SF World Building with Polymers

So you want to design an extrasolar planet for your hard-SF story, and cast about your house looking for ideas.  There, you find all manner of of man-made materials:  polystyrene coffee cups, polycarbonate eyeglass lenses, PVC pipes.  Nothing could be farther from the natural, organic compounds of life, right?

Wrong.Polystyrene_formation

Polystyrene, polycarbonate, and PVC are all examples of polymers, a class of chemical compounds made by bonding sequences of smaller chemicals (“mers”) together into long chains.  We didn’t think of this concept first, though.  Consider the following examples of polymers from life:

  • Cellulose, the building block of trees and the roughage in your whole wheat bread, is a polymer made up of sugar molecules strung together into long chains.  It is a polysaccharide.
  • Proteins, which provide structure to cells and control the chemistry of life, are built from sequences of amino acids linked together.  They are polypeptides.
  • DNA, the design template of life, is built from long chains of base-pair sequences.  It is a polynucleotide.

It would seem, therefore, that whenever a big molecule was needed in nature, a polymer was used.

What does this mean for the chemistry of world building?  Pretty much any polymer chemical invented by man might exist naturally in the life chemistry of a distant world.  Imagine a world where animals use lightweight PVC as a skeletal material instead of the protein collagen.  Suddenly the need for calcium in the diet is greatly reduced, but the need for dietary chloride is increased.

Of course, a world that makes use of PVC is going to be subject to all the chemical problems that PVC might have.  For example, PVC is degraded by exposure to ultraviolet light.  It might, therefore, not work well on earth, but might be effective on a world that orbits a red dwarf sun, or one with an extremely dense atmosphere.

If a compound exists naturally, however, it is more likely to be part of the food web.  We can’t digest cellulose, but cows can—and so can many bacteria.  If animals use PVC as a structural material, there will certainly be other animals and bacteria with the enzymes to digest it.

Modern man is surrounded by polymers:  Nylon, Lexan, Teflon, Kevlar, Dacron, and many others.  Any one of these could be a starting point for the design of an original life chemistry on your planet.

Note to regular readers: I plan to work through the exercises in #blogging101 when it starts next week. I have no idea what kind of assignments will be required, so please forgive me if my blog becomes suddenly inhabited by posts about sentient protozoa or the potential of Rick Moranis to star as the romantic lead in your next non-comedy action film.

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The (Thermo)Dynamics of Life in SF

So you want to write hard science fiction.   You want to write stories that are consistent with science as we know it today, and perhaps you also want to locate your stories away from the earth—perhaps far from the earth.  If you know what that story is, and you know the science you need to write it, close your browser window and do it now.  You owe it to your readers, and you owe it to yourself.

If, however, you’re stuck in a rut, you may need to try something different to get inspired.  If, like me, you haven’t finished a story in four months (with or without a health concern to justify that situation), you may need to do some research.  In that frame of mind, let’s talk about what your off-world setting requires to support life.

PressurePhase diagram of water, derived from diagram at University of Arizona

The chemistry of life requires a liquid medium to transport chemicals within the living body.  In our neck of the woods, that means water[1].  The need for liquid water, however, puts a hard limit on the locations where water-based life could develop[2].

At any pressure lower than 6.117 millibars (the triple point of water), liquid water can’t exist.  Instead, it sublimates directly from a solid state to a gaseous one.  For comparison, one earth atmosphere is 1013 millibars.  Mars, with its surface pressure of 6.36 millibars, has just barely enough atmosphere to sustain liquid water.  The tiny Jovian moon Europa can sustain liquid water because its icy crust holds things down. Most small planets, however, especially small rocky ones, cannot support liquid water, and you’ll have to work hard to justify the presence of living organisms there.

What this means for world building is that you probably need a world with either underground seas or a mass large enough to keep your atmospheric pressure up above the triple point of water.  Size isn’t the only factor—Venus, which is smaller than Earth, has a surface pressure 92 times ours—but it’s something to consider.

ThermometerTemperature

A related question is the temperature range required for life.  Assuming the need for liquid water, biological processes need a local (internal) temperature between 0°C and 100°C at a “typical” earth atmospheric pressure[3]. Traditionally, this is interpreted to mean that your planet needs to be in the “Goldilocks” Habitability Zone, neither too hot nor too cold.  Earth is in this zone, mostly because it’s the right distance from our sun, but there are other factors, including geological heating or atmospheric collection and reflection of heat, which can modify this range.

