Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Literary science fiction and big ideas

So why bother writing science fiction that incorporates big ideas from philosophy or science? After all, this is a genre that's become much more character driven over the past twenty years. And why take a chance on bogging down the narrative by salting in the necessary explanations to communicate those concepts? Then there is the extra effort required while world building to ensure that the important ideas not only reflect in the shape of the protagonist's life, but in the immediate choices that he or she faces.

After all, book sales continue to decline along with the advances that authors depend upon. So it's almost madness to undertake anything that runs the risk of distracting readers from a tight-paced narrative or that might give an editor pause.

Well, one reason to take a chance on big ideas is that there is an audience for them. One that you can make good money from, if you use your important concepts well.

For example, research that you've been doing on cutting-edge DNA reclamation techniques could end up becoming a novel inspired by the idea of "what if we could us these technologies to harvest the preserved DNA of dinosaurs and bring them back to life...in a nature park!"

A crazy notion to be sure, but sometimes best seller material in practice.

Having said that, it's not easy to sell concept- or technology-driven novels to editors. Even a brief look at the some of the best selling, ground-breaking idea-based novels revels that it's sometimes necessary for pioneering authors to make an end run around the gate keepers.

* Dune. Frank Herbert ended up going to an automotive manual publisher to get his novel of ecology, social engineering, and messianic religion into print.

* Tom Clancy. Both Clancy and Larry Bond, the founders of the techno-thriller had to go through the Naval Institute Press in order to get the first novels in that genre published.

* Daemon and Freedom™. Daniel Suarez could not get his near future novels about programing, robotics, and artificial intelligence picked up by traditional publishing houses at first. With some savvy PR work and self-publishing his story went on to become a recent multi-million best seller that was eventually picked up by Penguin.

Personally, I'm hoping not to have to go that route with my first novel. Having won a major industry writing contest and with several short stories going out the door this month, I'm plan on having my foot as firmly as possible in the door when I start shopping out my first novel later this year. But as with all things, we will see. I believe that I've got a good book-length story to sell, but it does approach human augmentation, biotechnology war, and the social responses to changing technology from within the larger perspective of humanity's biological and cultural evolution.

I think that people will be interested in these ideas. In recent years we've learned a lot about who we are as a species from our genes and the observed functionality of our brains, even as we continue to develop technologies to alter these building blocks of the self. And of course the pitfalls and opportunities made possible by such changes will give rise to a matrix of individual and social tensions.

Which is another reason to write science fiction that incorporates big ideas. To take part as an author in the Great Dialog between science, philosophy, and society. After all, fiction writers are a part of the chain of dissemination that moves ideas from laboratories, engineering test facilities, and the halls of academia into the into spheres of culture and public perception. Whether it's encapsulating the concepts of ecology in a dramatic narrative set on a desert planet, explaining how DNA might be reconstituted from unusual sources, or showcasing the synergy of technology and people in a military environment, we are often the transmitters of new ideas. Our playground in doing so is the intersection point of dilemmas within individuals where the changing worlds of the natural sciences, technology, speculative ideas, and culture meet.

Next up. The biological paradigm in science fiction: distortions, misconceptions, and the New Humanism

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Now available!

Writers of the Future Volume 26 is now available for purchase on Apple's iBookstore as well as for the Kindle on Amazon.com! It will also soon be up on Barns and Nobel's and Sony's ebooks stores. The mass-market paperback hits shelves on October 19th.

In this anthology you will find twelve brilliant stories and illustrations of science fiction and fantasy, including my "Lisa with Child," a tale of symbiosis, nanotech warfare, a pregnant robot, and an evolving post-human relationship.

Additionally there is now a spiffy slideshow of this years Writers and Illustrators of the Future workshops and the gala awards ceremony now up on the contest's YouTube channel. Come see me, ten other writers, and twelve illustrators experience a week in Hollywood that was both sublime and intense.

Again, many thanks to everyone at the Jim Baen's Universe slush site for their feedback on on "Lisa with Child." Couldn't have done it with out you!

Avidly anticipating

I've never been a fan of zombie films, but Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's The Walking Dead comic book series is a fantastic piece of storytelling for adults. The equivalent of George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire fantasy books at pulling in people who normally do not read in a genre.

So it's been gratifying to see the level of loving attention that has been put into both the characters and the setting (as well as the budget!) of the forthcoming AMC television adaptation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

An added purpose

As an aside, this blog seems to have become a means for me to boil down bodies of complex concepts into palatable summaries for use in genre writing. Or at least that's now an added purpose among others.

I've redone the "Art perception" posting three times after putting it up for public viewing. Which is annoying and unprofessional. However, not only does it feel like I now have a much better handle on the biology and its relationship to art, but it's finally summarized well enough that I can salt it into a story with out choking the plot with explanations.

