How Science Journalism Helped Me Become a Better Sci-Fi Writer

How Science Journalism Helped Me Become a Better Sci-Fi Writer

The following is an article that I recently published with Universe Today. And since it concerns my recently-published novels, I felt absolutely obliged to share it here. Enjoy!

Hello all. I hope our readers don’t mind that I’m taking a bit of a diversion here today to engage in a little shameless self-promotion. Basically, I wanted to talk about my recently-published novel – The Jovian Manifesto. This book is the sequel to The Cronian Incident, which was published last year (and was a little  shamelessly promoted at the time).

However, I also wanted to take this opportunity to talk about hard science fiction and how writing for a science publication helped me grow as a writer. By definition, hard sci-fi refers to stories where scientific accuracy is emphasized. This essentially means that the technology in the story conforms to established science and/or what is believed to be feasible in the future.

So when I set out to write The Cronian Incident, I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, both in terms of technology and setting. Many of the ideas I came up with, and much of the material I drew from, was inspired from my work here at Universe Today. Since I joined the team in 2010 and became a regular member in 2014, I’ve had the chance to write about space-related news, as well as exciting research and scientific breakthroughs.

MESSENGER image of Mercury from its third flyby. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

From the beginning, I felt that what I was writing about was inspiring me in my other major pursuit, which was to become a sci-fi author (something I had been pursuing for years). In fact, it was an article that I had just finished writing for our Guide to Space (The Planet Mercury) that inspired the entire series. After writing it, I began talking to a friend about how humans could make a go of life on Mercury, provided they had the right technology and followed proper precautions.

Basically, I said, Mercury is very metal-rich and close to the Sun, which would make it an abundant source of minerals and energy for our future selves. The only problem is that miners would have to remain on the dark side of the planet to avoid being incinerated. But since Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2 – where it completes three rotations on its axis for every two orbits around the Sun – a single solar day works out to about 176 Earth days.

That means that as long as they stayed well-ahead of the terminator (the line between the day-side and the night-side) miners would have lots of time to pull ore out of Mercury without being cooked in their space suits! Meanwhile, I argued, permanent bases could be built in Mercury’s cratered polar regions, which are permanently shaded and have abundant supplies of water ice in them.

View of Mercury’s north pole. based on MESSENGER probe data, showing polar deposits of water ice. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory.

Inside some of the larger craters – such as Prokofiev, Kandinsky, Tolkien and Trggvadottir – bases could be built where miners would stay between work shifts. Water and building materials could be harvested in-situ, and solar arrays placed around the edges of the craters could gather all the electricity they needed. With the right technology, some of this could even be beamed off-planet to Venus, Earth and Mars.

My friend then indicated that it would be very hard to get people to want to live and work on Mercury, to which I suggested that perhaps only convict laborers would ever be sent there. That set off the light in my head, and before long, a much larger idea began to take shape. I didn’t just want to talk about Mercury and miners, but how we might go about colonizing the Moon, Mars, Venus, and beyond.

I also wanted to do a story that explored the reasons for why humanity became a multi-planetary species. This is an increasingly relevant issue, thanks in no small part to many high-profile individuals who want to see a permanent human presence established on the Moon and/or Mars in this century. These include Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin, Robert Zubrin, James Lovelock, and the late and great Stephen Hawking.

Artist’s concept for a possible colony on Mars. Credit: Ville Ericsson

Here too, I have had the privilege of reporting on what these plans are and how they have taken shape over the past years. I’ve also learned a great deal about the history of proposals to colonize the Moon, Mars, and other bodies in the Solar System. While various works of fiction helped me learn how authors have addressed these proposals in the past (such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, et al.) there was also the theoretical work of scientists like Carl Sagan, James Lovelock, Freeman Dyson, Geoffrey A. Landis and others to draw upon.

Looking at this from a contemporary angle, I went with the idea that the main drivers behind off-world settlement will be Climate Change and the accelerating pace of change brought about by the Technological Singularity (both of which are expected to culminate around the middle of this century). I also wanted to explore the long-term idea of terraforming, which was inspired by the Complete Guide to Terraforming series I was writing at the time.

This is where the hard part of hard science fiction came into play. In writing about colonies on Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (the Jovians and Cronians), I did my best to describe the settings based on what is actually known about these bodies. As for how people would live on them, that too needed to be dictated by what we know about their environments and surface conditions.

