Materials for the first Martian settlers

In the previous post, I discussed the difficulties settlers on Mars might have with making things to construct domes, etc in which to grow food. Now, let’s suppose they have got that under control, where are the next difficulties? The settlers have a place to live, they have grown food in their domes, but they still have to cook it. Yes, we have energy (assuming all has gone well) but there are other things as well, assuming the settlers want more than the ability to survive. For example, in cooking there is often a lipid, such as olive oil or butter used. Even assuming they have big enough domes, are they going to wait around for olive trees to grow? Fortunately there is a way out of this. Microalgae have lipids in them, and if we grow them then mature them in a nutrient deficient solution, the oil content can rise to over 60% by weight. If there are plenty of nutrients, then the microalgae grow very rapidly (more rapidly than most plants) and largely contain protein, which makes them a desirable food, but for two things: the taste, and the fact they have a rather high content of nucleic acids. In my novel Red Gold, set in a proposed colonization of Mars, I suggested there would be a variety developed with much lower nucleic acid content. I suggested the settlers would start off by eating a lot of chlorella because it takes a long time for plants to grow.

Another problem the settlers will have involves clothing. Clothing is made from fibres and most fibres now come from the oil industry. Of course we can get free of synthetic fibres by returning to cotton and linen, which come from plants, as long as someone remembers to take them. But if settlers are going to do that, they will be growing a lot more than they are eating. Wool would not be available in most scenarios because sheep need a significant area to graze on, and that means building giant domes, AND finding enough material to make soil. Eventually, as they start growing crops, the dead waste plant material will be used to make more soil, but it will be gradual. Soil means more than “dirt”. Then, after that, they will still need polymers from the chemical industry to make suits that can be used for going outside, because it is important to be able to seal the air in the zone in which you intend to breathe. Where do they get the raw materials for such polymers? They will have to take something that will generate them. As it happens, chlorella can be processed to help make some such polymers.

Speaking of dirt, settlers may want to wash. Yes, you can wash in just water, to some degree of efficiency, but you might want soap. Can they make that there? Soap is made by treating lipids with caustic soda, whereupon you make soap and glycerol. Needless to say, you have to get the ratio of caustic soda right. Interestingly, pioneers often did this on Earth. I can recall as a boy, my father elected to do what his father had done, and make soap in the back garden. The family carefully kept the fact from roasts, clarified it, and it was heated up in a kerosine tin (4 gallons) in the back yard, then the caustic soda was added. This was largely used for laundry. The point is, soap making is not difficult, although it is more so if you want quality. But this brings up another point: when settlers get to Mars, they will have to do just about everything themselves, and unlike pioneers on Earth, there is no grass ranges, nor forests for timber. Worse, many of the things we take for granted involve several steps. Even for soap, the settlers first have to find and mine salt, then they have electrolyse that (doing something with the chlorine that is also made) then they have to react that with lipids that have been collected and purified, then they have to separate out the glycerol and do one or tow things to make an attractive cake. Most things we take for granted have a lot more steps, each requiring a specific skill. There are just so many things to do that involve a lot of different skills that you need a reasonably large number of people to do them. But then you have to take an awful lot of stuff to sustain all these settlers while they get going.

Perhaps now you see the trend of what I am trying to say. The cost of lifting stuff from Earth into space is horrendous, so settlers on Mars simply could not afford to purchase anything other than the most valuable materials from Earth. They have to make everything they want there, except possibly the most valuable pharmaceuticals, and there are very few raw materials that are easily obtained there. Life for such a settler would be extremely spartan, and it will not work unless there are a number of skilled people to carry out the tasks that require advanced technology.

Solstice Promo Special

And now, a quick commercial break! Four of my fictional ebooks are on special at Amazon from the solstice for a few days, including the one that was actually the cause of my developing my alternative theory of planetary formation. The fiction required an unusual discovery on Mars, I invented one, and an editor had the cheek to say it was unbelievable. Now editors in publishing houses have a right to criticize grammar, but not science, so I ended up determined to do something about this. So, to celebrate/get over the midwinter solstice (our Saturnalia!) there are significant rice reductions on these novels.

