Be It Ever So Humble . . .

What’s the hardest part of writing for a writer, especially an unpublished one?  The hardest part for me is staying humble.

I haven’t found it particularly difficult to force myself to sit down and write every day.  I enjoy the process—of putting words down on a computer screen, of rearranging them to better say what I want; of adding or subtracting words that don’t fit or make sense, of cutting out words or paragraphs or chapters that don’t advance the plot, or show character, or set a scene, or reveal dialogue; of re-writing those same sentences or paragraphs or chapters over and over; of letting others read them; or of taking their comments back to my office and using them to once again rearrange and modify the words.  That’s never been a problem.  That’s because I’m writing a story.  I’m developing characters and putting them into situations where they have to use their wits to get out of.  That’s a caricature of real life.

What does give me trouble from time to time is staying humble—perhaps a better term would be realistic—about my writing, and about my writing abilities.  It’s tempting to think that the reason no agent or editor or publisher has wanted to take up the challenge of publishing or representing my novels (at least not so far) is that they just don’t understand them.  That my work is so unique, so avant-garde, so unconventional or experimental that no one understands it.  But I know that can’t be right.  In fact, that’s total, unmitigated horse manure.  They’re intelligent people; they wouldn’t be where they are if they weren’t.  The real hard part is admitting to myself that my work just doesn’t measure up; that it doesn’t meet the standards that so many people in the writing industry have established.  Sometimes I feel my ego inflate to red-giant size and I tell myself “how in heaven can anyone turn this novel down?  It says what I want it to say, it isn’t derivative of any other novel, it’s been heavily revised and edited, and it’s been polished to the best of my ability.  It’s prize-winning material.”  I have to tell myself, “that may be true, you stupid idiot, but that doesn’t mean it meets the standards for being published.”

Now, I fully realize that writing and the critique of writing is a very subjective affair, and someone, somewhere is probably out there waiting to see my works and accept them for what they are.  It’s just a matter of time before I get an agent/publisher.  And I’m sure every other unpublished writer on the face of this Earth has had, at one time or another, the same thoughts, the same doubts.  But it’s imperative we get a grip on our emotions and begin to realize that a large portion of why we aren’t published is that our work just doesn’t measure up.  It’s not them.  It’s us.  This isn’t an argument for becoming discouraged, it’s an argument for being realistic.

Now shut up, sit down, and get to work.

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The Logical Structure Of Science Fiction

I write science fiction.  I also read science fiction—the two go hand-in-hand.  Most of the sci-fi I read has been published by well-known publishing houses, and is reasonably good, though it can vary from very good to mediocre.  But what I want to talk about in this post is one of the things that helps makes science fiction really good, that is, the concept of reasonableness.

In science fiction, the author has to create a fictional world that exists somewhere and in some time.  Some science fiction takes place here on Earth, and while the basic world elements may be that of the everyday Earth we know, there will usually be items that are unfamiliar to us.  Think, for example, about a Star Trek phaser here on Earth.  That one element sets the stage for the science fiction of the story.  Many sci-fi stories take place in wholly fictitious worlds way away from our solar system.  For example, the Star Wars universe.  Any author of these types of sci-fi stories has to make the reader believe he exists totally within this artificial society.  He has to bring the reader into some world the reader isn’t normally a part of.  That’s not easy to do, to which I can attest.

What holds these fictitious worlds together is the concept of reasonableness.  Any artificial world has to adhere to the rules of reason and sensibleness.  It has to be tenable and believable, and consistent and credible.  Such a world doesn’t have to adhere to the logic of our world, but the structure of the world has to be believable.  The real difficulty comes in the details.  It’s always tricky for those of us who try to make up fictitious worlds to keep all the details straight.  (I hope I’ve done that in my books, but we won’t know until they’ve been published, will we?).  Even the best sci-fi writers make mistakes.  One of the biggest false steps in sci-fi that I’m familiar with was the character of Duke Leto in Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Herbert did a magnificent job creating the planet Dune, not to mention the substantial cast of characters who inhabit it.  My copy of the book calls it “The bestselling SF adventure of all time!”  That’s probably true.  He almost certainly had to take a lot of time and care to make the planet and people work together.  But there was one situation which I’ve always wondered about.  The Duke is captured by the bad guys, the Harkonnens, and he commits suicide by crunching down on a tooth in his mouth that contains a poison.  Sounds reasonable until you look at it more closely.  How could anyone live with such a tooth?  Always afraid that with one bad crunch, on a stray piece of walnut shell, say, or a popcorn kernel that didn’t pop, that you’d kill yourself completely inadvertently.  That might tend to ruin your day.  So, even the best SF writer can slip up every now and then.  That just goes to show how tricky it can be to get everything right in a wholly made-up world.

