Carcinization in Science Fiction

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.  This post may also contain spoilers for Tomorrow News Network books that I have not yet written.

Hello, friends!

In my research process, there comes a point where my brain switches over from learning science facts to making up science fiction.  Over the last month of so, I’ve been doing a ton of research on carcinization.  In that time, I have not become an expert on this topic—not by a long shot.  But at this point, I have learned enough science facts for my brain to switch over to Sci-Fi mode.

Carcinization is commonly defined as the process of evolving into a crab.  This has happened a surprising number of times, leading to Internet memes about crabs being some sort of “ultimate life form” or some sort of evolutionary end goal.  Given how common carcinization is (or at least how popular the memes about it are), I’ve often thought that we should see way more crab monsters in science fiction.  And nothing in my recent research has dissuaded me from that opinion.

Of course, giant crab monsters have appeared in Sci-Fi before.  The nameless time traveler in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine has a close call with some giant crabs:

Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front?  Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there.  I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flicking and feeling as it moved.

The word carcinization didn’t exist yet when Wells wrote The Time Machine, but the idea of carcinization did.  As far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists were already puzzling over “the many attempts of Nature to evolve a crab.”  With that in mind, I think H.G. Wells knew exactly what he was doing when he populated the Earth of the distant future with giant, hungry crab monsters.

More recently, a crab-like extraterrestrial appeared in Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.  I’m pretty sure Weir even used the word carcinization in his book, to help explain how this crab-like species could exist (though after spending about twenty minutes flipping through my copy of Project Hail Mary, I couldn’t find the reference—it’s possible I’m misremembering things).  Fortunately for the protagonist of Project Hail Mary, the crab-like extraterrestrial he meets turns out to be friendly.  An important ally, in fact!

After all the research I’ve done, I feel pretty comfortable exploiting the concept of carcinization for a Sci-Fi story.  And given that H.G. Wells and Andy Weir already did this, I feel like I’m putting myself in good company, too.  Now I do not currently have a release date set for the next Tomorrow News Network novella, but I can tell you that I’m working on it, and there will be giant crabs from outer space.  Will they be friendly crabs, like the crab-like alien from Project Hail Mary?  Or will they be hostile, like the future crabs from The Time Machine?

Okay, yeah, they’re definitely hostile. Sorry for the spoiler.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Please check out some of my previous posts on carcinization, as well as my post on orthogenesis (a closely related concept).

Sciency Words: Orthogenesis

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science related terms, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together.  In today’s post, our Sciency Word is:

ORTHOGENESIS

Please be advised: orthogenesis is a discredited scientific hypothesis.  It has been for almost a century now.  That being said, the term has been coming up a lot in my research lately, and I do think there’s value in examining scientific hypotheses that didn’t make it, so to speak.  I think looking at a rejected scientific hypothesis, like orthogenesis, can give us a better appreciation for how the scientific method works.

Definition of Orthogenesis: In evolutionary biology, orthogenesis was the hypothesis that life evolves in a straight line progression, from simpler organisms to more complex forms.  Orthogenesis rather strongly implied that evolution is working toward some sort of predetermined end goal (i.e., intelligent life).

Etymology of Orthogenesis: The term was coined in 1893 by German zoologist Wilhelm Haacke, who was not convinced that natural selection alone adequately explained the evolution of complex life on Earth.  The word orthogenesis is derived from two Greek words meaning “straight” and “origin.”

When you think about the history of life on this planet, orthogenesis may seem to make sense.  Life started with just these simple microbes.  Then life “leveled up,” and we got more complex multicellular organisms.  And life kept “leveling up” after that to create fish and trees and dinosaurs and a surprising variety of crabs.  And then came humans, the most “leveled up” of all Earth’s creatures.

But as scientists learned more about genetics, and as they pieced together more of Earth’s fossil record, this straight line progression idea made less and less sense.  Evolution is a messy process.  It works in fits and starts.  It finds of-the-moment solutions without any regard for the future, leaving us with vestigial organs and other biologically inefficient stuff.  Increasing complexity is not necessarily advantageous; sometimes the simpler life forms survive while their more complex cousins go extinct.