Specific details:

On June 21 my four “Mars novels” are price reduced to 99c on, and 99p on Amazon UK. The prices gradually increase through to June 27. The ebooks are:

Red Gold: the colonization of Mars, which gives the opportunity for a stockmarket fraud. Also possibly unique in that the writing of this led to an original scientific theory (outlined in an appendix).

Then the “First Contact” trilogy.

A Face on Cydonia: a small number of mutually incompatible people form an expedition to find out for once and for all whether the “Face” is an alien monument, and they each find exactly what they do not want. Also an outline of a future economy starved of resources.

Dreams Defiled: One member of the party, who received the Greek gift, sets out to ensure that nobody else thrives.

Jonathon Munros: A tale of revenge, and unintended consequences, including self-replicating androids intent on their revenge.

Clues, and misleading facts!

The most important thing in a mystery story is that when everything is resolved, some clues as to why the protagonist sorted it out are given. The real masters (Agatha Christie comes to mind but I draw the line at mistresses!) leave some clues in the story that the reader could pick up, but usually in a way that the reader is most unlikely to pick them up. The aim should be to tidy up the story, but a further objective might be to reward the perceptive reader. Perhaps the hope is the reader will think how clever the protagonist was, but of course having the writer directing gives the protagonist something of an advantage. There are different sorts of clues, but the one I am picking on here are the lies. The point of a mystery story, of course, is that the guilty parties may always lie, and catching out the lies is part of detection, although that method is complicated by those innocent of the specific crime also lying to cover up something else. The problem comes when the author accidentally makes some just plain mistakes.

A number of stories have the elements of mystery about them, even if they are not really mysteries, and a book that led me to write this blog is Frank Luna’s Red Storm. It is nominally a SciFi thriller set on Mars, but it has the elements of a mystery embedded in it. There were a number of statements that were incorrect; some could have been intended as critical clues, and if so they were really good ones, but their value was reduced for me through the odd mistake. I mentioned this in a review, and maybe I was a little hard on Frank because the “facts” about Mars change. Maybe in another couple of decades someone will do the same for my Mars novels. In this sense, if you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, there is quite a bit there that is almost certainly wrong, BUT these books should not be read as what Mars is like, but rather an archive of what Mars was believed in the early 1990s to be like. Since Frank’s errors were similar, perhaps he was merely out of date.

Back to the issue of clues: how do you introduce deliberate clues to identify the guilty? Here are my views. One thing that must not be done is to present it with a flag, effectively saying, “Hey reader, big clue here!” On the other hand, if it is so obscure that nobody could possibly see it, it is really a waste of time. Good clues are to test the reader, not to demonstrate some sort of superiority on the part of the author. One guideline is not to tell the clue if you can help it – try to make the guilty party say it. Failing that, get someone else to say that (s)he had heard that . .  and try to say who originated it, unless that is part of the further puzzle. Try to avoid showing lies as observations, and try not to present told descriptions that are untrue.

There is one further point. The author, particularly in scifi, may wish to introduce something that may or may not be true, but is believed by most not to be. How do you introduce that? In my Red Gold, I put forward a different theory of the origin of the Martian atmosphere. The reason was, the story is about fraud, and I needed a totally unexpected discovery to expose it. This was introduced as a discovery, and to elaborate, I put a more complete discussion as an appendix, so as to give those interested something deeper to consider (I actually believe the discovery will be made, so up to a point I have falsified my own plot!).

Anybody else have any ideas on how to do this? Finally, since I have picked on a specific author, I should add that I enjoyed the book, and if you like reading Scifi on Mars, Red Storm is well worth considering.

Radiation: a space travel hazard?

Space travel is, not unnaturally a key part of much science fiction, but a recent article in the journal Science raised an important issue: radiation. Based on data from Curiosity, travelling to and from Mars employing the same type of trajectory as Curiosity (a standard orbital transfer trajectory) a person going there and back would receive approximately 660 millisieverts of radiation. For comparison the average person gets just under 4 millisieverts per annum, although a CT scan can give you 8. Space agencies limit astronauts to 1000 millisieverts during their entire career. There appear to be two views to this. The first is radiation is probably still the least of an astronaut’s worries. The second it, radiation could get worse than this.

