Monday, September 19, 2016

What's on an alien's mind?

One of the fun challenges of writing science fiction requires getting inside the head (or equivalent) of an alien intelligence and writing suitable dialogue. A writer needs to meet the same challenges of writing dialogue for humans—such as coming up with original content and mixing it with stage movements and observations about the surroundings—while also viewing the world through a different set of sensory organs.

The aliens in my story, for example, do have eyes, but they have three of them. I envision them being able to focus with binocular vision with any pair, but then being able to use the third to observe other things—just not with the same depth perception. Their peripheral vision might approach 360 degrees. What would that be like? Also, I want them to be much more odor-oriented. Consequently, they would pay much more attention to smells and other chemical cues and their language would reflect that.  Think of how our language reflects our visual preoccupations. “See you later!” “Would you look at that?” “Good to see you again.”—and so forth.

Even if vision is important to an alien, they may see more of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do. Bees can’t see the color red, for example, but they can see into the ultraviolet. Many flowers accommodate insects’ ultraviolet vision by producing markers only seen in UV light to lead insects to the center portion of a floral bloom where the insects can help flowers have sex with other plants.

And alien conversations will reflect many of the same things that preoccupy humans: things relating to social status, health, physical needs and other things. In fact, some scientific wag said the three critical questions any organism must ask of another in order of importance are: Will you kill me? Can I eat you? Can I have sex with you? One might also add: Can you help me?

That last question may be one of the central ones in my book. Cooperation among living things is one of those underappreciated aspects of biology on Earth. We humans depend on a hundred million microbes to keep our own body functioning properly, for example. We didn’t even have to ask for that cooperation. It was in place when our brains turned some critical corner and allowed us to imagine impossible (or at least improbable) things—liking having conversations with extra terrestrials.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Creating plausible aliens

The aliens (Jadderbadians) in my novel adopt remnants of the human race (a million years after a catastrophic asteroid impact) as pets. Because I want my title alien, Morticue, to be a complex and sympathetic character, I needed to develop a background for him—one that included his natural and well as personal history. 

To make things a little easier on myself and to provide a situation in which both Jadderbadians and humans could comfortably live together, I postulated a species from an Earth-like planet—although one a third larger than Earth and with even more water. I used my background in biology as a primary resource. Most SF writers do, in one way or another, draw on the biology of our native planet. We have no other option. Thus, the horrific alien in the movie, Alien, was patterned after the lifestyle of wasps and similar insects who lay their eggs inside hosts. The young eat their way to maturity and the outside world.

Here’s my attempt to describe Jadderbadian biology and natural history. Although every detail will not be used, I will have these notes to refer to as I develop my characters. The details, of course, will be subject to change, should a bolt of inspiration strike me. Such are the god-like prerogatives of SF writers J

Morticue (Emerald 31) & Selaea (Amber 86) (Tripodians from a planet, Water, circling a dwarf yellow star near the belt of Orion)

Biology/natural history:
Tripodians measure roughly 2 meters tall. They have internal skeletons, bilateral symmetry, tri-radial arms and legs. They possess coarse, hairless skin, somewhat mollusk-like in texture. Their home world is Earth-like, though one third larger (with roughly one third more gravity) and 75% ocean. Races vary in skin color (emerald, amber, and turquoise varieties), eye decoration and arrangement of sensory pili on their skin. They possess certain insectoid features, including a succession of larval phase transitions that add limb whorls. They are born as simple tripodal aquatic creatures with a small head and incomplete self-awareness. The first molt produces a functional, trainable and fully terrestrial tripod with its first set of 3 manipulating limbs. The second and third molts produce progressively larger adults with 6 and 9 limbs, respectively. The progression typically takes 400 to 450 years.  Tripodians don’t transform into sexually active forms until after third molt metamorphosis, but they do take companions before this time and are serially monogamous. The sexual phase lasts just 1 year for males and 10 years for females, during which time adults must mate, females reacquire juvenile gills, lay and protect their egg cases and young tripods before they die. Tripods that survive their time in the ocean wade ashore before first molt. Second stage (6-armed) adults arrive at breeding grounds and adopt two or more “Firsties” to raise and educate. “Seconds” & “Thirdies” pursue careers in art, science, technology, and philosophy. Many Thirdies serve as judges, spiritual advisors and philosophers until their final molt into adults. Thirdies aspire to wisdom and accomplishment before giving themselves over to the pleasurable excesses of a brief adulthood.

Tripodians passed through mental phases not too unlike those of humans, though stretched out over 5 million years rather than a million. These phases—that involved a progression from creative tool use to self-awareness and consciousness and from innovative art to primitive totemism, religion and natural philosophy—were, also like humans, stimulated by especially violent, concentrated cycles of climate change. Tripodians discovered rational thought processes that led to what humans would describe as “scientific inquiry,” though tripodians relied more on intuitive insights to spark new explorations. Thirdies, who left extensive recordings prior to their final molts, more often made these insights.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The games SF writers play

Readers and writers of science fiction tend to be science nerds of one flavor or another. By definition, SF is fiction, but it is fiction extrapolated from the natural laws and phenomena that scientists have distilled from their experimentation with nature. Thus, writers are constrained knowing that E always equals mc2 and objects in free fall will suffer collisions based on the particulars of mass and gravitational forces. Readers also know about these constraints and delight in discovering that a writer may have failed to do his homework. SF writer Hal Clement, known for works like Mission of Gravity, explained the kind of games SF fans play with each other in an article he wrote in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1950s:
“Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work...The fun...lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I’ve been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are: for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can.”

