Friday, February 26, 2010

London, Londinium, Electropolis, and New York City: Names of the Far Future

One of the advantages of speculative fiction / science fiction for writers is that, particularly for stories set in the far future, they can make up anything they like, and it's okay?

Well, yes and no.

For someone who's writing exclusively as an exercise in self-expression, maybe.

A writer who wants other people to read the story - and keep reading it - not so much, in my opinion.

What's in a Name?

Take place names, for example. For someone writing a story in American English about contemporary life in New York City: all they need to do is make sure that they spell "New York" correctly, and keep check out the New York City Web site (, or other online resources like Google Maps.

No problems.

When your setting is not where you live, and you're portraying people who don't speak your particular dialect: things get interesting.

For example, would someone who grew up in Germany say that he lives in Germany? If he was speaking English, quite possibly. When he's at home, though, he lives in Deutschland. Which is why, here in America, we refer to citizens of the Netherlands as the Dutch. Which is another topic.

So, what about tales of the far future: anything goes, right?

Depends on what you're going for. If your story is supposed to be a cheesy spoof of Saturday matinee serials and the shallow end of science fiction's golden age: I suppose there's a sort of virtue to using names like Magnetonia or Electropolis.

Now that I see it: I actually like "Electropolis."

But, no.

What I was working with today (not all day - but I'm getting off-topic again) was a bit more serious.

I was looking for something to call New York City, about 1,650 years from now.

Sure, I could just call it "New York City," since I'm writing in the only language I'm really comfortable with: English.

But that doesn't help establish or support the setting.

I could make up some bit of gibberish, on the principle that the place would have a new name.

Things Change

That approach is half right. Not the "gibberish" bit: the idea that New York City might have a new name.

Or, maybe not.

London, that big city on a river in an island kingdom, has been around for a long time. Almost 2,000 years now (1,967, actually). Back in Roman times, it was called Londinium. (More, at "Roman London," Britain Express)

And, just shy of two millennia later: the name hasn't changed all that much. Mostly, I suspect, because the folks living there speak a Germanic language that was heavily influenced by French-speaking Vikings. Which is yet another topic.

Back to New York City, about 1,650 years from now.

One thing's sure: things will have changed.

I've decided, given what's happened over the last few thousand years, that China has a good shot at being
  1. Intact as a cultural and political entity
  2. A major part of the economy and culture of Earth
Besides: there are some seriously cool things I can do with an Earth that shows a heavy Chinese influence.

Like - I haven't forgotten - what people call New York City.

I put New York City through Google Translate, and got 纽约市 (that won't look right, unless you've got a Chinese font. I told Google Translate to give me the result in 'Chinese (Simplified)').

Next, I put 纽约市 in, asking for an English translation. Sure enough: I got New York City.

So, how is 纽约市 pronounced? If you read and speak Chinese: you already know.

To get the answer for me, I went back to the English > Chinese (Simplified) mode, put New York City in and got 纽约市 again. This time I told the software to "Show romanization" (that's a nice bit of software Google's got). (I'm learning to recognize characters - but pronunciation is something I'm not even close to getting right.)

I got Niǔyuē shì.

Which is helpful. Maybe that "ǔ" is roughly the same sound as "oo" (as in too or tool, as pronounced in American English). Or maybe it's more like "uh" like "cut". The American Heritage Dictionary Pronunciation Key says it's the latter.

The "ē" is a little easier - assuming that it's got the same value given in that American Heritage Dictionary Pronunciation Key. That's the "e" sound we have in words like "pet" and "met."

And yes, I know: I don't know how to pronounce Chinese. No offense, but I'm not aiming at linguistic precision here, so much as trying for a plausibly-close approximation. Moving along.

I'm guessing that "New York City" / 纽约市 / Niǔyuē shì sounds a little like "Niuhyueh Shì" in some Chinese dialects. Or maybe "Niooyueh Shì". It doesn't look that much like "New York City" in the Latin alphabet I use - but it doesn't sound all that much different.

I'll sleep on it, but I think that major city on the east coast of North America is called "Niuhyueh Shì" by the time that story's period rolls around.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Another Day, Another Question

I've spent hours this week, sketching out how the interior of the Blue Buzzard is laid out. I think it's important, so that I can show readers - eventually. I wrote about this on Monday.

On the other hand, one of my daughters doesn't do this sort of planning. She's written many stories. They're not the sort of thing I would normally read on my own: but I've read some, and they're well-written. (Observed as a recovering English teacher, not a doting father.)

So I have to ask myself - again - am I taking the wrong approach to writing?

