Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Human Human

How do you prove you're human?

Here's a article by a man who participated in an annual contest based on the Turing Test. Live contestants and computers carry on conversations with judges who try to identify which dialogue partners are people and which are machines:

Mind vs. Machine

One thing he discovered was that longer, looser conversations favor the human conversationalist, while a computer can put on a convincing show of sentience during a short, tightly structured dialogue but will eventually break down into nonsense if you keep it "talking" long enough.

This author harps a bit too much on the "there are some things machines will never be able to do" theme for my taste, but it's an interesting article anyway. Yet another illustration of how tasks hard for our brains are easy for computers and vice versa.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Star Trek / Loveboat Mashup And Soulmates Part VII

This series of posts illustrates the thinking process inside the writer's mind. The exercise here is to target an audience and develop a jaw-dropping TV Series premise from a very vague concept.

I recommend reading previous Parts first.
As requested by some readers of this blog, I'm breaking this very long post into parts to make short posts. If you don't like this approach, do please let me know.

This is an exercise, like a pianist practicing scales to prepare for a concert. Writing is a performing art. This is the exercise that makes the performance smooth. 

------Part VII-------------

Last time we ended off mulling over the form of Romance that we could use for a hard-SF-TV series.

To get beyond the concept of a Star Trek / The Loveboat mashup to an actual premise, we have to pick one.

To complete this exercise, you should run it through with every choice.

So I'm going to "think big" and run this through for a long-running TV series. 

Let's choose an ensemble cast structure of 2 interlaced love-triangle Situations.

For an HEA to deliver a real gut-punch, the seeds of the solution must be planted right at the beginning of the story.  The solution must be inherent but invisible to the characters.  Suspense is developed by letting the viewer/reader see what the characters can't see, and the punch is delivered when the reader/viewer doesn't see the "real" solution coming but recognizes it as valid once it does arrive.

What really happens with a TV show during production is that decisions made before get changed on the fly, actors come and go by contract or happenstance, ratings and network executives make decisions that affect story direction. 

The less you establish, the better chance it has of materializing in development. 

So we need to ask why hard-SF folks would be averse to a Star Trek / Loveboat mashup.  Because they don't want their "hard" science view of the universe muddied up?  Because they're still adolescent boys who can't face their own emotions?  They want "girlz" not a Soul Mate?

OK, then we need a playboy character, a Kirk who can always "get the girl" -- someone all the girlz still swoon over.

He is determined not to get caught by one girl. 

So we know what happens to him.

Two girlz he is absolutely smitten with (but does not consciously know it) arrive in his life during the pilot episode. The "Bible" for this show will delineate how these characters mature into women of power and drag him into maturity too. 

OK, then the second triangle is two boyz and a girl, likewise being hammered into men and a woman. 

Notice when talking about creating an SF world in Part VI, we talked about physics.  Now we're talking about characters.

SF generated the plot parameters -- interstellar civilization where Earth didn't invent the space drive.

Romance is generating the story parameters -- 6 PEOPLE in a tangled Relationship. 

To be a genuine Romance, the love-element has to generate the plot. But that's what the Science element has to do.

So we need LOVE to become a SCIENCE.

THE SOUL IS REAL is the unthinkable concept I'll use here.

IF THIS GOES ON... -- the "this" might well be the computerized dating services matching people up by "compatibility" or other parameters, applying cold equations to creating couples.

WHAT IF... after Eath's ecology has been fine-tuned by aliens, NEW ALIENS turn up in this galactic association.

What if the NEW ALIENS run "The Loveboat" -- an interstellar Cruise Ship where, for a consideration, you board to find your Soul Mate (for real, not a scam, but of course everyone thinks it's a scam).

Remember the X-Files? 

One Character-triangle believes (all 3 for different reasons) that the New Aliens are running a scam and have been set to prove that, to uncover the truth.

The other Character-triangle is totally committed (all for different reasons) to believing (regardless of evidence) that the New Aliens are actually matching Soul Mates into couples. 

"The Enterprise" is a ship built by Earth humans but not necessarily near here; run by an Alien who runs the engines (think FARSCAPE without the multitude of aliens). 

Our "The Enterprise" is a law-enforcement vehicle not an exploration vehicle.

The ship is assigned (by Earth's authority) to investigate and resolve all kinds of mysteries and crimes here and there around the galaxy, each week a different problem.

Our Ensemble of 6 are assigned to our Enterprise by various Law Enforcement agencies on Earth, and their job is to police Earth citizens (some of which may not be human) operating in the galaxy.

But like Sherlock Holmes, Our Investigators deal with a "Scotland Yard" - a central law enforcement organization among the member Worlds, so we have permanent ongoing recurring characters. 

OK, The Pilot Episode has Our Interstellar Scotland Yard begging the services of Our Investigators to determine if a crime is being committed out-back-of-nowhere at the edge of organized space.

They are following a money trail, or more likely a movement of some commodity (or say high-explosives capable of destroying a star?). Something HUGE is draining the economy, and it just can't be legal.

They find, in the opening 2-parter, that a human/alien colonized world is being visited by this New Alien ship that charges impossible fees for a couple-month long Cruise out beyond the backwater.  People return to the colony in couples and REALLY DO live happily ever after (not drugged, not brain-washed, not tricked -- for real.)

People elsewhere are selling all their possessions and moving to this colony to buy passage on that Cruise.

Of COURSE some human criminals will exploit this new thing, keep it secret, charge huge fees to agent passage on this ship - pump up the rumors, and fake some "happy ever after" couples. (kind of like a snuff-fight ring)

But the New Aliens are for real, and when Our Six get done with the opening episode, diplomatic relations have been established with the New Aliens who now can send Cruise Ships into organized space and exploit other planets.

