• Fiona McIntosh: Voyager Author of the Month

    Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons. Her website is at www.fionamcintosh.com.

    Her latest book, The Scrivener's Tale, is a stand-alone and takes us back to the world of Morgravia from her very first series, The Quickening:


    About The Scrivener's Tale:

    In the bookshops and cafes of present-day Paris, ex-psychologist Gabe Figaret is trying to put his shattered life back together. When another doctor, Reynard, asks him to help with a delusional female patient, Gabe is reluctant... until he meets her. At first Gabe thinks the woman, Angelina, is merely terrified of Reynard, but he quickly discovers she is not quite what she seems.

    As his relationship with Angelina deepens, Gabe's life in Paris becomes increasingly unstable. He senses a presence watching and following every move he makes, and yet he finds Angelina increasingly irresistible.

    When Angelina tells Gabe he must kill her and flee to a place she calls Morgravia, he is horrified. But then Angelina shows him that the cathedral he has dreamt about since childhood is real and exists in Morgravia.

    A special 10th Anniversary edition of her first fantasy book, Myrren's Gift, will be released in December!

     

     

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Curiosity

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
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Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
                                                                        Albert Einstein 

This past July and August was a very exciting time for the scientific community, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle and a photograph of an atom (see last month’s Science Page).  One of the high points for me was the landing of NASA’s Curiosity on Mars. I am a big fan of the rovers, but Curiosity has captured my imagination in a way the other rovers never did. I think it is the name; was ever an exploratory robot craft ever given a better title?

Curiosity has four main scientific goals:

1/ Biological – to keep looking for evidence of organic compounds and biological processes;

2/ Geological – investigate the minerals and non-organic chemicals of the Martian surface;

3/ Climatological – determine water cycle and carbon dioxide cycle in an attempt to understand the Martian atmosphere; and

4/Radiation – to record the spectrum of radiation at the Martian surface.

From my personal viewpoint, it is the hunt for biological signatures that is the most interesting. It isn’t just intelligent life that fascinates me, though a positive SETI result would thrill me beyond belief, because all the forms that life can take are complex and unique. I consider all four of Curiosity’s goals are a link back to the search for evidence there is, or was, life on Mars.

To put things into some perspective, let’s contrast the known conditions for life on Earth with the possibility of life on Mars.  Life on Earth can’t exist without water; so the theory goes that the presence of water would increase the probability of the presence of life. This meant I found the discovery of a stream bed by Curiosity very exciting. There can been evidence for free-flowing water gathered before, but it was ambiguous. Now there can be no doubt that Mars does have periods where water flows just like here on Earth.

Life went a long way to changing the face of our planet Earth. The increase in oxygen cause by the respiration of living organisms, and many new minerals were formed by the processes of oxidation. Bacteria, microbes and lichens changed the chemical composition of some types of rocks. Limestone is the remains of billions upon billions of skeletal fragments of ancient marine organisms; coal is the remains of Carboniferous-era peat bogs and forests; and oil and gas are the fossilised remains of zooplankton and algae. So, it seems self-evident that the presence of similar minerals on Mars would indicate life was present once, if lo longer, on the Red Planet.

It may seem to the observer that Mars is too hostile an environment to life, with its lack of water and atmosphere, extremes of temperature and high levels of radiation. However, here on Earth, microorganisms are found in almost every habitat present in nature. On Earth we have extremophiles; life forms that exist – nay, thrive – in the harshest and difficult environments.  The surface of Mars is comparable to some of the niches that are exploited by microorganisms here on Earth.

On the down side of discovering these tough organisms on Mars would be the risk of disease or cross-contamination if we ever send a team of astronauts to Mars. Such organisms might find our warm and watery bodies the perfect substrate for reproduction, a luscious paradise after struggling to thrive under arid conditions. Alternatively, the organisms might find our bodies too different to adapt too – instead, our own organisms might escape into the Martian environment and overwhelm the native population of organisms and create a tragedy of the scale of the introduction of smallpox to the American native peoples.

