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Fiction: “Buckets of Light” by Dylan Fox

Henry Maur’s job was to observe a black hole called ANZ-7461, and he kept a guilty secret.

ANZ-7461, being a black hole, couldn’t be observed directly. There was a red dwarf star called 2X4B-523-P orbiting it, and Henry could watch the plasma being sucked from the star into an accretion disk. He could take readings of the x-rays and gamma-rays coming form the space where ANZ-7461 was, and he could watch 2X4B-523-P appear to be warped, twisted and duplicated as it passed behind ANZ-7461.

To the disappointment of his niece, he didn’t spend his time sitting in the observatory with his face pressed to a telescope’s eyepiece. Instead, he spent it like his brother who’d been trapped in the rat race – staring at computer screens and shifting through sheet after sheet of paper, trying to put everything in the right order.

ANZ-7461 wasn’t a name he could empathise with, so when he was talking to himself about the black hole, he’d call it Becca-Two, after his niece. The star he called Pickles, after her cat who seemed to follow her around everywhere she went. Somewhere deep in his chest, just behind his left ventricle if he was going to analyse it, he knew the star should be called Pickles-Two. But he just liked to call it Pickles, and to hell with the feeling behind his left ventricle.

He’d been watching Becca-Two and Pickles for half a decade. Light is the language of stars. From listening carefully to the movements of the stars’ outer layers, people like Henry could find out what was going on in their core. He could tell how hot a star was, what elements it was creating and destroying, how far away it was, how old it was, its past and its future.

Pickles’ light got sucked in, and never came out. Becca-Two drifted through the universe, collecting light like a bucket.

The scientific community thought Becca-Two was unremarkable, at best. There were dozens of binary system black holes in our galaxy alone, all slowly drifting and collecting light and space and time in their buckets, slowly getting larger and larger.

Becca-Two had shrunk in the five years Henry had been watching it, and he was too scared to tell anyone.

***

Rebecca ran after Solomon, who was running after the tennis ball Henry had thrown for him. Solomon was a black-and-tan Alsatian who was born to pedigree parents, but had come out a runt. Rebecca was twelve and didn’t like to be called Becca any more because she was almost an adult and should be called by an adult name.

Henry walked along behind them, hands in the pockets of his jeans, idly staring up at the clouds. He looked down at Solomon as the dog ran into his leg. Solomon shook his head and looked around, confused.

“Drop it!” Rebecca told him.

Solomon snapped out of it and dropped the well-chewed ball onto Henry’s foot. Henry bent down and picked it up.

“Uncle Henry,” Rebecca said.

“Hm?”

“You know the stars?”

“Yes.”

“Well, they’re millions and millions of miles away, right?”

“Billions of miles,” Henry said. “Billions and billions.”

“Well yeah,” Rebecca said. “Doesn’t matter, it’s just more zeroes. A billion miles might as well be a million because there’s no way I’m ever going to get there.”

“It’s important to me–” Henry started.

“But anyway,” Rebecca said. “If the stars are billions and billions of miles away, how come we can see them?”

Henry frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Okay,” Rebecca said. She took the ball from Henry and threw it for Solomon. The mutt bounded after it with gusto. “If I shout, the people in Australia couldn’t hear me, right?”

“Well, no,” Henry said. “They’re too far away for the sound to reach them.”

“Right,” Rebecca agreed.

Solomon dropped the ball at Henry’s feet. Henry picked it up and threw it as hard as he could.

“And our house,” Rebecca said. “It’s not going to be there in a hundred years’ time, is it? I mean, it’s going to fall down.”

“It’ll fall down sooner than that if your dad doesn’t look after it.”

“Right. So, if the stars are really, really far away, and the light from them is really, really old, how come we can see them?”

Henry watched Solomon running towards them, and side-stepped to let him run past. Solomon stopped and stared ahead, trying to work out where they’d gone. He turned around when Rebecca called his name, and jumped back to them. Rebecca reached for the ball, but he refused to let it go.

“Waves of light,” Henry said, “don’t dissipate the way sound waves do. They don’t… like when you throw a stone into water, and the ripples get smaller and smaller until you can’t see them any more. Light doesn’t do that. And it doesn’t decay the way – the way bricks and mortar do. It just stays the way it is.”

Rebecca finally got the ball from Solomon’s mouth, and threw it for him as hard as she could. She watched the ball bouncing over the field and the dog bouncing after it.

“So,” she said, “starlight doesn’t die. Starlight is immortal.”

Henry frowned.

“I guess so.”

***

Hawking radiation allows a black hole to slowly dissipate, in theory. Particles created on the black hole’s event horizon escape, and in doing so they steal some energy from the black hole. But Becca-Two was being fed by Pickles and that should have more than made up for those escaping quanta. Even the background radiation Becca-Two drew in should have compensated. Henry knew this. Yet, over the last five years, Becca-Two had been getting smaller.

