How relevant are reviews?

How relevant are reviews?

Book reviews are of critical importance for writers as they provide an independent assessment of a novel for potential readers, the problem is… they’re often bipolar.

Here are two reviews for my novel Mars Endeavour—one star and five stars.

  • The high rating for this book on amazon is incomprehensible. The writing feels like it was done by a fifteen-year old in a creative writing class
  • I rarely write reviews… You know a good story when it holds you and gives you an emotional reaction and maybe even a physical one, a slight increase in the heart rate, tension in the stomach as you turn the pages

So who’s right? Serious question. Which review should you believe? And why?

You see, the problem is most reviews are polarised—they represent the extremes rather than the norm.

When less than 1% of readers leave a review online, the result invariably represents the outer edges of a distribution curve rather than the sentiment of the majority. It seems, only those that either love or hate a book will bother to comment on it.

Looking at a classic distribution curve, it’s clear reviews catch only those on the fringes.


With 99% of readers not providing any rating, we never get to see what the majority of people think about a particular book.

The problem is two-fold.

  1. Not enough ratings/reviews are left by readers.
  2. There’s no way to know who to believe. The naysayers or the enthusiasts?

I’d like to propose a solution, and I dearly hope someone from Amazon considers this as I think it would work—personalize ratings.

At the moment, reviews on Amazon appear something like this.


But what if Amazon also included a personal rating? Where a comparison is made between books you’ve rated in the past, and what those that agree with you back then think about the book you’re currently considering.


Your personalized rating would be the intersection between these groups.

In other words, predicting whether I’ll enjoy a novel by matching my past reads with other readers that share similar likes/dislikes.

It really doesn’t matter how the other readers have rated other books, so long as we roughly agree. If we all rate the (hypothetical) novels…

  • Cars on Mars with three stars,
  • Loons on Moons five stars, and
  • Guns on Suns one star.

The question as to whether I’ll enjoy the fourth book in the series, Who goes to Pluto? is highly likely to be similar to those that rated Cars, Loons and Guns in a similar manner to me. It could potentially look something like this…


Or conversely…


With hyperlinks taking me directly to those reviews of this book by readers that rated other novels in the same way I did.

In both circumstances, the reviews are now tailored to be more applicable to my previous likes and dislikes, still giving me the choice to consider or reject reviews as I see fit, but ensuring I have a more accurate assessment of whether I’m likely to enjoy a particular novel.

This approach encourages readers to rate lots of books as the more books they rate the more accurate the predictions about future reads will become.

This would also be an effective means of dealing with both troll reviews and fake reviews, as they’re taken out of the equation.

Some other points to consider are “liked reviews” should count toward the personalized review rating. Also, it might be impractical to get a 100% match on “books other readers have rated the same as me,” so there may need to be a tolerance of 1-2 stars applied, but I suspect this would ensure reviews are relevant to readers and provide them with an accurate assessment of whether they’d enjoy a particular novel. There may need to be a minimum threshold of 10 comparative reviewers to ensure accuracy.

In essence, this would shift the focus from trusting random reviews to trusting in similar, like-minded reviewers. To my thinking, this approach would ensure reviews were relevant and remove confusion/uncertainty over whether someone is likely to enjoy a particular book. It also increases the level of difficulty for those gaming the system unfairly.

Do you agree?

Do you have any other ideas?

Feel free to comment below.



SETI & the Technological S-Curve

Over Christmas, I was reading Carl Sagan’s novel CONTACT and enjoyed his thoughts on SETI—the search for extraterrestrial life. One of the points Sagan makes is that any alien intelligence would be far more advanced than humans and should have already colonized the galaxy.

Sagan’s reasoning is based on the fact that we have emerged rapidly as a technological/scientific civilization.

Within 10,000 years, we’ve gone from pushing rocks around the desert to build extravagant tombs to walking on our moon. Taking a longer view, our recent progress is even more impressive. For at least 1.8 million years, we have been using stone implements, hand-held axes that remained largely unchanged for 99% of that time. In essence, we were at a technological stand still until some point in the last 10,000 years. “We” stalled for longer than Homo sapiens have existed as a species! Then, in what equates to less than 1% of our tool-using history, BOOM… we’re walking on the Moon. That’s quite extraordinary.

