Archive for October, 2015

TT: Handling First Contact

October 8, 2015

JANE: Last week you said that you’d had another thought about aliens and how we react to them.  I’ve been waiting all week to find out what this is!

Toads Talking

Toads Talking

ALAN: Yes, I did say that, didn’t I? Well, once you recognise that alien intelligences exist, a whole new set of problems arise. Probably the most important is the question of how you do you communicate with them? In other words, how do you handle the “first contact” problem?

JANE: Oh!  I love first contact stories.  I’ve even written a few…  But you first!

ALAN: It’s easy to see an analogy with the classical age of exploration here on Earth. The European explorers came across many strange societies and faced this problem in real life many times. A brilliant novel that explores this is James Clavell’s Shogun which sees Japanese culture from a European point of view. The two societies are so utterly different from each other that the novel can easily be read as a dramatisation of the science fictional first contact. Several reviewers and critics have remarked on the parallel – I’m by no means alone in suggesting it.

JANE: Shogun is great.  “Maybe a duck…”  Talk about culture clashes!

When I set out to write the first Firekeeper novel, Through Wolf’s Eyes, I realized that in many ways that the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Books and Tarzan are both “first contact” stories because, although human by birth and biology, both Mowgli and Tarzan begin their association with humanity from an alien mindset.

Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf first and a “citizen” of the larger community called “The Jungle” second.  He clearly adheres to the “social contract” that is itemized in the Laws of the Jungle.

Tarzan never ceases to think of himself as a hairless white ape, even after he has reclaimed his birthright as Lord Greystoke.  He never seems happier than when he can return to his roots.  (Or, maybe we should say “branches”?)

Anyhow, my awareness of this shaped Through Wolf’s Eyes and the sequels, because I didn’t want to do another “first contact,” story – or rather “only” a first contact story.

ALAN: I never thought of those as “first contact” stories before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you’re right – that’s exactly what they are. But, in pure science fiction terms, I think that Murray Leinster’s delightful novellette “First Contact” is probably the archetype. It comes up with a really ingenious answer to the problem.

JANE: If I read that, it was so long ago that I’ve forgotten it.  Can you tell more or would that completely ruin the story?

ALAN: I’ll try.

Two spaceships meet in the void. Communication is established in a rather primitive manner through a kind of universal translator. The problem then becomes one of finding a way to ensure that neither ship can track the other back to their home planet. Neither wants to give any military (or technological) advantage to the other and if one side does get hold of information like that, it would clearly have the upper hand

The problem is solved on two levels.  Formal negotiations come up with an ingenious plan but, perhaps more importantly, behind the scenes it becomes clear that the two groups are likely to work well together in the future. They have a lot in common. The crew members of each ship have been talking informally, and they quickly build a close rapport by telling each other dirty jokes…

JANE: (scribbling)  Okay.  I need to look this one up.  It sounds vaguely familiar but…

My second published novel, Marks of Our Brothers, is an alien first contact story.  However, unlike many such stories where a meeting in space or suchlike makes very clear that the aliens in question must be “people” not “animals,” (after all, they have spaceships or space stations or something), the problem in Marks of Our Brothers is somewhat different.

Here the question is whether or not the aliens in question are “people” at all.  They don’t have hands.  They are not obvious tool users, even on the primitive level of, for example, David Weber’s treecats.  In fact, they look rather like Labrador retrievers.

The book grew out of my fascination with how many tests sociologists and suchlike use to measure “intelligence” are based on human norms.

ALAN: Of course, the stories we’ve both mentioned assume that the humans and the aliens do actually have a communication channel, either face to face or through some sort of communication device. The problem becomes much harder to solve if the alien race is long dead.

JANE: Yeah, “long dead” would make it difficult to have any sort of contact with a race.

ALAN: That’s true in a very literal sense. (Sorry to ruin your joke by taking it seriously.) But it does raise the question of just how could archeologists of the future come to grips with the language and culture of a society that has no living members with whom to talk? There are lots of societies here on Earth that we know very little about, and whose written records we cannot read. How much harder will that be for truly alien societies with which we have nothing in common?

JANE: Since I’m married to an archeologist, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to learn about a past culture – even if that culture has living descendants.  The complexities would grow exponentially with a completely alien culture.

ALAN: H. Beam Piper came up with a beautiful solution to the problem in his short story “Omnilingual.” He assumes that technological societies have more in common with each other than non-technological societies do because scientific truths are universal. The story itself uses the periodic table of the elements as a Rosetta stone to unlock the secrets that an alien society had left behind.

JANE: Okay.  I’m sure I read that one, but it’s been a while…  I need to find a copy and re-read it.  Any other good first contact stories to suggest?

