"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Monday, January 28, 2013

On Science and the Soul

The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not impossible of occurrence. -Percy Shelley, from his 'Preface' to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein

Early cover art for Frankenstein.
I'm moving into the final chapters of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, caught up in that wonderful tension between not being able to put the book down, and not wanting it to end. 

One thing I really enjoy about Holmes' narrative is his constant attention to the interplay between literature, poetry, and science during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy, and their many companions redefined our world through science, the great Romantic authors such as John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron explored the meaning of poetry in an age of increasing rationalism. 

I was fascinated to learn that Mary Shelley's character Frankenstein may have had his roots in real-life contemporary scientists.  There was, for example, in 1803 a certain Giovanni Aldini who tried to revive the body of a convicted murderer with electrical charges, six hours after he had been hanged in London. Aldini's experiments were met with eager publicity on the one hand; and public outcry on the other. By 1805, he was forced to leave the country. 

Mary Shelley
Of course, Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein was not an Italian scientist living in London, but a German physician immersed in a Gothic world of her making.  Holmes speculates that Shelley may have found further inspiration in the German physiologist Johann Wilhelm Ritter, whose galvanic experiments were known to be practiced on animals, and rumored to have been applied to humans.  Ritter did not achieve much success by any definition of the word.  His colleagues were alienated, his students abandoned him, and his family suffered grievously from his neglect as he became increasingly obsessed with his work.  In 1810 he died penniless and insane.

At the heart of these gruesome attempts at reviving the dead was a heated debate over a concept called 'Vitalism'.  This was the belief in the existence of a life force, or 'Vitality', vigorously attacked by some and staunchly defended by others.

'Vitality' was thought of as a substance super-added to the mechanical structures of animals and plants.  A liquid, perhaps, or something akin to electricity.  A number of scientists claimed to have isolated it, though these claims were eventually refuted.  'Vitality' was considered by many a scientific conception of the soul; and since it was super-added, some power outside of humans (God?) must have added it.

Holmes does a wonderful job of showing how this debate was infused into the works of authors and poets of the time, most notably with John Keats narrative poem 'Lamia' and of course, Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein. 

Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,
by Casper David Friedrich

Shelley's novel takes on renewed significance when one considers the historical context, for she is taking the most controversial experiments of her time to their most terrible conclusion, in an even grander experiment of the mind. In the process, she considers the debate of Vitalism. After all, Frankenstein succeeded in giving organic life to his 'monster', but could that monster also be given a soul?

Those who have read Frankenstein know that the doctor and his 'monster' are actually co-protagonists, each given the chance to tell his own story.  The eloquent and introspective nature of the 'monster' is lost in most film renditions; Shelley painted him as a sort of anti-hero, a creature driven to wreak havoc and destruction by the unbearable circumstances of his creation. 

I have said elsewhere (see The Landscape of My Imagination) that I would have felt very much at home among the Romantic authors.  Now in reading Richard Holmes' work, I like to imagine I would have felt even more at home among the scientists who were their contemporaries.  Not so much Aldini, of course.  But I would have liked to have met Joseph Banks, Caroline and William Herschel, and Humphry Davy, among others. 

Certainly I would have loved to experience something of that time, when the tension between enduring mystery and revolutionary knowledge produced a sort of 'vital force' of its own.

Not that this tension has faded, though sometimes we may think it has. Our scientific knowledge has grown exponentially since the start of the 19th century. Yet somehow the universe has kept pace with our capacity to unravel its mysteries.  The more we know, the more it seems there is left to discover.

That makes for a friendly universe, in my mind.  One that is most accommodating to our insatiable sense of curiosity.

I should mention that the "Dr. Darwin" to which Percy Shelley refers in the quote at the beginning of this post is not Charles Darwin (who was only 9 years old when Frankenstein was first published), but his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a well-known natural philosopher and physiologist.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When truth is stranger than fiction

Joseph Banks recently returned from his
historic voyage on the Endeavour.

My winter reading this year includes The Age of Wonder, a chronicle of 18th century science and discovery by historian Richard Holmes. I've been working on this little beast for about a month and a half.  It is wonderfully written, and very entertaining, but it is also dense.  Packed full of charismatic people and interesting details that take some time to absorb, especially for someone like me who is new to this particular slice of history. 

