Donors Choose: Final Stretch!

Right. So remember how I said I’d match two $50 donations? And remember how we had two challenges going on, so I kinda figured I’d split my fundage between the two of them?

Heh heh heh whoops. Left it too late. We are down to one unfunded challenge, thanks to your awesomeness. So I put down the complete matching donation on that one. Here ’tis:

Mah Contribution to the Cause

I also want to mention, strictly as an observation, that the only person currently beating us on Freethought Blogs is Jen McCreight, and she has traffic that is an order of magnitude greater than mine. Which, I think, just goes to prove that geologists don’t just rock, they are very gneiss, not to mention the schist.

Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

So, Ms. C’s library project only needs $97. We can do that. In fact, we don’t even need big donations to do it. Here’s a chance for those folks who can only afford tiny donations to make a huge difference. $5, $10, more, less, whatever – it all adds up. The Donors Choose Challenge ends Saturday, so time is of the essence. Get thee to my giving page.

But we’re not stopping there.

I’ve added two projects. They’re not cheap projects. But you know what? These projects will allow kids to get out in the field. They’ll get their hands on geology right out in the field, in Great Basin National Park. Field trip!

There’s nothing like a field trip for making a future geologist. I want to get these kids out in the field, people. I want to make this happen for them. And I believe you guys can do this.

So here they are:

1. Discovering the Wonders of Nevada. “Every year we take 150 fourth graders on an overnight field trip to Great Basin National Park. Our school is a Title One, 100 percent free or reduced lunch school. Our parents are hard working and very supportive, but can’t always provide the enrichment activities their children need. The fourth grade students look forward to the “Ely Trip” every year.” $1006 to go.

2. Exploring the Wonders of Nevada. “Every year we take 150 fourth graders on an overnight field trip to Ely Nevada. For many of our students, this is the first time they have been in a rural setting. Our school is in a lower working class neighborhood. Our students are well-behaved, enthusiastic kids who could use a little “boost.” Our parents are very supportive but can’t always provide the supplies needed for the school year.” $357 to go.

All right? Let’s do this thing. Again, you don’t have to be Aunt or Uncle Moneybags. Little amounts count. Every single dollar gets these kids closer to an experience with geoscience that will stay with them throughout their lives.

So. Incentives. I shall give thee incentives, because this is something we should all do together.

1. I’ll write a short story for the highest donor. You can even choose the subject, if you like, and you’ll get a paper copy complete with autograph, if you wish. You’ll have to give me until the end of the year, because I’m stupid enough to try NaNo this November, but I’ll have it written and sent to you in January. Yes, I will haul my arse to the hated post office just for you.

2. The second-highest donor will get a personally-collected hand sample. That’s right! I’ll post a list of places I’m going this summer (once I know what they are!), and you tell me what hunk o’ beautiful geology you want me to package up and mail to you.

3. I’ll match 4 (count them, 4) donations of $50. So you $50 folk get to double your money! Don’t let that stop you from donating more, of course! And if you guys manage to fund these projects before I can whip my credit card out, you can each pick a project of your own for me to donate to.

4. Starving Students Offer: Those of you too strapped for cash to manage more than small donations can still get a little something! Send me an email telling me what you’re studying, why you chose your major, and why you donated, and I’ll showcase you guys on the site. Plus, I’ll write a poem for the person whose note makes me punch the air and shout, “Yes! Science can haz future!” Same caveats apply as the short story deal.

5. I’ve also got some super-snazzy Mount St. Helens posters, so all who have donated to any of our projects and want their names in for that have a chance at winning one of Mother Earth’s great works of art. Yahoo knows me as dhunterauthor.

We’ve got until Saturday, my darlings. Make it so.

Dana’s Dojo: A Time and Place

Today in the Dojo: How do you establish a story’s time and place?

Among the many pitfalls just waiting to impale the unwary writer is time and place. You’d think it would be so easy, right? How hard could it be to let people know the when and where of things? That’s nothing compared to the complexities of character, theme, plot, rising action, hooks, style…. Setting time and place is a walk in the woods after that!

That high-pitched shriek followed by the meaty thunk is yet another writer falling into the pit. A walk in the woods, indeed.

Not only is it harder to clue the reader in subtly to time and place than one might believe, it’s one of those chores that seem unimportant. As long as I let them know by, oh, say, page Three, we should be okay, right? you say to yourself, and Yourself agrees: Of course! Joe won’t be thinking about it being 1994 and living in Nowhere, Arizona when he’s in the house fighting with his wife. Of course it’s okay to only show that after he’s stormed out of the house.

Of course not. And I’ll show you why.

Where and When the Hell are We? A Cautionary Tale:

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have waited for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those spectators lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

Now, you’ve already formed a judgment about the time and place of the story. Old West, right? All the clues are there: woolen trousers, dusty street, six shooters, a gunfight, the saloon and dry goods store… That’s what your reader is going to think. That’s what you would have thought if you didn’t know I was about to pull a fast one on you. You would have been thinking, “Oh, no, another crappy Western…”

So what’s going to happen in the reader’s mind when they get past the gun battle, George hits the ground dramatically and then he and Butch both jump up to take their bows? Sure, we’ve revealed the time and place only about four or five paragraphs in – but by then it’s too late. The reader has already formed a judgment. They’re going to be jarred. They’re going to say, “Hey – I was expecting a crappy Western – what’s this story about two guys working for a Wild West Theme Park?”