If you’re designing a brand new world for your SF story, you probably want to give it goldilocks habitability.  If the star is red or orange, your planet will be close to its sun, and may even be tidally locked.  If you have a blue-white supergiant, the planet will be farther away, and the sun may perhaps appear smaller.  If other factors affect your world’s temperature, like insulation from thick clouds or tidal heating from the gas giant it happens to be orbiting, these factors will affect the descriptions in your story, and you’d best think them through in advance.  There is a lot of room for creativity here, but it’s a lot of work, too.

Energy

NASA-false-color-sun-image

Pressure and temperature, however, are really just expressions of a bigger need for all living things, and that is energy. Life requires energy to overcome the limits imposed by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy (disorder) in a system will always increase.  Living things are massively more ordered than the universe at large, so we can only survive by creating disorder somewhere else.  Generally this implies a transfer of energy from a state in which it is concentrated to one where it is dispersed.

Nearly all of the energy available to living things on earth comes from stars, and I don’t simply mean solar energy.  Coal, gas, and oil come from the bodies of plants and animals, which themselves can trace their source of energy back to the sun.  Wind energy comes from the sun, and even geothermal energy comes from the decay of radioactive isotopes forged in the core of a long-past supernova.  The only energy source I can think of that isn’t indirectly solar is tidal energy, and tides get their energy from the same force of gravity that drives fusion in our sun.

When writing SF about life on other planets, it may be useful to ask where the energy comes from, and how it travels through your world to enable the processes of life.  It isn’t enough to have a static, warm world for life to exist; we need a dynamic one with an external source of energy that life can tap to survive.  This may sound hard, but we’re talking about hard SF here, and I think the most interesting story ideas can be born when a creative mind tries to wrap itself around a difficult issue.


[1] There may be life based on liquids other than water, but its chemistry would be far different from ours.  As a polar molecule, water readily dissolves ions that non-polar solvents like liquid methane or nitrogen could not.
[2] Yes, there are bacteria at the South Pole, where the temperature peaks around -17°C. Even if these bacteria are biologically active (and the American Society for Microbiology asserts that they can’t be), these bacteria were imports from warmer climes.
[3] At higher pressures, water stays liquid longer, so a hot super-earth might conceivably have liquid oceans. Unfortunately, the energy that makes it hotter might also cause water vapor to escape, leading to a water-deprived atmosphere like the one on Venus.
Photo credits:  Triple point diagram derived from a lecture at the University of Arizona chemistry department.  Thermometer by User:Gringer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. False-color image of the sun from NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientific World Building

In hard science fiction, many authors choose to describe characters who come from (or journey to) worlds surrounding distant stars.  In the early days of science fiction, authors often chose stars whose names were well known:  Sirius[1], Alpha Centauri[2], Arcturus[3], Betelgeuse[4], Altair[5], and the like.  As scientific knowledge has expanded, however, writers have needed to increase the level of detail with which they research stars for their planets.  Fortunately, we have the internet to help us with this research.  Here a a few things to consider (and links you can use) when siting your next habitable planet.

Starting Point

There are billions of stars in our galaxy, but most people only know of a few. How can we learn about some of the others from which we might select? One source of data is Hipparcos, a satellite launched in 1989 by the European Space Agency. During its five years in orbit, Hipparcos collected data on more than one hundred thousand stars. This data is freely availalble online, and some sites provide the ability to search the Hipparcos database for stars in a particular region of the sky.

If you would rather start with known planets, that data is available online, too.  The University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo has an interesting database of known exoplanets, including some information on potentially habitable planets.  The SIMBAD catalog is another useful tool for researching known stars — once you know the name of a star from Hipparcos, you can get its name in other catalogs, to do further research.

Spectral Class

stars by spectral class

The most readily visible attribute of a distant star is its color. Decades ago, this information was used to group stars into spectral classes. Although golden-age SF writers seem to favor the brightest stars in the sky, writers in the 70’s and 80’s more frequently selected yellow (G-class) stars like our own sun. Alpha Centauri A, and Tau Ceti have been popular choices, though both are problematic for other reasons (see below).

For those with a background in chemistry, spectral class raises some interesting questions about the impact on life.  M-class stars produce less ultraviolet (UV) light than our sun does.  How would this effect photosynthesis?  A, B, and O-class stars produce far more energetic X-rays and gamma rays than our sun.  How would this affect mutation rates?  This sort of thing could be fodder for some interesting stories, I think.

