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I've made my first novel, Ventus, available as a free download, as well as excerpts from two of the Virga books.  I am looking forward to putting up a number of short stories in the near future.

Complete novel:  Ventus


To celebrate the August, 2007 publication of Queen of Candesce, I decided to re-release my first novel as an eBook. You can download it from this page. Ventus was first published by Tor Books in 2000, and and you can still buy it; to everyone who would just like to sample my work, I hope you enjoy this version.

I've released this book under a Creative Commons license, which means you can read it and distribute it freely, but not make derivative works or sell it.

Book Excerpts:  Sun of Suns and Pirate Sun

I've made large tracts of these two Virga books available.  If you want to find out what the Virga universe is all about, you can check it out here:

Major Foresight Project:  Crisis in Zefra

In spring 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a dramatized future military scenario.  The book-length work, Crisis in Zefra, was set in a mythical African city-state, about 20 years in the future, and concerned a group of Canadian peacekeepers who are trying to ready the city for its first democratic vote while fighting an insurgency.  The project ran to 27,000 words and was published by the army as a bound paperback book.

If you'd like to read Crisis in Zefra, you can download it in PDF form.

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What has Phoenix found on Mars?

Filed Under:

Rumours are flying. But the truth may lead us to reexamine past missions

Aviation Week has created a shitstorm on the web by publishing this article.  They claim that the White House has been briefed about a forthcoming announcement from the Phoenix Mars lander team--something significant, apparently, that will blow the doors off the recent confirmation of water and even the revelation that Martian soil would be capable of growing Earth plant life.

On sites like Slashdot, people are lining up to speculate about what the news is.  Is it life?  Ideas range from the possibility that Phoenix's microscopes have spotted fossils, to actual confirmation of life.  NASA, however, was careful in its statement to state that no direct sign of life, past or present, has been found.

Many others are jumping in with sober reminders that Phoenix isn't even equipped to find life--just water and maybe organic substances.  The most likely scenario is, in fact, that Phoenix has discovered organics in the Martian soil.

This would be a big discovery, true; it would make an unequivocal statement that Mars is a habitable planet, only the second one in the universe known.  If our very next-door-neighbour is hospitable to life, then how much more likely is it that many other worlds also are?

...Of course, such a discovery isn't as world-shaking as it sounds.  After all, for a very long time now, we've known that there's no known reason why other planets wouldn't be habitable--Mars included.  This would just be confirming what we've already deduced from the available evidence:  that safe havens for life are abundant in the universe.

From this point of view, the Phoenix team briefing the White House is really just a piece of grandstanding--a last-ditch attempt to squeeze money from a science-hostile administration before the expected recession/depression gets the space program killed.

But there is one other possibility.

The recent discovery that the soil at the Phoenix lander site could support some earthly plants would appear to contradict the findings of the Viking landers from the 1970s.  Those craft deployed sophisticated experiments to determine whether life is present on Mars, yet the instruments returned ambiguous results.  There was a strong signal indicating life from some of the instruments, yet no evidence of biological material in the soil.  The official interpretation that has become orthodoxy as a result, is that the Martian soil is highly oxidizing, ie. that it contains compounds such as hydrogen peroxide that destroy biological materials.

But if Phoenix has found that you could grow earthly plants in the soil at its site, doesn't this cast serious doubt on that interpretation?

Here's the logic in its most direct form:

  1. The Viking experiments indicated the presence of metabolism, but did not find biological materials.  The failure to find organics was puzzling, and meant either that the instrument failed or there were no organics.  But the metabolism tests did indicate life.
  2. A strongly-oxydizing soil was the only consistent interpretation other than life+instrument failure to account for the test results.
  3. Phoenix has found water and soil that can apparently support plant growth.  This would appear to contradict the hypothesis of strongly oxydizing soil.  If Phoenix has found organics, or has at least found that there is little likelihood of a strongly oxydizing soil existing anywhere on Mars, we are then left with:
  4. The Viking landers detected life in 1976.  One of their instruments failed to do its job and did not correctly characterize the chemical makeup of the soil, leading to thirty years of muddied waters in the quest for life on Mars.

By this hypothesis, NASA is being coy by saying that Phoenix has not detected life.  It hasn't; what it's done is confirm that the Vikings already found it!

Now, NASA's not actually going to say this.  Scientists are (rightly) conservative with their pronouncements, and even vindication of the Viking experiments doesn't actually prove anything.  A Mars sample-return mission would have to be undertaken to do that.  But maybe that's the funding that NASA is looking to get here.

Because the fact remains that if you can grown vegetables in Martian soil, it can't be the kind of hostile chemical bleach that would be necessary to invalidate the Viking experiments.  Even without any data beyond what's already been released, the evidence now points to life on Mars, and fairly cries out for a follow-up investigation.  And that, I suspect, is what NASA is going to call for.


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Dang scientamists!!!

Posted by Chang Terhune at Aug 02, 2008 08:42 PM
You know, every time I make some nice headway on my book about Mars, some reality has to come in and screw things up so I have to add yet another thing in the timeline. Grrrr.

