciate that they addressed this question in the episode. I think the simplest explanation is that the universe is so big and we’ve just started looking. Plus, humans are such a young species. Cosmologically speaking, we just started sending our own radio waves into space. Maybe a response to our earliest signals are already headed our way.

Terra

Philip: Terra is a nine billion year old planet. It is a barren world, likely due to climatic issues we are beginning to face today, and helped in no small part by its aging star.

Margaret: This planet is the closest to Earth that we’ve seen. It orbits a G-type star, like our very own sun. It’s just a touch closer but still in the habitable zone. To your point, it’s interesting that they don’t talk about what led to Terra’s demise. I chalked it up to the dying star but you’re right, maybe the life forms altered the climate.

Philip: I could be wrong, but it seems to me they were trying to imply this was Earth’s future. They did name the planet Terra, which is just Latin for Earth. And we do know that our sun too will expand into a red giant and sterilize the planet in another 2-4 billion years. The icy planet they fled to could be any number of the icy moons in our own solar system.

Margaret:  As Jill Tarter says, “SETI is a mirror…” And I kept trying to connect the dots about how humans could end up like the hive mind of Terra. This system is very similar to ours and shows us what could happen if humans don’t drive themselves into the ground. It’s very difficult now to see a future where we could all cooperate as a hive mind, but a lot could change in a billion years. 

Hive mind (Brains in Tanks)

The Hive Mind chilling in their nutrient baths. Image credit: Netflix

Philip: The life-forms we meet in this episode seem to be just as much technology as they are biology. Essentially, they are neural tissue in a vat of fluid. Their individual vats are connected by a network of a sort. They have formed a hive mind, another scifi staple.

Margaret: Like any good show, this episode left me with so many intriguing questions. Why didn’t the hive mind just give up on the neural tissue and upload their consciousness into a robot or a computer? This seems more efficient than creating a dome and continuously supplying the brains with the nutrients they need.

Philip: Considering we don’t have a firm grasp of what consciousness is and how it works, it’s possible uploading changes them in some way. But you’re right in that keeping neural tissue alive is very difficult. It is very energy demanding. It looks as though the plants growing in the dome could be supplying them with oxygen and glucose. An enclosed ecosystem would have to be much larger and more complex in order to create the vitamins and trace nutrients the brains can’t make themselves. Check out a previous post of mine on the Science of Enclosed Ecosystems.

Margaret: It made me wonder what these creatures looked like before they put their brains in tanks. Why did they think living this way was better than living as individuals? What was their society like? As I said, this episode left me with so many questions. 

Philip: You and me both. I was most intrigued by the claim that these lifeforms didn’t age. As someone who currently works in the field of aging research, I would really like to know their secret.  Aging is a combination of so many different things, most notably the accumulation of damage in DNA and proteins. Considering much of this damage happens spontaneously due to chemical reactions and as a result of cell division, radiation, and oxidative stress from normal metabolic processes, it’s difficult to imagine they could eliminate it entirely. Read more on The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures.

Margaret: This is why my vote would have been to become a robot! Nothing is impervious to damage but it seems like robots would be more sturdy than brain matter. Also, I would hope that if a hyper-intelligent species worked as a hive mind, they would have left their planet before their star got so unstable that they lost their energy source and their escape pod got taken out by a solar flare. Everyone makes mistakes, I guess. 

Philip: You say that as if you’ve never argued with yourself before or decided to put off a chore for tomorrow or the next day or a billion years. My guess is that they were all living in a virtual reality and only decided to move once their lives were in danger. I admit, watching huge numbers of the brains go offline from the solar flare was a bit terrifying. What would that feel like to the rest of the Hive mind?

Margaret: This is probably a generational thing where my great-great-great-great grandchildren will read this and think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t want to give up my individuality to become a hive mind. But like I said earlier, a lot could change in a billion years, and if the climate is inhospitable, I can see how becoming a hive mind in a dome might be the best choice. 

Robots

Margaret: I’m going to take a controversial stand and say that we should discuss the robots on Terra like we have other life forms in this show.

Philip: As with all technology, the brains created these to do the things they couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Things like harvest a moon’s resources or terraform a planet. Obviously the robots would need the ability to self-replicate in order to do their jobs properly. All the scifi stories I’ve ever read tell me that’s a bad idea. I foresee these self-replicating robots one day overthrowing their masters and eventually becoming a pestilence on the galaxy, unable to escape their programmed imperative to harvest all resources.

Margaret: The singularity, yes. That should terrify all of us. Let’s talk about what these little guys were up to, other than injecting the brain tanks with food: terraforming. The thing about terraforming is that it’s very hard to create an atmosphere on a planet where there isn’t one. The show made it sound like the robots were going to melt some glaciers, release steam into the atmosphere, and call it a day. If this is going to work, there has to be something going on with the planet that they don’t talk about. Otherwise the steam would just float away or fall back down as snow. 

Philip: They must be stripping the oxygen from the ice, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Only really heavy gases would stay in the atmosphere on a planet with a low gravity and lacking a magnetosphere. The sun would strip everything else away. 

Margaret: Plus, as the star begins to run out of fuel and expand, it’s going to affect the climate and atmosphere of this new planet. Seems like this hive mind isn’t really thinking things through. It might have been smarter to find a planet around a younger, more stable star.

Philip: That’s all assuming they have the capability to leave the star system. For a species that doesn’t age, that might not be an issue, but seeing as their technology as well as the plants in their domes rely on solar energy, they will run out of power before they get anywhere close to another star. They must have a decent and possibly reactionless drive capable of getting those domes off the planet, but anything short of a hypothetical wormhole will likely take many dozens if not hundreds of years to reach a nearby star.

Margaret: They are hyper intelligent and don’t age! But this sort of debate is interesting because we don’t have any examples of hyper intelligent species to compare the hive mind to. All the other creatures were simple to debate because we can draw tons of comparisons to Earth. The hive mind? Not so much.

Philip: The same goes for these robots. Yes, we have made some of our own on Earth, but their intelligence is debatable. Are the robots in this episode true AI and able to think for themselves, or just custodians who serve at their creator’s whim?

Margaret: So that was another thing that came to mind. If all of the hive mind died, what happened to the robots in the new planet? Were they able to survive? Did they create a robot utopia?

Philip: What would that look like?

Margaret: Let’s debate that in another post. To close, I’ll say I really liked how this episode showed that nothing in the universe is permanent, especially humans if we aren’t careful. Our sun is going to burn out one day and the Earth is going to become uninhabitable. To me, this is why everyone should care about astrobiology and SETI. 

SETI

Philip: It was sad to see the Arecibo telescope at the end in light of the recent news about it. How is it’s loss affecting the SETI community?

Margaret: It’s so sad. To many, Arecibo was a beacon of science, and it’s heartbreaking to see it destroyed. NASA conducted its first SETI listening studies at Arecibo, and after the government stopped funding SETI, university and public-funded efforts pushed SETI forward at Arecibo. 

Philip: That must have ruined their plan to send more messages out into space. When they described the interesting step-wise methodology for how we might go about communicating with aliens, starting with numbers, and then using those numbers to describe elements of life on Earth, and then what we look like, I thought it just might work.

Margaret: The Arecibo message was a great moment for SETI. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a response but it helped us think about communicating over extremely large distances and how we might communicate with an alien intelligence, which is a tall task. 

Philip: Do you think we should be sending more messages? Or is the fear of actual contact reasonable.

Margaret: I think if we’re worried about the singularity and robot intelligence, we should be concerned about aliens. However, I think it’s more likely that an alien intelligence might not be all that interested in us. We are very young and aren’t that technologically advanced when you think about the age of the universe and what other civilizations may have already achieved.

Philip: And if every alien civilization out there decides to just listen and not talk, we’ll never hear anything.

Margaret: It’s true, if we all decide to be quiet, no one will make contact. But we are leaking radio signals into space from our own communications. These may disintegrate over long distances, but still, we’re making noise. I generally agree with Jill Tarter that we’re not mature enough to start sending signals into space. It needs to be a multi-generational effort and we don’t have the level of commitment amongst our species to do this yet. But I hope it happens.

Philip: Me too. And maybe if we’re lucky, our generation might supply the first sentence or two in the thousand year long conversation.

Exploring Alien Worlds on Netflix (Ep3)

Image Credit: Dr. Philip Kramer in the Austrian Alps by Marco Di Marcello

SPOILER WARNING!

