Archive for October, 2010

I Like a Little Death Science in My Fiction

Vanitas by Adam Jacob de Gheyn (Public Domain)

You know it’s almost Halloween when every blog and news outlet on the web starts nattering on about near-death experiences and classic movie monsters. I’m not even going to bother linking to any because, if you’re like me, you were already sick of them when they arrived last October. However, in case you’ve forgotten the previous repetition, I’ll give you the quick and dirty science behind the tropes: NDEs are hallucinations caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide in the brain, and zombies, werewolves and vampires as we know them don’t exist; those myths were probably inspired by medical phenomena actually more interesting than most of the stories people make up about them.

Instead of rehashing the monster mash, I’ve decided to put together a brief resource guide for writers who like a little death science in their fiction. There is some highly readable non-fiction about death out there. Favorites in my library include:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Read them. You will certainly laugh, definitely learn, and seriously consider donating your body to science.

Death’s Acre by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
A surprisingly warm read for non-fiction, especially given the subject matter. You will learn as much about respect for the dead as you will about human decomposition.

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael M. Baden with Judith Adler Hennessee
Grittier than the books above, but still insightful. Reading made me want to be a Medical Examiner when I grow up.

If you’re willing to dig past the annual Halloween horde, you can actually find a lot of good death science on the web. Take this recent piece about a new guideline for determining brain death, for example. Just the idea of brain death as a diagnosis is enough to fire up my story engine. Plus, the need for such a guideline should remind us all that death is more of a process than an event.

As I direct your eye toward the following death science videos, please remember that art and science aren’t mutually exclusive. Our anatomy is beautiful.

There’s one video I can’t embed that I think will make everyone laugh and look at their kitchen utensils from a new perspective:

Dr. G, Medical Examiner and the tools of the trade. I love this show.

Death science musical interlude:

Writers remember: You get points for accuracy, and it only takes a little death science to make your Halloween fiction stand out in the horde. Trick it out and treat your readers!

Links post: October 27, 2010

It’s been a while since we’ve done a link post, so here’s a quick one:

Ending Alice by Stephanie King, right here on Science in My Fiction.

New Snub-Nosed Monkey Discovered, Eaten
China to launch manned space lab around 2020
One in five vertebrates are threatened with extinction
Time travel theory avoids “grandfather paradox”
Make Magazine #24: DIY Space issue

Contributor sites/blogs:
Ryan Anderson
Athena Andreadis
Amanda Barrett
MG Ellington
Jaym Gates
Sarah Goslee
Kay Holt
Calvin Johnson
Bart Leib
Peggy Kolm
Anassa Rhenisch
Paul Schroeer-Hannemann
Juliette Wade

Fiction: “Ending Alice” by Stephanie King

The smell told Grant that Alice had soiled her nappy again. He knew that wasn’t what it was called when the wearer was fifty, but somehow that was the word that stuck in his head. As Alice whimpered and squirmed in her seat, Grant looked in the rear-view mirror and caught sight of shame on his mother’s face.

“Oh God. I don’t believe it, not again,” Susan hissed as she rolled down the window. It was enough to turn any last vestiges of irritation into pity.

“It’s a long journey. It’s hardly her fault.”

“We stopped an hour ago. Why couldn’t she have gone then?”

Alice started to rock and moan in the back seat.

“You’ll have to wait,” her daughter snapped. “There’s nowhere to stop.”

Grant scanned the horizon. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. There’d also be a sign for a rest stop in a couple of miles. Maybe he wasn’t wishing hard enough. “We’ll find somewhere,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and prevent round three from kicking off between his sister and his mother.

“This is a nightmare,” Susan said. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s wrong.”

Grant’s heart sank. They’d had this conversation so many times, but she raised it again and again, trying to get a different answer. “It wasn’t our decision to make, it was hers, and she signed a living will. We’ve been over this.”

“She was probably mad by that point.”

Any answer Grant might have had was lost as Alice’s moans went up an octave and she started plucking at the flowered polyester dress the home had dressed her in. “Hold on, Alice,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m looking for somewhere to stop.”

“It’s not Alice, it’s Mother,” Susan muttered.

Alice didn’t acknowledge either of them, which didn’t surprise Grant. She hadn’t recognised either of them for most of the last two years. It was one of the triggers for the living will.

A sign at the side of the motorway showed a hotel at the next exit and he pulled into the inside lane with a sigh of relief. Within a couple of minutes they were in the car park. Susan got out and collected a new disposable pad from the boot while Grant helped Alice from the car. “Come on, Alice. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

She eyed him warily until she saw the cleaning wipes and pad in Susan’s hands; then she climbed out and let them take her into the hotel.

The receptionist greeted them with professional courtesy, but Grant thought he saw censure in her eyes as she booked them in over the sound of Alice’s moans. “Will you be wanting breakfast?’ she asked.

“No, we’re just taking a break on the journey to give our mother a rest,” he said, and watched her lip twitch in the beginning of a curl.

“Here’s your key.” She handed it to Grant but kept her eyes fixed on Alice as she spoke. “There’s someone here all the time if you need anything. All the time.”

Grant was sure she meant well. She thought Alice was being escorted to her death. In a way, she was.

