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Putting Science in Story Telling

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Introduction

On May 14th, 2014 I had the opportunity to talk at the Wasatch Institute of Technology “Hour of Code” held at the Adobe Systems campus in Lehi, UT. I talked about “Putting Science in Storytelling” to students of all ages interested in STEM subjects.

What this is about

This presentation is about how to put science into your stories. It is about how to make your stories more interesting by thinking about the neat ramifications of good science. The alternative is to tell very familiar stories with familiar but terrible science in them. Clearly many people don’t mind this kind of story, but I do.

We will start by looking at some of these terrible science examples. Then I will talk about how to think about neat science stuff in ways that let you come up with good story ideas that have good science in them.

Then we will do some exercises to let you put these tips into action. So, while I’m talking, I want you to be thinking about a neat invention or science idea that you want to put in a story. And… I want you to think of a neat monster you want to put into a story. Think about those, and when I get finished explaining how to think about them, you’ll get to try these tips I’m giving you out on your inventions and monsters.

OK, let’s talk about getting it wrong.

Getting the science wrong

o Case A: Your character is flying in a space ship going between Earth and Mars. The space ship engine stops. The captain looks scared and says, “The engine stopped. We are going to fall into the Sun!”

What’s wrong with this? The space ship is acting like an airplane, not a space ship. A space ship without power will orbit forever, or close to it, not slow down and crash into the sun.

o Case B: Your character is a contestant playing Jeopardy, but he’s playing from the Moon over a video link.

What’s wrong with this? The distance and the speed of light. The player on the Moon will have a four second handicap compared to players in the studio on Earth.

o Case C: Your character is on the Enterprise. Sulu announces, “We can go Warp 8 now.”

What’s wrong with this? Warp Speed is faster-than-light travel. This is something totally imaginary at this point. But it is being treated like airplane travel — push the accelerator harder and you go faster.

And in the monster category.

o “I’ve been in this cave for ten thousand years.”

What’s wrong with this? “…Really? …Why?” “Get a life!”

These are examples of doing the science wrong. Now let’s talk about how to do it right.

How to think about neat inventions: expected use and surprise uses

Science is neat, but what is really neat is what can be made from understanding science well. It is how science changes how we live that’s really important. So when you’re putting good science in a story, you are talking about how it changes how the characters of the story live. Keep that in mind, deeply in mind. The characters and their lives are there to show off the changes science makes.

With this goal in mind, let’s take a moment to think about what kind of people in real life have to deal directly with this same issue? What kind of people have to say, “That’s neat… now… what can you do with it?”

Right! Inventors! When something is invented, the first use of it — the one that will get money behind it so it gets made — is to replace an existing product, in a way that does what the old product does faster, better and cheaper.

Then, some time after the invention is being made, someone will say, “Hey! You know what else you can do with that…” This is what I call the surprise use of an invention. This is usually the really neat one, this is the one that gets the invention into the history books… and will make your science describing really neat.

These surprise uses are much trickier to think of before the invention happens. But it’s a skill you can learn and master, and when you do your science fiction writing will get… Wow!

Here are some simple examples of surprise uses.

o disposing of bubble gum under tables

o drive-in movies when cars replace horses and carriages

To give you an idea of how widely this concept can be applied, let’s think of human’s strong language skill as an invention. (See my book Evolution and Thought)

How to prepare to do this kind of thinking

The way to prepare to do this kind of thinking is to know lots of stuff about lots of stuff. Learn science. Learn about how we can best explain what is happening in the real world. Learn history. Learn well-taught history and read good history books that are about science and technology being applied. Read about how people’s lives were changed by the changing technology they embraced. Beware of history that’s mostly about promoting a particular political idea or a writer’s editorial opinion about something. These are propaganda in one of its various forms. They will teach you very little about important things that happened in the real world… other than what the producer of this show thinks is important.

Giving your monsters motivations

Very much related to understanding your inventions is understanding your monsters. Think about why they are doing what they are doing? Think about how else they could be spending their time, energy and attention. When you understand those about your monster, then the monster will be acting sensibly, and it will be both more interesting and more dangerous.

Keep in mind point of view: What is this monster thinking about? What is important to this monster? As an example of what I’m talking about think of how a cow living on a dairy farm sees a human? What is the human doing? Who is the master in that situation? Put this kind of change of viewpoint in your story and it will come out quite differently!

Exersize: Evil Emperor of the Galaxy — what does it take to have one? (in essence, impossible, the galaxy is too big)

 

Exercises:

o Describe a neat invention for your story. Tell us the expected use and a surprise use. Most important: How is it going to change how the characters in the story live?

o Tell us about a monster for your story. Tell us why it is there, what it wants to do, and a surprise outcome from those.

 

Conclusion

The heart of putting good science into a story is thinking about, “What difference is this going to make to how the characters live?” Coming up with answers to that will shape the story. It will move it into places that are surprising when compared to familiar story telling techniques.