Multiple Star Systems

While Alpha Centari A is a nice yellow star, it still has problems due to the proximity of its partner star, Alpha Centauri B. Centauri B is a K1-class star, which makes it somewhat smaller than our sun, and it orbits at a distance between 11 and 30AU from Centauri A. When the stars are close to one another, there is a significant chance that B’s gravity might disrupt the orbit of any planets in the habitable range of A. Even if this didn’t happen, there is also the concern that the periodic approach of B might heat up a planet in the habitable zone, making life unpleasant.

Personally, I try to avoid star systems with multiple stars — the “safe” ones probably have the partner so far away that they look like nothing more than a bright star — but some really great stories have been born from smart people thinking about life on a planet with more than one sun.

Variability

Even if you want to choose a solitary, ordinary yellow (G) or orange (K) star, there are a lot of choices available.  How do you decide?  A good place to start might be HabCat, a list of stars on the PHL site listing the stars they consider most likely to harbor habitable planets. One of the key characteristics in this decision-making process is a star’s variability: our sun is pretty stable, but some stars grow brighter or dimmer on an irregular basis. Planets near a variable star are at high risk of freezing or burning up.  Once again, it could make for an interesting setting for your story.

Metallicity

One assumption behind the HabCat list is that a star needs to have a certain amount of heavy, metallic elements nearby for rocky planets like earth to form.  We can’t necessarily see these planets yet, but we can measure the amount of metals in a star by looking at its spectral lines.  Tau Ceti and another nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, both seem to be metal-deficient.

More recent studies of Epsilon Eridani seem to indicate that it has at least one large rocky planet orbiting there, so the lack of metallicity for dim stars may not be as prohibitive as once was thought.  If you’re designing a world, however, you might want to consider what it would mean for life if (for example) potassium, calcium, or iron were hard to come by.

Proximity

If your story includes space travel to a distant star, you will either need to imagine faster-than-light travel or take into account the massive distances involved.  As it happens, parallax data from the Hipparcos database can be used to calculate how far away a given star might be.  For example, a star like HD-113576, with a parallax of 112.8 milliarcseconds, is 28.9 light years distant.  HD-17511, however, has a parallax of only 10, which places it 326 light years away.  If you’re travelling at “only” 9/10ths the speed of light, that can make a difference.

Takeaway

If there is one thing I learned from browsing Hipparcos, there are a lot of stars out there that might support life. With a little bit of work, we can go beyond the traditional choices and place our planets around real stars where no writer has gone before.

[1] Voltaire, in his early SF tale Micromegas, describes his protagonist as having come from Sirius.  Larry Niven’s planet Jinx is also located there.
[2] Philip K. Dick (Clans of the Alphane Moon), Arthur C. Clarke (The Songs of Distant Earth), and Larry Niven (Wunderland in his Known Space stories) all placed habitable planets around Alpha Centauri.
[3] Arcturus is featured as a planet name in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and David Lindsay placed his planet Tormance there in his novel A Voyage to Arcturus.  You may debate whether or not Asimov intended Arcturus the planet to orbit the star of the same name, however.
[4] Much of Planet of the Apes takes place in a planet near Betelgeuse.
[5] SF classic Forbidden Planet takes place on Altair IV, and colonies near Altair feature in several Star Trek episodes.

Into the Wind

From a scientific pespective, sailing is one of the most peculiar modes of transportation ever invented. Powered entirely by the wind, a sailing ship is able to move in a direction contrary to the one in which that very wind is headed. It derives from a balance of forces, some of which you can’t even see.[1]Sloop Reliance on a close reach
Consider the case where a captain wishes to take his ship to a harbor in the west, but the wind is blowing towards the east.[2]  If he were facing directly into the wind, it would blow him backwards, away from his goal. By facing to the southwest, however, he places his sail at a diagonal to the wind. The wind pressing on this sail tries to push it east, but is opposed by the keel underneath, pressing on the water through which it flows. The only way that ship can move is in the direction it is facing, and so it does.

After a while, however, you find that the ship is headed south of the target, and your southwest progress isn’t getting you any closer to the goal. At this point (or sooner, if you run out of open water), the captain turns to the northwest.  Each stretch of diagonal sailing is called a “tack”.  No single tack can carry the ship to its intended goal, but taken in sum, she will eventually reach port.