The series is generated as 3 of our 6 take one side of the matter, and the other 3 take the opposite view.  As our "Enterprise" is sent here and there over the next episodes, the New Aliens keep turning up -- never a crime to be pinned on them.

Our "Enterprise" carries a forensic section like the TV Show "Bones."  Only this one has some alien science to draw on. Maybe a research-sickbay operation like the TV show House.  These folks plus our 6 investigators are 'cargo'. There might be a detachment of Marines aboard from time to time - have to allow for some action scenes.

The forensics specialists from Earth are of course there to try to "steal" (figure out) the science behind the alien space drive that Earth is not allowed to know. 

Our "Enterprise" has a Captain and Crew - but not a big crew.  Possibly only 4 people, plus robots and AI -- Captain, Astrogation, Engineering, Communications. These guys are "Navy" -- Marines are cargo until they're needed.

As the Vulcan civilization (or Dr. Who's Gallifrey) was never revealed early on (and a disappointment once revealed), our New Aliens and their Soul-centered technology view of the universe remains a total mystery, and largely irrelevant except where the 6 square off to "prove" one view or other other (it's a scam vs it's not). 

We never establish whether the Soul or any particular view of God is "real." If we deal with ghosts etc., it is as in our everyday reality -- there it is, but you'll never know if it's "real." 

The final episode will sort the 6 out into Soul Mated couples -- perhaps not with each other.  That would depend on the "chemistry" among the actors.

So there's one exercise -- not digested and presented as a "pitch" at all, just some inchoate notes such as a writer would make just to remember "an idea." 

Now, do that for yourself with other choices. 

Be sure to JOIN the "SF" and the "Romance" to the "Plot." 

That takes a philosophical QUESTION (such as "Is The Soul Real?") that forms the lynchpin joining science to romance.

Remember, "Love Conquers All" has the inherent conflict of Love vs. SOMETHING PREVENTING IT - love has to have something to conquer or you don't have a Romance.  The way I've set this one up, Love is conquering Skepticism. Pick something you like better. 

Oh, this mashup thing needs a title.  What would you call it? 

Mobile Lab

Soul Slingers

Business As Usual

Gone a-Conquering

The Schadchen

Jacqueline Lichtenberg 

ps: BEWARE. there are so many writers who aspire to sell a TV Series that there are any number of "schools" to teach the "secrets" of selling to TV. The following one might actually be legit, but think about what the roaring crowd looks like from a producer's point of view.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Last week, as usual in the middle of March each year, I attended the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando. What a treat to leave Maryland for several days of sunny weather in the 70s and 80s. The hotel's buffet luncheons for us were noticeably better than in the past two years, as many people commented. I hope that trend continues. For the first time, the Saturday banquet consisted of plated dinners instead of a buffet, about which I felt very dubious. Fortunately, the meal was pretty good (except for the dessert, the most boring imaginable, bread pudding). In a more welcome innovation. the online program included abstracts of the papers to be delivered, a big help in deciding what sessions to attend.

The guest of honor was Connie Willis, whose time travel fiction I love. Since the conference had the theme of "The Fantastic Ridiculous," she gave a very witty talk at one of the luncheons. Unfortunately, I missed hearing her in Wednesday's opening panel on romantic comedy, because the airline switched my flight from 12:30 to 5 in the afternoon! (What's up with THAT? Easy to guess—they deleted the midday flights to save money on airplanes and staff. But, still, it feels like getting cheated out of what one has paid for.)

I listened to Jean Lorrah (Jacqueline's co-author) read a twenty-minute film script and heard thrilling news from her about the release of new Sime-Gen fiction in the near future (from Wildside Press), including her novel TO KISS OR TO KILL. In the session I participated in, I presented an essay on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER compared to the vampire anime series BLOOD+.

The scholar guest of honor delivered a luncheon talk about racial issues in the movie DISTRICT 9 but first discussed customs of women among the Igbo people of Nigeria. In Igbo traditional society women had little or no power as individuals but considerable collective power as a group. If a man committed some transgression such as beating his wife or men as a group abused their authority, the women would refuse to cook, clean, etc.; if the men didn't shape up, the women progressed to following them around, taunting and satirizing them or sometimes threatening mock violence. This practice was called "sitting on the men." During the period of British colonialism, a "women's war" occurred when a rumor started that the English were planning to tax women, contrary to traditional Igbo custom. The English mistook the women's ritual attacks for real ones and retaliated with lethal violence. Which inspires speculation about what might happen if human colonists on another planet similarly misunderstood the behavior of aliens.

Sunday morning I had a nice conversation with a woman from the University of Hawaii, where I got my M.A. in English back in 1974. You never know whom you'll meet at a conference.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Star Trek / Loveboat Mashup And Soulmates Part VI

This series of posts illustrates the thinking process inside the writer's mind. The exercise here is to target an audience and develop a jaw-dropping TV Series premise from a very vague concept.

I recommend reading previous Parts first.

As requested by some readers of this blog, I'm breaking this very long (abstract) post into parts to make short posts. If you don't like this approach, do please let me know.

Follow this thinking, argue against it, find the flaws, find different data, concoct your own Concept, and generate your own premise as we work through this. This is an exercise, like a pianist practicing scales to prepare for a concert. Writing is a performing art. This is the exercise that makes the performance smooth. 

--------Part VI-----------

So we ended off Part V with the question:

What is it today's audience is AFRAID TO THINK OUT LOUD?

What concept freaks people out? What parental stricture is being rebelled against?

The answer to those questions, regardless of what era you ask them of, produces a "concept" which is what Hollywood calls "edgy" -- right at the edge of "too much pain" comes laughter.