ALAN: I’m very fond of a series of short stories about a team of unorthodox engineers by the British writer Colin Kapp. In each story, the team is presented with an alien technology from a long dead race. They have to deduce what the technology is for, often to a tight deadline. After several semi-catastrophic red-herrings lead them up several garden paths, they eventually find out what the technology is really supposed to do, just in time to prevent a disaster.

The stories are somewhat formulaic, but their humour, and the ingenuity of the alien technologies transcend the formula. The stories have a small cult following in the UK. They were published under the title Unorthodox Engineers by Dobson Books and the stories originally appeared in Dobson’s New Writings in SF series. Probably the best of the stories is “The Railways Up on Cannis”…

JANE: I haven’t read those.  I’ll see if I can find a copy.  So many books, so little time…

An alien first contact short story I’m fond of is Larry Niven’s “The Warriors.”  It’s the tale of the first encounter between humans and the Kzinti.  You get a look from both sides and the each makes assumptions based on their own cultural values that are fascinating.

ALAN: I’ve not read that one. I’ll add it to my list. Hmmm… Infinity plus one… I may have a problem here…

JANE: Another place to sample a bunch of first contact stories is the anthology First Contact edited by Larry Segriff and Martin H. Greenberg.  I contributed a short story called “Small Heroes,” which is reprinted in my new collection Curiosities.

ALAN: I’ve not read that one either. Oh well – at least I’ll get to read your story when I buy my copy of Curiosities.

JANE: I hope you enjoy it when you do…


Gardener With Plants… And With Words

October 7, 2015

News Flash! Interested in an interview with me about the “Artemis” books and a few other things?  Here’s one with New Books in Science Fiction that just went “live” this week.  Look at the bottom of the text introduction for an audio link.

And now we shall proceed with our regularly scheduled Wander…

Back in April, I began a Wednesday Wandering with the following

Early Autumn Produce, 2015

Early Autumn Produce, Harvest 2015


“On Saturday, Jim and I planted twenty-one tomato seeds.  Our goal is to have twelve plants bearing tomatoes by the end of the summer.  We’ll be happy with six, especially if five of them are romas, because romas are good both for eating fresh and for cooking.”  (WW 4-15-15)

I thought I’d let you know how our experiment worked out and, while I was at it, touch on my feelings about a jargon term that’s getting increased exposure these days.

But first, the tomatoes!  Jim and I didn’t expect all twenty-one seeds we planted to germinate but, to our surprise, they did.  We ended up with fourteen “Viva Italia” roma seedlings, and seven “Sweet Million” cherry tomato seedlings.

We’d planted the seeds in a covered “seed starter,” so we figured we’d lose some plants when we transferred them to the small yogurt containers we use as our first series of “pots.”  Often the shock of going from the enclosed environment – even though we’d been slowly increasing the amount of outside air the plants received – has lost us plants in the past.

But, to our astonishment, all twenty-one plants lived through not only this first transfer, but also the second to larger containers.  We nursed the plants along indoors until May 17th, when we planted fifteen in our garden beds, keeping the others in reserve.

This time we did lose a few plants.  Two were broken off by the wind.  We replaced these with the same variety.  A third was killed by a virus, probably curly top.  We didn’t replace this one because, by the time we lost it, the two plants on either side were growing large enough that a seedling wouldn’t have had a chance.

Meanwhile, the four remaining plants were beginning to get “pot bound.”  Additionally, they were stressed by the rising summer temperatures heating the soil in their containers.  We searched around and found space to place these remaining plants behind some Oriental lilies that were pretty much done with their summer blossoming.

So, out of twenty-one seeds planted, we ended up with eighteen plants.  The four that went into the ground late are just beginning to produce ripe fruit.  We don’t usually get a killing frost until late October or early November, so – depending on nighttime temperatures – we may be picking tomatoes for several more weeks.

(And, as the picture illustrating this week’s Wandering shows, we have lots of eggplant and peppers, too!)

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?  Well, here in New Mexico – and probably elsewhere given the source – I keep hearing  new terms for the two very general categories into which most writers fall.  These terms are “gardener” and “architect,” and they are generally credited to George R.R. Martin.

A “gardener” is what I learned to call an “intuitive plotter” and have also heard called a “pantser.”  “Pantser” is short for “seat of the pants” and is usually paired with “planner.”   In case you wonder, “intuitive plotter” is usually paired with “outliner.”

I will say, I’ve never personally heard George use these terms, so I don’t know what he bases them on, but I would like to say a bit about how the term “gardener” is easily misinterpreted.

From my experience, the biggest difference between an intuitive plotter and an outliner is that the intuitive plotters don’t know precisely how the story will progress while the outliners believe that they do.

Since another term for “gardener” or “intuitive plotter” is “pantser,” I looked up definitions of “seat of the pants” and found this one in several places: “Based on or using intuition and experience rather than a plan or method, improvised; Performed without using instruments.”

