Tuesday, 8 December 2015

These Restless Few


“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
- Carl Sagan – Cosmos


This blog article was born out of something I’ve witnessed in the school writing workshops I run. It was also born out of a growing sense of sadness as the implications began to sink in. 

At the start of my workshops I ask the students a key question, “What’s your dream job?” Hands go up and I get answers from architects, to footballers, to even brain surgeons. What I never ever hear is, “I want to be an astronaut.” How is it in such a few generations we have lost this pioneering spirit?

There has always been something about the sky that has always fascinated me from a very young age; from flying kites as high as possible, to later flying light aircraft and even microlights. I have owned large telescopes and observatory, imaging far flung galaxies (these images can be seen on this website). I even wrote a story called Cloud Riders, a trilogy based on a group of people who understand all of the above. You see flight and exploration in all its forms has always pulled at my soul.

I big part of this was when I grew up and I count myself exceedingly fortunate to have grown up during the space race, to have watched those live images of Neil Armstrong taking those first historic footsteps on the moon. And like every child of my generation, we all yearned to travel into space ourselves. The future seemed so clear to us, to be out there somewhere in space.

It’s very hard to convey to those who weren’t around during the moon landings, as to how everything seemed just around the corner at the time, including a permanent base on the moon, and how that would act as a springboard for crewed missions to the planets and even beyond into the further reaches of deep space. At the time you could even buy Pam Am tickets to the moon! The film, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, neatly sums up where we really believed space exploration would be by the date in the film’s title…a date that is now 14 years ago. Obviously things didn’t turn out the way that everyone at the time envisaged.

So what went wrong? 

Ironically, in many ways it was actually the space race itself that seeded much of the problem. NASA threw countless billions into coming up with the Apollo program that would beat the Russians to the moon. But the problem with the result was a system that was extremely expensive and wasteful to run, and crucially created a huge rocket that couldn’t be reused. NASA’s subsequent answer, the Space Shuttle program, also had major maintenance costs issues, but even more crucially than this had serious reliability issues that resulted in terrible loss of life. I will be forever be haunted by the Challenger launch and the images of it as it tore itself apart shortly after take off and my thoughts flying to the fate of its crew. Particualry with that crash it felt like the dreams of a generations were clawed from the sky.

Is it any wonder that the dream of space exploration fell away from us for a while?

But pioneers are a resilient breed and also thankfully the world has moved on, and has grown wiser with the experience. Now, nimble private business is taking up the challenge. Companies such as Space X, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, are blazing a new path. Space X specifically, a fully fledged space agency in its own right, is particularly impressive with its development of its reusable orbital system. Make no mistake that this marks a significant moment in space exploration. Get this right and this breakthrough will hugely reduce the cost for getting into space. And this is the real reason our dreams of space exploration have been on hold for so long. 

Once again our aspirations are being raised again…there’s even once again talk of a permanent base on the moon and even Mars. 

One thing is for sure. The Earth, as beautiful as it is, the cradle of all life that we know, is just one planet in an infinitely large universe. As pioneers have set out throughout our history, those restless few, it seems that there time is coming again as these new frontiers finally begin to open up to us. 

And I hope with all my heart that one day when I ask what the students what their dream jobs are, once again many hands will go up and say, “astronaut.”


To close this article, if you have a few minutes to spare, please do watch this this wonderful short film that combines the magical words of Carl Sagan with the fantastic visionary imagery of Erik Wernquist. This captures perfectly the yearning for space exploration that fills the hearts of many and certainly myself.


Links

Humanity – The Overview from Space: 

Blood Moon: 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Augmented Reality and School Workshops

“If it looks real and feels real, do you think it matters if it's real?” 
― Daniel Nayeri
I was recently interview by BBC Oxford’s Nick Piercey about Breaking Storm, my writing, and also my augmented reality school workshops. I also promised to put up a link so that the listeners could see one of my holograms for themselves. So here are the instructions for getting this running on your iOS or Android devices.


This certainly gives you a brief insight into my next generation of school workshops that I've been developing to really capture student's imaginations. As you'll quickly discover for yourself, it's strange how it messes with your mind to the point it feels like the hologram is actually there. I hope you have fun with this. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

Tears in the Writer, Tears in the Reader

“Tears are words the mouth can't say nor can the heart bare.” 
― Joshua Wisenbaker
Breaking Storm, the sequel to my debut book, Cloud Riders, has just taken to the skies. This is a book that was such a joy to write, the realisation of ideas that I had planned from the inception of the Cloud Riders trilogy. There are some big science ideas lurking beneath the surface, some crazy locations that came to life in my imagination, but most of all it was about writing about, Dom, an ordinary lad from Oklahoma that I’d come to love like a son and who meant everything to me, and who took me on a journey of discovery through the pages of this story.

In Breaking Storm, Dom faces situations that test him to the core of his being and threaten to break him. There is one sequence in the middle of the book that I’d planned right from the inception of Cloud Riders, a moment so heart breaking that it was like the shadow of a thunder storm in the distance, approaching far too rapidly as I wrote towards it. And when it finally arrived and I found myself putting those words down onto the page, I found myself actually weeping… That’s how deep an author sometimes digs, how much an author can actually care about their characters. And this is a very good thing. As they say, “tears in the writer, tears in the reader.”

We all recognise those moments of authenticity in a book, even if that moment in the story is set in a parallel universe, because it’s that moment that gets hold of your heart and squeezes. Stories are a powerful way to share these moments that test us and maybe in them we recognise similar moments of heartbreak in our own lives. In my experience it’s those stories that move us most profoundly like this that we never ever forget. 