There are two sorts of radiation that are relevant: protons expelled from the sun, which may be in great blobs of plasma, and cosmic rays, from the rest of the universe (and probably originating in supernovae). On earth, we are protected from the sun’s emissions by the earth’s magnetic field, which diverts charged particles, but on an average space ship, there will be no such protection, nor will there be such protection on the surface of Mars. There is less you can do about cosmic rays because they have so much energy. So what can be done to protect the intrepid space traveller?

The first step is obvious: get there faster. Think of crossing the Atlantic. Curiosity was about the slowest you could travel and still get there, and could be compared with crossing the Atlantic in a Viking longboat. Jet planes make what was then a highly risky and very prolonged trip rather ordinary now. Curiosity took so long because chemical propulsion does not provide enough power, so the first step is to devise better propulsion systems. The second step is to provide the astronauts with protection against such radiation, which should include shielding at a minimum. Once at Mars, the atmosphere will provide some shielding, because while the pressure is low, there is still a fairly thick layer, and of course, while inside a building, or even in a suit, there is protection. A massive solar flare would go through a simple wall or a suit, but such flares are detectable and the astronaut should get a couple of days warning. On Mars, getting underground provides any amount of shielding.

Several science fiction books have a lead-shielded zone in their space ship to protect themselves. Actually, plenty of water would do a fairly good job, and of course you have to take plenty of water anyway. Design features help, and do we want to take a huge mass of lead for no other purpose? In my novel, Red Gold, the setting of which involved the colonization of Mars, I proposed two fusion-powered ships, the fusion units to provide electricity and energy for materials production once there. The ships were each about twenty million tonne mass fully laden so they were not small, but they had to be about that big to carry enough stuff required to make a settlement work and give two hundred settlers a reasonable lifestyle. The mass provided some shielding, but the large disks also had large magnetic fields. How much good that would do is debatable. However, I also proposed a massive space station at the Mars sun L1 position, which is the nul gravitational point between Mars and the sun, and that was intended to generate a massive magnetic field powered by solar energy and superconductors. The concept was if charged particles were even given a small nudge, from that distance they would miss Mars. Finally, I had my key settlement underground. I suppose one can debate the effectiveness of these schemes, but I think that if we are going to colonize Mars we have to consider radiation, and I think part of the point of fiction is to alert readers to some of the relevant issues. Meanwhile, I gather there is a Dutch reality TV program intending to send a very limited number of people on a one-way trip to Mars. Read what I think is a dead minimum that should be taken, and see if you would want to be part of that TV show.

Terraforming Mars

In the 1990s, there was much speculation about terraforming planets, particularly Mars. The idea was that the planet could be converted into something like Earth. To make Mars roughly like Earth, the temperature has to be raised by about ninety Centigrade degrees, atmospheric pressure has to be raised by something approaching a hundred times present pressure, and a lot of water must be found. That presumably comes from buried ice, so besides uncovering it, an enormous amount of heat is required to melt it. The reason Mars is colder is that the sun delivers half the power to Mars than Earth, due to Mars being further away. The gas pressure depends on two things. The first is there has to be enough material, and the second is we have to get it into the gas phase. The most obvious gas is carbon dioxide, because as dry ice, it could be in the solid state, but would be amenable to heating. The problem is, if carbon dioxide is present with a lot of water, it will be absorbed by the water, particularly cold water, and slowly turned into material like dolomite. Nitrogen is the major gas in our atmosphere, but that would be a gas on Mars, and there is very little in the Martian atmosphere.

