Science-fictional & real science

If we have seen further, it’s largely by standing on layers of previous errors.

I had a lecture last week about cognitive biases, their possible adaptiveness and also impacts on science. It also led me to think about the old “hyper-competent scientist” trope so typical for SF. Science-fictional scientists can often recite complex information verbatim and know the answer to every question, even if it’s unrelated to their subfield of research – but then again, there are few molecular biologists focused on studying only one class of receptors in SF. Science-fictional scientists are usually either “generalists”, or very well-informed about basically every single subject of their field. A biologist can easily identify any plant or animal, run various analyses, create a model of a protein’s active site as well as an ecosystem simulation. And if they by chance don’t know something, they are able to quickly look the relevant information up or find out.


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Review of Upgraded at Fantasy Scroll

I’ve reviewed Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology UPGRADED for Fantasy Scroll Magazine; the review can be found here in the new issue of the magazine.

Czech readers can look forward to a Czech translation of the review at XB-1’s website (update: it’s here). And who knows, with some luck, the magazine might feature some of the stories from UPGRADED in the future if our editor picks some of them. There are certainly some stories which deserve to get to as many readers in as many languages as possible.

Interview & public reading at APPlaus radio

I hope my English-speaking readers forgive me that this brief post is aimed primarily at Czech audience: I’m having an interview and book reading on September 16 at 8 p.m. at radio APPlaus. It’s possible to come sit in the radio’s café, listen live or visit the archive later. It’s going to be in Czech, however, and a later transcription being translated into English is unlikely at the moment. Since I’m a bit sick with cold right now, I wonder myself how it’s going to turn out… Hopefully with not much sneezing in the middle of sentences. But I’m an optimist: In the worst case, it will be really hilarious!

As to other appearances, I’m having a short lecture and a debate with other speakers on cognitive biases at University Pardubice’s seminar for new students on September 24 at 5 p.m. at the campus. The topic is slightly tied to one of my previous lecture topics, “Human: An (Ir)rational Animal”, which can be viewed on YouTube (in Czech, no subs).

And now for something completely different: Europa SF republished two of my articles from here, an interview with Martin Šust and my article on current SF magazines. Thank you, Europa SF.

Worldcon, Fringe & more

It had been a busy summer. I’ve attended the European Conference on Behavioral Biology (there would be a report coming up in the bulletin of the Czech & Slovak Ethological Society – in Czech), Worldcon in London, Edinburgh Fringe and I taught at a space-themed children’s summer camp. I hope you’ll forgive me cramming it all into one blogpost; I’ve only just returned home and have work to get to and you can always skip the parts you’re not so interested in. But I must say that each of these events had been very interesting and full of inspiration. This summer had been busy – and also really, really good.


So. My first Worldcon. It was great to experience the convention, meet new people and see some I had known through the internet in person for the first time. We discussed publishing with Neil Clarke, who is as brilliant in person as on the net, I met some very interesting and sympathetic people, especially among authors, did two interview for XB-1 and a part of a third one (which was conducted primarily by Martin Šust). So you can look forward to them here as well – after they’re published in the magazine, which has to wait for when the stories for the interview to go with are published. Patience will be rewarded.

From the big events, the philharmonic concert was very good except for the ventilation running loud, which had prevented me from fully enjoying the music (it practically ruined one of the pieces and harmed the rest). The theatre performance of The Anubis Gates disappointed me a bit, likely in a large part because the hall was not suited for theatre very well. However, the Hugo ceremony was just great and I was very happy about the results.

I’ve written a longer report for XB-1, which can be seen here (in Czech). And my photos from London (mostly sightseeing but Worldcon as well) are available on Google+.

Oh, and shortly before Worldcon, a new flash SF story of mine, “Catching a Ride“, was published in Perihelion SF.