“Thank you, we’ll be fine.” He took Alice’s elbow and shepherded her to the hotel room where they could clean her up and change her pad.

Once she was clean Alice calmed down again, and she slept for an hour before following them without protest back to the car. The receptionist didn’t say anything, but Grant felt her eyes follow them as they left. He hoped that she wouldn’t try to make trouble as they left; they’d signed an agreement to keep the facility a secret. Still, if the hotel saw enough people being taken there to get suspicious, presumably the facility knew how to handle them. He’d let them know when they got there.

The turning was another thirty miles after the hotel, and the roads got smaller and quieter with every turn. There were no signs to help. Grant followed the directions on a copy of a hand drawn sketch with tiny villages marked in an untidy scrawl, while Susan stared out of the window with a frozen face. Alice stared at the sheep grazing in the fields, pointing and grunting as if she’d never seen one before.

Even the villages disappeared eventually, leaving them to bounce up a farm track alone. Susan held onto the dashboard as the car lurched into a pothole.

Grant flicked a glance sideways at her; she was rigid with tension, her knuckles white on the dash. Grant braced himself for the outburst.

It wasn’t long in coming. “I won’t allow it,” she said as she stared at the track winding up the side of the mountain ahead of them. “Turn the car around. She’s mad. She has no rights.” She turned to face him. “Didn’t you hear me? Turn around!”


“No. I don’t care what you say. She’s not allowed. I’m going to stop her.”


“What do you mean, why?”

“She knows what she wants. She chose this.”

Susan sneered. “She doesn’t even know what year this is.”

“She did when she made the will, and she can hear you, you know.”

“I don’t care. I won’t let her do this to me. It’s not fair.”

“So what do you want to happen?”

“I want her to be normal, even if that means dying. I want a funeral, flowers, a gravestone.”

“She’ll be legally dead. You get your share of what’s left.”

Susan stared at him with contempt. “But I’ll know. I’ll know where she is. And if anyone finds out I’ll die of shame. How can she do this to me?”

Grant thought that was fairly obvious, that Susan and Alice hadn’t seen eye to eye for as long as he could remember. Susan had rejected her mother and everything about her lifestyle as soon as she could, married an accountant, had two children and tried to ignore Alice’s free-spirited ways. Growing up in the same house had been a nightmare.

Susan would go around and hide all the primitive art before her friends came round, pretend that she was adopted. In their worse fights she’d scream at Alice that she’d be better off dead like their father than living with a stupid hippy. Alice never acknowledged that that one hurt, but she’d disappear for hours afterwards and come back with puffy eyes. Grant had tried to step up and be the man of the house in his father’s absence but it was hard.

“It was her choice.” He drove the car at a deep rut, jouncing them all in their seats. It had the desired effect; Susan shut up.

After what seemed like an eternity of rutted tracks and wilder and wilder country, they pulled up to a slatted steel gate set in a high wire fence. Grant got out of the car and pushed a red call button at the side of the gate.

“Hello?’ The man’s voice that answered was tinny through the grille above the button. It sounded for all the world as though Grant should be ordering burgers, and he fought back a wave of inappropriate laughter. That would give Susan ammunition for the next ten years. “Alice LaStrange and family. We’re expected.”

“Come on in.” The invitation was accompanied by a click as the gate lock released, and he opened the gate before jumping in and driving through.

The track led them through a thin belt of trees before going through another gate, this one solid and impenetrable instead of something you’d find on a farm. The fence around it was eight feet tall and topped with sharp coils of barbed wire.

The gate slid sideways as they approached to let them through into a small gravelled car park. Two land rovers were parked to the left under some trees. A broad stretch of grass separated the car park from a forest to the right.

A tall, bearded man wearing a black t-shirt and forest camouflage pants was waiting for them at the door of the squat building in front of them. A field of bright yellow flowers stretched out behind the building into the distance. “Welcome,” he said, “I’m Simon Grey. Come in.”

Grant opened the back door to help Alice out of the car. She hung back, staring at him and he sighed. She’d forgotten him again. It hurt. It always did. He produced a packet of chocolate buttons from his pocket and she scrambled out to grab for them like a greedy toddler. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“No.” Susan stepped round the car, ridiculously overdressed for the Welsh mountains in her pressed grey suit and court shoes. “Mother… Mum. You don’t have to do this, or go back to the home. You can come and live with Richard and me.” She took hold of Alice’s sleeve and tried to drag her back to the car.

Alice reacted, shrieking at the top of her voice and waving an uncoordinated hand in the direction of the field as Susan struggled to hold on.

“Mother, stop it. Stop screaming, for God’s sake.”

“Suse.” Grant put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “She wants this. Let go.”

Alice was sobbing and babbling, pointing to the field. He wanted to cry too.

“Let her go.”

Susan let go and stalked away to stand on the other side of the car. “Fine. What else would I expect from you? You’re as bad as she is.”

Grant ignored her and turned to his mother. “It’s okay, Alice. You’re still going.”

She let him lead her into the building in Simon’s wake. Simon took them to a small room with a medical table set along one wall. A sealed window at the back of the room showed flowers as far as the eye could see.

