Over the past few weeks or so, I’ve noticed on Facebook several posts about how climate change has caused warming in the northern parts of the Earth, especially in northern Canada and Siberia. The posts give information about how carcasses of dead animals (and, possibly, humans) are being exposed for the first time in ten, twenty, thirty, or forty thousand years (or even more) because the permafrost in that area is melting. Potentially, many of those animals or humans died of infectious diseases such as anthrax, plague, or other highly communicable diseases, and the threat to us humans today is that a new outbreak could be started if we exhume the bodies without taking careful precautions to prevent spread. They even give an example of an anthrax outbreak in Russia when an infected animal carcass was exhumed. I fully agree.
I have two real comments to make about these stories. Both points are short and simple, because I don’t have the space here to go into any detail about how to handle the exposed carcasses. I’m not an expert in that, and there’s a lot of boring detail I’d have to list anyway. My first point is that these stories are calling the agents that cause the diseases that could be exposed as being caused by “viruses,” even though the all the ones they list are actually caused by bacteria. Viruses are not “bacteria.” Viruses are submicroscopic organisms that cause disease, while bacteria are larger, and can be seen in a microscope. I hope we will begin to use the two terms properly in order to avoid any confusion in the future.
Having said that, there are possible situations where real viruses might be uncovered by permafrost thawing (“permathawing”?) I can conceive that sometime a carcass of a human who died of a virus disease (such as smallpox, influenza, polio, rabies, ebola, etc.) might be uncovered. These are real viruses, not the “viruses” listed by the writers of the articles mentioned above. Some of these might be dangerous. But there’s a caveat, and this leads to the second point I want to make.
Viruses, on the whole, are easier to kill than bacteria. It is true that both viruses and bacteria can be preserved for a long time by freezing. A dead body, whether animal or human, which is frozen soon after death to a temperature well below zero (and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Fahrenheit or centigrade here; cold is cold) can preserve any infectious agent reasonably well. But the agent will begin to die off as time goes by. Bacteria will generally be preserved longer. Viruses I suspect would become inactivated more easily. But there are so many variables—how soon after death the body was frozen, how deep in the frost it was, what the temperature was throughout the frozen state, how long ago it died—that I can’t even begin to make generalizations. For some viruses, like influenza, for example, I suspect that if a prehistoric human who died of a strain of flu as potent as the 1918 strain were exhumed, it might not be too infectious, since the flu virus can be destroyed relatively easily. But I can’t be sure. There is one virus I would be very suspicious of, were a human carcass infected with it were to be uncovered, and that is smallpox. In lab studies, smallpox is more difficult to kill than most other viruses, and this could raise some serious issues. The problem is made worse by the fact that we don’t immunize people against smallpox any more, and that means that any researchers under the age of about thirty or forty who might be working with recovered human remains from permathawing could be at risk for the disease. Perhaps this is a good reason to bring back smallpox immunization, at least for people working in this area, if not the population at large.
In summary, let’s start using the terms “bacteria” and “viruses” correctly to avoid confusion in the future, and let’s be careful exhuming any dead carcass, human or animal. Diseases have killed animals probably for as long as animals have existed, and those nasty “viruses,” potentially at least, could come back and do it again. We might even uncover a virus we’ve never seen before.
In this blog post I want to talk a little about putting tension and conflict into story telling. I’ve just completed reading two science fiction novels (written by the same author) in which I believe the concept of tension was handled badly. I’m not identifying the novels or the author for two reasons. One, this is not a book review, and two, I’m not trying to cut down or disparage the books (you may actually like them); I’m only trying to make a point. The problem with the books as I see them is that the author placed both protagonists in a state of high tension and internal conflict, and kept the unfortunate person in that state for virtually the entire book. I found this situation almost unreadable. Trying to read through this, page after page, chapter after chapter, was emotionally taxing on me as well. Many times I wanted to toss the books away and not finish them. (I did finish them, however, because I figured if I wanted to critique them, I’d better read the entire book.) In short, that’s a terrible thing to do to your protagonist as well as to your reader.