Since this is an exercise, you don't need to find "the right answer" or even a plausible one.  Any answer will work to strengthen your imagining process.

Look at the list of data in Part V on Worldbuilding premises that a large number of popular books have in common. 

For this iteration of this exercise I'm going to pick "The Soul Is Real" as the thought a generation is subconsciously afraid to think out loud.

"Soul" of course implies that all those hard-science folks we started out inspired by in Part I of this series are wrong about the structure of "reality." 

Since we're looking to entertain (and get paid for it) those hard-SF folks, we'll build a world out of the best that hard-science has to offer today.  Since this is a TV show, we'll expect the deep-pocketed producers to pay for some high-powered consultants to work all that out and then dumb it down for general audiences.

To build a Science Fiction novel world, you need 3 elements operating:

1. "What if ...?" 

2. "If only ...?"

3. "If this goes on ...?" 

So for our "What if?" we'll choose a galaxy-spanning civilization with space/time travel and say, a FEW alien species, not necessarily a lot. 

We now know there are a lot of stars with big planets, implying there have to be many Earth-size planets, some of which are in the liquid-water zone of their stars.  So there are probably a lot of non-human civilizations that have existed, but probability favors only a few at any given "time."

Theory has it (Hawkings) that there's no such thing as simultaneity.

2011 may see the hunt for the Higgs Boson (key to understanding gravity) abandoned for lack of funding, but lots of data has been collected and theory will be advanced over the next few years.

That web posting says in part:

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—Thunderstorms produce beams of antimatter. That's the surprising finding reported here yesterday at the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Scientists already knew about flashes of high-energy gamma-rays from Earth, which are associated with large thunderstorms. Every day, about 500 of these terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) are produced worldwide by accelerated electrons interacting with air molecules.

You all remember that Star Trek's space drive uses "dilithium crystals" (magic) to mix matter and anti-matter just exactly so.  At that time, "anti-matter" was something only theoretical physicists and writers like Isaac Asimov (positronic robots; positrons are anti-matter electrons) talked about, even more mythic than the Higgs Boson. Roddenberry made anti-matter famous, only at that time it was still a joke.

Well, here we are - anti-matter has always been a part of our world, coming out of bursts of lightning.

So for this mashup, we'll assume there are aliens out there who have found and mastered the Higgs Boson and other arcane structures of the physical reality and know all about anti-matter and how to handle it. 

For our "If only ..." we'll pick the existence of a space-drive that can let humans dart around the galaxy in weeks or months, not lifetimes, and turn up at destination within a time-frame such that all their friends haven't died of old age.  That is - this is a space/time drive as facile and fantasy-based as Star Trek's. 

For our "If this goes on ..." we'll pick Earth's Ecology collapsing.  For backstory -- some wild-eyed independent college kids send out a distress signal into the galaxy using some crazy-new invention of their own (without even asking any government permission to attract alien attention).  Make that High School kids with a college friend they convince to hook their device up to some university power-generating system.  Maybe the Fermi Collider's power source? 

So "The Aliens" (our version of The Arrival Of The Vulcans) come along and "adjust" Earth's ecology whether we-all like it or not, and bring Earth into the galactic economy. 

Our story is set about a hundred years later, maybe two hundred - it pays to be vague about it.

Now, as I've discussed previously The Romance Story has certain fixed parameters, and remember we're writing a Romance here.  This is Star Trek / The Loveboat mashup, so we need a Romance Premise.

In the following post I sliced&diced the Romance formula and drilled down into the HEA - the Happily Ever After ending.  (remember a TV Series can't have "an ending.")

In that post I noted:
Romance Genre is distinguished by specific choices for the elements that a novelist can fill in with a number of different choices when writing other genres.

Those choices for a Romance are:

A)In a Romance the Relationships IS the plot, and all else is commentary on that relationship.

B)The conflict is the Relationship, what creates the attraction and what blocks the attraction.

C)The story is all about how each person is changed by the need for the Relationship.

D)The beginning is where the couple first become conscious of each other.

E)The ending is where the Relationship roadblocks are removed and it's full speed ahead into a Happily Ever After life for the couple.

The "all light up" point of the Romance is that HEA - that moment is the blow-off of all the tension, the release, the climax.  No other moment can substitute for it, and that moment is the defining element of "Romance." 

So to create a Science Fiction Romance for television, we have a problem.

We could choose a Soap Opera structure like the TV show Dallas.  That show was the first to put the story-arc on Prime Time TV, though it had little "romance" (lots of relationship, not much real romance) it had lots of Relationship, and varieties of social-combat disguised as Business.

We could choose a closed-end story-arc like Babylon 5 which took the Dallas breakthrough and added SF to it.

We could do a Hung Hero situation like Beauty And The Beast where if the romance plot moves at all, the premise is destroyed and the show peters out.  That happened with Lois And Clark also.

We could do musical partners as they did with Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

We could do the eternal tension between philosophical adversaries, like X-Files.

Think about it and make your choice, and we'll continue next time.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, March 17, 2011


My husband and I just got back from this year's EPICCon, put on by the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition. My erotic paranormal romance novella "Foxfire" made the list of award finalists in its category. It didn't win, but that wasn't much of a surprise. That category had 14 finalists! I had a great time anyway.

The conference took place in Williamsburg, our home for over three and a half years while we attended the College of William and Mary (and had our second child there). After a chilly, rainy Thursday for the drive down, we had mild, sunny weather the rest of the weekend. Thursday evening, we went to dinner at one of our old favorite restaurants, the King's Arms. As you'd expect for an establishment founded more than two centuries ago, it hasn't changed much since the 1970s.