Why did anyone ever think Terraforming was possible? One reason may be that about 3.6 Gy ago (a gigayear is a thousand million years) it was thought that there were huge rivers on Mars. The Viking images found a huge number of massive river valleys, and so it was thought there had to be sufficient temperatures to melt the water. Subsequent information has suggested that these rivers did not persist over a prolonged wet period, but rather there were intermittent periods where significant flows occurred.  Such rivers probably never flowed for more than a million years or so, and while a million years might seem to be an extremely long period to us, it is trivial in the life of the solar system. Nevertheless the rivers meandered for that period, which is at least suggestive that they were relatively stable for that time, so what went wrong?

When I wrote Red Gold, I needed the major protagonist to make an unexpected discovery to expose a fraud, and it was then that I had an idea. The average temperature on Mars now is -80 degrees C, and while we could imagine some sort of greenhouse effect warming the early Mars, the sun only emitted about two-thirds the energy it does now, so temperature would have been a more severe problem. To me, it was inconceivable that the temperature could get sufficiently above the melting point of ice to give significant flows, but there is one way to make water liquid at -80 degrees C, and that is to have ammonia present. If the volcanoes gave off ammonia as well as water, that would give some greenhouse gas, and the carbon would be present as methane, this being what is called a reducing atmosphere. Sunlight tends to act with water to oxidize things, giving off hydrogen that escapes to space. This has happened extensively on Mars, indeed at many sites where chloride has been deposited on the surface, it has been converted to perchlorate. So methane would oxidize to carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide would react with ammonia to make first, ammonium carbonate, then, given heat or time, urea. So my “unexpected discovery” was the fertilizer that would make the settlement of Mars possible. I had something that I thought would make my plot plausible.

Funnily enough, this thought took on a life of its own; the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, because it helps to explain, amongst other things, how life began. (The reduced form of nitrogen is a set of compound called nitrides. Water on nitrides, plus heat, makes ammonia, and also cyanide, which is effectively carbon nitride.) Standard theory, of course, assumes that nitrogen was always emitted as the nitrogen gas we have in our atmosphere. Of course you might think that all the scientists are right and I am wrong. Amongst others, Carl Sagan calculated that if ammonia was emitted into the atmosphere, it would be removed by sunlight in a matter of a decade or so, and he had to be right, surely? Well, no. Anyone can be wrong. (Of course you may say some, such as me, are more likely to be wrong than others!) However, in this case I maintain that Sagan was wrong because he overlooked something: ammonia dissolves in water at a very fast rate, and in water it will be protected to some extent. To justify that, we have found rocks on Earth that are 3.2 billion years old and that have samples of seawater enclosed, and these drops of seawater have very high levels of ammonia. These levels are sufficiently high that about 10% of Earth’s nitrogen must have been dissolved in the sea as ammonia at the time, and that is after the Earth had been around for about 500 million years after the water flowed on Mars.

If anyone is interested in why I think this occurred, Red Gold has an appendix where my first explanation is given in simple language. For those who want something a bit more detailed, together with a review of several hundred scientific papers, you could try my ebook, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis.

More on the Cydonian “Face”

At least one of the readers of this blog indicated an interest for more information on the Face of Cydonia, so here goes. The Face was first noticed in July, 1976, and was considered a trick of lighting. However, two computer engineers Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, contracted to the NASA Goddard Flight Centre, processed images using new software, and included a pyramid, about 800 meters high, about 16 km from the Face, in their study. They concluded the Face and the pyramid were hard to reconcile with naturally-formed objects. In 1988, Mark Carlotto further processed the Viking images, and from an analysis of the shadows in the two Viking images, he came up with a three-dimensional reconstruction. Further, he argued that The Face looked like a face from any viewed direction, which does not usually happen with “accidental faces”. He went even further and suggested a second eye socket may be present, and he argued there was fine structure in the mouth suggesting teeth.

The problem with the processing of images is that the processing software invariably contains a bias. The procedure usually looks for contrasts, and enhances strong signal regions and deletes low intensity, but this tends to find things that are not there, or lose things that are. A classic example I can recall came from the “famous” UFO off Kaikoura in New Zealand. A reporter and a cameraman hired an aircraft and took images of an orange light that followed the aircraft. Image-processing software was used. Each run deleted pixels, but no sharpening occurred, so the image was rerun. Finally, all the pixels were removed and the conclusion: there was nothing there! This conclusion is obviously ludicrous, but it illustrates the fact that computer processing merely changes things. In many cases the changes will improve things, but they can make matters worse by leading to a totally incorrect conclusion.