Edinburgh Fringe

Though we had originally planned to go to Edinburgh for Turing Fest, it wasn’t held this year. Luckily, there was Fringe festival at the time of our scheduled visit, so besides sightseeing, we visited a couple of shows. The best highlight by far was the first one we attended: Man of Steal. James Freedman revealed some tricks (not only) pickpockets use and he did so in a very sophisticated and also entertaining way. Full of surprises and educating as well; a brilliant show.

Piaf: Love Conquers All was a great one-woman play focused on the life of Edith Piaf. Not having known much about Piaf’s life before, the play introduced me to it, and Laurene Hope was amazing at acting as well as singing.

Hecat’s Poison was a one-woman show too: a rendering of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for just one actress. S. T. Sato proved herself a brilliant actress, able to shift from one character to another on a whim and with the viewers always knowing what’s going on, because she gave each character a distinct performance style (without overdoing it). But as she had noted in the programme, Shakespeare is best done in full company. While she was great, the play lost much of its appeal with just one character at the scene at one moment. We could focus on each individual closely, which was fine, but the whole layer of interaction between characters was inevitably lost.

I Need A Doctor: A Whosical was an easy, fun affair. At some points, the singing was too off even for my untrained ears but it was good fun. Potted Sherlock was also fun but too aimed at children’s entertainment. Apparently, I should have read more reviews up ahead. And we had seen some interesting street performances, especially magicians. Also, Experimental: The Show That Plays With Your Mind was a great show, which gave us a good laugh and some material to think of.

Overall, we had a good, inspirational time in Edinburgh.

…and the camp!

Could I have expected a children’s camp to be a highlight of the summer? It was brilliant. The kids were great: curious, thoughtful, nice, mostly working together well. And some of them just completely amazed me by the depth and range of their knowledge. Just wow. They’re on a good way to become truly great scientists one day. And maybe science fiction writers…? But most importantly, all of them are already great people.

We had good viewing conditions two nights and could spend the time observing the sky. I learned just how much a hopeless theorist I am – a bookworm who can find her way through science papers but virtually unable to successfully point a telescope at a chosen object of interest and follow it on the sky. Well, I’m determined to learn til the next time if I go the following year too! For now, I had taught the basics about our solar system, exoplanets, Kuiper & Oort and icy objects with possible subsurface oceans and I had also prepared some games like a simulated space mission or Mars exploration. It had been great fun and I hope the kids had even much more fun than us instructors. There had also been some unexpected funny moments like when my colleague found a bunch of costumes stuck among the art supplies the last full day of the camp, just before announcing the winning team and giving off prizes and diplomas. The kids fell silent for a second when we walked into the room, and then burst into laughter. So if you by any chance encounter a photo of me dressed up as a crocodile, standing next to a bee and a chicken, you’ll know where it’s from.

I will miss this summer.

London: before Worldcon

Having arrived to London five days before Worldcon, I got to explore what the city can offer and found several interesting places to visit not only for a geek, but certainly very recommendable to one. The best highlight of those was the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Not only is the search for precise longitudal measurements an interesting topic itself, but the exhibiton is also brilliantly composed and can offer an insight into the atmosphere surrounding the quest for winning the Longitude Act prize and allowing ships navigate the world safely. Sitting by an animated table with the comissioners of the Board of Longitude and listening to their disputes about whom the prize should be awarded was just priceless and seeing Harrison’s timekeepers and their development highly interesting.

Another exhibition, loosely connected to this one, is Longitude Punk’d, a steampunkey take on the longitude quest. This one is based at the Greenwich Observatory inside Flamsteed’s house. No fan of steampunk should skip this hillarious piece. This exhibiton is sort of two in one: you can look around Flamsteed’s house for serious and have fun over the fictional exhibits. Although, the one with the highest weirdness factor was a real submission for the Longitude Prize.

Science Museum is great to see too. I personally most liked the part focused on James Watt and the development of steam engines (yeah, steampunkers should visit here too) but the whole museum is fine. If you want to really explore it, take at least a day for it, better two (if you end sooner you can always try to visit the Natural History Museum but beware of queues – we’ve walked around two times and each time there was a truly horribly looking queue – not just for the special exhibitons but for the whole museum).

