Ten free paperbacks to giveaway

S C I E N C E   F I C T I O N (2)

Next month, my novel Retrograde will be released, and to celebrate, I’m giving away ten paperback novels to celebrate.

Jump in and you could win a copy of:

  • Alien Space Tentacle Porn
  • Anomaly
  • Little Green Men
  • Maelstrom
  • My Sweet Satan
  • Nosferatu
  • Starship Mine
  • Xenophobia
  • Welcome to the Occupied States of America
  • What We Left Behind

Enter to win one of ten science fiction paperback novels.






Zombie caterpillars!

Zombie caterpillars? Really? Is there such a thing?

Let’s look at the history of zombies and how such behaviors can arise in nature

The term zombie originates at least as far back as the 8th century in Africa, with its origins being found in the term nzambi, which in the Congo meant ‘spirit of a dead person,’ and ndzumbi meaning ‘corpse’ in the Mitsogo language of Gabon.  From there, the term gravitated to Creole with African slaves, being used to describe someone who died and was then brought to life without speech or free will.

Europeans first became obsessed with zombies in Haiti, where the mortality rate among slaves was three times higher than in the US, and eventually led to revolution. The appalling treatment of slaves often left them in a zombie-like state before they succumbed to death, further perpetuating European fears. It’s a sad historical irony, that the monstrous actions of slave owners would breed what was essentially the racist blame of Africans becoming the undead. People fear things they don’t understand, and so witchdoctors were blamed for what was the inevitable result of slavery itself, and the walking dead were born, only instead of feeding on the living, they were clinging to the last vestiges of their own lives.


In 1968 George Romero transformed zombies from mindless slaves into aggressive predators, hunting the living. His film Night of the Living Dead launched the modern zombie genre, continuing today in shows such as The Walking Dead.

How realistic is a zombie apocalypse?

Well, that depends on a couple of factors. First, how likely is it a disease could bring about zombie behavior, and how well could it spread in the modern world.

Medical science describes the virulence of pathogens with the Basic Reproduction Number or R-0 (sometimes called R-Nought), and this can give us a good idea of how a zombie virus could spread and how we could combat it.

If R<1 then an outbreak is considered under control and fading, as for every person infected, less than one other person will contract the disease, meaning the wildfire is running out of fuel.

Ebola, as an example, had an R-0 factor of between 1.5 and 2, so without intervention, for every person infected, up to two other people would succumb to the disease. That might not sound particularly bad, but remember the law of compounding effects, doubling as it goes.

The Spanish Flu, which killed an astonishing 18 million people in the 1920s had an R-0 factor of just 2.8.

Measles, though, makes Ebola look like an amateur with an R-0 factor between 12 and 18. So for every infected person in an area without inoculation, almost twenty other people will become infected. Without intervention, the next generation of infections will reach 400, and the next, 8000. You can see why medical science worked so hard to develop a vaccine for measles, and why inoculation is so important.


Worse than any zombie apocalypse: Demon in the Freezer

Perhaps the most virulent virus to hit humanity is Smallpox, which, like Measles had an R-0 factor in the high teens, and may have even breached 1:20, being airborne as it spread.

In his book, Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston recounts one of the last outbreaks where a patient was quarantined on the ground floor of a hospital, in an isolated ward. One of the nurses made the mistake of cracking the window to allow a breeze into the patient’s room. From there, the virus drifted up, through a second floor window, infecting patients in that room, and even people that never even entered that room. Merely walking down the corridor, past closed doors, was enough to expose victims to the disease!

Most people think we defeated Smallpox with vaccines. We didn’t. There wasn’t enough time to produce enough vaccine. Smallpox would take hold of cities containing millions of people. Even with a hundred thousand doses, the prospect of stopping this deadly disease seemed impossible.

The UN came up with the concept of ring containment. Rather than vaccinating everyone within a city containing tens of millions of people, they calculated how far the virus could spread once infection was reported, and they’d contain that area, vaccinating all of those inside the perimeter likely to come in direct contact with the virus, essentially forming a ring around the infection site. It was a stunning idea, and allowed humanity to drive the virus to extinction regardless of its virility. Today, there are no wild pockets of Smallpox, only demons in the freezer, held in stock by the US and Russia. Should these ever be unleashed as biological weapons, they would be utterly devastating.

What would be the R-0 factor of a zombie virus? Unlike Smallpox and Measles that have incubation periods, allowing them to spread unseen, the zombie virus is immediately apparent. Even if it matched the R-0 factor of Measles, I’m confident we could contain it. We’ve already battled worse in Smallpox.