By the mid-20th Century, orthogenesis had been soundly rejected by the scientific community.  Natural selection just made more sense in light of all the evidence scientists had accumulated since Wilhelm Haacke’s time.  However, while orthogenesis has not been considered good science for many decades now, certain orthogenetic ideas still linger in popular culture.  Whenever the mad scientist in a Sci-Fi movie starts ranting and raving about the “next phase of human evolution,” that’s orthogenetic talk.  Or when you hear dialogue about how one alien species is “more evolved” than another, that too is orthogenetic talk.

A lot of popular misconceptions about science seem to come from science fiction.  As a Sci-Fi writer myself, this is something I worry about.  “Evolutionary paths” and “evolutionary destiny” are such common tropes; it’s easy to write them into a story without realizing you’ve done it.  But I do not want to make these popular misconceptions about science worse, especially when it comes to a topic as controversial as evolution.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

I’m going to recommend this article from tvtropes.org on “Goal-Oriented Evolution,” which does a good job summing up how Sci-Fi and other popular media keep getting evolution wrong.

I also highly recommend this research paper entitled “Fossil Horses, Orthogenesis, and Communicating Evolution in Museums,” because orthogenetic ideas don’t only linger on in Sci-Fi.  They’re an ongoing problem in museums, school textbooks, and other educational resources as well.

#IWSG: The Planets Make Me Write

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a monthly blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by SE White, Cathrina Constantine, Natalie Aguire, Joylene Nowell Butler, and Jacqui Murray.  To learn more about this amazingly supportive group, click here!

I read somewhere once that every writer has a “thing”—something that they’re desperately trying to say.  It’s something that’s hard to put into words, a feeling or an idea that defies the conventional use of language.  If this “thing” could be said in a simple and straightforward way, we writers would just say it and move on rather than spend the bulk of our lives writing.

What is that “thing” for me?  I wish I could tell you!  It would be so much easier if I could just tell you the “thing” that keeps poking at my mind, but of course I can’t.  All I can say is that my thing has something to do with the stars.  It has something to do with the slow and stately motion of the planets.  It has something to do with that feeling I get whenever I look up at the nighttime sky.

Is it curiosity?  A sense of wonder at the vastness of the cosmos?  I guess that’s part of it, but those words feel wholly inadequate.  Wonder and curiosity are nice, but there’s something more.  There’s so much more!  The planets and stars inspire something in me that simply must be said—something that must be put into words, no matter what—it must be!

But no words ever seem to express this “thing” well enough.  So I keep trying.  I keep writing, in the hope that maybe someday I’ll find a way to say the thing I don’t know how to say, and maybe somebody else will read my words and understand what I’m talking about.

So, friends, do you have a “thing” that you’re trying to say through your writing?  Care to give us a clue (if you can) about what your “thing” might be?

Arguing with Myself: The Search for Alien Life

Hello, friends!

So a certain argument has been playing out in the back of my mind for a long, long time now.  Whenever I write, there are really two different versions of me who do my writing.  On the one hand, there’s science enthusiast me.  On the other, there’s Sci-Fi author me.  And these two versions of me view science, space exploration, and the universe at large in dramatically different ways.  One of the biggest ongoing disagreements I have with myself involves alien life.

Science enthusiast me believes that extraterrestrial microorganisms are pretty common in the universe.  Science enthusiast me thinks we will find evidence of extraterrestrial microbes in the very near future, perhaps hiding under the ice on Mars or swimming around in the oceans of Europa, Enceladus, or even Titan.  (I almost wrote unambiguous evidence there, but science enthusiast me also expects that confirming the discovery of extraterrestrial microbes will be tricky—just ask the researchers who found (or thought they found) microfossils inside a Martian meteorite back in 1996).

As for complex multicellular life—plants and animals, or whatever the extraterrestrial equivalent of plants and animals might be—science enthusiast me is far less optimistic.  While microorganisms have proven again and again that they can survive almost anything, even direct exposure to the vacuum of space, multicellular organisms seem to be far more fragile, far less resilient.  Earth may be one of the very few worlds where complex, multicellular organisms like us are able to survive and thrive over cosmic timescales.

