It’s All In The Head

Last week I posted a segment on the lack of imagination in science fiction today, with a view toward how so many sci-fi characters are humanoid in appearance.  Now I want to take a short look at what I’m talking about when I say “humanoid.”

In the evolution of animals over the past two billion years or so, there’s been a tendency for the sensory organs to become concentrated in the head.  This is true for all the higher animals—and by that I mean basically those with a backbone and a large nerve cord running down the back—but it’s also true for some lower animals, such as insects and other arthropods.  This is called cephalization, and it’s what is so often copied by us sci-fi writers when we devise characters to populate planets far, far away.  This process has put four of the five traditional senses in the head: sight, hearing, smell, and taste.  (The sense of feel, of course, is present throughout the body, we don’t have just one organ for that.)  Why this should have happened evolutionarily, I’m not sure, but it may have to do with keeping the nerve fibers that run from the sense organs to the brain as short as possible.  That may, in turn, have been to allow the information collected by those organs to be processed as rapidly as possible.  If our eyes were in our kneecaps, for example, the nerve fibers would have to run all the way up the body to the head.  Might be some loss of information in that long a trip.  Secondarily, in a long, slender animal, such as a fish or a cougar, having the sensory organs up front could allow the animal to detect things ahead—food, danger, a mate, whatever—as immediately as possible, and shorten the reaction time to whatever’s out there.  Always a good idea.

But for whatever reason, this is how humans are constructed.  And so are many of the characters in science fiction.  The Roswell “little green men” are shown this way, and this is the most likely reason they’re not real.  Any time I see a purported visitor from outer space that looks like it’s been based on humanoid features, including most prominently the cephalization of sensory organs, but also including two arms and two legs and a large brain case, I know it’s almost certainly a fake.  There’s no reason I can think of to believe that life—and I’m including intelligent life here—on other planets or worlds will be based on that principle.

Having said that, of course, I can’t rule it out either.  Of all the trillions and even quadrillions of planets that must exist in all the galaxies in our universe, could there be a planet or two where evolution has taken the road to cephalization?  To put it more simply, are there beings that actually look like us?  Definitely possible.  But considering the variations of conditions that exist on the planets we’ve detected so far in our galaxy, (and that’s an extremely tiny proportion of the total) it’s much more likely that life will be quite a bit different in appearance than anything on Earth.  We may not even recognize it.

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A Serious Lack Of Imagination

I believe there is a serious lack of imagination in science fiction today.  At least in one particular facet of the genre.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some recent results that have come from the world of astronomy.  For more than four years, the Kepler Space Telescope has been observing a star called KIC 8462852, looking for planets that might orbit it.  The telescope has not merely identified a potential planet it by the tiny dip in the amount of light the star emits when the planet moves across the face of it—as seen from Earth, of course—but has actually recorded a remarkable variation in the light emitted, much more variation than could be caused by the transit of one planet.  What’s caused the variation?  No one really knows, but some astronomers think it could be due to a swarm of comets or other asteroidal material around the star.  Or it might be might be variations in the light from the star itself.  But the explanation that became the most popular, and the one the press jumped on, is the possibility that the variation is caused by the inhabitants of one or more planets around the star building a Dyson sphere, and their partially completed structure is responsible.

To this I say, nonsense.  It’s possible, of course, and I don’t have any information to rule that out, but what concerns me is the lack of imagination that brought that possibility to light.  If there is as civilization on one or more planets around KIC 8462852, the chances are that they would be so vastly different from ours that the possibility of a Dyson sphere might never occur to them.  The concept of a Dyson sphere originated here on Earth.  We’ve never seen a Dyson sphere anywhere.  Why should we be so arrogant in our thinking as to ascribe it to a totally alien civilization?  We see some variation in the light from a star and we automatically say “Dyson sphere.”  If a civilization exists on a planet around that star, they may have other ideas, ideas that might never occur to us.

Let’s look at this from another viewpoint.  I’ve been watching the older Doctor Who episodes recently, and it and other well-known sci-fi programs such as Star Wars and Star Trek have one thing in common: the aliens are overwhelmingly android in appearance.  That is, they are just variations on the human anatomy.  Even the aliens that supposedly came from the spaceship that crashed near Roswell, NM, are android in appearance.  Green in color, but generally human.  No matter where Doctor Who went, the aliens were largely humanoid.  Again, extremely unlikely.

