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Archive for June, 2011

Science-fiction and ‘Alternative’ Neurotypes

Because I’m autistic, I don’t always understand other people very well. That isn’t much of a problem for me; I get along just fine most of the time, especially on the internet.  I don’t present myself well in interviews, but that seems like a small matter compared to my ability to focus and natural affinity for mathematics and organization. Still, there are a lot of people who want to cure autism, along with a number of other somewhat harmless neurotypes like ADHD or circadian sleep disorders. To make everyone normal, in other words. But what is ‘normal’? And is normal always best?

In real life, ‘alternative’ neurotypes are usually given negative representation. Within fiction, however, diverse neurotypes are sometimes handled in other ways. Not always better, but differently.

Larry Niven’s Known Space series featured paranoid schizophrenic police called “schizes.” The reasoning behind them was that their paranoia meant they were prepared for anything.  Seeing as Niven wrote most of those books nearly half a century ago, he may be excused for not realizing that paranoia and schizophrenia aren’t necessarily the same disorder and that the main characteristic of real-life schizes is delusions.  Realistic members of ARM might constantly suspect each other of collaborating with criminals/conspiracies/aliens/demons (but who’s to say they’re wrong?), which would probably distract them from their jobs.

John Nash, whose real life was very loosely adapted into the film A Beautiful Mind, is a brilliant mathematician, even if he does occasionally hear voices.  He claims his medications prevent him from thinking – could his creativity be related to his mental state? Perhaps a future or fantastic society might train schizophrenics to be incredible scientists or artists.

ADHD is often associated with the “hunter in an agricultural society” hypothesis. Some people believe that the disorder is a throwback to when humans were hunter-gatherers rather than the relatively secure and idle people we are now.  While people with ADHD might be ill-suited as soldiers given the military’s emphasis on group cohesion as opposed to individual initiative, there are countless other careers they could be better suited for.

To paraphrase Calvin and Hobbes, people with circadian sleep disorders basically “have their internal clocks set on Tokyo time,” which means that they can operate at very odd hours, useful for say, nightshifts. Perhaps even as the dominant neurotype aboard a starship bound for an exoplanet with human-inhospitable daylight.

People with anti-social personality disorder, formerly known as “psychopaths” or “sociopaths” (depending on whether one could blame nature or nurture for their outcomes) are fairly common compared to many other so-called ‘abnormal’ neurotypes, but are hard to diagnose as they are distinguished from everyone else in only one major way.  They feel no compassion.  They can often learn how to “fake” empathy, unlike autistics who have a sense of compassion but struggle showing empathy, so they can blend in quite easily.  You would think that such people would be great as soldiers, but apparently the military doesn’t want people who are already remorseless killers. Instead, it seems that most clinically antisocial people have found their niche in law or politics.

These are all just tendencies and ‘types,’ of course. Humanity has always been full of exceptions.

Further speculations including different neurotypes in science-fiction:

  • A future society legally limits job options by neurotype, forcing many into careers they dislike or are simply ill- suited for.
  • A caste system based on neurotype develops.
  • People with serious ADHD are drafted into a special reconnaissance military unit.
  • Autistics are used as navigators on starships.
  • People with antisocial personality disorder are given a choice between exile to a remote island or recruitment into a specialized “psychological warfare” force.

Playing ‘Red-Light, Green-Light’ in Space

If you dislike insects, then long term space travel is probably not for you. Contrary to the space operas you may have read or watched, wise humans will always surround themselves with creepy critters who love to do our dirty work. For that matter, can we even survive happily or well without our companion animals? Can we remain humans as we know ourselves in the absence of other Earthling species? I suspect not.

Since the start of 2011′s Science in My Fiction Contest, I’ve been tweeting and blogging links to science news items that may prove useful to potential contestants. First, I touched on some interesting technological ideas for use in science-inspired fiction. Then I reminded writers that ecology-based worldbuilding doesn’t end when humans leave Earth behind. This week, I recommend maggots, parrots and molecular ‘traffic lights’ as likely candidates for your far future fiction:

In space stories, there are a couple everyday events that are usually ignored or glossed over as much as possible. Death and poop. These are naturally messy processes and products, and we will need systems in place to turn our losses into something beneficial. We could do as we do now and send low-status humans to clean up and process the ‘waste,’ or we could invent robots to do the work, but I think we can do better than that. Why not save ourselves a lot of inconvenience and bring nature’s cleaning crew with us on our long space journeys? Yes, I’m suggesting we recycle the dead and the digested with the help of fly larvae. Think of it as our descendants’ way of ‘returning to the earth’ without having to make a U-turn in space.

