Stakes and Motivation

A couple of weeks ago I sent the first 50 pages of the manuscript of my first science-fiction novel to a professional editor for evaluation.  It had been read by a number of non-professionals, including other beginning writers, non-writer friends, and those in several critique groups, but never by a professional.  The editor was almost effusive in her praise for my ability to string words together, and made it clear that she thought the book had promise in the marketplace.  But there was also a serious drawback, or rather a pair of drawbacks.  These had to do with the stakes that the characters were working toward or against, and their motivation to keep doing so.  I was glad to have her opinion.

I have to admit that I would never have realized on my own that these vital components of the novel were lacking.  The stakes and motivation were there, but were so vague that the reader had to look hard to find them.  I had been so focused on getting the writing accomplished that such esoteric concepts as laying out the reason(s) the characters were doing what they were doing had pretty much escaped me.

Clearly, characters in any story (short, medium, long) have to have a motivation to do whatever it is they do.  Sometimes it’s obvious: a kidnapped person wants to get back home.  But sometimes it’s not so obvious: a man takes a day off from work and goes on a rampage.  That kind of story may make interesting reading and there may be tension and conflict on every page, but the reader is going to want to know why?  This is true in everyday life.  Everybody does something for a reason, though we are generally not aware of others’ reasons for acting.  Rarely does someone do something for no reason, and in a novel this would soon become so boring no one would read it.

People don’t act in a vacuum.  Thoughts and desires do matter.  An author must look beyond the mere words and phrases and sentences of his/her writing.  Something drives the character—what do they want?  What keeps them going toward that goal?  Is the goal obvious in the first place?  What takes a person out of their humdrum, tiresome existence and gives them motivation to do something they otherwise would never accomplish?  I thought I had that aspect of the life of my main character(s) covered, but it didn’t come through to an independent reader.  That’s also a good recommendation for getting your work read by others.  I guarantee you won’t be able to figure out all the little details that bring a story alive by yourself.


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The Prime Directive

If you are a fan of the television and movie Star Trek series, and dating from the earliest series of programs which are usually called “Star Trek, The Original Series,” then you are doubtlessly familiar with the concept of the “Prime Directive.”  That was an order that took the form of an unalterable and non-revocable mandate from the fictional quasi-military group that ran space exploration and defense on the show, Starfleet, that no Starfleet space ship or its crew was to ever interfere in the development of life on any other planet or moon or asteroid or whatnot out there.  It was a court-martial offense and carried a severe penalty.  (Death?)  In other words, leave things alone.  During the series, several Starfleet officers ran afoul of the Directive and had to answer for their indiscretion.

Now, I suppose the concept of such a broad, overreaching regulation must have been derived from a desire in the mind of the creators of the Star Trek universe that in the future of real spaceflight, humans should not alter or change the natural progress of life-form development anywhere in the expanding universe.  It’s a noble concept and far-reaching in its enforcement, though it was used as much as a dramatic prop to enhance tension and conflict in the show as it was to provide a broad definition and desire of things to come.

Star Trek was fiction, of course, but I find myself wondering if we need a “Prime Directive” today.  In the Star Trek universe, spaceships could travel almost anywhere, and meeting new life forms and even well-developed civilizations was an everyday occurrence.  (I noticed that if the crew of a Starfleet vessel met a highly developed civilization, the Prime Directive didn’t seem to apply in reverse.  Let Starfleet get as much information as it could from other highly-developed civilizations.)  So, I ask the question, do we on Earth in our present-day infant-like crude, rocket-powered spaceships that have gotten us only into orbit and to the moon, really need a form of the “Prime Directive,” or is it too early in our space program to even worry about that?

I say we do.  We do need some sort of general, overall “directive” in our space research.  Granted, we’re not likely to meet the Klingons or the Romulans any time soon, but we do send out non-crewed probes to regions which crewed spacecraft cannot yet penetrate.  We’ve already landed on the moon, and humans will touch down on Mars within the next few years, that is almost certain.  We’ve put non-crewed spacecraft on Venus and a couple of asteroids and a comet.  So what?  What is the danger in doing that?