That being said, in the future I will wait at least four days after the first draft before putting up a science and philosophy piece like that. These things really do need time to settle and for the connections between the concepts to mature.

Pies cooling on the windowsill and all that...

Pens of ink and memory

A very cool we-are-living-in-the-future technology. Many thanks to Tom Crosshill for pointing this article out.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Biology, evolving aesthetic, and perception

Our evolutionary history has defined the continuum of what we find beautiful. The biological wellspring our species' aesthetic is a matrix of cues, colors, shapes, and an awareness of solidity or fluidity embedded primarily in the sensory cortices of the brain.

Resting atop this is the associative neocortex. With this newly evolved forebrain we've not only generated cultural elaborations on aspects of our innate sense of beauty, but we've also bootstrapped our feelings of aesthetic pleasure into the world of abstracts. In our species a math formula, scientific theory, or strings of software code can evoke the same sense of elegance or harmony that a landscape or deftly rendered portrait might.

Occasionally there are works of art that stimulate both the older and more recently evolved wetware systems to create an experience on both the aesthetic and rational levels. Two of my favorite artists of the mid 20th century who nail this are Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein. Their spring period and blue works initially appear to be nonsensical chaos, but these pieces quickly become arresting. Somewhere in that white noise on canvas is mesmerizing a pseudo order that teases us.

And that would be pattern recognition.

One of the basic functions of our brains' cross-talking sensory modules is to pull order out of the jumbled impressions that the world throws at us. Thus we sometimes see shapes in clouds, faces on our nearest celestial neighbor, and all manner of semi-hidden threads of meaning in the events taking place around us.

The fractal chaos of Pollock and the almost subliminal texture of Klein's supersaturated pieces challenge us at this level. They push the preconscious filters of our biological minds to chase after suggestions of regularity embedded under or within the chaos.

And with good reason too. We are surrounded move through the artificial world and occasionally out in the natural world, and hidden within both are patterns of cause and effect. Some can be discerned only through careful observations and reason, and others very quickly through intuition and an animal-like situational awareness.

As the visual signals from any graphic artwork traverse the brain's sensory switchboard and then the visual cortices, indicative colors, critical shapes, and important motions are tagged with meaning in order to standout in our awareness. Shapes are assembled into objects, human faces are identified and their emotive expressions are recognized and sympathetically reflected by specialized neuronal pathways. Thus a coherent awareness of the artwork emerges. This visual feed is refreshed several times each second, even as additional cascading emotional cues fire and semantic associations are made between the piece and existing internal bodies of knowledge.

In the case of Pollock and Klein, there are no fixed shapes or content for the mind to settle on, only underlying suggestions of pattern without finished forms. Almost as though order has been divorced from substance and taken on its own Platonic life.

And there is also the raw stimulation of colors, with dozens of possible meanings on this level. Though even here, the lack of set shapes deprives us the context needed to definitively assign a hue any single emotion or material association.

This kind of stimulation--the emotional reaction and rational realization of why it works so well--is part of why I love going to art museums. There is both the power of the initial impression and followed by the fun of thinking out the underlying reasons behind it.

And there is another level of understanding that can be reached in museums. One not found  in any single piece, but seen in the collection as a whole. That would be human cultural evolution.

Most institutions group works by period, so paintings tend to grow more complex as you move from room to room and advance through the centuries. Along the way, deliberate perspective enters the artistic took kit, and greater efforts are made for realism and even historical accuracy.

There are also similar patterns of development in far-flung societies with regards to the topics of depiction. At first the natural world predominates, with spiritual and then historical themes joining the mix. During periods of increased commercial activity, human beings and facets of their lives seem to move to the fore. There are striking similarities in themes between ink drawings in 14th century Song China during its mercantile revolution and the paintings of Renaissance Italy.

Then these trends swing back. Industrialism can spark a return to nature as a topic of the visual arts, though often in a highly romanticized form. Nascent nationalism as societies transition from kingdoms to nation-states often brings about a disregard for historical veracity in favor of national myth making. Complexity can invert to simplicity when modernity begins to clutters life with cheap consumer goods. Periods of stylization can displace realism or lead to whole new territories of abstraction.

In art museums you can glimpse the interplay between biology, culture, and technology playing out over time.

Which leads me back to my previous post on why I write science fiction within the context of human evolution and try to incorporate aspects of our developmental history into the lives and struggles of my characters. In the next post I'll discuss some of the specifics of doing so within the SF and fantasy genres.

Women In Art from Philip Scott Johnson on Vimeo.

Morphing by digital artist Philip Scott Johnson

Friday, September 10, 2010

Evil Bee

Brave New World/Orwellian imagery with a biological twist, from Portland band Menomena

Random day in Seattle

Caught a ride north with a Nevada friend who was headed in that direction.

I can see why so many writers of speculative fiction choose to live here. The skyscrapers, the mountains, and the force of history as captured in 1800s architecture all give the city elements of science fiction, fantasy, and steam punk. It's in the very atmosphere of this place.

