Saturday, August 30, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors August 31

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post up to eight sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image below.

Shayla, codename "Shark", has rendezvoused in the forest with members of a terrorist cell. The group has discovered that she's injured, and things are turning ugly.


Shayla studied Tiger's stance, and assessed the speed with which she'd drawn her weapon. I could take her, I think, but... "I'd be happy to prove my ability to you, but this mission requires stealth. If I need to fight, it will be because I've already failed."

Cobra pursed his lips, then nodded. He gestured to the side of the clearing. "We travel by boat. The river network extends right up to the edge of Horliath."


If you enjoy these snippets and would like to read them properly in context, they are all from early chapters which can be sampled for free on most of the online stores listed in the sidebar.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Diversity rules!

A while back I talked about the possibilities of alien life, and our state of scientific knowledge about the emergence of life. The fact that we have more questions than answers leaves a lot of room for sci-fi writers to play with in convincing worldbuilding.

All the same, rather than dish up a random biological smorgasbord it pays to give some thought to the universe you're building, and how it came to look the way it does. This is like developing backstory, but instead of working out the past of individuals, or of societies, you're sketching out the backstory of life itself.

Today, I'm poking a little bit at just one branch of the tree of possibilities to see where it might lead. Other branches to follow in later posts.

For today, I ask what if we assume that life has emerged independently many times, and that it is common throughout the universe? What are the possible implications for sci-fi worldbuilding?

This is a common scenario in many sci-fi worlds, and yet I feel is the easiest to deal with in an unconvincing way.

Why do I feel this way? My line of thinking can be summed up as follows:

From what we can see of the universe, it appears that extreme diversity rules. This means that, unless there are some deep organizing principles funneling life down a few narrow paths, we should expect life to be extremely diverse too.

Let's unpack the separate elements of that paragraph...

Diversity rules

All around us in nature, at all levels, we see bewildering variety stemming from simple foundations.

Life, for example, comes in all shapes and sizes even though much of it has a lot in common in terms of chemistry and cellular structure. But that is just what we can see on Earth, and life itself seems to be a pretty special case so is probably not a good example to extrapolate. The trouble is, we don't (yet) have the technology to see what's going on elsewhere in any great detail.

What we can observe of other worlds, other stars, and other planetary systems suggests that diversity is the norm everywhere we look.

Within our own solar system, no two planets or moons are remotely alike. Just looking at Jupiter's four largest moons, for example, we have: highly volcanic Io, covered in yellow sulphuric lava flows; icy smooth Europa with its crazed and cracked white surface; rocky Ganymede with a thin oxygen atmosphere and a magnetic field (the only moon to have one); and dark and cratered Callisto, speckled with frost over its highest surface features.

A similar story holds true across all the major bodies we've examined.

Given that these are all (apparently) lifeless balls of rock and gas forged from the same mix of basic ingredients, this variety is both unexpected and quite breathtaking.

So, what might other life look like?

Here we can only speculate, but here are some thoughts...

Life on Earth is based on proteins, lipid membranes, DNA, many common respiratory pathways, and all formed on backbones of carbon. Once the first precursors of life took form and started spreading, they took over the planet and gave no chance for alternatives to arise.

But what's to say that, given a fresh start, different mechanisms might not arise to do the same jobs? I bet there are other molecules that could catalyze and regulate reactions that look nothing like proteins as we know them. And why should DNA be so special? Or even if alien life evolved DNA its genetic code, and what it codes for, could be wildly different from our own.

The same thinking extends all the way up through the hierarchies that make up complex organisms. Does complex life have to be cellular, or could some more amorphous arrangement of self-replicating chemistry scale up in a workable way? What if the entire ocean of an alien planet formed a super-organism from its soup of reactions? Could deposits of silicon form complex enough interactions powered directly by photo-voltaic reactions?

And what about Douglas Adams' hyper-intelligent shade of the color blue?

Organizing principles

In the absence of any other information, my default stance would be to expect vast diversity. That means, if you paint a universe where life arose independently on many worlds and it all turns out to be based on carbon chemistry with DNA-based inheritance then you'd better give me a darned good reason!

A useful fall-back mechanism is to invoke some form of underlying principles that lead to common solutions.