He knew strings of equations which proved that black holes with red dwarf stars orbiting them didn’t shrink. The scientific elite – which was composed entirely of individuals far smarter than him – was all in agreement that those strings of equations were right. Stephen Hawking knew all there was to know about black holes and if he said black holes with red dwarf stars orbiting them didn’t shrink, then he was far more likely to be right than Henry Maur, a man who still got confused by the menu in Subway.

So Henry Maur came in every day and scanned through page after page of data, trying to find his mistake, the misplaced decimal point or ambiguous number he’d take the wrong way which would make everything okay again. But no matter how he manipulated the data, it still came back with the same answer: Becca-Two was getting smaller. It was getting so small, in fact, that it wouldn’t be around much longer.

***

A black hole is the soul of a star. The star’s core is carefully hidden behind a shell of super-heat and magnetism. As the star gets older, the core refines itself, slowly squeezing the superfluous space out of the molecules which make it up. When it no longer needs its protective shell, it’s discarded and the naked core spins in space. It continues to evolve, continues to refine itself and squeeze out all the space between the quarks and quanta until there’s nothing left but pure matter. From its birth as a collapsing cosmic dust cloud, it has finally achieved perfection. And it drifts through space, removing all the imperfect matter from the universe.

***

Rebecca sat in her armchair, legs folded up and Pickles sitting on her thighs. The cat was stretched out and purring. Occasionally, he would reach out a paw and poke Rebecca, who would obediently scratch him behind the ears. Pickles would reward her with a brief purr.

“So, how do you know the galaxy is spiral-shaped?” she asked.

Henry came in from the kitchen, drying his hands.

“Well,” he said. “We can see the edges of the arms. We can see them moving through space.”

He clapped his hands and Solomon jumped off the sofa. He looked at it, matted with dog hair and slightly damp.

He sighed, and sat in the old rocking chair which had been a feature of his parents’ front-room before they’d died. Now it was a feature of his brother’s front room.

“How?” Rebecca asked.

“Well, there’s… there’s clouds of stuff in space, you see. Outside the galaxy. When the arms of our galaxy move through the clouds, it disturbs them and they start to form stars. So, we can see all these stars forming along the edges of our galaxy, and we can see the edges are kind of spiral-shaped.”

“So where do the clouds come from?” Rebecca asked.

Henry crossed his legs and Solomon jumped up onto his lap. The chair rocked.

“Other stars,” Henry said. “When a star gets old, the outer layers get blown off, leaving just the core. That’s called a novae. Sometimes, you get supernovae. That’s when the core of the star explodes, too.”

He pushed Solomon’s muzzle and long, wet tongue away from his face. Solomon looked up at him like a kicked puppy, and licked his hand instead.

“Why does the core explode?”

“Because it’s too big,” Henry said. “There’s too much matter in them. The pressure gets too much so it explodes, like if you put too much air in a balloon.”

“But then they get made into new stars.” Rebecca said, stroking Pickles. The cat stretched and made a half-articulated meow.

“And the new stars might not be too big. So they’re being…” she waved her hands. “Erm… purified? No, perfected. They’re being perfected. That’s kind of cool. It’s like the stars really are immortal.”

“Yeah,” Henry agreed. “It’s very cool.”

***

There wasn’t much of left of Becca-Two. The barycentre had shifted outside its event horizon and now it was wobbling around Pickles in that strange dance of binary systems.

Henry had calculated the rate of decay. He had a day marked on his calendar, the day when Becca-Two would be too small to observe. He worried about telling anyone. He kept pawing over the data, looking for his mistake.

He collated readings and organised data and stared at his computer screen, hoping to see some small reading which would mean he’d come to the wrong conclusion and that, frankly, he was being stupid.

The day came and, when Henry arrived at work, he couldn’t find Becca-Two. Pickles was still there, drifting all alone in space with a halo of plasma that Becca-Two had pulled away but hadn’t been able to consume.

Henry leaned back in his seat and buried his face in his palms. He should have told someone sooner. He should have told someone as soon as he had some idea what was going on. Stephen Hawking was going to be pissed he’d missed it.

Henry called up all the readings he could: X-ray; gamma-ray; UV; visible; infrared… any wavelength he had access to. Numbers spooled across the bottom of his screens while graphs traced simple, unbroken lines. Henry stared at the readings from where Becca-Two should be. There was nothing, just the confused wobble of Pickles wondering where Becca-Two had gone.

He was the first man in history to lose a black hole. He picked up his empty Styrofoam cup and crushed it in his hand.

