Putting the life back in science fiction


Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and Alt-History

Just a quick note for those who, like me, need to fiddle for a few hours while the world burns.  Oh wait, that’s not quite what I meant, but anyway, if you want a distraction, here’s one: the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis.

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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.”

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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?



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?



December Fun, Part 1
December 7, 2010, 9:04 pm
Filed under: fiction, pseudonyms, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

Charlie Stross has posted another neat topic on his blog.

In other news, there’s an interesting SF Novel, Scion of the Zodiac up on Smashwords and Lulu, and the author is mumbling something about putting it on Amazon and other similar sites, unless a publisher buys it first.

If you’re interested in hard science fiction with a huge dose of biology, environmental ideas, sustainability, dragons, and neat microbes, you might like this one. Check it out.

I’ll post links to the novel as I get them.

UPDATE: Currently the story is available at Smashwords and Lulu. Getting it spread more widely is proving interesting.