Born Free?

Contrary to popular misconceptions and a best selling book by Sam Harris, you have freewill.

Over the past decade, there’s been considerable debate on the nature of consciousness and freewill. Leading thinkers, such as Sam Harris, have somewhat predictably advocated for a purely materialistic view of freewill because of the religious/mystical implications of concepts like “spirit” and the “soul,” and with good, logical reasons. Whatever the soul is, it clearly resides in the brain. If the brain is a material object, then so is the soul, and freewill is simply the exercise of a complex (and arguably predictable) physical system.

Freewill, in this scenario, is an illusion, and our actions are predetermined by a complex series of physical constraints—genetics, exposure to parents, friends, even harsh/kind physical environments. The thinking is that if could these be exactly replicated down to the last possible detail, then so could you.

At first, you might be tempted to think, “That’s ridiculous, of course I have free will. I am me.” But stop and consider this: if time could be rewound to the point of your birth and replayed without your knowledge, would you be the same person you are today? Would you make the same choices? At each point in time, are you free to make a new decision, or are you channeled and directed into making exactly the same decisions by your genetics, your circumstances and those around you?

Extend this to its natural conclusion and you end up with statements like this from The Atlantic magazine:

…the brain [is a] physical system like any other, and [this] suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable.

It’s not difficult to see the debate around freewill as the atheist’s verision of the predestined theology of Calvin. The wonderful irony in the debate over freewill is only those with freewill can debate whether they have freewill.

By the way, we have rewound the evolutionary clock and replayed it…and it produces slightly different results! Professor Richard Lenski is in the midst of conducting a multi-decade experiment on the evolution of E. coli and every 500 generations he freezes a clonal sample, effectively giving him a living fossil, capable of being thawed and revived. As he’s observed different traits at upwards of 30,000 generations, he’s been able to go back and thaw out a particular cell line and replay the evolution that led to the formation of that trait. The result? Not as predictable as you’d think. Sometimes the trait reemerges, but not at the same point, sometimes it doesn’t. And remember, this is conducted under strict laboratory conditions where every possible variable is meticulously controlled.

Replaying biological processes isn’t nearly as neat and as predictable as we think. Life is not a binary program in a computer. If replaying the growth of something as simple as bacterial clones kept in controlled laboratory conditions leads to variation, what about replaying your life choices? Would you really be compelled to make the same choices over and over again, or would you be free to choose each time and possibly come up with different selections? Chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla?

As you can see, the debate over freewill is not nearly as clear cut as it at first seems.

How can I be confident that both you, and I, and Sam Harris have freewill? Strictly speaking, I can’t, but I can point out the folly of trying to make such a dogmatic claim without evidence.

For me, this debate is grossly premature. We have such a poor understanding of how the brain works that it is conceit to make such confident claims without clear evidence.

In many ways, the argument is akin to those who categorically state there’s no life in outer space. The evidence just isn’t there to draw any conclusions either way. In regards to SETI, the advent of instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope give us a very good chance of detecting life beyond our star, but at the moment, we’re not even sure if there’s life elsewhere in our own solar system. We can’t categorically say whether there is or there isn’t. There may well be subsurface microbes on Mars. Certainly, there’s unexplained methane production on this geologically inactive world that leaves us scratching our heads. What about the low-level hydrogen anomaly on Titan? Or Europa? Or Enceladus? The point is, we need to explore to find the answer, and not make categorical statements one way or the other until the evidence is in.

We simply don’t have enough evidence to make a call in regards to freewill. The evidence we do have suggests freewill is real. One study exposed participants to optimistic and pessimistic views about freewill and then observed freewill choices being biased by that exposure, with those that thought there was no freewill being more likely to use their freewill to cheat!

The human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons, with upwards of a trillion connections running between them. As astonishing as it may seem for something that’s roughly the size of a football, the brain is the single most complex structure ever observed anywhere in the universe.

How close are we to being able to map the human brain? We’re not even close to starting. As of 2016, the European Union has spent over a billion dollars on the Human Brain Project (which started in 2005 as the Blue Brain Project) and yet scientists from around the world are calling for it to be scrapped as it is grossly premature given our current technology.

How can we draw conclusions about the inner workings of an organ we don’t understand?

Ah, but is it simply a case of processing power? Is it simply that we’re not ready yet, but perhaps could map the brain and understand its deterministic patterns in 2020 or 2030? No. I suspect there is no underlying deterministic model for one simple reason: quantum mechanics.

Einstein was uneasy about the concept of quantum mechanics, the idea that at a subatomic level, energy is comprised of packets, as it introduces a level of uncertainty that isn’t simply related to our measuring instruments but is part of the very nature and fabric of reality. Quantum mechanics effectively negates the Newtonian concept of a clockwork universe which can be rewound and replayed verbatim, dismissing the notion of hard determinism.

One exciting field of scientific research I’m following with keen interest is quantum biology—the idea that evolution has developed biological processes that exploit quantum mechanics.

Birds and insects use a concept known as magneto-reception to navigate long distances, something that appears to rely on quantum entanglement at a subatomic level. Photosynthesis is remarkably efficient, so much so it seems to derive at least some of that efficiency from quantum tunneling. While even our sense of smell, and that of dogs, may be so remarkably sensitive due to quantum factors.

Quantum biology is an emerging field, and the science isn’t settled, but it appears to answer a number of questions about the animal and plant kingdom and may well explain natural physical phenomena like consciousness and freewill. The recent discovery of quantum vibrations in “microtubules” inside brain neurons is reviving a controversial theory that consciousness may in part be the result of quantum effects—something that would support the concept of freewill as it suggests that our conscious awareness is an ongoing, vibrant, non-deterministic process.

But as I noted above, the evidence is not in yet for either camp in this debate. There is no reason to jump on the deterministic bandwagon. But, hey, you’re free to make up your own mind😉

Would Mars attack?

Who doesn’t love a good alien invasion story? UFOs buzzing around. Lasers firing. Buildings exploding in flames. What’s not to love?

Picture credit: Mars Attacks

Picture credit: Mars Attacks

But why would Martians ever attack us?

If Hollywood is to be believed, it’s because aliens want our water, or they want to enslave us, or they want to steal our minerals. In reality, none of these are valid reasons.

We like to think we have a lot of water. After all, 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. And yet there’s more water on both Europa and Titan, two of the moons of Jupiter, than there is on all of Earth. Any thirsty alien is going to stop by there for a drink. It might surprise you to learn that even dry, dusty Mars has roughly half as much water as Earth locked up in icecaps and subsurface aquifers. And there’s no pesky locals to worry about.

As for minerals, mining asteroids is far more productive.

ICT outsourcing giant Accenture estimates that even with the cost of launching into space (something our intrepid aliens would have already accomplished), the cost of mining asteroids is coming astonishingly close to mining minerals on Earth, and the cost is only going to plummet further as our space-faring technology improves.

Picture credit: NASA estimates Eros has 20 billion tons of gold (20,000X everything produced on Earth each year)

Picture credit: NASA estimates Eros has 20 billion tons of gold (20,000X everything produced on Earth each year)

Ah, but what about enslaving us? Nope. Not economically viable. The cost associated with navigating across the vast oceans of space to reach Earth must surely outweigh any manual labor benefits gained on arrival. Once, slavery sustained economic progress on Earth, but even without the moral impetus to treat others fairly, that model hasn’t been economically viable for over a hundred and fifty years. And with the advent of robotics, even purpose-built factories with low cost workers are becoming out-moded. I doubt ET would be motivated by such archaic notions as enslaving people.