The computer screens flickered, the numbers changed and the graphs suddenly spiked. The software automatically adjusted the scale to fit the new peaks on. The peaks from the last five years seemed minute on the new axis. Henry stared at the numbers. He printed them out, snatched them from the printer and stared at them, running his pencil over each line to make sure he didn’t misread it.

All the energy, all the light and matter that Becca-Two had been collecting in her bucket for millions of years had spilled out in just a few seconds. In just a few seconds, the universe received millions of years of time and matter.

Pickles’ starlight had been stuck, spinning around the centre of the black hole and with one almighty scream it had escaped. Henry leaned back in his chair, the weight of the revelation pinning him to his seat: Becca-Two hadn’t been removing the star from the universe, just saving it up. Starlight was immortal.

A black hole wasn’t an end, any more than a supernovae was. And why would a black hole be the only full stop in a universe which is constantly changing and reinventing itself?

He reset the instruments and prepared to watch a new star being born. He was going to have to make some changes to Professor Hawking’s equations.

.

Dylan Fox lives in an old slate miner’s cottage in the foothills of Snowdonia, in North West Wales. It’s frequently cold, wet and dark but the scenery – and the night sky – more than make up for such minor inconveniences. After looking at the Moon through a telescope for the first time this summer, he was shocked to discover there’s a giant ball of rock in the sky. It was both amazing and terrifying.

He’s had stories in places like Bewildering Stories and The Nautilus Engine and is a contributing editor to SteamPunk Magazine. He has a blog at www.dylanfox.net.

Science in My Fiction has moved!

Science in My Fiction has moved URLs! We can now be found at

http://scienceinmyfiction.com

All URLs from the old site will automatically forward to the same page/post on the new site. No need to change any links you’ve previously posted!

Huge thanks to Matt Baya for making the transfer happen!

The Knotty Problem of Quantum Gravity: Part 1

You may have been in this situation:

You have two friends, your two best friends, both witty, fun, and thoughtful. An hour or so spent with either one leaves your brain buzzing with new ideas and insights. “I gotta get these two together,” you think.

You arrange a dinner, but the evening is a disaster. Your friends are incompatible in ways so deep, so fundamental, they can barely stand to be in the same room.

Now imagine your friends are physics theories; and not just any theories, but the two most revolutionary theories of the twentieth century, explaining entire libraries of data, predicting new, mind-blowing phenomena. They are quantum mechanics and general relativity.

And they do not play nice with each other.

Read the rest of this entry »

Moonstruck

I was excited to grab the spot on the schedule this month that falls on a full moon. When I am preparing for a post like this one, I visit my LiveJournal and ask friends to share their perspectives, ideas, and knolwedge. For this post, I asked what they associate the moon with in fiction(many are in the list included below) and in general. This post is a direct result of their input. I will invite them here to claim their share of the credit once it is posted. I also hope that you share some of your personal connections with the moon.

The Cultured Moon:

From my earliest memories, I have been in love with the night sky. The moon was the easiest object to pick out and holds tremendous sentimental value for me. We’ve all seen the moon. As a child, I watched in awe of its changes faces as it cycled through the lunar phases and tried to interpret the shades of dark areas (lunar maria) and lighter highlands as shapes. This same practice has given us the man in the moon, a woman, a dragon, a hare, and more. It connects us. 

The moon guides our tides: All parts of the Earth are subject to the Moon’s gravitational forces, causing the water in the oceans to redistribute, forming bulges on the sides near the Moon and far from the Moon. In a different way it guides our paths, as it provides the light needed to move about in the dark when no artificial light is present. We’ve all felt it seemingly peer down upon us. My lunar companion followed me on car rides.   It protects us.

One estimate by the 19th century astronomer Julius Schmidt put the number of craters at 30 000. Today it is reckoned that there are at least 10 times that number, with a diameter larger than 1 km, on the visible side of the Moon alone. The largest exceed 200 km. Volcanic craters are rare and comparatively small. The lunar impact craters inform us about the history of Earth’s bombardment since its birth.

The moon is recorded in our earliest cultures.  “What may be the oldest map of the Moon ever made is inside a 5,000-year-old Neolithic burial mound at Knowth in County Meath, Ireland.” It is featured in mytholoy and folklore as people told the moon’s story in their own way.

It continues to inspire us, not just in genre fiction, but in many areas of our contemporary lives. Check out this comprehensive list of moon appearances in art and literature. While I can’t say that I ever actually wanted to visit or live there, I often daydreamed about what it would be like. Some of our first movies were built around such fantasies. In George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon  (1902) his characters land on the moon.

Today there are celebrations across the globe that tie the moon in such as the  Mid-Autumn Festival / Zhongqiu Festival.  Mooncakes, pastry delicacies, are served during the celebration and at other times with varying ingredients in several countries. I live in the southern United States where Moonpies are a popular pastry, consumed with no associated celebration. 

