The Presence of Other Worlds

The title above is borrowed from a book I read many years ago — a biographer of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Interesting guy, Swedenborg. Drank 40 cups of coffee a day. Had visions. Founded a religion. But that’s not what I want to talk about today; I just borrowed the title.

In opening a novel to read it, one enters another world. That world may be very like the world we know, or it may be strikingly different, but in any event it’s another world. The first task of the fiction writer, then, and perhaps the most important task, is to imagine and then bring to life a world that readers will want to enter. If your newly minted world is a jumble, or boring, or unpleasant, only the most masochistic reader will slog on through to the end of the book. Most of us will put it down quickly.

I sometimes cruise the aisles of the mystery section of the local public library, looking for mystery authors whose work I haven’t read. I grab a couple of books by writers who have multiple titles on the shelves, bring them home, and crack them open.

I seldom find myself in a world where I would want to spend much time. A happy exception was the series about Inspector Montalbano, by Andrea Camilleri. Set in modern Sicily, they’re not great, but they’re pretty darn good.

A more typical experience was provided this week by Brought to Book by Anthea Fraser. It’s set in modern England (in a charming small town not too far from London — a charming small town, that’s the first red flag). The main character seems to be Rona Parish, a successful writer who is evidently destined to become an amateur sleuth.

Amateur sleuths are the norm in the “cozy” subgenre of the mystery genre. Amateur sleuths who are successful writers rather than, you know, somebody’s maiden aunt are not the most interesting characters, both because one suspects the author is showing a want of imagination and because writers are not really very interesting people, what with all the time they spend with their noses buried in a word processor. But whatever.

There has been, as usual, a suspicious or at least odd death, and the police seem not very interested in trying to discover foul play — again, a standard trope in the cozy subgenre. The cops are always well-meaning but inept. It will, I’m sure, be up to Ms. Parish to ferret out the evildoers.

She has been hired to write the biography of the dead guy — another famous writer, wouldn’t you know it? So she will have an excuse to trundle around and interview the suspects.

But that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem with cozies in general, and with Brought to Book in particular. After 20 pages, we have learned about Rona’s unusual living arrangement with her husband Max, and what he does for a living. (He’s an artist. A successful writer and a successful artist. Already this is feeling awfully shallow, isn’t it?) We’ve learned that Rona’s sister is divorced and is wary of her former husband. We’ve gone on a walk with Rona and her dog Gus in a public park, and watched Gus retrieve a ball that Rona threw. We’ve learned where Rona parks her car, and her cooking habits, and the kind of house she lives in, and the reconstruction she and her husband had done to the house after they bought it. There’s no onstage sex, but we’ve learned that Rona and her husband drink brandy before having sex, and listen to a CD (before or during, you’ll have to imagine that part).

This is the world into which Fraser has invited us. Time for the Shatner impression: It’s ped-ES-tri-an.

As to the nature of the crime (and of course it will turn out to be a crime), Fraser has revealed very little. The dead man was found floating face down in a pond, and that was six months ago. As an urgent predicament, this falls rather flat, but at least we can listen to a CD while drinking brandy.

Here, for your delectation, is the opening paragraph of Chapter Two:

Max left immediately after breakfast. When he’d gone, Rona went back upstairs and had a shower, after which she surveyed the contents of her wardrobe for several minutes before deciding on narrow brown trousers with matching jacket and a cream cashmere sweater. Smart but businesslike, she told herself.

Doesn’t that grab you by the short and curlies? Just for kicks, I took Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse down from my shelf. Here’s how Chapter Two starts:

He came back, though, wearing a purged expression which failed to tell me what had been purged, or who. I took the hand he offered me across my desk, but I went on disliking him.

This is not an especially striking paragraph, but the difference between MacDonald and Fraser is palpable. In MacDonald’s paragraph, something is happening. We have entered a world where unpleasant things are lurking just out of view. And we neither know nor care what private eye Lew Archer is wearing.

