Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for May, 2015

Tanith Lee, 1947-2015

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Lee, Silver

SFF has lost a major talent; I’ve lost one of my lodestars.

Tanith Lee died yesterday, only 67. I loved her stories — the unobtrusive but deep knowledge of myth, the subtlety and lyricism, the originality, the nuanced understanding of humans (and non-humans), the fluid roaming over arbitrary boundaries.  Her retold folktales etched themselves in my memory and her love of liminals jibed with mine.

Farewell, fellow windwalker. May Silver sing in your sleep.

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

As people know, I’ve been working on the successor of The Other Half of the Sky.  It focuses on women scientists doing science not-as-usual and is titled To Shape the Dark — because that’s what scientists (should) do.

I spent this past weekend doing final passes on about half the stories that will appear on the anthology.  If things continue at this rate we’ll have a finalized TOC by the first week of June.  Until then, here are the occupations of the stories’ protagonists, to whet people’s appetites. People took my injunction not to flood me with computer programmers and psychologists seriously!

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Scalpel versus Hammer

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

“…sleazy rancid twat…” – Tom Kratman about someone daring to dissect his, um, “fiction”; at File770 on May 12, 2015. The comment has since been deleted by site moderators but Internet Rangers never sleep.


Profanity has been with humans ever since we developed language past grunts. Research indicates that it emanates from different centers than those for main language: the limbic syste in charge of the “Four Fs” rather than the cerebral cortex [Tourette syndrome, whose symptoms include out-of-context swearing, has both limbic and cortical components]. This provenance makes swearing the direct descendant of involuntary animal stress vocalizations for anger, fear and pain. It explains why otherwise aphasic stroke victims can still swear and why stutterers nevertheless swear fluently (showcased in The King’s Speech). It also jibes with the fact that swearing can alleviate pain, though only short-term – and only acute pain, not its intractable chronic counterpart.

Swearing is routinely divided into blasphemy (religion) and obscenity (body parts). Steve Pinker has fussily classified swearing into abusive, dysphemistic, idiomatic, emphatic and cathartic – but the significant category overlaps are clearly visible.

Non-reflexive swearing is word magic akin to cursing and as such registers viscerally, but only in one’s natal tongue. Swearing in languages acquired later in life doesn’t deliver this solar-plexus punch, hence the common spectacle of normally restrained or prudish people swearing freely in their non-primary tongues. As with all language, some words may be deemed insults in some contexts but not others, although the basis for the assignment is always obvious (a prime example is “cunt”, convoluted exegeses about its gender – and value – neutrality notwithstanding; even its apologists concede in private that it’s a nuclear-option term).

In most societies, constant swearing is taken as evidence of a limited vocabulary and hence a signifier of low educational and social status. Conversely, uttering obscenities without consequences is the prerogative of those dominant in their local power structures and/or beneficiaries of exceptionalism. Spontaneous swearing is always a physical reaction; on the other hand, calculated swearing is often a way to establish a persona, overcome feelings of inadequacy or claim instant–insider membership in a group. Many in/famous standup comedians are textbook examples of all three. So are rage bloggers and frothing trolls who seem to operate on the assumption that four-letter words (especially about women, especially about older and non-pretty ones) are toughness bona fides.

chaplin203Deliberate excessive swearing reminds me of an anecdote about Richard the Lionheart and Salah ad-Din (the story is apocryphal: the two never met face-to-face). Richard, to show his might, whacked a table with his two-handed sword, reducing it to splinters. Saladin removed a silk scarf from around his throat, tossed it in the air and twirled his damascene blade below it. Richard picked up the scarf, only to find out it had been neatly cut in two.

Likewise, routine heavy use of expletives in conversations obscures the points in an argument, focusing instead on the swearer’s intent to shock… though they rarely awe. A swearer’s goal is often to show “righteous” wrath; but they mostly come across as people who, to use Saxon, can’t hold their shit – or who are using a blunderbuss to obscure the weakness of their position. The polyglot occupancy of the internet (even while English remains its lingua franca) blunts the impact of such words anyway, leaving only the categorization of their user.

Bone-breaking maces have their uses but even the brawniest berserker can be brought low by a well-aimed arrow. Of course, wit can get its wielders beaten, imprisoned or killed, because its targets (usually) recognize it for the subversive instrument it is – and people pricked by sarcasm often fancy themselves alphas in one or more ways. Using a scalpel rather than a hammer in discourse doesn’t necessarily imply a winning position. Nor does it automatically signify ethical or logical superiority. But it evens the playing field, just as the bows and slingshots of Welsh and Cretan commoners obliterated the advantages of patrician heavy armor and just as guerilla warfare has always finessed brute-force frontal battles.

As someone whom many consider an annoyance or obstacle (though they’ve used different terms) I find it amusing, during breaks from important tasks, to poke pinholes in helium or lead balloons of wannabee godlings, rambots and tai tai. That said, my sense of fair play (and, to be frank, my self esteem) prohibits me from tackling the unarmed even with ping pong balls, let alone with Stinger missiles.

[Billy Bragg and Wilco, with Natalie Merchant harmonizing, perform Woody Guthrie’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key]

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewe

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Hergé’s Captain Haddock, who at least was inventive and articulate with his cursing; 2nd, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp, who knew how to prick balloons.

