Archive for November, 2015

Werewolves and Shapeshifters

Posted: November 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

What follows next negates very easily by the carefully expedient of the writer sticking his or her fingers in ears and humming very loudly until it’s all over. Many literary subjects, like werewolves and shifters, have very little relationship to the nuts and bolts of our reality and require and tantrum worthy of a five-year-old saying “because I said so!”

I really don’t want to go too deeply into the psychology, anthropology and religion surrounding the legends and metaphors of werewolves and the closely related shapeshifter. I think certain PhD candidates put in their class work just to be able to read the papers created in the field. None are as vicariously thrilling as “he’ll rip your lungs out, Jim.”

A werewolf has been likened to the representation of the human dark side that violently explodes leaving neighbors to say, “He was so normal.” Some shamanic traditions exploit the metaphor to adopt perceived qualities of the animal used in the ritual. And there must be hundreds of thousands of academic words written highlighting the ancient beginnings of the metaphor that ask salient questions like could the first Classical Greek werewolf have been one of Circe’s goofed experiments in transformation magic before meeting Odysseus?

I just care about milking all kinds of metaphors for their entertainment value. Any high-falutin’ metaphorical constructs in my work will just have to sneak in through the back door. Sometimes the different aspects of my writing get in the way of each other. For instance, I can’t wear my Science Fiction Writer hat too tightly on any story with a werewolf.

Writing science fiction requires having paid attention in my K-12 science classes between the exploding methanol burners and other hijinks involving burning magnesium. I did, plus I get to look things up on Wikipedia. A human to wolf, dog, or any other animal transformation results in a huge red flag based on a scientific principle known as Conservation of Mass.

The best way to explain Conservation of Mass without resorting to equations is to state simply that in a closed system the mass of material at the beginning of a process must equal the mass of the material at the end of the process. For purposes of clarity and precision Energy can be thought of as Mass in most circumstances. When ice melts the resulting water has the same mass.

How does this bit of inconvenient science lawyering affect the werewolf or shapeshifter story? In some iterations of the story, none at all. The classic wolfman presented to us by Lon Chaney posited a six-foot hairy wolf suit that represented a midpoint between wolf and man. Probably, the filmmakers didn’t want a real wolf on their set and thought the machinery looked fake.

This wolfman doesn’t have to worry about gaining or losing mass between human and animal forms. However, if we apply concepts like Natural Selection, the six-foot wolfman loses the ability to hide among other regular wolves. The scared villager regulator committee with pitchforks and torches shouldn’t have too much trouble killing the six-foot wolfman.

Many storytellers prefer werewolves and shifters that exactly mimic the animals into which they change. A perfect wolf or whatever gets to maul unsuspecting Londoners in Mayfair and then visit with the Queen. But, wolves don’t tip the scales the same way humans do.

Case in point, I currently weigh 191 pounds hung on a 5’11” body, but a quick hit on Wikipedia’s wolf page says full-grown male wolves average between 95-99 pounds. If I were to get bitten and change into a werewolf, we must ask the ugly question – where does the 92 pounds I would lose go?

Werewolf Me has the same reason to get the mass back returning to human form that I had to lose the mass changing into a wolf: protective camouflage. If I didn’t look how I did before wolfing out, the people in my life would notice I’m suddenly vastly lighter to the tune of being asked if I had recently contracted cancer. This doesn’t count as being able to hide among humans, expect an even shorter lifespan than usual. If I were to emulate Sam Merlotte from True Blood and turn into a hawk in order to escape, the problem becomes proportionally greater.

The opposite problem of a smaller human gaining mass in order to become a wolf is equally perplexing from the pseudo-science presented in this post. How does Vern Troyer (Mini-Me) who likely never weighed 99 pounds in his life gain the mass to fit in with the wolf pack? Similarly, the problem of a were-animal larger than the human undergoing the change comes into hilarious focus when we posit, say, a human to Gray Whale transformation. Again using me as an example, how many fish do I have to eat to make the gap between my 191 pounds and the 36 short tons of the whale?