“I have some forms for you to sign.” He handed over a consent form. It looked like the form Grant had signed when he’d had to put his old dog down three years ago. He tried hard not to think about that, stared at the writing that crawled across the page like ants instead. His eyes were stinging and the letters wouldn’t keep still.

“Take your time,” Simon said, his voice quiet.

“I’m sorry. I can’t follow it. Not at the moment.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it says. You sign to say that you understand we can’t be responsible for her welfare once she’s out there. We can’t control them, all we do is protect them from the outside world. As soon as she leaves, she’s on her own. We study them as much as we can but nobody really knows how they think once the flowers take effect.”

“So she could die out there.”

“They take care of their own dead so we don’t know all the details, but I’ve never seen them attack their own. They keep away from the research facility as much as they can.”

“Will we know if she dies?”

“We implant a bio-tracker before we release anyone into the environment. If it goes quiet we’ll notify you, but it doesn’t mean much. We’ve found trackers on the ground before. We think they take them out if they can find them.”

“And she’ll never remember us?” That was the part that frightened him. What if one day her mind came back and she found herself living like a savage in the woods and wondered what happened to everyone she knew?

“It’s never happened that we know of. Everything we’ve seen from the programme so far indicates that it’s permanent. They recover their health, their motor skills, even some of their youth, but their minds are gone forever. If anyone ever came back to the facility we’d call their next of kin, but it’s never happened. Everything that makes her your mother is gone. We encourage families to think of them as dead.”

Grant looked over at Alice. She was standing at the window staring at the flowers, rapt.

“Do you ever think you’ll make the medicine?’ he asked.

“I don’t know. We’ve been running twenty years and we still haven’t isolated what creates the physical change. We know it’s the flowers, but as to how and why–” Simon shrugged. “It may never happen. As long as people like your mother leave us legacies to keep the programme running, we’ll keep trying.”

Grant scrubbed at his eyes and signed the consent before handing it back to Simon. “It’s what she wants.”

Simon nodded once and produced a hypodermic needle. “We’ll sedate her and then implant the tracker. You can stay if you think you can handle it. Otherwise you can sit in another office till it’s done.”

Grant’s stomach twisted. “I’ll stay. She’s still my mother, even if she doesn’t know it any more.”

Simon turned to Alice. “Time to lie down for a few minutes. Grant is going to keep you company. Ready?”

She lay down on the table without a murmur. Grant forced a smile and held her hand as Simon injected her with the sedative. “I know you always liked me to call you Alice,” he said as her eyes drooped, “but you’re still Mum. I love you, Mum. Be happy. If you ever remember, come home. I’ll be waiting for you, okay?”

“She’s out,” Simon murmured as he produced an implantation gun and loaded it with a tiny cylinder.

“I know.” It didn’t matter.

“Do you want to sit with her till she wakes up?”


After twenty minutes, Alice opened her eyes and looked round. Simon looked up from the desk and smiled at her. “Ready to go?”

Together, Grant and Simon helped her up and walked her to another door on the other side of the building. Simon took a face mask from a hook by the door and passed it to Grant, taking another one for himself.

As they walked out into the warm summer air, Grant could hear drums in the distance. Alice did too; she lifted her head and stared into the distance.

“They’re here,” Simon said. “They start to gather when they see a car that isn’t ours.”

He guided them to the edge of the field where a small footpath disappeared into the yellow flowers. They danced in the breeze, graceful yellow bells nodding on waist high stems. Simon let go of Alice and stepped back, indicating to Grant to do the same.

She took a tentative step forward, then another, then started walking away into the sea of blooms. Shadowy figures dressed in animal skins waited for her at the edge of the woods.

Grant watched as Alice dragged her polyester dress over her head and dumped it on the ground, followed by the humiliating adult nappy. Naked, she ran towards her new life without looking back.


Stephanie King is an environmental consultant who lurks in a corner of south east England. She has an eight year old son whom she feels is destined to be emperor of the universe and a husband who’s a lot more trouble than the son. She lives with two male dogs, and since catching the writing bug her house could politely be described as ‘Dog Hair Central’. She feels that cleaning has no purpose in life if you live with a bunch of men whose mission in life is to make more mess immediately. She has previously been published at 365 Tomorrows, Golden Visions and Static Movement. Her website is at

Sometimes You’re the Planet. Sometimes You’re the Meteor.

Orionid meteor striking the sky below Milky Way and to the right of en:Venus. en:Zodiacal light is also seen at the image The trail of the meteor appears slightly curved due to edge distortion in the lens
Orionid Meteor Shower by Mila Zinkova

When we talk about meteor showers, most of us think of tiny rocks blazing through the sky, some eventually plummeting to Earth. The thing is the meteors really aren’t raining down upon us. Consider them a swarm of bees that happen to be hovering (at a speed of 41 miles (66 km) per second) along our orbital highway  going in the opposite direction of Earth, when our planet smacks right into them during its road trip around the sun.

