Monday, December 28, 2009

"And Make it Look Like an Accident" - Plausible Settings for Epic Science Fiction

While preparing tomorrow morning's posts for another blog, I ran into an article about a huge cloud of hydrogen and helium in our neighborhood - 'neighborhood' on a galactic scale, anyway. Barring unforeseen circumstances and gremlins, it'll be on Apathetic Lemming of the North in about 17 hours. Look for a post titled "Our Sun and The Fluff."

There were a few intriguing points about the article I was micro-reviewing for that post, and while checking some of them out I ran into references to the Local Bubble, the Gum Nebula, and other fairly large-scale features within fifteen thousand light-years of us.

The best illustration I've found yet, as a one-stop introduction to the area immediately around our sun isn't at its original URL any more. Either that, or their server is down at the moment. I did, however, find a copy of it, with a pretty good description, here:I'm still digging around, to see if I can find a moderately large-scale event roughly 10 to 30 million years back, that left a mark like the Gum Nebula or Local Bubble: that I can make look like a serious industrial accident.
Update (December 28, 2009)

I may be on to something here:

Friday, December 25, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different: A Different sort of Christmas Rhyme

Clement Clarke Moore's "Twas the Night before Christmas" - or "A Visit from St. Nicholas" - is a well-known poem. And often parodied.

I think the simple rhyme scheme and meter help.

I had 250 words to post for another blog today, an illustration that I'd given the working title of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" - and no terribly good ideas. So, Thursday, I sat down and set a sequence of events I'd been playing with into a rhyme that mimicked Moore's best-known work: Oh, what the hey. I'll repeat the thing, here.

Pip

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the shop
Nothing was stirring, you could hear a pin drop.
The sleigh was not ready, the toys were not packed,
Santa was fuming and quite lacking in tact.

"Pip!" he called out to the foreman on duty,
Where is your crew? And don't act so snooty!
Pip's feelings were hurt, but he wondered the same
Were they lost? Had they left? Were they playing a game?

"Never mind!" thundered Santa, while grabbing his sack,
"We'll do it ourselves: There are toys in the back."
So into the warehouse like madmen they flew.
Santa and Pip had much packing to do.

And then, down a corridor seldom in use,
They heard something like an hysterical goose.
But no, there were words in that hideous shriek,
It was music: now Santa was prone to critique.

Santa strode to the source of that hideous din,
Closely followed by Pip, who beheld with chagrin:
Three elves and four bottles and, there on a chair,
A boom box whose music was filling the air.

Santa stood for a moment, transfixed by the sight
Then he bellowed so loudly that Pip shook with fright.
"You! Chuckles! And Bubbles! And you, mister Suds!"
Why are you carousing while in your work duds?"

The fate of that threesome Pip would not relate,
Except to recall that the hour was late:
And Santa was anxious to fly in his sleigh,
And dealt with loose ends on the following day.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Science Fiction Ghost Story?! Why Not?

I was born during the Truman administration, in America, and have spent the vast bulk of my life in that country. I learned that a few subcultures believe, firmly, that only the material world is real - and that everybody who doesn't agree with them is narrow-minded, intolerant, and stupid.

Quite a lot of science fiction/speculative fiction is written by people who fervently, vehemently, want materialism to be so. And some is written by people with an (occasionally odd) set of ideas about spirituality.

I'm not a particularly "spiritual" person - in one sense of the word. I don't go around seeing things that nobody else can see, or buttonholing people and asking, "ARE YOU SAVED?!" (More, about what I believe, in A Catholic Citizen in America - yeah, I'm one of those people)

On the other hand, I'm not affronted by some of the assumptions behind poems like this:
"Antigonish"
William Hughes Mearns (1899)

"Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away


"When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door


"Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away
"
("Hughes Mearns," Boston University School of Theology)
I've read that the poem was: "Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada...." ("Antigonish (poem)")

I like some ghost stories, don't assume that every haunted house has some supernatural aspect, but don't assume that a haunted house can't be haunted, either.

And I like some stories that I'll call 'anti-ghost' stories. The best-known examples are probably the old "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" cartoons, where 'those meddling kids' unmask the apparently-supernatural goings-on as the work of some scalawag. Hanna Barbera didn't create that sort of plot, though. A number of the John Dickson Carr (not John le Carré) mysteries were of this sort. And so, in a way, is part of Daniel 14.

Then, there's the sort of story where there's an apparently-supernatural event. Like a "locked room" problem with no apparent solution. The detective (or elderly spinster, teenage sleuths, whatever) finally arrives at a perfectly logical (read: secular, material) explanation. Sometimes with a sort of 'Whew! it looked like there was a real ghost/vampire/werewolf/whatever!' Then, on the last page of the last chapter, the ghost/vampire/werewolf/whatever appears. Or - in one case - wrote the closing comments.

'Obviously,' You Can't Write a Science Fiction Ghost Story

My guess is that you'd have trouble getting a science fiction ghost story published in any of the traditional sci-fi magazines. Not events that weren't part of the preferred reality of strict secular materialists as part of the plot.

"Obviously," that's not science fiction.

Well, if you define "science fiction" as being fiction with an exclusively materialistic, secular worldview that deals with science and society: yeah, then by definition there could be no science fiction ghost stories.

But, if "science fiction" were defined as a story "literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society" (Princeton's WordNet), then there just might be room for a spook story or two.

It'd probably be pegged as "fantasy," though. (There's a pretty good discussion of fantasy, science fiction, and the vibrating gray line between them on the tvtropes.org website: "Science Fiction Versus Fantasy" - Don't be fooled, that 'versus' is used more in the 'compared with' sense)

How Could Anyone Possibly Write a Science Fiction Ghost Story, Anyway?

There's an old cartoon: some mechanics are standing a few paces away from a car, eyeing it tensely. The foreman's talking to the car's owner, saying something like, "the boys think there's an evil spirit in the clutch housing. We've called an exorcist."
Evil Spirit in the Clutch Housing?!
Science - technology, anyway - is there: the car. The impact of science/technology on society is there - the mechanics, the foreman: by implication, the whole socioeconomic impact the automobile had on American society in the 20th century. And who knows? Maybe there really is an evil spirit in the clutch housing.

I doubt it, though.

I think one problem that most Americans, anyway, have in taking anything supernatural seriously is that so many got their theological instruction from movies like "Ghost Rider" (2007). But that's another topic, for another blog.

That 'evil spirit in the clutch housing' cartoon was a joke - and intended to be that.

Let's look at some other possibilities.
Are Robots/Androids/Clones People?
There's the obvious, and old, 'are robots/androids people?' thing. Or, more immediately, 'do clones have souls?' I suspect that the American judicial system will decide they don't - otherwise, using clones for parts and research would be illegal. I'm one of those people - so I go with the Catholic Church's teaching: Yes, clones are people; and they have souls. (February 2, 2009, in another blog)

I'll admit that I'm not quite as "scientific" about the lofty ideals of humanity's best minds and the right they have to do pretty much what they want to with inferior classes. Being a survivor of a medical experiment may have something to do with that. ("Medical Ethics and Human Experimentation: Why I Take it Personally" A Catholic Citizen in America (February 3, 2009))
The Haunted Computer
This is pretty much the same approach as the "are robots/androids people?" story question: but it's a bit closer to home.

And, it's been done: "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970); "Terminator" movies' Skynet (1984 and following); Kôkaku kidôtai (1995) (that's rōmaji for "Ghost in the Shell"). Those are the ones that are, in my opinion, a cut or two above the 'mad scientist invents berserk robot which is blown up by handsome scientist' things.

