Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Combat Robot Tale

Playing a computer game in which you can perform upgrades on space military hardware and fight other space empires with them--Galactic Civilizations, quite an old game--inspired a new story idea for me.

Imagine an old robot, designed for combat, intelligent, assigned the inglorious task of guarding the home planet--which feeling resonates with how I felt during Desert Storm, when I was an enlisted military medical technician in a hospital unit that essentially got held in reserve and did only a little to contribute to the war effort.  This imaginary robot would feel like I did, burning with a desire to contribute to the war, eager to show his worth.

The robot gets his chance when his model is discontinued.  Since spare parts will no longer kept for him...er, it...this robot will no longer be maintained for guard duty and instead is sent to the front lines to make room for newer models, with the expectation that even though this robot is too obsolete to contribute much, sending it to the front will be of somewhat more help in an ongoing interstellar war than the scrap heap would be.  Though the expectation of military command is that this decision basically amounts to the same thing as junking the robot...

But our protagonist finds something unique and unexpected about itself that allows it to thrive under horrible circumstances.  The robot is so successful, in fact, that its design type is reinstated and it goes on to win the satisfaction of a job well done and the approval of its fellow robots and its human designer.

This idea strikes me as potentially resonating with spiritual realities of redemption and worth, depending on how it would be approached.  The story concept specifically reminds me of Psalm 118:22-23 (KJV):  "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD'S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes."

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A New Kind of Vampire

This post will get a little gruesome.  If reading about anatomical details in the context of a vampire consuming human beings makes you sick, please stop reading.

Today in my pre-deployment training, in a class called "Combat Lifesaver's Course," our medic instructor mentioned in his medical training that cerebrospinal fluid is sweet.  He wondered out loud why he had been told that in training, as he were going to taste it--something he'd never do.

And at that moment launched in me an idea for story vampires that perhaps constitutes something altogether new.  Imagine a vampire that has no interest in sucking blood, but longs for cerebrospinal fluid.

Cerebrospinal fluid (a.k.a. CSF) is, by the way, the clear or slightly greenish fluid that bathes the brain and spinal column, providing protection and nourishment.  When it leaks from the ears or nose, it's an indicator of a serious skull fracture, which is why we were discussing it our class.

If CSF really is  sweet, it's possible that a garden-variety vampire would like to have it for desert after feasting on blood.  Or might simply like the taste.  But the idea that passed through my mind was a whole new kind of vampire, with massive jaws with sharply incised teeth like a rat, the teeth containing a hollow tube within them, making a sort of drinking straw inside, in this way like conventional vampire fangs.  This creature would pinch a human head in its inhumanly wide jaws and compress with enough force to puncture a hole in the skull (it need not necessarily be a big hole).  Then, of course, it would suck out the CSF.

Not the sort of creature you'd see featured in Eclipse  for certain, but not necessarily a creature any more sinister than the way vampires are typically portrayed nowadays.  Though I do think this idea would naturally tend to bring back the original idea of a vampire, which was that of a terrifying creature that no sane human would want to have any dealings with.

I realized after I started writing this that you could do something similar with any human bodily fluid, though this could get quite bizarre.  I mean, wouldn't a lymphatic-fluid-sucking-vampire be anything but  scary?  Though the thought of a bone marrow sucker gives me a chill.  As would a bile drinker.

These variations on vampirism could still be called vampires, I suppose.  Or they could be given entirely different names.  Any proposals?

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Alien Prison Tale

I'm at Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing for yet another deployment with the Army Reserve.  Fort Dix has a Federal Penitentiary on its grounds and in the process of moving from one point to another on my first day here, I found I had accidentally wandered up a service road for the prison.

I was surrounded by barracks buildings much like the rest of Fort Dix but encircled by tall fences topped by concertina wire.  A voice blared over a loudspeaker in a rumble of words I could barely understand, but eventually said something about "Last call for chow line."  I realized with a shock that I wasn't near  the prison as I first thought, but actually on  the grounds of the penitentiary (please note that tall fences and concertina wire is all it seemed to take to transform Army barracks into prison barracks).  With further horror, I realized the people I'd seen working out in a ball field I'd passed, who wore gray uniforms I first had thought must be some kind of new military uniform, were wearing prison  uniforms.

I propelled myself out of that area at a fast walk, briefly seized not only by the shock of realization but also by the unreasonable fear that I'd be thrown in the Federal pen for transgressing its grounds.  At most, of course, I would have been chewed out for being someplace I wasn't supposed to be.

But as I walked, my mind generated a science fiction story out of the experience.  I imagined a human military liaison officer appointed to an alien world, a world where he does not speak the dominant language, who decides to stroll on his own to perhaps a park in the alien capital.  Finding he failed to correctly read the map-made-by-non-human-hands in front of him, he realizes with horror he has wandered onto the grounds of an alien prison.  And unlike me, when the guards see him, they grab him and throw him inside.

As the story progresses, the only human in the prison manages to survive and gradually learns to do better than bare survival, finding a fellow prisoner with whom he shares a language in common...but also, one of the guards shows signs of understanding him, though never openly saying so.  He eventually comes to understand his capture was no accident, but part of a nefarious plot to imprison the Earth ambassador, a plot he has to escape from prison to undo...

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Martian Gold Rush

How about a story showing a gold rush on a near-future colony of Mars?

Terri Main publishes a paper called "Science news for Sci-Fi writers," in which today I saw a link leading to an article from Io9 that shows a photo I'm including below:



This photo shows dry ice pits common in the southern hemisphere of Mars, a planet cold enough to fill these pits every Martian-southern-hemisphere-winter with frozen solid carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere. Every summer, some of the frozen CO2 (a.k.a. dry ice) melts away, revealing these pits with curious shiny gold rims. (For scale, the small one in the center is about 200 feet across.)

It so happens that as of now, no Earthly scientist knows what the causes the gold-coloring around these pits.  What if it so happens that it's actual gold, that the process of forming and sublimating dry ice somehow brings subsoil gold up to the surface and deposits it along the rims of these pits?

If it should happen in the near future that human astronauts walk on Mars, something very technologically possible, the southern ice cap is about the last place they'll want to travel, due to a high elevation there that preserves a cold which by comparison makes Antarctica seem like cool summer day.  But what if humans actually establish a settlement on Mars elsewhere and eventually someone gets around to exploring the southern icecap, and finds all this gold?

Martian settlers will first, of course, be interested in getting oxygen, food, water, and staying warm, but historically speaking, the quest for gold has had an fascinating effect on people.  The settlers of Jamestown were far more interested in finding gold than planting food crops, a collective decision that led to the starvation of many of them.

Imagine human beings on Mars driven by goldlust, in fierce competition fighting it out in a place they can barely survive. for nothing more than lumps of cold precious metal...

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The four faces around the throne of God--faces of aliens?

The title of this post was meant to be attention-grabbing.  Bear with me, please.

The book of Revelation talks about four beasts around the throne of God, one with the face of a man, one like an eagle, one like a cow, one like a lion (Rev 4:6-8).  These same creatures are also mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, notably in Isaiah 6, where they are called "Seraphim," which is Hebrew for "burning ones."  Ezekiel 1 gives more description of these angels, stating that each one of the four creatures has four faces, each face pointing one of four directions, like the cardinal directions of the compass.