I think we have to keep in mind, both scientifically and science-fiction wise, that aliens from other planets are not going to look like us, either exactly—think of Luke Skywalker—or only vaguely, as the Roswell aliens.  They’ll be wildly different in anatomy and physiology, so different, in fact, we may not even recognize them if we see them.  And if they’re different in anatomy and physiology, they’ll be different in their ability to conceptualize too.  A good example is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  The creatures inside the pods that blasted London back at the turn of the 20th century were not humanoid at all, and I’m surprised more authors didn’t jump on that idea and continue the trend.  I suppose it may be easier to get readers and movie viewers to identify with an alien if they’re generally human in appearance—think of the cantina scene in Star Wars-A New Hope.   But each instance of that just perpetuates that (most likely) erroneous concept.

I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in adopting that notion.  All three of my science-fiction novels use aliens from other planets that are generally humanoid in shape and structure.  I did write a novelette about two humans (from Earth) caught by aliens who were not humanoid at all, but as yet I haven’t gotten it published because it’s hard to get a story of about 22,000 words published when you haven’t published anything else in sci-fi at all.

In short, forget about running into Klingons out there.  It isn’t going to happen.  We need more stories about non-humanoid characters.  I suppose in the movies, especially, it’s easier to get an actor to dress up in a monster costume than it is to construct a non-humanoid one and mechanize it so precisely that it looks like it could be real.  Admittedly, that could be very expensive.  But in books and short stories, authors aren’t bound by that limitation.  The characters take shape in the reader’s minds, and that’s not limited to anything.

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A Trip To The Bookstore

I usually write these blog posts on Sunday afternoon, after my regular stop at one of the local bookstores in the Albuquerque area.  Today was no exception.  The first thing I check after entering is the magazine rack of news journals to see what people are saying about national and international politics.  (Right now that’s the 2016 election.)  Then I begin to wander around the store, examining such areas as the hobby magazines (especially model railroading and woodworking), beginner’s guides to the increasingly sophisticated electronics products out there (phones, tablets, computers, cameras—you name it and there’s a magazine for it), some of the art and artist magazines, and eventually I wander into the book sections.  My first stop is always the science-fiction area.

And what an area it is.  One of the largest sections in the bookstore.  I especially check the new SF/F.  I tend to pay little attention to the regular stacks of books because they don’t appreciably change over weeks and months, though I might scan them just to see if anything has been added.  It’s the new releases which interest me.  For two reasons: primarily I want to see what’s just come out, but secondarily because they’re the ones my books will be competing against if I ever get them published.  At first glance, that can be daunting.

Science fiction and fantasy seems to be a booming genre.  The colors of the various book covers, often in shades of red and black, compete with the customer’s eyes for attention.  I get the impression that most of the books are either fantasy, with lots of swords and knights and jousting and killing and all that, or dark sci-fi wherein wars are being fought and planets destroyed or decimated in some way.  I tend to look for the less violent titles.  I’m interested in internal conflict, as opposed to external warfare, but I’m not sure that’s too much in vogue at the present time.  It’s so easy to write about wars and monsters and so forth, and more difficult to write about the battles and hostilities that take place within the human soul.  But that’s what my books are about.  (I have to admit, however, the third book in my Anthanian Imperative series does have some battle scenes.  Small ones, though.)  Warfare sells, I guess.

But the sheer volume of new titles in SF/F brings up another point, that of competition.  Can my books, I ask myself over and over, compete with all these new titles?  Eventually, I expect my books will be new, too.  So, how will they fare next to those in the present display?  That can be disheartening, seeing all those books and expecting mine—one more in a rack of fifty or more others—to compete.  But then, I tell myself, that’s the wrong question to ask.  The real point to be made here is not so much that there is intense competition among authors for the sale of their books, and there certainly is, but that each book should be considered as a title all by itself.  Of course mine can compete, I say.  I maintain that what is important is not whether a book competes well against established authors, but whether it is any good in the first place.  Books—and I believe many people will agree with me here—should be judged by themselves, not as a contestant in a race for the highest sales that can be obtained.  I trust my books to be the best I can make them.  And if they sell, all well and good.  If not, then I’m back to the drawing board and I’ll try again.

Then I go to the Starbucks in the back of the store and look at all the goodies.

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Too Many Facts

Well, we’re embroiled in another presidential campaign season in the United States, and facts, figures, and allegations are flying around the multiverse like bees defending a hive.  I’m not much of a politician (I don’t want to be) and I try to avoid political conversations, though I do have very definite opinions about most of the current political and economic and humanitarian situations that routinely find themselves on the evening news.  Having an opinion is one thing, though, and bolstering that opinion with all the relevant facts is quite another.  And that’s the one thing that annoys me most about politics.  Facts.

Politicians have definite opinions, to be sure, and I assume most US citizens do too.  But behind those opinions should be the true facts of the case.  And we are absolutely inundated with facts.  My disquiet with facts is neither the lack of them nor the absolute glut of facts we encounter daily, even hourly.  My problem is with the accuracy of those facts.

