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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 7: Really Strange Sensory Suites and How Know What Creature Might Be Domesticated Might Be A Sense In Itself…And Other Thoughts…

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...


Mammal, cephalopod, insect, reptile, bird, fish, and (of course), plants, have hugely different suites of sensory abilities. While we like to think that Humans have the “best” sensoria, and while what we sense certainly serves us well, it isn’t by any means “perfect”.

In the Alien Worlds class I teach in Summer School, we do a brief exercise where we start with the five basic Human senses of touch, smell, taste, hear, and see. I IMMEDIATELY exclude “extra-sensory-perception” – no telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, telepresence, telephone, teletubbie…They have to stick to senses we know and understand…

Let’s add instead proven alternative senses: magneto-sensory from migratory birds; electro-sensory of sharks in water; proprioception in Humans (knowing how to touch your nose even when your eyes are closed); sense of balance (we’d be a bit awkward walking on two legs if we didn’t have THIS one!); sense of temperature; sense of pain (I never considered this one until I read Steven R. Donaldson’s original Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever series.)

What if Humans could sense magnetic fields? What ramifications would there be? How would your life be different…

So, if I want to write believable aliens, then perhaps I could study creatures I can look up, study, and possibly even observe in a zoo or in nature!

How do I devise a test to see the ramifications of adding that “sense” to an alien? Also, we need to consider extending the five senses. For examples: elephants hear infrasound through their huge, flat feet. Snakes sense heat with “pit organs” on the forward part of their heads. Dolphins sense the world via ultrasound.

First let me reiterate: to create ALIEN Aliens, I can’t go willy-nilly changing everything. Then you have a truly incomprehensible gobbledygook of an alien. Also, what I alter needs to be something they can do without any kind of technology, because despite the evidence that other animals on Earth use “stone age technology”. You and I can ABSOLUTELY fly and live on Antarctica. But to do so, we need massive technological support. So, something natural…

Start a fire? Nah, too much tech there, even if you posit that our remote ancestors learned how to do it, it REQUIRES hands and air, which automatically eliminating fish, octopi, and plants.

How about domesticating something? Let’s look at a fascinating book I read years ago, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL by Jared Dimond. He had this to say about domestication: “Domestication…the most momentous change in Holocene human history. Why did it operate on so few wild species, in so few geographic areas…why did people adopt it at all…how did it spread?”

Are there instances of the “smartest of their Kingdom, Phylum, or Class” domesticating some other living thing? What does it mean to “domesticate” something?

Seems a definition is in order. According to Wikipedia: Domestication is “…a sustained multi-generational relationship in which one group of organisms assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another group to secure a more predictable supply of resources from that second group.” As well, tool using, city building, and even cooperation of normally incompatible organisms. Does it require some sort of “domestication” sense? Humans stopped trying to domesticate zebras long, long ago, focusing instead on the horse. “What’s the difference? They’re the same thing, only stripey!” Au contraire, personnes!

There is strong evidence that OTHER animals have learned to domesticate a species near them:

Insects: ants who farm aphids for their sweet secretions, and grow a fungus to feed the colony… https://modernfarmer.com/2014/04/meet-earths-oldest-farmers-ants/#:~:text=Ants%20have%20domesticated%20fungus%20similarly%20to%20how%20we%20domesticated%20many%20plants.&text=If%20cutter%20ants%20are%20the,called%20honeydew%20that%20ants%20eat.
Fish: first ever case of an animal domesticating another…https://newatlas.com/science/fish-first-animal-domesticating-species/
Octopus: city builders! https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/octopus-city-observed-180964936/#:~:text=In%20the%20waters%20of%20Jervis,scientific%20name%20Octopus%20tetricus%E2%80%8B.
Plants: a war between two very different plants to “a stranger peace…” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191115074414.htm
Birds: such legendary tool users, that their behavior became one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Crow and the Pitcher”: http://read.gov/aesop/012.html
Reptiles: even American alligators have become tool users! https://www.livescience.com/41898-alligators-crocodiles-use-tools.html

OK – I’ve established that animals can domesticate other animals, build cities, negotiate peace, and use tools…

So, how does the world look through the eyes of a representative of each of these “alien species”? I’ll start with the ant farmers. How do they see the world? What do we know about ant senses? “‘…we have demonstrated that we have the basic tools we need to act as ‘odorant receptor detectives” to map the ants “odor space” and identify the chemical signals that trigger specific behaviors in the ant’s extensive repertoire,’ Slone said.” (https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2012/09/10/ants-have-an-exceptionally-high-def-sense-of-smell/#:~:text=Ants%20have%20four%20to%20five,team%20of%20researchers%20has%20discovered.&text=They%20found%20the%20industrious%20insects,proteins%20that%20detect%20different%20odors.)

According to the article, ants have some 400 specific “odorant receptors”, including one for cooked beef and pork – the researchers don’t get that one! In particular, “The olfactory system of most insects is centered in their antennae and is broadly made up of three different classes of receptors: odorant receptors, that identify different aromatic compounds and pheromones; gustatory receptors (GRs), that distinguish between different tastes and react to some pheromones; and newly discovered ionotropic glutamate receptors (IRs), that are narrowly tuned to various poisonous and toxic compounds.”

According to a different article: “The two antennae on either side of the head serve as the ant's main sensory organs. Ants also have a pair of compound eyes that consist of many photoreceptors that allow them to see light and shadows. However, their eyesight is poor, and ants rely primarily on their sense of smell for understanding their environment.” (https://www.livescience.com/ant-facts.html).

All right, given that, I’m going to make a stab at giving an ant-like alien’s perspective when landing on Earth…I’ll be making a few assumptions, so bear with me.

***

“Two-hundred and thirty-fourth of seven-hundred and ninety-three Adults held their mandibles still. They could not control the corona of tendrils sweeping the air of Third Planet from Its Star. While nothing was precisely familiar, Two-Three-Four’s minds automatically categorized each odor into its chemical type. Nitrogen and oxygen and their abundant compounds were obvious and of only academic interest. Two-Three-Four’s specialty was to sense the unique odors of life on a newly contacted world. While plant life was a given and the precise proportions of the atmospheric mix had been determined by a probe long-since returned to the Chamber Ship in orbit, Two-Three-Four’s highly developed and trained odor sensory suite was the reason it stood on the surface of the new world.

