Blogging the Alien

One of the more difficult things a writer can do is write about a culture that is truly alien. A lot of bad SF— especially in TV and movies— has shown alien beings that are significantly less alien to someone from a western culture than many human cultures.

My own personal shortcut to the problem of envisioning an alien species is to take some universal base-line facet of humanity and changing it, following the change to its ultimate conclusion. Changing the method of reproduction is one possible change; altering the method by which young are produced will change everything in a society. (Consider how much of human religion is dedicated to sex and gender roles.) Altering the primary method a species receives sensory input is another radical change that would produce profound psychological and cultural differences.

Another possible change, and one that I believe has some implications for the future of our species, is altering the species’ primary means of communication. The most alien of the aliens I have written about are the ghadi in Broken Crescent. The ghadi were a whole species as intelligent as man, but suffering a universal aphasia that removed the capability of verbal and written language. They end up thinking in a way that is completely alien to us.

More concretely, a change in the means of human communication— movies, television, and the mass-media— has caused radical and wide-spread permanent changes in human culture. One of the more profound effects being the ability to propagate a culture beyond its physical boundaries without force of arms. What the Romans did with legions, we do with Nike and Keanu Reeves.

Consider now this blog. The ability of one person to conduct a dialog with an entire planet. It isn’t clear where this will lead, what is clear is that we have no idea as a society how to handle it. The idea of public and private speech is obsolete on the internet. Your employer can Google you and uncover every stupid inappropriate comment you ever made on a Hello Kitty website. You drop a shopping list and someone can post it on—line. You can get fired or expelled because you scared someone in authority— and you can’t take back those electrons.

The more we communicate by text and e-mail, the closer we come to a scary point of universal selective omniscience. When we speak, we speak to everyone, and we can find out everything about anyone we want. What then?

Brain Dead?

When you write science fiction, you often find yourself in the position of thinking about the sciences in general. And it came home to me recently how strangely out of sync progress in medicine is in comparison with— for instance— physics or chemistry. While it’s easy to point out the massive progress medicine has made over the past ten, twenty, or fifty years, we have to face the fact that a large part of medical science is still limited to doing something to someone and noting the results. Pharmaceutical companies can’t even predict how well a medication might work, or what side effects it might have, until it’s actually used in trials. This would be like an car company having to build several full-scale model vehicles in order to figure out not only which design might actually run, but which ones wouldn’t blow up or fall apart.

The sad fact is that medicine wasn’t really a science until around World War I. To put that another way, a Chinese herbalist is only about 80 years behind your local neurosurgeon technology-wise. For the SF writer, that means that if you want to place a bet on where your next major world-shaking scientific discovery is going to come from, medical science is a good bet. There’s just a lot more uncharted territory. While it’s unlikely that any future work in physics will upend the premises set down by Newton or Einstein, we can be certain that some of the current fundamental “truths” of accepted medical science will be overturned.

An example; the accepted fact that nerve tissue does not regenerate and brain damage is permanent and irreversible. 19 years ago, a man named Terry Wallis was in an auto accident and suffered severe brain damage. He entered a coma from which he was never expected to awake. However, three years ago he did wake up. Not only that, his condition has been improving since, and he has been regaining some motor functions. While still profoundly disabled, he is fully conscious and able to communicate. Most exciting, his doctors have found evidence of his brain rebuilding itself.

You can’t tell a book by its cover

[Russian Forests of the Night Cover]


[American Forests of the Night Cover]

A while ago I sold the Russian rights to my first four books. I cashed the check and thought little more of it. Then, one day I was googling my work and found a page in Russia. . . I did a little digging and found the cover of the Russian edition of Forests of the Night.

Saying the choice of cover is odd seems a bit of an understatement. It doesn’t even seem the same genre. I just hope the cover blurb was descriptive. I’m picturing some poor Muscovite expecting a latter-day Conan or Gor, and finding a furry Mike Hammer.

Welcome to the 21st Century

Well, after going through and giving my website a thorough updating I decided that I needed to step fully out of the mid-90s (where my site had been stuck for close to six years) and get myself a blog. So here we go.