The history of exploration isn’t always a happy one.

But I am an optimist.  I hope we do find life on Mars. This would greatly increase the probability that life appears wherever possible. In our galaxy alone, that would mean thousands, maybe millions, of other planets would contain and sustain life. And I love the idea that our planet isn’t the only one to have a rich and wonderful ecology. There should be analogues to butterflies, penguins and camels on other planets … and maybe even people analogues.
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*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

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Taking Photos of the Atom

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
—-
As excited as I was by the discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle, I have discovered that this historic event did the scientific community in Queensland no favours.  The day before the announcement, there was another science news story causing waves in the world of Physics. Scientists at Griffith University in Queensland had taken a photo of the shadow of an atom. I was lucky and got to meet with two of them: Professor Dave Kielpinski & Ben Norton, a PhD student.

Professor Dave Kielpinski & Ben Norton – you can just glimpse an image of five atoms lined up on the screen to their upper left. (Photo taken by Lynne Green)

Now, you might think that this doesn’t sound like the most exciting achievement – after all, we’ve all seen those amazing pictures taken by electron microscopes. But electron microscopes are old hat and old technology (heck, I was taking photos of the nematocysts of peanut worms using one back in the 1980s). Taking the photo of a shadow of an atom is a whole new quantum level of technical difficulty – and I’m using the word ‘quantum’ in its correct sense here. Atoms are so tiny and it is hard to manage to isolate just one, let alone managing to photograph it.

Firstly, you have to pick the right atom: Ytterbium (atomic weight 70), because the atom has to be opaque to the frequency of the beam of laser light. The atom has to be big, so it will cast a large enough shadow to register. You have to use a special lens to trap miniscule levels of light – the scientists in Griffith University’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics designed the lens and it was fabricated at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin. The atom has to be manageable, in the sense that you can arrange to have a single atom in the beam and not fifty or none. There has to be no vibration, so the atom has to be in a nearly-perfect vacuum so it can’t get ‘knocked’ out of place by other atoms or molecules. You have to slow the atom down with the cold of absolute zero. There are a lot of factors that have to line up perfectly for the photo to happen.

Now, I was lucky enough to see the equipment on the Griffith University Open Day and to meet with some of the team who managed this supremely difficult feat. (And, at this point, I want to mention that one of them, Ben Norton, admitted he had actually READ the Science Page and had heard of me – which thrilled me to no end.) The equipment was as complex, but not dramatically so.  There was a screen above it that actually showed the photo of the atom’s shadow.

Now – some of you may ask ‘Why wasn’t this photo of an actual atom?’ Well, for a start, an atom isn’t a ‘solid’ object as we understand solid. It is more like a vibration, or a cloud, or a spinning particle, and the reality is a combination of all these and so much more. And – as I mentioned – they are tiny beyond our ability to imagine. We tend to think science controls atoms, thanks to CERN and the magic[1] the collider seems to control; this is incorrect. Part of the reason the photo of an atom is such an amazing achievement is because atoms are so hard to control. And our scientists at Griffith University did it without a machine the size of a city and a budget of billions.

Ordinarily, an achievement of this magnitude would have created a buzz that would have lasted for weeks. Only news that they had discovered the Higgs Boson was big enough to push it out of the headlines. As a footnote … I also saw a plasma dot on the same day and in the same laboratory. All-in-all, I had a wonderful day. )


[1] Using Arthur C Clarke’s definition of Magic. If you don’t know it, go look it up! I’ve mentioned it before.

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*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

Lynne Green: Starstruck at the Aurealis Awards

Fantastic Queensland should be very proud. The running of the Aurealis Awards showed how an awards ceremony can be both sophisticated and fun. The awards were everything you expect from such occasions: beautiful women in fabulous frocks (too many gorgeous women to name names), dashingly handsome men (Sean Williams suits up nicely), and civilised drinks at a posh venue.