My favorite session at the con was a fascinating two-hour talk on hostage negotiation by a veteran crisis negotiator. I also heard part of an excellent workshop by Angela Knight on writing erotic love scenes. Wish I could have caught more of it. I was inspired enough to order her book on writing erotica, PASSIONATE INK.

The awards banquet included entertainment by a troupe of belly dancers. Something truly different! Another innovation was an ice cream bar offered on Friday during the morning break (a touch of decadence there). Les and I sold a few copies of our fantasy novels, met some very nice people, and generally had a fun weekend.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Star Trek / Loveboat Mashup And Soulmates Part V

This series of posts illustrates the thinking process inside the writer's mind. The exercise here is to target an audience and develop a jaw-dropping TV Series premise from a very vague concept.

Again I recommend reading previous Parts first.

Here we're looking to define an overall generational CONFLICT on a massive philosophical level, as the core engine to drive a new TV show concept, a Star Trek / Loveboat mashup.

--------Part V--------

So in Part IV we ended off mentioning Mary Tyler Moore.

I learned something watching that show, and I don't know how to teach it.  You may not learn it from that show, but from say, Saturday Night Live, or something similar.

The essence of humor is pain.  Laughter is a faint scream of pain.

If you can stand far enough away from the herd of elephants (metaphor discussed in early parts of this series), you can find the point where pain and sexuality meet, where they are back to back manifestations of something.

Heinlein had his computer-intelligence say it in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS -- "orgasm is when they all light up."

It's a total nerve-load response.

But humans can get that nerve-load response without being touched.  Imagination can supply the load and the trigger.

We can look at something beautiful - a sunrise, a flower, a painting - and gasp in paralyzed delight, all lit up.

A woman on a (rather awful) television screen can say a few words, strike a pose, and have millions of viewers in stitches without laying a finger on them.

MEANING gets transmitted by words.

Something in a human being resonates to those words, creates within themselves a meaning all their own, and REACTS to their own personal experience, their subjective experience.

Back to our audience of Hard-SF folks who would run screaming from a Star Trek / Loveboat mashup.  People trained in the scientific view of the universe, who are studying their part of "the elephant" (do please read the previous posts) don't want to mess with subjective reality.

A lot of such folks don't acknowledge psychology or sociology or cultural anthropology etc as "real" science, and thus in the survey of "what is the most fundamental branch of science" those sciences were discarded. 

In subjective reality, anything goes, anything might be real, whatever you think is fine and facts don't matter.  Those who've attempted to parse our subjective realities into some kind of sense still haven't gained the respect of the hard-science audience.

In the objective reality science works in, only facts matter.

Very often in these posts on writing craft, I've mentioned that I learned from my first mentor, Alma Hill, the first professional writer I ever knew personally, that writing is a peforming art.

WRITNG IS A PERFORMING ART - and is therefore an ART.

In the realm of human knowledge there are the arts - and the sciences.

The hard-SF crowd I'm aiming for with this mashup concept won't mess with "the arts" -- there's nothing real there because it's all subjective.

So we won't tell them. Mary Tyler Moore didn't tell them, so why should we?

So let's look for the conflict embedded so deep in the subconscious of a generation (a 20-year span of new kids).

To get a clue, look at any cross section of fantasy novels from 2010, 2009.

We see Vampire novels - (yeah, and Twilight) - and Romances of various sorts.  The universe building is intricate, detailed and draws on an astonishing breadth and depth of classical mythology.

With notable exceptions, a trend emerges if you look at these novels just from the Universe Building point of view.

Here's a list of premises, (the data in my non-scientific observation) I see repeated:

a) the universe is fragile
b) human activity can destroy the integrity of the universe
c) human inactivity (i.e. not performing a ritual) can destroy the universe
d) The universe as we know it, our World, sits atop a thin crust below which seethes with immense Evil totally dedicated to breaking through that crust.
e) ONLY one person or one kind of people, (think Buffy The Vampire Slayer and/or Supernatural ) can prevent Evil from breaking out into our world
f) Only a small (sometimes chosen) group knows the truth about Reality, that things that go bump in the night are real.
g) Evil is REAL and must be FOUGHT, but can't be destroyed
h) The Devil is Real
i) Some Evil Beings are not so bad as friends go (shades of gray rather than absolutes) The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
j) God is not real. Good is relative. There is no action that can't be justified in fighting Evil. No punishment.
k) Anything you and I would recognize as Good Enough is losing the battle against Evil - there's nothing to do but accept Evil into our ranks. (Laurell K. Hamilton started this with legal rights for Vampires, Werewolves etc.)

OK, like I said, lots of notable exceptions, but enough novel series (large books, large numbers of titles per series) to indicate sales levels for Worldbuilding including at least half the elements from that list are solid enough to support mass market production and distribution.

Something in this view of the universe is fascinating to a generation of readers.  Endlessly fascinating.

Fascination on that order indicates a submerged philosophical conflict.

This age-group has an innate human need to GET OUTSIDE OF the strictures the parental generation is trying to impose.

What are those strictures?

Your answer to that question will guide you into creating your own mashup/concept, and you just might sell the thing if you can nail it as accurately as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Gene Roddenberry did.

Here's one idea for SUBJECTIVELY interpreting that data.

The parental generation (baby boomers & X-ers who had their kids in the 1990's - kids born in 1990 (there was a baby-boom that peaked in 1996) are now 21, right at the top of our target demographic) grew up in the 1970's when the Women's Lib movement turned the world inside out.

In the 1980's High Schools and Universities changed curricula drastically, political correctness became vogue.

The central Event for that parental generation is the VALUE SHIFT, a total devastating earthquake of a value shift.

