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.


'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:
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 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"
    • 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.)


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" (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)

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

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

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.