Anybody want to give SF a try?  Be careful.

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H. G. Wells Got It Right

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about not contaminating other worlds with Earth-bound microbes.  Let’s keep planets that might have microbial forms of life free of our own bacteria, I said.  (See my blog of 7/13/2014.)  I also said let’s not contaminate sterile worlds with our trashy bacteria.  Today I want to explore the opposite situation, that of microbes from other planets contaminating us.  I think we’ve got a lot to worry about, and we should be concerned.

When Apollo astronauts came back from the moon in the late 1960’s and into the 70’s, they were quarantined for several days before they were allowed to contact other humans.  That was a recognition of the fact that microbes might have been present in lunar soil that could have infected us.  Nothing happened, however, and the Apollo astronauts never got sick from moon bugs, but the concept is still valid.  The moon and other lifeless worlds, such as some or most of the asteroids, are probably free of foreign germs because, without an atmosphere, they are exposed directly to sterilizing radiation from the sun.  But the same can’t be said for Mars or some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Mars probably had running water at one time, and the possibility exists that germs could still exist, either in pockets of water under the surface, or as desiccated (i.e, waterless) forms just waiting for water to appear to begin the rehydration procedure that produces a viable organism.  Europa is an even better candidate for the presence of microorganisms, since it is believed to have oceans beneath its icy exterior and a hot core that could keep water liquid farther down.  Bugs could be thriving in those seas, and that could be bad for us.

If you recall from reading H. G. Wells’ novel War Of The Worlds, the invaders from Mars were stopped because they were infected by Earth bacteria.  Wells didn’t specify which bacteria.  He wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the descriptions of microorganisms at that time was what we would consider rudimentary now.  But he had a valid point.  Bacteria that are harmless to us living on this Earth, for example, soil bacteria, could be potent against an invader.  Life forms that potentially swirl in the oceans of Europa could be dangerous to astronauts brave (or perhaps foolish) enough to land on it.

The most dangerous type of microorganism on a distant world I believe would be a bacteria.  Once a bacteria finds a suitable habitat, it will begin to grow, and can produce many progeny in a short amount of time.  Many bacteria release toxins, that is, poisons that can make a person very sick.  And the human body can provide a nice, warm place for foreign bacteria to grow.

I’m not as concerned about viruses since they have to grow inside a cell, and to get in they have to have what could be considered a key to fit the lock on the door of the cell to get in.  Viruses on outer worlds may not be as dangerous because they’ve adapted to grow in the cells of whatever organisms live there.  But bacteria don’t have that limitation.  They don’t have to get into a cell to make it sick.  And I think that’s a very important point we have to take into consideration when traveling to other worlds.  We can’t just land and hop out and walk around.  We could kill ourselves the way Well’s invaders did.

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The One-Way Trip

There’s a Dutch nonprofit corporation called Mars One which has put forward a plan to send a team of humans to Mars in or around 2025.  The trip is a one-way affair: you go there and don’t come back.  It’s an audacious plan, granted, and seems to be, at this stage of the game, well engineered and well funded.  They called for volunteers and received 200,000 responses.  I’d love to go and be one of the first people to set foot on Mars—it’d be fabulously exciting—and I’d volunteer, but I’m way too old and way too nearsighted I’m sure, so I won’t be among those who make the first trip.  It’s a shame, but in a way I’m glad I’m not going.

My reason for not going, over and above the two I mentioned above, has nothing to do with the danger—and there’s plenty of that—nor with the fact that it’s a one-way trip.  It’s due to something I just realized while reading an article about the project this past week.  (See the December, 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, page 22.)  It’s something more prosaic.  It has to do with comfort.

Yes, comfort.  Mars One is asking people to make an extremely hazardous journey all the way to another planet, land and set up a colony and live there for the rest of their lives.  New people will be coming later, to be sure, and supplies will be sent at regular intervals (I hope).  But the basic concept is that the first explorers will live in smallish habitats that look like truncated Apollo capsules for the rest of their lives.  I can’t imagine it.