If you want people to read your novels, invite them into a world of intrigue, or exotic beauty, or bitter struggle. All three at once, if you can manage it. And no matter what you do, you must not have your lead character fretting over her wardrobe choices and deciding on a cream cashmere sweater. Just don’t.

Runnin’ on Empty

Didn’t George Orwell say, “Ignorance is wisdom,” in 1984? If he didn’t, he should have. I’ve ranted about this before, but it keeps coming up. A guy in the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out responded to a post mentioning a certain how-to-write book by saying (paraphrased), “Pretty much everything you need to know about writing you can learn in a high-school English class.”

I asked if he would want to drive across a bridge designed by someone who had never studied engineering, or have an operation performed by a surgeon who had never been to medical school. He huffed that those occupations require licenses, while fiction is an art form. That response, of course, completely misses the point, but the guy had already demonstrated that he was going to miss the point.

He is apparently convinced that the only actual skill he needs to know in order to write novels is how to construct grammatical sentences. Among the things that won’t be taught in high-school English, I suggested, are characterization, plot, conflict, rising action, theme, the effective use of flashbacks, world-building, metaphor, and the efficient way to use dialog tags.

To be fair, I did read both Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye in high-school English. The teacher must have said a few things that went beyond constructing grammatical sentences. By now I can recall only one such item: I first learned about symbolism from reading Lord of the Flies. So okay, high-school English is not useless. But neither are how-to-write books.

The person with whom I was having this conversation then said something like, “I guess you won’t want to read any of my published books, then.” At which point I pointed out to him that if his books are self-published (they are) or published by a vanity press, the word “published” in his response is nothing but empty puffery. It’s meaningless.

I went and glanced at his work on Amazon. I would dearly love to draw some diagrams for the three or four of you who read this blog in which I display his ineptitude by analyzing the first few pages of his most recent novel. But I dare not. He might be litigiously inclined. If he sued me for libel I would win, because reviewers are allowed some latitude, even when they deploy snarky rhetoric — but being sued would be an annoying and protracted process, so I’m not going to go there.

Would he be able to apply the lessons in a how-to-write book if he did condescend to read one? Well, it’s nice to be optimistic. Maybe he would.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll spend three bucks on his latest flatulent opus, change a bunch of details, and write up a critique. It would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, and probably more fun.

Worlds While U Wait

There’s a scene in the 2nd or 3rd Star Trek movie, I forget which one, where some sort of high-tech projectile is launched at a barren planet. In a burst of light, the planetary surface springs to life. A fully functioning biosphere arises in the twinkling of an eye.

The technical term for this transformation is “terraforming.” A planet is made to resemble the Earth (Latin terra). The advantages of terraforming for human interstellar travelers are obvious: If you can turn any old rocky planet into a Garden of Eden, the galaxy is your oyster. (And we’re going to sidle away from that image without examining it too closely.)

For that reason, terraforming is a popular topic in science fiction novels. Kim Stanley Robinson had, I believe, a success with his trilogy on the terraforming of Mars. I dropped out halfway through the first book when I hit a scene where it became painfully obvious that Robinson didn’t understand the mechanics of lighter-than-air travel using a balloon or dirigible. If he didn’t know how balloons work, I figured, he wasn’t going to be much use on the science of terraforming Mars. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the subject of terraforming is a rich source of story ideas.

Unfortunately for authors, terraforming is about three orders of magnitude more difficult than you think it is. And that’s probably true no matter how difficult you think it is.

Finding a planet of suitable size whose orbit is at the right distance from its primary to provide a surface between the freezing and boiling points of water isn’t even the start of the difficulties. The planet is going to need an iron core that’s rotating in relation to the surface. Why? Because the magnetic field generated by the core is what keeps life on the surface from being toasted by cosmic rays. If the planet doesn’t already have a rotating iron core, there is no conceivable technology that could create one, so your terraformers may have to hunt for a while to find a planet that’s a good candidate.

