December 12, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: What Are People Afraid Of?

I’ve shoveled the driveway six times in the past two days.

After digging out from the “Sixth Worst Blizzard In Minnesota History!”, we are facing several days of sub-zero temperatures (-10 F) and brutal wind chills (ranging from -15 to -40). It started me wondering why no one has ever attempted to write a hard science fiction novel set on a world with a biology, ecology and sociology that would match Frank Herbert’s and Brian Herbert & Kevin Anderson’s DUNE books.

Not that we aren’t happy sending our heroes TO snow worlds! Luke Skywalker nearly died on the drifts of Hoth and Captain Kirk was almost eaten on the ice fields of Delta Vega in one time line and sentenced to prison on the Klingon ice moon of Rura Penthe in another.

Ursual K. LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS takes place on Winter or Gethe and while the world is certainly cold and dreary, the planet serves as metaphor to support her exploration of human sexuality, rather than representing a “real” world.

CJ Mills (a former Minnesotan) also created Winter World – though it seemed her intent there was to form a chilly backdrop for steamy romance and hot-blooded intrigue. More recently, Catherine Asaro used the world of Skyfall for the same purpose – done well, but really not much more than backdrop.

Why?

I have two theories. The first is that a winter world is BOR-ing! Everyone has snow. Everyone’s been in a blizzard. Ice is something you put in drinks. Northern animals are mostly dull (though moose are kinda cool, reindeer gave rise to Rudolph and polar bears rock). Santa’s about the only exciting thing to come out of the Poles, and that’s only one night a year. Polar societies are also “primitive” (I’m reading GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL by Jared Diamond, so I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek) and there’s nothing war-mongering about Inuit in kayaks spearing narwhals. Besides, everyone knows what goes on under the blankets on cold winter nights…certainly nothing worth writing SERIOUS science fiction about.

Deserts on the other hand, have always fascinated us with their mystery. Say desert and you think of Bedoins, Lawrence of Arabia, Queen Nefertiti and King Tut and the Pyramids of Egypt!

Say arctic and you think of snowshoe hares, blubber chewing, mushing and eating sticks of butter for breakfast. Hardly the stuff of major fiction and certainly not interesting enough to get a film option.

The other theory though intrigues me and what started as a small bug has grown into the beginning of a collection of notes and a name: Sirmiq. It’s an Inuit word for “glacier”. Sirmiq will be the name of a world I have in mind to build. It will be an exceedingly difficult job.

That’s why I don’t think anyone has really tried before. It’s too hard. For one thing, it’s impossible to have life evolve in such a cold place, right? You need black smokers or boiling lava or something else to provide the energy to drive evolution. Life can’t EVOLVE in a place like that! You need heat to drive the passion that makes story!

Hmmm…

Lemme see, I’ll grant that you need insolation or radiation or geothermals and liquid water as well as basic elements and minerals to drive the formation of amino acids…but what if it happened even more slowly that it happened here? What if, at lower temperatures all that stuff still happened, just at a slower pace? What would happen to higher life forms that evolved from the slower-paced unicellular life? Is slower necessarily bad – AIDS is not a “fast” disease and doesn’t manifest itself in outward symptoms until it’s nearly too late to do anything about it. What if every life form was like that?

See, I think to do this – for me to create SIRMIQ – I’ll need to do a James Michener. In CENTENNIAL, he started the novel with the formation of Earth and the Rockies and ended with a man born of the people who had lived in that land for tens of thousands of years. Frank Herbert worked for five years researching and writing DUNE and published two shorter versions in ANALOG. Unable to interest the usual science fiction publishers like Ace, Ballantine, or Berkeley in the whole thing, he was finally accepted by the publishers of CHILTON’S car repair manuals!

I’ve only just begun research, but it’s promising. I’ve written a couple of experimental stories on Sirmiq, but neither one has sold, though one, “The Stars Like Nails” has evolved from one kind of story into something totally different and I have yet to write that "new" story. I have a clear image though: a man sitting on an ice block; across from him an old Inuit woman in a tent; between them, a body on a long block of ice; to one side, the wing of a shuttlecraft shelters them all from heavily falling snow. I think I know where it’s going…

What do you think is the reason we don’t have a cold world on par with DUNE – too boring or too difficult?

Me? I’m opting that no one’s had the guts to really try it!

image:http://esseacourses.strategies.org/images/module/scenario/eba56c7f5ae2bb8ca51a228cab64730f.jpg

3 comments:

JustinK said...

If those are my only two options, I'm going to cast my lot in with 'difficult'.

I personally would find a winter world fascinating! Constant ice fissures, whiteouts, and avalanches being accepted everyday happenstances for the people whom inhabit it.

Also, I think some fairly fascinating species could be contrived in such a setting, particularly if you stick to the same level of reality as Frank Herbert. Five years of research or no, the sand worms being able to traverse "Tremors" style through the ground is something that needs to be carefully routed around the engineering section of my brain. Using this same criteria, (i.e. please only half engage your biologist brain!) what if you were to have a creature who evolved to be the opposite of what you were suggesting? Instead of a slow moving, slowly adapting creature that hoarded energy, a fearsome beast with a metabolism so high that it can easily withstand temperatures far below zero. It's only true weakness is that it needs to eat and move CONSTANTLY to stay alive, much like our sharks.

I, for one, look forward to seeing the ice world you develop! Throw in a TaunTaun for good measure. . .

Justin

Christina Rodriguez said...

What about John Carpenter's "The Thing?" That was a great, terrifying movie set in the frozen arctic (or Antarctic? I can't remember). The setting perfectly illustrated the bleak atmosphere, our sense of some unknown dread, and the harsh survival situation that the characters found themselves in.

Steven Brandt said...

I think you may be onto something here, but I wonder if you're thinking cold enough. I've attempted to write a short story or two on something more like Titan (watch some of the movies of the Huygens probe landing there).