Xenofiction part 3: Culture

How the Other Half Lives, Part 3: Culture

Copyright 2014 David Belt.

Welcome to part three of this series on Xenofiction, stories told from the point of view of something other than human. I have assumed a task of telling a story from birth to death of a unique non-human species. In doing so, I have undertaken a much greater feat than I once believed. And now I am passing on some of what I have learned. This week’s topic covers the unimaginably variable subject of culture.

At this point, our non-human species has been born into the world and started experiencing the world through its unique senses. Another aspect of life that greatly affects our childhood development is the culture which disposes our primary education. Our culture determines how we speak, eat, dress, and behave.

Any sentient species must have some means of communication, even if it not verbal speech. The species I have created develops telepathic communication before it even hatches from its egg, but verbal communication skills come much later in life. The t’ca from C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels have a language with a matrix-grammar rather than a linear grammar.

Feeding is genetically encoded on every living creature. Through the senses discussed in part two of this series, creatures can determine on their own what constitutes food, but a sentient species would no doubt develop a nutritional precept of some kind. Some foods maybe selected based on cultural guidance, rather than nutritional value. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the Cullen family of vampires are called vegan, because they only drink animal blood, rather than human blood.

I was eating lunch with some of my shipmates the other day, when the question was asked, “How come aliens in movies are always naked?” which I thought was a brilliant question. It stands to reason that a sentient species advanced enough to develop interstellar travel, at some point would have gone through some form of fashion development. Even if clothing was not needed for protection from the elements, do they have no concept of fashion or modesty or individuality? Human technology has developed to the level that we do not require clothing most of the time, but we continue wear clothes because it is part of our culture. Has this non-human culture developed so differently that clothing of some kind is not worn?

Behavior is the single most defining trait of one’s culture. The most basic concepts of right and wrong are taught or omitted by cultural upbringing. Worldwar by Harry Turtledove is a fantastic comparison of human and alien cultures as his alien race lands on earth at the height of World War II.

The quintessential question of nature vs. nurture is asked again and again in literary prose with no true defining answer. Why do we do the things we do?

Of this truth I am certain: of all the creatures on earth, only man is truly evil.

Evil requires only one thing to exist: sentient thought. Any sentient species will have to battle its own demons through a cultural structure of some kind, and not all will adhere to that structure, either by chance or by choice there will be cultural outcasts that do not behave in accordance to what is deemed “right.” In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” an adaptation of Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates, Klaatu’s race deems humankind is evil and must be eradicated for the sake of preserving the Earth.

For my part, I have a clutch of twelve eggs from different parents raised by a single guardian. While their cultural bias will be uniform, each will have their own evils to engage or embrace.

One of the scenarios discussed in part one of this series was a story that began “A boy finds a strange egg in the woods.” In this scenario, the unique species is born into a culture other than its native one. How do such alien cultures effect the development of the offspring? How would it compare to one from its natural culture? How well would it be able to integrate into its natural culture? Would it even want to?

Diversity is the spice of life, so don’t let your non-human species become perfect clones of one another (even if they are clones). Establish your cultural norms, then allow your creations to exercise a bit of individuality, and they will be all the better for it.

Next week I’ll be wrapping up this four course meal of Xenofiction with a study on the lifecycles of these fascinating new creations.

Senses: Xenofiction Part 2

How the Other Half Lives, Part 2: Experiencing the World

Copyright David Belt 2014

Last week, I began a series into the infinite expanse of Xenofiction, stories told from the perspective of something other than human, covering some the dos and don’ts of creative literature. In Part 1, we gave witness to the miracle of birth and the variety of options for non-human procreation. Now that our inhuman babies have been born, how will they experience the world?

Humans have five natural senses used to interpret the world around them: Sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It is with implacable continuity that otherwise brilliant writers, the world over, by insistence or by oversight, write non-human characters that experience the world in the exact same way as humans. Please, I beseech you: Let non-humans be non-human!

In my research, purposed at crafting a non-human species, I have explored each of the five common senses and asked: How will this species use that sense? Then, I went one step farther and asked this newly form creature: Do you have any other senses, not common to humans?