All of this was in my mind when I wrote my young adult thriller What We Left Behind. I knew we could defeat a zombie virus, so how could I present a plausible alternative? How could something so devastating slip below our medical radar and spread until it was too late to contain?

I settled on the concept that the very idea of a zombie virus would be a distraction, diverting valuable resources on a wild goose chase, and instead proposed an inter-species parasite, a minor mutation to something that was already common, and so easily overlooked.

Last week, a friend sent me an article about researches at the University of California observing tomato plants releasing toxins that cause caterpillars to turn on each other and become cannibals.

Zombie caterpillars! Who would have thought of it? Science again beats science fiction hands down

And this isn’t the only example of zombies in nature. The flatworm, Euhaplorchis californiensis alters the behavior of the fish it infects, making it easier to be captured and eaten by birds? Why? It reproduces within the bird gut, and uses the fish to complete its lifecycle.

Then there’s the Ophiocordyceps fungus which turns ants into zombies.


Toxoplasma-gondii infects cats, and drives mice made. Image credit: National Geographic

Toxoplasma gondii reproduces in the gut of cats. The only problem is… the gut is a point of transit. So how can this microbe get back into a cat’s gut in order to reproduce? It can’t. Not by itself. So it faced an evolutionary dead-end, unless it adapted to manipulate another species, and quite remarkably, that’s exactly what happened.

Mice and birds become carries of T. gondii when they eat cat feces. Over time, natural selection developed a strain that would cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, effectively sacrificing themselves for their parasitic companion.

Scientists suspect the neurotoxin released by T. gondii may have a detrimental impact on humans as well.


Could zombies arise as the unintended side-effect of some other parasitic life-cycle like toxoplasmosis? Image credit: CDC

In What We Left Behind, I leave the culprit unnamed, but the book focuses on how to break the cycle of cross-species infection. It’s a great read.

If you’re into zombie bowling, or surfing with zombies, grab a copy. I think you’ll enjoy it.







Dinosaurs & Vampires

Nostalgia is a curious thing. As a writer, I draw on a lot of different sources for inspiration, but I think my greatest stories have their roots in my childhood love of science fiction.

We grow up all too fast, and not just physically. Mentally, we’re too keen to leave behind our childhood and be adults, and there’s merit in that, and yet there’s also a degree of sorrow in that our innocence and childlike excitement is often lost. I find it fascinating that scientists like Carl Sagan never lost their curiosity and childlike desire for exploring the unknown.


Carl Sagan‘s imagination as a child was echoed in his love for science as an adult

The first novel I read from cover to cover was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I forget how I stumbled across a copy, but I was riveted. I had to keep reading. I had to know what would happen.

Dracula is not just a novel about vampires. It’s a story of courage against the unknown. It highlights the mental fatigue of mere mortals struggling against evil. Our heroes aren’t warriors—they’re no stronger, smarter or braver than anyone else, but they’re compelled to fight for what’s right. They’re doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives—and their exploits are written as journal entries, letters, and notes. For me, that’s what grounds Dracula as a story. It’s the rise of the new world of science fighting against the supernatural past.

When I began writing, roughly a decade ago, I knew I wanted to pen a story in homage to Dracula, but I waited, wanting to get the timing right, wanting to be sure I could do justice to the story, so I’m excited to announce the launch of Nosferatu.

maelstrom (1)

Another story I found fascinating as a child was Land of the Lost. Although it was a TV series, it managed to sustain a level of intrigue for several seasons. The story arc included dinosaurs and aliens, as a modern family was swept into a parallel world where primitive humanity struggled to survive.

land of lost

When Vanquish Motion Pictures asked me to write a pilot for possible development in TV or film, the brief was just a few line—The story should be set in China, and involve parallel worlds colliding, but to keep production costs down, it should be present day and avoid high tech worlds.

My mind immediately gravitated to Land of the Lost, but didn’t want to simply replicate the concept. I wanted to come up with an original take, but one that quietly paid homage to the TV shows I enjoyed in my youth. From there, Maelstrom took form.

maelstrom (wide)

These two stories couldn’t be more different, but they both share the same origin in my fascination with fiction as a child.

Unleash your childlike imagination with Maelstrom and Nosferatu, both of which are on sale for 99c.

books (lose yourself)


Fermi’s Paradox, really?

In the 1950’s, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi proposed a paradox by asking, where is everyone? His reasoning was simple, given the sheer size of the universe, what are the chances we’re alone? If we’re not, where is everyone else? We should look out into space and see signs of intelligent life around other stars.