And intelligent life?  Science enthusiast me believes intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe—surely it must!  But the universe is an awfully big place.  Our nearest intelligent and communicative neighbors could be many galaxies away.  Humanity is not alone in the universe, according to science enthusiast me, but we may as well be.

Sci-Fi author me, however, sees things from a different perspective.

Sci-Fi author me wants to write stories where encounters with alien life are commonplace, almost routine—stories where the aliens are sometimes friendly and sometimes not so friendly—stories where all sorts of weird and wacky interspecies adventures are possible!  And Sci-Fi author me takes a particular and peculiar pleasure in handwaving away all the concerns and objections science enthusiast me might have, not just regarding alien life but also in relation to faster-than-light travel, time machines, cybernetics, et cetera, et cetera.  Part of the fun, for Sci-Fi author me, is thinking up clever excuses for why impossible things are now possible (in the context of the story world, at least).

So there is this ongoing argument happening in the back of my mind.  This argument is never going to end, and I’ve decided that that’s okay.  Not every argument needs to have a winner and a loser, nor do arguments necessarily need to end in compromises.  Sometimes a house divided can stand after all.  Science enthusiast me believes the universe is like this; Sci-Fi author me would prefer (for story reasons) if the universe were more like that.  And the tension between these two different versions of myself drives my creativity, both as a science blogger and a science fiction writer.

P.S.: For those of you who might be interested, both the “I Heart Science” and “I Heart Sci-Fi” designs in this post are available in my RedBubble store.  Click here if you heart science, or click here if you heart Sci-Fi.  And remember: nobody’s stopping you from clicking both if you heart both!

And Some Things Must Stay the Same

Hello, friends!

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Something Must Change,” because something in my life really does need to change.  I’ve had some time to think more about what, specifically, that change needs to be, and I’ve taken my first tentative steps toward making change happen.

But the problems I’m dealing with and the changes I’m making—for the most part, all that stuff lies beyond the purview of this blog.  This is a blog about science.  This is also a blog about fiction.  And, most importantly, this is a blog about putting science together with fiction to make some sort of—what would you call it?—some sort of scientifiction, I guess.

In other words, this blog is about the things in my life that are not changing, the things that, quite honestly, cannot change (not even if somebody tried to convince me that they should).  Because if I stopped writing about planets and spaceships and extraterrestrial empires, if I stopped writing about homicidal telepaths and astronaut-hungry dinosaurs and self-appointed Galactic Inquisitors, if I stopped writing about intergalactic news agencies and cyborgs struggling with their feelings and sassy blonde time travelers named Talie Tappler… if I stopped writing about those things, I wouldn’t really be me anymore.

In my “Something Must Change” post, I did promise myself that I would not give up on my writing (or my art).  But I now realize I need to be a little more specific than that, because not any old writing and not any old art will do.  Not for me.  When making promises to yourself, it’s tremendously important to be clear and specific about what your promise is and what it really means to you.

As Jean Luc Picard once said, “The line must be drawn here!  This far, no farther!”  I’ve drawn my line.  I’ve separated (in my mind, at least) the things in my life that need to change from the things that must stay the same.  It is a small step in the process, but an important step nonetheless.

And it’s a step I hope you can take too, friends, if the need ever arises.  I hope you’re able to draw your line, to know what you can afford to change and what must always, always, always stay the same.

P.S.: And if you’re into sassy blonde time travelers, then I hope you’ll check out The Medusa Effect: A Tomorrow News Network Novella, available exclusively on Amazon Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.

P.P.S.: And if you’re into that other stuff I mentioned—the homicidal telepaths, astronaut-hungry dinosaurs, etc.—more Tomorrow News Network novellas are on the way.  I promise!

Are Scientific Papers Worth Reading?

Hello, friends!

So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience.  I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.

Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is.  I am not a scientist.  I have no professional or educational background in science.  What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate.  Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible.  At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.

In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.  I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).

And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized.  There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should.  That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis.  It’s a problem which this article from Vox.com calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others.  Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in).  But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune.  Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.

And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers.  Why?  Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press.  When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true.  If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.

I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week.  Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below.  These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.

How to Make Me Absolutely, Positively, Unambiguously LOVE Your Story

Hello, friends!

