Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research. I worked with viruses most of my professional life. Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels. Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out. New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.
But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently. That is, my hobbies. I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind. I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.
I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were. I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them. And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space. But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing. There are actually a lot of similarities. First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.
Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along. I’ve done the second most of the time. This is where the similarity to novel writing begins. People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events. They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype. They use place names of real towns and geographic features. And so on. But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad. We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation. And that’s a lot like developing a novel.
A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world. Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent. It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees. Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic. It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on. It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable. So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel. There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.
There’s a new Jurassic Park movie coming out this summer, and it brings up a question I’ve had percolating in my mind ever since the first Jurassic Park movie was released. I liked that first movie—I thought it reasonably well done. It had excellent special effects and a believable story line, at least for a sci-fi movie. It wasn’t a war type or superhero sci-fi movie either. Some of the attempts of tension and conflict were a bit overdone, but the one thing I’ve wondered about ever since I saw that movie is whether the science that upholds the story would actually work. Is it possible to recreate dinosaurs in our time? My answer is an overwhelming no. Here’s why.
The premise of the movie is that we take the contents of the stomach of a blood-sucking insect such as a mosquito who just ate a blood meal from a dinosaur and got trapped in amber (a form of fossilized resin) and held there for 65 million years (since the dinosaurs died out). We humans extract the DNA and use it to recreate the dinosaur it came from. It sounds reasonable, but there are several caveats that suggest it isn’t likely to work. First, we have to assume that the insect has been in that amber for all those 65 million years. Just because an insect is encased in amber doesn’t mean it came from the dinosaur era, unless we can identify it as an insect that lived only during the time of the dinosaurs. Second, even if it lived then, the DNA in that insect’s stomach has also been there for 65 million years. That’s one helluva long time, and it’s extremely unlikely the DNA would still be in a form we could work with. It will be so degraded it won’t look like DNA anymore. It would be almost useless. DNA has to be stored at a very low temperature to remain workable for any length of time. That’s the way I treated it when I worked with it in my lab, and that’s standard procedure for all labs that work with DNA. That piece of amber would be exposed to high variations in temperature for all those millions of years—hot, cold, hot, cold, etc., and that can damage DNA. No telling what that DNA would look like when we got ahold of it.
Third, when that insect took a blood meal, it treated the blood as food. As soon as the blood got into its stomach and intestines, the digestive enzymes began to work on it and degrade it. Even if that insect got trapped in amber within a few seconds after its meal, the enzymes would continue to work for a short time until the death of the insect stopped them. By then, a lot of the DNA could be so degraded.it would be useless.
Fourth, the protocol for recreating a dinosaur assumes that we extract the DNA and fill in any holes with modern-day reptilian DNA such as alligator or turtle or snake DNA. But if the dinosaur DNA is as badly damaged as I suspect it may be—let’s assume at most one percent of the dinosaur DNA remains (and that’s a big assumption)—then ninety-nine percent will be modern-day reptile DNA. In that case, all we’ll get is a modern-day reptile with a little bit of dinosaur DNA.
I say forget the science behind Jurassic Park. Just enjoy the movie.
I made my yearly trip to Colorado Springs this past weekend to the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, and I thought I’d make a few comments about the meeting. Overall, it was one of the best writers conferences I’ve attended, and I’ve been to several. My criteria in judging a conference is based on the percentage of the number of talks and discussions I attended that were actually helpful to me in my writing or publishing or marketing. This year, all I attended were. (In previous meeting they haven’t always been.) Since there were many more sessions available that I could attend in the three days of the meeting, I had to select the ones I thought would be most effective for me. That wasn’t difficult.
I attended sessions on writing short stories, writing combat in science fiction (that’s right), how to pace a novel (excellent), constructing a critique group (eye-opening), a great session on the essentials for powerful fiction, one on using personification and metaphor, and even an enlightening session on shams and scams. All were filled with delicious tidbits of information essential to the burgeoning writer. Any one of which I could expand into a full blog post.
But what I want to concentrate on for this post is a comment that was made in one of the sessions that a protagonist, in order to feel real—that is, three dimensional—must be many things. The example the presenter gave was Sherlock Holmes. Make no mistake, Holmes is many things. Conan Doyle went out of his way to make sure. Holmes is a brilliant analyzer of human activity, yet he’s addicted to cocaine. He can be gracious to his guests, but at times can be maddeningly discourteous. He can be alternately brooding or pleasant. He sometimes takes his friend and colleague Dr. Watson into his confidence, but sometimes doesn’t. In short, Holmes has many dichotomies. He can be one or another.