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

The flood of data from the solar system probes has led to tectonic shifts in our understanding of our neighbors. High on that list has been the discovery of liquid water in the large moons of the gas giants: Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus. By many strands of evidence – which include geysers – all three have large subsurface salt-water seas below their icy surfaces (Saturn’s Titan has surface oceans but they’re made of methane and ethane, liquid at Titan’s ambient temperature). In Europa and Enceladus this water may be in contact with a complex silicate core that could supply both directional scaffolding and building blocks; and the orbital friction between the moons and their primaries generates heat dynamos that could give rise to deep hydrothermal vents.

Salt water with a steady supply of dissolved nutrients; an energy source; complex silicates that – according to Cairns-Smith’s clay hypothesis – could act as anchors and template propagators for chiral organic molecules. The simultaneous presence of all these components is a recipe for the development of life.

Life as we know it is based on carbon and uses water as its solvent. Both are unique within their respective categories. Carbon is the best foundational element for complex chemistry by several orders of magnitude: the number and variety of organic compounds exceeds that of all the rest combined. Like its fellow occupants of the fourth column of the periodic table, carbon has an outermost electron orbital that is exactly half-occupied. So the fourth column elements are equally good as electron donors or acceptors, and as a result they can form compounds with just about every other element.

Carbon has an additional almost-unique characteristic: its unoccupied orbital is at such a distance from the nucleus that it can form bonds of the exactly correct strength to create very large and complex compounds. In particular, carbon bonds with itself more or less with the same proclivity that it bonds with anything else. Whatever can be imagined, of any size, shape, taste or smell, can be found among organic compounds, from diamonds to nucleic acids, from limonenes to fullerenes. If a carbon atom’s four available positions have distinct occupants, the resulting compounds are chiral (“handed”), another apparent prerequisite for biomolecules – certainly a decisive attribute of all terrestrial ones.

Silicon, the next foundational candidate after carbon, is a distinctly inferior also-ran. The radius of its outer electron shell is larger, which means that it forms weaker bonds, especially with itself. Generally compounds with more than three silicon atoms in a row are very unstable, unless they are forced into a crystal lattice. And if oxygen is anywhere near it, all available silicon funnels itself into silicates, precluding all other combinations.


In turn, water has several properties that make it the most potent and versatile solvent. This includes its tetrahedral structure (due to its two free electron pairs, which make it a polar compound), phenomenal heat capacity (which makes it a stabilizer), high heat conductivity and surface tension (vital for many cellular structures and processes), transparency to visible light (crucial for photosynthesis) and the anomalous property of becoming less dense when it solidifies into ice (hence a reservoir and refuge). The runner-up, ammonia, shares some of these attributes (including the tetrahedral structure) and might be the solvent of choice at the lower temperatures of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Such a configuration is fully deployed in Joan Vinge’s justly famous Eyes of Amber.

If we encounter life elsewhere, it’s a foregone conclusion that its details will differ significantly from ours – and that its differences will dwarf what SF has come up with. Non-terrestrial life may not use DNA or RNA as its basis of genetic transmission; it may use a different kit of starting blocks for energy, scaffolding and catalysis. It will have a totally different repertoire of body plans, sensoria, mental processes, reproductive modes, ecosystems. But it will be based on carbon and will almost certainly use water as its solvent. And just from current percentages, it’s possible that most planetary life may have developed in “roofed ocean” worlds like Europa, instead of the open atmosphere of Earth.

Walking rightward (as is customary) in the Drake equation, the question is: if they emerge, would roofed-ocean lifeforms evolve to complexity? To sentience? To use of technology, whereby they might send the unambiguously civilizational signals still eagerly awaited by SETI? Of course, our horizons are limited by our own intrinsic parochialisms. We cannot easily visualize technology that’s not based on metals and fire. We cannot easily imagine how sentients that never see the stars might nevertheless deduce their existence.

Many of these perceived hurdles are in fact easily overcome. In Forerunner Foray, André Norton postulated a species that directed the building activity of coral polyps. The solution of water-dwelling lifeforms would be direct-to-biotech, bypassing metal forges. Terrestrial cephalopods are remarkably intelligent and are known to use technology (cetaceans are revenants to water, so their intelligence springs from the same foundation as ours). As for guessing the existence of the stars, a species with sensors in the right bracket of the EM spectrum would rapidly become aware of the overwhelming nearby presence of Jupiter or Saturn. Such species might eventually build starships from tissue, like Farscape’s Moya. Beyond that, the specifics of such species might go a long way towards explaining the over-invoked Fermi Paradox: if they sent signals, they would automatically choose their own waterhole frequency.

So far, we’ve seen the exteriors of roofed-ocean worlds. Missions have been planned for investigations of interiors, though their launch dates keep slipping further into the future. In the end, our own vaunted ability to see the stars may not avail us if we choose to turn inward, eventually running out of the metals and fuels that keep our window to the universe open. If we do send out exploratory vessels, we have to be extra careful not to mar the worlds we touch, that may harbor their own tinkerers and dreamers. But it’s my fond fantasy that, before my own life sets, we get to hear of filigree manta rays swirling under Europa’s ice to the radio pulse beats of the giant overhead.

Giant Manta Getty

Images: Top, the Europa system (NASA/JPL); middle, water, the marvelous solvent; bottom, a manta ray pirouetting in its element (Getty Images).