Moon Myth Busters:

Do you remember the commercial from The American Dairy Association, “Behold the Power of Cheese,” mentions our moon landing? I remember it saying that once we found out the moon was not made of cheese, we never returned. Go ahead and laugh. I still do. Yet, one of the things I was most curious about what the geological makeup of the moon.

While the moon’s light provides opportunity for more nocturnal activity and decreases the need for artificial light, it has not been proven to hold power over our behavior. 

The number of days it takes the moon to complete a revolution around the globe is similar to that of a menstration cycle, the greater factor is the amount of articifical light exposure.

This is perhaps my favorite. Do wolves howl at the moon? No. Chances are that humans made the connection because when wolves howled at night, they were more easily observed by the light of a full moon than at any other time. Now if you are interested in why wolves howl, I found these two articles to be informative. (one & two)

With apologies to my editor, I close and post this entry now, late for a Friday. There were so many things I could have discussed about the moon. It was hard to pick which to offer up for discussion and a bit of a challenge to organize the topics. Help me make it up to her with a lively discussion below in comments. Tell me about your love of the moon. What does the moon represent for you? Have you ever observed the moon through a telescope or with professional imaging equipment? What have you read that included the moon? Is the moon included in any of your traditions, rituals, or celebrations? Do you cry when a certain mouse sings “Somewhere Out There?” SHARE!

Non-Conformist Aliens Wanted

It occurred to me the other day that many fictional alien species conform to a small number of body plans: humanoid, insectoid, feline, robot, and reptilian. There’s a huge amount of creativity in appearances and cultures, admittedly, but most races out there fit one of those body plans. The Wikipedia list of fictional aliens is a good overview, for the above and other body plans, though it’s definitely not complete.

I realize there are reasons why most aliens are humanoid or nearly so. It’s easier to sympathize with something that looks human. It’s easier to conceive of aliens based on familiar Earth species. It’s easier to put make-up on an actor than to deal with CGI, or it was until recently. Still, why doesn’t more science fiction push the envelope? Why don’t we see more unusual body plans? It’s not as though we’d have to create entirely new physiologies, though we need those too. Earth has a whole host of creatures that have been underutilized in science fiction, including a few with proven intelligence.

Sharks, for instance, are ancient. They have cartilage instead of bone. They sense electricity and have an excellent sense of smell. They have problem-solving and social skills. There are documented cases of parthenogenesis. They’re built for predation and we’re already conditioned to cast them as villains.

Octopuses, corvids, parrots, and dolphins also have intelligence, or at least use tools and solve problems. Ravens can mimic sounds and have a wide range of calls, often for social purposes. Parrots are capable of communicating with humans. Dolphins have proto-language as well and are highly social. When was the last time you saw them (or parrots, or octopuses, or sharks) cast as aliens? Well, except for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…. Other possible species include: horseshoe crabs, trilobites, rabbits, elephants, slime molds, moss, bacterial hive-minds, and marsupials, including monotremes.

And as I mentioned above, we need more entirely new physiologies too. Species that don’t match up with the Earth life we’re familiar with, or even with our extremeophiles. If we make the environment first, the species second…

One possible environment, close to home: the diamond oceans of Uranus and Neptune. This would be a hot, high pressure place to live. There probably wouldn’t be a lot of gas mixed into the diamond, let alone oxygen, so either the aliens wouldn’t breathe, they’d use a system like photosynthesis where they’d break down carbon for energy, or they’d be like whales, surfacing to breathe hydrogen, helium, or methane (those being the abundant gases). The aliens would almost certainly be carbon-based, and would consume other carbon-based life for energy. They’d likely evolve something like fins or flagella to propel themselves. Maybe they’d use jet propulsion.

There’s no reason why these aliens couldn’t evolve intelligence or even civilization, though I doubt they’d achieve buildings as we know them, because short of building on the solid-diamond floes, there’d be nothing solid, and the caps probably wouldn’t be all that stable. I can see floating structures tethered together, however, provided the aliens had something to build with. Perhaps after millennia of them using these structures, they’d adapt to them, becoming more amphibious than aquatic or losing the flippers and gaining something more like hands. Or perhaps not.

I have no idea what first contact will look like when we make it. The realistic version, of us finding microbes on Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, lacks a certain something, though I’ll be pleased when it happens. But wouldn’t it be great if we ran into alien blue jays or giant platypuses or sentient hammerhead sharks?

An earlier, rougher version of this essay was posted on my blog, Specnology.

“Buckets of Light” by Dylan Fox to be published by Science in My Fiction

We’re pleased to announce that the short story “Buckets of Light”, written by Dylan Fox, will be the second fiction published by Science in My Fiction.

“Buckets of Light” will be published online on Monday, November 29. It will also appear in the yearly anthology (estimated release: November 2011).

