Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Writers?

Automation and artificial intelligence are changing our world at an alarming pace. In Phoenix, AZ , Waymo One, a company founded from Google’s self-driving car project, allows people to hail driverless taxis. In medicine, AI algorithms can comb through mountains of data and identify patterns in medical outcomes that would take years to discover by conventional methods, or assess medical images and detect the presence of disease better than humans with decades of experience. These technical advances are amazing, and quite frankly a little bit scary. With machines outperforming humans on so many fronts, we as humans are left facing the question of our own obsolescence.

One hope remains. The arts. Sure you can get a machine to do math because math is ultimately a pattern of rules. But art by its definition is an expression of the human experience. Isn’t it?

AI and Art

Here’s something that freaks me out. I just went to https://hotpot.ai/art-maker and from a relatively simple string of input text generated this picture of the main character from my novel First Command, Cassi.

Cassi Requin–the main character in my novel First Command, as rendered by from a simple string of descriptive text by the artificial intelligence tool at https://hotpot.ai/art-maker on the left, and the commissioned cover art from https://miblart.com/ on the right.

I mean, holy crap! That could be an actual person on the left!

I certainly couldn’t draw that, and it would take years for me to develop the skills to generate something that complex with a computer graphics platform like Blender. Generally speaking AI art like this is based on a set of algorithms called generative adversarial networks of GANs. The system learns a specific aesthetic by analyzing thousands of input images and then generating new images consistent with that aesthetic. Images are generated randomly and judged in an adversarial way in relation to the input request until an acceptable output is attained.

If you really look at these GANs, they do a great job with what they’re meant to do, but they can struggle with things like faces. The thing is, even if you don’t get it right the first time follow-up routines can take something that looks face-ish and rework it to appear a lot more realistic.

I thought art was one of the last impenetrable bastions of the human race against our AI overlords.

The Turing Test

The reason the AI struggles with a face is that it doesn’t know it’s generating a face. It’s generating a pattern, based on patterns it has identified. These patterns are hugely complex, but they don’t account in any human experience of interaction with a face… tears from the first time you’ve broken up with a significant other are different from the tears when your dog died… your mother’s smile from when she tucked you in as a child is different from the smiles on the faces of your flag football team mates when you’ve one won the 2007 University Division III championship.

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test he referred to as the imitation game. It has since become more popularly known as the Turing test. The basic idea is this: an interrogator can interact only in a textual basis, asking questions of and receiving answers from two candidates A and B. The interrogator cannot see or otherwise inspect A and B. One of the candidates is a machine and the other is a real person. It is possible for the machine to do well at the game and make itself imperceivable from the human?

For early programs, sure, it was pretty easy to spot when a computer was just applying simple logic rules and drawing from random tables when necessary to generate responses. But as time goes on, the amount of data that computers can process in an effective and timely manner has grown exponentially. From the interrogator’s point of view, it’s not like there’s a single question that can be asked either. Are you a human? Either one can lie.

How would you interrogate the participants?

What if you fell in love with a participant and felt that love reciprocated? Is that real love, or just a machine emulating love? How would you know the difference?

AI and Novels

I’ve mentioned before in my blog that in his book Sapiens, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued that one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our ability to tell stories. In fact this trait may just be responsible for the tremendous success of our species. Through stories we can comprehend the value of money or the fear wrath of a god. Over history stories have enabled collective, cooperative behavior on massive scales.

Is it possible for an artificial intelligence to write something as complex as a novel?

Certainly. Many popular tools available right now are based on an algorithm called the generative pre-trained transformer 3, or GPT-3. This is a deep learning algorithm that’s used as a natural language processor. Basically, given a block of text, it makes a prediction at what comes next and it often does well enough so as to be indistinguishable from the prose of a human. But according to this article, it’s not without its flaws. Sure it can string words together that make a certain logical sense, but in one of the examples it talks about the wind of a passing train knocking a character off her feet… not exactly logical for anyone who has ever been passed by a train… but of course we humans are not immune from plausibility holes in our fiction either.

I’m not sure whether it has the capacity to string together a coherent and engaging plot for the entire length of a novel, but I don’t doubt that is possible.

In the foreseeable future, what is likely to happen is that AI won’t act so much as a replacement for writers, but increasingly it will serve as an augmentation. Writers will play an editorial role, generating ideas where needed and then smoothing over AI-generated text with the lens of experience.

On a recent forum I frequent, the question came up, if AIs can produce decent books (and probably by the thousands) why would people pay humans to do the work as a much slower pace?

To this, I have several answers. I suppose time will tell if they hold up.

Craftsmanship

Robots can manufacture things like furniture, clothing, jewelry, etc. much faster and with higher precision than humans, and they have been able to for years. But there is still a market for hand-crafted items. In fact, in many cases customers are willing to pay extra for it. Often that’s because hand-crafted items are of higher quality because he goal of the work was to produce a quality item, and not to optimize profits off of a Minimum Viable Product.

And as noted above, there are aspects of the process that will still require supervision and navigation through the complexity of story production. For example, we’ve had calculators and spreadsheets for years, yet today we still have accountants.

Originality

Artificial intelligence, is largely based on emulation. It looks at what exists, and with a little poke, replicated the patterns within its experience. So if/when we get the point where AI is producing stories, my guess is that, many of these will be iterations on existing themes. This could be a boon, in for example sub-genres of romance novels where the audience demands rather formulaic stories. The theme repeats, but there are unique elements to each story than could be generated either through human input or random generation.

But the truly original ideas–those based on emerging trends, predictions about the future, challenges to social and cultural norms, metaphors for the deep problems encountered within the human experience–will be quite challenging to generate in any reliable manner.

Economics

This isn’t so much of an argument as to why AI books won’t happen, but more of a why they shouldn’t happen. If you consider a series of “bots” churning out stories, they would presumably be controlled by some kind of corporation much bigger than a typical independent author. The money taken in from these machines can essentially fall into a black hole, increasing the wealth of the corporation that owns them, but when you support an independent author, that money tends to go back into that author’s community.

