Putting the life back in science fiction

Hot hot hot!
September 30, 2010, 12:36 am
Filed under: fall, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

We’ve had a cool year here in southern California (the tragedy, fog at the beaches. What will the tourists do?). This week we’ve finally gotten hit by some reasonably hot, clear days, and wow, it does feel like global warming is back on again.

Great time to go back to the future. How are we going to survive all this change?

I don’t have any answers, but for this time travel work, I’ve been reading about so many mountain buildings, great volcanoes, mass extinctions, ice ages, new evolutionary lines, grass taking over, dogs and cats living together (well, miacids living together before the two lineages split), learning how many times evolution can reinvent a sabertooth (answer: more than 4. And Counting)…. It’s made me a little, well, jaundiced about today’s problems.

I just want to throw up my hands and say, “Meh, I think we’ll manage somehow.” That’s the pleasure of the long view. I’d hate to live through what our ancestors survived, but somehow, enough of them lived that we’re here.

That’s one thing that inspires my conservation efforts. As I tell people, straight-faced, in California, people lived off native plants and animals for something like 10,000 years, give or take. Therefore, we know it can be done sustainably. Conversely, we’re having trouble with this little suburbanization experiment a few decades after we started. This strongly suggests that we should be conserving native plants and animals as an emergency back up, just in case we were wrong in assuming that importing water, power, and food was a good way to live here. We need something for the few survivors to fall back on, after the apocalypse.

For some reason, this doesn’t make me so popular with more ardent conservationists. I’m not sure why.

Oh well. What’s the future look like for you, in the hot days of autumn? Maybe we’ll start cycling through boom-bust civilizations every 2000 years, a la Niven and Pournelle’s Moties?

Why heteromeles?
September 21, 2010, 9:15 pm
Filed under: pseudonyms, writing

I’ve actually had this discussion on other blogs, but it’s a good thing to post here.

Why heteromeles? If you googled it, you found that heteromeles is the genus of a California shrub (toyon). Toyon happens to be one of my favorite plants. While a number of nurseries and consulting firms use toyon in their name, heteromeles was basically up for grabs when I started using it.

Why a pseudonym? I found it difficult being a salaried employee of a large corporation or non-profit and writing anything under my own name. Most of the firms I worked for have asserted that they owned all of my creative output (because a salary is allegedly 24/7), and I really didn’t want to have that discussion with HR about some comment or other. Heteromeles became my way of saying my own thing, as opposed to what I do online under my own name, which is much more restrained.

Good idea or bad? I’ve had that argument on places like Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. Some people state categorically that no one who posts under a pseudonym should be trusted. This is a reasonable opinion, and I can tolerate them not trusting me. Still, pseudonymity works for me right now.

What do you think? Pseudonyms or real names? Or is it something that you don’t worry about?

Describing the critters and the weeds
September 13, 2010, 9:41 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

I’ve wrapped up my Paleocene research for now. It’s a neat epoch, and I’m glad I checked the details, because landscapes are like people. Trite but true. The more I know about a place, the more it comes alive for me. Now, I can go from the snowy-topped cone of the Mt. Skye volcano to the shallow, muddy expanse of the London Sound, from the cypress-lined swampy banks of the early Thames to the walnut and oak-covered, steep-sided mountains of the Irish massif…Yep. It’ll be a fun place to write about, a place where I can (metaphorically) sit in the ferns in a pine-forested tree island, in the middle of the black lava field of Antrim, while a Ptilodus watches me quietly from the branches above…

That’s the fun of doing research. I wouldn’t have known any of this, except for that long-ago geology teacher who taught me the jargon, and a nearby university with just the books and papers I needed.

Communicating it is another matter. Today I was thinking of an exchange I had with another writer, who has a strong English-language background. The question was how to describe a weedy field, a vacant lot. As a writer, I said I wouldn’t identify species. She told me I was wrong to leave those details out. Very well, I told her, the field is covered by black mustard and rip-gut brome. Oh, how redolent of loss and death, she said. The black, the ripped guts…. That’s the point, I replied. Ripgut brome is a grass with prickly heads, and the rancher’s named it ripgut for what those seeds did to their cattle. The only thing that’s black about black mustard are the seeds, and that’s what we grind up to make yellow mustard for our hot dogs. I’m just talking about an empty, weed-covered field, of foxtails that stick in your socks. But the argument dragged on, because she was convinced she was right, and she didn’t know the reality I was referring to.

Details can get in the way. To a botanist, ripgut and black mustard are signs of disturbance, which is a polite way of saying an area has been bulldozed and/or burned repeatedly, and the native species are mostly gone. These plants cover places people don’t care for, at least around here. Weed-patches. To people absorbed by the nuances of the English language, those two plants have word associations which gently mislead them into imagining a place totally different than the one I was trying to describe.