So often in learning how to write, we are taught to be consistent. Consistency is important, to be sure, but not in every case. This frequently comes up in science fiction. If we construct a fictitious world on a dry, barren desert planet, it wouldn’t do to have the hero of the story step out onto a green meadow in a spring rain. Our protagonists and even antagonists must be consistent in their actions and responses, we are repeatedly warned. But the example of Sherlock Holmes indicates that consistency is not always the best case. All people, especially the protagonists of our stories, are a bag of contradictions. It’s not enough to have a person with a brilliant mind as the hero. That person must be made real. And one very effective way to do that is through the use of dichotomy. A brilliant university professor might beat his kids at home. Superman was afraid of kryptonite. Dichotomy is the key. Don’t be afraid to present opposites in your characters. All humans are flawed, regardless of what they think or say, and bringing this out in the story only humanizes them.
I’m a writer. I specialize in writing fiction, especially science-fiction novels, but I’ve written several short stories, mostly with a sci-fi bent, if not outright. But fiction by definition is a story about something that is not real. Fiction generally uses made-up characters and plot lines, though real people can appear in a fictitious work. Even though it’s made up, much fiction can sound very realistic, even fooling some people into thinking it was real. That’s what Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Bridge of San Luis Rey did to me. I read it in high school. I thought it described a real event, it was so well written. But it isn’t—it’s a novel. It’s all made up. What the hell did I know? I was seventeen at the time. One editor of a journal to whom I’d sent a short story sent me an email asking if the story was fiction or non-fiction. I had to tell him it was a totally fictitious story, but they didn’t print it. (They didn’t like the ending.) That seems to me the ultimate complement a person can give to a writer, that his/her fiction is so real it seems like it really happened. On the other hand, science fiction stories don’t usually have that problem. If you read a story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you know right away it’s total fiction. Or a story about a man dressed vaguely like a bat who fights crime in the most unimaginable ways possible won’t strain your ability to tell fact from fiction.
But that just brings up an important point, a point I’ve wondered about for a long time. Why do we make up stories? There’s a lot of real stories out there all the time. All you have to do is watch the evening news. Yet there are those of us who sit down if front of a computer or a pad of paper and write about things that never happened, and in many cases, could never happen. Why do we do it? As the title of this post asks, don’t we have something better to do? Isn’t there a soup kitchen we could volunteer at? Couldn’t we advocate for processes to reverse climate change? How about a walk in the woods or the wilderness? Strap a pack on your back and set out along the Continental Divide Trail and expand your mind. Take pictures about your experiences and publish a book. Get involved in real life. Anything other than making up stories.
On the face of it, making up stories about fictitious characters and unrealistic situations seems infantile and childish. We’re supposed to be adults. Shouldn’t psychiatrists be concerned that so many people sit for hours split off from society living in their own little worlds making up events that never happened? Well, no.
We write fiction for many reasons, and I suspect every fiction writer has his/her own reasons. Some write to tell a real story but in a way that the real people won’t recognize it, or if they do, will understand that others won’t be able to tell who the real people are. Shakespeare did that. Some, like me, write fiction to entertain, to tell a good story that illuminates a part of real life that only a made-up story can do. Connie Willis did that in her twin novels, Blackout and All Clear. Fiction tells us a little about ourselves in a manner we couldn’t get in any other way. Dr. Seuss did that. Fiction illuminates a small part of our humanity that we never really knew existed. Shakespeare again. There’s a place in this world for fiction, certainly, and we must realize it and get to know it. Advocating to end climate change is important, but if you want something better to do, read a novel. Better yet, write one.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about people doing things that other people have termed “treason” or “treasonous.” A certain letter was sent to the leaders of Iran. Was that treason? Some people are calling for an armed revolt against the US government. Is that treason? Maybe so, maybe not. I’m not a legal scholar (far from it), but I have a few comments on this topic, based on the definition of the word.
Treason is defined in the dictionary. But did you know treason is also defined in the US Constitution? It’s the only crime defined in the Constitution. Article III, Section 3  defines treason as: “only in levying war against (the United States), or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” The dictionary also gives the same definition, probably taking its wording directly from the Constitution. It was defined in that narrow manner to prevent the government from bringing charges against political opponents just because the government officials didn’t like being criticized. I take that narrow definition to mean that armed insurrection against the US government could be considered treason, or supplying a country we’re at war with could also. But we seem to throw this word around as though if someone does something we don’t like, it becomes treason. Did that person who said something you didn’t like really commit treason just because he disagreed with your strongly-held convictions?
Did that letter to Iran really commit treason? The people who drafted it and those who signed it may have violated federal law, but that’s not the same thing. Let’s be very clear about definitions here. We’re talking about legal terms that don’t come up very often and may not be familiar to many of us. Let’s get the terms right before we go accusing people of treasonous acts. Don’t accuse someone unless you can back it up.
