Archive for March, 2011

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

“Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?”
– Lao Ma in Xena (The Debt I)

Being a research scientist as well as a writer, reader and reviewer of popular science and speculative fiction, I’ve frequently bumped up against the fraught question of what constitutes “hard” SF. It appears regularly on online discussions, often coupled with lamentations over the “softening” of the genre that conflate the upper and lower heads.

In an earlier round, I discussed why I deem it vital that speculative fiction writers are at least familiar with the questing scientific mindset and with basic scientific principles (you cannot have effortless, instant shapeshifting… you cannot have cracks in black hole event horizons… you cannot transmute elements by drawing pentagrams on your basement floor…), if not with a modicum of knowledge in the domains they explore.

So before I opine further, I’ll give you the punchline first: hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. Remember this phrase, grasshoppahs, because it may surface in a textbook at some point.

For those who will undoubtedly hasten to assure me that they never pollute their brain watching Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Likewise, scienciness aspires to the mantle of “real” science but in fact is often not even grounded extrapolation. As Colbert further elaborated, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” And therein lies the tale of the two broad categories of what gets called “hard” SF.

Traditionally, “hard” SF is taken to mean that the story tries to violate known scientific facts as little as possible, once the central premise (usually counter to scientific facts) has been chosen. This is how authors get away with FTL travel and werewolves. The definition sounds obvious but it has two corollaries that many SF authors forget to the serious detriment of their work.

The first is that the worldbuilding must be internally consistent within each secondary universe. If you envision a planet circling a double sun system, you must work out its orbit and how the orbit affects the planet’s geology and hence its ecosystems. If you show a life form with five sexes, you must present a coherent picture of their biological and social interactions. Too, randomness and arbitrary outcomes (often the case with sloppily constructed worlds and lazy plot-resolution devices) are not only boring, but also anxiety-inducing: human brains seek patterns automatically and lack of persuasive explanations makes them go literally into loops.

The second is that verisimilitude needs to be roughly even across the board. I’ve read too many SF stories that trumpet themselves as “hard” because they get the details of planetary orbits right while their geology or biology would make a child laugh – or an adult weep. True, we tend to notice errors in the domains we know: writing workshop instructors routinely intone that authors must mind their p’s and q’s with readers familiar with boats, horses and guns. Thus we get long expositions about stirrups and spinnakers while rudimentary evolution gets mangled faster than bacteria can mutate. Of course, renaissance knowledge is de facto impossible in today’s world. However, it’s equally true that never has surface-deep research been as easy to accomplish (or fake) as now.

As I said elsewhere, the physicists and computer scientists who write SF need to absorb the fact that their disciplines don’t confer automatic knowledge and authority in the rest of the sciences, to say nothing of innate understanding and/or writing technique. Unless they take this to heart, their stories will read as variants of “Once the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?” (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). This mindset leads to cognitive dissonance contortions: Larry Niven’s work is routinely called “hard” SF, even though the science in it – including the vaunted physics – is gobbledygook, whereas Joan Slonczewski’s work is deemed “soft” SF, even though it’s solidly based on recognized tenets of molecular and cellular biology. And in the real world, this mindset has essentially doomed crewed planetary missions (of which a bit more anon).

Which brings us to the second definition of “hard” SF: style. Many “hard” SF wannabe-practitioners, knowing they don’t have the science chops or unwilling to work at it, use jargon and faux-manliness instead. It’s really the technique of a stage magician: by flinging mind-numbing terms and boulder-sized infodumps, they hope to distract their readers from the fact that they didn’t much bother with worldbuilding, characters – sometimes, not even plots.

Associated with this, the uglier the style, the “harder” the story claims to be: paying attention to language is for sissies. So is witty dialogue and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. If someone points such problems out, a common response is “It’s a novel of ideas!” The originality of these ideas is often moot: for example, AIs and robots agonizing over their potential humanity stopped being novel after, oh, Metropolis. Even if a concept is blinding in its brilliance, it still requires subtlety and dexterity to write such a story without it devolving into a manual or a tract. Among other things, technology tends to be integral in a society even if it’s disruptive, and therefore it’s almost invariably submerged. When was the last time someone explained at length in a fiction piece (a readable one) how a phone works? Most of us have a hazy idea at best how our tools work, even if our lives depend on such knowledge.

To be fair, most writers start with the best of intentions as well as some talent. But as soon as they or their editors contract sequelitis, they often start to rely on shorthand as much as if they were writing fanfiction (which many do in its sanctioned form, as tie-ins or posthumous publication of rough notes as “polished products”). Once they become known names, some authors rest on their laurels, forgetting that this is the wrong part of the anatomy for placing wreaths.