Good question. Someday maybe I'll have a good answer.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Making a Plausible Setting

I watched "2001: A Space Odyssey" last Saturday. It's been almost 42 years since I first saw the film, and quite a bit has changed. Including me.

So, I took a trip down memory lane by viewing a movie I liked in my late teens? So what?

Stanley Kubrick's film is still (fairly) convincing science fiction cinema today. In large part, I think, because he understood that his 'futuristic' gadgetry and settings had too look like people actually used them. And, he made an effort to make sure that sets which were filmed as if they connected to each other - would actually connect, if placed side-by-side. And that live sets matched (more or less) the miniatures used for spacecraft exteriors.

I spent quite a bit of time today, working out the deck plan for part of the Blue Buzzard, a ship that's the setting for what I plan as a sequence of stories. For (some) written fiction, that'd be a waste of time. All an author would have to do is make sure that - if any numbers were given - there was enough cubage to accommodate whatever the action called for.

I'd be uncomfortable with that - I've read too many stories where willing suspension of disbelief was stretched when, say, a hallway had three doors on each side in one chapter, with pictures hung between them - and was three paces long in another.

Besides, what I'm aiming for is a story involving quite a few pictures, drawings, whatever. That means that I need to have at least a rough idea of where things go.

That deck plan? I can't use it. The good news is, I know what won't work, know a few features that will - all before making a single sketch or rendering.

Why all this fuss over deck plans today? My imagination had taken a sabbatical. Which is another topic.

Sort-of-related posts:

Friday, February 19, 2010



Brian H. Gill

Despite the stories you've seen, there never were very many Voini. Like any alter, each Voin was expensive to grow.

Also, unlike the Gung Yan, Voini had earned an unpleasant reputation during the recent wars.

Between limited production, judgments after the Suspension and 'Voin hunts,' there are now perhaps only a few dozen surviving Voini.

Perhaps it is best this way.

As great a cliché as this will seem, Voini were designed to be the "ideal soldiers." Not mindless killing machines. Soldiers. Again, please: forget the stories you've seen. Those are fiction. Intended for entertainment.

Traits were carefully selected for each batch of Voini, carefully chosen for a particular set of tasks. All had average or better intelligence, most were above the 50th percentile in strength, and Voini pilots in particular had almost inhumanly fast reaction times. No Voin, despite their reputation, were given to unpredictable outbursts of homicidal fury.

I believe I understand how the victors viewed the Voini. Units of four or eight apparently-identical men, armed and moving with the speed and precision of the finest athlete, carrying out a military objective - of which you were the target? Yes, that could be frightening.

And it is an all-too-human habit to ascribe frightful attributes to that which we fear.

So, yes: I believe I understand how the victors viewed the Voini. I believe I understand the reasoning behind the post-Suspension judgments: although I do not agree with each one.

But I hope that someday, as the passions of this age fade, my brothers and I will be regarded in a kinder light.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2010


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Comments, Spam, and Having to Wait

I'm moderating comments on this blog from here on.

Sorry about that. I like to see the comments I make show up right away, and figure that you probably do, too.

On the other hand, I've been getting too much obscene spam: which I don't like to see, and figure you may not, either. Particularly if you understand the language it's written in.

I rambled on about this more, in another blog:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Distraction in Retrospect

Brian H. Gill

As this account approaches its final edit, I see that the short, colorful story of Red Rock Exploration Consortium is rippling through the pool again. I had not intended to discuss RREC, apart from my personal involvement, but feel that I have a duty, as the last surviving member of my team, to set the record straight.

Or, if you prefer, record my own observations and conclusions.

First: to the best of my knowledge and after serious consideration: I have no reason to believe that there was any sort of conspiracy involved in either RREC's failed Oxygen Reclamation Project, or in the collapse of RREC which followed. My testimony on the matter is in the public record, and no facts or allegations have emerged during the intervening decades to alter that belief.

Second: there are, again to the best of my knowledge, no "secret records" of the Oxygen Reclamation project. All documents and files posted by my team have been made public. As the team recording officer, I believe I may state that with some authority.

Third: and implicit in the second point, there is no "secret alien technology" that was smuggled back to Earth. My team was, prior to the collapse of RREC, the only one to have found Danian Age artifacts.

Finally: my respect for Val Tuning demands that I recall briefly the final days of his life.

Tuning was, without question, unschooled in any of the sciences and at best a competent engineer. He was, however, a capable administrator and my friend.

I was distressed to learn that the ludicrous allegation that he was not human is once again being discussed. RREC's medical records were detailed, embarrassingly so, and again are now a matter of public record. If Val Tuning was not human, then space aliens are indistinguishable from us.

