Friday, February 27, 2009

Guest blog: NFL vs Trek

Football Fans Are Crazier Than Star Trek Fans!

By Saul Garnell

My good friend John called me up a while back and asked if I wanted to go to a football game. I said no, because I was going that weekend to the Star Trek con up in Vegas. He retorted with a mocking laugh, "Oh, I see you're one of those Star Trek fanatics huh?"

That comment got me a bit riled up. You see, I had been to a football game recently (the first one in my life actually), and I was shocked to witness; face painting, screaming, unsafe barbecuing, out of control boozing, and just plain old stupidity.

I tried in vain to explain to John that Football fans were way, "WAY", crazier than Star Trek fans, and that his comment about us being fanatics was uncalled for. He did not believe me.

I therefore came up with a way to prove my point. I decided to explain the life of a Star Trek fan in a world where Star Trek was as popular as the NFL. In this hypothetical world, my daily routine would be quite different, and would go something like this;

• First thing in the morning, get woken up by my Andorian alarm clock. The one that has two blue antenna smacking against the big center alarm bell.

• Grab breakfast, where I eat my Wheaties cereal featuring the face of Captain Kirk on the box. They rotate the face of each captain from time to time, but I stock up on Kirk because he's my favorite.

• While eating I turn on the TV and watch CNN. Of the 30 minute news update, 20 minutes is devoted to Star Trek news, where I can catch up on the highlights from last night's TV show. Great show last night, the Klingons were intercepted in the neutral zone! What a show!

• I shower and shave quickly. Naturally I use Brut after shave, because after seeing ads of women attracted to Bill Shatner like Orion slave girls, I'm a believer. If it works for Bill, it's gotta work for me.

• I jump in the car, and while sitting in traffic for an hour, I turn on the radio. I don't mind the traffic because it gives me a chance to listen to all the Star Trek commentary. Today's discussion is about salary caps for leading actors verses their supporting cast. Very interesting.

• Arrive at work, and go right to the coffee machine. All my work buddies are there talking about last night's show. "Wasn't that great! The Klingons were intercepted in the neutral zone during the last half. Great show!". Oops, it's now 9:30am, so I guess we overdid the Star Trek talk this morning. It's fine because my boss was there chatting it up too.

• Keeping a Star Trek news web page on my computer desktop, I work apathetically until 10am. Back to the coffee machine to continue the Star Trek chat. The conversation centers around the average number of photon torpedoes fired during the first quarter. Statistically speaking, most captains fire off 2.548439 more torpedoes against Klingon adversaries compared to Cardassians. Fascinating!

• 10:23 and I'm back at work. Sort of. That running banner on the Star Trek commentary web page keeps catching my eye. This week's Trekker convention is already sold out! Good thing I already have my tickets. I don't wanna be one of those losers buying overpriced tickets from a scalper.

• Lunch time with my colleagues. We decide to go out to the Star Trekooters bar down the street. Watching the big breasted Orion Slave Girl waitresses is always a nice distraction while riveted to the large screen TVs showing replays of last night's show. The Andorian ale and greasy food is an added plus.

• Back at work until 5pm. I then jump into my car and listen to more Stark Trek news. On the way I stop at the local 7-11 to pick up some snacks. One bag of potato chips and a case of beer. I see that they have a coupon on the chips bag for $1 off the price of entry to this weekend's convention. Big deal, I already have my tickets. Oh but look at that, Budweiser has Star Trek collector cans this month. If I buy two cases, I have a better chance of getting all the cans that feature supporting cast members. That would be way cool! I could finish my collection.

• After parking my car, I notice that I forgot to pick up this mornings paper laying in the driveway. The front page has my tire tracks on it,...but who cares about the front page? The center Trek section makes up most of the paper anyway.

• There's not much to eat. So I open the chips and keep a six pack next to me while I watch TV news; Commentary and upcoming highlights of this weeks Sunday Star Trek convention. Ahhhhh!

Now what would you say about this hypothetical person? Most people would say lock him up and throw away the key. He's a nut job. If he didn't spend that much time pre-occupied with Star Trek, he could really do something with his life. Why, without Star Trek he could become the Dalai Lama, or write a novel...or something right?!


So if it's Star Trek, you're a nut. But if it's the NFL, Baseball, or the NBA, it's perfectly OK. Well, I wonder about that.

Saul Garnell is a member of a science fiction group on

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alien Sex in IBIS

Speaking of the moral systems of alien societies based on nonhuman reproductive biology, a reader of this blog introduced me to IBIS (1985), by Linda Steele. Terrans stranded on the planet they call Ibis encounter a humanoid species with the biology and social structure of hive insects. Only the queen breeds. Drones (the only males) die after a single session of copulation. All other members of the group are queens-in-waiting or sterile female workers and warriors. The human male protagonist, thinking himself the only survivor of his group after an attack by the indigenous species, is captured by the queen and forced to become her lover. They gradually become attached to each other, although she continues to exercise control over him. When the other human survivors turn up and become captors of lower-ranked Ibis females, these people regard the protagonist as a traitor. He must face choosing between his crewmates and the queen, who is amazed that he survives their mating and fascinated by his intelligence, so unlike the males of her species. He professes to love her, and as far as she can (given the lack of any such concept in her culture), she seems to care for him.

The author labels this novel a “science fiction romance.” Yet calling it a romance in the conventional sense feels deeply problematic. No matter how much the queen claims to cherish the hero, he has the status of a pet—and her prisoner, whom she punishes for trying to escape. His infatuation with her arises to a great degree from her powerful pheromones, which compel him to join her in a protracted sexual frenzy regardless of his more rational wishes. By the end of the story, they seem to have moved closer to a truly intimate relationship, but a permanent imbalance of power remains.

The most unsettling aspect of this novel, for me, was that I realized how closely it mirrors one of the most popular romance tropes. It’s not unusual for hero and heroine to meet and fall in love because she becomes his captive. “Forced seduction” is fairly common, too, and like many female readers, I find this practice “hot” when the hero does the seducing. Why does the same pattern feel “wrong” when the hero is the forcibly seduced captive? Are our reading tastes really so much more ruled by sexist assumptions than we usually acknowledge? Or are these stories simply erotic fantasies detached from real-world gender relations and therefore nothing to worry about?

Margaret L. Carter (

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Paradigm Shift

In another context this week, I was asked to give clues to writers on how to handle Writer's Block. This blog entry is actually one (of many) such clues I have to offer. If Writer's Block seems to be a problem for you, follow the thinking here, then go find totally different input data and replicate this kind of thinking. Eventually, you'll find something to say that only you can say.

Two online newspaper stories came to my attention last week about social change starting to affect other levels of our culture while at the same time this Alien Romance blog began examining some ethics and moral issues, and now Linnea Sinclair has brought up a George R. R. Martin anti-hero -- pondering that character's value in a Romance!

Of course, the most alien aliens in Alien Romance or any Paranormal Romance are humans. It's not only that "verisimilitude" thing we're talking about -- it isn't just that we create our aliens to have something human in them so readers can understand them. It is that humans are in fact alienated from one another, at a very basic psychological level.

The icon, or symbolic representation of this is the Tower of Babel -- the Tower Card in most Tarot decks refers to this psychological barrier we carry. (My Not So Minor Arcana Tarot books do not include the Major Arcana like the Tower Card.)

Our minds are fragmented by these Tower barriers, and we are divided from one another by them. And yes, the differences between genders are included in that compartmentalization.
As a result, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

Criminals are too alien to comprehend for law-abiding folks. Infanticide is unthinkable to those who haven't been driven over that edge. And so on through all the "immoral" and "unethical" acts.

When normally sane people are driven over that edge, I think they are striking OUT at an anguish that originates INSIDE themselves.

The strike doesn't solve the problem because the target is wrong, so they hit harder and HARDER until someone stops them. Every blow at the external target makes the internal pain worse, but they can't see how they are hurting themselves.

The Tower represents the barrier that divides the inner self from the outer world, and the shocking experience of discovering that the two are one. When you hit OUT, you hit IN too.

Until you've crossed one of those barriers, you don't know they exist.

Loss of Virginity is one such barrier we cross. Those on one side really can't communicate to those on the other side of that barrier.

Being "blooded" as a soldier is another. Committing your first criminal act, or trying your first alcoholic drink -- or drugging with friends, are also losses of virginity. Those who have done these things are forever alienated from those who have not.

Maybe computer gaming is such a barrier.

Turning 30 is another. (Saturn returns to its place when you're 28-29 and by the time you turn 30 you have crossed one of those divisions. You can't shout back across that chasm to the younger people.)

