Archive for September, 2012

Realism in combat: perceptual distortions

Writing combat sequences and traumatic events is always a challenge. There are plenty of questions and answers out there about the mechanics of sword fighting, bare-handed combat, or guns. Most of us can extrapolate our more ordinary experiences with adrenaline to that sort of situation, to get those flavorful extra details: cold sweat, pounding pulse, hands shaking. But it turns out there are even more options than those.

Perceptual distortions are common, in combat situations. The following can be used for dramatic effect or to set up conflicts because of differing accounts of what happened. According to the numbers reported, it’s not unusual to experience more than one of the following distortions — in fact, it would be more unusual to not experience any.

Listed from most common to least common, as reported by Artwohl & Christensen in 1997.

Above 50%:

  • Diminished sound: Not to be confused with being deafened by the noise of gunshots or whatever else is going on. This is sound being actively screened out by the brain. It may be a case of sounds being lowered in volume, it might be a complete blockage of all noise, or it might be selective editing of certain noises (such as gunshots.)
  • Tunnel vision: The brain can actively screen out visual information, too, so as to narrow one’s focus to the most important (threatening) thing on hand.
  • Automatic pilot: This is why soldiers and police officers drill certain sequences of actions into becoming reflexes — because when one’s conscious brain shuts down under the tidal wave of adrenaline, that’s what still works. If your character hasn’t trained his automatic pilot to fight…?
  • Heightened visual clarity: This is why some combat pilots can describe, 50 years later, the look on the face of the enemy pilot they shot down. Adrenaline can burn images onto the brain.
  • Slow motion time: In addition to being a cool movie effect, this can actually seem to happen. Some swear that they saw the bullets zipping by, and who’s to say they didn’t?
  • Memory loss: In addition to the sights and sounds that the brain might edit out, the entire memory can be simply lost. Or is it only misplaced and waiting to burble up in a nightmare…

Below 50%:

  • Dissociation: Some get the sensation of watching themselves from a distance, in these situations.
  • Intrusive, distracting thoughts: Perhaps it’s thoughts of loved ones, one’s god/goddess, or “did I leave the oven on?”
  • Memory distortions: Not lost memories, but incorrect ones. This is part of why eyewitnesses are not as reliable as we wish they were.
  • Accelerated time: Blink and you missed it. Or was your brain editing stuff out?
  • Intensified sounds: Terror can crank everything up to eleven. This can make the situation even more overwhelming, and maybe accounts for the character losing nerve and running.
  • Temporary paralysis: This was relatively rare, but terrifying. How quickly the subject can realize it isn’t real will improve his chances of survival.

A Question of Culture

I’ve been in quite a few museums in the last few weeks, and of all types: art, science, history, natural history.


Looking at the exhibits and watching the way that people respond to them got me thinking about science fiction, of course. How do people choose what to preserve and display, whether it be paintings, fossils, historic objects, or military technologies?



How do others react to those exhibits, and what does it say about them as individuals and as members of the exhibiting or a different culture?


On an alien planet, would the fossils follow similar stages? How does the evolutionary history of an entirely different world shape the way humans respond to it, and how is that response reflected in what we choose to present?


Not every science fiction novel needs an explicit museum, but I think it’s a good world-building exercise for the writer. Character-building too, potentially.


If you had an alien museum, in a world of your own creation or one you enjoy, what would be in it? Why? Would people come on their vacations? For school trips? Happily or not?

(Photos, from top to bottom: Smithsonian Institute; Sackler Gallery, Washington DC; Chicago Institute of Art; Korean War Memorial; Field Museum, Chicago; Natural History Museum, Washington DC.)

Bloodsucking freaks

Eight-legged bloodsucking freaks, no less.

Bad horror movie references aside, ticks are pretty creepy all by themselves. These arachnids get all their food from meals of mammalian blood, and are perfectly happy to nibble on humans.

That by itself is horrible enough, but they also carry all sorts of interesting diseases–Lyme disease being a common example–and those diseases seem to be becoming both more common and stranger.

More common? Sort of. More commonly-reported, anyway. Due to changes in habitat and climate, people are being bitten more often by ticks, so transmission rates are higher. Medical technology has improved, so doctors are able to figure out the cause of an illness is a tick-borne organism, rather than lumping it in with something else or not identifying it at all.

But stranger? Definitely! Being bitten by a Lone Star tick can induce an allergy to red meat in the victim. This is bizarre in many ways. It’s the first known allergy to a sugar rather than a protein, and the allergic reaction is delayed by three to six hours, rather than being immediate like most allergic reactions. And it is a true histamine reaction, one that may cause hives or even anaphylaxis.

It turns out the tick saliva contains a sugar also found in red (mammalian) meat, and people who have been bitten develop antibodies to that sugar that will also respond to their most recent meal. It takes some time for the sugar to move from the stomach into the bloodstream, thus the delay.

The strength of the reaction fades over time, as long as the person avoids being bitten by any more ticks.

What are the potential implications for humans dealing with climate change and greater exposure to tick-borne diseases? Or for humans on alien planets: being exposed to one thing could cause a reaction to something else. All sorts of unintended consequences are possible.

What’s Slick, Dry and Smart All Over? Science In My Fiction

As an editor, I read a lot of sci-fi that leans too heavily on worldbuilding tropes of the past. Every starship and space station I read about has the same old rigid hulls, single-use environments, and clunky, intrusive computing elements that seem designed to abandon users when their need is greatest. Science fiction is lately wanting in the ‘imaginative applications of materials science’ department.

Fortunately, there has recently been no shortage of interesting advances in that field. To make inspiration convenient for writers too busy to seek out new science and boldly go where no fiction has gone before, I have gathered together a few examples of research into novel materials that could rock your worldbuilding.

In space, everyone’s a janitor. Scum grows everywhere, all the time, catastrophically unmitigated by ‘normal’ gravity and the sort of biological processes that we take for granted on Earth. So writers had better equip all their characters with impressive arrays of scrub brushes, or start coating surfaces in biofilm-resistant technology.

Nothing’s perfect, especially not plumbing. In the far future, people will still struggle with sweating, dripping, seeping, oozing, bursting pipes of one kind or another. Scarcity is bad enough on Earth, especially when it comes to potable water, but resource management in space is even more urgently a matter of life and death. Depending on the location and the gas or liquid involved in a leak, people could find themselves facing a fire or flood or drought that could wipe out all life in their fragile tin-can biome. The future needs plumbers with advanced leak detection capabilities.

Just like the vacuum in your house, the vacuum of space is crowded with dust and the universe’s other castoffs. But in space, all the never-ending clouds of specks and chunks are traveling at incredible speeds. They’re hot, cold, radioactive, magnetized, and our pathetic little ships are on collision courses with every mote and rock between their origins and their destinations. Even if sensors and navigation are sophisticated enough to let us detect and dodge the worst encounters, our hulls will eventually erode and fail. Unless we think to cover them in snakeskin

I could go on like this for volumes, there’s such an abundance of clever ideas out there for how to transform the most inefficient and woefully humdrum materials we use on Earth into believable support for above average science fiction.