I find that: unlikely.

On the Saturday before hearings on alleged irregularities in RREC accounts were to begin, Val Tuning was seen by several witnesses at the Shanghumugham Beach, where he went for a swim and didn't come back.

While it is true that his body was not recovered, this does not, in my opinion, "prove" anything. It is, again in my opinion, most likely that the lively marine ecosystem in that area benefited from Val Tuning's death by drowning.

Regarding the Danian Age artifacts themselves, my own findings and those of my team are available to anyone who bothers to access them. And, at the risk of seeming defensive: I was, in addition to the team recording officer an accredited mineralogist. I suppose I owe the honor of the assignment to my being that rare combination: a competent field researcher who is willing to accept "mere" clerical duties.

I also suppose it no longer matters if I admit that I would have accepted latrine duty in exchange for an opportunity to study the southern rim of Gusev. And, I do not mind admitting, still regret that the discovery of the Danian Age artifacts and the subsequent focus on their study prevented me from finishing my field work.

Even so, and although much discussion of these artifacts is, in my opinion, quite silly, I am glad of the continued interest in this evidence that we are, or were, not the only sort of people to have inhabited the universe. I like to think that a spirit of curiosity and wonder still lives in our hearts and minds.

Briefly, the most common artifact at Dig 45 was a metal sphere. We found 72 of them, buried. The metal was an alloy composed chiefly of iron, carbon and nickel.

The spheres, apart from what appeared to be post-manufacture damage, were nearly identical. Each had an outside diameter of approximately one meter, hollow, with a wall thickness of approximately 0.9 millimeter.

Although one sphere had apparently been punctured, they clearly had originally had a single opening, approximately 8.2 centimeters in diameter, surrounded by a disk about 25 centimeters in diameter in which the wall was 2.3 millimeters thick. The other readily-visible features common to all spheres were three knobs spaced equally around the hole, and a sturdy ring approximately 30 centimeters in diameter opposite the hole.

The least-unlikely explanation as to the sphere's function is that they were storage containers for liquids or gasses.

These spheres were, and are, the best-known of the Danian Age artifacts. More intriguing, for me, were the several dozen rumpled sheets of woven metal we found, varying in size from a few centimeters on a side to a sort of ribbon over a meter wide by nine meters long. Then there were the six rocks which had clearly been machined into rectangular prisms, about five by five by eight centimeters.

Although these remarkable objects are called the Danian Age artifacts, their exact age is still uncertain. The latest generally-accepted estimate, based on known current rates of aeolian sediment deposition near Gusev City, together with other factors, is that the spheres and other artifacts were left on the Martian surface somewhere between 66,000,000 and 61,000,000 years ago.

(Excerpt from "Thiruvananthapuram to Gusev City: the Autobiography of Yuriko Zabala")

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2010


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gods, Demons, and Used Spaceship Dealers

Ever noticed how - earnest - space aliens are, in some stories?

Either they're dedicated to oppressing humanity or collecting our brains, or doing something else we don't like - or they're high-minded altruists, come from the stars to guide brutish humanity to a keener, greener future.

Not all speculative fiction stories are like that, of course. But I think there's been a tendency to treat the stars as a sort of cosmic Rorschach test: telling us more about the viewer than what the inkblots are like. Or stars.

As the author of Tales of Future Past put it:
"...It's become a cliché of science fiction that we can look to the stars for deliverance from our base impulses. The more enlightened beings that live there will give us a leg up and free us from ourselves. Roddenberry, Speilberg , and Sagan looked at outer space and found hope in the guise of figurative angels.

"Quatermass did so and literally found the Devil."
("Quatermass & the Pit," Tales of Future Past)
Quatermass & the Pit is one of my favorite science fiction tales. The premise was a bit less implausible in 1967, when it was produced, than after robotic exploration of Mars started - but it's a well-done movie. I'd see it again.

I rather liked the scene when it became patently obvious that the thing under London was not a German bomb, left over from the war.

(from Tales of Future Past, used w/o permission)
'That's odd: he doesn't look German?'

No: That's not a line from the movie.

Gods, Demons, and Cthulhu

I think Lovecraft may have been closer to the mark, with Cthulhu. The big guy wasn't, as I understand it, evil - not in the sense of wanting to do something bad to humanity.

Cthulhu simply didn't care what happened to us.

Sort of like how somebody fixing his house might back a trailer over an anthill. It's bad for the ants: but the homeowner might never notice what happened. Of course, if the ants found a way into the homeowners kitchen - - -.

