Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Plastic fantastic humanity

We humans are plastic. In case you're not familiar with this use of the term "plastic", it means malleable, changeable, fluid. We bend to circumstances, and change to accommodate them. This is why we won't be residing in flesh bodies much longer.

We can be anything. If a human mind was put it into an android or robot body, the mind would soon think of the new body as its own. And by "soon", I mean within minutes. The new body's abilities would be our abilities. Humans adapt. It's what we do. This change is going to happen, and what makes this possible is our amazing plasticity.

Let's do an experiment that extends the body. (This isn't my own creation; I read it somewhere.) Hold a pen or pencil in your hand, and run the tip over a surface such as a nubby fabric. You can feel it through the pencil, which has become an extension of your sensory apparatus. Try it on a few surfaces. Isn't it amazing that so much information comes to you from this process? We are plastic. We bend to circumstance. We can be anything.

We sense this when we drive. If you've ever hit a concrete wall or a tree with your car, you probably said "Ouch!" or some similar expletive. The reason this happens is that when we're driving, we extend our being throughout the car. That's you out there, not the front bumper.

We can't remain in our biological bodies. They're subject to ill health and they eventually wear down and stop functioning -- the ultimate indignity. We will pass on to other shores, whether machine-like or virtual. We will change and we will grow. And in the end, we will become something entirely different.

I write about these changes in my novels. Why? Because they're coming and we have to start thinking about what this means for humanity. Alas, no one thinks about the future anymore. But that's a post for a different day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Writing Xmas Carol

I wrote two sci-fi novels and a book of short stories before beginning Xmas Carol. The first few books taught me how to write fiction, which I'd never tried before. Turns out it's an awesome pastime.

Writing Xmas Carol was like visiting a magical land. After I chose the story idea, the tale came to me in pieces. I'd be thinking about other things when suddenly a piece of the puzzle would appear. In the end, it was like the story was sent to me. It needed to be written.

Perhaps you've found yourself drifting away from reading. This is understandable since most books written these days are boring. I wanted to write something that had life and energy -- and purpose. I wanted to write Xmas Carol.

I've always enjoyed sci-fi and horror books (and movies). But I'm also a rational fellow. I know there are no such things as witches, ghosts, werewolves or vampires. But I still had a pressing urge to write within these genres. So I thought about it for a very long time.

Then one day I asked myself a question: "What is like a ghost?" This simple question was the seed that turned into Xmas Carol. If you like horror and sci-fi, but you've also grown up and don't enjoy nonsense, you may be the perfect reader for Xmas Carol. 

This story is new. There's nothing like it in literature. Take the plunge. I priced the book at only $2.99 because I wanted to let readers in, not exclude them. I figured this was a price that just about everyone could afford. If you read the book, and I hope you will, I doubt you'll be disappointed.There is nothing boring about Xmas Carol.

Immortality can solve that

I was thinking about a hypothetical alien civilization somewhere out there, one that had achieved immortality and somehow -- through augmentation or perhaps by altering their own genetic code -- had stepped up to the next level of existence, one far beyond our ability to understand. Specifically, I was wondering what dreams this race might have and what it still longed to accomplish . . . when suddenly it hit me.

If we were immortal it would eliminate one of the main obstacles in humanity's way -- our short memories.

For instance, in the 1980s we learned about the dangers of HIV and discovered how to stay safe. But then a new generation came along, knowing nothing of what we had learned, and the infection rates rose once again. Our information, our understanding of various matters, does not remain with us because, unlike genes, information cannot be physically transferred to the next generation. In life, any information can be lost if the next generation doesn't pick it up and carry it forward into the future.

(In fact, an entire culture can be lost in one generation if the new one doesn't cling to the language, customs, etc. of their forbears. Note that suddenly no one can read. One generation is all it takes to lose a skill.)

If we were immortal there would surely be new problems caused by immortality itself; it is not a panacea. But if we could live forever, what we learned would stay learned. Perhaps that is the key to our finally becoming an enlightened race. If we all, as a race, remembered the past and its lessons, perhaps we could finally build a positive future.

Or maybe not. But it's an interesting thought.

Science via Dean Koontz

In 2000, Dean Koontz wrote a great book called From the Corner of His Eye. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy. It's right up there with his best five books. (How many has he written? About a thousand or so, right? So being in the top five is saying a lot.)

After presenting a wild idea in the book -- that there are other universes where we also exist -- and carrying it off beautifully (they need to make a movie out of this one) he ended the book with a note saying that there was actual science that said this wild idea might be true, that we might have zillions of duplicates, living lives as real as our own in other universes.

I couldn't get over it: this was real? So I followed up by reading science books. Little did I know that science would soon take over my life. I cannot believe how gorgeous physics is. It's one of the main highlights of my mental existence. I revel in physics. On the tiniest levels there is so much is going on. And those itsy bits are what our reality is made of. The macroscopic world is built on a wild framework of active, constantly moving, sub-microscopic ingredients. We don't think about what's "down there" but it counts.

