Friday, November 16, 2012

Salamanders and Snot Whales

I am reading at Diesel Books in Oakland, at 5433 College Avenue at 7:00 tonight. Click here for all details!

Here are some more notes on Helping Henry. For the full list of posted stories, click here.

Thyroxine is a special story for me for one reason – it’s my best monster. This one might actually work. The idea that there’s an adult morph of the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders is well-founded – they’ve found fossils of a strong-jawed upright predatory giant salamander that’s a direct ancestor of the current aquatic giant salamanders. It’s called Aviturus exsecratus.

And there are aggressive giant hybrid tiger salamanders loose in California.  In fact, I once owned one. I bought it in a pet store, and they refused to tell me the species, and I didn’t find out what it was until years after its death…

So. For the record. Daffy rich person who is obsessed with large exotic predators! If you’re going to ship out for an isolated island and devote yourself to the cultivation of giant salamanders?

Can I help?


Ant chalk does exist, and it does work as advertised, and my friend’s cat used to go into convulsions every so often and they figured out it was the ant chalk. So don’t fuck with the ant chalk.

As for the ants themselves – I shot from the hip and hit my foot. The story is inaccurate. Argentine ant colonies aren’t so big they can dominate the West Coast. It’s more intense than that. It seems that the Argentine ants in Europe, the US, and Japan regard themselves as one big colony.  That would be totally heartwarming if they weren’t ants.

Polyploidy is a genetic characteristic that’s quite common in domesticated plants.  As I understand it, he said nervously, looking into the distance, in the old days, they’d use juice extracted from crocus bulbs with a garlic press to induce polyploidy in marijuana seeds.  That’s right, organic genetic engineering is old news, folks.

The most horrifying photo I’ve seen recently was of a blue whale taking a dump. If that’s the kind of thing you want to look at, do your own search. You disgust me. But it highlighted the importance of whales to the overall ocean ecosystem. Not just fertilizing phytoplankton, but the deposit of a whale carcass on the ocean floor is a significant event called a whale fall.

The degree to which we’re screwing the ocean over boggles me. What is obviously a finite, closed system is being aggressively over-fished while we watch climate change and pollution kill off the coral. Plastics are killing off jellyfish eaters like sea turtles. Practices like drift netting and vacuuming the seabed for scallops show an absolute distain for sea life. And the fish keep getting smaller and fewer…

We, as a species, will not begin to address this problem until a while after it starts smelling bad and starving people. But it’s nice to dream that people might start noticing before everything has gone completely to hell.

When the idea of the snot whales came to me, it was obvious right from the start that they were the bastard love child of Maya Lin, who, among her many works, designed the Viet Nam and Civil Rights memorials, and Mark Pauline, who makes machines that fight, frighten, and seem to have their own agendas. A lot of US art seems defensive and reactionary to me – if my country ever develops a mature culture, the kind that other nations legislate to defend, I’ll bet these two are in the canon.

There will be more tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Shade-Tree Biotechnician

Speaking of mutations, here's something you don't see every day -- a frost-bitten succulent (I think it's an aeonium, but who knows) that's grown some albino heads. Notice how the albino section on the otherwise-green head is divided not leaf-by-leaf, but rather along an arbitrary line. I've seen similar divisions of color on scales in patterned reptiles, as though the pattern had been laid down using a stencil, and it's always puzzled me.

Right. So, I've been neglecting my Henry notes. Let's try and make some substantial headway, shall we?

It started when a friend of mine told me about his comparative anatomy final. The final consisted of a long table loaded with skulls to identify. My friend got all but one -- and nobody got that one. Was it a primate? That was the best guess.

It was a bulldog.

Years later, when I first moved in with the missus, she had a pet Pekingese named Ping-Ping. (I bear no responsibility; the missus has a taste for foofy names.) He was a great little guy, who cured me of my distaste for small dogs. (Hint -- they're like pit bulls. If they're nasty, you want to look at the owner.)

But his poor horrible little face! The socket where his eyes and snout met was continually wet, as were the deep folds of his eyelids, and the organic fluid of tears and snot bred a stinking bacterial culture that must have been ongoing hell for a sensitive nose. They itched, as well. And sometimes he'd do these weird inverse sneezes, where he'd convulsively suck air in through his nose.

Bulldogs die of respiratory and cardiac disease. Pugs have the same problems as pekes. The things we breed dogs for -- hip displasia, skin conditions (we had a Shar Pei with terrible acne, and the worst part was trying to watch TV while the missus squeezed the dog's pimples), spinal problems...

It could have been worse.

If you can explain the human desire to breed miserably deformed pets, keep the explanation to yourself. I'm trying to keep my misanthropy under control.

Eusocialism fascinates me. It's the social pattern where individuals are physically specialized depending on their caste, and where reproduction is the responsibility of queens. It first showed up in the cockroaches that evolved into termites, but it's since cropped up all over the place. Bees. Ants. Shrimp? Naked mole rats?