Crossing such a barrier is a Tower experience. You thought you knew it all. You discover you knew nothing. And you have no clue that you're wrong about that too. The Tower is a kind of cluelessness.

If you take the familiar barriers, language, age, innocence, and analyze them you can create an analogous barrier between human and non-human, then stretch and reach to connect in a Relationship across that barrier. That's Alien Romance.

Oh, I do wish my Boxmaster Trilogy had been published so I could refer you to just such an exercise. I have a few chapters of each of the volumes posted at

I was writing about the shift in values from the Hero's values to the Husband's values.

The first volume was bought by a publisher that went under before publishing, but they said it was Heinleinesque. The very long third volume was presented to several agents and editors and none could get past the breaking of the SF trope into a gradual segue into the Romance trope in Chapter 4. This is not an action series, but it has action in it.

Several things I've encountered in the last few weeks have kept putting me in mind of the Boxmaster universe I built. I wrote it to be a paradigm shifting entry into the literature. It never got published. And now that paradigm is shifting under the impact of other forces.

The news articles I've seen recently fit into the pattern that's been developing in fiction publishing in general, but also exemplify a deep shift in the paradigm underneath our society. Fiction and movies (and gaming) don't cause change. They reflect it.

This paradigm shift is like an earthquake miles deep under the surface. It's felt only slightly on the surface, but it sets up fractures that will cause future quakes.

A deep paradigm shift has occurred this last few years, and we are starting (only starting) into massive change.

These social changes are of interest to writers (of any genre, but especially Romance) because they reveal much about the internal "life" of the readers. You can see what's happening inside the readers by what they strike out at. (News article blog comments on Yahoo for example reveal a lot.)

These newspaper (or News Service like AP, Reuters) articles surface only long after the actual events, very like scientific advances appear first in discussions at conferences and then maybe 5 years later, in the general press.

By the time it's in the newspaper, it's old news.

The ongoing significance lies in the simple fact that it is now coming to the consciousness of the readers of fiction and so writers have to adjust.

What were the two that caught my attention this week?

for their lives

I posted article b) to my facebook profile and it started a long discussion when another writer (former professor) Jonathan Vos Post commented on it on my facebook page.

People who work with college students have seen the expectations shift over the last generation.

Put these two articles together and you see a trend.

The Web has conditioned a generation to expect whatever they want for free (well advertising, but ignorable advertising). They have never known a world without peer-to-peer music sharing, and other copyright violating activities.

There are many websites that post e-books that are under copyright protection. It's worldwide and nobody can make them stop.

Copyright doesn't mean much anymore.

As a result of the communications revolution, the firm footing under writers has dissolved in yet another way, too.

Article a) shows us that text on paper is not the business model of the future.

Well, you and I have known that for years. It's e-books and web-news!

But have you been thinking what free on the web means in terms of who pays for it?

"Who pays for it" is not something this youngest generation is equipped to think about because of their "expectations" as delineated in the NYTimes article. (see article b) )

In the world of young expectations (pre-Tower Experience - Virgin Expectations), nobody pays for anything.

They are entitled. The implications of that are huge. Grades are a proxy for wages and they aren't learning the cost of getting a wage. What about the government printing money to give everyone a check or build some handy things like bridges. Nobody pays for any of that. You just get entitled. If the government gives it to you, it's free. Right?

"Who pays for it" is an issue organically intertwined with all the issues of morality Rowena Cherry brought up in her post

People advocate Pro-Life choices, but avoid "who pays for it" and in what coin. (Personally, I'm pro-Life, but that's another issue.) Contraceptives and Abortion have wrought a social change in which young people see no COST to personal intimate behavior and so fall screaming off their Tower when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy.

The core of all moral and ethical rules is the concept that everything has a cost if not a price. And cost is the pure essence of all business. Marriage can be a business as all Regency fans know.

A business model is a circuit diagram that shows how activity pumps money around in a circuit and multiplies the money to a profit.

You put this-that-the-other-thing in one end of the black box, and this-that-the-other-thing PLUS PROFIT comes out the other end.

The business model is the tracing of the circuit inside the black box.

The business model of NEWS is that a bunch of people scurry around the world scarfing up interesting tidbits of news, run home, write it up, turn it in and get paid. They then have the money to go out and do more scurrying. Someone has to go find the news -- and finding costs a lot. So whoever gets to read the news has to pay the reporter a living wage plus expenses.

Authors have a business model that used to go like this:

a) Buy a typewriter, paper, ribbons, white-out (or today, computer, backup device, net access) huge up-front investment
b) dream up something
c) ruin a lot of expensive paper by typing black squiggles on it. (wear out a computer keyboarding)
d) sell the ruined paper to a publisher
e) go through rewrite hell ruining more paper; galleys; eventually it's done
f) get paid more than it cost to buy paper, ink, reference books, computer whatever tools
g) buy more blank paper
h) ruin the new blank paper
i) sell it

A writer's business model is to sell ruined paper so they can buy more and groceries too.

It's a pump. You put in words, you get out money.

We have long since shifted from ruining paper to filling up external backup drives with files that tend to go obsolete before we can re-sell the words to another publisher.

Newspapers are just facing the fact (and resisting mightily -- this recession may convince them) that the business model has to shift drastically. Some papers in Philadelphia filed Chapter 11 this past week. At least it's 11 and not 7 (total liquidation).

People still want to know what's happening, but they want to know NOW not tomorrow, and NOW not when the 6PM news goes on. NOW - like on their blackberry.

But someone still has to scurry out and scarf up news and write it and post it -- and faster news costs more. Someone has to pay the reporter to scurry around, the editor to edit, the distributor to distribute (websites that really work cost a lot).

Now look at article b) about student expectations.

Their parents expect the news to pop up on their blackberry in real time. The kids grow up in a world of entitlement, where everyone has access. Parents even give kids cell phones.

Students go to schools where they don't have to trek across town to the library to stand in line to use the printed encyclopedia for a school paper. They google up what they want and cut and paste (and get caught usually). Kids don't understand plagiarism or paraphrasing -- in fact, the generation that grew up on copy machines missed out on the fine points of copyright and have passed that blindness on to their children who see even less use in copyright. To them copyright is even more immoral than infanticide.

I read another article last year about how the new crop of college grads is forcing businesses to change their office-behavior codes to allow multi-tasking which includes texting friends, surfing the web, IM'ing, tweeting, all while working, all while on the employer's clock. They are, you see, ENTITLED to spend their time how they want as long as they get the minimum done, just as they were in school. Just showing up (as it said in the education article) gets at least a B; maybe an A.

There's a generation that feels ENTITLED to do as they please on their employer's time because in school they could do as they pleased and still get good grades even if they missed deadlines.

Read that article b) . It illustrates a huge paradigm shift in values, a shift way way deep down-down-down inside everything that makes us who we are.

This is only the surface vibration. Only the beginning.

What you must do to get something you want -- that's the raw basics of ethics, morals, and economics -- AND ROMANCE.

Do you take what you want? Do you beg for it? Trade for it? Negotiate (which is an aggressive form of warfare)? How do you get what you want? How do you know the difference between want and need? When are you entitled to take what you need?

This "entitlement philosophy" represents a huge change in how we establish and maintain all our relationships, including love, including finding a soul mate.

Imagine feeling "entitled" to a soul mate!

Imagine what happens to marriage when both partners feel "entitled" to a perfect marriage without effort, without cost.

And there's one more surface vibration from this deep quake.

It is the shift away from text to images.

Read this one:
Hollywood struggles to find wealth on the Web (Reuters)
Posted on Thu Feb 19, 2009 9:14AM EST

Psychology has long established the power of visual images as greater than that of text or spoken words without images. Images penetrate to an emotional level that is unique because of the evolutionary position of the EYE -- the amount of data it collects and the brain areas responsible for interpreting that data are way high. Visuals pre-empt everything for us.

One huge trend that I see in all this is the older generations fighting mightily to STOP CHANGE, and as usual the younger people want everything "old" destroyed RIGHT NOW with a mad urgency that is insane because they haven't created something better to replace it with. Middle aged people are usually at the point where they have created something to replace the old with, something they think is better.

The technology revolution has accelerated this old, established cycle of progress so that the middle-aged can't establish their new before the young set out to destroy it.

But perhaps one of the reasons we have death in our world is that without death, entrenched elders would refuse all change, and change is life. (This is a reason I love Vampire novels).

The core definition of life is CHANGE.

