Putting the life back in science fiction

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?


6 Comments so far
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If an area looks a particular way to a trained eye you can highlight that instead of hoping the reader is trained to assemble the same picture. “Bob saw the encampment was bordered by hard-used ground, so exhausted by fire and tools that only the hardiest weeds remained.” vs “Bob saw the encampment was bordered by abundant black mustard and rip-gut brome.”

You can only manage variant interpretation on a micro-level, though. On the macro level people will interpret stories without regard for the author’s intentions, and well they should. There are better and worse supported interpretations, but there is no hard bound on the number of supportable interpretations or messages found in a work. The author doesn’t occupy a special frame of reference, a textual version of the luminiferous ether.

Comment by Matt

Good points. I was more amused by a particular author insisting that the words were more important. Not my reality, I’m afraid.

Fortunately, I’m not planning on describing a multituberculate in much detail. I might venture using the word “kipuka” for the tree islands in the middle of volcanic lava flows. The geology chaps thought they had evidence of these, if I recall correctly. That’s the kind of neat detail that’s harder to pull out of bare imagination.

Comment by Heteromeles

This is totally off-topic, but you mentioned on Charlie’s blog a while ago that you’re porting Cybertracker to the Android. Are there any news on that? I’m hoping to carry out some dugong research early next year and that software sounds absolutely amazing, with the caveat that it runs on Windows. And even second-hand Windows phones (and netbooks) are expensive 😦

My hubby says he’s more than happy to help, or even to do it himself (but there should be no need to duplicate the effort).

Comment by Denni Schnapp

Hi Denni,

Not quite. I’m waiting to get Cybertracker once they get it onto Android. I’m not involved in the project otherwise. Last I saw on the Cybertracker email list, they were waiting to get funding to do the Android version. If your husband can help, he should contact Cybertracker directly. He’ll probably make a lot of people happy.

Comment by Heteromeles

Don’t forget that the chemistry of the trees could have changed drastically though their form hasn’t. Even now some acorns are inedible to poisonous and some as sweet and delicious as chestnuts.

Comment by Pat

Hi Pat,

That’s another good point, although this is one of those deceptive areas where things are even more complicated than that.

The background is that I’ve actually spent a bit of time studying plant evolution for a paper that was never accepted. I’m not a paleobotanist, but I could easily play one on TV if I lost some weight, and well…

The answer is you’re both right and wrong. You’re example is probably wrong, in that the Fagaceae seem to depend almost solely on tannins for defense, with a backup of spines around their fruits for chestnuts and some others. I’d expect that the Paleocene ancestors of this group would have tannin-based defenses. Additionally, I wouldn’t expect the ancient Fagaleans to be edible by humans, simply because many perhaps most species in the family aren’t eaten by humans.

Conversely, you’re right, because many of the really toxic modern groups, like the Apiaceae (the family of poison hemlock) weren’t around in the Paleocene, as far as I can tell. The Asterid part of the plant kingdom was rapidly evolving in the Paleocene and Eocene, and this includes some of the most common families, like the Asteraceae (the sunflowers). The asterids include many of our European cooking herbs, which come from the Apiaceae (carrot family) and Lamiaceae (mint family). Conversely, a lot of spice plants (nutmeg, bay leaf, allspice,pepper, etc) would have relatives around. If you were cooking with Paleocene plants, my guess is that it would be more like, say, Australian bush tucker and less like Mediterranean cuisine. Or more succinctly, the Paleocene tasted like mulled wine sans orange.

The other weird thing from a modern perspective is that the grasses really weren’t around in the Paleocene. Oh, there were probably some primitive bamboo thingies hanging out under the trees, but grassland and savanna were only a twinkle in Mother Nature’s eye, as it were. Since civilization runs on grasses (corn, wheat, rice, and sugar cane are all grasses, as are barley, rye, millet, and sorghum), this is a huge change from the present.

Long answer to a good observation, but this is one of my favorite areas.

Comment by Heteromeles

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