Sight: All creatures must see the world around them, though not necessarily with two forward looking eyes. The primary purpose for two forward looking eyes is for depth perception to judge distance to a target. Ecologically speaking, it does follow that predators rise to the top of their specific food chains and thus become the dominant species. So, two forward looking eyes are practical in many cases of sentient life. I, myself, am using creatures with two forward looking eyes for this very reason.

But it doesn’t have to be that simple. How do those eyes relate to human? Do they see the same color spectrum? Do they see anything other than refracted light? I have created a species that can see the auras that surround all living things.

Hearing: Hearing varies widely from species to species on earth, so it reasons that a non-human species would have very different hearing. The range of frequency and volume may be greater or worse than human, or may not exist at all. An important aspect to keep in mind about sound is that it causes vibrations. A non-human species may perceive those vibrations with something other than what we consider ears.

Bats use their hearing for navigation via a sonar-like ability called echolocation. This ability is carried to an extreme in Star Carrier: Deep Space by William H Keith as his Slan see exclusively by echolocation.

Smell: The Fox and the Hound by Daniel P. Mannix is an excellent example of xenofiction using a creature’s sense of smell as the nearly blind hound relies primarily on his sense of smell to experience the world.

Taste: This may be the most varied of all the senses, as not even members of the same species will have the exact same tastes. Additionally, there are species that use taste for purposes other than sampling food. Several varieties of lizards taste the air as a means of exploring their surroundings. As I have created a lizard-like species, I have adopted this particular option.

Touch: The sense of touch is universally found in every life form, many of which compensate for shortcomings in other senses by way of specializes forms of touch. As I said before, sound wave cause vibrations in the air, a species may be otherwise deaf, but able to interpret sound in some way by feeling such vibrations.

Clifford Simok’s Spheres in Project Pope use their unique touch for both hearing and communication.

Natural plants experience the world entirely through their sense of touch, so it only follows that sentient plant would rely heavily on their own sense of touch. It is alluded that J. R. R. Tolken’s Ents of Fanghorn from The Lord of the Rings possess a special sense of touch which includes a form of sensory navigation, as they can feel what direction they are travelling in.

Extra Sensory Perception: As writers cross the chasm of “what if,” a broad spectrum of unique senses that do not exist in humans emerges. Many of these senses include forms of psychic abilities, electromagnetic detection, and the variable uses of antennae.

Whatever your flavor, let your unique creations, look, touch and taste unique. The end product will be more enjoyable for your readers and more challenging for your writing as these characters explore the world around them with their own unique senses.

Join me again next week as I put on my anthropology hat and explore non-human cultures.

How the Other Half Lives, Part 1: Birth

Darkcargoites: David is exploring xenofiction. This is part one of a series to be continued in the following weeks.

How the Other Half Lives, Part 1: Birth

copyright David Belt 2013

I have recently delved into the exciting world of Xenofiction or stories told from the perspective of something other than human. I initially took this project on as a matter of curiosity, but the deeper I dug, the more challenging and more interesting the task became. Over the next several weeks, I will be detailing what I have learned on the subject, along with some examples of what to do and what not to do.

I want to take my readers on a complete journey from birth to eventuality of a completely non-humanoid species. So where to begin?

Birth seemed like a logical place to start, so I had to examine the birthing process. By limiting this precept to earthlike reproduction processes, there are four possibilities: live born, hatchling, seedling, or cellular division.

Live birth is very familiar as it is common to all mammals, however, it typically involves a lengthy gestation period and complicated delivery. To effectively integrate an alien live birth into a story would take a considerable amount of telling, largely involving the parent. (Note: I did not say “mother” for reasons to be described later.) With live birth, a writer is committing to a family story as the reader will be heavily invested the parent(s) well before the protagonist child is introduced. A solid example of this is found in Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine, which focuses the first half of the novella on the pregnant Jeriba Shegan, before it gives birth to Zammis.

Live birth is a bonding process between parent and offspring to which readers can very easily relate. What you do not want to do is to cheat your readers of that experience. If you are going to commit to live birth, then commit to it fully and allow your readers the opportunity to bond with the offspring, as well.