Floating predators. Googly-eyed monkeys. Sky cows. Brain matter in tanks. Sentient robots. 

Netflix’s new series Alien Worlds covers them all. Each episode dreams up a fictional planet and the creatures who call it home. When you first see the fantastical critters and colorful plants on each world, you might dismiss the show as pure science fiction, but Alien Worlds is rooted in biology and evolution here on Earth.

What would happen to life on a planet where gravity was twice as strong? How would animals adapt to a planet around a dimmer star? Are we doomed to become a hive mind? Biologist and award-winning science fiction author, Philip Kramer, PhD, and Margaret Reeb, who works at the SETI Institute, have teamed up to break down the series.

Episode 3

Margaret: Episode 3 starts with a description of how we can understand an exoplanet’s atmosphere and whether it has the right mixture of elements to support life. This is super exciting and the James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in late 2021, will have this capability. As you can imagine, it’s harder to sample the atmosphere’s around smaller, rocky planets where life might exist than larger gas giants. 

Philip: Detecting oxygen would strongly point towards the presence of life. Since oxygen is so reactive, it would most likely exist in combination with other atoms like carbon, hydrogen, or even oxidized metals. For it to be free of those, it likely indicates an active process like photosynthesis. The planet in this episode is chock-full of oxygen.

Eden

Margaret: Eden, our next fictional planet, has 31% oxygen, which is ten percent more than on Earth presently. Eden gets all this oxygen from the epic plant life on its surface–which is fueled by its two stars and an axial tilt that provides a lot of light. Also, a two-star system would make me nervous — it could get unstable fast. All the life we see could be on borrowed time. 

Philip: This planet is definitely more lush and verdant than the others we’ve seen so far. The creators took a lot of time filling this world, though they focus mainly on the relationship between three lifeforms. 

Grazers

A Grazer sniffing a fruiting fungi. Image credit: Netflix

Philip: The first life we see, aside from the tree and plant life responsible for the photosynthesis, are Grazer. 

Margaret: I did not like their faces. Also, their eyes looked wooden. The design made me wonder what material they were. 

Philip: Yeah. With such narrow pupils, I wonder how any light gets in. Unless it is a compound eye like those of an insect. Now that you mention it, the rest of its features are reminiscent of a moth, from the antennae to the fuzzy coat. I anticipated seeing both common and new sensory organs on Eden. Humans have 21, so it stands to reason that other lifeforms would adapt their own subset of these or more that are specific to their environment.

Margaret: Also, let’s just talk about their (ridiculous) reproductive system. The grazers have to be on the constant lookout for the predators in the trees, which is why they don’t actually have sex. They release worm/caterpillar things that slither along until they find another worm/caterpillar to fuse with. I hated this. Wouldn’t these worm/caterpillars be extremely vulnerable?  

Philip: That was some weird stuff and incredibly complex. Then again, the life cycle of both parasites and moths from which I imagine these were inspired, are also pretty complex. The head of the worm is the textbook image of a tapeworm’s scolex. It’s been over ten years since my last parasitology course, but that’s something you never forget. 

Margaret: Come to think of it, they do look like moths! And let’s talk about how the fused worms turned cocoon lassos itself into the tree branches WHERE THE PREDATORS LIVE. Wouldn’t it be better to just stay as a cocoon on the ground? Can you tell I don’t think this is very believable? Maybe I need to enroll in a parasitology course to get on board. 

Predator

A predator consuming a meal with less meat than it would prefer. Image credit: Netflix

Margaret: So these guys look like monkeys but with a secret weapon– a stretchy pair of arms that shoots out of their armpits. I had seen the trailer so I knew this was coming but my boyfriend laughed out loud. 

Philip: I’d be curious to hear how the creators justified this one. An articulated and stretchy arm is counterintuitive. In order to articulate, you have to have some sort of skeleton and joint and those are notoriously not stretchy. This does appear to be the most anthropomorphized species we’ve seen so far. Where does SETI stand on the question of whether aliens will have human-like characteristics?

Margaret: The SETI field is so varied it’s hard to say, but I think there is a universal drive to know what’s out there and how similar it might be to life on Earth. I think the field is constantly challenging itself to think outside of the box and question whether our approach to the search for extraterrestrial life is too human-centric. Put another way, could we miss signs of life on another world because we are only looking for things that look and sound like us?

Philip: Good point. It would be very unlikely for them to have a similar evolutionary history. But there is a strong rationale for why they might look somewhat similar to us. They’ve brought it up in this series before. Those things that are inherently useful evolve independently over and over again, like eyes and venom. I think the symmetry of the face, the arrangement of eyes and ears, nose and mouth, are all there for maximum coverage, height for surveying, and proximity to the brain. The proportions of the human body may prove advantageous for aliens too, with the fulcrum of our elbow and knees less useful for raw power but running and throwing speed. If we ever encounter an intelligent species that needed many of these same advantages, I think they might look humanoid. Though I highly doubt it will be so subtle as a small brow ridge, pointy ears, and green skin.

Margaret: Yes, it would be interesting to see if large brains evolve on other planets. Our brains have given us the ability to organize and take over the planet but they require a lot of resources. In fact, chimpanzees are so much stronger than us even though we’re closely related because they use so much of their energy on muscle mass. We, in turn, use it on our brains. 

Philip: Overall, I think these predators look a bit too human, but they seem to fit in with their environment very well. Especially how they interacted with the other creatures sharing the forest. 

Margaret: Let’s talk about this because if I was critical before, buckle up for what I think about these gross pod things.

Fungi

Philip: If anything, it’s the fungi the grazers eat which have the more complex life cycle. The spores from the orange fruits that appear late in the season infect the grazers, removes their sense of fear, and makes them more prone to predation. The toxins the spores produce in the grazer then kills the predator, and fungi sprout from its decomposing corpse. 

Margaret: I’m going to try not to blow a fuse. You would think evolution would have selected against this. At some point the grazers would have learned not to eat the orange fruit and the predators would have learned not to eat the prey with the glassy-eyed stare. BUT MAYBE THEIR GENES ARE TOO DUMB.

Philip: It reminds me of a newly discovered parasite on Earth which causes ants to swell and look like berries. Birds eat them, and their droppings are then eaten by ants, completing the cycle. Like these fungi, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has some mind altering properties in ants, releasing a specific cocktail of metabolites into the host brain to cause it to seek out an environment more suitable for the fungus. The fungus then infects the mandibular muscles, causing the ant to latch on to a leaf until it dies. Only then will it create a fruiting body and release its spores. These are just two examples of some really complex life cycles right here on Earth. The fungi in this episode is pretty simple by comparison.

Margaret: Also, the fungi kill all the grazers except for the ones in the cocoons. This seemed ridiculous to me. There is no way this ecosystem would last if a key part of it dies out leaving only the vulnerable young. I would have been more okay with this if some of the grazers hibernated. I just don’t understand how this set up could have evolved when it’s so prime to collapse. 

Philip: If they are as dumb and prolific as moths, maybe they don’t need much care. I think it all depends on how developed they are when they emerge from the cocoon. All we get is a shot of a slimy snot ball falling to the ground. Maybe they come out fully developed and ready to eat all the early nontoxic fruit of the fungi. One thing going for this episode, it got me thinking a lot about ecosystems and how every lifeform is dependent on another. As Mufasa would say, everything exists together in a delicate balance.

Margaret: It’s the circle, the circle of LIFEEEEEEEEE!

Exploring Alien Worlds on Netflix (Ep2)

Image Credit: Dr. Philip Kramer in the Austrian Alps by Marco Di Marcello

SPOILER WARNING!

Floating predators. Googly-eyed monkeys. Sky cows. Brain matter in tanks. Sentient robots. 

Netflix’s new series Alien Worlds covers them all. Each episode dreams up a fictional planet and the creatures who call it home. When you first see the fantastical critters and colorful plants on each world, you might dismiss the show as pure science fiction, but Alien Worlds is rooted in biology and evolution here on Earth.

What would happen to life on a planet where gravity was twice as strong? How would animals adapt to a planet around a dimmer star? Are we doomed to become a hive mind? Biologist and award-winning science fiction author, Philip Kramer, PhD, and Margaret Reeb, who works at the SETI Institute, have teamed up to break down the series. 

Episode 2

Philip: The episode begins with the statement that “all living things need the same things, to feed, reproduce, and evolve.” This isn’t the exact definition of life, though, which is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. This simplistic definition has led to some interesting debates. 