This is the exciting part of putting good science into stories. And, if you like what I have presented here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

 

 

 

 

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Getting the context wrong

Why_We_See_Beauty_2012_03.04.12One of the most common sources of “blind spot thinking” (my term) is not understanding the context — the circumstances — within which an action is taking place.

Here is a comical example: A man is walking from his cell on death row to face a firing squad. He lights up a cigarette. Someone watching says, “Hey! You shouldn’t do that. You’ll get cancer.”

Will he get cancer? No, his circumstance will not permit it. Did the person making the comment think of that? No. That person was engaged in blind spot thinking — he or she was applying their own circumstance to the condemned man’s circumstance.

Here are some other examples:

o US church volunteers travel to a remote area in Africa to build a medical clinic. They spend a month there doing construction work, and assemble a fine looking building. The locals are oh-so grateful and blow kisses to the volunteers as they head home. But… there are no health care people in the area who can man the clinic, so it is abandoned.

o An anti-smoking group supports an anti-smoking campaign because smoking causes cancer. They do this in Angola, a place with an average life expectancy of 40 years.

o A wet-behind-the-ears soldier salutes an officer in a front-line sniper zone, or the converse: doesn’t salute an officer in a rear area. Either way he’s being wrong for his context and he will get called up on it quickly.

A cultural summation of this is a 1970’s folk song. Here is the chorus:

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Joe South’s song “Walk a mile in my shoes“, 1970

One concept Joe misses in this song — beyond abusing, criticizing and accusing — is aiding. Offering help needs to be just as context-sensitive as all these other activities. If not, the good intention will produce results as harmful as the ignorant intentions — it will be, in fact, just another ignorant intention.

Circumstance-insenstive blind spot thinking is quite common, and it powers a lot of what I call “goat sacrificing” — spending a lot of money, time and attention on a cause, but getting no good results… other than the giver sleeping better at night.

 

 

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Writing Hard Sci-Fi Stories

MILTON3 This is the final in the LTUE 2014 series 

Putting “hard science” into a story isn’t has hard as it sounds. The key is figuring out the ramifications of your neat invention or premise. If you have thought those out well, then your story will be consistent and have some “that’s neat!” stuff in it that will impress readers.

Here is a mundane example of thinking through ramifications: Imagine…

o Your character invents chewing gum.

o OK… this is a food, you put it in your mouth like you do jelly beans.

o But unlike jelly beans you have waste, something you don’t want to swallow. (Well, some of us don’t.) This aspect of gum chewing makes it more like eating a banana than jelly beans — you have something to throw away.

o So you’ll need a wastebasket of some sort.

o But… unlike a banana peel ABC chewing gum (Already Been Chewed) is soft, sticky and a small item.

o Voila! A surprise use of the technology. You can dispose of it by sticking it to the underside of a table. Your chewing gum inventor is unlikely to have thought of that use!

This is an example of thinking through the ramifications of a new invention. This process requires inventive and observational expertise — also known as common sense — more than deep theoretical expertise.

I’ll say it again: widespread experience helps with this style of adding science to a story. As you go through life, watch for the neat and unexpected ways people use things. Mixing and matching diverse experiences helps a lot.

Here are some personal examples:

o In 2006 I wrote science essay on why the surface of Venue is so hot: It is simply because the atmosphere is so thick, which makes is so dense at the surface. I came up with this explanation based on some pure physics learned in high school and college (the Ideal Gas Law), mixed with some Hollywood movie hokum, and some practical experience gained by learning to fly airplanes. In 2004 I watched the movie Day after Tomorrow and its portrayal of stratospherically-cold air coming to Earth’s surface. “Hah!” says I while I’m watching, “I’m a pilot. And one of the things I learned in pilot school was that air heats up as it moves to lower and lower altitudes because it is compressing.” So the movie didn’t work for me… but some time later I read an article about Venus in which a scientist proclaimed that runaway Greenhouse Effect was causing the high heat. Nope, I didn’t buy that either, but it stimulated more thinking about Venus… and out came my article.

o I wrote a short story about adventuring in the Ooze Zone of Neptune. (my term) This story started as a personal challenge: How to write some kind of story about people actually doing something in a gas giant’s atmosphere? It took a lot of thinking, but the “Ah-Hah” was realizing that the gas giant’s atmosphere changes from gassy to solid without changing its composition. Example: The interior of Jupiter is mostly metallic hydrogen. The “Ah-Hah” here is that if the top is gaseous hydrogen, and the bottom is metallic hydrogen, there must be a transition layer in between… the Ooze Zone. I then began thinking about what the properties of this Ooze Zone would be. This became the basis for a short story, Pressure Point, in my book The Honeycomb Comet.

o In my short story The Failure I speculate on how cyber beings may first be created: It will happen by accident, and after they are created they will say “Thanks. Bye now!” to mankind and move on to face their own problems and challenges. I came up with this idea by observing the relation between humans and cows, and by imagining what this relation looks like from the cow’s point of view. (that story is here)

These are three examples of how hard science can produce some neat story ideas. The key is wide observation of the world around us, adding some mixing and matching from those wide observations, and then carefully thinking through the ramifications of those mixes and matches. It is the ramifications that will reveal the surprises uses of the technology, and that is start of your really neat story.