“A squirt of strong impatience generated from the odor ring around their neck prompted it to fire a gentle puff of “Anticipatory patience” that would permeate the queen-commander’s chamber in the center of the ship. Her response was a whiff of apology. Two-Three-Four stepped down the ramp, followed by the rest of the landing party. Their larger size and heavier mandibles – as well as a small set of weapons chosen from an even larger collection and based on the preliminary assessment of life forms on Third Planet – were guaranteed to repel any accidentally hostile contact. The Smallers, like Four-Nine, Seven-Two, and Three-Eight, were less sensitive, heavily armed, and would do whatever Two-Three-Four needed them to do. Not that they were non-sapient, but they were only past their third and fourth molt. Each molt increased the size of the neural net. Each would take their place among the adults eventually. For now, they learned and did as they were told.

“Basic scans had revealed a fascinating mix of life on Third, though hardly unique in the experience of the Scent Memory on Homeworld. Two-Three-Four’s job was to investigate the unique characteristics. They scuttled away from the ship, not stopping for several hundred heartbeats. It released a waft of “listen” to the Smallers, and “commencing” to the queen-commanders chamber.

“Under its direction, the ship had landed in an area where the view all around was unimpeded to allow the winds of Third to pass over Two-Three-Four’s corona of antennae. Smallers made a ring around them and powered up their weapons. They would be far too busy with their primary job to protect themselves from any of Third’s life forms that might exhibit aggression. Two-Three-Four shut down its generic visual input and focused on the odors of Third.

“Dryness. Mild decay, common for any world with seasonal plant life. Then something of interest: hydrocarbons! While hardly unique to intelligent civilizations, it made clear that the sapients of Third could manipulate their environment in a profound way. Of course they’d detected cities, a gigantic web of orbital satellites, a large presence of life on Third’s airless moon and in several orbital habitats. They’d even discovered a crater on Fourth that held several hundred life forms. All well and good; intelligence of a species that likely came from Third – all of that was, while remarkable in the First Queen’s universe, was still fairly common.

“What they sought…ah! There! It was a very faint scent, but now that Two-Three-Four knew what to focus on, it found that the odor was present in small but significant quantities. It signaled the queen-commander a complex message, “Genetic manipulation! Artificial tissue construction!”

What else can we do? Sink into ALTERNATIVE senses and imagine the stories that can happen to your alien characters!

Resources: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dog-cognition_n_8398810, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/how-do-octopuses-experience-the-world, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/intelligence-test-shows-bees-can-learn-to-solve-tasks-from-other-bees, https://www.reptileencounters.com.au/news/the-5-most-intelligent-reptiles/#:~:text=The%20result%20was%20that%20the,reserved%20for%20birds%20and%20mammals.&text=And%20coming%20in%20at%20the,and%20weigh%20more%20than%2010kg, https://www.cnet.com/news/how-crows-are-the-smartest-birds-in-the-world/, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/six-fish-that-are-smarter-than-we-give-them-credit-for, https://www.ambius.com/blog/are-plants-intelligent/, https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01019
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg


Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp. 
He thinks out loud in print at: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Urgent Update • email outage

Thanks to GoDaddy’s unilateral decision to move all our email accounts to Microsoft Exchange and pipe all messages through the Outlook content filters, we have lost effective control of our email accounts. The ONLY Rampant Loon Media email account that still seems to be working somewhat reliably is submissions@rampantloonmedia.com.

If you have another email address for us, forget it. Going forward, use only the submissions email address, until such time as we have moved rampantloonmedia.com to a new web host and untangled this clusterfsck.

The First Sunday After Thanksgiving


Today’s reading is from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 7, verses 11 through 18. 

11 And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings, which he shall offer unto the LORD.

12 If he offer it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried.

13 Besides the cakes, he shall offer for his offering leavened bread with the sacrifice of thanksgiving of his peace offerings.

14 And of it he shall offer one out of the whole oblation for an heave offering unto the LORD, and it shall be the priest's that sprinkleth the blood of the peace offerings.

15 And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten the same day that it is offered; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.

16 But if the sacrifice of his offering be a vow, or a voluntary offering, it shall be eaten the same day that he offereth his sacrifice: and on the morrow also the remainder of it shall be eaten:

17 But the remainder of the flesh of the sacrifice on the third day shall be burnt with fire.

18 And if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings be eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, neither shall it be imputed unto him that offereth it: it shall be an abomination, and the soul that eateth of it shall bear his iniquity.

Got that? Enough with the leftover turkey already. Clean the fridge, for God’s sake.

And next year, remember to make pancakes. The LORD really loves pancakes. Who doesn’t? In fact, why not whip up a batch of pancakes right now?

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Status Update • 27 November 2021

 

Just discovered: the seamless migration to Microsoft Exchange wasn’t. I thought it went off without a hitch because email still seemed to be getting through. What I didn’t realize until this morning is that even though we don’t use Outlook—I dislike Office 365 in general and loathe Outlook specifically—Exchange “helpfully” routes all our email through the Outlook junk mail and spam filters. Ergo, our email clients (Thunderbird on all machines) never found a lot of our incoming email, as Outlook had already sorted it into the junk mail bin.

I’d thought our incoming email load was kind of light lately. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Outlook decided we needed to see every vapid message that originated from Twitter but blocked every valid business-related message from Ingram, Amazon, and a plethora of other sources, including authors.

I’ve recovered about sixty “boy, I wish I’d seen this in time to react” messages so far. Looks like we’re going to be spending the rest of the weekend recovering the remainder and changing the mail filter settings on each and every Rampant Loon Press and K&B Booksellers email account manually, as Microsoft does not allow us to set across-the-board mail filtering policies.

Illo: Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, because this is how I respond to being forced to use another Microsoft product. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving (Actual)


While searching the RLP stock art library for the illo I used with yesterday’s post, I came across this one, which I share with you now. I’m not sure exactly why this bit of CGI creeps me out—maybe it’s the lit-from-the-underside face, maybe it’s the dead doll eyes—but when I look at it I hear an eerie female voice, superficially soft and sweet but with a demonic grating edge, whispering, “Join us. Partake of the dead turkey’s carcass. Become one with us. There is no escape…”

Or maybe I’m just projecting memories from family dinners past. Pass me the cranberry sauce, wouldja?