Seattle's Union Station, undergoing some much needed restoration.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Came home to PDX....

...from LA and found that someone had turned on the autumn. No extended summer for us this year apparently.

Not that I'm complaining. I love the grey and and green, and Portland is pretty much 70 degrees plus or minus ten for most of the year.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Second thoughts

One more blog entry of name dropping and narcissism, and then it's back to issues of substance.

One of the high points of the Writers of the Future trip was the awards ceremony and being introduced before going on stage by Jerry Pournelle. Together with Larry Niven, Dr. Pournelle wrote a number of science fiction books, scenes and ideas from which are still lodged in my memory twenty five years later. If someone had told me as a child that I'd end up receiving an award from him, I'd have been speechless--which would have been no small feat at that talkative age.

During his introduction Dr. Pournelle mentioned that I had worked rhesus monkeys as a research technician, and that the Darwin Society would be protesting the fact that I was spending a week with a group of science fiction writers. That got a good laugh and knocked the nervousness out of me about getting up on stage and making my acceptance speech.

However, I will admit that I had been having second thoughts about having included my past work as a research tech in my bio for the anthology. Some of the research projects that I supported were fairly innocent and fun, liking taking care of monkeys living in open corrals or enclosed group shelters. The research conducted on these groups was either behavioral observation or consisted of periodic roundups to take samples in order to track the spread or loss of specific genes over the course of generations.

Such work with groups also afforded me the opportunity to have daily social interactions with the kids, ranging from letting adolescents tug on the tips of my latex gloves to hand-feeding a dominant male bamboo leaves, or scratching presented monkey butts--the closest thing a human gets to performing grooming. That and standing in an enclosure with half-a-dozen juveniles clinging to my lab coat as they dug through my pockets for animal crackers.

Other projects that my work supported carried a high cost, but at the same time those were the ones that produced important results for both our broader understanding of biology as well as specific advances in medicine and biotechnology. Some of these were proof-of-concept or statistical validation studies for treatments that involved spinal regeneration, or enhanced stroke recovery, as well as very specific looks at how select diseases play out on molecular level in vivo. Others were pre-clinical trials of potential pharmaceutical compounds.

If having worked in the biological sciences runs the risk of drawing fire from the left, my student job in Nevada as a lab tech in the climate sciences opens me up to a similar risk of criticism from those on the right who disparage the reality of human-driven climate change.

Which brings me to why I worked in the atmospheric and biological sciences, and why I like to write science fiction that draws in part on real world science. And that is that science's various branches describe the underlying factors that makes us who we are as human beings--our evolutionary heritage, the nature of our primate cousins, our biology, the history of the changing land and climates that shaped us, and the economies that are an extension of the ecologies that we depend upon. Not only that, but technology derived from science profoundly influences the present-day expression of our inherited nature.

Where ideologies on the right and left have fought over whether we are the products of our nature or environment, our present-day scientific understanding is that we are a feedback cycle between these two poles of influence. We are in part primates built to cope with the necessities of group survival in paleolithic Africa, and in part we are modern beings shaped by a technological environment.

At best, ideologies on either side of the political spectrum are black-and-white still photos of these complex and evolving realities. Such doctrines of ideals and desires are useful in helping to organize anarchic humans into groups capable of changing the world from how it is to how it ought to be, but they also come with a high epistemological cost. A big part of that price is that ideologies do not deal well with the findings of science when these run contrary to their world views.

The scientific world view on the other hand is dynamic. It checks for and admits error, it constantly incorporates new findings, and it gives us a view of existence that is colorful and changing. These days that outlook has shifted from strict reductionism to a kind of holistic approach that embraces the complexity of systems.

This isn't to say that science is the end-all, be-all of the human experience. Religion, humanism, the arts and letters, and traditional cultural outlooks have much to say on how we perceive existence as well as how we should ethically apply the knowledge and capabilities that science provides us.

Still, given its importance in describing us and our world, science needs a voice in literature, and that's not an easy thing to pull off. Science is clunky. It speaks of probabilities rather than certainties. It is very specifically counterintuitive as it is designed to grapple with those aspects of our world that our intuitions cannot perceive. Where our commonsense readily describes the dynamics of the immediate human-level world around us, it struggles with the mathematics that underlies our universe, the laws of physics, chemistry, and cellular biology, and it staggers when confronted with the alien realities of existence at the quantum and cosmological scales.

So it wont be easy to tell gripping tales with science and technology blended seamlessly into the narrative. Then again it's neither easy to work in the sciences nor easy to deal with those who object to the findings of researchers on the basis of ideologies. If either my past work as a technician or my future literary works are controversial, so be it. I have high hopes that both will have positive impacts on our understanding of the world.

A brief summation of recent developments...

in the study of human evolution.

The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor | Book review | Books | The Guardian