Why We Read (And Write)

People read for all sorts of reasons… to relax, to escape reality, to learn… but I think one big reason is that there is a social element to it. We read to connect with other humans, and to enhance our own experience. Through books we experience what it was like to be an explorer with Shackelton or to walk on the moon, or to fall in love in Regency England. We contemplate what it might be like to be left on Mars, or what our lives might like if we could travel across the galaxy in the blink of an eye.

I would also add the writing is also a part of this connection. People don’t always write to share their work, but when they do, particularly today, it’s not really for the purpose of making money. People write out of a need for creative expression and that need won’t disappear even if there are machines that can do it better than us. People write to share a part of themselves with others.

I’ll close out this post with one of my favorite quotes from Carl Sagan.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Carl Sagan – Cosmos, Part 11 The Persistence of Memory (1980)

Why the James Webb Space Telescope Matters So Much

In a world that feels like it’s been dominated by story after story of harsh, negative news, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, released earlier this week, mark a triumph of human innovation. As a science fiction author and professional scientist myself, it’s easy to geek out over this stuff. But it’s important to think about why this matters so much, not just to people like me, but to everyone.

The first image from the James Webb space telescope of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, 4.6 billion light years away shows thousands of galaxies in unprecedented detail. Released on July 11, 2022, this image contains some of the faintest images ever detected in the infrared spectrum. It even makes use of a technique referred to as “gravitational lensing” where the collective gravity of the galaxy cluster draws in light from even further away, allowing astronomers to collect light from when the universe was very young.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

10 Billion Dollar Price Tag

The cost of the JWST is estimated at about $10 Billion. That’s billion… with a B. There’s a lot you could do with $10 billion of public funding… build new hospitals, fix up roads, give single person on the planet a buck and quarter. I mean, sure, the image up above looks pretty and everything. But 45% of the people in my home city don’t have a family physician. In fact, in 2011, the US Congress nearly scrapped the whole thing. So why should taxpayers (from the participating countries) foot such a hefty bill… just for a fancy telescope?

A Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe

You only have to look at the success of JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble space telescope, to see how advanced scientific tools like this facilitate leaps and bounds in human knowledge. The Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990. At the time, no one had observed a single planet outside of our own solar system and no one had even heard of dark energy. Today, we have direct evidence of over 5000 exoplanets (largely thanks to the Kepler space telescope and many ground-based telescopes). Hubble was used to make the first measurements of the atmospheric conditions on an exoplanet and has provided the first visible-light images of an extra-solar planet. Before its launch, the age of the universe had a relatively high uncertainty… somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years. Now it’s far more precise… 13.8 billion years. And not only that, it has shown us evidence of an ever-expanding runaway universe driven by an unknown “dark energy.” Suffice it to say, the list of scientific contributions is long and continues to grow.

So if we now have a tool that is even more powerful, by a factor of 100, it will unlock even more secrets from the universe. We’ll learn more about how stars form, how galaxies interact, and we’ll gain even more insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

Understanding these things is about far more than satisfying our innate curiosity about the universe and our place in it (although there is that too). But our understanding of the physics underlying the universe is based on models. The more extreme data we can collect, the better those models get. And all of our technological innovation is based to one degree on another on an accurate understanding of the fundamental physics of the universe. Even your phone’s global positioning system (GPS) wouldn’t work without an accurate understanding of general relativity.

Investment in Basic Science

Consider investment in basic science research from a financial point of view. While these things can be difficult to measure, numbers from the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggest that investment in basic science research provides a positive return of a whopping 43%! The Human Genome Project, for example, is estimated to have provided nearly $1 trillion of economic growth, a 178 fold return on investment! Every dollar $1.00 invested in basic science research by the NIH has stimulated an additional $8.38 of industrial investment in the following years.

The point is to consider the long game. Every coach worth their salt will tell you that the way for an athlete to get into the big leagues is to start early and built solid fundamental skills.

The System Works

During the launch of the JWST, the teams involved predicted 344 points of failure. The fact that it launched and deployed flawlessly is not only a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, but in a time that’s plagued by political cynicism, misinformation, and anti-science rhetoric, it provides a beacon of hope that collectively we (humans operating within publicly funded systems) can accomplish great things. We now live in an age where it’s now possible to study the chemical composition of an exoplanet that’s 1,150 light years away.

And we found water.

Using its Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) the JWST was about to measure light from the exoplanet WASP-96 over a period of 6.4 hours as it transited in front of its sun. The light collected gives astronomers a “transmission spectrum” and based on the relative dimming of light at specific wavelengths, the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere can be determined because different chemicals will vary in how much light they absorb or scatter.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

Finding Value in Casual Summer Reading

This week the bell rang for the last time at my youngest son’s school. The kids cleared out their desks and he came home with a back pack full of construction paper projects, math books and graded science papers that had been lining the inside of his desk for the better part of the year. It’s summer vacation and he’s excited about going to see his grandparents on the west coast.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Summer is in full swing. The nights are short and warm. The grass is green. It all makes me a little nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.

I never considered myself that much of a reader as a kid, or at least that wasn’t how I would have defined myself. But I can’t help remembering long, lazy summer days in Ontario cottage country, sitting by the lake, with no TV, no computer, no “devices,” just reading.

On some days the book didn’t even matter. It was casual reading. No pressure. No essay on symbolism due the next morning. No pop quiz to prove I’d gotten through the assigned chapters.

It started with Archie I think, and the gang at Riverdale. We could pick those up at the supermarket when we went into town.

I used to read the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure like a total coward. I’d stick a finger in the page at every decision point so I could go back if I didn’t like the outcome. As a kid I went through those by the pile. Along those lines there were also the “Micro Adventure” books written in second person. They had little computer programs in BASIC that you could type out on a Commodore 64. Well… someone could. I was stuck at the cottage. No computer.