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Enjoy the holiday. Enjoy the time with your family and friends. You may loathe Aunt Luella’s infamous casserole now—there are only so many times you can look at that chipped Pyrex dish filled with French-cut green beans drowned in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and sprinkled with French’s crispy fried onion bits straight out of the can before you get religion, or at least begin to pray with all your heart for her to bring anything else—but there will come a time when you will miss all these people. Even Uncle Frank, who’s glued to the TV, as if the Lions have a hope in Hell of beating the Cowboys this year.

So enjoy this holiday. Especially, enjoy your family, no matter what heroic efforts it may take. Be sure to say something complimentary about little Cousin Susie’s first attempt at homemade-from-scratch biscuits, even if she did accidentally substitute baking soda for baking powder. She will learn. The products of her kitchen will get better.

And we’ll see you all back here on Sunday.

Best wishes,
Bruce Bethke


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Cowboy Bebop (live action) Review • By Eric Dontigney

So, the live-action Cowboy Bebop show finally dropped on Netflix to a wholly unsurprising bashing by professional critics. To that, I say, you people take yourselves too damn seriously. Unfortunately, that also meant that you took this show too damn seriously. More surprising were all the viewers who took issue with it for reasons that, honestly, I’m struggling to fathom. Most of the complaints I’ve seen are just generalized statements of anger or disappointment. So, here’s my mostly spoiler-free review.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Unlike the critics, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is a good thing because the original anime didn’t take itself too seriously. Let us all recall that the original anime shamelessly, joyously, took a kitchen sink approach that meant any given episode might take its inspiration from film noir, 50s westerns, Kung-Fu movies, gangster movies, science fiction, and even horror. One of the most reliable sub-plots of the anime was Spike being hungry. A feature I was delighted to see carried over into the live-action version.

The show does adopt a more serialized approach than the anime, but it’s a loose serialization. It was also, I think, a necessary evil for a western audience that has grown accustomed to highly-serialized shows over the last decade or two. That means you see more of some of the supporting players like Vicious and Julia. It also means that where plotlines from the anime overlapped with plotlines in the live-action show, you also get more coherent explanations for why things are happening. In essence, the live-action version depends less on happenstance and deus ex machina. True, that dials down the random a little, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the show.

One of the fair complaints leveled at the show is that some of the action sequences didn’t really come off. In some cases, it was because the show tried to replicate the over-the-top style of the anime. That never works out because, you know, human bodies don’t work that way. In other cases, it just seemed like the choreography was off or maybe the actors didn’t get enough time to practice those fight sequences. These issues seemed to resolve themselves in later episodes.

The overall look of the show does a creditable job of recapturing the culture-mashing, socially deteriorating, haves vs have-nots dichotomy that marked the anime. It couldn’t reasonably replicate the same scale because live-action has a budget and sets are expensive, but it captures the overall vibe. High luxury coexists with abandoned vehicles and decaying buildings. High technology coexists with rust and corrosion.

The true joy of the show is the cast. John Cho is glorious as Spike, the ex-gangster hitman turned lazy, perpetually hungry bounty hunter in a blue leisure suit. It’s a testament to John Cho’s skill that he can pull off the devil-may-care attitude of Spike the bounty hunter and the lethally serious attitude of Fearless (Spike’s gangster name) when confronting Vicious. Mustafar Shakir is outstanding as the grumpy, grizzled, ex-cop Jet Black. He puts his soulful gaze to good use in suggesting a man with a deep, complicated inner life. Daniella Peneda excels in her role, bringing the brash attitude of amnesiac Faye Valentine to life, but counterpointing that with an almost visceral desperation to uncover her past.

No, the live-action Cowboy Bebop isn’t a perfect show. It has real flaws. Some subplots don’t work particularly well. Some elements feel shoehorned in for no particularly good reason. Some action sequences don’t come off. That being said, I stand by my original statement. This show is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The trick, as is true with all adaptations, is to take the show on its own merits. Treat it as its own animal. If you go in expecting a scene-by-scene recreation of the anime, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting it to make an effort to capture the spirit of the anime, you should enjoy the ride.

__________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 6: The Horrible Alien as a HERO...

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

Being a Human, how can I POSSIBLY think like an alien? I mean, except for a few forays into the possibility of Humans as “prey”, I can’t think of a huge number of SF writers who have really, truly tried to think like an alien and the write a story from an alien point of view.

One problem with doing such a thing is that – Why would I want to read about an alien that was so different I couldn’t possibly connect with it in any way. Writing such a story would fly directly in the face of Lisa Cron’s foundational paradigm, “We're wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.”

If we are in fact biologically wired that way, then how can we possibly read a story that would catch our attention if it was written from a truly alien point of view? It wouldn’t meet the needs of our neural wiring.

The other day, I posted the following Tweet: ( https://twitter.com/gstewart75 “David Brin took time to develop the personality of dolphins in his UPLIFT books…has anyone ever tried to imagine what it would be like to be an intelligent colony of Ichneumonidae?”

What are the Ichneumonidae? Short and sweet. Wasps. Who lay their eggs in living insects (NOT Humans like in the movie “Aliens”! The wasps are where THEY got the idea for the “Aliens” from.)

You can find this family of wasps anywhere on Earth except for Antarctica. They’ve been around since at least the Early Cretaceous (c. 125 mya), but probably appeared already in the Jurassic, laying their eggs inside or on the skin of, the immature stages of countless insects and spiders. They are a major source of “help” for the constant Human battle against insects to keep them away from our food. They are typically solitary insects, and make no nests or colonies of their own. However, they take over colony space once they’ve eaten all the original residents, or the previous residents abandon it.

They aren’t particularly attached to the eggs they lay, either. Once they inject an egg into a host, they include a polydnavirus that suppresses the immune systems of their host insects so the egg can grow unmolested.

There’s also this creepy tidbit: “Various ichneumonoids are used as biological control agents in controlling horticultural or forest pests. An example is the relationship between the species Ichneumon eumerus and its host butterfly Phengaris rebeli. The butterfly larva is a parasite within Myrmica ant nests. The adult wasp searches for ant nests and only enters when they contain the caterpillars. Once inside, they oviposit within the caterpillars and escape the nest by releasing a chemical which causes the worker ants to fight each other rather than the intruding wasp. The wasp eggs then hatch inside the caterpillar and eventually consume and kill the host.”