Please note that I'm not maintaining these four creatures designated for special service of God are anything but angels.  They seem to constitute a special type of angel, naturally, but I hold to the Biblically orthodox view that they were directly created by God, just as all the other heavenly beings in God's service were created.  I don't hold the (nutty, IMHO) view that Ezekiel 1 describes a UFO coming to Earth with alien creatures on board.  I don't believe alien intervention is in any way required to explain events of the past, including the events of the Bible.

But still...it's not surprising at all that one of the faces is human, right?  Human beings are created "in the image of God," whatever that means exactly (I think it points to a spiritual truth rather than a physical one).  Human beings are the focus the story of the Bible:  the creation on the sixth day, the fall into sin, God showing Himself as one of us in the form of Jesus, human beings featured surrounding the throne of God in heaven after the end of this age.

So where do the other three faces come from?  Clearly these are creations of God as much as mankind is, but what is particularly special about lions, eagles, and cattle?  Why not bears, doves, and sheep?  The answer most theologians give rests in symbolism.  The four faces stand for four somethings, perhaps the four gospels.  Each face represents some aspect of truth. 

Certainly this is possible.  Even though I believe the Seraphim really exist, God could have chosen the faces for this unusual creation of His for symbolic purposes.  But I would feel better about this interpretation, if all  the faces were animals.  But one face is human and human beings are not primarily a symbol of anything.  Humans exist because God created them to.  They surround the throne of God because He wants them to be there, rejoicing in everlasting fellowship with Him.

What if God created other beings like us, that is, spiritually  in His image, needing redemption, or perhaps having never fallen into sin?  Creatures capable of understanding Him, intelligent in the same way human beings are?  These creatures could possibly inhabit other planets in our universe, or altogether different universes.  Technically such creatures would be aliens, though I don't mean the term "alien" as it is usually used in science fiction--to describe beings imagined to have been created elsewhere by random evolution.

What if a story featured a future humanity with interstellar space travel, who voyage out in search of intelligent alien life, only to discover a sum total of three other intelligent species?  And one such species have faces like cattle, one like lions, and one like eagles?  And all of them have stories of creation, fall into sin, and redemption running parallel with humanity's story recorded in the Bible?

It'd make an interesting story setting, at the very least...

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Angels in Other Dimensions

This past year while I was deployed to Afghanistan, I ran into a copy of Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, a book designed to explain issues in modern Physics in layman's terms.  It was worth reading, not just because it inspired a few story ideas in my mind.

In discussing string theory, a hypothetical attempt to combine all forces of energy and types of matter into a common theory which imagines the universe to be composed of various types of vibrating strings, Dr. Greene revealed that this theory cannot possibly work unless there are dimensions beyond length, width, height, and time.  Most versions of string theory (there are many versions) imagine at least ten dimensions, where the other dimensions are so tiny we can't perceive them.

I've seen this compared to looking at a garden hose from a distance.  From a distance, a hose looks looks like it only contains one dimension, length.  Up close, of course, it has width and depth as well, and has surfaces contained both on the exterior and interior of the hose.  Up close, it's far more complicated than from a distance.  Likewise, it is theorized that our real world has multiple dimensions that are invisible because they are very tiny, wrapped up around themselves, too small for humans to perceive even with powerful microscopes.

A subset of string theory that I'm not even going to attempt to explain in any detail here, called "braneworld" or "brane cosmology," imagines the dimensions are not necessarily smaller, but that the entire universe as we know it is trapped within a subset of four dimensions and that all the light and other forces that gives us information about our world are trapped in the same four we inhabit, with the possible exception of gravity.  In this theory we would possibly be surrounded by other dimensions on a scale we could  see, but the light that gives information to our eyes simply does not enter these other dimensions.  This subset of modern physics makes it possible that we are surrounded by an invisible world of measures beyond length, width, height, and time.  This made me think of the spiritual world.

Perhaps the world of angels and demons inhabits these other dimensions.  Please note that while the "braneworld" idea imagines we would be unable to perceive other dimensions, the reverse would not be true.  From the higher dimensions looking down, our world would not at all be invisible.  If angels and demons inhabited the other dimensions of braneworld theory, they could be literally right next to us and able to see us, but we would not be able to see them.

Whether true or not, it would be great for a Christian Fiction story to be written from this point of view.  Someone should write a tale showing understanding of branes and string theory, showing how the spiritual world surrounding us is compatible with these ideas of what could be real in modern physics, portraying our world existing in full view of these other dimensions invisible to us, prodding skeptics doubting the existence of God to reconsider a belief that's consistent with the latest speculations of Science. 

And it just might make a very interesting story setting...

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Elmer Quincy, waste trader

An exotic setting or technology is usually the first thing that crosses my mind when I have a new story idea, which I populate with characters after the fact.  But today a character popped into my head and the setting followed afterward.

Elmer Quincy inhabits a future world where interstellar commerce is common, as is contact with alien races.  Under the principle of "one man's trash is another man's treasure," Quincy makes his living collecting biological waste and trash from certain alien cultures and trading them to others.

Dirty in every sense of the word (physically I imagine him obese, in stained and greasy overalls, with a stubbly face; in business I imagine him a tough haggler and quick to make a profit even when not strictly legal), he distinguishes himself by what he refuses to do:  join a criminal syndicate involved in alien slave smuggling.  Disliked by the law, pursued by criminals trying to kill him, perhaps befriended by an odd religious sect, Quincy becomes an unlikely hero and slave liberator.

I really like this story idea, but as my queue of stories I want to write is already rather long, this one is up for grabs...

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rotifer Beast

I once began to write a story from the point of view of single-celled organisms, several years ago.  I imagined parameciums as intelligent and conceived a story about three paramecium knights who had to fight a horrifying beast.

The beast I picked was a rotifer, something I'd seen in a high school biology class, under a slide that was supposed to show paramecium cells.  My biology teacher speculated the rotifer I saw had eaten all the parameciums that were supposed to be there.  Which proved to be the spark for a story idea that came up years later...

In the story I gave the knights three personalities and accents: one French, one Spanish, one German.  My intent was to have all of them fail in their quest, only to be rescued by a "simpler" cell--the equivalent of a shepherd boy in the single-celled world I imagined...

The story wasn't working right, plus it started seeming weirder than anyone other than me would probably enjoy, so I abandoned it.  Though it does float around in the back of my mind from time to time that I might finish it in another form.

Anyway, today I ran into a news link showing a picture and a bit of video of a rotifer that reminded me of why this particular microscopic creature inspired me so much.  Imagine yourself smaller than such a thing--it would be utterly terrifying.

Posted here now with the intent of inspiring new stories from others...or maybe from myself...

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fantasy Park

Jurassic Park imagined a fictional scientific method to bring dinosaurs back to life, for the purpose of inhabiting a for-profit amusement park.

You could imagine the same sort of thing with a "Fantasy Park"--genetic engineering being used to deliberately create dinosaurs, griffins, ents, trolls, and other fantasy creatures of all kinds, specifically for a for-profit park.  Humans on salary could, via surgery or genetic engineering, volunteer to take roles as demi-human elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.

This story could be written as a minor variation on Jurassic Park itself:  Several experts visit the park before opening with some innocent children along for the ride, everything goes horribly wrong as fantasy creatures escape because somehow they're too real and too malevolent to ever be caged in.  I would rate that a fairly interesting story plot, even though an obvious copy.  I'd actually prefer something more original, though.