It’s going to be even worse in the editor’s office, because if you’ve submitted this story to a publication that’s asked for stories set in modern times dealing with contemporary issues, you’re sunk. They’re not going to read past the first three paragraphs before stuffing your story into the return envelope and going on to the next.

“But you said to start in media res!” the writer wails. “This is in the middle of things! It’s right in the middle of the pivotal gunfight that George was scripted to win but Butch just had to go and win to prove how cool he is and and and… And there’s no room to say it’s a theme park! George isn’t thinking about that, he’s thinking that Butch is going to kick his ass again! He’s in character as one of the show people!” Or any number of other arguments as to why you can’t possibly mention the time and place just yet, ending with the very lame, “Well, look at the way he’s thinking! He’s obviously modern!”

Yeah. None of those arguments are working. And if the writer tells me with a smirk that they intended to pull a fast one on the reader, I shall give them a right sharp clout about the earhole. Don’t pull cheap tricks. If you’re planning a deception, it had better be for a far better reason than playing the clever bugger. And if the trick isn’t absolutely critical to the story, don’t pull it at all.

No, you can clue the reader in without destroying your magnum opus or being blatantly obvious about it. You don’t have to dump a clumsy reference to Billy Bob’s Wild West Theme Town into the first paragraph. You can tell the reader where and when they are by employing a whole range of tricks, which I shall now reveal.

The Subtle Art of Revealing Time and Place

So you want to set time and place right away, but don’t know how? I’ll tell you a secret: it’s easy.

No, really. It is. It’s just that we’re usually so close to the story, so committed to the way things are, that we don’t see it. There’s all kinds of opportunity already written into your beginning if you just know where to look.

The first secret is this: your reader does not need to know the story’s time and place so precisely that they can pinpoint it on a map and timeline. They just need a good, general idea to start with.

The second secret is that, like so much else in writing, you can start small and build. Time and place is often revealed as a totality of the evidence. Just like in that sample: you didn’t need anyone to say that “It was a sunny May 14th, 1872 in Dodge City, Kansas when George stepped out into the dusty street” to get a feel that this was a frontier city in the late 1800s (erroneous as that was). You made that judgment from far more subtle cues.

So what are those clues? Here’s a handy list:

References to Time Period

…and so much more!

The trick is to choose details that are specific to an era that readers will likely recognize. Let’s turn to Joe and his arguing wife for a moment. Do you have his wife throwing the phone at him? Great! Is it corded?  Cordless? Cell phone? He’s stepped in front of his new TV to save it – is it a flat screen? Or one of those huge contraptions in a cabinet that were current back in the sixties and seventies? He snatches up his hat on the way out – well, this is Arizona, it’s either going to be a baseball cap or a cowboy hat, isn’t it? Not likely to be a fedora in Nowhere, AZ. What were they shouting – “Cool it, man!” is a different era from “Calm down already!” And so forth…

You’ll put in a bit of a description of the living room, which will be simple and country, not a palatial mansion – not in Nowhere, AZ. When Joe storms outside, he’ll see desert. He’ll see at most a sad huddle of houses in the middle of nowhere. He’ll get in his truck – and rather than saying it’s a Ford, you can tell us it’s an F150. Every little bit helps, as long as it’s not too intrusive. If you don’t want to talk about make and model, that’s fine – but you can mention whether it’s an 8-track, a cassette, CD or iPod he plays on the stereo. Comes to that, which band is it? Beatles could be from any era now, but if he throws in Coldplay, you’ve just dated the story. And you better not have them on an 8-track….

See how easy that is? By the time you get him down to the diner bitching to his buddies about being stuck in literally Nowhere with a harpy, the reader will already know that we’re in the American Southwest, and roughly what time it is.

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, we can return to George and Butch.

Gunfight at Billy Bob’s – The Reprise

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, replica six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his costume’s woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have scheduled this skit for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those tourists lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

There’s enough in there now to clue the reader in: the guns are replicas. George is wearing a costume, and this is a skit. There are tourists watching. It’s enough to be going on with. Your reader will now be expecting a story set in modern times with actors instead of gunslingers. This is all to the good, and it really didn’t take much effort. From here, we can build on the rivalry of these two actors, continuing to set time and place with more details. If it’s the present, you could throw in a cell phone ringing and even mention the ringtone. There’s a wealth of possibility already there.

Time and Place as a Part of Other Jobs

It’s best not to think of setting time and place as a separate job. It’s part of the whole shebang. While you’re setting time and place, you can use those details to do other work for you:


…And So Much More!

Time and place defines who we are, the limitations and opportunities, what they mean for the characters, what can happen and how events will unfold. Bertha wearing hoop skirts and cooking over a cast iron stove is not only from a different era than Kylie wearing jeans and popping a Hot Pocket into the microwave. She’s also got a whole different set of social expectations, ideas, outlooks, specific problems, duties and abilities. She’s going to give the story a different feel. She’s going to drive the plot in ways Kylie couldn’t, and the things that happen to her will not be the same at all, even if on the surface they seem so. Her whole world is different. So will be Tatiana making borscht, or Spotted Dove roasting buffalo meat, or…

You get the picture.

Now go put your story’s time and place to work for you.