Building the Apocalypse: Epic Proportions

One can hardly have an Apocalypse—whether Biblical, SF or even Fantasy—without some nasty natural disasters and killer weather. Hollywood in particular likes to bring the planet-as-foe into its movies, as can be seen by this list! For sheer impact and implacable force, natural disasters have few challengers. A virus can, in theory, be killed. An army of demons can be slain. Barring magic, there’s not much to be done about a tornado. Just wait and see what happens.

Unpredictability plays another part of it. Sure, we’ve got sophisticated technology to give us some warning about the worst weather now, but that’s about the extent of it. And even warning isn’t always a help: people still have to listen…and there has to be somewhere to go.

Part of the threat of deadly weather is its reach, as well as the long-term effects and our absolute inability to stop it. Over the last century, the 10 worst natural disasters have claimed an estimated 4,100,000 people. These are only the events that claimed more than 100,000 people, as well as did significant economic damage. Katrina, dozens of cyclones and earthquakes and floods aren’t even calculated into this number. Nor are the prehistoric disasters.

From a fictional perspective, natural disasters will shape nations, change lives, and often provide a catalyst that no human could. I think my first introduction to the use of disaster and deadly nature in fiction was Laura Resnick’s The Destroyer Goddess. Besides being just plain cool fantasy, she used volcanoes, oceans, land and rivers as catalysts and characters. Pitting her main characters against such a backdrop added a sense of fatality and grandeur.

Rachel Caine has my favorite, more recent use of weather in her Urban Fantasy. While I’ve only read Ill Wind, the use of storms and fires as villainous forces and sentient—but alien—entities is the highlight of the book for me.

Science Fiction has a host of well-known natural disaster tales: Mother of Storms, Heavy Weather, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Rift, Forty Signs of Rain.

So, here we’ve got hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanoes and floods. But that’s not all Mother Nature has up her sleeve. Here are three disasters that we might see in an Apocalyptic setting:

Fire Tornadoes

I have to admit, deadly weather is fascinating. As a kid, I avidly watched documentaries on natural disasters. Tornadoes, especially. But dozens of videos, and I never saw a tornado made of fire. While I feel thoroughly gypped, I shall now share the weirdness with you: Fire! Tornadoes! Tornadoes made of fire!

Now, the reality of this is simple enough: wind+fire=bad things. I’m from California, so this is an easy concept. Like a water-spout or dust-devil, this is merely the result of pre-existing conditions, and not really more dangerous than the fire itself, but it is possibly one of the coolest sights around!
Of course, there are exceptions. During the civil upheaval following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, a firestorm erupted within a packed square, killing 38,000 people who had survived the quake itself.

Derechos

The mother of wind-storms. To quote Wikipedia: “A derecho is a widespread and long-lived, violent convection-induced straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms in the form of a squall line(…).”

With sustained wind-speeds of around 50-100 mph, and a spread of around 280 miles, this rapidly-moving storm isn’t something to mess with. Typically occurring in North America, they do occur in other places, such as India and Bangladesh.

Basically, it packs as much force as a tornado over a vast swath of land…and spawns tornadoes, too. The Storm of the Century, moving down the entire eastern US seaboard in 1993, was one of the most devastating, wide-spread derechos in American history.

Even better? Derechos are most often caused by extremely hot and humid weather, which means that they can be found in conjunction with…

…Drought/Heat waves

In the past 20 years alone, the US has sustained three major heat waves:

1988 Heat Wave/drought: 61.6 billion, 5000-10,000 deaths
1980 heat wave: 48.4 billion, 10,000 deaths
1998 heat wave/drought: 8.3 billion, 200 deaths

Africa, of course, suffers frequent deadly heat waves and droughts. Europe? Yes. In 2003, 35,000 people died in a heat wave that affected 8 countries. Heat waves are actually more common and more deadly than most other natural disasters.

With global warming an undeniable fact (I know, I know, hello, Tea Party…), we’re only going to see more of these costly, deadly summers.

Plus, there might be elephant stampedes. No, really. In 1972, elephants—crazed by the heat—stampeded through the Chandka Forest, killing over 20 people. http://www.digalist.com/item/3963

Perhaps, the heart of the fascination with natural disasters boils down to this: We can’t do anything about it, our race will probably be wiped out by them eventually, and so we might as well just sit back, enjoy them from a distance, and hope like hell that the planet doesn’t toast our butts anytime soon.

How Linguistics Can Help You Part 5: Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an area of linguistics that doesn’t often get talked about.  It’s one I love, but it’s also difficult to define.  For example, in his textbook about Pragmatics, Mr. Paul Levinson spent an entire chapter trying to separate it from semantics. Argh!