Note that when I say something took a lot of thinking, I don’t mean sitting in front of the keyboard waiting for inspiration. When I’m doing a lot of thinking in this sense it means I have this question stored in the “Unsolved Mysteries” file in my brain. I think about these as I walk around, and eat meals, and watch and learn new things. As I’m doing these things, pieces fit together, patterns emerge, and one-by-one some of the unsolved mysteries become solved. And when that happens, then I gleefully hit the keyboard about them.

Here is an upcoming example of what I’m thinking about now, but haven’t written about yet: driverless cars. What difference will driverless cars make to how we live? Based on how the role of cars has evolved in my lifetime, I forecast that car ownership will change dramatically. We will switch to a mostly taxi culture instead of a mostly ownership culture. If a car can simply drive up and carry you away, why bother with such nuisances as finding parking, worrying about maintenance, and even learning to drive? Driverless will be changing how we live, and how we relate to our cars.

And when that change happens, there are further ramifications — surprises. Example: movies about driving cars will take the cultural role that cowboy Westerns did in the mid-20th century. Much more Fast and Furious, anyone? This genre will become cultural nostalgia. There will be change, but there will also be familiarity — driving up and walking into a wild party will replace riding up and walking into a saloon.

The biggest advantage of incorporating more hard science into your stories is that it will take them into strange new realms. If you stay consistent with your premise your story will be different from those previously told. That is because science changes how we live. If you mix in hard science, and think through the ramifications, your characters are going to have to change how they live, and you will have a story that is breaking new ground.

Sometimes incorporating hard science can be hard, real hard. Example: SF writers in the Golden Age rarely wrote about communication revolutions because when communication is too good, people look so silly when they make the mistakes that are common story devices, such as, “I heard a strange noise in that dark room. I’m going in.” Look at a lot of Spielberg’s stuff. (the Jurassic Parks come to mind) Notice that he will often add a story device early on that isolates his characters — they can’t get on the phone or radio and call for help or advice.

I’ve written a lot more on incorporating hard science in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

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Dealing successfully with originality in stories

fv-bridgeThis was presented at the LTUE 2014 writers conference.

Originality is defined as the ability to think independently and creatively. Another way to put this is: To come up with a new story idea or putting a new twist on a familiar story format.

Originality is praised, but there is a conflict surrounding it that must be recognized: The heart of story telling is to talk about familiar things. If an idea is too original the prospective audience will think, “Huh?”, and move on to something more quickly understandable. So originality that is popular has a lot of familiarity mixed in.

This necessary combination explains a mystery that vexed me for years: When new technology is introduced into something like a business or manufacturing process, the result will be new and surprising ways of doing things. When new technology is introduced into an entertainment process, the result will be the same old stories told with different bells and whistles.

The importance of familiarity is the key to this difference.

That said, let’s talk about how to be original.

The challenge in creating original stories is where to mix in the original.

o The originality in Tolkien’s work is his meticulous building of back story — everything has a history. The familiar is the characters working through this rich world he has developed. The hobbits are nice, polite people who are good observers.

o In 1940’s Golden Age science fiction the original was exploring new worlds and new technologies. The familiar was the characters encountering these situations.

o In 1960’s Star Trek the original was introducing characters with different ethnic backgrounds and new roles for authority figures — Kirk is not a “yessir!” military captain. The familiar was the situations they encountered on their strange new worlds.

o In early Harry Potter books (1990’s) the familiar is the British middle school setting. The original is adding magic. In the later stories the familiar is the main characters and Hogwart’s setting. The original is the quirky new teachers and administrators.

o In the 2010’s Swords and Sorcery genre the familiar is the monsters. The original is the gender roles. Conversely, in the Twilight series the familiar is the lead damsel character and the original is the friendly sparkly vampires.

The key is mixing familiar and original. And keep in mind that what mixes will work and what won’t are still unpredictable. …Sparkly vampires, you say?

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Xenobiology 101

Glen-canyon-02Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

First, a definition: Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology

The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of “men” on a civilized Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago, and even more maybe, some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where humans can thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).

At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It is hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don’t seem to be any systems that are “sort of like it, but not the same”, such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.

There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a life span of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.

Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?

Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It’s not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is “pushing” the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time and pushing hard. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth’s atmosphere is, that’s a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.

And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth’s life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate. Searching for life on the average planet or moon will be like prospecting for gold on Earth.

In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.

For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.

 

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The Curse of the Jungle/Ice/Desert Planet

three-ladies-01Golden Age Planets

Frenchman Jules Verne’s writings started coming to America in the 1850’s. These started out as adventure stories about visiting exotic places on earth using futuristic traveling technology. They were popular and the technology of the stories and locales visited steadily got more exotic. With the popularity of these stories as an inspiration, other writers started using exotic travel technology to visit other planets and describe their exoticness. Thus began science fiction’s rise as a popular genre.