So, these horrible, “Alien” monsters that have entered our lexicon of “weird and horrifying” monsters, are, in the case of the Myrmica ants, SAVIORS! Do they welcome the marauding Ichneumon with open arms (or legs…or wings as they case may be)? Not at all! The wasp has to release a chemical to keep the ants from hunting it down and killing it – it’s beneficence would be repaid with execution if the wasp didn’t have a magical protection, making it invisible to the ants…

How different would “Alien” have been if instead of showing up to prey on Humans, it was SAVING us from the giant starship pilots? I’ve always assumed they were defenseless, helpless spacefarers, just like the crew of the Nostromo! What if the giants were invading Human space and were about to make Humans into tasty kabobs and hors d'oeuvres with leg bones as toothpicks?

We don’t know, because that wasn’t supposed to be the intent of the movie. The intent was: “They wanted to follow through on Star Wars, and they wanted to follow through fast, and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien.” So, no deep interest in commenting on the state of Humanity. No intent on reflecting on the kinds of thoughts an alien hive mind might have (though technically, Ichneumonidae are NOT a hive mind. They are solitary insects.) Even so, they are strange; they are scary; and they justified saliva rivers of GIGANTIC creepy-crawlies whose sole purpose was, of course, to eat Humans…

But let’s play it out with the Aliens as the heroes.

For the large part, you can’t have them suddenly be intelligent, though the parasitic wasps are indeed independent to an extent. They DO have the behaviors that allow them to create a home for more than a single wasp; they are known to both take over abandoned nests or to simply dig in, eat part of a tree branch and set up housekeeping.

How much difference is there between the Alien and their parasitic wasp ancestors? It might be like comparing Humans with a tarsier (“haplorrhine primates of the family Tarsiidae…the lone extant family within the infraorder Tarsiiformes…all of its species living today are found on a few islands of Southeast Asia…”)

So, let’s move on. We have an individualistic alien civilization descended from parasitic wasps, made up of barely related individuals. There are no family units to speak of, though with technology, I’m sure they’ve identified some sort of useful connections. Those are fleeting and brought up only to gain something.

There are no queens, kings, presidents, or any sort of government we would recognize. So, how have they become space-faring? They CAN cooperate, just as the Ichneumonidae do. They can create cities, but they don’t HAVE relations…except, perhaps with their PREY…certainly kinds of prey are varied based on the species; certainly some prey is larger and can have numerous eggs laid on them. Would the hatchlings, after competing for the food, form bonds? Could intelligent wasps then CHOOSE which eggs would be laid on which hosts in order to create possibilities for relationships that they really have little control over? Would it be a chaotic society without a leader?

What if the biological imperative for the Wasp Saviors was to seek out the Marauders (the giant aliens who seek to devour civilizations)? And what if the Marauders were adorable Teddy Bears?

So, the Wasp Saviors found a ship of Marauder Teddy Bears and attacked, laying Wasp Savior eggs in some of the immature forms of the Marauder Teddy Bears. The newly hatched Wasp Saviors would then thwart the invasion…

Now set up “Alien” in such a situation. Of COURSE Humans have no idea who the Marauder Teddy Bears are or who the Wasp Saviors are.

The Humans enter the crashed starship and find a previously aDORable dead Marauder Teddy Bear and a storage bay full of Wasp Savior eggs. The story set up might be the same, but the outcome COULD HAVE BEEN different if some smart Humans and a smart young Wasp Savior (who accidentally killed a Human and deeply regrets it) communicate, Humans learn that the Wasp Saviors are only working to protect Humans from the first wave of the Marauder Teddy Bears…in THIS story, the Wasp Saviors (aka “Aliens”) aid Humanity…maybe we form a relationship with THEM. Maybe an egg laid in a Human confers some understanding in the hatched young Wasp Savior? What if people, ones with terminal diseases, could CHOOSE to host a Wasp Savior knowing that their death would ultimately protect Humanity from the Marauder Teddy Bears…

What if the Aliens from “Alien” were HEROES?

References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichneumonoidea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_(film), https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/beneficials_images/1c_archives/beneficial-04A-GCMGA14623_braconid_wasp.jpg
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg


Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.



Friday, November 19, 2021

Talking Shop: Turning Bad Ideas into Good Ones • By Eric Dontigney

Yesterday’s post focused on what geek queen Felicia Day refers to as “chocolate fountain” people. That is, creative types for whom ideas flow like a chocolate fountain. For those people, the problem is never having or coming up with ideas, it’s sorting out the really good ideas from the not-so-great ideas. What about people who don’t have that idea machine in their brain? What if you’re one of those people for whom the very occasional idea is the only idea you get? If you can’t count on a steady stream of ideas and the one idea you do have isn’t awesome, what’s the next step? In other words, can you turn bad ideas into good ones?

The good news is that, yes, you largely can turn not-so-great ideas into better ones. Case in point. Legend has it that Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera books started out life as a challenge that he could write a good book from two bad ideas. The bad ideas were Pokemon and the mythical Roman Lost Legion. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, here’s a very brief precis.

The books follow Tavi, a young man raised on a farm in the hinterlands of a very Roman Empire-esque society. The people of Alera (a major continent on the alien world of Carna) bond with furies – elemental spirits – that grant them magical powers. As Tavi grows, he becomes more deeply enmeshed in the political strife afflicting the Aleran Empire.

On the surface, this sounds like a textbook coming-of-age fantasy series. So, what did Butcher do to elevate the bad ideas into something more interesting? First things first, he made Tavi the only person in all of Alera who didn’t have a Pokefury. This let him make his main character a natural outsider and something of a freak in the eyes of the rest of society. That allows for the main character to provide an audience-friendly perspective on the culture.

It also creates lots of ground for character development across the books. The main character simply faces challenges that no one else faces. For example, if everyone else uses fury-magic to turn on the lights, what is your lead character supposed to do? How does the main character handle conflict if the standard method of settling disputes is a Pokefury fight? What kind of occupation can he have if all occupations rely on Pokefury magic?

Next, Butcher built a world that had some conflict designed into it. Since this is based on the Lost Legion, the Alerans are transplants to this alien world. They had to displace someone when they arrived. That gave Butcher some history to weave into the story. There are still extant native species on the planet. They don’t necessarily love the Alerans. This sets the stage for either low-level or higher-order military conflict.

By doing all of that, Butcher gave himself a lot of advantages in turning a couple of ho-hum ideas into a story that people would want to read. How can you do the same with your speculative fiction idea?