The danger is that we will leave something behind that has the potential to interfere with the natural development of life on those worlds and even more.  That “thing” is nucleic acids, both DNA and RNA.  It’s too late for the moon and Mars and the others, they’re already contaminated, but it’s not too late for other heavenly bodies.  We’re looking at Callisto and Europa, moons of Jupiter, as possible incubators of life, and even thinking of sending a probe to land on them and take a sample.  But we need to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to clean something so immaculate that all DNA and RNA are removed.  I’m talking every last molecule of DNA or RNA.  Sterilization may inactivate any living organism, but there’s no guarantee that it will eliminate ALL DNA and RNA too.  I’ve worked with DNA and RNA, and they’re everywhere, in bacteria and fungi and viruses, in human secretions such as sweat and saliva.  I maintain it’s virtually impossible to assure that a spacecraft will be totally nucleic acid free when it touches down on a new planet or moon.  And that’s the only thing it could ever be if we want to land on virgin planets.  The best thing to do in this situation is to stay away.  Totally.  Permanently.  Forever.  And we need a “Prime Directive” as a part of our space program to help enforce that concept.  Even the slightest amount of DNA or RNA could alter the development of life on a virgin planet for all time to come.  Or even start life development in a strange direction on a totally sterile planet.  The creators of Star Trek had it right.  We should not live up to that as our ultimate potential.

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A few weeks ago I was standing in line at a local restaurant, and in front of me were several women from a home for the mentally ill.  I presume they’ve been mentally ill all their life and are so impaired that they cannot live independently and need constant attention.  It appeared that a couple of workers from the home were also there, and shepherded the women around.  They kept them from wandering away, payed for their meal, prepared a plate of food for them, and so forth.  I referred to these women as mentally “retarded,” but was corrected by someone else who used the term mentally “challenged.”

Now I’m certainly glad to see the term “retarded” be discontinued.  It has become a derogatory term more than anything else nowadays, though I used it merely to indicate that I thought the brains of these women were damaged in some way, either physically or chemically, and did not intend for it to mean anything else.  Most likely these women have been brain damaged from birth, and their brain function has never reached what we would call “normal.”  (I’m not going to define that word.)

“Retarded” has been replaced by “challenged” as the politically correct term of choice.  But I’m not sure that’s the best word for this situation.  To me it doesn’t fit.

“Challenged” carries the connotation of knowledge of the trials that lies before one.  There’s an actual mental recognition of the challenge, whether one accepts it or not.  It’s a challenge to climb Mt. Everest; it’s a challenge to learn to scuba dive; it was a challenge to put a man on the moon; it was a challenge for Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic in a one-engine airplane; it’s a challenge to grow old; it’s a challenge to get up every morning and go to work.  But the women in front of me probably had no idea of the life situation they were in.  I presume their brains were damaged from birth, and to them, their life is what it is.  They may not be aware that they have a mental disability.  So I ask, is it appropriate to use the term “challenged” in such a situation?  Do they really have a challenge before them?  Are they cognizant of the “challenge” of the life ahead of them?

A challenge is a looking forward, with either anticipation or dread, but always forward to the trial to come.  A person injured in an automobile accident may be confined to a wheelchair, and might be considered “mobility challenged,” but there is a recognition of the challenge ahead.  For someone who cannot look ahead, who does not have the mental facility to understand that there is a challenge ahead of them, is it appropriate to say they are “challenged?”  I maintain that when the knowledge component is missing, the definition does not fit.  You cannot be challenged without your knowledge.

I’ve looked through dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) but haven’t come up with a better term.  Anybody have any suggestions?

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Beauty In Outer Space

One of my three science fiction novels is about a group of explorers who land on a distant planet in an attempt to see if it could be colonized by people of their civilization.  Many things go wrong on that planet, and that leads most of the group to consider it as dangerous and unattractive, a place to be avoided at all costs.  But a couple of explorers find the planet exciting and beautiful.  They are willing to look beyond the death and destruction to see the planet for what it is, a lovely and inspiring place on which they could live.