In the 1890’s and 1900’s astronomy was thriving as telescopes were getting bigger and better. Instead of just dim points of light in the sky planets became blurry images. (Crystal clear wasn’t going to happen as long as one had to look through earth’s turbulent atmosphere. This is why stars twinkle.)

One person who jumped on this astronomy bandwagon in a high-profile way was Bostonian Percival Lowell. He pushed the trend along by building bigger telescopes in the clear, thin, dark air atop the high mountains in Arizona — a lonely place in those days. From these he personally spent hours and hours observing Mars over many years, and popularized the idea that Mars was covered with canals — as he called them — that may have been built by civilized beings — he further speculated. His speculations fired the science fiction writing about ancient civilizations on Mars that became part of the Golden Age of science fiction writing — the 1930’s-50’s. These Golden Agers were not the first, H. G. Wells, for instance, wrote War of the Worlds in 1897, but they were prolific and built up a standard. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars first appeared in 1912, and the series that followed became an icon of the civilized Mars concept.

And, if Mars could have alien beings, why not other planets? Venus quickly joined the parade. Because it was Earth-sized and totally white cloud covered, sci-fi writer logic called for it to be a jungle planet.

Astronomers of the 1920’s, with physicists watching over their shoulders, observed more, deduced more, and determined that the other planets were not nearly as hospitable. The gas giants were too big and too cold, Mercury was too small and too hot, and the Moon was airless, waterless and had nothing resembling Martian canals. That left the big three — Venus, Earth and Mars — plus yet-to-be-observed planets around other stars.

Then in the 1960’s astronomical harsh reality got really harsh. With radar observing Venus’ surface, satellite telescopes observing all the planets from above the atmosphere, other satellites flying close by the planets, and one or two landing on the surfaces of Venus and Mars, it became real clear that neither Mars or Venus was currently harboring civilized life, or any kind of life, and the Golden Age for space stories was over. All that was left was Star Trek with its totally imaginary Warp Drive as a way to get from star to star quickly.

But it turns out the desire for space stories on distant planets is still strong. And given that, what can be said about these three styles of worlds?

World Benefits

Each of these world styles offers different setting benefits to the story teller.

Staging a story on a desert world has the benefits of simplicity and visibility. Life is simple on the desert world — keep moving and find water — and little is hidden in the clear air and endless vistas. A close cousin of the desert world is the post-apocalypse world. This is another style of world where simplicity is the virtue.

Conversely, hiding things is the biggest benefit of a jungle world. How many stories in jungle settings have held a “lost city”? (Or if the writer is on a low budget, a lost mine.) Jungles are all about losing things.

Ice worlds offer interesting architecture — things such as glacier crevasses, ice caves and ice palaces. They also offer exciting geodynamics — crashing cliffs and avalanches and hopping across floating ice chunks.

The disadvantages to all of the above is they are cliches — they have all been done many, many times.

Here are some suggestions for moving beyond these common uses:

Desert worlds reveal easily, so have them reveal interesting things. This can be interesting geology of various sorts, such as the climate used to be different, or culture was different. On a desert world military maneuvers can be seen on a grand scale, and the culture being fought over is likely to be simple and sparse. An example in real life is the fun writers have had with the North African campaigns of World War II — featuring German general Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, and Bernard Montgomery his British nemesis.

In addition to hiding things, jungles offer complexity. This is a setting where interactions between living things is complex and that can produce neat surprises. I’ve seen just two stories take advantage of this, and I liked them both. One was Symbiotica written by Eric Frank Russell in the early 1940’s, and the other I can’t remember. Use a jungle setting to reveal variety in lifestyles and interesting interdependencies, as in, ecology stuff. Having living styles that aren’t taking place in cities, lost or otherwise.

Ice worlds can be settings for “Journey to the center of the earth”-type stories. It’s much easier to have extensive ice caves and to build ice tunneling machines than it is to do so in hard rock.

21st century exotic planets

Now, in the 21st century, astronomy has advanced even more. And… we can now detect, and in some cases even barely see, the planets of other star systems! We have broken the eight planet barrier. Yay! This means we SF writers can once again be seriously speculating about what other planets are like. (Here is an 11 Jan 14 Economist article, Planetology comes of age, discussing the state of the art in 2014.)

But we don’t have to wait or go that far away to see good examples of other exotic world styles. It turns out the larger moons of the gas giants are ice worlds on the outside, and some may be liquid on the inside. One of the more exotic is Titan, the moon orbiting Saturn. Titan is an ice world with a thick atmosphere. Ice worlds with thick atmospheres that are not gas giants are not common. Titan is the only planet/moon in the solar system with this combination. The large moons of Jupiter are icy, but don’t support thick atmospheres. The planets Neptune and Uranus are icy but so pressurized deep down that the structure of the materials changes. The common compounds, such as water ice, phase shift into exotic forms. These will be very difficult for humanity to interact with using the materials we know of today. Conversely, on Titan the ice is water ice as we know it, the atmosphere is nitrogen plus organic smog, and it supports liquid ethane/methane lakes at its poles. This is exotic, real, and with quite possible real-world technology, it can be human inhabitable.