Teaching Geosciences in a Religious Country: A Discussion

Ron Schott, who is the geoblogosphere’s Bora Zivkovic, hosts Geology Office Hours on Google+ every Monday and Thursday. It’s a time for geo professionals and the geocurious to get together, chat about whatever topic comes to mind, and sometimes show off our rocks. Anybody with a webcam and a G+ account can get in on the fun.

I’m not as good a talker as writer, so don’t join one of the Monday sessions expecting especial brilliance. I’m mostly there to eavesdrop. Didn’t really expect to do so today – I had a ton of stuff I should be doing, and I hadn’t even got out of my pjs, but I’d just got done shooting the cat with some particularly lovely little hand samples, and jumped on to see what Ron thought of them. You know how that goes. You’re all like, “Hey, I’m not really dressed, but quick, look at the pretty rock!” and the next thing you know, a lot of people you admire particularly (like Chris Rowan and Harold Asmis) have joined the conversation, and they get on the topic of geologic timescales and religious students, and you suddenly forget you’re sitting there in your jammies with a head of hair that might frighten small children.

Biology gets all the attention, due to the insane amount of resistance to teaching evolution in this country, but none of the sciences are immune to religious pushback. Geology doesn’t get a free pass because we have awesome rocks. We’ve got this geologic timescale thing going on. And when you have students who’ve been told by their church and their religious families that the Earth is something on the order of 6,000 – 10,000 years old (depending on how you calculate all those begats in the Bible), you get a lot of very confused kids when you start talking in billions.

Ron mentioned that he’s discovered, over his years of teaching, that if he emphasizes the geologic time scale up front, those religious kids shut down on him. If he built up to it, they engaged more. That’s not to say that he danced around the subject: the Earth is billions of years old and there’s no getting round that. But the impression I got from what he said is that kids rejected the idea of geologic time out of hand if it was foisted on them up front.*

My impression is this: these kids have been fed a steady diet of religious lies, all their lives. They’ve not been taught to think scientifically, nor critically, and in those first few days of class, all they’ve got to go on is authority figures. Here’s one authority telling them, authoritatively, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, plus or minus a few hundred thousand years. On the other hand, they’ve had a lifetime of authorities – their preachers, their parents, their faith community – telling them it’s only a few thousand years old (give or take a few begats). Who are they going to believe? And the decision’s easy, when they haven’t yet learned to think for themselves: the authority figures they were raised to trust.

But if you show them how the world works, introduce them to the scientific method and the lines of evidence and teach them how science is done rather than merely recite the findings at them, they can see for themselves that the Earth must be very old indeed, and they engage more. And the teacher has never had to compromise reality. Never has pretended the Earth is anything other than ancient.

And this brought to mind what I’ve heard in a lot of deconversion experiences I’ve read about: people who left their fundamentalist faith, who discarded Biblical literalism and accepted science, usually didn’t do it in a flash. There was resistance at first, but once they’d got a taste of critical thinking, once they’d learned something of how science works and what it says, they started questioning. They started trying to reconcile what they’d been taught to believe with what they were learning out here in the real world. And it can’t be reconciled without some pretty extraordinary mental contortions.

Not everyone’s willing to tie their brain in painful knots, so they stopped trying. They may not have left the faith completely – there are plenty of people out there who didn’t abandon Christianity, only the Biblical literalism. But they learned to accept and appreciate science. They learned how to think, investigate, and discover. Whether it was evident at the time or not, a seed got planted when a professor taught them a fact at odds with their faith, and showed them how that fact was established. It’s no wonder so many fundamentalists choose to home school: giving kids that information and showing them how to do science is like pulling a card out of that elaborate house of cards they’ve got built. It can bring the whole house down.

You all know I want that house of cards to fall. Fundamentalist religion is this country causes an immense amount of harm, both to the people within it and to the rest of us. As Chris pointed out during the discussion, America’s almost unique among industrialized nations for the influence religious people have on politics. And when that religious contingent includes people who despise science and believe every word of the Bible is literally true, even the ones that directly contradict each other, then you’ve got a disaster.

Not to mention, people from more enlightened countries laugh at you (hi, Harold!).

And that means I’d very much like to see science education succeed. I want these kids to know what science is, what it does and what it teaches us about this crazy wonderful universe of ours. I don’t want them denied that extraordinary beauty. And I want them to learn how to think.

So, when faced with religious kids who may be deeply invested in the truth of their fundamentalist faith, or who have never really given it much thought, but just accepted what the adults around them believe, how do you handle it? Do you start slow and build? Do you go in for the short, sharp shock? How do you reach these kids?

The floor is open, my darlings. Professors, profess!

*See Ron’s clarifying comment.

Los Links 10/14

Herein are contained the links that saved my life last week. At the end of long days spent explaining to angry people that, when millions of them all try to activate their snazzy new iPhone 4s at once, and those anxiously counting the days until their upgrade decided they could all at least have OS 5 right now, it is not the cell phone carriers’ fault that the Apple servers got completely overwhelmed. Not to mention, even their hold music said “Sod this for a game of larks” and buggered off to do something else, leaving nothing but silence as the endless wait for technical assistance ensued. This, also, was not the fault of the cell phone carriers. But we got blamed anyway.

I will not discuss the specifics of the week from hell. I will only say that I appreciate Apple for ensuring my continued employment, and that if I hadn’t had some excellent science blogs to come home to, I would have ended up unemployed anyway due to a nervous breakdown.

Let these links work their magic for you!


CSM: Kraken monster ruled ancient seas? Scientists wary of new theory.

