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Archive for June, 2010

LAST DAY to enter the Science in My Fiction contest!

TODAY (Wednesday, June 30) is the final day to get your entries in to the Science in My Fiction contest!

Remember, there are $400 in cash prizes to be won, plus more! And the finalists will be read and voted on by an amazing panel of judges. Each of the top 3 stories will be published: the original cover art will be provided by Julie Dillon, and each of the 3 stories will be accompanied by original black-and-white artwork.

- 2,500-10,000 words
- 1 entry per person
- Only unpublished work
- Authors MUST cite the discovery/innovation which inspired their story, and provide relevant URL(s).

Entries sent after midnight US Eastern time will be discarded without consideration. Now’s the time!

We’ve gotten some great entries already. Wow us with SCIENCE!

Submission guidelines
Judges
Entry form

Death is Dead! Long Live Death!


©2010 Alicique (Used with permission)

Everybody dies.

Of course, in fiction they don’t always stay dead. We have zombies and messiahs and ghosts, oh my. Not to mention unaccountably lucky heroes and serial killers. In reality, death as a temporary setback would wreak havoc with the natural order, but in stories, decease isn’t necessarily ‘The End’.

Death is also awash in myths and rituals, some bland and some extravagant. What are your favorite examples from life and fiction?

Aside from resurrection, what other death tropes are popular? What strange and interesting things have writers done with death? What do you think are the best and worst deaths in science fiction and fantasy in particular? What are you sick of reading about death, and what about death would you like to read more of?

TWO DAYS LEFT to the Science in My Fiction contest!!

This Wednesday, June 30 is the final day to get your entries in to the Science in My Fiction contest!

Remember, there are $400 in cash prizes to be won, plus more! And the finalists will be read and voted on by an amazing panel of judges. Each of the top 3 stories will be published: the original cover art will be provided by Julie Dillon, and each of the 3 stories will be accompanied by original black-and-white artwork.

- 2,500-10,000 words
- 1 entry per person
- Only unpublished work
- Authors MUST cite the discovery/innovation which inspired their story, and provide relevant URL(s).

We’ve gotten some great entries already. Wow us with SCIENCE!

Submission guidelines
Judges
Entry form

The Limits of Knowledge, Part III: Big Surprises in Little Packages

(Part of a continuing series: part I and part II)

I love tales of serendipitous scientific discovery. A spot of mold in a Petri dish leads to penicillin, a spill on the stovetop becomes vulcanized rubber. The true hero is penetrating curiosity: instead of dumping a ruined experiment in the trash, the keen-eyed scientist frowns and wonders: what does this mean?

Most stories of serendipity occur among test tubes and Bunsen burners, but today computers allow numerical experiments and computational “accidents.” And one of the most paradigm-shattering accidents of the twentieth century involved neither dawdling clocks moving at the speed of light, nor slippery electrons dancing around an atom, but humble calculations of the weather.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Linguistics Can Help You, Part 1: Articulatory Phonetics

Linguistics is a topic that is often misunderstood, either through oversimplification (well, it’s just languages, right?) or overcomplication (it’s full of symbols and too hard for me).  This series of posts is intended to make Linguistics user-friendly for writers, by relating linguistics topics to the use of created languages in science fiction and fantasy. If you are digging into creating an entire language that penetrates an SF/F world, this should certainly apply!  But they should also be helpful for those who are using minimal-penetration languages in SF/F – languages that consist mostly of names for people and places.

My first topic here will be articulatory phonetics, which deals with how the human vocal tract creates sounds.

Knowing the principles of how the vocal tract works can help you create languages that follow naturalistic patterns of pronunciation, thus making created languages that seem more natural.

One of the key assumptions in the discussion that follows will be that we’re working with a species which, like humans, can perceive vibrations in the air (whether through ears and hearing or by other means like antennae). While this does restrict us somewhat, it still allows for a lot of possibilities.

Let me begin with a caveat before we begin our tour of the vocal tract. If you’ve never studied linguistics, this may appear complex – but it’s not as bad as it seems. Just because there are a lot of variables you can change about a language doesn’t mean you should go about trying to change them all.

