Archive for October, 2010

New Worlds

An article appeared on a few days ago about a newly discovered planet, Gliese 581g.  If you’re not familiar with new planets, this planet (called an extrasolar planet because it’s outside our solar system and revolves around another star) was reported on September 29 as the first “earth-sized” planet ever found that resides in the habitable zone, the area around a star where it’s not too cold and not too hot, where life could conceivably develop, all other things (liquid water, suitable atmosphere, etc.) present as well.  Now, it seems, the existence of this planet is being called into question by a different group of astronomers.  They reviewed the measurements that the original group made and said they had serious reservations that the planet existed. 

A lot of measurements have to be taken to detect a planet revolving around a star a hundred light years or more away.  Months of measurements, in fact.  And a lot of computer time.  The existence of the planet is based on inference, slight movements of the star itself, detectable only after months of observation.  (Only one planet that I’ve heard about has ever been visualized directly, and even that one was little more than a tiny dot in the telescope image.)  So, this planet, Gliese 581g, was “observed” more by computer than by eyesight, and the data that was fed into the computer is subject to interpretation.  The fact that this planet may not exist has astronomers in an uproar.

All of this makes such a big deal because we, as inhabitants of the only planet we know of on which life developed, seem to have some ingrained necessity to find life somewhere else in our universe.  Several billion stars exist in our galaxy, and the assumption is that some star, some where, must have a planet around it where life developed.  The chances are too great for it not to.  But of over 500 extrasolar planets we’ve found, only this one, Gliese 581g, has the potential to host life, and now it’s suspect.

I’ve never understood this addiction to finding another planet.  So many people want to find life somewhere else, whether it’s on Mars, or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or around another planet in our galaxy.  “I can’t believe we’re alone,” they cry.  We’ve poured tons of money into the SETI project [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence] which, in over 30 years of listening for signals from outer space, has yet to record a definite find, and now the one good possibility for a habitable planet has been questioned.

Let’s face it: we may be alone in this part of the galaxy.  That concept bothers so many people, but it doesn’t bother me.  What difference does it make?  The human animal has been alone for as long as it’s been on this planet (if we’ve been visited from outer space, we’ve never found any good, hard, solid evidence for it).  We’ve developed as a species over millions of years without any outside help, we’ve gone about the business of improving ourselves and our planet alone, and we’ve produced a society that is intelligent enough to cultivate the concept of “other worldly life” all by ourselves.  No outside help needed.  Doesn’t that say something about us?  Do we need extraterrestrial life to validate that accomplishment?

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What is imagination?  Got any ideas?

A dictionary definition of imagination might be the power to create something in one’s mind; or to form a mental image of something not present to the senses; or the ability to create something new, never before seen or heard or felt.  Now, all of that is good and important, certainly, but there’s more to imagination than just creating a new object.

As a fiction writer, imagination is my stock in trade.  A book of fiction has to be imaginative.  It has to live in the mind of the reader.  It has to jump from the page of the book directly into the brain of the reader.  Imagination is the glue that holds the story together.  It must have elements of logic and reason, of course, yet it has to leave behind the mundane and unexceptional and pass into a world that, almost by definition, cannot exist in his universe.   This is especially true for those of us who write science fiction.

Much of my science fiction writing is of worlds beyond our solar system.  Fictitious worlds that don’t exist may, in some cases, be based on real worlds (though frequently they are not).  Imagination plays a role in the development of those worlds.  I derive a lot of the information I use in my world-building from science fact.  For example, the current “epidemic” of new planets that astronomers have found over the past ten years or so has fueled some of my world-building.  But not all of it.

New planets are fine, but it takes more.  Designing a new world only begins the process of imagination.  Placing a fictitious planet in orbit around a fictitious star is good, and a start, but it has to be populated by a race of beings different in many ways, some definable, some not, from all the other beings we are familiar with today.  Different from us as humans.  A new race has to have a reason for its existence–how did it arise, what keeps it alive, how does it get by day by day, what does it value above all else, what does it devalue and debase.  All of this has to come from the imagination of the author.