Ships, Clocks & Stars and the Watt exhibition have an important thing in common: They can remind us that the stuff we take for granted today and teach at primary schools was a part of painstakingly and slowly achieved progress. Could you spend several decades trying to assemble a precise enough clock that would run correctly on a ship? Would you choose a life in a tiny workshop, making and repairing scientific instruments day after day while running experiments in several science fields and trying to bring something new to mankind? (And now I’m probably inadvertently making it sound very pompous.) The thing is: we don’t see the endless days and nights spent with drawings and calculations and loose ends, year after year. We only see the results – and today, they might not at first sight seem so impressive since we’ve got computers and smartphones for everything and everyone can find their longitude or steam engine plans on their phone. And if you see the exhibitions, you can only stand in awe of how much skill, curiosity, intelligence, hard work and determination was needed to achieve scientific and engineering progress – and yet there was little heroic in it, though we might want to picture it that way. Sustained hard work – that might be the most accurate way of looking at it.

I’ve mentioned the easy information access allowed us by using computers. The museum also has a great part focused on the history of computing. (And among other things, you can see a half of Babbage’s brain there. Just saying. Braaains…)

Camden Town and its famous market are other locations for a fan to visit. Whether you’re a geek, goth, punk, otaku, steampunker or anything else, you might want to take a look over this place. And be sure to visit the food market. The stands offer meals from all over the world. The mixture of smells and sights is wonderful.

And if you wondered what it looks like in Camden…

Interview with Peter Watts

My interview with Peter Watts was published last Friday in Clarkesworld. Be sure to check it out; Watts writes really brilliant, thrilling SF full of very interesting ideas! Here’s a link for his website.

In other news, Worldcon is approaching. I may see some of you there. I’m not actively participating in the program but I’d like to attend a large part of it as a visitor. I’ll be possible to reach via Twitter.

Where are current SF magazines going?

I’ve had a talk on current Anglo-American magazines at Festival Fantazie in Chotebor last weekend. I meant to present notable magazines to the Czech audience, describe the change this market went through since its establishment up until now and most of all talk about magazines with freely-accessible content, their strategies, benefits and how they shape the world of speculative fiction. Finally, I mentioned the opportunities online magazines present to authors worldwide. The talk had more impact than I had expected (especially given at 9 a.m. at a busy convention where this is about the time many people finally go to sleep); it gave one editor the idea to add podcasts to his magazine (more specifics about this later if he succeeds – I certainly hope so), some authors’ eyes brightened and Františka Vrbenská asked me to write an article based on my talk.

Well, here it is! (Czech version of the article can be found here.) Most of this information is quite easy to find for any English-speaking person interested in this topic, so I’ll only very briefly mention the history of SF magazines here and then will move to the changes brought by online publishing (and what it means for readers as well as authors).

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“If we could edit our lives we would not make them better…”

In an interview for XB-1 magazine, Adam-Troy Castro, a remarkable SF author known especially for his Andrea Cort detective SF stories, revealed what he’d been working at recently, what might happen should he ever try time travel, whether we can be looking forward to new stories from his popular Aisource Infection universe and more. Enjoy this snippet from the interview!

You’re a quite prolific author. How do you cope with time constraints that come along with it without time travel (assuming you don’t have a time machine hidden in your basement)?
Actually, I’m a prolific time-waster, when I’m not feeling it. You have absolutely no idea. But if you produce some directed work every day, the work accrues. I try for a thousand words every weekday and frequently beat that, sometimes by multiplying it. When a story is hot, I leave the thousand words far behind. I suspect that the rest of time is battery recharging.

Assuming you actually had a time machine hidden in your basement, would you visit your past selves like the protagonist of your story “My Wife Hates Time Travel” or would you rather try to avoid this?
Oh, boy, if I had a time machine, the advice I would give my younger self! But I’d never stop. I also perceive that sometimes the good things that happen in life occur only because the bad things steer you toward them. I suspect that if we could edit our lives we would not make them better, but homogenize them, removing the flavor.