My sister had the foresight to actually pack books for our trips the cottage. Her stash of books wasn’t necessarily the first pile I went for, but I got through my share of Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club and maybe the occasional Sweet Valley Twins. We don’t talk about Flowers in the Attic.

One summer we went camping up and of course, it snowed in July. It’s funny the details you remember about a trip like that… shampoo frozen in its bottle, a station wagon that wouldn’t start, and leaches in the lake. That trip I picked up my first horror book from the campground general store… from one those squeaky metal turning displays. I stayed up past midnight, tucked into my sleeping bag, reading by flashlight as my breath fogged up in front of me about a kid who had the power of astral projection.

As I got older, I started reading magazines. I had so many Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines I should have had a subscription to each. Of course, I was also an avid reader of Inside Kung Fu, because there was short period in my life where I was planning a career as, you know, a ninja.

I picked up a book on the Bermuda Triangle by complete serendipity. It was probably an old library discard, but my mom told me I could pick any book I wanted and somehow that one ended up in my hand. It was full of pseudo science and crackpot theories, but below the surface it carried a message that resonated deeply with me… that there was more to the world than what they taught us in school. Ultimately that book led to later popular, but more mainstream science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

That was how I found my way to a career in physics.

In the end, there’s tremendous value in reading. Casual summer reading, those books that you dust off from the closet and pull out just to pass a rainy afternoon, or to relax before you go to bed, can lead to unimaginable places.

Photo by EYu00dcP BELEN on Pexels.com

First Command: The Experience of a 1st Time Author, One Year In

My first novel debuted one year ago, and it’s been quite a ride. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience as a first time author.

First Command – On a training mission, astronaut cadet Cassi Requin and her crew crash on an alien world. With their flight instructors locked in stasis, Cassi is promoted into her first command–rank, authority, and responsibility. Pursued by pirates, Cassi leads her crew across the hostile terrain to a remote survey station and their only hope for survival.

Write the Book

It took me a long time to put the book out there. There were of course some practical hurdles. Number one was writing the thing. I love writing. Even so, First Command took several years to go from that first day I started typing draft one to publication. My first big tip for writers seeking to publish their work: get it written. You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. You can only publish what you complete.

Often that means you have to accept that your first draft won’t be that great. In fact it may not even be good. But once it’s done you can jump into editing. And you can make it amazing.

Hire an Editor

Hiring an editor in no way absolves you of self-editing. In fact, what I found was that in preparing to sent the manuscript to an editor, I would forcefully go through multiple self-edits before sending it off. I spent time reading chapters to my writing group and my family. Again, not to get it perfect, but I wanted to make sure my editor was spending her time on the all the things I couldn’t catch myself.

Professional editing can be expensive, but this is one area where it really pays to make the investment. It’s like you get a university-level course in the craft of writing, and you’re the only student. And even more importantly, it give you an independent set of eyes on your work that will give you the feedback you need to hear, not just the feedback they think you’ll want to hear.

It’s important to spend time searching for an editor who will work well with you, and who can offer what you’re looking for. There’s basic stuff, like the difference between developmental, line and copy editing, but you also have to consider knowledge of the genre, jiving with your style, balance between criticism and pointing out what you’ve done well, and how well they understand the story you’re trying to tell.

Here’s one secret: Many editors will do a test-edit of your first thousand words or so for free. They can give you a critique on your work and tell you what they’ll help you to focus on. When you’re ready for an editor, this can help you figure out which one is going to be the best for you.

Putting Together a Cover

People judge books by their covers.

A cover becomes a focal point of your marketing. It’s what potential readers see when they’re searching for that next great read. What’s critically important about covers is that they need to tell people what kind of read they’re in for. First Command is a science fiction story featuring astronaut cadets and so it was important that the cover convey both science fiction and a young adult demographic. The team at Miblart suggested the main character, Cassi, with her helmet off, in front of a crashed spacecraft on an alien world. I went with an illustrated cover because there was generally more freedom than with models and photoshop, and illustrated covers are quite common in the genre.

On the left is one of the concept drawings for First Command‘s cover, courtesy of Miblart. Seeing cover art for the first time was a big deal for me. It’s like part of my imagination stepping into the real world.

Starting a Business

First Command is published by Megavoltage Publishing, a business I started in 2021. I’m not a “business” person. But even then, I knew if I was going to put books out into the world, I wanted to do it as professionally as possible. I can’t offer a whole lot of advice on this aspect of the process, but if you’re thinking about striking out as an independent author, there is this dimension to it. Business license. Taxes. Book keeping. Marketing.

I do commonly hear the advice from successful independent authors to: treat it like a business.

The caveat I would attach to this is that it’s important to establish for yourself what you define as “success.” For many independent authors, that means supporting themselves full time with their writing. But that’s not the only definition of success. For some people it simply means sharing their stories with their target audience.

Marketing is tough, because it put you in a position where you have to talk up yourself and your work and this goes against so many cultural lessons that insist people be humble.

Another tip on this front is to get really good at summarizing your work. Blurbs, elevator pitches, tag lines, log lines, tweets, social media posts, and even casual conversations when someone asks what your book is about… condensing your work down into a few simple sentences, or a single concept can be a brutally challenging task. But when you do it well, that makes it so much easier for people to find your work.

Biggest Surprise

So far the biggest surprise for me has been how much of an emotional effect my work has had on people. As a writer I generally aim for my work to resonate with readers, and I’ve had a so much positive feedback it has been at times overwhelming. I’m always so grateful to hear from people who’ve enjoyed my work.

This is a beautifully written story whose characters are really likable.  It is evident that James took great care with this story and with the characters and all their histories, their conflicts and their weaknesses, in order to forge a strong narrative that drew me in and made me really care about these people!  Each character was developed so carefully and beautifully, and in such a way that they were exactly enough, and no more.  The challenges they faced were extremely visual, emotional and really stressful but all this within a framework that was believable and backed up by either real science or by some really compelling sci-fi.  James is disciplined in his writing and the result has me believing that I really understand the challenges, limitations and customs of this time, these places, these people.  I also appreciated the opportunities he took to suggest the greater good in mankind as well as in individuals, and he did it with a gentle nod, instead of a judgemental shove, as I’ve seen in some movies over the years.