Wouldn't it be neat if they announced life on MArs the moment the LHC in Bern opens up a black hole or passage to another dimension that lets flying pig-frogs into our universe? Seriously!


Posted by Karl Schroeder at Aug 03, 2008 06:10 AM
It would impress the pig-frogs, that's for sure.

I forgot to include, when I was writing the above, the discovery last year of methane in the Martian atmosphere. This is also a signature of life, because there's no known inorganic sources for it in the Martian geosphere (areosphere?) and it has a short life under Martian conditions, which means it has to be continuously replenished somehow. This is another very telling clue.

Methane, you say?

Posted by Chang Terhune at Aug 03, 2008 12:48 PM
Yet another clue that perhaps the pig-frogs have already been let in.

I am dividing my time between waiting for this announcement and watching the LHC countdown clock. I for one welcome our amphibious, porcinous overlords

Growing Veggies on Mars

Posted by David Shanahan at Aug 04, 2008 02:20 AM
That's exactly what I thought a couple of weeks back when they announced that the soil Phoenix had tested was very Earthlike and could support some plants (tomatoes or something as I recall) - how can they still say the labelled release experiment results from Viking 1 & 2 were caused by some weird oxidant(s) in the soil? Clearly the soil at the poles isn't like that, so unless the soil at the equator is radically different chemically from the arctic regions those who dismissed the Viking life test results have some explaining to do.

Just a couple of years ago I read someone took the same type of organic compound detector from the Viking missions to the Atacama desert (or somewhere similarly dry and nearly lifeless) and it couldn't find any organics there either. It was easily the least sensitive instrument on the Viking landers and it's not really surprising it failed to find anything. The labelled release experiment results however were very positive for life and I've long suspected they found exactly what it looked like they'd found. Still you can't blame them, claiming the discovery of ET life without supporting organic compounds would have been scientific suicide. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and all that.

I can't wait to find out what the new Phoenix results are, if they indicate some organics in the soil, oh wow...

Update: Perchlorates?

Posted by Karl Schroeder at Aug 05, 2008 04:02 PM
What they announced today seems to actually vindicate the orthodox view: if there are perchlorates in Martian soil, that could explain why the Vikings failed to find any organics, because some perchlorates reduce organics efficiently.

On the other hand, they haven't actually found perchlorates; they have found chemical signatures "consistent with" perchlorates in one test, but not in others. So it does seem like they're rather jumping the gun at the moment.

Very, very strange developments...
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About Me

I'm a member of the Association of Professional Futurists with my own consultancy, and am also currently Chair of the Canadian node of the Millennium Project, a private/public foresight consultancy active in 50 nations. As well, I am an award-winning author with ten published novels translated into as many languages. I write, give talks, and conduct workshops on numerous topics related to the future, including:

  • Future of government
  • Bitcoin and digital currencies
  • The workplace in 2030
  • The Internet of Things
  • Augmented cognition

For a complete bio, go here. To contact me, email karl at kschroeder dot com

Example: The Future of Governance

I use Science Fiction to communicate the results of actual futures studies. Some of my recent research relates to how we'll govern ourselves in the future. I've worked with a few clients on this and published some results.

Here are two examples--and you can read the first for free:

The Canadian army commissioned me to write Crisis in Urlia, a fictionalized study of the future of military command-and-control. You can download a PDF of the book here:

Crisis in Urlia

For the "optimistic Science Fiction" anthology Hieroglyph, I wrote "Degrees of Freedom," set in Haida Gwaii. "Degrees of Freedom" is about an attempt to develop new governing systems by Canadian First Nations people.

I'm continuing to research this exciting area and would be happy to share my findings.


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    Coming on June 18, 2019

    "Science fiction at its best."

    --Kim Stanley Robinson

    A Young Adult Scifi Saga

    "Lean and hugely engaging ... and highly recommended."

    --Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review

    Sheer Fun: The Virga Series

    (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce are combined in Cities of the Air)

     β€œAn adventure-filled tale of sword fights and naval battles... the real fun of this coming-of-age tale includes a pirate treasure hunt and grand scale naval invasions set in the cold, far reaches of space. ”
    β€”Kirkus Reviews (listed in top 10 SF novels for 2006)

    "With Queen of Candesce, [Schroeder] has achieved a clockwork balance of deftly paced adventure and humour, set against an intriguing and unique vision of humanity's far future.
    --The Globe and Mail

    "[Pirate Sun] is fun in the same league as the best SF ever has had to offer, fully as exciting and full of cool science as work from the golden age of SF, but with characterization and plot layering equal to the scrutiny of critical appraisers."

    "...A rollicking good read... fun, bookish, and full of insane air battles"

    "A grand flying-pirate-ship-chases-and-escapes-and-meetings-with-monsters adventure, and it ends not with a debate or a seminar but with a gigantic zero-gee battle around Candesce, a climactic unmasking and showdown, just desserts, and other satisfying stuff."