So when do the details get in the way? Perhaps when a Ptilodus sits in the pine-tree over my head. Do I want to describe that multituberculate? Here’s a reconstruction. Do I call it a squirrel-possum, even though it’s neither squirrel nor possum? Worse, possum means two very different things to people in the US and in Australia, and in the case of Mr. Ptilo on the pine bough, he’s a bit more like one of those buck-toothed Australian possums than anything in the Americas. Except, according to some researchers, multis moved more like frogs and toads, rather than like any living mammal… A furry arboreal toad with a prehensile tail and rodent-oid teeth? Right. Hopefully he will just sit there being the scenery, while I just sit in the ferns below and finish this up.

What do you think? Any memorable times when the words led you astray? Or do they generally open up fantasy worlds for you?

Volcanoes? In Scotland? Shiny!
September 8, 2010, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Worldbuilding

Okay, I admit it. I’m learning how to write science fiction the proper way. By writing.

As I was inspired by a certain author’s novella, I started thinking about time travel. Not quite on his scale, but I thought it would be fun to set a story in the deep past, and a lot less work than my last story. That last story was set on a world that I built in grad school, and I probably could have minored in planetology when I was done with the beast.

So, I said a month ago, let’s set this in the Paleocene. The which? Yes, that little 10 million year period after the Cretaceous. It was sort of like the 1990s if instead of the web, we’re talking about mammals. All these strange little mammals appeared, a bunch of them tried to be rodents and mongooses, and finally some of them figured out how to do it and out-competed the rest. The usual time of radical experimentation. Fun stuff for someone who likes evolution and furiously-evolving furry things. Easy. No big monsters, just focus on the people. Set it in England too, just to point out humorously how things have changed.

One author called it “The Dark Ages,” and aside from one episode of Primeval on TV, no SFF book has touched it, that I know of.

Then I decided to make sure I knew what I was talking about, and I stumbled into a whole new realm of science fiction. Paleomapping! With land bridges even!

Okay, it’s not science fiction, it’s informed speculation. You get to publish it in scientific journals.

It started when I noticed that every map of that era had a pretty different outline for the British Isles. Some just throw in the modern British Isles, which is pretty humorous when you realize how much the Isles have been shaped by glaciation. The others? Well, there’s a lot to choose from. Really, no one knows what most of Europe looked like back then.

What was happening at that point was that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was just about finished splitting Greenland and Norway apart. And rifts are messy places, littered with volcanoes and other weird stuff. When I started reading about flood basalts in Greenland and Scotland, I knew things were getting messy indeed, because flood basalts form things like The Siberian Traps, which put the kibosh on the Permian by directly or indirectly killing 90% of life on Earth. The Deccan Traps were active at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, and probably account for the decrease in dinosaur species prior to the K-T boundary event caused by that little asteroid.

So yes, when I saw flood basalts in the northern Atlantic from the mid-Paleocene, my eyes bugged a bit. Always nice when Earth throws an extinction event and nobody comes.

And yes, there were volcanoes in Scotland at that time. And Ireland. It’s when the Giant’s Causeway was laid down, but I suspect the area looked more like, oh, the Philippines. Or Central Mexico. Or the Cascades. Giant conical volcanoes going boom. Fun stuff!

But flood basalts? And land bridges? Well, that’s what was messing up the map makers. According to the geologists, the Atlantic was open all the way to the Arctic Ocean by some time in the Paleocene. According to the paleontologists, a few million years later in the Eocene, a bunch of mammals came over from North America (via Greenland, which was a balmy Arctic paradise in the early Eocene) and conquered Europe. These included the first carnivores and true rodents. So the magic question is, well, where did that land bridge go? I could ignore it, since the land bridge was in the Eocene, but then some dude incautiously stated that it occurred in the Paleocene, and I just had to know.

It looks like, around 55.8 million years ago or so, a volcano or twelve basically cut off the Atlantic from the Arctic Ocean. That’s my interpretation anyway, although no geologist really comes out and says it. There are matching flood basalts on both Eastern Greenland and Western Norway, and there was a narrow strait there where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge kind of petered out, before extending in the Eocene. So my guess is that when the rifting temporarily stopped, a huge volcanic island formed, one that was big enough to bridge continents (Panama of the Arctic!) and critters started scurrying through. Then the island broke apart, and our climate started rolling downhill towards the Ice Ages. That last was partly Antarctica’s fault, but that’s another story.

And I thought I was picking a quiet epoch for a nice little colonizing and survival story. Hah! And that was before I read that, while yes, the mammals were all small, cuddly, and very, very stupid (they always mention the small brain cases and inefficient limb geometries on Paleocene mammals for some reason), this was the Age of Crocodiles. And giant snakes. And oh yeah, lots of sharks in the water, because whales were still cute little fluffy-cuddly things with small brain cases and four legs.

Even the dullest geologic epoch is a lot more exciting than I was prepared for. Silly me. But I’ve got to finish reading about those volcanoes so that I can get back to the story. Because, you see, I’m a good ecologist, and I know that landscapes always dictate what kinds of stories you can tell on them. Now, I’m thinking on a bit…larger scale. One that goes boom.