Category Archives: Science Fiction

Artificial Intelligence: A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Walter Van Pose Lorez - The Library Robot

The Library Robot by Walter Van Pose Lorez

Why is it that we expect robots to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) and not our coffee machines? Or our cars?

steampunk-coffee-machines

Steampunk Coffee Machines standing at attention

 

Self-driving car – is that not the sweetest baby face? Clever marketing!

Thinking machines are years and years away from thinking like human beings, and they may never think like human beings. Tarnation – even the best scientists on the planet can’t tell you how human beings think. Not really. No matter what they may claim. All that a robot can do is mimic the behaviour of a human being – they are superb actors and actresses.

robot-sculptures-by-lawrence-northey-thumb

Human beings are programmed to recognise human beings (I’ve brought this up before). With robots, we seem hell-bent on discovering the ghost in the machine. As a writer, this makes my job both easier and harder. It is easier because my audience will work with me to construct a personality for any robot I might invent in a Steampunk narrative. It is harder, because if I attempt to make my robot think in unique and alien ways, the audience might misread it as sinister or aggressive, even if that isn’t my intention.

Begging robot

So, how do we (as writers) avoid anthropomorphic personification of android and gynoid robots? Just because a machine has a humanoid shape, it shouldn’t mean it has humanoid emotions or concerns, and we should try to figure out what motivates the robot. Is it a logical and rational thinking machine? (By-the-bye, being logical doesn’t automatically make you cold or emotionless, like Spock.) Does your robot have a very narrow area of interest, like a satnav or a laboratory analytical machine? How is it powered, and does it need to power down on a regular basis. Is it autonomous or does it report back to a central controlling machine? Don’t just slap a human being into a tin suit and call it a robot!

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Filed under Robots, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, Uncategorized, writing

Lynne’s Favorite Ten Modern Science Fiction (non-Steampunk) Authors

This list is not in order of preference.

1/ Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey; Portrait by Linda Eicher

I read ‘The White Dragon’ when I was nineteen, and have been a McCaffrey fan for ever after. I think the Pern books are great, but it is her ‘The Tower and the Hive’ books that I probably love the most.

2/ Ursula k. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin

Every Le Guin book is something to treasure, but my favourites are her fantasy EarthSea series and her feminist Science Fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness and her post-colonial/ecological Science Fiction classic The Word for World is Forest. Her short stories are gems.

3/ Jennifer Fallon

Jennifer Fallon

The Tide Lords is my favourite series, but it is hard to pick just one stand-out book in her bibliography. You always have fun when reading any of her books.

4/ Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

But he’s a fantasy author, you all protesting. May I direct you to the Long Earth series … written with Stephen Baxter.

5/ Vonda N McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre

If you haven’t read Dreamsnake or The Moon and the Sun, race out and read them right now, or I just can’t talk to you.

6/ Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr and Pooka

I reread A Wind in Cairo at least once a year (it is a fantasy book). Tarr has had a long and prolific career, and writes both Science Fiction and fantasy.

7/ R A MacAvoy

R A MacAvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon is one of my very favourite books of all time, but I love all her books. She is another author who can write both fantasy and Science Fiction books, with elegant ideas and enchanting prose.

8/ Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones

You might be surprised at Diana Wynne Jones inclusion on this list. You can’t tell me that Howl’s Moving Castle, or A Tale of Time City, aren’t partly Science Fiction as well.

9/ China Tom Miéville

China Mieville

Okay … he has written books that can be considered part of the Steampunk oeuvre. However, most of his books aren’t in the Steampunk genre, but written in something he likes to call Weirdpunk. Most of his books defy genre definitions. And if that won’t entice you to read something of his, may I recommend Embassytown.

10/ Sean Williams

Sean in a hat

Sean Williams

He is a New York Times bestseller. Go read the Twinmaker series, and thank me later.

And Lucky you! I’m making an extra recommendation: Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Read Songs from the Seashell Archives Quintet and her Science Fiction collaborations with Anne McCaffrey.