Even after we’re well-settled in space, we may never discover alien life that we can recognize or communicate with. That doesn’t mean humans will ever be alone in the universe. We may dominate the Earth, but we’re hardly the only clever beasts around. We’re not even the only tool-users! In the future, spacefarers may need to choose their shipboard plant and animal communities with even greater care than their human crew, and with that in mind, I would like to recommend brainy birds. It might be tricky to engineer space environments favorable to delicate species, but it might be worth it for the sake of biodiversity. And you never know when a speech-mimicking, tool-using, air-travelling seed disperser might come in handy on a starship.

In the far future, there will literally be sickness like we’ve never known. Along with many of the things we’re familiar with on Earth. There really should be no doubt that various methods of genetic engineering will come in to play – if not before liftoff, then certainly while we’re between-worlds – but not every genetic problem humans (or the species we bring to space with us) have now or develop later will require us to replace ‘bad’ genes with ‘good’ genes. Sometimes the problem isn’t the DNA itself, but the little under-appreciated messengers employed by the genes. Per DNA instructions, mRNA tell cells what proteins to make in order to function, but sometimes the little messengers stop short and deliver only part of the blueprint. The results can be deadly, so it’s a good thing for our fiction (and our futures) that we’re working out how to bring more subtlety to our interactions with genomes.

Now, go! Write! Win! And if you come across a scientific development you’re interested in sharing, leave a comment or ping me on Twitter @sandykidd.

The Fountain of Snake Oil

Want eternal youth? There’s a fountain for that. It is said that anyone who drinks from  The Fountain of Youth will have their youth restored.

The legend became particularly prominent in the 16th century, when it became attached to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, first Governor of Puerto Rico. According to an apocryphal story that features a combination of New World and Eurasian elements, Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida in 1513. Since then, the fountain has been frequently associated with Florida.

Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years, appearing in writings by Herodotus, the Alexander romance, and the stories of Prester John. Stories of a similar waters were also evidently prominent among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean during the Age of Exploration, who spoke of the restorative powers of the water in the mythical land of Bimini. (Fountain of Youth)

Want eternal life? There’s a potion for that.  Have a swig of the elixir of life and legend has it that the drinker will be granted immortality.

Many practitioners of alchemy pursued it. The elixir of life was also said to be able to create life. It is related to the myths of Enoch, Thoth, and Hermes Trismegistus, all of whom in various tales are said to have drunk “the white drops” (liquid gold) and thus achieved immortality. It is also associated with the Qur’an’s Al Khidr (‘The Green Man’), and is mentioned in one of the Nag Hammadi texts. (Elixir of Life, follow the link to read more about its treatment in various cultures)

Read the rest of this entry »

Spiders In Space: Our Constant Companions

Last week, I suggested a few likely inspirations for Science in My Fiction Contest entries:

  • Far-future fabrics that block radiation, clean the air and water, and deflect meteors.
  • Replacing personal items on spaceships with virtual possessions.
  • And the inevitability of man-made mischief during long journeys through space.

Here are a few more fun scientific sparks for all you Science in My Fiction contestants:

I don’t know about everyone else, but I like to get out of the city once in a while. The same will certainly be true about at least some of our space-faring descendants, and we will need systems in place to accommodate that impulse. Specifically, ecosystems. In fact, there is nothing to indicate that humans can survive in the absence of earthly ecosystems. Sure, we may travel in tin cans to the moon, asteroids, and maybe even Mars, but it’s bad for our physical and mental health. Extrapolate that over the course of generations, and the absence of natural cycles bodes ill for our chances of surviving past the edges of our original solar system, let alone reaching new stars.

Because the boundaries between different ecosystems are blurry and interdependent, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to just select one living system to pack up and take with us. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill in the natural gaps technologically by that time, and while we’re at it, we should take care to remember that all terrestrial environments possess a soundtrack. Different species move through a given territories at different times of day and year; they have mating calls and warning cries, and those sounds have an effect on their environments. The absence of a natural soundtrack has an adverse impact on an ecosystem, including its humans, so we’d better not omit it from our packing list when the time comes to prepare for lift-off.