The same principle is true in a well-drafted scene. As an author, we want to bring our protagonist from point A to point B. The antagonist opposes this goal, and introduces conflict. Through the twists and turns of your plot, you tack, carrying the reader ever closer to the end of the tale. And the ever-changing view is what makes your story interesting.

This may, in fact, be the one time when it’s a good idea for your story to be tacky.

[1]Photograph of Sloop Reliance from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a15401 via Wikimedia Commons.
[2]This is a bit of an oversimplification.  Depending on the wind, nearby coastal obstructions, and the need for speed, the captain may choose anywhere from a close hauled point of sail (as close as you can go to facing into the wind without stalling out) and a beam reach (which gains you no progress upwind, but may give you lateral room for another tack), but in general one will select a close reach, which is somewhere in between. As a metaphor, however, I find it sufficient.

Opening Lines

Like God Himself[1], a strong opening line foretells the end of the story, though we may not see it at the time.  This is in addition to the standard requirements that the opening paragraph needs to introduce a character in conflict, and my personal requirement that an SF opening should give some indication of the speculative context of the story.  For novel-length fiction, I think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the gold standard[2]:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In twenty-three words, Austen establishes the primary concern of her novel:  marriage and the assumptions that people make concerning it.  I have often heard women talk about the limited choices a woman was given in the period in which Austen wrote, and as a male reader I am immediately drawn to the way she demonstrates an equivalent way her society was manipulating men.  Since this is a novel-length work, Austen is able to focus on theme rather than conflict in her opening sentence.  For short fiction, one must necessarily move more rapidly, as in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

Here I find an off-screen event has left the main characters in conflict between what they know has happened (Macomber is a coward) and what they are willing to admit.  This mirrors the ending, where we are left with a different conflict regarding Macomber’s death and the accident the remaining characters are willing to admit.

For my personal story, I think I must instead reach back to a story I like less, but which has no less of a great opening line, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”

The Worst of Times

Thanks to some unexpected health issues, I find myself limited in stamina, and have had to exert myself to meet my minimum weekly obligations here and on Critters.  I have in fact written very little in the past month, and have finished nothing.  And while I hold high hopes for my friends in NaNoWriMo this year, I am not even going to attempt it myself.

This persistent state of exhaustion has led me to delay the second part of The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, which I had planned to post as soon as I finished one of my stories-in-progress with a female protagonist.  I have tried multiple times, but find myself unable to sustain the energy level needed to hear their voices and write their words. Until I can actually do this, I cannot possibly tell you what I learned while doing it, so you’re going to have to wait.  Fear not, however, you are not forgotten.

The Best of Times

Enter the greatest opening line which I, in my humble-yet-accurate opinion, have ever penned:

Fifteen meters is a long way to fall, even in Martian gravity.

I  have lamented in the past the difficulties I have had selling The Clouds of Mount Olympus, from which this quote is taken.  A big piece of my sadness is this opening line, which introduces risk (conflict) and setting without beating you over the head with either.  Most of the time I find myself needing complex or compound sentences to establish conflict and context right away.

Clouds was first rejected in 2011, but I kept plugging away, leveraging Duotrope to find new venues who had not yet considered this story.  Ten days before my heart attack, I applied Andrea’s Rule to this piece and sent it out to Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi.  And it sold.

The Clouds of Mount Olympus is scheduled for inclusion in the November issue.  They let you read things from their site for free, but if you like what you see you should really send them some money to keep them in business. They take all major credit cards and Paypal.

… And it Gets Better

This past weekend, I received an email from an assistant editor of Asimov’s, telling me that she would like to purchase “IT Came From Outer Space.”  I shouted to my wife so loudly she thought I was having another heart attack.  Yes, it’s only a short poem, and Asimov’s is known more as a publisher of short fiction than poetry, but it’s also a major market for SF[3].  That’s pretty much guaranteed to get any novitiate writer’s heart rate elevated.

Do these first few lines foreshadow a great story?  I can’t say until we get to the end, and I’m hoping that’s still a long way off.

[1] Isaiah 46:9b-10a:  “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,…”
[2] Unusual comma use aside, I still love this sentence.  And I am well aware that fiction of the day could open in a more leisurely manner than modern stories, which is why I’m not concerned that the opening scene focuses on Mr. Bennet and his wife rather than the protagonist (Elizabeth), and the absence of Mr. Darcy until much later in the story
[3]Sadly, even major markets aren’t included on the magazine aisle of my local grocery store or pharmacy any more, but I did find it at my local Barnes and Noble. There is also an electronic edition, and subscribers get their copies up front.