Maybe being ignored isn't the worst thing that could happen to us.

Scientists, Used Spaceship Dealers, and Surfer Dudes

We may run into people who can move planets and stars around, control the energies of stars, and stretch reality like taffy, as easily as we release chemical energies storied for eons to send knowledge around the world at a little below the speed of light.

And, although I'm pretty sure that some of them will be as earnest and focused as televangelists and environmentalists: I suspect that we'll find that they have quite a range of interests. Most of which don't involve us. At all.

Turning the volume down a little, let's say that your standard-issue space aliens make contact with humanity. They may be smarter than we are, and they certainly have been developing their transportation technologies longer than we have. But there isn't much that they do, where we don't have a fairly good idea of what they're doing - and a general notion of what sort of energies and materials they're doing it with.

Those folks will probably include anthropologists (zenologists?) who want to learn all about our quaint native beliefs and customs. Also folks who see an opportunity to serve - and make a living - exchanging used spaceships for something else, and then unloading the used spaceships.

Dull? Boring? I don't think so.

Getting back to Cthulhu and company.

I suppose that your standard-issue eldritch abomination from the abyss of space might be the sort of brooding psychopath we've come to expect from some stories.

Or, not.

Look at it this way: if you're able to make a star explode as a supernova, any time you want, wouldn't it be a rush to set up a big sail and windsurf the shock front?


"Big wave surfing to great"

tchouser1, YouTube (August 21, 2007)
video, 3:06

Well, That's Interesting: Burges Shale Creatures

Science fiction/speculative fiction writers have played with the idea of space aliens that don't look all that much like us. There are a few approaches, including the intriguing but relatively uninformative 'too strange for the merely human mind to grasp.'

I've been trying to find plausible body plans for people who aren't human: Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker" was a reasonably good starting place.

Then there are the creatures of the Cambrian. Some of the strangest fossils from this period come the Burgess Shale. We don't know whether critters on Earth these days don't, as a rule, have five eyes because pairs of eyes work better - or whether opabinia regalis isn't the ancestor of more creatures for reasons unrelated to it's strange-looking head.

So far, I've come up with fifteen plausible body plans - most of which are quite familiar, including the one which was used for millions of years by the bipedal dinosaurs.

But I've got the idea that I've missed something. So today I went back online and checked out a few websites that discuss the Burgess Shale. And other Cambrian fossil finds.

"Early Fauna"
Western Carolina University
  • 3+ billion years – life forms
    • cyanobacteria (blue green algae) – very early
    • changed atmosphere – generate oxygen
This page seems to be a resource for a class or classes at Western Carolina University. The style is terse, but there are quite adequate illustrations - and a pretty good presentation of the questions raised by these fossils.


"The Burgess Shale Fauna"
Smithsonian / National Museum of Natural History

"Although the Cambrian Explosion is largely associated with animals having hard shells, the soft-bodied biota also diversified during this period. The Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale fauna, discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909, in British Columbia, Canada, provides a rare glimpse of Cambrian soft-bodied animals. This fauna is especially important because the fossil record is biased toward organisms having hard parts. Another famous soft-bodied occurrence is the Chengjiang Fauna, of...."

It's one page of a section on the Cambrian era. No illustrations, more useful for outlining what to look for elsewhere.

There are links to pages with text and photos, but they load in pop-up windows that won't display properly if you don't have the kind of browser and system that the Smithsonian thinks you should. (I don't.) For example, one pop-up about Hallucigenia sparsa is cut off in mid-sentence, with the best work-around I found.

Nice artwork, though.

(screen capture from the Smithsonian, used w/o permission)

The top of the pop-up displayed find: but I'd have to go in and try re-coding the source, to see what's at the bottom. That, or either adjust or replace my system.

Related posts:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today, I've been Charting This Quadrant of the Galaxy

Megalomania is a personality trait said to be common among RPG1 game moderators. Understandably, since many game moderators create a small world, often complete with their own laws of nature: and the people and creatures which live in that world.

For me, it was also a somewhat humbling experience. Or would have been, if I hadn't thought through just how complex reality is, before I got involved with RPGs. One time, playing with my kids, I had to suspend play because I'd misplaced a barony. We knew it was there: but I couldn't put my hands on the manila folder I kept all the details in.

It's a good thing I'm not God. But that's another topic: for another blog. (Like A Catholic Citizen in America - shameless, blatant plug for another of my blogs)

Where was I?


Subcreations (February 1, 2010)

Human aspirations and limitations.