Then again, it had all the unique twists you would expect from a community event of SF writers. Some of the attendees were wearing eye-catching items of clothing; a black kilt – and I have to give an honourable mention the pair of very nice legs so revealed; enviable purple, velvet cloaks that glowed like gems, pink shoelaces for breast cancer awareness; and Simon Higgins was sporting a rather swish coat. There were Star Trek jokes flying all over the place, and that pun is very much intended. Whenever someone was announced as a winner, the audience was just as thrilled as the award recipient, which is a most delightful experience.
However, you can probably get all this information from other sources. So I will share my personal impressions of the function.

My biggest thrill was meeting with people who had just been virtual acquaintances; hello Trudi, Angela and Kathleen! Trudi had her book launch before the ceremony, and was also one of the presenters on the night. Because I know that Trudi is a mad knitter, I was expecting someone more mumsy and not such a glorious glamour puss. I was able to recognise Angela because of her hair and glasses; she is attending Clarion at time of writing and looked wonderful for a woman under the stress of continuous creativity. Kathleen recognised me from my Facebook photo. I have been requested to put up a right-side-up photo on Facebook to make recognition easier in the future.

As well, I was able to meet up with Natalie, one of my fellow judges. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch up with the other two judges attending the ceremony. That was disappointing, as we had worked well as a team and I was hoping to chat with such perceptive, cooperative and charming people.

To be truthful, I was star struck on the night. At one point I was standing next to Jack Dann, and I couldn’t make my mouth open to say ‘hi’. I felt the same when I saw Sean Williams, even though I give him cheek on Facebook – I’ve been known to make fun of his love of baked goods – I felt too shy to go up and chat. I was stunned when I spoke with Trudi, even though Trudi is as nice and approachable a person as you could ever meet.

Everyone talks about a ‘Golden Age’ or era for Science Fiction or Fantasy or Horror. For me, Australia is going through a ‘Golden Age’, and I am so lucky to meet with SF Australian authors, who are among the best writers in the world. Proof was provided last night, with stellar names accepting or presenting awards. I was walking with the stars.

So, my highlights of the night: Alison and Simon as presenters, because they were relaxed and had fun; watching the winners struggle up and down the stairs, because they weren’t expecting to win and so sat up the back; the sudden intake of breath from the couple behind me as the husband was announced as a winner; mixing with ‘the SF community’, though they are more like a family.

So, if you get a chance to attend the awards in the future, do go. I relished the opportunity to see the hardworking writers and illustrators receive their well-deserved recognition. All the nominees were of the utter, soaring, pinnacle of Australian talent, and they all deserved to win. I still feel like I’m gleaming with stardust.

(And thank you to my husband, who is painfully shy and loathes crowds, for attending with me. (((Hugs))) sweetheart.)

Lynne Green writes under her own name, as the Voyager Science Queen, and under the pen name of Lynne Lumsden Green for everything else. Though she already has a B. Sc. in zoology, she is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her long term goal is to become a respected writer and academic in the fields of Fantasy, Popular Science Fact, and Science Fiction. Her favourite authors are Diana Wynne Jones, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, and all of the Voyager authors, with Terry Pratchett as her personal hero. Recently, Lynne has had some quiet success with her short stories, and hopes this will lead to her ultimate domination the world.

So, who won an Aurealis on 24 Jan?

Learn more about the Aurealis Awards

Judging the Aurealis Awards – Lynne Green

As the Aurealis Awards are coming up in just two weekend’s time – Saturday 24 January, to be precise – I thought it might be nice to hear something from one of the judges. Lynne is one of my colleagues from the Fantasy Short Story judging panel as well as a writer herself (her full bio is at the end of this post) and she kindly agreed to write about the judging for that category. Fear not, nothing is revealed … you’ll have to wait two weeks for that!

How do you become a judge? For anything?

I stumbled into judging through my university studies. One of my lecturers was a judge for the Aurealis Awards, and she suggested that being a judge was good for your own writing. You got to see everything in one area, and so would have a very good idea of what was current in that genre. As well, you were able to see what was good and bad in other people’s work, which would make you more critical of your own prose.