Of course, much of this boils down to personal taste, mood of the moment and small- and large-scale context. However, some of it is the “girl cooties” issue: in parallel with other domains, as more and more women have entered speculative fiction, what remains “truly masculine” — and hence suitable for the drum and chest beatings of Tin… er, Iron Johns — has narrowed. Women write rousing space operas: Cherryh and Friedman are only the most prominent names in a veritable flood. Women write hard nuts-and-bolts SF, starting with Sheldon, aka Tiptree, and continuing with too many names to list. Women write cyberpunk, including noir near-future dystopias (Scott, anyone?). What’s a boy to do?

Some boys decide to grow up and become snacho men or, at least, competent writers whose works are enjoyable if not always challenging. Others retreat to their treehouse, where they play with inflatable toys and tell each other how them uppity girls and their attendant metrosexual zombies bring down standards: they don’t appreciate fart jokes and after about a week they get bored looking at screwdrivers of various sizes. Plus they talk constantly and use such nasty words as celadon and susurrus! And what about the sensawunda?

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow. I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

SF isn’t imploding because it lost the fake/d sensawunda that stood in for real imaginative dreaming, just as NASA isn’t imploding because its engineers are not competent (well, there was that metric conversion mixup…). NASA, like the boys in the SF treehouse, is imploding because it forgot — or never learned — to tell stories. Its mandarins deemed that mesmerizing stories were not manly. Yet it’s the stories that form and guide principles, ask questions that unite and catalyze, make people willing to spend their lives on knowledge quests. If the stories are compelling, their readers will remember them after they finish them. And that long dreaming will lead them to create the nuts and bolts that will launch starships.

Images: 1st, Stormtrooper Walking from Grimm’s Pictures; 2nd, the justly famous Sidney Harris classic from What’s So Funny About Science?; 3rd, Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Rolling Stone; 4th, The Gate, by Peter Cassidy.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds:

Why Science Needs SF
Why SF Needs Science
Why SF Needs Empathy
Why SF Needs Literacy
Why SF Needs Others

I guess this one might be called Why SF Needs Fiction!

Co-Dependency, the Natural Way

Species don’t exist in a vacuum. That is, if you go nearly anywhere on this planet, you’re not going to find just one form of life. You’re going to find several, all filling different niches and frequently interacting with each other. (I say nearly because I don’t know whether the extremophile bacteria in the Earth’s crust are one species or several. I’m betting there are a range of them in any given location, given how resilient and diverse life is.)

The most familiar relationship between species is probably that of predator and prey. There’s the lion and gazelle, the wolf and the caribou, the anteater and the ant. We’re familiar with parasitism too—one species feeding off another without killing them first. It’s as easy to cast Earth parasites as villains as it is to cast predators. Parasites are often widely known, affect humans, have historical impact, or get handy evil-sounding names. Examples of the first three categories are fleas, mosquitoes, intestinal worms, ringworm, lice, and insect-born diseases such as malaria. Examples of the last one include strangler figs, vampire bats, and the zombie ant fungi that have been in the news lately.

Stargate’s Goa’uld, Spider-man’s Venom, and the xenomorph from Alien are examples of fictional parasitic antagonists. There’s a list of other made-up parasites on Wikipedia, though it’s probably incomplete. That said, I think we could go further. I’m not sure I’ve seen a bio-apocalypse or bio-thriller with protozoa or insects as a vector, though I’ve seen them with bacteria and viruses. And we shouldn’t forget the parasites that don’t affect humans. Some insects, such as wasps, lay eggs in other animals. A number of vines choke the life out of their supporting plants. Who knows what other kinds of parasites might evolve on other planets? Or if an alien parasite could use the strangling or egg-seeding techniques on humans?

Discussion of parasites leads us into other types of symbiotic relationships. (Yes, parasitism is a form of symbiosis.) There’s mutualism, where both species benefit. There’s commensalism, where one species benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed. There’s also amensalism, where one species inhibits or kills off another but isn’t affected itself. Penicillium mold does this with some bacteria, for instance, and some plants produce substances that kill off competing plant life.

Mutualism can involve trading resources (think of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in plants), trading a service for a resource (pollinators, remora and sharks, animals dispersing seeds), or trading services (clownfish and anemones, ants nesting in trees). Humans are in mutually beneficial relationships with the bacteria in their intestines, and with domesticated animals.