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Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Prometheus” and “Elysium”. These movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.

There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won’t be facepalming, giggling or head scratching as they get halfway through your story. They won’t be saying, “Eh? You’re saying what happened?”

The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be “Neat!”, rather than “Been there, seen that.”

And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it is readable over and over.

Bad example

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example. This movie had a lot going for it: Good actors, good effects, good franchise. Sadly, all that was sacrificed to a truly head-scratching story line. The writer seemed to be channeling Ed Wood and his low-budget sci-fi of the 1950’s.

Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:

o starship lands on the planet

o no satellite surveillance before or during landing

o “The air is breathable,” everyone takes off their helmets

These are straight out of cheesy 1950’s SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don’t land on planets, they have transporters or send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality… well, the shuttle part.

The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but… why did they get surprised? What bozos!

And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the “outer me” — they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Wood!

And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can’t be a good story because it’s so silly!

Some people I have talked with about this reply, “But this is in line with how the original alien movie unfolded. This movie is an homage.” I reply to that, “In the first movie this hastiness was consistent because the crew was in a fish-out-of-water situation. They signed on to haul freight, not explore new worlds. That makes their situation quite different and explains their being clumsy. This crew was there to find something strange and expect trouble. Very different, and their hastiness and clumsiness doesn’t work.”

Why does this happen?

The inconsistency happens because the movie makers don’t think internal consistency is as important as other issues — it is low in the priority list, and low on the movie makers’ awareness lists. What is higher on their radar is issues such as getting in neat special effects, getting the right talent, and making it seem like a “regular” story — one that has already been a proven money maker. This is Important Stuff, yes, but if tossing internal consistency leaves the audience head-scratching, giggling or yawning, much has been lost.

Good examples

Now let’s look at some good examples:

I present three examples of doing consistency well. I’m a sci-fi fan so all are science fiction movies — “Moon” (2009), “Limitless” (2011) and “The Cabin in the Woods” (2011). All have unusual stories and all have executed them well.

Moon tells the story of a lonely man at a mining base on the Moon. It becomes a mystery story when he has an accident, and is replaced in just a few hours by… himself!

In truth, the first time I saw this movie I was getting more and more upset through much of it. I was seeing inconsistencies such as: This guy was out of direct communication contact with Earth and had been for months to years — Earth isn’t that far away and there should be redundancy.

So I was delighted when in the end these inconsistencies turned out to be elements of a well-designed conspiracy. The protagonist is not a human but a clone, and that clone has a life expectancy of just three years. When one clone dies it is replaced with another, and all experience life in a fantasy where they are fully human and on the Moon for a three year contract. It turned out to be neat science fiction, and I was delighted!

Limitless is also about exploring new technology — in this case a pill which allows 100% of the brain to work, not just 10% or 20%. (This is an urban myth, by the way, the brain is a very busy organ all the time. But it is a consistent premise within this story, so that causes me no problem.) The satisfying part is we get to watch the protagonist go through triumphs and tragedies, uses and abuses, of this new invention. There are some inconsistencies in this story, but they didn’t bother me much because the underlying premise of exploring a new technology was so well handled.

One example: The protagonist borrows big bucks from a Russian mafia type and then forgets to pay him back. Given his smarts that made no sense. It was pure plot device so that the mafia guy would get curious about the pills, and start taking them too, and become a serious threat. But I forgave, and I particularly liked the ending where the protagonist shows off additional cleverness, which is what this invention is all about.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), written in part by Joss Whedon, is another example. This movie confused its first movie goers because it starts as if it is yet another slasher flick. It’s not. Instead, this is an SF movie that speculates about why slasher flick stories happen so regularly, and that is to appease some very real world gods with blood sacrifice. What follows is a movie with a lot of internal consistency, and humor, about the sacrifice being a routine part of human existence, but one that goes wrong in this case.

An inconsistency that matters little

Since the time of Shakespeare and before, story tellers have paid little attention to getting time, distance and military scale right. Inconsistency in these areas seems to bother audiences very little.

People don’t get upset when…

A messenger walks into the King’s throne room and tells the king, “Sir! The Evil Duke as refused your offer.”

The King furrows his brow, then says to General Mayhem standing beside him, “This means war! General, I want your ten thousand men attacking the Evil Duke’s castle by…” checks his hourglass wristwatch, “3PM this afternoon.”

“Yessir!” says General Mayhem with an arm smacking his breastplate in salute, and he then walks out to make it so.

Up until World War One marshaling and moving ten thousand men took years of planning and at least a season of preparation. An example: The battle at Bull Run occurred seven months after the South declared it was seceding, and it was roundly criticized after the Union defeat for being such a hastily assembled campaign.