So I think the objective of elder generations might be better served by guiding change into new pathways that are chosen with conscious and deliberate wisdom.

On the third hand -- has humanity ever done that?

Under what impetus from what outside source would the denizens of this galaxy (presumably somewhat related biologically) re-think this whole "change" issue?

What does it take to shift the human paradigm?

Are we at that point yet? Are we really at an evolve-or-die threshold in human history?

Will some Alien species arrive here at last only to discover a dead world, not an atomic cinder but an ecological collapse?

If not, how will we get through all this? If our paradigm of Life is shifting, what is it shifting into?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, February 22, 2009

VICARIOUS VERISIMIILITUDE: Morality and Immorality via Ramon Espejo

Talking about some of the extremes of human behavior and how we deal with these things, culturally, socially, segues in nicely with a book I just finished: HUNTERS RUN by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham. It fits nicely because the book’s main character (I’m not sure I can bring myself to call him protagonist or hero) is a man who has been characterized in reviews on Goodreads as an unrepentant asshole.

And I think the reviewers are being kind.

Many readers hated the book because of Ramon Espejo. Others felt that his very asshole-ness made the book what it was. In the Q&A in the book’s last pages, Gardner states that early readers hated Ramon. It’s easy to hate Ramon.

It’s also hard to stop reading his story.

Ramon is a drunk, a woman-beater, a liar, a cheat. He’s a down-on-his-luck prospector on an alien planet. He’s a murderer. He has a hugely overblown view of himself.

He’s also tough, persistent, dogged and resourceful. He makes many bad decisions. He makes a few very good ones.

Ramon would be a difficult main character in a romance. Although he does a few heroic things, he’s not hero material. Not even with the recent trend in romance toward bad-boy protagonists. Not even with the trend toward blood-sucking dead guys as heroes.

Yet I found him a fascinating character and I actually cared enough about him to worry if he would live or die, fail or succeed. And so did a lot of other readers. And I wonder, with this talk about morality and society, how much vicarious nastiness we get out of our systems because of characters like Ramon. Or how much of our own nastiness we recognize in characters like Ramon and hence don’t feel quite that unusual.

We all have a dark side, good old Darth notwithstanding.

One of the criticisms often leveled at romance novels are that the main characters are too perfect. Too handsome. Too strong. Too caring. There have even been comments with the rise of the kick-ass heroine that we’re again creating characters with characteristics that are unattainable. Super Mom has spawned Super Fem Protagonist.

Ramon Espejo represents some of the worst of in all of us.

So does Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter but Hannibal the Cannibal was very outrĂ©. Larger than life, suave, manipulative. Intelligent. He was a number of good and worthy qualities gone bad.

Ramon’s just an asshole. And an uneducated one at that.

Then he stumbles on a secret that, if revealed, could cause the deaths of thousands. And he becomes, quite literally, his own worst enemy.

I don’t want to get into spoilers—I do encourage you to read this book if the issues of morality interest you at all—but it’s the “literally” where the book shines. And continues to take unexpected turns.

All I can say is the redemption I thought I saw coming for Ramon…doesn’t. But there is a redemption and it comes from another source. But uplifting…?

You need to see for yourself.

At only two hundred seventy six pages the book is a quick read. But I found it to be a very powerful one.


SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel’s Ghost, July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

“You’ve told me many times I still need training. That a rogue Kyi like me is capable of utter destruction if I’m not careful. Then heed your own warning. Don’t force me to find out just what I’m capable of. Because when the dust settles, I will be the one left standing. And you know that.”

Things We Take For Granted: Morality

Congratulations to Linnea Sinclair for winning a P.E.A.R.L. award for Shades of Dark!

Margaret's gritty post about Infanticide was like a starter cannon for my thoughts on what we think of as normal and moral, and what shocks us.

I raced off to one of my favorite non-fiction tomes: SEX IN HISTORY by Reay Tannahill.

There's a wonderful quote in the front matter:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can
but hells bells thats
only an explanation
its not an excuse

Archy says

[Quoted as published.]


The cover art is provocative. I'm not sure if the dark-winged goddess's crotch is the cynosure of all the kneeling dudes' eyes --with lines of sight depicted-- or if she is simultaneously blessing six worshippers with accurately directed, individual golden streams of enlightenment.

In the section of the book on "The Second Oldest Profession" (p79) the Greek historian, Herodotus is quoted as observing of the temple prostitutes:

"Every woman who is a native of the country ... must once in her life go and sit in the temple and there give herself to a strange man.... She is not allowed to go home until a man has..." thrown his silver in her lap

Imagine living in that world!
In fact, elements of my own worldbuilding were inspired by this (the "Virgins' Balls at the Imperial Palace) although the custom was only for the benefit and enjoyment of the royal Tiger Princes.

My spymaster, Madam Tarra's courier courtesans were inspired by Austrian Prince Metternich's use of prostitutes as intelligence gatherers.


Later, there is a very frank and amusing transcript of a letter from a material girl of the Athenian hetairai. A courtesan named Philumena reportedly wrote to a lover:
"Why do you boher writing long letters? I want fifty gold pieces, not letters. If you love me, pay up; if you love your money more, then don't bother me..."

Chapter Four (p84) is a vivid and amusing reminder that some ancient Greeks and ancient Japanese societies apparently took male homosexuality and pederasty for granted.

And then, there's socially acceptable killing.

Recently, I read an interview with Marc Hauser, author of "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right And Wrong."

A trolley is coming down a track and it's going to run over and kill five people if it continues. A person standing next to the track can flip a switch and turn the trolley onto a side track where it will only kill one person (instead of five).

Is it right to divert the trolley?

A nurse approaches an ER doctor. "Doctor, we've got five patients in critical care; each needs an organ to survive." (Different organs.) "A healthy person has just walked in... we can (kill him and) take his organs and save the five..."

Is it right to kill the one?

Apparently, most people cannot explain why their answers are different. Yet, the problem is basically similar. The life of one person who would not otherwise be killed is weighed against the lives of five others who are doomed to die unless there is an intervention.

I think I could take a stab at explaining, but that would take the fun out of the puzzle. I'd love to know what you think, though.

Do we learn our morals? Or are we born with a basic moral code? Almost every culture has some kind of "An eye for an eye..."/"Do as you would be done by" code of conduct.

I wouldn't stop there. I believe that quite a few animals have it as well.

Which brings me to "sacred cows" also known as political correctness.

One of the things I love about our genre is that we alien romancers can explore politically incorrect ideas without being uncomfortably offensive.

We are like the "allowed fools" of the European courts of the Dark Ages. Idiots and space aliens have immunity from the reprisals that good citizens face if they want to say something blasphemous, seditious, or iconoclastic.

For example:

Tigron Empire. 58th gestate in the reign of Djerrold Vulcan V
Fictitious op ed piece.

I've not yet heard anyone blame affirmative action for the bad decisions made by banks, personal-shuttle companies, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and so forth.

No reasonable, responsible, nice Tigron person would try to blame minorities for the current crisis. That would be like kicking the underdog.

And yet, over the last twenty gestates, Alderboran law and peer pressure has obliged interstellar companies to promote a token number of people whose best qualification for their job may have been their gender, their sexual orientation, their ethnic origins, or some other persuasion.

Not in every case. Of course.

Thus, there is a question. Is the best candidate in the job? Was that hermaphrodite Klargon teenager chosen to be the Babyliger-5 branch bank manager because his/her education and experience qualified him/her to make sensible loans to responsible customers? Wouldn't a sober, fifty-standard-year-old Mumblari who'd worked his way up through the ranks have been a safer hand at the tiller?

Does the Klargon teenager secretly suspect that he/she needs to make daring and heroic business decisions to prove to all and sundry that his/her promotion wasn't affirmative action?

Same goes for the color-blind Beancounter who got to overrule the designers and engineers of a top of the line, zero-gravity toilet system for the way station in the Kuyper Belt.

Rowena Cherry
Space Snark

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thoughts on Infanticide

I've recently been introduced to "The Rake's Song" by the Decembrists, a ballad narrated in the first person by a very unpleasant character. Here's a link to a transcription of the lyrics (with “Isaiah” misspelled and one or two other minor errors):

The protagonist, an amoral young man, marries at or near the age of 21, fathers four children, and happily watches his wife die in childbirth with the stillborn fourth. Unwilling to be “saddled with three little pests,” he murders the other three, each in a different way. Rejoicing in his freedom, he denies being in any way “haunted.” Thanks to the catchy tune and clever versification, this song is stuck in my head. I keep worrying over the backstory: It’s impossible to pin down a time for the setting. The children’s names have various ethnic origins, not to mention “Dawn,” probably rare before the twentieth century. The marriage apparently occurred in a culture without reliable birth control. In a premodern society, though, it would have been acceptable for a young widower to leave small children at a foundling home or send them to a “baby farm” in the country, where they might easily die with no direct action from him. So why didn’t he do that instead of risking a murder charge? We have to assume his late wife didn’t have any relatives close enough (or at least interested enough) to question the deaths of the children; therefore they wouldn’t have censured him for abandoning them to the care of strangers.

