Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Leave a comment

Stories for your consideration

We are approaching the time of year during which nominations are collected for various awards in the SF world. I’ve had a pretty good year with sales etc., but have only had one story published during the eligible period (there should be much more from me next year). I thus propose for your consideration for nomination the following story of mine:

Long Way Gone, short story (in Hugo & BSFA award terms), published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of Analog.

Please let me know if you’d like to see a copy of the story. If I get enough requests I may be able to put a reprint up here.

The story has also just been selected for reprint in an anthology called A Thousand Tiny Knives which is raising money to help those suffering from endometriosis.

Leave a comment

A few words on ‘Internet Connection Records’


Clear and cogent thinking on some of the implications of the IP Bill going through parliament really mean.

It’s telling that MPs seem to have swallowed the ‘itemised phone bill’ analogy. It suggests that they either don’t realise what happens in an online world or are so out of touch they don’t care.

Originally posted on Paul Bernal's Blog:

There are many things in the new draft Investigatory Powers Bill that need very careful attention – some of which may be cautiously welcomed, some of which need to be taken with a distinct pinch of salt. The issues surrounding ‘Bulk Powers’ (which we’re not supposed to call ‘mass surveillance’) and ‘Equipment Interference’ (which I presume we’re not supposed to call hacking) will be examined in great detail, and quite rightly so because they’re of critical importance, and clearly recognised as such. The issue of ‘Internet Connection Records’, on the other hand, does not yet seem to have been given the attention it deserves – but I am sure that will change, because the collection of them has massive significance and represents a major change in surveillance, for all that they are described in the introduction to the bill as just ‘restoring capabilities that have been lost as a result of…

View original 1,194 more words

Leave a comment

Apparition! Kensington & Chelsea Celebration of Science

I will be giving a talk at the Kensington & Chelsea Celebration of Science this coming saturday afternoon. There are lots of other good talks on Saturday as well!

Kensington Town Hall
Hornton Street, W8 7NX
Telephone: 020 7361 3000
Nearest Tube: High Street Kensington – See more at: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/events/celebration-science-2015#sthash.eP9jMO9L.dpuf

Saturday 17 October 2015 10.30 am to 6.00 pm


Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, W8 7NX

10.30 a.m. Coffee
11.00 a.m. Dr. Jamie Gallagher

University of Glasgow

Chemistry and the periodic table

Noon Dr. Anne Curtis

National Physical Laboratory and visiting lecturer, Imperial College

The measurement of time and the atomic clock

1.00 p.m. Lunch
2.00 p.m. Dr. David Clements

Imperial College

Infrared astronomy

3.00 p.m. Dr. Mark Paine

Reader, Vector Biology Group, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

Tropical diseases; new solutions for tackling old problems

4.00 p.m. Tea
4.15 p.m. Dr. Robert Harrison

Head, Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

The global neglect of snakebite victims – the consequences and challenges we face to reverse it

5.15 p.m. Dr. Martin Hall

Researcher, Head of Division Entomology; Life Sciences department; Parasites and Vectors Division. Natural History Museum

Forensic Entomology

6.15 p.m. Closing remarks

Leave a comment

An Open Letter to the Times Higher World University Rankers


Insightful comment on the latest THES university rankings. Their changed methodology tacitly eliminates most experimental particle physics papers for no apparent reason.

More generally we’re so obsessed with rankings – of universities, schools, grant proposals – that we don’t check consistency of methods or worry about uncertainties in the rankings.

Originally posted on In the Dark:

Dear Rankers,

Having perused your latest set of league tables along with the published methodology, a couple of things puzzle me.

First, I note that you have made significant changes to your methodology for combining metrics this year. How, then, can you justify making statements such as

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

when it appears that any changes could well be explained not by changes in performance, as gauged by the metrics you use,  but in the way they are combined?

I assume, as intelligent and responsible people, that you did the obvious test for this effect, i.e. to construct a parallel set of league tables, with this year’s input data but last year’s methodology, which would make it easy to isolate changes in methodology from changes in the performance indicators.  Your failure to publish such a set, to illustrate how…

View original 661 more words


On Worldbuilding: or Why Station Eleven nearly Hit the Wall

The more I write and read SF the more I realise that the world in which a story is set is a character in the story – that background matters to me as a reader and a writer very much, and I think this is true of many other readers.

Worldbuilding is thus an essential element of any book that is classified, whether by writer, readers or critics, as science fiction. It’s a curious skill, not unlike scientific research in some ways. You have to test your world against a variety of questions or thought experiments. If you want a scenario where evil space mining corporations want to strip mine a planet for valuable metal ores you need to explain why they can’t just do this with metal rich asteroids and avoid the (necessary to the plot) oppression of the natives.

Similar questions should be asked about the worldbuidling in fantasy as well. If you have knights wandering around in huge numbers to make your battlefields look spectacular you have to explain where their food and water come from, who made the arms and armour, and who is paying for it all.

This process isn’t just a matter of making the world deeper and more believable, it can also be a route to generating plot ideas. If a battalion of knights get their food supplies cut off there could be an interesting subplot where they have to live off the land and come into contact with the peasants who are suffering to pay for and supply their noble battles. How they interact with the peasants is a great opportunity for character development.

Worldbuilding can be hard work. For recent short stories I’ve published I know far more about their worlds than is on the page. Some of this may emerge in future projects – I’m sure this is a reason why genre writers often set several stories in the same universe – but that is far from guaranteed.

None of this should be news to writers working within the genre, though it is certainly true that some are better at worldbuilding than others. Problems arise, though, when writers who are not as experienced in the genre pay us a visit.