Could this massive disparity be one reason why it seems no one has ever created a story, myth or theological construct of a were-whale…in 150,000 years of human storytelling? Now that I’ve had the idea…were-whale goes into my creature folder in my note taking app. Get to it eventually.

If were-beasts are to be governed by a semblance of science (not recommended, see my lead sentence), how does the writer explain a werewolf or other were-beast without bending the science in ways that don’t grow back? I’m pretty sure that the apparent Conservation of Mass violations are my only objections to werewolves being real. The wonders of stem cells and lizards that regrow tails suggest that everything else about growing hair and sharp teeth are at least plausible. We would need a road map; I have suggestions.

A) Invent some kind of extra dimensional space in which to store the extra mass.

Certainly for someone going normal human to wolf, the storage space solution allows me to store 92 pounds and get them back when I wake up wondering what the Hell happened. But, I have yet to explain the Mini-Me or were-whale problem. The first time I change into a whale I would have to gain 36 short tons that would then go into the storage attic for retrieval later.

From where or, as would be more dramatically interesting, from whom would the were-whale acquire the extra mass in blubber? Would someone missing their blubber come looking for it? Certainly, a decent story hook to have to fight for the extra blubber, but ludicrous science.

One last thought about the storage attic, the minute writers start talking about extra-dimensional space there is a possible conflict with the other big usage of extra-dimensional space: hyperspace. It being the era of genre blender literature, werewolves on starships can be a tempting prospect. Until those starships bump into the whale blubber stored in out of the way corners of hyperspace. KA-BLAM!

B) The mass as a wolf remains exactly as it began during the human form.

I actually like the thought that mass doesn’t change during the transformation, at least for the normal circumstances of a guy that weighs slightly heavier than the average wolf. In the hypothetical case of me, that means that I pack 92 extra pounds into a standard wolf body.

This matters because wolf packs are commonly depicted as having the same kind of organizing structure as, say, a certain publishing house where Jack Nicholson was employed while he slowly became a wolf (Wolf, 1995). Like wolves, the executives peed on each other and very nearly punched it out. While small humans can generally fight even using a few more brain cells than the big bully, it’s unclear without spending decades out photographing wolves in the wild if the small wolf ever wins the rumble.

So, a 191-pound wolf wins the fight against the 99-pound wolf that doesn’t know what hit it. The heavier wolf would have nearly double the density of the smaller wolf because the greater mass is shoehorned into the same space. The heavier wolf would also be proportionally stronger because much of that extra mass would likely be distributed in muscle.

Unfortunately, I still can’t answer the Mini-Wolf problem. A Little Person turning into a werewolf under this particular idea would remain small proportionally to the rest of the pack. This is a victim that doesn’t even know he’s dead, yet. So, not a great idea in all cases.

C) The transformation gains and loses mass accordingly, but the character must replenish with food.

This choice of literary rule could explain the werewolf’s insatiable hunger. He or she would constantly eat to regain the human weight, not just as a wolf but as a human, too. Mini-Wolf would also eat tons of food to manage being a regular-sized wolf. Sounds good…not!

While it is true that certain characters, like Lois Lane, spent too many decades in print being completely oblivious that a single pair of horn rimmed glasses separated Clark from Kal-El, most people in a werewolf’s orbit would notice that – “Hey, Joe! You’ve been eating nonstop since you got that scratch on your arm!” Eventually, someone makes the correlation to finding all those ripped up villagers and cue the regulator committee.

All of my ideas flow from the basic premise that if we apply science in the form of Conservation of Mass, we must also apply science in the form of Natural Selection. If a werewolf, were-tiger, or were-whale can’t hide long enough to reproduce, then it’s likely that Evolution will simply treat these literary metaphors as genetic dead ends.

C) Since most writers assume that lycanthropy is a magical curse, then it follows that magic could alter the perspective of the observer.

Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere! In wolf form the werewolf steps on a scale and tips at 99-pounds. In human form the werewolf stands on the same scale and tips at 191-pounds. At least, from the perspective of the possible victims that just can’t believe that their loved one will rip your lungs out, Jim. A bubble of illusion surrounds the werewolf changing how the other people in the room see him or her, especially bathroom scales.