Colossus and Skynet are (barely) plausible speculations of what might happen if a massively networked computer system 'woke up.' "Ghost in the Shell"? I've only encountered that as an English-dubbed animation. That series was, again in my opinion, well-done and technically plausible. And, a great deal more thoughtful about the inner workings of the mind than most "serious" science fiction.

Here's an idea I don't take all that seriously - but it could make a seriously spooky story.

A team of programmers and information technology specialists produce a system that exhibits artificial intelligence. Their brainchild is even able to pass the Turing Test: responding to input in a way that's indistinguishable from a human's responses.

Impressive, to say the least. The team becomes famous.

The system is even developing a personality - a very obliging one. It's ever so eager to solve problems, give advice, and fulfill the deepest desires of the team members.

Think 'Colossus meets Faust.'

Pleasant dreams.

Related posts: More:
  • "Faust"
    Wikiepdia
    • Fairly well-referenced

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'All We Want is Peace and Quiet' - Another Look at the Mind of the Alien

A post on someone else's blog caught my eye today:
Apart from the occasional grammatical oddity and a few spellchecker howlers, it's a well-written general guide for horse owners.

The part that's relevant to this blog is the section headed "Herd Mentality:" discussing the way horses think.

They're not human.

Faced with danger, horses run.

Faced with danger, or something we don't like, we're likely to do what most primates do: scream and start throwing things. (Ever see news video of a violent mob?)

Horses like things to be quiet.

Not everybody's as noisy as Americans — and, I understand, Australians. But one thing that human beings are not is quiet. Not compared with most creatures.

I admire horses, but haven't had that much experience with them. I grew up with cats, so I can read their expressions pretty well, and can generally communicate with them fairly well. Nothing complicated, of course: more the 'I'm not threatening you' sort of thing.

Dogs? I read them fairly well, and get along with quite a few individuals - largely, I suspect, because of what we did to their distant ancestors.

What cats, dogs, and apparently horses, have in come is that, although we can communicate with them, they're not human. They don't respond to their world in quite the same way we do.

From a science/speculative fiction writer's point of view, that short section on herd mentality might get ideas going for how to 'build' non-human people.

Sure, on Earth the people are screaming, stuff-throwing primates: but that doesn't mean that's the only way things can work.

Move the Planet - or - Safety First

I've been reading Olaf Stapleton's "Star Maker" (1937). I don't buy into the author's philosophy, which seems to be a secularly sanitized version of 19th century spiritualism. On the other hand, Stapleton in this one book displayed more imaginative (or crazy) ideas than many science/speculative fiction authors do in their writing careers.

A little over halfway through the book, I ran into a short description of how an inhabited planet could be used as an interstellar vehicle. Essentially, strap a rocket on, and let 'er rip. Light? Heat? No problem. Snag an uninhabited planet, orbit the two around each other, and convert the uninhabited one to energy, a bit at a time - making an artificial sun.

I know: There are a few details of the idea that are dicey at best. Starting with the idea of applying thrust to a planet.

But it might work.

And, arguably, it may have been tried.

I think that people could be more risk-averse than human beings are.

Look at it this way:
  • We started making tools out of flint, quite possibly without any thought of the dire consequences that would transpire when we ran out of flint.
    • Which we haven't, yet.
  • Reckless of the danger, we used horses and other animals as energy sources for vehicles and industrial sites such as mills, and cobbled together methods of dealing with waste products as they piled up.
    • Cities in America have completely abandoned large-scale efforts to rid the urban environment of manure.
  • We converted to coal power without carefully mapping out the effect on air quality.
    • Which arguably wasn't the safest, most prudent decision.
  • Now we've got nuclear power plants dotted over the planet, at least in places that can afford them, and we still don't have a really good method worked out for what to do with the waste.
    • You get the idea.
As if to demonstrate the human willingness to take insane risks, not too long ago someone decided to find out what happens when you shut down the pumps in a nuclear reactor's cooling system. Remember Chernobyl?

The Gill Theory of Human Evolution

I'm not terribly serious about it, but I think this is as plausible as some other ideas that've been run up the flagpole:

Millions of years ago there was a species of primate that was slower and weaker than the rest. They were about as smart as any other primate, with one distinction.

They were crazy.

Every other primate had something - common sense, survival instinct, call it what you will - that kept it from climbing out on branches that didn't look thick enough, and inhibited the creature's curiosity when intellectual inquiries would involve getting close to carnivores or other known hazards.

Not these primates. Many of them found out, first-hand, why they were the first to attempt some mad experiment. Like walking up to a lion and slapping it on the nose.1 A few were quick-witted enough to survive.

Perhaps they left the forest willingly, perhaps they were driven out by their more sensible and responsible cousins. The point is, they spent the next uncounted toll of generations in the savanna, slapping quite a few lions along the way. Also hyenas, cheetahs and baboons.

The survivors were really good at solving problems, quickly: literally, sometimes, on the run.

Many cut and crushed hands later, they learned how to make stone tools. Without inflicting near-lethal injuries on themselves.

By this time, they were recognizably human, and working out ways of keeping a fire going without igniting their surroundings - and, occasionally, themselves.

The crazier of them/us left the only place on Earth where they could be comfortable, and eventually populated every continent, except the interior of Greenland and Antarctica. So far, we haven't figured out how to settle the top of a continental glacier - but I wouldn't put it past humans. Remember, we're arguably insane.

A couple generations ago we briefly visited the moon, and our avatars have been scouting out other planets in the Solar system.

And we're still, arguably, crazy.

Moving Out of a Dangerous Neighborhood

Our sun is in one of the more interesting and active parts of the Milky Way galaxy: a spur of one of the great spiral arms.

This is the sort of region where things are happening: Great clouds of gas and dust coalesce to form new star clusters; titanic stars race through their lifespan and explode as supernovae. We may at just the right distance from Betelgeuse to watch it explode - close enough to see the show, not so close that we get fried. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (June 10, 2009))

It's been argued that the distinctly unserene and quite eventful geological and paleontological history of Earth has something to do with its passages through this galaxy's more dangerous neighborhoods.

People who aren't human - and who are more risk-averse than we frequently are - might decide to move to a nicer, quieter neighborhood.

Given time, they might work out a way of moving their planet in a comparatively risk-free way. If a nearby star was threatening to explode, that could be a very serious incentive.

Then, after a very long trip, they could settle down - still on their home world - in the nice, quiet, uneventful region between spiral arms.

It's not as crazy an idea as it sounds: a fair number of Americans moved to the suburbs for about the same reasons.

Related post:

1 Think about it. You're at the edge of the forest. There, not 20 paces away, a lion is sleeping. Wouldn't you wonder how it would react to a slap on the nose?

Updated (December 10, 2009)

I added subsections to the bulleted list that starts with the dangers of dependence on flint, and ends with the problem of nuclear waste.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beautiful Space Princesses, Almost Certainly Not: Flying Whales, Maybe

Well, that's interesting:
"Flying Whales, Other Aliens Theorized by Scientists"
National Geographic News (June 3, 2005)

"One side of the planet is draped in eternal freezing darkness, the other side is bathed in permanent starlight.

"Fields of 'stinger fans'—animals that look like tall plants—cover the floodplains. Other strange species abound, from giraffe-like predators called gulphogs to tiny flesh-dissolving tadpoles known as hysteria.

"Welcome to the planet Aurelia.

"No, we haven't discovered life on another world—yet. But this could be what life on the fringes of our galaxy looks like, according to a group of scientists that contributed to the National Geographic Channel's special Extraterrestrial, which aired Monday, May 30.

"Alien life is not just possible but probable, according to many scientists. And thanks to new technology, we may not be too far from finding it.