Laelaps: The Revenge of the Imaginary Kraken.

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Smoking Kraken.

Discovery: Smokin’ Kraken?

Andrew Alden: The Great Kraken Fracas.


Occupy Wall Street

Paul Krugman: Panic of the Plutocrats.

Rolling Stone: My Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters.

Almost Diamonds: Understanding Occupy Wall Street.



Context and Variation: The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar.

Surprising Science: Five Historic Female Mathematicians You Should Know.

Neurotic Physiology: Friday Weird Science: The Narcoleptic dog in your Disney film.

Clastic Detritus: Friday Field Photo #157: Evidence of a 500 Million Year Old Storm.

Highly Allochthonous: Friday focal mechanism: mountain building in Argentina and Scenic Saturday: Waterfalls need the right rocks as well as water.

Glacial Till: Why I’m a Skeptic.

Science News: A Shadowed Past.

Not Necessarily Geology: Source of the Elusive Waterfall Conglomerate.

Wired Science: What 300 Sea Otters Can Tell Us About the Ocean.

Gizmodo: How Japan’s Oldest Wooden Building Survives Giant Earthquakes.

I Can Has Science: Favorite Reaction – SN2.

History of Geology: October 9, 1963: Vajont.

The Washington Post: Naked mole rat genome may point way to long, healthy life.

Speakeasy Science: The Poisoner’s Calender (No. 2).

The Connection: A conversation with… David Kroll.

NeuroDojo: Planning is essential; plans are useless.

Scientific American: Big Rocks, Big Science.

Uncovered Earth: Earth Science Week: It’s Official in Oregon, A Halloween Challenge: Geo-Pumpkins.

Newsweek:  How to Think About the Mind.

The Guardian: Amanda Knox: What’s in a face?

New Scientist:  Zoologger: The first reptile with a true placenta.

The Big Picture: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition.

Nature News: A fight for life that united a field.

Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal: Dissapearing Ice At The Top of The World and The Roof of the World.

Not Exactly Rocket Science: Scientists sequence the full Black Death genome and find the mother of all plagues.

Neuroskeptic: Mountains of Mental Disorders.

Up-Section: The Iron Ore of Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland.

Scientific American: Having a great science conversation with a kid.

Georneys: The Care and Feeding of a Geologist: A Guest Post by Barbara Mervine .

80beats: Study: Fish Have Been Jumping on Land for 150 Million Years and Hiding it From the Fossil Record.

Discover: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Fire.

Etnaboris: Growing growing growing.

Science Daily: The Strange Rubbing Boulders of the Atacama.

Respectful Insolence: The “toxin gambit” on steroids.

Andrew Alden: GSA Meeting: The Anthropocene Panel.

Metageologist: Thermobarometry: quantifying metamorphic conditions.

Riparian Rap: LRRD at GSA Minneapolis.

Science Blog: Critical Minerals Ignite Geopolitical Storm.

The Guardian: If you want answers, why not run your own trials?

Science Sushi: Social Media For Scientists Part 3: Win-Win.



Public Radio International: Author Samuel R. Delany on the evolution of sci-fi.

The Fall of Print: How a new survey of ebook discovery habits lends hope to self-publishers and tips for better marketing.

A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing: The Psychology of Attraction: Uncertainty.

Patricia C. Wrede: The Hat Lecture.

Jane Friedman: Book Proposals in the Digital Age.

Society of Authors: The short story tweetathon.

Take As Directed: Scientist copy-checking: Point-counterpoint at the Guardian.

The Biology Files: What’s wrong with this piece on science and journalism? Oh, let me count the ways.

The Panic Virus: Guardian ends run of smart science journalism discussions, publishes exercise in idiocy.

Lingua Franca: Before You Submit: Some Tips for Self-Editing.

Boing Boing: An interview with Sir Terry Pratchett.

The Business Rusch: The Way We Were.

The Passive Voice: What You Don’t Know About Find and Replace in Microsoft Word.


Women’s Issues

Blag Hag: Pfft, why waste money on battered women?

Tiger Beatdown:  On Blogging, Threats, and Silence.

Central Science: An America’s Next Top Model Chemistry Tongue Twister.

The Scicurious Brain: The more feminine you look, the more children you want. It must be science.

Context and Variation: Framing and definitions: are you maternal enough to be a woman?

Almost Diamonds: When a Camera Isn’t Enough.


Atheism and Religion

Skepchick: Ultra-Orthodox Men Throw Feces, Call Little Girls Sluts.

The Wall of Separation: Special Delivery: Fourteen Writers Remind Jim Wallis That The Religious Right Is A Real Problem.

Almost Diamonds: Help Make Foxholes Safe for Atheists.

Scientific American: Doomsday, Apocalypse, and Rapture, Oh my!

KOMO News: Couple pleads not guilty in homicide of adopted daughter.

Alternet: Is Atheist Money Too Controversial for the American Cancer Society?

This Week in Christian Nationalism: Air Force Academy Cadets Decide They Must Pretend To Be Fundamentalist Christians.

Why Evolution Is True: Mason Crumpacker and the Hitchens reading list.

The New York Times: A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality.

WWJTD: Spare The Rod, Spoil The Child Not Relevant In Child Abuse Case.



Max Udargo: Open Letter to that 53% Guy.

Mother Jones: Charts: 6 Big Economic Myths, Debunked.