Nor are cosmic rays the only source of toasting. Your planet is going to need an ozone layer high in the atmosphere to screen out the ultraviolet light.

But let’s not worry about that yet. Ozone is made of oxygen, and you haven’t got any oxygen. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis. In order to put free oxygen in the atmosphere, you’re going to need plants — or, at the very least, cyanobacteria. But let’s not worry about that yet. First you need water. Billions of tons of water.

Our best theory about where the water on Earth came from is that there’s water in comets, and early in Earth’s history (like, four billion years ago), the surface was being bombarded by comets. This is a very reasonable theory. Science fiction writers may therefore want to imagine that terraforming a world (either Mars or one in another solar system) will involve steering a whole bunch of comets in from the outer edges of the solar system and crash-landing them on the planet. Computing the proper trajectory so as to get a comet to hit a planet is fairly trivial, even for a 21st century computer. But first you have to find the comets, and then you have to propel them.

The amount of rocket propellant required would be non-trivial. If your shipload of intrepid explorers is in some other solar system, they definitely won’t have brought along the amount of rocket propellant required. Whether it’s even possible to travel by rocket to another solar system is very doubtful, so your novel is going to have to propose some form of magic physics, both to move your explorers’ ship and to then move the comets.

The comets, even after you find them and aim them in toward the inner part of the solar system, won’t arrive for some years. Until they arrive, the terraforming can’t even begin.

Once you have a planetary surface swimming in fresh ocean, what are you going to do? Our current technology is not able to build even a single living cell from scratch. To design an entire ecosystem, which will of necessity contain millions upon millions of species (many of them microbes), is not something that contemporary science can even imagine. And to drop the entire ecosystem down on the planet at once, trillions of tons of living organisms — living earthworms, living insects to pollinate the living plants, living bacteria to fix the nitrogen in the plants’ roots — oh, wait. We forgot the part about the oxygen. Your plants and earthworms are about to be toasted by the ultraviolet radiation. You have to make gazillions of tons of oxygen before you initiate the cycle of seeding living organisms. How are you going to do that?

If you can wait a couple of billion years, this stuff gets a lot easier. Life on Earth has been around for at least 3.5 billion years. But for the first 2 billion years and more, it was all single-celled life. There weren’t even any jellyfish yet. Multicelled life appeared on Earth only around 500 million years ago. And even then, the evolution of vertebrates who could live on land proceeded very, very slowly.

I’m not saying that terraforming is impossible. I’m saying merely that it would require Godlike powers. If your interstellar travelers bear even the faintest resemblance culturally or technologically to the familiar humans you meet on the street, forget it. There is no conceivable technology with which any alien species, much less humans, could produce a livable planet in less than a thousand years or so, and even that vastly accelerated process would be so filled with pitfalls that your Godlike aliens would surely have to work the kinks out by trying and failing multiple times.

This is why I write fantasy rather than science fiction. Science fiction is too hard.


It’s a curious and depressing fact that while religious people very generally expect that their beliefs will be respected, they seldom show much inclination to respect the views of others.

It sometimes happens that someone makes a statement about “God.” This happens from time to time on Facebook, for example. After making such a statement, the person who made it may become quite upset if anyone expresses disagreement. They feel they should be entitled to make statements about “God” in a public forum, and they also feel that no one should disagree — or that if one disagrees, one ought politely to remain silent, out of respect.

The notion that atheists are entitled to the same respect seems not to occur to them.

Let’s be clear about this: If you so much as mention “God” in a way that indicates you believe in such a thing, you are guilty of the same faux pas that you’re happy to accuse others of. You are directly disputing the understanding of the universe that is held (with, I might add, a great deal more supporting evidence than you can marshal) by atheists. Merely by mentioning “God” as anything more than a ridiculous and unsupported hypothesis, you are stating categorically that atheists are wrong.

