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Weird Science: Stranger than Fiction

by Paula Fleming

I find this ironic: people who don't read science fiction or fantasy sometimes criticize the genres for being "unreal." We writers of speculative work are "just making up a bunch of weird stuff." Our stories are full of elements "that don't have anything to do with real life." We're cooking up bizarre situations because our brain chemistry is unbalanced. If we were more normal, we'd realize how improbable are our verbal concoctions.

The fact is that we can't make up anything more outre than what goes on in real life. Let's explore various areas of the sciences for possible story ideas, keeping in mind that fiction must persuade the reader to suspend disbelief, while truth carries no such burden.

Biology. Migration. Birds do it, butterflies do it, people still don't understand it. Some migration, such as that of caribou herds and the wolves that follow them, is pretty clearly food-guided. But how to explain Arctic Terns' (Sterna paradiseae) 20,000-mile round trips between the Arctic and Antarctica? And how do Monarch butterflies know that a good place to spend the winter is on top of a mountain in Mexico (except during years when it freezes over)?

Medicine. Vampire bat bites cure stroke! A compound in vampire bat saliva, desmoteplace (DSMP), is a powerful anticoagulant, allowing the bat to feed without getting gummed up. Australian scientists have recently found that DSMP may not be toxic to the human brain, as is the drug currently prescribed for ischemic stroke victims, and so may be useful in treating strokes. You know there's gotta be a vampire story in there somewhere.

Geology. It's winter, but there's a 2,100-by-400-foot spot in Minnesota's North Long Lake that just won't freeze over, and no one's sure why. Divers have looked for springs or thermal currents, aerial photographs have been taken, freshwater lake experts from around the world have been consulted, and one snowmobiler drowned last year. Still, the theory that a cloaked UFO is sitting down there makes as much sense as anything else. Locals call the winter mystery the "black hole."

Paleontology. Four-winged bird discovered! Nothing cooked about these photos, and they're not on the front page of a tabloid. Microraptor gui lived about 125 million years ago, had feathers, and probably glided like a flying squirrel. The discovery of its fossilized remains in northeastern China supports the theory that flight evolved in tree-dwelling reptiles rather than in animals that ran fast on the ground.

Astronomy. A Polish-American project based at Cal Tech, using a telescope in Chile, discovered OGLE-TR-56, the 105th planet we know of outside our solar system. The discovery also proved the usefulness of "transits" as a method of finding new planets. The light from thousands of stars is measured every night; when a star's light dims ever so slightly every X hours or days, then a planet may be coming between it and earth. Nothing at all weird about that, except that at the same time, we're measuring such esoteric properties as the speed of gravity and the prevalence of dark energy. How often, when world-building, do we assume that scientific knowledge accumulates linearly? Can't you hear the critique? Your cosmologists are debating the properties of dark matter and alternate universes, but astronomers are still using earth-based telescopes to measure starlight? This seems inconsistent. Guess what? We may indeed have a better idea of what lies between the stars than what revolves around them.

Now Let's take a look at some recent news stories and explore how we could cook them into compelling science fiction:

New Species Discovered. This happens all the time. Scientists poke into some corner of wilderness or other and discover a brand new life form. At least, it's new to published science. People indigenous to the area have, of course, known about the critter all along. Recent examples include:
  • Highland mangabey. This arboreal Tanzanian monkey lives in cool, rainy mountain forests. Its existence was confirmed by two scientific teams working independently. Perhaps only a few hundred remain.

  • Four new fish species. U.S. and Taiwanese divers, cooperating for the first time in exploring fishing resources, discovered these species around deep sea coral reefs off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. More undocumented species may exist, but strong currents make collecting specimens difficult. In general, fish seen by the diving team were immature, suggesting that overfishing is depleting adult stocks.

  • Kha-nyou. This rodent, which resembles a guinea pig, rat, squirrel, and chinchilla all rolled up together, showed up in a market stall in central Laos where it was being sold for food. The scientist who spotted it was working for a conservation program trying to stop the extinction of rare species, mostly due to trade in ingredients for traditional Chinese medicines. The kha-nyou probably diverged from other rodents millions of years ago and compels the creation of a completely new family to describe it.

Discovering a new species has to be a heart-in-throat exciting moment. So we could write a story in which an enthusiastic, idealistic scientist discovers a new species and shows up his jaded, been-there-done-that colleagues. Or we could write a story in which a researcher with a cozy government job, who's just going through the motions to collect her pension, discovers a new species and rediscovers the meaning of her vocation. But let's take it deeper, beyond the thrill of discovery.

What does it mean for our nascent search for extraterrestrial life when we're still cataloging new species on Earth? Wouldn't it be ironic if we found a primate-type being on another planet and, in the same month, found a new primate in, say, Asia? Would one discovery be more important than the other, and why would we value one more than another?

If a species goes extinct and humans never know it existed, did its existence matter? After all, zillions of species went extinct before human ancestors even got up on two legs, including some of our own primate ancestors, and we're not overly concerned about their loss. It's hard to miss what you never knew. So why is the discovery and conservation of rare species important?

Some new species are discovered by commercial interests, some by conservation interests, and some by "pure research" interests. Rarely in this day and age are they being actively sought out. Instead, scientists are trying to document a known environment more thoroughly and discover by accident that they didn't know everything that lived there. Does it matter why a new species is found or who finds it?