Most meteor showers are comprised of  a clustering of meteoroids, bits of interplanetary rock, icy dust, and debris, streamed behind by comets on their journey around the sun. When these meteoroids encounter our upper atmosphere, they ignite as a result of the friction. Most streak parallel trajectories, crash, and burn almost 80 miles above the Earth’s surface. These have been commonly known as shooting or falling stars for centuries. The few that survive the atmosphere impact and hit the Earth are called meteorites.
Although the Orionid Meteor Shower will continue into the first week of November, it peaked on October 21, 2010. Meteor showers are named from constellations near their radiant point, the place in the sky from which they appear to originate. The shower that appears in the night sky during one week in late October seems to originate from Betelgeuse‘s (I still think of Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse when I read that word) position as Orion‘s shoulder.
Austrailian Astronomer Andrew Fitzgeraldsays the Orionid meteor shower is brighter, faster and more prolific than other showers. “The Orionids tend to be bright and they’re quick, often yellow [in] colour as well so they’re fairly distinctive. There’s other showers that are active but they will look different. There’s another shower called the Taurids which is also active, so if you see something slow, that’s Torrid and if you something fast, most likely it’s an Orionid.”

Orionids is not only competing with another meteor shower. The almost-full waxing gibbous moon is also factoring into shower observation. It will be full on the 23rd. Another celestial object, Comet Hartley 2, will loose visibility until later this month due to its shining competition. Jupiter is the brightest object near our moon at present.

Halley’s Cometorbits the sun every 76 years and passed by Earth last in 1986. I was ten. In the two places it comes closest to Earth along its path,  we experience meteor showers. The Orionids Meteor Shower is comprised of  the portion of Halley’s Comet’s cosmic stream the Earth passes through in October while the Eta Aquariids are its counterpart that occur in May. I think of Mark Twain when I read about Halley’s Comet

In 1909 he wrote: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” On April 20, 1910 one day after Halley’s Comet brushed Earth Samuel Langhorne Clemens died in Redding, Connecticut of a heart attack.

I think for that reason alone comets make me think of time. Meteor showers make me feel small. I wonder about these bits and pieces left behind by great space travelers as they circle the sun. I long to see Halley’s Comet again, not because I want to live so long. Longevity isn’t at the heart of this desire. I just want to SEE it with my own eyes one more time. I wonder if I will. Thank you, Kay for pointing me to the path in the meantime. I know where the markers are in the journey now.

I encourage you to check out the many links in this post. I referred to many in writing this post. Some will give you viewing schedules, show you diagrams of Orion, discuss the dying star that is Betelgeuse, while others will give you a fresh sense of discovery and the history that lives behind space observation. The link for Halley’s Comet also demonstrates the cultural impact such celestial events have made over human history. Below is a link that takes you to a list of fictional comets and occurences of real comets in fiction.

Please comment with your thoughts on this post and perhaps consider sharing a story about viewing a comet or a meteor shower. Tell me what inspires you about them. Have you read any great stories about celestial events that you would recommend?

Broken Hearts in My Fiction

By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal (LadyofHats) (Own work) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, doctors couldn’t fix broken hearts. People who managed to survive injury and infection long enough to develop heart disease were shit out of luck if they suffered cardiac arrest. CPR as we know it is only 56 years old! Cardiac surgery itself has been around since the 1890’s, but for decades operations were performed ‘blind’ on beating hearts in thousands of patients before the first heart bypass occurred. Heart transplants didn’t come on the scene until the late 1960’s. Back in the day, if you were born with a congenital heart defect, suffered rheumatic fever, or your heart was otherwise injured, then you died.

The odds of surviving a broken heart are much better now because the science (and art) of heart medicine were allowed to progress. Yet in spite of the obvious benefits in terms of improved survivability, many areas of science at large and medical science in particular are still held back by social defects. Stem cell research and climate science may currently be the most popular targets of anti-progress, but even space exploration still takes hits from mal-intents in spite of all the amazing ways reaching for the stars has improved life on Earth.

Fortunately, the antidote for fundamentalism and other social defects is the same as the antidote for broken hearts: Progress and ever more progress. Scientists can’t be expected to do everything for us, though. We writers (and artists) can save many future lives by committing our craft to the forward motion of our cultures today.

Putting science in fiction is good for our hearts in more ways than one.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it possible?

I’ve been interested in superheroes for a long time, and not only because I think telekinesis would be useful. It’s not the epic struggles, either, though that certainly plays a part too. No, what really intrigues me is that your average superhero story is a fantasy dressed up as science fiction.

As I see it, there are three basic types of superheroes:

  • The Mutated Hero, who’s undergone a genetic change or five which allow him (or her) to channel superhuman abilities. My pet examples are Spider-Man and the X-Men.
  • The Not-Of-This-World Hero, whose superpowers are of alien, magical, or divine origin. Think Superman and Thor, and possibly Wonder Woman.
  • The Technology Hero, who uses advanced technology and science to achieve his (or her) goals. I always think of Iron Man, though Batman and Green Hornet also fit this model.

How scientifically accurate are the sci-fi elements of these heroes? Generally not very, apart from the Technology Hero. What genetic change would allow someone’s limbs to stretch or contort in the blink of an eye, yet retain structural integrity? How can someone control the weather, or magnetism, or another human’s actions, with only their body and mind? Would an alien physiology really enable someone to fly or see through objects? Not to mention the problems with mind readers, size changers, teleporters, and human bodies moving supersonically under their own power. The only way to make powers like these plausible is to call them magic — which ties in nicely with the superhero-as-modern-god analogy.