In spite of how often writers portray spaceships and space stations as austere, hyper-sanitary environments, they’re not. Real astronauts must take their cleaning duties very seriously, or else everyone might get sick and their instruments could fail. Part of the problem is the absence of the sort of biological checks and balances that exist on earth. It’s a bit harder for microbes and other species to run rampant on Earth because everything on the planet undergoes population control, mainly in the form of predation (with the notable exception of humans, and we’ve spread so far we’re trying to swarm new planets). Which means that as part of the ecosystems we’ll need in order to survive long space missions, we will need to bring some predators with us. Spiders are likely candidates because they have already adapted to live everywhere humans do – and many places we don’t – and depending on the species of arachnid aboard, they can prey upon pests ranging in size from gnats to sparrows.

There will be more suggestions like these as we approach the contest deadline. In the mean time, what are some of your ideas for good-but-overlooked ideas for humans making their way in the far future?

The Far Future is Before Our Very Eyes

The second annual Science in My Fiction Contest is on and bedeviling writers! This year, in addition to asking writers to base their short story submissions on recent scientific developments, all contest entries must also be stories set off-Earth.

At a stretch, nearly any scientific advance made on Earth could be applied to the far-future, and authors of speculative fiction should ideally always practice that kind of literary yoga. But while some technological leaps are more obviously applicable than others, many things are taken for granted on Earth to the extent that we need to be reminded that they require re-thinking for all other settings. 

Because of the contest’s secondary requirement, I’ve been tweeting daily links to recent space travel and far future-relevant scientific developments. Not everyone follows me on Twitter, however, so I’ve decided to bring a few examples of SiMF Contest-ready science to the blog for helpful discussion and speculation. 

Wherever else in the galaxy humans are ever able to settle, we will first need to travel there. Everything we take with us may become lighter than feathers once outside Earth’s gravity, but before then, it must be launched. Every ounce of weight correlates to the amount of fuel required for lift-off. Once weightless, all cargo still has volume and mass, so we must also account for how much room is required to store it when it’s not in use, without cramming in the crew like so much ballast. These issues are tricky for short missions and incredibly problematic for long missions, but some far future dilemmas may have answers rooted in ancient arts. I give you Textiles in Space

Essential items like food, water, tools, and people are not the only things we send to space. On short journeys, of course we include materials for science experiments, and satellites to be put in orbit, but we also allow astronauts a few small personal items. For example, several flutes recently circled the Earth. On short missions, these little things are of arguable worth in space, but on long missions they could become hugely important – psychologically, if in no other way. But again, every item aboard ship takes up valuable ‘real estate,’ and so the size of allowable personal items must be carefully reconsidered for long-term space travel. Fortunately, we humans are capable of placing remarkably high significance on our virtual possessions. Talk about space-savers. 

Astronauts are scheduled to within an inch of their sanity. Every moment is carefully planned to ensure that the science gets done, all maintenance is performed, and everyone sleeps and exercises enough to protect their health. Even their so-called ‘free time’ is scheduled in advance. But people are people, no matter how far off-Earth we may travel. Even if we take great pains to send no trouble-makers into space, it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts some shenanigans. Why? Well, rules are all well and good, but rule-breaking is powerful stuff. Eventually, every long space mission will have to deal with man-made mischief. Perhaps if we designate time for it on ships’ calendars we can mitigate the damage… 

Those are just three examples of obvious or easily ignored science that could be useful for writers speculating on the future. I’ll bring up more like these as the contest progresses, but in the mean time, what are your off-Earth science suggestions for SiMF contestants?

Worldbuilding wonders

So far I’ve written about worldbuilding science for laying out entire worlds, and some unusual types of habitats. Most fiction doesn’t take place on a whole planet, or somewhere truly odd, it happens in a smaller region of an ordinary world. Even for a nearly-normal place, there are biological principles that the SFF author could use to make a locale distinctive and still plausible.

Island biogeography is one of my favorite, combining as it does migration and evolution and frequently-bizarre plants and animals.