Setting aside the obvious fact that the character is a sociopath, probably the song disturbs me so much because of his blatant loathing for babies in general, whom most people, especially parents, are programmed to regard as cute. I’m also troubled because male animals in the wild, such as lions and our primate relatives, seldom kill young they could have sired; they slaughter the offspring of rival males, a pattern that makes evolutionary sense. Sadly, human parents, of course, do sometimes murder their children. And, historically, they have often been known to “cut their losses” by killing or abandoning infants in certain circumstances, in order to be free to reproduce with more potential success later. This topic is covered in great depth and breadth, regarding both animals and human beings, in MOTHER NATURE, by Sarah Hrdy (yes, that’s how her name is spelled). If environmental circumstances aren’t favorable for animals to raise offspring to adulthood, the young may be killed or allowed to die. When resources are scant or the mother finds herself subject to some threat or stress, a rabbit has the enviable ability to end a pregnancy by re-absorbing embryos into her body. A kangaroo burdened by a joey in her pouch while fleeing from a predator may simply allow the infant to fall out, since she usually has another embryo “in the pipeline” waiting for the cue to start developing. Many hunter-gatherer societies have taboos against keeping twins. In the unlikely chance that a tribal woman gave birth to octuplets, the event would certainly be treated as a miscarriage, not a live birth. Newborns too small or ill to have a reasonable chance of thriving may be abandoned at birth with no blame attached to the mother. Preindustrial cultures, as Hrdy points out, might chastise us for not abandoning the very same infants we praise people for lavishing care on.

Thanks to our culture’s Judeo-Christian roots, we embrace the ideal of treating every child’s life as precious. But suppose we encountered an advanced alien society that didn’t share this value (which, as Hrdy’s book demonstrates, is far from “natural”)? Ancient Rome, the most “civilized” empire of its era, allowed the abandonment of unwanted infants. Heinlein’s adopted Martian, Mike, in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND reveals that Martians expect competition for survival to occur early in life rather than in adulthood. Martians relegate their young to the wilderness to prove their fitness for being allowed to grow up. (That turns out to be the origin of the cute Martian puff-ball creature in Heinlein’s YA novel RED PLANET.) How would we feel about—and deal with—a spacefaring society that practiced such customs?

Margaret L. Carter (

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blogging and Reading and Blogging, Oh My!

I couldn't put it down.

Linnea Sinclair's Hope's Folly that I discussed in the context of the formula novel in my post

is truly a page turner that hurtles to a satisfying conclusion of the Romance -- (a beautifully twisted HEA) leaving room for a sequel though in the SF plot. (Sequels are GOOD).

If you are puzzled or dissatisfied by the novels publishing is presenting to you these days, (or buying from you to publish), you have to read Hope's Folly and Linnea's comments on another blog, about the mixed-genre author's real estate problem - how do you treat two separate plots simultaneously in the same space usually alotted to one plot?

Good question; good discussion at (scroll up for Linnea's post).

And Linnea started a really interesting discussion on on how to label the kind of thing we call Alien Romance -- SFR is currently being lumped with PNR (Paranormal Romance).

And Linnea just posted a comment on that topic suggesting a solution using

I couldn't figure out well enough to navigate to Linnea's seed post for that discussion that's drawn over 60 comments so far. Maybe she will give us the URL in the comments to this post.

Meanwhile, on this blog, Margaret Carter brought up the recently published research about love and brain chemistry and Rowena Cherry noted the relationship between this brain chemistry research (that has been investigating all kinds of human behavior related to brain function) and Astrology (one of my own favorite topics - see my Astrology For Writers series of posts on this blog).

They've pretty much covered those topics.

So I'd like to point out that browsing among these blogs we all frequent and following authors you find stimulating (via a feed like RSS or or Atom or -- see links at the right of this page) -- will keep your thinking from going stale, and avoid or blast through writer's block.

Writers, inside their stories, are actually discussing a topic of interest to connected communities. It's like a big cocktail party -- writers circulate from group to group (reading other writers' novels) and make a comment now and then (write a novel) to contribute to the general conversation.

Writing is a social activity done in solitude! What a contradiction. No wonder we're stressed.

But with the internet, you can circulate a little each day by using a piece of software that collects pertinent (and impertinent) commentaries from all over the internet and presents them to you in a window on your desktop.

The software is called a feed reader, and there are lots of them available free around the internet. There are also websites like google that provide you a feed reader with your free email account. (if you use gmail, look at the top line of links in your mail page for READER and click - follow the directions and experiment. I quickly out-grew the google reader.).

I don't have a problem with downloading and installing software, but I do research it first. So I asked on LinkedIn and got recommendations. is where I found the recommended download of a very tame and obedient FeedDemon feed reader.

To add a website like to FeedDemon you just have the FeedDemon software open on your desktop, use your browser to go to the website you want, then click in FeedDemon to add the site to your feeds, and the URL appears in the add slot. Click, add it to a folder provided by feeddemon and presto, you can follow what happens on that page.

I follow several newspapers and other well capitalized websites on subjects I'm interested in, and a number of blogs -- PLUS I follow people by name. It costs something for websites to provide feed, but it's free to the user like you. Blogspot has the feed capability built in, so we who post can be followed.

A Feed Reader is a kind of search software that is of the Web 2.0 world.

It really simplifies your online life.

For example, I wanted to point you to a really nice blog called Galaxy Express which did an article linking to several of our Alien Romance posts on Dialogue.

I just opened my FeedDemon software, clicked the MY CLIPPINGS folder and right there was this URL for you:

It was there because I saved it there, true, but how could I not save such a really nice mention of our work here!

If you leave FeedDemon open while you're online, it will (if you want) auto-update on the latest news you're tracking.

Not every website is capable of being accessed by Feed software -- but I think that is going to change. It's a Web 2.0 invention that really works. It doesn't usually access posts on social networks which try to keep you in a private sphere.

Privacy is what the Web 2.0 philosophy is all about, privacy and user choice.

Oh, which brings me to another item that turned up this last weekend.

Opinion has it that Facebook has turned inimical to the writer's health with a recent re-wording of their terms of use which appears to be a copyright grab.

They'll probably change that wording again after the furor erupted. Other services that have tried this have had to yield.

But there's another huge topic (at least as big as Astrology and Love-Brain Chemistry) in the entire legal philosophy behind "copyright" -- which is utterly obsolete in this new Web 2.0 world.

The USA has been thriving on our intellectual property law and philosophy, trademarking and copyrighting. If you invent it or make it, it is yours to profit from, and you get to keep most of what you make. (almost most) This gave the USA dominance in the 1800's and 1900's.

We try so hard to honor the property rights on Blogs. What's posted belongs to the poster -- but we also want our words read, or why post at all? So we want small pithy quotes distributed to other blogs with links to the main article -- and OUR NAMES bandied about with links to our homepages.

We want to be part of that cocktail party conversation which is the blogosphere, moving from group to group, participating in the discussion. But we don't want to be invisible. We want to stay attached to our words, no matter who repeats them.

On the third hand, we don't want to be too public.

Web 2.0 domains require that you sign up for an account with the "real" you, but they allow you to upload any photo or sketch or icon for yourself and to invent a screen nickname. People who read what you write and get irrationally furious shouldn't be able to invade and ruin your "real" life.

So we are redefining "privacy," which is an essential element in Romance and even Sex.

At some point on this blog, because we focus on Science Fiction Romance as well as Fantasy Romance and Urban Fantasy -- we really ought to discuss the Art and Science of Futurology.

Linnea Sinclair's HOPE'S FOLLY does a perfect job of reticulating the Romance plot, hits every "beat" of the story, integrates all the images artistically into the Romance. But it falls short on futurology, on where the technological possibilities of today will lead us by interstellar times, and what's coming with that new Intel chip they're now building factories to produce.

Here's another post to base futurology on that could affect how, when, why and who falls in love:

This item was all over the news this past week about the theoretical breakthrough indicating there could be billions of "Earth Like" planets in this galaxy. SF predicted that, but now we have solid indication that it might be so. We still have the impossibility of traveling to those planets because of the light-speed barrier, but it's only a matter of time until that's dispensed with, too. Look how many impossible things we do today without thinking about it.