An improvement would be to make the fantasy creatures somehow real, though still through the power of science.  Perhaps the park designers could use a Stargate-style technological portal into other worlds for the purpose of drawing real creatures from alternate universes with characteristics strikingly like those of realms of fantasy. Them getting out of control could be a simple matter of the creatures not only being real, their magic  proves to be real, too--even in our non-magical world.  Caging real dragons in a park would quite naturally get out of control...

I think a more original variation on the scientific portal idea would be that messing with inter-universe technology opens a doorway into a specific alternate universe, one inhabited by creatures significantly similar to what you'd see in Lord of the Rings.  So in this case, a "Fantasy Park" story would be like going out on safari.  You pay the (hefty) price, get equipped with swords and gear, and going along with a guide carrying a few technological gizmos in case things get out of hand, you go hunting orcs or whatnot.  Responsible people in the fantasy world would soon find out about the inter-universal tourism and either would support or oppose it.

After a long time of this I can imagine a cross-cultural contamination going on--so that industries and goods from our world leak into the world of fantasy.  I find interesting a "Fantasy Park" in which fantasy creatures from an alternate universe are thoroughly drenched in our culture.  Imagine a dwarf tour guide in traditional gear, leading a group through a historic battlefield between orcs and dwarves, stopping to answer his buzzing cell phone ("Just a moment, folks.  I need to take this one.").  Elves take up surfing and eat at McDonald's, somewhat like Kat Heckenbach's story "Dude" in the anthology Aquasynthesis (which happens to contain three of my stories also!).  Trolls have a hankering for KFC, bones and all...people visiting the park see it as a sham but enjoy it anyway--except for young children, of course, for whom everything is real.  A story plot could revolve around a malevolent spirit, thought to be long vanquished, working behind the scenes in the park...

Of all the possible story settings I just proposed, the one just above appeals to me the most.  But I've imagined another sort of "Fantasy Park," one created in the world of the fantastic creatures itself.  A wizard assembles a group of creatures, creating a park, then opens a magic doorway into our world and takes tourists into his universe.  For the proper price.  Imagine such a wizard mysteriously interested in something particularly sinister from our world, such as robot drones or plutonium.  Or anthrax cultures...

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Monday, October 24, 2011

The Crystal Portal vs. Wizard of Oz, stories in contrast

Yesterday I had a book signing event for my novel, The Crystal Portal.  At one point a church friend (Larry Schmetzer) asked me what the story basically was about.  I found myself struggling to answer concisely.

I suppose that's because the words for my story flowed more from my subconscious self than my planning mind.  I created characters and a setting and to a certain extent let them interact according to the natures I gave them and voila--a story formed.  While I did have certain specific plot events in mind when I started writing, events I steered the characters toward, I did not know what the story would wind up becoming when I first began to write it.

I hadn't begun with a full understanding of the reasons I wrote what I did, nor had I after writing completely analyzed the tale in order to sum it up quickly.  I'm trying to fix that here.

You see, of familiar stories, my story is most like The Wizard of Oz.  In that classic tale, four main characters are united in a common quest to find the wizard because each of them perceive there is something wrong with himself or herself.  The lion seeks courage; the tin woodsman emotion; the scarecrow intelligence; Dorothy wants to go home.  Through their voyage, they are opposed by the Wicked Witch, who seems unbeatable more than once in the story.

But in the end the Wicked Witch is a sham, defeated by a bucket of water.  The real enemy of the characters in The Wizard of Oz is self-doubt, or as President Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing to fear, is fear itself."  The lion really can  be courageous; the woodman already has a big heart; the scarecrow is full of wisdom; Dorothy can easily go home.  "Believe in yourself and your troubles will evaporate," says the story in a feel-good, humanistic message, one that is profoundly secular but is innocent enough that no one really argues against it.

In The Crystal Portal, four main characters are likewise united in a common quest because of something wrong with each of them.  But in sharp contrast to Oz, my characters really do  have something going wrong--it's not in their heads, a shot of self-confidence will not cure them.  Injustice strikes at each of them, challenging their happiness in a way that won't be dispelled by clicking heels together three times and saying, "There's no place like home."

The source of the injustice rests mainly in the villain, Sargon of Balal.  Sargon is no sham of an enemy; he openly challenges God's justice and seeks to replace God as the ruler of the universe.  He delights in humiliating and inflicting suffering on the heroes, but ultimately seeks to have his way first and always, caring more about his own glorification than anything else.  Elements of his character resonate with all three of the Biblical enemies of the Christian, the world, the flesh, and the devil; but of the three he is more Flesh than anything.  He is self-will, scheming to control, hungry to feed the basest impulses.  He attempts to bring two of the four characters (Lehkahn and 9.06) over to his side by overriding their willpower in their moments of weakness.

The other two characters, Zachariah and Princess Agata, suffer hardship outside of what Sargon deals out, so the suffering of the story goes beyond Sargon and his plans.  To triumph, the characters in my story must endure hardship without giving in to despair--this resonates with the quest of the characters in Oz, but is also profoundly different, because while fear is an enemy, it is by no means the only thing to fear.   Three of my heroes openly pray for God's help and all are delivered  by a force operating outside of self:  Zachariah by following Yeshua's commands, by not giving in to fear, puts himself in the place where the providential actions of others will save him. Agata and Lehkahn by facing their fears likewise are rescued by the providential actions of other characters--the hand of God not directly revealed, but strongly implied.  9.06 is rescued from subservience to Sargon by his internal programming--his conscience--which drives him to protect Zachariah.  The message of my story could be summarized as, "Don't give into despair and God will deliver you."

In the end of The Wizard of Oz, all of the characters find resolution for their struggles.  Dorothy regrets leaving Oz in part because she found it beautiful but mainly because she will miss her companions in her quest--only to discover that she has a similar companionship waiting for her at home.

At the end of The Crystal Portal, all the characters find a measure of rest and restoration, but the quest is not yet over, since Sargon has yet to be brought to justice.  And three of the characters are permanently scarred by the battles they fought.  This is completely unlike the ending of Oz, as is the message and tenor of the story as a whole, which is as deeply Christian as The Wizard of Oz was secular.

Ugh.  I just realized what I wrote above still doesn't qualify as a quick summary.  But it's closer I suppose.  I shouldn't despair...

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Carb Loading for Superheroes--Comic Book Sci Fi and Fantasy Physics

Superheroes are often viewed as a subset of science fiction.  I'd say they're more fantasy, because the ordinary laws of physics that limit you and me usually get ignored in superhero stories.

Take the Law of Conservation of Matter--when Bruce Banner transforms into the Incredible Hulk, the cells of his body are supposed to expand to a massive size as he becomes the giant green monster.  The problem is that according to conservation of matter, he'd have the same amount of total mass in his body even as his cells expanded--the Hulk would then weigh the same as Banner himself, though being a lot bigger, his density would have to be significantly lower.  If Conservation of Matter were obeyed, the Hulk's physique be a lot more like the Stay Puft Marshmellowman's than like, well, the Hulk...

You can see I take the fundamental distinction between science fiction and fantasy as resting in attempting to obey the known physical laws of the universe.  Sci fi to be properly so called tries to obey the laws of physics, while fantasy throws them to the winds.  You could create a sort of science fiction Hulk, but you'd have to have propose something similar to a kind of interdimensional shift where matter existing in the (currently hypothetical) extra dimensions of string theory somehow is pulled into the Hulk's body.  That would maybe give the story different flavor--perhaps Banner would have to be portrayed as a physicist working at particle accelerator which somehow blows a rift between dimensions--or perhaps into another universe--an expanding universe of rage.

