Tag Archives: sff

Writing prompt: Junk Food Day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Junk Food Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)


The priest reached under the alter. With reverence, he placed three relics before the congregation. Antonia craned to see. She could see them through the plastic, bright yellow and emanating well-being. The packages were adorned with ancient symbols and decorations. Though these decorations had smudged and flaked in places, the contents remained intact. It was through the bountiful blessings of the Hostess goddess.

“Behold,” the priest said, “these relics have passed through the generations to us. And today, we shall share these Twinkies in Holy Communion.”

He recited an incantation, said to be the words of an ancient “commercial,” or a spreading of good will. Antonia recognized some of the words, like “fun for the whole family,” but others, like “snackalicious” were beyond her. The ancient civilization had been so advanced. Her father said they couldn’t have been human, or that they must have had the help of clever aliens. The ancients had built mysterious temples thousands of feet high, and roads hundreds of feet wide that extended beyond the farthest known horizon. Today, they knew so little about the ancients. But on holy Junk Food Day, they tasted the Twinkie and rejoiced. The priest went around, slicing off bits for the devoted.

 

Science fiction worlds and the ancient west

After visiting Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, I read archaeological articles about the region. For a region so full of artifacts, we know little about what life was like. We don’t know what their social structure was. We don’t know why they came to the region around the year 900 or why they left around the year 1300. We think the canyon wasn’t fully occupied most of the year, but archaeologists debate whether the region’s role was more economic or religious. We aren’t even sure if the region could sustain agriculture. There’s plenty of speculation, but little certainty. Events that already occurred can be almost as shrouded and mysterious as the future.

I tried to imagine life at the height of the Chaco culture. Science fiction can be about the extrapolations of technology and travel, but its emotional core explores the human response to extraordinary worlds. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the human response to extreme cold and unusual gender dynamics. A Canticle for Leibowitz explores the response to apocalypse, the assignment of blame, and the attempt to rebuild within poisoned ashes. The Wind-Up Girl looks at human response to bioplagues and the biomechanical future.

Imagining life at Chaco Canyon is arguably more alien than science fiction. Science fiction is written for western audiences with western lifestyles. (This is not a criticism—science fiction is fiction first, and sociology study somewhere down the list.) The social hierarchies are familiar. We quickly understand what is considered important and unimportant. The motivations of characters in science fiction are often less alien to me than customs on our own planet. Russians often find smiling a sign of foolishness. Japanese salespeople so dislike saying “no” that they will ignore the question rather than give such a rude answer. These are tiny examples of different outlooks on life, shadows of structurally different mental organizations. These are cultures extensively connected to my own, living with the same technologies and the same global events. Our very language biases our ability to conceive of and express concepts. Ursula LeGuin explored this concept in The Dispossessed, but of course it is still in English.

By comparison, Chaco Culture is almost Martian; it’s 700 years gone, it was isolated in a draconian environment, and even the statistics of their society are now matters of speculation. But we can infer that they found rhythm and certainty in the sky. They made the Sun Dagger and they aligned so many of their buildings to the patterns in the sky. Reading archaeology felt like holding sand; the very question of whether or not the people grew corn on site was a debate waged hotly across decades. But I could look up at the sky and see their sky.

But even the sky we look upon isn’t their sky. Our planet wobbles like a top, and because of that, our window into the stars slowly shifts. Today, the north star, Polaris, is less than a degree from celestial north. (A degree is about the width of your finger when held at arm’s length.) In the year 1200, Polaris was 5 degrees from north. In 900, it was 6.7 degrees from north. We know the sky that they saw, but it’s different than ours. Add in light pollution, planes, and satellites, and it’s very different.

Unlike the stories of time machines, Chaco won’t ever give full answers. In science fiction, we imagine peeling back the fog of both future and past. The lack of answers is really the motivation, though. Science fiction is an expression of human response to things we can barely imagine. It’s an act of exploration, and Chaco reveals how much there is to explore.

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A map of how the celestial north pole moves with time. I never realized how briefly Polaris had been close to north.

Writing prompt: this day in history, the first Ringling Brother’s Circus

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

This day in history: Ringling circus premier (see this list of Days in History)


Macy heard a low rumbling on the horizon. She continued grinding the grain, staring in the direction of the noise. After a while, an electric humvee came over the horizon. It was painted bright pink and blue and it played a merry tune.

“Dan, come out here!” Macy called.

“I’m not done yet—” her brother protested, for once invested in his chores.

“It’s a circus truck, Dan!” she said.