Stories can have such a power effect on us because they can hold up a mirror to us and show us what it is to be human. And right there we have one of the many reasons that stories are so important in all our lives.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Blood Moon

“Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.” 
― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Many people who stayed up last night may have been lucky enough to witness the blood moon of the spectacular full lunar eclipse. During the moment of maximum totality the moon turned a deep rusty red, but do you know what caused that colour?

To answer this you need to take a flight of the imagination... If you were an astronaut on the moon during the full eclipse in that moment you'd see Earth ringed with the red of all the sunsets and sunrises happening all around the planet. The Earth’s atmosphere bends that light and it falls across the moon... Our astronaut would see the moon’s surface bathed in ruby light. Now isn’t that a magical thought!


Maybe one day when we rediscover our pioneering spirit for human exploration and we will have a permanently crewed based on the moon, and someone will witness this for themselves. And maybe, just maybe it might be one of our children.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Athena Takes to the Skies

"What art offers is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit."
– John Updike
For the last six months when I haven't been writing or running workshops, I have been reacquainting myself with an old friend - 3D modelling. It was over seven years ago I left the game industry and longer still that that for the last time I did any serious computer graphics work. However, more recently the passion that took over everything else has been my writing. Not anymore. I have dusted down old skills, retrained myself in the latest 3D packages and started work on a labour of love...the image you see above. This scene depicts the airship Athena from my book, Cloud Riders, and has been modelled in intricate detail.

I have also produced this image ahead of the release of the second book in the trilogy, Breaking Storm. The picture depicts Athena flying over the ice sculpted landscape of Hells Cauldron, a parallel world version of our Iceland. 

As an artistic project, an indulgence, this image has been an utter joy to work on and left me hungry to produce more work. I'd forgotten just how important visual expression has always been to me.

I'm planning to release this as the first of a limited addition set of images themed around Cloud Riders.

I hope you like this first glimpse of Athena as much I enjoyed making it. 


Sunday, 8 March 2015

When a Pen Chooses You

 "The wand chooses the wizard, remember...
think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter... "
– J.K Rowling
I have had many pens in my life, but none as special as the one my partner, Karen, gave me last Christmas. And choosing that pen was an experience worthy of Harry Potter selecting his wand at Ollivanders. 

As an author I use all manner of biros from all the nooks and crannies of our house. Now that's fine for a while, but with something like an extended book signing, my keyboard evolved fingers start to quickly cramp and my signature becomes reduced to a barely decipherable scrawl. What I needed was a good pen, but not just any pen, it had to be the stuff of legend...the sort of pen that presidents would sign treaties with.

My wonderful partner Karen, knowing my plight and understanding what a special pen would mean to me as an author, took me to a pen shop that I could only describe as the writing equivalent of Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter chose his wand. However, the shop in question wasn't in Diagon Alley, but was called Pen Plus, located in my home city of dreaming spires, Oxford.

So it was that one bright winter's morning, Karen took me to find me the perfect writing implement. However, any notions I had that this would be a rapid and easy decision were soon dispelled. You see it turns out that choosing the pen, the one that you will keep forever, is a serious business. Just like choosing a wand.

The one thing that I knew in advance of our trip is that although I adore fountain pens, they really aren't ideal when it comes to signing books. You see the texture of the printed page isn't perfect for writing on. For ease of use and versatility there could only be one choice for me - a rollerball pen. Also I knew from personal experience that a slimline design becomes rapidly uncomfortable to hold, when used for any length of time. Naively I thought knowing these two bits of information would make choosing the pen really straight forward, right? I mean how much choice can there be? The answer was of course, lots and lots and lots. 

Luckily to aid me in my quest, as Harry was guided by Mr Ollivanders to his perfect wand, the female assistant had the same encyclopaedic knowledge about the pens contained in her emporium. Let's call her Ms Ollivanders...

The first decision was my taste in style and within moments I’d tried several beautiful pens. However, unbeknown to me, Ms Ollivanders was watching intently how I actually held the pen.


A small smile curled the corner of her mouth. "Ah, I see that sir is a pen tip holder."

"I am?"

"Oh yes indeed. And how does the balance of the pen feel?"

"Pens have balance?"

"Oh course, sir, like the finest swords."

Or maybe wands too, I thought to myself.

So I started to try pens for balance, a first in my life, and quickly realised she was right. Any decision based simply on style had been well and truly pushed aside. Now it was all about finding the pen that would be the perfect writing tool. But it was at this point that Ms Ollivanders gave me the look that told me she knew the pen for me, probably the same sort of look that her namesake had given Harry Potter when he’d identified the perfect wand for him — one made of holly with a Phoenix feather core...

The assistant placed before me on the counter (accompanied in my head by an angelic choir) a carene amber Waterman pen with gold trim. Despite never normally going for anything gold, this was a pen of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship. But it was when I held the Waterman and wrote with it, I knew, I really knew…

This pen felt like an extension of my writing soul. And I knew right away this wasn't just a pen for signings, this would be the pen I would use to capture those first sparks of a new idea for a book in one of my notebooks, the pen I would reach for when a bolt of creative lightning hit me. It seemed I had chosen my pen, or maybe it was that the pen had chosen me.


And so one Christmas morning, the pen and I were reunited. Who knows what adventures we will have together, but one thing is for sure - I will never see choosing a pen in the same light ever again after my trip to that magical emporium nestling among the dreaming spires.