Now, either it is disrespectful to suggest that someone’s understanding of the world is wrong, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to do that, then you have no business whatever whining when I point out that your statements about “God” are entirely unsupported by a shred of evidence, and on that basis are not to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, it is wrong to make such a suggestion, then you simply cannot mention “God” or your notions about “God” in any public forum, because to do so would violate your own standard of conduct.

In general, I approve of the idea that when one sees or hears somebody making a possibly dangerous mistake in their thinking about the world, one ought to correct them. That’s the friendly thing to do. If your friend thinks that the way to back a car out of the garage is to put it in low rather than reverse, you need to explain to them that they’re about to put a hole in the wall of the garage. If your friend thinks that children shouldn’t be vaccinated because vaccines cause autism, the friendly thing is to explain to them that they’re entirely wrong, that they’re putting their children at risk. If your friend thinks they can safely handle a pistol without checking to see whether it’s loaded — well, in that case, you need new friends, because the ones you have are dangerous and probably won’t last long.

But when your friend has a wrong idea not about automobiles, vaccines, or firearms, but about the whole entire universe, somehow you’re expected to remain silent, because that’s the polite, friendly thing to do.

I don’t get it.

You Just Don’t Understand…

It is a curious fact how often those who are most in need of insight into how they might improve their fiction writing are also among the most reluctant to accept suggestions. In the past I’ve suggested that this is because the craft of fiction is largely invisible. My words on a page will look very much like your words on a page. To discern the differences, you need already to have a grasp of both the technical elements of prose and the felicities of prose style.

Beyond that, I think we can point the finger of blame at the dumbing down of the United States. Abroad in the land is a widespread and pernicious view that expertise is not only unnecessary but suspect — that, as the phrase goes, my ignorance is just as valid as your knowledge.

A third factor, and one that I’m sure I ought to pay more attention to, is the depth at which aspiring writers are emotionally committed to — we might almost say ennobled by — their scribblings. A bizarre and garbled story concept that has no hope whatever of being commercially viable or even of passing interest to more than a few readers may embody the working out of some deeply felt emotional need on the part of the writer. Beyond that, an inept writer who has been emotionally abused (quite possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with his writing) may need not only to put words onto paper as a raw outpouring in order to demonstrate to himself his own unimpaired competence; but may need also, and more imperatively, to see that outpouring validated, as unlikely as the prospect may be, through the unstinting admiration of others. In such a case, the writer is bound to take criticism of the writing very badly — to experience it as a personal attack.

If one participates, as I do, in an occasional public forum whose ostensible purpose is for writers to discuss their work and their struggles with it, how is one to work out whether a given writer is really seeking comments that will improve her work, or whether she is actually seeking unqualified approval and emotional support using the presentation to others of her dismal writing as a springboard or game marker?

One might also ask whether, in the latter case, one ought to tiptoe quietly away, or whether one ought to suggest ever so gently that she might better achieve her emotional goal by improving her writing rather than by defending it in its decrepitude.

For my own part, I’m quite aware (or I hope I am) when I do things in a paragraph or chapter that may be frowned on by other knowledgeable writers. I’m not always willing to change! I’m trying neither to maximize the commercial potential of my work nor to live up to some rigid and exalted standard of “good” writing. Sometimes I write a passage in a certain way just because I’m having fun. I’m satisfying my own emotional need or my own peculiar taste, and that’s all I aspire to do.

My longstanding motto is, “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.” If the novel you’re writing isn’t your favorite toy, you’re probably writing the wrong novel.

Yet at the same time, I try not to invalidate whatever criticism I receive (unless it’s plainly just wrong-headed). Sometimes other people have good ideas. Sometimes they notice things I have missed.

None of us is so smart that we don’t need a second opinion from another story doctor. If you think you’re a misunderstood genius, you’re wrong. As the Firesign Theatre once put it, we’re all bozos on this bus.