So why would aliens ever visit Earth?

Well, there is one reason, and one reason alone. Earth contains something far more precious and valuable than the finest gold or the rarest of gems like the Hope diamond—Life.

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the unaided eye. It is high overhead in the constellation Andromeda on early winter evenings in the northern hemisphere. In long-exposure photographs, like this one, dust lanes and bright star-formation regions are visible throughout the galaxy. M31 is accompanied by satellite galaxies M32 and M110. A pair of small dust lanes can be glimpsed near the core of M110, the lower satellite galaxy. M31 is about 2.5 million light-years from Earth. Two frame mosaic, each frame 96 minutes L on 2012-12-13 and 120 minutes RGB on 2013-01-04 through an Astro-Physics 105mm refractor at f6.2, plus 112 minutes L (of the galaxy core) through a 155mm Astro-Physics refractor at f5.4 on 2014-11-15, all using a QSI 583 from northern New Jersey. North is to the right and slightly down. © 2014.

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the unaided eye at 2.5 million light-years from Earth—picture credit Tom Matheson

From staring out into space over the past few centuries, we’ve learned the universe is an astonishingly vast and lonely place. The most precious substance in the universe is life, which is somewhat ironic given how abundant life is on Earth. Ah…. so they would come to steal our life forms? Nope. That’s not it either. One of the wonderful characteristics of life is that it reproduces, effectively duplicating itself. There’s no need to steal anything. Just a few bacteria cells are enough to form untold colonies. Just a few seeds can produce a forest given time.

Aliens would never attack Earth because there’s simply no militaristic reason that justifies the immense cost in getting here, but I’m sure they’d love to visit, because life is so rare as to demand investigation.

One of the astonishing things about evolution and the process of natural selection is that life winnows and refines chemicals with remarkable efficiency. Biology is astonishingly effective at finding novel chemical solutions to problems. And this is something life-science medical research companies like EcoBiotics have realized, turning their microscopes to the rainforest and tropical reefs in the search for cancer treatments. There are at least 10^60 (that’s 1 with 60 zeroes after it) different chemical structures that can be formed using carbon, but the vast majority of these have no use in biology. Numbers like these are stupidly big, but evolution has had billions of years to experiment on various combinations of molecules to find effective solutions to common problems.

Although alien life would differ vastly from Earth-life at a macroscopic level, shrink down to the level of molecules and there are probably going to be an astonishing number of parallels simply because alien life has to work with the same set of 115 known elements. Everything we see around us is constructed from a “lego set” with barely more than a hundred different types of lego brick, when our kids have access to over four thousand.

Picture credit: Lego. There are 4200 different types of lego brick

Picture credit: Lego. There are 4200 different types of lego brick

So from ET’s perspective, Earth would be a treasure chest of novel chemical solutions. Earth would be something to be explored, not only from the novelty factor or out of scientific interest, but because there might be unique applications that are beneficial to them.

I explore this concept in my novels Xenophobia and Welcome to the Occupied States of America, looking at how unique life is on this remarkable planet.

Scientists estimate there are a trillion different species on Earth, that’s 1,000,000,000,000 different forms of life!! There are more species on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way, which is astonishing. Earth really is an oasis in the middle of a celestial desert. If aliens ever do visit Earth, the one thing that will surprise them is how we take life for granted, and how we’ve driven species to extinction in pursuit of money. Perhaps the greatest thing First Contact will accomplish is an appreciation of just how wonderful our planet really is.

welcome small

If you’re a fan of good science fiction, be sure to check out Welcome to the Occupied States of America.

The case for life on Mars

I’m highly skeptical about the prospect of life on Mars.

Mars has no global magnetic field to protect any fragile, budding life.

Whereas our magnetic field extends some 20 times the radius of Earth, Mars has little to no magnetic field, with just small, localized pockets. Not only does this mean the surface of the planet is bombarded with solar and cosmic radiation, but the solar wind strips away light elements in the atmosphere, leaving predominantly heavy gases like carbon dioxide.


Earth has a massive, global magnetic field. Picture credit: Illinois University

Picture credit: NASA

On Mars, magentic fields are small & localized. Picture credit: NASA

In addition to this, Mars is considerably smaller than Earth.

Mars is closer in size to our Moon than it is to Earth itself, having roughly 1/3 of the gravity. This means it’s escape velocity is much lower, which also allows the atmosphere to bleed off into space, leaving the density of the atmosphere roughly a thousand times lower than ours at sea-level.

Mars size

Picture credit: NASA

One day, no doubt, we’ll settle Mars, but it will take a gargantuan effort as Mars is not in any way conducive to sustaining human life. Mars isn’t the pick of the bunch, it’s the least lethal of a motley crew.

So why am I writing a blog post about the case for life on Mars? Because there’s something rather startling about the martian atmosphere that may be hinting at the possibility of life.

For decades, astronomers looking for life in outer space have spoken of The Goldilocks Zone, the habitable area around a star where life could arise on an Earth-like planet—an orbit where it is not too hot, not too cold.

Picture credit: Keck Observatory

Picture credit: Keck Observatory

Now, though, there’s a realization that the Goldilocks Zone is an oversimplification. Jupiter and Saturn, for example, are well outside the Goldilocks Zone, and yet there’s good reason to think their moons may harbor life.

Which of these planets looks hospitable?

Which one do you think is most likely to support life?

Picture credit: NPR

Picture credit: NPR

The answer is—all of them.

This image represents what Earth would have looked like at various points in the 3.8 billion years during which life has thrived.

Although Earth is in the Goldilocks Zone, it’s spent time bouncing between extremes, from sweltering temperatures to freezing cold ranges not unlike those found on Mars. Temperatures plummeted to -58F during the Snowball age. Even at the equator, the temperature is estimated to have been at least -4F, and yet life on Earth survived. On the hot side of the equation, there’s good reason to consider that life itself may have arisen on Earth when temperatures were reaching upwards of 300F.

One common retort of creationists when comparing Earth to other planets is, “Look at how perfectly suited Earth is to life. Look at how moderate it is compared to the hellish conditions on Venus, or the frozen wastelands of Mars.” But this fails to consider Earth’s dynamic history. Earth is perfectly suited to life, but that’s not by coincidence or providence. Life has transformed Earth. Microbes have taken an inhospitable planet with a choking toxic atmosphere and transformed it into the oasis we enjoy today.

Life is astonishing. Natural Selection has allowed life to exploit finely balanced chemical pathways. The free energy involved in supporting life tends to be around 3 kcal/mol, which is low, right on the borderline of what’s useful. Chemicals react. Chemicals react a lot. And when chemicals react, they produce reactants rather than being funneled into useful products, so life has evolved to avoid the startling reactions you’re used to in high school chemistry, instead it tip toes on the edge of a chemical cliff, at energies less than those required to break a hydrogen bond. That might sound overly complex (and a diversion from the topic) but it’s important to understand, as life carves out a niche for itself. Every day, trillions upon trillions of these tiny mini-reactions keep us alive.

