Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Interesting Reaction to Criticism

So, Stephanie Meyer has, of course, faced criticism for years over the fact that Bella has no agency and is basically a "damsel in distress."

How is she answering that criticism?

By rewriting the first Twilight book to be about Edythe and Beau with no other changes. In other words, she just switched the genders of her characters.

She...Rule 63'd her own book.

I'm sure it will sell very well, but I'm still quite amused.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Exercise Pills?


Well, sort of. Researchers have developed a pill that has some of the same effects on your muscles as exercise. It might help people who can't physically exercise. Science fiction relevance? It might help mitigate muscle atrophy caused by extended periods in low gravity.

It won't, though, replace your workout.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Defining Humanity

Homo naledi is the big news in paleoanthropology right now.

Naledi is an ape-man, with some features close to modern humans and others honestly more like a chimpanzee. Or a gorilla. Including the brain, which is about the same size as that of a, yup, gorilla.

No offense to our cousins, but gorillas aren't nearly as smart as we are. Now, some researchers think Homo naledi is actually a racial variant of homo erectus. (But then, lines between species can be funky anyway).

And right now, we haven't come up with any explanation for how the bodies ended up in a cave that contains no remains of any other species other than deliberate burial. Gorillas and chimpanzees both demonstrate behavior that looks like mourning - but so do dogs and horses. Both species sometimes do death vigils - staying with a body for a period of time. Elephants are even more known for this behavior and have also been seen to cry and, unlike any other species but us, interact with the dead. Elephants will go back to the skulls of dead companions and pick them up - behavior not uncommon amongst humans. In fact, they are the only species other than humans to perform funeral rituals - covering carcasses with branches and sometimes taking the tusks and putting them in a specific location. (Elephants have also been recorded covering or attempting to cover dead...or in some cases merely unconscious...humans).

So, we have two living species that consistently perform funereal rites - humans and elephants.

Did naledi? We can't be sure, but it looks like they did. Furthermore, to get to the cave, even if it was easier to get there back when they lived, they would have had to go through pitch darkness.

And none of the bones in the cave showed signs of predation. Not one. It's more normal to find 6 to 10 percent of bones showing tooth damage from being killed or injured by predators. Early hominids were prey animals to at least some point. (Some people argue they were primarily predators, but that forgets that an animal can be both).

If these hominids were going into a dark cave to do funerary rites and less subject to predation then that points to a very reasonable hypothesis:

They had fire.

Chimpanzees will cook food if humans provide the fire, but they don't know how to create it themselves.

A bonobo (bonobos are the most intelligent apes other than us) named Kanzi has been taught to build a fire and toast marshmallows.

But despite rumors, only humans master fire. It is the one thing that makes us unique. Other animals might take advantage of fire provided to them. Other animals make tools, communicate in vocalizations.

Only humans master fire.

But the scientists who discovered naledi insist these hominids - whether they're a new species or just a new race - are not human. Their brains aren't big enough.

I find that somewhat hard to accept.

But here's the other thing that is fascinating.

If it's true that naledi has fire, then this indicates the mastery of fire came before the great leap in intelligence.

What if we did not become smart and then learn to use fire but rather learned to use fire and had to become smart to control it? What if technology comes before intelligence?

There's already some indication that manipulative appendages come before intelligence, but technology? (And yes, cetaceans are very smart and possibly sentient without technology, but I think if we ever learn to communicate with them properly we'll discover that they have a very different intelligence from us).

It's something to consider - because it has implications for intelligent life elsewhere. (And, of course, for worldbuilding).

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Importance of Worldbuilding

I just read a kids book, which I'm not going to name and shame - I should review it as I was given it, but I don't feel qualified to do a full review of middle grade.

I can only assume the author, editors, and publisher assumed the target audience would not notice - but there is basically no world. There's no feeling that anything exists outside the story that's presented on the page (not all of which makes sense).

You can get away with that to an extent in a short story, but in a longer work - you have to build your world. Even if you choose to be lazier and write in a world closer to our own (supers, urban fantasy or contemporary/near future science fiction, you still need to give the reader that feel of a larger canvas they don't get to see.

All it takes to show this is casual mentions. Chinese colonies on Mars. In one of my (unpublished) stories I have the MC think about lands to the south where "people are burned black by the sun" - this used to be what white people believed about black people before we got a better understanding of genetics. If a bit of sun turns somebody brown, then obviously it's just that the sun is so intense they've all been burned black. That line immediately tells you that there's a world outside the country the MC lives in, that there are black people in the world somewhere, the level of scientific knowledge they have about the world.

You don't have to know everything, especially if you're writing a single short story, but you need to give the reader that sense of not being told everything the author knows, those little hints about what might be going on off the page and between the adventures.

Otherwise, your story will feel hollow. I'm pretty sure kids notice that as much as adults.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hail the humble...


Apparently, mealworms - the larval form of the darkling beetle - may prove to be an important part of the solution to our plastic problem.

They eat styrofoam.

Not only that, but they can subsist entirely on styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene. And they produce, as a side effect...perfectly good soil.

Scientists are hoping to isolate the enzyme they use, but in the mean time, mealworms are actually quite edible - Chinese people eat them - although ones fed on styrofoam might not taste that great. They're more typically used as fishing bait and pet food, though.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On Representation and Related Things

I had somebody ask me quite nicely for clarification about something I said about not being very comfortable writing black people yet.

They seemed to think I was implying people should stay within their comfort zone. I'm going to write something similar here to my response to them.

1. You can't represent every single aspect of humanity in your main character or characters. Jacqueline Koyanagi makes a good attempt in Ascension, but even if you're doing an ensemble cast - you can't cover everything in one work. So, don't try. If you try too hard you will end up doing what I call "checklisting" - marking off whether you've got a gay person or a disabled person or an Asian person or whatever. This is trying too hard and it ends up klutzy.

2. Please, please don't try to represent everyone in a short story. Short stories should be an idea. One. Single. Idea.

3. On the other hand, when building a world, make sure diversity exists in it. Don't whitewash the future - that actually makes people afraid their descendants won't survive. Please don't have only one ethnicity in your secondary fantasy world (unless there's some really good worldbuilding reason for it - such as a world with only one climate zone, a small human enclave, etc). This doesn't just go for your humans - how about having your humanoids have racial groups too? What about tropical elves? Do dwarves from the far northern mountains have different traditions from those in the temperate zone? Apart from any issues with representation, this will make your worldbuilding better.

4. DO go outside your comfort zone. I'm not entirely comfortable writing black characters yet. That doesn't mean I don't try.

5. If you are bad at writing a certain group and know it - then how about bringing your readers' attention to other authors that might be better at it? The example I used is that there's some great work being done in Afrofuturism right now - but I wouldn't want to try it myself. I know more about Africa than the average clueless white person, but I would have to spend a lot of time on research before trying to set a story there.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mars Needs...




NASA has finally confirmed a long standing theory that the gullies on Mars hold seasonal flooding. They say the evidence is definitive. (It's complicated and has to do with atmospheric chemicals). It's probably very briny, and we have no idea how often - or for how long - the Martian floods flow.

But desert life hints that it might be possible for ancient Martian lifeforms to have survived - by hibernating below the surface and waking up to life only when there's water.

Maybe there's hope yet.