Conservative estimates put the number of galaxies in the visible universe at around a hundred billion, and the number of stars at 10^24. The problem with both of these numbers is we have no way to appreciate them in every day life. They’re simply too large to hold any meaning. But hold a grain of sand out at arm’s length, and you’re blocking the light from 10,000 galaxies!

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 5.20.54 pm

Astronomer Frank Drake came up with the first methodical way of estimating the possibility of life elsewhere in our galaxy (remembering ours is just one of at least a hundred billion). He arrived at the conservative figure of 10,000 other civilizations, while Carl Sagan thought the number could be as high as a million.


Some estimates for the entire universe end up with absurdly large numbers like “ten million billion” alien civilizations! The bigger the numbers being spit out of our estimates, the more perplexing it seems that we don’t see evidence for any other intelligent life in outer space. Fermi’s Paradox is a head scratcher. Or is it?

There’s a problem with Fermi’s Paradox. We’re not actually sure it’s a paradox.

Think back to the numbers we just looked at—10,000 galaxies, containing trillions of stars, all obscured behind a single grain of sand. If just one of those galaxies contained life, we wouldn’t know it. We can’t see any of those galaxies with any clarity.

There’s a case to be made that WITHIN our galaxy we don’t see any other intelligent life, but beyond our galaxy, our ability to look for life is non-existent. It’s a bit like someone standing on the shores of Greece saying, “I see no evidence for Egypt.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 5.39.34 pm

Fermi’s observation isn’t really a paradox. Look at how little we’ve actually searched. Even our most advanced planet-hunting space telescope has only focused on a tiny patch of our own galaxy. It’s no surprise we haven’t found life. Honestly, it would be a surprise if we had.

Remember, there are roughly a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, but again, numbers like this are meaningless without context.


Ah, that really doesn’t help.

Just how big is a hundred billion? Well, a million seconds pass in 12 days, a billion seconds in 34 years, a hundred billion seconds pass in well over three millennia.

Is there life in outer space? Yes. Earth itself is proof of that.

Is there any other life in outer space? Well, we’ve just started looking. We really cannot say one way or the other, but we have no reason to think there isn’t. Fermi’s got us looking, and that’s a good thing, but don’t underestimate the magnitude of the challenge.



How accurate should science fiction stories be?

As accurate as a speedometer.


There’s a difference between accuracy and precision.

Accuracy is a relative term that’s situation appropriate. When it comes to speedometers, it’s enough to know I’m driving at about 60mph. I don’t need to know that I’m traveling at precisely 59.945mph or 61.232mph. Either approximates to 60mph, one’s slightly faster, the other slightly slower, but by margins that are meaningless.

The same principle holds true when it comes to science fiction. If my protagonist is orbiting a planet in his spaceship, it’s entirely accurate to say he’s traveling at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. There’s no need for precision—and this is the point—there’s no need to be slavishly precise, just accurate.

How accurate are these three darts?


Well, it depends. Strictly speaking, only one hit the bullseye. The other two missed. If I threw them from five feet away, they’re not bad. If I threw them the length of a football field they ALL are astonishingly accurate, although only one of them is precise.

The point is… stories can be accurate without being precise.

In the movie Alien Covenant, there are a lot of heart-pounding moments, but there are a few scenes where darts weren’t even thrown at the board, they were simply dropped on the ground. Exploring a strange alien spacecraft without any kind of biological protection is absurd. At least try to throw a dart at the board, please.

When it comes to the prospect of finding any kind of alien life, be that microbes, plants or animals, we are astonishingly concerned about biosecurity—and not just because we could be infected, we could contaminate an ecosphere with an invasive Earth-species that overwhelms that environment.

40_CGF_STILL_00022_1600The Cassini space probe launched from Earth in 1997 (which is accurate, although if you want to be precise, it launched on October 15th of that year)

Cassini spent almost seven years drifting toward Saturn, arriving in July of 2004. Since then, it has heralded an astonishing amount of scientific data, and revealed that at least one of the Saturnian moons is habitable. There’s a remote possibility that Enceladus could harbor life. As far as we can tell, it’s got the right conditions for life to evolve, but we have no evidence of life.

By the time Cassini’s mission ends, it will have spent twenty years in space, and still we’re not taking any chances on Earth microbes hitchhiking to one of the moons of Saturn, so we’re going to crash Cassini into Saturn.

Think about how absurdly small the chance is that we could infect life on Enceladus. For that to happen, Earth microbes would need to survive

  • An alcohol wash (that doesn’t leave them drunk)
  • Baking at upwards of 120C for 30 hours
  • Sterilization with ultraviolet radiation

And that’s before launch… Once in space, temperatures can vary from hotter than your oven to colder than any point on Earth. What are the chances microbes could survive that? What are the chances Cassini would accidentally hit Enceladus? What are the chances anything could survive the impact? What are the chances frozen microbes from Earth scattered across the surface would affect life several miles beneath the ice? Well, a fair answer would be absurdly small but not zero, and so we’re not going to risk it.

