Fiction Review: Bosman at his Best by Herman Charles Bosman

CoverMy mission to become better read in short fiction continues with the recommendation of a friend: Bosman at his Best is a collection of the works of Herman Charles Bosman. I hadn’t heard of him until my friend mentioned him, though it didn’t take me long to wish I had. Bosman’s gently satirical writing took me to the Transvaal of the early 20th century, mainly through the fictional reminiscences of the venerable Oom Schalk Lourens; raconteur supreme of South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Wild West. Other stories take a detour from the wide open spaces of the veldt to the confines of Pretoria prison, following Bosman’s own reprieve from the death sentence and subsequent ten years of hard labour.

Like Hemingway’s early stories, Bosman’s stories present slices of the lives of his characters with little or no explanation. He leaves it to us to judge their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and to decide whether or not we’d like them – or whether they would like us.

For Bosman doesn’t romanticise his characters. In his stories, there is very little love lost between the ‘Boer’, the ‘Kaffir’ and the ‘Rooinek’, although they often learn respect for one another. My own favourite is Funeral Earth, which brings in all three of the enemies determined to lay claim to the red earth by staining it redder with one another’s’ blood.

Like the best of his stories, Funeral Earth combines humour and tragedy in a very few pages. It’s simultaneously a very intimate story showing the outlook of a farmer, and the story of the making of the country of South Africa.

He died in 1951, at the age of only 46, at the beginning of the Apartheid era. This collection left me wondering what he would have written about that time, or indeed today’s South Africa, had he lived longer.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 4: Orientation

Previous instalments: 1 2 3

Under the Hooked CrossMacFadyen darted around the hydroponics pod with an agility that made Silversmith dizzy. It took a conscious effort not watch him. Any sudden head movements set his inner ear spinning.

“It’ll take you a few days to get used to having centrifuges on the walls and incubators on the ceiling,” said MacFadyen, “but it’s the only chance you’ll get to do acrobatics in your lab.”

MacFadyen’s face was pale and his blue jumpsuit looked baggy, showing the weight he’d lost. Whatever toll six months on the Dancing Penguin had taken, he wasn’t short of energy. He was to leave with the shuttle and was looking forward to getting home to Edinburgh. He’d confessed a longing for Scotch whisky, though Silversmith heard that sort of nostalgia often enough on the ground in Peenemunde. Germany led the world in aeronautics and engineering, but the British were ahead in biology so British biologists were welcome at Peenemünde as long as Prime Minister Mosely took his orders from Berlin.

MacFadyen pushed himself toward the door, then stopped and pointed at a red button behind a panel of glass. “Emergency drill?”

“Clear the pod with the problem, hit the emergency button to seal all the pods, sit on my hands while the duty officer does the roll call, then do what he tells me.”

MacFadyen smiled at Silversmith’s mechanical tone. “Sorry. The book says I have to ask, just in case you haven’t been through it a hundred times in training. Come on, last bit of the tour and I’ll leave you in peace.” MacFadyen propelled himself into the corridor that joined the pods. He swung himself off a rung to send himself flying down the middle. Silversmith wondered how long it had taken to perfect the trick.

The short corridor led to the pod that doubled as a mess and briefing room. Henkel was gazing at the photographs on the wall while the man he was replacing described them. Silversmith suspected that the look on Henkel’s face was as much a mask to hide his nausea as it was genuine reverence. The inevitable portrait of Heydrich dominated, but it was the fresco of spaceflight photographs that really caught Silversmith’s attention. Hanna Reitsch climbing out of her Valkyrie capsule after her three pioneering orbits, Adler II’s lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility, the first shuttle launch from the Reich’s spaceport in the Belgian Congo. In spite of himself, Silversmith couldn’t help but think of the immense achievement of having such a collection at all, let alone of having it in orbit a mere three decades after Von Braun’s first A-4 rocket touched the edge of space in 1942.

Next week: Disorientation

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These other stories by DJ Cockburn available online: Steel in the Morning, Newgate Jig, The Endocrine Tyranny, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, Foreclosure, Cassandra’s Cargo and Mars One.

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Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

Midnight Deed


(Chris Fifield-Smith [CC / Flickr])

It was midnight when I decided what had to be done. It wasn’t a daytime decision. The day is the time for forbearance and forgiveness and all those things we do in case someone is watching.

