Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghoulish Inspiration for Halloween

The damsel in this piece of art has clearly found her inspiration - old Yorick - still hanging about to witness the mischief the living can conceive. Apparently, after having been unearthed by a gravedigger in Hamlet, the skull has been passed around until the modern age. He's now found a lady whose "gorge" does not rise at the sight of him, unlike how he once disgusted Hamlet.

Nor is he "abhorred" in our imagination, obviously. It has always intrigued me how this symbol has endured through the ages. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent this concept - the idea of comparing life (the once jolly jester) to death (his skull). Yet it seems to me that it is Hamlet that is responsible for making the image so compelling.

By the time Hamlet was written, about 1600, skulls were already a common sight in portraits. In addition, there was a theme in art that persisted through the 17th century known as "memento mori" or "remember you will die." Not only did the text itself often appear, but symbols such as skulls were used to underscore the message. So there was (and is) no dearth of symbols suggesting we contemplate our fate. Yet now if we encounter a person with a skull in writing or art, we immediately think of Hamlet and Yorick. It seems to be the instance around which our imaginations have crystalized the idea of "memento mori."

However, when I climb into this particular piece of art, I am not overwhelmed by the macabre at all. There are too many elements here suggesting there is more going on than meets the eye. This is a world of two moons, and where the people have elf-pointed ears. The protagonist is lightly smiling. Perhaps a skull brings to mind more of a remembrance of those who have passed, like the Day of the Dead, rather than a solemn consideration of our own mortality. And we can take it as far as we like, being fiction writers. Perhaps that is a human skull, and she is something else entirely. Is she an immortal creature? Perhaps she is laughing at us. Or maybe she can hear Yorick's voice loud and clear.

Naturally, Yorick has inspired more than a pondering of our fates, he has also become an inspiration for dark comedy. Regardless of how grim the message might be, there is something farcical in a person who carries a skull around like a friend. As I contemplate another Halloween, and finish off a draft of a spooky short story, I look over at the plastic skull decorations on the side table ... and grin.

Image Credit:

Art: Yorick's Date Tonight by GRB76 on

My Comments: I really enjoy gothic art with a twist of humor, especially when it is executed so flawlessly, and with this sense of dark playfulness. The detail in this piece is amazing - showing exactly how Yorick continues to inspire art into the modern era. Thematically, there is also the juxtaposition of youth and beauty against decay and death.

Artist's Comments "Or maybe, "Can I keep it? Because you no longer need it..."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prompt the Muse #22 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Statue of Sphinx
Your main character has encountered a creature blocking the path forward.  This might be literal, as in the mythical sphinx, or more figurative.  Is this creature an alien?  Animal?  Monster?  It asks your character a question that he or she must answer correctly to continue moving forward.  What is the question?  The answer?  Write these out in 150 words.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sfinx, Public Domain

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Speculative Fiction's Fascination with Green Beings

I have always found our collective fascination with "little green men" to be, well, fascinating. Not so much the "little" part, but the "green" part. The meme of green aliens permeates science fiction, but also appears in other forms in folk tales and ancient mythology. Why are we so enthralled with this idea?

For the purposes of this post, I define "alien" very broadly, because I believe the basis for this fixation goes deep into time and into the human psyche. Humans have always had a feeling of strange "aliens" in their midst. The idea of aliens being intelligent life forms from another planet is rather new. Humans have envisioned other sorts of aliens, like fairies, spirits, gods, and monsters. Sagan discussed this concept in his book The Demon Haunted World. I hardly have space here to consider the huge idea of why we invent strange aliens in the first place, but I do want to briefly ponder why they are so often so specifically green.

Most cultures throughout history have noted the obvious, common color of green in nature. So it is not surprising that many cultures have placed the same meaning and symbolism on green, including birth, growth, sustenance, the cycles of nature, and then rebirth in the afterlife. These processes were full of mystery to the ancients (and to us, still) and so green became not only the color of the natural, but also the supernatural. For example, worship of the Egyptian god Osiris is recorded as early as around 2400 BCE. Osiris, the god of nature, rebirth and the afterlife, was often depicted with green skin.

This is a particularly strong symbol in Anglo, Saxon, and Celtic cultures. The forest fairies were green, and certainly the Green Man mythology centers around this symbolism. Originally, this green color was considered good - wild - but good. The pagan religious that grew up around it believed the green forest denizens were protectors and guides of the natural world. There is a theory that suggests it was Christianity's arrival in the Celtic world that changed green from a more positive, natural symbol into one that was just as often malevolent and demon related.  The early Church took a negative view of the color since honoring and worshiping the green folk and their ilk was decidedly against its ideology. So eventually in the Isles, green colored creatures also became something dangerous and evil, such as twisted wild fairies, pernicious monsters like goblins, and green-skinned witches. These ideas were in place by 1400 CE, as indicated by tales such as "Gawain and the Green Knight" where ancient tales and symbols meld with Christian ones.