Most of us don't read SFR for futurology. In fact, SF may be on the wane as an artform simply because we're already living in "the future" that SF predicted, and it missed big time with predicting the impact of the internet on people.

But SFR is the prefect venue for a new cocktail party topic on how the current and easily projected new technology developments (Medical Records digitized; Designer Cancer Treatment Cocktails unique to your own genes) will impact the way we relate to each other.

In the 1970's some people predicted the Women's Movement would break up families. Men were paid more than women doing the same work so the men could "support a wife and kids" and it was considered imperative that the wife NOT WORK OUTSIDE THE HOME because kids require at least one person's full time attention or they won't grow up to be good people.

Today the last few furbishes are being put on the equal-pay-for-equal-work issues, Hillary put a big frison in the thickest Glass Ceiling, and the VP Candidate among the Republicans has a child who got pregnant out of wedlock and nobody thought that totally disqualified her from running for VP. (OK, the teen did marry the father, but they're just kids -- I saw an interview with the teen mother on TV all played very hard-news-interview style. Today the broken family is a non-issue, even in Romance novels where wives and mothers routinely work outside the home.)

Where is the futurology on the topic of Romance -- futurology that could take into account the online dating services computer programs, Astrology being "outed" as legitimate science, and the impact of the IM, bloggosphere world on Relationships?

Yes, all those have been done in Romance, but have they been done with complete SF style futurology?

Point me at some good books where the SF hits the futurology hard, and the Relationship trope changes on impact.

That was one original (1940's) definition of SF -- "The impact of Science on People, on Society, on Culture."

I know there are thousands of novels in PNR I haven't read -- and thousands of SF novels I've never heard of -- but even Amazon can't point me at exactly what I'm looking for in SFR. That's why this blog is so precious. Look at the writers who contribute!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, February 16, 2009

Star Trek - the new movie's site is worth a trip
Go play.
The site is interactive, ingenious and too damned much fun. Full screen is a must.

Enjoy, ~Linnea

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, coming Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

It's an impossible mission on a derelict ship called HOPE'S FOLLY. A man who feels he can't love. A woman who believes she's unlovable. And an enemy who will stop at nothing to crush them both.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Alien Romance and Zodiacal compatibility

"Mummy, I don't need an anus, do I?"
"Everyone needs an anus," I shot back with my usual practical earthiness, my mind half on the meal I was improvising at the time.

My daughter rocked with laughter. Meanwhile, mindful of certain TV ads encouraging parents to respond appropriately to potentially embarrassing discussions with young teenagers, I glanced across the room to see what might have prompted this question.

She was studying an eight hundred page tome about star signs. Apparently, star signs rule body parts.

"Which star sign is ruled by their anus?" I inquired in my most academic voice.

At first glance, the most likely suspect seemed to be Sagittarius, who is ruled by his or her legs, hips, and also --most likely-- the buttocks.

However, after some collegial debate, we agreed that it's much more probably the hapless Virgo. As if Virgoans didn't have enough to live down! They are ruled by their intestines.

My daughter drew a diagram. As you may see.

I feel I ought to explain about Scorpio and the inner thigh region. Scorpios are allegedly ruled by their sex organs. It seemed right to my daughter to depict them as strong pink and resembling a male distribution of pubic hair. She isn't as good as Stephen Biesty at drawing cross sections of the human body. Therefore, although she managed a transparent belly and pile of guts, and a very small brain looking more like a furrowed Klingon brow, she was reluctant to draw body openings.

Geminis, for those who wish to know, are ruled by their hands and arms, and also their lungs. Aquarius only has to worry about their ankles. Pisces are slaves to their feet...

The odd thing is, I know people who prove these theories.

Margaret mentioned evolution a couple of weeks ago, and --I read Discover Magazine, too-- there is a theory that we are evolving faster than ever, and in divergent directions.

I wonder. I'm sure it has been done. What would happen if we grouped ourselves according to our star signs? The dating charts seem to suggest that Geminis get along very well with other Geminis, and so forth. It could be an evolutionary problem. Or a strength.

FWIW, in my family, generations of Geminis have always managed to get along very well with Virgoans.

I'm absolutely honored that SF author Robin Wayne Bailey read Knight's Fork and gave me a fabulous quote.

" entertaining and elegantly written."
~ Robin Wayne Bailey

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Love Potion?

Today is the shared 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin!

DISCOVER magazine has a special issue entirely devoted to “The Brain” on the stands now. Pick it up if you can; it’s packed with fascinating articles about autistic savants, the power of music, hypnosis, “recovered memories,” animal intelligence, etc. Since Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, this seems a good time to discuss the article titled “Addicted to Love,” about the workings of oxytocin, popularly known as the love hormone or “feel-good” hormone. Evolution comes into this story, too, so it’s appropriate for this date.

The author of the article begins with the premise, “We feel the passions of love because our brains contain specific neurochemical signals that create those feelings in us.” (Well, okay, that’s the efficient cause, but not necessarily the ultimate cause.) Oxytocin activates the reward centers of the brains, the same areas that are hijacked by habit-forming drugs, making the term “addicted” somewhat apt. This chemical plays a role in sexual activity, mother-infant attachment, and commitment between mates. It’s released during orgasm and while a baby nurses. It also rises, oddly, in the bodies of women under stress, as if stress stimulates a physiological need to seek connection with other people. When researchers blocked oxytocin receptors in the brains of prairie voles, normally pair-bonding animals, the voles became promiscuous. Conversely, injecting the chemical into a related species of voles that don’t form pair-bonds made the animals monogamous.

Does this finding mean we can create a love potion with which to dose commitment-shy men and transform them into devoted partners? Unfortunately not; human beings have a more complicated psychology.

According to this article, “love is as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as is heartbeat regulation and stereo vision”—and it arises from our mammalian patterns of caring for our offspring. “The biological capacity for love is one way the brain prepares us for offspring who are born young and helpless and need tending to have the slightest hope of survival.” Thence come the bonds between parent and child and between the adults who must care for the child. If reptiles, which mate indiscriminately and typically abandon their offspring in the egg or soon afterward, had developed intelligence, “there would be no love sonnets in the reptilian canon.”

So are our affectionate emotions “nothing but” brain chemistry and the firing of neurons, potentially able to be manipulated (once we learn enough about this complex system) the way babies are “conditioned” from conception in BRAVE NEW WORLD? I don’t believe that. Even the DISCOVER article acknowledges that “the story is far more complicated than that. There is a biologically grounded brain system that creates and maintains the feeling we call love, but its cause can’t be reduced to one biochemical reaction.”

Margaret L. Carter (

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dissing the Formula Novel

Last night I reached the halfway mark in Linnea Sinclair's current novel, Hope's Folly.

On this blog, I have said several times that there exists an exacting structural architecture behind novels that is as precise as that revealed in SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES is for films.

I've said the same thing at many writing workshops, and always there's an aspiring writer, and sometimes even a publishing writer, who says "NO! A Thousand Times NO!!!"

That storytelling is an art and there must be no fetters or artificial restrictions on artists.

Well, storytelling is an art.

And as Marion Zimmer Bradley taught us in CATCHTRAP -- Discipline is the mark of the artiste.

But let's turn it around a bit and look at all this from the story-consumer's point of view.

If storytelling is an art -- perhaps so is story reading?

If you pay a small fortune for Superbowl tickets, would you be happy to plop down in your hard seat, hotdog in hand, only to discover the gridiron full of basketball players?

Linnea has brought up a subject related to this on -- a network site for people who read. Should SFR be categorized under PNR. Is SF-Romance a type of Paranormal Romance -- or is it something else?

Narrative stories in print or e-text -- stories told in words -- are a game the reader plays with the writer.

Reading a writer's stories is like playing chess or cards or any other eye-to-eye sport -- you get to know the writer.

Thus clever readers follow a byline. Some will look up the writer's pen names and follow all their work -- but usually have a favorite byline.

That's because we use pen-names to play different games.

Likewise, genre labels actually label the GAME the writer is offering to play with the reader.

Linnea is a great Dungeon Master! She'll lead you a merry chase. She follows two formulae at once and sticks to both -- a neat trick.

HOPE'S FOLLY is a case in point (by the halfway mark; I don't know about the ending yet so this isn't a review but a "heads-up").

Linnea nailed the halfway mark with the "beat" of the Romance that has to go at that exact point.

