Saturday Morning Science

Another weekend, another week over. Too sunny for me to want to spend time outside, so lurking indoors reading and thinking and being tempted to bake some sort of cake.

Also a bonus – working through a book about rabies (you know, for a little light reading) and finding it fascinating. It’s called Rabid, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, and it’s all about how rabies has shown up in culture throughout history. Interesting for the science and culture (and a chapter about vampires and werewolves for good measure).

Saturday Morning Science

How are we already into August? It feels like summer goes faster every year. Without further ado, a few things read this morning of interest:

Stranger Things: Working with the Bones of Horror

Note: for anyone reading this from Tumblr, some of this is possibly going to be familiar – I’m more or less compiling previous commentary on Stranger Things over here and applying to the new season. And will split into probably three parts for my own sanity as much as yours.

So one of the things I’m interested in are the recipes that make a story work. Why do some fairytale adaptations feel more “real” than others? What makes an ending satisfying, and when is a seemingly-unsatisfying ending right for your story? Why do we enjoy scary stories so much, and what makes a good one?

Stranger Things, of course, draws on a wealth of pop culture and horror tropes (sometimes seeming more of a mashup than an original), which makes it really easy to take apart and explore through different lenses. Here I want to look at how the show follows the “rules” of horror to build cohesiveness and depth. A good horror story is more than a string of scary images, after all; it, like any other good story, begins a conversation about ourselves.

So. My three “rules” of horror (that are entirely up for debate, but we have to start somewhere:

1. Horror sanctions behavior
2. Horror reflects and distorts the anxieties of the real
3. Horror breaks and reforms the status quo

1. Horror Sanctions Behavior

To have a plot, you generally must have also have a problem. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Unrest in distant lands, creatures lurking in the night, a fight with friends. A bad decision is made, someone or something behaves in a way that challenges normal conduct. Something happens that should not happen, breaking the rules of that particular context.

In horror, which often builds into a theme of self-growth (seriously, have you noticed that if you’re not dead by the end, you’re often a Better Person?), it’s often the people who go through the horrifying events that transgress, but other times the error that ignites the story occurred in the past and created a threat that other people must address. In either case, the plot precipitates from this broken rule, allowing more and more frightening and inexplicable things to intrude into normal life, making visible the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions. My favorite example is the haunted house trope where a fighting couple finds their home becoming strange in response to their estrangement. Scary stories reinforce the norms that are already ingrained in the audience by conjuring up grotesquely exaggerated consequences – they remind us to be afraid of the dark. 

Which brings us to Stranger Things. In the first and second seasons (which are much more tightly thematically linked than the third season), we see both past and present bad behavior driving the plot. Sometimes there are simple causes-and-effects: when Nancy sneaks out to a party with Barb, despite this being the exact sort of thing their parents would disapprove of, Barb ends up disappearing. Dustin lies to his friends about his “discovery,” unintentionally helping another little monster to grow up (though admittedly this does pay off when said monster’s sweet tooth-derived loyalty saves the day later on). In other cases, characters must work to correct larger world problems that appeared long before the story began: the experiments that led to the opening of a gate to another world and release of the monsters happened in the past, but the fallout must still be addressed.

The third season is a little different thematically than the first two, but still puts heavy consequences on bad behavior. Billy exhibits a never-ending string of bad behavior, but it’s not until he’s out at night to meet Mrs. Wheeler, who he’s almost charmed into an affair that he is sidetracked and taken in by the Mind Flayer, becoming a literal monster in reflection of his usual predatory behavior. And it’s not usually the case that corrupt mayors allow Russian scientists to construct gates to alternate dimensions beneath your small town, but you have to admit the exaggerated consequences prove a point about authority figures that don’t look after the people they are supposed to protect.