Usually I can accept a superhero story for what it is, though inconsistencies within a story bother me.  So when Superman flies around at will, has raybeam eyes, and is vulnerable to very little except kryptonite, I see story elements that essentially hang together as pure superhero fantasy.  Superman is almost like a god from a Pagan myth--he is powerful just because he is; physics simply don't apply.  Iron Man, on the other hand, is supposedly a creature of real technology, so his scientific contradictions bother me if I allow myself to dwell on them.  For example, he flies by jet power from his feet, right?  This is an ordinary technology of course, which maybe could really work in a powered suit--but jet power burns a lot  of fuel.  The F18 carries something like 13,000 pounds of it to be able to fly around.  "Where does Tony Stark have room in his suit to carry all the fuel?" I ask myself.  To fly for more than a few seconds he'd need at least a couple tons  worth...  But then I try to forget about that (and other contradictions) and get back to the story.

Batman and Spiderman are a lot closer than the average superhero to falling in line with science fiction proper (though "average superhero" has to be an oxymoron, right?).  Both are mere mortals that perform acrobatic feats not unlike what an Olympic gymnast does.  The problem is the gymnasts make their incredible leaps and jumps for a few minutes at most at a time and even then you see them trying to hold back serious huffing and puffing while the judges determine their scores.  And these, my friends, are the very best human athletes in the world.  

The fact is that Batman and Spiderman both routinely perform feats of extreme physical prowess for a longer time than any real human being has ever performed them.  We could wash our hands of them for science fiction purposes and simply enjoy the characters as sheer fantasy, but that not necessary.  Spiderman, after all, has a pseudoscientific explanation for his physical prowess--being bit by what at first was a radioactive and in later stories a bioengineered spider.  The spider changed his metabolism, so he is no longer a normal human, the story goes, which isn't unscientific per se.  It's certainly possible in theory to increase the ability of human muscles to process energy and to exceed current output.

But consider this--if Spiderman has super-efficient muscles and a body energy system capable of outdoing the best gymnast in the world, the Law of Conservation of Energy still requires him to put enough energy into his body to fuel his powerful body organs.  If Michael Phelps the Olympic swimmer consumes some 12,000 calories a day in training (a lot of this energy goes to keeping his body warm in the pool, by the way), imagine what Spiderman leaping from building to building for hours at a time would need to consume.  At least  twelve thousand calories a day, right?  Maybe much more.  Certainly far more than the standard 2,000 calorie a day diet.

For Batman to keep up it wouldn't be enough for him to have hardcore martial arts training and oodles of technological gizmos.  He'd also need to bioengineer his body to be able to outperform mere mortals, something Bruce Wayne could easily afford.  But like Spiderman, his caloric intake would have to be pretty huge to engage in the epic fights and leaping acrobatics he does every night.   To fuel himself, he'd have to do some serious carb loading before going out into the evening--imagine Alfred serving him a two-foot high heap of spaghetti--on a silver platter, naturally.

Batman and Spiderman are not my creations, so of course my notions of physics aren't going to change these characters.  But imagine creating a new superhero, similar to them, who has been bioengineered by his own scientific work or others, with enough technological gadgets to enhance his abilities.  And then imagine a story condition in which he (or she) is always  hungry, continually struggling to find enough time to get down all the calories he or she needs to face the next fight, continually a Snickers bar, a protein power bar, or a banana in hand.

That would add an interesting dimension to a character, wouldn't it?  The poor superhero, trying to scrape up enough money for a shopping cart load of pasta every few days?  And by the way, it so happens you'd have crafted a genuine science fiction superhero...

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Monday, October 17, 2011

A Reaction to "The Walking Dead"--Where is the military?

In the two months of this blog I've talked more about zombies than anything else.  You might think that resulted from me having seen the current cable TV series on zombies, AMC's "The Walking Dead." But in fact I hadn't watched it until this past week.

Having seen the series now, which by the way does show zombies eating about anything they can get their hands on, including wild animals (which seem immune to the disease), I'm asking myself what should be an obvious question:  Where is the military in all this?

The show is set in the Atlanta region and more than once shows a single abandoned tank in a defensive position, apparently having been overrun by zombies.  Hey, I recognize this is just a story with a certain defined premise and is more interested in looking at the human characters going through the zombie apocalypse than the zombies themselves, but I found the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any story severely strained by seeing an tank abandoned due to a zombie attack.  I mean, really?  Seriously?  Look, even if you ran out of ammo, all you need is diesel fuel and a tank is the ultimate zombie-killing machine.  Maybe a car might be overwhelmed with walking dead bodies pushing on it, especially at a slow speed.  But an M1 tank?  You'd plow through the living corpses like a tractor through ears of corn.

So this brought to mind a new type of zombie story, one yet untold as far as I know:  From the point of view of the military.  I admit that ordinary citizens facing horror in some ways is inherently more interesting, but a zombie hunting military unit with a large chunk of equipment still intact would have a different kind of vibe to it and still would have the potential to be a powerful story.

This would be especially true if the story abandoned the standard, "You have to be bitten by a zombie to become one yourself" mantra, which "The Walking Dead" upholds.  In the military story I propose, perhaps even a tiny splattered drop could spread the blood-borne pathogen.  The unit would therefore face far more cases of their own turning into the bad guys than standard zombie fare.  That coupled with a bit of heightening the intelligence of zombies, enough to allow them to operate weapons and equipment, albeit rather robotically, and you have an altogether different kind of story, one in some ways more like the apocalyptic world of the Terminator movies than what we would recognize as a zombie film.

In this sort of story, a character struggle could resonate along an axis of what to do about the zombies?  Shall we kill them all?  Or should we look for a cure?

I'd steer a story along the lines of a cure being possible but difficult.  Good people in the military unit would be willing to undergo the hardships required to bring back those that seem hopelessly lost, while the more sinister figures would be drawn toward "Let's just kill them all."

I see that sort of axis as having a spiritual application--is it better to destroy our enemies, or to loving bring them over to our side?  Please note which of the two options is easier...

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien Counterinsurgency Stories

A story setting in which aliens invade planet Earth much as the United States invaded Iraq or Afghanistan is hardly ironic in and of itself.  What I mean by "as the US invaded" is in using the same sort of method--aliens hitting us with technology and precise strikes so advanced we can't counter them, specifically targeting people from far enough away (say high Earth orbit) that there's nothing we can do about it before they destroy our capacity to resist.  The aliens would also be the same in trying to avoid hurting the general populace, eliminating our leaders, and establishing new leaders under new rules.  Alien troops could work side by side with human troops for the purposed of training them to "take over" while they simultaneously work to rebuild our shattered industries along their lines.  Alien forces would continue to fight a human counterinsurgency, as humanity as whole adopts Afghan and Iraqi style tactics of suicide bombings and intimidation.

This sort of setting would be perfect for a story intended as an anti-Afghan or anti-Iraq War commentary.  As in, "Of course insurgents use brutal methods, but we would too if we were forced to do so by superior alien technology."  Empathizing with the insurgents is such a natural offshoot of this setting and using science fiction as social commentary on current events is so common, I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't already half a dozen or more tales that are in effect variations on this type of story.  So obvious is this, that while it might have the potential to be interesting, it's hardly original and certainly not ironic.

