Dec 23, 2013

Electric Pickle

electric pickle
.....finding myself deep into writing a "Year In Review: 2013" blog post and in need of a break from the mind-twisting task of sorting out details of the alternate Realities that appear in the Exode Trilogy.....

Humor and Science
The sodium-rich pickle shown to the right is glowing because electric current is passing through it. I've never heard if Edison tried a pickle in his experiments when he was trying to make a long-lasting light bulb.

Wizard of Menlo Park
"Armed with a better vacuum pump, Edison now turned to carbon as a potential filament. He sought a naturally occurring fiber that could be carbonized. Among the many fibers tried were human hairs, animal hairs, thinly sliced horn, all kinds of threads, and botanical specimens from around the world. In order to improve their strength, Edison tried impregnating the carbonized fibers with rock candy, whale oil, cotton oil, and any number of hydrocarbons. Ultimately, the most successful fiber proved to be thinly sliced strips of bamboo." (source)

Edison's persistent search for the perfect organic light bulb filament was something of a joke to scientists.

"Before the end of the filament search, some 6000 species of bamboo had been tried. Trained scientists shook their heads over Edison's bamboo search and his detractors have pointed to the effort as a monumental waste of time. They missed an important point, even if the search failed to generate a single usable filament, it did generate huge amounts of publicity." (source)

Science Nerds and Humor
For science nerds, the story of how the universe works is intrinsically fascinating. A chimpanzee will never be able to appreciate the beauty of oppositely charged sodium and chloride ions, even if it likes to eat salty pickles and can be dazzled by the beauty of salt crystals.

I first began to contemplate the role of humor in science when I read The Double Helix. Watson could not resist telling some funny stories that spice up the account of how the structure of DNA was deciphered. One such "spicy" anecdote concerned Crick's ability to irritate his boss.

Apparently Crick was extraordinarily upset by the "literary style" employed by Watson in The Double Helix. Our individual foibles can be amusing to others, but a public account of them might only provoke ire in the one who is most intimately involved. Often scientists like Crick and businessmen like Edison are so engaged with their work that they become trapped in the seriousness of their driven pursuit of a lofty "truth of nature" or some technical goal that will bring light to the world and $$$ to the bank account. Retaining the capacity to laugh at one's self is sometimes beyond the powers of those who become famous.

Eventually, after all the Nobel dust settled, Crick was able to understand that Watson wrote a piece of literature that would appeal to -and inspire- the next generation of science nerdlings. Really, science is done by mere mortals not paragons and doing science should be fun.

What about humor and play in science fiction?

Dick & Dorothy
Science Fiction Play
One of the first science fiction novels I read was the story of how Dick Seaton built a spaceship and went out to the stars on a great adventure. Edward Smith never let trivial issues like science facts get in the way of telling a fun adventure story (see: You Fail Science Forever).

Michael Swanwick wrote in analogy to the glowing electric pickle: "Shakespeare was an electric pickle, and so was Virginia Woolf .....They were hooked into the psychic electricity of their times. They took in more energy than one person can hold.....They shed light. Try it yourself: plug into the Zeitgeist. Feel the power. Now create a work of art. Shed the light."

Science fiction provides us with a literary paradox. The science community celebrates mavericks and visionaries who plug into the Zeitgeist and then, more importantly, find ways to escape from the Zeitgeist and, in so doing, manage to shed light on reality.

Hollywood and space aliens
The advice given by Swanwick is a formula for generating a type of science fiction that irritates me vastly. Hollywood can turn out vast numbers of mindless stories about invading aliens and other imagined horrors, stories well-suited to our Zeitgeist...and, of course, the $$$ keeps rolling in. Yawn. What, you have a complaint? Corporate science fiction moguls say, "I'm making money, so fuck you."

For idealistic science nerds, science fiction is about following the wonders of scientific discovery to new places where we have never been before, not endlessly repeating a formula for commercial success.

We are all told by the literati: if your story is not dark and dingy and full of angst and emotional confusion then you are not creating literary fiction, you are "just" a genre hack.

A chimp can never understand how sodium ions make human thought and emotion possible. The literati could understand and celebrate the beauty and fun of science, but they close their minds to the joy of discovery in preference for darkness.

Play & Science
As an example of literature that expresses the "wonders of science", Watson's The Double Helix illustrates the importance of playfulness in science: honest Jim, the young kid, fresh from school and the sticks in America, brings playful innocence to tired war-ravaged Europe. Playing with tinker toy models, Jim notices the way that base pairs can form the core of a DNA double helix.