Who Mourns for Abby Sciuto?

My heart broke last week when NCIS jumped the shark in its 2014 season premiere, “Twenty Klicks”.

SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven’t seen the season premiere yet, you may want to watch it online.  Then again, those who do may never watch another NCIS episode again.

gibbs-jumps-shark-bw

Sorry, Gibbs.

I felt bad when actress Cote de Pablo (Ziva David) left the show last season, but I had some hope for Ellie Bishop, who seemed to be a cross between genius-probie McGee and straight-arrow Kate with a dash of Abby sweetness.  Besides, we still had Abby, everyone’s favorite problem solver and perky goth.  Then the scriptwriter introduced a computer virus as a plot device and managed to break every rule of rational computer science ever invented.  And sweet, brilliant Abby Sciuto was left looking like a technology fool.

As a professional computer geek and aspiring writer, I’d like to use this episode as a roadmap for everything not to do when introducing a computer virus into your plot.  For comparison, I’d like to use the real-world Stuxnet / Flame malware which attacked the Iranian nuclear program in 2009/2010.

Malware Attacks Favor Secrecy

When the virus hit NCIS[1], the computer screens all over the office went wild. This is perhaps the classic symptom of a Hollywood computer virus, and it is totally absurd.  Unless this symptom is the intent of the malware in question, the best way for malware to spread is to remain hidden.  Since this would make for a boring episode, I can understand why scriptwriters ignore it, but it’s still annoying.

For comparison, the Flame malware stayed hidden for a significant period of time, spreading slowly from machine to machine until it reached its eventual target, computers loaded with software that was used to program the high-speed centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear program. Only then did its presence become obvious, and even then the attack was subtle:  it caused the centrifuges to shake themselves apart during use in a manner that could have been misinterpreted as a hardware failure.

Malware Attacks Need an Attack Vector

In the season premiere, Abby triggers the virus by loading data from a memory card onto a laptop.  The laptop is isolated from the network, and has even been placed in a Farraday cage to prevent it from connecting to WiFi, but somehow it escapes over the power cord (!) and spreads to the rest of the building.

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that laptop computers generally have a battery and don’t have to be plugged in to operate, this is perhaps the most absurd misapplication of technology I have ever witnessed.  You cannot transmit malware unless the recipient computer has a defect that causes it to execute the code somehow.  This can be done by human engineering (i.e. a trojan horse), by being attached to a piece of shared data (i.e. a virus), or by transmission over the network (i.e., a worm).  Unless you are using specialized network hardware to piggyback LAN traffic on top of your power cabling, malware can’t travel through the power cord, and even then it can’t use the powerline network unless it is physically connected to your computer.  Sorry, the malware might have mangled Abby’s lab PC, but it would have stopped there.

For comparison, Flame was transmitted on the ubiquitous USB keys people use these days to transfer large quantities of data between computers.  Since Microsoft Windows has an annoying habit of executing everything it sees as if it were a legitimate application, these systems were vulnerable to attack over this vector.  I still want to scream every time I get a new USB key and Windows wants to load a “driver” from the device.  Linux doesn’t do this, and while it implies that people who use Linux have to be able to load their own drivers when they need them, it’s a whole lot safer.

Malware Can’t Attack Everything

When the virus attacked NCIS, not only did the computer screens go wild, but the office lighting suddenly went dark, and the phone system failed.  Even if they use VOIP for their phone system and have a centralized system to manage their lighting, this still wouldn’t really make sense.  The reason?  Any normal business has separate systems to handle these three distinct functions, and they are generally implemented with different technology stacks.  The only way this virus could have affected computers, lights, and phones would be if they were all vulnerable to the same exploits[2] — but if NCIS knew about these exploits (to write the virus), wouldn’t they have already patched their own computers to protect against a similar attack?  Moreover, why would the NSA allow NCIS to connect to its secure  network when they were under an apparently unstoppable malware attack?