Okay, so here we go:

1. Powered by the diaphragm, the lungs emit an airstream that can be shaped by other parts of the vocal tract. This is the power source for the sounds. Change this element, and you’ll have a drastically different language, but one that will be a bear to transcribe into English!

2. The vocal cords can vibrate when the airstream passes by them. All vowels are “voiced” sounds, i.e. sounds with where the vocal cords vibrate. So are consonants like b, d, z, v, y, l, r, n, and m. In the case of an alien, it’s important to know that this creature possesses something like vocal cords, or at least something able to create a consistent humming vibration, if you’re going to use any voiced consonants in transcribing its language. Language sounds without this vibration are called “unvoiced.” Whispering is entirely unvoiced.

3. The mouth is a resonating space for vibrating air. In human languages, the quality of vowels is altered when the tongue is used to alter the shape of the mouth space. The position of the tongue is described in two dimensions: height (high, mid, low) and front/back. Here are some examples of the position of English vowels.

[i] as in “feet”=high front [u] as in “hoot”= high back
[E] as in “bet”= mid front [o] as in “boat”= mid back
[ae] as in “hat”=low front

If you go into any beginning linguistics textbook, it’s easy to find a graph of the mouth space and the vowels involved; you can also Google “vocal tract.” Here, I’d prefer to talk about what to do with them. If you have an alien, try to think about the kind of resonating space it uses to create speech sounds – the length of its muzzle or other factors might change things significantly. You can also think about how it might change the shape of that resonating space (with tongue or other muscles), because this would affect its ability to pronounce human languages.

If you have a human or fantasy human, the problem is easier, but you can still think about how the language pattern might use vowels with different characteristics. Do your people generally avoid mid vowels? Avoid back vowels? Do they tend to pronounce vowels across a word with the same kind of mouth and tongue position (say, making all vowels in a single word high)? Do they generally keep their lips rounded or unrounded? There are lots of options here.

4. The air flow can be stopped or blocked in different ways by the tongue, teeth, and lips. When the air flow is blocked completely, that’s called a stop (for example, p/t/k/b/d/g). When it’s still flowing but partially obstructed, that can be called a liquid (l/r), an affricate (ch/ts) or a fricative (s/th/f/z/v). W and y are called glides. Consider the “tools” your creature or person has for altering air flow. Where will most of the obstructions occur? Far back in the mouth near the uvula, as with French R? In the front with the lips? At the alveolar ridge behind the teeth where we create sounds like t/d/s/z?

There’s more I could talk about, but I don’t want to go overboard…

In fact, you’d be surprised how few things you need to change to give an entirely different flavor to the alien words you use. Here is an example of a language that I created for my story, “Cold Words” (Analog, October 2009).

I had an alien with a long muzzle and tongue, so I decided that there were a lot of different kinds of “l” and “r” sounds in this language. In English I decided to use single “l” versus double “ll” and single “r” versus double “rr” to indicate these sounds, even though I didn’t know exactly what they sounded like. I also decided to avoid all unvoiced consonants – mostly for the sake of argument, and for giving the language a distinctive “feel.” That means plenty of m/n/d/g/b/v, etc., but no p/t/k/s/f.

To my mind, the biggest advantage of using principles of articulatory phonetics is this: if you use natural language patterns to guide your choices, the resulting created languages will seem less arbitrary and more convincing.

How Linguistics Can Help You has appeared previously at TalktoYoUniverse and at the blog of the SFWA.

ONE WEEK LEFT to enter the Science in My Fiction contest!

Wednesday, June 30 is the FINAL DAY to enter the Crossed Genres Science in My Fiction contest!

* 2,500-10,000 words
* SF/F inspired by a recent scientific discovery or innovation (Citation required)
* 1 entry per person
* Only unpublished work

10 finalists will be selected, and the finalists will be voted on by a panel of 6 judges:

Athena Andreadis – Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek.
Nicola Griffith – Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, and Lambda Literary Award-winning author
Michael Kabongo – Agent; owner, The Onyxhawke Agency
Randall Munroe – Creator of the webcomic xkcd; Programmer
Cat Rambo – Author; Managing Editor of Fantasy Magazine.
Brett Savory – Editor-in-Chief of Chizine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words and co-Publisher of Chizine Publications.