So as part of my writing recovery plan, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching some of my favorite Sci-Fi books and films.  The point of this is to remind myself why I wanted to be a Sci-Fi writer in the first place.

Last weekend, I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I like that movie.  I like that movie a lot.  But I don’t love it.  Not in the way that I absolutely, positively, unambiguously LOVE Star Wars, or Alien, or The Martian.  And that’s got me wondering: what differentiates a story that I, personally, love from a story that I merely like?

Obviously this is a subjective thing, but still there must be a pattern to my preferences.  And now I think I’ve finally figured out what that pattern is:

  • First off, a story needs good world building.  There must be enough vivid detail (and also enough internal consistency) that I can picture myself actually living in the story world.
  • Next, I have to feel like I really know the protagonist.  I have to feel like know her or him well enough that we could be best friends.
  • And lastly, there needs to be a serious threat: something big enough and scary enough that I feel genuinely frightened, either because this fictional world I now live in is threatened or because my new best friend is in danger.

Again, obviously, this is a subjective thing.  But if you are telling me, J.S. Pailly, a story and if you want me, J.S. Pailly, to absolutely love your story, then you need to nail all three of those bullet points above.  Witty dialogue, clever plot twists, hyper realistic science, insightful allegories about modern life—I’m happy to see those things in a story, too; but the three bullet points above are what really matter to me, personally.

In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world building is excellent.  Just change the title to 2061, and I can totally believe this is what the near future will look like.  As for having a serious threat, well… I really, really, really would not want to be trapped alone on a spaceship with HAL.  Would you?  Where 2001 falls short for me is its protagonist.  We never learn much about Dr. David Bowman—certainly not enough to make me feel like I’m B.F.F.s with him.

Looking at other movies that fall just a little bit short for me: the villain in The Fifth Element doesn’t scare me much, and the world building in Gattaca has always felt a bit flat to me.  Each of these films ticks only two out of three of my boxes, and thus I like them—I like them a whole lot, in fact!  But I don’t quite love them.

But of course, different people come to a story wanting and expecting different things.  I’ve told you which buttons a story has to push in order to make me absolutely, positively, unambiguously love it.  What about you?  What differentiates the stories you love from the stories you merely like?

Sharing Some Science Love

Hello, friends!

You know, spending time on the Internet can be a truly disheartening experience.  But there are good things on the Internet too.  For me, I love finding and interacting with other people who share my enthusiasm for science (and also science fiction).  So today, I’d like to spread some of that science love around.  Here are a few of my favorite science or science related posts that I’ve seen in the last week or so:

First up, Fran from My Hubble Abode has a great post about the history of the Crab Nebula.  I’ve found that the best way to learn about science is to learn about the history of science: to learn the stories about how we figured all this science stuff out.  Turns out the Crab Nebula played a much bigger role in the history of science than I thought.  Click here to learn more!

Next, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of stamp collector.  Well, Stamp of the Day recently shared a neat stamp from Germany commemorating Weltraumlabor (Spacelab), which was a joint project between NASA and the ESA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Click here to check it out!

And Twinspiration has a cool post called “6 Space Activities for Children.”  I think some of these activities could be fun for adults too, especially if you’re stuck at home in these COVID-ful times.  Anyway, if you’re looking for fun ways to teach your kids (or yourself) about space, click here!

Lastly, on a more serious note, speculative fiction author Del Sandeen recently wrote a thought provoking article for Uncanny Magazine about the Black Lives Matter and Black Voices Matter movements.  For anyone who wants to see more representation and more diversity in science fiction and fantasy, this article is well worth a read.  Click here!

If you enjoy any of these articles/blog posts, please be sure to leave a comment letting the author know.  And if you have some science you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Until next time, keep it sciency, my friends!

I’m Escaping from Prison. Want to Join Me?

Hello, friends!

For this first blog post of 2020, I’d like to share a quote from one of the greatest authors of all time.  As you know, lots of people take a pretty dim view of fantasy and science fiction, and they take an even dimmer view of those of us who enjoy those genres.  J.R.R. Tolkien had the perfect response for those people:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course Tolkien found his escape in a world of Hobbits and magical rings.  Me?  I find my escape in outer space.  Here on Earth, we humans have created a world of money and politics, of materialism and egotism and self-centered posturing, of winning and losing and grinding each other into the dust.