And our progress continues to advance at an astonishing pace. In the last hundred years or so, we’ve banished such insidious diseases as smallpox and polio that plagued our species for thousands of years. We’ve travelled into space, explored the depths of our oceans, invented computers, cured diseases, transformed our economies, and in the midst of all this it is easy to see our progress as unrelenting, almost inevitable, but the truth is far different.


Although our progress may seem exponential and always positive, it is actually the result of overlapping technologies following what’s described as an S-curve of efficiency. Steam gave way to oil, as an example, while propeller aircraft gave way to jet engines. As one technology reached its peak, another newer technology took over, propelling us still further on. But is such technological growth sustainable? Are there physical limits?

Ah…. this is where the concept of SETI comes into the discussion. For over fifty years, we have wondered, “Where are they?” By our reckoning, the heavens should be buzzing with extraterrestrial activity, but all we hear is silence. Why? If we can progress so rapidly, why couldn’t anyone else? And given our rapid growth over what is an astonishingly small period of time, other intelligent species should have already had a good headstart on populating the galaxy, but there’s no one out there. Why?

One possible answer lies with the S-curve of engineering efficiency. There’s no way a steam powered car could ever outrun even a modest modern car, or a propeller plane a jet. Once these technologies reached their limit, they had to be superseded or the peak of efficiency would never increase.


The lower portion of the curve marks how our learning grows, and we begin mastering the technology and improving its efficiency, but eventually every technology reaches its limits—the point where no more efficiency can be gained.

When it comes to the universe at large, there’s two very pertinent limits. On the sub-atomic scale, the Planck length. On the large scale, the speed of light. It may be that these physical constraints simply cannot be overcome by switching from propellers to jets (or whatever the equivalent may be).

Breaking the speed of light is not simply an engineering problem as breaking the speed of sound was. As much as I love a good scifi book/movie, anyone that tells you the speed of light will one day be breached really doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. The speed of light is the speed of reality.

E = mc2 is the most famous equation in science, but it’s not the only way Einstein and the scientists that worked with him understood this principle. They also thought of it as m = E/c2. In Einstein’s words, “It appears far more natural to consider every inertial mass as a store of energy.” In other words, we can no more travel faster than the speed of light than light itself can travel faster than the speed of light.

What’s more, even if we could travel close to that speed, impact with dust particles, even with individual atoms scattered within the vacuum of space would be disastrous. At 99% of the speed of light, a single gram of “stuff” out there would generate the kind of energy unleashed at Hiroshima.

Stars are really far apart. Four light years is a deceptively simple way of saying 2.469e+13 miles. Travelling between stars requires enormous patience at sub-light speeds, and is grossly impractical, especially when you consider that whatever energy you put into starting your journey also has to be put into stopping at the other end.

Just as we’re currently struggling to justify a “space economy” any advanced alien civilization would struggle to justify an “interstellar economy.” There’s no doubt it could be done, but it is anything but routine. Any colonies would be effectively in a state of permanent isolation. Rather than being the nirvana of space travel, interstellar colonization may simply be a pipedream for all advanced civilizations.

The physical limits of technology is an interesting way to consider SETI, and may help explain the silence we observe. We may be bound to these islands in the sky we call stars.

Given the resourcefulness of humanity, I have no doubt we’ll one day develop generation ships, or automated ships that can grow-humanity-on-demand once they find a suitable planet, but the pragmatist in me outweighs the romantic. Such voyages will be extremely risky and highly long term propositions that may have minimal practical benefits, and perhaps that’s why we don’t see ET everywhere we look. They may be the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps there are dozens, even hundreds of advanced alien civilizations out there, but they’re isolated in far-flung regions and are unable or unwilling to venture between stars.








Free Porn!


Yes, free porn… although perhaps not in the traditional sense of the phrase.

Alien Space Tentacle Porn has been banned by Facebook Ads, Google Ads, and Amazon Marketing Services. Why? Because they judge it by it’s title (even though it’s got a great cover), and not by its content or the numerous reviews that highlight it as scifi comedy.  This Christmas, I’m giving away free copies of Alien Space Tentacle Porn, so what are you waiting for? Go grab a copy.

Please, retweet, forward this post to a friend, post on Facebook, whatever, get the word out. What’s not to love about a little free porn?

