Archive for March, 2015

TT: World-building Without Mammals

March 5, 2015

JANE: Alan, I was fascinated when, a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that New Zealand has no native mammals except for one species of bat.  I even queried you off-Tangent, but didn’t want to go that far off topic.  Now, however, I’d love to circle back and take a closer look at New Zealand’s ecosystem.  It sounds like an exercise in SF/F world-building!

Kiwi (Bird?)

Kiwi (Bird?)

ALAN: I’ve done some more checking and I’ve found that we actually have three species of bat, but one of them is extinct and the other two are quite rare…

JANE: I’m guessing that the bats flew in, or, like the camels in Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent traveled in on driftwood.  Anyhow, counting an extinct creature hardly seems fair.  I’d like to look at this alien world you’re living on.

ALAN: New Zealand is certainly a very alien world. The country is geographically isolated and, if you can’t fly or swim, you don’t really have any way of getting here. Consequently, we do have populations of marine mammals (sea lions and the like), but inland all the ecological niches that mammals occupy in other places are taken up by birds and insects.

JANE: I’d love to hear about some of these.  Can we start with the kiwi bird?  When Roger and I were there, we moved out of the convention hotel (which was nice, but very generic) to an oddball place dominated by an enormous figure of a kiwi bird.  I remember it fondly.

ALAN: Everybody is fond of the kiwi.  It’s our national symbol. New Zealanders identify very closely with it and they refer to themselves as kiwis. Incidentally, it’s just “kiwi”, not “kiwi bird.”

JANE: Oh…  To Americans, a kiwi is a fruit about the size of a plum, with a fuzzy green outside and sweet/tart flavor.  What do you call those?

ALAN: We call them “kiwifruit.”

JANE: Well, that’s boring…

ALAN: Anyway, back to the kiwi. They are flightless birds which belong to the unfortunately named ratite family – emus and ostriches are also ratites. Their feathers are very fur-like and Maori used to make kiwi feather cloaks. I’ve seen some in museums and they are really very beautiful.

JANE: I bet the fur-like feathers and rounded shape led to the fruit being named for the bird. But, that’s a tangent.  For once, I will discipline myself to stay on topic.  Go on…

ALAN: The most bizarre thing about the kiwi is that it lays the largest egg in relation to its body size of any species of bird in the world! I once saw an X-ray photograph of a kiwi that was about to lay an egg. All its internal organs were squashed up into a small blob in one corner and the egg occupied all the rest of the body cavity. I have no idea how its organs continued to function while being so squashed.

To give you some idea of scale, the kiwi is about the size of a domestic chicken, but it lays an egg that is six times larger than a chicken’s egg.

JANE: Ouch!  That’s got to be painful.

ALAN: I’m sure it is!

JANE: Does the kiwi (mentally insert “bird”) fill a particular ecological niche, or is it just impossibly adorable?

ALAN: Ecologically, the kiwi is rather similar to anteaters, moles and hedgehogs. Indeed, because it has so many un-bird like characteristics, the kiwi is almost an honourary mammal in its own right! Like a badger, it digs burrows in which it lives; it has a highly developed sense of smell (most unusual in a bird), and it is the only bird to have nostrils at the end of its beak. It lives on small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and many varieties of worms which it sniffs out and digs up with its long beak. It has very poor eyesight, but who needs to see things when you can smell them instead?

JANE: That’s cool!

The only other New Zealand critter that immediately springs to mind for me is the weta, popularized by Peter Jackson’s movie studio.  If I hadn’t done a bit of research on New Zealand when I wrote “Pakeha,” my short story set in New Zealand, I would have thought they were fictional.

ALAN: Ah, the weta – a huge insect that I always think of as being a cross between a cockroach and Tyrannosaurus rex (actually, it’s more like a very, very large grasshopper). It’s probably the largest insect in the world and it looks quite fearsome and vicious, though actually it isn’t…

JANE: “Large” is one of those vague words.  Can you be more precise?  I’ve seen some horribly large grasshoppers.

ALAN: There are several species of weta and they are all huge by insect standards. The largest is one species of Giant Weta which can reach an overall length of 20cm (8 inches for those who are metrically challenged) and which can weigh up to 70g (2.5oz). But that’s unusual – most wetas are less than half that size and weight.

JANE: Eight inches?  That’s not “large,” that’s utterly humongous!

How do these horrible bugs fit in?

ALAN: Ecologically, the weta is the insect equivalent of rats and mice. They are nocturnal and omnivorous. Their major foods are vegetation and other small invertebrates. Like mice, they are very good seed dispersers because the seeds pass through them unharmed.

JANE: Hmm…  An interesting side effect of this discussion is considering the purposes our “normal” animals serve.  I don’t think I ever considered mice as seed dispersers, just as food for just about everything larger.

I wonder if weta are also edible?

ALAN: There’s a TV presenter called Bear Grylls who is an expert on surviving in hostile environments. His programmes show him being dropped into inhospitable places and demonstrating how to survive in them. The gimmick is that in every show he eats or drinks something disgusting. So over the years he’s eaten deer droppings, rancid camel fat (the camel had been dead for at least a week), beetles, a live crab (complete with sand) and goodness knows what else. So when he came to New Zealand, he obviously had to eat a weta. He almost threw up. He claims the weta has the most disgusting taste of anything that he’s ever eaten!

JANE: Hmm…  So not edible by modern standards.  Did the Maori eat them?

ALAN: No, but the Maori did eat the grubs of the huhu beetle. Imagine a maggot the size of one of your fingers and you’ll have a pretty good picture of a huhu grub. I’m told that they taste like peanut butter…

JANE: But you haven’t tried them?  I see there’s a limit to what Alan the Omnivore will eat!