As noted in the previous post, the basic problem was insufficient data. The Viking cameras simply did not have the necessary resolution, mainly because the task they had did not require it. Remember, resolution comes with a price, such as a corresponding reduction in area covered. The reason we only got two images of this zone was that the cameras only imaged this area twice. Mars might be a small planet, but it is a planet, and it takes a lot of thin strips to get the lot. The thinner the strips, the longer the satellite will take to cover everything.

As you might expect, the initial speculations on the Face died down. Most scientists simply shrugged and said, “insufficient data”, while some merely scoffed at the concept. The Face would probably have died a natural death until Richard Hoagland got involved. He pointed out the presence of a rectilinear arrangement of massive structures, together with several smaller pyramids, which he named “The City”. All of this was published in a book, The Monuments of Mars.

Eventually, Global Surveyor produced the image I showed last post, and that should have been the end of it, right? Wrong! If you search the web, you will see items arguing that statistically the chances of the Face being natural are billions to one against. Of course you do not see the details of the calculation. Another interesting point is that Cydonia is littered with mesas like the Face, and these are of interest to planetary geologists because they are in a transition zone between cratered highlands to the south and smoother lowland plains to the north. An argument can be made that the northern plains are the remains of an ancient Martian ocean, in which case the mesas might represent ancient islands. This interpretation is consistent with the erosion around their bases, so the Face might be of interest as providing evidence of such ancient water, if not aliens. In my novel, A Face on Cydonia, I describe an easier means of climbing to the top of the Mesa. I cannot help it if you do not believe this, but I did this from the Global Surveyor images when I wrote it, back in the late 1990s. While rechecking the web, I found a link to a “trail map”, where a NASA scientist indicated where he would climb it. What pleased me is we start in exactly the same place. I am not totally illiterate with images! The link is

Another interesting link  shows some illusions:


One final comment. It is obvious that the shape of the butte is either natural or of alien origin, right? Not so fast! In my novel, A Face on Cydonia I try out yet another option. I also promised a link, so:

Suppose the Face were real and alien, the fringe seems to argue that NASA is covering it up. This must go down as utterly ridiculous. If the Face were a real alien monument and demonstrably so, NASA’s budget would fly upwards! And please do not tell me that NASA is not interested in increasing its budget.

The “Face” of Mars

I start my new SciFi ebook, A Face on Cydonia, as follows:

On the Cydonian region of Mars there are two faces staring into space. Both are two and a half kilometers long, a kilometer wide and about four hundred meters high, and since both are in exactly the same place, no observer can see more than one of them. Most see a battered butte with craters roughly in the right place such that, with considerable imagination, the image of a badly torn face can perhaps be seen. Some, however, see a refinement of the enhancement produced from the original low resolution Viking photographs, a truly alien monument, a deep message to humanity . . .

I refer, of course, to the “Face”, which has gained a certain degree of notoriety as people speculated as to what might have created what we see.  Guesses run from Martians, aliens, to natural erosion. Most people would be skeptical and point out that, “You can see faces anywhere, such as clouds,” and dismiss anything other than nature as nonsense. While this face is somewhat different from cloud faces, it has one interesting thing in common: much of the face is hidden in the original image, simply because the angle of the sun shades half of it. One purpose in my novels is to try to show that reality should follow the rules of logic. So, what would logic say? The first question a scientist asks is, are the data suitable to resolve anything? If they were collected for some other purpose, they may not be. The initial data were collected by the Viking orbiter, which had the task of creating the first map of Mars. The map, perforce, had to deal with the major features, so for various reasons it settled on resolution that would give the desired map. Below, see one of the images of the Cydonia Mensae, in which the Face was first seen. Note that the angle of the sunlight shades quite a bit of the Face.