In the Czech Republic, you’re well-known especially for your Andrea Cort novels. Are you planning to write more about her and from the AIsource Infection universe?
Yes, though I haven’t for a while, and none of the stories currently in the publication pipeline fit in that universe. At various points of completion on my hard drive are a new Andrea Cort novella and another starring the Porrinyards at a point in their lives before they met her. One of the problems I have with writing a new Andrea Cort story at this point is that it necessarily has to take place in her past, as the chronologically latest story, “Hiding Place”, brings her to a point where something has to change for her, one way or another, and I cannot address the issue except at novel length, and I cannot write the novel unless I know somebody’s willing to foot the bill for it. Stories set in her past, before EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD, are fine, as happened with “With Unclean Hands,” but then the Porrinyards get left out, and I consider them an important part of the recipe for Andrea stories, as she can be pretty intolerable without their leavening influence. So, yeah, she needs novels. As for other stories in the AIsource Infection universe – they will be coming, though again, there are none in the publication pipeline right now.

Andrea’s experiences present a world where corporate slavery is a daily reality for most people, bullet-proof job contracts for decades ahead are common and human rights are a luxury on countless planets. Are you afraid that we might actually be going there?
Absolutely terrified of it. Already, the simple economic truth of life in most human societies is that if you’re not screamingly wealthy or otherwise somebody in power, you are a disposable spare part — and the simple truth of most empowered people is that the power is devoted to acquiring more.

You’ve written about zombies or vampires several times. How do you perceive recent changes of these phenomena and their popularity?
It amuses me that people argue at such length about changes in the “rules,” as if the rules weren’t always arbitrary. Generally, I roll my eyes at anything that paints vampires (and now zombies!) as sweet and attentive lovers; that’s necrophilia and therefore gross. There have been some recent innovations in both tropes, in print, that I find thrilling.

I’ve noticed that none of your bios online mentioned your work before you started your professional writing career, just that you studied Communication Arts at Cornell. I must admit it piqued my curiosity. What was your profession before you became a full-time writer?
I worked a customer service line for many, many years, and both it and a much shorter spell of one year in retail were so horrific that I keep talking about fictionalizing them, someday. Maybe. If I can stand to look.

Can you tell us what are you currently working at?
I am working on various novel proposals. The one I have the biggest hopes for, right now, is called LAWLESS, and is currently making the rounds; though I have something else in the pipeline, not yet ready for submission, that might or might not see the light of day. I offer only one teaser about that one, unreliable in that it might not reflect the intended product in the way you think it does: TRANSYLVANIA.

The full interview (in Czech) can be found at XB-1’s website. The print version was published in March issue of the magazine.
Next up some time later is Ken Liu!

XB-1 March 2014

New issue of XB-1 and more

The April issue of Czech SF magazine XB-1 was published today, including a new flash story of mine and my interview with Ken Liu (from which I’ll post a snippet here some time later). In other news, the Czech urban SF anthology Zpěv kovových velryb (The Song of Metal Whales) by editor Vlado Ríša is out and had a book launch on Saturday during StarCon convention in Prague. The convention was great though I only had time to arrive just before my afternoon lecture on exoplanets and the following discussion with authors plus the anthology launch.

There’s a new work in English too, nonfiction in this case; I’ve got an article about subsurface oceans in the new issue of Clarkesworld (for resources on the topic, see previous blogpost). It’s been a good week; let’s hope for others like this one to follow.