Fine.  But that got me to thinking, what are we likely to find when we get into outer space and see planets and moons and asteroids and comets up close?  What will we think once we land on them and take a good look around?  Will we think of them as “beautiful?”  Or will they be little more than desolate blobs of dust orbiting a hot, blistering sun?

Over the past fifty or so years of the US space program, we’ve seen a lot of images taken on the surface of two major celestial objects in our solar system, Mars and the moon.  Astronauts on the moon (the only body outside the Earth mankind has walked on) took many spectacular photographs of their moonwalks (largely on film, mind you) and brought them back for us to wonder at.  Several unmanned robotic travelers have landed on Mars and tantalized us with more vivid images, and the European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet.  All three sets of images show a largely barren landscape, though to a great extent that was planned since it’s much easier and much safer to land a spacecraft on a smooth surface than on one littered with rocks.  (The Russians did land a spacecraft on Venus, but its few images don’t show much.)  I don’t know about you, but I found the landscapes of Mars and moon to be rather plain and not terribly lovely or “beautiful” in the usual sense of that word.  They are stark, and in themselves compelling in a minimalist sense.  But not “beautiful” in comparison to, say, an evening sunset on the Rocky Mountains, or an autumn  landscape of the woodlands of Vermont.  Just my opinion here.

Still, in our solar system are planets and moons that we haven’t landed on (and in most cases I hope we don’t), and from above they show many various mottled and unique surfaces.  I imagine that the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io would be a fascinating place on which to stand.  With volcanoes that spout liquid sulfur, and lava flows and what not, it might be intriguing.  (Dangerous, too.)  But would we characterize it as “beautiful,” especially in comparison with the Earth?  I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  We might have to come up with new adjectives to describe the new worlds we encounter.

Nothing we’ve ever seen on any image returned from outer space even begins to compare with the beauty of the surface of the Earth.  But we’ve only just begun to explore.  Who knows what we will encounter when we land on planets and moons of other solar systems.  Will we think of them as “beautiful?”  Do you think of the moon or Mars as “beautiful?”

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It’s A Two-Way Street

I’ve been submitting queries about my trilogy of science-fiction novels to agents and a few editors for about fifteen years now (possibly more), and I would say that probably around half of those agents and editors now have a regular policy of not responding to an unsolicited query if they don’t intend to pursue it further.  Some don’t even bother to respond to submissions that they actively solicit (!)  (That is, if they asked for it at a meeting.)  This refusal to respond is a big part of the publishing world now, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.  It may even get worse, and most, if not all agents and publishers may eventually decide to stop responding to unsolicited queries.  I hope not for reasons I express below.

The usual reason given for the decision not to respond is the large number of queries agents and editors receive.  “A thousand a month,” is a typical measuring point.  Sometimes it’s even more.  I can certainly understand their reasoning and ultimate decision to forego a response.  Were I in their shoes and subject to all the submissions they get, I suspect I would at least give it serious consideration.

But for those of us who submit to hundreds of different agents and a fewer number of editors, not receiving a response can be frustrating.  I know in my own case—and I’m speaking only for myself at this point—it is somewhat, though I try to accept it knowing that they are very busy handling the inundation of emails/letters/other stuff they regularly get, along with their other duties.  But I want to make it clear to all those editors and agents that their decision has repercussions beyond the simple decision not to respond.  Many agents say that if the submitter doesn’t hear back within a certain amount of time, they should either contact them or query again because the submission may have gotten lost in the mail or within the email server.  Now we have to contact the agent or whoever a second time just to find out that the query has been rejected.  Time consuming and, really, unnecessary.

But my most vehement concern about agents and editors who don’t respond comes from something else that agents and editors emphasize when writers communicate with them.  We submitters must always act “professional” they say.  We must always come across as someone who knows the rules of the business of writing and publishing, and act in a manner consistent with that knowledge.  Follow the rules of each individual agency, they say; don’t be “cute” in your submission; don’t send flowers or candy with your submission; know the agent’s name and how to spell it; don’t send a letter with the salutation “Dear Agent;” don’t tell them your mother-in-law liked your book; don’t send blanket queries to a hundred agents; and so on and so forth.  Always good advice, certainly.