The point is… (a) life exploits chemistry to sustain itself and (b) life transforms its environment to support itself.

So what about Mars?

Ah… this is where it gets interesting…

As I’ve documented in another post, Mars has methane, something that is surprising as methane is easily broken down by ultraviolet light, so for us to detect methane in the atmosphere, it must be replenished by some process. As best we understand it, methane is a byproduct of either volcanic activity or life. As there are no active volcanoes or flatulent cows on Mars, it does raise the question, where is the methane coming from? The odds are that it’s arising from some obscure tectonic process. ESA’s ExoMars satellite will arrive in orbit around Mars in October of 2016 to investigate this further.

And this raises another interesting point. When we look at celestial objects, we see them largely unchanged after billions of years. The Moon has craters and geological formations that span four billion years. Unless a planet has an active atmosphere and something like plate tectonics, it tends to be astonishingly stable over long periods of time.

Do you believe in coincidences? I don’t. And so that Mars is producing methane and has an atmosphere that is fine tuned to almost precisely the triple-point of water, seems to be a smoking gun for the possibility of active, subsurface microbial life.

Water can exist in three states—as a solid (ice), liquid (water), gas (vapor). The extremes we observe in space mean that often water has no choice. The environment on Venus, for example, is so hot and highly pressurized, water exists only as vapor. On Pluto, the temperatures and pressures are so low that water is locked away as ice. But on Mars, and on a few of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, there are places where liquid water can be found. Given that this only occurs in an extremely narrow band of temperature and pressure, this is quite astonishing.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: MIT

Remember those trillions of finely tuned moderate chemical interactions with free energy around 3 kcal/mol that keep you alive? They all need liquid water as a medium.

It is significant that the atmosphere of Mars is finely balanced so that it hovers around the triple point of water, the point where water can exist in all three states simultaneously (as ice, water and vapor). Coincidence? Or is this an example of what we’ve seen on Earth, where microbial life fights against geological and astronomical odds to sustain itself by transforming and moderating its own environment?

Subsurface water leaking on Mars. Picture credit: NASA

Subsurface water leaking on Mars. Picture credit: NASA

Is it really just a coincidence that the martian atmosphere has settled on a point of equilibrium around the triple-point of water? And that this has been sustained for hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years?

Life didn’t always dominate Earth. There were points in time where life was almost completely wiped out, like during the snowball Earth phase, but life kept a toehold and fought back.

Is that what we’re observing on Mars? The last refuge of martian microbes fighting to sustain the equilibrium/habitability of their planet? It’s an interesting idea, and one we’ll undoubtedly learn more about as organisations like NASA and ESA continue to explore the red planet.



At this point, WordPress slips in some ads, so I thought I would squeeze one in as well. Here’s my latest novel, Starship Mine.  

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Science fiction & science

Recently, I was approached by a university student developing a thesis on the inventions featured in sci-fi films and the likelihood of their actualization. He had some great questions I thought would make for an interesting blog post.

Do you think people feel let down by the lack of real world inventions inspired by modern or even classic works of science fiction?


Oh, no. The prescience of science fiction and the pace of innovation we’re seeing in science is astonishing. If anything, we have unrealistic expectations. We’ve come to see spectacular advances as commonplace, failing to appreciate the astonishing scientific advances required to make them possible.


In 1865, Jules Verne captured the imagination of the public with his novel From Earth to the Moon. Invariably, his solution to the seemingly insurmountable technical problems of traveling to the Moon were wide of the mark, but the concept was brilliant. Verne understood there was a need to reach escape velocity, but the only means he knew of potentially accomplishing this was with cannons. He knew such a launch would be fatal, so he cleverly introduced the idea of wooden baffles separated by water, which would sequentially break to reduce the trauma of sudden acceleration. For its time, it was an ingenious (but impractical) idea, but science fiction isn’t about posing actual engineering solutions, rather it’s to inspire out-of-the-box thinking.


Form Earth

Water filled baffles below the floor were to make the launch survivable

In 1903, less than 40 years later, the Wright Brothers flew a mere 120 feet down a sandy beach. Just 12 seconds of flight time, and yet, by the 1960s, planes were crisscrossing the planet, and both the Russians and the Americans were sending probes to the Moon. Barely a century after Verne published his story, Neil Armstrong took one small step on the lunar surface. Cannons played no part in the Apollo program, and yet Verne’s vision inspired lunar exploration.


In the same way, Star Trek used handheld communicators and tricorders for making non-invasive medical diagnosis. Half a century later, we think nothing of cell phones, PET and MRI scans. Our devices may not be as small, but miniaturization is just a matter of time.



Uh, oh… unknown actor in red shirt. Thankfully, Spock’s got a tricorder

Science is far more radical than science fiction dares imagine. Take the PET scanner as an example. Few people realize what a PET scan actually does—positron emission tomography. Ever heard of a positron before? Not an electron, a positron? Positrons are antimatter (another buzz word bandied about by Star Trek). Low doses of radioactive material allow us to see inside organs and observe the chemical functions taking place within cells, detecting tumor growth, or abnormal organ activity. It’s astonishing technology. In Star Trek, it was an idea. Today, it’s reality.



electron/positron pair in a cloud chamber


Don’t look to science fiction for scientific accuracy—look for ideas that might become reality.


Our best chance of detecting intelligent extraterrestrials comes from the possibility they may use Dyson Spheres, massive structures designed to harness solar energy. Indeed, there’s conjecture the star KIC-8462852 may harbor such a structure.


Although this concept was popularize by physicist Freeman Dyson, the concept has its roots in the speculative science fiction of the early 20th century, and authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Olaf Stapledon‘s Star Maker.


Science fiction shouldn’t be confused with science. The two are entirely different fields, and yet the speculation of one can lead to advances in the other.


Do you think that we as a species are making scientific progress at a rate we can collectively be pleased by?


Our lives are so astonishingly short it’s easy to lose sight of how rapidly we are advancing as a species. Barely a century ago, the Wright Brothers flew 20ft above the ground, today, tens of thousands of people are in the air at any one point in time, soaring 30,000ft above the planet. The Wright Brother’s accomplishment wasn’t that spectacular, but it heralded a technological breakthrough that would change the world.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is seen as a horror story, but it was a progressive look at the prospect of organ and limb transplants a hundred and fifty years before medical science made the concept possible. In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein is repulsed by the monster he created, but the central conceit of the story is that the “monster” wants to be understood—to be human. Far from the Hollywood depictions of villagers with pitchforks, Shelley’s Frankenstein raises ethical concerns rather than mindless violence. Now days, we’ve answered those concerns, and the transplant of lungs, hearts, kidneys, livers, etc is commonplace.


Homo sapiens have existed as a distinct species for at least 200,000 years, probably longer. The Homo genus from which we descend is at least 2,000,000 years old. For 99.9% of our existence, we have been plagued by disease. Bacteria and viruses have devastated our population with ruthless efficiency, but no more. The advances of just the past few centuries have seen the introduction of hygiene, vaccines and antibiotics that have allowed us to defy the cruelty of nature.


With all that has been discovered in the past hundred years, from relativity to quantum mechanics, from a detailed understanding of evolution to the exploration of the planets, we as a species are on the cusp of a new age. The only impediment is us ourselves. Can we tackle climate change? Can we protect the astonishing biodiversity we’ve inherited? Can we resolve the cultural and religious differences that drive us to war?