I identified the Technology Hero as an exception because the weapons he uses are generally believable and often based on real-world science. I’ll admit to not being solid enough on physics to know if Iron Man’s suit would actually be capable of everything it does, but it looks plausible and I’m willing to bet that if we can’t do all that today, we will at some point. We can or are working on just about everything in a Technology Hero’s arsenal, and if we’re not, we’ll be able to mimic the technology at some point. We might not achieve forcefields or invisibility, for instance, but we should be able to overlap energy fields or use nano-engineering to achieve a similar effect.

The other types of heroes, though? I think if we stretch our minds we can come up with origins and powers that wouldn’t defy the laws of physics (or biology, or chemistry, or…). At least we can if we discount anyone who uses mystical or magical powers.

The alien Not-Of-This-World Heroes, though? As I said above, I don’t see the powers Superman and the Martian Manhunter have as being particularly scientifically accurate, even if they can be darn cool all the same. Why would Kryptonians (or Martians) need X-ray vision and laser eye beams on their home world? And why would Superman, who grew up on Earth, retain the full muscle strength of someone raised in Krypton’s higher gravity (or, for the alternate explanation of his strength, why would specific wavelengths of light affect strength)?

However, I do think that aliens could have what we’d call superpowers. Advanced stamina? The ability to withstand starvation, air deprivation, extreme temperatures, or other similarly harsh conditions? An amphibious respiratory system, or one that runs on methane? Acidic blood or saliva? Infrared or UV vision? Faster reflexes? More mental processing power? Even hovering or flight, if the world was right. Any of those (and more) could convey an evolutionary advantage, or become stronger on our planet. What if the alien was used to a different gravity or their metabolism was kicked into overdrive by a common Earth molecule such as chlorophyll? So, supposing there is intelligent life on other planets, I’d rank this kind of superhero as a scientific possibility.

Now we come to the last category, the least realistic after the magical and divine heroes. What Mutated Heroes exhibit are basically magical powers couched in science babble. To their credit, they were by and large created when DNA was a new discovery and not as well understood as it is today, and when the Cold War was causing mutation to become a trope, but still—how does a mutation based on exposure to radiation spread through the body and become active in a matter of days? I can understand adults passing latent mutations to their kids, and mutations occurring within the embryo, but not adult-exposure superpowers. In other words, the X-Men are more realistic than the Fantastic Four.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the X-Men are believable. They have some of the wildest, least scientifically plausible powers of any superheroes I’ve come across. Manipulation of heat energy, wings, telekinesis, invisibility, metallic skin, psionic armor… The only way I see these being possible is through technology, not through mental manipulation of the environment or what have you. Are we talking new kinds of brain waves that can become almost solid or maintain their strength over great distances? A controllable energy deficit within the body that would allow someone to absorb heat and thereby create ice? I’m racking my mind trying to come up with explanations for Storm, Magneto, and most of their colleagues, and I’m coming up short. This cannot be a good sign.

I think we might achieve “Mutant Hero” powers with judicial application of electronic implants, nanotechnology, and the like, which would turn our superheroes into Technology Heroes (and cyborgs). Can we get the same powers through biology and genetics? I highly doubt it, even when we fully understand how DNA works and can create our own versions of the molecule.

I’d love to see superheroes who fit the Mutant or Alien categories and were scientifically accurate. For that matter, I’d love to see Technology Heroes who were too. (Iron Man might have accurate inventions, but he’s sure not carrying enough power to run them all, even with the arc reactor.) I enjoy the magical aspects of the heroes, absolutely, but why don’t we get more science?

Fully Functional and Anatomically Correct

A few months ago, my sci-fi short, Pieces of You, was published in M-Brane SF magazine. It’s a fairly straightforward coming of age story about a boy and his adoptive android guardian. I knew when I wrote it that I didn’t have everything right about robots, and of course I doubt humans will ever replace existing foster care systems with highly sophisticated machinery. But given recent developments in human simulation, I won’t be shocked to find myself sharing an apartment with a social robot of some kind in the next few years. Even if it is just a cantankerous Roomba.

While doing research for another android guardian story I came across some useful information. As in human colleges, a lot of funding goes toward figuring out how to make better robot athletes, although in this case it’s a good thing because it gives us another reason and perspective from which to consider human and animal locomotion.

But do people really want their appliances to be smarter and more independent than a cat-friendly auto-vac? Yes, especially older people. And if future robots can augment our ability to take care of ourselves, might they also help us take better care of each other? As with engineering robotic football all-stars, developing robots that can simulate emotion is useful because it gives us a new angle for examining how we function.

Maybe house-bots will never amount to more than personal or medical assistants and glorified mechanical pets. And really, if we want much more than that from the machines in our homes, we should probably take the opportunity to re-evaluate the human social structures that make automating our most intimate affairs seem necessary.

Fair warning, the video below is Not Safe For Work!

Goldilocks Is Nothing (But Noise)

Remember Gliese 581g? That recently discovered planet that had some scientists, and other hopeful stargazers, claiming certain knowledge that we are not alone in the universe? Well, Athena Andreadis gave us a gentle reality check last week, and this week we’ve been given a swift kick with the reality boot. The ‘Goldilocks Planet’ isn’t just unlikely to sustain life as we know it, the planet itself may not even exist except as ‘noise’ in its discoverers’ data.

