Putting the life back in science fiction

Silly summer thoughts 3: Dune Shields

First, a bit of news: I’ve got another guest post up on Antipope, if you haven’t already seen it.  Go have fun with it, if it’s your sort of thing.

Now back to summer silliness; why not pick on Dune again?  It’s a fun target at the moment, especially since it gives this distorted impression that magnates and aristocrats could be part of  a breeding project to produce a superhuman messiah, even though rationally we know that regression to the mean seems to be a more common outcome for human reproduction(except for inbreeding, which gets rather worse).  The current administration in Washington is a great example of how each generation in a wealthy family gets smarter and more talented.  Or not.

In any case, for summer silliness, I give you the shields of the Dune universe, which apparently are spherical shells of force (or weirder, if you’re David Lynch and filming the novel), that slow down objects passing through them to 6 to 9 centimeters per second (this from the glossary in the original story and here) . Continue reading

Repurposing Dwarves
August 28, 2016, 8:50 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction, Speculation, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Ah August, that wonderful time when I learn how to navigate selling used stuff on Amazon (pro tip: if it’s selling for much less than $3.00, don’t bother, because that’s about where Amazon’s fees per item tend to land, at least on the stuff I’ve looked at).  And while I’ve been inputting inventory, I’ve had time to think about language, and red dwarf solar systems, and the repurposing of words.

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News and Dark Age Apophenia
July 9, 2016, 10:59 pm
Filed under: climate change, fantasy, fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

Sorry about the long silence, but I’ve been researching a new story setting, just for fun.

The news is that I’ve got another guest blog up on Charlie Stross’ Antipope. It’s about the possible consequences of Mark Jacobson’s plan to power the US using only renewable electricity.

And now for something completely different, what I’m doing on my summer “vacation.”

Continue reading

“…a insightful examination of our current culture.”
September 17, 2015, 8:22 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction | Tags: , ,

I have no literary pretensions, so my favorite book review comes from The Onion’s online book review every Monday. Back on September 7, Kyle Fowle reviewed Salman Rushdie’s venture into fantasy, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights (link to the review). Here’s how the review opens:

“Genre fiction has always been poking around the mainstream, but now more than ever it’s enjoying unprecedented success. Sci-fi and historical fiction, fantasy and bawdy romance, superheroes and dragons, are an integral part of the mainstream media diet, be it in literature, television, or film. Perhaps it’s no surprise that fantasy and sci-fi are enjoying widespread appeal. After all, most can relate to the way those genres explore class division, oppression, economic and moral collapse, and the constant fight between good and evil. Such themes feel particularly relevant and urgent in 2015, and the best fantasy and sci-fi writing isn’t an outlandish exploration of the future or some magical past, but a insightful examination of our current culture.” (emphasis added)

Of course I disagree with that last statement. I’m with Tolkien, in that I’m not terribly interested in writing allegories about the modern age, although I agree that good stories have taken this tack. Perhaps this is an example of someone attempting to turn personal taste into dogma? We can also debate whether LOTR, Harry Potter, ASOIF, Star Wars, or Dune are insightful examinations of the cultures of their times, or just worth consuming on their own terms.

Building on the last blog entry, “White Men in the Jungle, I’d say this perception of what makes quality fiction is another problem with cli-fi. My interest is in exploring what, to me, looks like a very outlandish future, to give people an idea of where we’re headed if we keep blowin’ GHGs and swiggin’ every resource in sight. Cli-fi that’s an “insightful examination of our current culture” is inevitably dystopian, sometimes narcissistically so, all about how we’re screwing up, something that all too often turns into a jeremiad. Indeed, it seems that people expect cli-fi to be about the jeremiad, to explore the ways in which the results of our sins will be visited on our descendants, if not to wallow in it.

But I love real creativity, and I think the most creative solutions happen within harsh limits. For instance, I love traditional Inuit kayaks and Micronesian flying proas, because they’re two examples of incredibly creative people taking almost nothing and making something spectacular out of it. In the case of kayaks, the Inuit took driftwood and seal carcasses and made these beautiful and incredibly maneuverable little boats. The proas are those beautiful outriggers with the asymmetric hulls that were the fastest sailboats in the world into the 19th Century. They were built with driftwood and the things you find on a coral atoll: coconuts (logs and fiber), breadfruit logs, pandanus for the sails, and clamshell adzes, because they didn’t even have stone to shape the wood. And proas sailed rings around European square-riggers when the latter first showed up. To me, these boats represent real creativity, far better than anything I could dream up if I was stranded on an Arctic shore or a Pacific island. In stories, I always love it when the author finds a way to get the protagonists through the impossible limits of a story with grace and creativity, when the book has good characters, good plot, and the literary equivalent of a kayak build as part of the climax.