The night sets us free.

Darkness allows us to contemplate the things we dare not contemplate in daylight, in case our faces betray us. The things we really want to do.

In daylight, I’d have rocked up to his front door, pressed his doorbell and let the whole street watch me pretend I was sorry to bother him and ask so politely that he’d have no trouble saying no.

At midnight, the street could watch all it liked but no one saw me except the fox I startled by climbing over his fence. No one but that fox saw me dash across his back garden and prise open his kitchen window, and one creature of the night doesn’t judge another.

At midnight, I wouldn’t be apologising to anyone.

At midnight, I would do what needed to get done.

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Greater Minds: Anthony Horowitz on writing Sherlock Holmes

  • Anthony Horowitz was commissioned to write a Sherlock Holmes novel.
  • His afterword described the process of planning a mystery novel.
  • He starts with who murders whom and why, and works outward from there.
  • He developed ten rules to be faithful to the tone of Arthur Conan Doyle.


Anthony Horowitz in 2012 (T_Marjorie [CC / Flickr])

Reading the work of an accomplished novelist is like watching a master magician at work. What we see looks so polished that it appears to have sprung into existence with no effort whatsoever. The novelist’s tricks to engage our interest are as thoroughly concealed as the magician’s sleight of hand. Both the master novelist and the master magician spend years learning their craft, but both conjure as deftly as if they were born with the skill.

For an apprentice writer like me, it’s always fascinating when a master craftsman allows a peek behind the curtain. Anthony Horowitz was generous enough to do that in an afterword to his 2011 novel, The House of Silk, with an essay titled Conception, Inspiration and the Ten Rules. The publisher has been generous enough to make it available through Google Books.

Conjuring crime

The crime mystery novel demands perhaps the most accomplished sleight of the novelist’s hand; not only must it keep us as emotionally engaged as any novel, but it must drip feed us with information about the crime at the centre of it. The detective must lead us through a trail of breadcrumbs in which each leads to the next, but it must never head


Holmes contemplates a three pipe problem (Scott Monty [CC / Flickr])

directly toward its final destination. If we work out whodunit before the detective, the detective appears to be slow on the uptake and we lose interest. If the detective beats us there using information that was hidden from us, we feel the author wasn’t playing fair.

There rules can be bent, but not if the detective is Sherlock Holmes. In the original Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle pioneered the technique of the story as logic puzzle. To conceal any piece of the puzzle would be to deceive the reader. Holmes is repeated described as a genius in words ostensibly written by Dr Watson, who evidently has a sharp mind of his own. To believe in such a character at all, he must always be a step ahead of the reader.

A master of murder

Horowitz is best known for his television work, having written episodes for Poirot and The Midsomer Murders and gone on to create series including Foyle’s War and New Blood. He’s also written a number of novels, some original creations and some commissioned by the estates that own the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond series. Hence he is able to say:

If there is one small boast I occasionally make, it’s that I have probably written more fictional murders than any other writer.


The Midsomer Murders (Jason Hughes Fan Site [CC / Flickr])

So how does he do it?

Perhaps disingenuously, Horowitz suggests that it’s actually rather simple:

For me, all murder stories boil down to a very simple formula: A+B=C. A is one person. B is another person. C is the reason why A wants to murder B.

But that’s only a starting point. Turning that into a 90-100k novel like The House of Silk involves complicating it:

I see a murder story as a series of concentric circles, almost like a dartboard. At the very centre is the equation. It is where I start because it is both the beginning and the end; the springboard and the solution to the crime. But then I have to add the next levels. The other suspects. More stories which, though often irrelevant, nonetheless link up with the bull’s eye…every book has to have a shape. A murder story is circular.

Horowitz goes on to say that this approach is ‘completely irrelevant to Sherlock Holmes because Doyle’s approach was different’. Having read The House of Silk, I’m not so sure about that. Horowitz himself acknowledges that at 90-100k, it’s considerably longer than any of Conan Doyle’s Holmes tales, most of which were short stories with a few short


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914, photographed by Arnold Genthe (Racconish [Wikimedia Commons])

novels. It looks as though Horowitz used his own formula while adopting the register of Conan Doyle’s writing as best he could.