We can expand and enhance the particular region (small black dots are lost pixels and are not real):




The initial argument against erosion/adventitious craters was initially, the probability of sufficient coincidences is too low. That argument is false, because what was overlooked was that with so few pixels devoted to the face, coupled with the shading, you do not need much in the way of accidental coincidence. That does not prove it is natural, but rather suggests you need better data before reaching a conclusion.

As I noted in Red Gold, we can immediately eliminate Martians, because the face looks like ours  (if it looks like a face) rather than like a possible Martian’s, and leaving aside the inhospitality of Mars, even had there been such Martians, they would have no idea what our face would look like. There are further reasons: there is no reason why a Martian would carve a face only we could see, and Mars could never have evolved indigenous technological life forms without leaving some evidence of the process. Aliens are slightly more difficult to eliminate by logic. As one of the characters in Red Gold said as a joke, space-traveling aliens who visited Earth, say two million years ago, could have worked out what our faces would look like when we evolved sufficiently to develop the technology to see such a butte on Mars, and they could have carved something. It could then be a message to us, meaning, “Come to space; it is possible and it is worth it.” That still leaves the issue of why would they bother to do that.

All of this speculation almost certainly annoyed NASA considerably. Beside the Face, some thought they saw pyramids. That is not hard to understand, except again the specific lighting in the first picture greatly enhances the possibility, since only a pointed top and an edge is required. Accordingly, when Global Surveyor was sent to Mars, NASA promised to use its better resolution to settle for once and for all what this rock was. Meanwhile, I had thought that all the activity might make it worth while to write  a SCiFi novel about the rock. Of course you cannot simply write about a rock, so I had to construct a story around it. This was slower than I thought, and Global Surveyor settled this issue, one of its images being reproduced below:



The end of speculation about aliens! Well, not necessarily in fiction! (Actually, not necessarily in reality, as can be seen if you check the web!) I started my novel A Face on Cydonia with a television program that showed the image of the butte, intending to show how silly people were to think there could have been aliens, when the image morphed into the Viking-type image and winked. Eventually, this lead to an expedition, in which the members all have problems with each of the other members, and the book focuses on these problems. To add to the mix, there are at least three attempts from an external agent to murder at least one of them. Then, to keep the story going, each of the participants finds exactly what they did not want to find, and I set up a situation for more story by having each of them look forward to a future where they will have to carry out what they do not wish to do.

For those interested, in next post I shall give a link to A Face on Cydonia.



Bloghop: Red Gold

I have been introduced to the “Bloghop” concept, where an author posts answers to ten standard questions, so here goes. Needless to say, some of my answers will hardly be standard! (I have also cheated a little by including a touch of the greater concept behind my writing, but then again, it is my blog so why not!)

1   What is the title of your book?

My latest is called Red Gold, and is set in 2075-76.It forms part of a “future history”, which starts in 2030 with Puppeteer, proceeds to the early 2050s with Troubles.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I started writing a futuristic novel in the 1990s, but it had far too much backstory, so I cut out some bits, and part of those cuttings led to the idea for Red Gold. The cuttings have actually provided material for five further books.

 3   What genre does your book fall under?

Science Fiction and Thriller, although the series itself will include two that would qualify as historical. The series goes to the 24th century before progressing back to the 1st as a “reboot”, and apart from two chapters, one in each book, they would be straight historical, dealing with the life of the main protagonist under the end of the Imperium of Tiberius, through Gaius Caesar, and the invasion of Britain under Claudius.

 4   Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea, but I would love Peter Jackson to direct, and Weta Workshops to do the special effects. With a bit of luck, they might let the author in to see some of what is going on. Part of “Lord of the Rings” was filmed opposite where I was working at the time, and I really wanted to see what was going on behind the huge “fence”.

 5   What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Red Gold is about one man’s need to expose a fraud committed by his business partner during the colonization of Mars.

 6   Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

 It is self-published as an ebook.

 7.   How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About 8 months, I think. It was some time ago, because I abandoned it for a number of years.

 8   What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Obviously, nothing is exactly similar, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars has a certain similarity in terms of genre.