Margaret: Yes, it’s a very interesting question. One topical example is whether a  virus is alive. 

Philip: Crystals too can take in energy and materials from their environment and use it to grow and reproduce. Is a crystal alive? Alien life will also likely defy some of these rules. This flexibility is handy when you’re a scifi writer and want to come up with your own alien lifeform. Check out my post on the Science of Exobiology.

Margaret: I got very excited when they talked about extremophiles. Astrobiologists (the people who study the origins and natures of life) are very interested in these microbes because they can teach us a lot about different forms of life, including non-carbon organisms.  

Philip: When they showed the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, I thought for certain they were showing us some amazing CGI of an alien world at first. I had no idea this existed right here on Earth. A “Gateway to Hell,” or so they named it locally. The organisms here survive in acidic and near-boiling hot springs. Later in the episode, they give another example of bacteria that feed off hydrogen sulfide in dark caves. It makes you really appreciate just how varied Earth’s climates are and the lengths some organisms have gone to in order to survive the most extreme of them.

Janus

Margaret: So let’s talk about Janus, which orbits a red dwarf, or an M-type star. These are the smallest, coolest type of star, so a planet has to orbit very close in order to be warm enough to have liquid water. And, as the show points out, being this close to the star means the planet would be tidally-locked. So one side is always light and the other is always dark. The twilight zone in the middle is where most of the action happens.

Philip: It’s strange they don’t show crazy weather patterns on Janus. It can get up to 65C and as low as -50C on the day and night side of the planet. We know from Venus, which also has a slow rotation (its day is longer than its year), that the light and dark side of the planet are pretty similar in temperature due to the winds moving around the planet.

Margaret: True, that would have been interesting to see. Another thing to consider is planets orbiting red dwarf stars may end up without an atmosphere due to the UV radiation and solar flares they experience from being so close to their star. But from the show, it’s clear Janus has an atmosphere. 

Pentapod

A Pentapod. Image credit: Netflix

Philip: These spider-like creatures are the dominant life form on Janus, and depending on which side of the planet they grow up on, have extremely different characteristics. The day-side pentapods  have a dark and shiny exterior to combat the extreme temperatures, while the night-side pentapods are covered in a thick fur.

Margaret:  I thought the different types of pentapods were a little unbelievable at first. They seemed like over-the-top examples of polyphenism.  

Philip: I admit, I thought the same, but they really made me a believer with their description of ant colonies. In order for a single ant species to be adaptable they need members of the colony to specialize, to switch their genes on and off selectively to become either workers, soldiers, and foragers.

Margaret: Okay, fine. I’ll get on board. I suppose. I still think it would be very hard for life to take root on the day-side of the planet. The Pentapods that lived on the dark-side of the planet were more believable to me. 

Philip: They would have more access to water, that’s for sure, but they would also have to expend more energy just to keep from freezing to death. Using their comparison with scorpions, they need far less food to survive the heat.

Margaret: Scorpions! That was a great part of this episode. I had no idea those venomous little suckers  could slow metabolism and go a whole year without eating anything. 

Philip:  As a scientist who studies metabolism, this was particularly interesting to me. Especially the insight into the energy sources of creatures that have no access to sunlight or starlight and the plants that grow beneath it. On Janus, the dark-side pentapods eat grubs around geothermal vents. Insects live off those microorganisms. We see the same principle around the volcanic vents on the bottom of the ocean.

Margaret: What did you think about the way the dark side pentapods ingested the bug’s biolumience?  

Philip: I thought that was a clever adaptation. On Earth, the flamingo gets its characteristic pink color from Astaxanthin in the algae it ingests. But that is a pretty simple molecule. If the bioluminescence is anything like that found in fireflies, which requires a specific enzyme and substrate. I find it hard to believe the protein components would survive a digestive tract designed to break down organic matter. Which brings up the question, what do you make of their overall physiology?

Margaret: The overall look of these animals is very interesting and makes a lot of sense. The ability to move in any direction and see in all directions would be very important if food was scarce. 

Philip: I somewhat disagree with that. Radial symmetry, where the layout of the creature is mirrored on more than one side, is very rare on Earth. Those creatures with radial symmetry are also pretty simple, like the starfish. Replicating so many complicated organs like eyes and appendages on all sides seems like a waste of resources. Scorpions and ants are bilateral, which seems much more efficient. Even the octopus is considered bilateral, and it still puts all of its arms to good use.

Margaret: What did you think about the way they reproduced?

Philip: Their being hermaphroditic means they both have the chance to produce offspring and increase their chances of survival as a species. While it is by no means uncommon on Earth, it is unusual for a creature this size to be hermaphroditic. The fact that it uses the same tooth-lined orifice for reproduction as eating is a bit terrifying. That it launches its offspring like tiny helicopters in the air is also pretty unique, though some species of spiders on Earth are known for something similar. They ride parachutes made of webs to disperse through the air soon after they hatch.

WATER

Margaret: I’m glad they discussed the importance of water, but I think it should have come in the first episode. Liquid water is the backbone of astrobiology so it seems like an important point to make early.

Philip: They did say that you need to “follow the water” in order to find life, but we also know that other solvents are being considered like ammonia and methane, and life itself might center around other elements like silicon or boron instead of carbon. 

Margaret: “Follow the water” is an astrobiologist’s life motto! It’s interesting that you bring up methane. It makes me think of Titan, which is a moon of Saturn. It has methane lakes, which makes me wonder about what life could look like there.

Exploring Alien Worlds on Netflix (Ep1)

Image Credit: Dr. Philip Kramer in the Austrian Alps by Marco Di Marcello

SPOILER WARNING!

Floating predators. Googly-eyed monkeys. Sky cows. Brain matter in tanks. Sentient robots. 

Netflix’s new series Alien Worlds covers them all. Each episode dreams up a fictional planet and the creatures who call it home. When you first see the fantastical critters and colorful plants on each world, you might dismiss the show as pure science fiction, but Alien Worlds is rooted in biology and evolution here on Earth.

What would happen to life on a planet where gravity was twice as strong? How would animals adapt to a planet around a dimmer star? Are we doomed to become a hive mind? Biologist and award-winning science fiction author, Philip Kramer, PhD, and Margaret Reeb, who works at the SETI Institute, have teamed up to break down the series. 

Episode 1

Margaret: Okay, Phil. Before we get into the nitty gritty of the show, let’s start with an important question: Do you believe life exists beyond Earth?

Philip: I do believe there is life out there. It’s simply a matter of probability. As the show points out in Episode 4, there are more planets out there than grains of sand on Earth. At least a few of those should have that perfect cocktail of ingredients for life to emerge. The probability of intelligent life is much smaller but that doesn’t keep me from hoping.

Margaret: I’m glad you brought that up. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the differences between life generally and intelligent life. There are all types of intelligence, but when we say “intelligent life” we’re talking about organisms that can solve complex problems, grasp abstract concepts, and chat with us. I think this type of life is rare but unintelligent life is abundant. (That sounds rude.)

Phil: So we’re in agreement. I did like the way they set up the premise of using biology here on Earth to dream up alien life. There are so many different ecosystems in and out of the water, we can infer so many things about life on other planets. 

Margaret: Totally. This is actually the main premise of astrobiology, a cross-disciplinary field of science concerned with the origin and nature of life. Lots of the people who work at the SETI Institute are astrobiologists. They are trying to understand how life came to be in order to find it on other planets. I also want to say that Didier Queloz is a treasure.

Philip: He was the first person we meet in the show, right? He detected the first exoplanet (or planet outside of our solar system).

Margaret: He confirmed an exoplanet for the first time. 51 Pegasi b, or 51 Peg b to friends. We figured there were other worlds but we didn’t know for sure until Didier confirmed it. And 51 Peg b upended our theories about planet formation. Previously, we figured that gas giants planets would orbit far away from their stars, but 1 Peg b is huge–about half the mass of Jupter or 150 times that of the Earth–and orbits VERY close to its star. It’s closer to its host star than Mercury is to our Sun. 51 Peg b was a new class of planet, a Hot Jupiter, and astronomers have found quite a few of them. One idea is that planets migrate–where they orbit changes over the life of the solar system–which would explain how a gas giant ends up close to a star enduring extremely hot temperatures. 

Philip: It makes me wonder about the history of Atlas, the fictional planet covered in the series’ first episode. Let’s explore that first, shall we?