Hatchling, or offspring hatched from an egg outside the parent’s body, is the next most familiar form of procreation as it is common to the majority of animals on earth. While gestation periods and parental involvement can very widely, one thing is common to all hatchling births. Parental involvement is not required at the time the offspring hatches. There are a great many fantasy tales that begin: “A boy finds a strange egg in the woods.”

Hatchlings provide the widest range of options regarding family involvement. One could have a single egg and parent, a single egg and multiple parents, multiple eggs and a single parent, or multiple eggs from multiple parents. For my project, I chose multiple eggs from multiple parents. The parents lay their eggs in a collective hatchery, and the hatchlings are cared for in a nursery-like environment by selected parental guardians. This has the effect of the hatchlings bonding with the guardian, rather than their natural parents.

Seedling is the common process by which plants on earth reproduce. Though this does not naturally exist in animal life as we know it, it has been used in literature, many times over. J. R. R. Tolken’s Ents of Fanghorn from The Lord of the Rings may be among the most well known examples of sentient plant life.

Seedling reproduction gives the writer all of the options of both live birth and hatchling, depending on the approach. The downside to this very alien method of reproduction is that the process must be very detailed in order for the reader to fully understand what is happening to the characters. One major pet peeve of mine that I strongly urge you to avoid is the rapid spontaneous generation of mass, prevalent in a large amount of anime style tentacle horror, in which huge creatures emerge from tiny seeds in moments. The Law of Conservation of Mass applies to living creatures too. In order for something to grow, it must absorb a sufficient quantity of matter, first. Don’t be hasty, little one.

Finally we have the most common method of procreation, cellular division. While on earth, this method of procreation only exists in simple life forms, cellular division does exist in on some level in every life form, therefore it is theoretically possible for a higher life form to reproduce by cellular division. Again, the Law of Conservation of mass must be applied. The movie Gremlins is a terrible example of a creature which reproduces by cellular division when it gets wet. While humorous, this is also completely ridiculous.

The Host by Stephanie Meyer, however, is a brilliant example of reproduction by cellular division. For starters, the Souls are a biologically simple life form, so the theory is much more practical. A large Mother Soul ends her life cycle by dividing into a number of smaller Souls.

Along with reproduction, we are, of course, left with questions on methods of procreation, which I won’t be covering here.

Now that our non-human children have been born, it is time for them to experience the world. Next week, I will delve into the variety of senses by which the world may be perceived.

Until then, good luck, good reading, and don’t feed them after midnight.

Give me a Break

Give Me a Break
By David Belt copyright 2014

Last week, I announced the completion of my first novel, and put forth the conundrum of what to do next. I am very appreciative of the support and advice I received, and I have endeavored to press forward in earnest.

To that end, in the last week, I conducted an exhaustive amount of research, wrote and submitted a short story, drafted the chapter outline of my next book, and generated a query letter for the current book. And now I say, “Enough!”

Quite literally, my back hurts from the strain, and I reminded that I am irrefutably human. While the literary world is limitless, I am not. We all have our limits, of which we are often reminded in our failures, but sometimes we claim foresight enough to see the limitation and make correction before the breaking point.

I am at that point. Today, I walked away from my computer, during a time when I would otherwise be working on some literary venture, sat down in the ship’s library, and picked up a book.

This will be my task for the next week, and this will be my break from all that plagues me. Pick up a book and fear not the world, for it means no more harm to you than you mean to visit upon it. Take some time to read. Take some time for yourself. Just plain take a break. Not to mention, the most important reason for reading a book: Because it’s there.

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Two Books … Or Not Two Books?

Two Books … Or Not Two Books?

David Belt Copyright 2014

Such is the question which preoccupies my mind. As I conclude the final edits on my first novel, I am plagued with counter intuitive thoughts as to what to do next.

Should I start Book II, as I know this novel is meant to be the first of a four book series?

Or

Should I hold off continued pursuits of this project until I sell the first novel, in order to allow time for other projects which might sell, if this one does not?