So what is Pragmatics? Basically, it deals with those areas of meaning which aren’t really meaning. What does that mean? It deals with implications (in the lingo, “implicature”), and with presuppositions, and with using language to do things rather than just send messages.  Places where what can be understood by the listener is more than what is actually said by the words.

I think most people know about presuppositions, even if they can’t give a name to them. An example would be when the lawyer asks the plaintiff,

“Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Either a yes or no answer will contain the presupposition that the plaintiff beat his wife. Thus, in order to avoid tacit acceptance of the idea that he’s beaten his wife, the plaintiff has to reject the question. There are many words like this. “Manage to,” for example, which presupposes that the person has “tried to.”

The usefulness of presuppositions in story-writing lies in their ability to carry extra implied meaning. If you say that your character “didn’t do” something, we know nothing about whether he or she wanted to do that thing, or tried. “Didn’t manage to do” tells us a heck of a lot more in just two additional words. So keep an eye out for these as helpers in the creation of point of view as well as ways to layer meaning into your story.
One of the foundation concepts of pragmatics comes from H.P. Grice:  the Cooperative Principle. Essentially the Cooperative Principle states, “make your contribution to the conversation optimally relevant and appropriate.” This may seem terribly obvious, but it is in fact quite powerful. This is because the assumption of cooperativeness allows us to draw conclusions from what people say.

Let’s say someone tells you “I have two children.” From the point of view of strict truthfulness, this could be true so long as that person had two or more children. But the Cooperative Principle lets us conclude that if the person had more than two children, they would be telling us that. Thus, we conclude that the person has two, and only two, children. Grice calls this the “maxim of quantity.”

There are other Gricean maxims, but I won’t go into all of them here. I’ll just mention that the “maxim of quality” means that you’re not lying (I’ll return to the issue of lying, and its implications in stories, in a minute).
Another major concept in pragmatics is that of “speech acts.” These are instances of “doing by speaking,” as when you invite, insult, refuse, swear, promise, marry, etc.. The action is accomplished by the utterance of the words. I encourage you to think about speech acts, because they often have social consequences. What kind of unique speech acts might a world have? In what contexts might they occur? What are the special conditions required for the act to be performed successfully (you can’t marry two people to one another unless you possess special qualifications, for example)?

In my story, “Let the Word Take Me” (Analog Jul/Aug 2008), every utterance was an act – an act of holy transport or blasphemy, or of respectful restraint – and was restricted by special conditions of person, time and place. This is an extreme example of the type, but there is a lot of interesting stuff to be gained by playing with speech acts in alternate cultural scenarios.  In “Cold Words,” (Analog Oct 2009) one of the dialects required its speakers to mark what kind of speech act they were about to perform at the beginning of the utterance.

The other issue that Pragmatics covers is that of Politeness. This is extremely rich ground for story ideas, especially because Politeness often conflicts directly with the Gricean Maxims. In particular, it’s easy to misinterpret polite avoidance of particular topics as evasiveness or lying. We do a lot of effortful things in order to avoid threatening other people’s “face,” also called committing “face-threatening acts.” Brown and Levinson 1987 is the classic source of this discussion.

Interestingly, Brown and Levinson talk about two types of social desires: the desire to be autonomous (negative face), and the desire to be accepted (positive face). These contrast with one another, and while polite and diffident talk addresses another person’s desire to be autonomous, that desire may not be foremost in their minds. Familiar talk (including slang and insider vocabulary) addresses another person’s desire to be accepted. The choice between these two strategies is critical to a person’s success.

The other reason I love pragmatics as a source for stories is this: when people are learning foreign languages, the errors they make in pronunciation, word formation or sentence word order – even picking the wrong word meaning – are interpreted as errors in language. They are easily excused as the broken language of a learner. Errors in pragmatics, however, are not seen as language errors. They reflect instead on the personality and identity of the speaker. So a person who makes a politeness error is less likely to be seen as a learner and more likely to be seen as rude or undesirable.

I have to say that Pragmatics is my favorite source for story ideas. I hope this discussion has shown you why, and has given you some ideas for exploring pragmatics in your own story worlds.

Works referenced:

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. First published 1978 as part of Ester N. Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness.

Grice, H. P. 1975. “Logic and conversation”. In Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds.) Syntax and semantics, vol 3. New York: Academic Press.

Building Bigger Bugs

Giant insects make great movie monsters. Everyone deals with bugs on a daily basis – usually by squishing or exterminating them. We all know what they look like and what they can do, and I think we’re all a little bit terrified of what would happen if the insects of the world decided to take revenge on humanity. They outnumber us. They have built in pincers and fangs and wings and armor. They are proportionally stronger, faster, and tougher than humans. Really the only thing keeping them in check is their size. Take that limitation away, and they would overrun the world.