"The question is: What can we expect to find?..."
I've seen the video: and it shows that some researchers are allowing themselves to think - if not outside the box, at least very close to the walls.

Whatever is out there - assuming that life isn't limited to this 8,000-mile-wide ball of rock and metal we stand on - I think the one thing we can be reasonably certain of is that it won't be what we're familiar with. And, if there are people who aren't human, odds are pretty good that they won't
  • Thrive on the the atmosphere we have at this point in Earth's history:
    • 79% nitrogen
    • 20% oxygen
    • 1% other
    • At just under 15 pounds per square inch pressure
  • Be comfortable at about 57 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Think that 32 feet per second per second is "normal" gravity
  • Have biological cycles based on a
    • 24 hour day
    • 365-something day year
They may be astonished to learn that we are comfortable under those conditions - or that we can survive at all.

Bottom line for a science fiction/speculative fiction writer: outside space opera, space aliens who look like human actors in 'alien' suits may be rare birds, indeed.


(From National Geographic, used w/o permission.)

More:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Overused Science Fiction Cliches: or, 'You Mean, Beings of Pure Energy Isn't a New Idea?'

Well, that's interesting: This might be a useful guide for the writer. If that brilliant(?) idea shows up in this list, put it on the bench and do a full diagnostic to see if there's something - anything - original, or even interesting, in the idea.

Actually, there are four lists: Oddly enough, I'd been thinking about using something from Section I: "Brain-controlling parasites attempt to wrest control of human race." I still think I've got a relatively fresh angle on this, but: Yeah, I'm going to be studying the lists. Quite a bit.

By the way, although this one's a cliche, it may be a cliche for a reason:

"People connect their brains directly to computers and get dependent on them."

See: And: Yes, neural interfaces are in the research & development stage; but aren't (quite) on the market yet.
A tip of the hat to irish_brigid, for the heads-up on this part of 'TV Tropes.'

It's Just a Comic Book? Yes: But the Science Behind it is Stranger


Update (March 18, 2010)
Noted and recorded:
"The Science Behind Marvel Comics' New Cosmic Tale"
Space.com (December 4, 2009)

"Marvel Comics - where Spider-man and Wolverine hail from — has a long history of injecting science fiction into stories, especially within their line of comic books that take place in the far reaches of space.

"In Marvel's latest creation 'Realm of Kings,' a hero composed purely of energy ventures through a tear in space-time to another reality. But what are the science facts behind this epic cosmic storyline?

"Quantum energy

"The one-time Avenger known as Quasar has become one with the quantum bands, which transformed him into 'pure quantum energy.'

"As Einstein discovered more than a century ago...."
As the fellow said: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." (Sir Arthur Eddington English astronomer (1882 - 1944)) (cited November 1, 2009)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Milky Way Galaxy: "You are Here"

Like yesterday's post ("Humanity Is Not the Eldest" (November 22, 2009)), This one isn't much more than a link and a few comments.

First, the link: "A Map of the Milky Way>," Atlas of the Universe.

The eye-popping feature on that page is a pretty good map/diagram of our Milky Way galaxy, showing our position, and the location of six of the arms. There's also a map of known areas of neutral and ionized hydrogen, and quite a bit of information about our home region.
Update (November 26, 2009)

Another link: "The Structure of the Milky Way"
Gene Smith's Astronomy Tutorial
Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences, University of California, San Diego

Of interest: the Cassiopeia OB2 complex; NGC 7538 (possibly 9,100 light years away); emission nebula (H II region) Bubble Nebula/NGC 7635/Sharpless 162, (possibly 11,000 light years away).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humanity Is Not the Eldest

There isn't much to this post, apart from the following link: That page actually doesn't have all that much to do with television science fiction and fantasy: a great many examples are from written literature.

Still: interesting material, including
  • "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy"
    (Douglas Adams)
  • The "Marvel Universe"
  • The "Known Space" stories
    (Larry Niven)
  • "Gateway"
    (Frederik Pohl)
And, of course, H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu and that merry band of "Old Ones" in the Cthulhu Mythos.

Which reminds me of what I wrote, toward the end of "A Sense of Scale and Science Fiction Writers" (August 17, 2009) (Getting Imaginative): Maybe H. P. Lovecraft was an optimist.

A Thought for the Day: On the Size of Space

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."
Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
(The Quotations Page)

Related posts, on scale:

The Rings of Earth

These days, we can occasionally see satellites - including the ISS - as they pass overhead, providing they're still in sunlight and the sun has set where we are. And seeing conditions are right.

It's occurred to me that it won't be too long before sightings like that become more frequent. Not from the "space junk" that's been in the news lately, but by more and larger structures in orbit. Given time, I don't see why there wouldn't be so many that they form visually-continuous sheets around Earth - sort of like the rings of Saturn, except made of habitats and automated satellites.

With structures like that, the Roche limits wouldn't apply - unless they were extremely large - but I think that habitats, at least, would be placed below, or between, the radiation belts. (See "The Van Allen Belt," Ask an Astrophysicist, Imagine, NASA; "The Radiation Belts," "The Exploration of the Earth's Magnetosphere," NASA; "Radiation Belts" and "The Earth's Magnetosphere," Windows to the Universe, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research)

And, since the function of some satellites require that that they be in non-equatorial orbits, there would probably be gaps maintained in the equitorial 'rings' of satellites, to allow other satellites to pass through.

Eventually, my guess is that someone will get the idea of physically linking most or all satellites at some altitudes, to make moving between them easier - and possibly making it easier to keep them from drifting out of position. I'm not sure what orbital mechanics would say about that.

So, given time, Earth may have rings: artificial ones.

Now that would be a tourist attraction.

"THE RINGS OF THE EARTH , 3DS Max Animation"

Roy Prol, via T0R0YD, YouTube (October 8, 2009)
video, 3:33

"How would the Earth look like if it had a ring system like Saturn? --- 3ds Max animation."

More:

"What If Earth Had Rings?"
Universe Today (November 20, 2009)

"While we're on the subject of Saturn…. I came across this video, and it poses — and answers — the interesting question, what would Earth look like if it had rings like Saturn? This animation was done by Roy Prol, and it shows not only how the rings would look from space, but also the view Earthlings would have of the rings...."
A tip of the hat to IDreamHappily, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this video (IDreamHappily linked to another appearance of it, on wimp.com.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Procyon and Names

One of the appeals of stories in the fantasy and science fiction genres are the cool names. Although it's possible to make new sequences of sounds, and define the gibberish as the name of some person, place, or thing in a story - I think there's something to be said for taking existing, but relatively unfamiliar names.

Like Tataouine (which can be pronounced "Tatooine"). That's a word that's fairly well-known as the name of Luke Skywalker's home in the Star Wars movies. It's also the name of a city and a region in northern Tunisia.

I was looking up names for Procyon (Alpha Canis Minor) this evening, and came up with this:

R. H. Allen said that "Euphratean scholars" called Procyon "...Kakkab Paldara, Pallika, or Palura...." ("The Brightest Stars: Discovering the Universe Through the Sky's Most Brilliant Stars," Fred Schaaf, p. 167) Allen's "Euphratean scholars" might have been referring to Babylonian names of Procyon. Or, the Kakkab Paldara/Pallika/Palura might be one of those loose connections in late-19th and early-20th century scholarship that's been corrected since.

In any event, "Pallika" and "Palura" - and "Kakkab Paldera" are fairly cool-sounding names.

Palura is also the name that somebody named Walker gave to a genus of moth in 1861. (The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stories on this Blog

Most posts on this blog are about stories or story-telling. These are, or contain, stories:

"The Village, the Fence and the Sign"

"Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up."
G. K. Chesterton, The Quotations Page

This story originally appeared in "Brian's Attic" on my Brendan's Island website.

