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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Nature, Nurture, or Mutagenic Virus?

I had a need for literary junk food recently, so I picked up the copy of Wild Cards (George R.R. Martin, 1986) that's been sitting unread on my bookshelf for ages. If you're not familiar with it, it was one of the earliest and most successful of the "shared-world" anthologies and has spawned 15 sequels at last count.

The concept of a shared-world anthology is simple. A bunch of writers -- in this case Martin, Lew Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, Ed Bryant, Roger Zelazny, and Howard Waldrop, among others -- get together and write a bunch of short stories which, taken collectively, comprise a novel about common characters in a common milieu. In the case of Wild Cards, the setup is comic-book simple: on September 15, 1946, an alien virus with powerful mutagenic properties is released over lower Manhattan. Most of those exposed to the virus die soon and horribly; a small percentage survive, but experience a "reshuffling" of their genetic deck. (Hence the title.) To extend the metaphor, in the reshuffling most survivors draw "jokers" and are grotesquely deformed, but a very lucky few draw "aces" and are transformed into bonafide superhumans.

The rest of the book proceeds from that beginning, and rewrites the history of the next 40 years as if comic-book superheroes are a part of contemporary reality. While I certainly hope Walter Jon Williams got royalties for the way his story, "Witness," became the backstory of "The Incredibles," that's not why the book sticks in my craw, though. Rather, what bothers me about Wild Cards is this:

It absolutely reeks of the smug and fashionable radicalism of bourgeous brats.

Looking at the book now, it almost reads like a parody of the hysterical paranoia that gripped the literary left during the Reagan years, but I know many of these writers, and they were serious. I could explicate further on this, and maybe I will in the comments, but suffice to say that the arch-villain of this book is Joseph McCarthy, his evil henchman is Richard Nixon, and a Reagan lookalike is a major character, taking the part of the super-Judas who betrayed the other members of his left-leaning "Four Aces" superhero team to HUAC.

So my question is this: WHY do fiction writers so overwhelmingly lean left? Is it part of the set of character traits and flaws that make people want to be a writer in the first place (as opposed to being, say, an engineer)? Is it something they learn in college? Or is it a sinister plot by aliens from another dimension?

What's your theory?


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hyperion Revisited

In response to my blogbit on the recent photos of Hyperion taken by the Cassini probe, nathan bissonette wrote something that's just too good to leave buried in the comments. All you Hollywood producers out there; nathan has a brilliant idea for a new TV series here and he's just waiting to hear from you. He writes:
Yes, it's hollow.

That's the command module you're looking at, abandoned in orbit around Saturn ages ago when the explorers left to check out the nearby planets for possible colonization. The robots that are still harvesting ice are too small to see from space, the others have broken down over time.

One of the missing chunks is the Lander that lost control, splashed down, caused massive climate change, and killed off the dinosaurs on the Third Planet.

Luckily, a few of the Lander crew survived. Unluckily, they were washed up in the Fertile Crescent without much in the way of tools and no way to get back to the ship.

So they split up to look for help and resources, some heading West into the desert of North Africa, some heading North into the ice lands of Europe, some heading East to the Orient.

Their small gene pool and lack of protection from our sun's radiation caused some rapid mutations: shorter stature and lifespans ended the age of giants who lived 800 years; skin color and eye shape adapted to local conditions.

But our ancestors were a bunch of breeders and toolmakers who survived and multiplied, waiting for rescue. Early on, they built huge "SOS" markers, visible from space, on the Nazca plain and near the Nile River.

They explained to their children that they had come across a great distance, that they had lost everything when their Lander was cast out of the heavens and fell into the water, causing a huge wave that destroyed the dinosaur's world like a great flood, but that the rescuers would come in great machines, flying like birds, billowing flame and roaring like thunder.

But the stories were forgotten, or confused, and eventually attributed to myth. They must be myth, as the rescue hasn't come.


Worst of all, the ship is unmanned because the captain inexplicably and idiotically composed the fateful landing party of himself, the First Officer/Science Officer, Pilot/Helmsman, Navigator, Communications Officer, Chief Engineer and Chief Medical Officer.

The only people left on board were a nurse, a couple of engine room techs, and the ubiquitous security men whose only apparant skill was to die at the first sign of trouble, but nobody who knew how to plot a course for home or steer the boat to get there.

When the landing party failed to return, there was a brief battle for sexual partners that involved a spate of killings and wild couplings too obscene even for cable television, followed by everyone's eventual death when life support failed.

Sad, really.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Important Safety Tip!

As writers, we're accustomed to thinking we work with our brains and our eyes. Often overlooked in the equation is the critical role played by our hands. For a brief illustration of the latter assertion, heed the following story.

Fall is harvest time up here in the North Country, which means it's time to clear the garden and haul out the canning equipment. The cucumbers were a disappointment this year, as were the plums, and we never got the beans planted because of the heavy rains in May, but the Pepper Fairy was especially kind to us. Along with the strings of chillies hung up to dry, we put up around 30 pints of pickled peppers this past weekend. Fire-roasted mild banana peppers packed in olive oil (yum!); pepper relish, mild and hot; chunked bananas and Thai dragons in brine and vinegar; jalapenos and habaneros...