– Amazon Reviewer

Keep Going

One final lesson I’ve learned is the importance of persistence. As a writer you have to keep going, keep pressing forward, and keep writing.

I’m currently working on a sequel to First Command. It’s already been through one round of edits and I’m feeling good about it, that it’s a worth successor. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’m aiming for later summer, or early fall. I’ll be posting here for sure when it goes up for pre-orders.

What is a Black Hole Anyway?

When it comes to the universe, gravity runs the show.

Even light can be pulled by gravity.

It’s not a strong effect, quite subtle in fact. Usually we need very, very strong gravity from really, really massive objects like stars, to observe the effect. But it’s there.

Gravity traps us on the surface of the Earth. If we want to escape and break out into space, we need sufficient kinetic energy to overcome it. In simple kinematic terms, this can boil down to obtaining a single velocity… the escape velocity. Exceed the escape velocity… you’re free. Move at less than the escape velocity… you fall back to the Earth.

But light has a finite speed: 299,792,458 meters per second (or about 186,000 miles per second).

Gravity can keep getting stronger.

So if you keep adding mass to a body, eventually its gravity can get so strong that the required escape velocity is faster than the speed of light. Since nothing can go faster than light, nothing can escape!

That’s a black hole.

Here’s a Very, Very Brief History of Stars

Stars start out as blobs of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that collects, the more gravitational pull the object has. The more gravitational pull it has, the more hydrogen it collects. Eventually that hydrogen gets squeezed together with enough pressure to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion of the positively charged hydrogen nuclei, and you get a nuclear fusion reaction, releasing light energy and generating helium nuclei… a star is born. Over billions of years, the hydrogen is used up. If the mass is larger enough and the gravity is strong enough, the helium nuclei can fuse into heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and this can keep going until fusing the nuclei no longer releases any energy (that happens at about iron).

The light energy produced by the fusion reactions produces and outward force that balances gravity. This allows the star to maintains a stable size. But when all the light elements (the fuel) is used up, that outward pressure is no longer there. The star collapses in on itself.

There are barriers to the complete collapse. When matter is compressed, electrons slowly fill their available quantum states. Once that happens, the matter exerts an outward pressure, called the electron degeneracy pressure that can balance against the inward compression due to gravity. But if the star has more than about 1.4 times the mass of our sun, even this can be overcome and the matter gets crushed down into one giant nucleus supported by neutron degeneracy pressure. The outer material rebounds off the degenerate core in a very violent explosion–a supernova.

If the star is massive enough, the gravitational force can overcome even this. And the star keep shrinking, concentrating more and more mass in a smaller and smaller volume. Eventually, you reach a state where you have enough mass concentrated into a small enough volume, that the gravity around it is too strong for even light to escape–the black hole.

A view of the massive object the the center of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy… a black hole. In 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released the first image of a black hole. This image, published in 2021 by the same group, shows the black hole in polarized light. The polarization arises due to the magnetic fields close to the black hole’s edge.
Credit: EHT Collaboration (https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso2105a/)

Anatomy of a Black Hole

By its definition, you can’t actually “see” a black hole. But you can certainly see the light from the space and matter around it, and its effects on that light, as in the image above. This particular black hole and the center of a galaxy about 55 million light years away from us, is estimated to be about 6.5 billion times the mass our sun. All around it, matter is being pulled in and smashed together generating light. In the center, the gravitational force is so strong that light can’t escape, which is why there’s a black spot. We’re looking at a void. The light around it is reddish because the light that is in fact far enough away from the hole to escape still has to climb out of a gravitational energy well. In doing so, it loses energy and shifts toward the red side of the spectrum.

Black holes themselves are pretty simple things. They have three properties: mass, charge, and spin, and otherwise don’t seem to have and distinguishing features, (aside perhaps from differences in the matter accreting around them). They have an event horizon. This can be thought of as it’s surface, the boundary beyond which light can’t escape.

That said, in a very recent paper, a group of physicists looking at quantum gravity have suggested that matter inside a black hole may leave a subtle quantum signature on the gravitational field around it. This is exciting because in quantum mechanics, there is a fundamental idea that information cannot be lost. But if everything inside a black hole simply disappeared, that rule would be violated. This new ideas, sometimes referred to has the black holes having “hair” reconciles these ideas.

Gravitational tides are also worth mentioning to. A tidal force arises due to a difference in force at two separate points. Here on Earth the difference in gravity between your head and feet is extremely small, arising from difference between your head and feel relative to their distance from the center of the Earth. But near a black hole it can be substantial, enough to stretch you out quite violently. Physicists occasionally refer to this phenomenon informally as “spaghettification.”

At the black hole’s core is a singularity–a place where matter is compressed into an infinitely tiny space. Here, our concepts of space and time break down. Some physicists argue that there’s a Plank limit to this, that there’s a fundamental granularity to the universe and that nothing gets smaller than about 10-35 meters, so it’s not technically infinitely small. Interestingly, you can find solutions to general relativity for a rotating singularity that enable backward time travel. Others have argued that you can produce wormholes connecting different places in spacetime, and you might even generate white holes elsewhere in the universe that spew forth all that swallowed energy at the speed of light. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows. And no one is likely to know.

Why a Spaceship Can’t Be Invisible

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve likely heard of the Romulan cloaking device, a fictional means of making a spaceship invisible. While the the device works by way of technobabble, the basic idea is that it transports electromagnetic radiation from one side of the cloaking field to the other. It makes for a very interesting plot device, effectively turning any spaceship with such a device into an intergalactic submarine.

Why can’t a spaceship be invisible?

In my upcoming sequel to First Command, I explore a similar idea… a hostile spacecraft that can’t be seen.

But hard science fiction fans tend to scoff at this notion. An invisible spacecraft is scientifically implausible. It can’t be done.