And simultaneously, as a complication to the Romance but also the instigator of the Romance, the SF half of the plot hits the exact point that an SF novel has to hit at the halfway mark.

Because this is a "happy ending" genre (or at worst, bitter-sweet or cliff-hanger ending genre) -- the half-way mark has to be DARKEST HOUR when you can taste success, see it, smell it, know it - and somehow BAM success becomes impossible.

In film, they call the halfway point "raising the stakes" -- what can be lost by failing to succeed suddenly burgeons into something far more important than it was at the beginning.

Perhaps because of the mass market industries driving these "games readers play" with writers -- readers have internalized this structure and come to expect it -- and enjoy that expectation being fulfilled.

Maybe there is an artistic artificiality behind that, but it is inherent in the nature of entertainment that the most enjoyment a reader/viewer has from the underlying structural solidity of a story comes from the strength of that structural integrity, yes, but MOSTLY FROM THE STRUCTURE BEING INVISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE.

Readers aren't supposed to be able to see the structure consciously. Writers must not only see that structure, but know lots of structures and be able to pour their story ideas into the structure most appropriate to the artistic material of the story.

Writers are there to be Dungeon Masters engineering a great, good, chase that allows readers a vast amount of freedom to create for themselves, but at the same time provides the latticework of structure.

Thus folks who are making the transition from Reader to Writer have to pass through a phase of "denial" (much like that phase which is part of grieving because they are grieving their personal innocence lost) in which they insist there are no structural rules they can not and should not break.

True art is formless.

The reader believes that because they have not been discerning the structure of the novels they like the most, and thus believe what they adore is structurelessness.

To gain the ability to write what they truly like to read, they must first admit that what they adore most is the structure -- and any solid flesh on that structure will satisfy.

Because readers don't perceive the underlying structure that thrills their subconscious minds, they participate in the game publishers play inventing genre labels.

Publishers try out a genre label and see if it "sells" -- if it shows promise, they put the label on more things. When they see which things sell better with that label, they begin to buy from writers only things which share that structure to publish under that label. Readers get to trust the genre label, and buy more.

With whetted appetite for a given structure, readers will scarf up more and more of anything called by that genre label.

Eventually, the market gets saturated, sales plummet, and something else skyrockets in sales. Publishers seek a label that says "just like what skyrocketed" and start trying to buy novels written with that exact same structure.

It's a cycle. I've known editors who survived the rise and fall of the bodice ripper, and other sub-genres. I know how they think. It's all about profit.

That won't change - it being all about profit.

So people who share a taste for a particular structure with lots of other people will have lots of novels to choose from. People who are looking for structures that are not popular will have to search in the byways of publishing, not the highways.

However, all that is now changing and changing very fast.

It's the recession-depression whatever we're facing. Intel has just announced they're building a new plant to make chips smaller and faster than EVER that use much less electricity (thus produce less heat).

E-books may be riding on the coat-tails of tech applications, but the coat-tails just got broader and longer with Intel's announcement. The e-book reader has always been the stumbling block in the logical extension of the data revolution to novels.

Readers have always been less than 5% of the population and currently that might be more like 3% (of people who read for fun, not instruction or work). Distribution has always been the commercial barrier.

Paper publishing is still melting down. We're losing newspapers (paperback books are printed on newsprint usually; no papers, no huge market for newsprint, and paper prices soar too high to make books affordable). Gas prices will soar again in a few months (April 2010 crude is over $50/barrel; today it's $39/barrel). Distribution of tons of printed books only to have them discarded is just not economical with a shrinking reading population.

Amazon CEO was interviewed on TV last night bragging they want to have all the books in the world ever printed available on Kindle. Google has similar ambitions.

The origin of "genre" lies in the secret publishers keep from readers -- that what readers get addicted to is STRUCTURE. Each genre has a set structure. It's not content or background, as seems intuitively obvious, it's structure.

"Space Opera" is the Western set in space. The "Western" is no longer saleable as book or TV show. But it lives on in Star Trek, Stargate, and there will be new icons of adventure into The Unknown.

The electronic tech revolution is eliminating the mechanism that makes keeping that secret profitable.

The structure of the fiction delivery system is in total disarray at the moment and will continue to foment. In fact, this next 18 months or so may be crucial to the novel as we know it.

Note this article -- it's not very new and doesn't say much new stuff, but it compiles a lot of facts into a picture that may show you what I'm talking about.

It's in a tech 'zine online, true, so there's bias.

I have to point out that I think "structure" will prevail. That there are reasons why the most people prefer this or that structure at any given time. That getting the most readers or viewers for your story will always be a writer's goal.

Also there are sound spiritual and esoteric reasons why this or that structure appeals to this or that audience.

Although we may see the e-market swamped with stories that have that so-yearned-for undisciplined formlessness that new writers and even some readers yearn for, I think the structural formula will prevail.

These formulae are not something writers made up, and not something publishers just invented and forced on us. They are formulae developed over millennia of storytelling from cave camp fire to e-book. They are formulae developed because storytellers wanted to hold their audience's attention.

They are formulae rooted deep in human psychology and spirituality. That's why readers become addicted to them. These formulae speak to the essence of what makes us human.

That's why I admire Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series so much. He, personally, as an individual knows how primal this formula is. STC! GOES TO THE MOVIES delineates the exact rules for each of 10 genres Blake has identified empirically. He didn't invent them. Hollywood didn't invent them. MOVIE-GOERS INVENTED THEM by spending money to see movies with those formulae and shunning movies that didn't have those structures.

The formula is the genre.

Which brings us back to Linnea Sinclair.

I'm sure some readers will fault her execution of whichever Romance formula she is using for any given book. And I know I find missing elements in her SF formula. But she's put the two together into a very satisfying mix.

I, for one, am impressed with how she nailed that halfway-point in both formulae at once.

Those who were reading and studying what she and I have written on this blog about the Expository Lump, notably this post on verisimilitude vs reality and the blog posts linked within it -

should read and study the first 2 chapters of HOPE'S FOLLY, and the effect they have on you as a reader -- then the way the pacing changes in Chapter 3 and onwards.

Linnea explained the technique she used in the first 2 chapters, and I think there's a link to her explanation in this post.

Creating these effects on readers is an artform. When you want to create the effect Linnea created for you, use the technique she adopted here.

Just note that without those first 2 chapters, the mid-point of both the SF plot and the Romance plot of the story would not fall at the mid-point of the page count.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, February 09, 2009

Speaking and Swearing in Alien Tongues: Reprise

For those of you with little time to go poking through the archives here, and in keeping with Jacqueline's posts on dialogue, here are the two posts I did eons ago on speaking and swearing in (intergalactic) alien tongues:


There's an old-- and somewhat disparaging-- anecdote in which Mr. Average American travels to Paris, France and complains to his wife, "Know what's wrong with this place? Too many durned furrinners who can't speak English!"

The problem with some of speculative fiction and science fiction/fantasy romance is the opposite one. For some unknown reason, everyone in the universe speaks English. American, Canadian or British version, but they all speak English.

Maybe this is a reaction to too many visits to Paris (can there be too many visits to Paris?). More likely, it reflects an author's fear of not understanding how to build a realistic language or of confusing the reader with alien phrases or terms.

Fears well founded. On the other side of the intergalactic literary coin, there are those spec fic and SFR novels in which the use of an alien language is a jarring distraction. It's overdone, comically done (and the intention is not to be comical) or snobbishly done (what, you mean you haven't memorized the Klingon dictionary?).

One of the necessary parts of world building, one of the necessary parts of crafting a believable spec fic novel, is the inclusion of alien concepts, religions, cultures and terms. Words.

“I want you. Yav chera.” His hoarse whisper filled her ear. “Yav chera, Trilby-chenka. Tell me you want me.”

She turned her face slightly to look at him. There was a softness in the lines of his face she’d never seen before. An openness. A vulnerability. It tugged at her heart.

Yav chera,” she replied softly.

His thumb covered her lips. “Yav cheron. If you want me, it is yav cheron. When I want you, which is all the time, it is yav chera.”
He moved his thumb and brushed his lips against hers.

Yav cheron,” she told him. She laced her fingers through his hair and pulled his face back to hers. (from Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

The trick is to make the inclusion of the words, the phrases, the names, the terms as natural and effortless as possible for the reader. The reader will be reading/hearing this language for the first time. But that's not a unique situation in spec fic. The reader is also encountering sickbays and starship bridges for the first time, or alien city streets, or space station corridors. Or forests thick with flora and fauna heretofore unknown and unimagined.