Do you think we are progressing? And in which field would you like to see more development (e.g. travel or medicine)?


A cure for cancer would be nice, but I’d settle for treatments that make malignant cancer a chronic rather than a terminal illness so we don’t lose brilliant minds like Carl Sagan so soon.



Carl Sagan with the Mars Viking probe


As much as I’d love to see footprints on Mars, I think we need to be judicious in how we use our limited resources. Lots of people lament that we’ve never been back to the Moon, but they lose sight of what we have done instead, with the astonishing insights provided by Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Hubble, Cassini, the rovers on Mars, and dozens of other scientific satellites.


I’ll happily pass on Buck Rogers for good science being done in space. We, as a species, stand to gain much more from scientific advancement than joyrides to satisfy patriotic fever.



Saturn as viewed by Cassini


What do you think is the biggest hindrance when it comes to our development (both scientific and social)?


We have progressed so fast in the past century, there’s been an inevitable backlash, particularly in recent years with the rise of anti-intellectualism. Vaccines have become the target of suspicion. People still cling to the creation myths of old.  Conspiracy theories often hold more credence than reality.  Few people realize how science pervades every aspect of our lives, from the way food is packaged and stored, to being able to watch live sports on television. Vast sections of society repudiate the notion of climate change, but they fail to see that the same scientific method that gave them iPhones and laptops is warning them about our impact on the environment.


We need to stop seeing science as magic performed on stage, and realize it’s the foundation upon which modern society is built. If we don’t understand it, we should make an effort to learn more. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a scientist, but everyone should understand the scientific method as, without it, most of us would be dead, having been killed off by some hideous disease in childhood.


As a science fiction writer, I make science the hero, and try to get readers to see science in a positive light.


The best advice I can give anyone in life is: stay curious, always be willing to learn.

My Top 10 (Actually 12) Favorite Short Stories of 2015

Author Will Swardstrom shares his top ten (or so) short stories from 2016

Will Swardstrom Author

2015 is almost up, and you know what that means…

That’s right — excessive weight gain around the holidays!

Also Top 10 Lists!!

Last year I loved making my Top 10 books of the year (which ended up being around 17 or something), but this year I’m going to break down my lists into smaller categories. One of those will be the Top 10 (Actually 12) Short Stories I read in 2015.

Obviously not comprehensive, and not all were written in the past year, but all made a big impression on me. I’m terrible at telling you exactly which was THE BEST, so I’m just going to give them to you in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Fair warning — many of them are in the Future Chronicles anthologies since I’ve read each of them this year making them a significant reading source for me each time one…

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Cassini duck-dive

Cassini just dove toward Enceladus, reaching down to 30km. On Earth, we’d call this re-entry as it would dip into the stratosphere. As a point of comparison, 747’s routinely fly at 12-14km above Earth, while Mt Everest reaches up to almost 9km above sea-level.

There’s going to be some awesome imagery and some great learning coming in over the next few days.

Here's an infographic on Enceladus produced by NASA

Here’s an infographic on Enceladus produced by NASA

#31ZombieAuthors – Day 23 Interview – Peter Cawdron – Outsmarting Zombies

What are the two most important considerations in the zombie apocalypse?

Read this interview to find out.

Bookshelf Battle



Amazon        Website      Twitter

My guest today is Peter Cawdron, who comes from the land down under.  I don’t have to pay the Men At Work a royalty for saying that because Peter is an honest to God Australian zombie enthusiast.

Peter’s the author of the Z is for Zombie series of books which include What We Left Behind and All Our Tomorrows.  These books tell the story of teenager Hazel, who in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, searches for Steve, David, and Jane, the only people who ever understood her.

An avid fan of such classic science fiction writers as Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Crichton, Peter is also a prolific science fiction author in his own right.

I wonder if there’s an extra charge to call Australia?  Aw screw it, the bill…

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Meet You

Meet Dave” is a somewhat forgettable comedy about miniature aliens landing on Earth in a spaceship replicating a human body. It’s a popcorn flick with a bit of humor and a corny love story.

Dave is controlled by tiny people living inside him who have to work together to coordinate his responses in life. As crazy as this sounds, it’s not that far removed from reality.

We intuitively see our lives at a superficial level. I am me. You are you. Somehow, we each have this mysterious concept of personal awareness/consciousness, and we get busy with “life,” meaning going to work, watching a movie, taking the dog for a walk in the park, etc. Only, that’s not life. That’s an abstract built upon life.

In reality, our lives are more like “Meet Dave” than we would ever imagine. Our bodies are a Rube-Goldberg machine of extraordinary complexity.

Ordinarily, we ignore this biological/mechanical support mechanism, and stop only to smell the roses, until things go wrong. And there’s a lot of wrong that can occur, from catching a virus, picking up a bacterial infection or something more insidious like cancer.

The fundamental building blocks of life are cells. They’re the Lego blocks of this crazy whirlwind adventure we call life, and yet we barely give them any thought at all. Just like the tiny aliens inside Dave, cells differentiate, taking the same basic instruction set but applying it in different ways to form heart, lungs, liver, skin, etc. And we call this complicated mishmash of cells, you. How this occurred from an evolutionary standpoint is remarkable, and a tale told over billions of years.

Dictyostelium Discoideum is a single cell amoeba, just an average joe leading a normal single celled life. And yet when faced with a scarcity of resources, Dict (if I may be informal) bands together to create a multicellular organism that resembles a slug. Individual cells that functioned perfectly well as living organisms on their own switch into a cooperative mode that is a basic model for complex animals such as us. Individual amoebas give up their independence and become role-specific. Some cells form a head, others the body, still others take on the role of an immune system protecting the entire organism. Although amoebas are blind, the newly formed slug will seek out light. It is a remarkable transformation to be hold.

Dictyostelium Discoideum is the biological equivalent of a bunch of Lego blocks independently rearranging themselves to form the bat mobile.

Self-assembling bat-mobile, if only

A self-assembling bat-mobile still wouldn’t be as cool as Dictyostelium Discoideum

At some point in the last billion years, cells figured out how to do this on a permanent basis and realized the massive evolutionary advantage of such a cooperative strategy. Branching out from microbial competition, plants and animals were able to exploit ecological niches to survive and pass on their DNA in more and more varied forms.

Our bodies are comprised of anywhere from 50 to 75 trillion individual cells, depending on how many cheeseburgers you’ve eaten. Cells are small. A single gram of average human tissue contains roughly a billion cells, while the largest cell in the human body is the egg from which we all came, and that’s roughly the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Our bodies are a hot bed of action. In any given minute, roughly a hundred million cells in your body will die. And that’s not a bad thing, because at the same time, other cells are replicating, dividing to replace those lost cells.

Cancer is a complex disease that has many forms, but these all share a common cellular problem–cells that continue to replicate without dying off, and these malfunctioning cells form a tumour. The problem with cancer is cells that should serve a specific purpose for a brief period of time forget that they’re part of a greater whole, you, and start living for themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not sustainable, and so we have developed a variety of treatments to isolate and remove these rogue cells before they cause irreparable damage.