I’m too much of a scientist to let these “facts” go without a comment or two.  Each presidential candidate has his/her own opinion, of course, and so often those opinions are backed up with what they throw out as “facts.”  Dropped before us like pearls before swine, those facts may look and sound good when taken at face value, but rarely are they backed up by any real evidence that they are what the candidate says they are.  Facts are too often the fodder for pundits who massage them and manipulate them into being what they want them to be.  I, personally, would like to know whether the “facts” presented by a candidate are true or not, not how that person is using them.  Political candidates aren’t the only ones using facts.  Facts are put forward by all sorts of organizations intent on making their own case for something or other.  Yet, rarely are those facts actually verified.  I want to see more verification.  A lot more.

I wouldn’t doubt that in this country, there is no one—not one single, solitary person—who can verify every fact presented in the media.  There’s just too many.  I’ve seen some fact-checking reports after the presidential debates, and many times those “fact-checkers” sound legitimate.  But no one can check everything.  We’re swimming in facts, facts that can be used by anyone or any group to make their own point.  How do we know who to rely on?  Who’s accurate and who’s not?  I’d like to see the facts behind the facts.

When I wrote scientific papers, I had to use a lot of facts, some of which I generated myself, some of which were taken from other papers.  And I had to reference all of them at the end of the paper in a section titled “References,” or in some cases, “Literature Cited.”  All the facts had to be verified, and any conclusion(s) I drew had to be supported by the facts.  Considering the importance of the President in US society, why shouldn’t presidential candidates be subject to the same rigor?

So many facts; not enough verification.

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All-Time Worst

This is an admittedly unscientific poll, but I’ve noticed over the years that the most common grammatical error across all types of writings seems to be the confusion of the word “you’re,” with the word “your.”  Most of the time it occurs as the use of “your” when the writer meant “you’re.”  But it pops up everywhere.  I’ve seen it in all sorts of writings, especially on Facebook posts and in other places where the writer was either in a hurry or didn’t stop to proofread his/her writing.  Even once on a Post-It Note.  Not long ago I saw it in a commercial on TV.  And that’s someplace where the error was shown nationwide.  All because the writer (and the marketing or advertising firm behind the commercial) either didn’t proofread or didn’t know one of the simplest of grammatical rules.

At the risk of boring those of you reading this with some information you already know, the word “you’re” is a contraction for “you are.”  As in, “You’re my sweetheart.”  (After all, today is Valentine’s Day.)  On the other hand, the word “your” indicates possession or ownership, such as,  “Here’s your valentine today.”  That shouldn’t be too difficult to remember.

I’m not so sure that many of the errors we see of this type are because writers don’t know the difference, and I suspect many do, but I wonder if the main reason is that sometimes people don’t think about what they’re writing.  (Don’t get me going on there-their-they’re.)  I wonder if the error comes as much from the tendency nowadays to scribble something down and not go back and re-read it.  Just zip through and get it down.  I suspect a lot of Facebook posts are like that.  Many Facebook posts contain errors of other types too, though the “your/you’re” boo-boo seems to be the most common.  I always proofread my Facebook posts, even if it’s only a few words in response to someone else’s post.  I’m sure some mistakes have gotten through over the years, but at least I try.

Is life in our society so hurried that people don’t have enough time to think about what they’re putting down on paper or on a com screen?  I guess it is.  But the person who can use the rules of grammar correctly has the edge in one of the most basic of societal needs: that of communication.  We are immersed in an absolute of glut of forms of communications nowadays, and knowing how to use them properly is almost mandatory.  Watch what you’re writing.  Proofread.  Everything.  You’ll be better off for it.  Surely you don’t want your grammatical errors shown on nationwide television.

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Heinlein’s Rules

I had an occasion a few days ago to revisit on the web Robert Heinlein’s rules of writing, and to reconsider as to how I felt about them.  For those who are not familiar with the rules, laid down by the iconic sci-fi author, here they are.

  1. You must write.  (Of course.)
  2. You must finish what you start.  (Obviously.)
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.  (What?)
  4. You must put your story on the market.  (How else will it get published?)
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.  (Again . . . )

All sound worthwhile, don’t they?  Well, let’s see.

I like the rules, and don’t have any real problem with them, with the exception of Rule No. 3.  Many other writers have also commented on these rules, and I invite you to search the web with your favorite search engine (there are other search engines than Google out there; I use Ixquick a lot) to find commentaries on these rules.  Some of my comments here are reflected in these other commentaries.

Basically, the rules are common sense.  If you want to be a published author, you have to write something to begin with, finish it, and send it out.  It almost certainly will be rejected, so send it out again.  And again.  And so forth.  The real problem I have with the rules comes in the third one.