Does anyone/thing eat weta or are you guys in danger of being overrun by giant bugs?

ALAN: As far as I can tell, the only things that eat weta are introduced mammals (though I suspect the kiwi may find immature wetas palatable) and as a result of this, some weta species are hovering on the brink of extinction.

My cats have occasionally brought home and eaten a weta. They don’t seem to mind the disgusting taste. Juicy! Crunchy! Interestingly, they never eat the legs which are just solid chitin with no flesh on them at all. I think they use the legs as toothpicks…

JANE: Weta sound completely horrible.  I wonder why Peter Jackson chose to name his studio after them?

ALAN: Probably because Peter Jackson loves horrible things.  Before Lord of the Rings, his reputation was largely based on some utterly gross splatter movies which have the saving grace that they are also very, very funny. I think he’d find a weta quite appealing…

JANE: Ah, then, the choice makes sense in a twisted fashion.

I was going to suggest that you pick one of your favorite creatures, but I think that’s going to need to wait for next time.

Like a Gargoyle

March 4, 2015

This week I had a really crucial insight.  Before I tell you what that was, I need to lay a bit of a foundation.

Agnes Garbed in Snow

Agnes Garbed in Snow

A lot has been said lately – by me and by others – about how many of the jobs that used to be done by the publisher have fallen on the writer.  This is not to say that writers – especially those who write and sells what they write – have not always had business-related chores.  I’ve mentioned before that when I sold my first short story, Roger Zelazny – with whom I was then corresponding on a more or less regular basis – mailed me a tax organizer, and encouraged me to keep track of my earnings and expenses.

However, except for taxes and choosing whether or not to answer fan mail, a writer’s main job was to write.  Yes.  The writer did participate in publicity by doing book signings which might – for the lucky ones – include going on tour.  However, most of these publicity events were organized by someone else.  True, SF/F writers have always had the option of attending conventions, but the smart ones realized that, to make these conventions worthwhile, they also needed to have new material to present.

This has changed.  At the very least, writers need a website and/or a social media presence.  A good friend of mine commented recently that, since his current available material consists of one short story collection and one e-published novella, he doesn’t feel he needs a website.  However, he does have a Twitter feed and a Facebook account.  And he is fully aware that when he publishes the novel he’s finishing up – whether self or through a traditional publisher – he’s going to need to expand to a website.

I currently have a blog for which I supply substantial content three times a week, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed.  While these latter two do help “push out” the material I write for my blog, they also require a certain amount of individual attention and new material.  I have a website – the recent reformatting of which has made it a lot better, but has also taken a great deal of time.  In this case, I didn’t even do the actually formatting, just provided consultation as to design elements and the like.  Once it’s up, the maintenance will be up to me.

Lest you think I’m whining, let me tell you something you may not be aware of…  Many writers now have an assistant of some sort.  Only rarely is that assistant an unpaid family member “helping out” a little.  Nor am I talking about hiring an accountant, agent, or lawyer for specific jobs.  I’m talking about someone who maintains the writer’s website, handles their social media accounts (which is why some writers brag “it’s really me”), act as liaison with conventions and publicity people, and take care of the business paperwork.

Yes.  I’m serious. Compare this to Roger Zelazny who never had a full-time assistant.  He did have an agent and accountant, as well as a friend who he occasionally hired to retype a manuscript when a publisher required electronic as well as print manuscripts.  But otherwise he managed it all solo – as was the case for most writers I met at that time.

So that’s the foundation.  Here’s the insight.  I worked steadily all last week on various projects.  My tax paperwork is off to my accountant.  My website update is nearly done.   I answered fan mail and dealt with social media.  I’ve consulted with various professionals on future projects – none of which, by the by, had anything to do with being creative, but had to do with raising awareness of what I currently have available.  I wrote my Wednesday Wandering, expanded the Thursday Tangents, and wrote the Friday Fragment.

I should have felt good by the end of the week, right?  Why then on Friday evening did I sit down on the sofa, bury my face in my hands, and wonder why I felt so depressed?  It took me the entire weekend (during which yet another more or less administrative-editorial job cropped up unexpectedly) to realize what was wrong.

I realized that, if I don’t make time for creative work of some sort, no matter how much I accomplish during that week, I will feel completely flat and frustrated by the end.  The last original story I wrote was in December.  I did feel creative as I worked on selecting stories for my forthcoming short story collection, including writing the introduction and afterpieces, but that manuscript has been my proofreader’s hands for the last couple of weeks.  Writing the Wanderings and Tangents (especially the Tangents, because Alan seems to stimulate the oddest trains of thought for me) can be creative, but it’s not the same.

And the list of things I need to do this week stretches before me, editorial in some cases, but even that not particularly creative.

Looking out my window the other day, absently studying Agnes the Gargoyle in her new hat and cape of snow, I realized that a writer’s life is very much like a gargoyle.  Part of the appeal of gargoyles is how they combine moods.  They can be fierce looking or ridiculous or a bit of both.  One reason they are recurrently featured as monsters, animating and the pouncing on the unsuspecting, is that on some level we suspect that (unlike most statuary) they really are alive.

Once upon a time, a writer’s life was mostly writing, secondarily business.  These days the business demands are so great that they threaten to take on a life of their own and gobble up the very thing they are supposed to support.

I made a decision.  No matter how much the business piles up, I’m not going to be sitting on the sofa this Friday wondering where my creative time went.  Even if I don’t get that bit of my website fine-tuned or do a bit of checking out that person someone else told me might be an excellent contact, I’m going to know that I did something creative.

I’m going to know that, no matter how many or few see what I’m doing, I will have been a writer…