Murder’s fatal attraction

Horowitz’s basic formula begs the question of why murder is so fascinating in the first place. In real life, murder is a rare crime usually committed for mundane reasons or no reason at all. Data from England and Wales in 2013-2014 record only 528 homicides among a population of 58 million, half of which happened because someone lost their temper. Only around half of those homicides were prosecuted as murders, implying intent to kill.

In such a society, most people will live their entire lives without ever encountering murder. Yet in the fictional worlds created by Horowitz, murder abounds, often for complex reasons. Perhaps it’s because murder is at a safely abstract distance for most of us that we can enjoy it as entertainment. Murder is such a staple of the most popular genre of fiction that it’s tempting to believe that we all have an unhealthy obsession with it. Horowitz disagrees:

I’m often asked why readers have such a keen interest in murder. The short answer is that actually I think we don’t – but in fiction, whether it’s television of books – murder is a simple, very immediate way of focusing attention on a character. We may have no particular interest in a man who makes pizzas but the moment his wife is found with her head in the pizza oven, we’re forced to ask questions about him, to look behind their relationship, to search for the truth.


(Edward Zulawski [CC / Flickr])

Impersonating Sir Arthur

The House of Silk was commissioned not simply as a crime novel, but specifically as a Sherlock Holmes novel. To write it, Horowitz needed to find the tone of Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. For me, his approach is less interesting than his approach to plotting. I’m unlikely to be commissioned by an estate any time soon. I may one day take it into my head to write a pastiche using characters in the public domain, so it is useful to see how he had to consciously lay out how he avoided being influenced by the many re-imaginings of Holmes that have appeared on page and screen since Conan Doyle’s death.

The Doyle estate, he says, ‘wasn’t interested in a fast-paced action thriller full of explosions and improbable chases. They’d already had plenty of that with Robert Downey Jnr’. He drew up a set of ten rules:

1/ No over-the-top action.

2/ No women [as a love interest for Holmes].

3/ No gay references…between Holmes and Watson.

4/ No walk-on appearances by famous people.

5/ No drugs…to be taken by Sherlock Holmes.

6/ Do the research.

7/ Use the right language.

8/ Not too many murders.

9/ Include all the best known characters.

10/ When publicising the book, never, ever be seen wearing a deerstalker hat orsmoking a pipe. I actually asked my agent to put this into the contract.


(Scott Monty [CC / Flickr])

The point of Horowitz’s rules is not that they are universally applicable, but that they came from reading and considering the original stories. The process itself is worth learning from.

My next question to myself is which fictional characters, if any, I’d choose to work with. Do you have any favourites? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 3: Dancing Penguin

Previous instalments: 1 2

Under the Hooked CrossSilversmith’s glass stopped half way to his lips. “Argus doesn’t stop with the British government, then.”


“Nothing wrong with ambition. Why Argus? Wasn’t he some Greek fella?”

“Servant of Zeus, with a hundred eyes that he never closed all at once.”

“I remember. Then he fell asleep and got his silly head chopped off.”

Four years later, Adler II landed on the moon. British tanks rolled into the Republic of Ireland. Rudolf Hess retired as Führer and his successor, Reinhard Heydrich, announced his intention to place Germans on Mars by the end of the century. Meanwhile, the ink was drying on the British citizenship of Dr James Silversmith, who was already on his way to a post at the Peenemünde spaceflight centre. Six months later, George Carlton was posted to the next building as an administrator. It was as clear a demonstration of the Argus organization’s influence as Silversmith could have asked for.

The vibration eased enough to allow Silversmith’s first full breath since the main engines had started.

“Booster separation is good.”

Silversmith looked at Henkel, whose mouth was set in a rigid line. Silversmith couldn’t miss the battle between the iron discipline of an SS officer and the human frailty of a mind and body hurled from their native planet at eight times the speed of sound.

“Main tank separation.”

A jolt made Henkel jump. Silversmith gave him an encouraging smile. Henkel’s answering smile was slow and reluctant, as though his face muscles were rebelling against his oath of allegiance.

The main engines shut down, leaving Silversmith’s ears ringing and his body feeling as though he had just done twelve rounds with Max Schmeling.