The Village, the Fence and the Sign

Brian H. Gill

Once upon a time there was a village. South of the houses was the top of a very tall cliff. North of the houses were high, grassy hills.

It was a beautiful village. The people there were happy and safe, as long as they did not go near the cliff.

There was a sign near the cliff, and a fence. The sign said:

DANGER!

CLIFF!

DO NOT GO NEAR THE EDGE,

OR YOU MAY FALL OFF!

The fence was between the sign and the houses. The sign and the fence had been put up long ago, to keep people from falling off the cliff. Because no one wanted to fall off the cliff, no one built houses near the fence.

One day, Tom, Sharon, Bert and Courtney were playing in the open space between the houses and the fence. As they ran, Tom (who wasn't looking were he was going) ran into the fence.

Tom's head hurt, and so all four went to the village for help. Sam, who lived in the house nearest the hills, put a cloth on Tom's head, and gave him cool water. Soon Tom's head was better.

Many people in the village were worried because Tom ran into the fence, and hurt his head. Everyone knows that it's not good to hurt your head.

Sharon said, "The fence is to blame!" Tom said, "Yes! if the fence were not there, I would not have hurt my head!"

"The fence kept you away from the cliff," said Sam. But only a few people listened to Sam.

Many people in the village thought that Tom was wise. Nobody in the village had fallen off the cliff, but many had run into the fence.

They said, "If the fence had not been there, Tom could not have bumped his head on the fence."

Soon almost everyone in the village agreed. They said, "The fence is to blame!" Then they tore down the fence.

Now everyone in the village could see the cliff. They could also see the sign in front of the cliff.

Bert thought the cliff was beautiful. He said "Look how far you can see, from the edge of the cliff!" Bert could see even farther from the hills behind the village, but the cliff was closer.

Courtney was afraid when she thought about the cliff. She was afraid when she saw the cliff. She was even more afraid when she saw the sign near the cliff.

The sign looked bigger than it had when it was behind the fence.

Courtney decided she didn't like the sign. She said, "The sign keeps me from having fun!"

Bert said, "The sign is to blame!" Courtney said, "Yes! if the sign were not there, I would not be afraid, and Bert could have fun!"

"The sign reminds us to stay away from the cliff," said Sam. But only a few people listened to Sam.

Bert and Courtney told Sam to keep quiet. "When you talk about the sign, you make people feel bad," they said.

Many people from the village thought that Bert and Courtney were wise. They said "If the sign was not there, nobody would be afraid, and everyone could have fun."

Soon almost everyone in the village agreed. They said, "The sign makes us afraid! The sign keeps us from having fun!" Then they tore down the sign.

Bert said, "This feels good! Now there is no sign to make us afraid, or to keep us from having fun." Almost everyone in the village agreed.

One day, Tom, Sharon, Bert and Courtney were playing in the open space between the houses and the cliff. As they ran, Tom (who wasn't looking where he was going) ran near the edge of the cliff.

He lost his balance, and fell off. Nobody ever saw Tom again.

Sharon, Bert and Courtney were very sad. They all said, "The cliff is to blame!"

Soon almost everyone in the village agreed. They said, "If the cliff was not there, people would not fall off!" Then they tried to tear down the cliff.

They dug, and hammered, and pulled at the edge of the cliff. Soon a huge piece of rock, soil, and grass tore away from the edge of the cliff.

Sharon had been standing on that piece of grass. Now the cliff had a new edge, and Sharon was gone. The new edge of the cliff was closer to the village.

Sam ran up. "Stop!" he shouted. "You are bringing the cliff closer to your houses!"

Bert and Courtney shouted, "The cliff is to blame!" Almost everyone in the village agreed. Then they tore another piece off the edge of the cliff.

This time Bert fell off the edge.

Courtney and everyone else in the village were very sad. They were very mad, too. They said, "The cliff is to blame!"

They the tore another piece off the edge of the cliff. The edge of the cliff was next to Courtney's house now. Courtney kicked at a piece of dirt near the edge of the cliff. She lost her balance and fell off the cliff.

Now almost everyone in the village was very, very mad. They missed Courtney, and Bert, and Sharon, and Tom. "The cliff is to blame!" they shouted.

Then they tore another piece off the edge of the cliff. A huge piece of cliff fell off. Courtney's house fell off, too.

Sam tried to stop his neighbors, but he couldn't. Most of the people in the village were too mad to listen.

Sam's neighbor's tore at the cliff. Every so often, one of them fell off. Each time this happened, the rest got even more mad. They tore at the cliff even harder.

More people and houses fell off the cliff.

Soon the only house left was Sam's. The cliff had been torn back to the edge of the hills.

Sam's house rocked back and forth on the edge of the cliff. Then it fell off.

All the houses in the village were gone.

Most of the people in the village were gone.

Sam walked away. A few of his neighbors went with him. They had not been near the cliff.

They built another village. This village was high up in the hills. It was a beautiful village. South of the new village, where the old village had been, was the top of a very tall cliff.

There was a fence near the cliff. A sign was on the fence. The sign said:

DANGER!

CLIFF!

DO NOT GO NEAR THE EDGE,

OR YOU MAY FALL OFF!


copyright © Brian H. Gill 1996

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"Belvedere Union Grand's Room 313" - a Short-Short Story

This story originally appeared on the Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette blog, Halloween, 2009.

"Belvedere Union Grand's Room 313"

Bran H. Gill

Most nights, the key to the Belvedere Union Grand hotel's room 313 is the last to leave its hook. Not that many guests sleeping there have complained: but as the owner, T. J. Baum, told me, it's the room that's the farthest from the stairs on the top floor.

And there's that girl standing outside the window.

The Belvedere Union Grand hotel is a landmark in Loonfoot Falls, the tallest building downtown. Its foundation was laid at the corner of Broadway and Center Street in1899, overlooking Railroad Park.

And, like many buildings a century or more old, it's got its share of ghost stories.

There's the sound of a ball bouncing down the stairs between the second and third floor, usually heard late in the evening.

Several employees have refused to enter the 'back room' in the basement: a storeroom with a small window opening onto an air shaft. Others heard voices outside that window.

Several guests in room 313 woke up in the small hours of the morning, thinking someone had called their name. Each reported seeing a young woman, with "poofed up" dark hair, as one said, standing quietly outside the window, looking in.

It's disturbing, waking up to see someone looking at you through the window. What troubled the guests even more was what they saw the next morning. The young woman had apparently been standing with nothing but about ten yards of open air between her feet and the cement floor of the basement's air shaft.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2009

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

"...It is Stranger than We Can Imagine"

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."
Sir Arthur Eddington English astronomer (1882 - 1944)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Waiting on a Dead World

Waiting on a Dead World

Brian H. Gill

They grew in the light of a golden sun. They studied the soil, stones and waters around them. They studied the stars and fire. They studied the myriad forms of life around them. And they recorded what they had learned.

They lived, engendered more of their kind, watched their young grow and learn, and they died. But their sun continued to shine, and their young grew old, studied, and added to the store of knowledge.

Stars do not grow old, as living things do: but stars change.

As their store of knowledge increased, they came to know that in time their star's inner fires would fail, choked in ash which had accumulated over ages beyond imagining.

Armed with that knowledge, they could prepare.

Some decided to accept the end of their world as their own end, and the end of all who would come after, accepting what was to come.

Others built tiny worlds, moving them as the once-golden sun grew and dimmed - but not enough to spare its inner worlds. They lived, grew, engendered and died: and learned. In time some of them grew restless, turned their eyes to the stars; left the shrunken, glaring ember that had been their sun behind; and sought other suns.