But if you take the setting and make it so the aliens really do  have what even honest humans recognize as a good justification for overthrowing our government and taking over, then you have more potential for irony and originality.  You can make the justification whatever you wish, which naturally would shoot out from social commentary.  The aliens could think our leaders are destroying the planet, for example, necessitating their takeover to save it.  Or they could be horrified we allow abortion or fail to vigorously attack the human slave trade or let people starve to death or keep animals as pets or have economic systems specifically geared to benefit an elite minority.  Whatever political issue an author could wish to harp on would be used as a justification, either left-wing, right-wing, or from somewhere in the middle.

Of course, it would be more original and more interesting for story purposes to come up with something that is not a current political hot button issue.  An example a bit off the wall would have the aliens outraged that we don't allow children to vote or hold political office.  Their political new system would systematically work to empower children and outright give them the vote.  Perhaps less off the wall idea would be they object to us passing laws that have not been screened by scientific methods and computer modeling to ensure the laws actually accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish.  How barbaric of us!  How much suffering our foolishness causes!

Correctly done, the alien way of doing things, their reason for having taken over Earth, should be shown as having real merit of some kind, no matter how strange it may seem.  Insurgents would of course fight the aliens nonetheless because they are on our world and don't belong here.  Actually, they would probably also mock the alien reasons, even if most people saw that they worked.  That way, both the alien overlords and the human insurgents could be shown as sympathetic characters overall, with individual villains existing among both groups.

That's the way I'd recommend writing an alien counterinsurgency story.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nimrod stories in many genres

Genesis 10:8-10 mentions a "Nimrod" as a founder of cities in Shinar (Sumeria) and Assyria, who is also called a "Mighty Hunter Before the Lord."  Yesterday, reading a classical historical work on the history of "Chaldea" by George Rawlinson, a set of story ideas about Nimrod crossed my mind.

Rawlinson mentioned he believed the early Mesopotamians had worshipped Nimrod after his death and that as a god, his worship supplanted that of the original creator god, called Il in Akkadian, which is like the El or Elohim of Hebrew, the God of the Bible.  I thought, "What if Nimrod, a heroic figure no doubt, had set himself up to be worshipped during his lifetime, like the Roman emperors?"  So perhaps some of his friends and companions also became worshipped as gods, creating the first truly polytheistic system.  I'm of course taking the Biblical point of view that all humans once knew the one creator God--so polytheism would have to be a later invention--something this story would explain the origin of from a semi-Biblical viewpoint.

Such a story handled in the simplest and most straightforward way would be historical fiction.  Nimrod would be portrayed as a genius conqueror and civilizer, a sort of Napoleon + Ghengis Khan + Julius Caesar, who carries sinister megalomaniac tendencies that manifest them in outright wicked self-worship in the end.  Perhaps a coalition of ancient good guys defeat Nimrod in Shinar, causing him to flee north to begin his work all over again in Assyria.

Since, though, Nimrod defies the one true God in the story, a view of the spiritual world could be brought into the tale, which would make a form of supernatural speculative fiction, angels and demons manifesting themselves in the tale as heaven and hell join in the ancient struggle.

Playing up some of the supernatural aspects to the point where Nimrod or his associates master the use of magic and create magical weapons and whatnot, would make the story a form of fantasy.


Having Nimrod direct the building of the Tower of Babel for the purpose of contacting ancient aliens of some sort would be off-track of what I'd want to write, but would definitely pull the story into the realm of science fiction, especially if the aliens are portrayed in some way (please bear in mind aliens can be portrayed even in a work from a deliberately Biblical viewpoint, but the aliens must somehow be shown to be creations of God).

Lastly, this story could be written up from the point of Biblical history.  What scant Biblical evidence of Nimrod that exists could be discussed, parallels drawn between him and other human rulers diametrically opposed to God, such as Antiochus Epiphanes, the pharaoh of Exodus, Titus (who destroyed Jerusalem), and the coming Antichrist, among others.  Or perhaps it would be better to write about the historical series of antichrists, making Nimrod a "probable" first one.

So if I only had an extra ten years or so on my hands, I could write all of them...

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

E does not equal MC2? Neutrino story technology.

As reported in this MSNBC science link, scientists in at CERN in Geneva have conducted an experiment that appears to have sent neutrinos faster than the speed of light.  "Appears to" isn't quite right.  They repeated this experiment something like 1500 times and got the same result every time.  They know the neutrinos went faster than light.

But to be absolutely certain of accuracy, they want confirmation from other scientists, of course.  If it should be that other scientists confirm this discovery, this could lead to a revolution in physics, because ever since Einstein the speed of light has been understood to be the fastest any particle of matter could ever go.  What the new laws of physics turn out to be that would account for the experiment results, no human being knows right now.

This situation could become a big deal for science fiction.  The speed of light as the absolute limit that matter can travel is a major restriction in stories that try to match known science.  Traveling to other stars is hard  (in my previous post on Nanite space weapons I discuss a couple of the problems), which is why sci fi writers use imaginary technologies like "warp drive."

But if the speed of light is just a guideline as opposed to a rule, it opens up a lot of possibilities.  Keep in mind that in the CERN experiment, the speed-violators were in every case neutrinos, particles that interact very little with most matter and which may weigh nothing.  This leads to a number of story tech possibilities.

Shipboard communications could be by faster-than-light neutrinos.  This would make a neutrino detector a very important piece of shipboard equipment.  Transporters (as in Star Trek) could convert a human being into a neutrino beam and send them to other worlds faster than any starship could go.  Neutrinos, since they interact with matter so little, could travel the whole distance in basically the same shape as when they left.

If neutrinos actually have a tiny amount of mass, perhaps massive quantities of neutrinos hurled backwards at faster than light could be used to propel a ship of normal matter more efficiently up to near-light speed than any propulsion system currently imagined by the human mind.  And the ultimate cool sci fi trick would be if you could convert your whole ship and all its crew into a faster-than-light neutrino version that could be converted back to normal matter at the push of a button upon arrival at your new interstellar destination.

Of course, all this is assuming that neutrinos can go a whole lot faster than light.  Maybe they can't.  The CERN experiment only had particles going 60 nanoseconds faster than light over 454 miles travelled.  That amounts to only 3 / 1000s of a percent faster than light speed.  Not near fast enough to form the basis of any kind of new technology, not even in theory, (By the way, the speed of light is 186,282 miles per second and I calculated the neutrinos were moving about 186,28miles per sec.  FYI.)

Such a 3 / 1000s of 1% still would be enough to rock the physics world, even if  it did nothing much for science fiction.  I for one am eagerly awaiting to see what new surprises for the scientists God has kept up His sleeve...

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Title: "The Redneck Guide to Monster Hunting"

On Monday my son Mik and I went out shooting and wound up having a conversation about killing monsters.  I have to admit that when it comes to firearms instruction, I've been rather negligent with my kids.  We've only shot guns a few times and I also trained them in basic safety rules, including how to unload and clear a weapon.  This has to do with the cost of ammo being high when you're on a tight budget, not to mention the time required to get out to a range.

But Mik is enlisting in the Marine Corps (Mik is short for "Mikhail," by the way) and so I thought it would be a good thing to prepare him for what's to come by imparting to him what relatively little shooting skill I possess.  We shot for several hours and Mik did well with the .22 rifle, putting so many rounds in one spot just off the center of the target that it looked almost like it had been hit once by a .50 caliber bullet.