It resulted in restructuring of the family, a skyrocking divorce rate and lots of couples not marrying because of the tax penalty.

The current teens have been raised by a generation which has no "blinders" (as I discussed in previous posts)

"Blinders" can be either a good thing or a bad thing, as the blinders on a race horse protect from flying mud and help keep the horse from being distracted, keep the horse on course.

Humans being Humans - ethical blinders can likewise be either good or bad.  They can keep you pointed in "the right" direction - (the direction chosen by your parents?) - or they can keep you from noticing the right direction is "over there."

So what happened in the 1980's as the Women's Movement took hold was a dissolution of values that had been the only way to live -- the only ethics and morals visible right in front of us.

The whole culture plunged into formless mists and trackless wastelands of values -- no other culture that I know of in human history bestowed real equality on women.  Science freed women from unwanted pregnancy.  Marriage is now considered irrelevant by a substantial fraction (there was a survey) in America.

So we had to make new values because humans do that obsessively.  Political Correctness has become a value.

The children of the Value-melt-down generation are now describing the world as without a "beacon" (God) up high on a Hill somewhere above dictating Values of right and wrong, but a world under siege and losing to a mishmosh of destruction seething up from below.

Perhaps this generation sees itself as fighting a rear guard action against value melt-down?

I think there's a major dividing chasm in our culture.

Mass Market paperback Fantasy doesn't sell to a very wide market at all.  It's not just the number of "readers" that has declined under impact of videogames, but the percent of readers who read SF/F has also appeared to decline (I don't have a survey to prove that; it's just a feel for the market and anecdotal evidence from other writers.)

But the SF/F readership is a bell weather, or always has been, for the future direction of a generation.

So looking at the data, I see a generation fighting to define the Values that matter, to create a system they can agree on to determine good from bad, right from wrong.

And apparently what feels plausible to them is the feeling of losing that fight.

Values are not firming up in this culture.

So one way to look at the conflict generator for this TV Series Mashup would be as Firm Values vs. Adjustable Values.

Remember X-Files.  Aliens Abduct People vs. No They Don't because They don't exist.

So think about it. Do you have to know what you're doing to find your Soul Mate and have kids? Does it matter whether you have your kids with your Soul Mate (do the kids turn out differently if you marry the wrong guy? Or don't bother to marry?) Values: is it about kids or about having fun?

Now remember Mary Tyler Moore. Acting out on the stage the UNSPOKEN AND UNSPEAKABLE dialogue the audience would be thinking in that situation makes people laugh. Saturday Night Live does about the same thing - so did I Love Lucy. Comedy is about the unthinkable, and so is SF/F.

Laughter, sex, and pain all have something in common - Heinlein said it, "orgasm is when they all light up" - nerve overload.

What is it today's audience is AFRAID TO THINK OUT LOUD?

What concept freaks people out? What parental stricture is being rebelled against?

We'll have to work on that in Part VI.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

5 fascinating factoids

Quoted by William Lehr, MIT in DISCOVER, March 2011
"I might have an insulin pump that's controlled over the internet, and some guy halfway around
the world can hack into it and change my drug dosage."

Rebecca Coffey, in DISCOVER, March 2011
"...the A. aperta male (spider) can disable the female from 4.5 centimeters... suggesting he may
be deploying a gas to knock out the femme fatale."

I cannot help wondering if his gas is silent and deadly. But, that's just me.

Also, there's a Brazilian wandering spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, whose venom causes
painful penile erections that may last for many hours.

Reported by Kirstin Weir in DISCOVER, April 2011
"Scientists at Osaka University recently developed mice that are especially susceptible to DNA
copying errors, seeking to increase the rate of mutations and see what new traits appear.

Medical researchers in Japan report that a trained dog sniffing human stool samples can detect
colorectal cancer about as well as a colonoscopy.

Good dog! Imagine how much we could save if Obamacare sent a dog like that to every nursing home,
and every factory, and every office building... and every airport.

Or maybe, it would be more efficient if we submitted a sample with our tax returns.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Planet Midnight

Last March at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, one of the guests of honor, Nalo Hopkinson, gave a speech titled "A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight." I've been waiting for the transcript to appear in the JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS, so I could quote from it for you, and it's printed in the latest issue (with photos).

Jacqueline often says "writing is a performing art." Well, in this talk Hopkinson put on a terrific piece of performance art. A few sentences into her speech, she became possessed by an alien entity from the Planet Midnight, using her voice to address the people of Earth. In that role she wore a T-shirt labeled "Speaker to White Folks." She introduced her companion who did the videotaping as "Dances with White People." When the alien ambassador lost its grip on her mind and body, Hopkinson removed the T-shirt to reveal a dress underneath and became herself again. In her own persona, she discussed the theme of the 2010 conference, Race and the Fantastic, and said quite a bit about the Internet conversation known as RaceFail 2009. (Much too complicated to explain here; I googled it and found many pages of summaries, excerpts, etc.)

The Ambassador from Planet Midnight professed puzzlement at certain broadcasts her people had intercepted from our planet because "we, as a different race of beings than you are, are very interested in the stories you tell each other about interracial relations." She wanted to check the accuracy of their translations of our messages. Samples from her "translations":

"I'm not racist."
Translation: "I can wade through feces without getting any of it on me."

"This story is a universal one."
Translation: "This story is very specifically about us, and after all, we're the only ones who matter.

"That thing you made doesn't belong to you. It's universal."
Translation: "I like that thing you made, so I'm going to claim it's mine."

Translation: "Those quaint and somewhat primitive people over there."

"I don't see race."
Translation: "If I keep very quiet, maybe you won't see me and ask me to do any work."