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

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The Impact of Science on the Victorian Vocabulary

File:William Whewell.jpg

William Whewell in the 1860s

In 1834, the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’ were coined by Reverend William Whewell. Previously, the practitioners of science had been known as ‘natural philosophers’ or ‘men of science’; I prefer ‘scientist’ as it is a gender neutral term as well as more accurate than ‘natural philosopher’. Whewell was a polymath, neologist, scientist, science historian, philosopher, poet and Anglican priest, as well as a Master of Trinity College in Cambridge. His breadth and depth of knowledge was astounding. He coined many words that would come to dominate the vocabulary of the 19th and 20th centuries; his didn’t just coin the terms ‘scientist’, ‘physicist’, he suggested the terms ‘ion’, ‘dielectric’, ‘anode’, and ‘cathode’ to Michael Faraday. This is what happens when you have a brilliant rational mind who is also a poet … magic happens. He used the word ‘artist’ to inspire ‘Scientist’ and physicist’, and you can’t get a more Steampunk concept than that.

File:M Faraday Th Phillips oil 1842.jpg

Michael Faraday

Because of the sudden increase in technology, and massive interest in science, in the Industrial era, the Victorian era saw the addition of many words to the languages of the world. Whewell was just one of many neologists coining new words, but, for me, he holds a special place for creating the word ‘scientist’, because my first degree was in zoology and I am a scientist as well as a writer. With all the new discoveries taking place, there had to be lexical innovations to match.

The new scientific terms were – and still are – made by adapting words from the Latin or Greek for the most part, or by mashing up to existing words to create a Portmanteau word.

The use of jargon is prevalent in every field of human endeavour, to keep the knowledge secret and unavailable to outsiders, and this included the all the fields of science. During the 19th century, medicine had a run on naming of the inflammations of various organs: resulting in such words as ‘tonsillitis’ (1801) and ‘appendicitis’ (1886). As you might guess, the original intention for these neologisms was that the meanings of these words were not obvious to a layperson, such as men without a classical education and the majority of women. However, over time, jargon words tend to become part of the vocabulary of the general population. (Take that you snobs and misogynists.)

As science opened up into more fields, so did scientists adventure into new territories; botanists searching for new plants; zoologists searching for new animals; geologists searching for new minerals; anthropologists searching for undiscovered tribes of humanity. Each new discovery needed a name. In 1857, German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller named the Australian macadamia nut, giving the genus the scientific name Macadamia (no, it isn’t a native of Hawai’i, so stop calling it the Hawai’ian nut, it is the Queensland nut).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, English explorer, naturalist, biologist, and geologist

File:Alfred-Russel-Wallace-c1895.jpg

Alfred Russel Wallace, the explorer, geographer, anthropologist, naturalist, and biologist

Sometimes the English language borrowed the words from the local language. For an example, ‘kiwi’ entered the language in 1835, borrowed from the Maori language. Kiwis are flightless birds native to New Zealand, in the genus Apteryx and family Apterygidae. So the discovery of the kiwis meant three new words entered the English language and the worldwide scientific lexicon.

Kiwi

So many new words entered the English language, among the other languages, during the 19th century. As a writer, I can either

  1. check every scientific word I use in my Steampunk novel, to ensure it was in use;
  2. or I can try to minimise the use of jargon words and avoid the issue of dating words;
  3. or I can embrace the use of a full scientific vocabulary for the sake of clarity.

I generally choose the third path, with a friendly nod to the first and second options. Clarity trumps all, but I do attempt to keep the jargon words down to a minimum, and try not to overuse anachronistic words. My aim is always to make my prose readable. A lot of jargon words might confuse or alienate my audience, as might using words that have fallen out of use.

There are plenty of books and websites to help you source 19th century words and scientific terms. Remember, Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and you need to make sure the science sounds plausible. Using the correct terms always helps your verisimilitude.

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre

Scientific Jargon: A Steampunk Perspective

Mad Scientists of the world unite!

Mad Scientists of the world unite!

Jargon: the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.

When you are writing Steampunk, you are writing Science Fiction. When you are writing Science Fiction, your characters have to maintain a plausible level of scientific knowledge, and the setting and plot need to maintain a similar level of scientific verisimilitude. They all need to walk the walk and talk the talk. All scientists use jargon, and different scientific fields use different jargon.

A little research will provide you with a working vocabulary in  your chosen field. For example, if you are writing about botany, you need to know what the various bits of a plant are called, and have a little background knowledge in plant classification.  A botanist would know the difference between a deciduous tree and evergreen tree, or a stamen and a pistil, but they might be completely clueless about how electricity works. Jargon is very specific to its field. (And I loathe how every scientist on television is an expert in every different sort of science. That is lazy writing.)