The Luftwaffe pilot floated out of his seat and turned to face them. “Well my gentlemen, you’ll be glad to know we’re exactly on schedule and we’ll be docking with the Dancing Penguin in about four and a half hours. Meanwhile, I suggest you take the time to get used to microgravity.”

Silversmith had often wondered how long the designers had stared at the Adolf Hitler Space Station’s tangle of solar panels and antennae before they started to see a dancing penguin, but the nickname had stuck.

Henkel tore off his straps as though he was escaping from an instrument of torture. He hurled himself out of his seat. He flung up his hands to protect his face from the bulkhead he bounced off and turned a full somersault. His arms flailed. Silversmith grabbed his ankle, but it was too late. The pilot ducked behind his seat to avoid a stream of vomit. He reappeared with a handful of paper bags and the expression of a man who had seen it coming.

Next week: Orientation

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These other stories by DJ Cockburn available online: Steel in the Morning, Newgate Jig, The Endocrine Tyranny, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, Foreclosure, Cassandra’s Cargo and Mars One.

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Flight of the Silkworm

flight-of-the-silkworm-001Flight of the Silkworm is airborne at Solstice Publishing! This is my first novella and my longest published piece to date. It was also one of the most fun to write. It’s the story of Persia, a centurion of an elite band of paragliding mercenaries who finds her long experience as an airborne warrior isn’t much help when she’s sent on a diplomatic mission as an envoy.

There’s a preview in the link below.

At the moment, it’s only in Kindle format but a paperback version should be available soon.

Many thanks to the editors at Solstice Publishing, KC Sprayberry and Chrystal Vaughan.

Flight of the Silkworm in the Kindle store

Flight of the Silkworm at Solstice Publishing

Author notes


Flight of the Silkworm at Goodreads

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Posted in Publishing news

Etiquette on the Circle Line


(strollerdos [CC / Flickr])

My first thought was that he was talking to someone else. If someone’s talking aloud on the tube, it’s more likely to be on a phone than to the person sitting next to them. But he was looking at me, and I saw no headset.

I studied his face. His eyes and mouth formed a mild enquiry. None of the bulging and slavering we Londoners expect when a complete stranger who tries to start a conversation. Perhaps he was only visiting London, and no one had told him that striking up conversations is something we just don’t do.

I decided he didn’t look like a drug addict, suicide bomber, axe murderer or any of the other pathologies we associate with such behaviour. It was only when I’d done finished the dangerous nutter checklist, Londoners for the use of, that I registered what he’d just said. Something about David Cameron getting a new job now he’d resigned from Parliament.

I weighed the words, but found no indication of sanity or insanity. He could have been commenting on an article in the Evening Standard he was leafing through. He could have been lamenting the demise of his plan to murder our former prime minister on Birdcage Walk, and was looking for a suitable proxy now his target’s whereabouts were no longer predictable.

I decided that the chances of his being a murderer were, all things considered, rather low. I replied that I didn’t think Cameron would need a new job as he was a millionaire by inheritance and had only gone into politics as a hobby.

David Cameron is one of the few people who can be safely disparaged in polite conversation.

Oh billions, he said, and added that at least Cameron had a few more ethics than Tony Blair.

I breathed a sigh of relief. His understanding of Blair’s ethical deficit proved him to be a reasonable man.

That’s why I didn’t flinch when he turned the page of the Evening Standard and told me the new plastic five-pound-notes wouldn’t fit in his wallet.

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Inspirations: To sail upon a star

  • Project Breakthrough Starshot plans to send probes to Proxima Centauri powered by lightsails.
  • The lightsail was conceived decades ago, but the IKAROS probe is the only spacecraft to use it.
  • IKAROS is powered by the sun, but Breakthrough Starshot will use a laser to accelerate the probes to 20% of lightspeed.
  • As well as using light, the sun can drive a ship that generates its own magnetic field.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, with Proxima Centauri in the background (ESO)

Proxima b is a planet a little bigger than earth, it’s close enough to its star, Proxima CCentauri, to have liquid water, it’s about 40 trillion kilometres away and Stephen Hawking says it’s due a visit.

Astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escudé, who led the team that discovered it in August this year, put it succinctly: ‘The search for life starts now”.