I’m not sure exactly what Heinlein meant by refraining from writing “except to editorial order,” and it seems to be open to interpretation.  Some authors, notably Dean Wesley Smith, interpret it literally.  Smith, for example, writes a particular piece straight through without any outline or other helpful device, then goes through it once to check minor things such as spelling, punctuation, and so forth.  Then he sends it out.  It works for him.  Others, such as Robert J. Sawyer, suggest Heinlein meant to not “tinker endlessly with your story,” but it is acceptable to go through it to polish and refine.  Others, such as J.W. Alden, will tell you to smash the rule “into pieces.”

I’m not so sure I feel like Mr. Alden, but it is clear to me that rule #3 is either unworkable, or at best, misleading.  Especially to a novice such as myself.  I’ve written several novels and short stories, and every one has been revised and polished many times.  Okay, perhaps that’s no good.  Perhaps I’m tinkering too much with it.  Smith would tell me so.  But for the beginning writer who comes upon those rules and attempts to follow them to the letter, I think the third rule will be their downfall.  For someone just starting out, no matter how many times they send out a piece after following Rule No. 3, it’s likely to never get published.  Rules four and five, then, will be useless.  Writing is revising, and a piece has to be well done in order to get published.

Rule No. 3 is especially true after NaNoWriMo.  If you’re coming off an intense November with a “finished” novel, expecting to send it out and get it published just because you read through it once, you’re very likely way off the mark.  Unless you are Dean Wesley Smith or someone else experienced enough to actually pull it off.  I’m sure as hell not.

Even these blog posts are not just typed and posted.  After I finish each one I read through them four or five times or more (yes, Mr. Smith, 4 or 5 times) before I hit the “Publish” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen.  I look at spelling, punctuation, sentence order and structure, phrasing, paragraph order, references, imagery, concept generation, total word count, and anything else I can spot.  I don’t just pop it up there.  I want it to make sure it says what I want it to say, and says it well.  Even then, when I look at some of the older posts I’ve made, I still find things I could change.

All of my works have been similarly evaluated.  They’ve got to be absolutely perfect before I send them out.  Perhaps that’ll be my downfall, but I don’t think so.  Everyone who has read anything I’ve written has commented on how “clean” the manuscript is (i.e., free of errors).  Maybe they didn’t like the work (that’s a matter of opinion) but it certainly wasn’t because of simple mistakes that can easily be corrected.  It is true that works of art, especially written works, are never finished, only abandoned.  But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon a work after a simple cursory inspection.  I think you can do better than that.  Make it good.  (See my blog on good vs. best.)

Now if you will excuse me, I have to re-read this blog post to make it better.

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Being Read

Recently I read an interview of the literary agent Jennifer Joel in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and she made an astute comment which caught my eye.  I thought about it for a few days and realized she was right.

The interviewer, Michael Szczerban, asked her, “What would you love for writers to know before their work reaches your desk?”  She replied that she “would love writers to do their homework by the time they come to me.”  That is, to know what an agent does before you send her/him a query letter describing your work.

But Ms. Joel expanded on that comment with another statement to the effect that writers need to understand the distinction between being published on the one hand, and what they really want on the other.  Yes, there is a distinction.  Ms. Joel’s comment was that what writers really want is not merely to be published, but to be read.

That’s right, to be read.  I think many people, myself included, have misinterpreted the real endpoint of writing by assuming it was publication.  To get the damn book out there.  To get it on a shelf in some bookstore and be proud of the fact that it’s there.  I think we assume that if it’s there, it’ll be read.  I’m not sure that’s true.

Many people self-publish their books and assume that if it’s on Amazon or Kindle or Nook or present in some other such platform, that they’ve made it in the publishing world.  “I’ve published a book!” they trumpet loudly to the rest of the world.  That may be enough for them.  But I find myself silently asking them, don’t you want your book to be read?

In light of what Ms. Joel said, I’ve thought through my publishing desires.  Sure, I’d like to be published.  But will people actually pick up my book (or the whole trilogy) and read it?  As an unpublished author, I don’t feel I have the authority to state categorically, “If it ain’t good enough, it won’t be read.”  But I highly suspect that’s the case.  This is one reason, if not the main one, I’ve steered clear of the self-publishing route.  I want some (i.e., several) professional literary types to pass on my book before publication.  I’m not—and I’ve stated this several times before—ready to throw a book out to the world without some validation by someone who knows what they’re talking about.  In my opinion, that’s more likely to get a book read than just throwing it out there.

If you’re a writer (or more properly, an author) isn’t that what you want?  Don’t you want people to read your book?  Getting published isn’t the end of the road.  Getting read is.  Who’s going to download your book if it isn’t well written?  Do you think a colorful cover will get it done?  Think again.

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