I remarked, "That's good enough for zombie killing" (zombies have been on my mind of late).  So we jokingly discussed me writing a book called, "The .22 Rifle Guide to Zombie Killing," with specific advice on where to shoot the zombies and how.  This morphed into the ".22 Guide to Monster Killing" and then finally "The Redneck Guide to Monster Hunting."

As a tongue-in-cheek guide, I think such a book has the potential to sell BIG.  Horror fans, sci fi and fantasy fans, and of course, rednecks, could potentially be drawn to this like vampire bats to a pint of O positive in a bear trap (oh, that should be, "like bees to honey").

The devil is in the details, naturally, and each and every means of "redneck monster killin'" would have to be ingeniously ridiculous.  A good illustrator would also be a big help with this sort of book.

You'd be looking for entries something like this:
 
Werewolf Grenade Noodlin'
Step 1:  Put a grenade in yer hand.  Pull pin.
Step 2:  Shovyer hand in werewolf mawth.
Step 3:  Countta 5.  Bye bye werewolf.

Warnin':  THIS'LL ONLY WORK TWICE!


It'd be fun to write anyway.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Jesus: "The guy who killed the dragon who killed Cinderella."--Confusion and Creativity

As I child of about 5, I'd been asked the question by a Sunday School teacher, "Who is Jesus?"  My five-year old answer? "He's the guy...who killed the dragon who killed Cinderella."  When asked who the Devil was, I answered, "Oh he's a cowboy!"

These highly unorthodox answers wound up being something that adults in my life, especially my mother, mentioned for years to follow.  If you were put it in a box, it would go under the label "Crazy Things Travis did (or said) When Little."  These were stories my mother enjoyed repeating well into my teenage years (the box was far from empty), and without such repetitions I perhaps would have forgotten the entire incident.

I do have a fragment of my own memory of my answers...I remember feeling a bit of goofy pride in myself when adults around me laughed and repeated the story.  But years later, I found myself wondering, "What in the world had I been thinking?"

The Devil answer is stranger than it may first appear, because of my personal backstory:  After I had been born in Deer Lodge, Montana, while I was still a baby, my parents had moved to Olney, MT, several hundred miles north.  About 30 miles or so from the Canadian border, my parents had settled on 60 acres of mostly-forested land.  Some of the land my father cleared and he grew hay on it.  The hay he used to feed our cows and horses through the winter, other land was summer pasture; we also had chickens and rabbits and an enormous vegetable garden--basically a sort of "Perry Little House on the Prairie."  My parents divorced when I was 9 and after that I lived in town with my mom (first in Whitefish and then Bozeman, MT) until I graduated from high school, during which time lost my connection with the life of our small farm.  But my father had grown up working as a ranch hand and always  wore a cowboy hat and boots and still does.  As a matter of fact, so did I as a little kid and I thought of both my father and myself as being, well, "cowboys."

So what had I been saying then?  That the Devil was one of us?  Or maybe that my father was the devil?  The latter explanation may be tempting, given that my father was known to over-indulge in alcohol on a regular basis, but I think the actual answer is far more simple:  There was a Western song (as in Country and Western) called "Ghost Riders in the Sky," which portrayed the devil as having a herd of cattle in the sky and tormented ghost riders forced to herd them.  I think I had heard the song and because of that it seemed reasonable to say, "The Devil is a cowboy."

Mind you, when Mr. and Mrs. Munter drove north 30 plus miles from Kalispell to Olney every Sunday, volunteering to start a Sunday School and a church service, there wasn't a church of any kind in that town.  My parents had some religious knowledge but like typical Montanans, didn't talk about it much.  So I hadn't been educated in any of the proper "churchy" answers to religious questions.  So I'm not even sure I knew the Devil was supposed to be one of the bad guys...but I think I did remember the song.

On the other hand, I'm sure I did  have a sense that Jesus was a good guy.  Which is why I identified him with a dragon-slayer.  I'd like to claim this idea as entirely original, but I think I know where it came from:

Not in Cinderella, but in the Disney film Sleeping Beauty, the witch queen, after casting a death-like sleep over the young princess, transforms herself into a dragon, which is fought and slain by the dashing young prince (with some fairy assistance).  I think I had probably seen the film before I gave my answer, thought of that dragon-slaying hero as the most awesome guy ever, and when asked who Jesus was, I decided that He must be that same man.

So my confusion of the details of the movie, mixing up who the heroine actually was, confusing sleep for death, confusing who was the referenced hero, all wound up creating a kind of original story in which Cinderella most definitely does NOT live "happily ever after."  And my confusion of the details of a song made the Lord of Evil of the same basic type as my own father...though he would wear a black hat, naturally...;)

This leads me to conclude that confusion, an enemy of accuracy, is a friend of creativity.  Many stories--most, even--qualify as other stories retold, with certain elements mixed up.  If as a story teller, you're stumped at coming up with something new, take a look at stories that have already been told.  Tell them again, with the elements confused.  You might find yourself producing something that strikes people as altogether new.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Zombie Farmers and more (Zombie Ecology cnt'd)

Last weekend I had a discussion on my Zombie Ecology post with Aaron Dickey, longtime friend of my eldest son Karston and hardcore zombie film fan.  So we're going to indulge in some more zombie story idea-play.

From my previous post, it so happens that one of the ideas I thought was original was not.  Zombie animals have been done before, though they became so from eating infected humans and/or general splatter rather than the way I proposed it.  But my question, "What do zombies eat? (when not eating humans)" was one Aaron hadn't encountered before.  So let's continue with that for a bit.

What zombies eat depends on the type of zombie we are imagining:  1.  Supernatural black-magic zombies:  These don't need to eat anything, but they don't spread any zombie "disease" either, so their numbers don't automatically grow--so not even in often-inconsistent fiction will these guys be likely to take over the world.  2.  Infectious dumb zombies:  These zombies need to eat when not gnawing on the flesh of human survivors, but they don't have the brains to find food for themselves very well.  Their infectious nature means they have the potential to take over planet Earth, but their inability to feed themselves means they will probably die out some time afterward.  3.  Infectious smart zombies:  Aaron informed me scenarios exist where zombies are clever.  While this is not the most popular interpretation of this monster, it does exist.  So with this type of "zombieism," the creatures being infections, they could take over the world and would have the smarts to sustain themselves afterwards.  Under their attack planet Earth would become and remain, "Planet of the Zombies" (assuming no pesky interference by heroic survivor types...).

So these smart zombies, once they mop up what's left to be eaten of ordinary humans, naturally are going to turn to farming to provide for themselves.  Smart zombies are still mean and aggressive, so I don't see any of them becoming vegans or eating tofu.  They'd probably prefer raising animals like sheep or cattle...and then enjoy slaughtering the animals with their bare hands and mouths...(sorry if that's too gruesome--these are monsters, please bear in mind).

So imagine a story set in a planet of self-sustaining smart zombies.  Aaron Dickey and I talked this out and he suggested an original story idea:  What if on this all-monster world, zombies started reverting back to being human?  Certain ones started to change appearance to what we would recognize as normal, no longer wanted to eat their meat while still alive, and started loving and caring for one another?  There haven't ever been any zombie stories like that.  And that could even have a strong spiritual application, couldn't it?  How everyone thinks it's normal to be brutal, but some are starting to change into something kinder and more loving, rediscovering what "human" was always supposed to be...