Examples of commensalism include the cattle egret, which feeds off the insects stirred up by grazing cattle; barnacles, which attach to animals and plants as well as rocks and ships; plants that use other plants for support, such as orchids or moss; and hermit crabs, which use shells as housing.

Of course, the plants, animals, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria that engage in symbiotic relationships continue to evolve. They become better parasites, or better killers of parasites, or better nitrogen producers, or better protectors of their symbiotes. They’ll change size or shape or color or biochemistry. A change in one often means a change in the other. Symbiotes may even suffer a disability if their counterpart is removed. Lichen wouldn’t even exist if you separated the fungi and algae that form it, and removing a symbiote from an ecosystem could cause a cascade of species deaths and ultimately destroy the ecosystem.

Some questions that may spark a story or two:

  • What happens if you introduce an alien (let’s say, truly alien) species that becomes a parasite or other symbiote to a native organism?
  • Could you bioengineer a lifeform to enter into a symbiotic relationship with a plant/animal that needed a boost? Could you turn parasitism into mutualism?
  • Could you alter a symbiote’s genes to give it freedom? Would there ever be a circumstance where you’d want to do that?
  • What if one intelligent species was oppressing its equally intelligent symbiote for, say, eating insects instead of plant matter or having a strange physiology?
  • Since symbiotes tend to co-evolve, pick a possible resource or service that a species could provide, the crazier the better, then create a species that would make use of it. Remember that it will likely also be providing a service or resource for the other species. (E.g., a mollusk that feeds off electricity produced by electric eels; a plant that grows on a herbivore’s head and acts as a sound amplifier; an insect that cultivates a particular plant so that its eggs can hitch a ride on the seeds)

Music and Brains

I came upon this topic thanks to a recommendation from one of my blog readers. She mentioned that after covering love and brains, music and brains might be a nice progression. She pointed me in the direction of  Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music,  listed below. This topic was exciting to me. I’ve been kicking around a story for a while that considers how music affects our brains as a major component of the plot. Writing this article was a good excuse to get back to that particular story.

When I was little, I claimed that music was my first religion. To this day, it remains an integral part of my being. I remember seeing Fantasia as a kid. It was the first time seeing a visual expression of the way I take in music. It’s only been in recent years that I learned I experienced it in ways that not everyone does. Synesthesia is only a small part of that. I am now married to a musician that is also a writer. It is interesting to me to see how the creative processes differ. Sure, there is quite a bit of overlap, but there are distinct departures as well. We’ve compared notes on both the creative process and how we experience music as well as reading. We both often listen to music while reading.

I guess for all of the reasons above, and plenty more, I decided to share with you the body of my research to this point. I hope that it will spark some discussion. It is my greater hope that thinking about any of these topics will kindle story ideas in your mind. Read the rest of this entry »

The End of the World: Planning Ahead

Nerds never get tired of discussing the End of the World. The question of what the rest of us would do if some significant portion of the population was ‘gone’ (abducted by aliens, turned into zombies, killed by a plague, wiped out in a war, etc.) is one of the most popular themes in science fiction. For good reason, since it allows us to explore interesting questions about our own nature. How would I respond to a crisis? Would I survive the zombie apocalypse? Pretty much every nerd I know has a Zombie Attack Plan and has assessed their home for the level of protection it would provide against the Horde.

The speculation is half the fun, really. No one knows how the world will end. There may be an invasion of robotic vikings from Omicron Persei VII next February. Things may continue on without a hitch until about four billion years from now when our sun expands enough to vaporize the planet. If anything does go down though, the nerds will be ready. We’ve practically been preparing for it our whole lives. In case of zombies, we all have our weapon of choice picked out and probably within easy reach.  At the first signs of global pandemic, we’ll all move to Madagascar. Whatever the scenario, we have a plan in mind. We just ask what Batman would do.

Imagining the worst and preparing for it mentally, even if it’s all in fun, is what really gives us the edge. I recommend picking your favorite disaster scenario and preparing for it as thoroughly as possible. You’d be surprised how much overlap there is between, say zombie and earthquake preparedness. Of course, survival in the long term in case some major disaster actually does cause society to collapse is a bit tougher to plan for. As a microbiologist, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that in a post-apocalyptic society I will have very few marketable skills. What about you? When society collapses, will you still be able to hold your own? Or will you end up a walking plot device waiting to be rescued by the main characters? How secure would you be in the event of a zombie attack?

Alien fossils?

The internet has been buzzing with news of apparent microfossils found in meteorites. The story was first publicized by Fox News, but rapidly spread across blogs and major media outlets alike.