So, I offered to be a judge. I wasn’t expecting to be accepted, as I hadn’t been a judge before. It was exciting – and flattering – to discover I was considered knowledgeable enough to be selected for a judging panel. This year, there was even more competition for places on the judging panels. It is an honour to be selected.

Being a judge means several things, both good and bad at the same time. It means you get to read a lot, and you don’t have to pay for the privilege. Doesn’t that sound like heaven? However, you have to read everything, and by a certain date. You can’t skip the bad and the awful, as they deserve as much consideration as the well-written and original stories. Every item means a lot to their author, particularly if they have thought enough of it to nominate it for an Aurealis.

You have to read critically, which is very different for reading for enjoyment. Sometimes, it gets to the point that you can’t turn off that little critic, and even sitting down to read for entertainment becomes an exercise in grammar, voice, verisimilitude, plot, characterisation and setting, and everything else you have to consider when reading a piece for the judging. Even watching television can flip the switch, and you’ll be picking plot holes in your favourite movie without realising it. That is when it is time to give it a rest for a day or two.

As a judge, you can’t favour your favourite types of writing. If you recognise a friend, you have to switch off that recognition. I’m always scared that I will go harder on anyone I know, so that I won’t be accused of favouritism.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of reading work that I may never have read otherwise. My breadth and depth of knowledge has been tested. I’m amazed at how original, innovative and exciting, how talented, Australian authors are.

While I am reading my way through the nominations, I fill out a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet is supplied by the convenor of the judging panel, and contains a list of the virtues we are to consider for judging. This way, nobody gets lost among the many fine entries, and great stuff I read at the start of the year isn’t forgotten before the end of the year. I reread all the best entries, while trying to study for my end-of-year exams.

At this point, the real judging occurs. Everyone on your panel suggests a shortlist. Now, I have been very lucky with my panels. The teamwork needed to come up with a shortlist has always been superb. Often, the same titles will appear on everyone’s suggested shortlist, though not in the same order.

And there is the shortlist. So…who wins? This year, the spreadsheet system was priceless. Each judge’s nominations were tallied, with each nomination weighted for where it fell in the individual shortlists. The story that received the most points was the outright winner.

This is a very fair system. By having a panel of judges, it cuts down on possibility of subjective choices. I must admit, knowing that the other judges had chosen the same stories as I favoured was a relief. It meant that I had been making consistent choices, which can be hard when you are reading over a period of months.
I always tried to spend one day a week working on my readings and updating the spreadsheet. Towards the end of the judging period, I wasn’t as diligent as I had been (due to university commitments), and I had to make up the work in larger time blocks. If I am selected to be a judge next year, I will again put aside a set amount of time each week. Letting the readings build up might be a tragic mistake…particularly near the end of the judging period when the scattered showers of nominations became a deluge.

Even though being a judge is time consuming, it is very rewarding. At the end of the year, I always sit back and feel I’ve made a real contribution to the writing community. Who knows, maybe we’ve been lucky enough to encourage some talented people, and reward them for their efforts with the recognition they deserve.

Lynne Green writes under her own name, as the Voyager Science Queen, and under the pen name of Lynne Lumsden Green for everything else. Though she already has a B. Sc. in zoology, she is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her long term goal is to become a respected writer and academic in the fields of Fantasy, Popular Science Fact, and Science Fiction. Her favourite authors are Diana Wynne Jones, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, and all of the Voyager authors, with Terry Pratchett as her personal hero. Recently, Lynne has had some quiet success with her short stories, and hopes this will lead to her ultimate domination the world.

See the Aurealis shortlist

Learn more about the Aurealis Awards

There are still tickets available for the ceremony, which is in Brisbane on Saturday evening, 24 January – it’s a good excuse for a long weekend break, as it’s also the Australia Day long weekend so Monday is a public holiday! AND The State Library of Queensland has a fantastic expo on video gaming called GAME ON.