Charting the Galaxy, a Half-Quadrant at a Time

So, what did I do with my time today?
  • Picked up some tax-related information at local clinics
  • Dropped some letters off at the post office
  • Went to the bank
  • Bought some coffee
  • Finished charting one quadrant of the galaxy
Don't be too impressed: All that last item means is that I've assigned positions for quite a few 'points of interest' in two eighth-section wedges of the Milky Way galaxy. A few of them are real, like Eta Carina and the Vela Supernova Remnant. Most, however, are figments of my imagination.

And none-too-detailed figments, at that: with a few exceptions.

It's a bit obsessive-compulsive of me, but I think I've got an excuse.

First, it's the sort of potentially-annoying, occasionally-pointless thing I do.

Second, and more importantly, I'm hoping that there'll be more more than one story in a setting I've been putting together. Much of the action takes place over a thousand years from now. Or, from the point of view of that prologue I posted:
"In ancient times, after humanity reached the stars, but before the Mandate of Heaven was restored to the Middle Kingdom...."
(June 23, 2009)
Individual stories may be slice-of-life vignettes, action-adventure space opera, or whatever. Taken as a whole, I'm aiming for epic scale.

So, I really don't want to write myself into a corner - or accidentally introduce something that feels nifty for one story, but complicates every story that follows.

Like the Racooters. That's what some humans call them. Their name for "people" is a short series of whistles, squeaks and clicks that's pronounceable (sort of) with a human vocal system - but which doesn't transliterate well into the Latin alphabet. The name "Racooter" comes from their appearance. Think a raccoon that's a little more massive than we are, and stretched out like an otter. The head bulges a lot more, above and behind the eyes - but that gives a general idea of their appearance.

The Racooters are good for at least one story - a family of them is looking for a piece of hardware that wandered off - and my oldest daughter and I have been talking through some aspects of their personalities, culture, and technology.

Where Have all the Aliens Gone?

If you're around my age (I was born during the Truman administration), you may recognize the song I'm jumping off from:

Where have all the aliens gone?
Long time looking
Where have all the aliens gone?
Where did they go?
Where have all the aliens gone?
We've not seen them: no, not one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Dubious 'alien abduction' stories and all notwithstanding, there isn't solid evidence that extraterrestrial microbes exist: let alone space alien proctologists. Ever notice, by the way, how the 'space aliens' of a few decades back were unaccountably interested in giving women pregnancy tests? Never mind.

I really don't buy the idea that humanity is, by some wild cosmic coincidence, at exactly the point where intelligent races die (horribly, of course) of pollution, global warming, nuclear winter, or whatever the crisis du jour is.

An idea that's been played with by speculative fiction authors is that the galaxy is crowded with aliens - who are scared silly of us. We don't see them, because they really, sincerely, don't want to be seen.

Or maybe we're on a sort of wildlife preserve. We don't see the aliens because they don't look all that much like us to begin with. more to the point, they're no more interested in making themselves known to us than entomologists are interested in revealing themselves to the termite mound they're studying. Keep going along that path, and you'll start wondering if we're in a zoo: or a laboratory.

Which has been done in some stories.

I'm going with another idea: that there's a fair number of non-human people out there. And, they really are non-human.

There's a very distinct possibility that Earth isn't a "Class M" planet in the "Star Trek" sense of the term: a planet that's right on the 50th percentile of suitability for biological life. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))

We may be on just about the smallest world that could possibly support life-as-we-know-it. Devastating as earthquakes and volcanoes are, we rely on them for recycling stuff that would otherwise collect on the ocean floors.

A bigger planet would, unless there's something seriously wrong with the mathematical models geologists use to explain how Earth works, have more tectonic activity - earthquakes and volcanoes - probably a thinner crust, and more plates getting sucked down, heated and sent back up through volcanoes.

People living on a bigger planet would have a harder time getting off it, once they developed the technology.

Even if they could get into orbit, I'm not convinced that they'd be interested.

"Doesn't Everybody Dream of Flying?"

"Maybe there's nobody else out there, or maybe most people live on planets where it's really, really hard to get into orbit. Or maybe we live on a planet where, for the last few million years, the environment favored creatures with a bit more brains than usual: who were willing to take insane risks.

"Like flying.

"Or riding a tower of explosives to an airless hell of barren rock. Several times.

"Across the galaxy, most people may be staying quietly at home, playing the local equivalent of pinochle or Mahjong, or whatever: and shuddering at the memory of crazy Uncle Eddy, who once made something he called a 'raft,' but - thankfully - never tried using it himself...."
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))
Remember: Non-human intelligences won't be human.