Verdict: Gaming American Democracy: A Perfect Storm in Which Republicans Disenfranchise Voters While Giving Corporations Unchecked Powers.


Society and Culture

Whatever: BrandLink Communications Has the Internet Drop on its Head.

The Blogress:  That’s why I’m not allowed to be here unsupervised. [You have to read this. It is funny as shit. -ed.]

Facing South: Real ‘Norma Rae’ dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatment.

The X Blog: He’s Suffered Enough!!!

Token Skeptic: Head-Desk Your Horoscope.

Lousy Canuck: Owning the slur.

The Week: Why gay men don’t get job interviews.

Lawyers, Guns and Money: On Columbus Day.

It Are My Weekend

I plan to spend it eating and sleeping, followed by some sleeping and eating, followed possibly by sleeping while eating, if I can manage it. I’ll plunge into some long-neglected geology research, after I get done with the sleeping, eating, etc. It’s possible I’ll finish up with watching some Doctor Who.

The cat is fully on board with these plans.

And if anyone so much as mentions the iPhone, I’ll shoot them in the face with this:

Image Source

I love how it looks like it’s dancing.

Finding Reality Via the Back Door

So I was having this conversation with my best friend one Sunday, and we got off on this long rant about reality.  Turns out one of his friends had given him a lecture about how glorious reality is.  This brought on by the fact that, like me, he writes speculative fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love reality – or at least, appreciable bits of it.  But I think she was talking the prosaic reality of Everyday Life, not the astounding reality of Science.  She’s a slice-of-life type writer.  I know and love some slice-of-lifers, but there’s a certain subset of them that treat imagination as a black sheep.  Then they see fit to lecture us SF types on How We Should Be More Realistic.  They sometimes go on to give us a stern talking-to about Living In the Real World.  I shall now provide a helpful illustration to sum up my subjective experience when faced with such people:

Image Source.

That is a very realistic interpretation of my sentiments, if you pretend the awesome geek is actually someone spouting this nonsense.

But, as goads so often do, my friend’s friend managed to initiate a fruitful line of discussion, and inspired a blog post, so it’s not all bad.

What follows is some ranting-out-loud on Writing, the Universe, and Everything.  You’re under no obligation to follow me after the jump, but I’ll be happy if you do.

First, a rant upon the topic of literature.  I must begin with a disclaimer: I’ve read “realistic” fiction, and at times rather enjoyed it.  I do not mean to issue blanket condemnations upon all slice-of-life writers, nor upon the vast body of literature that sticks ordinary people in ordinary situations and manages to create something extraordinary.  There’s an audience for it, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and magnificent things can happen when a great writer explores the Ordinary World.

But I am going to issue a blanket condemnation on those writers who think the Ordinary World is all that’s worth writing about, and that those of us who enjoy reading and writing about things that would never happen in the ordinary real world are immature, unsophisticated buffoons.  And you’ve never seen a sneer such as the sneer that crosses the face of a Really Realistic Writer when they find out folks like me read comic books and write speculative fiction.  They act like you’ve just pointed to a pile of dog shit and called it art.

They’ve obviously never read Sandman, or Maus, or Watchmen.  They’ve not read Eifelheim, or Speaker for the Dead, or Wild Seed.  Serious works, all, that deal with Serious Issues.

They also don’t understand a simple truth: a great number of us read fiction to escape.  We live in the Really Real World all the damned time, and sometimes, it wears.  We’d like to travel to another world for a bit, or imagine superpowers, or do something other than read about other people with lives just as boring as our own.  No matter how well-drawn the characters are, these slice-of-life things just don’t toast our muffin.  And those of us who like reading to escape rather enjoy writing to escape, as well.  If we try writing about John Q. Boring-as-Shit, we get bored.  Simple as that.

At this point, the person arguing for Reality in Fiction usually throws something at me involving someone who’s got an interesting job, or deals with a tough situation, or goes through some unusual family drama or some such.  This is where I say, “Yes, well, I do read about people like that.  But I find them in the non-fiction section.”  If I’m going to spend several hours reading about a realistic person in the world as we know it, I’d much prefer to spend my time on an actual human being, living or dead.  If I want fiction, I’m gonna spend my time with stuff that cannot possibly be mistaken for this present reality.

At this point, the tactical nuke of such conversations might be launched: “Well, you’re just wasting your time living in a fantasy world!”

Aaand your point?

All fiction is a fantasy world.  That’s why it’s fiction.  But there seem to be some folks who can find no value in fiction unless it holds up a perfect mirror to reality.  They’re fixated on the real world, for all they read and write fiction.  And while not all, or even many, of them are quite as extreme as I’ve portrayed (although both myself and my best friend have encountered a few), they see speculative fiction as a guilty pleasure at best, or a shameful waste of trees, something utterly unworthy of serious attention.  They seem to almost worship reality, and at times get really intense about helping the rest of us find it.  These poor folks stand at the main entrance shouting, “This way to the real world!” without ever noticing there’s a back door.

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.
-Pablo Picasso

They probably don’t notice the back door because it’s got aliens and superheroes and mythical beasts crowded round it.  They notice the sizzle and fail to see the steak.  Anything dressed up as Other is immediately suspect to them.  It’s Popular Entertainment, and therefore Not Serious Literature.  It’s not Art.  And that’s fine, even fortunate, because the folks lined up to go through that back door aren’t looking for the sort of Art the Really Serious Writers recognize as art.  They’re looking for stuff that makes them think and feel, that drops them willy-nilly into a work that holds a funhouse mirror up to our own world, and sends them back out into this world seeing it through completely different eyes.  They want to be entertained and provoked and challenged.  They want their imaginations given a thorough workout.  They’re often going to get a hefty dose of reality, and they probably know that going in, but they like their reality chocolate-coated.  It tastes better that way.