If you can make a reader see those things-- those station corridors, those lofty forests-- you can make them hear and understand your alien language.

One of the easiest ways I used above: make one person explain the language to the other. “I want you. Yav chera,” Rhis says to Trilby, thereby informing the reader of the meaning of the words 'yav chera'. He goes further by correcting her: Yav cheron is what she should say to him. So the reader begins-- consciously or unconsciously-- to see a pattern: chera/cheron. Female/male.

I use this same template for Rhis's language Z'fharish, through the rest of Finders Keepers. But it's not a template I invented. I gleefully filched it from two workbooks I have on my bookshelf: Italian Made Simple and Vamos Apprender Portuguese.

And I've just taught you something else: you may not speak a word of Portuguese, but by comparison, by equivalency, you're going to at least figure that Vamos Apprender Portuguese is a book with the same function as Italian Made Simple.

“Ground forces. Like your marines,” he said, plucking at the insignia of crossed swords on his chest, “but we call ourselves Stegzarda. ‘Stegzarda’ means perhaps ‘strength command’ in your language. We assist the Imperial Fleet when it comes to border outposts.”

Farra nodded. “Especially with recent jhavedzga—”

“Aggression.” Mitkanos corrected her
. (from Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair.)

Farra says the word in Z'fharish (Trilby's at the table listening to all this). Mitkanos, her uncle, corrects her. He also, conversationally, defines another term for Trilby.

Just as a good writer weaves in essentials elements and clues through dialogue (never, never using an info dump!), so a good spec fic writer can weave bits and pieces of a language into conversation.

But let's get back to using Vamos Apprender Portuguese as a template. You don't have to use 'We're Going to Learn Portuguese' (which is what that title says). You can use Russian or Japanese or Swahili as a template. Or you can combine templates of several languages. The point is, start with a basic linguistic template and it'll make your language-world building go so much smoother.

In Vamos, we learn o amigo and a amiga both mean 'friend'. We also see that our amigos are male and our amigas are female. (And yes, this is the same as Spanish and Italian - which is another point to keep in mind). We also see that the subject pronoun is often dropped (I, she, we) and the ending of the verb denotes the subject pronoun: Eu falo (I speak) is the same as Falo (I speak). Falamos is We speak. Same as Nos falamos.

Bear with me. I'm not trying to prep you for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, nice as that would be. I'm trying to show you that if it's done on this planet, you can do it on your planet.

Find a language template and use it. In Finders Keepers, I used Portuguese, Polish/Russian and un petite peu of French. Not the words - but the structure and conjugations. The sequence of words. And obviously, the sound of words.

Which brings me to another point about language-world building: not everyone sounds the same, even if they speak the same language.

Drogue’s bright-eyed gaze ran up and down my length, or lack of. “Captain Chasidah Bergren. Yes.” He stuck out his hand.

I accepted it.

“You are well?” he asked.

I tried to place his accent. South system, Dafir? Possibly. “All things considered, yes.” Some of my wariness returned. The Englarians were invariably cooperative with the government. I still had visions of a firing squad as a reception committee, Sully’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
(from Gabriel's Ghost by Linnea Sinclair.)

When I was a wee kidling, my parents gave me this enormous dictionary that contained a number of appendices, including 'Regional Variations In American Pronunciation' by Charles K. Thomas, PhD. Of course, even at 11 years old, I knew not everyone sounded alike. My grandmother, from Poland, spoke nothing like my teachers at school. And my neighbor Patty's parents, who were from Tennessee, sounded very different from anyone in my small town in New Jersey. But I'd never before seen those differences in writing. Dr. Thomas delineated ten different speech regions in the US of A. Ten! Eastern New England, North Central, New York City, Middle Atlantic, Western Pennsylvania, Southern Mountain, Southern, Central Midland, Northwest and Southwest.

And yet we have spec fic novels that while, yes, they include an alien language, all the aliens in the entire galaxy sound the same. No, they won't. They may read the same to the reader but they won't sound the same to your characters. Someone-- like Chasidah, above-- will notice the difference. You want your character to notice the difference. Different languages are as essential to world building as different religions, customs and even climate.

And just as with the weaving in of your alien culture or climate, use of an alien language must be done with a delicate touch. You're still writing for an English-speaking audience (or whatever other language your novel is written in). You must provide your reader with enough of a story they can understand or they won't slip into your fictional world.

Pick five or six key phrases; eight or ten key words, sprinkle your dialogue with them just enough times for the words to feel familiar. You don't jump when you walk into a French restaurant and are greeted with "Bon soir". The words, the sound, the accent belong in the setting. Your alien language should work the same way. Make the language flow easily with the scene any time you use it. Don't force your reader to stop and puzzle over it, or it might draw him out of the story. And then he'll put your novel down, grumbling… "Too many durned aliens in that book!"

Conceiving The Heavens by Melissa Scott
How to Writer Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

The Language Construction Kit -
Pegasus Nest // games // languages in role-playing games -
Patricia C. Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions -


Is everything okay?

An innocuous question; one posed daily, if not hourly in our society. Yet several years ago, answering that question almost put a friend of mine in the midst of a full-blown melee.

You see, he was in a restaurant in a foreign country and was asked by the restaurant owner (via an interpreter) if “…everything (meal, wine, service) was okay.”

Not being fluent in the local language, my friend responded by making the good ol' American 'okay' sign: his thumb and index finger forming a circle, the other three fingers extended.

As the proprietor bellowed and tables almost overturned, my friend realized he'd evidently made a big mistake. He had. In his present locale, that hand gesture was synonymous for a lower body orifice, and not a pleasant orifice at that.

For all intents and purposes, he'd just called his host an… well, you know what he'd called him.

When I write my science fiction romance novels, I think about things like that. Not lower body orifices, mind you. I think about what we in this country, on the planet, deem as insulting. And how that might translate to the culture I've built for my novels.

The first lesson I've learned from the above example is that profanity is not planet-wide. What's okay in America may well be a reason to riot in Rio. Though admittedly, it was what the gesture stood for, and not the gesture itself, that was found so offensive.

Which brings me to the question I always ask myself when I'm world building: Self, what would this alien culture find offensive, and why?

It's rather a nice question to ask yourself as well, as you embark on your SF&F world building. Because answering it will make your worlds and your characters that much more complete, that much more alive to your readers.

In general, those that reside on this planet we call Earth find the following categories offensive and fertile fodder for foul language: blaspheming a revered deity, excrement, sexual acts, illegitimacy, body parts relating to excrement and sexual activity, and sexual activity with culturally unacceptable participants, including oneself.

All fairly obvious and self-explanatory to us here on Earth (and if you want to explore the matter further, the tome most oft cited is Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, (Penguin USA). But we're not writing about here on Earth. We're writing about Rigel-V and Tatooine and the Skolian Empire and Moabar. Or maybe the Vash Nadah or the Khalar.

So we need to understand what those people in those places value, or don't, in order to understand how they swear.

Couldn't they value the same things we do? Sure. But why stop there? Moreover, why would they value exactly the same things we do? If the fictional culture you're creating is a carbon copy of Freehold, New Jersey set but set on the planet Gryck-2, then, in my humble opinion, you're cheating your readers. People don't read SF because they want to be immersed in the common. They read it to explore the uncommon.

If you read C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series, you'll see that one of the most common insults the feline race known as the Hani has is to call another Hani “an earless bastard.” And it isn't the bastardy that's the serious part of the insult—it’s the earless-ness. Ears, and the adornment of ears, are symbolic of success. (Being owned by cats myself, I can confirm that ears and tails are sources of great pride.)

So what does your fantasy or sci fi culture hold dear, and what do they disdain?

If parentage is taken lightly, then calling someone a bastard will most likely not be effective (this is true of some aboriginal cultures here on this planet). If there are no restrictions on sexual practices or partners, then perhaps your character could start a fistfight by calling the bad guy a monogamist.

How would those who spend their lives in the space lanes—perhaps are even born in space—view those who've never left the planet? “Dirtsuckers” is a term I've used derisively in my books, showing a prejudice by the space-born against the planet-born.

The entire issue of prejudice fueled the culture, and many of the insults, in my Gabriel's Ghost. The Taka are a furred race that, for the most part, work only in the lowest-paying and demeaning jobs. Prejudice against them, by humanoids, is common in the world of Captain Chasidah Bergren and Gabriel Ross Sullivan:

Sully stepped up to the worker. “Pardon, brother. We seek a Takan brother with urgent family news.”

The man barely glanced at Sully as he ran his hand through his thinning hair in an exasperated motion. Chatter still came from the podium speaker.