Which gets me back to that "quadrant of the galaxy" thing. I've placed - tentatively - 58 places where people got started. Including us. A few are more-or-less like us, physically and psychologically: like the Raccooters. Most aren't. Some died with no heirs, a long time ago. Some have been around for a really, really long time - the periodicals section of their analog to the Library of Congress would have documents that are tens of millions of years old. And maybe pictures of dinosaurs.

And some of the really old ones are, the way I'm setting it up, quite a bit like us. The way they think, anyway. Only they've been around for a whole lot longer.

That's where it gets interesting. There's a little spark of an idea that I intend to play with for a while.

Would We Realize That an Alien was Smarter than We are?

Speculative fiction authors have used the idea that space aliens don't just have better technology than we do: they're smarter. On the other hand, some of my favorite stories played with the (more rarely seen) notion that we're the brainy ones: and that the Galactic Protectorate has mile-long starships because they've been muddling through the research-and-development process for hundreds of thousands of years.

Then, they met humans.

You know, we could be scary.

But, let's say that we meet space aliens that are smarter than we are. A lot smarter.

Would we notice?

Maybe - but maybe not. What we might notice instead is that they take an awfully long time to get around to actually saying something.

Sort of like the way it's been suggested that dogs understand 'every word I say.' Like: "Spot, come here. I'm blah blah blah blah blah blah you'd blah blah come blah. Blah you blah blah go blah blah walk, Spot?"

If Spot wasn't a wolf whose ancestors we fiddled with until we had a stupid wolf that adores humans, Spot might feel that Master could just as easily have said: "Spot, I you come walk. Spot?" The syntax isn't right for English - but it gets the essentials of Master's statement. From Spot's point of view, and capacity to understand.

But that's another topic.

Related (to something, anyway) posts:
1 Role Playing Game. The best-known may be Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Decades ago, I ran a couple of campaigns in a variation of that game system. RPGs can be wonderfully engaging opportunities for getting together with friends for a sort of interactive storytelling, exercises in tactics and strategy, or social events that might interest a psychologist. And, for some, an opportunity to get upset about what those people over there are doing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: The Evolution of Galaxies

This might be part of the explanation for why the Galactic Federation of Grooviness hasn't visited us - and why there's so remarkably little evidence that ALF has a real-life counterpart.
"Today's Spiral Galaxies Were Once the Ugly Ducklings" (February 8, 2010)

"Beautiful spiral galaxies grew out of odd shapes that astronomers say were the ugly ducklings of the early universe.

"It's long been assumed that galaxies grow over time, and shapes change. But the main construction phase for many modern galaxies was thought to have occurred close to the beginning of time, the first few billion years after the theoretical Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

"Contrary to this conventional view, nearly half of the spiral galaxies of today, like our Milky Way, had peculiar shapes just 6 billion years ago — more recently than had been thought, the study found.

"If confirmed, the finding highlights the importance to many galaxies of collisions and mergers in the recent past. It also provides clues for the unique status of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, researchers said in a statement...."

"...Although our own galaxy is a spiral galaxy, it seems to have been spared much of the drama; its formation history has been rather quiet and it has avoided violent collisions in astronomically recent times. However, the large Andromeda Galaxy from our neighbourhood has not been so lucky and fits well into the 'spiral rebuilding' scenario. Researchers continue to seek explanations for this."
Short version of the article: There were a whole lot more "peculiar" galaxies 6,000,000,000 years ago than there are now. Right around that time, apparently, something happened and the universe started having a whole bunch of spiral galaxies like the one we're in.

Except that ours seems to have had less of the violent activity that normally happened.

By coincidence(?), our sun and Earth formed roughly 4,500,000,000 years back - after the spiral-making events had started.

Maybe it really was a coincidence, with no cause-effect linkage. Or, maybe (really, at our current level of ignorance, this is all pretty much speculation) the universe hadn't gone though the processes it takes for sticky stuff on a wet ball of metal and rock to grow from things wriggling in tidal basins to us - until fairly recently.

With a 1,500,000,000 year lag time, there'd still be room for some seriously old races to be around.

Who knows, maybe that fellow in the magazine was right: and we haven't met E.T. because everybody dies off. Right after reaching the awful, terrible, wasteful and (here comes a frightfully important word) unsustainable level we awful, terrible, wasteful humans are at.

I'm not all that worried, myself. But then, I'm aware that human beings stopped being "sustainable" on Earth when some maniac got the idea of poking seeds in the ground and waiting for them to grow into plants we can eat.