Back to the example of the highly varied planets and moons. Despite the variety, they all share one obvious feature: roundness. Gravity tends to pull sufficiently large masses into a low-energy state - a sphere. In other words, despite the superficial variety of composition and features, there is an overarching principle at work that imposes some constraints. I would not expect to find a naturally-occurring planet shaped like a cube, or a teacup.

In a similar vein, it's reasonable to suppose that only carbon, unique amongst the elements, has the chemical flexibility to support the complexity needed for life. At least in the temperature range we inhabit. You might also posit that self-replication, with just the right balance between durability and instability needed to promote evolution, would always converge on DNA as the solution. But you'd have to work a lot harder to get me to accept that an alien genetic code would be in any way compatible with our own.

Of course, there are many other ways to take these speculations, and this discussion only explores the path stemming from one basic assumption. There are many other paths we could choose, with other implications. More to follow...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Off visiting...

I am honored today to be visiting Teresa Cypher, over at Dreamers, Lovers, and Star Voyagers, for my first ever author interview.

Teresa is a warm and supportive blogger, a strong voice in the writing community, and one of the founder members of Weekend Writing Warriors (successor to Six Sentence Sunday). During the interview, I learned that "Cypher" is her real name, not a pen name. How cool is that for a sci-fi writer?

I hope you'll drop over to Teresa's blog and say "Hi".

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors August 24

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post up to eight sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image below.

Shayla, codename "Shark", has rendezvoused in the forest with members of a terrorist cell. The injury she sustained escaping the starship is coming back to haunt her.


Shayla grimaced as she shrugged her pack and cloak from her shoulders.

"You're hurt," Cobra said, concern in his eyes.

"My descent was never going to be easy." She tried to keep her tone casual, but she saw Weasel tense, oafish demeanor gone, and Tiger's face darken into tight-lipped anger.

Cobra reached out and peeled back the collar of her shirt, exposing the edge of the field dressing she'd applied.

"I have a vial of sprayskin in my pack," Shayla said, "I could use some help applying it properly."

"What use is an injured assassin?" Tiger's beam pistol was trained on her. "We should kill her now and return home while we still can."


If you enjoy these snippets and would like to read them properly in context, they are all from early chapters which can be sampled for free on most of the online stores listed in the sidebar.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The shifting sands of blogdom

Today I am guesting over at Misha Gericke's blog, posting about how blogging has changed over the years.

As a writer, what do you look for in blogs that you follow? What kinds of posts do you want to read these days?

Pop over to Misha's blog, say "Hi", and leave some thoughts on these questions.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pacific Playgrounds 2014

We've just returned from our main vacation for the summer, and our sixth consecutive year staying up-island at Pacific Playgrounds. Each year, I mean to take the camera and post a mini photo-tour of the campground, and each year we return home with no (or very few) photos.

This time it's different. I took advantage of a dull morning, with everyone else off shopping for fishing tackle, to take a stroll with dog and camera in tow.

So, visitors are greeted by the welcome sign alongside the office and store. Straight ahead is a marina and boat launch.

The campground itself is pretty typical. Six roads with generous pitches and dotted with trees that provide welcome shade.

This is our pitch, complete with the clutter of two weeks' outdoor living. And, yes, those are animal cages in front of the picnic shelter. Our rabbit and hedgehog come camping with us, as well as the more traditional dog!

At the back of the campground is a large playing field. There is a swimming pool and playground behind the building just left of center.

A track leads into the woods behind the campground. This lamppost always makes me think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

This track makes a good shortcut up to the public road, and this gorgeous old bridge. The grocery store is just a few minutes walk away. Very handy.

The bridge crosses the beautiful Oyster River, seen here meandering off towards the sea. The river runs right alongside the campground, hidden behind the trees on the right. The river was lower this year than we've ever seen it. Too low for tubing, but nice and warm for swimming in the deeper sections.

Follow the river downstream and we arrive back at the marina...

...And then the wide expanse of Saratoga beach.
That's a tidal lagoon in the foreground, with a sandy beach stretching out beyond the shingle bank.

