A quick lesson in science fiction by Alastair Reynolds at Emirates LitFest

(Long post ahead, but I guarantee sci-fi fans will enjoy the read)


This year, I seemed to be taking all sorts of chances with the Emirates Festival of Literature…picking authors I hadn’t heard of. Whatever will I do next?

So why did I want to go for Alastair Reynold‘s session? Simply because the topic said: “Beyond Rocket Science: Exploring the fine line between science and fiction”. That’s all it took for me to go click and buy the session.


A few days before the LitFest, I mentioned to my colleague I was attending a session of an author called Alastair Reynolds, and had he heard of him? Within five minutes, I had a copy of Terminal World in my hands. By the time I attended LitFest, I’d finished roughly around 100-odd pages, but loved what I was reading so much I bought my own copy. The next day I had finished the book and in awe, looking forward even more to the session I bought on a sci-fi whim.
Here’s an account of the insanely fun hour-long session where I learned so much more about the sci-fi genre of books and more:


The first thing that got me excited is the knowledge that Reynolds is writing the new Doctor Who novel, ‘Harvest of Time’. Absolutely cannot wait for that one now!

Reynolds used to be a scientist for a space agency, and had a lot more understanding of the realism of science in novels, which helped differentiate between what’s science fiction and what’s not.

For example, he said: “Is Star Wars since fiction or science fantasy? I think it’s not science fiction; it’s more like wizards in space.” He called it science fantasy, and said realistic science can be found in TV series/movies like Star Trek.

He helps chart out the movement of science fiction novels from earth to space. “One of the ways it helps to understand science fiction is the way knowledge of the earth developed in the 20th century,” Reynolds said.

With people discovering almost all there was to know about the earth, it was hard for writers to create fiction on home ground; space was the final frontier, literally.

The death knell of sorts pealed for sci-fi writers. In 1905, Einstein said nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. “Speed of sound is an engineering problem. Speed of light is more like a physical restriction on the universe, like 2+2 = 4 not 5,” explained Reynolds.

“This was terrible news for science fiction writers. How are we going to tell our stories if you can’t travel at the speed of light? The science fiction writers just said ‘We can’t hear you’ and people just decided to break the speed of light through science fiction, using wormholes and hyperdrive.”

Reynolds recounted a hilarious (well, hilarious in retrospect) situation where he’d given an interview saying nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, right after which CERN discovered neutrinos which seemingly travelled faster than light. As kids these days say: “*facepalm*”

However it’s been reported that these results could have been caused by a system error, so let’s not discredit Einstein (or Reynolds) just yet!


Another cool thread of thought he talked about was how science influences science fiction and vice versa. We return to Star Trek; as fans might know the “warp drive” was Rodenberry’s way of allowing the starships to travel faster than light. According to Reynolds, a physicist at the University of Swansea decided to think more along these lines, and created the Alcubierre Metric, which would create a warp bubble. However, a massive downside is that to use it, one would need to use more energy that’s contained in the entire universe.



Kip Thorne (can be seen in the slide in the background) is a theoretical physicist has researched into the concept of wormholes and time travelling (hands up those who thought of Farscape!).

Another idea from science fiction is the idea of ‘terraforming’. This term refers to the hypothetical process of transforming the ecology, atmosphere and everything else required to make it suitable for human beings to inhabit in Earth-like conditions.

Planets haven’t escaped this influence of science fiction either! “One of the problems is that we’re running out of names for planets, so experts responsbile for naming systems, in sheer desperation, turn to science fiction.” Earlier on in the talk, Reynolds mentioned “Dune”, the universe created in the sci-fi novels of Frank Herbert. In that, there’s a planet called Chusuk. And now, if one were to travel to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, one may cross one of its plains, Chusuk Planitia, named after Herbert’s fictional planet. Cool, innit?


Reynolds seemed impressed with James Cameron’s Avatar – he mentioned it more than once during his talk. He said: “[There is a] clever thinking of mechanics of space flight and mechanics of the alien planet in Avatar. Cameron took the latest speculation and built it into the film. Avatar has clever thinking of alien ecology and physiology of the planet.”

Oh, and then the question/answer session. This bit is always fun, but was made so much better by the most adorable boy (he could’ve been seven? Eight? Ten?) who asked extremely intelligent questions about matter and anti-matter and the process of using these opposing forces to power a starship. With intelligent follow-up questions to boot! 

The signing session followed, and I can vouch for what a friendly person Reynolds is. I was feeling bad for the people behind me, wondering if they were cursing me for taking my time up front, but he’s so friendly! We talked for a bit and I walked off thinking I’d found a new author whose books I’d love to build a collection of.

To infinity and beyond!

[Note: There was so much more he covered during the session, with a slideshow of images, but I’ve only covered some major points that were my favourite bits]
My tweets from that day:

6 thoughts on “A quick lesson in science fiction by Alastair Reynolds at Emirates LitFest

  1. The neutrino speed results are certainly wrong, either in the equipment itself, the calibrations or the data collection/processing. The ultimate speed of light in a vacuum *within* the universe is an unbreakable fundamental constant, inextricably linked with time. The faster you travel, the more time slows down, this is a proven fact. If a particle were able to travel at the speed of light, it would cease to travel in time, which is just not possible.Great write-up, very interesting. Reynolds is a superstar 🙂

  2. Hi Dan, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yup, Reynolds was excellent. He did say something too about this, that for the results to be what they are, the neutrinos would’ve had to skip out of their dimension, (the right word escapes me at present) and skip back in again.Definitely going to dive into his books properly now.

  3. I replied, but it was inoffensive and now I can’t see it here so I’m wondering if you deleted it or it didn’t get posted.

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