Sunday, April 22, 2007

Science Fiction Citations for OED

I just stumbled on the Science Fiction Citations for OED site run by Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The project grew out of regular work that was being done for the OED's reading programs. Briefly, research for the OED takes two main forms: general reading, in which a variety of texts are read for any interesting words that are encountered, and targeted research, in which particular terms are specifically analyzed. This can consist of doing searches in electronic databases, sending general researchers to a library to see what they can find, or asking specialists for help in their subject fields. The purpose of this site is, in effect, to bring together SF enthusiasts with detailed lists of what we need their help with. In the process, the site has developed--is developing--into a general resource for the vocabulary of SF, instead of a mere catalogue of OED needs.

Some of the terms have been around since the beginnings of the science fiction genre, such as "death ray" (1915). Others are of recent coinage, such as "jump gate" (1995). Not surprisingly, there are a few bioscience-related terms in the database. Some examples:
I'm a bit surprised that "genome" and "genomic" aren't included, nor are "virus" or "viral" in either the biological or the computer sense. I guess they can't include everything.

If you know of earlier usage of these terms in printed sources, you can send the OED your citations. For some words, they'd like additional citations, even if they don't antedate the earliest known reference. I know I'm going to keep my eyes open for such terms when I'm reading science fiction, particularly from the Golden Age and earlier.

UPDATE: Last week Jesse Sheidlower kindly wrote to me to explain how the OED selects their included terms. (Reproduced here with his permission)
While there is of course a great deal
of overlap between science fiction and (real) science, our
goal is to show terms that are _specifically_ connected with
science fiction, not terms that are associated with other
fields that happen to occur in science fiction books. Thus,
where _genome_ is used in SF contexts, it tends to be used in
its regular scientific sense.

There are some cases where terms that are now used as part of
the regular vocabulary of science, arose in SF--_neutronium_
is one example. And there are cases when scientific terms are
used in SF with distinctive meanings or
associations--_antimatter_ comes to mind. These are both
included in the site. However, standard scientific terms that
are used, even frequently, in SF, are not likely to be
included. For another group of examples, note that we don't
include _laser_, but do include _laser cannon, ~ gun, ~
pistol,_ and _~ rifle_.
Thanks for the clarification!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Next and the Golden Man

One of the ads that's been playing on SciFi recently is for the new Nicholas Cage movie, Next. The ad particularly piqued my interest by stating that the movie is based on a story "by the author of Minority Report". Next turns out to be based on Philip K. Dick's 1954 short story, "The Golden Man." It is set in a post-nuclear war Earth where powerful mutants are feared and hunted by normal humans. One such mutant, Cris Johnson (literally a golden man), is able to escape the clutches of the government by using his super speed and prescient abilities. The story ends with the implication that Johnson's descendants will eventually replace humanity.

One thing that sets "The Golden Man" apart from other evolving humanity stories is that Johnson is no clear improvement on standard-issue Homo sapiens. Yes he has super skills and is very physically attractive, but his brain lacks a frontal lobe, making him unable to use language or read. He is closer to an instinct-driven animal than a thinking human. As one of the characters points out,
"Superior survival doesn't mean superior man. If there were another world-wide flood, only fish would survive. If there were another ice age, maybe nothing but polar bears would be left."
Humans aren't necessarily evolving into something better, only something different. As Dick said in a 1979 interview:
"I intended to show that (1) the mutant might not be good, at least good for the rest of mankind, for us ordinaries; and (2) not in charge but sniping at us as a bandit would, a feral mutant who potentially would do us more harm than good"
The movie Next must be only loosely based on Dick's story, since Cage is not a perfect physical specimen (at least in my opinion) and would be an unlikely hero if his character was a mute unthinking animal of a man. I could be wrong, though. Watch the trailer for yourself.

You can read "The Golden Man" in Martian Time-Slip and The Golden Man (

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Color of Alien Flora

Apparently the vegetable kingdom in Mars, instead of having green for a dominant colour, is of a vivid blood-red tint. At any rate, the seeds which the Martians (intentionally or accidentally) brought with them gave rise in all cases to red-coloured growths. Only that known popularly as the red weed, however, gained any footing in competition with terrestrial forms. The red creeper was quite a transitory growth, and few people have seen it growing. For a time, however, the red weed grew with astonishing vigour and luxuriance. It spread up the sides of the pit by the third or fourth day of our imprisonment, and its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe to the edges of our triangular window. And afterwards I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water.
~ H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Exotic extraterrestrial foliage has been a science fiction staple since Wells' described the invading red plants of Mars in 1898. While red plants are colorful, natch, they don't necessarily have any basis in biology. Fortunately for people who like bio-accuracy in their science fiction, NASA biometeorologist Nancy Kiang and colleagues have published an article that predicts the color of plant life on extrasolar planets based on the type of star the planet orbits and the predicted planetary atmosphere.