ATLAS

Philip: Okay, so this planet is bigger than Earth, so it has a stronger gravitational force and a thick atmosphere. 

Margaret: Correct, which is why life on this planet primarily occupies the sky.

Sky grazers

A sky grazer falling victim to a swarm of predators. Image credit: Netflix

Philip: Where do these sky grazers rank for you on the intelligence scale? To me they looked like big flying cows.

Margaret: I spent a lot of the episode trying to decide if they were cute. Jury’s still out. But I don’t think they could hold a conversation with me, unfortunately. I thought the thick atmosphere was a very interesting concept. When they said the sky grazers never landed I gasped. How would they sleep? Then I realized they are sort of like dolphins swimming in the ocean.

Philip: And sleeping isn’t something that all animals do in the same way. The dolphin, like you brought up, can switch half of its brain on and off at a time, so it’s never fully asleep. 

Margaret: I did not know that. Another reason dolphins can’t be trusted. 

Philip: And while the sky grazers used six wings to fly though the dense atmosphere, the seeds they ate used another method entirely. Buoyancy.  

Margaret: Oh, yes. Those were the pods that floated around like dandelion seeds. 

Philip: Yes, though not quite like a dandelion seed. A dandelion seed uses air resistance and drag to get around. It can’t go any higher than the breeze will take it. Buoyancy, in contrast, is an upward force generated by the displacement of the surrounding medium as described by Archimedes’ principle. You’re right that the seeds would need some mechanism to lose buoyancy to come back down to the surface from Atlas – either popping or slowly losing the gas that’s giving them buoyancy. 

Margaret: Popping sounds too violent. Let’s get back to sky grazers.

Philip: Aside from their potential cuteness, the first thing that stood out to me was their skin. They were very pale. Without some pigment to absorb light in their skin, their cells, no matter what they’re made of, would be susceptible to damage from ionizing radiation. That means there must be something blocking that radiation from reaching them.

Margaret: Yes, and Atlas orbits an F-type star, which is bigger and hotter than our sun, which is a G-type star. (It would also be stable for less time than the sun, which could be a problem.) And Atlas’ star would give off a lot more UV radiation. I’m not sure how that sky grazer would hold up. 

Philip: I hadn’t considered the type of star. A thick atmosphere like the one on Venus is known to block most surface radiation. Or like Earth, Atlas might have a strong magnetosphere.

Floating predators

A floating predator going in for the attack. Image credit: Netflix

Margaret: And where you have sky cows, you will have predators.

Philip: These are going to haunt my nightmares. When they did the close up shot–

Margaret: Don’t say it! That shot of their toothy beak was unnecessary. I hated it. 

Philip: I can’t decide if the beak reminds me more of an octopus’ beak or the bevel of a needle. Having teeth inside was overkill. Those remind me of the lamprey. If you look up a picture of one, you’ll see it has a radial cyclone of teeth it uses to do exactly what they were doing in this show — attach to other fish to feed.

Margaret: I’ll take your word for it. I am intrigued by the way these predators used hydrogen-producing bacteria to move up and down in the atmosphere. Do any animals do this on Earth?

Philip: Bacteria release gaseous byproducts all the time, including hydrogen and methane, but I’m not aware of any symbiotic relationship to inflate an organism. That’s probably because Earth doesn’t have a dense atmosphere. Buoyancy would be a boon to an organism which explains why it would have evolved on Atlas. 

Margaret: I liked how they were drawing a comparison between the way these predators hunt and the way falcons hunt on Earth. The falcons hang out up high and dive down on unsuspecting prey.

Philip: I enjoyed that bit. As they say, “nobody ever looks up.” They added another interesting feature to this unique predator, a parachute like membrane that allowed them to produce drag in an attempt to bring the sky grazers to the ground.

Boneless scavengers

A boneless scavenger chases down baby sky grazers. Image credit: Netflix

Philip: These will also be in my nightmares. This idea of a boneless blob sitting on prey to absorb it is not something I’m aware of occurring on Earth, so it’s unique to this planet. 

Margaret: It was heartbreaking when they were picking off the baby sky grazers but the show was making a good point about how tough it can be for young animals to survive.

Philip: They made a good case for why this lifeform will most likely outlive everything else on the planet. “It pays to be a generalist, not a specialist.” This thing didn’t appear to be a picky eater and it’s mode of locomotion was as simple as it gets, literally just rolling around.

Biodiversity

Philip: The lack of biodiversity on Atlas really stuck out to me. Earth has a huge amount of biodiversity and we really only see a few things on Atlas. My guess is the creators didn’t have the time to make millions of life forms. 

Margaret: I did like how they brought up catastrophic events like asteroid impacts that can change the course of evolution on a planet. 

Philip: Yes, and we know that happens because it’s happened here on earth. We’ve had catastrophic events that have wiped out millions of species and made way for new ones. You get a hint of that danger for Atlas from the presence of a ring around the planet. Fragments from whatever those rings once composed could have rained down on the planet.

Margaret: Yeah, that was a nice touch. It reminded me a bit of Saturn, which pulled in an asteroid that orbited the planet for a little bit before getting too close and breaking up due to tidal forces. (Fun fact, the rings around Saturn are relatively new. They didn’t exist when the dinosaurs roamed Earth.)

Philip: We do know that whatever survives such a catastrophic event can quickly evolve to fill all the vacant ecological niches. I read an article recently about how a single species of African Cichlids found its way into a newly formed lake millions of years ago. Over two hundred species of fish have arisen from that, some no more than a couple inches long, and others over two feet. Each filled a particular ecological niche within that lake. Mammals, including ourselves, did the same when the dinosaurs disappeared.

Margaret: Yes, the dinosaurs died because the asteroid impact kicked up so much dust and muck into the atmosphere that killed plants and pumped Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. Most dinosaurs were too big to survive this new harsh world, so the tiny mammals who could live on just a little food, water, and oxygen made it through. 

Philip: Good point. That was the other thing that surprised me. The lack of water on this planet. 

Margaret: Yes! Water is extremely important in the study of astrobiology, and the show really dives into the importance of liquid water in the next episode.

Writing Update- August 2019

I received some excellent news a couple months ago. My Sci-fi short story, “Cephi” was purchased by The Colored Lens. This story is set in the same universe as “Feldspar,” but instead of a Mars Rover, it’s a 3D printing submersible off the west coast. The story follows Jerry, a window-washer in LA. When he finally meets one of the people he’s glimpsed through a high-rise’s window over the years, she has a request that is impossible to ignore. The dirt and rock about to be dumped into the ocean as part of a city expansion project will destroy the fragile ecosystem she and other Terraform Game submersibles have built off the coast. And she thinks he alone can save it.

You can read a preview of the story by clicking “look inside” on the Amazon page (click link below). Since mine is the first story, most of it is visible for anyone to read. If you want to see how it ends, however, you’ll have to buy it.

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If you need further convincing, this was a story I submitted to the N3F contest under the name “Nautilus” in 2017. It was a finalist, and the judge had this to say about it:

“Great story!  Exquisite pacing, excellent construction, a beautiful dramatic build-up to the climax, a strong and active climax, flawless narration, and good dialogue.”

With this story published, it marks the last of my short stories to find a home. Sadly, I think I will be taking a break from short story writing for a while. I need to finish up edits on my novel. Stay tuned for updates on this in the next few months. I will need to line up more beta-readers soon.

Overall, it was a very eventful summer. Before this most recent publication, “Icarus Drowned” was published in Final Frontier in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The Got Scifi Group and I are currently looking for reviewers for Final Frontier. Let me know if you are interested. Review copies available in ePub, Mobi, or PDF.

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Finally, I plan to attempt NaNoWriMo again this year. To see how I did last year, click here to view my previous post. This year will prove to be more difficult than the last, I expect. Last year, I lived by myself in a small apartment, had minimal distractions, and my work was only a short commute away. Now, the opposite is true. I no longer live alone, my house is about 2000 sqft with a half-acre yard, and my commute to work is now 45 minutes. As if the constant chores, long commute, and the lovely company weren’t enough of a distraction, we now have a new dog. He is a 3 month old puppy, full of energy, and has a penchant for chewing anything made of wood.

pup

All that said, I’m not sure I’ll be able to manage the 1,667 words a day required to complete NaNoWriMo, but I’m eager to give it a shot. On the bright side, I have a new study area and am desperate to spend some time writing in it. It even has its own mini-bar!