Now, ask yourself what measures someone would take when finding a crashed alien spacecraft on another planet? Is wearing a spacesuit really too much to ask? Oh, and the irony is… the original Alien movie got this right.

It’s not hard to make science fiction accurate, and it doesn’t require anything like the precision we see in real life, just a little common sense.




Science fiction isn’t hard

The great shame of modern science fiction is that it’s often lazy, treating science loosely, and perhaps that’s partially because we’ve called plausible science fiction, “hard.”

Science fiction is not “hard” it’s simply science + fiction.

Fiction is fictitious. By definition, it’s not true. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us if some elements of a story aren’t entirely correct. One could nit-pick at even the “hardest” of “hard” science fiction stories and find fault, but science fiction should, at the very least, make an effort to incorporate actual science. Lasers and spaceships are not enough.

I don’t mean to say stories should be exacting in every detail and slavishly correct. Science itself is not settled. Science is not fixed. We know more about Mars today than we did yesterday, and tomorrow, we’ll know even more. Does that negate what we know today? No, it builds from and extends our knowledge. The same is true of science fiction. We can give fiction the same breathing space we give science, while still expecting to be entertained in a plausible manner.

By making one category of science fiction “hard” we’ve discouraged some writers from even trying, which is our loss, and leads to movies like Alien Covenant.

The Alien franchise has some astonishing stories in its history, but all too often, follow up movies are forgettable because simple science is ignored.

Minor spoilers for Alien Covenant follow.


Movies like Prometheus and Alien Covenant appear to have given up on basic science, which is somewhat paradoxical as the lengths they go to in terms of set design, costumes, stunts and special effects are simply astonishing.

How have we got to the point where the science in science fiction is ignored?

All stories need tension. Alien Covenant achieves this in part by having the “away team” land in the middle of a storm. Communication is poor, so the interstellar spaceship has to descend into the storm at the risk of breaking apart. Problem is… the spaceship never actually orbits the planet. It’s ALWAYS hovering somewhere overhead. The oversimplified computer graphics even show it descending vertically like a helicopter.

The irony is… they didn’t need to come up with such a contrived scenario. Just let the spaceship orbit the planet, as spaceships are wont to do, and it’ll be out of contact with the ground crew roughly half the time, with communication strained when the craft is low on either horizon. Hey, a little bit of plausibility suddenly sneaks in and strengthens the story, rather than weakening it.

Also, the periodic nature of orbits could have been used to drive more tension, as there’s nothing the ground crew can do but wait for the next pass. Ah, but instead, we get some mumbo jumbo about the ship breaking apart in a storm.


A lot of the time, it’s not just science that’s ignored, it’s common sense, like walking around on an entirely new planet covered in rich plant life (and presumably microbes), without wearing a spacesuit. What could possibly go wrong?

Devices should make sense. A life support systems that cremates someone when it fails probably isn’t going to get off the design board, let alone into production on a starship. In the same way, Prometheus had a super-duper advanced fully automated medical system that couldn’t operate on women. WTF?

Another scratch-your-head moment came when, after tracking a mysterious signal across the depths of space, the landing shuttle inexplicably touches down eight kilometers away from the source, and at a considerably lower altitude. A perfectly good flying machine is left sitting on the rocks while the crew have to climb a mountain.

How did no one at least think of flying over the site of the signal to have a look? Perhaps seeing a derelict alien spacecraft would have given pause for thought.

The first two alien movies are legendary, but not just because they were ground breaking, they were plausible. In Alien, our intrepid explorers wear spacesuits while investigating the ruins of a crashed extraterrestrial craft, and the acid from a face hugger eats through the helmet, allowing it to get to poor Kane.


In Alien Covenant, people stroll into a similar crashed alien spaceship like they’re exploring a new shopping mall. Oh, look… over here everybody. Macy’s has a sale on…


As if wandering around an alien biosphere without a spacesuit isn’t dumb enough, the crew of the Covenant wander into the crashed spaceship wearing nothing more than beanies to ward off the cold. In the future, it seems biosecurity protocols don’t extend beyond Earth.

It’s not hard to make science fiction plausible. Alien did it. Why can’t Alien Covenant?


One thing Alien Covenant did really well, was to portray some old-fashioned anatomical studies by the stranded Michael. Various dissections, and aging sketches conveyed a sense of study and scientific consideration (that took a rather macabre turn later in the story).