The Apollo capsule held only three men and was designed for an eight-day trip to the moon and back.  Eight days in that capsule I can see.  It was just large enough to get the job done.  But not tor the rest of someone’s life.  Granted Mars One has designed their habitat to consist of several capsules situated side-by-side with tunnels between to make it easy to move from one capsule to another without having to put on a spacesuit and go outside.  Still, they are smallish capsules, with limited interior comforts, and that is what is so disconcerting.  This isn’t an eight-day trip.  This is for the rest of the explorer’s lives.  Were I to make the trip, I’d want a hell of a lot more.  And that’s especially true for some one in his/her thirties or forties who could reasonably look forward to thirty or forty more years of life.  (I assume the life expectancy on Mars is less than that on Earth, though.)  And they’re going to live in those modules?  For all that time?  If the Mars mission were as simple as a two year trip to the red planet, then return, I could see it.  But it’s not.

An explorer on Mars can’t just get in a car or an airplane and take a vacation to the Grand Canyon or the Bahamas or Italy or some such destination.  They’re basically stuck at or near the landing site.  Getting out just to do something simple as taking out the garbage will be a chore.  Comfort—yes, comfort—will be far more important and significant than the designers seem to realize.  I suggest that each explorer or couple should have a module all to themselves.  There will have to be a large recreation module, large enough for parties, movies and other large-ticket items such as a running track.  Even a tennis court or basketball court.  A swimming pool.  A golf course.  A softball diamond.  Expecting people to spend thirty or forty years in those modules that have already been designed is unrealistic.  Even for a couple of years just waiting for the next wave of explorers is far too much.  Cabin fever (or module fever, if you will) will be a big deal.

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Disparate Styles

A few weeks ago I finished reading one science fiction book and started another.  The one I finished was Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, (Tor paperback, 2005), and the one I started was Shipstar, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (Tor hardbound, 2014).  (Shipstar is the second of a set of two books.  The first is Bowl of Heaven.)  I mention this because of the strong difference in the styles of the authors.  All three are well-known in the science-fiction community, and all have sold many books so their ability to write popular sci-fi is unquestioned.  My comments today are not about the sales, but about styles.

Take John Scalzi first.  He’s a very straightforward writer.  Sort of in the mold of Joe Friday on the old Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”  His style tends to the laconic, that is, he supplies the reader with only the essential details.  Such as, “I did this.  I did that.  He did this.  I said that.”  Very short and to the point.  But he doesn’t let the brevity get in the way of the story, and I’ve never gotten the impression of having to put up with the overly short sentences that plague some sci-fi writers.  He doesn’t spend much time in the minds of his characters.  Instead he details lots of conversations between characters, which is one good way to avoid the old dictum, “Show; don’t tell.”  I found Old Man’s War very interesting and fascinating and easy reading, and I recommend his books to anyone who wants to read science fiction, especially those just getting started in the genre.

I do have one criticism of Scalzi’s style.  When I first started reading this book, I was struck with the lack of tension or conflict, especially in the first chapter.  In fact, there seemed to be a minimization of conflict throughout the book itself.  It is there, of course; after all it’s about a man who goes to war.  Conflict hovers over most of the book.  Yet, those of us who are just starting out in novel writing are admonished to put “conflict on every page.”  There’s supposed to be a conflict, or at least some form of tension, among the characters right from the beginning to entice the reader to continue reading, and I was somewhat disappointed when I started the book to be drawn into the details of an older man’s life which was presented with so little import or concern.  Were I to submit a manuscript like that to any of the critique groups I’ve belonged to, I’m sure it would be panned.  I’m not sure how he gets away with it.  Yet I read on and finished the book easily.

Benford and Niven contrast strongly.  Far more intensity of feeling in the narrative.  Much more time spent in the minds of the characters.  More description of events and use of sensation and impression.  A feeling of conflict or tension to one degree or another on most every page.  And a much more difficult book to get through.  I’m taking more time to get into it.  There are many characters, many of whom are non-human, and it’s not always easy to keep them straight in my head.  But when you consider that the humans are in a totally new world and feeling their way around, the description of that world requires a certain amount of impressionistic portrayal.  My one critique of this book might be that there may be too much of that.  I’m sure it will take a while to get through this new book, but I’m looking forward to it.

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All That Life Out There

A few weeks ago (October 12, 2014) I wrote a blog post about the immense distances between stars and their planetary systems.  The distances are so large as to make travel between star systems very difficult, if not impossible.  Now I come across an article on Yahoo Finance entitled “Here’s Why A Leading Futurist Hopes We Don’t Find Life On Mars.”  It’s a reprint of an article from Business Insider (which is why it was in Yahoo Finance).  The article is about Nick Bostrom of Oxford University who thinks that if we find life on Mars or signs of previous life on Mars, it will be a bad thing.  A very bad thing.  He’s concerned that the presence of life on Mars either now or in the past would indicate that life may have developed in many other places in the Milky Way Galaxy, and that could be bad for us.  Not bad in the sense of aliens coming to destroy us, but of us destroying ourselves.