And they sure as shit don’t want some bore lecturing them on the Really Serious Issues, practically shouting how they should think.

Now, the best writers in realistic fiction don’t lecture either, mind.  But they don’t challenge our imaginations in quite the same way.  And things that are too realistic, too tied to this world as we know it, have a distressing tendency to remind us of the bits of our own lives we find intolerably boring, or of droning lectures we’ve endured.  They don’t lie to us enough, and so the truth that we find doesn’t impact quite so hard.  There’s nothing like sailing alien shores and fetching up in a situation that suddenly becomes familiar.  Truth suddenly blazes out like a supernova, without a lot of very ordinary stuff obscuring it.

I will give an example from my college years.  We read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  It’s a very serious and important book about race.  But I couldn’t identify with the characters.  I could understand where they came from, but I wasn’t inside them looking out.  Very much outside looking in.  I can’t say it enlightened me about matters of race and prejudice and identity.

A bit later, I read The Dark Elf Trilogy.  And that’s where I really internalized all of this stuff that white people aren’t confronted with.  That book left me in tears of sorrow and rage, and left me with a determination to fight racism in both self and others.  It made me understand what a horrible thing judging someone based on a physical characteristic is.  It did that because it didn’t presume to lecture on the subject, or even present it as all that relevant, except to the characters involved.  It made Great Big Social Statements in a very quiet voice.  And because we’re talking drow elves in a fantasy world here, it forced me to put on another skin, to become someone else, to see the world through lavender eyes.  Instead of watching the slings and arrows hit, I took the wounds right along with Drizzt.  And it hurt.

That’s the power of speculative fiction.  It’s just far enough outside the realm of everyday experience that we can’t be lazy reading it.  We have to get inside the story, live the characters’ lives.  And it’s different enough that automatic resistance doesn’t come into play.  If the writer’s done the job right, we won’t know the path we’re being led down until we’re a long ways along on the journey.  We don’t get a chance to plant our feet, balk, whine, “Oh, not this again!  I’m sick of saving the rainforest/whales/vanishing cultures!”

I cannot tell you how many causes I’ve become a passionate advocate for because an SF writer who knows his/her shit hoodwinked me into caring after all the bleeding-heart stuff had put me off for life. Let’s just say that fantasy and science fiction made me the person I am today, and you’d be shocked to know who I was before.

Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth. 
-Abraham Rothberg

There’s a good article at that link around that theme.  Rothberg’s talking more about realistic fiction, but it holds just as true for fantasy or science fiction.  And yes, my darlings, fantasy and science fiction can be dead serious, even when it’s being silly.  Any doubts on that front, just go read Jingo by Terry Pratchett.

Fiction doesn’t have to be “serious” to be serious.  It doesn’t have to be realistic to introduce you to reality.  This is something that writers of “serious” fiction sometimes seem to miss.

I can tell you that very nearly every single aspect of the real world that I now know and love, I came to because of other worlds.  Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the best political education I’d had up to then, and prepared me for what I’d find when the Daily Show and the Colbert Report convinced me I’d best care about this shit.  I can’t even count the number of things Sandman woke me up to – gay rights, for one, horribly difficult issues of right and wrong, good and evil, not to mention the richness of non-Western mythology.  The Lord of the Rings forced me to really consider geology by way of world-building, because if I was going to create worlds that resonated like Middle Earth, I’d have to know a fuck of a lot more about this one.  Oh, and I fell in love with philology because of dear Professor Tolkien, along with some ancient epic literature I’d been bored with prior to my obsession with him.  Doomsday Book brought home the horror of the Black Death.  That’s a small sampling of what fantasy and science fiction led me to.  Outside of the SF realm, some non-“serious” books written by Louis L’Amour and Dick Francis introduced me to plenty of things I’d never known – the golden age of Islamic science and civilization, photography, wine-making, the jeweler’s art.  

So, by taking me to other worlds, SF taught me about my own.  And it returned me to this one with new eyes.  I sincerely doubt I’d have the passion for science, the appreciation for reality, that I do now had it not been for them.  I’d probably be watching Survivor and refusing to vote while whining that science is just too hard for plain old people to understand.  I wouldn’t care quite so much about the plight of others.  I wouldn’t be interested in much of anything, really.

Now, I know that’s not true of everyone.  Plenty of people come to things like politics and science through the front door.  Some even come to such things through really realistic fiction.  But it’s a mistake to sneer at SF as if it has nothing to say about the real world, as if it’s not Serious and can’t deal with Serious Issues.  It can, it does, and it gives people who don’t give two tugs on a dead dog’s dick about Serious Issues a chance to change their minds.

And – heretical thought – it can sometimes do it better.  It’s subversive, you see.  It sneaks things in under the radar.  It’s Entertainment, so it can pretend it isn’t saying anything pertinent while doing so on every page.  It can disguise its agenda.  It can confront issues head-on that very few people are willing to tackle, because it wears a costume.  It can tell some truths that otherwise might be too hard for most folks to hear.  It can turn boring old factoids into something truly fantastic.