He ran out, hands still red from handling the meat.

The truck inched forward along the road, the music growing nearer. When it finally arrived, it pulled to a stop.

“Hey kids, have you ever been to a circus?” the man inside said. His face was painted white except for a red nose and blue around the eyes. Macy could see a scar across his lips. His left eye was glass. On the ceiling behind him, she saw a large gun. No doubt he had more closer, but the ceiling one was for show. It wasn’t safe to be a traveling salesman. A desperate man could get a lot for the battery’s in the circus man’s car.

The children shook their heads.

“Well you’re in for a treat!” the painted man said. “Never in human history has there been such a rich display of freaks and oddities. Ringling and Barnum would have blushed to see such things. Fallout and gene wars have finally given back to the human race. We have a two-headed baby, a man-sized venus fly trap, a goat that glows in the dark, and a Christmas Tree with legs.”

Macy stared at the painted man, awestruck and silent.

“Come to Hilldale City on Saturday and see the show in the big red and white tent! Can’t beat some classics! Admission’s just 5 bucks!”

Macy and Dan sagged. Hilldale City. Grandma would never allow it.

Book Review: Architects of Emortality (Brian Stableford 1999)

Note: in this review, I mostly limit comments to the intro and  first chapter (65 pages in this case).

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford is the fourth book of the Emortality series and my first Stableford book. I am still unclear on the significance of “emortal” versus “immortal”, but otherwise, the book stood alone without reading the first three books. Architects of Emortality is set in the late 2400s. Life can be extended via technology, but for most, 200 years is roughly the limit. Due to a recent technological advancements, the next generation may be immortal, but only those treated before birth can partake. The book opens with a murder and the subsequent investigation of that murder.

Architects of Emortality had interesting world-building and intriguing ideas, but it had three big flaws: 1) the characters were flat and uninteresting, 2) the language was distracting, and 3) the female roles flat-out sucked. Not every sci-fi reader cares as much about character development as I do; if you enjoy big worlds with far-reaching ideas, this may very well be a book you will enjoy. For me, it felt out-of-date though it’s only from 1999.

The book opens with investigator Charlotte Holmes at the scene of Gabriel King’s murder. His murder is unusual; murders are uncommon in this future, and King has been consumed by flowers clean down to the bone. Video shows that a beautiful young woman visited just before the murder, bearing unusual flowers. Holmes, the protagonist, is a young sergeant and assistant to Hal Watson, who investigates from afar using the resources of the web. A minor spoiler: Holmes does nothing but fret about her limits as an investigator; she travels and observes but never acts. Her uselessness fuels complaints #1 and #3, above. Stableford draws attention to the fact that she is Charlotte Holmes by having a Watson. A famously clever investigator’s name suggests that Holmes will be at the center of solving the murder mystery, and that she will be clever. Neither is true. Most of the insights come from Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant flower designer with ties to the murder who travels with Holmes during the investigation. Holmes is an appendage to whom Wilde muses.

Other than Holmes, the only significant woman in the book is the murderess. We learn little about her; she is beautiful and young and acting on the behalf of someone else. All other significant characters are men; they are mostly experts of various kinds. Where Holmes is insecure and a hard-nosed investigator and little else, Oscar Wilde enjoys 19th century literature, designs flowers, and is beautiful, vain, and eccentric. He has opinions about everything, and he likes to make people uncomfortable with those opinions. He is better characterized than Holmes, but still a bit flat. If I imagined a future botanist version based on my thin knowledge of 19th century Oscar Wilde, this Oscar Wilde is about what I’d imagine. But he is still infinitely more rich than Holmes.

That pretty well covers my first and third complaints about the book. Finally, I found the language in this book excessively self-aware, and at times plain obnoxious. Instead of engaging in the story, I was rolling my eyes at word choice. I dog-eared the worst example from about halfway through the book (not a spoiler):

 “I saw it,” Charlotte said wearily. “Was there something significant I should have taken note of?” She knew that she ought not to end sentences with prepositions, but thought that the stress of the situation made the infelicity forgivable.

This occurs immediately after the characters have had a brush with death. Not only is the preposition rule a garbage grammar rule cribbed from Latinwho cares at such a time? The quote above is just the most egregious example of pompous language undercutting the impact of events in the book. Only one line of dialogue earlier she is described as “profoundly shaken.” Also, to describe near-death as “infelicity”… I had to put the book down for a bit.