Dr. Bostrom postulates that every civilization that develops on a planet somewhere has to go through a “Great Filter” sometime in it’s lifetime.  But he doesn’t know if Earth has gone through that filter yet or not.  That filter is hypothesized to cut down the number of civilizations that can develop the ability to travel from star system to star system.  It’s a hypothetical reason why we haven’t been visited by other civilizations.  But does it mean the Earth is about to go through a filter like that?  Or will we continue to evolve and develop the ability to travel to another planet outside our solar system?

I’ve heard the “Great Filter” concept before in conversations and in meetings.  Personally I have my doubts that it even exists.  It’s virtually certain that we haven’t been visited by extraterrestrial aliens, but I don’t believe that we have to postulate a complex idea such as a global cataclysm that wipes out all life and prevents earthlings from populating the stars.  That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in life on other planets, I do.  But the distances between planets are so great as to make it extremely difficult to make the trip.  The concept of a “Great Filter” is strictly hypothetical.  There’s no evidence to back it up.  In that sense it’s like science fiction, a figment of someone’s imagination.

Dr. Bostrom hopes that the “Great Filter” is in our past, though what cataclysm he thinks makes up that filter, I’m not sure, and how he gets from the filter being in our past to hope for the future escapes me, but I’m hopeful for the future myself.  I’m sure we’re not alone in the galaxy, but the chances of meeting another civilization are so infinitesimally small that I think we ought to drop the whole subject and go on about the business of exploring our solar system.  There’s too much interesting stuff out there to worry about who else might be out there.

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A Few Thoughts On Ebola

Here’s  few ideas that popped into my head over the past few days about the presence of ebola disease in the United States.  Keep in mind, a lot of the talk about ebola lately is political.  It’s also epidemiological.  I’m not a politician, nor am I a political pundit, nor an epidemiologist.  As a PhD virologist, I studied viruses in the laboratory, so that’s the basic foundation from where my comments come.  Here’s what I think.

First, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has been criticized for its lax guidelines on what kind of protective clothing persons who are caring for an ebola-infected patient should wear.  But from the point of view of a virologist in the hospital, the hospital should have known better.  After all, we’ve been seeing pictures from West Africa for months of people treating ebola victims there, and they’re dressed in total-body containment suits.  The hospital should have known.  That’s what infection control is for.  I understand the two nurses who contracted ebola while caring for the index patient were not wearing total body protection.  I find it difficult to believe that knowing all we know about ebola, the hospital didn’t insist on total body protection from the very first.

Second, the fact that those two nurses got infected while allowing small areas of skin to go unprotected suggests that somehow the virus penetrated their skin.  Right now, it’s unknown how they got infected.  Perhaps they had small open wounds or sores on the unprotected area of skin, and the virus splashed on that and got through the skin.  But we have to keep in mind that they were only two nurses out of a larger number of people who were caring for the patient.  If the others were wearing the same type of protective equipment, and didn’t get infected, then there’s a question of why only those two were infected.  Or is it possible that ebola virus can penetrate intact skin?  That’s scary.

I got my baptism under fire back in the 1980’s and 90’s with the AIDS virus.  Back then, when we worked with HIV, we assumed that the virus wouldn’t penetrate intact skin.  That turned out to be true.  Now we’re making the same assumption about ebola and perhaps it isn’t true.  This will take some study.

Third, I’ve seen warnings from health officials on TV and on the internet that ebola can be caught only by direct contact with a patient or with a patient’s bodily fluids.  They say that it can’t be caught through food, water, air, etc.  As someone who has done studies with inactivation of viruses in water and buffers, I’m a little suspicious about the blanket statement that ebola can’t be transmitted by water.  I assume, like everyone else, that the ebola virus is inactivated by the chlorine in drinking water.  But a lot of the drinking water in Africa isn’t treated with chlorine, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that the virus can’t be transmitted by water, or even food.  Has anyone done any studies to find out?

Fourth, the fact that we have to use such heavy protective gear while working with ebola-infected patients is a recognition that the ebola virus is one of the most infectious agents we’ve ever seen.  The only virus I can think of that even comes close to the infectivity of ebola is smallpox, and that has been eradicated from the earth.  Marburg fever virus is also very infectious, but it has been kept under control.  I don’t know what the ratio of virus particles to infectious units is for ebola, but it may be very low, possibly in the range of one or two.  That’s also scary.  That means that if ebola virus does somehow survive in water, only a small number of particles can cause an infection.  The fact that two nurses got infected while wearing protective equipment also suggests the ratio is very small.

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