In the real world, any particular piece of malware is designed to attack  a single kind of computer system.  nVIR attacked early Macintosh systems, and Stuxnet attacks computers that run Windows.  It’s possible to write code that can attack multiple computer platforms, but it’s hard, because each piece of code takes up space, and the larger your malware code, the more likely it is to be detected.  I consider JavaScript to be a particularly evil vector for malware, because its ubiquitous, runs on multiple platforms, and the demands of ignorant users have resulted in it being essential for day-to-day work on the internet.  Even then, competent IT personnel keep their systems “current” with system patches, and it’s mostly the inexperienced home users who get hacked.

The Moral of the Story

When possible, protect yourself from malware by using less-vulnerable operating systems like Linux or OS X.  Practice safe computing by keeping your computers currently patched, and use antiviral software like ZoneAlarm or Kaspersky on your PC.  And don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Beyond this, if you are a writer who wants to include malware in your stories, the following process may be useful to insure that you don’t invent a Hollywood virus like the one that sank NCIS:

  • Decide first what your villain wants the malware to attack.  There are plenty of targets, and the number will only increase as our homes and vehicles get increasingly connected to network monitoring and control systems.  At the same time, any given attack will typically affect only one kind of computer system and people who use a different one won’t be affected.
  • Decide how the malware is going to affect the computer systems it attacks.  Once you have broken into a target system, it’s relatively easy to make it crash or operate more slowly, so these kinds of effects might come from a young programmer just learning about malware.  Tools that collect and return security information to your villain (e.g. keyloggers) might come from organized crime, because it takes a more sophisticated group of programmers to develop them.  And the really advanced techniques are probably coming from national governments with the money and power to fund these software teams.
  • Decide what vector(s) the malware might use to break into the computer system in question.  Most successful attacks will require one or more human errors to be successful:  a defect in SQL Server, for example, might go unpatched because of a bad business decision, leaving data exposed to the attacker.  Or someone might introduce a trojan horse into your network by opening an attachment in an email, which subsequently transfers itself as a worm inside your corporate LAN.
  • Once you’ve designed a plausible bit of malware, set it loose on your protagonist, and tell the tale.

There are a lot of bad people out there coding bad software, so we shouldn’t have to stretch our reader’s suspension of belief to include a nasty bit of malware into our plots — but you have to do it right.

[1] There are technical differences between the a trojan, a worm, and a virus.  All are malware.  People who get picky about the difference between a worm like Stuxnet and a virus like nVIR are being pedantic, so I don’t care that they called the attack a “virus” in the season opener.
[2] Well, the lights, phones, and computers are all plugged into the power grid, so maybe the magic power cord exploit was used on all three.

Andrea’s Rule

Andrea is my feminist conscience. She is also a friend. For the past decade or so, I have been tossing my story ideas at her to see what sticks, much as an undergraduate might toss spaghetti at the wall to see if it has been properly cooked[1].  This has proven useful over the years, because a lot of my ideas come out half-baked.  I think it’s even more important now that I’m actively doing battle with the Men are Generic, Women are Special trope in my stories.Asimov's Oct/Nov 2014

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has composed a brilliant little piece in the October Asimov’s about a woman struggling to live in the stuffy world of country club golf. I would love to be able to write that piece[2]. Sadly, I am handicapped not only by my inferior writing ability, but also by the annoying interference of a Y chromosome in my genome. I can’t really know how she feels, because I’ve never lived it. Then again, I’ve never been a three-armed alien from the planet Zzax[3], either.

The key, of course, to writing about things you’ve never experienced is research. To research women for my fiction, I read biographies and relevant SF novels and talk with my wife.  And when that turns into a possible story idea, I consult with Andrea.

One tip Andrea gave me has recently become the mantra for my recent stories.  I hereby christen Andrea’s Rule:  When you create a character, ask why it has to be male. Lacking a strong reason, make her female.  This one small act has taken a scimitar to my character design, shifted my plots, and overall made my stories less drab and boring.Andrea's Rule

One side effect of this action has been to make me notice when other writers make the decision to let more characters be women. In Robert R Chase’s contribution to the same Asimov’s, his commanding officer Lieutenant Jansons is a woman.  It’s a valid decision, but I was surprised when (two pages in) she was first tied to a pronoun, and it was feminine.  And perhaps, that’s the point.

As long as people like me are surprised by a generic woman, we need Andrea’s Rule.

[1] My wife would perhaps be a better choice, but she doesn’t really enjoy SF.  She does like spaghetti, but to date I haven’t thrown any of that at her, either.
[2] Not literally. That would be plagiarism, and I don’t do that.
[3] I have no stories pending about this alien.  If you want to write about her, please do.