The catch is that we can’t see if there’s any life on it from four light years away. In fact, we can’t even see the planet. The European Southern Observatory was able to deduce its existence by its effect with the light of Proxima Centauri. To see if there’s anything alive on it, we need to get a much closer look.

Of all the planets discovered around stars other than our own, Proxima b is not the most likely to harbour life. It’s so close to its star that it may well be tidally locked, with one hemisphere permanently facing the star. If it is, that hemisphere would be blisteringly hot while the other side would be desolately cold. Water would only be liquid in a narrow band between them, so it wouldn’t be a particularly friendly place. Worse, its star has probably dimmed relatively recently so its orbit has only been in the ‘habitable zone’ for a fairly short period of time.

Visiting our galactic neighbour

The difference between Proxima b and other exoplanets is that it’s much closer, and a hundred million dollars has already been put forward to sending a robot probe there. Close, in interstellar terms, is a relative term. The fastest spacecraft to leave earth is NASA’s New Horizons probe, which took nine years to reach Pluto. It would take it nearly 80,000 years to reach Proxima b.

Yet there is a plan to send a probe there in 20 years. The Breakthrough Starshot mission to the Proxima Centauri system was announced by internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner in April, actually before Proxima b was discovered. Milner has stumped up $100 million of his own money, and he’s got the backing of leading experts in astronomy and physics


Artist’s impression of a spacecraft powered by a solar sail (Kevin Gill [CC / Flickr])

including Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson. The list of technical challenges is formidable but the heart of it is the question of how they intend to get a spacecraft moving at 20% of the speed of light, or 0.2c to use the technical notation.

Milner’s plan is to harness the power of light itself to power a fleet of probes that would only weigh a few grams each. The concept of the lightsail, which captures photons from solar wind, has been around for several decades and was popularised in Arthur C Clarke’s short story Sunjammer in 1964. When the most expensive part of any mission is getting the spacecraft off our own planet, the idea of a propulsion system that doesn’t need fuel has an obvious advantage. Once unfurled, a solar sail could use the largest energy source in the solar system.

IKAROS takes flight

NASA conducted several theoretical studies on solar sails in the late 20th century, culminating in a 1999 paper by Dean Spieth and Robert Zubrin laying out the possibilities and problems. They described a lightsail made of aluminium, which would capture the photons flung out by the sun, embedded in a plastic substrate to maintain its shape. Their sail could achieve an acceleration of around 0.3m/s2. That’s not much compared to what a rocket engine could achieve, but a rocket engine can only accelerate for as long as it has fuel to burn. A solar sail could keep accelerating for as long as the sun is bouncing photons off it. After a month, it would be whipping along at 671km/s, which is about forty times


Artist’s impression of IKAROS (JAXA)

faster than New Horizons. At that speed, it would reach Pluto in a little over three months.

The concept was taken further by JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), who designed a solar sail purely out of polyimide, and built in an ability to manoeuvre with liquid crystal panels that change how reflective different parts of the sail are. Their 14m2 sail was used to power the IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) probe, which launched in 2010 and was able to make a close flyby of Venus, which is actually closer to the sun than earth. It was the first, and so far only, spacecraft to be powered by a solar sail, although NASA has deployed a lightsail in orbit to test the technology.

Spieth and Zubrin took the concept further, suggesting that rather than plastic and aluminium, a sail could be made out of carbon nanotubes which would be considerably lighter, allowing for greater acceleration. Because a solar sail needs to be relatively close to the sun to accelerate, greater acceleration means greater speed. The plastic and aluminium sail that whizzes by Pluto at 671km/s won’t get any faster because the sun is little brighter than any other star from that far out, so there wouldn’t be many photons pushing the sail along. Spieth and Zubrin calculated that a carbon nanotube sail could accelerate as fast as 100m/s2, which would allow it to reach a maximum speed of nearly 40,000km/s. That’s about 0.13c, which would get it to Pluto in less than two days and to Proxima Centauri in 32 years. It’s a long trip, but it’s not so far from the 20 years Breakthrough Starshot is talking about.