If you, Dear Reader, really need to science lawyer your next werewolf/shapeshifter story with item D, I won’t stop you. However, your story will essentially function in an indistinguishable fashion than the one written using the proposal contained in my lead sentence – ignore any scientific basis for werewolves and write your story!

You may wonder why it is now 1,760 words later and the whole point of my post can be summed up with such circularity. One, I need to write stuff regularly and this is what I picked. Two, you can think of this post like a math test at school where getting a right answer without showing your work still fails the question. So anyway, here endeth the lesson.

The writer acknowledges Warren Zevon and his awesome songwriting for Werewolves of London, even though I probably haven’t abused Fair Use…yet.

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Why i Like Sci-Fi

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

Mom asked me a couple weeks ago – “Why do you like science fiction?” – over dinner.

There are many ways to take that question. Unintentional dig from someone who decided long ago the genre held no attraction for her, but wants to understand. Semi-intentional dig from someone trying to shape my writing away from the things I like. Some flavor of All of the Above. It’s Mom, bet on the All of the Above answer.

I sort of knew when I gave my answer that I’d hear from the scared part of her that wants me to write important things. To the tune of 60-percent. She didn’t disappoint; I got the email three days later saying “You are so creative and have been all your life. There has to be some way to focus that into other things.”

Of course, I will use another post to really go off on her for the hurtful parts of this conversation. This one is all about what is so freakin’ awesome about Science Fiction, Fantasy and all other forms of speculative fiction that I’m going to mostly ignore the attempt to improperly change me as a writer in someone else’s image.

My answer included elements of my stock answers on the subject of science fiction. SF isn’t really a genre, but a setting in which other stories from other genres can play out. The best case in point is Nora Roberts’ In Death Series. Take the hardboiled police procedural novel out of Evan Hunter’s (writing as Ed McBain) cold dead hands and set the book in the middle 2050s. I suppose when I get out of my own way long enough to actually read about LT. Eve Dallas, I will learn why Barnes & Noble curiously stacks the series in Mystery and not Science Fiction.

So as I said this my next point to Mom went towards the classic raison d’etre of the science fiction story: the disguised Social Commentary. Using the examples of my favorite three Star Trek episodes, I carefully explained that science fiction allows the writer to get in his or her shots at things that either need to change or must undergo the extensive discussion that explains why they must stay the same.

I brought up Let This Be Your Last Battlefield where the Enterprise picks up two gents that each have black on half of his face and white on the other half. These characters instantly revert to character archetypes that we saw in Les Miserables, the multi-decade pursuit of a downtrodden underdog by a police officer dedicated to Law & Order at all costs. Beale and Loki run around the ship trying to win hearts and minds among the crew.

The crew seem to take this contest of ideas as something amusing, because the conceit of the whole show was to assert that by 2266 (the in-show calendar year of the first season) racism would be largely bottled up on the trashcan of history. The crew politely hear both men out and don’t take sides, because people from a society that has already worked through racism and who are constrained as much as possible by the Prime Directive don’t need to take sides.

A little bit of drama results when Commissioner Beale forgets that he is a guest on the Enterprise there at Captain Kirk’s sufferance. Beale insists on a direct trip home for Loki’s trial and probable execution. Kirk explains about a mission to deliver important medicine to a nearby colony and that a Federation court convened by a more responsible authority (at minimum the Commodore or Admiral in charge of a starbase) must decide what is essentially Loki’s extradition hearing. Kirk punctuates his demands by threatening to self-destruct the ship with all souls aboard.

Beale relents long enough for the Enterprise to deliver the medicine, but then uses his greater personal power to yank out the self-destruct circuits and hijack the Enterprise to his homeworld. He explains the hatred to the crew members that one breed of the alien race is black of the left side of the face and the other breed is black on the right side of the face, a heavy-handed metaphor for racist social division based on skin color. The Enterprise arrives to find everybody dead on the planet below such that no one was able to bury the bodies. Beale and Loki beam down to the surface to finish the extermination of their people because their hate is all that remains.