Et cetera.

This speech was riveting and, at many points, very funny. At the same time, as a white, middle-class woman, I couldn't avoid a bit of mental squirming. Wish you all could have been there.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Star Trek / Loveboat Mashup And Soulmates Part IV

This series of posts illustrates the thinking process inside the writer's mind. The exercise here is to target an audience and develop a jaw-dropping TV Series premise from a very vague concept.

I recommend reading previous Parts first.

As requested by some readers of this blog, I'm breaking this very long (abstract) post into parts to make short posts. If you don't like this approach, do please let me know.

I do want to tell a story in Parts VI & VII a story that could become a TV show. But first, follow this thinking, argue against it, find the flaws, find different data, concoct your own Concept, and generate your own premise as we work through this. This is an exercise, like a pianist practicing scales to prepare for a concert. Writing is a performing art. This is the exercise that makes the performance smooth.

-----Part IV--------

So our objective is to "mashup" or combine to the point where they can't be separated, two elements, Star Trek and The Loveboat -- both old TV Series that just can't make it in today's market.

And we have a target audience described in Part I of this series of posts -- hard SF readers and writers for whom "Philosophy" is not a science.

As I've discussed previously, writing is one thing, selling something else entirely.

When you first draft, you write for yourself, you write what you want, and maybe you include a lot of side-bar scenes that don't advance the plot but that let you sink into the characters and just wallow.

Some of that material can be trimmed off, then added back on the plot-line to add depth.  Some writers do all that in their minds before ever putting hands to keyboard.  Others have to rewrite and restructure until they create something sellable from their fully fleshed out universe.

The process is vitally important only to those learning to do it, finding their own method (no 2 writers do it the same way.) It's the end result that matters.

But here we're going to fix one eye on the intended (or hoped for) audience, or part of it, and the other on what it takes to generate a "concept" -- hopefully "high" enough to make into a TV Series.

So what does the intended audience look like?

We need a wide demographic that is defined enough for advertisers to salivate over.  Typically that's going to be teens old enough to have disposable income, up to and maybe including college age people up to buying a car, conducting a serious romance, possibly traveling.

Young people yearn to "be older" and the twenty-somethings haven't yet become afraid of aging, but may be considering it.

To hit that demographic, this product has to be marketable both on air/cable and online -- and then by DVD with extras.  It has to have game-potential, especially for the online game base such as run by USA Network for Burn Notice (be a spy) or White Collar (be a thief). And hopefully, producers looking at it would see the feature film potential, 3-D potential, etc.

OK, so what's the story in one sentence?  What's the pitch?

We're looking for a "concept" that would not put off the hard-SF crowd, would engage their scientific curiosity but still at the same time tell a whopping good Romance story to those who are absolutely convinced that Soul Mates don't exist because there is no Soul and anyone who thinks Love Conquers All hasn't read The Cold Equations.

Remember "The X-Files" -- it didn't really start out looking like a Romance but oh-boy.

The producers discovered which episodes got the best ratings and started playing the Relationship until there was no place for it to go but up.

One Agent is convinced there's a scientific explanation for everything that does not include crackpot notions like aliens from outer space, the other is determined to catch the aliens who abducted his sister (i.e. he fits her definition of crackpot).

That's called CONFLICT, and it's the essence of story.

Look carefully at Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels.

The Terran Empire controls a galaxy spanning civilization, worlds upon worlds.  It treats its employees somewhat as the British Empire did - sending them here and there, assigning them to backwaters if they don't perform.  To the Terrans only science is real.  Magic, godesses such as Shara a Darkovan deity, and even ESP is nonsense.

Darkover is the backwater, the cultural nut the Terran Empire can't crack.

Why is that?  On Darkover, ESP is the everyday science that they use instead of technology, for everything from mining the scarce minerals of the planet to running a telegraph system.  But not everyone can do these things.  The Talent is genetic and dying out.

So the novel series conflict is the clash of civilizations with different definitions of reality. Those definitions generate personal ethical and moral behaviors which likewise clash.

For Terrans, nobody is responsible.  Everything is done by committee. The government enforces order, even by major warfare -- personal weaponry includes guns and bombs.

For Darkovans, who once polluted their planet with a nuclear war conducted by magic alone, the Compact rules their personal ethics.  They allow no weapon that can do harm without putting the user within reach of the victim (i.e. guns and even bows and arrows are disallowed). Everyone must take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for the results of their own actions - each and every one, but most especially those Gifted with ESP, the power of the gods.

The novels tell the story of the collapse of Darkover under the crush of the Terran Empire, and how that collapse changes the Empire. It is a sad story, an inspiring story, a story of real people you can never forget even though none of them ever lived even though all of them are you.

So what do we see studying all this?

To formulate a popular, gripping story that speaks the language of a target audience you need to plumb the depths of the teen-angst and new-adult angst that arises from a clash of philosophies the audience is living in.

Your story, your Star Trek / Loveboat mashup, must arise from the problems your young demographic is wrestling with, and every crop of young folks wrestles with exactly the same thing -- breaking away from the inconvenient misconceptions their parents demand they adopt as the touchstones of their lives.

So we need to look at 2 generations at least, 40 years of philosophical history at the very least, to discover what the next current crop of advertiser-targets will have roiling in their subconscious minds.

I'll leave off there until Part V of this series. But meanwhile, study the TV Series titled Mary Tyler Moore.

It's comedy -- but illustrates what a TV show must do in order to touch a nerve.
Think about Mary Tyler Moore in conjunction with any cross section of 2010's most popular fantasy novels.  As you know, I review the field and have read a very wide cross section of 2010's fantasy and SF too.