As I debate my next move, I am reminded of Alan Wold’s sagely advice, delivered at the onset of each of his writing workshops.

“If you are looking to make money, go be a plumber.
Only 1 in every 100 novels that is started is ever finished.
Only 1 in every 1,000 novels that is finished is ever published.
And only 1 in every 10,000 published authors can make a living at it.
You have to write for no other reason than because you enjoy writing.”

I love to write. I do so as often as my busy schedule will allow. I am still deployed on the far side of the world, and the majority of my time is preoccupied with the pursuits of national defense. I do still have time that is my own, and in that time I endeavor to tell my stories, as I have so many to share. If it should come to pass that I never sell a story and only my beta readers enjoy my tales, then at least I will know I have shared that which I love with those who appreciate what was given.

Persian Influences

Persian Influences

By David Belt copyright 2013New Picture

As a continuation of last week’s article on inspiration, I’ve elected to share some inspirations I have had based on the culture of the world I am currently in, the Persian Gulf.  When many people think of the Persian Gulf, thoughts of a war torn and violent, impoverished area come to mind.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The rate of violent crime in the average Persian city is very low, the streets are neat and clean, and entertainment expenses are comparable to U.S. expenses, providing an area rich in beauty and culture.

New Picture (1)I have long enjoyed Persian cultures, and I have drawn many inspirations from them, from my Persian bracelets to my hand and foot flowers to my chainmail belly dancer outfit.

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Infinite Inspiration in Infinite Perspectives

By David Belt Copyright 2013

The world in which we live is an unfathomably complex myriad of chemicals, raging in chaos, while hopelessly trying to find equilibrium.  Without leaving the confines of our own atmosphere we have the availability to observe an infinite variety of events.  Couple that with the more than six billion human beings on the planet and the concept of environmentally varied viewpoints, and you have infinite opportunities for inspiration from an infinite number of perspectives.

A little too high brow for you, or maybe you think I’m just spouting nonsense.

Try this: Reread a book you have previously enjoyed.

I guarantee you will notice new elements you did not notice before.

How can that be if the book didn’t change?

What changed was your perspective between the two readings, and that difference in perspective allows for new inspirations.  We are constantly being affected by the world around us, and those effects alter the manner in which we perceive the world.  Among the greatest of these effects is that which we perceive as art.  I have said before in my article, Art in Three Dimensions, that art is any medium which affects us on an emotional level, thus changing our perspective of the world.  Art imitates life because it affects us in the same emotional ways that life does.  We take those effects and draw new inspirations enriching our own lives.  We then perpetuate the effect by sharing those inspirations with others.

The result: Infinite Inspiration in Infinite Perspectives.

As many of you know, I am an active duty US Navy Sailor.  My active duty has currently carried me to the USS Carney (DDG 64), half a world away in the Persian Gulf.  One of the greatest rewards of my job is the opportunity for inspiration from perspectives I would never be able to experience, otherwise.  History is repute with artisans inspired by perspectives received during service.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the framework for what was to become Middle Earth while serving as an officer in the British Army during World War I.  Johnny Cash wrote some of his most famous songs while serving in US Air Force in Germany.  But this article isn’t about the opportunities of service.  It’s about seizing the opportunities available to each of us, drawing inspiration from our own unique perspectives, and sharing those inspirations with the world.

Over the next the six months or so, while I travel in my duties, I will share with you those unique perspectives which inspire me.  For example:

On my way here, I caught a glimpse of the moon.  It was the same moon I have looked upon all my life, but I had never seen it full, from 30,000 feet, on clear night, while flying over Egypt.  The moon was so bright in contrast to the starless night that it looked to me like the sun, set against a black sky.

(Grainy picture and double image are due to the movement of the plane and double paned safety glass.  It looked much better in life.)New Picture

The Horror of Horror Writing

by David Belt copyright 2013

With the holiday approaching, it seemed appropriate to share a recent writing woe I’ve had as my characters march with leaden feet into a haunted forest.  There were ghosts and zombies and danger lurking behind every tree, and the worst part… I had no idea how to write horror.