Thinking Out Loud

When you’re working on a large creative project — a novel, let’s say — it’s hard to find someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth. When you find yourself stuck, laying out all of the factors in the stuckness can take quite a bit of time and effort, even if you know someone who has the patience to listen. As a result, brainstorming becomes a private business, and groping your way out of a blind alley can be endlessly frustrating. Even if your listener has no brilliant ideas to offer, not infrequently it’s when you’re explaining a knotty problem to someone else that the problem untangles itself.

So we’re going to try that here. I’m going to explain what has me baffled, and you can listen or not, your choice. I’ll pretend you’re listening, and try to lay out every relevant piece of the puzzle for you without burdening you with too much that’s extraneous.

I’m doing a rewrite of Book 3 of my four-volume fantasy epic. The basic plot premise of the story is that a young woman named Kyura has discovered that she’s not just an ordinary innkeeper’s niece. No, she’s the hereditary ruler of the distant land where she was born. The land is currently ruled by her cousin Tornibrac, who is a malevolent tyrant and quite possibly crazy. Also, he’s only a puppet ruler — the real villains are powers behind the throne, and Kyura is going to have to deal with them too.

She has now, after overcoming various dangers on the road, arrived in the land of her birth, and she’s trying to figure out what to do. In my previous draft, somehow it all worked out even though Kyura didn’t really take a lot of bold actions. My editor objected. “Kyura is too passive,” the editor cried. “You need to make her more active.” So okay, I’ve been giving her some actions. She has no army, unfortunately, and no way to raise an army, so an armed uprising — a revolution — would be difficult to mount even if she were a skilled general; and she’s not. She and her friends can engage in some significant sabotage, however, in order to create turmoil and tip the scales in their favor, and the sabotage is on their drawing board.

But because Kyura is a Good Person, she is not willing to carry out the sabotage until she has first spoken to her cousin face to face and asked him if he’s willing to step aside voluntarily and let her take over as the ruler. If he refuses (and of course the reader can readily guess he will refuse), she will feel justified in taking other action. She’s sure he will refuse; for one thing, he has already tried to kill her twice. But she feels honor-bound to ask.

The first question that this raises is, what on Earth is she planning to say to him? If she can make no proposal that sounds plausible to her and to her friends when they rehearse it, confronting him would just be silly, and she shouldn’t bother. Not being stupid, she will know that it would be pointless. He won’t budge unless she has a lever to pry him loose. Saying, “Pretty please,” is not going to work, and it’s not going to make readers happy either. Having your hero act like a complete idiot — not a good tactic for the writer.

The second question is, how exactly is she going to arrange to confront him face to face? He’s in his castle, and well guarded. She’s in hiding in the city. She can sneak into the castle easily enough; I’ve set that up without trouble. But what then? If she pops up in his bedroom wanting to chat, he’s just going to holler for the guards, and she’ll be arrested and have her head chopped off, and that will be the end of the story.

For the same reason, she can’t send him a message offering to meet him somewhere on neutral ground. He’ll just send guards or lay a trap, she’ll be arrested, the outcome will be no different.

If he’s traveling around the city in his lovely gilt-painted horseless carriage, she and her friends could possibly hijack the carriage. But this puts the forward movement of the plot on a bad footing. The good guys might have to wait weeks, twiddling their thumbs, until Tornibrac decides to take a little jaunt. Could they create an emergency that he would have to take care of personally? No, he has people to take care of emergencies. Hands-on supervision is not fun for him.

What’s worse, as Kyura plans this encounter, she has to contemplate what would follow in the unlikely event that Tornibrac gracefully agreed to step aside. She would then have to deal openly with the powerful men who have put Tornibrac on the throne. Unless she has a plan for how to do that, buttonholing Tornbrac would be about as useful as drinking a glass full of strychnine.