“What’s that? Hang on, I got some religious guy here needs to find a furry

The term 'furry', inoffensive to us, is a slur here.

But the Takas aren't the only species looked down upon in Gabriel's Ghost, as Chaz knows when she's speaking to Captain Philip Guthrie:

[Guthrie]: “No. The Farosians. With a Stolorth Ragkiril. We know that. How you would get involved with them, how you would get involved with that I cannot understand.”

‘That’ meant a Stolorth. A Fleet-issue sentiment of disgust.

As readers of Gabriel's Ghost learn, Stolorths are feared. Takas are simply dismissed as lesser beings. But both are recipients of prejudice, and often out of prejudice are insults born.

Blasphemy is born out of devotion. What gods or goddesses do your characters revere? What edicts has their religion placed on them? Is there a place, like hell, that your characters long to send their enemies? Or, if your characters are star-travelers, is it sufficient simply to sneer, "Oh, go suck dirt!" in order to be insulting?

A caution on using invented words: Oh, grzzbft! tends to sound more comical than threatening to English-acclimated ears. That doesn't mean you can't utilize your alien language in order to create alien profanity. Just try to anchor it to something the reader can identify with—an alien word or concept already used in the story, for example. Or use the 'comparative' method I noted in my previous article on constructing alien languages.

I used both methods in my Games of Command— which is, by the way, considerably lighter in tone than Gabriel's Ghost—so I wasn't quite as worried about the giggle factor:

She heard the smart click of the cabin door lock recycling. She dove under the desk, fitting her small form into the kneehole, and shoved her com badge down the front of her shirt. If it beeped now, she was toast.

Cabin lights flicked on. Heavy footsteps moved across the carpeted floor as the door swooshed closed.

Damn! Shit! Sonofabitch! Sass ran through every swearword she knew in five languages. Frack! Grenzar! Antz-k’ran! Trock


“I’d love to launch a raftwide mullytrock, but then we’d have every other damned jockey in straps burning bulkheads. ’Course, that would work too. RaftTraff wouldn’t know which one of us to send the sec tugs after first.”

Mullytrock. Definitely Lady Sass. He remembered Ralland at fourteen getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying that.

Don't ignore the foul-language factor when creating your world. Take some time to see how and why and when we on this planet swear (references below cited to assist you with that), and integrate that knowledge with your alien or fantasy culture. Your readers-- and your characters-- will thank you. After all, your heroine does need something appropriate to say when she drops a sonic-wrench on her toe.

For Further Study:

Four-Letter Folk Etymology and the “Bald Anglo-Saxon Epithet" by Lauren Mahon

Constructed Human Languages

Maledicta Press - Uncensored Language Research

Elizabethean Insult Generator

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, coming Feb. 24, 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

“If we can’t do the impossible, then we need to at least be able to do the unexpected.” —Admiral Philip Guthrie

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Intelligent Design and Science Fiction

"Start with the sun," is great world-building advice. I think Jacqueline Lichtenberg told me that.

I'd like to say that my reaction was, "Oh, deadly wicked! A short cut!!!" but it wasn't. I'm not that quick on the draw.

I like to think that I'd start with a Big Bang or some equally scientifically plausible explanation for the galaxy or universe in which that star came into being, but it's inevitable that someone, somewhere has already had every thought imaginable. Including every permutation of "which came first: the egg, or the egg-layer?"

Terry Pratchett's Discworld reminds me of a Hindu story, which has been referenced by various great philosophers including John Locke, Hawking,, and Russell (not in that order!)

I studied Philosophy at Cambridge (flimsily, along with Sociology and Psychology as part of my combined Honours Education degree). I remember reading Russell's 1927 lecture Why I Am Not a Christian. In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God's existence, Russell comments:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject."

Elephants and tortoises and turtles don't make much sense to me. Nor do questions about what the tortoise was standing on, because loggerheads and leatherbacks swim.

But, where did the turtle come from? Are there other turtles? Other hitchhiking elephants?

And, if our world is the result of "Intelligent Design", why would an intelligent designer locate something as precious and beautiful as our planet (and everything on it) in a cosmic bowling alley or petanque terrain?

Was the Permian extinction an unintended consequence? Or deliberate? Were dinosaurs the prototype, but turned out TSTL?

Is our world a marble? A jack? A cush? A boule?

I recently learned to play petanque. There are a lot of games around the world that involve heavy orbs being rolled, bowled, thrown, tossed, or bowled at smaller, brighter spherical objects with the goal of getting as close as possible.

I realize that our star --Sol, the Sun-- is bigger, not smaller, than the planets around it. So the analogy doesn't hold up. Thank goodness. Or should that be, "Thank Goodness!"?

The premise behind The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was fanciful, too. Earth was bulldozed to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Thinking of intergalactic super highways... a few years ago, the science channel had a fabulous documentary in which they imaginatively visited the eight or nine or ten planets or approximately habitable worlds in our solar system. At the time, we were thought to have nine, but I think Europa and IO were part of the tour. One planet was suggested to have seas of liquid petroleum.

I can imagine. We flew back from the UK over Greenland. Unusually, the cloud cover was sparse, and we could see the lakes and rivers between the mountains. The sun was low, and all the bodies of water looked orange. It was an incredible sight.

In the grander scale of things, I don't think any one school of thought or belief necessarily rules out any other.

Anyway, we write fiction. What makes a good story doesn't have to be what we believe, or limited to that of which we have empirical, demonstrable knowledge.

And... for intelligent design of another sort entirely, here's how to design a killer press release

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is Literacy Doomed?

The latest CEMETERY DANCE (No. 59) contains an interview with distinguished British horror anthologist Stephen Jones. He views with alarm the state of literacy in general and the condition of mass market horror fiction (while remaining hopeful about the future of the genre, the demise of which has been predicted many times in the past). He says, “Most kids are leaving school sub-literate,” and, “Almost nobody reads these days.” He mourns the passing of the time when we used to “get our information from words.” He doesn’t count the information (and fiction) readers find on the Internet as worthy of notice. (While many newspapers and websites are part of the “dumbing down” process, as he says, surely not ALL are?) Jones considers blogs and personal websites a waste of an author’s time and lumps together all e-published and POD books with unedited, shoddily produced self-published releases.

Coincidentally, Thomas Monteleone’s column in the same issue laments declining standards of literacy among would-be writers, as demonstrated by the low quality of slush pile submissions. He points out an alarming frequency of misspellings that make it evident the writers are trying to write words they have never seen in print. In other words, even many aspiring authors aren’t necessarily readers—and I agree that trend IS alarming, if true. As Garrison Keillor says in today’s column, “Writing is an act of paying attention.” Disdain for the niceties of spelling, punctuation, and usage implies a distressing lack of care for one’s own work as well as the material one reads. Monteleone connects this plight with what he considers the disastrous state of education and general cultural literacy.

My overall reaction to the two CEMETERY DANCE articles is along the line of, “Calm down, get a grip, it’s not THAT bad.” Viewers-with-alarm seem to forget how novel the ideal of universal literacy is. In the “good old days” when people supposedly read lots of books and were well acquainted with literature and history, those who attended high school, let alone graduated, were in the minority. Even in my youth (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I suspect the “bad” kids were either expelled long before graduation or at least not discouraged from dropping out. Nowadays, schools pursue the goal of having all students complete a secondary education. So of course the average gets pulled down, now that high school students represent the entire population rather than a select group (the group those people nostalgic for the good old days are actually thinking of when they compare yesterday's level of public education with today's). Meanwhile, a college degree has become the entry-level employment qualification that a high school diploma used to be. So of course everybody is urged to go to college, even if not well prepared, because they may find themselves jobless otherwise.

As Isaac Asimov pointed out in one of his essays, people who voluntarily read for pleasure have always been a minority. Only the competing leisure activities have changed. As for the legitimate causes for alarm that do exist, in my opinion it doesn’t help a bit to dismiss wholesale all instances of new formats, e.g. e-publishing and POD, as substandard and inauthentic. Does anyone seriously believe the comparatively few books for which mass market publishers have room on their lists exhaust the number of good submissions they’ve received? Small presses and other alternative publication venues give those worthy-but-rejected books a chance to find a home. The widening and varying of the fiction delivery system, to me, is something to be celebrated. Yes, Sturgeon’s Law holds true; 90 percent of everything is junk, and maybe the ease of online publication makes the 90 percent more visible. The other 10 percent, however, should have fresh opportunities find its audience in this “brave new world” reading environment.