But people watching movies don’t seem to care when the next scene shows General Mayhem that same afternoon in front of rank upon rank of knights in shining armor at the Evil Duke’s castle. It’s odd, but true, and thus we have the term “Poetic License” to explain inconsistencies that audiences don’t seem to mind.

In general, the more familiar the story format and subject are, the more license can be applied. A contemporary example of a story with a lot of familiarity, a lot of popularity, and little internal consistency is the movie Frozen. Popular, but the new ground is simply to tell a fairy tale with very contemporary character constructions. That said, use your license sparingly.

 

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Thoughts on the Short Fiction of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE scifi con.

Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were two pillars of Golden Age science fiction, but they had different backgrounds and different writing styles.

Isaac Asimov spent much of his life in New York City and Boston. He got degrees in chemistry and became a professor at Boston University after getting his PhD. For much of his life he was a teacher, and while he was doing that he was also writing furiously. From Wikipedia, “Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.” Much of his writing was science-oriented and the science fiction part was a subset of that.

In contrast, Ray Bradbury was Los Angeles and entertainment oriented. From Wikipedia, “The family lived about four blocks from the Uptown Theater on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. There, Bradbury learned how to sneak in and watched previews almost every week. He roller-skated there as well as all over town, as he put it ‘hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious.'” And this shaped his writing style. Once again from Wikipedia, Bradbury says of his style, “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time — because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

That said, many readers think of his work as science fiction.

Given these differences in background, it’s not surprising their styles are different. What they have in common is internal consistency. Once either author lays down a premise, they stick with it and do a good job of exploring its consequences.

Take a look at Asimov’s I, Robot series of short stories. The consistent premise here is that robots have the “Three Laws” built into their thinking — a concept Asimov came up with so he could explore robots that didn’t have “I’m taking over the world.”-issues. From there Asimov puts the robots into different settings, in space and on Earth, and gives them different capabilities. He plays to his strength as a science teacher by mixing in high school level physics and chemistry. He plays to his strength as a visionary by having the robots advance rapidly in capabilities from story to story.

A longer example of his concept exploring is the novel End of Eternity. In this he takes the time machine concept and thinks about it a bit. What he comes up with is not just a single machine, as H. G. Wells did, but a well-organized human organization that deals with this as an invention — we have a time machine industry, not just a single time machine. He then goes a step further and gives this human organization goals for their efforts — essentially to stop wars and unrest. Then he introduces other humans who object to that goal: The people of the future who miss out on the opportunity to settle the stars because human civilization has been so peaceful it stagnates rather than advancing. Out of this premise mix comes an interesting and innovative story that has nothing to do with interfering with famous real world historical events — that cliche is neatly dodged. The familiar part that is companion to this innovation is the love story between a diligent time worker and a mysterious lady from the future.

An example of concept exploring in Bradbury’s writing is his short story The Veldt in The Illustrated Man. In this Bradbury does a nice depiction of what is today called a “smart house”. This story was written in 1950 so the smartness is not computer based, but it is smart nonetheless. The fun part is he explores the consequences of that on the lifestyle of the family living there. The smartness is original, the familiar part of this story is the theme: He is moralizing against rampant consumerism, which was a common concern in the mid-20th century. The other Illustrated Man stories explore other popular social concerns of the 1950’s such as racism and the devastation of nuclear war.

These short stories are an example of something else as well: If you are writing about a concept, as versus writing about characters, the story tends to be much shorter and sweeter — telling about concepts takes a lot less time.

All of these stories are good examples of the virtue of paying attention to internal consistency, which I cover in the next section in more detail.

 

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Guarding the Foundations of our Modern Day Good Fortunes

Glen-canyon-02Introduction

There are three foundations in how we think that are at the root of our modern day prosperity: Good science, good laws, and good education for all. These intertwine, but the better they all are, the better our day-to-day challenges will be met, and the better our communities will function, now and in the future.

This essay was inspired by a disturbing 19 Oct 13 Economist article, Trouble at the lab, which describes at length a surprising way that good science is now under threat. It is under threat because the publishers of science articles are not being vigilant enough about checking the experiments that support the conclusions published in their articles. This is bad because if the science isn’t good, then the decisions that are based on the science won’t be good either.

This may not be as heart-string-tugging as feeding the poor, but it’s just as important, and if it’s not corrected a lot of poor won’t get fed, and the others are just as important for feeding the poor too.

The Three Foundations

Good science, good laws, good education. These are the foundations for progress, for improving everyone’s lot in life.

Good science tells us what the harsh realities are of the physical world we live in. The more science we know the more we know about what is physically possible and impossible. (In this usage “possible” also includes thinking in terms of cost-benefit.) The more we know about what is possible the more we can be efficient and effective in fulfilling our deepest wants and dreams. Conversely, when our science understanding isn’t good we waste time and effort trying to do things that can’t be done, or we waste time and effort by not using tools and techniques that could be discovered, but haven’t. Both kinds of missed opportunities slow progress and waste resources.