XB-1 April 2014


A new article: Realms of Dark, Deep and Cold

These places never see sunlight, are buried deep under thick ice crusts and warmed mostly by radioactive decay and tidal forces: subsurface oceans of celestial objects far from their stars – if they have any. Decades ago, they were the domain of science fiction, until such places were hypothesized in our solar system thanks in part to Voyager flybys of Europa in 1979. Shortly after, the idea was popularized when it appeared in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey saga. Since then, we learned much more about characteristics of possible subsurface oceans, discovered that they probably exist on more worlds than we dared to expect just a few years ago, and that they’re more fascinating than even SF authors hoped.

My article on the topic of subsurface oceans was published today in Clarkesworld Magazine. I wrote about moons and dwarf planets in our system as well as extrasolar planets; however, the topic is so vast that I couldn’t have possibly covered everything of interest – especially when virtually any piece of information is interesting and thought-provoking. If you’ve read the article and want to go deeper and learn more, you can read some of the following material I’ve used. Many of the scientific papers can be downloaded without any special access (use Google Scholar). The rest should be accessible from most university libraries.

If you don’t want to dig into the scientific articles at first, I can recommend the popular science book Alien Seas: Oceans in Space. It doesn’t deal just with subsurface oceans of icy objects; it concerns nearly any conceivable kind of oceans in a broad sense of the word, in our system as well as in the rest of the galaxy. It’s an excellent introductory read, well-written and an interesting food for thought.

There is plenty of resources about Europa but it’s never a bad way to start with a relatively recent good review. That’s the case of Kargel et al. (2000); very comprehensive information about Europa’s history, geology, characteristics of both the crust and the ocean and its prospects for life can be found there. Specifically conditions for methanogenesis as an energy source for possible life on Europa are discussed in McCollom (1999). More about all three Galilean moons possibly containing bodies of liquid water and consequences of different parameters is to be found in Zimmer et al. (2000) and Spohn and Schubert (2003).

A lot has been published about Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan; this is just a tip of the iceberg: Titan’s probable internal structure is described in Tobie et al. (2005). Regarding the tiny Enceladus, Roberts and Nimmo (2007) investigated the long-term stability of its ocean; analysis of ice grains from its geysers in Saturn’s E-ring is present in Postberg et al. (2009); shear heating as a heat source for the ocean is discussed in Nimmo et al. (2007); possible conditions for life in Parkinson et al. (2007); this along with possible biomarkers in McKay et al. (2008).

A paper by Hussmann et al. (2006) dealt with modeling the interior of icy satellites of the giant planets and trans-Neptunian objects. This work represents a turning point of a kind – a subsurface ocean even in very far Kuiper belt bodies like Eris and Sedna (sometimes also considered an inner Oort cloud object) was first officially proposed here. Thermal evolution and possible cryovolcanism of KB objects is also investigated in Desch et al. (2009).

Concerning Pluto, Robuchon and Nimmo (2011) modeled Pluto with several different initial condition sets and proposed what observable features might tell us about the possible presence of the ocean during the New Horizons flyby. Spectroscopy of Pluto, its moon Charon and Neptune’s Triton is described in Protopapa et al. (2007), including the detection of crystalline water ice on Charon’s surface.

A very good overview of possibilities of life in the Solar System, including subsurface oceans, and opportunities of energy cycles and geoindicators of life detection can be found in Schulze-Makuch et al. (2002).

Speaking of even further places, Ehrenreich and Cassan (2006) investigated the possibilities of existence of bodies of liquid water (both surface and subsurface) on extrasolar planets throughout the galaxy. Information specifically about the GJ 667C system can be found in Anglada-Escudé et al. (2012). Exomoons are discussed very well in Scharf (2006).

I hope you enjoyed the Clarkesworld article and this list of resources will be of interest to you. If I’ve managed to ignite even one spark of fascination and curiosity, I’m happy.

3rd April 2014 update: Results from Cassini’s measurements of the gravitational pull of Enceladus suggest a large pocket of liquid water near the south pole, as published in the newest issue of Science (Iess et al. 2014); it adds to the indirect (albeit extremely important) evidence of the moon’s intense cryovolcanism. So – good news! Also, discoveries of three dwarf planets were announced in the last couple of days. 2013 FY27 is might be even larger than Sedna (between 760 and 1500 km compared to about 1000 km) so we can expect quite significant radiogenic heating – according to Hussman et al. (2006) model maybe sufficient for a liquid ocean. Let’s hope for even more amazing discoveries like these.


