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Posts Tagged ‘health’

Sleeping Fiction

Photo by Kay T. Holt

In science fiction, sleep is a pastime. For the sake of continuity, characters are put into suspended animation so the reader can travel with them across vast expanses with neither suffering catastrophic ennui. Sure, sleep facilitates other things, too – vivid dreamers communicate with aliens and sleep-deprived characters make every kind of mischief sooner or later – but SF is really big on sleeping beauties.

Which is a shame, when you think about it. Sleep itself is in many ways still a frontier. We have some interesting ideas about sleep and learning, problem-solving, fat, food, puberty, immunity, blood pressure, loneliness… Name anything to do with the body, and it appears to be affected by sleep in one way or many, yet SF largely neglects to explore sleep past its nearest and most familiar boundaries.

Returning to the idea of character continuity; even that tired old plot device has been only superficially explored. What if the brain activity while we sleep is the process by which we maintain our personal continuity from day to day? How might suspending that activity for the duration of long spaceflights disrupt our capacities or even our identities? Or, if sleep-state brain activity is somehow maintained during suspended animation, wouldn’t the brain develop physiological changes over time? If so, how would they present in terms of behavior?

There are an abundance of dimensions of sleep still open for speculation. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to navigate a few of them with my eyes closed. But what about the reader? What interesting treatments of sleep have you found in SF? And what other interesting biological phenomena would you like to see better explored in fiction?

Big Speculation – Fat Fiction

 More people on Earth are overweight than underweight. Yet the trajectory of human body size in science fiction and fantasy could be graphed with a line sloping sharply in the opposite direction. Where’s the fat? 

Authors, we’re not doing anyone favors by dodging the facts of life. Fiction’s greatest purpose is to address reality in a way that frees readers to relate to it without suffering it directly. We certainly don’t make our writing any better by preempting the fat (or dark skin, or women, or children). If anything, we sabotage our stories by depriving our characters of experiences that matter to real people living in the real world. 

Of course this problem has complex origins. Western fat bias is going global, and escapism will always have wide appeal, after all. However, I suspect part of the problem stems from a generally poor understanding of what fat is, how it works, and why it’s important. 

Here’s the skinny on fat: Every cell in our body requires cholesterol to function. We need fat to live, so there’s no point demonizing it or pretending it has no place in speculative fiction. Furthermore, fat cells – collectively, adipose tissue – do so much more than store excess calories. Fat behaves like the other organs of the body; it actively participates in metabolism, yes, but it also influences our neurochemistry and immune system

There is more to talk about than weight loss when it comes to fat. Isn’t it curious that different types of fat deposits predict different long term health outcomes? Isn’t it more interesting that one’s sense of satiety, of ‘fullness’, depends more on the brain’s ability to receive certain chemical signals from the gut than it does on how much is eaten? Isn’t it downright fantastic that, once upon a time, being fat was socially advantageous? 

When I browse a bookstore, I see vast expanses of neglected frontier. Even the science fiction and fantasy sections are narrow and homogenous. If our art imitated life, I’d see two covers with ample main characters for every one featuring an athletic lead. It makes me want to write in the gaps. To fill the void in our fiction with fact. And fat. 

Five minutes of speculation later, and I already have more ideas than I have time to develop: 

- Aliens make first contact and assume that the widest person on Earth is our leader. 

- A zombie epidemic starts with an appetite suppressant, and only the obese outlast the horde. 

- Santa Claus trims up and loses his powers, and is nightmarishly replaced by Rumpelstiltskin. 

- It turns out that the fatter one’s body, the greater one’s magic, but because using magic burns calories at a phenomenal rate, nearly all magic is applied to agriculture.

What’s your big speculation?