The winner gets a $250 prize. 2nd Place gets $100, 3rd gets $50. The top 3 stories will be published on the Crossed Genres website, and in limited-run print and digital editions. There will also be 3 Honorable Mentions.

Just one week left! Read the detailed rules, and then get those entries in!

Winners will be announced on or before July 21. The top 3 stories will be published online at the time of official announcement.

Gravity Defying


What it Takes to Fly by *yuumei on deviantART

What is it about flying? It’s not easy for humans to accomplish, nor is it entirely safe. We’ve built machines to help us fly, but how many people have never dreamed of soaring unfettered? Which probably explains the angels and hawkmen in science fiction and fantasy (never mind mythology).

But when writers give human characters wings, they aren’t usually as well thought-out as hang gliders or fighter jets. What would it take to give a human wings? How would we need to change in order to really fly? And how would flight change us?

And what about gills and fins?

Housing, Superbugs, and Mosquitoes

My topic for this particular post is germs and environments. I’ve spent a good deal of time daydreaming about the discussion I planned to bring to this “table.” Kay Holt shared a few links regarding building development.

In truth, I could waste entire days looking at the architecture on some of these sites. Many of these architects focus on the environmental impact of their designs. There is an additional concentration on cost for many of the projects. In my entries to come in the fall, I plan to revisit these housing innovations while focusing on urban development.

I keep thinking about the housing of today and that of the future. I consider New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many districts were completely flooded out and are having to be rebuilt, reborn. People lived in temporary housing consisting of trailers. Some still live in FEMA housing including those electing to participate in the buyout program.

ISO containers have been approved for use as earthquake relief housing in Haiti. These containers might be used in France  and are already in use in Amsterdam as dorm housing.  New York City residential and retail spaces are in development for the heart of downtown. Moving from container housing to the prefab pop-up variety, I looked at how different housing might be in a few years in America and around the world. 

Read the rest of this entry »

The color of alien pants

On June 4, Peggy Kolm posted her article Red hills of distant planets. Prior to that date, one title proposed for the article was “The color of alien plants”. During a discussion about the article, the proposed title was misheard as “The color of alien pants“. And the idea for this article was born.

Really, what color would alien pants be? And for that matter, would they wear them at all? This isn’t to suggest that all aliens are exhibitionists: maybe they just don’t need clothing.

Human use of clothing dates back (most likely) between 100,000 and 500,000 years. Its main purpose (initially) was protection against environmental threats; as humans evolved and lost natural physical protections like body hair, we needed extra help surviving harsh weather and difficult terrain. Clothing has evolved along with us, growing more sophisticated as we have: sewing needles date back as far as 30,000 years; flax fibers are known to have existed 30,000 years ago; and there’s strong evidence that humans have been weaving for a good 10,000 years or more.

Read the rest of this entry »

TWO WEEKS LEFT to enter the SiMF contest!

Wednesday, June 30 is the FINAL DAY to enter the Crossed Genres Science in My Fiction contest!

* 2,500-10,000 words
* SF/F inspired by a recent scientific discovery or innovation (Citation required)
* 1 entry per person
* Only unpublished work

10 finalists will be selected, and the finalists will be voted on by a panel of 6 judges:

Athena Andreadis – Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek.
Nicola Griffith – Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, and Lambda Literary Award-winning author
Michael Kabongo – Agent; owner, The Onyxhawke Agency
Randall Munroe – Creator of the webcomic xkcd; Programmer
Cat Rambo – Author; Managing Editor of Fantasy Magazine.
Brett Savory – Editor-in-Chief of Chizine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words and co-Publisher of Chizine Publications.

The winner gets a $250 prize. 2nd Place gets $100, 3rd gets $50. The top 3 stories will be published on the Crossed Genres website, and in limited-run print and digital editions. There will also be 3 Honorable Mentions.

Just two weeks left! Read the detailed rules, and then get those entries in!

Winners will be announced on or before July 21. The top 3 stories will be published online at the time of official announcement.