Why is that? And is there any way around it that doesn’t resort to techno-magic?

Black Body Radiation

With sufficient instrumentation, you should be able to see just about anything in space (provided there’s nothing in the way). This is because all objects with a temperature above absolute zero radiate energy. This energy is called black body radiation because it’s given off even if the object in question has no other means of generating or reflecting energy.

Example black body spectra for terrestrial temperatures from Planck’s Function (I’ve written the function out at the bottom of this post, if you want to get your nerd on). These examples fall in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In this graph, I’ve generated a plot of specrta–intensity of the frequency of light radiated from an object at a given temperature. Each curve corresponds to a temperature encountered here on Earth. The coldest recorded natural temperature, for example was about -89.2°C (-128.6°F) recorded in July 21, 1983 in Antarctica. What the graph shows is that as temperature increases, so does the overall energy radiated (the area under the curve), and spectrum shifts to the right–toward higher frequencies. For terrestrial temperatures, these emissions are in the infrared section of the electromagnetic spectrum. When you get up to several thousand Kelvin in temperature, the emissions are visible light. Our sun, for example, has a surface temperature of 5778 K, and obviously is the source of our light here on Earth.

Contrast

The reason we can see anything at all generally comes down to an imaging concept called contrast. Simply defined, contrast is the relative difference in signal intensity of an object from it’s background.

An example of contrast. Moving left to right, the difference in gray values from the background increases. The darker objects are easier to see.

Space itself has a temperature: 2.7 K (−270.45 °C/−454.81 °F). It’s not absolute zero. But it is pretty close. This background is pretty much the same in any direction. No matter where you look, the only electromagnetic radiation (that’s not coming from an actual object like a star or a planet) is in the form of very low energy microwaves. It’s like setting the background in the image above to nearly pure white, and that makes even the light gray squares stand out even more.

See?

So basically, any object with any thermal energy at all, even liquid nitrogen at 77 K, will stand out. Living humans give off infrared radiation. Stars give off visible light. Therefore any given spaceship will be visible (or at least detectable) to any other spaceship.

This means that even if you have a perfect ‘camera-screen-ship-in-between’ system like the Romulan cloaking device that will transmit light from back to front, you still have the radiation coming off of you due to your temperature to worry about.

So is there any way to hide a spaceship without resorting to techno-magic?

Samarium Nickel Oxide

Recent scientific work has discovered a very interesting property of NiSMO3, a crystalline oxide that can be made into an ultrathin film. In a 2019 paper from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers showed that when samarium nickel oxide heats up, it undergoes a transition from an insulator to a metal. As it does, it’s emissivity (the tendency to emit thermal radiation) goes down. Over a relatively broad range of temperatures from about 105 °C to 135 °C, there is no change in thermal emission.

This fundamental property of matter appears to be circumvented!

In principle, objects could be covered with a thin layer of this substance to mask their infrared signature.

Of course making something that’s 135 °C look like it’s 105 °C is a lot different than making something that’s several thousand Kelvin look like 2.7 K. But in science fiction we’re allowed some leeway to extrapolate from existing science. There is certainly some potential here anyway.

Here’ a link to a video explaining samarium nickel oxide.

Other Options

There are some other strategies to consider too in a game of intergalactic hide-and-seek..

Infrared radiation can be blocked. All you really need is some aluminum foil (a conductor). Of course you can’t just wrap your ship in aluminum because someone would still see the aluminum (or the heat coming off of it). But the point is that you can hide behind something that can be seen… a planet, a star, an asteroid, etc. Space is full with a whole lot of nothing, but people are usually most interested in the rare spots where stuff actually is. So hiding behind something is certainly an option.

Space is really big. When two ships are far apart, it takes time for light from one to reach the other. If a ship that’s ten light minutes away suddenly turns to attack you, you won’t actually see that happen for 10 minutes. That’s not invisibility proper, but it does give rise to some interesting strategic games if you’re writing suspenseful space combat.

Resolution limits what you can see a far distances. Just about every image produced with modern technologies is made up of pixels. A given pixel value corresponds to the average amount of light incident on it. An object that is further and further away is made up of fewer and fewer pixels until eventually it’s just averaged over a single pixel. Eventually you just don’t see it at all.

Hacks. Since we need technology to detect infrared light, there’s always a risk that technology can be corrupted. It’s not too much of a jump to imagine that specific objects could be artificially masked out of existence.

Invisibility in Space?

By it’s most proper definition: no. It’s not going to happen.

But there is some absolutely fascinating science that suggests it may not be as impossible as we may have first thought.

Get Your Nerd On…

If you want to nerd out for a moment, the relationship between the frequency of the emitted electromagnetic radiation, referred to as ν, and temperature T, is this bad boy right here…

Planck’s Function

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck showed that this empirical formula describes the intensity of a segment of the light spectra emitted from an object of temperature T (in Kelvin) into a solid angle. For reference, h is Planck’s constant (4.1357 x 10-15 eV s), c is the speed of light (2.9979 x 108 m/s), and k is the Boltzmann constant (8.6173x 10-5 eV K-1). Here’s the like to the Wiki article for more information.

Writers Do THIS To Make Your Characters Resonate With Readers

You may have heard of the SMART acronym for setting and achieving personal goals. Any goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-constrained. It (or some version of it) is repeated like a mantra in self-help literature and workshops. But as a writer, I’ve found this can be useful tool for developing stories, characters and even writing blubs.

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A story in its most basic form is about a character trying to obtain a goal. In striving for that goal the character changes (or maybe the world around them changes). From the experience of the struggle within the story, the reader grows in some way. And that’s one of my goals as a writer–to write stories that people gain something positive from.

So how does a SMART goal work for a character in a novel?

Specific

A general goal might be “survive a crash landing on an alien planet.” Okay, sure. That works for a while. But simple “survival” can quickly get bogged down, because in any absence of immediate threat, there’s nothing for the character to work toward, there’s no strategy to play out that the reader can think about, to agree or disagree with. At any point that binary switch might flip, regardless of what action the character takes. And that can lead to reader apathy. The key then is to define goals as specifically as possible. So you throw in a safe spot for the characters to get to. Maybe another downed spaceship, but one with a working radio. The characters them survive by getting to the safe spaceship.