Artist’s impression of SpaceX’s proposed Mars Base Alpha. Credit: SpaceX

It was a fortunate coincidence that my day job happens to include writing about these very things. That way, when it came time to describe what it was like walking around on the surface of Mercury or Titan, or describing how Martian settlers lived on the planet over time, I had something solid to draw upon.

In short, The Cronian Incident owes its existence to my work here. It also owes its existence to Castrum Press, who published the book after the 18 months it took for me to write it (in the summer of 2017). It’s sequel, The Jovian Manifesto, was published a few months ago, and I plan to finish the series off with a third installment titled The Frost Line Fracture (which should be completed sometime in 2019).

So far, the reviews for the first two books have been quite encouraging. Of The Cronian Incident, Professor Abraham Loeb himself – the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science and the Chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University – said that it was “An exciting science fiction adventure into the technological future. An exhilarating read for scientists and fiction lovers alike.”

Artist’s impression of a possible lunar base. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

Various reviewers who posted on Amazon have also had encouraging things to say:

“This was one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in some time. Its universe is vast in scope, its plot full of intrigue, its characters delightfully well rounded with just the right mix of flaws and strengths.

“This story was a good read that sucked me in and kept me wondering. I particularly enjoyed the world building aspects, and the overarching storyline which is clearly going to continue in the next book.”

“I really like how the action is taking place on various planets/moons of the solar system, and am eagerly waiting for further installments of the story.”

“Mr. Williams delivers an exciting tale in this story. It was a very enjoyable read and I’m looking forward to seeing more from him.”

The Cronian Incident (The Formist Series) (Volume 1) by Matthew Williams is a slow-paced, contemplative science fiction story that fans of The Expanse will really enjoy.”

The sequel, The Jovian Manifesto, has also been well-reviewed:

“I don’t think I’ve been so involved in a science fiction series since I read the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. I snapped up a copy of The Jovian Manifesto as soon as possible, having immensely enjoyed The Cronian Incident when it first came out.”

It’s much faster paced than its predecessor and features some pretty awesome action scenes interspersed into a story involving a conspiracy and a plot to counter the conspiracy. There were also some great twists along the way, which I won’t give away here, and I really enjoyed the characters, who were diverse and well-developed.”

The Cronian Incident by Matt Williams. Credit: Castrum Press

So far, the settings have included a penal colony on Mercury, the floating cities of Venus, domed cities on Mars, a Martian space elevator, circular enclosures on Callisto, honeycombed settlements on Ganymede, settlements within the ice of Europa, and spartan domes on Titan. But before the series is complete, I hope to include descriptions of what life is like on Earth, the Moon, and in the Asteroid Belt in the future.

Beyond that, I also want to get into writing about interstellar travel, since that will give me a chance to explore the concepts and ideas we covered in our article, “How Long Would it Take to Get to the Nearest Star?” And, if all goes well, I would like to write about the greatest science fiction draw of all. You know what I’m talking about – Aliens! No spoilers, but that story arc could involve an idea introduced to me by Professor Abraham Loeb himself – hypervelocity stars that can carry their planets along for the ride!

But that’s all stuff for another day and another discussion. In the meantime, I hope people here will check out this series and enjoy what I wrote. If not, well that’s fine too. In addition to keeping up with the latest in space exploration and scientific research,  honest feedback is the only way I will continue to grow as a writer.

Good News… Of A Promotional Nature!

Good News… Of A Promotional Nature!

As I’ve been talking about non-stop for the past few months, I got a novel in the works. As of the writing of this post, I’ve written 25 chapters and almost 50,000 words (that terrible middle part!) But what I haven’t shared yet is that some lovely websites have promised to promote it as soon as its done. This is a first for me, and something that I’m really looking forward to!

Truth is, this wouldn’t be possible were it not for the professional writing I’ve been doing for the past year and a half. And it all started a few months ago when I was busy updating an article (How Long Does It Take To Get To The Nearest Star). The article was a few years out of date at this point, and my boss wanted it expanded to include all the cool theoretical methods that have been proposed over the past few decades.

daedalus-saturn-9
Artist’s concept of the Project Daedalus spacecraft, with a Saturn V rocket standing next to it for scale. Credit: Adrian Mann

While researching the topic to find out how long it would take a nuclear-powered spaceship to make the journey, I stumbled across Futurism.com and saw that they had reposted the old version of the article. I also noticed that they had reposted a few articles done by little ol’ me, which include the very first article I wrote back in Oct of 2014 (about hibernation technologies for a trip to Mars).