The way I figure it, we're at least 1,000 times over the absolute maximum sustainable limit of this planet. That's assuming that homo sapiens sapiens is strictly and only an opportunistic omnivore, with adults weighing somewhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty pounds.

Anyway: That article on galactic evolution was interesting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Planet is Not a Beach Ball - Quite

There's something to be said for stories that are strictly verbal - that exist as an ordered sequence of words, and nothing else. It's the sort of tale that was told before Homer cranked out the Iliad and Odyssey, and is still going strong - take a look at how Stephenie Meyer's and Steven King's books sell.

I'm trying a words-and-pictures approach to storytelling, though.

Which adds a whole new layer of complexity. That's good news and bad news. If I pull it off - with the assistance of my oldest daughter, who's a commercial artist - the end product will be memorable. One way or the other.

Planning for extensive visuals means that I'll need to collect source material. Some of that won't be too difficult, since I'm on Earth. Problem is, most of the settings aren't on Earth: and won't be built for centuries. Make that millennia.

Never mind the issue of making everyday technology of over a dozen centuries out not look like a cheap upgrade of those silver lamé leotards that were the latest thing in "futuristic" fashion a few decades back.

Then there are the planets.

For a words-only story, describing the look of a planet from several thousand miles out isn't all that hard. We've got close-up photos of quite a variety of moons and planets here in the Solar System: Everything from Mercury to Jupiter, and Earth to Enceladus.

'Drawing' a picture of Distal in a reader's mind, all I'd have to do is use the trite "blue marble" description - or be creative and come up with something a bit less dusty.

No problem.

Distal? That's a planet that won't be found for quite a long time yet. Quite a bit like Earth, except for the parts that aren't.

My approach, so far, is to create photo-realistic images of Distal and other settings - for my daughter to use for reference, the same as she would for photos of the Great Pyramid in Egypt or a Louisiana bayou.

As a cartoon character said, "this has 'bad idea' written all over it." (Sam in Danny Phantom) Well, I'm giving this approach a shot, anyway.

Here's what I've got, so far.

Not bad, if I was trying for a beach ball. The colors and numbers were to let me see how a square array of pixels got mapped onto a sphere. That goal achieved, I refined the pattern a little, for more study:

So now I've got a beach ball that's got numbers and lines on it.

Not even close to looking like a planet.

But, I know what sort of distortions I'll be dealing with, stretching a flat graphic around a sphere. Now, to see if there's a fairly easy way to 'draw' on the sphere - and have software project what's on the sphere to a flat surface.

Not bad for part of an afternoon's work.

Eventually, I'd like to have three layers on the planet: glossy oceans, dull land, and clouds just a little over both. That's what I'd like to get - what happens, we'll see.

Not-entirely-unrelated posts:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Epic Scale and Painting the Floor

I've got more of the "artistic temperament" in me than I like to admit. There are days when I quite simply don't feel like being creative. At all.

Today was one of those days.

But, my schedule said that I'd be writing this post: which meant that I had to come up with something, anything, today. I don't like deadlines, but they have their uses.

'Star Trek Syndrome', Cordwainer Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Don't get me wrong: I was a great fan of Star Trek in the sixties. And I've enjoyed watching those movies and series of the franchise which I had means, motive and opportunity to see.

But the original Star Trek suffered from an affliction that's endemic to the various science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy genres. Since Star Trek is a pretty big landmark on the American cultural landscape, at least, I'll pick on that venerable series and call this condition the "Star Trek Syndrome."

It's where stories with a setting 'in the future' are written with a general idea of what "the future" is like: but filling in details as the stories are done.

It can be done: and Star Trek was enormously successful. But I think that approach has intellectual landmines set under some of the well-traveled paths.

The original Star Trek series was set at some point in the future: they settled down to somewhere around 200 years. No problems there, as far as the technology was concerned. Not as far as I'm concerned.
Future Tech
Now, faster-than-light spaceships, transporters, sentient (and occasionally downright temperamental) computers? If the series had been set 20 years from now, I'd have felt my willing suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point. Beyond, if there wasn't some really good explanation: like a bunch of MIT students on break, stumbling on a spaceship that had crash-landed with most of the equipment in working order.

I've heard that the Romans reverse-engineered what for them was alien technology - a Phoenician ship - from a wreck they found. Ancient Romans were never really at home on the sea, and hadn't developed shipbuilding skills. They were, however, top-notch engineers: and with most of a working model to start with, they could fill in the blanks.
Future Astropolitics
Even as a teenager, though, I started wondering about the timeline of the United Federation of Planets. 200 years is a long time: but the implication in Star Trek was that we'd gone from living on one planet to having interstellar settlements and a political entity which included these grown colonies (and had members that weren't human).