I thought of an alternative, which I first suggested with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.  What if the planet is taken over by zombies (or is in the process of being taken over), but the planet has a military defense network capable of building war robots, as in the Terminator movies?  Then you could have a "Zombies vs. Terminator" scenario...

I meant that as a joke at the time, but using some sort of robotic system to fight zombies could seriously be done in a story.  Imagine, a world infested with zombies, a small band of humans desperately trying to stay alive...their only hope lies in intelligent military robots, who may or may not be on their side.  I don't see any direct spiritual application to such a story, but maybe there's something I simply haven't noticed.

Oooh, and what about an Amish setting in an all-zombie world?  Might be worth looking into, as might one of these other story ideas.  Think 'em over, anyway...

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jack of all Worlds

This morning, on what's for me a very long run (10 miles), a story idea popped into my head.  It was a highly unusual occurrence.

Not that having a story idea pop in my head is unusual--no, that can happen almost any time for me, but not so much when running.  While running, I kind of space out and focus on breathing.  On occasion I pray, as in: "Please, please, God let me survive the next mile!"

Ahem.  Anyway, the idea is based on the way I've heard some handymen-type-guys describe themselves: "I'm a jack of all trades, the master of none."

Once this phrase popped into my head, I thought to myself, Wouldn't it be cool if there were a multi-world universe, like The Crystal Portal, with a main character who felt fairly comfortable in all of the worlds, but not truly at home in any one of them?  His name could be "Jack" and the books could be entitled, "Jack of all Worlds, Book 1, Book 2, etc."  That might make a good set of books!


Of course, since I was running, the flow of thought was more like:  Wouldn't it be cool...if there were...(pant pant)...a multi-world...(pant pant)...universe...(pant pant).  But I think you get the idea...

As for the story idea, like all the ideas I put in this blog, it's up for grabs.  If anyone wants to make a "Jack of all Worlds" book series, be my guest.  Assuming of course, someone else hasn't already done so...

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The serious business of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I've got friends that don't quite get science fiction and fantasy and don't really understand why I write it.  I recently deployed to Afghanistan and wrote some emails about my experiences there, emails I forwarded on to friends and family, who as a general group gave me positive feedback about my ability to write about the experience of being a soldier at war and who praised me for doing a good job capturing what Afghanistan is like (and Iraq, when I wrote about it in 2008).  A few of these friends suggested that if I want to write fiction, I should be writing military thriller genre, something like what Tom Clancy does.

Truth is I could and maybe will someday.  I'm interested in military stuff and certain non-fiction, too, but writing about unreal worlds in general interests me more--and I think there's a positive reason why this is so, beyond the fact that I enjoy exercising my imagination.  You see, writing science fiction and fantasy is serious business.

This statement may very much surprise friends of mine obsessed with politics or convinced this world is about to end soon...to them, I imagine, speculative fiction (a term which embraces both sci-fi and fantasy) is sheer escapism from the world around us and spending time on it is acting like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.  I do want to acknowledge they have a point.  Speculative lit seems to be nothing but escapism for some people.  And there are times when it is absolutely essential to pay attention to the moment you are in and not wander off mentally to realms of what is not.

But I believe worlds of speculation, of the unreal, serve a very important function for most people, whether they realize it or not.  They remind people this world we are in is not the only possible world; what was the world once is not just the stuff of known history, but also lies in the sphere of the unknown and legendary...and such legends have the power to live in human imagination right now.  And even what we see all around us will change over time into something else someday, a world of advanced technology perhaps, or perhaps a collapse into decay and death.  Science fiction and fantasy explore these other realities of what could have been or what will be.

THIS WORLD IS NOT ALL THERE IS shouts speculative fiction, pointing out a void in our human lives.  It's often true that speculative fiction, an expression of corrupt humanity, tries to fill that void with corrupt thoughts.  That void truly longs for God, the creator whose imagination far exceeds mine, Who has the power to create new worlds at a whim (I am not stating He has created them, simply that He has that power) and Who will bring to an end all of the things we know now and establish His own rule.

Christians may feel we know our future eternity very well:  pearly gates, throne of God, singing praises, etc.  But remember 1Corinthinans 2:9:  "...Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."  The actual truth is that what we know is only the tip of the iceberg.

As a point of fact, the full reality of what world awaits us is mostly unknown.  As is also how long it will be between this world and the next and what will happen in this world in the meantime.

I write what I do not only to exercise the faculty of imagination God gave me in a positive way, but to reinforce the truth that this world is neither all there is, nor all there is to be--and to spin visions of the unreal that specifically point fingers back toward the creator God, the author of all things.  As much as I may engage in flights of whimsy at times, all of my writing science fiction and fantasy has a bedrock foundation in this definite serious purpose.

I hope very much that makes sense...

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

What do the monsters under the bed have nightmares about?

A Facebook friend, Kyla Fournier, placed as her status the observation that "Even the monsters under the bed have nightmares."  The comment lit a spark of imagination in my mind.

Another of Kyla's friends commented that the monsters have nightmares about the people on top of the bed, which would be ironic.  Of course, when we imagine creatures actually dwelling below the bed frame, we enter the world of the surreal.  But even a surreal story should have a certain internal consistency, IMHO.

A monster afraid of the person on top of the bed is consistent in a way.  After all, if it's a monster, a powerful brute of some kind, in theory it should be able to come out any time it likes.  But no, it goes under the bed and stays there--perhaps because of a terror of those who dwell on the mattress up above...

But a creature dwelling under the bed terrified of us rather ceases to be a monster, doesn't it? After all, the creatures of Monsters Inc feared contamination by children and that fear made them mostly cute and lovable.  And the childhood fear of the unknown darkness dwelling right underneath where I'm sleeping certainly is downplayed by thinking the monsters are not actually, well, er, monstrous.  So let's move past "the monsters fear us" theory.

Another kind of irony would be to think that just as much as we instinctively fear what we imagine dwells in the narrow dark space below us,  the monsters fear the light of the open world above.  Which is why it's absolutely essential that a child have a nightlight...because without it, the creatures really will come out from underneath the bed...

So maybe these creatures have nightmares about light.  Or being in the open, away from the bed, a kind of monster agoraphobia.

But if we're to play on the irony of the monster being like us, only different, then it's significant to note that while I was terrified of darkness as a child, I never had nightmares about darkness itself.  Instead, my bad dreams were about creatures dwelling in the darkness, creatures that do not just passively inhabit the realm of the things I cannot see, but which will actively come after ME, given half the chance.

So doesn't it make sense to think the Beasties Below Bed (if this were a military operation, this would probably become an official designation "BBB," as in "actions to deal with the BBB threat") also fear some terrifying creature of the light that invades their world, something that comes after them where they dwell?

I have something specific in mind.  And it even makes a horrific sound, not unlike a scream.

I think the monsters under the bed have nightmares about vacuum cleaners.

Think about it.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Nanite space weapons

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanite), the word "nanite" is just one of several words used to describe very small machines.  Research is underway to create such machines, continually making operating devices smaller and smaller.

Of course, as of now, nanites are nowhere near as small as they can be in theory.  In theory and in the realm of science fiction, a fully-functioning machine could be so small as to be tinier than the smallest bacterium.  And these tiny machines could be designed to reproduce themselves automatically, which over time would allow enough of them to form to accomplish almost any purpose.