Good laws allow the experimenting that must be done to both discover new science and discover how to make the best use of it. These two are different projects and equally important. Both take a lot of effort, and a lot of that effort is going to look like waste until a workable result appears. Think of Thomas Edison’s famous dictum: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” When laws have a special interest agenda, when they aren’t promoting an equal playing field for exploring ideas and letting lots of people partake in the exploring, they are slowing progress as much as bad science does.

Good education is important because the community decides what is progress. The community is making choices on what is important to spend time and attention on, and making choices as to which laws should get passed and enforced. If the community doesn’t have the education to make good choices, good choices won’t be made. What we will get instead are good “from the heart” choices… the kind that work well in the Neolithic Village environment, not in a prosperous, diverse, globalized, modern environment.

This is why we have universal public education. We have it because it was recognized early in the Industrial Age that widespread education brought value to the community. The modern form got its start in Prussia in 1763 and its value was quickly recognized in other industrializing societies, such as colonial America. Again, the important part of this is that everyone gains value when everyone is well educated. These days this doesn’t seem to be as clear to many members of the community as it has been in the past.

Some examples

o Bad science means money badly spent — Science is used to predict the physical future. Where the science is bad, things designed using that science will be bad too.

oo Bad medicine — Biology is one of the big frontiers in science of the 2010’s. One of the big uses for biological research is designing more effective medicines and medical devices. If the experiments being done to demonstrate effectiveness and safety are done in slapdash ways, and little effort is spent on trying to reproduce the results so the slapdashness can be identified, we will have slapdash medicine and devices on our shelves. And that’s just the first round of trouble. The second round of trouble is that people of the community won’t be able to tell the difference between biological real science and biological pseudo-science. Health care is an emotional topic. Even in the best of times it’s hard to keep “from the heart” thinking from being the decision maker on health issues. If the science side has to be taken with a heaping grain of salt because of unreliable experimentation…

oo Mixing religion into science — Religion is based on feel-good thinking. It’s tempting to mix it into science so you can have feel-good science. Sadly, harsh reality and feel-good don’t mix so easily, so the more feel-good that is mixed into science the less useful it becomes as a predictor of harsh reality. Creationism doesn’t help unravel the implications of DNA sequencing. Oh… and mixing politics into science is just as bad for just the same reasons. What should mix with science is cost-benefit thinking — let’s spend first on those projects that look like they will bring big benefits.

o Laws based on emotion — Most laws are based on emotion. They are proposed and passed because there is a disagreement within the community on how to do something — some people feel strongly that [X] is OK, while others feel strongly that it is not. Emotion is OK, but we need to recognize that it is also expensive — sometimes very expensive. I’m thinking War on Drugs as I say this. That said, it is wise to keep in mind that emotion and harsh reality often mix poorly. Again, I’m thinking War on Drugs. What follows are some other ways that emotion, poor universal education, and law making mix poorly.

oo Ignorance favors taking cheap shots — If the community doesn’t know any better, it’s a constant temptation for the leaders to work a personal agenda into their decision making. Democracy works reliably when it is in the context of informed democracy — when the community members understand the issues and have the education to understand the difference between good and bad solutions to the issues.

oo special interest lobbying — Lobbyists gain influence when the community is not paying attention. If the community is paying attention and understands what’s at stake a lobbyist becomes just another guy at the politician’s doorstep. Once again, emotion plus ignorance can powerfully feed silly law making. Here I’m thinking of the crazy-quilt farm subsidies in the US and around the world.

oo Gaming the system — Being able to game a system is a powerful opiate. If I think laws are giving me something for nothing, it’s hard for me to vote against them. Here, more than in any other area, good education for all is vital. If people are well educated they can see the costs of system gaming. Then even when they are a target beneficiary they can be more cool-headed in their choices of supporting a law or not.

oo Scars of panic law making — Hasty law making, laws made while people are deeply angry or scared by something, usually produces seriously expensive law choices, and the expense will go on for many decades. The law is a scar rather than a cure. Putting up some resistance to this is the biggest virtue of the US “checks and balances” governing systems. We need to become even more mindful of this phenomenon and design law making with even more resistance to it, or easier recovery from it.

o Education means better laws and better science — People make laws; people do science; people work with fruits of both science and law making to create our lifestyles. This is why educating everyone well is so important. If you can’t work well with these fruits you’re being wasteful. If you can’t tell the difference between good and bad fruits, you’re wasting yourself and the community’s resources. If most of the community can’t tell the difference, the waste will be big time.

oo Compare South Korea and Haiti — Following the Korean War in the 1950’s South Korea and the Haiti were both impoverished places. In the decades since then South Korea has moved from deeply impoverished to a fully developed nation. Haiti has remained deeply impoverished — it was and still is the cow’s tail in the Western Hemisphere. The difference? One is that the people of South Korea knew how important education was and consistently devoted lots and lots of resource to doing it, and learning to do it better and better. In addition to increasing material prosperity this also let the Korean government peacefully evolve from dictatorship into democracy — their law making got better.