A key word here is experience.  Outliners frequently seem to think that intuitive plotters rely on luck and/or Ouija boards to come up with their stories.  This is far from the case.  Intuitive plotters do a considerable amount of groundwork for their writing.  Sometimes, they do this preparation far in advance of an actual project – or even before the project exists.   In this way, we are very similar to actual gardeners, since preparing the soil is a big part of making sure the garden will be thrive.

I was hanging out with George R.R. Martin when he was working on Game of Thrones and I saw how much work he put into creating the soil that would be able to support the enormous sequoia he was writing.  I inherited much of Roger Zelazny’s research library.  He was another “intuitive plotter,” but that didn’t mean he didn’t read tons of books about the subject that had current caught his fancy, whether that was computer hackers or Navajo culture or kites.

Gardening – whether we’re talking about writing or talking about putting actual plants in the ground – is not a lightweight excuse to not do the “hard work.”  Every year, Jim and I discuss the microclimates in our yard and decide what needs to be shifted where.  This year we discovered that the catalpa trees now cast too much shade for squash to thrive at the southern edge of one bed, where they’ve always done great before.  Next year we’re going to switch them to the western end of a different bed, where the beans never do very well.

Writing intuitively requires the same awareness of the story, of the shifting environments created by new elements.  You learn to trust that something is important, even when you can’t see where it fits in right away.  Writing intuitively requires an awareness of the pulses and tides of the story.  It involves writing little notes to yourself about the things you suspect may become important.

Writing intuitively involves listening to the Muse.  Your subconscious.  Your inner demon.  It involves coming in for a landing without using instruments.  But whatever it is, it isn’t easy.  It isn’t slapdash.  And neither is gardening… whether you’re growing plants or writing stories.

FF: Reading Is Really Important

October 2, 2015

Being home for a bit over a week hasn’t meant a lot more time to read, because catching up after travel takes a lot of time.  Even so, I made time because reading is really important to me.  Without it, I’m less of a writer.

Ogapoge Meditates on Raising Steam

Ogapoge Meditates on Raising Steam

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett.  The formerly “medieval” into “Renaissance” Discworld enters the time of steam aka, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm.  Before she became famous as Robin Hobb, Megan Lindholm had a very solid critical reputation, much of which was based on this urban fantasy (old flavor) novel.  I’d wanted to read it forever, but never found a copy.  Jim found me one for my birthday.  I agree with the praise.

In Progress:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Interesting mixture of elements.  I don’t think this one would be for everyone, because of the heavy reliance on 1980’s pop culture elements, but it suits me just fine.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett.  Just started.

And Also:

Continuing to read short essays about old SF movies.  I found a listing for Stalker, 1979, German, that sounds like a template for the recent award-winning Annihilation and sequels.  Inspiration or coincidence?

Companion Aliens

October 1, 2015

JANE: Last time we ended up talking about cute aliens, which – at least in my taxonomy – leads logically to companion aliens, which are often, although not always, cute.

Kel Contemplates a Companion Alien

Kel Contemplates a Companion Alien

The obvious species for me to mention are the treecats in David Weber’s “Honorverse” novels, since I have written about them in both novellas in the “Honor” timeline and in the “Stephanie Harrington” prequel novels, Fire Season and Treecat Wars.

Do you mind?

ALAN: Go for it. I actually know very little about the treecats. I’ve never read much of the “Honorverse.”

JANE: I was already friends with Weber when the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station) was published and I’ll be honest.  I really did have doubts about a starship commander and her kitty.

As I read, I liked how Weber dealt with the difficulties of taking a “pet” into space.  He doesn’t ignore realities like the risk of death from explosive decompression or severe injury in battle.  As the novels advance, it become clear that while Nimitz is a hidden asset to Honor in some situations, there are others where he is a vulnerability.

So, by the time I was invited to write the Stephanie Harrington novels, I’d moved away from the “girl and her kitty” mindset to the more compelling one of two very different minds meeting.

ALAN: Isn’t it odd how many aliens are feline? Tigerishka in Fritz Leiber’s novel The Wanderer  (which won a Hugo Award in 1965). C. J. Cheryh’s Hani in her Chanur novels. Larry Niven’s Kzinti… And Cat from Red Dwarf, of course.

JANE: Absolutely!  It’s something I’d like to discuss later, actually.

Going back to the treecats…  The thing is, despite the name and how they’re depicted in a lot of the earlier cover art, treecats are not housecats with extra legs and hands.  When Stephanie named them, she was only eleven, and following in the long human tradition of naming things not for what they are, but for what they most closely resemble at a quick glance.

She could have as easily called them “hexaweasels,” or “lemur-ferrets,” based on their build, which, in the official Honorverse material (which I have access to, tah-dah!)  is described as: “…built long and lean, on the lines of a Terran ferret or weasel crossed with a lemur monkey, and average about 60 centimeters in body length (130-135 centimeters, counting their tails).”