In under two centuries. Well under two centuries.

That's fast work. Really fast work.

I think that a case can be made that a bunch of seriously ADHD humans barged into an existing interstellar community, decided it'd be great if everybody started living in peace, harmony and the human way - and got the United Federation of Planets going before older and wiser heads realized what had hit them.

But I'm getting off-topic. Nothing new there.
Cordwainer Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S.Lewis
All writers, I think, are 'subcreators' to some extent. That is, they create a fictional world in which their characters act. The world of some stories are barely indistinguishable from present or past reality: the chief differences are the presence of the characters.

Even science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy stories don't have to involve a great deal of work on the fictional world. There's quite a lot of off-the-shelf material.
  • Science Fiction
    • Ray guns
    • Space ships
      • With optional antigravity
    • Aliens that act like funny-looking human beings
    • Toxic waste that turns people into zombies
  • Fantasy
    • Swords
    • Horses
    • Flashy magic
    • Petty kingdoms
    • An economy that sounds feudal
      • Even if it isn't
Using any or all of these conventions doesn't make a story bad. Look at Robert Asprin's "Myth Adventures" novels: but then, he seems to have done some intense - and funny - analysis of fantasy's shopworn cliches.

Or take C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. They're set in a fantasy world, and the seven of them add up to a tale that's epic in scope. But I think Lewis concentrated on the characters and plots - not on creating a heavily-detailed, internally-consistent, fully-formed subcreation. And they're good, solid stories, in my opinion.

The Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, I think, is more of a complete world than Narnia, with a more fully-developed history and set of interrelationships.

Then there's the universe of Cordwainer Smith. Particularly as it grew, it became more like the complexly-patterned world of Tolkien, than the slightly more generic land of Lewis's Narnia stories.

I like the work of all three. But I'm aiming at something closer to Tolkien or Smith, in terms of setting. What I actually accomplish - that's another matter.

Think, Plan, Then Write?

Comparing my productivity to that of #3 daughter, I may not be approaching this the right way. She's got a small but loyal fan base for her stories - which add up to a massive work - and has been making up the setting as she goes.

She's been doing what I'd call speculative fiction stories - with the same sort of issues when it comes to setting that I've got. But she's written quite a few stories. My output is - zilch, when it comes to something finished.

Like I said, I may be on the wrong track.

Or, not.

Like today.

Plan First, Then Varnish the Floor

In my youth, a stock cartoon situation was someone who had painted himself into the corner of the room - with nowhere to go. Some were funny, and all depended on the occasional lack of foresight that people exhibit.

Today, since my creative energies were nowhere to be found and my muse was on furlough, I decided to do a little research and review. I have a timeline for a particular setting that I'm rather fond of, I'd done some work on it late last year, and again this month: and it was time to go back and do a little checking.

Good thing I did.

I changed the names of several Chinese dynasties that don't exist yet (and probably never will - except in this 'future history'): for the better, I think.

Then, I took a look at the timeline I had for the future history as a whole, the voyage of one particular ship, and the transportation technology I'd assigned to this setting.

And found that I'd painted myself into a corner.

The times simply wouldn't work.
The Butler Couldn't Have Done It
It's like a ill-conceived old-fashioned mystery, where the master detective unmasks Jukes, the butler, as the murderer of Lord Thriply.

Just one problem: the author had demonstrated that Jukes had been several miles away, and couldn't have had an accomplice.

Dashing fine story, full of suspense and pathos, but the facts just don't fit together.
The Colony That Wasn't There Yet
I've got Our Heroes visiting a colorful, slightly exotic and - I hope - interesting world in one of the stories. A world where something like a quarter million people live. They're descendants of - well, that'll wait.

The point is, when I checked out the timeline: the original settlers would have arrived 10, maybe 20 years before the story starts.

They couldn't possibly have gotten to where they were - a small but thriving culture - in that length of time. Never mind the technology. The way I figure it, they'd need something like 200 years to grow from about a thousand people to a quarter million, building maybe a dozen settlements along the way.

If I'd already published something, I could have faked it - invoking some sort of technobabble as a solution.

As it is, I just shoved the story's date ahead by a couple centuries.

And, in the process of making the development of my 'space drive' - if not plausible, then internally consistent - I discovered another set of 'the butler couldn't have done it' situations.

That was good news, really, since I got an idea (born of desperation) for making a particular conflict into more than just one more 'space battle' built around 19th and 20th-century military technology that's been renamed.

It's late, and I need sleep.

Vaguely-related posts:

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

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