That trip for fishing tackle paid off, with some salmon brought back from Campbell River.
And tubing may have been off the list of activities, but we got good at catching freshwater crayfish instead.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sci-fi worldbuilding

Last week I started talking about science in sci-fi worldbuilding. I have loads more to say on this topic, but thought I should clear up some things early on in case I come across as all pompous and preachy.

This is not meant to be a "thou shalt" set of posts.

Yes, I happen to think that a good appreciation of science is important to convincing worldbuilding, especially if your aim is to be taken seriously by scientifically-literate readers. If you fall into this category, then I hope you find a nugget or two to take away.

As a reader, I get a visceral reaction to things that strike me as absurd, and I've got a few pet peeves to talk about. But I'm not advocating slavishly following known science and squashing creativity. There are so many ways to stretch and extrapolate the world of science that you can be imaginative beyond belief while still being convincing.

But that is not the only option. I think it's quite possible to write sci-fi with a flagrant disregard for good science. The only inviolable rule in writing is "do what works", so under what circumstances might this approach work?

First off, you can often afford to play fast and loose with the rules for comic effect. For example, Harry Harrison's novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, introduces the Bloater Drive. Meant to provide a way around the speed of light limitation, it of course does nothing of the sort, but that doesn't matter because the novel is satirical and the science is visibly not meant to be taken seriously. Similarly, Douglas Adams brings out one whacky idea after another (my favorite is the "Somebody Else's Problem field) to great effect.

But note that, even here, the authors pay enough lip service to science - even though it's firmly tongue-in-cheek - that I suggest this is an example of knowing the rules first in order to break them properly.

Another approach, which many authors use with at least some elements of their story, is to simply brazen it out. Present the outcome and move on. Leave it up to the reader to fill in the gaps to their own satisfaction. This sleight of hand works time and again for minor pieces of technology, or for common devices such as FTL travel which everyone accepts as a necessity for most stories. Here it is. Deal with it. Move on.

Again, I think the amount of latitude you can safely assume depends on what kind of story and audience you are aiming for. I reckon the softer, space opera, end of the spectrum is more forgiving. If you are looking at realistic hard sci-fi then abuse the science at your peril.

This gets trickier when a major story premise hinges on dodgy science. Readers are likely to be less forgiving, but a good storyteller can still get away with it if the story itself is so engaging that readers either don't notice, or choose to forgive and forget.

Having said all that, I still believe that a foundation in scientific principles (note, this is not the same thing as the current state of scientific understanding!) can help make things more credible. Every whopper you ask the reader to swallow raises the bar for acceptance, so why do that to yourself unnecessarily?

Friday, August 8, 2014

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it...

Many sci-fi milieus are richly populated with weird and wonderful life forms.

Most of them, oddly enough, seem to be roughly humanoid and able to co-exist in a compatible environment, sharing similar gravity, air, and food.

This simplifies the challenges of storytelling, especially in the world of film where human shapes can be more readily acted, but it smacks of laziness. I will be looking at some science topics that crop up in sci-fi, and their implications for convincing worldbuilding.

The first big decision for sci-fi worldbuilding is whether or not we are alone

The origins of life are still largely mysterious, with some experimental hints and lots of fragmented and unsatisfactory hypotheses. There's plenty of guesswork but no real evidence of how easy or difficult it is for life to get started.

Spectra from interstellar gas show that very simple organic molecules are commonplace. Added to this, experiments over the decades have tried to simulate early conditions on Earth and have produced more complex molecules, including many amino acids - the building blocks of proteins. This hints that basic building blocks are in ready supply in the universe.

But that is a far cry from the bewildering chemical symphony that makes up a living cell. It's a bit like expecting a tree to spontaneously arrange itself into a Louis XV sideboard. Molecules like DNA are fragile, and it's hard to imagine how this sophisticated self-replicating machinery could have bootstrapped itself into being. This looks like an impossible challenge, yet recent experiments using more realistic "early Earth" cocktails have yielded large segments of common metabolic pathways, hinting that organic chemistry has a remarkable capacity for self-organization.

Still, just hints at possibilities, not proof. So, life arising independently may be a rare (or even one-off) event, or it could be commonplace. We just don't know.

This is frustrating for scientists, but good for writers because it gives us plenty of room for the imagination. Even so, the forms life might take will be influenced by how we envisage the history of life in our own fictional Universe.