It might be over simplistic, but one way to think of cancer is it’s a reversion to the cellular equivalent of every man (cell) for himself. And instead of working together in a harmonious whole, cells behave as though they’re loners again, only interested in replicating and surviving as long as possible. It’s as though the Dictyostelium Discoideum slug has disbanded.

There’s some exciting research being done along these lines by scientists such as Paul Davies. I don’t mean to oversimplify the problem, but I think cancer research is akin to the assaults on Mt. Everest in the early 1900s. At the time, it looked impossible. Now days, with the right training, guidance and planning, any fit individual can stand on top of the world. In the same way, in the near future, we’ll look back on cancer as being another major medical milestone we have consigned to the history books, like polio and smallpox.

I look forward to the day we gain a mastery over the Rube-Goldberg machine that is our bodies.

Vampires and Space Porn

Okay, I admit it. I’m guilty of click-bait, but this really is a post about vampires and space porn.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been working on a couple of novellas, Alien Space Tentacle Porn and Vampires, although it’s important to note that these two stories are completely unrelated.

alien (small)Anyone that’s read any of my novels has probably already figured out that I like to take risks with my writing. Rather than a nice, safe, easy bet on the hero’s journey adapted to stars, or wars, or whatever, I like to get outside my comfort zone.

When mulling over stories I’d like to write, I gravitate toward challenging plot lines rather than run-of-the-mill well-worn concepts. Unfortunately, this means my stories aren’t exactly commercially astute and don’t tend to soar high in the Amazon rankings. I know I’d be better served pumping out some pulp fiction, but I just can’t bring myself to write cliché stories when there’s so much more to explore.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Or in this case, by it’s title. Books like My Sweet Satan have gone on to succeed on Amazon in spite of their lousy titles.

Alien Space Tentacle Porn is a fascinating look at how off-the-wall First Contact could be—in a Men-In-Black kind of way. It’s crazy fun.

Despite it’s provocative title, Alien Space Tentacle Porn is actually quite demur. There’s the literary equivalent of a flash of flesh in a prison cell, but nothing sleazy or graphic. Instead, the novella has some thought-provoking ideas on what it takes for society to advance, all woven against an alien encounter of delusional and often hilarious proportions.
Vamp (small)
Vampire, on the other hand, is sober, being a classic suspense/horror story. This novella revisits Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but without becoming bogged down in the sensational aspects of sucking blood from neck wounds.

Instead of following the standard clichés, Vampire exploits plot points from Stoker’s original work, weaving an all-too-plausible look at how the vampire legend could have arisen, and how it could perpetuate in modern times without being noticed.

In writing Vampire, I wanted to return to the uncertainty and creepy atmosphere that haunts Dracula as a novel, and revive some of the foreboding sense of evil so masterfully portrayed by Bram Stoker.

This is very much a tribute work, and I hope it comes across as such. Although it’s a novella, coming in at 16,000 words, it packs quite a punch, with an ending few will see coming.

Thanks again for supporting independent science fiction. I hope you take a chance on these works as they’re both memorable stories that are thoroughly enjoyable.


Real world Encounters with other stars

Today, science fiction author Matthew Mather launches his latest book, NOMAD.

All too often, we see life on Earth as distinct and separate from outer space, but the reality is, we are in space, not separate from it. As Carl Sagan noted when Voyager turned around and took a snap shot of Earth at a distance of 6 billion kilometers, out beyond Pluto, our world is little more than a pale blue dot, a speck of dust floating on a sunbeam. What would it take to upset life on Earth? The dinosaurs found that out the hard way, and Matthew explores some other possibilities that are all too plausible.

In this article, Matthew discusses the background behind his novel, which is a page-turner and based on hard science. NOMAD is on special today for 99c, so grab it while it’s hot.


Before writing my newest book Nomad, released on August 12th, I spent months talking to astronomers and astrophysicists to build up the science behind the encounter I envisioned. At first, the physicists said the event would totally destroy the Earth, but slowly, I managed to piece together a physics-based scenario where it was possible life could survive on the surface—otherwise it wouldn’t make for much of a story!

I won’t give away a spoiler and say exactly what the anomaly is in Nomad, except to say that it’s on the order of a hundred times the mass of the sun, totally invisible, and coming at us quickly. It’s based on real-world science, and I spent a lot of time working with the astrophysicists to work out a scenario of how we would miss detecting this kind of anomaly.

In the end, I managed to convince a team of post-graduate researchers build a full three-dimensional gravity simulation of the entire solar system to lob my Nomad  anomaly through the middle of. All of the elements of the story—all the forces involved and the paths of the planets afterward—are based on real-world physics (at the end of the book, I have instructions on where to watch a video of me running the simulation).


There have been many books and movies illustrating the idea that the Earth is part of the ecosystem of asteroids and comets, planets and even our Sun, and that from time to time, an object may hit the Earth, or the Sun may flare, triggering catastrophic events. But what hasn’t been explored as much is the effect of an ecosystem on a much larger scale—the effect exerted on the Earth by objects in our interstellar and even intergalactic neighborhood.

It might sound far-fetched, but it isn’t.

In fact, much of the events we’d attributed previously to chance, like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, might not be random at all, but the direct result of the interstellar interactions the Earth has with passing stars (still random, but on a much larger scale). In school, we’re taught that the closest star, apart from the Sun, is Proxima Centuri, at just over four light years of distance. It may seem like the interstellar neighborhood is static.

But it’s not.

In February of 2015, researchers were dumbfounded to discover that just 70,000 years ago, near enough in time that our direct ancestors would have seen it, Scholz’s star, a red dwarf, passed about a half light year from us. This led to a flurry of data crunching, leading scientists to discover that, for instance, four million years ago, a giant star, more than twice the mass of the sun, passed less than a third of a light year from us, and in just over a million years from now, another star will pass at just over a hundredth (yes, a hundredth) of a light year from our sun, grazing the solar system itself and possibly affecting the orbits of the planets.


Now scientists are saying that Sedna, the 10th planetoid of the Sun, the one after Pluto, isn’t even an original planet of our Sun. It was captured from a passing star over a billion years ago, when our solar system collided with an alien star’s planetary system. Hundreds of objects in the Kuiper Belt, the collection of planetoids past Uranus, are believed to have been captured from passing stars.

So we are continually mixing together with others stars and interstellar objects, and not on a time scale of billions of years, but on a regular basis every few million years—some scientists now even think that alien stars transit our solar system’s Oort cloud as often as every few hundred thousand years ( BBC )

A change in Earth’s orbit might have triggered one of the biggest global warming events in its history ( Daily Mail ). And scientists now think that a massive ice age, started 35 million years ago, might have been also been caused by another shift in Earth’s orbit, and that this same event disturbed the asteroid belt enough to precipitate several large asteroid impacts, one of which formed the Chesapeake Bay. Some now believe these sorts of events might have been caused by the gravitational effect of a passing star.

Asteroids and comets transiting the inner solar system will of course hit the Earth from time to time, but there is an added element of the influence of passing stars that churn these objects into new and dangerous orbits, and even pulling the Earth itself into a slightly different orbit around the Sun. Which leads to speculation about the root cause of some large comet/asteroid impacts, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. The point is that there are a lot of things in our universe, happening right around us, that we have no idea about.

And we haven’t even talked about the 95% of “stuff” floating around us, dark matter, that we can’t see or detect, other than knowing it’s there from its gravitational signature. With upgraded sensors and increased power in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2015, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, many scientists had hoped to see evidence of dark matter.