You can make your own jargon up, in fact, I would encourage you to give it a go. However, it has to be consistent. If your characters use a newly-coined word in one situation, they should use that word all the time. A good example of this technique is used in the webcomic Girl Genius; everyone with a natural affinity and intuitive talent for making gadgets are called ‘sparks’. This term never jars, as it is used consistently to refer to these gifted individuals.

It is possible to write a Steampunk novel without using jargon, but as the genre is all about science, it is harder to write without using scientific jargon. When you are using jargon, don’t assume the reader knows what the jargon means. You can include a glossary for these terms, but I recommend explaining the meaning of the term when you first use it in the text. There are a couple techniques that can achieve this result. You can have a character explain the meaning of the unfamiliar term to another character, the unknowledgeable character maybe a new apprentice, maybe a visiting relative, whatever. You can put in a footnote with a definition of the term – I tend to favour this method, because a reader who does know the term can skip the footnote. Or you can just explain it!

It wouldn’t hurt to know who were the giants in your field at the time of narrative. For example, if you were a botanist in 1871, you’d know who Henry Lecog was, who Anna Atkins was (a topic for another post), and that Joseph Hooker was in charge of Kew Gardens. Anyone who is well known to a botanist is part of their jargon. If a person from 1871 was to lack the knowledge of Atkin’s cyanotype photograms of plants, that person would not be a botanist.

Jargon can be fun. It is almost like a secret language – which was its original intent, to help keep guide secrets. Using jargon will make you narrative both more interesting and more authentic.

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Filed under Editing, Genre Markers, Jargon, Language, Science, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Women in Science, writing, Writing Style

Edwin Abbott Abbott: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective on ‘Flatland’.

Edwin Abbott Abbott

Edwin Abbott Abbott

“If our highly pointed triangles of the soldier class are formidable, it may be readily inferred that far more formidable are our women. For if a soldier is a wedge, a woman is a needle; being, so to speak, all point, at least at the two extremities. Add to this the power of making herself practically invisible at will, and you will perceive that a female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with.”

Edwin Abbott Abbott

Edwin Abbott Abbott was the son of two cousins, both with the surname Abbott. His father was an educator and also called Edwin.  As a young man, Edwin Abbott Abbott was an outstanding student, winning medals and honours for mathematics, classics and theology. This mix of fields was to fuse together to create his most famous work, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is a science fiction narrative; a strange mixture of the fairy tale genre, geometry and theology. Abbott didn’t begin writing until after he retired from the field of education, after completing university he became an educator, like his father. He was a headmaster by the time he was 26. When he retired from his post as Headmaster of City of London School, he went to pursue his interest in writing. He wrote books on the classics, and theology. In the middle of all these nonfiction books, he found time to write Flatland.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by A. Square

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by A. Square

There are plenty of mathematical and theological articles about Flatland if you are interested, and what I want to focus on is the feminist subtext in this work. If you’ve read the quote, you will see that all the female flatlanders are geometric lines (all the males are polygons), and considered very dangerous. All the females are characterized as too dangerous to allowed to roam freely through Flatland, and are subject to three main rules.

 But a general view of the Code may be obtained from the following summary: –

  1. Every house shall have one entrance in the Eastern side, for the use of Females only; by which all females shall enter “in a becoming and respectful manner” and not by the Men’s or Western door.
  2. No Female shall walk in any public place without continually keeping up her Peace-cry, under penalty of death.
  3. Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus’s Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed .

Flatland was written as a satiric commentary on Victorian society. E. A. Abbott dedicates a whole chapter to the situation of the female flatlanders. His character of ‘A. Square’ makes the strange customs of the flatland society sound natural and normal, as it would be to someone who grew up and lived in Flatland. The customs and rigid rules of Flatland mirror the situation of women in Victorian society. One paragraph is particularly telling in what E.A. Abbott’s own thought on the situation.

To my readers in Spaceland the condition of our Women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is. A Male of the lowest type of the Isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation of the whole of his degraded caste; but no Woman can entertain such hopes for her sex. “Once a Woman, always a Woman” is a Decree of Nature; and the very Laws of Evolution seem suspended in her disfavour. Yet at least we can admire the wise Prearrangement which has ordained that, as they have no hopes, so they shall have no memory to recall, and no forethought to anticipate, the miseries and humiliations which are at once a necessity of their existence and the basis of the constitution of Flatland.

If I was a Patriarchal Victorian man reading this, think my reaction would have been “OUTRAGEOUS!”