Here is an idea of the range of possibilities.

Emergence of life is a rare (or one-off) event

We might be alone.

Or are we?

Life may have emerged billions of years ago elsewhere and spread to Earth, a concept known as panspermia. Hardy bacteria keep surprising us with their ability to survive in extreme conditions, and it's not too implausible that colonies might have survived impacts throwing them off into space to seed other worlds. The implications of this are that alien life would be expected to share some ancestral chemistry with our own.

Or life may have emerged in one place and evolved to the point where other worlds could be deliberately seeded. Again, implies that alien life will most likely share some common chemistry.

Sci-fi authors have also played with more exotic variations on this theme of life spreading from world to world.

Life has arisen independently many times

This path implies that there are deep self-organizing principles at work in the Universe that make the emergence of life probable, rather than the unlikely event that it seems at first glance. Science doesn't have much guidance to offer here, and we can't call on probability with a statistical sample of one, so we are pretty much free to invent basic principles to suit our worldbuilding needs.

Down this path, it helps to decide where those organizing principles might lead. Do they all lead to carbon-based life? Do those then converge on similar metabolisms because they are the most likely to emerge? Or do you go in the other direction and speculate that any sufficiently complex arrangement might yield self-replicating structures? In other words, might we expect to find life based on all sorts of weird substrates?

In the world of speculative fiction, all these and many possibilities in between are up for grabs. But this is just the foundation. How do you build a credible world from here? More to follow...

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Shades of fantasy

A critiquer once took me to task over whether Ghosts of Innocence could really be classed as science fiction. To count as such, the accepted wisdom is that science in some form or another should be at the root of the story. Take away the scientific premise and the story collapses.

I certainly think Tiamat's Nest fulfils this requirement. A secretive intelligence emerges spontaneously in the heart of the global network and manipulates people and the global economy to its own ends. The story hinges on science-based premises involving a mix of advanced computing and emergent phenomena.

Ghosts, by comparison, is firmly at the soft space opera end of the spectrum. Yes, there's space travel and lots of cool toys, but the story is largely about the human motivation of revenge. It could equally well be transposed to many historical settings, as long as one side possesses a significantly destructive weapon to provide the triggering event, and which could be subverted and turned against its owner.

The plot may not be hard-science driven, but as long as sufficiently plausible scientific principles drive the technology in use then I think it's fair game. It's speculative fiction, and I'd be hard-pressed to say what else it could be described as.

Other stories take a range of liberties with science in pursuit of a gripping tale, particularly amongst recent popular movies.

Star Wars has the Force, which brings in a touch of mysticism. But while the Force is not really explained, it is never viewed by practitioners as being anything magical or supernatural. Rather, it is seen as a part of the natural world, which is absolutely the domain of science.

Avatar came close to breaking the "rules" for me with unobtanium. This levitating mineral was just dropped in with no clear rationalization, and as a viewer my science-bullshit meter was twitching although I pushed it to the back of my mind because I was enjoying the story. I have since learned that the backstory talks about a superconducting mineral with extremely powerful and unusual magnetic properties. The explanation may be tenuous, but for me it pays enough lip service to known physics to restore a measure of credibility.

I think this also illustrates an important point in worldbuilding. Not everything needs to be spelled out to the reader (or viewer) but it helps if the rationalization is there in the mind of the author.

I find something like X-Men harder to swallow. The idea that genetic tricks can magically confer scientifically doubtful superpowers is never explained beyond hand-waving and an appeal to the emotive term "mutations". Although the story has some scientific window-dressing, I'm more inclined to class this as fantasy.

As you see, there is a broad spectrum where sci-fi drifts into fantasy, with no clear boundary between the two. For me, a lot depends on how seriously the worldbuilding treats the science. As such, I'm happy to class Ghosts as sci-fi.

Having said all that, how much does it matter? A story is a story. If it engages and entertains, then how important are pigeonholes?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ghosts of Innocence giveaway

If you would like the chance of a free paperback copy of Ghosts of Innocence, then head over to Goodreads any time in August and enter the giveaway there.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ghosts of Innocence by Ian S. Bott

Ghosts of Innocence

by Ian S. Bott

Giveaway ends August 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

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