Here’s what readers have said about Alien Space Tentacle Porn

  • This is awesomely funny … Don’t let the title discourage you, it’s not actually pornographic 
  • This is my fourth or fifth book by Peter Cawdron, so I knew I was in for an enjoyable read. This was a First Contact story with a twist, and some welcomed comic relief. 
  • From alien encounters to crazy conspiracies. It’s truly the perfect Christmas present 
  • I did not expect the story I got. Do you know how rare that is after five decades of reading? 

Writing is an art. It takes months, sometimes years for an idea to come to fruition as a book, but it starts with a conceptual decision, a central idea. Books like Galactic Exploration are unabashed reboots of classics like Star Trek. The clue is right there in the title: Galactic/Star Exploration/TrekAlien Space Tentacle Porn is my take on an off-the-wall reboot of Men In Black. It’s equal parts funny and serious, and is just a tad disconnected from reality… or is it? That will be for you to decide.

From December 21-25 of 2016, Alien Space Tentacle Porn is free on Amazon, so why not finish the year with a bang.

I love this zany story. I hope you do too.

If you grab a copy, be sure to leave a review on Amazon and GoodReads. Your opinion of this story counts far more than mine.


Good clean fun





Mars: The Lonely Planet

Ralph Kern interviews Peter Cawdron about Mars: The Lonely Planet.

Thanks for joining us here at SFFWorld for the next interview on the themes, technologies and events which feature in an author’s work.

In this interview, I’m joined by Peter Cawdron, the international best-selling author of twenty science fiction novels, novellas and short stories. So far, his stories have taken us on odysseys through the plains of Africa, out to Saturn and far beyond the plane of the Galaxy.

Today though, we’re going to focus on our closest neighbor where his next novel, Mars Endeavour is set.

So, let’s start at the beginning, Peter. To the glance, Mars is a barren desert. If I were to pick any destination to visit in the Solar System, just why would I want to go there?

You wouldn’t. If you could choose any destination in the solar system, there’s lots of other places that are far more visually spectacular, places that are potentially better science targets, like Europa around Jupiter or Enceladus around Saturn. The problem is distance.

Mars varies between roughly 40 million and 225 million miles away depending on the orbit, whereas Saturn is 750 million miles away at its closest approach, reaching up to 1.2 billion miles. It’s not just that it’s 18xs the closest approach of Mars, but that the need for fuel and the difficulty of such travel increases exponentially. Getting humans to Mars will be extremely difficult. Getting humans to any of these other tantalizing locations borders on absurd by comparison.

When it comes to travel, there’s a concept known as payload fraction. For aircraft, this is around 50%. For spacecraft, it’s well over 90%. The Saturn V that put humans on the Moon was rated at 95.7% meaning the crew and Lunar Module, etc, accounted for less than 5% of the launch mass. When you look at a space rocket sitting on the launch pad, MOST of the mass won’t leave Earth—it’s mainly fuel needed to simply escape Earth’s gravity well. To get anywhere in the solar system, we’re going to need to build and/or fuel a spacecraft in orbit, in much the same way we’ve built the International Space Station. And as you can imagine, the cost and difficulty in doing that is going to be insane.

So if we could go anywhere, we probably wouldn’t settle primarily on Mars as there’s far more interesting targets elsewhere, but Mars gives us the opportunity to build an outpost. And thanks to the abundance of perchlorates on Mars, mining rocket fuel should be possible, meaning Mars may become the stepping stone for humans to reach Europa and Enceladus.

Mars is kinda like a gas station on the way to Disneyland. Mars has lots of interesting science targets, but none quite as rich and promising as the moons of the gas giants.

Percholrates found on Mars can be converted into rocket fuel

Percholrates found on Mars can be converted into rocket fuel

You can continue reading this interview on SFF World





Mars Endeavour

Recently, I launched a novel called Mars Endeavour that takes a realistic view of life within a colony on the fourth planet. The tagline for the story is, “NASA prepared us for every eventuality on Mars—they never prepared us for what could go wrong on Earth.”

In the course of writing the novel, I was privileged to get feedback from Dr. Andrew Rader, who works in the US space industry. Dr. Rader was kind enough to write the foreword for this novel, and I’ve reproduced it here for your enjoyment.