Insects haven’t always been the tiny nuisances we’re familiar with today, though. During the carboniferous period, the Meganeura dragonfly had a wingspan of 28 inches. The Arthropleura, a relative of the millipede, could grow over 8 feet long. It was the largest known land invertebrate of all time. A majority of insect diversity has escaped the fossil record because the exoskeleton is made of chitin, a material that simply doesn’t preserve well.  Every insect during the carboniferous period wasn’t a giant, but just imagine what else could have been wriggling around in a world with dragonflies the size of hawks and millipedes the size of boa constrictors! So why aren’t there any super bugs nowadays? Why did they get smaller over time?

To answer that you have to understand how insects breathe. Mammals absorb oxygen through the lungs, which is then transported throughout the body via the circulatory system. In insects, the circulatory and respiratory systems are separate. Oxygen is delivered directly to the cells via a complex series of tubes called the tracheal system. The tubes allow gas exchange to occur between the cells and the air. Oxygen diffuses in, and carbon dioxide diffuses out. It’s not really very efficient. The larger an insect is, the larger the tracheal system has to be to support respiration. Eventually you run out of room for other organs. How big an insect can grow is limited by its ability to breathe.

Ok, so maybe giant insects don’t make such great movie monsters when you know they could never actually get that big without suffocating. So how were they able to get so large during the Carboniferous period? Well, for one thing the Earth was covered in vast, swampy forests at the time. That’s actually where the time period gets its name, since the plant matter deposited then forms the majority of the planets’ modern coal deposits. All of this plant life absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produced oxygen. It is estimated that atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous period were as high as 35%, compared with 21% today. The most widely accepted theory is that with a higher oxygen concentration, the tracheal system was able to function more efficiently and insects were able to grow much larger.

Knowing that, the Mad Scientist in me wants nothing more than to get some atmospherically controlled tanks and breed me some giant spiders. It’s fool proof, don’t you see? If they ever escaped, they’d suffocate in normal atmosphere! No need to fear them turning against their creator or running amok in the nearest city. Spider silk, with its incredible tensile strength and flexibility, has been the Holy Grail of the textile industry for decades. Obviously the solution is just to build a bigger spider. Also, giant spiders are cool.

Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since the Carboniferous period. A little something called evolution has been going on since then, and modern insects are adapted to a modern atmosphere. Researchers have examined the tracheal systems in insects of various sizes, and they have found that as insects increase in size the tracheal system also increases at a disproportionately higher rate.  Modern beetles, for example, can not grow larger than approximately six inches no matter how high the oxygen concentration is because the tracheal system still takes up too much room. In the Carboniferous period, the trachea were likely much narrower in diameter. With the higher oxygen concentration, the smaller tubes could have delivered enough oxygen to support larger insects.

Given enough time in a more oxygen-rich environment, you can bet that at least some insects would become super-sized. Unfortunately for me and my plans for world domination, it would happen on an evolutionary scale and not because some spiders were accidentally zapped with gamma radiation. Ah well, back to the drawing board.

The Volcano Always Wins

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day the main character is James Stevens, a butler proud to serve his master, Lord Darlington – a rather dim aristocrat with political ambitions who becomes close to Mosley’s philo-Nazi Blackshirts. Stevens sacrifices all vestiges of self-expression, including the possibility of love, to become the perfect servant. His dignity and sense of office forbid him to question social and political rules and he remains loyal to the master-servant ideal even when its time is long past.

A week ago, Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo, known as Mbah (Grandfather) Maridjan, died on Mount Merapi in the Yogyakarta region of Java (founded as a sultanate in 1755). Maridjan, like his father before him, had been appointed guardian of Merapi by the sultan of Yogyakarta. He was in charge of ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mountain and he described his job as being “to stop the lava from flowing down”.

In 2006 and again in 2010, Maridjan refused to evacuate when Merapi erupted, calling himself and his fellow villagers the fortress whose function was to protect the sultan’s palace. Both times, others followed his example on the strength of his moral authority. He was found in a praying position, overwhelmed by pyroclastic flow from the mountain. Also killed were thirteen people who were in his home trying to persuade him to leave. The local populace is clamoring for a new guardian and the sultan plans to appoint one soon.

Most people consider Stevens a deluded pathetic figure, despite his dignity and loyalty. Ditto for Harry Randall Truman, who elected to stay on Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In contrast, many consider Maridjan admirable, a laudable example of spirituality and adherence to principle, even though his actions led to preventable deaths.

Inevitably, there are more threads to this braid. Truman and Maridjan were in their mid-eighties; both voiced the sentiment that their time had come, and that such a death was preferable to dwindling away in increasing helplessness. The people of Yogyakarta are trying to preserve the pre-Islamic heritage of Indonesia against mounting pressure from the increasingly hardline official policies and the imams who enforce them. Additionally, many Merapi evacuees were left with nothing but the little they could carry, in a nation that has a rich legacy and tremendous recources – but one that also has had more than its share of natural and man-made disasters and whose political, ecological and economic status is wobbly.