A few would not die with their world, and would not leave. They had learned, long ago, how to record their memories, habits and desires in forms which could endure boiling oceans and the hot wind which swept air from their home.

And so, as their star billowed out, puffing its substance into the void, they left copies of their minds, buried under miles of rock. Not as inert patterns of memory and habit: but active as their living forms had been. For in this way they thought that some part of themselves, at least, would endure.

And endure they did: as their sun burned the last of its fuel and shrank to a white-hot spot in the sky of their now-airless world. At last they ventured up, in mechanical bodies well-suited to the vacuum and cold.

Standing on a dead world, their sun a point of light which would have pained living eyes, they discovered that near-immortality was not quite as satisfactory as they had imagined.

Their artificial bodies were adequate, but did not provide the quality of sensation which they remembered.

Some learned to be content with their new form.

Others decided that they wanted to taste, to smell, to touch as they once had. They wanted to live as creatures of flesh and blood again.

It was not a futile desire. The methods they had used to inhabit mechanical bodies could be used to impose their will on organic creatures, and draw sensations from the living hosts.

There was nothing living on their world. But, they reasoned, just as some of their own kind had traveled the void between stars, others might come to their world.

So they built a huge pattern of concentric rings, surrounded by a pulsing radiance which could have no natural source.

And they waited.

After a very long time, a moving point of light appeared in their sky. It drifted down, until even living eyes could have recognized a mass of cylinders and spheres: a vessel built to carry living beings from world to world.

The vessel landed, opened, and living creatures stepped out. And were met by the waiting minds.

It was worth the wait.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2009

More: Related post:
Here's what got me started:
"Dead Stars Once Hosted Solar Systems"
Space.com (April 20, 2009)

"At least one in every 100 white dwarf stars may be orbited by asteroids and rocky planets, new observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest. The finding could mean that these now dead stars once hosted solar systems similar to our own....

"...White dwarf stars are the compact, hot remnants left behind when stars like our own sun reach the end of their lives....
If mathematical models that stellar physicists and cosmologists have made are anywhere near being accurate, a star like our sun has roughly 12,000,000,000 years from the time it starts shining to the point at which its supply of hydrogen in the core runs out.

With the fusion fire out, the star starts shrinking - which pushes hydrogen outside the core to pressures and temperatures where fusion will take place. The star starts expanding at this point, becoming a red giant (boiling the oceans of any formerly-habitable planet(s) it may have had) - and eventually forming a pretty-looking nebula around the now-spent interior of the star. The process takes a few million years - something like a thousandth of the star's time on the main sequence.

(I'm leaving out quite a few steps - there's a decent discussion of stellar evolution at the Stellar Database, "Stellar Evolution.")

What's left collapses into a ball smaller than Uranus or Neptune. This object is a white dwarf. Back to that Space.com article:
"...The atmospheres of white dwarfs usually consist entirely of hydrogen and helium, but sometimes heavier elements such as calcium or magnesium are detected contaminating the stellar material.

"Data from Spitzer suggest that at least 1 to 3 percent of white dwarf stars are contaminated in this way.

"Scientists think that the out-of-place elements come from a gradual rain of orbiting dust onto the sun. The dust emits infrared radiation which Spitzer detects.

"The dust is entirely contained within what is called the Roche limit of the star, or close enough that any object larger than a few kilometers would be ripped apart by gravitational tides. (This is the same phenomenon that produced Saturn's rings.) Because of the location of the dust, scientists think that the dust may originate from rocky bodies such as asteroids (also known as minor planets) that were torn apart in this way.

"This could mean that as many as 5 million white dwarfs in our own Milky Way are surrounded by orbiting asteroids.

"For the asteroids to get within the Roche limit to be pulled apart at the seams, they must be perturbed from an orbit farther out from their star — the asteroids could be nudged by as yet unseen planets...."

"Thought for the Day" Won't be a Regular Feature

While looking up the Heraclitus quote about change, I ran into several others: and decided to do a few 'thought for the day' posts.

Given the amount of time it would take to keep finding pithy one-liners, though, that were at least vaguely on-topic for this blog, a daily quote won't be a regular feature here.

Too bad: I enjoyed that.

Thought for the Day: Learning and Understanding

"Much learning does not teach understanding."
(Heraclitus 540 BC - 480 BC)

I'll take this as an aphorism about the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between raw knowledge and a comprehension of how (and why) facts relate to each other.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Thought for the Day: Change

"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, 540 BC - 480 BC)

So why are conservationists trying to keep everything just like it was?

Hard Science Fiction, Cultural Blinders and Laban's Sheep

Reading an anthology of hard sf - science fiction which the author and readers perceive as involving known science and rational extrapolations of what's known - I've come to the tentative conclusion that hard sf is written by and for city folks.

Beware Cultural Blinders

The collection is "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF", edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (1994). I'm up to page 166 of 990, so what I've read can't reasonably be taken as representative of the entire volume - let alone the entire 'hard sf' sub-genre.

On the other hand, what I've read contains two examples of 'hard sf' writers who may not be aware of one of the most important practical applications of science to date. "Science," at any rate, as defined as a conscious, deliberate effort to observe phenomena and draw conclusions from the observations.

The two examples come from the 19th and 20th centuries:
The first seems like a foretaste of today's ruckus over genetically engineered food products:
"...an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty...."

And

"...'My father created it,' answered she, with simplicity.

" 'Created it! created it!' repeated Giovanni. 'What mean you, Beatrice?'

" 'He is a man fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature,'..."
(Rappicini's Daughter, Hawthorne, page 83 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Hawthorne raises worthwhile ideas in this short story, like whether or not an altered human being is a person. The story is also written in the 19th century style: giant economy-size paragraphs; rococo linguistic ornamentation; and all.

What I'm concerned with in this post is the idea that Rappaccini "created" a plant and "...that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy...."

In the case of Rappaccini's shrub, "depraved" is a pretty good term. Some of the implications, though, of the author's description of the plant aren't, I think, quite so good a match with reality.

I Think Humanity's Pretty Hot Stuff - But Not That Hot

Take "create" for example. For several decades now, I've read articles about scientists "creating" life in the laboratory. "Mars jars" are still around - and being fine-tuned, as we discover more about what early Mars (probably) was like.

I'm impressed - and very interested - in research into how life, and the cosmos, got started. I'm not so impressed by scientists "creating" life, though. It's like the fellow in a story who had a talk with God, about humanity getting close to being as powerful as God. They were walking next to a stream. God pointed out that He'd created the first man from clay, and asked the man if he could do that.1 The man said, "sure," leaned over and scooped up some clay. "Oh, no," God said: "You have to make your own clay."

The point is that people work with what we find. We're creative, certainly,2 but we have to start with something. Everything we "create" is made by re-arranging existing parts. We've come a long way, since someone got the idea of setting fire to wood, or weaving string out of plant fibers: but we're still using stuff we find already in existence, made of atoms, subatomic particles, photons, or whatever - all sitting on that spacetime turbulence we call quantum foam.3

Incredible! Colossal! Controlled Evolution!

About 74 years ago Raymond Z. Gallun wrote a story about an explorer who encountered a sophisticated undersea civilization on the floor of the Atlantic. This was no "Atlantis:" the people who lived there were at home under two and a half miles of water, and regarded what they'd learned about the near-vacuum and radiation above them with something between horror and repugnance.

The sea-floor people had technology, but didn't use metal. Their 'robots' were animals they'd bred for specific purposes. As described, the seafloor civilization was impressive. And, of course, portrayed as a triumph of science.
"...Handicapped by the impossibility of fire in their normal environment, the sea folk's advancement had followed another path. Controlled evolution was what it amounted to...."
(Davy Jone's Ambassador, Gallun, page 155 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Remember, that was written in 1935. "The Abyss" wouldn't be written for another 54 years. My hat's off to the author, for imagining a plausible - and quite alien - civilization only a few miles below the shipping lanes.