The book begins with Joseph Banks, who spent his youth reveling in biological and sensual discovery during the journey of the HM Bark Endeavour to the island paradise of Tahiti.  Banks would return to England to eventually become President of the Royal Society, and as Holmes paints his story, one has the impression that the fate of every other scientist presented in the book somehow hinged on the judgement and support of this first ambitious explorer.

The brilliant and eccentric German immigrant William Herschel abandoned his career as a musician to explore the universe using the largest and finest telescopes yet made, and made by him. Herschel's introverted sister Caroline began her career as his assistant, but soon came into her own with the discovery of multiple comets and the distinction of being the first woman scientist ever to receive a professional salary in Britain. 

Together, Caroline and William Herschel
revealed a universe much larger and older
than had previously been imagined.
There were a series of crazy balloonists, few of whom were taken seriously by Banks, and whose greatest gift seemed to be surviving crash landings, for they were very adept at getting their balloons up, but not very able to control their descent, or the direction in which they floated.

Mungo Park, a sandy-haired young doctor from Scotland, caught Banks' bug for exploration and took it into the heart of Africa, where he disappeared on his second voyage. The precise circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day.

Last but not least, Humphry Davy, whose story I'm in the midst of reading.  This young man from Cornwall began his illustrious career in chemistry with the discovery of the mind-altering effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).  Davy indulged in multiple experiments on himself and his friends, especially the ladies, during evening lab sessions that became famous during his time in Bristol.  No wonder he's smiling in all his portraits.

Humphry Davy, chemist and poet.

All in all, Holmes brings to life a fascinating period, one filled with drama and a sort of heady madness as an entire society rushed headlong, even recklessly, into a new era of discovery.  Scientists and explorers were the superstars of this time. People packed exhibition halls to view strange artifacts brought from distant lands; they filled plazas to see balloonists carried far afield on wayward winds, and crowded laboratories to witness explosive demonstrations of the latest discoveries in chemistry.  They peered at the moon and the stars through Herschel's telescopes and wondered, perhaps for the first time, whether other intelligent beings occupied the universe and were peering back at them. 

So many times while reading The Age of Wonder, I've found myself thinking, "You couldn't make this stuff up."  I love it when history does this; when the facts force you to stretch your imagination.  Richard Holmes' parade of crazy and wonderful scientists has me reflecting on my own characters, and wondering how I can make them less conventional, more colorful, more likely to violate the boundaries of the expected.  How to make them all of this, and yet keep them real in the reader's mind? 

Often I find my answers to these questions in the real personalities of history.  And when I'm done reading up on their amazing journeys, I can't wait to dive back into the making of fiction again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Climate in Life, Science, and Fantasy

I must admit, I've discovered over the last few years that January is a difficult month for me. The joy and companionship of the holidays seems to crash too quickly into unremarkable routine. The cold days of a northern winter demand isolation from the world outside with heavy coats and thick sweaters; the nights are long, and altogether too quiet.

My dislike of January is exacerbated by the absence of my husband, who, like many migratory creatures, heads south for the winter to spend the coldest weeks of the year with his family in the much more amenable climate of the tropics. I would gladly go with him if I could, but the academic calendar demands I stay in a place where trees lose their leaves and all the truly smart animals hibernate.

Still, we are three days into the new semester, and it is looking to be a good one.  Today, I ran my first ever environmental science lab at Avila University.  We simulated aspects of global climate mechanisms, and got to play with all kinds of fun toys like inflatable globes (I was very impressed that the class did not immediately disintegrate into a game of beach ball) and vials filled with convection fluids (which inspired multiple comparisons to lava lamps, and one request to search for "lava lamp" on YouTube so that students who had never seen one would know what that is).

Climate mechanisms have been on my mind for other reasons as well. 

A few days ago, for example, I sat down to sketch out my first map of Selenia's world (from Creatures of Light).  I've always had a vague idea of the location of her home city Talagna relative to other places of interest, such as the coastal city of Al'Panura and the jungle river of Ornoco.  Recently, I've decided to insert a high mountain range (something on the order of the Andes), with accompanying paramos and deserts.  Someday I'd like to take Selenia to all these places (although as you may know, it's going to be tough to get her across the sea alive, since women in her world are routinely thrown overboard to appease the sea god Mikrotus, but I'll cross that bridge -- or plunge into those depths -- when I get there). 

