Putting the life back in science fiction

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.

And now for something completely different…
October 6, 2011, 5:23 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , , ,

Oddly enough, I’ve been meaning to put this up for over a week. Originally, I was going to wait until I had the book ready for sale, but you know, reality has it’s own agenda. All of a sudden, a bunch of things suddenly erupted onto my schedule like post-rain mushrooms. Smashwords takes a bit of time to publish things, so I thought I’d put the teaser up now.

It’s my second book, and this one is in the spirit of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol. The title is The Ghosts of Deep Time, and the book contains a novel and a short story.

From the back cover:

“A consultant finds a fossilized pack in the desert, then finds himself back in the Miocene with a criminal gang.

A game warden busts a group of trespassing druids in a wildlife sanctuary. They vanish in a green flash and he loses his job, only to be recruited for something much bigger.

This is the big secret: time travel is easy. There are over four billion years in Earth’s past. The deeper one goes in time, the more alien the Earth is. Still, people have settled most of Earth’s history. Of course they live without a trace, for that is the law of deep time. To do otherwise could create paradoxes, bifurcating histories, even time wars and mass extinctions.

Where there is law, there is also crime. When crimes span millions of years, law enforcement takes a special kind of officer. An ex-game warden can be the perfect recruit. At the right time.”

Here’s a sample. Enjoy! The Smashwords version will be available in a couple of weeks, and a paper version will be available through Lulu late next week. I’ll add links as things progress.

Update: It’s now available as an trade paperback from Lulu in electronic formats (Kindle, Nook) from Smashwords. Amazon is coming in a bit. In the meantime, you can purchase it from either of these two fine companies.

Is it better in the past?
May 31, 2011, 10:45 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Wow, I haven’t posted since…Um yeah. Where did April and May go? Right. Living in my secret identity.

Anyway, random short-ish thought. I’ve been finishing up a time travel manuscript, and now I’m figuring out how to sell it.

The one thing (as I’ve noted below), it’s set partially in deep time. This isn’t the killing-Hitler type of time travel, this is getting back into the Paleocene and other parts of the Cenozoic. While I like human history, I see no need to show off my modest knowledge of the subject, besides which, people with real history backgrounds have been embellishing human history for decades. It’s not like there isn’t, oh, 400 million years of other time to explore.

So I’ve been thinking to myself, “Self, one of the biggest problems I have is getting anyone to believe that a livable, sustainable future isn’t, well, chunky, and funky, and terribly earnest, and only available in a limited color scheme, and…well, not much fun, really. We all “know” after all, that dysfunction and sex are what sell, and if everything functions well enough and people know how to keep their zippers zipped, where’s the fun in that?” It’s that whole eating your broccoli-sprouts feeling about a sustainable future. It doesn’t matter how cool and hip the solar decathletes are, how much we know we need to do it. It’s just missing…something.

At least, that’s my thought. So no, I’m not trashing the past, exactly. What I’m thinking about is the question of where do we find our sustainable inspiration. I think it comes from the past. Perhaps from Eden, or Shangri-La, or the hunter/gatherer paradise, or even Lothlorien. Just think about these places, and those long, glorious green shadow of the past reach out and romantically embrace us. Right? As a society, we’re steeped in the mythology of the fall, of paradise lost, of how things used to be better back in the first chapter, the golden age. Even the silver age.

So what better place to put the sustainable future than the deep past, before humans even evolved. There’s something like 400 million years of livable planet back there, long enough for thousands of civilizations to rise, live, and fall. The only catch is that, if such places existed, they must of been masterful environmentalists, because they’ve erased every trace of themselves from the world.

Of course, this only works if time travel is easy. If time travel is easy, they must be hiding it from us, right? What better inspiration to environmentalism than to live the good life, keep the riff-raff of the unenlightened future out.

So that’s my question: not how one goes about hiding a civilization (I figured that one out already), but does it feel better to have that livable future back in the past, hiding from the fossil record? Is it a cute conceit, or could it actually be inspirational for those of us stuck in linear time?

November 30, 2010, 9:11 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Ah yes, the sound of silence on a blog. That was me finishing NANOWRIMO 2010. 50,000 words, finished with 12 hours to spare.

This is the third year I’ve attempted it and the second year I’ve completed it. Last year’s version is sitting in publisher’s slush piles, and I’m considering self-publishing it on Kindle for Christmas.

One thing I’m finding is that my addiction to world-building makes story telling…complicated. Much of what I wrote this year (as last year) isn’t so much story, it’s trying to figure out the world and how it works, so that I know what the characters are getting into.

Last year I had fun with the old idea of a low-tech culture on an alien planet (think Pern, Darkover, etc). But it had to make sense ecologically. When even the soil is alien, how do people grow enough food to survive? And how did they get there in the first place? And why are they low-tech? The last question was easy: the microbes on the planet think that industrial polymers and lubricants are yummy, because the local plants and fungi use analogous chemicals as structural compounds (yes, the plants are plastic. Be careful in what you burn for your fire!). The rest of it? That was complicated.

This year I decided to tackle time-travel. Learning about the past was the first challenge (I chose the Paleocene for reasons that are relevant to the story). The major NANOWRIMO challenge was figuring out a) who the time travelers are (more game wardens than secret agents, in my view), and b) the hard question: how do you go about designing a culture that is very good at erasing every trace of itself from the fossil record? That’s even less easy than it sounds, but ultimately it was fun to think out and write about. It takes leave no trace camping to a whole new level.

I still like NANOWRIMO, because having that contest helps everyone understand that they need to leave you alone and let you write. That’s not so easy, other times of the year. If you’ve ever wanted to try writing a novel, I’d recommend this as the way to do it.

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?