In this day and age, we hear a lot about exercise. It’s considered important for overall health. Get up and get out, we are told. Walk, jog, bicycle, whatever, but get some exercise. I suspect that thousands of years ago when the human body first took the form we know today, it developed in a species that still had to struggle everyday just to get enough food to eat. Early man couldn’t go to the supermarket to get food. He/she may have had to climb trees to get fruit, or chased down prey to get meat. In any event, the human body developed with a requirement for some sort of regular exercise every day.
Enter the modern man. We ride smog-producing conveyances instead of walking. We sit at a desk or in meetings for hours every day. We have even gone so far as to develop the remote control for our television viewing so as to allow us to remain seated instead of having to get up and change the channel. Are we really that lazy?
Writing must be among the most sedentary of professions. Put butt in chair and write, we are told. We sit quietly in a chair for long hours, tapping away at a computer keyboard or scratching ink or pencil on a piece of paper. I’ve heard (I’m not giving away any names here) of writers who claim (brag, even) that they write 24/7. This implies they actually and literally write twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Personally, I’m skeptical. They say they do that because they love writing, though I doubt they’re in a chair all that time. I love to write, but not to that extent. But the existence of these writers does bring up an important point. I’m certainly not skeptical that there are writers who do spend a lot of time in the chair writing. But writing to this extent isn’t good.
Sitting that long is bad, not only for your butt, but your overall health. Sure, the writing has to be done, and the bills have to be paid, but is it worth all that time spent hacking away if you are only going to ruin your health because of it? Get out of the chair. Write in short spurts of a couple of hours at a time at the most. Walking, jogging, swimming, gardening—these are all considered good exercise. Find out what’s best for you and keep at it.
Exercise is supposed to increase blood flow to the brain, and that’s the organ most seriously involved in writing. I walk a lot. I also lift weights, though I do that more to keep the muscles and joints in my upper body from becoming rigid or frozen rather than build muscle mass. But there’s more to walking than blood flow. I’ve found a lot of ideas during my walks. I’ve solved problems with some of my writings. Walking not only improves my overall health, it gives me time to contemplate. Walking takes time. Walking five miles will take slightly more than an hour, and that gives me time to go over my work and think about what’s to come.
So, what do you do for exercise? Or are you a writer 24/7?
Much has been made in the past couple of weeks of Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) comments about the neurological complications of the measles vaccine. He recanted his ill-advised comments several days later, but they linger on, and many others have commented on his comments. Ad nauseam. Some commentators, in an effort to emphasize the safety of the vaccine and encourage people to get vaccinated or get their children vaccinated, have denied that there have ever been any severe side effects (a scientist would call them ‘adverse reactions’) at all. Strictly speaking, neither is correct.
The measles vaccine has been out since the early 1970’s in the United States, and since that time a number of adverse reactions have occurred in the days, weeks and months after some people were immunized. I use that convoluted language to emphasize a point. Adverse reactions can’t occur until the vaccine is given. You certainly can’t get a bad reaction to a vaccine before it’s given, can you? Therefore, timing is important. And just because a person receives a vaccine and gets a bad reaction, that by itself doesn’t prove that the reaction was caused by the vaccine. That being said, many reactions to measles vaccine have been reported. Autism is not one of them. (Measles vaccine is now given either as a trivalent vaccine along with mumps and rubella, or as a tetravalent vaccine: measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella.). Most reactions have been mild, such as fever or a mild rash. Some have been more severe, including seizures, joint pain and stiffness, low platelet count. Some have been very severe, including long-term seizures, even permanent brain damage. It is this last point to which Senator Paul was probably referring.
The reason these reactions are related to measles vaccine is, again, timing. They occurred after the vaccine was given. That doesn’t prove unequivocally that the reactions were due to the vaccine, but with some reactions, such as fever and a mild rash, the sheer number of cases of these reactions pretty well implicates the vaccine. But the same can’t be said for the serious reactions. So few cases of seizures and permanent brain damage have been reported we just can’t ascribe them to the vaccine. There’s not enough data.
The only way to really prove that severe brain damage has been caused by the vaccine would be to take hundreds of thousands of children and divide them into two groups. That is, it would have to be done as a double-blind trial. One group would receive the vaccine, the other a placebo. Then we’d look for adverse reactions. They should occur only in the vaccinated. But such a trial would certainly be time consuming, expensive, unnecessary, and most important of all, grossly unethical. So, all we do is report adverse reactions when they occur.
The reduction in number of cases of measles after the introduction of the measles vaccine certainly justifies the continued use of the vaccine. Measles is not just a bad cold with a rash. The disease itself can cause neurological complications, even death. The only way we’ll ever be free of the scourge of measles will be when it is eradicated from the earth. I have no idea what Rand Paul will comment on then.