Part of building my dream of Selenia's voyage was manifested by drawing the map, and in drawing the map I had to think, once again, about latitudes, wind currents, land and water masses, and everything else that goes into climate.  It's a really fun puzzle to play with. 

One of my most popular posts of all time -- indeed, THE most popular post until this past fall, when my short piece on Hypatia went viral -- was Biogeography and Fantasy, published in July of 2011.  This post was inspired as I was trying to figure out the logic of the climate of Westeros, the stage upon which George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones plays out.  I extended the discussion to take into account various factors fantasy authors should keep in mind when building their worlds.  If you'd like to read more, you can visit the post here.

And just out of curiosity, here are a few questions you might like to comment on:

When you think about what you've read, what worlds come to mind that are particularly well articulated in terms of climate, geography, and distribution of resources?  Is it clear when some authors have put a lot of thought into this, and others have not?  Is it even necessary to get as geeky-obsessive as I do when laying out mountain ranges and major bodies of water?  All perspectives are welcome.  I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

In other news, this week on Heroines of Fantasy, Mark Nelson has written a wonderful post on the power of play.  Read his thoughts and share yours, as we venture into the New Year remembering the importance of the lighter side of life. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Another Day, Another Destiny

Embrace the magic in 2013!
Yes, I have Les Miserables on my mind.  I saw the film last week with my sister and mother, and I cannot help but recommend it.  Highly.  It's a beautiful, heart-wrenching rendition of Victor Hugo's classic tale; one of those stories that, like Romeo and Juliet, I keep wanting to go differently every time I see it.  The entire cast gives a stellar performance; even Russell Crowe holds his own as a singing actor. Anne Hathaway is simply stunning, and Hugh Jackman . . . Wow.  All I can say is, I have new respect for that man.  Not everyone can shed the skin of a character like Wolverine and become a completely different entity on the big screen. I would like to see Hathaway and Jackman nominated for an Oscar.

I could go on and on, but you should just go enjoy it for yourself, if you haven't already.

I hope everyone had a marvelous holiday, and that you are in for a great 2013.  I was blessed with a festive Christmas and peaceful New Year's Eve.  We celebrated my father's 75th birthday with a big post-Christmas surprise party at my sister's house.  We had beer, wine, champagne, a great spread of delicious food, and an accordian player.  Most of all, we had lots of family and friends. It does not get much better than that. 

A week from today, the spring semester starts at Avila.  I am very excited about the classes I'm teaching this semester.  One of my favorites, Plant Biology, is cycling back onto the roster.  I am also teaching a new course, Introduction to Environmental Science, that will include a lecture and lab section.  I'm considering writing a series of posts linked to one or both of these courses, like I did for Women and Science last fall. Whether or not I decide to do that, I'm sure you'll be hearing about our on-campus adventures from time to time. 

2013 promises a lot of excitement on the writing side of things.  The wheels are starting to turn toward the publication for High Maga, the companion novel to Eolyn. The exact release date hasn't been set, but we are almost certainly looking at spring of 2014, or thereabouts. 

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to read High Maga from beginning to end.  I made a lot of edits -- rearranged chapters, split up a few things, trimmed off some 3000 words.  That may sound formidable, but really in the end, they were minor changes.  The novel as a whole is done -- truly done -- and I must admit, I am very proud of it.  I am really looking forward to being able to share it with all of you.

The success of my recent short story, Creatures of Light, has me considering other short stories for 2013.  Last week, I pulled a project out of the dustbin; a tale set in Eolyn's world, about a generation or so before the novel begins.  This has been one of my more problematic projects; I keep giving up on it, throwing it away, then pulling it back out.  But I suspect that this time around, I may have solved the riddle as to how to make the story work. A new-and-improved draft will be farmed out to my writers groups in the coming weeks, and if it survives that trial, you may very well see it in eprint before the year's end. 

And of course, I'll be starting on the next big project.  Most likely, this will be the third and final novel of the Eolyn series; but I've also considered undertaking a novel based on Creatures of Light. Either way, you will be hearing more about my next adventure in writing during the coming months.

That's the news for the moment.  This week on Heroines of Fantasy, Terri-Lynne DeFino has a fun post about mean friends, all related to her awesome new novel Beyond the Gate. Stop by and join the discussion when you have a chance. 

Again, Happy New Year!  I'm looking forward to all the new adventures we will share in 2013.