While telling them that a newer version would be coming out, the manager and I got to talking. I asked them if they would appreciate some articles on terraforming, and happened to mentioned that I was writing a book where that was a major theme. To my surprise, they expressed interest in both things, and asked if they could interview me when the book was done.

Naturally, I was worried they thought I was someone who was… you know, a big deal! I was sure to point out that this book was fiction and not some professional treatise. I’m not exactly Mike Brown or Neil DeGrasse Tyson here. But they said it was cool! Then I pointed out that I didn’t have a publisher lined up, and it might very well be indie published in the end. They said that this was cool too!

mercury_map
Color-enhanced map of Mercury. Credit: NASA/JPL

Suffice it to say, I was surprised and flattered. And after talking this over with my boss (I wanted his permission to write content that would be put on another site, he said that was cool!), he told me that Universe Today would be promoting the hell out of it too. I was honored. At no point did I ask or expect that the people I work for would be promoting something I wrote on my own time. But of course, I was sure to let them know that the work I was doing for them is what inspired it.

Were it not for all the research I had been doing about the Solar System and articles I was writing about its various planets, the story would not exist. It actually all started with the article I wrote on Mercury, in fact. Learning about its extremes in temperature, its richness in minerals, its very slow rotation, and its icy poles all made me think that a mining colony would be possible there someday. Especially if it were a penal colony!

Bottom line, when the book is finished, two prominent websites are going to be making a big deal out of it. How cool is that?

And just in case anyone is interested, those terraforming article are now finished and up at Universe Today. There are three in the series now, starting with a rundown of the topic, and ones on how it could be done on Venus and Mars. Next up, the Moon, followed by Mercury and the Outer Solar System. Feel free to leave comments too, especially constructive ones. 🙂

The Definitive Guide To Terraforming

How Do We Terraform Venus?

How Do We Terraform Mars?

 

Universe Today Stats for January and February

internet-of-things-2

Good news, folks! It seems that the traffic report came in for the previous two months from Universe Today. And in my haste, I forgot to publish them. But luckily, there are no deadlines on a blog, just chances to catch up. How’s everybody doing? Oh, and I should also mention that my stint working with Green Tree Recycling is done for now, so there will be more time in the near future for posts like these. 🙂

In any case, things have changed over at Universe Today lately in terms of format. Basically, the managers wanted to do fewer publications a month overall and focus on those that were likely to draw more of a crowd. This means that the total number of articles I got to do for January/February was less than in previous months, but that didn’t seem to hurt viewership that much.

In fact, February has been my best month so far, with a record-topping 282,176 views! Check out the total stats below:

January:

1/1/2015 2015 Expected to be a Record-Breaking Year for Soyuz-2 Workhorse 1965
1/2/2015 Rogue Star HIP 85605 on Collision Course with our Solar System, but Earthlings Need Not Worry 17554
1/6/2015 Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX 1161
1/6/2015 Japan’s Akatsuki Spacecraft to Make Second Attempt to Enter Orbit of Venus in December 2015 2317
1/9/2015 New Mission: DSCOVR Satellite will Monitor the Solar Wind 886
1/13/2015 Faster-Than-Light Lasers Could “Illuminate” the Universe 36082
1/13/2015 One of the Milky Way’s Arms Might Encircle the Entire Galaxy 10543
1/16/2015 Some of the Best Pictures of the Planets in our Solar System 25777
1/16/2015 Elon Musk Releases Dramatic Imagery of Mostly Successful Falcon 9 1st Recovery Attempt, Hard Landing on Drone Ship 9009
1/30/2015 Exploring the Universe with Nuclear Power 21687
Total Views 126981

February:

Which Planets Have Rings?  2/5/2015  8910
What Could Explain the Mysterious Ring in Antarctica?  2/9/2015 239263
How Can Mars Sometimes Be Warmer Than Earth?  2/9/2015  11509
What is Hooke’s Law?  2/13/2015  6229
Here’s a Better Use for Fighter Jets: Launching Satellites  2/13/2015  7937
What is Mars Made Of?  2/25/2015  8328
 Total Views  282176

Universe Today – Total Views for December

GLOBAL-INTERNET-USEWell, it’s a new day and a new year. And unless I’m mistaken, that means that it’s time for taking stock and setting new goals. It also means that I’ve just received my tally for the month of December from Universe Today. And it seems that the longer I’m there, the more people are willing to read what I have to say. Makes sense. Still, I’ve never seen these kinds of traffic statistics before. Not with my own site, that’s for sure!