“What if” questions are your friend. What if I gave my main character a real or perceived major flaw? What if I change the setting? What if I make the bad guys superhuman or supernatural? What if I make the bad guys sympathetic? What if I make the good guys less sympathetic?

The answers to those what-if questions prompt more and more specific questions. What if I make the bad guys sympathetic prompts questions like:

  • How do I make them more sympathetic?
  • How do those sympathetic features alter their culture/society?
  • How do those sympathetic features alter their interactions with the main characters?

Now, look at the question of what if I make the good guys less sympathetic. That prompts questions like:

  • Can the good guys instill loyalty in the main character?
  • How far will that loyalty really go?
  • What factors might prompt an apparent betrayal by the main character?

The big takeaway here is that the devil is in the details. The more questions you ask about the characters, culture, good guys, and bad guys, the more details you get to work with in the story. By the time you get done mixing and matching those pieces, you’ll often find that your not-great idea has turned into something much more interesting.

__________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Talking Shop: The Idea Machine • By Eric Dontigney

The subject of creativity is a popular one in the writer set. Given the central role that creativity plays in the fiction profession, it’s no wonder that writers obsess about it. I’ve met some writers who agonize over coming up with ideas for any kind of writing. It’s a legitimate struggle they face, and I feel for them. Not having ideas when you want to create is awful.

Yet, I suspect, at least half of the writers out there struggle with the opposite problem. They have too many ideas. Way, way, way too many ideas to ever execute on all of them. Granted, not every idea is a good idea. I’ve got some complete short stories that will never see the light of day to attest to that. They aren’t terrible stories. They hang together okay, but they don’t have that special something. Sometimes, my execution was subpar, but the idea usually was just b-grade stuff.

Unfortunately, plenty of ideas are good ideas. When you start layering on years of experience, even some of those b-grade ideas can be elevated into something better because your execution of the idea is so much better than it was say five or ten years ago. Beyond that, you start training your brain to think in terms of narrative. These days, I find that I have to avoid opening up a new file on my computer for an idea because I won’t just jot down the idea. I’ll start writing. Then, all of a sudden, I’ve got a partially completed short story or, more often these days, the first couple chapters of a book that I’m pretty confident has legs.

There’s a reason why I’ve got like four series in progress, six partially completed novels, and something like another 15 books just to wrap those up those series. Plus, there will be new ideas. There will always be new ideas. Before I finished the first draft of Rinn’s Run, I had ideas for at least three or four more books in that series. I could probably make it 10 if I sat down and worked at it.

So, the question I always face is: “How do I sort through the ideas and pick the ones to work on?”

Historically, I didn’t pick. I just tried to work on everything. See above, six partially completed novels. These days, I’m more selective. Now, I’m about to say the least writer-y, least artistic thing you can possibly say about creative endeavors.

Rule One: Be pragmatic.

If you’re 19 and only answerable to yourself, you’ve got a lot of freedom about how you spend your time. For most people, there are adult concerns that vie for your attention. You’ve probably got a job, maybe a spouse, and maybe kids. You’ve definitely got bills. Sure, you may have an idea for a 7-part, epic fantasy series, but do you have the time to work on it? Will you still want to be working on it 10 years from now if you can only devote 45 minutes a day to working on it? If you’ve got 3-5 hours a week to write around all your other responsibilities, you probably want to focus on short stories and novellas. It’s not that short fiction is easier to write well, but it’s less time-consuming in the execution.

Rule Two: Phone a Friend

You’ll get a feel for what ideas are gold and which ones aren’t, but it’s not foolproof. You will get excited about ideas that aren’t top-shelf. If you’re thinking about sinking some real time into a writing project, especially at the expense of other writing projects, run the idea by a friend whose reading judgment you trust. Ask them if that’s a story they’d want to read. They can help you pick out the wheat from the chaff.

Rule Three: Finish What You Start

Almost every writer has partially completed short stories or partially completed novels sitting in a drawer or sitting on their hard drive. Don’t do that. Finish what you start. There are lots of teaching reasons to do that. You’ll still learn things about plotting, characterization, and world-building from those failed attempts, but that’s not my main reason for advising this. Have you ever had an unfinished task or a task that you knew you needed to do that you kept putting off? Ever notice how that task starts taking up more and more brain space. Partially completed stories and books are just like that. They take up psychic space as they compete for your attention. Finishing, even if it’s not great, frees up that psychic space for the next project.

Rule Four: Ignore Me

So, with all that being said, you should ignore me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try those rules, because you should. I’m saying that if you give those rules a real try and they don’t work for you, drop them. For the record, one attempt isn’t a real try. Six months or a year is a real try because the timeline for writing can prove long.

_______________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 5: How Can I POSSIBLY Think Like An Alien?

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...


Being a Human, how can I POSSIBLY think like an alien? I mean, except for a few forays into the possibility of Humans as “prey”, I can’t think of a huge number of SF writers who have really, truly tried to think like an alien and the write a story from an alien point of view. Stanislaw Lem tried, and created one of the most alien beings in SF, the sapient ocean in his novel, SOLARIS. Maybe was successful because he’s Polish and just THINKS differently than your average Western American? However he did it, for me he was successful in creating a really alien “feeling” alien. Commenting on two of the movies made from his book, he wrote, “…none of these films reflected the book's thematic emphasis on the limitations of human rationality.”

One problem with doing such a thing is that – Why would I want to read about an alien that was so different I couldn’t possibly connect with it in any way. Writing such a story would fly directly in the face of Lisa Cron’s foundational paradigm, “We're wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.”

If I’m biologically wired that way, then how can I read a story that would catch my attention if it was written from a truly alien point of view? It wouldn’t meet the needs of our neural wiring.

Some notable attempts stick out to me:

In STAR TREK, there were two – first was from the original series episode called, “Devil in the Dark” in which a silicon life form appears out of the depths of a remote mining colony and begins to slaughter the colonists working in the mine. The upshot is that the miners have found veins of valuable ore along with piles of “curious” silicon nodules – which turn out to be Horta eggs. The alien reproduces on a scale Humans can’t imagine in a way that’s entirely alien. This episode cheats a bit when we realize that the Horta is killing Humans because she’s protecting her kids – an entirely Human and understandable situation.

