Tag: science

Local Inspiration – Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910 at the Smithsonian

Opening last month (July), this exhibit on Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910 at the American History Museum
(12th and Constitution Ave., NW Washington, DC) explores the intersecting influences of science, innovation, industry, and the Victorian creative imagination through books from the Smithsonian Libraries and selected historical objects.

The industrial revolution and its attendant advances in science and art paved the way for a period of dramatic change in America and Europe. The public was enthralled by the rapid invention and scientific discoveries that characterized the age. Science became spectacle, and such literary luminaries as Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe responded, crafting fiction that explored the farthest reaches of the new scientific landscape and the startling possibilities this new knowledge uncovered.

Frank Reade Magazine Cover with Flying ShipsFor those of you who cannot partake of this in person here in Washington, DC, they have a fascinating online exhibit broken into 7 separate areas:

  1. Terra Incognita – Adventure and Exploration: To the Far Reaches of the World
  2. The Age of Aeronaut – The Dawn of Flight
  3. Infinite Worlds – Exploring the Universe and Seeking Extraterrestrial Life
  4. The Body Electric – Inspiring Frankenstein
  5. Rise of the Machines – Technology Comes to Life
  6. Sea Change – Underwater Worlds: Fathoming the Deep
  7. Underworld – Fossils and Geology: What Lies Beneath?

Also, their blog has a great collection of posts relevant to “Fantastic Worlds,” history, science, technology, fiction, and adventure.

WWW: Fiction Comma Science

Mathematics DoodlesA few weeks ago, I put up a post on my blog that took the form of a physics question and the math it took to come to the answer. The question related to how fast a spaceship I’m developing for a story would have to spin to simulate earth gravity. The answer is pretty damn fast, but not nearly fast enough to do any long term harm to the occupants. It’s the sort of thing I do every now and then when writing a story. That picture to the right are some geometry doodles I did in order to determine the apparent difference in the size of the sun when viewed on Earth and on Venus for a story set on the latter. Then I remembered the constant cloud cover and realized it was all moot.

Some of this comes from doing a lot of math when I was in school. I actually ran out of math classes in high school, scored a 5 on the AP Calculus test as a junior, and in college came within four credits of a math minor before realizing I just didn’t want to take another math class. I’ve been known to do long division for fun. On the road I’ll take the numbers in license plates and figure out if they’re divisible by three, and what the answer is if they are. Math is something that, when I do it on my terms, I find fun. The only reason I stopped where I did in college is that I wasn’t doing it on my terms. It wasn’t fun anymore.

In this way math is very much like fiction writing for me. I love writing on my own terms, but when I started trying to impose upon myself the regimen of writing a flash fiction piece every other week, it fell apart. But that’s not what this is about, that’s only a little observation.

Instead, this is about the physics equations I worked my way through in that post. This is about the geometry on that folded up sheet of paper. The reason why I did either is because I wanted to make sure I had good science behind my science fiction.

It’s one of those constant debates within science fiction. When you’re putting the word “science” right there in the name of your genre, how much of the science has to be right? The answer is, often, very little. And that’s well and good. Just watch an episode of Star Trek and you’ll see several things that may always be impossible from a scientific standpoint. Faster-than-light travel. Matter transportation. Being able to dodge the beam of a laser weapon. This is space opera and soft science fiction, opiates for the masses. And fun ones, don’t think for a second I’m knocking it.

But it’s true others want to see a lot more science in their science fiction. Forget the impossible, they want to see a vision of the future based on what we know can and cannot be done. This is hard science fiction.

There are shades of grey in between, there always are. Some writers have even managed space opera within a harder science fiction setting. However, the question becomes: which are you writing? Which do you want to write? It’s not a question that I think a lot of writers specifically ask themselves when they sit down to craft a manuscript, but it’s a good question to know the answer to. In mineralogy there’s the Mohs scale of hardness, ranging from talc at 1 to diamond at 10. If we were to posit a Mohs scale for science fiction hardness, where would our favorite novels, shows, or movies end up? What would be 1 on the scale? What would be 10? And where do you want your story to fall?

For that last question, there is no right answer. There is only the caveat that if the story is trying to be higher on the scale, then the story is going to come under greater scrutiny. The more that you point out, through the narrative, that you’ve worked out the science, the more readers and viewers will expect out of the story going forward. I’m still answering that question for my own story, and it comes down to how much classical mechanics I want to relearn.

As for the other questions? I’d like to see your thoughts in the comments. Personally, I’d probably put Star Wars down at the 1, with Star Trek around 2 or 3, and Serenity/Firefly more like 5 or 6. Thoughts on setting the extremes, or disagree with my placements? Let me know.

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Quotables: Happy Birthday Mary Shelley! #Frankenstein #SciencevsNature

FrankensteinYes, true believers today is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (b. 1797) author of Frankenstein. I wanted to put down a few words to celebrate today and this amazing writer who has given us a well recognized, well loved trope within the horror genre.  She writes about horror in perhaps its truest, most frightening form – that which comes from us – not human pride, but human optimism. It isn’t arrogance per se but our own exploration that led to the sad conclusion of this story.  It is a reflection of the state of human nature and of a human world.  We build the structures of our own destruction.  We fight against nature, mold it, shape it and try to make it our own – enslave it.

 Frankenstein is a novel about romantic striving against the boundaries and limitations placed on our existence.  Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a mad scientist, as his character has been reduced to over the years, but a scientist who is passionate about the primary questions and preoccupations of his time. In his quest for a scientific ideal – the perfect human – he creates a monster, who then must be held in check by other systems and institutions that humans have also created. While these institutions are more concrete and based in reality than the creation of the monster, they are equally imperfect. This novel helps the reader understand that there is no such state as perfection. Furthermore, there is no social experiment, whether based in reality or in fantasy, that will result in an ideal solution. Rather, human beings will always create imperfect institutions and inventions, and given this, must be prepared to accept responsibility and anticipate the potential consequences. (From Nicole Smith’s Article, “Romanticism and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley“)

I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Taken from Mary Shelley’s Author’s Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein she describes the dream she had that inspired the book.  The phrasing is not only gripping and graphic but very clearly highlights the themes we see repeated throughout the novel:  the unnaturalness of the monster, the relationship between creator and created , and the dangerous consequences of misused knowledge.  Best.  Introduction. Ever.

More Quotable Mary Shelley

“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open.”

“None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.”

“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”

“The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body…[b]ut now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished….”

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

“I am malicious because I am miserable….You, my creator, would tear me to pieces, and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?”

“[I]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear….”

“The companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.”

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

“But I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul; and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit what I shall soon cease to be–a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others and intolerable to myself.”

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60-Word Review: KINDRED by Octavia Butler

KINDRED by Octavia Butler

Beacon Press

Kindred is brutal and beautiful, like Butler’s other novels. It has the darkness and intensity of Butler’s other work but to a lesser degree; it will leave you with questions but not as many nightmares. The science fiction is restricted to the central conceit and never explained, which should appeal to those new to the genre. Not to be missed.


Reviewer Kate Marshall is the Editorial Assistant at Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine. She writes and reads in a cozy Seattle basement. You can find (much) longer reviews posted weekly at her blog, RevolutionSheep. She rarely actually incites farm animals to riot. Kate will be posting her 60-word reviews here twice a month, so stay tuned!


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