To break it down, here’s how I’ve been doing over the course the past two and half months. In October, which was my first month with UT, I garnered a total of 50,044 views for 11 articles. In November, that went up to 171,852 views for 26 articles. And for the month of December, I received 225,577 views for 23 articles. That represents a 343% increase from Oct-Nov, and a 76% increase over last month. Numbers like this make me happy!

What Percent of Earth is Water? 16,029
John Dalton’s Atomic Model 15,794
Planets Could Travel Along with Rogue ‘Hypervelocity’ Stars, Spreading Life Throughout the Universe 3,656
The Inner Planets of Our Solar System 8,918
Meteorite May Contain Proof of Life on Mars, Researchers Say 6,104
10 Facts About the Milky Way 25,643
Earth May Have Lost Some Primoridial Atmosphere to Meteors 1,234
The Science of Heat Transfer: What Is Conduction? 5,258
Solar System History: How Was the Earth Formed? 5,768
How Strong is the Gravity on Mars? 12,264
A Universe of 10 Dimensions 37,742
NASA’s RoboSimian And Surrogate Robots 932
What Causes Day and Night? 11,563
Just in Time for the Holidays – Galactic Encounter Puts on Stunning Display 1,398
What is the Average Surface Temperature of the Planets in our Solar System? 16,333
SpaceX Continues to Expand Facilities, Workforce in Quest for Space 4,413
Compromises Lead to Climate Change Deal 795
Meteoric Evidence Suggests Mars May Have a Subsurface Reservoir 2,916
The Milky Way’s New Neighbor May Tell Us Things About the Universe 2,519
What is the Average Surface Temperature on Venus? 4,722
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Might Become A Reality After All 11,476
Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria 21,312
Making the Trip to Mars Cheaper and Easier: The Case for Ballistic Capture 8,788
Total Views 225,577

If there is one goal I’d like to set for the new year, its to turn some of that readership towards this here site, the sister site HeroX, and possibly towards some book sales as well. Those numbers have been comparatively pitiful lately, and I don’t think it would be too crass of me to hope for some additional readership in the New Year.

And here’s hoping the New Year proves to be a lucrative, fun and interesting time for my fellow bloggers and indie writers too (not necessarily in that order). What projects do you all have for 2015? What resolutions (if any) have you made?

Universe Today – Total Views for November

InternettrafficHey folks! As is customary on the tenth of every new month, the folks over at Universe Today do an official tally of all the articles published by their authors for the previous month. And it seems that November was a pretty good one for me, even though it wasn’t exactly much of a competition. This is only my second month working for UT, and I began almost halfway through the month of October so I published way fewer articles.

Still, going from 50,444 to 171,852 is pretty good! That’s a threefold increase, and then some. The full list appears below, along with the date of publication. If any of these sound interesting, just go click on the Articles at Universe Today link under Pages on the right there.

And to my fellow bloggers, freelancers, articlers and indie writers out there – as my friend James K Bowers would say “keep hammering away at those keys!” The breaks are coming for us all!