Another Star Trek story, “Darmok” came out in the second TV series, Next Generation. This time, instead of strictly biological, it involves HOW the Tamarians phrase their conversation. They do speak words, which the Universal Translator translates into English, but they use some sort of referent system that makes what they say understandable – but entirely gibberish. It turns out that the speak in metaphors. (No idea how they communicate technical data – it seems to me that it would be clumsy talking about computer programs or starship construction using metaphors – though I suppose they could create a “dictionary” of specific technical jargon metaphors. At any rate, again the writers cheat having Picard be familiar with Human mythology, parables, and fables and eventually understanding.

This is what makes Lem’s alien ocean among the most incomprehensible aliens ever written – and I note as well that the story is told entirely from the POV of the Humans in the story.

More recently, the aliens from “Arrival” are very nearly incomprehensible. Based on SF writer Ted Chiang’s short piece, “Story of Your Life”, the aliens in both do not view time as linear but unitive – all at once. It plays with how we perceive time.

One thing I have had trouble understanding is why such a point of view is entirely acceptable when talking about aliens, but entirely UNacceptable when talking about God. I have long believed, along with CS Lewis, that God exists outside of time and sees all time from beginning to end simultaneously. (“Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty…is always the Present for Him… If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.” This is from MERE CHRISTIANITY, chapter 3 “Time and Beyond Time”. Rant over.

I think, in the future, to create alien aliens, I need to stick with changing ONE THING. I tried to do in “Hermit” which morphed into “Cuyuna”. I need to work on this story more because the aliens in it are in a relationship called mutualism (BIOLOGY: symbiosis that is beneficial to both organisms involved). The Pak are immense creatures that dwarf blue whales by several sizes. The Gref are “humanoid” creatures. Both are intelligent, but the Pak are virtually incomprehensible to humanoids of the Unity, where the Gref are understandable – except in their relationship with the Pak.

The Gref live inside of the Pak which moves through space and time without technology – not using ESP or anything we can comprehend, but by manipulating the universe at a quantum string level. (I suppose I cheated there, as well.) The Gref are understandable to us because while they’re “alien”, they’re humanoid, have feelings, and are, more-or-less, Humans with funny makeup wearing weird suits. On the other hand, their relationship with the Pak deserves some work as well…at any rate. Once I take this new insight to “Hermit”, I’ll let you know if I can sell it.

Finally, another story I wrote and have been unable to place, “By Law and Custom”, has a Human and the alien WheetAh, plantimaloids who evolved from Euglena, pitcher plant, Venus flytrap and bamboo-types of ancestors. I’ve only been able to sell one story out of that universe (the Human-WheetAH universe) – perhaps because I haven’t been able to make them comprehensible to a reader…we’ll see how this grows!

So? The answer appears to be that it takes effort to think like an alien. CJ Cherryh’s Atevi, whom I’ve mentioned before, are different ONLY in that they don’t love, but ASSOCIATE. If my WheetAH, for example, are primarily plants and use stellar energy to synthesize sugars, supplementing that with dropping proteins into their “stomach”, how does that change how they perceive their world – and us? Good questions I need to ponder…

References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solaris_(novel), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_of_Your_Life, https://trueandpure.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/c-s-lewis-god-outside-of-time/
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg


Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Schedule Change

I’ve decided to push today’s planned SHOWCASE package back a few days. Nothing bad going on here; I’ve just decided it needs a bit more work before I unleash it. Have a good weekend.

—Bruce Bethke 

Friday, November 12, 2021

"When Good Salad Bars Go Bad" • by Gustavo Bondoni

 



The worst thing about being an apprentice had to be negotiating with the demons. That went double when you summoned them without the master’s permission.

“I get it. You’re angry I woke you. But could you at least stop pushing the ship down while we talk?” Gene said.

The algae monster he’d summoned roared something incomprehensible.

“You’re not supposed to kill everyone, just stop them from eating so much meat.”

Huh? A giant tendril of greenery did a good impersonation of an arm scratching a head.

“Again, I already laid the groundwork. I pretended to go into a trance right there in the steakhouse, and said that a spirit was coming to teach them a lesson. All you needed to do was to show up, grunt a bit, poke a diner with a tendril and disappear. Scare them vegan. No need to sink the ship.”

Grunt. This sound combined a sense of obscenity with a questioning of whether the person talking to it was in possession of all his faculties. A lot of meaning for just one grunt: magical telepathy.

“What will it take to make you stop?”

Grunt, snicker.

“Where the hell am I going to find a virgin? This is a single’s cruise.”

Grunt.

“It’s your problem, too. I won’t release you from the spell. You can’t hurt me while under my command.”

Grunt, grumble.

A large leaf-hand encircled him and placed him carefully on the monster’s shoulder.

From high above the water, Gene watched the ship go under. He’d only been half-serious about changing careers from waiting tables to dark magician. But after killing the crew and passengers of the Sea Spirit, he had little choice.

The monster began the long trudge to shore.

“Are you edible?” Gene asked.

Grunt.

He decided not to risk it.

¤      ¤      ¤


Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Test Site Horror (2020). He has also published two other monster books: Ice Station: Death (2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
 
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
 
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com






stupefy (ˈstü-pə-ˌfī) to stun, astonish, or astound

Available now on Kindle or in print. Coming in December to Nook, Kobo, Apple Books, and all the rest.

On Amazon now ► STUPEFYING STORIES 23

Interface with Stupefying Stories!

kudos and complaints to: feedback@rampantloonmedia.com

Thursday, November 11, 2021

"Bargaining Power" • by Mary Berman

 




The worst thing about being an apprentice had to be negotiating with the demons.
 

Here Tony was, clinging to a hunk of flotsam, saltwater already erasing the bloody pentagram he’d hastily streaked into the wood, the waterlogged bodies of the ship’s crew swirling about, and the demon prince he’d summoned to his rescue said regretfully, “I just don’t think that’s a sufficiently low-level task.”

“I didn’t hire you for a low-level task. If I wanted my laundry done I’d have summoned an imp, not a Prince of Hell.”

“Well... grandiose feats of dark magic grow tedious after a while, you know? Everlasting riches this, three wishes that. So in the past few centuries I’ve switched to menial chores. There’s a bit of novelty in it. You’re sure you haven’t got any laundry?”

“I,” Tony said, “am drowning.”