When the front door to reality is locked and barred, the back door is still open, and there’s gods and devils, aliens and astronauts, talking animals and superpowered beings in spandex standing there waving us in.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Quintas Ennius

We do not regard what is before our feet; we all gaze at the stars.

-Quintas Ennius

This is the father of Roman poetry, the Homer of Rome, and it’s really too bad his work exists only in fragments. There are many ancient writers I’d love to read, if I could hop in a time machine and head off for some literary tourism, and he is one.

He wasn’t likely to be the kind of man I’d have enjoyed an evening of conversation with, judging from what’s said of him: a man’s man, sounds a bit macho, and he liked his aristocracy. But who knows? Writers are writers, and it’s just possible a conversation over a bowl of wine or two might have been scintillating. This was a man, trilingual, who liked to say he had three hearts. A three-hearted man has got many interesting things to say.

And the things he said! This quote has always struck me as bitter and sweet. It’s true, and it’s hopeful, and it’s a bit sad. He packed a lot of human understanding into these few words. Depending on your mood, you can see it as a celebration or a condemnation. That’s the power of poetry: to give us words that say more than what they would seem to on the surface.

He also said, “Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men.” This is our immortality: these words, passed from mouth to mouth, mind to mind.

Why I Love Scientists: Kraken Kraziness Edition

This exchange happened recently on Twitter, retweeted by Brian Switek, and exemplifies why geologists and paleontologists generally get along. I present it to you in its full glory: scientists making fun of the kraken story. Enjoy!


Encouraged by recent media attention given to the #Kraken "study," I am now working on "Pegasus landing traces" study for next year's GSA.
Anthony (Tony)Martin
Moreover, the "Pegasus landing traces" precede Hyracotherium in the fossil record, which proves that horses are secondarily flightless.
Anthony (Tony)Martin
@ It's amazing what tracks can tell us! Our footprint collection has what looks like baby Pegasus tracks. Social behavior?
Andrew A. Farke
@ @ @ When you all find the flying trilobite nests, I will laugh maniacally.
Glendon Mellow
@ @ Agreed, and we need at least 3-4 talks about how all of those "theropod feathers" in China are actually equine.
Anthony (Tony)Martin
@ @ It's all so obvious, isn't it? Nature News, here we come!
Anthony (Tony)Martin
@ @ Nature News. . .heck, we're going for Nature! With feathers, it can't fail.
Andrew A. Farke


Freethinking in YA Land or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Narnia

-Guest post by The Ginger Waif.


For my first Christmas, I received a handsome boxed set of all seven Narnia books. It should be noted that I was born in October, and the gift was first wrapped by my gleeful parents and then unwrapped in front of a two-month-old baby. That was how we did things in my household, but despite their very sensible attitude toward books and many other important subjects, my parents are distinctly in the believer category. They’re the sort of liberal, pragmatic Catholics who don’t do or mean any harm, but I was sent to a religious school and reared with a rather in-depth education on all things theological (which is, of course, the perfect way to get an atheist at the end of twelve years).

So how’d I fail to notice until around middle school that C.S. Lewis’s fantastical opus is intended to be approximately 100% Christianity by volume?

I exaggerate a little bit. I did notice that Aslan was a magical awesome guy who had a father living somewhere distant who no one ever saw or had any information about. The conclusion I came to, however, was that Aslan and Jesus should have a club to discuss their similar situations, not that one was meant to stand in for the other. It was only much later that I pieced together that Eustace’s dragon-transmogrification was supposed to be Saul’s conversion or that Aslan’s country was supposed to be heaven or… Well, actually, I have no idea what’s up with Puddleglum. But we’ll leave that aside.

Narrative obtuseness isn’t among my vices. I was and am addicted to retellings and twists on myths and fairy tales. I could certainly tell at a tender age that the assorted flood myths were pretty much the same idea spun all over again, for instance, and I never had any trouble grasping that, say, The Lion King is Hamlet, albeit with a pronounced uptick in lions (which seems to be the way to dress up a story). But what connection was there between the fantastic land of Narnia and all that stuff from my religion classes?

Within the confines of the story, Aslan is real. Aslan actually turns up and saves things with his majesty and leonine greatness. Aslan actually doesn’t seem to be omnipotent (probably not something that Lewis intended), removing the insurmountable challenge of the theodicy*. That magical tree he has Digory plant only keeps Jadis at bay for a hundred years, for instance. He seems to have to stand around being lame and useless unless certain criteria are fulfilled, but when he does get there, he’s there to save the day. Aslan usually pulls off being cool by standing around and saying things and getting his human minions to do the dirty work, so he’s kind of a jerk, objectively. Aslan may be god for the purposes of the story, but he’s a solid character with flaws and weaknesses. Also he’s friends with Santa. Jesus never even met Santa. So there’s that.

I’m sure the estimable zombie Lewis would object if he were here, but I’d like to see him defend his position. His Narnia is actually a much gentler and more welcoming world than most Christianity would have it. Narnia’s gleefully Manichean and its deities are reasonably well-developed personalities with motivations and justifications, which is much more fun and appropriate to a fantasy book, if not a world religion. Women have agency, the wicked are redeemable, and respect for the world and curiosity are paramount virtues.** Faith in the powers that be gets you results, as best the powers that be can manage, and there’s something really touching in trusting Aslan, as opposed to pathetic. Because Aslan’s actually there and will actually come save you. Physically. With roaring and golden mane flying and lion hugs. Aslan’s your friend and your hero, even if he’s kind of a butt about it sometimes. Narnia resembles the actual implications and realities of Christianity not at all. And in the end, it’s a wonderful story.