But it seems to me that while we submitters are always supposed to always be “professional” in our dealings with those who hold the keys to our publishing success, the reverse is also true: agents and editors must always be professional in their dealings with the writers they represent and publish.  And ensconced firmly within that requirement is a response to any and all communications.  A negative response doesn’t have to be much, just a note telling the writer they have decided not to further pursue publication.  Any query, and this applies especially to one that was actively solicited by a publishing professional, deserves a response.  That’s only professional.  After all, if publishing people don’t want to work with unprofessional writers, then those publishing professionals must realize that writers sure as hell don’t want to work with unprofessional agents and editors either.  It’s a two-way street.

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Drowning In Plastic–An Update

In 2013, I posted a blot entry about how the Earth is drowning in plastic, and we should all be willing to do something to help minimize the problem.  In my own inimitable way, I decided to start cleaning and reusing both plastic bags and plastic wrap.  (See “Drowning in Plastic” of 2013/12/01).  Now, five years later, an update is due.  What’s happened since I made my decision?

I initially tried to clean and re-use both plastic bags (the Zip-Lock kind) and the Glad Wrap I use occasionally to cover the tops of food containers that don’t have their own top.  (As far as bags are concerned, keep in mind I’m talking only about the “zip-lock” type.  The “fold-over” type of sandwich bag is a different matter.  I’m not using those any more and haven’t used them in years.)  At the time I made my decision, both seemed relatively simple to clean.  The bags have to be turned inside-out to clean, and I’ve grown accustomed to washing them every now and then.  I’ve been doing that for these past five years, and haven’t had any real problems.  But the plastic wrap has become a different matter.  I started washing each piece, but it soon became clear that washing plastic wrap is neither convenient or simple.  The wrap has a mind of its own, and is difficult to keep flat while it is being washed.  After about a year, I gave up trying to wash and re-use Glad Wrap.  Now I—admittedly and improperly—throw it away.  I can’t recycle it because recyclers don’t recycle plastic wrap, and besides, they don’t take plastics with food on it.

But washing and re-using the bags has worked.  I have several boxes of plastic bags in my cupboard, and in the five years since I decided to wash out bags, I haven’t bought any new boxes at all.  The bags seem to wear well; I rarely throw a bag away.  Most bags in my stock have been washed many times—way too many to count.  In short, while washing takes a little bit of time, it seems well worth it to do one’s part in helping to minimize plastic waste.  Bag manufacturers may not like it, but it is at least something anyone can do.

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Where Are They? Part 3

In the first two entries in this series of brief examinations of the difficulty of traveling in outer space to new planets and stars and worlds, I looked at how difficult it is for humans to travel in outer space (we’ve only just made it to the moon), and whether the knowledge of the ability to travel to other stars and their planets really exists at all.  Is such knowledge universally available, or are we condemned to travel long distances in spacecraft at well below the speed of light?

In this post, I want to look at the development of life on a fledgling planet and ask the question, what does it take for intelligent life to develop?  In fact, I want to go back not only to the development of life, but further, to the birth of the planet itself.  What conditions are necessary for a planet to develop life?  This will be a tricky question to ask properly because we have only one known example where such conditions have arisen, the Earth, and we can’t be sure that what happened on Earth is a reasonable example for life developing elsewhere.  But what the hell, let’s take a look.

Others have tried to estimate the probability of life on other worlds, and the Drake equation is one such estimate.  But the Drake equation is concerned with estimating what fraction of planets out there are broadcasting signals into space, a point in evolution we have already reached.  As with any examination of the presence of life on other worlds, estimates have to be made when entering data into the Drake equation, and in reality, we have no idea how accurate those estimates are.  I’m more interested in trying to find out what percentage of planets that eventually coalesce into a physical body from the dust surrounding a newly-ignited star will eventually go on to develop intelligent life that can leave the bonds of the planet and fly around.  Let’s take a look at some of the factors that have to exist before this can happen.