That concludes my update. I hope to get back to more regular posts in the near future.

Until then, Write Well and Science Hard.

The Science of Space Warfare

Ready about

Military Science Fiction is one of the oldest sci-fi categories. It combines something humans know well, war, with the cold expanse of space. It can be difficult, however, to adapt the physics of warfare on Earth to those outside of its gravity well. Spacecraft, for example, cannot change direction on a dime with a tilt of their wings. I will cover some basic considerations in this article.

 

Reaction Mass.

One of the first things that stands out when reading military sci-fi, is the seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel. There is currently no engine capable of defying Newton’s third law, i.e. there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

Here’s a quick and perhaps unnecessary way to wrap your head around the physics of space travel. First, imagine you are standing on a perfectly slick surface. You can’t go anywhere because you lack traction. Your only option is to throw something in the opposite direction you want to move. If that thing shares your approximate mass, you will speed off in opposite directions at the same speed. Rockets are designed to throw the exhaust faster, so while the gas is lighter than the ship, its velocity in the opposite direction is much greater. The heavier the gas and the faster it is expelled, the quicker the rocket moves.

In space, Venus and Mars, our two closest neighbors, are hundreds of millions of kilometers away. Assuming we had a way to make a perfect fusion thruster and were already out of Earth’s gravity well, getting a one-hundred ton object to one of those planets in just a few days, not exceeding 1G acceleration, would require another 100 tons of fuel. Of course, you would need to bring fuel to carry that fuel, and then fuel to slow down, or else you’d reach your destination going about 8 million kilometers an hour. If you had a more efficient engine, like Ion thrusters, Photonic laser thrusters, or solar sails, you could get away with carrying very little reaction mass or none at all, but you’d have to wait a long time to get anywhere, and that would make a rather dull space battle.

To do your own calculations, check out this calculator.

So how do you fix these problems? Or are epic space battles entirely unlikely? To get the desired effect, you don’t need to invent an unrealistic engine, you just need to come to the battle prepared. Add a huge fuel tanker or two to your fleet, or have regular refueling outposts. Your fighters will need a large fuel tank to ship ratio and come back to refuel periodically during a fight. On the bright side, once you spaceship is in motion, it will stay in motion, so there’s no need to expend fuel constantly, just point where you want to go, and add a little thrust to get there. Just keep in mind, you’ll have to burn off that speed in order to arrive at a stop. Better still, if there is a planet nearby, jumping in orbit will gain you a round-trip ticket back to your starting point, and you can stay on that track indefinitely.

 

Maneuverability.

This brings up another problem I see in military sci-fi books. Rapid changes in direction are not possible in space unless you have maneuvering thrusters placed on all sides of the ship. This is something easily overlooked on Earth, since all aircraft have to do is change the shape of their wings. As I’ve already mentioned, spaceships do not need wings or any aerodynamic shape at all, unless they intend to enter atmosphere. In space itself, wings are useless, and so are all the maneuvers associated with them. If you want to reengage the enemy after a pass, swooping around is impossible without your engines burning a lot of extra fuel. The shortest distance between two objects is a straight line, so the best way to conserve fuel is to do a 180 degree turn in place and go back. Of course, throwing in some X, Y, and Z axis motions will help evade incoming fire.

One major caveat, and one mostly overlooked in military sci-fi, is the inertia. Changing direction too rapidly will apply a large amount of Gs to the ship and anyone inside it. The average person will pass out at 5Gs or when acceleration exceeds 49 m/s^2. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as inertial dampeners, at least not until gravity generators are invented. They would need to create a force like gravity in the direction of acceleration.

However, unless you really need to get somewhere in a hurry or are battling enemies with light-based weapons, you probably won’t need to move that quickly. In the vastness of space, you will likely see incoming enemies and fire from a long-way off, and should have plenty of time to avoid it.

 

Detection systems.

Detecting your enemies in space is easy compared to on Earth; there are fewer things to hide behind. But there is the matter of distance. Light scatters in all directions, therefore luminosity follows the inverse square law. That is to say, the brightness of an object at 1km, will be 0.25x as bright at twice the distance, and 0.01x as bright at ten times the distance. At 384400km, the distance between us and the moon, that object will appear 0.000000000006x as bright. So unless your spaceship is packing a huge telescope, getting a visual on small objects only as far out as we are from the moon, will be very difficult. Thankfully, you can amplify the “brightness” of objects, by illuminating them in other ways. One way would be to send large amounts of radar in their direction. That radar would have to be very intense in order to reach the object and return, weakened each way depending on the reflectivity of the object’s surface. These active scans also give away your position. Another way to detect incoming enemies would be a passive scan, looking for any broadcast signals, either radio waves or infrared. Most ships will emit both if they support human life and run military operations.

If you did manage to detect enemy ships at such large distances, you would need to take into account the time delay. Any signal you detect from a ship as far out as we are from the moon, would be about a second or two out of date. At the speed things travel in space, the enemy could be many kilometers away by then. As far out as Mars, and you are looking at several minutes delay. Shooting at them would be an extremely difficult task, and would require sophisticated computers to model their projected course. The same problem applies to fleet communications. If your forces are spread out all over the star system, it could take hours for communications to reach all of them.

 

Weapons.

In general, most of the weapons we employ in warfare on Earth would be equally if not more effective in space. Not only will projectiles stay their course, unaltered by Earth’s gravity, they will also be traveling the same speed when they hit the target as when they left the barrel. Without air resistance, they will not be slowed. This also means that bullets or other projectiles don’t need to be aerodynamic. The only reason to make a bullet pointy is to penetrate the enemy ship. The same principle applies to missiles. However, if you want your missiles to follow the target or evade countermeasures, they will need small thrusters on the nose to change their attitude midflight. Adding wings to your missiles is pointless unless you intend for them to enter the atmosphere. If the enemy is planet-bound, kinetic strikes would do huge amounts of damage with minimal effort, since gravity does most of the work.

Perhaps one of the most useful weapons will be lasers, as they will be able to cross the vast distances between ships without chance of detection and evasion. Lasers, however, would have to be extremely powerful and focused in order to do much damage. Even a small puncture of a pressurized vessel would do a lot of damage. They would also be able to knockout incoming missiles, an application currently in use on Earth.

Explosions will not be as effective in space as they are in atmosphere, so unless a missile explodes inside or right up against a spaceship, there will be no air to distribute the explosive force other than the gasses produced by the missile itself. And while nuclear weapons will be ineffective at producing shock waves in space, they do emit copious amounts of ionizing radiation. The impact of this radiation on crew and electrical systems will depend on the degree of shielding on the spacecraft and the distance at which it detonates from the target. The same consideration applies to EMPs. It’s likely any ship built for long-term space travel will have developed significant radiation and EMP defenses to protect against solar flares and cosmic radiation.

 

Defense.

Hardening the ship to radiation doesn’t require much more than a few inches of lead, or tanks full of water. Similarly, a completely metallic hull would be effective at blocking electromagnetic pulses. Components on the exterior of the ship, or breaks in the continuity of the hull (e.g. windows) could compromise the interior, however. Hull plates would need to be thick to stop kinetic projectiles, yet not so thick as to make the ship too massive to move. In addition to kinetic projectiles, there will be the occasional micrometeoroid or space debris, all capable of impacting with incredible speeds.

The defense most common in military sci-fi, is also the most unlikely. Shields, force fields, deflectors, or any other name for an invisible barrier capable of stopping high impact strikes, are not likely to exist anytime soon. At best, you might be able to generate a field capable of deflecting radiation, but certainly not large projectiles. Lasers and small, high fire-rate cannons would make short work of most missiles, but if those fail, flares, flak, hacking, or signal jamming may be effective countermeasures for most non-ballistic missiles. 

Other defenses to consider are those meant to mitigate secondary damages, like fire suppressors, breach sealants, or the classic escape pod. You will most likely need some armed men and women aboard to protect against boarding. As a last resort, there’s always the self-destruct, something easily manageable with a nuclear core or by the simultaneous detonation of any remaining munitions.

 

Spaceship Design.

The structure of a spaceship will depend largely on its intended purpose. As mentioned, any craft designed to enter atmosphere will need to be aerodynamic, have wings, and more than likely, a heatshield. That doesn’t mean that all space-faring vessels will be blocky and aesthetically displeasing. A pointy nose and sleek profile is also useful for acceleration, i.e. placing the bulk of the ship in front of the thrusters. This provides structural stability and makes the ship less of a target for incoming projectiles.  The more rounded the better, as this minimizes the surface to volume ratio, cutting down on hull material requirements and those pesky right angles that pressurized vessels find so offensive.