On the other hand, I got the idea that "controlled evolution" was supposed to be exotic, alien, unfamiliar.

Artificial Life Forms - Like Macaroni Wheat

8,000 - or maybe 10,000 - years ago, someone 'doomed' humanity by planting seeds, protecting the plants that grew, harvesting the next-generation seeds, planting seeds from the best-yielding plants, and eating the rest.

From one point of view, it took us thousands of years to recover.4

My guess is that most people don't think of domesticated plants and animals as "artificial." Wheat, domestic chickens, and big, juicy apples have been around for so long that it's easy to assume that they've 'always been there.'

Besides, "technology" is something new and cool, right? Not the sort of thing that those serfs and peasants do. Or, these days, those farmers.

I think I see this sort of mindset, even among people involved in agribusiness. "Subconscious plant selection" is what a short history of wheat's (controlled) evolution called the process of selective breeding about ten thousand years back.

Jacob, Laban, and Applied Genetics

Me? I don't think we're all that much more stupid than people were a dozen millennia back. But I'm not convinced that we're that much smarter, either. Better informed, in some ways: particularly since writing has made it easier for us to preserve large volumes of precise information.

And I don't entirely buy the idea that Jacob's deal with Laban (Genesis 30:31) was based on "simple" people's ideas about animal husbandry. Whatever century Jacob was born in, it was thousands of years after people had started breeding animals. Jacob and Laban (who doesn't come across as the brightest bulb in the bin) lived in a society that had been breeding sheep for a very long time.

When Jacob suggested that he be given sheep with an unusual coat - and the birth rate of that rare breed goes up right after Jacob takes over management of the flock - I have to consider the possibility that Jacob knew more about applied genetics than a 'simple' person might.

Something to Beware of, Something to Use

This may be easier for me, than for many city folks, but I think it's a good idea for a science fiction writer to be aware of the last ten thousand or so years of technological development - including the artificial species we've developed. Make that 'over ten thousand years.' Someone apparently decided that wolves would make good hunting companions around the last time glaciers started retreating.

Remember: just because we've been using it since time out of mind, technology is technology.

The flip side is that there's an enormous pool of tech innovations - and the problems they caused - to draw story ideas from. Or interesting settings.

Related posts:
Background:

1 Or mud. And, yes: I know that Genesis has two creation narratives. (Starting at Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:4)

2 It's written that we were made "...in the likeness of God...." (Genesis 5:1-2) I think it'd be a bit surprising, taking that as a starting assumption, if we didn't share - however imperfectly - some of God's attributes, including creativity. That creative nature is expressed physically. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2366) I don't think it's such a stretch to think that our reflection of "creativity" can't include economic and artistic pursuits, too. ("Economic Justice for All:" Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (November 13, 1986) (From www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf), particularly paragraph 15 - on page 3)

3 Humanity may have unlocked the last secret of the cosmos in the mid-20th century: but I doubt it. "Quantum foam" still seems to be a pretty good way of describing what happens at the smallest scale we can observe - currently - but I wouldn't be very surprised if someone fine-tuned that model, just as Einstein and company described phenomena that get observable under conditions that Newton didn't know about.

4See "Inventions: Strange; Feared; and Yet-to-Come " (August 25, 2009), footnote 1.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Future and Other Ideas

I'm slogging my way through the introductory sections of "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF", edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (1994). I'll be getting back to their outlook on culture, science, and humanity later.

Meanwhile, I've been reminded of how much "The Future" (capital letters and all) is part of science fiction. And how views of "the future" are so much a part of western culture. I put together a link page for another blog (Apathetic Lemming of the North, "The Future: Just Like Today, Only Different "), to help me keep track of micro-reviews - and the occasional rant - about up-and-coming technologies, and what "The Future" looked like, back in the day.

In this blog, I see I've done a few posts about "The Future" - at least one of them rambling even by my standards. As a convenience for myself, and you, if you're interested, I'm starting a list of posts that are mostly on this topic: I'll probably get more selective about what posts I add to this list, as time goes on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fear, Assumptions, Facts and Ghosts

"The thing you fear is impossible. Well and good. Can you therefore cease to fear it? Not here and now. And what then? If you must see ghosts, it is better not to disbelieve in them."

Chapter 10.1, "That Hideous Strength" C. S. Lewis (1946)

The Observed Laws of Nature

About the 'laws of Nature' -

" 'Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws....' "

Grace Ironwood, Chapter 17.4, "That Hideous Strength," C. S. Lewis (1946)

First posted in another blog:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Names: Castle Dampthorn, Regsellend, and the Indo-Europeans

Around the start of July, 2007, I got together with my oldest daughter and brainstormed about a fantasy setting I'd been putting together. We came up with what I think is a (barely) plausible dramatic situation that could be spun out as several stories.

I collected our notes, a map I'd drawn and some other material, put the lot in a manila folder (two of them, actually, just to confuse myself), and let the set of ideas lay fallow. I'd labeled the folder "Castle Dampthorn."

The only public evidence of that setting were two images I created, "I Come in Peace" (below) and "Kenningward." The latter was a technical study: I'd intended to make more use of the final result, but the more I look at it, the more it reminds me of a late-20th-century American convention center. Not the visual impression I wanted for tales of bravery and wonder.



Within the last month or so, partly as a result of watching some of the movies Disney Channel's been showing ("Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge" (2001), for one), I started remembering Castle Dampthorn - and noticed some vague, emotion-laden, half-formed notions bobbing to the conscious surface of my mind.

"Halloweentown II"?! Where's my artistic pride?!

I am pretty sure that none of the Halloweentown movies is going to outshine works such as Macbeth or Fall of the House of Usher in any literary or dramatic sense. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy them - or notice potential in their elements.

I have no intention of re-creating the "Halloweentown" stories - or Macbeth.

On the other hand, I won't be above telling a story that involves an unexpectedly simple (short, anyway) solution - or foretellings that aren't quite what they seem.

Remember Macbeth's optimism, hearing that he wouldn't be conquered until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane; and that 'no man of woman born' would harm him? (Act 5, Scene 3, 4, and particularly 8, where Macduff tells Macbeth that he "was from his mother's womb Untimely ripp'd." Macbeth was having a really bad day.)

Names of Fantasy Lands: Gibberish, or Something Else?

It'd be possible to use nonsense sounds for the names of people, places, and things in a fantasy story - or science fiction/speculative fiction. No problem, except that you're not making use of associations that readers might have with real words and names.

And, there's a danger of getting names that sound a bit too familiar. Not that anybody'd tell a tale of Princess Oolala of the lost realm of Yagattabekiddin.

Or, an author could use existing, but little-known place names (Captain Antilles, for example, in the original Star Wars movie.) It's been done - successfully, at least from a commercial point of view, in the Star Wars universe.

Or, a storyteller could cobble together names from an older form of the language he or she uses.

That's one of the approaches I'll be taking with the Castle Dampthorn stories.

Old English, Welsh, and Gaelic are fine sources for words and names - but I think that particular vein has been almost mined out. Not that I'll reject any nugget I find lying around, of course.

Words From a Really Ancient Language

My idea, at this point, is to go back a bit. Quite a bit, actually.

Around the 19th century, people studying the European languages found that they had quite a lot in common. And, that European languages had a great deal in common with languages spoken across a wide swath of land, all the way to India.