Over the past several years I’ve jotted down a number of factors that have been proposed as essential for the development of intelligent life here on Earth, and, with a little bit of luck, might be necessary for life to develop on another heavenly body.
1.  A stable sun: the star around which such a planet orbits can’t get too hot or too cold, or it could halt development of life altogether.  (Earth’s sun has gone through cooling and heating phases, but never to a degree that baked or froze the planet, killing life completely.)
2.  The planet has to develop at just the right distance from the star.  The so-called “Goldilocks” zone.
3.  There has to be water on the surface.  Not just water, but liquid water, liquid because life can’t develop in steam or ice.
4.  The planet has to have an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere.  Granted, life can develop in the absence of oxygen, and probably did on Earth, and those microscopic life forms did produce the oxygen in our atmosphere, but it most likely oxygen will be required for intelligent life to develop.
5.  The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere implies ozone in the upper atmosphere to protect the life forms on the surface from too much ultraviolet radiation.
6.  A magnetic field surrounding the planet.  This implies a liquid iron core and traps cosmic rays and other injurious stuff from outer space.
7.  Another planet in the same star system that is large enough to clear much of the excess debris around the star to prevent too much from bombarding the nascent planet.
8.  Yet, some bombardment is essential to bring all the stuff (like water) to the new planet that life will require.  Not too much, not too little.
9.  A large moon that provides a gravitational tug on the planet, inducing tides in the large bodies of water, as well as on the land masses, pulling and pushing them around in just the right way.
10.  The planet should be in a near circular orbit so that the radiation it receives from its sun is relatively constant.  Not too hot, not too cold.
11.  Other planets in the same system have to be in near circular orbits to prevent them from sending debris toward the newly-formed planet, and preventing their gravitational field from pushing the planet into an odd orbit, or even knocking it out of its solar system altogether.
12.  Tectonic activity to keep the developing life in a constant state of evolution.  Stagnation is the death-knell of advancing development.
13.  Periodic extinctions, whether caused by an asteroid strike, volcanic activity, the cooling of the central star, or other factor, to, as in #12, keep the development of life going.  Or, to put it more simply, everything has to be shaken up from time to time.

In so many of these factors, not only are they essential in an absolute or qualitative sense, but in a quantitative sense too.  Not too much, not too little.  Earth got just the right amount of some things—just the right amount of oxygen, a sun neither too hot or too cold, just the right size moon, and so forth.  That’s just going to complicate the calculations.

Now, with all these factors in mind (and there may be more we don’t know about), can we make any reasonable calculation as to what proportion of planets in our galaxy fit this profile?  Are there other planets out there that could have developed life like ours?  To make that calculation, we have to ask what proportion of planets meet each characteristic.  That’s impossible to do right now, so we have to estimate.  Such estimates may be way off, but let’s give it a try.  Let’s assume the simplest situation (and probably an overestimate), that each planet has a 1 in 100 chance of having each characteristic.  This works out to 1/100 to the 13th power, or 10 to the −26 power.  That says that only one planet out of 10 to the 26th has all the characteristics needed for life to develop.  It is estimated that around one hundred billion planets exist in the galaxy.  That’s 10 to the 11th power.  Okay, make it 10 to the 12th.  Clearly, even if we use a serious overestimate to the chances of any characteristic happening on a developing planet, we’ve just eliminated not only the possibility of life developing on another planet, but on our own too.  We shouldn’t even exist.  Yet, there’s good evidence these characteristics are essential.  We can’t just drop two or three.  The numbers just don’t add up.

So, where are we?  Those numbers do give one possible explanation to Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, but they are such an overestimate it’s hard to know if that’s the right explanation or not.  It is possible that life could develop on other planets in situations we’re not familiar with, after all, we’re using Earth as an example and that may not be the most judicious model.  Are we freaks in one way or another?  Are we alone?  You be the judge.

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