I explained to Mom that in 1967 the mostly white television audience of this episode espoused views like that of Commissioner Beale. The good ones might have said I’m fully aware of the flaws of our society, but I don’t see why I have to put up with the liberal rabble-rousing on TV that wants to rub my face in those flaws like it’s somehow my fault for being successful. The bad ones freaked out when Kirk kissed LT. Uhura in a later episode Plato’s Stepchildren. According to one of Nichelle Nichols’ oft-repeated anecdotes from The First Interracial Kiss on American TV (interracial kisses had aired earlier in Britain) a man from the South wrote this letter – “I don’t hold with mixing the races, but Uhura lookin’ so fine like that…Kirk’s just gonna kiss her.”

So the point of science fiction is that by wrapping the metaphor in the garb of fantasies easily dismissed for its unreality the author gets to say more than if he or she tries to drop that First Interracial Kiss on, say, an episode of the nearly contemporaneous first season of classic Hawaii 5-0. Being able to speak up and say things that matter should appeal to people like Mom who holds her humanity slightly cheap because she had too many good reasons not to march with Dr. King, who was later assassinated creating mountains of regret. Science fiction when given into the hands of people who have something to say is never unimportant.

I didn’t get to say this next part to Mom because it came up in a conversation a few days later with another family member about Jules Verne and the ability to extrapolate the future. I said that Jules Verne writing in From the Earth to the Moon ninety years ahead of Apollo 11 predicted many things about the details of the program. That Americans would fund the effort because who else was wastefully rich enough to try and had already built up a national personality from our westward expansion that we can do anything we decide upon? That three men would go. That these three men would shoot from a place in Central Florida that seems to be equidistant from the current sites of Disneyworld and the Kennedy Space Center from the description. That the vessel would look like a conical bullet. Science fiction writers when they guess correctly prepare us for the future. Similarly, how much of our present day worry about cybercrime stems from works like Neuromancer that depicted hacking to be so very easy?

But, the real reason for enjoying and defending Science Fiction is the sheer joy I get pitching my stories to a certain type of writer: the one whose eyes light up in the presence of wild mind expanding ideas. I go to a bar after the one writers group I still attend. The what are you working on question comes up.

I wax eloquently and craptologically on the current works in progress. One is about a ruler of a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud who sees with the vision to be the local version of Caesar or Alexander who is forced on a great quest borrowing the rogue personality of his twin brother. I explain that I borrow the larger than life of a Caesar as written by Shakespeare, mix it with the mythic Twins Switching Places motif of everybody including the Bard and filter the awesome through the lens of Star Wars.

I got a conditional seal of approval from the woman in the conversation as long as borrowing from Shakespeare meant only taking plot elements and not the confusing, to her, iambic pentameter. I may respond in a later post that iambic pentameter in context is massively awesome. But, it was a fun moment compared to pitching my already written crime story about the George Forman grill with another woman in the room. Gleeful usage of cannibalism even in service of black satire about TV advertising, consumer culture and so on floated like a lead balloon. Still learning to read my audience.

But the point is, I just like being the guy with the interesting forward thinking ideas.

How I Do Things Pt. 1

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

Inevitably, discussions between writers turn to variations of how I do things. The answer varies with each writer who over time has developed his or her unique style, work habits, work schedule and favorite tools. The tools part of the discussion can be especially fascinating.

Close your eyes when listening to us talk about our tools. You’ll hear a lot of passion about things that essentially more or less work the same way. Write in English with intent towards creating a typed manuscript; write with the dreaded Qwerty keyboard. Inevitable, like night following day.

This came about due to the makers of the first PCs making a conscious decision to keep Qwerty so that the office assistants likely to see the most immediate gains in productivity wouldn’t freak out. It meant that preparatory to attending the expensive combined middle and high school my parents thought I needed, I had to take Typing Class. In addition to learning to nine-finger type, I also learned the value of not putting certain thoughts down on paper to avoid certain parental and familial entanglements. More on this later.

My last official speed trial said 40 WPM. But, does a speed trial really matter with the spell and grammar checks that have become routine with modern word processors? The traditional speed trial deducts for mistakes, but technology that does the 80-percent heavy lifting for proofreading renders the worry about mistakes lessening our speed to nil. Because I am specifically not the business type in a suit yelling at the long-suffering ladies in my office (a psychic predicted this of me for my mother, more on this later), I don’t need to think of my output in terms of WPM, but Words per Writing Day.