 9.   Who or What inspired you to write this book?

The first of the futuristic novels was written to “see if I could make it”. To explain that, my first attempt at writing a novel was as an undergraduate in the 1960s. I was with a few female students who were going for a BA, and I could not resist saying that at least science was aimed at creating something, while all they were doing was criticizing. They should be doing, like writing novels. Their response was, I could not come up with a plot so . . My response to that was, of course I could; it was them who could not. So they challenged me, and I came up with one. They challenged me to write it, so I did. I posted it off, got four rejections and gave up. About 15 years later, I looked at it again, and the first twenty pages were awful, and nobody got past them. So I tried rewriting, and sent out query letters, but got no response. Then I tried self-publishing, on the basis that (a) I had some sort of platform because I was on nationwide TV from time to time, and (b) I was getting involved with an industrial venture, and I needed to clear the decks, so to speak. I did, but the venture also took off, and financiers forbade me to seek any publicity for anything. With no advertizing, no publicity, sales were only modest, so in the 1990s I decided to try again and see if I could make it.

 10.    What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I got an agent, the book went to a major publisher, but the editor died and his replacement cleared his desk. According to this editor, my plot was too ridiculous. The book is about a fraud during the colonization of Mars, and it is exposed by an unexpected discovery, which involved where the atmosphere of Mars went. The colonization of Mars is hardly too ridiculous for SciFi, fraud is never ridiculous, which meant my science was ridiculous, and that was the prime insult. I then devoted myself to going deeper into this topic, and this ended up as my ebook “Planetary formation and biogenesis”. If Mars rovers ever find a deposit of nitrogen-rich organic material, this will be the first book to have predicted it.

Finally, something about Bloghop. To see more, go to

Red Gold: a unique book (in a very minor way)?

A claim to be unique requires some extraordinary evidence, but I think I can back that up. Red Gold is a futuristic novel about the colonization of Mars, and there is nothing extraordinary about that, indeed there are many others out there.  No, the claim for uniqueness is based on something far more unusual. The backstory in the novel was in the near future when I wrote it, and in the event, what I wrote came to pass, with me as the “player”, and it was not what I intended. Let me explain.

Red Gold was written in the early to mid 1990s, and was set in 2075-76. The setting was the colonization of Mars, but the story was more about the disintegration of a relationship between two nominal business partners when one learns that the other is creating a massive stock-market bubble on Earth with fraudulent Martian stock (or shares, depending on where in the world you are). To expose the fraud, I needed “a totally unexpected discovery”. Further to my concept of putting science in fiction, I had explained that the “soil” on Mars is very deficient in nitrogen, and there is very little in the atmosphere as well. Accordingly, feeding people in the long term might be difficult. This gave me the inspiration for the “unexpected discovery”: One of the protagonists could find the nitrogen fertilizer needed to make Martian settlement viable in the long term. So I wrote in that the main character took drilling equipment to the very bottom of Hellas Planitia, which happened to be owned by the protagonist, and many of the drill samples found urea.

Why was it a surprise? Well, standard scientific theory said the required ammonia in the early atmosphere could not have been present. My solution was to invent a minor scientist, Pavel Marchenko, who had predicted a reduced atmosphere in the early 21st century, but his papers were variously rejected by the mainstream scientific journals, and eventually the theory was published in an extremely obscure place and promptly forgotten.

Red Gold eventually made it to an editor’s desk in a serious publishing house, but it was rejected as too implausible (actually by another editor who was clearing a desk, after the first one died). I got somewhat irritated to have my science trashed by a literary editor, even if it was originally presented “tongue in cheek”, so I became involved. The more I looked into the nature of Mars, the more certain I was that my argument was sound. Furthermore, it made predictions, one of which was, of course, that the early lakes on Mars may have accumulated ammonia, which would react with carbon dioxide to form urea. The ammonia solved the major problem of how water can flow on Mars when the temperatures never reached the melting point of ice. So, I worked away at this and eventually formed a proper theory. It was then that I fulfilled the destiny: the papers were rejected as either not being compelling, or, in one case, because I did not do computer modeling.