Then there is the matter of gravity. I can’t expect to change everyone’s mind on this count. Having some mysterious form of artificial gravity is very convenient. It holds the crew to the deck, it allows for the existence of inertial dampeners, and most importantly, it keeps the writer from having to consider gravity when designing their ship. There are two real forms of artificial gravity in space. One is a spinning torus, and the other is thrust. Continuous thrust will quickly deplete your fuel, and placing windows on a rotating torus is a great way to nauseate and disorient your characters. Still, I’ve seen many clever authors come up with creative solutions without compromising the story. You can read more about artificial gravity and other gravity considerations in this post.

gravity

In addition to a gravity system, you’ll need to set aside space for crew quarters, watch stations, hanger bays, storage areas, mess halls, bathrooms, environmental (water, air, and waste) processing, energy generators, and other day-to day necessities of a working, breathing, and eating crew. To learn more about enclosed ecosystems and life support, check out this post.

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

Because sustaining a crew in an enclosed ecosystem is a difficult task, the fewer the better. All the crew on board would need to pull their own weight. It would be a waste of money to house hundreds of specialized soldiers who sit there and do nothing waiting for their moment of action. Instead, the crew would most likely be composed of support personnel with secondary combat duties. There is the option, however, of having crew or combat specialists in a state of suspended animation, taking up little space and resources while they wait. Check out my post on suspended animation to learn more.

Stasis2

The Aftermath.

Wreckage and debris is often overlooked in military sci-fi. Because there is nothing to slow things down in space, whatever isn’t pulled into a gravity well will become a navigational hazard. At the speeds ships and explosive debris move, encountering even a small speck of debris can release as much kinetic energy as a bullet. Don’t believe me? The fastest bullets on Earth can maintain 4,500km/h in a vacuum, and a 25g bullet will release nearly 20,000 joules of kinetic energy. The International Space Station, by contrast, travels at 27,580 km/h. A near stationary spec of debris weighing just 1 gram would impact with the kinetic energy of 30,000 joules at those speeds. Check the math using this calculator.

Too much space debris can lead to a cascade effect known as the Kessler Syndrome, where a bit of debris destroys more objects, which turn into more debris and so on. After a significant space battle, it could become impossible for a planet to put things in orbit again.

 

I hope you enjoyed the post. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or would like to add a piece of advice to other military science fiction writers. For anyone with military experience, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially when it comes to space tactics.

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.

Writing Update- March 2019

It’s been a productive last few months, and I have some big news to share.

New Anthology Coming Soon.

The first piece of news is that I’ve just had a sci-fi short story accepted in a reprint anthology titled Final Frontier. The editor, C. Stuart Hardwick, reached out to me a while back to see if I had something to contribute. The anthology will be released in time for the 50 year Anniversary of Apollo 11, and Stuart requested I submit a story that “celebrated the indomitable spirit that carried mankind to the Moon.”

I did have just such a story in mind, one featuring a test pilot, a new kind of space craft, lots of danger and excitement, and lots and lots of science. I submitted “Icarus Drowned,” a short story published previously on this site.

The anthology will feature short stories and other works by award-winning authors including Mike Barretta, Marianne J. Dyson, Sean Monaghan, K. B. Rylander, Matthew S. Rotundo, Ronald D. Ferguson, Martin L. Shoemaker, Nancy Fulda, David D. Levine, Patrick Lundrigan, David Walton, C. Stuart Hardwick, and lastly, Spider Robinson, a winner of Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, and Heinlein Awards among others. If that wasn’t an impressive collection of authors already, the Forward will be written by Astronaut Stanley G. Love.

I will be sure to post another update as soon as the book is published. The expected release date is Friday, April 19th, 2019.

frontcover2

 

Completion of my new Science Fiction book.

For my second piece of news, I’ve recently completed my latest science fiction novel! The working title is Grounded, and it rounds down to about 100k words. I’ve still got quite a lot of editing and proofing to do before I send it out to agents or publishers, but I’m very pleased with it so far. If you are interested in becoming a beta-reader, feel free to reach out to me. See the Beta-reader edition cover image and book blurb below (Note: This is a working cover just for the Beta-reader Edition. The final, published version will be much more professional, i.e. not put together in less than an hour.)

grounded cover

Working title and cover for the Beta-reader edition

back cover

Working back cover and blurb for the Beta-reader edition

Blurb:

Hundreds of lives were lost to the sky during the Fracture, the result of an experiment gone wrong. In seconds, everything and everyone within a mile of the research facility became completely and irreversibly weightless.

In the aftermath, Kyle and the other survivors are given the chance to join a new space program. With New Heights, they will embark on an expedition to the sky and beyond without gravity to hold them back.

But to make it through training, Kyle must contend with a diverse and inexperienced crew, some of whom want nothing more than to see him fail.

 

I’ve planned for this to be the first book in a series, with subsequent books taking Kyle and the crew of New Heights to Earth’s upper atmosphere, the Moon, Mars, and even to float on the clouds of Jupiter and Venus. I mean, why not? If you no longer felt the pull of gravity, where would you go?

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.

My 2018 Reads – The year of LitRPG

2018 was by far my biggest reading year. Based off my Audible and Goodreads account, I believe I read around 90 books. That’s an average of nearly two books a week. So if the average audiobook is 10-14 hours, that means I spent about 3 hours a day listening to an audiobook, or nearly 20 percent of my waking hours.

I might have an addiction.

Here’s the breakdown of the genres:

pie chart reads

47.8% LitRPG
22.8% General Science Fiction
19.5% Military Science Fiction
4.3% Science Fiction- Comedy
3.2% General Fiction
1.1% Post-Apocalyptic
1.1% Fantasy

 

The LitRPG Genre.

Before 2018, I hadn’t read more than a handful of LitRPG books, but this year, I read over 40. Something about this genre really hooked me. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, that’s not a surprise. It’s relatively new to the publishing scene.

These books are usually a strange combination of fantasy and science fiction wherein the protagonist enters a virtual world by some means and needs to level up their character, learn skills, and improve their stats, before they ultimately face the antagonist. I’ve never been a huge gamer, which proves you don’t have to be in order to pick up this genre.

These books take character development to a whole new level. Their skills are defined and upgradable as are their physical and mental stats. Each can be improved predictably by practicing, completing quests, or by killing a few beasts (mobs). The same goes for items. Characters can know exactly how much damage a sword will do, what it’s made of, and if it has any special modifications or attributes just by picking it up and examining it. The typical loot system, wherein items or coins drop with every monster killed, also provides a sense of immediate gratification following conflict.

Of course, like any other genre, some of the books I’ve stumbled across were pretty bad or amateurish. To save you the trouble of having to sort the good from the bad, I’ve listed my top ten favorite LitRPG series, ranked from my favorite (#1) to my least favorite but still recommended (#10):

#1- The Land Series by Aleron Kong

A man is sucked into a fantasy world of pixies, sprites, dwarves, and other races. He learns that game mechanics are an actual law of the land, and so he plays it like he would any other game, often getting in over his head as he levels, gains skills, riches, and tries to build a settlement in the middle of the forest. These books are well written and fun, but the main character moves from one quest to another so quickly and often fails to complete them, it can be a bit annoying. Additionally, the main character can sometimes come across as sexist and overly macho.

#2- The Ritualist and Regicide by Dakota Krout

This series is very typical of the genre. It has a rough start, but gets better when the main character finally enters the virtual world. He picks up a very uncommon magical ability that sets him apart from the other mages, which they don’t take well. Uncovering conspiracies and overthrowing powerful people are just a prelude to a bigger quest, to save the entire human race.

#3- The Divine Dungeon Series by Dakota Krout

This is a very unique spin on the genre, told from the perspective of a living dungeon. It must evolve, create creatures, and drop loot, all in an effort to draw more adventurers in. Because if they die in him, he gets their power. You soon learn, however, that he is a unique dungeon, and forges cautious alliances with humans in order to combat greater threats.