But they’ve found nothing. Despite all of our technology and hundreds of years of peering into the cosmos, we still have no idea what makes up the vast majority of our universe.

The scenario is Nomad  is perhaps farfetched, but perhaps not—truth is often stranger than fiction—and this is the story of Nomad.

Click here to go to Nomad’s Amazon Page.

Chronicles Week! (with Kindle Paperwhite Giveaway!)

Author Will Swardstrom talks about his involvement in The Future Chronicles series of anthologies and has a Kindle Paperwhite giveaway with all the Chronicles preloaded. Jump in and join the party!

Will Swardstrom Author

Been radio silence around here for a couple months. Sorry about that…I’ll fill you in later. Suffice it to say this summer didn’t go exactly as planned on the writing front, but was still productive as well.

(Yes, yes…I’ll get to the Kindle Paperwhite giveaway in a bit…)

But while I haven’t been updating Ye Olde Blog at all this summer, I’m breaking that fast now for Chronicles Week.

Let me back up a bit. When I started writing, I credited a lot of the reasons why to one man — Hugh Howey. After reading his blog and WOOL, I was heartened by his approach and the success he had. Not success as in worldwide blockbuster multi-millionaire success, but rather just simply getting that book written and published success. I told anyone and everyone that it was due to Hugh Howey’s career that I had one as well.


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Review: ‘What We Left Behind’ by Peter Cawdron

Here’s a book review of What We Left Behind by Welsh blogger and university student Katherine, studying English Literature and History

Katherine's Bookcase

Genre: Thriller / Sci-fi / Dystopian / YA (Young Adult)
Length: 192 pages (approx.)

I have awarded this book 5 stars.

Synopsis: Hazel is a regular teenager growing up in an irregular world overrun with zombies. She likes music, perfume, freshly baked muffins, and playing her Xbox—everything that no longer exists in the apocalypse. Raised in the safety of a commune, Hazel rarely sees Zee anymore, except on those occasions when the soldiers demonstrate the importance of a headshot to the kids. To her horror, circumstances beyond her control lead her outside the barbed wire fence and into a zombie-infested town

Review: This was such a breath of fresh air from previous zombie apocalypse novels that I have read!

I will admit that when I began this book, I wasn’t sure if it was for me or not. There was nothing that stood out about the characters (except their age)…

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Human intelligence is a peacock feather

In the 1950’s, physicist Enrico Fermi asked a seemingly innocuous question over lunch, “Where is everyone?” Those present immediately understood he wasn’t talking about anyone being missing from the dining room. Fermi was referring to aliens. Fermi wanted to know, why don’t we see evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial beings when we look out into space?

Why would there be intelligent life in outer space?

The universe is both astonishingly big and surprisingly transparent. We can look into the dark night sky and see light from 13.8 billion years in the past, showing us the emerging structure of the cosmos in remarkable detail. The sheer size and scale of the universe is beyond comprehension, with roughly two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, containing upwards of 10^29 stars, that’s 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

To think we are alone in the universe stretches the bounds of credulity, especially when we consider some of the complex molecules we’ve found forming naturally in deep space. The Sagittarius B molecular cloud, as an example, contains billions of gallons of alcohol in the form of C2H4O, and copious amounts of at least one of the amino acids coded by DNA, glycine—CH2NH2COOH, along with various simple sugars. It seems ET is boozy and has a sweet tooth.

Space is a chemical factory. There are over five hundred different types of amino acid. Life on Earth uses just twenty. To our surprise, we’ve found meteorites containing seventy-five different amino acids, although only ten of these are used in biology.

Laboratory tests simulating the environment of space, have shown that these acids can naturally link to form chains, marking the beginning of the complex chemistry that underpins life on Earth.

Sagittarius B

Sagittarius B molecular cloud. Picture credit: dailygalaxy

When you consider that the Sagittarius B molecular cloud contains enough material to form three million stars like the Sun, each with its own unique planetary system, you realize life may be far more common than we suspect. There are literally millions of opportunities for life to form.

So if the lego building blocks for life are abundant in space, and if life arises naturally elsewhere in the universe, where is everyone? This is precisely the question that perplexed Fermi.

Once an intelligent species ventures into space, it should naturally branch out to explore the galaxy in much the same way Europeans spread throughout Earth once they mastered sailing. Given the immense age of the universe, and given how relatively quickly we should be able to populate the galaxy once we get going, Fermi’s question is a paradox—Where is everyone? There should be dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of other intelligent space-faring alien species out there, but there’s only silence.

Common solutions to Fermi’s Paradox

There are at least fifty potential answers to Fermi’s Paradox but here are the top ten.

  1. Hospitable planets like Earth are extremely rare and we are the first species to make it into space.
  2. Aliens are everywhere, but we can’t detect them because their communication is point-to-point and highly efficient.
  3. There’s a Great Filter, something that blocks progress to the stars so very few civilizations expand into space.
  4. Interstellar travel is too costly and too time consuming to undertake. Although under this scenario, we should still be able to detect other space-faring species.
  5. Earth is in a nature preserve, being deliberately isolated until we develop into a peaceful star-faring species. This is the Star Trek Prime Directive, although both isolating us and deliberately hiding all knowledge of other galactic civilizations seems unrealistically complex to be practical.
  6. Aliens keep to themselves. Either they’re not interested in exploration or they’re weary of provoking other more hostile aliens to attack. After all, it’s not smart to shout in a jungle.
  7. ET has transcended physical form and escaped mortality by living in virtual reality in a computer server farm on the edge of the galaxy.
  8. Forget ET, we’re living in a virtual reality similar to the Matrix so space isn’t real.
  9. We are ET. The movie Prometheus explores this possibility, but as life has evolved for at least 3.6 billion years on Earth, for this premise to hold, ET would have to be a very primitive microbe that encountered Earth billions of years ago.
  10. Aliens are already among us but keeping their presence secret. Although this is a popular notion it’s highly unlikely.
Seti @ Home

Picture credit: Seti @ Home

Great Filter

The Great Filter addresses Fermi’s Paradox by suggesting life might be common throughout the universe, but it may have a torturous, hazardous path to the stars.

Looking at our own history, we can seen numerous gates/checkpoints life had to pass through before Homo sapiens arose.

For billions of years, life on Earth consisted of nothing more than microbes. It took an absurd amount of time for life to make the jump from single-celled organisms to multicellular plants and animals. What if that was a fluke?

There’s been dozens of mass extinction events that could have obliterated life on Earth, but somehow life survived. And if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out most of the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago, mammals may never have diversified into their current forms.

When considering the Great Filter, one question that arises is—which side of the filter are we on?

Even now, there’s no guarantee we’ll make it to the stars. Any number of possible doomsday scenarios may yet play out, from nuclear war to the rise of a terminator-like artificial intelligence, or an engineered disease. Any of these may drive us to extinction. We could still be filtered out of the celestial equation. Even such promising advances as nanotechnology could ultimately be our undoing.

If the Great Filter that has held back interstellar colonization for others was the leap from single to multicellular life, we’ve already made it, as we are well beyond that. If the Filter turns out to be our own warring, self-destructive nature, we may not make it to the stars. Stephen Hawking goes so far as to say, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.