So here's the safety tip: if you're doing home canning, be very very careful about your hands! Yes, you're dealing with sharp knives and glass jars and boiling liquids and all that stuff, and I was reasonably respectful of all those things, but it never occurred to me that simply handling jalapenos by the peck could have a cumulative effect.

As soon as I started working on the thin-sliced jalapeno rings, though, I became acutely aware of every tiny nick and cut on my fingers. Along about the time I packed the third pint, I began to notice that the pads of my fingers were turning bright red. By the time I finished with the last jar, I felt as if I had simply dunked my hands up to my wrists in boiling water. They were as bright red as cooked lobster claws.

I washed. It didn't help. I washed again. It still didn't help. I smeared on moisture lotion. It made things worse. (Another helpful hint: no matter how badly your finger feels like it's burning, do NOT stick it in your mouth! And be very careful not to do anything even remotely like getting your hands near your eyes.)

(And as for going to the bathroom...)

I kept soaking, washing, icing, and soaking some more. Along about 1 a.m. I finally got to sleep, only by clutching two cold packs. I got in about four hours of wretched sleep, then went in to the office, where I found myself trying to work on a keyboard with red, swollen, nearly immobile hands. Fortunately I had lots of paper I could shuffle, and the arthritis-strength Tylenol took the edge off the pain, so I was able to get in a somewhat worthwhile day. Today, my hands are no longer red or swollen, but in places the skin is already starting to peel.

So that's this week's important safety tip. We writers like to think of ourselves as knowledge workers, but we also depend on our hands as much as a sculptor or a concert pianist.

So wear gloves, okay?


Monday, October 10, 2005

The Writer and The Tax Man

I know, I promised no political chatter, but this really does come under the heading of The Business of Writing. It's just that it's so blasted hard to start talking about taxes and NOT stray off into ranting about politics.

One thing many aspiring writers fail to realize is that, as a semi-, quasi-, marginally, or even truly successful writer, you join the ranks of the self-employed. What this means in practical terms is that April 15th comes four times a year for you, on January 15, April 15, July 15, and October 15, when you must file and pay your quarterly tax returns. This also means that, as both employer and employee, you wind up paying the full Social Security tax burden. (Most regular-paycheck type people never realize that their employer has to match their "contribution" to Social Security, dollar for dollar.)

I'll tell you one thing: if we didn't have payroll tax withholding -- if everyone had to examine their tax situation and write a check to the government every three months -- we would have a revolution on our hands.

And speaking of revolutions, I have to admit that I've been in a terrible funk for the last few weeks. I signed up for the Reagan Revolution...

I did not sign up for the Bush Cult of Not Much Personality, and when it came to Supreme Court appointees I was expecting a hell of a lot more than, "Trust me, I know what I'm doing." (Or was that, "What, me worry?")

I'll tell you another thing: if La Famiglia Shrub actually believes that Jeb has a shot at any kind of national office in 2008, they really need to stop smoking crack.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Caution: Creativity at Work!

Last week NASA released some new pictures from the Cassini probe. In particular, I was rather stricken by this photo of Saturn's eccentric little ice moon, Hyperion.

My first thought was that it looked remarkably like a giant paper wasps' nest, and this led to the idea that Toho Studios has been right all along: the universe does abound in 500-meter-tall flying space insects! Paging Mr. Godzilla!

But when I sent the link to Phil Jennings, he came back with a somewhat more interesting assessment: "Clearly it was hollow before the big hunk slid in. Now, what's the first rule about hollow moons?"

Wow! Thought suggested, synaptic gap bridged, circuit complete, new idea generated! Ka-ching! I don't know why it never occurred to me before that the cheapest way to pack along the deuterium you need for your deep space fusion drive would be simply to accrete it as thick layers of ice on the outside of the hull. Set up a robotic mining operation to carve ice off the surface and convey it inside to the reactor as you require fuel, and as an added bonus all those megatons of ice would work really well as ablative shielding. You could probably even brake the ship just by taking it into a star system at a steep angle and letting the star boil off some of the exterior mass.

As an especially attractive added bonus, any impact with ionizing radiation would simply increase the fusion fuel value of the ice, by increasing the amounts of deuterium and tritium in the mix.

Then, taking it a step further, you could carve ice off the inner (less radiated) surfaces to provide water and oxygen for the crew's quarters -- or if you built the thing with "dirty" ice in the first place and laced the ice with carbon and nitrogen contaminants -- well, between the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and heat, you've got everything you need to keep an organic biosphere going.

Of course, to minimize the energy required to keep your harvester robots working on the exterior fuel ice, you'd want to keep them working in small areas and depleting everything useful before they moved on, with the result being that over time, the exterior surface of the ship would come to resemble a vast field pock-marked with semi-spherical craters...

Okay, so how about it? This isn't a Monday Challenge, just a little gedanke experimentieren. Who built it, when, and why? Why is it apparently dead and parked in orbit around Saturn?

And are there any more of them out there?