Manhattan publishing has hit a stride with mass market fantasy and that tells you a lot about the market if you know how to reverse-engineer the data.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, March 06, 2011

What color is purple?

Watching the Oscars, I was mildly dismayed to see one of presenter Anne Hathaway's gowns described as "purple". I suppose that it was as purple and a purple finch in mating season... but I'd describe that color as dark red... and I might liken it to sun dried tomato.

Monitor resolution can make a major difference, but even though I looked at two TVs side by side with very different color settings, the dress in question was nowhere near the color range that I was taught was purple.

It's the same with my website ( I think it is washed-out purple... a dusty, bloom-on-a-black-grape purple. My webmaster calls the color "blue".

The color I call "Royal Blue" is called purple by some, also.

The thing is, how does anyone really know that anyone else is seeing the same color that one is seeing?
I look at a fuchsia. Unfortunately, its petals are two different shades of purple.... to me: a deep blue-pink, and a reddish violet blue.

I call the predominant color "fuchsia", but am I at odds with the world? It would seem that I am!
Can two people look at the same flower, and see different colors? Or do they see the same colors but give them different names?

Color blindness is a problem in the air force. My father was color blind. He couldn't perceive the difference between red and green. It's surprising he didn't have trouble with traffic lights, isn't it?

Would using a numerical reference help? Every color on the internet does have a number, doesn't it? At least, if we all agreed that we liked #RGB 53, 28, 117  (that may not actually be a color number), we'd all be looking at the same color, even if we saw it differently.

If everyone everywhere (as long as they used our alpha-numeric symbols) learned that #RGB 53, 28, 117
was the color they saw when they looked at #RGB 53, 28, 117 would the language of color be more accurate than it is now?

Does it matter? It might... to scientists, or to computer programmers involved in cloaking technology. A nuance of color might be critical in the diagnosis of an alien rash.

Red is a range of shades. So is green. Think of all the greens in nature! There are hunter-gatherer cultures where the females, who pick wild berries, have an exceptionally large vocabulary of different names for all the different shades of blue. As I recall, the males have a lot of names for the various hues of red.

Look at this cool site:

This colour-lover has a great range of blues!

The problem with writing a science fiction in which futuristic or alien characters said #RGB 53, 28, 117 instead a color name is that the author would have to translate at least once, and the reader might find the code pretentious or annoying.

On the other hand, using codes might be a logical progression, given our American readers' fondness for acronyms and texting.

I was chatting (recording a radio program) with the incredibly witty and wild Jeff Strand yesterday, and also with Blake Crouch whose tersely titled new e-book RUN is just out. Jeff Strand admitted that his long and quirky titles, such as Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) do not show up well in Kindle sized thumbnails. Jeff suggested that he might simply use the ASIN as his title for his next e-book.

Since I am primarily a Romance author, I made incredulous noises. Jeff and Blake assured me that the average Horror reader is highly intelligent, obsessively numerate, and likely to memorize ISBNs for the coolness of it.

Next time I create a geeky, alien hero, I'll have to think about that!

Thursday, March 03, 2011


The March 2011 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC contains two fascinating articles related to the construction of societies and creatures. The cover story, "Taming the Wild" (labeled "Designing the Perfect Pet" on the cover) deals with a Russian experiment you may have heard about. Over several decades, experimenters have selectively transformed caged foxes by breeding the animals least reluctant to accept human contact. In surprisingly few generations, they ended up with foxes that act like dogs, running to the front of the cage, wagging and whining for attention, letting themselves be petted and picked up. Even more intriguing, the project confirms that genes for tame behavior are linked to genes that change the animal's physical structure and coloring. In short, these Russian scientists have created domesticated foxes.

Domestication and taming aren't the same thing. Many animals can be tamed, if caught and socialized young enough. Very few species can be domesticated, meaning bred in captivity for enough generations that their actual genetic makeup changes for human convenience. Read Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL for an extended discussion of this difference and how domestication of plants and animals shaped human history.

I was surprised the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article didn't say much, if anything, about neoteny, the retention of infantile traits into adulthood. It did mention how domestication can not only alter an animal's behavior but change its appearance to be more appealing to us. Many breeds of dogs, for instance, have the round faces and big eyes we associate with babies—and therefore with "cuteness." One provocative suggestion in the article: In the process of becoming human, our species, too, became "domesticated." And neoteny definitely plays a role there; adult human beings retain the playfulness and curiosity of juvenile chimps. As I read somewhere years ago, just as a dog is a fetal wolf, Homo sapiens is a fetal ape.

The other article I want to mention is "A New Geologic Epoch: The Age of Man," about our species' massive effect on our planet. The issue includes a poster illustrating the Earth's current population. You can read the article and view a graphic illustrating the most typical person on Earth here:

Age of Man

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Star Trek / Loveboat Mashup And Soulmates Part III

This series of posts illustrates the thinking process inside the writer's mind. The exercise here is to target an audience and develop a jaw-dropping TV Series premise from a very vague concept.

I recommend reading previous Parts first. 

As requested by some readers of this blog, I'm breaking this very long (abstract) post into parts to make short posts. If you don't like this approach, do please let me know.

I do want to tell a story in Part VI & VII, a story that could become a TV show. But first, follow this thinking, argue against it, find the flaws, find different data, concoct your own Concept, and generate your own premise as we work through this. This is an exercise, like a pianist practicing scales to prepare for a concert. Writing is a performing art. This is the exercise that makes the performance smooth. 

-----Part III----------
If science is the occupation of The Mind, what is the occupation of The Soul?

Why does the existence and efficacy of one imply the non-existence of the other?