And how’re we doing on explicitly atheist fantasy lit for kids? I suspect I’ll be drawn and quartered for this, but Philip Pullman? No. The Golden Compass will never be freethinker Narnia. There’s some neat worldbuilding and such, and some of the baddies are genuinely creepy, but the plot is choppy and badly executed, the characters are flat, and there’s nothing remotely special in the writing. And frankly, Pullman’s got none of the charm and all of the racial- and gender-based failboating I said I wasn’t going to talk about.

It’s nice to have a message, but the tale’s still all in the teller. Yeah, Narnia is intended explicitly to be a Christian story. Even where it’s not precise allegory (I actually have no idea what A Horse and His Boy has to do with anything except talking animals), it’s informed by a Christian worldview. So’s the LoTR universe as a whole and Star Wars and most of the Western Literary canon after the middle ages or so. I’ll take a good story over ideological purity on this matter. And I think what makes Narnia good despite itself is that it Most Christian fantasy fiction is laughably bad, of course, because it actually holds to a Christian premise.

In his attempt to convert, Lewis ends up quite defanging his own argument. The only reason Narnia is so deeply, enduringly lovely is that it resembles the world as imagined by Christianity not one bit.

*If you haven’t previously buried yourself in weird philosophical questions for recreational purposes like I have, theodicy refers to the problem inherent to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God figure. You’ve probably come to the conclusion yourself. God can’t be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. It’s really got to be two of the three at best.

**Please do not take this as a blanket endorsement of Lewis’s values. He was an old, wealthy white dude raised the turn of the twentieth century and a product of his time. His flaws in thinking, especially as regards race and gender, are an entirely different and mostly irrelevant discussion.

You Call Those Evil Volcano Lairs?

They’re quasi-evil. They’re semi-evil. They’re the Diet Coke of evil…

Erik Klemetti may sneer at the Geological Society of London’s Top 5, but Mt. Erebus? Sure, he’ll have well-dressed minions, but he’ll also be too ice-bound for true evil. Jessica Ball’s on to something with Pagan Island, but her evil lair will be overrun with tourists within six months. Garry Hayes has a beautiful evil setting in Mount Shasta, but everyone knows you can’t rely on Lemurians to carry out one’s plans for world domination. Silver Fox isn’t disclosing the location of her evil lair, which is wise, but it’s not even a volcano. You can’t have an evil volcano lair if there’s no volcano.

No, the truly evil geologist knows there’s only one volcano that qualifies as an Evil Volcano Lair.

Olympus Mons. Image Credit: NASA

It’s three times the height of Everest. What evil geologist wouldn’t want their lair located in the tallest volcano in the solar system? And at 370 miles wide, there’s plenty of room for an evil empire to spread out. This will be critical as plans for world – nay, solar system – domination come to fruition. Since Olympus Mons covers an area the size of Arizona, no henchmen have to worry about doubling-up.

Olympus Mons relative to Arizona. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

It has a total of six calderas in its summit, which are up to two miles deep. These are idea for placement of death rays and lasers and other implements necessary to the proper functioning of an evil empire.

Olympus Mons Calderas. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

And the volcano’s outer edge is an escarpment up to five miles high, with a wide moat roughly one mile deep encircling. Every lair should have a moat. We don’t even have to dig one, thus freeing my henchmen for other nefarious tasks.

As an added evil bonus, Olympus Mons’ extreme elevation means that any pesky do-gooder secret agent types will not be able to parachute in. There’s not enough atmosphere up there for a parachute to slow their decent. I don’t expect them to land. I expect them to die

And a thick dust layer will bog down any rovers my nemesis manages to sneak up there. This will not be a problem for me and my evil lair construction equipment because I am an evil genius. I’d tell you my plans for overcoming the technical obstacles, but then I’d have to kill you.

Olympus Mons is loaded with lava tubes, which provide ideal locations for cunning and complicated traps. Some of the tubes will be quite large, which will give our lair the proper deep, dark, sinister cave ambiance. Ambiance is important, and should never be underrated in an enterprise of this sort.

One may even find water-saturated zones in the sediments beneath the volcano, which will still be toasty warm due to residual heat from the magma chamber and the geothermal gradient. This ensures my henchmen will always have access to hot showers without diverting critical energy resources away from the death rays, lasers, et al. As dirty henchmen lead to an unhappy evil empire, this is an important consideration. Then again, who needs henchmen when you can have… robots! So perhaps I shall keep all of the hot water for my own personal use.

Olympus Mons is suitably close to Earth for climactic takeovers to be easily launched, yet far enough away that the place will not be overrun daily by pesky secret agents. Viruses can be mutated by leaving them outside the protective shell of the ship while in transit, thus ensuring victory over Earth’s population. And additional funds to finance the evil empire can be obtained by selling transport and renting facilities to scientists, who will not be able to pass up the chance to personally investigate the Red Planet. Geologists will be given a discount, of course.

With Olympus Mons as my evil volcano lair, nothing shall stop my evil plans. Nothing!

Information and images filched from: Wikipedia, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, ESA’s Mars Express, and the NSSDC Photo Gallery. Special thanks to the creators of Austin Powers and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Stay evil, my friends!