11/18/2014 How Do Planets Form? Semarkona Meteorite Shows Some Clues 989
11/19/2014 “Spotters Guide” for Detecting Black Hole Collisions 1,245
11/3/2014 Welcome to Mars! – Hi-SEAS and Mars Society Kick Off New Season of Missions 1,295
11/4/2014 VLTI Detects Exozodiacal Light Around Exoplanets 1,419
11/13/2014 Weather Forecasting on Mars Likely to be Trickier Than on Earth 1,609
11/7/2014 Canadian Micro-Rover and Lander “Northern Light” Aim for Launch to Mars in 2018 1,661
11/28/2014 “Eye of Sauron” Galaxy Used For New Method of Galactic Surveying 2,358
11/10/2014 NASA’s Next Exoplanet Hunter Moves Into Development 2,408
11/18/2014 Warm, Flowing Water on Mars Was Episodic, Study Suggests 2,586
11/19/2014 Elusive Dark Matter Could Be Detected with GPS Satellites 2,611
11/25/2014 Africa’s First Mission to the Moon Announced 2,669
11/1/2014 A Red Moon – NOT a Sign of the Apocalypse! 2,779
11/19/2014 Amazingly Detailed New Maps of Asteroid Vesta 3,056
11/7/2014 It’s Complicated: Hubble Survey Finds Unexpected Diversity in Dusty Discs Around Nearby Stars 3,230
11/5/2014 Where Have All the Pulsars Gone? The Mystery at the Center of Our Galaxy 3,382
11/21/2014 Subaru Telescope Spots Galaxies From The Early Universe 4,399
11/21/2014 NASA’s “Remastered” View of Europa is the Best Yet 5,411
11/14/2014 Concerns over ESA’s Data Release Policy Amidst Rosetta Comet Landing 5,816
11/20/2014 Two New Subatomic Particles Found 6,040
11/15/2014 Macro View Makes Dark Matter Look Even Stranger 6,820
11/29/2014 Astronomers Poised to Capture Image of Supermassive Milky Way Black Hole 9,210
11/25/2014 The Search for Dark Energy Just Got Easier 10,796
11/27/2014 NASA’s Van Allen Probes Spot Impenetrable Radiation Barrier in Space 18,021
11/21/2014 Earth’s Orbit Around The Sun 18,279
11/29/2014 The “Potsdam Gravity Potato” Shows Variations in Earth’s Gravity 23,686
11/10/2014 What Did Isaac Newton Discover? 30,077
Total Views 171,852

Retweeted by NASA and Inside Space!

Our watery Earth. Credit: NASA
Our watery Earth. Credit: NASA

Good news everyone! After about two months of working for Universe Today, it appears that some of what I say is actually being read by the big names in the bizz! It started three days ago when NASA Earth retweeted an article I wrote entitled “What Percentage of Earth is Water?“, which was part of UT’s Guide to Space section that deals with general knowledge questions about astronomy, geology, the universe, etc.

The second came yesterday when Inside Space retweeted an more recent article I did about the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and how scientists anticipate that they will be able to view it for the first time in the near future. They were doing a list of the top ten recent news stories of space in recent days, and apparently, my story made the list (I was number 9).

All in all, it’s been a pretty cool week! 🙂

Busy, But Getting Back to ‘er!

Mindfulness-and-Living-a-Busy-LifeHey folks. As you may have noticed, I’ve been pretty absent in recent weeks. And as always, it’s because life intervened. Nothing bad, just a busy schedule with all the new writing assignments. At the same time, I’ve been busy with Tae kwon-Do since the Grand Master was coming for a visit. And on top of that, the wife and I have been house-hunting lately and that’s taken up a lot of our attention.

As you can imagine, this has not left much time for personal writing or blogging. But in and around all that stuff, I have managed to make a bit of time for my works-in-progress. For instance, I finally started making some progress on Oscar Mike the other day. I left that story in the midst of a cliffhanger chapter, so stopping short of completing it was a bit silly on my part.

Oscar MikeAlso, I got back to editing Flash Forward, which I also stalled on, and managed to get a few more stories polished and ready for publication. I was really hoping to have of these stories ready for publication by now, but professional writing and my preoccupation with one other story kind of put a hold on that plan. That would Reciprocity, which I went into some detail about a little while ago.

Ever since I decided to redo that idea this past summer, I’ve been pretty much obsessed with it. This is typical of me, always hopping from idea to idea and becoming fixated the latest one. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I suffer from a peculiar condition when it comes to writing. It’s known as Literary-Attention-Deficit-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder (or LADOCD, for short).

Yuva_coverOr at least it would be, if it were recognized by any medical authority on the planet. But I digress! The point is, I’ve managed to shake myself loose from that story long enough to commit to work that needs my attention more. And I really, REALLY need to get back to my writing group and get the boll rolling again on the Yuva anthology. People are working, and waiting for direction. I cannot abandon them!

Well, that it’s for me right now. What’s up will all you fine folks? What’s new and interesting? Or, failing that, what’s just new? Any plans for the holiday season? And to my American cousins, how’s Thanksgiving treating you?