All work and no play makes a scientist a dull and plodding work horse. Watson insisted: to do creative and ground breaking science, you need time to think creatively, to play with crazy new ideas and the opportunity to mix ideas between seemingly isolated scientific disciplines.

Invisible Characters
Visible: Hanks
Some people dislike science fiction authors who insert "cardboard cutout" characters into their plot-driven science fiction. Picture a Hollywood executive who is certain that you can't make an interesting movie about going to the Moon unless you have an interesting character in the film or a dangerous predicament that can tug at the emotions of the audience. That's the Zeitgeist of our time.....half a million people working together to push the limits of science and technology and send people to the Moon is boring. From the perspective of Hollywood, only the failed mission to the Moon is a story worth telling because of its "human drama".

Invisible: Kirth Gersen
The protagonist of Vance's Demon Princes novels is Kirth Gersen. Vance wrote: "Undoubtedly  he had lived a grim, cheerless existence. Thinking back across the years, scenes came crowding into his mind, all of which were variations on a single theme: other children occupied with irresponsible pleasure, while he, a rather thin boy with a grave face, watched from a distance." Gersen is a suitably colorless character for his role....he sometimes wonders if he is just a machine with no soul, crafted for the completion of a particular dreary task. Even after he becomes a billionaire, he must take pains to remain hidden and unknown to his enemies.

Emotional detachment is useful for a man like Gersen. When he innocently allows himself the luxury of asking a pretty girl out to dinner, she is kidnapped and raped by his enemies. Of course, were Vance to follow the "rules" for creating literary fiction then Gersen would have to suffer some kind of emotional turmoil because of his profession as an assassin. Ug. I prefer Vance's strategy, which, rather than following the formula that insists Gersen must change and grow as a person, allows him to persist little changed through his travails and ultimately Gersen is rewarded with a gift: in his long journeying between the stars he finally comes across the miraculous Alice Wroke, a girl who shares his unusual perspective on life.

Is Gersen "clenched and humorless"? He has a sense of humor, but he does not -can not- allow himself to indulge his desires for an easy and normal existence. Every time he begins to "lighten up" things go badly.

The Palace of Love
by Jack Vance
with the mad poet Navarth
The moment that Gersen's thoughts are tainted by the possibility of a comfortable life with Alusz, she is revolted by the nasty details of Gersen's existence. When Gersen instinctively prevents "Zan Zu" from going to Viole Falushe, it only brings the ire of Falushe down upon the poor girl and he sets about making her the next victim of his cloning experiments. When Gersen allows himself to imagine a life with the charming, stimulating and endearing Jerdian, her father brutally tells her to put the idea out of her thoughts.

Still, Gersen's sense of humor cannot be suppressed. In The Book of Dreams we see that Gersen is able to lighten up when he joins forces with Alice. He is comfortable and playful when in her company. Gersen even pens an amusing account of Howard Treesong's class reunion. Vance was judicious in allowing humor into the Demon Prince series. Even while not allowing Gersen much scope for humor, with characters around like Navarth the Mad Poet and the trickish Lens Larque, the reader gets a healthy dose of humor.

Humor in Exode
When I had my original flash of insight for the Exode character Parthney, I saw in my mind a large and loud man, rather glib and brash who would not hesitate to brow beat Hana into abandoning her child and leaving Earth to go off on an adventure among the stars.

I soon found the need to explore Parthney's youth and origins on the planet Hemmal. The Buld who reside on Hemmal are largely a happy and carefree group. The guests at Demon Lodge enjoy performances by the local artists in residence, including Parthney. Parthney is a rebel who delights in explorations of his male sexuality.
Most people on Hemmal would be shocked by Parthney's antics, but he has an appreciative audience among the unusual collection of guests that have been attracted to Demon Lodge over the years. Unfortunately, because the Prelands are watching, the audience is calm and silent during the performance that appears in Exode. I picture most of Parthney's performances at Demon Lodge as raucous affairs spiced up by audience participation and much laughter.

The entire "Interventionists vs Overseers" dynamic in Exode is something of a joke. The Interventionists and Overseers take themselves very seriously, but the joke is on them. No matter what they do, the state of technological advancement on Earth is not going to be changed. I like the idea of his handlers being beside themselves when Parthney can never seem to take his mission to Earth seriously.

Parthney also has to deal with Kach and her earnest mission to find the Creators. Parthney falls deeply in love with Kach, but he can never share her faith in the existence of unseen Creators who Kach believes brought we humans into existence. However, the last laugh is on Parthney: the Huaoshy are responsible for the existence of our species.

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