Anglada-Escudé, G., Arriagada, P., Vogt, S. S., Rivera, E. J., Butler, R. P., Crane, J. D., … & Jenkins, J. S. (2012). A planetary system around the nearby M dwarf GJ 667C with at least one super-Earth in its habitable zone. The Astrophysical Journal Letters751(1), L16.

Desch, S. J., Cook, J. C., Doggett, T. C., & Porter, S. B. (2009). Thermal evolution of Kuiper belt objects, with implications for cryovolcanism. Icarus,202(2), 694-714.

Ehrenreich, D., & Cassan, A. (2007). Are extrasolar oceans common throughout the Galaxy?. Astronomische Nachrichten328(8), 789-792.

Hussmann, H., Sohl, F., & Spohn, T. (2006). Subsurface oceans and deep interiors of medium-sized outer planet satellites and large trans-neptunian objects. Icarus185(1), 258-273.

Kargel, J. S., Kaye, J. Z., Head III, J. W., Marion, G. M., Sassen, R., Crowley, J. K., … & Hogenboom, D. L. (2000). Europa’s crust and ocean: Origin, composition, and the prospects for life. Icarus148(1), 226-265.

McCollom, T. M. (1999). Methanogenesis as a potential source of chemical energy for primary biomass production by autotrophic organisms in hydrothermal systems on Europa. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets (1991–2012)104(E12), 30729-30742.

McKay, C. P., Porco, C. C., Altheide, T., Davis, W. L., & Kral, T. A. (2008). The possible origin and persistence of life on Enceladus and detection of biomarkers in the plume. Astrobiology8(5), 909-919.

Nimmo, F., Spencer, J. R., Pappalardo, R. T., & Mullen, M. E. (2007). Shear heating as the origin of the plumes and heat flux on Enceladus. Nature,447(7142), 289-291.

Parkinson, C. D., Liang, M. C., Yung, Y. L., & Kirschivnk, J. L. (2008). Habitability of Enceladus: Planetary conditions for life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres38(4), 355-369.

Postberg, F., Kempf, S., Schmidt, J., Brilliantov, N., Beinsen, A., Abel, B., … & Srama, R. (2009). Sodium salts in E-ring ice grains from an ocean below the surface of Enceladus. Nature459(7250), 1098-1101.

Protopapa, S., Herbst, T., & Böhnhardt, H. (2007). Surface ice spectroscopy of Pluto, Charon and Triton. Messenger129, 58-60.

Roberts, J. H., & Nimmo, F. (2008). Tidal heating and the long-term stability of a subsurface ocean on Enceladus. Icarus194(2), 675-689.

Robuchon, G., & Nimmo, F. (2011). Thermal evolution of Pluto and implications for surface tectonics and a subsurface ocean. Icarus216(2), 426-439.

Scharf, C. A. (2006). The potential for tidally heated icy and temperate moons around exoplanets. The Astrophysical Journal648(2), 1196.

Schulze-Makuch, D., Irwin, L. N., & Guan, H. (2002). Search parameters for the remote detection of extraterrestrial life. Planetary and Space Science50(7), 675-683.

Spohn, T., & Schubert, G. (2003). Oceans in the icy Galilean satellites of Jupiter?. Icarus161(2), 456-467.

Tobie, G., Grasset, O., Lunine, J. I., Mocquet, A., & Sotin, C. (2005). Titan’s internal structure inferred from a coupled thermal-orbital model. Icarus175(2), 496-502.

Zimmer, C., Khurana, K. K., & Kivelson, M. G. (2000). Subsurface oceans on Europa and Callisto: Constraints from Galileo magnetometer observations.Icarus147(2), 329-347.