I felt totally out of my element here, so I turned to the best resource I know, Stephen King.  When asked why he writes horror fiction, Stephen King responded, “What makes you think I have a choice?”  I always thought this was a humorous response, but lately it has provided me with an epiphany to my own dilemma.

Choice, the ability to reason and make life steering decisions is fundamental in all higher lifeforms.  This measure of choice is a control that guides us all in our daily lives.  For example, one chooses to go to work.  Some would say that isn’t a choice, but it is.  The consequences are weighed and the choice to go work is delivered.  So, what happens when a foundational aspect such as choice is disrupted?

Horror.

When asked what makes a great hero, author Alan Wold responded, “A hero is the one who when everyone else runs away, he chooses to stay and face the danger.”  We herald our heroes for the choices they make, and we equally berate horror characters for their implacable decisions, but what if the horror character’s seemly poor choice was the result of a removal of rational choice?

The next conundrum: how does one go about removing something so fundamental as rational choice?

Fear.

Fear is the one compulsion beyond any other that will push a person to heights where reason cannot follow.  My final epiphany: Frighten your characters, and they will do the irrational, and you will have horror.  This marvel of thought only profited me a new problem: How do I frighten my heroes?  They are heroes after all.  They are ones willfully running into danger.

Marianne Williamson wrote it best, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

So, I delved deep into the psyche of each character and pulled forth that deepest fear, that element of themselves they could not hide from, and the result was chaos, the party fractured, characters died, survivors questioned the rational of their choices and even their own sanity.  The result was horror.

A Final Faire Well

Last weekend, I bid “fare thee well” to the Medieval Fantasies Company at Greenhill, outside of Roanoke, Va. For the last three years, I have had the distinct pleasure of serving their Royal Majesties, Sir Blackwolf and Dame Dagrny, and this was my last faire before relocating south to Florida. To commemorate these glorious times, I presented Her Highness with a special rose, uniquely crafted just for her, and to the newest member of the royal family, Princess Belle, I presented an armored princess bunny rabbit.

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Belle Bunny

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The weekend proceeded marvelously with record attendance and the first ever woman’s division at the Highland Games. Now, I’m all for women in the highland games, but what is that woman doing in a kilt!

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The festivities concluded in a knighting ceremony at which time Sir Bunny was knighted.

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Thank you Medieval Fantasies for all the great times. I will miss you all.

In A Few Words

By David Belt copyright 2013

As I conclude my first novel, I am continually fraught by new challenges. As of last week, I had five scenes to write. I wrote six scenes this week, and now, I have four scenes left to write. If anyone can figure out the math on that, please let me know.

With a novel, I am free to allow my characters to meander toward the plotted end. I have no specific word limit. So if the characters want to put off fighting the lich to sit around the campfire, talking about their feelings, so be it. When it comes to shorter works, however, one cannot be so liberal with the plot flow.

It is said that brevity is the sign of a skilled writer. It takes both talent and study to say more with fewer words, and here are a few tricks that can help keep the word count down.

Tell, don’t show. For many of you, this advice may sound backwards, even blasphemous, but showing the details of an event takes a lot more words than telling the reader it happened. When done correctly telling can be just as effective, if not more so, than showing.

Show: There were no words to be spoken. The night was theirs, and they wrapped their arms around one another, sharing all they had with each other.

Tell: Wordlessly, the couple embraced and rapture became them.

Blitzkrieg Description. A technique employed masterfully by Stephen King which gives a full description in only a sentence or two. Lengthy descriptions rack up the word count and slow down the pace of a story. In his novel, On Writing, King says to pick three or four physical details, at most, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

Limited Cast. This one is simple. The fewer the characters, the less there is to write about.

Third Person Omniscient Point of View. Both First Person and Third Person Limited POVs have narrowed views of the world. These shadowed scopes can cause the same scene to take longer to describe than in Omniscient.

The options of writing styles are as varied as snowflakes. Writers are only limited by what lies dormant within their own minds. Be ever mindful of the audience, the plot, and most importantly, the submission guidelines. Time for me to go back to my novel. Until next week, happy writing.