So with cli-fi, we could make it a dystopian examination of our current culture, and that might be insightful, if a little tedious and self-absorbed. Or, just perhaps, we can look at it as an exploration of those strange worlds on the far side of hell that could just be our deep future.

Do you have any preferences?

White Men in the Jungle, and other Cli-Fi issues
September 5, 2015, 12:02 am
Filed under: book, deep time, fantasy, fiction, futurism, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , ,

Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble here, but one thing I started thinking about is how much stereotypes and standard tropes underpin science fiction and especially fantasy. Even though educated people know about the Medieval Warm Period, so much fantasy contains the equivalent of Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” Yes, this is great escapism in the middle of summer, but still, there are a huge number of tropes that show up when dealing with fantasy: medieval, Europe, wintry, or mysterious, oriental, and so forth and so on. You’ve seen them, you know them, and writers too often depend on you knowing them.

Yes, I can think of more than a few books that break tropes, but equally, I run into people whose take on writing is conditioned by the metaphors and tropes conjured by words, and this makes communication difficult. One example was when I talked to a writer (with a strong humanities background) online, about how I, as an ecologist probably wouldn’t name plants that were growing in a vacant lot in southern California as a way to describe the scene. Why not? came the question. Well, I replied, because I suspected that the names wouldn’t paint the scene for anyone who didn’t know the plants already. This was scoffed at. Okay, I wrote, the plants I’m thinking of are black mustard and ripgut brome. Oh, those are so evocative of doom, decay, and violence. Perfect for a vacant lot in Southern California. Well, I replied, that’s exactly my point. You just misled yourself, I replied, and you have no idea of what I was actually trying to describe…The conversation deteriorated from there. Yes, this conversation has been changed somewhat, because I want to use it as an illustration, rather than to embarrass someone. The miscommunication is the point.

The idea I’m chewing on, the trouble I’m borrowing, is how to deal with climate change in fiction, “cli-fi” if you want a newish shorthand. If you’re writing about a climate changed world and thinking like an ecologist, it makes perfect sense to talk about a tribe of white-skinned people living in a jungle, because tropical forests are predicted to grow north into modern Oregon if we go in for severe climate change. If you’re not thinking metaphorically (would that be trope-ically?), it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the descendants of today’s Portland hipsters living a barbarian lifestyle in the coast ranges, in a dense forest of bamboo, briars, kudzu, and naturalized street trees, hunting feral pigs and settling all too often for grasshoppers instead.

The problem is, if someone who reads metaphorically sees this, all sorts of problems jump out. Is it cultural appropriation or imperialism to put white men in jungles? Or to have them happily eat the foods of other cultures, like grasshoppers, which are edgy and taboo in today’s America? Or to work with bamboo? I don’t know. But jungles bring all sorts of cultural baggage and expected tropes along with them. Any place does. That’s why fantasy castles are set so often in fantasy Europe, rather than in the fantasy Amazon, fantasy Congo, or fantasy Zomia. Especially if the characters are white.

Climate change violates these tropes, moving climates, and eventually the plants and animals they support, to different places than they occur in now. That’s why I’m interested in cli-fi, really, because a climate-changed future gives you a huge new palette of possible realities to explore. The jungles of Cascadia may be a real place in 300 years.

The shortcoming of this new palette is that it violates expectations, and I suspect this is one reason why people tend to think of post-apocalyptic stories as set in a ruined version of today’s world, rather than in something much stranger. It’s easier to think of such stereotypes, rather than to confront how strange the world could get.

And it does get more complicated. If you want to write a story set, say, 10,000 years in the future, humans probably won’t have the races or ethnicities we have now. And there’s a whole other set of expectations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with race, especially in America and most especially now. If you want to write a story set in the truly deep future, you can legitimately jettison today’s races and start over. However, how do you write the resulting story without it being seen as a commentary on today’s racial politics? I have no idea. Maybe you don’t. Thing is, it’s unrealistic to assume that today’s racial, ethnic, even gender identities have any sort of permanency. Is talking about this a reflection on today’s racial politics, or just some naive white dude (that would be me), trying to think about what the future might hold? It can be read both ways.

