Sunday, October 5, 2008

Speculative Biology of the Limbus Part One: A Desperate, Pathetic Plea for Thoughts and Inspiration

Another linoleum cut, this one based on a dried piranha I picked up at a flea market.

I'm asking for some inspiration regarding a certain element of the novel. Even if I don't get any response I'm sure that just laying it out will give me a chance to think about things in a different way.

So here's the official Spoiler Warning! If you might want to read the novel at some point, be warned that you're getting inside information here. My own thought is that if knowing this stuff ruins the reading experience for you than I haven't written a good enough book -- but others are more sensitive to these things than I am.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing the novel has been the ongoing process of conceiving the... Well, in this story it's a facet of the afterlife but you can think of it as Fairyland, Oz, Middle Earth, the Enchanted Forest, the Monster Zone.

It's called the Limbus. I chose the name after searching randomly through the dictionary. I needed a name for the place between life and the real afterlife, the place where souls got a chance to let go of their attachments to life before moving on.

Later I found out that in Medieval theology the Limbus was a place between Heaven and Hell, while in biology a limbus is an indeterminate area of tissue between two organs. This was interesting because if you put those two concepts together, well, that's what the Limbus is in the novel.

(For the record, my official position is to deny the existence of souls and the afterlife and any type of Easter Bunny stuff at all. My honest position is a lot spookier and more complicated and will be the subject of an upcoming essay.

But for the novel I'm proposing an unusual version of life after death that plays into cultural expectations and messes with them at the same time...)

Anyway. The Limbus is just a part of the natural world, of the cycle of life energies that extends far beyond our perceived existence. And it originated as part of the Earth before it grew into the Limbus.

It started out as a farm in Florida and the first sign that it was becoming something other than a patch of land was when the living things both plant and animal began to change.

In the Limbus organisms can change shape to match the desires and fears they have for their bodies. This notion was originally in place to allow for some metamorphoses on the parts of the lead characters but then I realized that if that was a natural law of the land it would affect the plants and animals in the Limbus as well.

Another aspect of the Limbus is that time passes there much more quickly than it does on Earth and the difference in rates is continually increasing.

I put those two things together and realized that I had inadvertantly dunked chocolate into peanut butter and the result was an environment where Lamarckian evolution (a discredited model of evolution based on the idea of purposeful change) would take place while the characters were watching -- where the ecology as well as the species would change drastically over the course of the novel in a way that would support the story.

So here's the question: What kinds of animals would evolve out of the population living on a subistance farm in Florida in the early eighteen-hundreds?

I'll post further information on the environment next time but here's a taste of what I've got down so far and frankly I'm thinking my imagination is a bit lame.

A hill of monstrous animal bodies joined together in a single mass as though they’re devouring each other or are locked in coitus or both. Pressed in between a wingless rooster ten feet tall with scimitar spurs and a hog with the legs of a racehorse and jaws like an alligator I see a familiar shape. It’s human. I wonder if it’s someone I know.


Then the sound of a branch snapping came from the woods. I looked over and saw that a tree was shaking; the motion died. Then I saw a treetop pull away from me. There was another snap and the tree lashed back into place. I saw something reddish-brown in the treetops.

As I got closer I could hear chewing sounds, see more of the animals. I shouldn’t have approached them but I could not for the life of me figure out what they were. They had the heads of cattle, horns neatly curled in front of their ears. A beautiful dark roan with white bellies and white stripes at the haunches, they were six feet at the shoulder with another three feet of neck; their backs sloped sharply, rear legs distinctly shorter than their forelegs. Long tufted tails whipped at insects; they looked like cows trying to be giraffes.

I stood still and watched them feed, wrapping their long prehensile tongues around small branches and pulling them loose from the tree. There was a surge in the music and I snapped back into consciousness and started backing away.

There was a snort from the brush in front of me, deep and powerful, and a clot of dirt and grass arched through the air. I’d been looking up and the bull was close to the ground. Built like a pig with a narrow muzzle made for grubbing in the dirt, it was far more massive than the cows, thick neck holding a head easily two feet across. One horn hooked down below its jaw and it dug it into the dirt and threw another clod into the air. The other horn curved out and forward, more than a yard long. The bull was sideways to me; it glanced at me, arched its back and shook its head.


“Just give me your story, son, and I’ll decide if I think you’re lying. But half a moment.” He stuck the fingers of his free hand in his mouth and whistled loud, one short, one long, one short. I heard the sound of something big galloping towards us.

It was a dog, a fox-faced yellow dog the size of a quarter horse. His long bushy tail curled up over his back. He had a saddle and blanket on its back but no bridle.


The watercourse was broken up by huge boulders and overhung by trees. They had white trunks and broad hand-shaped leaves, their trunks almost hand-shaped as well with a broad mass laying on the ground and fingers a couple of feet thick thrust up from one edge, the opposite edge rooted in the ground. I had no idea what they were; some kind of sycamore?


Something that looked like a dragonfly with soft droopy wings and a body loosely dangled between them was working a cascade of tiny pale-yellow blossoms on a tree; it was at least three inches long and as bulky as a mouse. With a buzz and thwap it was dropped from the air by a beetle as long as my hand and as thick as a cigar. It folded its wings under their green cases and began to loudly munch the nectar-eating dragonfly.


As I got in the water I noticed the water-skimmers at the water’s edge. Like the other insects I’d seen this trip they were oversized, too big to skim the water. Instead, they stuck close to the shore and waded. I’d bet real American dollars that there was some extra oxygen in the air if the bugs were getting this big.


The Deacon’s new dogs didn’t look the same as Tap. One had a saddle, one loaded with gear, they were gray as ash with just a sandy hint of yellow over the ribs. They were longer and rangier than Tap had been, easily six feet at the shoulder but still narrow enough to straddle, their fur sleek and close to the body. Their paws were broader, the toes spread wide as if for gripping, and they had the easy lope of a Rhodesian ridgeback.

But it was their demeanor that had the real difference. I didn’t look in their eyes, didn’t look directly at them. They returned the favor and pretended I wasn’t there. They weren’t interested in me at the moment and I knew better than to approach animals of that temperament. They had the vibe of a bad Doberman along with the skittish wildness of a wolf cross. They were one-man dogs — for as long as that man could maintain dominance.

So there's a taste of it. I'll have more on the environment tomorrow. Yeah, this is definitely a fantasy novel -- but there are aspects of it that I'm treating as if they were Golden Age science fiction, where an admittedly unscientific premise is given a dose of rigorous speculation...

What the hell am I doing, anyway?

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