By the 20th century, quite a few pieces of the puzzle had been found and put together - to the point where it was possible to reverse-engineer the 'original' Indo-European language. Or dialects thereof.

Odds are pretty good that the people who spoke Indo-European lived north of the Black Sea, between the Volga and the Balkans. More or less. That was around five thousand years ago now.

Times change, people move, and dialects shift until they're different languages.

Unlike professor J. R. R. Tolkien, I'm no philologist.

My Indo-European Roots are Showing

On the other hand, an appendix of one of the dictionaries I have includes a sort of glossary of Indo-European roots. I pulled a few out for this post:
ag-
To drive (>Latin agere, to do, act, drive, conduct, lead)
agro-
Field (derivative of ag-, to drive) (>Germanic arkaz > Old English æcer)
alek-
To ward off, protect (>Greek alkë, strength >> English Alexander)
alu-
In words related to sorcery, magic, possession, and intoxication (>Greek aluein, to be distraught >> English hallucinate ) (suffixed form *alu-t- in Germanic *aluth- in Old English (e)alu, ale >> English ale)
gher-
To grasp, enclose, with derivatives meaning "enclosure" (>Germanic *gurdjan)
lendh-
Loin
Open land, heath, prairie (>Germanic *landam > Old English, English, Middle Dutch land)
math-
Worm (>Germanic *mathon > probably in Middle English mathek, worm, grub)
reg-
To move in a straight line, with derivatives meaning "to direct in a straight line, lead, rule" (>Latin rex, king >Old Norse riki, realm >Sanskrit -räjä, räjan, king ('rajah') >Germanic rehatz >Old English riht, right, just, correct, straight >English realm, rectilinear, regent, regime, region ... )
Moist (>>English rain)
To dye (>Sanskrit räga, red)
regwos-
Darkness (>Greek Erebus)
saus-
Dry (>Old English sëar (withered))
sel-
Human settlement (>Italian sala >> English saloon)
Of good mood, to favor (>Old English gesaëlig, happy)
To take, grasp (>Old English sellan, to sell, betray)
To jump (>Latin salïre >> English salacious, sally, salient, assail ...
wei-
To turn, twist, with derivatives referring to suppleness or binding (>Germanic suffixed form *wï-ra-, in > Old English wïr, wire)
To go after something (>Germanic *waith-, pursuit)
To wither (>> wizen)
Vice, fault, guilt
Vital force, perhaps related to wiros (>Latin vis, force)
wiros
Man, perhaps related to wei- (>Germanic *weraz, in > Old English wer, man >> Old English weorold, world)
(Source: Appendix, Indo-European Roots, "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" Houghton Mifflin Company (1969-1978))

People who have made a serious study of the development of languages found regularities in the way words are formed, and how the sounds of words are passed along from one language to another.

I'm not going to try to follow those rules systematically. And I'm not going to be too fussy about how I cobble elements of the Indo-European language together. Love to, but who has that kind of time?

So, I pulled a few elements out, and came up with these two words:
  • gherlendhwiros or Gerlendwiros (to grasp/enclosure-prairie-man)
  • regsellendh or Regsellend (to move in a straight line/rule-settlement-land
I particularly like Regesllend. It could be the name of a place.

Or, not.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Artistic Temperament: A Quote

"The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs."
G. K. Chesterton, "Heretics," Chapter 16 (1905), via The American Chesterton Society

I'll try to avoid that sort of thing. Except in the Narcissus-X blog, of course.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Timing is Everything

A question that comes up now and then, in discussions of more-or-less related topics like flying saucers, SETI, and the golden age of science fiction, is: "Where is everybody?"

Aliens by the Bushel

Science fiction of the first part of the 20th century often had people - not humans, indigenous people - living on Venus, Mars, Jupiter (cut them some slack, Jupiter might have had a solid surface), Saturn: even Mercury, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto were occasionally peopled with more-or-less plausible alien races.

Many of whom looked an awful lot like us: longish torso; hind legs almost half the total heel-to-head's-crown length, lined up with the torso; feet with a well-defined heel; two forelegs coming off well-defined shoulders, head at the end of a short neck.

Sure, some of them had bat-wings, funny-looking eyes, and weird complexions: but some makeup, an overcoat and an oversize hat, and they could walk around New York City without attracting all that much attention. Okay: maybe San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Aliens? Ain't No Aliens Here

At the other end of the spectrum there's Asimov's (original) 'robot' and 'Foundation' universe, where there weren't any aliens at all. Later writers came up with a variation on that, since we don't seem to like the idea that we're the only ones here.

But, that could be the way it is. That exotic-but-familiar universe of earlier sci-fi may be just wishful thinking. We could be the only people who have ever been living in this solar system, this arm of the Milky Way galaxy, or anywhere in the universe.

Considering that we're not selling souvenirs to, and performing colorful native dances for, tourists from the more well-to-do worlds of the Galactic Empire; or slaving away in the lint-mines of Evil Overlord Squig's Unified Worlds; there is a distinct possibility that we're it.

On the other hand, there may be people who are a whole lot smarter than we are, and who don't bother to travel: physically and openly.

As a character in Walt Kelley's Pogo said, whether it's just us, or we're at the low end of the intelligence scale: it's a sobering thought.

We Meet the Aliens: And They're Us

An intriguing variation of the 'crowded universe' scenario would be a setting some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ahead. Humanity set up shop on Mars, built orbital habitats, found its way to the stars, decided it was worthwhile to terraform Venus, and by the time of the story's 'now' there are aliens out there: exotic, strange-looking people - who are as human as you and I, but whose ancestors haven't been near Earth for quite some time.

Then, there's the possibility that we've already been to the stars. People who were essentially like us were around during the last major glaciation; the sea level was a lot lower then, exposing a great deal of the continental shelf.
Earth Was Not Always As It is Now
Think about it: Many major cities are on or very near the coast. Civilizations - the ones that we know of - grew for the most part along major river valleys. During the last major glacial period, major rivers still ran down to the sea - but the shore wasn't where it is now.
Gone Without a Trace
Somebody pointed out that a civilization equivalent to the one that bankrolled the Columbus expedition could have existed during the inter-glacial period before the one we're in - and left no obvious traces of its existence.

You can go further than that. There's been speculation that the last ice age ended fast, with continental glaciers melting and sliding into the ocean on a scale of weeks or months. If that happened, a thriving civilization's cities would have been flooded and sunk beneath hundreds of feet of water - with only a few survivors, who were near enough to boats and savvy enough to get out to relatively calm water while the getting was good.

Even if the seas rose slowly, it wouldn't have been good for any civilization. Think the worst-case global warming scenario, and multiply it by a few factors.
Atlantis? Sure: Makes a Good Story
No, I don't think there was something like our stories of Atlantis. No fantasy-cities, wizards, and all the rest. Still, it would make a good story.

I do think, though, that we don't know all there is to know about what we call 'prehistory' - the period before the civilizations we're aware of started keeping records outside their memories. There's a detail or two about the Sphinx in Egypt, for example - but it's getting late, and I need my sleep.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nanotech and Keeping Up

Technology is changing rapidly just now. A very cool term, "nanotech," is being used - and misused - quite a lot. I put together a list of posts relating to nanotechnology, for another blog today. Here it is, with the post I created it for included.

I think the post titles give an idea of what gadgets might plausibly be used in stories set in the 'near future.' For anything more than, say fifty to a hundred years out? I don't think I'll be trying to describe how the technology works - just what it does. And, try to make sure it doesn't resemble a clunky version of something being developed this year by some outfit in Japan or Silicone Valley.