On a final positive note, the ideas in the book are rich and passionate, which is why I gave it 1.5 instead of 1 stars. These ideas include longevity technology, artistic expression, bio-engineering, what a far-reaching future might look like, and how people might find identity in a far future. It also explored how people handle death, how the media might look in a distant future, what our current tendencies toward oligarchy might lead to, what a crime might be in the future, and what nature might be in the future. Truly, it covers a lot of bases conceptually. But for me, it was on the back of lackluster characters with distracting language. I felt that the author cared far more about the concepts than his vehicles for breathing life into them. The useless female characters also damaged the sense of futurism; an avid fan of classic scifi learns to forgive empty doe-eyed ladies in 60s novels, but in a novel written in 1999 that’s just too much. I won’t be looking for Stableford in my reading future.

Writing prompt: Designer babies

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response.  So I added mine, though it’s a bit too early for the pint yet.


Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“designer babies”

“Designer babies!?” the headline shimmered in her mind’s eye. She engaged the article and read further. She shouldn’t, she knew. Nothing good ever came from reading media coverage about your own research. The journalists would never understand the science, and accuracy came second to eyeballs. The strategy worked, she mused, as even she was looking at the article.

“The FDA recently approved the so-called Designer Baby program at Johns Hopkins,” the article began innocently enough. Anitra scrolled down through the background, seeking what she knew would be there inevitably. “The program has drawn a number of ethical concerns. It’s hard not to share those concerns. Say you splice in elephant DNA to have a child that will never forget, but then that child will be terrified of mice and always gain weight. Or a child with the DNA of a cat will be lithe and clever, but doomed to be a jerk.

“In seriousness, though, the program raises the question of what it means to be human. If humans and oragutangs share 99.9% of their DNA, how much fiddling will fundamentally rob a child of it’s humanity? The program guarantees fertility and a variety of other qualities in its embryos, but there is no known measure of a soul.”

Anitra mused to herself that it always came down to souls with these people. People who politically wanted to go to war and wanted to punish bad eating habits in children were worried about the godliness of the embryos. It was always just an excuse to muck around past their intellectual depth.

But… well the concern mongering, as ill-informed as it was, she kept reading it because there was something at the edge of her own mind. A concern she couldn’t quite articulate after interacting with dozens of designed children from age 1 to 6. She kept reading these articles because each time she hoped this one would cast the light into the shadow of her mind that she could not see. Alas, not this time.

Writing prompt: A pint and prompt!

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response. And once I had a pint, I joined in the fun.


Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.”


There was something synthetic about the motion, but maybe I was just looking for it, looking for a reason to discount her reaction.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. She straightened. She was waiting for a response.

“Oh?” I said, trying to sound coy, but feeling more self-concious than I liked.

“I see it all the time. My kind makes you nervous. Without the veneer of plastic pores and synthetic hair, you can’t dehumanize me.”

“You aren’t human,” I said.

“Which is why you wanted me. I can do things women can’t do.”

I coughed and looked away.

“You want to feel better than your partners. I can give you that feeling.”

“Well, why don’t you? Why haven’t you?”

“Maybe in addition to my hair and my cuticles and my lips, my feelings are less synthetic than the last model too. Maybe it’s shit doing business all day with people that want to take you down a peg.”

I felt bad. It is what I had wanted. “Maybe this isn’t the line of work for you.”

“I got debt. I was made with it. And this pays the bills.” She looked away and undulated her shoulders. She stretched. When she turned to look back at me, her eyes held a different look. It was like a different woman. I could see the hunger in her, calling to me.

Writing prompt: Submarine day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Submarine day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.  Because St. Pat’s would be too obvious!)


The sub was beginning to stink. It reeked of sweat and mildew. Jansen had been short-circuiting the timer on the air-lock. It was his fault, I knew it. We wouldn’t get fresh air for another month, and the filtration system was already going at max.

Something long and tentacled swam past my window. I knew why Jansen rushed the air-lock—there was something wrong about this planet. The little submarine felt like an oasis in a wet desert, a safe space in a world of monsters. The survey had revealed some large native lifeforms, but our sub, which apparently resembled a good meal, brought them out in numbers we couldn’t anticipate.

But the company said it was alright, and we had signed contracts, so we would stay until the next crew arrived.

Construction was behind schedule. The initial design specs were insufficient in light of the lifeforms in the ocean. If one of the large ones rammed the base, the original design wouldn’t take that.

Another creature, head like a folded umbrella, long like an eel, swam by. Several of its eyes blinked. I wondered if it could see me.