This brings us to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, winner of the 2015 Clarke Award.

I bought this largely on the strength of the award, which has made odd choices in the past but which usually picks something interesting. It’s been on my to-read shelf for a while and I finally got round to it this week.

The majority of the book (I am told) is set 20 years after a plague has devastated the world’s population, but with frequent flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the plague. This is all ‘I am told’ since I didn’t get beyond the first ~30 pages.

The writing is certainly good, with nice characterisation and well described events and locations (one in fact not dissimilar to something that happened to my Dad several years ago). But there’s a severe problem with the plague that just bumped me out of the whole thing and broke the relationship I had with the book.

The plague that changes the world in ways necessary for the plot is very infectious and very fast acting. From the information in the first chapter it seems you can go from infection to death in about 8 hours. This isn’t without precedent – the 1919 flu pandemic apparently took some people from healthy to dead in 45 minutes – but the Station Eleven plague seems to do this to everyone.

However, the disease is brought to Toronto, where the opening is set, from Moscow on a flight that lasts 10 hours. Anybody who has ever flown knows that it’ll take you rather more than the flight time to get to the airport, check in, wait around departures, arrive, get through immigration, find your luggage and then get out of the airport. Toronto’s patient zero would thus probably have died on the flight and many of the other passengers would already be exhibiting symptoms on arrival, triggering medical alerts, quarantine and the end of the plague.

Of course this also ignores what happened back in Russia before patient zero boards the plane. Why aren’t people dropping like flies there? Or in Georgia where it is meant to have started? Are the Russian authorities so stupid that they want to ignore this problem in the hope that it will just go away? Books that rely on people being universally stupid to drive the plot don’t last long with me.

The problems don’t end there. A deadly and highly infectious disease is certainly something to worry about, but a disease that rapidly kills most of those who catch it is more easily dealt with than one that has a long incubation time (like AIDS). Quarantine works fantastically well for this. You take a hospital with infected patients, stop anybody leaving, and leave it for 48 hours before you send in the teams in hazmat suits. If it takes 8 hours to kill someone infected, after 2 days the only ones left will be survivors (or in Station Eleven‘s scenario, probably nobody). The same principle can be applied more broadly.

A city or nation-wide curfew for 48 hours, even if only weakly enforced, would have a huge impact on the spread of the pandemic, probably stopping it in its tracks. In the context of the book this would be even easier since Toronto is in the grip of a snow storm when the outbreak kicks off. Yes, many would die, and the world afterwards would be different, but the empty world of Station Eleven would not be the result – it would be more like the aftermath of the disease in the film Contagian than what the author was looking for. What gets into the book is a far more implausible plague scenario than the film Outbreak.

Working it out is not difficult. One single afternoon playing Plague Inc. can teach you this, which is why those of us who play the game are so happy when we manage to infect New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Madagascar.

When worldbuilding flaws are as deep and obvious as this I lose confidence in the entire fictional project. Yes, Mandel’s purpose with this book was not to write a virus-beating thriller. The plague is there to provide a backdrop for the changed world she wanted to work with. But if she can’t get simple things write about epidemiology why should I have confidence in anything else the writer is doing, from Shakespeare to the characters? To me, some fundamental contract with the reader is broken with the basic errors made in the first 30 pages.

And these flaws could be corrected fairly easily. The plague could simply work more slowly. If you want a sudden die off then it could be a two stage disease, with mild early symptoms and then a devastating collapse later, with the interim being a period of high infectivity. By the time people start dropping like flies it’s too late. There are actually disease that behave this way – anthrax is one, and there are more twisted options as well, such as syphilis and some of the herpes family. If the author had spoken to some scientists about her scenario this could all have been fixed. This is something I do with the Science for Fiction workshops.

Or the plague, like the war in McCarthy’s The Road could simply just be something that happened in the background, with no real details of how it happened. People could just start dying. No need to invoke the Russians, an impossible patient zero flying from there to Toronto, just a sudden devastating worldwide die off produced by an unknown infectious agent that doctors and scientists are too busy dying to determine or cure. I can buy that – the characters in the first 30 pages have no reason to know more than that. Only the writer wanted to tell me how it happened and got it wrong.

Station Eleven didin’t hit the wall but it nearly did. I’m actually rather surprised that the Clarke judges didn’t have the same reaction.


Edited: title misspelling corrected

Leave a comment

Can UK Science Survive Outside the EU?


Leaving the EU would be a disaster for UK science

Originally posted on In the Dark:

Please watch the following video made by the organization Scientists for EU. You could also read the document referred to in the video (“International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013”) which can be found here.

View original

Leave a comment

PS: Smearing by Mensch, an afterthought

Originally posted on Edinburgh Eye:

I haven’t written anything about the Hugo Awards on this blog, despite having a vote at the 2015 Worldcon, because the extraordinary mess that a few hundred people made of a popular-vote award really seemed to have nothing to do with UK politics, which is, mostly, what I write about here.

Hugo Award 1946 retroThe Hugo Awards are a set of science-fiction awards nominated and voted for by members of the World Science-Fiction Society (WSFS) annually, and presented to the winners at the World Science-Fiction Convention (the Worldcon). Any paid-up member can nominate any eligible work: the works that receive the most nominations are short-listed (generally five works to a short-list, though a tied vote can give six to a short-list). Any paid-up member can vote for any or all of the works short-listed in any category, and the work that receives the most votes wins the Hugo Award for that category. They’re…

View original 1,422 more words


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 894 other followers