Yet, there is even more than this.  What is it that makes one author’s world more real than another’s?  What pulls us into one book more than another?  I read a book recently by a well-known sci-fi author, but was disappointed.  Not in the writing, certainly, it lived up to his usual standards of clear, concise, well-thought out prose.  But in the end, I put the book down feeling I had not lived through an exciting science-fiction story, a story that captured my imagination and took my mind to a totally different universe.  That’s the secret.  Imagination is not simply the power to create a new planet, or a new race of people, or to place humans in contact with that race and describe the interactions between them.  Imagination draws its power from the newness, the novelty of the interaction.  What goes on that no one else ever thought of?  What does that sci-fi novel tell us about ourselves?

If I seem to be fumbling around trying to define imagination, I am.  Defining imagination is a lot like defining gravity.  We know what it is, but it’s hard to define.  It’s hard to come up with a definition that will please everyone.  Examples are a way of showing a point.  A good science fiction novel is imaginative.  Like Star Wars was imaginative in its time.   Like Robert Heinlein was imaginative in his.  Or Jules Verne or H. G. Wells.  It’s easy to say you aren’t going to write a good sci-fi novel without it, but hard to know if you’ve got it when you do write the novel.  Only time will tell.

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You are what you write

Do you use Facebook?  Do you send emails?  Do you Tweet?  [God save us all from that word.]  Do you blog, or comment on someone else’s blog?  Do you leave comments about news stories on news websites?  If so, you’re a writer.  Maybe not a great writer, but a writer nonetheless.

You’re not going to win a Pulitzer prize for writing in any of those situations.  There’s no Pulitzer for Tweeting or blogging or friending on Facebook.  But that doesn’t mean you have to write badly–and here’s my comment for today: so many people do.  Just because you’re writing a short message doesn’t mean you have the option of descending into the despair of poor writing just because it’s only a few words, or because it’s a small comment on another story, or because it’s a short description of what you’re doing at the moment.

Good writing doesn’t just win awards, good writing communicates appropriately.  It gets its message across simply and without confusion.  It produces a response in the reader.  That response may be positive or negative, but it will be a response based on the content of the message, not the incompetence of the writer.  Your writing, good or bad, tells us something about you, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not.

In my profoundly limited experience with electronic media, I’ve found the posts on Facebook to be reasonably good.  Most people get their message across without too many misspellings or comma errors, although I’ve never understood what putting 942 exclamation points after a posting adds to the message.  Email likewise, though I’ve run into a few emails written in all lowercase.  It’s in the comments section of news stories where the English language takes a bastardly hit. 

Here’s where the poorest of the poor emerge.  What were these people doing in English class in high school?  Did any of them attend high school?  So many of the comments I’ve read don’t even stay on subject.  Some are written in all lower case, and some are written in upper case.  Shouting is not the way to be taken seriously.  Some seem to be written by people who do a lot of text messaging, using “u” for “you”, and using common texting  code (lol).  Now, I can understand using shortened versions of words while text messaging, it saves time and saves having to type on that tiny keyboard on your cell phone.  And, certainly, if your head is buried in your texting while you’re driving down the highway trying to avoid all those 18-wheelers bearing down on you, and trying to swerve around the young mother pushing her 3-month old triplets in a stroller across the road, of course you want to keep your message to a minimum.  But if you’re typing on a computer, commenting on some other story, or giving your opinion about a newsworthy event, or emailing a friend, a little care is appropriate.

Stay on story.  Capitalize the first word of each sentence.  (How much extra effort does it take to press the “Shift” key?”)  Write complete sentences.  Use the spell checker.  Read and re-read what you’ve written before you send it.  Remember, you’ve got a message to get across.  If we can’t understand your message, what value is that to you?  Think back to English class–your teacher was trying to tell you something.  What you put down on that com screen is a reflection of you.  You are what you write.  That’s a fact of life.  You can’t get away from it.

If you don’t know the difference between a comma and a period (no tasteless jokes here), how can we take you seriously?  If you write in all caps, you sound like a blowhard who can’t get his message across by logic and reason and has to yell and scream and drive everyone away just to make a point.  It’s not worth my time to read those comments, and I don’t.  I made a conscious decision a long time ago to never comment on news stories, because I don’t want my writing in that company.

Now that I’ve vented my spleen, what kind of comment are you going to leave?

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