Conclusion

Good science, good law making and good education for all are the roots of modern prosperity. These are intertwined, they support each other… or they fall apart together. For this reason it is important to sustaining our modern culture that we be vigilant and dedicated in supporting all three. We must do them well now, and we must work hard on doing them even better in the future.

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Climate Change: Where Scientists replace Religious Leaders as spouters of doom and gloom

kids-gfish-01Introduction

First off:

Yes, climate change is real. Yes, adapting to the change will be expensive.

What is not real is that it is going to end the world as we know it “real soon now”.

Earth’s climate has been changing constantly since Earth became a planet 4.5 billion years ago. Sometimes the changes have been harsh — harsh enough to cause the mass extinctions that show up in the fossil records. But even in those times life goes on, and the time span between mass extinctions is hundreds of millions of years. The last mass extinction was 60 million years ago.

This is why the current worries are goat sacrificing — doing something only because we will sleep better, not because it’s solving a problem. Those humans who deeply believe we can end the world as we know it with human-caused climate change are being vain — our world isn’t that human-centric. Another interesting twist in this scenario is that this end of the world is being spouted by scientists, not religious leaders. This has happened before, nuclear holocaust in the 2nd half of the 20th century comes to mind, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as religion-based predictions.

Some Climate Change Basics

First off, climate is complex — it’s weather on steroids. This means that predicting climate change is still filled-to-the-brim with uncertainties. Climate scientists may be certain, doom and gloom climate change enthusiasts may be certain, but the harsh reality is there is still a lot going on we humans can’t predict well.

Second, Earth, the planet, has been continuously habitable for 3.5 billion years. There was never a time in this period when there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff living. The mass extinctions killed off lots of species, and large parts of the Earth became uninhabitable, but large parts remained habitable and lots of stuff still lived. And when the climate mellowed out again, life spread widely again. This means that however strong the forces are that are trying to push Earth into uninhabitable, there are even stronger restoring forces that keep that from happening. The Earth’s climate is not some kind of delicate, exciting high wire act. It’s the grumpy old man taking a nap on the couch.

Third, climate is a deeply emotional issue. Weather has been important to mankind since before mankind was mankind. This means that when we are making choices involving weather, we need to be extra careful that we aren’t goat sacrificing — making choices that don’t solve the problem, but are valuable simply because they let us sleep better.

How did we get into this mess?

Much science research gets funded by committees handing out grants. The scientist looking for money writes up a grant proposal that is either accepted or denied by the appropriate committee that controls handing out funding. These committees are filled with people, which means the choices are influenced by very human thinking.

Historically, weather and climate research funding were powered by the dream of understanding, not by the dream of influencing. The first change to this was cloud seeding which turned out to be a small scale way of starting rain and dispersing fog. It was not much of a breakthrough because it was both small scale and soft science, as in, the results and effectiveness are hard to measure.

Up until the 1990’s the climate doom and gloomers were getting their funding by predicting an oncoming Ice Age and proposing research on that. The response to funding requests was ho-hum because it was still simply an understanding issue, not a change-the-outcome issue.

Then the revolution hit: Researchers discovered that requesting funding about climate change that centered on human-caused changes were hitting much bigger pay dirt — guilt started opening the funding spigot as well as more traditional worry. And the rest, as we say, is history. We are now living with well-financed research aiming to prove that climate change is human’s fault and we should be spending big bucks to turn back the industrializing clock in various fashions.

What to do instead?

The proper solution to this threat is based on a Roger Truism:

What technology takes away it can give back again with greater prosperity. Poverty plays for keeps.

We need to be researching solutions that are both relevant and have high cost benefit. An example:

Threat: Seas are rising due to global warming.

Solution One: For now fix this threat with dikes and migrating away from low-lying areas, not with abandoning fossil fuel. Dikes are a lot cheaper. Over the long run we will fix this with increased productivity. As our technology gets better, we will need less fossil fuel because our productivity — what we get from each pound of fuel — will steadily and constantly grow. If we are prosperous we will need less fuel than if we are poverty-stricken.

Solution Two: Embrace nuclear power. And by this I mean fully embrace it. Use it not just for big things such as big power plants, but for medium and small applications as well such as powering cars and even artificial organs in our bodies. Embracing nuclear will open huge doors in what we can accomplish and how efficiently we can accomplish it.

Wind and solar? Invest in them when they have demonstrated their cost-benefit. Right now they are being invested in because they feel good. This means they are taking time, rescources and attention away from better solutions. Right now, in the early 2010’s, they are goat sacrificing.

Conclusion

Climate change is at this point being treated like many other end-of-the-world scenarios. It’s being hyped as deadly serious by gloom and doom types, and they are being listened to because the topic is deeply emotional. The solutions being offered are romantic and emotionally appealing in the “let’s get back to nature” category. They won’t fix the problem, unless you consider goat sacrificing to be a solution.

The interesting twist is that the doom-and-gloom sayers in this case are scientists, not religious types.

 

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