Our perceptions are entirely governed by the way our brains work. Emotion, meaning, identity, and even our sense of time merely reflect the chemical and electrical habits of a vital organ. These patterns change as the infant brain grows into the elderly brain, and there are many opportunities along the way for those patterns to become disordered. We call many fundamental changes of mind ‘illnesses’ and attempt to compensate for them with medicine. Meanwhile, brains the world over routinely disrupt their own patterns with drugs and alcohol, and we call that ‘recreation’.
But what if we perceived our own minds differently? What if chemical interference was considered universally appropriate and healthy? Would people with untreated or abstinent brains then be considered sick or abnormal?
For that matter, what if our brains had evolved different capacities from the start? How might we perceive time? Art and music are products of the mind, so how might they be different if our brains were incapable of differentiating color or producing linear language?
Mermaids. Angels. Mister Spock. Speculative fiction sure enjoys a good mash-up, but how likely are we to see genuine human/other hybrids? It depends on what one means by ‘hybrid’.
Agriculture depends on hybridization, of course, but hybrids also occur in the wild. It happens most often between closely related plants, but DNA testing is revealing more animal species that emerged as the result of interspecies reproduction. The Lonicera fly was the first known example of this, but the Pomarine skua is another. Gray wolves and coyotes don’t usually play well together in the wild, but sometimes the mood is right and baby coywolves are born. Coywolves aren’t considered a separate species, but genetic research suggests that red wolves (extinct in the wild by 1980, now being reintroduced) originally descended from gray wolf/coyote hybrids. If coywolves persist, they may someday develop distinct enough taxonomy and behavior to require a unique latin name.
The planetary science and ecology of worldbuilding is fascinating, but what about the creation of alien cultures? Many alien races are green-painted humans, or based on species with which we are intimately familiar — cats, dogs, horses. Given that we don’t have any data on extraterrestrial organisms, is there science that can help inform the creation of alien species?
Ants. There are an estimated 22,000 species of ant, and their societies and behavior are all very different from the usual mammalian/vertebrate model.
If you’ve ever watched a movie with the sound off, you probably noticed that it just didn’t have as much oomph as the same movie would if played with the sound on. It’s not even really about the sound effects; in movies, the music tells us how to feel about what we see.
Music is an excellent scene-setter, but in fiction, of course nobody can hear the audio cues. But if you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, you’ve seen writers struggle to describe futuristic or fantastic music. It’s such a challenge to describe music that sounds like nothing on contemporary Earth, one might wonder why authors even bother, except in stories where music is key to the plot. And in those stories, one sometimes has to endure reading the lyrics of songs with no musical accompaniment, written by an author with little or no songwriting experience.
So why do it? Why inject music into prose? It’s hard to use it to ‘set the scene’ because the reader can’t hear it, anyway. Yet the fact that music is present in (or absent from) a scene can tell the reader a lot. What is a backwoods tavern without folk music, after all? And what spaceport bar lacks a quirky ensemble? Musical preference or repertoire is also a handy way to describe people without bluntly listing their visible traits, plus it can add complexity to otherwise plain characters. The punk girl whose secret favorite song is Dvorak’s 7th Humoresque will probably be more interesting to read about than the pop music-adoring ‘perfect 10’, right?
Still, it’s not easy to render music in fiction. One can’t help wondering, ‘Where’s the beat?’ And one good question leads to another: What’s your favorite story with music in it? Which authors have handled it best? What fiction-songs turned into imaginary earworms for you? (In other words, now is the time to expand and jazz-up our reading list.)