“Ah, yes. Well, there’s nothing for it. I can’t go back to the big stuff now, or soon everyone will be insisting I construct cities for them and murder their ex-wives and whatnot and then I’ll never hear the end of it. Farewell!” The demon shimmered, abruptly transparent.

“Wait!” Tony shouted. “Listen—there’s no job more menial than that of a magician’s apprentice. You’re always running out at four in the morning to buy more powdered wyvern wing, and getting experimented on until you’re covered in boils, and being shouted at all the while. Plus, there’s all the laundry you could dream of. ”

The demon solidified, its fanged mouth pinched doubtfully. “So?”

“I have an idea.”

¤

A moment later Tony materialized in the center of a pool of lava, perched upon an enormous throne, the saltwater on his skin already evaporating. He grinned and wondered which the demon would find worse—drowning, or apprenticeship.

Tony’s money was on the latter.

¤      ¤      ¤

 

 

Mary Berman is a Philadelphia-based writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Mississippi, and her work has been published in Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. In her spare time, she takes fitness classes and antagonizes her cat. Find her online at www.mtgberman.com

 

 ____________________

 

 


 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Re: Point of View • by Bruce Bethke


This may come as a surprise, but I still study the craft of writing. 

I am… many years old. My work has been published professionally in a wide variety of venues since the 1970s. I have seen my work hit the bestseller lists and be nominated for and win awards for decades.

Yet I still study the craft. In part it’s to understand why I do the things I instinctively choose to do when I write. In part it’s to learn how to write better. Some writers have careers like ballistic missiles: they launch with great initial noise and excitement and then are content to coast along on a parabolic trajectory, repeating their crowd-pleasing shticks and tricks for as long as they can, until at the ends their careers they come crashing down and leave nothing but a smoking crater with bits of wreckage scattered all about.

Me, I’m always hoping to take my writing up to the next level. 

One thing I have struggled with in my own stories is the point of view. I have written and sold stories in both first-person and third-person p.o.v.—and second-person, too, come to think of it—but my most natural storytelling voice is first-person. I attribute this to my storytelling method. When I tell a story, I’m not me, telling the story in my voice. I’m performing a character, and telling the story in his voice.

While this seems to work for me—I’ve sold and seen published most of the stories I’ve written this way—I also feel this is a limitation. Most really successful fiction is written in third-person, and something I read recently suggested the reason for this. When you read a story written in first-person, one of the all-time great factors contributing to plot tension is removed from the equation. With first-person, you know the p.o.v. character survives to the end. The story then becomes about the p.o.v. character’s interaction with someone else, which immediately puts the reader two steps removed from any possible source of really strong emotional engagement.

Does this matter? The book I was reading suggested a test. Take a scene you’ve written in first-person and rewrite it in third-person (and in past tense, if needed). Then compare the two versions and ask yourself, as a reader, which scene has more energy?

For this exercise, I intentionally chose the opening scene from one of the most languid stories I’ve ever written, “Life in a Drop of Pond Water.” The original version and the rewrite follow. 

______________________

Original:

Shafts of long afternoon sunlight spear through the water, illuminating my world with a thousand delicate shades of green and amber. A school of gambusias glide past, oblivious to my presence, and shatter the sunlight into a glorious blizzard of mirror shards and sparkles. Floating just beneath the surface, I patiently wait for the minnows to leave, then return my watchful gaze to my tribe, as they browse among the sweet hyacinths and follow the weedy contours down into the safe, dark depths. My smiling face, the fixed expression of our kind, hides the scheming mind of a worried patriarch.

It does not help that my mind is haunted by distant and surreal memories of life on the land.

With no sense of urgency, I feel the need to breathe again and give my flukes a twitch. Face breaks surface: I draw deep, rasping breaths, the sunlight blinding my eyes, the raw air burning the delicate linings of my nostrils. Each time I break surface I hope that this is the time my instincts will drive me to submerge. And each time, I linger.

For here, at the surface, I can almost believe that I was once a human. For a few precious minutes, I can shrug aside the worries of a people and consider the colossal arrogance of one Dr. Eugene Meier, Professor of Mammalian Recombinetics, who so loved his creatures that he took their form upon himself and went down among them. And yet, not fully trusting his handiwork, he held back his truest self: When the memories get too strong, I must force myself to admit that I am not Eugene Meier and I have never been human. I am a thing of his construction: a modified manatee whose skull is threaded through with wires, filaments, and electronic pieces; a unique, living mind enslaved by his personality software construct. At some deep, primal level, I still remember life as an innocent beast, and I resent the fear and doubt that he has burned into my mind.

Still, if it did not augur such great danger for my people, I would find it amusing that the human who shares my memories now walks the shores of this pond, observing us and noting the details he wants to change in the next generation…

______________________


Rewrite:

Shafts of long afternoon sunlight speared through the water, illuminating Eugene’s world with a thousand delicate shades of green and amber. A school of gambusias flowed past, oblivious to his presence, and shattered the sunlight into a glorious blizzard of mirror shards and sparkles. Floating just beneath the surface, Eugene waited patiently for the minnows to leave, then returned his watchful gaze to his tribe, as they browsed among the sweet hyacinths and followed the weedy contours down into the safe, dark depths. His smiling face, the fixed expression of his kind, hid the scheming mind of a worried patriarch.

It did not help that his mind was haunted by distant and surreal memories of life on the land.

With no sense of urgency, Eugene felt the need to breathe again and gave his flukes a twitch. His face broke the surface: he drew deep, rasping breaths, the sunlight blinding his eyes, the raw air burning the delicate linings of his nostrils. Each time he broke the surface he hoped that this would be the time his instincts drove him to submerge. And each time, he lingered.

For here, at the surface, he could almost believe he was once human. For a few precious minutes, he could shrug aside the worries of a people and consider the colossal arrogance of one Dr. Eugene Meier, Professor of Mammalian Recombinetics, who so loved his creatures that he took their form upon himself and went down among them—and yet, not fully trusting his handiwork, he’d held back his truest self. When the memories got too strong Eugene forced himself to admit that he was not Dr. Meier and had never been human. He was a thing of Dr. Meier’s construction: a modified manatee whose skull was threaded through with wires, filaments, and electronic pieces; a unique, living mind enslaved by Dr. Meier’s personality software construct. At some deep, primal level, he still remembered life as an innocent beast, and he resented the fear and doubt that Dr. Meier had burned into his mind.