Fermi’s Paradox has one critical, underlying assumption—intelligence will arise naturally elsewhere in the universe. But what if this assumption is wrong?

What does it take for intelligence to flourish?

Although life may thrive on thousands, perhaps millions of other planets throughout the universe, a closer look at the evolution of intelligence on Earth suggests the Great Filter may be more of a Great Brick Wall. Intelligence is not a default for evolution.

Natural selection is the winnowing process by which organisms have adapted to life on Earth. Too many seeds fall, too many puppies are born, and too many microbes divide for them all to survive in the long term.

E. Coli, as an example, doubles every 20 minutes. If it could E. Coli would cover the entire planet in a day and a half. By the end of two days, E. Coli would weigh considerably more than the entire planet, molten core and all. Clearly, that doesn’t happen, and the reason is E. Coli doesn’t have unlimited resources and cannot divide unchecked.

Charles Darwin’s astonishing insight in On the Origin of Species was that those bacterium, seeds or puppies that do survive, survive for a reason. If one out of a thousand seeds flourishes into a tree, the question is—why that particular seed? What allowed that seed to thrive? If it was blind luck, there’s no evolutionary advantage. But if it was because of a genetic trait, a trait that made the seed slightly lighter so it could float on the wind, or slightly thicker so it couldn’t be digested by an animal, then that trait will be passed on to the next generation, and so gradual change dominates evolution.

It’s tempting to think that intelligence is the result of natural selection, as our intelligence certainly gives us an advantage over other animals and has allowed us to dominate life on Earth, but that’s not entirely correct. Intelligence is not necessarily a survival trait.

There are varying degrees of intelligence in nature. Intelligence is found in species such as corvids and cephalopods, cetaceans and apes, but we don’t find any intelligence as advanced as our own. Why? This is an important question, as when we look at evolutionary traits that bestow advantages such as sight or flight, we see convergent evolution happening on a vast scale.

Convergent evolution describes how entirely different, seemingly unrelated species evolve similar traits, like dolphins and sharks both having dorsal fins even though sharks evolved 450 million years ago, while dolphins are mammals that returned to the sea a mere 50 million years ago.

Take sight as an example. Sight has evolved independently at least 40 different times. Being sensitive to light conveys such an overwhelming evolutionary advantage it spawned an arms race between predators and prey. As marvelous as our sight is, our vision is nothing compared to that of the Mantis shrimp that sees twelve primary colors compared to our three. The Mantis shrimp sees a broader spectrum of light than we do, and can also distinguish different types of polarized light, something we need sunglasses to detect.

The point is—sight provides such an immense evolutionary advantage, we see sight emerging throughout the animal kingdom, and in ways that dwarf our own vision. The same is true when it comes to flight, with birds, bats and insects all adopting different methods to take to the air. We don’t see this when it comes to advanced intelligence. And it’s not just that we don’t see whales as smart as us. We don’t see any other species in the Homo genus with our level of intelligence, and yet we’re sure they once existed. Think about how astonishing that is. We are the only remaining species on this branch of the evolutionary tree of life. Why? If intelligence is a survival trait, we should see dozens of other Homo species, but we don’t.

There are twenty thousand different species of butterfly. There are three hundred and fifty thousand different species of beetles. There is only one Homo species. Us. Sapiens.

If intelligence provided an evolutionary advantage, why don’t we live in a world with Homo neanderthals and Homo erectus? It’s tempting to think of neanderthals as brute cavemen, but our own ancestors weren’t faring much better at the time.

Neanderthals were highly intelligent, with a level of ingenuity and cognitive awareness well beyond that of chimps or dolphins. They had complex social structures, caring for their sick, burying their dead, working with stone tools, painting on walls, making jewelry and even playing musical instruments. Although the evidence is scant, there’s reason to consider Neanderthals were ocean faring, having established colonies on such remote islands as Crete. We still don’t fully understand why it was Homo sapiens that eventually planted a flag on the Moon and not Homo neanderthals.

Homo sapiens

Evolution of the Homo genus. Picture credit: Nova

When we consider the evolution of human intelligence, we have to think beyond ourselves. We’re simply the latest rendition of Homo, a complex genus that branched from hominids to become Homo sapiens. Roughly 4-5 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, that is to say, from that point our ancestors gradually branched out into a number of species that eventually led either to extinction or to Homo sapiens. The physical traits we have are hominid/homo traits, they’re not unique to Homo sapiens. We inherited these traits from those that came before us, including our intelligence.

If intelligence isn’t a survival trait, then what is it? How did intelligence arise?

Following on from On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, describing another often overlooked aspect of evolution—sexual selection. Like natural selection, sexual selection describes a mechanism by which species adapt, but instead of survival traits allowing an animal to reproduce, sexually desirable or sexually dominant traits allow an animal to mate. In both cases, the end result is passing successful genes onto future generations.

Natural selection is blind and indifferent, whereas sexual selection is in the eye of the beholder.

Lophorina superba is the "superb bird of paradise"

Lophorina superba is the “superb bird of paradise.” Here a male dances before a female, enticing her to mate. Picture credit: Birds of Paradise

Natural selection refines traits necessary for survival. Sexual selection doesn’t. Sexual selection is extravagant and, on occasion, can be wasteful, perhaps even detrimental when maladaptations arise.

Deer have antlers developed as the result of sexual selection, being used for fights over mates, but these can cause an untimely death when caught up on bushes. The Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to a combination of factors, from human hunting to the inability of males to negotiate wooded areas, and even the excessive nutritional demands of its antlers on its diet.

Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to the excesses of sexual selection

Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to the excesses of sexual selection: Picture credit: Christies

In the same way, peacock feathers attract pea hens while placing a burden on flight when escaping predators. Over time, this dichotomy balances out or a species goes extinct.

For millions of years, the survival of the Homo genus relied on making stone tools and harnessing fire, skill in hunting and scavenging. This dependency caused intelligence to become a desirable trait, an indicator of biological fitness. Both men and women, when selecting mates, had a natural preference for someone with a level of intelligence capable of mastering these skills. This isn’t to say geeks are sexy, but that there was a minimum level of intelligence below which prospective partners would be seen as repulsive. Once established, a positive feedback loop led to a level of intelligence far in excess of that required by hunter-gathers, bringing us music, art, literature and science, and yet the evolution of Homo sapiens was by no means guaranteed.

Intelligence came at a price. Big brains are burdensome. Whereas giraffes can walk within minutes of being born, human children take years to mature to the point of being physically independent, placing a strain on the overall survival of the species. For the rest of the Homo genus, such a development may have compounded with other pressures and led to extinction. Like peacocks struggling to flee from predators, numerous species of the Homo genus arrived at an evolutionary dead-end, unable to juggle sexually selective pressures against natural selection. Somehow, we got lucky and the advent of agriculture allowed civilization to emerge.

If the level of intelligence required to reach the stars is a sexually selected trait and not the result of natural selection, we may well be alone in the universe. If sexual selection is a requisite for advanced intelligence then the good news is, we’ve already passed through the Great Filter, but we may very well be one of only a few species to emerge among the stars. After 3.8 billion years of evolutionary development, it seems advanced intelligence isn’t natural, it’s sexual. We may well find life on other planets, but the proportion of intelligent life might be exceedingly low given how specialized intelligence is in nature.