Placing a novel character in such a state is so grossly unrealistic and unbelievable I find myself wondering how it got past the agency and the editor in the first place. I’m surprised someone didn’t stop it before publication, or at least question it. I certainly would never put one of my characters in such a desperate situation. I might put them in that plight for a chapter or two, or three, but not for the whole book. Tension and conflict are essential in a novel, of that there is no doubt, and it may be true that I don’t have enough of either in my books. But tension and conflict should rise and fall like the tides. Keeping a character in eternal tension is unrealistic, and even science fiction has to be “realistic,” at least to a certain degree. Raise the tension occasionally; keep your characters sane (unless insanity is a part of the story). If this is what it takes to get published in this day and age, I don’t want to have any part of it.
As a good example of the variation of tension, I offer the Alfred Hitchcock movie “To Catch A Thief.” Not because it’s such a great example, but merely because I watched portions of it last night. In the movie, a cat burglar has been retired for fifteen years, but now a copycat has started burglarizing the homes of the wealthy, and the retired burglar has to clear his name and prove to the police the break-ins weren’t his doing, or go to jail. In his words “they’ll throw away the key.” (Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t above using a cliché.) High stakes, no doubt. But Hitchcock intersperses humor and lightheartedness throughout the movie, even though it takes the main character most of the movie to identify the real burglar. I think that’s one thing that makes Hitchcock such a movie favorite; he knew how to handle tension.
As an unpublished author, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe lack of conflict and tension are my problem. But I do know what I felt when I read the books, and I didn’t like it at all. And that’s enough for me.
I’ve just finished a serious and rather lengthy revision of my first novel, a science fiction work of—in its final form—about 124,000 words. This revision was prompted by reading about and talking to people about that nemesis of novel writers, the dreaded backstory. You’ve got too much backstory in your novel, some people will say, many times without even reading your novel. They may or may not be correct in every case, but I decided to take a long hard look at my first novel and try to do something about the backstory. Was it too much? Not enough? Or just right? I decided it was too much. Not just too much, but way too much, and most of it had to go. I had whole chapters (four of them to be exact) consisting of nothing but backstory. Those chapters interrupted the flow of the narrative, and while they added some substantial information to the reader’s knowledge of the past history of the two main characters, they were basically wordy descriptions of nothing (or very little) that the reader actually needed to know. So, out they came, all except one, and that one does reveal some vitally important information about one character’s early life. Some important details about backstory from the material cut out I did manage to work into the narrative in little spots here and there, and I think the story is much better for it.
In cutting out the backstory so drastically, I reduced the word count from 127,000 to 122,000. But there was a further change I needed to make. Several years ago I pitched the novel to a New York literary agent, and she asked to see the whole manuscript. Even though she eventually decided not to represent the novel, she made one comment that, at the time, left me somewhat confused. She said she would have liked to know more about what was going on in the main character’s head. To know what the main character was thinking. At the time I didn’t know how to take that, because I thought I’d put enough in about what the main character was thinking, and I didn’t want to add more because the novel was too long as it was. But now that I had removed so much backstory, I decided to revisit the agent’s advice and see what I could do. So now the novel has grown from 122,000 to around 124,500. Still leaner than before, although still rather large for a novel. But I think much better overall. Is this the final revision I need to make? Stay tuned.
I will be attending the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in late April this year, and will be pitching to an editor representing a well-known sci-fi publisher. Perhaps this year will be the one. Maybe he’ll like the new version.
Why don’t you check your novel? You’ve probably got too much backstory in it.
The title of this post isn’t meant to ask where you are in a spatial location, but in terms of time. Where are you—where are we all, for that matter—in the life of this universe? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. We all live on a rather attractive blue, white, green and brown planet circling a rather ordinary yellow-white star in a rather ordinary galaxy somewhere in the middle of billions of other galaxies which together constitute what we affectionately refer to as the “universe.” This universe arose from a massive expansion of all matter and energy some thirteen billion years ago, and is rapidly expanding and expanding, apparently to go on forever, driven apart by wild forces within itself. It will go on for time immemorial, never to return to its original state. That’s, at least, the current thinking.
Here we are, sophisticated, sentient human beings, watching this all unfold, trying to make sense of it. I’ve wondered, ever since I heard of the “big bang” hypothesis, which is the current favorite explanation of how we got here, if there isn’t an alternative explanation, that the universe will eventually run out of steam and collapse back onto itself in a sort of “big crunch,” or “big splat,” from which it would rebound into another expansion and another universe, and so on, ad infinitum. That seems to me to be a more logical way for the universe to run than just one “bang” which blows up like a balloon and dissipates out in the nether regions, never to be seen again. The “single bang” theory doesn’t explain what came before the expansion, nor what will come after it. But that may be the way it really is. Dark energy seems to be pushing the galaxies apart faster than dark matter can keep them together.