Why does the stringent rule of evidence that is the backbone of science necessarily require that what can't be proved is not real or can safely be disregarded. 

Bacon was a philosopher.  His philosophy put a hard wall around "reality" and admitted inside that wall only what can be proved by his method.

A lot of his philosophy is strongly colored by his elementary education in "the classics" - notably Aristotle and the two-valued logic of either/or; the zero-sum-game which I've discussed at length in the Tarot posts.

A proposition is either true, or not-true.

I don't "live" in that world, but I play there on occasion.

I live in the world where Love Conquers All and where Souls mate. 

So we come down to 2 Television shows -- Star Trek and Loveboat (Gene Roddenbery and Aaron Spelling, and if you don't know Spelling's work, look him up!).

Star Trek is the really fascinating one of the pair because half the audience views it as "hard science fiction" and the other half (the vociferous, fanzine writing half) views it as sizzling-hot romance no matter what rules of reality have to be broken to achieve that.

But let's take Star Trek as an example of hard science fiction. That would fit Gene Roddenberry's conception of it as "Wagon Train To The Stars" -- he-man adventure beyond the edges of civilization, bravery and heroism prevail. 

Okay, it used a lot of non-sense science, a lot of technobabble.  But it also used some solid extrapolation of real science, proto-science, things just peeping over the edges of mathematics looking at the physics lab with great skepticism.  Today we're starting to take many of Trek's laughable innovations in stride (cell phones, etc).

The point was just to tell a good story about human beings coming up against unprecedented challenges and overcoming them.  That's what Science Fiction does best - go where no one has gone before.

Gene Roddenberry himself was a "Humanist" -- adherent to a philosophy that doesn't rely on God as the highest authority or The Soul as a component of human beings (or non-human ones actually).

It's a PHILOSOPHY, mind you.  But it's much friendlier to the scientific view of the universe than Tarot and Kaballah.

If there is no God, then you don't really need the hypothesis of the Soul.  Soul becomes a leftover piece of nonsense from a disproven worldview -- ancient superstition.

If there is no Soul, likely there is no immortality of any part of a human being. 

That philosophy can be used to define what "happiness" consists of, what the fruition of a lifetime can (or can not) be.

Hence we get all the episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series where The Enterprise Meets God and shows him up to be nothing but an alien with megalomania rampant.  That theme appears in the films as well.  All the ancient myths turn out to be nothing but aliens misunderstood, not the human spirit reaching for something higher and perhaps failing but still trying.

You see that also in the various Stargate Series -- which I absolutely adore, mind you, but that universe does not portray my own universe view (of herds of elephants amidst their habitat).

The Humanist philosophy frees you up to pursue the attempt to prove that all human experience is just brain chemistry and bio-electric phenomena.

And just as with the scientists and their elephant parts, there's no way to disprove the idea that all a human being is can be quantified by electrochemistry in the brain.  You can't disprove it because, as with the elephant, it's TRUE.

And besides that, if the people who adhere to that world view need to believe that there is no Soul, would we be doing them any favor in disabusing them of that notion?

Does a human being need to believe in the Soul in order to find and marry their Soul Mate? 

Do you have to know what you're doing in order to do it right? To become "happy?" 

Now let's look at Loveboat.

Again Wikipedia just to be consistent:

The Love Boat was an American television series set on a cruise ship, which aired on the ABC Television Network from September 24, 1977 until May 24, 1986. The show starred Gavin MacLeod as the ship's captain. It was a popular part of ABC's Saturday night lineup that included Fantasy Island until the latter show ended in 1984.

Unlike Star Trek, you don't even have to see an episode to know what it's about.  That's what filmmakers call High Concept. 

Star Trek had to be kind of fudged to sound like a "concept" - Wagon Train To The Stars. Star Trek was not about taking a group of space ships in a "train" and trekking off to the back of nowhere to found a new Earth colony every week.  The Enterprise was not the escort for colonists, as in the original TV Series Wagon Train.

You might ask why I keep dipping back to the 1960's and 1980's for examples of TV shows to dissect to find a "formula" that could solve our problem of The Romance Breakthrough Story.

It's not just that I remember these shows. 

It's that one of the first and oldest lessons writers learn is "study the classics."  Shakespeare made his name popular by modernizing the Ancient Greeks for audiences that wouldn't necessarily have that education down pat, but might wish they did.

Hollywood made it's name in film with a lot of "re-imagining" of history, particular "The Old West."

Stories that are old are new by definition. 

And a 30 year cycle is about right, simply for the turning of a generation's taste.

So if you're a beginning romance writer who's not familiar with classics like I Love Lucy and some of these other very old shows I've mentioned, netflix might be good for them -- try Amazon. Get to the 1950's Black&White (probably colorized today) sitcoms. 

With that education, let's take a look at the potential of Loveboat.

The ship's crew comprised the "ongoing characters" and the passengers changed from week to week.  The idea was to create an atmosphere where people could meet each other and start serious relationships -- but the show was "light comedy" -- full of the awkward humor inherent in strangers becoming intimate. The crew's plot-job was the facilitate matchups. (if you're studying TV writing, do note that Loveboat is a perfect of its kind CONCEPT - and virtually defines the notion "concept.")

Today, Loveboat could not get on the air without adding a lot (and I mean a lot) of sex and violence, real graphic sex just barely within the television code and brutal violence -- and a lot of screaming and noise.

But as I said, the cycle goes round and round.  It may well be time for a TV series without graphic sex, with real hot Romance, without violence, but with real adventure into strange new realms.

We, as Science Fiction and Paranormal Romance Writers, could accomplish this trick quite handily.

And again I'll leave off here and make you wait for Part IV because some readers prefer short posts. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg