Archive for June, 2012

Godless Heroes

Once upon a time, in a far away desert, a priest came to visit a girl working at her poor family’s farm. He asked her, “Do you like going to the Temple?”

“Oh, yes. I look forward to it every week.” She smiled as she fed an impatient nanny goat and her kids. “The Temple is beautiful and clean and quiet.”

The priest was pleased by her answer. “Do you study the scriptures?”

“Oh, yes. My whole life.” Still smiling, she drew water from the well and tipped it out for the thirsty peppers. “The scriptures give me a lot to think about.”

He was impressed. “Do you obey God’s Laws?”

The girl paused with an egg halfway to her basket. She gave the priest her full attention for the first time. “Am I in trouble?”

The priest gave a little placating gesture and a smile. “No, no. I’ve spoken with your family. They tell me you’re old enough and ready to take your first Temple vows.”

Basket and egg were forgotten. “What kind of vows? To become a priest and look after people?”

“Of course not. Priests are all men. Your Temple vows are simply promises to God that you will obey His Laws and his priests.” He noticed her disgust. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you faithful?”

After a gaping pause, she laughed as though tickled. “Of course not. Worshipers are all mad!”

Funny thing about atheists: We enjoy ritual and song and participating in acts of community as much as anyone does. Many atheists even have a ‘spiritual’ side – an affinity for the unknown and the uncertain that leads many of us to pursue science as a path to personal enlightenment as well as a career. We seem drawn to fantasy in fiction for similar reasons.

There’s a fair amount of sci-fi in which humans discover that their deities are actually aliens, or humans insert themselves into alien pantheons in order to control their behavior. There’s certainly an abundance of sci-fi that borrows heavily from mythology for its major plot points. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done in sci-fi (and speculative fiction as a whole) with regard to race and issues of gender and sexuality, at least pantheons and priests don’t seem to dominate every other space opera on offer.

Fantasy is a different beast. There are exceptions, but it seems that the default is to tie magic with religion in fantasy worldbuilding. Not that mages are all priests in disguise, although that’s sometimes the case, but rather in worlds where magic is a fact of life, often deities are also real. Consequences of this include an unfortunate dependence upon deus ex machina to rescue untenable plots, and a disappointing shortage of compelling secular lead characters in fantasy.

At the very least, there’s a vast and virtually pristine wilderness left to explore in fantasy. There are thousands of unwritten books about brainy little girls who can think and act as well as they can heal and hurl levinbolts.

Science asks questions

Science in My Fiction is growing: new contributors will be coming on-board over the next few weeks to write about geology, paleontology, culture, technology.

But what have we been missing? Are there general areas you’d like to see us include, or specific topics that you think would be awesome to include?

Evolution: very important. Also awesome.

We’ll always be all about the science and the fiction, but that’s an enormous area. I’d love to hear from you our readers on what you think is most interesting and valuable.

Old McDonald Had a Planet

Old McDonald had a planet*,
And on this planet he had a…

Maybe it all starts with a planet: big, small, hot, cold, wet, dry. But a planet needs things living on it, right?

Or maybe it starts with the creatures: plants, animals, something else entirely, and they need a place to live.

Possibly you’re reading some interesting science fiction aliens, and want to know if they make sense.

It’s all about the biology. All three scenarios can be looked at for biological plausibility. We don’t yet# have any non-terrestrial biologies to examine, so I’m extrapolating a bit, but there’s a lot of physical and chemical properties involved that will have to be the same for any physical biological life forms##.

If I’m thinking about whether a fictional ecology can work, I look at three questions.

1. Where does the stuff come from? Can the living creatures get enough basic building blocks to maintain their bodies? Terrestrial life absolutely requires six elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (abbreviated CHNOPS), and while it’s possible that one or more of those might be swapped for something else, those six are likely to be important to any other biologies we encounter. They are simply the most effective and appropriate elements for their roles in metabolism and genetics.

If one or more is scarce, the organisms might not be able to get very large or grow very fast, and competition for resources could be extreme. (Biology driving plot, perhaps, something I love to see in my science fiction.)

2. Where does the energy come from? The sun? Chemistry? Heat? How is it processed? Our planet runs mostly on photosynthesis, converting solar energy into usable biochemical forms. Gas giants like Jupiter radiate more heat than they receive from the Sun. This could fuel an ecology that doesn’t rely on solar energy.

Does the amount of energy available match the activity and speed of the species? Photosynthetic organisms are either small, immobile, or both, because that’s what the energy available to them supports. Terrestrial animals almost all rely on plants to concentrate energy into a more efficient form so that they can move quickly. Large fast terrestrial animals all need to breathe oxygen. Anaerobic organisms are very small and slow, and that’s likely to be universally true.

3. Do the evolutionary antecedents make sense? Could this system have developed gradually? (And if not, how was it created? Here’s another good place for story to develop.) Are there obvious relatives, and not organisms that seem entirely unlike everything else on the planet? The movie Avatar was bad at this: every animal had six legs. except the Na’vi. So how’d they lose their other pair of limbs? And why?

I don’t expect every story to meet all three points^. Sometimes that level of detail is irrelevant; sometimes it actively impedes telling the story the author intends. But a little bit of thought about how the whole ecosystem works will help avoid any glaring errors in biology, and choosing to depart from known science is a whole lot different in effect than doing through ignorance.

What do you think? Any fictional biologies that particularly annoy you, or that you think are wonderful?

* EIEIO! I had all sorts of stupid titles for this post, including: “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not an ecologist,” and “It’s aliiiiiveee!” Sorry**.

** Not really.

# Yet. I hope I get to see it.

## Leaving out energy-only life, and mechanical life, and some of the wilder Star Trek creatures.

^ I love Sheri Tepper’s Grass, even though it fails at least one of these.

Low-tech Antiseptics, part 2

The importance of keeping wounds clean is something we take for granted now, and we have all the benefits of science and industrial production to provide us with cheap and effective antiseptics. These posts examine some reasonable options for the doctors and healers of a realistic fantasy world to have at hand.

Part 1 discussed salt and sodium bicarbonate.


Your brave character uncorks that vodka bottle with his teeth and pours it over his wound. Problem solved? Check the label first.

Surgical-grade ethanol runs from 60-90% alcohol by volume. In drinking terms, that’s 120-180 proof. Most of the stuff in the liquor cabinet tops out at 100 proof — though you can get brandies that are 120 proof and the infamous Everclear is available in 151 and 190 proof.

Simple distillation dates from the first century AD, in Europe, and methods gradually improved during the Renaissance and really took off in the 19th century. So the good news is that it’s not unreasonable for a fantasy world to know how to distill alcohol from fermented mash.

The bad news is that simple distillation (from the most primitive forms up to more complex but still low-tech moonshine stills) will not get you pure enough alcohol to be really effective as an antiseptic. For that, you need a reflux column. (For further information, Google reflex column stills and their use by backyard fuel-alcohol producers.)

Whether this is feasible in your fantasy world (the metallurgy skills, the safety issues) is for you to determine. But once you have that worked out and your healers have access to high-proof alcohol, they can be sterilizing wounds and mixing cocktails at the same time, right? Hopefully the producers didn’t opt for fermenting cheaper stuff like sawdust instead of grain (wood alcohol = methanol = blindness) and hopefully they didn’t build their still out of soft, easy-to-work lead

What about rubbing alcohol? That would be isopropyl alcohol, and it’s a good antiseptic but I haven’t been able to find a way to produce it without industrial chemistry. If you find something, I’d be curious to know.


All of the above — salt, natron, and alcohol — are by no means as effective as modern antibiotics or even the stronger antiseptics like iodine or phenol-based compounds. How you use them in a story is your call, but they are not magic bullets that will realistically bring a character back from death’s door.

If you’re looking for a semi-plausible magic bullet, though: terpenes.

Terpenes are a major component of resin and turpentine (distilled resin) — both important compounds with long, pre-industrial histories. Turpentine itself was used medicinally (and still is, actually) for jobs which included wound-cleansing. (Also de-worming, though I can’t imagine drinking the stuff.) Another natural, low-tech antiseptic containing terpenes is tea tree oil.

Terpenes are compounds synthesized by trees, mostly (some bugs too), particularly conifers (cedar, firs, junipers, etc.). If one wanted a “magic bullet” healing compound in one’s fantasy world, an exotic local tree producing a terpene-packed resin could fit the bill. It can be as scarce and hard to find as the story requires, or common and widely used. Maybe it requires processing — distilling, fermenting, mixing with something else.


So: four ways to help your characters survive their adventures without invoking magic, deities, or doing something as nonsensical as boiling wine. (I wrote a little rant that started all this. It seems to have attracted some eyeballs.)