Human intelligence is a peacock feather, an extravagant excess developed due to sexual preferences, and this may well explain why we don’t see intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as the level of intelligence required to build a rocket ship is far rarer than we ever imagined.


Peacocks are examples of sexual selection in extreme. Picture credit: 281 Photography

I’m an optimist. With all the focus NASA has on imaging distant planets, I think we’ll find life flourishing elsewhere in space within the next few decades. I’d like to think SETI will prove me wrong about advanced intelligence being exceedingly rare because of its dependence on sexual selection, but it is worth considering the concept and adding it to the discussion around Fermi’s Paradox.

The Future is Now

My guest in this blog interview is Canadian author and poet, Samuel Peralta, the driving force behind The Future Chronicles—an entire series of anthologies exploring different aspects of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Four books

Sam, where did you come up with the idea for The Future Chronicles? What was your motivation behind this series?

I never meant to create The Future Chronicles. The plan was to write a grand SF novel series, beginning with a book called Labyrinth Man.

My dilemma was, how do I create a readership for Labyrinth Man – which was based on a world where telepaths and robots existed – when my readership was geared towards poetry? My idea was that I would write strong short stories based in that universe, and submit them to anthologies or magazines, and that the readers who discovered me there would find their way to Labyrinth Man.

TraumaRoomTo put that idea in motion, I wrote two spec stories – Trauma Room (a Labyrinth telepath story) and Liberty (a Labyrinth robot story) – made them the strongest I could, and submitted them to anthologies I knew were being put together, the first by David Gatewood and the second by John Joseph Adams, both well-known editors.

Fully expecting that both stories were rejected – they were my first SF stories, after all! – I organized The Robot Chronicles among a group of friends as a vehicle for my robot story, along with a follow-up I called The Telepath Chronicles. I also began asking more well-known authors, like Hugh Howey and David Simpson, if they’d be contributors to my anthologies.

To my surprise, Gatewood gave me the green-light on a new time-travel story, which was Hereafter; and Adams accepted Liberty! Those two books would, in part, propel me from nowhere into the Top 100 SF Authors list on Amazon – and jump-started a readership.

Since Liberty was now placed, I wrote a new story, Humanity, for The Robot Chronicles, later convincing David Gatewood to helm the title as editor. We never expected The Robot Chronicles to be as big a hit as it was — so in parallel to Telepath, we began planning The Alien Chronicles — and suddenly it was a bona fide series. The Future Chronicles was born. And I still haven’t finished Labyrinth Man.

There’s a considerable amount of effort that goes into financing a series like this, not to mention the logistics of herding authors like cats, arranging for editors, cover design, promotions, etc. You must really love the concept to risk investing so much time and effort.

I believe that the rise of electronic reading devices, and the way that people have begun to parcel their valuable time, has led to a resurgence of the short story. Science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) has become more mainstream, and is being accepted on a par with any literary effort – witness the success of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro with books their readers barely realize is science fiction.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 8.30.23 pmAnother of my beliefs is that there are scores of independent authors out there who have amazing voices, but who can’t be heard because they don’t have a chance in the spotlight. What the Chronicles does is give them a chance in that spotlight, to have their names alongside established writers like Hugh Howey, Ken Liu, and Robert J. Sawyer. Once they’re in a book that hits the top levels – in both quality and readership – they know what is possible. They know, as I like to say: The best is yet to come. Instead of giving up, they keep writing, readers find them, and we are all blessed with wonderful stories that may not otherwise have been written.

What’s validated this vision of a new Silver Age is that readers have embraced the series – all Chronicles titles to date, including those edited by Ellen Campbell, have become the #1 bestselling SF or Fantasy anthology in turn. Three of them have broken through to the Amazon Top 100 bestseller list for all books; The Alien Chronicles went as high as #6, and another, The A.I. Chronicles, got there without any promotion besides its readership.

I’m amazed that I can be part of that kind of phenomenon, part of bringing new and relevant voices to the spotlight. The energy is what keeps me going.

How have you found working with independent authors? Although it’s less so today, there is still a stigma attached to indies. What are your thoughts on the indie revolution? Is it really transforming the publishing industry?

Independent authors are like jazz musicians – they can be incredibly talented in their own right – but they don’t mind jamming with other musicians. In essence, that’s what we’re doing in the Chronicles, putting together concert tours with friends from other bands. I’ve forged some real friendships.

In terms of transforming the publishing industry, I don’t think there’s any question that independent authors are making an impact. The Martian started life as an independently-published novel. It’s only one of a number of independent works that are coming into the mainstream.

You’ve explored robots, telepathy, aliens, AI and dragons. On the horizon, there’s zombies and alternative histories. What else do you have planned for the series?

As you mentioned, The Z Chronicles and Alt.History 101 are coming soon. The latter is the first of a new ALT Chronicles series which will be a different twist on The Future Chronicles.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 8.37.28 pmComing up for the fall are The Time Travel Chronicles and The Cyborg Chronicles, both being edited by Crystal Watanabe; and The Immortality Chronicles, being edited by Carol Davis. I’ve just commissioned a new editor, Jeff Seymour, to helm The Galaxy Chronicles, and there are a number of other titles in the works. We’re planning on releasing a new anthology every 1-2 months, which is a blistering pace for anthologies.

As an independent author that’s appeared in three of the chronicles, I love the way The Future Chronicles provides a showcase of independent writing. It’s fun. It’s a chance to break out of the author hermit shell and collaborate with peers. It’s an opportunity to reach new readers. What success stories have come out of The Future Chronicles?

How do I start? There are so many. I’ve loved the way some of the stories that originated in the Chronicles have spawned new successful series. For example, Susan Kaye Quinn‘s “Restore” in The A.I. Chronicles, was a lead-in to her book The Legacy Human, and her Singularity series. Vincent Trigili‘s ongoing Silverleaf Chronicles was a direct result of his writing “The Storymaster” for The Dragon Chronicles. A.K. Meek‘s “The Invariable Man” was popular enough that he expanded the world and released The Invariable Man: The Novel.

Will Swardstrom, best known for his work based on Hugh Howey’s world of Wool, told me that he got his first true fan mail after his story “Uncle Allen” appeared in The Alien Chronicles. I’ve had readers tell me they’d never read science fiction before – but now they would, after reading one of our titles.

There are new success stories every time we launch a new anthology. We have over 100 contributors to The Future Chronicles series now – authors, artists, editors – and to me, every single one is a Chronicles success story.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors? Given all the writers you have reviewed for The Future Chronicles and all the books you read, what do you think makes a good story? If you had to crystalize a great story into a handful of concepts or guidelines, what would they be?

To be successful, you must read a lot, and write a lot. Read to see what works and what doesn’t. Write so that your craftsmanship gets better, so that you begin to hear your own unique voice. And keep writing. Never forget the editing stage. And when you’re done, read your story aloud to yourself, so you can hear the rhythm, feel the tension, or lack of these, and tighten, tighten, tighten.

A great story has narrative momentum, characters the reader desperately want to succeed or fail, and a resolution that is a closure, a catharsis. It’s an over-simplification, of course, but that’s what I look for. If you must know, I live by Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling. All 22 of them.

Thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview, and for your support of independent science fiction.

Check out The Future Chronicles series on Amazon