Putting the life back in science fiction

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.

Scion of the Zodiac Feedback Post
July 27, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: livable future, science fiction, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding, writing

Simple topic. A few months ago, I self-published a SF novel called Scion of the Zodiac. I just dropped the price and made the first half free. Check it out.

I posted about it on Antipope, where John Meaney guest-blogged about world building. Since I spoke up about it, I figured I’d better provide a venue, in case anyone wants to comment on it.

Criticism is fine, and constructive feedback is much appreciated. Note that “It’s okay,” “I liked it,” and “it sucks,” don’t really qualify as constructive feedback. I’m trying to make the next one better, after all.

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?

Mesozoic head space
December 15, 2010, 6:55 pm
Filed under: pseudonyms, Real Science Content, Speculation, Worldbuilding, writing

So now I’m not content with the Paleocene, and I want to deal with the lower Cretaceous?

Actually, this comes from a blog discussion I got sucked into on at SVPOW, on a really interesting Sauropod reconstruction by Brian Engh. As I noted over there, I’m posting some first thoughts on dinosaur-plant interactions over here.

For fun, I’ve been writing a time travel story set in the Paleocene, and so I’ve gotten interested in the weirdness one runs into going back in time. It’s another facet of worldbuilding, except that, instead of setting it on an alien planet far, far away, I’m trying to figure out the deep past.

The central problem is, I think, one of modern perceptions. To demonstrate, I’m going to choose three very different ecosystems: redwood forest, Midwestern prairie, and California needlegrass grassland. The redwoods have been around for a *very long* time, and even into the Paleocene, they were dominant in a lot of places, with ferns growing in the open fields around them (grasses didn’t really show up until the Oligocene, if I remember correctly). Most people’s view of the redwoods is this quiet place where the biomass is 99.9% plant and the herbivores are mostly absent. Fire is mostly absent too: they call the redwoods “the asbestos forest” for good reason.

Contrast the redwoods with the prairie, where the interaction between grasses and grazers pretty much dominates the system. Prairie grasses tolerate grazing and fire, usually much better than other plants tolerate grazing and fire. But it’s really about grazing, and when you remove the grazers, it’s hard to keep the woody plants from taking over. It’s a neat trick: everything gets eaten, but the grasses simply regrow better.

Contrast both with the California grasslands, where there were few (if any) grazers for the last 10,000 years or so. California native grasses are horrible at tolerating grazing. They can be mowed once per year, and that only about 1ft. off the ground. More mowing than that, and they die. But they tolerate fire just fine.

Getting back to the sauropods, I criticized Brian’s reconstruction of the great beasts knocking down the forest, and he (quite properly) took exception. But to me it is a paradox: why would there be a coniferous forest there at all? All those enormous dinosaurs, which ranged from the size of hippos to medium-sized whales, were living on a diet of conifers, possibly ferns, and possibly cycads and cycadeoids. If you think about this for a while, you realize how very bizarre it sounds. From the fossil evidence, it appears that conifers and ferns are good food, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, deer go after arborvitae and yews, but they kill the conifers. And ferns are full of fascinating carcinogens, while cycads are possibly even more nasty and tough. And very slow growing. If animals don’t routinely eat conifers and ferns today, why were the biggest land animals of all time chowing down on them 24/7 a hundred million years ago?

So, how do you grow a sauropod on such a crappy diet? The best answer I can come up with is that, back in the Mesozoic, there must have been another guild of plants around. These were conifers and ferns (if not cycads and gnetales) that used the prairie grass trick. They tolerated browsing, because it killed off their competitors and they could regrow. With the dinosaurs extinct, the plants collectively switched to a strategy of repelling smaller herbivores (mammals and insects), just as the native grassland species did in California. This is the Paleocene environment I’ve been researching, and we still see it in places like Papua New Guinea.

What did the mesozoic browsed conifers look like? That’s another problem I’m having. I don’t know of a modern conifer that tolerates browsing well. However, there were lots of extinct conifers back then. Ferns too. Still, I’m guessing that the Mesozoic forests had more in common with prairies than they do with the redwood cathedrals of today. They were heavily browsed, and seedlings probably recruited in meso-sites where the dinosaurs couldn’t eat them. They probably also root-sprouted readily, just as modern redwoods do.

As for size, I suspect that the tallest mesozoic conifers simply overtopped even the giant sauropods. But I don’t think they got as big as do modern trees, because of the respiration problem. Plants respire just as animals do, and plant respiration rates depend on temperature. There’s a reason that the really big trees grow where it’s cool and wet. It’s easy for them to generate a huge carbon surplus for wood in an environment like that, and the wet weather and fog helps them maintain the positive water balance to keep the tree tops hydrated. A tree in a hot, dry environment simply can’t grow that big, because it has less surplus carbon to put into wood (more carbon went into feeding hot cells), and there is less water to feed the high branches. As I understand it, the Jurassic was (on average) hotter and drier than today, so I’d guess that Jurassic conifers weren’t the giants we see today. And while some of them could overtop even Sauroposeidon, I suspect that many had to live out their lives in the browsing zone, forming some sort of weird multilayered conifer fern multiprairie/savanna.

Long, rambling post, and I’d welcome your thoughts. As I noted above, I’m ultimately interested in trying to get my head around what the Cretaceous looked like. The Paleocene I understand to some degree, but the Mesozoic is a new world to me, and a very strange one. It’s fun to figure out how to do justice to it properly in art or literature.

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.

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.

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?

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.