So we should remain skeptical about claims that we’ve detected a signal from somewhere in the vicinity of Gliese 581g. But even if ET isn’t phoning our home, it’s still fun and wise to question our own significance in the universe.

Webcomics that Feature Transhumanist Technologies

I made a list of some webcomics I read that feature technologies associated with transhumanism. Webcomics, in case you couldn’t figure that out already are comics that are posted online, usually viewed for free, instead of or in addition to being sold on print. They include both newspaper style strips (though usually better written) and graphic novels uploaded one page at a time. Also keep in mind that more than half of all webcomics feature anthropomorphic animals or “furries”. Anyway here are eight science-fiction webcomics I read and the technologies they feature, in order from hardest to softest.

Freefall by Mark Stanley: One of the most “realistic” space operas I’ve seen other than Firefly, this is about a non-humanoid alien, an uplifted wolf, and a childlike robot who live on a human colony world in the final stages of terraforming and own an in-system cargo spaceship. The wolf, Florence, was uplifted as a proof of concept model for a planned (but canceled) attempt to colonize a planet with a biosphere based on isomeric proteins by uplifting a native species. The terraforming process involves millions of semi-sapient robots, and the robots on the planet this strip takes place on are unusually intelligent due to the colonists using the brain structures that were used to uplift Florence to design their neural nets. Unfortunately all AIs, including biological ones, are legally property (though some robots buy themselves), meaning that the only member of the main cast with full rights is the one who isn’t Terran (and has a massive criminal record). In relation to human enhancement life extension drugs are widely available and it’s implied that the average life expectancy is over 160 years. In addition one of the minor human characters has “spacer genes” allowing him to live in microgravity for extended periods of time. Aside from that the author has tried to keep “magic” technology to a minimum, there is no artificial gravity (hence the name), no transporter beams, not even the word nanotechnology is used, but there is a very limited form of faster than light travel.

Schlock Mercenary by Howard Taylor: Following the adventures of an interstellar mercenary company in the 31st century, is less realistic than Freefall due to artificial gravity (that has been weaponized) and casual interstellar travel (after the Teraport Wars arc). Nearly all of the human characters have super soldier mods that give them better physical abilities than average but there are more extreme modifications such as cybernetic prosthetics, germ-line genetic engineering (resulting in sub-races with photosynthetic skin among other things), and nanorobots that that make their host nearly immortal. In addition chimps, gorillas, and elephants have been uplifted, and AIs ranging in intelligence from “sub-turinggrade” to “god” are present. One artificial intelligence formed a gestalt with hundreds of other AIs to form an entity that considers itself the closest thing to God in this galaxy.

A Miracle of Science written by Jon Kilgannon and drawn by Mark Sachs, ran from 2002 to 2007.  In the year 2148 the solar system is threatened by a plague of Mad Scientists infected with Science Related Memetic Disorder, the story follows agent Benjamin Prester of the Vorstellen polizei, a law-enforcement agency specializing in SRMD, and his partner Caprice, who is part of the collective consciousness of Mars.  Space travel between planets is common and Mars, Venus, and Europa have been terraformed.  The population of Mars are joined together in a collective consciousness that has technology, in particular nanotech and gravity manipulation, at least a thousand years more advanced than the rest of humanity, Martians commonly take space walks without suits and can hover in areas that have gravity.
Afterlife Blues is Jon and Mark’s current project.  Dimwitted thief Brody Isett is hired by a former war hero (now a cyborg with less than 40% of her brain remaining) to rescue a posthuman AI from a planet that is openly hostile to artificial life.  Features a lot of nanotechnology, both medical and assemblers.

Umlaut House 2 by Allan Ecker: Takes place in an alternate reality where humans are furries for some unspecified reason, in the year 2040. Is about the children (including the genetically engineered daughter of two men) and students of the first Umlaut House’s characters and features more advanced technology (and a better plot). Cybernetics are fairly common, in particular brain-computer interfaces known as “eye-fis”, and there is an ongoing attempt by one character to create a collective consciousness. Also this is one of the few comics to mention the Singularity, which is going to happen a few years into this comics future and will involve rewriting the laws of physics. However the first Umlaut House featured the invention of gravity manipulation and time travel in the 2020s, making this even softer than you’d expect.

S.S.D.D. by Alan Foreman: This furry comic didn’t become science-fiction until the S.S.D.F. arc where it was revealed that one of the main characters (a semi-psychotic anarchist) will be manipulated by an AI into starting a revolution and becoming a dictator following an economic collapse. The future as presented in this comic features an anarchist society that is really an AIcracy taking over much of the world using an army of robots and clones. The opposing force mostly uses ordinary people as soldiers but many are cybernetically “upgraded” and one of the characters is an experimental super soldier with nanotechnological enhancements that include a brain-computer interface that allows her to communicate telepathically with other cyborgs and machines. Also many of the wealthy can afford implants that keep them young until their inevitable fatal accident, and AIs are used as advisers by all of the factions (even the fundamentalist Texans). But there is no explanation for why everyone is an animal (aside from the author’s drawing skills) and time travel is involved.