And so it goes. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Authors don’t get complete control over what people read into their work, and readers bring a wide variety of preconceptions with them to any work. Still, if you’re going to play outside established tropes, I don’t think it’s overly paranoid to at least think about how things can be misinterpreted, and possibly to take some steps to head off the worst problems.

Or perhaps I’m just borrowing trouble where none exists. What do you think?

Interstellar Civilization and Cthulhu

Time for something different. Admittedly, it’s inspired in part by Matt Wedel’s recent musings on how to make a proper Cthulhu idol. Since it’s July, I figured I’d trot out something I’ve been musing about. It has to do with vernal pools. And Cthulhu. And interstellar civilization.

Vernal pools, in case you don’t know, are rain-fed pools that crop up in the spring. I’m used to the California ones, which feature a wide variety of (typically rare to endangered) species that act as typical aquatic or wetland species, but only for the few weeks to months that the pools last. They have a couple of neat properties that are relevant here. One is that vernal pool species have a number of ways of dealing with the inevitable death of the pool, from flying to another pool to going into hibernation to producing propagules (seeds, eggs, etc) that can survive up to a century before they grow once a new pool forms. The other thing to know is that organisms in the pool typically start at the small end (fairy shrimp, algae), followed by bigger ones (tadpoles, small aquatic plants), followed by “large” predators (dragonfly larvae, beetle larvae), followed finally by the really big things (ducks, garter snakes) as the pool dries. It all happens quite fast, a miniature serengeti, as someone called it.

If you don’t know what Cthulhu is, well, what can I say? Go read The Call of Cthulhu, and come back later. But this is more about Lovecraft’s whole mythos of critters that lived in deep time and still live here and there, ready to jump out and go boo. Erm… Right.

Lovecraft didn’t know much about math or biology, for which I don’t blame him. It wasn’t his thing. Still, rather a lot of science has floated under the bridge since he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, so I’d suggest it’s high time to retcon the Cthulhu mythos into modern science. That, and it’s July. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest an interstellar civilization composed of Mythos monsters, and based in part on the model of a vernal pool.

Let’s start with our galaxy. By most measures, there seem to be millions of potentially habitable planets out there, but equally, in our world, we don’t see any evidence of interstellar cultures. This is slightly bizarre, as sun-like stars have been around from something like 500 million years longer than our sun has existed. One would guess that, if interstellar civilization could exist, it would exist, and that furthermore, it would have colonized Earth long ago. That is exactly what Lovecraft posited, with his fossil cities in At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time, and elsewhere. Personally, I think his reasons for why we’re not over-run by alien beasties are a bit weak, so this is where the retcon starts.

The big problem with interstellar civilization is that traveling between stars is horribly energy and resource expensive. Lovecraft got it right, when he talked about species migrating between the stars, rather than commuting (although his Outer Gods seem to not have that trouble). It follows then that when a interstellar civilization colonizes a planet, resource extraction begins in earnest. We’re not talking about sustainability here, not by a long shot.

Since we know what a non-sustainable civilization looks like (we’re living in one), we also know that, absent major changes, such civilizations die out in a geologic instant. This may sound non-functional, but there’s a way out of it. If the interstellar civilization on a particular world can colonize one or more new planets before the civilization dies, it can keep going. Planets recover from civilization over a 10-65 million year period (thanks to geologic processes that allow the biosphere to recover, new oil reserves that gather surplus sunlight, and erosion that uncovers ore deposits), so it’s theoretically possible for a really clever interstellar civilization to persist indefinitely by constantly moving, leaving most of the hundreds of millions of habitable worlds in the galaxy fallow for most of the time. When the civilization ends on a planet, its constituents either leave, die off, hibernate, or leave some sort of remnant or propagule to grow when civilization comes again, tens of millions of years later. Granted, it’s tricky for anything to survive intact for tens of millions of years, but with god-like technology comes god-like hibernation abilities.

So what happens when civilization rains down on a planet? I suspect it’s a lot like what happens when a vernal pool fills. The little guys (elder things and their shoggoth bionanotech) show up first and most frequently. If the planet’s biosphere isn’t that suitable, that may be all that shows up, and they leave after they’ve sucked up the available resources to move on to the next suitable planet. If conditions are more favorable, the elder things are followed by all manner of beings: mi-go, the Great Race, and so forth, each preying on (excuse me, establishing trade relations with) the things that came before.