As the known replaced the unknown, places like forests became less mysterious. But we humans simply moved our "aliens" to the next strange frontier such as distant islands, deep jungles, and the bottom of the ocean. The birth of modern science made it seem as if humans might eventually be able to replicate all the processes of nature - and one result was the quickening of the genre of science fiction with Shelly's Frankenstein in 1818. Frankenstein defies nature and creates life from death, piecing together his monster in a way that echoes how Isis pieced together the body of Osiris.

Into this new genre stepped authors like Verne and Wells, who had visions of travels to distant lands, and even distant planets. By 1880, Schaparelli had already named the major features he observed on Mars as "continents" and "seas".  That same year Greg published Across the Zodiac, where a traveler finds small humanoids populating that planet. With the 1899 Green Boy of Hurrah, and Burroughs' 1906 A Princess of Mars, amongst other stories, the small alien humanoids in the public imagination were nearly universally green.

As science fiction continued to explore its love for green aliens, high fantasy was born with Tolkien between The Hobbit in the mid 1930's and The Lord of the Rings in the mid 1950's. It was out of the mix of the symbolism of the Isles that Tolkien drew the heart of his Middle Earth, especially his creatures, including goblins, orcs, elves, ents and entwives, and dwarves. The elves, associated with the green forests, were mystical, ethereal, powerful, immortal, and generally good. But the green skinned orcs (apparently once elves) were twisted, violent, malignant, and evil. This is a striking parallel to the clash between pagan and church ideas in the old Celtic lands.

From that point, it isn't so hard to see how the trope or meme continued to expand. Today our speculative genres are filled with green creatures. Whether science fiction, fantasy or horror, there are little green men from Mars, green orcs, and green creatures from the black lagoon. We remain fascinated with the greenies. I, personally, trace it all back to that first green connection with the mysterious. We paint green those creatures who we, as authors, want to have a mystical, supernatural, or hyper-scientific power over nature, over life, and over death.

This is hardly a scientific study, merely my own thoughts presenting one possible reason why we fixate so strongly, and even adore, our green aliens. I have a species of green aliens in my sci-fi universe, too. And overused meme or not, they are there to stay. What are your thoughts?


Image Credit: Best 2 Out of 3 by rmj7 on

My comments: This art depicts characters from the newly released book Prossia by Raphyel M. Jordan. I envy the ability to actually draw the characters in one's writing, let alone create visual art.

The artist says: "Aly and Catty come from a race of people that are very combat-oriented and like to spar in their spare time. Here we catch the two after Round #2...ya think Catty's probably up for a Round 3?"

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prompt the Muse #21 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Mask of Zhao Yun
Masks have appeared in all kinds of speculative literature with an array of functions. They have been used in celebrations, religious rituals, to hide identity, as a form of art and dance, in political circles, and to provide protection for the face. Your character has a sudden need to use a mask. Why? What problem does it solve? Write your idea in 200 words.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Mask of Zhao Yun, Public Domain

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Finding Inspiration in Cards and Quizzes

Art: Empress by Tsabo6
The internet is filled with a plethora of quizzes that ostensibly will tell you all about yourself. They can tell you what Star Wars character you are, what kind of moviegoer, and even your religious denomination. Or perhaps what kind of ice cream you are - not what you prefer - what you are. (I am chocolate chip. Boring.) Do a search on almost any topic ("What kind of ___ am I" quiz), and you will find several possible quizzes of varying quality. I don't want to link to any directly, since many of these sites have ads, and I don't want to appear to endorse them.

I really enjoy quizzes overall, not just because they help me procrastinate writing, but because they can give me some insight into my characters. After I take the quiz as myself, I channel my characters and take the same quiz as each of them in turn. It is actually an interesting way to see if I am taking the easy route of making all of my people into either me or the anti-me. And the canonical wisdom tells us that either of those extremes can lead to less interesting character development and more predictable character interaction. I am trying to create unique individuals who get into interesting situations.

One quiz subject I enjoy is the "What Tarot Card Are You" subject. I consistently test as "The High Priestess," the card of science, wisdom, knowledge, and education. Not a big shock for a scientist and writer, I suppose. My main character comes out as "The Sun," supposedly the card of happiness, contentment, and joy. Ironic considering how angsty he is, but perhaps this is the emphasis of what he wishes he had. His best friend is "The Heirophant" who brings "the divine to earth," a kind of "guardian angel." An excellent description, and an image that makes my mind wander to a few new ideas for him. The MC's lover tests out as, well "Love/The Lovers." Hmmm.

