Thursday, April 27, 2017

Alternate Evolutions

     A planet where the dominant life form is very large telepathic insects?  That is Domremy. One of the key elements of our novel, Life Sentence, is the idea that there is no single evolutionary thread for the development of life in the universe.  Considering that Earth's evolution has depended on several catastrophic cosmic collisions, as well as perhaps geological shifts in the Earth itself, it is reasonable to speculate that, absent those extinction events, or possibly in cases of even more such disasters, life on other planets might evolve in quite different ways.  After all, humans have been around for only a tiny fraction of our world's history.  What if the Permian, Cretaceous, or other extinctions had never happened and earlier life forms had been allowed to continue to adapt?  There is nothing per se that would prevent reptiles, amphibians, other mammals, or even insects from developing intelligence and other characteristics that would allow them to develop an advanced culture or technology.  

     In the planets of Life Sentence, there are several different scenarios of evolution.  The Locals (as humans call them) of Domremy have managed to develop a sophisticated culture without material technology.  Communicating through touch telepathy, they are able to share vast amounts of common memory and species lore.  Since humans have no such capacities themselves, they are unaware of the Locals' gifts until Willie Klein and the Religious Dissenters unravel the mystery of the original inhabitants of their corporate-run colony.  Once they realize the terrible consequences of Hyperion Corp's semi-terraforming of Domremy, Willie, Peebo, Dr. Patak and others vow to try to restore as much as possible of the precolonial ecology.

     The Locals shared their environment with mammalian and quasi-mammalian creatures that had evolved alongside them, as well as smaller life forms.  Since many of these had been wiped out by the terraforming (as indeed the Locals themselves almost were), it is necessary for the Dissenters to use genetic engineering to restore missing species.  One of these is the "pippo," so dubbed by Willie because they look like a cross between a pig and a hippo.  He learned about their existence on the Locals' savannas through a telepathic session, but was astounded that Dr. Patak, who had perfected regeneration of mammoths and other extinct Earth beasts, had already been able to produce fertile clones from hides, bones, and other archaeological material uncovered on Domremy.  This gives the Dissenters, more interested in venerating life than exploiting it in the manner of the corporations, the rare chance to make amends for some of mankind's earlier crimes.  

     Domremy is just one of the worlds of Life Sentence, and in a later post we will examine the very different conditions that led to divergent types of life on Song Pa and Forlan, where particular conditions produced dominant species of cephalopod (octopus-like) and marsupial natures.  These topics are especially pertinent as NASA prepares to land on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which seem more and more likely to harbor some form of life. NASA has already indicated it plans to observe nothing like Star Trek's prime directive, preventing the interference with existing life forms.  Remember that Mars itself may still display some type of life that is so far undetected, since we are looking for something fairly close to ourselves or familiar contemporary Earth creatures.  It is looking increasingly the First Contact may not be just a one-way experience, but rather a give and take that may be either positive or negative.  Reason to consider the possibilities of what might be out there and how we should approach it.

    If these questions fascinate you, go to : and order your print or digital copy of Life Sentence.  We would love to hear your reactions.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

An Epic of Speculation: Creating a Plausible Dinosauroid

               Attempting to write about nonhuman species brings with it many challenges, among them the difficulty of trying to represent nonhuman species accurately, and to what extent a human writer can actually do so.  For much of the twentieth century dinosaurs functioned as a sort of “throwaway monster” in the public conscience, something that would show up, randomly attack jungle explorers or historically inaccurate cavemen, and then get killed. Tyrannosaurus often had a penguin-like waddle, when he wasn’t unfortunate enough to be played by an iguana with a fin glued on his back. Sauropods and stegosaurs would randomly eat meat, dinosaurs from distant time periods would encounter each other, non-dinosaurs such as Dimetrodon would explicitly be called “dinosaurs”, and nobody cared as long as Doug McClure would show up and save the day in the end.  During the 1970s, the “Dinosaur Renaissance” took place in paleontology, and new discoveries were made about dinosaur behavior and biology that contradicted earlier stereotypes. Only once Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park was published in 1990 would these discoveries influence the broader public perception of dinosaurs.

               And yet, in creating the Garanians, a “dinosauroid” race for Spy Station, our second Forlani Saga novel, I found that many of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” era assumptions had themselves become dated.  Dale A. Russel’s original Troodon-derived dinosauroid concept did not have any feathers; since 1982, multiple fossils of Coelurosaurian dinosaurs have been found with fossilized feathers, therefore I decided to give the Garanians a vestigial neck crest of feathers that would stand erect when they were agitated.  I was also fascinated with trying to research dinosaur intelligence and brain size.  The pre-Dino Renaissance belief that dinosaurs were all dimwitted clods was clearly wrong, but beyond a very generalized “birdlike dinosaurs were probably the most intelligent” consensus, I had trouble finding a set of theories that were broadly agreed upon.  This was made even more difficult by the lack of research into the brains of still living archosaurs; there are far fewer studies of avians and crocodiles than there are of mammals.  With newer studies indicating surprising signs of intelligence in crocodiles, could there be potential aspects of dinosaur behavior that our current level of scientific understanding doesn’t understand yet?

               Even the basic dinosauroid body plan is now considered contentious in some circles.  Some researchers believe that a dinosauroid of sapient intelligence would have to use its head and feet to manipulate objects, as the forelimbs become less used in existent ground-dwelling birds and dinosaur groups such as the abelisaurs and tyrannosaurs.  I decided on a body plan resembling Russel’s original dinosauroid more than these; not only did numerous coelurosaur groups such as the “raptor” dromaeosaurs and therozinosaurs retain their large forelimbs, but I aesthetically thought that having Tashto operate a gun with his feet would have made him more of a warrior parrot than a warrior dinosaur.  Of course, this could be my own bias in simply wanting something that resembled my own pre-2010s notion of what a dinosaur could be.

               Part of the nature of speculative fiction is that it is as much bound by what an author enjoys as it is about scientific reality.  As a writer, I tried to bridge the notion of the popular Jurassic Park “raptor”, my own personal favorite depiction of a dinosaur, with the newer insights into how dinosaurs would have looked.  This was perhaps slightly easier with a “raptor” since this type of dinosaur was newer in the popular imagination, and therefore more malleable, than creatures like Tyrannosaurus.  Ultimately, we only know a tiny fraction of knowledge about most given dinosaur species, and much of our expectations about their behavior lies rooted in imagination, conjecture and (sometimes erroneous) tradition.  Regardless of whatever is discovered about dromeosaurids in the time after Spy Station is published, I can at least take pleasure in the fact that, unlike Jurassic World, I bothered to put feathers on my “raptors”.