Over all we see again and again that actions have consequences, and horror thrives where rules break down, allowing the genre to explore what scares us because…

2. Horror Reflects and Distorts the Anxieties of the Real

Everybody makes mistakes, so why do these transgressions scare us so much in horror? I believe it’s because horror amplifies each situation so that a small event becomes representative of a much larger societal concern. Horror latches onto the unspoken and unacknowledged anxieties about ourselves, our families, the world at large, etc, and asks what might happen if those concerns were made real. The best horror, I think, works like a mirror, where the anxiety and boundary-crossing is reflected in a monstrous consequence that matches what we most fear.

There are so, so many examples to point out in Stranger Things, but a common thread through all three seasons is uncertainty about science and scientific authority. In stark contrast to the close-knit small town, the laboratory is isolated behind gates and guards. Nobody knows exactly what they’re doing in there, but it can’t be good if they’re not part of the community. And the science itself is extremely boundary-crossing – literally in the creation of the gate to the Upside-Down, and figuratively in the experiments on people and apparent disregard for the lives of their subjects. Ties to the government only reinforce the untrustworthiness, especially as throughout the series we see the authorities fail again and again to reassure and protect the citizens of Hawkins. It would have been realistic to tell a story about a government agency failing to protect people from pollution (I mean, look at the story Nancy and Jonathan end up using to unveil the “truth” about the lab – toxic chemical spills are frightening enough and far more believable), but having actual inter-dimensional monsters rampaging around the town blows these quite reasonable anxieties out of proportion to asks what might happen if our most unimaginable fears became reality. As the world expands in the third season, this same thread extends to Cold War anxieties and fear not only of what our own scientists are doing, but what others, out there, who might have even less of our interest in mind, might be doing.

On a smaller scale, the characters of Stranger Things are constantly wrestling with the constraints of a fairly conservative small town where gender and societal roles are clearly demarcated and deviance not without consequence. Many of the terrible events end up feeding off of the background fear of change and breakdown of the expected codes of conduct. When Nancy tries harder than she probably should to become one of the cool kids (and physically loses a friend in a bit of horrific symmetry), she becomes more archetypal – the Rebellious Teenager, the Girl Who Just Wants to Fit In. We’ve all seen/experienced stories like this, so here individual actions become shorthand for more common experiences and concerns. Again we see social concerns – the fear of change again, intergenerational disagreements, and tension over the replacement of small local life with the flashy-but-unfamiliar generic commercialization by the new mall – in season three, where the mall that is the site of so much contention is where enemies both human and superhuman intrude, and new fads and fashions sweep the town with the same force as the Mind Flayer’s spread.

Perhaps characters and situations become more two-dimensional as a result of this extension of individual situations to broader impact, but that’s the cost of storytelling. Ultimately whatever story is being told, once the fear has been confronted…

3. Horror Breaks and Reforms the Status Quo

All together, horror stories effect catharsis. The horrific appears in the cracks of everyday life and the seams must be closed before the story can end. Anxieties must be dealt with and put back to sleep. 

No matter what Will goes through, he always ends up back at home with his family. Eleven always confronts her monster and closes the gate (more on this next time). There’s still school and work to do and family obligations to meet. Hawkins is still a (mostly) quiet little town.

All stories need a resolution, but getting to this point in horror requires confrontation of the monstrous. After all the monstrous always targets our weak spots. Only by directly facing fears can the world be rebuilt. Again, will write more about this next time when exploring how trauma is addressed in the story, but Eleven must again and again face the creatures that she released as a consequence of what has been done to her, and only can succeed by learning to use her anger and fear. Joyce in particular is a force of nature, turning her terror over losing her youngest child into the energy and creativity needed to solve any problem in her path.

But despite the sameness at the end, there is always change. Eleven becomes increasingly powerful through the series as she grows older and more aware of what has been done to her. Nancy and Steve show quite a bit of character development – as Nancy grows into herself, she becomes a truth-teller for the world at large (going so far as unveiling government conspiracy to get some kind of resolution after her friend’s death and pursuing a story she knows to be significant despite her boss’s disapproval), and Steve becomes the considerate and brave friend that everyone needs when fighting supernatural monsters and accidentally spying on a secret laboratory hidden beneath the local mall.