The plant color we see is determined by the wavelength of light reflected by their leaves. Typical green plants absorb photon-rich red light and high-energy blue light and reflect the unused green light. Light absorbing pigments such as chlorophyll capture the photons' energy, which is then used to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar. Based on the current understanding of that process of photosynthesis in terrestrial plants and bacteria, the NASA-lead research team believes that plants can come in many colors - except bright blue.

The article conveniently provides a star type - plant color guide:

Star typePrimary color light used for photosynthesisPlant Colors
Hotter than the sunbluewhite (to prevent blue-light overdose) or green-yellow-orange-red
Like the sun redgreen-yellow-orange
Cooler than the sunredgreen-yellow-orange
Red dwarf all light,black

infrared, grey-white

or yellow-redpurple, many other colors

It looks like red is an unlikely color for plants growing in our solar system. But if the invaders were from a planet orbiting Sirius, that's another story.

Tags: , Image from the NASA article.

Hugo Nominee: A Billion Eves

Suddenly every science had a fierce interest in the work. Large schools and small nations had to own rippers. Biologists retrieved microscopic samples of air and soil, each sample contaminated with bacteria and odd spores. Every species was new, but all shared the ingredients of earth-life: DNA coded for the same few amino acids that built families of proteins that were not too unlike those found inside people and crabgrass.
One of this year's Hugo-nominated novellas, "A Billion Eves" by Robert Reed, is based on the premise that a machine ("ripper") that can transport people (and objects) to parallel Earths has been developed. Pioneers - both volunteers and kidnapees - settle these other Earths that diverged from our own at vastly different points over the last few billion years. The result is human habitable worlds that are almost, but not quite, like our own. One young woman is willing to ask what effect we - and our livestock, food crops and pests - might have on these alien Earths.

Reed has a background in biology and it clearly shows in his fiction. It's not surprising to me that his favorite course was population biology (a field that combines genetics, evolution and ecology), as he explained in a 2003 interview with Science Fiction Weekly :
I took a few graduate courses in biology, and my favorite class, probably in my scholastic life, was called Population Biology. The professor was a gung-ho chap with a curious, relentless mind. When I walked into his class, my knowledge of natural selection was limited to a string of memorized facts and loosely related ideas. He showed me an Evolution that never sleeps—a relentless scythe tirelessly cutting its way through every population, every lineage. Then, afterwards, on my own, I read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. With the help of those two apes, I created a rugged little toolbox that I can apply to my world-building business.

Read "A Billion Eves" for yourself at Asimov's Science Fiction. Then, if you want more, check out my previous post on Reed's "Dragons of Summer Gulch" and his many other stories available online.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Yesterday brought the sad news that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. My first exposure to Vonnegut was Slaughterhouse-Five, which I had to read for a high school English class. It opened my eyes to a whole new kind of fiction that mixed humor, science fiction and social and political commentary. Vonnegut was in a class by himself.

Even though Vonnegut's books were more satire than science, there is indeed a biology angle.

Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos in which a small group of mismatched humans visiting the Galapagos islands end up repopulating the Earth. The story is told from a million years in the future at which time humanity has evolved into creatures with smaller brains, flippers and beaks. According to the 1985 review of Galapagos in the New York times, it was no coincidence that the novel is set in the islands that provided data that helped shape Charles Darwin's hypothesis on natural selection.
Four years ago Mr. Vonnegut and his wife went on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. ''Of course, I was fascinated by the island's natural life,'' he says. ''I spent as much time there as Charles Darwin did - two weeks. We had advantages that Darwin didn't have. Our guides all had graduate degrees in biology. We had motorboats to move us around the islands more easily than rowboats could when Darwin visited the Galapagos in the 1830's. And, most important, we knew Darwin's theory of evolution, and Darwin didn't when he was there. His 'Origin of Species' came out 20 years after his journal of the voyage on H.M.S. Beagle.''

Mr. Vonnegut has retained his interest in anthropology. ''I've tried to make the book as responsible as possible scientifically,'' he says, sounding as mock-serious as one of his familiar characters, Kilgore Trout, whose son, Leon Trotsky Trout, is the ghostly narrator of ''Galapagos.'' Laughing, Mr. Vonnegut says, ''If my predictions in the book are wrong, I will return all the money.''
The novel has been used as the basis of discussion on evolution and population genetics in biology, anthropology and even English classes. See, for example, the syllabi of Kenyon College's Biology 103 "Biology in Science Fiction" , CSU San Bernardino's Natural Science 360 "Legacy of Life" (lecture summaries), CSU Fullerton's LBST 491: Seminar in Literature and Science, and University of Calgary's Archaeology 617: Theory and its Application in Biological Anthropology. A quick Google search brings up many others.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the semi-autobiographical narrator is philosophical about death.
If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I mam not overjoyed. Still -- if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

And so it goes . . .

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