Tag Archives: environment

Sources of Sci-Fi Inspiration: City Culture of Prague

Setting is a critical element to most stories. It frames the actions of the characters and provides a rich and interesting backdrop. Often the environment motivates the character. As most portraits of people would be less interesting on a white backdrop, most stories of people would less interesting without the setting. New Orleans gives Ignatius a good playground in “A Confederacy of Dunces;” “White Fang” would be reduced hugely without the north, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would be slightly different without the asylum.

As a writer of science fiction, setting is both a problem and one of my favorite things. How do you draw in the culture and idiosyncrasies of a place that doesn’t exist? They have to be imagined, and imagined plausibly, by the writer. All of my favorite science fiction books have strong settings: In “The Left Hand of Darkness“, we learn about the sexual culture of a differently gendered humanoid species. Through their myths and traditions, we get to learn how they eat, how they like their weather, what is taboo, and what is an insult. In “A Canticle for Leibowitz“, we start at a Catholic abbey in post-apocalyptic New Mexico several centuries in the future. In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress“, the setting is a lunar colony that feels bullied by earth. We learn about their principles, their marriages, and their aspirations. They can be a little closer to home, too. In “Holy Fire“, the protagonist travels from future San Francisco to future Munich to future Prague. Some sci-fi stays closer yet to home, but I find that I love crazy settings; thus I prefer Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep” to his “Rainbow’s End“. (For others see my top 20 scifi books post.)

When I write my stories, I don’t want the settings to feel like the Midwestern United States plopped onto Mars or Alpha Centauri. I want them to feel like products of their interstellar, future environments. So I try to understand how settings influence culture currently and historically. I spent a summer in Prague, and in that brief time I tried to learn what I could about the culture. I tried to go where the Czechs go, eat what they ate, and read what they read. My host in town was a retired Czech professor who liked to talk (derisively) about the communist days. I worked half days at a chemistry lab out in suburban Prague. One of my coworkers smoked at her desk only feet from various chemicals and dressed like a 60-year-old teenager. I took frequent walks to Vyšehrad, an ancient fortress in Prague (pictured below).

I most appreciated the Czech sense of humor. As a country often conquered, the country developed a strange sense of absurdism. Under the Petrin Tower in Prague, there is a museum to Jara Cimrman, the best Czech man, who never existed. I can hardly say I understand everything there is to know about Prague and Czech culture, but a few months there certainly showed me a type of people I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully this will aid me in constructing a people we haven’t met before.

Some worthy Czech reading:

Side note: No post this past Friday; I broke my toe and then I had a lot of traveling to do this weekend. Happily, the toe is already much improved, and today it’s 80 F (25 C) out.

Beautiful Books: “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie”

I first saw “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” in an expat bookstore in Belgium. The book is vibrant and colorful and intriguing. After I got back, the book was still on my mind, and I purchased it. The book is an art-collage biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their Nobel-prize winning work on radiation. Their work is so influential that they named several elements (radium and polonium). A unit of radioactivity, a Curie, bears their name, and the element Curium was named for them.

Every page of this book is truly beautiful. The colors are deep and wonderful. Somewhere in the book, the author describes the techniques she used, and how they were specifically inspired by radioactivity, but I have not found this description on the web. This book is much more beautiful than most graphic novels, and I love that it is about science. The book makes Marie Curie especially relatable. She’s still the most famous female scientist a century after her great discoveries. She comes across as driven but human.

Here, then, is the big caveat in my review. The author relates a mostly negative view of radioactivity and nuclear advances. The damage to Marie and Pierre’s bodies, as well as their daughter, is given in detail. The bombing of Japan, the three-mile island incident, and Chernobyl are covered in great detail.

I found it incredibly saddening reading about Marie Curie, the most recognized female scientist perhaps ever, and then to read essentially a condemnation of the outcomes of her work. I also think this condemnation was unfair. To write the story of coal or gasoline would be to include tales of mesothelioma, ground water pollution, and air pollution bad enough in many parts of the century as to blot out the sun. The motors of wind power require mining for difficult-to-acquire materials, which comes from messy mining. No form of power comes without its evils just yet. That’s why we have scientists like the Curies, to keep stabbing away at the problem. Nuclear energy frightens people more than other forms of energy, but I think this is mostly an irrational fear. A simple Geiger counter reveals any stray radiation. Do you know when there are trace amounts of benzene about (a common hydrocarbon in oil)? Or other carcinogens? Hundreds of Superfund sites exist across the USA, many of them from hydrocarbon contamination. These sites can take decades to remediate.

Nonetheless, this book is beautiful and worth reading. The writing about Marie and Pierre Curie as people was wonderful. For those unfamiliar with the science of radioactivity, perhaps it will be a more inspiring read than it was for me.