Take an isolated habitat like an island. It might start with plants and animals on it, but once the island becomes separated from the original home ranges of those species they can’t mix with the larger population.

New species can come in through immigration, but the more isolated the island is the fewer kinds of species can get there. Isolation is relative: terrestrial mammals are a lot easier to stop than birds or marine mammals.

Original species or newly-introduced species can also go extinct on the island even if they are thriving elsewhere. Since new individuals can’t easily get there, the island populations are on their own. A small population can go extinct just by chance. Habitat change over time can also force species “off the island.”

The “island” doesn’t have to be land in the middle of an ocean, either. A lake in the middle of a continent might be an isolated habitat if you’re interested in fish. A mountaintop can be an “island” if the species can’t climb down one mountain and back up the next. Isolation is relative.

The size of the island is important too. A larger island offers more habitats so it can support a larger number of different species. A larger island might be able to support larger populations of each species, making it less likely that an individual species would go extinct.

Now comes the fun part: closed habitat (more or less), limited types and/or numbers of species, limited or abundant resources. Let the natural selection begin!

New Zealand makes a great example of what can happen on isolated islands. New Zealand separated from Gondwanaland between 80 and 100 million years ago. It started out with plenty of plants and reptiles, but if any very early mammals were present they quickly died off. (The mammals didn’t start to become dominant until 65 million years ago.)

New Zealand still has the descendant species of some of reptiles that were already there, like the tuatara – the only surviving species in its entire family. All its cousins died off about 65 million years ago.

Tuatara lizard
(via Wikipedia)

Birds could fly in, though it was a long trip. Without pesky mammals to eat eggs and compete for food, many of the bird species didn’t even need to fly once they settled in. Flying is an expensive skill, so it was entirely lost in some species. Because all of these birds evolved in isolation, they are found only on New Zealand. Many have gone extinct since European colonization: at least 43 species, or a third of the total number of birds.

Kiwi bird
(via Wikipedia)

The kiwi is a national symbol, but there were many more distinctive birds. The harpagornis, the largest eagle known to have ever existed, lived on the flightless birds like the moa, and died out not long after Maori settlement when the moa were hunted out.

Birds evolved to fill the roles that mammals would occupy in most other places. The largest known eagle (now extinct) lived on New Zealand.

Giant eagle
(via Wikipedia)

Since New Zealand started out without mammals, only the species that could travel long distances through or over the ocean got there. There are plenty of aquatic mammals, like whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. These species are not isolated from their parent populations.

Short-tailed bat
(via Wikipedia)

The only terrestrial mammals present on the island before humans arrived were three species of bats. The birds don’t fly, but the mammals do. Like the birds, the short-tailed bats adapted to the lack of ground mammals and evolved to crawl around on the ground as well as fly. They could tuck their wings away and scamper around like mice.

Once people started coming to New Zealand, another pathway for intentional and unintentional plant and animal introductions opened up. The Maori brought some species from 1250 or so, most notably the Polynesian rat and the domesticated dog.

After Europeans discovered the islands in 1769, they brought all sorts of animals: pigs for food, mice and rats accidentally, weasels and ferrets to catch the rats, possums for fur. These adaptable mammals have driven many of the native New Zealand species to extinction, and have threatened most of the rest. Conservation efforts are trying to reduce or eliminate these invaders. One such project led to the removal of 30 tons of dead possums from one of the smaller islands.

Back from science to fiction: I see all sorts of possibilities here. Some part of your created world could be isolated from the rest, and thus distinctive. One human colony or space ship could be isolated from the rest, allowing the humans and their attendant species to evolve in ways unlike the main human population. Or the entire human population could fragment into smaller isolated populations.

And what about accidental introductions, either by human settlers or alien visitors? What if we accidentally introduce rats to a space station? Or aliens introduce their scavenger species to London? What species go along with colonists, intentionally or accidentally, and what effects do those have on the native populations?

My brain is fizzing with ideas for alien ecosystems. I hope yours is too.

2nd Science in My Fiction contest open for submissions!

The 2nd @SciInMyFi contest, Science in My Fiction: Off-World, is now OPEN for submissions!

Entries will be accepted until August 30. Prize details and entry guidelines are here.

Thanks again to our amazing panel of judges! Now let’s see some incredible stories! For SCIENCE!