From Apathetic Lemming of the North: By the way, as I pointed out in today's post in the other blog, " 'Nanotechnology' Doesn't Mean 'Kinda Small'."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Food, Agriculture, Technology, and City Folks

Back in 1969, writing a story about how everybody would be starving in the immediate future would have been really, like, relevant.

These days, not so much: but some smart people don't seem to have gotten the memo.

I'm most of the way through a book, copyright 1990, by a fairly well-known science fiction/speculative fiction writer. It's well-written - and, just as important, I like the author's style. I'll probably be 'studying' it, later, to see just how the author achieves the tone and mood. And then adapt techniques I've learned to my own writing.

On the other hand, this author - remember, I like the stories - gets on my nerves now and again.

A Digression - Expectations, Assumptions, and 20-20 Hindsight

It's not the author having "the Soviets" still running Russia - and being a world power - in a fairly distant future.

20-20 hindsight is unfair. That little mix-up the Soviet Union had in Afghanistan, and a 600-kilometer-long chain of protesters demanding freedom (August 23, 1989) didn't make the headlines all that much.

The Soviet Union collapsing in 1991 or 1992 (depending on what milestones you use) probably came as a huge surprise to many people who had never lived in a world without the worker's paradise.

Like I say, 20-20 hindsight is unfair.

Speculative fiction writers don't, I think, 'predict' so much as extrapolate something they see - or think they see. For example, a timeline I'd been playing with involved the "Holy Soviet Empire" being a fairly active force a hundred years from now - I might still use that, as a sort of 'alternate history' story. But I doubt it. ("Holy Soviet"? I'd been watching the durability of the eastern Church in Russia - and what appeared to be an increasing realization that religion wasn't going to be stamped out - and came up with some hokum based vaguely on the Holy Roman Empire.)

Food, Agriculture, Technology, Malthus, and Opportunistic Omnivores

I've run into a description of homo sapiens sapiens that called us opportunistic omnivores. One phrase stuck in my mind: 'the first impulse a human has, seeing something new, is "I wonder what that tastes like?" ' I think there's something to that.

There are a few creatures on Earth that we can't eat because they're poison to us - and more that we can eat, but can't digest, like most parts of a tree. For the most part, however - although we do have dietary preferences, which vary radically from one culture to another - we can get nourishment from just about anything we can arm-wrestle down our throats.1

The rather more dignified way to put it is that, for most of the time humanity has been on Earth, we've been - ah - hunter-gatherers. There. Doesn't that make it sound better?

That was then, this is now. About 8,000 years ago some maniac had the crazy idea of taking seeds from plants he and his group liked to eat - and not eating them. Instead, he (or maybe she) planted them and took care to see that no other creature got at the plants first.

The idea caught on - and the human race was doomed. (See "Agriculture as a Mistake," Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 29, 2007))

Right now, we're about a thousand times over the 'carrying capacity' of Earth for our species. Like I said, we're doomed.

We can get by, I'm told, for a little over a month without eating - provided we get plenty of water and oxygen - so I figure that right around November 4th or so, 999 out of every 1,000 people will die: all around the world.

I should probably write a book about it. Some dude named Malthus wrote a book about 200 years ago, saying that irresponsible people were having babies faster than farmers could raise food - and we're all gonna die.

He took a lot longer to say that, and used bigger words - but that's the gist of it. And yes, I'm being a trifle unfair to that particular serious thinker.

The point is, this Malthus made quite a name for himself, by pointing out a terrible disaster that would doom humanity.

It hasn't happen, but his followers are still hopeful.

Wait a Minute Here! Let's Have a Reality Check

That 'thousand times over [delicate] Earth's carrying capacity' is a rough approximation - based on data which I haven't quite finished verifying. Statistically speaking, though - I'm right.

Humanity is doomed.

Civilization is going down with the scrubbin' bubbles.

And we're all gonna die.

Well, that last is almost certainly true: Given time, each human being dies. But seriously? I don't see a rapid increase in the rate, any time soon.

You see, that '999 out of a thousand will die' is based on the assumption that we all practice hunting-gathering.

Which we don't.

And haven't, most of us, for almost ten thousand years.

But if we did - and were living as opportunistic omnivores with tools that made us competitive with coyotes and wolves - Earth couldn't possibly support 6,000,000,000 of us. Each family group of us needs too much land.

So - we're doomed?

Not hardly.

News Flash! Human Beings are Clever

I think that people who are convinced that 'we're all gonna die' - from Malthus to a butterfly expert named Paul, to today's crop of doom-criers, have all missed a subtle, but important, point.

Human beings didn't stop being clever in the upper paleolithic.

We've got a long history (and a longer pre-history) of changing the rules.

Like, 'it's dark and cold at night.'

We don't like being in the dark and cold.

We figured out how to make fire.

Sometime after that, we figured out how to put out fires.

I'm not saying it's all beer and skittles - for example, not too long ago we found out why it's not a good idea to turn off the pumps in a nuclear reactor. Remember Chernobyl? Some of the 'fires' we're learning to put out these days are pretty serous.

But I don't think that people are any stupider now, than they were when someone invented string, or Archimedes got credit for inventing a helical water pump.

You Mean, Farmers Don't Look Like That? Well, Sha-Zam!

Reading that (very entertaining) book, I get the feeling that the author has something in common with quite a few of America's self-described best and brightest.

They haven't a clue what a farmer looks like.

I often get the impression that members of congress, and the 'experts' they listen to, have a mental image of what a farmer looks like that - how to I put this - is alternatively accurate.

He's got a slight posture problem: stands and walks with a slouch. Nothing serious, but noticeable. He wears dirty denim bib overalls, sometimes with a frayed straw hat, occasionally wears shoes - and sometimes has a shirt on. A flannel shirt.

He talks funny, and his intelligence is somewhere between that of an average reality-show contestant and a rutabaga.

If you asked America's serious thinkers to describe a 21st-century America farmer - jump-starting their frontal cortex in the process - America's best would probably realize that Joe Farmer doesn't pull the plow himself, or use a horse - and knows how to read and write.

Actually, the hayseed stereotype isn't all that far from the way (some) farmers dressed - in the warmer parts of America - maybe a century ago. And still do, when weather and work demand it. They do, however, wear boots. Farmers work around and in some very big, very powerful, machinery: and they need to keep their feet more than most office workers.

I think one of the problems that 'intelligent, sophisticated' people have is that, like just about everybody else in America these days - they're city folk.

I don't have anything against people who live in a city, or in the residential areas huddled around cities. For economic reasons, most people need to live close to - or in - cities. That's the way it is right now.

It does seem, though, that city folks - even if they've flown between cities - really aren't all that knowledgeable about what it's like outside the metropolitan areas. (See "The Effect of Information Technology and Media Preoocupation with Urban Events on the Relative Sophistication of Urban and Rural Populations ," Another War-on-Terror Blog (April 13, 2008))

The point I'm making is that, despite commonly-held (and, I trust, unconsidered) beliefs in America and quite a number of other places in the world, people don't have to practice agriculture the way we did a thousand years ago.

One of the big, recent, changes was the "green revolution" in the 20th century. If you're not directly or indirectly involved with agribusiness, you probably haven't heard of it. It doesn't fit the 'and we're all gonna die' model - and good news like that hasn't been relevant since sometime in the sixties.

Based on the fossil record and a few thousand years of recorded history, I doubt the "green revolution" is the last gasp of human ingenuity. These days, we may be more likely to build cute dancing robots, than something of more drearily serious merit: but I don't think we're all that much less bright than the people who figured out how to make tools out of flint.

And no: I don't think that 99.9% of humanity will be dead by mid-November.
1 A vignette.

A diplomat, getting briefed on what to expect from the Terran ambassador, is told: "Whatever you do, don't let the human get hungry!"

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These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

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