Pure by Tiffany Ross: Either a post-apocalyptic world or a lost colony where almost everyone has super powers, most likely not due to genetic engineering but this comic does show something that could happen. You see, people who don’t have powers or genius level intelligence are killed at the age of 17, supposedly because their quality of life would be less. The main character is the least favorite son of New America’s “Supreme Judge” who helps a “subber” escape into the wastelands after his girlfriend is killed for using cybernetics to hide her lack of natural ability. The author also writes several other comics, at least two of which involve alien races that are actually genetically engineered from humans and use a number of other transhumanist technologies (medical nanites, biological uplift, cybernetics). Alien Dice is a deconstruction of the “mons” genre, and The Cyantian Chronicles are a series of furry comics based around the planet Cyantia.

Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz: A very odd comic, mostly one-shot comics involving philosophy and/or transhumanism. There is one story arc so far, dealing with time travelers from the other side of the Singularity who claimed that they had barely survived it (in reality the superintelligence had given them all that they needed and a bunch of Luddites had attempted to destroy it), and a Singularitarian roboticist who is one of the few recurring characters. At the bottom of the list due to the general inconsistency and metaphysics.

Oh, and in case you were wondering whether furries could really be made using genetic engineering, GENES ARE NOT LEGOS.

For further information it’s a lot quicker to read the TVtropes pages for Freefall, Schlock Mercenary, Umlaut House, S.S.D.D., The Cyantian Chronicles, and Dresden Codak, A Miracle of Science, and Afterlife Blues.

How Linguistics Can Help You Part 4: Semantics

Semantics is the study of meaning. I have a confession to make: I’ve always found the idea of semantics more exciting than the study itself. This is because academic classes on the subject involve a great deal of hard logic (scope questions, entailments, etc).  Today I’d rather approach the topic by dividing it into three writer-related sections:  A. how to choose the right word, B. connotations and allusion, and C. making up words.  So let’s dive in!

A.  Word Meaning: Choosing the Right Word

Choosing the right word is critical to getting our meaning across as writers. Here are a few initial things to think about:

1. Does this word have the meaning I’m looking for?
2. Does it supply that meaning unambiguously?
3. Does it have the proper positive, negative, mysterious, or other desired connotations?
4. Does it reflect on the attitude or identity of the point of view character?

I’m going to spend a little time on ambiguity, because linguistically speaking, even the denotation (meaning) of a word is never simple and singular.

Consider the word “dog.” When you hear it, what do you imagine? I get an instant image of something beagle-sized and brown, with floppy ears and a wet nose and a wagging tail. This is my meaning-prototype for the word “dog,” even though I know the word includes great Danes and shar peis and toy poodles and Snoopy.

A word’s meaning is like a pointillist painting – the prototype lies at the center of a scattering of points which are each possible meanings for the word. As long as the object has enough of the right features (but not necessarily always the same ones), it will be rapidly construed as a member of the set.

This brings me to the problem of ambiguity.

Very often when I critique – either editing myself or reading for others – I’ll come across words that don’t work well because of ambiguity. This is not because the writer has necessarily chosen the wrong word, but because the word they’ve picked has more than one possible meaning.

Meanings and words don’t have a precisely one-to-one relationship, much in the way that “dog” doesn’t always describe the same dog. When we hear a word, our brain brings up every known meaning for that word simultaneously. These generally occur in a hierarchical order of likelihood, but they are all present. Therefore, if the context provided does not narrow the choice sufficiently, the ambiguity can become distracting. Homonyms are a natural context for this, but so are words that appear in idiomatic expressions (they can be ambiguous between idiomatic and non-idiomatic meanings).

The example below shows a different type – a word whose part of speech is ambiguous:

“Joseph burst into the suspect’s apartment. Crashing and the tinkle of broken glass came from the back room.”

In this sequence, the word “crashing” is ambiguous between the following meanings:

crashing: NOUN a loud sound made when something breaks
crashing: VERB breaking something

Because we’ve got a verb context set up with Joseph’s sudden entry, it’s possible to misconstrue “crashing” and end up confused when it gets set up as a parallel with “the tinkle of broken glass.” So maybe we should consider replacing “crashing” or setting up a noun context by using an adjective like “horrible” to make it “horrible crashing.”

B.  Connotations and Allusion

This is actually an extension of what I was talking about in part A above, when I said that a word brings up all of its meanings simultaneously.  In fact, that’s not all it brings up; neural networks are really amazing things.

Along with all of its meanings, the mention of a word can bring up all the contexts in which we’ve encountered it. With exceedingly common words, there may not be a particular context that stands out, and the word may have a more generic feeling. With less common words, we may really notice how they evoke the context in which they were created (Quidditch, anyone?) or in which they were used. Regardless, these contexts always tag along, and they influence the way we hear a word.

Have you ever tried to use the word “ejaculate” as a dialog tag? No? It used to be common enough, but I’m guessing you can see why we don’t use it so much that way any more. (Dialog tags are often flagged as problematic because they can be distracting.)

This relates to of a discussion I had on the Analog forum about euphemisms. They tend to get “used up” and replaced by others quite quickly. Why? Because of the contexts in which they are used. If those contexts are considered dirty or low, then the quality of the context will be evoked in the speaker or writer’s mind with every occurrence of the word, and eventually the word will be sullied by its association with that context.