Maridjan is admired as the keeper and transmitter of endangered cultural knowledge. I have already discussed this issue from the angles of deracination and art. The time has come to also point out the problems and dangers of tradition.

There’s no doubt that unique cultural customs keep the world multicolored and kaleidoscopic. Even though I’m an atheist and consider all organized religions unmitigated disasters for women, I’m still moved by the Easter ceremonies of the orthodox church. However, I’m not interested in their Christian-specific narrative. What moves me are the layers embedded in them: the laments of Mariam for her son are nearly identical to those of Aphrodite for Adonis, and they’re echoed in folk and literary poetry in which mothers lament dead sons (the most famous is Epitáfios by Yiánnis Rítsos, set to unforgettable music by Mikis Theodorákis). When I hear them, I hear all the echoes as well, see all the images superimposed like ghostly layers on a palimpsest. For me, that’s what lends them resonance and richness.

But there are times when I must part most decisively with tradition. There are plenty of traditions whose disappearance has made (or will make – many are still extant) the world a better place: from spreading bloody wedding sheets to foot binding to female genital mutilation; from forbidding women to sing lest they distract their husbands to knocking out teeth of new wives to show they will rely on their husbands’ prowess henceforth; from slavery and serfdom to polygyny and concubinage; from having unprotected sex with virgins to “cure” sexually transmitted diseases to “laying hands” on a child sinking into a diabetic coma.

Then there are the power-mongering charlatans who prey on fear and despair, particularly when hard times fall upon people: sickness, natural catastrophe, occupation, war. It’s true that Western medicine follows the heroic model – and as such it’s outstanding at treating acute illnesses but tends to over-specialize, sometimes at the expense of a holistic approach that treats the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s equally true that modern technology has allowed ecological depradations at an enormous scale that threaten to become irreversible. Finally, it’s painfully true that deracination and colonialism often go hand in hand with modernization. Oppressed people revive or revert to traditions, often the last vestiges of suppressed cultural identity, as an act of resistance.

However, prayers don’t shrink a tumor nor frighten invaders away and the sun rises and sets whether beating hearts are offered to it or not. Too, if someone jumps from an airplane or a high ledge without a parachute, no amount of belief in divine favor will waft them away on a magic carpet or give them wings. Nor were traditional states pre-lapsarian paradises, as an objective reading of Tibetan, Aztec and Maori history will attest.

When we didn’t know the reasons behind phenomena, such customs were understandable if not necessarily palatable. Not any more, not with today’s knowledge and its global reach. The mindset that clings to the concept that incantations will stop a volcano is kin to the mindset the refuses to accept evolution as established fact. Standing in the path of a meteor is not the same as standing at Thermopylae, romantic notions of doomed last stands notwithstanding. The 300 Spartans who stood at Thermopylae had a concrete goal as well as a symbolic one: they stopped the Persian army long enough to give the rest of the Greek city-states time to strategize and organize. And the rarely-mentioned 1,000 Thespians who stood with them did so against their particular customs – for the sake of the new-fangled, larger concept of living in freedom.

In the end, the traditions that deserve to survive are those that are neutral or positive in terms of improving human life across the hierarchy of needs (and that includes taking care of our planet). Mbah Maridjan was the guardian of the mountain, which put him in the position of caretaker of his fellow villagers as well as of the putative Merapi spirit. If he saw his function as loyalty to an abstract principle of servitude rather than protecting his very real people, he was misguided at best – and his stance had far worse repercussions than those of Ishiguro’s Stevens, who only harmed himself and the woman who hoped to love him.

I once read an almost certainly apocryphal tale of a young woman who asked her rabbi, “Rebbe, is it ever acceptable to eat pork?” “Never!” said the rabbi. “Pig meat is always treff. Why do you ask?” “During last winter’s famine, I fed my young brothers sausages,” replied the girl. “It was either that or watch them starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” decided the rabbi.

That’s the kind of humane traditionalism I can live with. Tribalism was adaptive once, but has become a mixed blessing at best. Tradition encourages blind faith, satisfaction with rote answers and authority – and history demonstrates that humans don’t do well when they follow orders unquestioningly. As for the questing mindset ushered and encouraged by science, I will close with words I used elsewhere:

Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

Images: top, pyroclastic cloud from the Rinjani volcano, part of the Ring of Fire to which Merapi also belongs (photo by Oliver Spalt); middle, a Han Chinese woman’s “golden lotus”; bottom, wayang kulit — the Javanese shadow puppets, part of the Yogyakarta people’s heritage.