And if taking the quizzes isn't enough inspiration for new directions for your characters, then go ahead and actually get tarot readings for them. Again, a little playing around with your favorite search engine will lead to sites that have computers generate instant tarot card spreads. I certainly do not suggest calling "real" people or paying for anything like this, it is just for entertainment and ideas. But this was very enjoyable for me, as my main character had a computer reading done about his love life, and learned he needed to set it aside and concentrate on family celebrations and outings instead. An excellent idea.

For additional card fun, check out the "science tarot" on facebook. This link was sent to me by a friend and I had a good time browsing the art. I noted that the Queen of Wands card, the Storyteller, is Carl Sagan. Something of a paragon for those of us who long to tell the stories of science (real and otherwise) in a way that captivates, informs, and enlightens.

But approach these quizzes advisedly. One of my characters tested out as "Jar Jar Binks" in a Star Wars Character quiz.  I haven't felt the same about him since.


Image Credit: Empress is used with the very generous permission of Tsabo6 on deviantArt.

My comments: Tsabo6 creates some incredible art filled with mystery, beauty, and darkness. Empress is one of several concept art tarot pieces in the theme of "high fantasy with a hint of oriental mood." I was enthralled immediately by this piece, which has such balance and beauty. Certainly if this were a real tarot deck, I'd be in line to get one. Art like this is so inspiring, and keeps the mind open to new possibilities and options.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Rosetta Spacecraft Visit of Asteroid Lutetia

Image: Asteroid Lutetia
From a science fiction perspective, asteroids have always been a source of great inspiration. They are the places where strange artifacts are found, the locations of wayward space outposts, and are the villains in big-rock-collides-with-Earth scenarios. From a planetary science perspective, we've learned a great deal about asteroids in the last 15 years, but as is often the case, the research has generated even more new questions to investigate than we had before.

This summer the Rosetta spacecraft had its close flyby of the asteroid Lutetia. Scientists have now had a chance to review the data from that flyby in some detail, and the first reports are being given at the conference I am attending.

More than anything else, the talks are pointing out how very different asteroids are, both from what we were expecting 15 years ago, and from one another. Lutetia is the biggest asteroid humans have gotten close to (so far) and it shows evidence for a very complex history. The surface features include: folds, fractures, troughs, peaks, craters, pit chains, young and old regions, grooves, deep regolith, boulders, landslides, steep slopes, and much more. It might seem like just another potato-shaped asteroid to some, but I continue to find the variations in asteroids to be really intriguing. And given the President's interest in sending humans to an asteroid sometime soon, these variations pose any number of challenges for mission planning.

For example, Lutetia has slopes of loose material steeper than 50 degrees. This is odd, since loose material on any world generally will not form a slope greater than about 30 degrees (called the angle of repose). This very steep slope might be a result of a strangely shaped gravity profile for the asteroid. Or perhaps the material is being weakly held together by electrostatic forces. In this arena, science and science fiction are in the same position, asking how can we get people there safely, and wondering what they will find when they get there. 

I am particularly interested in imagining the differences in trying to 'walk' on such a body, where the gravity is pulling strangely, where the slopes might be either rock or dust, and massive boulders are perched on peaks all around. On smaller asteroids, this effect would be even more pronounced. It might be more like 'floating' around, or as one colleague said, visiting something more akin to a dangerous underwater coral reef while wearing complex scuba gear.


Image Credit: Rosetta image of asteroid Lutetia, European Space Agency

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Science Conferences: Ideas from the Cutting Edge

Art: Conception of Future Lunar Visitors
Hopefully this will be a post-heavy couple of weeks. For one thing, I'd like to do a bit of catch up on topics I started examining here the blog, but did not fully explore (like writing retreats.) But more importantly I'd like to blog about the planetary science conference I am currently attending. I'm a day behind already, given travel schedules and whatnot, so it is time to get my fingers moving on the keyboard.

This meeting is one of the most important yearly conferences for the subject of planetary science and is attended by over a thousand people, including scientists, press, educators, writers, students, exhibitors, and much more. Since I fall into a number of these categories, such as scientist, educator, and writer, this conference is a great place to be. My main goal (after actually showing up for the science talk that has my name on it) is to plumb the meeting for ideas for science fiction writing. I've never approached this conference quite this way before, and I'm looking forward to the inevitable challenges. Particularly the challenge of thinking both as a scientist and as a fiction writer at the same time - which will hopefully make for an interesting post or two.

By the way, if you follow Twitter, you can check out Emily Lakdawalla's (Planetary Society) tweets of the conference here.


Image Credit: NASA