A specific goal can also be articulated quickly and succinctly, so the reader knows exactly what the character needs to accomplish. At the end of the story, the reader will also have a clear understanding of whether or not the goal has been met.

Measurable

One of the staples of post-apocalyptic fiction is usually a character or set of characters trying to get home. In high fantasy fiction, it’s often a quest. Journeys like this can be measured in miles or leagues or at least kingdoms passed through on the way to the volcano. In romance ,the goals is usually development of a relationship (meet-cute, first date, setback, reconciliation, commitment) . If you look at the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen needs to survive a game of elimination that is scored in lives lost.

The point here is that your readers need to have some means of marking progress toward the goal. This will allow the reader to track what works and what doesn’t, understand when there’s a setback, and contemplate strategies for moving forward.

Attainable

Here’s one where there’s some subtle differences between personal goal-setting and setting goals for your characters. In real life, you need to assess your circumstances and make sure your goal is actually achievable. In fiction, things can be a little different.

In fiction, the reader has to be convinced that character has a shot at obtaining the goal. They have to know that whatever traits and flaws that character possess, somewhere inside that character has the tools necessary to get the job done. That’s not to guarantee it will happen. Like the first scene in an action movie where the hero takes down some thugs just to prove how awesome they are, it’s kind of boring if it takes too long. Conclusions can’t be foregone.

But neither can the goal be so impossible that the reader will no longer suspend disbelief. If the goal is too lofty, the reader starts to think the only way it will happen is if the writer is going to pull a fast one, a deus ex machina, and then the game doesn’t seem fair.

So long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind as to whether the goal will be achieved or not, they’re going to be along for the ride.

Relevant

Here’s where it pays big time to know your genre well and read as much as you can. Your character’s goals need to be consistent with reader expectations. (This R can also stand for research.)

It’s important to remember that character goals can change as the story progresses too. In some stories, the initial goal as the character understands it, may be the exact opposite of what that character needs for growth. When you’re revising and you’ve identified the theme of the story, it’s important to go back and revisit initial goals. Do they make sense in the context of the greater story? In the context of the genre?

Is the goal consistent with your other priorities in life? If it’s a smaller, short-term goal, does it jive with your bigger picture, and longer-term goals? The R can also stand for research, making sure that you understand the details of what you’re planning to pursue and this can in turn help to determine how realistic the goal is.

Time-Constrained

Ticking clocks add suspense.

In addition to knowing what the goal is, the reader also needs a sense of time and how urgently the goal needs to be met. Readers care a lot more about a character caught in a traffic jam when she’s on her way to an interview that starts in 15 minutes. The time limitation starts a game of strategies. What should she be willing to risk to get there? A ticket for driving too fast? Should she run a red light? Hop out of the van and take the kid’s bicycle in the back? A reader thinking in these terms is completely engaged in the story.

So that’s it. That’s a handy tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As a side note, if you can write all of this out and put it together in a few hundred words, that also makes for a decent method to answer that dreaded question: so what’s your story about?

Overcoming Fear for Writers

Whether you’re publishing independently or submitting your manuscript to an agent, putting your fiction out into the world for other people to see requires a tremendous amount of courage. Even attending an in-person writer’s group for the first time and talking about your writing with other people can be challenging.

Putting together something as complex as a novel requires an enormous investment of time and mental energy. People put their hopes, dreams, and desires into their fiction. They infuse their stories with their ideas, many of which can be deeply personal. And so when someone makes the decision to take their work from the privacy of their own files and subject it to public scrutiny, they are exposing a vulnerable part of themselves.

It’s not unlike walking across the grade eight gymnasium-turned-dance floor in front of all your classmates to ask someone to dance. You’re suddenly open to rejection, ridicule, judgement, and in many ways even worst possible reaction: indifference.

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The easy advice to give, and I hear it a lot, is simply to grow a thick skin.

But advice like this does a disservice to the industry. By limiting the works of public fiction to only those writers who can put up with a certain level of criticism, we’re denied all the great stories from writers who can’t overcome this barrier.

Worse, it can propagate attitudes where people believe it’s okay to treat other writers poorly if their work is not up to a subjective and often arbitrary standard.

So here are a few (hopefully constructive) tips on overcoming fear.

Figure Out Your Goals as a Writer

First off, it’s totally fine to write for the sake of writing. People write for all kinds of reasons: to relax, to play with ideas, escape from reality, work through a tough experience, etc. And there’s nothing that says what you write needs to ever been seen by anyone else.

It’s also okay to want to publish ‘at some point’ but that doesn’t have to be now.

One of the best tips for overcoming anxiety around putting your work out there is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to accomplish by doing so, and defining when you want to do that.

Establishing a timeline for yourself can be quite empowering, even if when that timeline is the simple recognition that you’re not ready yet.

Read. A lot.

One of the best pieces of advice for any writer is simply to read. Read the classics. Read what’s hot. Read as much as you can in your genre. Read whatever interests you. But read.

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The point is that through immersion, you learn. You learn what other readers a looking for. You learn the tropes of your genre. You develop an eye for what works, and what doesn’t.

If you compare a person who’s read a hundred books in a given genre, with someone who’s only read one or two, it’s far more likely that the avid reader is going to be better at critically assessing their own writing quality, because they have a much larger frame of reference.

Proofread and Revise Your Work

Maybe this one is obvious.

But it’s important to understand that the works from your favorite authors that you end up pulling off the shelf, or downloading into your e-reader is never a first or second draft. It’s probably not even a fifth or sixth draft. While all authors vary in their process, those who can write something near perfect on the first or second draft are a very rare breed (and among those who do the draft is often meticulously planned out ahead of time).

It’s easier to find courage in presenting something to the world that’s been thought through, reflected on, and reviewed than the first thing that went down on paper.