Then Cthulhu and his kind show up. They’re the megacorps, excuse me, the big predators. However, Cthulhu has an odd biology. According to the Call of Cthulhu“[w]hen the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.” In biological terminology, Cthulhu and his ilk use two strategies: interstellar travel (“plunging through the sky”), presumably if the stars are close enough for them to make the transit, and they also can go dormant (“could not live”), presumably through some amazingly advanced form of anhydrobiosis, to wait between boughts of civilization. Once Cthulhu’s kind is through ravaging a planet, the show’s over, and those survivors who didn’t flee settle in to wait for the planet to heal itself. This is much like what happens when a vernal pool dries to mud. The flowers bloom in the mud, and everything sets up to wait through another dry summer

Note that colonization isn’t an organized process, but then again, vernal pool community formation isn’t organized either. Every pool is different every year, and it depends on things like how fast the pools are evaporating and what animals are close enough to colonize the pools. Most of them can pass a year (or hundred) without needing water. Similarly, interstellar civilization is conditioned by how far a particular species can travel between stars and by what they need to survive on a planet, whether they can pioneer an uncivilized ecosystem (as the elder things can), or whether they need a civilization present to feed their great bulk (as with Cthulhu).

When Lovecraft talked about ancient cities, his biggest problem was lack of a viable dating technology. He wrongly assumed that species had been on Earth for hundreds of millions of year due to fragments throughout the geologic record, when in fact the planet was settled repeatedly, at different times, tens or hundreds of millions of years apart. It’s an easy mistake to make.

We can even understand the nature of Lovecraft’s Other Gods in this scheme. Azathoth, the blind idiot god (or demon sultan) at the center of the universe is pretty clearly the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Without it, this galaxy wouldn’t exist, so it is our creator in its own mindless way. Yog-Sothoth, the All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self, is probably our galaxy’s equivalent of the Internet, possibly powered in part by the central black hole Azathoth. After all, if civilized species don’t know what’s going on on other worlds, how can they know where to migrate next? Nyarlathotep, “that frightful soul and messenger of infinity’s Other Gods, the crawling chaos,” is Yog-Sothoth’s equivalent of Siri, or perhaps Clippy the Paperclip, which may explain humanity’s generally negative interactions with it.

This leads to some interesting ideas. Paleontology in Lovecraft’s world is likely to be rather more interesting than our world’s paleontology. Think of what the remnants of an alien interstellar city would look like in the fossil record. Moreover, there would be a rather more sinister explanation for Earth’s mass extinctions, and the evidence would be rather different.

Of course, the ultimate question for humans is, when the stars come right and galactic civilization comes to this planet yet again, do we join in the madness and plunge between the stars with them, do we resist, or do we hide out until they go away, and hope we can survive on the scraps left behind?

Anne McCaffrey and Lynn Margulis, RIP
November 23, 2011, 8:40 pm
Filed under: fall, fantasy, Real Science Content, science fiction

Sad news today. Two grand ladies who had a strong influence on me have passed away. I can’t say that I knew them, although I heard both of them speak.

Anne McCaffrey died at her home in Ireland. She is, of course, known for her Pern novels, and I didn’t realize until I saw her obituary that The White Dragon was the first science fiction novel to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Lynn Margulis, winner of the National Medal of Science, died at her home in Massachusetts. She’s best known for demonstrating that eukaryotic cells derived from serial endosymbiosis, the fusing of several prokaryotic cells to form the organelles of the eukaryote (and yes, I’m keeping it simple). I don’t think she was the first person to consider this idea, but she certainly was the one who demonstrated it and popularized the concept.

A copy of Dragonflight was the first book I ever had autographed, and I still have it. As a child in a house with a cat named Smaug, you can guess that I ran into dragons early, but I was drawing Michael Whelan-style dragons as soon as I saw the cover of The White Dragon in my parents’ hands. I’ve had a fondness for dragons ever since.

As for Dr. Margulis, she and I both went to the same school, albeit decades apart, and her books (particularly The First Four Billion Years, which I read for fun as an undergrad) introduced me to the concept of symbiosis, something which ultimately became the topic of my PhD research.

Oddly enough, the first book I wrote, Scion of the Zodiac, is in part about symbiosis, and in part about dragons. Thinking about it, perhaps I should have dedicated it to the two of them.

The world is a better place from their lives and their work, and they will be missed.