There’s always a catch

There are, to put it mildly, some technical problems to be solved before anyone can build a 40,000km/s spacecraft. Spieth and Zubrin’s calculation is based on the mass of the sail


Robert Zubrin in 2011 (Penn State [CC / Flickr])

alone but to be of any use, there would have to be some sort of spacecraft attached to the probe, which will have mass of its own and reduce acceleration. The acceleration is governed by the ratio of the mass of the sail to the mass of the payload, so the larger the payload, the larger the sail required to reach that acceleration and subsequently that speed. It wouldn’t need a huge payload before it would need tens of square kilometres of sail to get anywhere near that 40,000km/s.

A bigger problem is that while research into carbon nanotubes is progressing rapidly, it’s still a long way from being able to make a solar sail out of them. Spieth and Zubrin did not believe they would be available until well into this century, and so far, they appear to be right.

The Breakthrough Starshot plan

Yet Breakthrough Starshot proposes to sail probes to Proxima Centauri faster than the fastest estimate offered by Spieth and Zubrin. Powerful as the sun is, it’s a long way from any probe that starts from earth and we wouldn’t be here at all if the photons didn’t spread out and lose their intensity before they got here. Milner proposes a power source that will provide a much more intense blast of photons: a giant laser.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Milner proposed a massive array of solar panels charging capacitors, then unleashing the lot in a torrent of photons that would accelerate the probes up to 0.2c in a few minutes. Paul Gilster of the Centauri Dreams blog, which functions as a discussion forum for serious discussion about spaceflight, calculates that such a laser would need a power of around 100 gigawatts. That’s vastly more powerful than


Artist’s impression of a lightsail being boosted by a laser on earth (Kevin Gill [CC / Flickr])

any laser in regular use, although it’s only about a thousandth of the power of Osaka University’s LFEX, the most powerful laser ever fired. However, LFEX can only fire for around a trillionth of a second while Milner is talking about sustaining power for several minutes. That creates a whole suite of problems around storing enough energy to sustain the burst and preventing the laser from melting itself while firing, as well as designing probes that won’t be vaporised by the burst or tear their precision instruments to pieces as they accelerate from zero to a fifth of the speed of light in those few minutes.

Nobody ever said interstellar flight was easy.

If Breakthrough Starshot works, the robot probes won’t stop to admire the view once they get to Proxima Centauri. They’ll be moving so fast that they’d cover the distance between earth and sun in less than 45 minutes. They’ll have time to snap a few pictures, make a few readings with their sensors and send the data back to earth before they whizz out of the other side of the Proxima Centauri system. Four years later, we’ll receive the data and for the first time, we’ll have close-up observations of another star and the planet or planets orbiting it.

So much for what may be done. As a science fiction writer, I can’t look at things like this without asking myself whether sails could be used for a manned mission. At the moment,


NASA’s NanoSail-D was lost on launch, although NASA has subsequently deployed lightsails successfully (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center [CC / Flickr])

the limitation is that to accelerate a large enough spacecraft to keep a crew alive and sane for any length of time better than a rocket, a sail would have to be larger than is manageable with current technology.

The magnetic sail

In a different paper, Zubrin suggested an alternative approach to solar sailing. The sun doesn’t only emit photons, but also protons and electrons. As they have a charge, they would interact with a magnetic field. Zubrin and his colleague, Andrew Martin, suggested that a spacecraft could be powered by a loop of cable carrying an electrical current, generating an electromagnetic field for those charged particles to push against. Unlike the solar sail, the sail wouldn’t have to physically cover the space it was collecting solar particles from and for a manned mission, it would have the added advantage that it would protect the crew from the radiation that scours everything outside the earth’s magnetosphere.

Unlike photons, protons and electrons move at a mere five hundredth of the speed of light, so they would only accelerate the magnetic sail at 0.02m/s2 and couldn’t push it along any faster than 650km/s. That’s at the lower end of Spieth and Zubrin’s estimates for the speed of a lightsail and it wouldn’t get near Proxima Centauri any time this millennium, but it’s still around forty times faster than New Horizons so it could be useful for missions within the solar system.

Better still is that the magnetic coil could be angled so that the spacecraft need not fly


Zubrin & Martin’s schematic of a spacecraft powered by a magnetic sail (NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts)

directly out from the sun but could manoeuvre from one planetary orbit to another. Zubrin and Martin describe a 283-day mission to Mars, which is considerably shorter than the two-year transit time that is the current minimum. That mission would be carried out using a coil with a radius of 32km, weighing around six tons. It would tow a 42-ton payload, which is a little less than the Apollo missions that put men on the moon.