Movies like Prometheus and Alien Covenant spend millions on sets and special effects, and labor over details with meticulous care. If only they paid as much attention to the script we’d end up with something as iconic as the original

Why search for life in outer space?

Recently, a reader asked me, “Is there a particular reason why so many of your books are first contact stories?

Great question. I’m fascinated by the concept of First Contact with extraterrestrials for a number of reasons…

Feeling lost? You’re right here!

1. Finding life elsewhere will profoundly change the way we see reality

Regardless of whether the life we find is intelligent, originating from beyond our solar system, or microbial on Mars, on Europa around Jupiter, or on Enceladus in orbit around Saturn, the evidence of life arising independently of Earth will change our perception of ourselves.

For thousands of years we’ve been self-centered. All the world’s religions place Earth at the center of the celestial sphere. Copernicus and Galileo were criticized for suggesting otherwise, but they were right. Religion declares that Earth is special/unique. There can be other worlds, but Earth is the center of creation, or so we’re told. To find life arising spontaneously elsewhere will overturn thousands of years of self-importance.

Is there life in outer space? Undoubtably, as that’s where Earth itself is! Earth floats in space like a cork on the ocean. Our planet is proof life can thrive in deep space.

Is there any other life in space? That’s the question we’re looking to answer. Naysayers dismissing this idea are short sighted—like those in the 1400s that refused to believe an entire continent lay to the west of Europe. As persistent as the belief was that there were only scattered islands and mythical lands, the Americas lay waiting to be discovered. Columbus himself died thinking he’d opened up a route to Asia, never realizing he’d discovered the American continent.

The observable universe contains at least 200 billion galaxies and upwards of 10^24 star systems, more than all the grains of sand in all the deserts and on all the beaches on Earth. Out of these we have conducted a cursory survey of just one (our own). When we look at planets around other stars, we’re staring at mosquitos buzzing past a porch light at a distance of a hundred yards. Our ability to see exoplanets is extraordinary, but doesn’t really tell us too much about them (yet).

We’ve detected 3,475 planets out of an estimated ten trillion planets in our galaxy alone. Our effort so far is like examining a cup of sea water looking for whales. We’ve got a long way to go, but to say there’s no life elsewhere is the height of arrogance and hubris. Given time, the odds are such attitudes will be proven wrong.

A replica of the Santa Maria

2. First Contact will mark a dividing line in history.

There have been dozens of turning points in the development of civilization, from slow burning activities like the invention of agriculture and writing, to fast-acting inventions like Gutenberg’s printing press, Galileo’s telescope, Newton’s mathematics, etc, but none of them have transformed society as much as First Contact will simply because any alien species that can reach out to us will be tens of thousands of years more advanced than us.

Imagine teaching a bronze-age people like the Egyptians or the Babylonians how to build their own iPads, or a Mars Rover, and you get an idea of just how rapidly and radically humanity will change.

3. They’ll provide a counterpoint to our intelligence.

At the moment, we are unmatched on Earth. We can do whatever we want without critique from anyone beyond those that care enough to study cause/effect, but it’s too easy for scientists to be dismissed. I’m sure there will be resistance to change, but having an independent point of reference beyond ourselves will (I hope) allow us to see our own shortcomings more clearly and change accordingly (this is the basis behind the ending to Anomaly).

Think about how our culture has changed from slave-owning days, or from when women couldn’t vote, and consider that we’re still in transition, still moving toward equality. Too often, people exploit each other for monetary gain, for ideological reasons, or out of petty selfishness—all that will be exposed as shallow and immature.

Astronauts commonly refer to the Overview Effect, where just the act of seeing Earth from orbit provides an overwhelming sense of our own personal insignificance in contrast to the sheer importance of life on our planet. Imagine if we could all experience that.

4. First Contact will help us see beyond the moment.

All too often, we’re consumed with our daily affairs and we forget just how astonishing it is to be alive. We’re like an insect crawling through the grass, not seeing the splendor of the garden around us. In reality, life is an astonishing privilege.

Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.” Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We are the universe considering itself.” We are quite literally the universe brought to life. When I look at the stars at night, I wonder who’s looking back. Our lives are incredibly short. We’re like mayflies living for a mere five minutes. We should spend that time enriching our understanding and, from that perspective, enriching the lives of others.

We are made of star stuff

Thank you for supporting independent science fiction.

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 pipe dream for all advanced civilizations.

The physical limits of technology is an interesting way to consider SETI and Fermi’s Paradox, and may help explain the silence we observe. We may be bound to these islands in the sky we call stars simply because there are limits to what is physically possible, limits for which there are no additional S-curves of advancement.

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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