(The irony of any errors in this post is not lost on me.)

Go Slowly with the Sharing

There are different ways to start sharing your work. You don’t have to publish it publicly just to get feedback.

Finding a writer’s group or a critique group can be a good way to start. Once you’ve met a few other writers and learned a little bit about where they’re at on their writing journey, you can start sharing your work with ones that are willing to give you feedback at a level you’re comfortable with.

Open Conversations

When you do give your work to someone else for feedback, remember you can have an open conversation about what kind of feedback you’re looking for. If you’re not ready for it to come back all marked up with red ink, then say so.

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It’s okay to say that you’re just looking for the positives to begin with. Ask whether your reviewer can identify things that work, parts of the story or characters that resonate with them and why.

You can always progress to more critical feedback as time goes on. And when you want more critical feedback, remember to ask for specifics. How can I get better at…. suspense, dialogue, imagery, character arcs, etc.?

Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase along the lines of “Tear it to shreds.” While perhaps brave, I often wonder if that’s what the writer really wants. How do you grow from something that’s been shredded?

Rather, it’s better to focus on your goals and ask questions like: What recommendations do you have to get this from it’s current draft, to something people will pay me for? What areas of my writing could use the most improvement?

Offer to Give Feedback

There’s no shortage of writers seeking feedback on their work. Even if you’re afraid to put your own work out there, you can still offer to review things that others have written.

In fact, you can learn a lot from reviewing other people’s work. I’ve spent a lot of time on various writing sites and critique groups. When fifty percent of the fantasy novel opening chapters that you read start with a prince or princess waking up and looking out over their kingdom, you very quickly learn that this is not a unique opening.

Be kind with your words.

Do your best to offer the kind of feedback that the author is seeking.

Find an Editor

One final tip is that can really help with overcoming fear as a writer is to seek professional feedback.

Of course finding and hiring an editor can be tricky (and expensive). It’s very important to find an editor who: (i) understands your goals as a writer, (ii) is well-versed in your genre and has some credentials behind the advice they give, (iii) is willing and able to give you critical, but constructive feedback at a level that you’re ready to hear, and (iv) that you can trust.

A good editor won’t just tell you what’s wrong with your writing, but will give you suggestions on how to make it better.

If nothing else, editors act as buffers between you and the rest of the world. If you write something that’s “really bad” they can identify it and flag it before it goes out and they won’t ever say another word about it.


“No matter what anybody tells you. Words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)

On Writing Blurbs

Love writing, but hate writing blurbs? Here are some tips to upgrade your blurb and get your book into the hands of those readers who are going to love your work.

One big reason for so much writer anguish with blurbs is that writers are attempting to summarize their 80,000 word manuscript in 200 words or less. But here’s a big secret: the goal of a blurb is not to summarize your story. The goal is to sell your story (in an honest and helpful way).

A person reading the blurb has either picked up your book and flipped it over, opened it up, or clicked on a link. Something (probably your cover, title or ad copy) has piqued their interest. That potential reader now wants to know if your story is going to be worth the investment of their time and money. What they are looking for are flags to make that decision.

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Start With Research

Identify the top market category(ies) you want to market your book under. Read through the blurbs of as many of the top selling books in that category as you can. Pay particular attention to the books that are the first in their series (many sales for the later in series books are the result of read-through), and for books that have had staying power, those ones that have been in the top 100 for months or even years. Look for the common traits in their blurbs. Things to take note of: how the characters are described, flags that identify the genre, how the main problem is summarized, hook phrases, word length, and what you particularly like about them.

Remember, when writing your blurb, it’s unlikely to be the only one that the reader sees at that time. After reading a dozen or so, which ones do you remember and what stands out about them? Keep this in mind as you craft your own blurb.

Who is the Main Character?

Choose a single character to define the story around. I know this can be a challenge for an ensemble cast, but you can always tweak and add later. Start with one character with whom your target audience is most likely to resonate with.

Once you have your character, identify two traits of this character. The first is something familiar, identifiable, or accessible. What trait or experience does that character have that readers are going to most closely identify with? A longing for love? Getting bullied in school? Training for a competition? It doesn’t even need to be something the readers themselves have actually experienced, but something they’ve likely read about before, or something they seek when reading your genre. If you’re working on an action-thriller, it might just be that the character is associated with a familiar agency: the FBI, CIA, or the US Navy SEALs. If you’re a military science fiction writer, it might be that your character is a space marine, starship captain or cyborg.

The second is something unique. What’s different or uncommon about this character? Identify a trait that’s going to pique a potential reader’s interest, something that stands out, that’s going to be memorable about that character. What makes the character different from “normal” people in your story’s world? What makes the character different from other characters in the genre? This is the flag that you can plant that will help make this character memorable. Note that it doesn’t need to be absolutely exclusive. There are lots of dogs in the world that are large and have auburn-tinged fur, but Clifford the Big Red Dog is pretty memorable.

Examples
Harry Potter… unloved orphan (familiar/identifiable]) who discovers he is a wizard (unique [at the time]).
James Bond… an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (familiar) with a license to kill (unique).
Jon Snow… an unloved orphan (I feel like I’ve mentioned this before) with a dire wolf (unique).
Jason Bourne… a CIA black ops agent (familiar for readers of the genre) has lost his memory (unique).

Clearly Define the Genre

For some genres or stories the setting is critically important. In historical fiction, readers need a frame of reference for the time and place. In post-apocalyptic fiction, readers want to know how the modern world ended. In a fantasy story, readers want to know what that fantasy element is–the presence of magic and some hints at how it’s used. In a blurb, the genre needs to be shown and shown quickly, often boiled down to a single sentence. Here’s a great example:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.”

– Excerpt from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games blurb (Scholastic Press)

Here, in the space of two sentences the author defines this unique world and sets up the core challenge facing the main character. We don’t actually learn much about the setting details, but it’s clear that this is a story about an alternative world where a character is going to have to survive these games. The reader knows exactly what kind of story they’re in for.