However, since Stephanie was from Meyerdahl, not Earth, it’s really more likely that she would have been more familiar with cats (which treecats resemble facially) than with either ferrets or weasels.

ALAN: I like hexaweasel. I don’t think much of lemur-ferret though. It’s a bit too much of a mouthful.

JANE: Treecats are also quite intelligent, are tool users (although on a very basic level), and have some very interesting biological elements that I won’t go into here.  The point is, the more you learn about treecats, the more it becomes apparent that in their associations with humans they are truly companions, not pets.  I’ll admit, these days I actually prefer writing from the treecat point of view, and have come to see the humans as the companion aliens!

Okay…  Your turn…

ALAN: I’m rather fond of Alan Dean Foster’s novels about Flinx and his minidrag Pip who is a flying empathic snake capable of spitting a corrosive, neurotoxic venom. Minidrags are non-sapient, nevertheless they will often bond strongly with sapients with whom they feel an emotional attachment and Flinx and Pip are extremely close.

JANE: You would probably be interested in knowing that Weber realized years after he’d created them, that Pip (and minidrags in general) were an influence on the treecats.  I had the pleasure of being present at a World Fantasy Convention where Weber sought out Alan Dean Foster to thank him for the inspiration.  He gives Flinx and Pip credit now, and recommends the Pip and Flinx books.

ALAN: Good for him! Can I add that I met Alan Dean Foster once when he was a guest at a New Zealand convention and he was a lovely man, very modest, very pleasant to talk with. I’m sure he was thrilled by what Weber had to say.

This kind of bonding with vaguely reptilian creatures seems to be relatively common in the genre. I’m thinking here of McCaffrey’s fire lizards and Steven Brust’s jheregs.

The fire lizards are aliens, native to the planet Pern. McCaffrey’s dragons were genetically engineered from the original Pernese fire lizards. The fire lizards themselves are about the size of a large bird, and they can have a very intense relationship with the humans to which they bond.

JANE: Good point.  It’s been years since I read Jhereg.  Can you remind me about them?

ALAN: The jheregs are also dragon-like creatures one of whom, called Loiosh, bonds closely with Vlad Taltos, the hero of many of Brust’s Dragaera novels. I’m never sure how to define jheregs because I’m never sure exactly what Brust’s novels are. You can argue that they are SF (in which case Loiosh is an alien companion). But it would be equally valid to consider them to be fantasy stories (in which case Loiosh is perhaps best described as a familiar).

Personally, I don’t care, because mainly they are just very good books, which is all I really care about…

JANE: The issue of what to call well-realized imaginary world fiction is perennial, isn’t it?  I think that’s why when Terri Windling was doing the “Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” anthology series, she made a point of differentiating.

So, let’s see, in addition to catlike and lizard-like alien companions, what else are there?

I asked that question aloud as I was typing, and Jim reminded me of my own “Gittchy,” who appeared first in my short story “Winner Takes Trouble” in the anthology Alien Pets in 1998.  This was the first of my Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee stories, which I collected in the e-book Star Messenger.  I don’t want to say too much about “Gittchy” because what Gittchy can do and where she came from are central to her stories.

For those who are interested, the Alien Pets collection did provide a wide variety of “takes” on the idea of alien pets.  A couple of the weaker authors did go for the quick humor element, but many took it quite seriously.

ALAN: And don’t forget Sand Shadow, the puma in your Artemis novels. You seem quite fond of the idea. Perhaps that’s because there are so many animals in your real life?

JANE: Actually, I think fiction made me want companion animals…  My parents were adverse to us having pets because they felt four children were enough chaos for any household.  They finally broke down when I was ten and let me have a guinea pig.  I have had guinea pigs pretty much ever since…  We currently have four.

See what books can be blamed for?

Anime/manga frequently features companion aliens.  One of my favorites is the recurring CLAMP character, Mokona.  Mokona’s right up there with the Fuzzies on the diabetically cute scale.  He looks like a rounded white rabbit with huge eyes and a gem in the middle of his forehead.  However, in the second part of Magic Knights Rayearth, the question of just why Mokona is involved with the protagonists and their difficulties becomes very interesting indeed.

In fact, more often than not, the companion aliens in anime/manga serve a role far beyond the obvious one of making fans say “I want one!”

To me, companion aliens who turn out to be allies in some ways, not just egoboosters or status items (as the firelizards of Pern seemed to become) for their “owners” are definitely the best.

ALAN: Yes – the stories always work best when that sense of mutual support is emphasised.

But I’ve had another thought about aliens and how we react to them. What are you doing next Thursday?

JANE: Talking to you about your thought!  I can’t wait!