Horror destroys the ability to hide our fears and failures. It forces us to confront these interior darknesses, made physical, until wrong is made right and our worlds are transformed.*

*but not forever. remember, the monster always returns

Names, True and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about names. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given that I’m either doing science, which is rife with complicated names and nomenclature, or writing stories where names are just part of the process of building a world.

I think the thing that got me started on this tangent was discovering this app, Seek, that tries to identify plants and animals from your pictures. It’s something I’ve kind of wanted to exist for years, and while it’s not perfect, it does a pretty good job, especially with plants with flowers and things that hold still long enough to get a good picture. As a person who mostly knows a molecular world, it’s been fun to learn the names of things around me I didn’t know about – names like Farewell-to-Spring, Love-in-a-mist, Redclaws, and Heart’s Ease. Red Hot Poker and Pride of Madeira and Hound’s Tongue. Brass Buttons and Blue-eyed Grass.

The names are wonderful. They provide insight into the nature of a thing, what it looks like, what it’s good for, where it came from. But beyond the fanciful descriptions and hints at stories behind the names lies more than simply strings of words. I’m now hooked on identifying random plants in my neighborhood because they make me stop and make sense of seemingly small things around me. They ground me in place. A name suggests a thing’s significance and thus knowing a name gives access into an overlooked world full of importance outside of one’s self and species. A good name is like a signpost in the mental map of the world, saying here is a thing that matters, here is thing to remember.

And you know, everything really matters, and humans name absolutely everything, given the chance.

It really all reminds me, while scrolling through the list of flowers, algae, fish, and fungi I have observed through this app, of how prevalent the idea of true names is in fantasy. The idea generally shows up in the magic system of a story world, where a character must know the true name of a thing in order to have power over it. I can think of half a dozen examples of this trope without working at it, but my favorite is of course in the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin (favorite series by favorite author), where there is great emphasis on restraint and balance in how you use the knowledge and power you gain.

What interests me then, is that there’s this whole understanding of the power of names and yet, despite this, we have serious societal amnesia when it comes to knowing something about the world around us, especially the natural world. Plant blindness. We don’t know the names of the organisms that co-inhabit our cities let alone those that live wild and unseen. I don’t mean to say this in a kids-these-days kind of way, or imply that it’s a failing of individuals exactly. The world is changing, and fast-paced life with high demands on time and limited opportunity to interact with nature doesn’t exactly facilitate environmental education. And there’s so much information to process, that of course we get overloaded and processing plants of all things on top of it all is a bit too much. Add into this an unequal access to green spaces, and it feels like something vital is cut off from a wide swath of the population.

I want to say there’s something about nature and imagination and having variety and other living things that is good for a person, and it’s not that one can’t be imaginative and healthy and full of a sense of place where nature as generally understood is not, but it feels like there is something inherently displacing about urban spaces when they lack space for life, green or otherwise. I love my biology/geology education for giving me a sense of place – it’s difficult to feel lost or ungrounded or adrift when you can look around and see the long geologic history of the earth beneath your feet and identify the organisms that are living their lives around you. But this tapestry of interaction is only appreciable when you can see it – I may be enjoy a coastal meadow, a tidepool, a deep forest, but what does this knowledge mean to somebody who lacks access to even manicured and fairly sterile city park? What good is an app to identify wildlife if the only habitat available to them in your neighborhood is one of concrete and glass?

A name can reveal a history of injustices and misunderstandings. In that way the real world will never work out as neatly as it does in stories (there are no True Names), but it does reveal hidden narratives that can be brought to light and reexamined. There’s that difference between the scientific name and the common name – the scientific name has purpose in the cataloguing of things, but it doesn’t capture everything, and doesn’t always pay homage to the names that came before. Neither do common names. What we see is, like much of history, a story written by those in power, with all too often the names given to plants and animals by the people native to a land overwritten by those of the people who drove them out. I think of endangered languages, so many names and so many stories lost, so much of humanity.