When I am really good despite my need to watch more television than is strictly good for me, I pull off 4,000-5,000 Words per Day. A more normal day says I will pull off 1,500-3,000 Words per Day. This is either a chapter a day or two chapters a day. I shoot for more of the former because I do feel the Reaper following me egging me on wanting more speed, more speed before I die. I also have a life coach, whom I have to pay, calling me every morning to make sure that I did my homework the night before.

This love/hate with my chosen life affects my choices for technology. On the one hand, I want the latest most mobile thing that means doing my work in the fastest way that other people (the presently mythical editor helping me get my equally mythical bestselling novels into New York shape) can easily manipulate. So I go for things like Word including the Mobile versions with the best Bluetooth keyboard that fits my hand size. I have used a variety of apps that output Word documents (See Reviews). Then Microsoft finally decided to wipe out many of their competitors with their own Mobile app. Unless the product completely sucks, go with the winner of the monopoly war.

Alternately, I go very primitive, pen and paper or manual typewriter. Usually, this is a sign that I’m still working out my story. I did take it to heart that a writer should work out the concept in the cheapest possible way ($2.99 for the 6” x 9” spiral and $2.50 for the ball point cartridge, or free waste paper run through the Olympia) before committing the words to the big technology. I sometimes need to create about six chapters in this manner before adding future chapters to my To Do List and doing them whenever the noise in my head allows. It breaks down like this: pen and paper for situations where portability is key (most days) and typewriter for when I feel the need to go unplugged in a situation where the noise won’t affect my fellow writers at the coffeehouse.

It took me a long time to realize how to do pen and paper in the most economical way possible. First, I found that disposable pens lack precisely because they are disposable. I liked Sanford Rollerballs and Pilot G-2s for a time, especially the smaller points. But, these pen lines are still the ones where you pay $12 for six and then because you have more than one you still treat them like disposables. Suddenly, going to the office supply superstore to buy the pen box becomes that strange impulse buy. I have a breadbox sized container of all the expensive disposable pens that I cleared out of my desk that I really, really would just like to give away. Any takers?

Saving money with pens meant that I had to learn to treat my pens the way mythological kings and heroes treat their swords: own one expensive pen and metaphorically give it a name. King Arthur had Excalibur. Charlemagne had Joyeuse. Aragorn had Anduril. I have Storyteller, a name that I just made up to complete the metaphor of this paragraph.

Storyteller is silver with black rubber grips and a shape much like a high-velocity rifle bullet (let’s avoid the obvious analysis here). My sister gave me the original as a birthday gift. Two weeks later, while still in the throes of buying expensive disposables, I misplaced the as yet unnamed Storyteller. Behind the sofa cushions I think. I promptly went to Staples to get the replacement because when your non-writing sister gives you a sword, I’m too cowardly to admit I lost it.

Proving the aphorism that you find things for which you stop looking, a week later I found Storyteller. But, at least I have the nearly-identical spare, Wordsmith. It doesn’t have the patina my grimy fingers gave Storyteller and the ballpoint cartridge doesn’t seat exactly the same way. For a good while, these pens rested in my drawer while I did other things and then figuratively speaking I pulled the sword from the stone. But, Storyteller needed a stablemate, Red Doom, my editing pen, a later design from the same company using interchangeable ballpoint cartridges.

So, not counting the disposables, I’m out about $80 to the Cross Pen Company, including replacement ink. When you buy the one and always know where it is, over time you get to amortize the cost into endless utility at the cheapest cost. It took months to break my habit of going into the office supply store and buying disposables, but habits can break from time to time.

My decision about pens affected my decision about clothes in that I buy shorts and long pants with the right kind of pockets so I can clip my pens to a pocket at my left hip. So, I carry four pens everywhere, Storyteller, Red Doom and two of the disposables that are for the person who asks to borrow a pen, one in blue, one in black.

And so this is but a small part of me communicating my fussy persnickety relationship to my words…