Foreword by Dr. Andrew Rader

As a scientist, engineer, and Mars enthusiast, I was thoroughly delighted with Mars Endeavour. Throughout the book, Peter pays a great deal of attention to scientific and engineering detail while at the same time telling a compelling and plausible story, placing Mars Endeavour amongst the ranks of classic hard science fiction titles like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, and Hammer of God.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Although no dates are given, the level of development in Mars Endeavour suggests a timeframe that would be achievable within about the next 50 years or so, assuming a sustained human effort aimed at Mars. Mars is the only other world that we have the technology to reach today which possesses the full spectrum of resources necessary to support long term human settlement. Humans to Mars is a goal that we can achieve with existing and near-term technology, and (I would argue) is the primary purpose of sending humans to space. The effort of sending humans to Mars, even in the large scale portrayed in Mars Endeavour, is fundamentally an engineering challenge. Unlike many of the challenges we face on Earth, there are no scientific breakthroughs required for the human exploration or settlement of Mars – only engineering effort and widespread dedication to the goal.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

In Mars Endeavour, Peter lays out a highly realistic vision of what life in a Martian settlement would be like. Great effort has been made to capture what it would be like to live on and explore the Red Planet, in terms of base construction, robotics, in-situ resource extraction, Martian geography, surface features, extravehicular activity, and crew interpersonal relationships in relative isolation. The base is built within naturally occurring lava tube caves for ease of construction. Such caves also exist on Earth, but with the lower gravity on Mars (38% of Earth’s), they should be much larger on Mars. Subsurface conditions within a lava tube cave would be significantly more benign than on the surface, in terms of temperature variations (swings of up to 150 °F or 80 °C in a day/night cycle), shielding from radiation, and protection from dust storms. These underground environments are also a likely potential habitat for past or present Martian life, making them excellent targets for exploration.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Mars is one of the best candidates for off-Earth life in our solar system, along with some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. It seems clear that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter place. Billions of years ago, Mars had a thicker atmosphere, and by virtue of the greenhouse effect, this higher pressure and temperature may have supported surface oceans and an Earth-like environment. As described in Mars Endeavour, the surface of Mars is a very old environment. Considering that environmental changes probably took place over millions of years, that liquid water still persists under the Martian surface, and that we find life even in the harshest and most isolated environments on Earth, it is likely that there may yet be pockets of existing Martian life to be found today.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Finding life on Mars would have extremely broad implications, especially if life on Mars had a different origin from Earth life. Do all worlds with a friendly environment develop life? We know from recent planet-finding missions like the Kepler Space Telescope that planets are extremely common, and many of these seem to be about the right distance from the Sun to support liquid surface water. Indeed, there seems to be at least eight billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone—one for each human on Earth. So a question arises—do most or all planets capable of supporting life develop life, or is Earth a rare phenomenon? We currently only have decisive experimental results for a single planet: Earth. A single 1 out of 1 result is statistically meaningless, but finding even signs of extinct microbes on Mars could indicate that life is abundant throughout the entire Universe, and we are probably not alone.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Establishing branches of human civilization on other worlds would not only sustain our species in the case of disaster, but it might go a long way towards preventing it. Human spaceflight and sustainability engineering are just two sides of the same technology. I can’t think of any project that would have greater leverage than going to Mars in terms of teaching us about zero-waste living, energy and resource conservation, and closed-cycle life support. The mere act of sustaining humans on another world would dramatically impact our water, energy, and food production, and recycling. Although at first many supplies would have to be sent from Earth, there would be a huge incentive to produce as much as possible locally. Providing for people on Mars is a logistical challenge not so different from providing for people in harsh environments on Earth.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Whereas Andy Weir’s The Martian captured what it would be like for an individual to live through a small-scale disaster on another world, Mars Endeavour expands the scale to tell the story of a multi-planet catastrophe in a compelling and realistic way. How would people in a fledgling colony on another world react to a life-threatening disaster? Would they split into national factions, or come together in commonality and shared mutual interest? Above all, Mars Endeavour is a human story about how we react to a crisis: as cultures, nations, groups, and individuals. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Andrew Rader, PhD Aero/Astro Engineering

Author, Leaving Earth & Epic Space Adventure

Twitter: @marsrader

YouTube: AndrewRader

Facebook: Andrew Rader

You can find Mars Endeavour on Amazon for only 99c during the month of September


 Mars Endeavour is available exclusively on Amazon

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.