It’s all thorny territory. I look again through my list of plants, and see so many that are invasive. What does it mean that my vegetal landmarks, contributors to landscapes I love to live in and admire, have strangled a landscape I never had the chance to see? My baseline for this place is already one of destruction. How can we rebuild an environment when we don’t really understand it’s history? When the names and the knowledge has been lost?

I don’t know how to fix things, but I do believe that it’s here, in the names and narratives, in the language we use, that the roots lie. Understanding the stories we tell about places, why a thing is called by X name instead of Y, who came before us and how they spoke of the place, is a powerful thing.

Saturday Morning Science

I know, I know I’m doing horribly on this whole write stuff once a week thing. I haven’t written anything in how many weeks now? Alas I have all these drafts and no time to do anything with them. How do people manage to accomplish so much in one day? I get to the evening and am so exhausted I don’t want to work on anything. Anyway, I digress, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed recently:

Obligatory Tree Post

So I’m having a Week, and all I really want right now is to flee the lab and run away to the forest. But I can’t so, I’m looking at pictures I took a couple months ago and plotting art projects, and so here’s an assortment of trees:

My favorite time to wander in the forest is after the rain. When the ground is still soggy and everything is vividly green and alive, the sun is bright but not yet returned everything to the stasis of summer and drought. When all you can hear is the sound of ephemeral streams trickling down hillsides and the last drops of rain falling on leaves.

You’ll notice that while yes, these trees are mostly redwoods, they’re not the giants you see in some parks. This area was clear cut relatively recently in tree years, so these trees are all babies. Redwoods grow up first, and then out, so they are mostly spindly things, but still too tall to really convey in pictures.

Sometimes they creak and sway in the wind, which is mildly alarming when you are underneath them. Another favorite thing: the difference of the sound of the wind in different sorts of trees, and the way you can track the wind’s course by listening to it move through different patches of forest.

I also like poking around in the undergrowth and looking for interesting little plants tucked around the trees. Lots of poison oak, but also lots of tiny flowers and interesting ferns.

Book Pairings: Into the Weird

One of my favorite species of weird fiction is travel journals about improbable places. Stories about leaving home with a purpose, only to lose yourself in the strangeness of your destination. Finding yourself in a landscape that reflects the state of things (if you can believe in it at all). Places that feel like somewhere you could have been or should have been or might have dreamt you’ve been.

Book #1: Amatka, Karin Tidbeck

A place where everything must be named to keep it from disintegrating (I’m so jealous of this, it’s an idea I was using myself, but she pulled it off and gave some political weight in her story). Our protagonist is sent by the government to do research. Dystopian and strange.

Book #2: The Taiga Syndrome, Cristina Rivera Garza

I just finished this book! It’s a very small detective novel of sorts. At least, there is a missing woman and a detective. And a translator and a dark, dark forest. Noir-ish and woven with fairytales and the kind of language that gets under the skin. I’m left with more questions than I started with, which is exactly how you should feel after entering the woods.

Book #3: Tainaron, Leena Krohn 

A woman comes to a city of insects and there she stays, writing letters. The details of this city are delightful, as is trying to understand it. Not a plot-driven novel by any means, but a puzzle to ponder over and tiny world to wonder at.

Pair with the playlist at the end of The Taiga Syndrome, and a work of beautiful and disturbing interactive fiction

Saturday Morning Science

It’s a bright beautiful day, and I’m taking a break from work for poetry, picnics and working through the plethora of saved articles, papers, and books I’ve accumulated. A few interesting things:

  • Dickinsonia! Weirdest oldest animal we know, identified by its steroids. There’s a kind of hilarious quote that pretty much sums up the scientific process in the article too: “[My supervisor] Jochen [Brocks] said we could try it, but he was always sure that it was a stupid idea,” Bobrovskiy says. “Even I thought it would fail. But it didn’t.”
  • How does epigenetics help organisms adapt? A fascinating article about how changes in the expression of genes helps species respond quickly to environmental changes. Also remember learning about Lamarckian vs Darwinian evolution? I remember my high school biology class kind of laughing off Lamarck and his idea of acquired characteristics (“so if I just flap my arms I’ll eventually grow wings?”), but reality is much more subtle and complicated than that. On an epigenetics level, some traits are acquired through experience and passed on to the next generation…
  • A lovely essay: “We Should Never Have Called It Earth”
  • An actually good article about our preparedness for the next pandemic. There are a lot of factors we need to consider – leadership, hospital staffing and supplying, research, responsiveness (and technological capacity) of industry to produce vaccines and medications, education, funding of all of the above, etc. And as a side note since it caught my eye, I don’t think we can ever hope for a system to produce new vaccines in weeks.
  • A big challenge with producing good vaccines is that for some viruses, exposure to the virus (or a vaccine) results in an even more severe illness the second time you’re exposed. Dengue is one of those viruses, and so understanding the challenges of producing an effective vaccine and the potential risks is important.
  • Vision in the deep sea – fish eyes optimized to better see the faint lights of bioluminescence
  • The deformation of continents. It’s a wild thing to wrap your mind around, the fluidity of the earth, the large-scale malleability of stone.

Thoughts on Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies

One thing I did too much of over the weekend was play Sunless Skies, and having seen a lot of people disliking the game for what it isn’t, I kind of want to write about what it’s really good at. I’m really interested in exploring what it takes to make effective interactive fiction, and I think Failbetter Games does an awesome job with this, telling interesting stories that unfold organically and leave plenty of room for the reader/player to breathe. So a few things I really like about Sunless Skies (and honestly, their other games too).

Freedom of choice in character design

First off, I appreciate that there is a clear effort to make the games inclusive. You get to choose your pronouns/title, and what you choose has no impact on what you get to pick when designing your character. It’s a little detail, but makes the game feel more welcoming from the moment you begin.

The other character bit I enjoy is that there’s no set story about you, the player. You can create a story around your own character (and the game, I think works best when you do). Sunless Skies makes this even easier than Sunless Seas (which I also adore) by letting you pick Facets for your character as you level up – which each are bits of story about your past where what you choose to have done impacts who you are in the present. It’s just nice having tools to the freedom to tell your own story in the game, while still having some support.

Stories unfold at different paces by different mechanisms

One of the biggest mechanism details I appreciate is that stories unfold in different ways through all Failbetter’s games, which keeps things interesting and enhances the texture of the game. Some events are random, some are timed or by location, some events lead you across the world, some are local and short. It feels more realistic than a linear narrative and gives you choices and unpredictability.

Your actions also effect change on the world around you. This is especially nice in Sunless Skies, where the factions you associate with have an impact on their political standing and who is likely to leave you alone or do you harm. I’ve frequently had moments where I faced an quandary over whether I should stop to help an ally in a fight, or run for cover in a risky area.

No infodumping means you learn the way you would in the real world, which may be somewhat infuriating at times. There’s so much to know and so many puzzles to work through on your own. The longer you play and the deeper you dive into the world’s secrets the more things begin to make sense. There are moments of horror when you realize just what you have been part of all along.

Value on both the little and big

On the one hand, actions really do have consequences. One thing I think Sunless Seas is even better at than Sunless Skies is that it’s so much easier to die. Frustrating, but when every detail counts, it creates a lot of tension. And after working through so much story, those losses mean something – you have a fleshed out character to mourn.

On the other hand, it’s not all derring-do and grave decisions. I like a lot of the little details and opportunities that give you space between action. The beauty of open space and stars around you as you travel. The little remarks your officers make about your location. The opportunities to just explore ports and see what’s there without major plot consequences. Narratives really benefit from these moments to breathe or focus on the people. Perhaps you have a nightmare and decide to raid the pantry with your crew for a comforting midnight snack. Perhaps you find your aunt baking cookies for your crew. Perhaps you stop for a cup of tea (with a nice terror decreasing bonus) or wander around a port enjoying the sights just because.