Oh, yeah.

So this is a pattern that crops up repeatedly, under a wide variety of circumstances.

As for the fruit flies. For those who don't know, fruit flies are a standard lab animal for genetic research. They reproduce rapidly, have been thoroughly studied, are prone to visible mutations... A true friend to man.

So they'd be a natural animal to use if one were to attempt to induce speciation. And this isn't as far-fetched as you might think We've observed a number of species evolve. Check it out -- and take a look at section 5.3 for fruit fly information...

This is the second story I've done that draws on my early fascination with the stories Microscopic God by Theodore Sturgeon and Sandkings by George R.R. Martin. Silly as it may be, this is actually one of the more scientifically credible Henry stories.

I think this one explains itself. But let me say this -- my convictions on the subject of overpopulation have been strong enough to keep me from having children. I like kids. I'd rather help out with the ones that are already here than make new ones.

And abortion is none of my damned business.

When Howard Chaykin did his comic American Flagg, I admired the way he dropped the talking cat Raul into the mix without any explanation. (For the record, American Flag is one of the great secrets of genre fiction. Everybody read it in the day, and everybody was affected by it.)

That's not how I do things. For me, one of the pleasures of science fiction is the ability to make a ridiculous, surrealistic event seem reasonable, comprehensible, even inevitable.

So I rationalized the Colonel, my talking chicken character. And an interesting question arose. If a machine is capable of giving the impression under scrutiny that it is human -- thorough conversation over a telephone or the internet would be adequate scrutiny -- it is said to be able to pass the Turing test. Wouldn't it be dehumanizing to treat a machine capable of passing the Turing test as other than human? Regardless of the actual sentience of the machine or program in question, is there an internal requirement to be humane to that which seems human?

And while there is some humanely produced poultry in the US, large-scale poultry production might be the most massive and grotesque system of organized cruelty the planet has seen thus far. The disconnection between the population and the animals they eat has turned livestock into a component in a bioreactor. And the large-scale international results include the destruction of local farming traditions in the Caribbean, and so on, and so on. I might feel differently if factory-raised chicken wasn't disgusting, like tofu with a moral taint, but it is.

That'll do it for now. With any luck, I should be able to get caught up tomorrow.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Helping Henry

Here's one of the linoleum cuts Ruth taught me to do. I never got the hang of the engraver's contour line, but maybe some day...

The first seven chapters of Helping Henry have been released at the Flash Fiction Fest. Helping Henry is the longest work of fiction I've had made available to the public. It's also the most spontaneous piece of sustained writing I've ever done. Normally my work is planned, and obsessed over, and revised at least ten or twelve times.

The Henry stories have been gone over once or twice, and the edits I've gotten back have been the lightest of my career, which makes me nervous. Especially since no-one but me and the editor have seen the final version. Helping Henry isn't just a series of stories. It very much has the form of a novel, and right now there's been enough of it to give you a real feel for things.

What's it about? Human/animal relations, love and friendship, responsibility, and art. Not to mention weird animals and plants, good and bad meals, and dog breath.

As I wrote before, the Henry stories are firmly rooted in mainstream science fiction traditions, but they don't really have the shape or tone of conventional science fiction. While conflict and desire do make appearances, these plots aren't driven by those engines.

And they are also fairly naked wish fulfillment.

They are dedicated to the artist Ruth Leaf, who happens to be a science fiction reader as well as a fine artist. She's been very influential on me -- she wrote the book on intaglio printing techniques, and taught me to do linoleum cuts. She's one of the reasons I approach digital art as a print-making experience rather than a painterly or photographic one. (She also reads the blog -- everybody wave now. Hi, Ruth!)

And a few months back, she said something to me that stuck. She'd seen some of my other work, and found it distressing, and expressed a desire to see me do something that made people feel good when they were done reading it, rather than concerned and distressed.

When I first started the Henry stories, they began with a particularly stupid dick joke. But as they developed their shape, Ruth's request was in my mind. (It rang with something someone once said on stopping reading my first novel -- "You have a knack for taking the reader to fantastic places, and you never take me anywhere I want to go.") And in addition to Ruth, the original cyperpunks and artists Mark Pauline and Maya Lin are owed a debt for their influences.

There are some spots in the first few stories where the benevolence of the Henryverse is hidden, but they turned out to provide important elements in the whole work, so I left them in. These stories are not about perfect lives in a perfect world, they're about living well in a rough world.

I just hope they work.

So give 'em a try, and if you like them? Subscribe to the stories, spread the word, and leave a comment. At this stage of the game, everything helps.

I'll be reading from Helping Henry next Friday at Diesel Books in Oakland. Details here. If you can, please come on down!

And be sure to tune in tomorrow. Don't tell Henry, but he won the design bid for the memorial for the Gulf of Mexico!