These are challenging questions with no clear answers, or at least no answers that don't depend on some value judgment. Placing these questions before your characters and forcing them to wrestle with them, with their livelihoods or even their lives at stake, will create riveting fiction that will linger in readers' minds.

Old Species Rediscovered. We know that, globally, thousands of species of facing extinction. But, every once in a while, we discover that a species thought gone is actually still with us. Here are some recent examples.
  • Mount Diablo buckwheat. This pink wildflower resembling the baby's breath used to fill out floral arrangements, last seen seven decades ago, was identified by a graduate student surveying the flora about 30 miles east of San Francisco. It may have survived due to brush rabbits' eating non-native plant species that otherwise would have posed competition.

  • Ivory-billed woodpecker. Last reliably seen in 1944, this majestic bird has been confirmed to exist in eastern Arkansas, despite extensive deforestation of its range. The bird was not found by accident. A series of organized, determined efforts were launched, despite some derision from those who thought the ornithologists were on a "wild goose chase."

What do these rediscoveries imply about the resiliency of life? Can a parallel be drawn between the survival of a few members of a species whose habitat is destroyed and the against-all-odds success of some people whose childhoods are destroyed? What about human cultures and languages, which surely do not have a good track record of surviving onslaughts from economically or militarily dominant peoples? Are the ivory-billed woodpeckers doing better than the indigenous peoples of eastern Arkansas, and why do we or should we care more about one than the other?

What does the eventual justification of searching for a rumored woodpecker say about the value of belief vs. skepticism? Had the woodpecker never been found, would the belief in its existence be worth less?

And finally, of course, what about the Loch Ness Monster?!

Stem Cell Research Controversy. Stem cell research is controversial in the United States, where some people believe it destroys human life and/or that it offers little practical hope to cure serious diseases like Parkinson's. Here's the latest research:
  • Unprecedented success with somatic cell nuclear transfer. A multinational team headed by Professor Hwang Woo Suk of South Korea created 11 stem cell lines that match the DNA of humans ' males and females, ages 2 to 56 ' with a variety of diseases. The researchers used "only" 185 eggs from 18 donors to house the DNA to be replicated in stem cells.

The debate about the morality of destroying embryos to create stem cells is raging almost daily in the U.S. media, and I doubt that fiction can add anything to it. At this point, I'm guessing that most folks have made up their minds how they feel and are weary of the subject, wishing it would just get resolved in the way they feel is right.

Of more interest, though, is the question of whether research should be funded if its usefulness is uncertain. How much hope for an as yet unproven line of inquiry is too much hope? Or is there such a thing as too much hope for the terminally ill or severely disabled and those who love them? And what about that great force behind scientific progress: serendipity? Any project may fail utterly at its hoped-for outcome . . . yet point toward completely unforeseen results. How do or can we value science's "serendipity potential"? When should we scrap a line of inquiry as being futile?

So don't be afraid to mine real life as you come up with fantastic beings, alien worlds, and life-altering discoveries. But be careful: just because "it really happened that way" doesn't mean our readers will find it believable. We are writing fiction, after all. You know, just making up a bunch of weird stuff. We have to make our story elements credible to folks who haven't read the same news stories we have.

For More Information:

Here are some resources that present scientific news in language I don't have to strain my brain to understand. (All are available in their entirety on the Internet.)

Quirks and Quarks.
http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/
I recently discovered this Canadian Broadcasting Company radio show that covers a wide range of scientific topics, and I love it. Recent segments have included:
  • The contributions of the Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) telescope to astronomy
  • The role that red uniforms play in male athletic prowess
  • Markers that can help doctors diagnose autism in children as young as one, allowing for earlier intervention

    Science Friday.
    http://www.sciencefriday.com/
    I have to confess that Ira Flatow, though a bright, well-informed, well-intentioned host, puts me to sleep. I'm sure it's not his fault! If you can stay awake, this show, broadcast on many NPR stations, covers two to four interesting science topics in depth each week. Recent topics have included:
  • Science and globalization: poverty, hunger, and health
  • Self-replicating robots
  • Discovery of a new dinosaur

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known as NASA) website.
    http://www.nasa.gov/
    This site hosts a wealth of information, including educational articles written for young people and teachers, the latest mission and observation news, and tons of statistics about the known (to humans) universe.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (better known as NOAA) website.
    http://www.noaa.gov/
    OK, I admit it: I'm a geek. I can spend hours browsing buoy data on wave height and surface temperatures, and I'm fascinated by the formation and vectoring of hurricanes. From fisheries management to flood prevention, from weather satellites to deep sea diving, an awful lot of information about our planet can be found here. This is an invaluable site for stories involving any degree of planetary world building or terraforming or for understanding the impact of global forces on a world's inhabitants.

    United States Department of Agriculture (better known as the USDA) website.
    http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome
    Dairy quotas? Crop yields? Inspection requirements? Well probably, but also a whole lot more. I first realized the USDA website held more information than I expected when I stumbled across its pages in my search for information on certain plants in my garden. If you want to know about disease, pest, or climatic threats to the human food chain; the latest bioengineering results; or the problems and opportunities in rural development, this is the place to go. [Note: This is not the best organized or even functional website, so brace yourself for some frustration.]
  • Copyright © 2005 Paula Fleming
    This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


    Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.

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