Philosophically, this is mind boggling. We are the only species on this planet that really understands, to any degree whatsoever, the goings-on out there in space. We’ve been watching the skies for thousands of years. We’ve sent satellites into orbit to observe it. We’ve sent men to the moon. Do you think that cat or dog or goldfish or parakeet in your house cares much about the big bang? Do the deer and the wolves in the forest understand that the little red dot in the sky is a cold, solid planet rather than a blazingly hot star? Or even what a star is in the first place? No, just us. Yet we humans make up such a miniscule percentage of the universe, it’s difficult to estimate how many zeros I’d have to put down to the right of a decimal point to give that percentage. We humans are what I might call “universe sentient.” We know where we are, though we can’t travel very far in it. We’ve seen the stars, the Milky Way, and some of the other galaxies that make up our universe. We have a lot to learn, granted. But we are capable of learning it. We have the mathematical skills and computer skills to master the intricacies of the universe. No dog or cat, or even chimpanzee, has that. Most likely, other civilizations exist in our galaxy with similar skills, perhaps even more advanced. (Maybe they can tell us if dark matter and dark energy really exist.) But philosophically we are alone, and, I suspect, will remain alone for the foreseeable future.
A few days ago I watched the movie “The Caine Mutiny,” for about the fourth or fifth time. A great movie, and a solid member of my Favorite Movies list. (You can see the list on this blog site.) But as I watched the movie, a couple of strange and odd things gnawed at me. I can remember thinking about this during some of those times I watched the movie before, so I decided to explore these questions in a little detail.
As a movie (released in 1954), it’s one of the all-time greats of World War II naval movies. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize-(1952)-winning novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The Executive Officer of the USS Caine (played by Van Johnson) is moved to relieve his captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, during a storm at sea. The executive officer is court-martialed (of course), but is acquitted. Much of the evidence against Cmdr. Queeq is based on the idea that Queeg is “mentally unstable,” to use the words of his most senior crew. And throughout the first several months that the Caine is commanded by Queeg, they document in detail several incidents they feel establish Queeg’s mental illness. They say these incidents show he’s “paranoid,” even they don’t really know the meaning of the term. During the court-martial, testimony reveals that three Navy psychiatrists have examined Queeg and declare him to be free of mental illness, and the conspirators get called on their “armchair psychiatry”. How could they make such a diagnosis? They’re not medical doctors. But my viewing of the movie has consistently led me to wonder if Queeg isn’t really just scared. That’s what it looked like it during the storm, when Van Johnson took over command of the ship. The terror in Bogart’s eyes, and the fact that Johnson had to pry the captain’s arm from around some object on the bridge of the ship, perhaps the compass housing, as well as the fact that Queeg issues all sorts of unrealistic orders, orders that could conceivably sink the ship in the storm—all these point more to cowardice than paranoia. At least, that’s the way Bogart played the character, and Bogart is a fine actor. I don’t know if it was Bogart’s decision to play Queeg that way, or the director’s, Edward Dmytryk. This is where the first difficulty comes in.
During the trial, the defense attorney, played by Jose Ferrer, states quite explicitly that a Captain in the US Navy could never be guilty of cowardice on duty, because he has to rise through the ranks to command his own ship, and anyone who ever exhibited any evidence of fear or timidity would be cut long before he reached command rank. Yet that’s the way the captain was played, and it brought a question to my mind just exactly what the movie was trying to say.
The second difficulty I had with the movie was that the “real” reason the Executive Officer took over command of the ship had to do more with the manner in which the captain was handling it, not his paranoia. All of that didn’t seem to matter at the time, though. The ship was in imminent danger of capsizing, and only Van Johnson’s orders kept the ship upright and brought it safely into port, especially after it had sustained major damage. I got the strong feeling from the movie that this was the “real” reason for the mutiny, not the Captain’s mental illness, but it never came up in the trial. That seems rather odd.
As a somewhat introverted person and aspiring novelist, I have a tendency to sit in front of a computer and watch the world go by electronically. (Isn’t it amazing what electrons can do for us?) Like many introverted people, I spend a lot of time alone. Not lonely, mind you, but alone—there’s a big difference. And from what I understand, many other writers are also introverted to one degree or another, and like to work alone. That’s what you might call the “default” mode of writing. That is, the single writer sitting alone in his/her apartment/house/office toiling away at the desk with whatever writing tools suit him/her best. Computer, pen and ink, pencil, and paper—they’ve all been used in the past. But now the internet has been added to that writing situation and it begs the question: how has that changed writing?