The superconductivity problem

As we have yet to see a spacecraft wafted to Mars by the power of protons and electrons trapped in a magnetic field, we may surmise that there is a catch. The catch is that Zubrin and Martin’s concept was based around a superconducting coil. The cables and wires you’re using to power the screen you’re reading on carry electricity reasonably well, but they do lose some of the power of that electricity to heat. That’s good enough for everything we need electricity for right now, but it’s not good enough for a magnetic sail. That would need to carry electricity with perfect efficiency, losing none of its energy in the process. Such a material is called a superconductor, and they do exist but they only work at very low temperatures.

Interplanetary space is very cold. At 77k (-196°C, -321°F), anywhere on earth that was that cold would cause nitrogen to condense out of the air and flow like water. Unfortunately, that’s not cold enough for superconductivity.

When Zubrin and Martin published their paper, the most promising superconductors were based on copper oxides which need substantially colder temperatures. Since then, a new class of superconductors based on fluorine iron arsenide has been discovered, which superconduct at 52k (-221°C, -366°F). That’s still not cold enough for a magnetic sail, but

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri

Artist’s impression of the surface of Proxima b, with Proxima Centauri on the horizon (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

it’s closing in on the right range and researchers are still trying out the full range of compounds so they may come up with something better.

The sails of the future

So will we see more robots sailing around the solar system, or out of it, any time soon or will IKAROS be the closest we ever came to realising Arthur C Clarke’s vision of solar yachts?

Milner’s hundred million says it won’t. He’s talking about sending his starshot to Proxima Centauri in around 20 years. To do that, he’ll need prototypes so if he’s serious, we’re likely to see them zipping around our solar system in the next decade or so.

We haven’t had a good look at Neptune since Voyager 2 took a few photographs in 1989. Perhaps it’s time for a closer look.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 2: Argus

Previous instalments: 1

Under the Hooked Cross“Thirty seconds to booster separation.”

Silversmith was more alone than he’d been for months. He could bellow, “The Führer is a Jewish comedian!” into his throat mike and everyone would assume they had misheard. As good a moment as any to question what the hell he was doing here.

He could trace it back fourteen years, to a second pint of Guinness.

“Study at Oxford? Are you mad?” He was still Seamus Silversmith then, student at Trinity College in Dublin and grandson of a man who had fought in the IRA under Michael Collins.

Carlton smiled. “Something against the fair land of my parentage?”

“Oh no, can’t think of a thing I could object to. Words ‘bunch of Nazi stooges’ never crossed my mind. Did you know my father’s Jewish?”

Carlton’s smile didn’t slip as he sipped his pint. Of course he knew everything that mattered about Silversmith. Carlton had a knack of knowing things. He knew Silversmith’s father was a Baltic immigrant who had taken the name because someone told him Silversmith sounded Irish, just as he knew that Silversmith’s Dubliner mother had raised him a Catholic. Silversmith suspected it was the point of the conversation Carlton was building up to.

“Don’t get me wrong George, I’ve nothing against the people,” said Silversmith. “Well most of them anyways.”

Actually, he’d hated the lot of them until a few months ago, but this was 1958, when the people of Britain elected a Liberal government and tried to defend it with shotguns and petrol bombs. It took the Panzers of the international policing operation less than a week to return the fascist government to what was left of Whitehall, but the people who died under their tracks had earned the respect of the students of Dublin.

Carlton sipped his beer as Silversmith talked on. “Forget Oxford. If I can’t get a doctorate here, I’ll try my luck in America.”

“You won’t find anyone asking you to help Argus in America,” said Carlton.

“Now who the feck might Argus be and why would I want to help him?”

“Argus is a loose organization of people who see the current British government in the same light as you.”

“Come off it. We both know the only arse that can do anything about the British government is polishing a chair in the Reichstag.”

“For now.”

Next week: Dancing Penguin


Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These other stories by DJ Cockburn available online: Steel in the Morning, Newgate Jig, The Endocrine Tyranny, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, Foreclosure, Cassandra’s Cargo and Mars One.