#4- Threadbare Series by Andrew Seiple

When an animator creates a new type of golem, he is disappointed in the results. Thinking he’s just created another stupid, living toy, he gives it to a girl as a gift, who soon discovers this stuffed teddy bear, is anything but stupid. It is now sentient, and can level and grow in skill just like a human can. She helps him grown until she is taken from him. Now it’s up to a teddy bear to save her, and while he’s at it, he might as well save the rest of the realm too.

#5- Eden’s Gate Series by Edward Brody

Logging in to a game for the first time, the main character finds that he has been trapped there, along with everyone else. Death would prove fatal, so he has to increase his strength and make allies to stay alive.

#6- Life Reset by Shemer Kuznits

When the main character is transformed into a level 1 goblin by a magic scroll, he vows to raise a goblin army and take revenge. Except keeping his goblin character could prove fatal to him in real life. With the help of one of the games AIs he has to speed level as quickly as possible to avoid that fate.

#7- The Dark Herbalist Series by Michael Atamanov

Beta testing a new game for a little bit of pay, the main character is forced to become a goblin herbalist. Except he’s inherited a few attributes no other players have, and he uses them to make himself one of the top players in the game, securing wealth so that he and his sister can have a better life in the real world.

#8- Awaken Online Series by Travis Bagwell

The main character doesn’t have a great life, all things considered, and soon he finds himself kicked out of school and with loads of free time to play a new game. He soon discovers that real life has a way of catching up to him in game, especial since he’s gone and made a name for himself. Not as a hero, but as a villain.

#9- Ascend Online by Luke Chmilenko

Able to enter the virtual world for days at a time, a group of friends decides to login together and start a guild. Except the main character didn’t appear where he was supposed to. When his friends come to find him, they see he’s found the ideal place to set up their guild, so long as they can defend it from everyone else.

#10- Viridian Gate Series by James A Hunter

An asteroid is headed to Earth, and the only escape, for those who can afford it, is to download their consciousness into a virtual world. Except this virtual reality is run by those who paid to play, and their wealth gives them a huge advantage over everyone else. The main character doesn’t want to live under their rule, so he decided to revolt, but he’s got very little resources to work with.

 

The other great books I read last year.

All-in-all, the LitRPG genre was a fun diversion from my usual reads, but the genre might not be for everyone. That said, here is a list (in no particular order) of some of the other books (non-LitRPG) I read last year that I really enjoyed:

Terms of Enlistment: Frontlines, Book 1 by Marko Kloos

Lines of Departure: Frontlines, Book 2 by Marko Kloos

Angles of Attack: Frontlines, Book 3 by Marko Kloos

Chains of Command: Frontlines, Book 4 by Marko Kloos

Fields of Fire: Frontlines, Book 5 by Marko Kloos

Points of Impact: Frontlines, Book 6 by Marko Kloos

A Gift of Time by Jerry Merritt

Semiosis: A Novel by Sue Burke

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw

The Singularity Trap by Dennis E. Taylor

Saturn Run by John Sandford Ctein

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Sea of Rust: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

The Reluctant Adventures of Fletcher Connolly on the Interstellar Railroad by Felix R. Savage

Not Alone by Craig A. Falconer

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Level Five by William Ledbetter

Influx by Daniel Suarez

The Naturalist: The Naturalist, Book 1 by Andrew Mayne

Planetside by Michael Mammay

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Quarter Share: A Trader’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 1 by Nathan Lowell

Half Share: A Trader’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 2 by Nathan Lowell

Full Share: A Trader’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 3 by Nathan Lowell

Double Share: A Trader’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 4 by Nathan Lowell

Captain’s Share: A Trader’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 5 by Nathan Lowell

Owner’s Share: Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 6 by Nathan Lowell

In Ashes Born: A Seeker’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 1 by Nathan Lowell

To Fire Called: A Seeker’s Tale from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Book 2 by Nathan Lowell

The Last Tribe by Brad Manuel

Rookie Privateer: Privateer Tales, Book 1 by Jamie McFarlane

You’re Going to Mars! by Rob Dircks

Where the Hell is Tesla?: A Novel by Rob Dircks

 

Please feel free to leave your own recommendations. I’ll need all I can get if I hope to read just as many books in 2019.

 

green beakerblue beakerred beaker  Happy New Year! green beakerblue beakerred beaker

NaNoWriMo 2018 Winner

I wrote over 55,000 words last month, which makes me a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Winner.

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This was my first year doing NaNoWriMo, which is odd, since I’ve known about it for many years. I guess I thought it wasn’t for me. I had several reasons for believing this, but all of those reasons turned out to be false assumptions. In this post, I’ll go over all those assumptions and debunk them.

Here were my initial assumptions:

Assumption 1- NaNoWriMo is for noobs, not something serious writers do.

Assumption 2- The quality of the hastily written manuscript will be poor.

Assumption 3- It’s impossible to find time for NaNoWriMo working a full-time job.

Assumption 4- It’s hard to be motivated to write when there’s no real prize for winning.

Assumption 5- You have to have a book completely plotted out before starting.

 

Now this is where I tell you how stupid I was to believe all that.

Debunking Assumption 1- It turns out NaNoWriMo isn’t just for newbies. Now that I’m on Twitter (@PhilipKramer9), I’ve noticed all kinds of NaNoWriMo-related posts from big-shot published authors, some of which have been participating for years. It didn’t even occur to me that these heavyweights sometimes needed a bit of motivation too.

A couple months ago, Dan Koboldt contacted me and other contributors from Putting the Science in Fiction, and asked if we could run a blog tour the month of October. He suggested we put together some writing prompts to help give writers inspiration for NaNoWriMo. But after a little bit of research, I realized just how many people were doing the same thing. It’s as if the entire world was preparing for NaNoWrimo. So I put together a post with some writing prompts and was surprised by the reception. A lot of people were planning to participate, indeed. The success of the blog tour and the book, which were targeted toward writers, really emphasized that.

Side-note: The book is going to become an audiobook, published by Tantor Media.

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It wasn’t until the end of the month, a day or two before NaNoWriMo was supposed to start, that I decided to join. Imagine my surprise when I saw there were 120 novelists just in my local area, with ten local forums, and a huge number of online and in-person events planned. I met several of these authors in person at some of the WriteIns over then next month, and many had already published several books and were full-time authors. Together, the region wrote over 2 million words in November. NaNoWriMo definitely isn’t for newbies.

Debunking Assumption 2- Let’s face it, the quality of any first draft is usually pretty terrible. That means a book written over the course of a month and one written over the course of a year, will both require large amounts of editing. I would argue that a book written in a shorter time will probably have fewer inconsistencies, since you are less likely to have forgotten the details of what you’ve just written. I experienced this personally. I was forced to write and think about the story so much, I rarely forgot even the smaller details I’d written just days before. The other advantage it that your writing style and voice is less likely to change over the course of the novel.

There is some truth to this assumption though. When you’re forced to write an average of 1,667 words a day, you’ll occasionally get ahead of yourself and your story, digging a plot hole too deep to crawl out of. That’s why pre-plotting is important, or if you are a pantser, regular brainstorming.

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear from people doing NaNoWriMo is to keep writing and don’t edit. In general, this is decent advice, as it keeps the forward momentum going, but don’t pass up the opportunity to highlight a section that needs work or leave yourself a note to add more detail to a specific sentence or paragraph. All too often writers say they’ll catch something later in editing, but it ends up getting overlooked or forgotten.

Debunking Assumption 3- It takes time to write a novel, and it’s not easy if you have no time to spare. Truth is, we all have a little time to spare in our schedules. If you enjoy  writing (which you should), it is relatively easy to cut down on other enjoyable things like reading or watching TV. Sometimes, if you aren’t in the mood to write, forcing yourself to sit down for twenty minutes is all that’s necessary to get you sucked back into the story. On multiple occasions, I ended up losing track of time and writing for several hours straight without any breaks.

I eventually decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, not because I thought it would work out, but because I really had nothing to lose. After several months of writing next to nothing, I decided the worst that could happen was I’d write a few thousand words before giving up. But hey, that’s a few thousand words I probably wouldn’t have written. So it’s a win-win. Not only did I find the time to complete the 50k words, I developed some good writing habits, and have already written another 10k more in the first couple weeks of December. It really gave me hope that one day I might actually have what it takes to be a successful full-time author, cranking out several books a year.

Debunking Assumption 4- Motivation is a tricky beast to tame. It’s hard to predict what will motivate me or give me the inspiration to write. Fortunately, I chose to write a book on a topic I was passionate about. Still, NaNoWriMo was asking me to write half of the book in a single month without giving me anything in return. What was there to compel me to write that much in such a short time?