A machine that small would be an ideal candidate for interstellar space travel.  Why?

That's because the most straightforward approach to travel to other stars is to simply go through space as fast as possible, the closer to the speed of light, the better.  Light in a vacuum moves at around 186,000 miles per second, roughly 6 trillion miles a year.  Even so the closest star system is over four years away at such a speed.  So any velocity significantly short of light speed involves waiting a long time to get anywhere.

To science fiction fans, there's nothing new in what I just said.  But by means of numerous stories featuring starships routinely cruising up to light speed, fans may have been lulled into thinking that getting a spaceship up to the speed of light is relatively easy, given the right energy source.  It actually isn't.

A realistic design to get a spacecraft up to 92% the speed of light, the theoretical Project Valkyrie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Valkyrie), would involve a craft weighing only 100 tons, far smaller than the starship Enterprise.  Even so, the estimated amount of antimatter required to get this craft up to speed is another 100 tons!  So half the weight of the craft would be antimatter fuel...and antimatter happens to be the single most expensive substance humans can manufacture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimatter#Cost).  Making 100 tons of it is completely beyond even the most outlandish of human plans (science fiction writers get to skip this messy detail and simply assume we've already got a pile of it).

On the other hand, a nanite, being so small, is much easier to get up to light speed.  In fact we've got particle accelerators right now that move ions of heavy elements like gold up to speeds approaching that of light (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativistic_Heavy_Ion_Collider).

So we can imagine perhaps in the not-too distant future, someone could assemble a particle accelerator designed to hurl nanites out to the unknown reaches of interstellar space fast enough to arrive at other stars in a matter of years instead of centuries.  Once there, the nanites in theory could reproduce from elements they find wherever they land and eventually assemble themselves into a larger machine, one that could perhaps beam back pictures to us of the new worlds they're exploring.

Here's a problem with that thought--isn't it true, historically speaking, that harnessing forces to destroy is easier than wending the forces of nature to build?  It's easier use fuel and air to make a bomb than it is to make a jet engine; it's easier to split the atom to destroy Hiroshima than it is to build an atomic power plant.

If we could accelerate nanites to other worlds to build probes, it would be even easier to send them on a mission to destroy, to consume all life they encounter, to seek out compounds from living bodies to reproduce swarms of new nanites.  This idea has the potential to change a lot of science fiction.  Having trouble with the Klingons?  Simply fire some flesh-eating nanites at their home world...

Independence Day, the movie that features massive alien spaceships cruising through our atmosphere and blasting us with energy beams, would have it all wrong.  The aliens would instead land on the planet with tiny particles too small for us to detect.  These nano invaders would reproduce and reproduce, eating life on a small scale at first.  Before they were even visible to the naked eye there would be billions of them, able to continue killing if even one of them survived any attempt to destroy them with radiation or chemicals.  Our military would be useless, our medicines inadequate.  Before long, all of mankind would be enveloped in a continually self-replicating tide of tiny devouring machines...

And the interesting thing about it is--this possible nanite space attack would not only be much more deadly than alien attacks as usually portrayed in science fiction, from a strictly scientific point of view it would also be much more likely...

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Zombie ecology

Zombies were originally conceived of as being dead bodies brought to life by black magic as I understand things.

As such, zombies were immortal.  You could only really stop one by hacking it to bits, so the individual parts would no longer be able to move as a unit.  And even so, the separated bits would still be animated by a mindless desire to eat human flesh...at least in one conception of "zombie."

But more modern stories have brought new ideas of what it means to be walking dead.  The viral explanation is popular now.  Humans get twisted by a-rabies-on-steroids type infection, leaving them mindless, with infinite pain tolerance, and hungry for homo sapiens.  Any bite that does not kill will very quickly spread the disease--clearly zombie saliva is swarming with the pathogen.  The only guaranteed way to kill one of the beasts is to put a bullet in its brain.


In these latter stories, it stands to reason that the zombies would still need to eat, right?  After all, we're still taking about living organisms, just seriously twisted ones.

So what happens after the zombies eat all but the tiny handful of heroic humans still surviving?  What do they eat then?  Each other?

It would seem a likely choice for them to make.  After all, while they would always find humans much yummier, since they themselves were once human, the taste should be close, right?

But what happens once they've been gnawing on each other a while?  You see, in ecology terms, all life is supported by plants growing by the power of sunshine.  You may eat a cow, but the cow eats wild grass or corn or some such, which gains energy to grow and store food via beaming rays of sunshine.

Meat eaters eating only meat eaters would make the pool of available energy (some always gets lost in the process of digestion) grow smaller and smaller.  The number of zombies would grow less and less as a result, right?  In maybe ten years, almost all of them would be dead.

UNLESS, the zombies, under the terrible pressure of starvation, learned to eat animals, who would supply energy that would either directly or indirectly come from plants.  This is a whole different vision of a zombie, isn't it?  Mindless man-things tromping tirelessly through the forest in pursuit of a white tailed deer...mostly they would not succeed in catching natural fauna, methinks.

But they would succeed every now and then, I think, and what would that mean?  Would it not become possible that at least sometimes they would get in only a single bite before a tortured quadruped sped off in a sprint?  Which would put that infected zombie saliva into the animal, wouldn't it?

Would the animals be subject to the zombie disease?  Some infections are species specific, but others, including rabies itself, are not.  There's a story here somewhere maybe, about some animals becoming zombies and others not...heroic human survivors being chased by zombie deer but never worrying much about snakes, which are immune to the disease...

Zombie deer may not be scary, but zombie dogs sure would be.  So would zombie birds.  Or bats.  And is anyone ready to face a zombie grizzly bear?

I've really only played with a few aspects of zombie ecology.  There are no doubt more story ideas ready to mindlessly charge forward from this notion...

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What's the Big Idea?

I've heard that millions of people blog...so why would I think my voice would have anything distinctive to add to the general uproar?

I don't actually know that I do.  To tell the truth, the thing that got me thinking about blogging was the publisher of my only novel assuring me that I'm the only one of her writers who DOESN'T have any connection to a blog--strongly suggesting I should do something to change that.  It seems a blog is useful in promoting one's writings...

Believe it or not, I have no trouble going left when everyone else goes right.  In fact, you could say at times I've stubbornly preferred  going against the crowd...but I guess I've gotten wise enough over the years to see a knee-jerk reaction against all convention isn't smart.  The time I've spent in the Army may have contributed to that change of mindset on my part.  At least a bit.

But there was no way I was going to agree to start my own blog if I had nothing to say.  The obvious thing would be to write about writing, but to tell the truth, I don't like writing and am not especially good at it.  Writing is a joyless task for me, an unhappy sentence at hard labor--except for when I finish up a writing bit.  What I actually enjoy are stories, more specifically story ideas.   The writing is just what must be done to get the story out, the scaffolding supporting the idea structure I love.

I'm pretty sure I have at least one new story idea a day, which amount to far more ideas than I'll ever be able to write up.  So why not blog about my story ideas?  And maybe also talk a bit about ideas outside the realm of writing?

So what's "Travis's Big Idea"?  It's me sharing thoughts on concepts, especially story concepts, with anyone who might be interested in about reading them.  Just maybe that will prove to be at least a little unlike the general blogging uproar.

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