Putting the life back in science fiction

Space War 2020
February 3, 2020, 4:22 am
Filed under: American politics, fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags:

Not that I’m a fan of Trump, but the move to establish a US Space Force caught my attention.  There are two points of interest.  The lesser one is what apparently happened.  Of greater interest to me is how someone could use it in military science fiction, and what it might say about the future of space warfare.  And space cadets.   Continue reading

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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The Day After

Yay, it’s the day after Earth Day.  They’ve started signing the Paris climate accord, John Kerry photo-opping by signing with his granddaughter on his lap.  Obama will ratify it by executive action, the Senate Republicans will pass something nauseating telling him to stop chasing myths (unless maybe that doesn’t happen?), he’ll veto their attempt to quash him, and…

Well, what happens next?  In the real world, I’m not so sure, but after I finish the swarm of stuff I’m working on (I won’t be blogging for the next few weeks), I’ll start figuring out how to revise Hot Earth Dreams. There’s still time to get your comments in, but the window is closing.

Now that it’s the day after Earth Day, what have I learned?

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More (Recreational) Reading
February 17, 2016, 6:29 pm
Filed under: climate change, more books, writing | Tags: ,

Yes, I’m still reading.

Speaking of which, yesterday, one of my readers passed along a book review essay from December 1, 2014: J.R. McNei’s Changing Climates of History.  It’s something you might enjoy, hence the link.

McNeil writes about how historians have started grappling with how historians have finally started grappling again with how climate affects civilizations, after casting environmental determinism to the outer darkness back after WWII.  Assuming McNeil’s right, this essay sheds a bit of light on why environmental determinism got such a bad rap, as well as highlighting some neat-looking books, one of which I actually read and included in Hot Earth Dreams, not knowing (as usual), that it was part of a wave going through academia over the last five years.

Continue reading

Indexing is Vexing
September 26, 2015, 11:58 pm
Filed under: book, indexing, writing | Tags: , ,

I’ve been indexing the manuscript, and as with everything associated with this book, it’s more involved than I thought it would be. Fortunately, rather than lunging in to use Word’s indexing functions, I decided to read Nancy Mulvany’s very good Indexing Books, Second Edition (link to BigMuddy), so I learned that everything I was ready to do was, shall we say, suboptimal?  Yes, this is a textbook for people who create indices, and I do advise reading it before you launch into indexing.

It’s not that indexing is technically difficult, it’s that an index is a “paratext” (a parasitic separate text?) that reorganizes the book to enable someone looking for a particular bit of text to rapidly find it. Creating one can’t be done by machine, because the essential trick is getting inside the readers’ minds and anticipating how they will search for information and what they will search for. Yes, I could hire someone to do it for me, but that would cost hard money, and this is definitely a soft money project.  So I’m lumping it myself, and hoping that I can figure out how you’re going to go looking through the index.

One grumble about Mulvany’s book is that I decided to get the Kindle edition.  It has a beautiful index, of course, but all the Kindle converters did was to copy the index as if it was a table, so on my little Paperwhite, I can’t enlarge it.  All I have is page after page of two column index in flyspeck 3 font, too small to read without a magnifying glass, no links, page numbers noted and irrelevant in a Kindle edition.  In other words, in a textbook on indexing, the index on my version is totally useless.

Very few ebooks have functional, hyperlinked indices, but if I’m not being overly ambitious, I’m going to try to make a working index for the electronic version of my book.  Right now it looks like creating the electronic index involves radically reformatting the manuscript, feeding it into Caliber, and likely as not making various and unspeakable sacrifices to nameless deities.  Whether Amazon will carry the resulting file is another one of those interesting questions that hopefully I can answer in the next month or two.

While I could easily rant on about how ebooks are worse than paper books, I think this makes the case.  It’s beyond silly to have an electronic document with no hyperlinks and no way to resize images, but that’s what I’m supposed to create, unless I put in some extra effort.  Oh well. Good thing I’m stubborn.

The only take-home from this is that if you care about your readers having an index handy, put the requisite effort into it.  If you’re into DIY indexing, Mulvaney’s book is required reading, and if you’re planning on selling your manuscript (especially if it’s non-fiction), get the Chicago Manual of Style (preferably the dead tree version), because apparently it has warped brains in the American publishing industry more than other style manuals, and they will expect you to follow it, except when they don’t.

Back to the coal face.

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?

It’s NaNoWriMo time!
October 27, 2011, 5:55 pm
Filed under: fall, writing | Tags: ,

Just a quick note. For a while, I’ve done the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, this is the time and way to do it. Go to http://www.nanowrimo.org/ and get involved.

What is NaNoWriMo? Simply a race to write 50,000 words by November 30. That’s 50,000 words of anything. At the end, you call it a novel, upload the file to get your word count verified, and you can scratch “write a novel” off your life-list. You don’t win anything, it’s simply for self-satisfaction and the true sense of accomplishment when you get it done.

Of course it will be unreadable, but that’s not really the point. Think of this as a marathon brainstorm to get ideas out of your head, into a space where you can do something with them. I’ve started my last two novels that way, and it’s a great way to get in the habit of writing 1667.67 words per day. On average. In my case, those 50,000 words have included things like brainstorming, outlining, background research, character descriptions, and actual novel.

Right now, I’m working on the sequel to Ghosts of Deep Time, and I’m behind where I want to be. There’s this pesky little 2.5 billion year gap I need to fill in. Cretaceous or Triassic? The sequel (The Archean Dragon) won’t be done December 1st, but I’ll have 2.5 billion years of something better than what I have now, and I’ll have the novel done (hopefully) a month or two thereafter.

Anyone else joining in? Spread the word. It’s free, it’s fulfilling, and it teaches you things about yourself that you never knew, like the fact that you can write 50,000 words in a month, even though Thanksgiving is in November too. I even recommend it for grad students attempting to finish their theses and dissertations, although in the life sciences, you do NOT need 50,000 words to graduate. It just feels that way. Use those 44,000 extra words to express how you feel about your thesis and your life in epic detail.

Good luck to all who enter.

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.

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.