I would like to think Flatland gave a few men (and women) something to ponder in a quiet moment. It is still popular today because of its modern outlook. This narrative wasn’t Edwin Abbott Abbott’s only controversial literary venture, but -as previously mentioned – the rest of his work was more of an academic nature. Flatland was his only venture into Science Fiction.

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Filed under Analogy, Characterization, Feminism, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist

Rocket to the Moon: Steampunk Technology – Part One

Lunar Eclipse by Karen

Lunar Eclipse by Karen; karencarlisle.purplefiles.net

This post by inspired by the lunar eclipse. Can you see the Rabbit in the Moon? I don’t see a face, I see a child’s drawing of a rabbit.

One of my favourite Steampunk vehicles is a moon rocket. This is probably because I would have love to have been an astronaut. If they asked me, I’d be happy to be a Martian colonist or a passenger on a generation ship. To me, a rocket symbolizes the ultimate adventure, the exploration of space.

steampunk-jules-verne-rocket-model

A rocket harnesses power. Like a locomotive, it isn’t a power that is easily controlled. It isn’t a coincidence that we talk about Rocket Science when we talk about something complex; it takes intelligence and training to pilot a rocket. It takes genius to conceive and build one. If not controlled, a rocket might explode, or spin off into the unknown depths of space. I can see where a rocket could be used as a metaphor for mankind’s explosion of technology, both dangerous and exciting.

Rocket merry-go-round
Space is bigger and darker than any Dark Continent, and so can be a metaphor for your Heart of Darkness, or death, or even enlightenment (all those stars). Space is the ultimate unknown country. Sending a tiny rocket off into space is just as great an adventure as when explorers set off to cross unknown seas to find new lands. There is no guarantee you will return.

Earth Rocket

The Moon is an obvious target for exploration, so large and shiny and tempting. Did you know that the Earth and the Moon are actually a double planet? You can use the Moon to hold a ‘mirror’ to the Earth, contrasting one with the other for literary effect. Just because we know the moon is barren, doesn’t mean it has to be barren in your Steampunk narrative. You can turn it into any sort of planet that you like, and people it with exotic civilizations – a metaphor for colonialism. It may be that you want it to be airless and barren … to symbolize a barren heart or a sterile life. The phases of the moon could be used to reflect someone’s moods or to show the passing of time.

Better yet, the Moon has a dark side, always turned away from the Earth … a hidden, secret side. This duality of nature is a godsend to a writer! There is good and bad in every person and situation. Think of how easy it would be to use the Moon as a metaphor for the angel and the devil in each human being.

Herr Doktor's Rocket Sphere

I’ve only lightly touched upon all the metaphors, symbolism and analogies that rockets and space might denote. I’m certain you can think of a dozen more without any effort.

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Filed under Analogy, Metaphors, Science, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Steampunk Technology, writing

Kill the Moon: a review of Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi

There are spoilers in this article, so don’t read this until after you have watched the episode.

At the start of this series, I was perplexed at how the Doctor seems to have lost his ability to read human beings, particularly since he has had 2000 years to study them. The entertainment value of this behaviour made me suspicious that he is doing this deliberately. His actions in this episode confirms my suspicions. He knew what he was doing when he left Clara and Courtney to help decide the fate of the moon, and he knew what was going to happen to the human race as well.

Courtney – AKA Disruptive Influence – I’m guessing she isn’t trailing along by accident. Sometime in the future, she must be someone very important. I like the fact that the character has a realistic personality for a teenager, that she isn’t a cut down adult. The unbalanced relationship dynamics between her, Clara and the Doctor is an added bonus.

Danny has only one scene, but it was an important scene in giving good advice to Clara. He is wise, because he once had a “really bad day”. I am certain we will learn what that day in in some future episode. Nice foreshadowing. I am glad he hasn’t become a companion, as Clara needs a life away from the Doctor.

Clara was the central character in this episode, not the Doctor. She is more than just a companion. She has become the Doctor’s voice of reason, his conscience, his version of Jiminy Cricket. Her anger at the Doctor means that the Doctor is somehow angry at himself, on some level. I don’t know if I like this, as I am fond of Clara for her own sake. However, since she is given a life away from the TARDIS, she has two roles within the Who universe. Clara’s characterization is as complex as the Doctor’s.

No Missy this episode. Dammit. No clues as to what games she is playing.

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Filed under Characterization, Doctor Who, Pop Culture, Science Fiction