These carbonaceous chondrites, meteorites that probably once formed part of comets, were split open and examined closely. Richard B. Hoover, in a study published in the Journal of Cosmology presented micrographs of squiggly structures that appeared very similar to terrestrial cyanobacteria (“Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites: Implications to Life on Comets, Europa, and Enceladus“, March 2011). The chemical profiles of these artifacts differed from those of the surrounding meteorite matrix. Evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system!

Not so fast. This is a tremendous claim: is it justified? My assessment of this research includes three components: the journal, the author, and the science itself. Is the journal credible, does the author possess the relevant skills and experience to evaluate such a claim, does the evidence support the conclusions and are alternate explanations adequately considered?

Read the rest of this entry »

Orbital Mechanics for Vampires

Welcome to your new life of power and fascination and immortality. There is just one minor inconvenience. Not the need to consume blood; you will soon find that to be a great pleasure. The need to schedule your life by the sun, or the lack of it, is the only flaw in the perfect vampiric experience. And even then, if you are clever and knowledgeable, you can minimize the effects of this celestial body on your existence.

Read the rest of this entry »

Plasma cannons, Particle guns and Gauss rifles

Plasma cannons, Particle guns and Gauss rifles.  More common Science Fiction weapons:

There are many weapons featured in science fiction other than the lasers that are beginning to get phased out as they become less “cool”.  This article looks at some of the other commonly used options.


Plasma is the fourth state of matter, similar to gas and both extremely hot and ionized.  The “plasma cannon/rifle” is a prevalent ranged energy weapon in sci-fi that throws either “bolts” or continuous streams of plasma that burn holes in enemies if not vaporize them entirely, unfortunately they have a tendency to overheat and explode.

Theoretically this could be done, we currently use plasma cutters to cut sheets of metal, but the jet extends less than a foot from the projector limiting its use as a weapon.  We can see that there are some problems to work out.

With current technology air resistance stops the stream and makes a short blowtorch like flame.  And even without air resistance (for example in vacuum) the plasma would dissipate into the surrounding environment within 50 centimeters of the aperture from thermal and/or electrical pressure expansion (blooming).  This could be prevented by extending the magnetic bottle all the way to the target (nigh impossible), firing the plasma fast enough that blooming doesn’t occur (actually a particle beam), or using high-energy lasers to ionize the air around the stream (would only work in atmosphere).

Particle Beams:

Particle beams are streams of subatomic particles accelerated to near-light speed, striking the target’s atoms like billiard balls with a lot more kinetic energy.  Aside from the problem of how large modern particle accelerators are…

…they would suffer from the same atmospheric resistance problems as plasma weapons and would most likely only be useable in space.

Electromagnetically Accelerated Projectiles:

Railguns and gauss/coilguns are similar to ordinary chemically propelled guns in that they launch a piece of metal at the target at high speeds.  The difference is that instead of an explosion the projectile is propelled by electromagnetic forces and could potentially reach much greater speeds.  These are becoming popular due to the fact that the military is actually testing them…

…and you can make your own from spare parts.

The only problems are that with current technology a handheld model takes a long time to build up a charge, what energy they do deliver is much less than a chemically propelled handgun and the navy’s experimental railguns intended for shipboard use tend to generate a plume of plasma from friction that wears out the barrel after only one or two shots.

And Still She Moves: A year of Science in My Fiction

Today marks one year since we launched Science in My Fiction!

Since then our amazing contributors have written over 100 blog posts, ranging in topics from sapient dolphins to piezoelectrics to quantum gravity to the color of alien pants.

In late April, less than 2 months after our launch, we were approached by the editors of the popular science site io9 with a request for the rights to reprint occasional SiMF posts on their site. Numerous SiMF posts have been reprinted on io9 since then.

In late July, Kay Holt’s tongue-in-cheek post I Know Why The Vampire Sparkles (Inspired after a grudging read of Twilight) was picked up on BoingBoing; it spread from there, being linked literally hundreds of times and translated on numerous international sites. To date the post has been read by over 125,000 people on the SiMF site alone.

Over the summer, SiMF hosted the first annual Science in My Fiction short story contest! The contest was a big success and we hope to host more contests soon!

And in October SiMF began publishing monthly science-inspired fiction with our first story, Stephanie King’s “Ending Alice“.

We have lots more in store for the future, including (if there’s enough interest) a print collection of Science in My Fiction posts, with proceeds going to science-based charities. Thanks to everyone who supported us during this remarkable first year, and please keep reading and writing!