The language!

These are narrative games, and the quality of the writing is fantastic. Plus you get wonderful wordplay and wonderful names.

If you’re going to name your vehicle the Efficiency is Our Watchword, you can’t be too surprised to find yourself wrecked in the middle of nowhere.
Another favorite wreck name: the All Shall Be Well
The Aunt is…quite a character.

Women in STEM vs the Lone Genius

I guess this is kind of a late reaction to the black hole picture, and the fallout around Katie Bouman, and several articles I’ve been reading, and general frustration with perceptions of science/female scientists.

So: black hole picture announced, a picture surfaced of Katie Bouman excitedly watching her work unfold on screen, followed by a brief burst of praise for women in STEM, followed by backlash against her and the very idea that she had made an important contribution at all.

It’s the typical rise-and-fall these days for women in STEM fields, it seems. It absolutely has to do with the fact that women are still not consistently perceived as competitive in these fields. But intertwined into the never-ending, exhausting narrative of misogyny (exhausting that women still have to work so much harder to exist), is a fatal flaw of sorts in how science is understood by the public. For some reason, we are still attached to the idea of science being done by solo, lone-wolf-type geniuses. After all, when was the last time you saw a scientist portrayed in popular culture who was part of a big team of equally-talented people?

It’s a major problem, because if scientific advancements are accomplished by one individual alone, then those who are being perceived as less capable are even more easily written out of the narrative. It limits the scope of what a scientist could be to a model that honestly doesn’t exist (and if it does, it probably looks like an established white male researcher whose fame overshadows those that assist his work). And if you don’t see yourself as the brash, brave explorer revolutionizing the world with their discoveries, then it is just that much harder to make that decision to go into a field that’s not quite yet comfortable with embracing people of all backgrounds.

So what, you say? Why do we need to see ourselves to become a thing? Can’t we all just follow our dreams? That only works if you perceive your dream as even being a possibility. If becoming a physicist seems just as wild as say, adopting a unicorn, you’re probably not going to pursue it. And we could talk about all the intersectional barriers that prevent kids from being exposed to and prepared for careers of all kinds, but that’s a vast world of discussion that deserves more than a sentence or two here.

The reality is that science is incredibly collaborative. Yes, you’ve got somebody responsible for the lab, but they’re usually not the ones doing the experiments. That work is usually done by students, and sometimes those students have students too. And then you’ve sometimes got lab techs and lab managers, and people running specialized facilities and generally keeping things moving and getting people trained in new skills. There are collaborators – some you’ve met in person, some you haven’t – potentially all around the world. Conferences where you meet other people and learn about what they’re doing. The lab next door where you go when you need to borrow something or ask advice. All people with very specialized skills in some areas, and other areas where they are still learning, and everyone is essential for things to progress.

There’s no one person doing everything. That’s not to say individuals can’t do amazing things, or don’t deserve credit for their accomplishments. It’s just that nobody works in a vacuum. What seems to have happened this time is that a single individual (who totally deserves recognition of her work and is definitely a role model for women in STEM) was presented somewhat inaccurately as the lone face of a project, which exposed her to people waiting to strike against anyone who failed to match what that face is “supposed” to look like.

I guess I think it might be easier to address the horrible bias against women and others in STEM once we’ve changed how we think science is done. It’s sort of awful, in a way that our accomplishments might not be seen until they are watered down with acknowledgement of collaborators, but it does open a door to conversation. More positively, reframing the narrative as one of collaboration welcomes everyone, because there is room for everyone to contribute what they are able. I’m not quite sure how to accomplish this, especially from a non-influential position. All I know is that we humans are storytellers and the more of us tell stories that celebrate each other’s achievements and thank those who work with us, the farther that new narrative will spread.