Tag Archives: Writing

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.

 

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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.

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.

Vironevaeh: 19 years of love

Like so many of us sci-fi-ers, I grew up on science fiction television. I remember watching Star Trek Next Generation in a high chair, and later I watched Babylon 5 and Voyager. I feared the space under the bed because my brother told me it contained a black hole. I drew aliens, made up planets, and wrote in codes. Once a friend cut the bridge of my nose with a hardcover book during horseplay, and I was delighted to declare myself Bajoran.

In 5th grade, we had the city project; we had to invent a city, describe its economy, design a model of it, and write a small essay. It was my catalyst. I created a city called Vironevaeh, set on a distant planet, colonized by humans from Earth in the distant future. My languages, my maps, my characters, my aliens now had a focal point.

That was 19 years ago. Once a year, I like to look back and celebrate all the fun I’ve had since. Dreaming about world building made me look at our own world in odd ways.

For now, Vironevaeh is just my little place. Maybe someday it will be something different, but more than anything, I love the journey.

Trips down memory lane

Below are a pair of landscapes, one from years ago and one from last year. My longing to depict Vironevaeh forced me to draw for a purpose. The pencil drawings was one of my first landscapes ever. The poster was an homage, and and another experiment in new territory: art nouveau and posters.

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Maps

Maps are a simple staple of scifi and fantasy, but drawing maps made me ask a lot of questions. What kinds of geology could happen on a planet that could still sustain humanoid life? Or non-humanoid? Where should lakes, mountains, deserts, and oceans be in a realistic environment? What kinds of names would places have? What names would be linguistically compatible? What kind of linguistic range could I expect on a planet–how much would it vary in a place with a global culture versus one with regional cultures? What kind of stories would I tell about the people on such planets based on the map, and for the people whose stories I had already imagined, what kinds of maps would that require? Maps seem dry and factual on the surface, but I found myself asking a million such second-level questions. I love maps.

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Storytelling

Vironevaeh filled me with stories, but I struggled to express them as I felt them. I have written my stories so many ways. Nowhere is that more rapidly evident than in my portraits. Below are four portraits of a character over six or so years. I had to learn to get the details right and be honest with myself where it wasn’t right. As ever, it’s a work in progress.

Places for the people

Maps and people weren’t the end, I wanted to know how the streets looked. That’s really hard! There’s architecture and materials, and then there’s imagining the landscape and how such things would fit in. I studied pictures of streets from around the world. I find this aspect the most challenging, but maybe also the most rewarding.

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Stories of a new world

As I told stories about a new world, I wondered about their stories. And when I told them, I found that they fit everywhere. How many references to the garden of Gethsemane exist in western literature? A new place would have new Gethsemanes. Below are two images from mythology about a mouse, and new people finding that mouse in new constellations.

It’s never the end. Next year I’ll have new thoughts to share. Every year I am a new person, and Vironevaeh is a new place.

Writing prompt: Middle name pride day

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

“Middle name pride day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays. This one is a little dumb, but that’s what is freeing about writing prompts. Sometimes they can be dumb, but they didn’t take very long.)


“Hey Jane, what’s your middle name?” Anka asked, her voice swaying with song. She hung upside down from the hover monkey bars, her pigtails dangling by her ears.

“I told you, I don’t have one.” Jane walked toward the hyper see saw.

“Is that so? I saw you name on the attendance list. ‘Jane X. Stuart.’ You liar.”

“Well why should I tell you anyway! We’re not friends!”

Anka rolled down from the bars and pursued. “Oh Jane, are you keeping a secret? Your middle name’s not anything embarassing, is it?”

Jane went cold. Anka smelled blood. This wouldn’t end well. “No. Go away. Stop following me.”

“What could it be…” she mused. “Xylophone? No…. Xavier? No… oh no… it couldn’t be…”

Jane didn’t turn, she just kept walking.

“Could it be Xagolonix?!” Anka cried.

That was it, Jane couldn’t take it anymore. She turned and pushed Anka. “ I said, go away!”

“You’re named after a monster! Do you know how many people Xagolonix killed?”

“I was born before that. Before that, it was a perfectly normal Martian name.”

“Jane Xagolonix Stuart!” Anka sang. “Jane Xagolonix Stuart!”

“Anka!” Mr. Svetloff barked. “Are you picking on Jane?”

“No, Mr. Svetloff,” Anka simpered. “Jane was keeping secrets.”

“Miss Anka Hitler, I don’t suppose you see anything odd about your name, do you?” Mr. Svetloff intoned.

“No, it’s a perfectly normal Earth name,” Anka said.

“About that,” Mr. Svetloff began.