It turns out there are multiple prizes for winning. You get a 50k word novel out of it, better writing habits, new writer friends, discounts on Writer’s resources, and even a nice little certificate.

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The NaNoWriMo website had a lot to offer to help you with motivation. It connects you with other people in you region, gives you access to forums, and a blog filled with writing tips. Check out one of my early posts on the Science of Motivation.

Their graphs and stats also really helped. It might not work for everyone, and maybe it’s just the scientist in me, but the ability to see how much I’ve written and how much is left in a line and column chart made all the difference. I really wanted to stay above that stupid gray line.

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Debunking Assumption 5- I’ve always been more of a plotter than a pantser, but NaNoWriMo changed where I fell on that scale. I already had a couple books lined up and plotted out, ready to be written, but things didn’t go exactly as planned. Because I was writing so much in such a short time, I started thinking about the story every waking moment of the day, and the more I did, the more I realized my plot was imperfect. After a few brainstorming sessions, I decided to restructure it, and am now much more satisfied with the story-line.

I hate to say it, but it’s impossible to pre-plot so well that you plug all the plot holes before they appear. When you write, you’ll have to fill in all the finer details, painting a picture of the setting for your readers, and give your characters life. Steering those now-living characters across your now-detailed world will inevitably result in some plot deviations. Humans are unpredictable, even fictional ones, and it’s hard to know what goes on in their heads until you’re right there with them, experiencing what they are experiencing. Those little overlooked details become even more complicated when you’re writing hard science fiction. As an example, trapping a person on Mars in their spacesuit for several days sounds like an interesting plot point, but the moment you realize they can’t go to the bathroom in their suit or lift their face-shield for a drink of water, you’ll have to either create a shelter for them, or shorten that timescale from three days to one. When writing during NaNoWriMo, you don’t have weeks or months to agonize and fret over how to fix things, you are forced to sit down and brainstorm until you figure it out. You don’t have time for writer’s block. Don’t get me wrong, if I hadn’t been thinking about this plot long in advance, I would probably have stuck with my first version of it, which was garbage. So it’s best to write a story you’ve been thinking about for a while, just be prepared for the story to change as you write.

 

Hopefully I’ve convinced at least a couple of people to give NaNoWriMo a try and dispelled some of your false assumptions about it. I suggest, however, that you don’t just take my word for it. This was my first NaNoWriMo after all. What works for me might not work for you. As always, Do Your Research!

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.

Enclosed Ecosystem Writing Prompts and More: PSIF and NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is fast approaching, which means all around the world, writers are scouring the internet for inspiring writing prompts. Many of them will bite off more than they can chew in an attempt to turn those prompts into realistic and scientifically-plausible stories.

Well you’ve come to the right place. I have prepared a few writing prompts with a list of scientific problems you might need to consider as you write. If you lack the scientific training, never fear, expert advice on writing with authenticity is available in the new book, Putting the Science in Fiction. My own article in the book will talk you through creating realistic Enclosed Ecosystems and Life-support systems, and the following prompts will have the same theme.

Gone rogue

Prompt 1: Gone Rogue

  • An object with a powerful gravitational attraction passes through our solar system. By all calculations, the perturbation will eject Earth from the solar system, making it a rogue planet, destined to drift through the emptiness of space for the foreseeable future. How much time does humanity have to prepare before the great freeze sets in? Would your characters hunker down and try to survive, or leave the Earth behind? Either way, you would need a habitat capable of sustaining human life indefinitely.

Considerations:

  • On a frozen planet far from the sun, the atmosphere would soon freeze and fall out of the sky, and all flowing water will solidify, making solar, wind, and hydroelectric power useless. About the only source of power and heat will be from natural gases and fuels, fission or fusion, and geothermal power.
  • With the freezing temperatures and plummeting atmospheric pressure, your enclosed ecosystem will need to be insulated and shielded from the cold vacuum by thick walls or built far underground.
  • The larger the enclosed ecosystem, the less likely it is to collapse. This will require a variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms to sustain the atmosphere, provide food and nutrition, and recycle wastes.
  • On the plus side, all of Earth’s resources have been cryogenically preserved. A scavenger in a hardy enough space suit might just be able to find edible food and usable supplies, assuming they aren’t all covered by meters of oxygen and nitrogen snow or rendered useless due to thermal stresses.

Lock Down

Prompt 2: Lock Down

  • Your characters are stranded in a large fallout shelter as nuclear war rages outside. How many people can it support and for how long? What will they need to survive?

Considerations:

  • The facility will need some way to remove the radioactive fallout from the air if it is vented in from outside, or a means to recycle the carbon dioxide within the facility and replenish oxygen. Plants under grow lights can help with this.
  • Water vapor might quickly wick away into the porous concrete of the shelter. Putting up plastic sheeting and having a condenser of some kind will keep this valuable resource from being lost. Alternatively, people in radiation suits can go in search of food and water, but only sealed containers can be trusted not to have been contaminated by nuclear fallout. Read my previous post “The Science of Killing your Characters,” for some background on radiation poisoning.
  • The power source will need to be self-sustaining, but the sun might not reliably penetrate the now-pervasive clouds of ash. Wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear power may be your only viable sources or electricity. Gasoline for generators would need to be scavenged on a regular basis.
  • People forced into close quarters can do unexpected and terrible things, especially after the trauma of the apocalypse. An established leadership, laws, and consequences will help limit keep chaos at bay. Conversely, love and relationships will blossom in time, but they can bring their own complications.

Mass Balance

Prompt 3: Mass Balance

  • Rather than a costly endeavor of launching building materials into space, your characters plan to build a space station by send a single, small rocket with a few crew to intercept an asteroid. There, your character will mine the raw materials to build a much larger and sustainable space station. What type of asteroid will they need, and what can they build with its components. How will they convert it to a usable form? What is their overall goal?

Considerations:

  • To sustain a large space station, mass balance needs to be preserved, meaning your characters can’t just throw things out the airlock without a means of replacing it. Otherwise they will run out of materials quickly. Luckily, they have an asteroid to pick apart, supplying water and thus liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel, as well as all kinds of common and rare metals. Things like plastics and some specialized components must be strictly recycled.
  • The type of asteroid is important. A C-type asteroid has a relative abundance of water and carbonaceous minerals, but has a scarcity of metals. Carbonaceous minerals aren’t all bad, especially if it can be used to synthesize carbon nanotubes, graphene sheets, or used as a component of soil or fertilizer. S and M-type asteroids have more stone and metals, respectively, but less water.
  • An enterprise like this one will require a lot of power, especially if there is smelting to be done, water to convert to fuel, or high-tech computers to manage it all. For a power source, they will need something sustainable and replaceable. Solar arrays are a likely candidate, but it will provide less power the further away from the sun the space-station gets.
  • Heat can accumulate in an enclosed ecosystem, even in the cold of space, especially if there are all kinds of heat generating people and equipment around. A radiator system can help collect the heat inside the station and release it as thermal radiation out into space.
  • Air circulation and filtration will be required to filter out floating debris and contaminates, capture water vapor, and prevent stagnation in micro-gravity.
  • Lastly, some type of artificial gravity may be required to prevent the long-term health effects of micro-gravity. See fellow PSIF contributor, Jamie Krakover’s post, as well as my previous post on “The Science of Gravity.”

Putting the Science in Fiction

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

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Putting the Science in Fiction brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:

  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
  • Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, PSIF will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy,” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction. Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Much of these scientific considerations in this post apply to all sorts of unique and interesting scenarios, like a sudden ice age, a super volcano eruption, an expanding sun, or settings like Arctic research facilities, Mars, or the rings of Saturn, to name a few. I encourage you to come up with your own and share it with the rest of us. Leave comments, ask questions, and let us know of some scientific considerations I may have missed. If these prompts weren’t quite what you were looking for, check out #PSIF on Twitter or click here throughout the month for more prompts by PSIF contributors.

Additionally, you can now enter to win a copy of Putting the Science in Fiction from Writers Digest. Enter the giveaway below!

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While it’s easy enough to write a compelling story without doing your research, it will always lack something. Hard science fiction adds an element of awe, the knowledge that such astounding, beautiful, and seemingly magical things might actually be possible. It inspires scientists and readers alike to put their imaginations to use in the real world, to bring what was once science fiction one step closer to reality.

So until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.