In my classes at the school of Education at UC Berkeley, occasionally the word “intertextuality” came up. It essentially means that a word will evoke in the reader’s mind all the texts in which they have seen it. “Monster” can bring up Frankenstein, or Monsters Inc. or any number of other things. This is one of the reasons that my friend Paul Carlson was able to put together his list of words that evoke particular genres (find it here).

When you’re writing, it might be daunting to remember that there are a million layers floating behind everything you say, particularly when you choose a word that doesn’t occur so frequently as to become semi-generic. Almost any word can become more than it is, much like the few critical words used in ancient Japanese poetry (I’m thinking primarily of tanka, not haiku).

Daunting, sure – but what an opportunity! This stuff can allows you to imbue a scene with a sense of foreboding or excitement. The other thing it can do is allow you to illuminate your point of view character. All of the judgments of value inherent in a particular word will reflect on the user of that word. We see this all the time in oral language when we judge people based on their use of cuss words or insulting words for others. In a piece of narrative writing, all those judgments will be associated with the point of view character. It’s one of the ways that point of view can extend into your writing far beyond the simple first and third person pronouns.

C.  Making up words

No discussion of semantics and fiction would be complete without including that ubiquitous genre activity – the one that always drives my spell-checker insane – making up words.  This can also include redefining existing words.
Making up words contributes to an effect of foreignness. Whenever you replace an English word with a foreign one, you lose every connotation and context associated with that English word. The feeling provided by the newly created word will depend on the evocativeness of its pronunciation. This may come from an association with Earth languages that it resembles (which will give the new word some of the contextual association with the language in question), or from general principles of onomatopoeia (such as the association of voiced sounds/o/u with large or loud things, and voiceless sounds/a/i with small or quiet things). Any further associations will have to be deliberately provided by the writer.

I’ve often heard it said that “if it’s a rabbit, call it a rabbit.” I tend to agree with this. After all, why put your reader to the trouble of divesting a word of all its associations if the people in your story use a word with precisely the same associations?

Another created word context is that of words coined from combinations of other words (or parts thereof). This most often occurs in science fiction, when you’ll find people using comlinks and any number of other more exotic things. These words retain and combine associations, provided that the parts of the word are recognized and can be successfully extrapolated.

If you’re using a created word, think through what associations you want it to have. It’s not hard to show a reader through demonstration what the denotation of the word is. By all means, do so – but don’t stop there. For your word to take on life and feel real in the world of the story, it will help if it comes with some of the other types of associations that our words commonly do. I’m thinking of emotional connotations. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you have a word, Korinye, which means a particular type of police officer. In order to define it for the reader, you put one of these on a street corner (or chasing the protagonist, etc.) , point him or her out and say “watch out for the Korinye.” But that alone doesn’t tell you how the Korinye group is regarded in society, whether for example they’re a secret police for a fascist government or whether they’re just a friendly policeman on the beat (who nevertheless won’t be on your side if you steal from the shops). As you go through the story, think about whose point of view you’re in, and how that person regards Korinye in different contexts. Their view of Korinye can even change over the story. Or you can have alternate points of view to show that some people consider the Korinye to be upholders of the law, while others consider them to be ruthless brigands who pillage in the name of the law. Don’t just let your word sit; let it expand just a little each time you use it.

In general I’d suggest that you keep the most subtlety, the most extensive building and explanation only for words that are key to your main conflict. This may be a bias of mine, but why make people put a lot of effort into a word that will give them little reward? Of course, this does assume that you want the reader to feel like an “insider” with the word(s) in question. If you have a human going to an alien planet and feeling lost because all the words are different, then keeping to the human viewpoint will probably mean not explaining any of the alien words.

You can also turn this around. What if you’re in the alien viewpoint (as I often am in my stories)? It may surprise you, but my first suggestion for an alien viewpoint is this: Minimize the number of created words.

Part of putting your reader in an alien’s head means making him or her feel comfortable there. So have the alien give not very much thought to things he/she doesn’t feel are important. Names of animals, for example, can be tossed in with just a couple words of context, and even used as metaphors for other things, like “eyes as black as the cornered gharralli.” Give much more attention to those concepts that will allow readers to understand the alien’s motives. These concepts don’t even need to have made-up names.

Yes, I am suggesting that you can redefine English words rather than putting in created ones every time. Sure, your alien may have an idiosyncratic sense of honor, but you don’t have to call it “zinni” or anything else. Instead, use strategically designed context and explanations to designate the associations that you want, and pluck away the ones you don’t. In my October 2009 Analog story, “Cold Words,” the aliens have a very distinct set of social judgments associated with the words Warm and Cold (but not Hot). Since these are integral to the plot, I spend some time building them up contextually. The other word I changed in that story is “friend.” This one works slightly differently because it is a concept that the aliens do not have. I have to treat it carefully because as you might imagine, this does not mean they don’t have close relationships. In order to change it, I have my character give some conscious thought to what it means and how it fits into the relationships he is familiar with.  “Not skin-close as a littermate or consort, but closer than huntmate, because friend is independent of rank.”

You can see that I love this stuff – in particular the relation between words and social meaning.  Next month I’ll return with a couple of topics in that direction:  pragmatics and sociolinguistics.