Okay, maybe it’s not all bad.  There are pleasant things about this world we humans have made for ourselves too.  But still, can you really blame me if, from time to time, I choose to think about or talk about or write about what it would be like to get the heck off this planet?

I know some people will still judge me for my love of science fiction and my obsession with space exploration.  They’ll call me foolish or childish.  That’s fine.  People can say what they like.  I intend to keep dreaming and keep wondering and keep exploring the universe in my own semi-imaginative way.

And friends, you are welcome to join me on this adventure, if you want.  All you have to do is click the subscribe button!

Next time on Planet Pailly: why can’t scientists agree on what the word metal means?

Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Origin Stories, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we trace the origins of popular concepts in science fiction.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re making the jump into:

HYPERSPACE

As you know, nothing can travel faster than light.  Or it least, not in our universe.  But what if there were another universe next door to our own where the laws of physics were different, where faster-than-light travel were possible.  Wouldn’t that be convenient?

At least that’s how the concept of hyperspace was first explained to me.  I can’t remember if I picked that up from a Star Wars novel or an episode of Babylon 5.  Either way, I remember having an instant dislike for this idea.  It’s always seemed to me to be a little too convenient.

But then I started researching this post and learned that hyperspace is—or at least used to be—a much more interesting concept.  Let me explain by telling you a story:

Once upon a time, there was a happy little square living in a two-dimensional world with all his two-dimensional friends.  Then one day, this square met a rather extraordinary circle, a circle that had strange and mysterious powers.  The circle could grow larger or smaller at will, expanding out to a certain radius or shrinking down until it completely disappeared!

“What are you?” the square asked in awe.

In a booming, god-like voice, the circle answered: “I am a sphere.  As I pass through the two-dimensional plane of your realm, you perceive two-dimensional cross sections of my three dimensional form.”

This is the story of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884.  Or at least that’s part of the story of Flatland.  Our protagonist square also encounters one-dimensional beings living in a one-dimensional world (Lineland) before learning about the world of three dimensions (Spaceland) from the sphere.

Flatland was one of many books published in the late 1800’s toying with other dimensions.  Another is, of course, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which postulates that time might be the fourth dimension.  But other writers assumed the fourth dimension would simply be another spatial dimension.  And just as the protagonist of Flatland struggled to understand the third dimension, we humans, as three-dimensional beings, can never fully comprehend the fourth dimension.

A linguistic convention soon emerged.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional sphere, you’d call it a hyper-sphere.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional pyramid, that would be a hyper-pyramid, and a four-dimensional cube would be a hyper-cube (or a tesseract, as Charles Howard Higgins proposed calling hyper-cubes in 1888).  And where would all these hyper-shapes exist?  Why, in hyper-space!  Where else?

According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it would still take a while for hyperspace to make the jump from mathematics and philosophy into the pages of science fiction.  Initially, the term seems to have retained its esoteric, philosophical sense of a world beyond our limited human perception.

Are we not justified in supposing, […] that the boundary lines of space and hyper-space may not be so rigidly drawn as we have supposed?

“Invisible Bubble” by K. Meadowcraft, 1928.

But Sci-Fi writers quickly started exploiting hyperspace as a plot device to allow faster-than-light travel.

Well, in this hyperspace we are creating, matter cannot exist at a velocity lower than a certain quantity […].

“Islands of Space” by J.W. Campbell, 1931.

Speeds, a mathematician would hasten to add, as measured in the ordinary space that the vessel went around; both acceleration and velocity being quite moderate in the hyperspace it really went through.

“Legion of Space” by J. Williamson, 1934.

I’m still not a big fan of hyperspace, or at least I’m not a fan of consequence-free hyperspace.  If you’re going to pop out of normal space—whether you’re entering another universe where the laws of physics are different or you’re taking some sort of four-dimensional shortcut—I feel like there should be some side effects, either for you or your spacecraft (or both).  Otherwise, hyperspace just seems a little too easy, a little too convenient.

At least that’s how I feel about it.  But what do you think?  Am I being too picky?  Am I overthinking things?  Or do you also roll your eyes whenever hyperspace comes up in science fiction?