            The writer makes the first move in this game by telling a story. The reader makes all the other moves in the game, trying to see how the writer may have gotten the science wrong. Clement played his part of the game so well, that readers still devour his work today. Mission of Gravity, along with related fiction and commentary, appeared in 2002 under the title, Heavy Planet.
            Clement was famous for creating believable aliens. In Mission of Gravity aliens subject to the immense gravity of a rapidly spinning Jupiter like planet called Mesklin evolved flattened, centipede-like bodies to accommodate gravity that varied from 3 times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth normal at the poles. He designed a biochemistry for his creatures based on methane as the key solvent rather than water.
            My new book will also feature aliens, although not quite from so exotic a world. Nevertheless, I must fashion the world they come from in a way that is consistent with what scientists know about Earth’s biology and ecology. In particular, I will feature some of the knowledge science is rapidly acquiring about microbiomes: the mostly hidden world of microbes that coexist with the cells of complex organisms like us and provide many of the biochemical services we must have to survive. A key question becomes “Whose in charge?”—us or our microbial infrastructure? Undoubtedly alien worlds will have similar relationships between the first simple life forms that evolved on their planet and any complex ones that developed later.
            The next blog entry will feature some of the specifics of the world of Morticue Ambergrand and his kin. It will be up to you to see if the world I create is plausible. Let the games begin!

Friday, July 29, 2016


Affirming yourself and your work

Writing requires many skills: creativity, patience, craft, conviction and dedication. When done correctly, it brings the rare satisfaction of knowing that you have not only communicated effectively with your audience, but have entertained them and sometime even altered how they feel about themselves and the universe at large.

I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction, but there is something especially satisfying about telling tales that compel people to laugh or cry or ponder imaginary people exploring non-existent, but believable worlds.

Writers usually labor at their tasks in isolation. They also must reveal intimate glimpses of the human condition by drawing on their own experiences. They tend to suffer from many of the same insecurities as other artists or lovers, never quite sure if they have succeeded in reaching another soul or have simply embarrassed themselves with fumbled intimacies.

So, to endure in the process of writing, when any accolades from devoted fans are still in some imagined future, writers often resort to reviewing affirmations to keep their fingers on the keyboard. Below are some affirmations I’ve compiled to keep me on task with A Groupie Genius in the Kennel of Morticue Ambergrand. Feel free to affirm your own impulses to write with any of these that appeal to you.

Writing is one of the ways I show love to others by sharing my knowledge, insights, and wisdom.

I have a unique voice that is expressed through my writing.

My story matters. 

All I can do is all I can do, but all I can do is enough.

My story is one that only I can tell.

I love the creative process of writing.

Time spent writing is productive time.

Sharing journeys expands what it means to be human.

Our stories tell the lies that reveal universal truths.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Building worlds, imagining futures with science fiction

Building worlds, imagining futures
I’m doing it again: writing a science fiction novel. I wish I could fully explain why. It’s difficult and time consuming. It can be frustrating—not just the act of creation, but the process of sharing and dissemination. Creating something new and elegant is a great pleasure. The rest of the process—especially marketing—becomes a chore. It involves negotiating the increasingly complex social networks of fellow humans. And, as some wag said, the more humans I come to know, the more I like my dog. But that observation has become the nucleus of my next tale: What if humans were the pets and more complicated aliens—let’s call them Jadderbadians—felt that spending time with humans was preferable to dealing with other Jadderbadians?
The title of my novel is “A Groupie Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand, a tale of alien invasion and companionship in Earth’s distant future.” I’m hoping the title conjures thoughts of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and other titles where the author explores the human condition with tongue firmly placed in cheek.
As I see it now, the purpose of these blog entries shall be to:
1.                    Share the process of creation so that others with similar inclinations can benefit
2.                    Talk out the details of my tale as I proceed to clarify them in my own mind
3.                    Explore the development of my characters
4.                    Build a community of interested readers that may also serve as a painless form of advertising
5.                    Introduce myself to those who might be interested in exploring my writing, illustrating and graphic design efforts
6.                    Test my story line and premises
Why science fiction?
            Some have asked me: why use the vehicle of science fiction to tell this story? Couldn’t I reach a more general audience without resorting to an exotic future and even more exotic aliens? Perhaps I could.  But science fiction appeals to me in many ways:
1.     Science fiction has always sparked my sense of wonder by making me imagine all the “what ifs?” of possible futures. Furthermore, science fiction builds futures consistent with what we know about nature through the study of science—a powerful tool for solving problems and answering questions using nature as the final arbiter—the stage on which experiments prove or disprove how we think the universe operates.
2.     Science fiction allows writers to explore the human condition as naïve outsiders with new perspectives. Gene Roddenberry used the original Star Trek to address questions of gender and race because there was no other way to do it in a public forum during the sixties. Let Klingons, Vulcans and tribbles show us the error of our ways by entertaining rather than preaching.
3.     Science fiction tends to address the BIG QUESTIONS we all ask ourselves: Why are we here? Why does the universe exist? Does our personal consciousness survive death in some way? Why does our universe support life and how common is it? Do supernatural forces exist and, if so, how do they operate? Do our individual lives have purpose beyond mere survival? Is conscious intelligence limited to life or can we create it? To what extent can we build the futures we want and to what extent is our behavior limited by evolutionary accidents?
Science fiction provides a powerful way to dream with your eyes open. Colorful stories, in general, allow humans to tell the lies that reveal universal truths. In the deep past we sat around campfires and mesmerized our comrades with the tale of how we stole dinner from that dangerous cave lion. Today I want to tell a story about how an alien and his human pet find their way to a future filled with promise because of the dreams they share and the mysteries of life they can only solve together.
Pull up a log if you want to join my tribe around the campfire.