To be fair, there was a fundamental problem; scientific papers are rather brief, and usually establish one point. Unfortunately, this analysis is based on the intersection of sets of data, and no single point is compelling. To gradually build up the case you need a book, not a paper. There was a further problem. Carl Sagan showed that, because of sunlight, ammonia in the atmosphere only lasts decades, although he noted that screening chemicals could prolong that. The problem with that is, ammonia will largely be dissolved in water, where it is more protected. Irrespective of what various scientists believe, one sample of seawater has been found on Earth containing water from when the Earth was 1.3 billion years old, and this sample had sufficient ammonia in it that about 10% of all nitrogen on Earth was in that form. If that can happen on Earth, surely it could happen on Mars as well.

I eventually tired of the rejections and self-published the theory as my ebook “Planetary formation and biogenesis”, which the scientific community would definitely consider to be obscure. There is one minor point I did not fulfill: after various pointless rejections (I could not resist throwing the odd barb) Marchenko published in Armenian. That I could not do! My guess is, I shall further fulfill the backstory: my theory will be thoroughly ignored.

I think that is unique, but I could be wrong. Let me know if you think I am. Meanwhile, if this piques your interest, there is a free download at Amazon for November 16-18.

Why explain how devices work in fiction.

One reason to explain is when the addition adds to the story. The problem then is deciding what is worth explaining, and if it is, how to do it? An explanation is different from a description, which involves “what it is”, while an explanation involves “why it is like that”. Somewhere intermediate are the answers to the “how” questions. “What it is” may be necessary to follow the story, but “how it works” is different. In my opinion, it only matters when something else follows. If this can be pulled off, a far more enriched texture follows.

In my latest ebook, Red Gold, the background involves the colonization of Mars, which requires large-scale space ships to get there, since the plot also requires starting on Earth. To get artificial gravity, these are giant rotating disks. Now, we could merely have rotating disks, but look what happens if you think about how they rotate. First, there must be a means by which they can rotate while having motors that direct the direction of travel. That is most easily achieved (in fiction, if not in reality) if the motors are separate from the disk and joined in some way to something that does not rotate. These requirements give rise to a description that, while quite speculative and open to a lot of criticism, at least has the virtue of painting a more detailed picture that I hope makes the written section more plausible. How to do this? I had the disk spinning about the non-rotating support, and within this there is a massive inner hub that spun at extreme velocity in the other direction. For those in the know, when spinning something up, somehow you have to conserve angular momentum. It would be easier in some ways to have the counter-spinning part external to the disk, but that would make the stabilization of the motor mount near impossible. What I hoped to achieve with this detail that is not needed for the story is to give the reader a better feeling of “being there”.

However, the real point is that having reached this “design” more detail can be added. The disks carry plants so it is important that they travel through space “face-on” so as to maximize the collection of sunlight, but they have to land “edge-on” or “bottom down” so the motors have to be able to be re-oriented. Finally, the motors have a mass of about 25,000 tonne, so there has to be a means of separating them from the disk prior to landing, otherwise the supports would collapse and the motors would crush the ship. That means the disks have to land essentially unpowered.

Once that is done, I felt it was important to use those descriptions to aid the plot. Thus the danger of the landing permits one protagonist to get down before anybody else, and this allows the build-up of tension between two men who are falling out. The structure also permitted the invention of a ball game that is rather difficult to play. There are two major protagonists who start off as business partners (more or less). This game was used to bring to the open that one was sexually involved with the other’s wife, and it was also used to have a game between the two protagonists, and when one is shown to be a bad loser, the rift between them starts to open, which is a major advance to the plot. The design gives a great excuse to get the ship to land in the “wrong” place, at least as far as one protagonist is concerned, and it forces several other things to happen that otherwise should not have. So, while it may seem unnecessary to have such a detailed discussion of ship design, I hope it gives a clear picture to the reader, and as the book continues, the specific design permits several pieces of plot development. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that when the plot depends on the descriptions, then everything hangs together better. What do you think? If you wish to form your own opinion, the ebook has a free download from Amazon on November 16-18.