Avoid Too Many Fictional Proper Names

In that example the author uses a few proper names: North America, Panem, Capitol. Here there’s only one that’s objectively unfamiliar to anglophone readers. But if you’ve ever read some fantasy or science fiction blurbs you will have seen those that include a pile of unfamiliar terms. Each new word requires mental effort on the part of the reader to keep track of. It’s like a little hill to climb. If you present a reader with too many hills to climb, they’ll put the book down and move on.

What Major Challenge Does The Character Face?

Be specific here. One problem I see frequently when people first start writing blurbs is the use of vague language. I think this comes from a desire not to give too much away. But if the reader can’t identify what problem the character faces, they’re not very likely to be interested because they won’t understand what the story is about.

Isolate a single challenge. If you’re writing something like epic fantasy, there may be many different challenges, but a blurb can only be so big (ideally no more than 200 words). Choose one.

The challenge should be easily defined in a single sentence. It’s okay to approximate something that’s complex. It’s okay to skip over details. Remember, you’re not trying to give the reader a synopsis of everything that happens. You’re trying to give them enough information so they can make an educated decision on whether this is a story they will enjoy.

Now that you have a challenge, how do you present it?

Identify Why This Character Must Face This Challenge

One option to try is to emphasize why the character must face the challenge. People tend to find stories much more appealing when characters are forced out of their comfort zone, where they are forced to make compromising choices, where they take actions that they wouldn’t normally take. That’s where there’s the greatest potential for disaster. But that’s also where learning and growth happen. That’s where reader is most likely to get the greatest bang for their buck.

Emphasize Choices the Character Faces, Decisions They Make, and Actions They Take

Think about character agency. You’ve got an interesting, approachable character and an intriguing problem that the character must confront. Now, what does that character do? Use the active voice here.
Jon Snow chooses to join the Night’s Watch. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute.

At some point in the story, the character will need to assume direct responsibility for the outcome. Identify and articulate this point.

Avoid Questions

Questions, when they are directly put to the reader, are an opportunity to put the book down.

If the answer to the question is obvious… asking it can come across as pretentious, or lecturing, and that can turn a reader off. Also, the reader may not agree with the intended/obvious response. If they don’t believe that love conquers all, or power corrupts, or whatever the obvious answer is, they’ll put the book down.

On the other hand, if the answer to the question is not obvious, the reader may not know it, or feel as if they have to work to figure it out. It’s another hill to climb. If they feel stupid for not getting it, they’ll likely pass on the story.

I’ve seen some blubs that hit the reader with question after question. Avoid this, unless you want the reader to feel as though they’re taking a quiz.

The Hook

This is a catch phrase, often bolded, at the beginning of the blurb. It’s main purpose is to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. It also serves as a kind of slogan for the book, something easily identifiable that will make it resonate in the reader’s mind.

Ideally the hook should be unique to the book. Avoid clichés.

Even though the hook should be the first thing a reader sees, it helps to write it last. Generally it’s easier to boil down the bigger blurb into a single idea, than vice versa.

Examples
Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun… – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Six days ago Astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to dies there. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Winter is coming. – Game of Thrones, George RR Martin

Seek Feedback

Blurbs are short. People can read them quickly and give feedback without too much of an investment of time.

If you haven’t already, join a few social media writers’ groups where posting blurbs and giving/getting feedback is encouraged and post your draft. Keep in mind that no all feedback will be positive, and not all people will agree. But often you can tap the hive mind of the online writer community to help identify any major flags that are keeping you from getting sales.

On Character Names

Notice any patterns in this list?
James Bond
Jason Bourne
Jack Bauer
Jack Reacher
Jack Ryan
John Rambo
Johnny Ricco
John McClane
Jon Snow

Aside from the fact that they all start with the letter J, there’s a certain pattern in the naming that seems to resonate in the action hero genre. Ian Flemming, for example, is reported to have named his iconic spy after the American ornithologist James Bond. At the time Flemming was looking for a name that was plain and dull sounding. He wanted to create a neutral, anonymous figure at the center of stories that were otherwise full of exotic action. At the same time, the character needed to be a blunt instrument wielded by a clandestine government department.

So you end up with James, which following WW2 was one of the top 20 names in the UK (in fact it appears to have been in the top 20 for the last century)–a common name that could be nearly anonymous. But then this was coupled with Bond. That last name can evoke images of either money, or shackles, perhaps both at once. It is a single blunt syllable. It resonates so well that the line:
“Bond. James Bond.”
has become an instantly recognizable institution in and of itself.

Going back to that list, I see quite similar patterns emerging… a common first name coupled with a blunt one or two syllable last named that evokes action. It might almost be a comic book onomatopoeia : Boom! Bam! Bang! Look at the Mission Impossible franchise. The lead character: Ethan Hunt.

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Here’s another list, this one of heroines from science fiction and urban fantasy:
Katniss Everdeen
Honor Harrington
Kris Longknife
Ellen Ripley
Beatrice “Tris” Prior
Hermione Granger
Annabeth Chase

There’s a similar pattern. Though in some cases it’s mixed up, you still have one part that at least feels “common” and another part that’s more exotic, that evokes a more vivid imagery.

This kind of pattern resonates with readers on a deeper scale because on one hand there’s something about the name that’s familiar, making it accessible. On the other hand there’s some contrast that gives it a unique flare, making the name memorable, and in many cases even aiding the characterization.

One other piece of advice that’s important in naming characters is that no character exists in a vacuum. As an author you have to consider the entire cast of your book. One trick a lot of authors use is to avoid having any two characters, at least main ones, with names that start with the same letter or that sound similar. This helps the reader to avoid confusion. (Interestingly George R.R. Martin turns this on its head and uses a small number of names and similarities between them to turn a relatively small number of names into a massive ensemble cast. I don’t recommend trying this for most writers though.)

Beyond the book you’re writing, no reader reads in a vacuum either. That’s why it’s so critically important for authors to read in their genre and learn who the popular characters are.