Still, if it did not augur such great danger for his people, Eugene would have found it amusing that the human who shared his memories now walked the shores of this pond, observing his creations and noting the details he wanted to change in the next generation…

______________________

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Does the change from first-person present-tense to third-person past-tense improve the flow of the story?

  2. Does the stronger differentiation between Eugene and Dr. Meier foreshadow a possible conflict between the two? Does it increase the sense of potential risk to Eugene?

  3. If you were reading this in print and the last paragraph fell at the bottom of the page, which version makes you more interested in turning the page to find out what happens next? 

Submitted for your consideration,
~brb

"Out With the Old" • by Eric Fomley

 


 


The process server I’d been dodging for months spotted me. I was taking the old boat out when I saw the sniveling little ‘bot coming down the pier. 

I gunned it.

“Oh,” he said to me over my HUD. “Running from a legal entity on a boat. Brilliant plan, sir.” 

I ignored him. 

When I looked back, the server ‘bot flashed some documentation to another boat owner who let him climb on board and take off after me.

“Damn it.” If he caught up with me… I thrust the throttle forward and the front end of my boat rose out of the water.

“You should slow down, sir. At this speed it’s nearly impossible to make course corrections.”

As if on cue, I wrecked on something hard. There was a loud crunch and I was in the air, plunging into the harbor. I surfaced and gasped, treading water. 

My boat sank, the back half barely propped up by whatever rocks I’d hit. The process server’s boat drifted past the wreckage, coming to a relative stop in front of me.

I squinted when I looked up. The ‘bot’s dull, yellow eyes peered overboard at me. 

“I told you to slow down,'' it said, as it opened its chest and produced a 3D printed waterproof box. It shuffled some paperwork inside and handed the box to me. 

“You have been served.”

I reached for it but let it drop into the water beside me. I didn’t need to look inside to see the divorce decree. It was over. 

My boat pitched, dislodging from whatever rock it was on, and disappeared into the harbor. The boat was all I had left of her, of us.

I guess it was time for a new one.

¤     ¤     ¤



Eric Fomley’s
work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, Flame Tree Press, and The Black Library. You can read more of his work on his website at https://ericfomley.com or buy him a coffee in exchange for a story at https://ko-fi.com/ericfomley.






Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 4: Speculative Biology and What It Mean To Be “Human”

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.
Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.
After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...


My current work-in-progress (wip) and a couple I just finished deal specifically with speculative biology. The wip looks at the possibility that there are only two sapient civilizations in our part of the galaxy – Humans (which we know about) who are animals (some more so than others…) and the WheetAH who are “plantimal aliens” who are best described as “short, needle-less, barrel cactus-shape” crossed with mobile extraterrestrial plants distantly related to Euglena, Volvox, pea aphids, green sea slugs, and spotted salamanders. Obviously, they also have vastly different ways of viewing the universe and card-carrying members of the Plant Kingdom. I call this the WheetAh-Human Universe.

A story I just finished will eventually have Humans joining (as provisional sapients, currently) a Unity of Sapients. Some of the aliens I’ve invented: “*ting* – planet bound, crystalline lifeform that communicates by phased radio pulses.”; “Benkaithanintanis – a space-living, asteroid-sized intelligence”; “Field-of-Dreams – a semi-autonomous intelligent plant/amoeba that occupies thousands of hectares on its home world and colonies. It communicates through chemically induced dreams.”; “Kifush – they’re some sort of disconnected intelligence, ‘system non-integrated colonial arthropod’. A monstrous pill bug holding the leashes of smaller pill bugs of various sizes.”; “Leviathan – ocean-going “eel” that communicates entirely by taste.”; “Pak/Gref – primate-descended mobile, sensory/cognition invasive Gref “units” of a massive ocean-born “worm”, the Pak.”; “Ybraith – neon Nautiluses suspended from balloons”; and the “Zham Woyi – Queen mother is giant sea star with square limbs studded with crystalline prisms that refracted light and trailing a parachute, made of lead and leaded crystal.”

I haven’t worked out all of the biology yet (I have it for the Pak/Gref, the Benkaithanintanis, as well as the WheetAh, and the Shabe, giant kangaroo-octopus-like intelligences), but I’ve got several of them sketched out.

The last is Confluence versus Empire which is currently confined to exploring one planet, a puffy Jupiter called River. I sometimes refer to this as the River Universe.

On River, there are no aliens, but Humans have split into two factions that coalesced into civilizations. In the Confluence of Humanity, genetic engineering is practiced to the edges of possibility. ANYTHING is legal and manipulation of the Human genome has created people capable of living anywhere that flesh and blood might be stretched to fit.

The Empire of Man has laws that all boil down to one essential paradigm – anyone who is less than sixty-five percent Original Human DNA is “not human” and without rights. Time has eroded the sharpest edges of that law. People who are slightly less than 65% can get an education, own property, and have a few other civil rights, but in essence, they are not truly Human. The Imperial Family maintains its Original Human DNA at 95%. DNA stored from the early 21st Century Human Genome Project, is the Imperial Standard (some modifications for health and life extension purposes are permitted.)

So, those are the three Universes I write in. All three have challenges and are fun to work in. I’ve had stories from all three published at one time or another, so my work is at least somewhat believable.

One last thing, in creating alien aliens, I’m not sure I ONLY mean aliens who are obvious. In my reading, I’ve found that by changing a single paradigm, you end up with people who are, by all appearances and most behavior, entirely Human. However, their underlying beliefs and behaviors are as alien to me as say, James Cambias’ lobster-like, intelligent Ilmatarans. Miles Vorkosigan’s world appears “normal” to us, but the underlying assumption, that children produced via something called a “uterine replicator” are totally normal…and makes for alien (and entertaining!) thinking.

In future posts, I’ll go into details for my WheetAH, one or two the Unity aliens, and a few of the Humans of the Confluence of Humanity. The question I ask myself every time I create a conflict or alliance between these sapients is: “Is being Human a matter of strict biology, no matter how speculative – or is ‘Human’ more a reflection of thoughts, words, and deeds?”

Later…

Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg



Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp. Image 2: https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-LMDzvjLGeFc/YHZYisLAdoI/AAAAAAAADy4/J87G7XZ0qOghNNnFxFlyeeKsjmsgxaMVACLcBGAsYHQ/w150-h200/164054184_900009080544732_2810066332651630100_n.jpg