One of the best things I ever did was read Brian Greene's Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. It's not light reading but it's well worth the effort. This author has an uncanny knack for explaining things. With his help you can pretty much understand everything. Because that's what physics is about: everything. There is nothing in the universe that doesn't obey the laws of physics (at least, as far out as we can see).

I followed Greene's book up by reading Daniel Dennet's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". He's a philosopher of science, which means it's his job to put together the understanding that emerges from science. While scientists discover the facts, Dennett talks about what it means, what science is telling us. One of the most intriguing things he taught me is how our minds work. "Consciousness Explained" is another of his books and I highly recommend it. Fair warning: the book will immolate your concept of "self". It's like having the rug pulled out from under you -- but it's exciting because you can feel that it's true -- he's talking about what goes on in your head all the time. We are not what we think we are.

My science reading went on and on for years. I read just about everything I could get my hands on. Where before I devoured fiction, now I would read only science books. At the tail end of this process, I now have a tall bookcase completely filled with science books and I've read almost every one of them. The understanding I obtained from these guys -- as well as from Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose and Janna Levin and Victor Stenger and David Deutsch and a ton of others -- served to define reality for me. I can never see things the old way anymore. Post-science, I'm aware of the splendor all around me. Each instant seems like a perfect, eternal thing (and it actually is).

Science transformed my life and I guess I've got Dean Kontz to thank for it. I did, too. I wrote him a nice email telling him that he'd altered my life in a very positive way. He did and that's the truth. In fact, I might never have written Xmas Carol if I hadn't read that Koontz book.

Have you ever liked the movie better than the book?

I asked myself this question the other day and I think the answer is a qualified "no". I've never liked the movie version of a book more than the book itself -- though some movies, like "2001: A Space Odyssey", certainly equaled the book. When a movie breaks new cinematic ground, as 2001 did, it's difficult to balance the heft of the movie against a simple story told in words. "The Exorcist" and "Jaws" also fall into this category, where the movie is so much bigger than life that it's virtually impossible to compare to the book. This is why I vote with a "qualified" no.

The other day, regular commenter Annie mentioned reading "84, Charing Cross Road" while watching the movie, and noted that it was, line-for-line, the same as the book. I've seen that sort of fidelity in a few movie adaptations. "Rosemary's Baby" is extremely loyal to the book. Even the visuals match what is described on the page. Although I love the movie, I can't say it's better than the book. Ira Levin, the author of "Rosemary's Baby", is one of the greatest masters of the English language, as far as I'm concerned. And Roman Polanski, who directed Rosemary's Baby, is also no lightweight, making a comparison of the merit of the two works no easy task. Still, I vote for the book. It seems I always do.

You don't see this sort of page-to-screen accordance very often. If you did, it would be easier to compare book to movie. In fact, many movies are so unfaithful that they sometimes lose the very concept of the book. The movie, "A Home at the End of the World", was a major disappointment. It's ending is so unlike the book's conclusion that I was shocked. It seems they excised the meaning of the story to avoid a slightly uncomfortable ending. I don't know how Michael Cunningham, who wrote the book (and is the best writer in America today), could have allowed this to happen. In any case, the book is far superior to the movie and I believe that's always the case (with a well-written book).

There's so much more in the language of a book than there can ever be in a visual experience like a movie. Cinematography is a far less exacting thing than language because visuals are an approximation. Words, on the other hand, are precise tools with exquisitely clear meanings. For this last reason, it doesn't surprise me that I can't think of any movie that seemed better than the book. Can you?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Come one, come all

Male gharial. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Consider this post an open thread where readers can comment on "Xmas Carol". Actually, anyone can comment whether they've read the book or not. You're all welcome. Tell me what you're looking for in a horror novel. Or let's talk about why horror is losing its punch these days. Jason? Zombies? Demons? Where's the fear?

In my opinion, horror only works when the reader (or viewer) can see themselves in the story. This has been the downfall of sci-fi, in particular. It usually takes place so far in the future that people can't relate. In my books, I try to avoid this pitfall.

For another thing, horror has to be possible. And that means it must be based on real life. As an example, let's use a movie rather than a book (I do this because we've all seen the same movies; not so with books). The reason why "Alien" is such a scary movie is that its premise is reality-based. Placing your young inside a body to gestate? Wasps do this every day, and pity the poor caterpillars into which they thrust their babies. They eat their way out -- just like in "Alien". And those jaws that contain so many teeth in a long, almost tube-like structure? Look at a gharial. It's the same mouth and teeth that we see in "Alien" (though the gharial's teeth are external). So "Alien" is based on things we already know from real life. Something inside you says, "this could really happen!" That's why it's scary.

What are you looking for when you pick up a horror or sci-fi novel? Let me know. And if you've read "Xmas Carol", please consider commenting and telling me (and others) what you thought of the book.

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