The internet allows an introverted person to interact with the world around him without having to be involved in it. More than just a window onto the street in front of his/her house, the internet brings the world to the writer. I wonder how writers such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson would have liked the internet. Charles Dickens, not noted for being particularly introverted, wrote about the poorest of the poor in England in the 1800’s, and was familiar with the times because he experienced them first-hand. He was out in it. But would he have used the internet (assuming in the manner of a science-fiction novel that it was available back then) to enhance his experience? In comparison, Emily Dickinson might just be the most introverted writer of all times. She rarely left her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became a recluse early in her life. Yet she was a brilliant poet, and we still read her writings today. What would she have thought of the internet? Could she have used it to enhance her poetry? It certainly would have brought her more than the view from the window of her home. I wonder if there are any other writers as introverted as her.
In any event, I don’t feel as bound to the house as Ms. Dickinson, nor do I get out as much as Mr. Dickens is reported to have. Yet I do get out, and enjoy the experience. Many introverts refuse to interact with more than a few friends, but I enjoy the outdoors, though I don’t interact with people as well as, say, an extrovert. The internet is a way to get research done, keep up with the news, find out what friends are doing, keep in contact with family, market books, set up readings, look for bookstores and other markets, advertise one’s wares, and, generally, stay connected with society. All of that is very important for the sophisticated writer, and all of that can be done at home. But getting out is still very important because you can experience things you can’t get on the internet. Riding the train on the internet isn’t the same as riding it in person. I speak from experience. Still, you won’t find me hobnobbing with the rich at a high society ball. I’m not into that.
I’m not by nature a political person. I do have my own strongly held convictions on the political issues of the day, and I vote in every election I can get my hands on, but I generally refrain from discussing politics in person, in writing, on Facebook, or in this blog. I’d much rather write about writing or science or the environment. Those are topics I feel much more strongly about, than, say, the length of Donald Trump’s ____. (You fill in the blank.) But in this day and age, politics is all about us, like a miasma that infects every aspect of our lives. Ignoring it is difficult. Everywhere you turn, you are pummeled with facts, pseudo-facts, opinion, pseudo-opinion, and all manner of intellectual graffiti, designed solely to influence you to believe someone else’s opinion. My feeling about all this is: I have my own opinion; don’t mess me up with yours.
Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist. I like the rigidity of the scientific process. Sure, there’s room for opinion in science; in fact it’s full of it. But your opinion in science is supposed to be based on the facts. You have to quote chapter and verse in order to be believed in science. You have to be able to list the reasons you believe something. No “alternate facts” here, just the realistic facts and data that support and bolster your opinion. Do viruses cause cancer in humans? What are the facts concerning the existence of dark matter? What is the evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns? And so forth. Just the facts.
Politics, on the other hand, is largely reactionary. I’m not talking about extremely conservative politics which wants to take us back to the 1700s or 1800s, but reactionary in the sense that it rarely generates anything new, but mostly reacts to what has come before. Science, on the other hand, is progressive. It is what generates the forward motion in many fields. Science found the Higgs boson; politics has yet to react to it. Science showed that chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in water; only later did political organizations make it mandatory that drinking water be treated to reduce the number of water-borne diseases in the US. Science developed the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer, the internet, and now politics has to regulate it. Science is on the cutting edge; politics trails and many times cuts itself on the cutting edge.
That’s not to say politics isn’t necessary in our lives, and I’m not trying to say here that politics is unnecessary. Politics concerns itself with the relations between various groups of people, and regulates and restricts those relations. Important, certainly. Politics also takes it upon itself to codify the important discoveries and make them law. In many cases that’s also necessary. But it’s far more satisfying, enjoyable, and rewarding to be in the front of discovery, to be doing what no one else has done before, and to know facts that no one else knows. Especially the politicians. Science is like being in the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been? Especially after they crossed the Continental Divide and began to work their way down the western side of the Rocky Mountains toward the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean. No white man had ever been there. I would like to have been there. I couldn’t, obviously, so I explored the interactions between virus particles. It’s the explorer in me.
Damn the politicians—full speed ahead.