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Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

Greenland Shark


(NOAA Photo Library [CC / Flickr])

A peristaltic spasm threw her from a cold place to a colder place. The change in the cold registered less than the disappearance of the electrical impulses around her snout. She had no name for what she was detecting or how she detected it. She had no names for anything. All she had was an impulse to wave her tail and part company with the disturbance in the darkness that had thrown her into it.

There would be a name for that sense, but she’d never know it because it would only exist in minds alien to her own who lived where the floor of the darkness reached up into the light. The name would first occur where the floor reached up to make the continent the aliens called Europe, but not while any alien alive now was alive to hear it. As she explored the darkness for the first time, the aliens who lived there were more concerned with what was in the mind of a greater alien that none of them had ever seen..

She was, coincidentally, thrown into the darkness at the same time as an alien who would have very strong views on the greater alien was thrown into the light. In time, that alien’s views would earn the name of Bloody Mary. In another part of Europe, an alien whose mind may have been able to encompass her senses looked his last on the place where he was born, which the aliens called Vinci, and crossed Europe to a place the aliens called France. He would die there three turns later without ever having turned his superb mind to the problem of how her snout felt things it did not touch.

The names of Vinci, France and Bloody Mary meant nothing in the darkness but it had circled the light another hundred times, she discovered that blood could lead her to an injured seal pup. As she felt the pup’s last flare before her snout and the warmth of it in her maw, the aliens were still disputing the intentions of the greater alien they had never seen.

That was how she learned to like blood.

That year, two of the best known names among the aliens, one from each side of the dispute, would breathe their last. The names of Cervantes and Shakespeare meant nothing to her. She was concerned with what she smelled as she was digesting the seal. She followed the smell, as she had followed the seal’s blood, to the hulk of a dead whale sinking through the darkness. She wouldn’t need to chase seals or fish for some time.

Another fifty revolutions of darkness around light and the claspers of another of her kind gripped her for the first time. She gave it less thought than the pressure wave of a fish she detected when she broke the embrace, but cells were fusing within her.

The aliens still hadn’t put a name to how she felt that fish before her jaws closed around it, but they were realising they would never agree about what the greater alien wanted unless it deigned to explain it to them, which it showed no inclination to do. As they spent less of the power of their minds in fighting over him, one of the aliens enjoyed a contemplative moment to watch an apple fall from a tree, and wonder at the unfalling moon above him.

Her fused cells divided into two, then four, and as they became eight, that same alien had spilt white light into colours she had never seen. He named it his annus mirabilis without knowing he had set the aliens on the path to understanding how she felt her fish. She found another dead whale.

Another hundred and fifty revolutions and she was finding familiarity in the sense of peristalsis. It was the tenth time she had thrown clusters of cells into the darkness, although she didn’t know why she felt no urge to eat what she expelled, however enticingly they stirred the darkness and sparkled with electricity. She let them fade away from her, even though there was less to eat that year than usual.

At the other side of the darkness, a mountain the aliens called Tambora had belched so much dust into the atmosphere that it was blocking the light that brought life when it touched the edge of the darkness.

The aliens had a name for the senses in her snout now. The called it her ampullae of Lorenzini and they named what they felt electricity, but they did not understand that the one used the other to feel her prey. One of the younger aliens, confined by the shroud of dust, would tell a story of electricity and life and terror that would enthral the few aliens who knew her and millions who did not.

Aliens liked stories.

A hundred turns later, that alien was long dead but the story lived on among aliens who had found new reasons to kill each other. Tens of thousands would die by steel, flame, lead and gas in the time it took her to follow a scent to a sinking whale. There were less whales now than there had been, so she had to spend more time pursuing fish and seals. She didn’t connect it to the aliens.

A hundred turns later and the darkness vibrated with something she’d never experienced in her five hundred turns. She didn’t know whether to turn toward or away from it, so she did neither. She continued her patrol of the darkness, alert for the twitch of a sense that would lead her to a flare of electricity and the feel of food in her gullet.

The agitation grew stronger until it vanquished the darkness in a blaze of light and more electricity than she had ever felt before.

She didn’t like it.

She flicked her tail to turn away from it and surround herself with darkness.

She had met the aliens who called her a shark. But she had no name for them.

Inspired by the recent finding that Greenland sharks live for more than 500 years, reaching sexual maturity at around the age of 150.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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