But let’s not worry about that quite yet. Let’s stick with how the confrontation between Kyura and Tornibrac could be arranged. The one slim hope that I can see is this: There’s an older woman, Siallon, who is apparently one of the bad guys, at least as far as the bad guys are aware. (She’s the aunt of the chief villain, who is Tornibrac’s mentor and the power behind the throne.) But way back in Book 1, Siallon allowed Kyura to escape from a cell by not blowing the whistle during the escape, instead telling Kyura, “Go, quickly!” Might Siallon be able to help the good guys by luring Tornibrac out of his castle? Yes, she might be willing to do that.

That’s my best idea so far, but it’s riddled with pitfalls.

First, the good guys don’t have any assurance at all that they can trust Siallon. If Kyura’s friend Roma even approaches Siallon and starts hinting about it, for all they know Siallon could have Roma arrested and tortured until she tells the bad guys where Kyura is hiding. The good guys may think or hope they can trust Siallon, but they don’t know her well, and she’s certainly hanging out with the bad guys, so approaching her is very risky.

Second, Siallon is a houseguest in the mansion of the evil wizard, Posthilnueze. Even if Siallon is inclined to be cooperative, the good guys have no way to insure that Posthilnueze or his servants won’t be eavesdropping on the conversation between Roma and Siallon, which would be disastrous.

Third, even if Siallon agrees to try to help, how can she lure Tornibrac out of his castle to a meeting with Kyura without in the process revealing to the bad guys that she, Siallon, is a traitor to their evil cause? “Oh, what a coincidence! Here’s Kyura. Maybe you and she should sit down and have a nice talk.” No, that’s not very believable. And I need Siallon to stay in the bad guys’ good graces, because near the end of the book she’s going to have to rescue Kyura from a very nasty situation, at which point she does finally reveal to the bad guys that she has switched sides. Having her visibly change allegiance at an earlier point in the story would create deep plot problems later on.

The next sound you hear will be the author making soft whimpering noises.

Red Shirts

Devising dramatic scenes in action-oriented fiction can pose a difficult problem for the author. The moment your bad guys march onstage with their weapons drawn, the question is, who is going to get maimed or killed? There are only three possible answers, and all of them are bad.

If none of the good guys is killed or horribly injured in the melee, the reader will soon begin to feel that nothing was truly at stake. After a couple of incidents of this sort, the reader is likely to think, “Oh, dear, here we go again.” The supposedly action-packed moments will start to feel like cardboard, or like ballet.

If you start killing off important characters every time there’s an action scene, the action will seem a lot more real and emotionally meaningful, and that’s vital if you’re trying to write an effective story. But if there’s more than one scene of this sort in your book, you’ll soon run out of good guys. Assuming you’re working from an outline (you are outlining, aren’t you? Sure you are — but that’s a topic for another time), you may have plans for those characters, so you may not be able to kill them.

The third option is, you put a couple of minor characters in the scene and have the bad guys kill them. See, the drama is serious! The good guys did not emerge from the encounter unscathed! This may be the least bad choice. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible cliche.

Such characters are called red shirts. In the original Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock and McCoy beamed down to a planet, no matter how dire were the conditions they encountered, you knew they were going to survive, because they were the main series characters. But if they were accompanied by one or two anonymous crew members — people you had never seen before — you could be pretty sure those crew members were going to die before the first commercial break. They wore red shirts, because they were just part of the crew, and that was their uniform. That’s how a character who is introduced merely in order to die came to be called a red shirt.

My approach to this dilemma is, I try to give the red shirt a name, a personality, and a life of their own. And when they die, I make sure to show the aftermath. In one scene, a fussy old guy name Iknizer is shot, and dies. We know a little of his life story, we’re heard his plans for the future — and when he dies, the good guys have to bury him in the mountain pass where the battle took place. They pile stones on the grave and hold a little service before they go on. My editor complained that Iknizer is a red shirt, and of course he is. But what am I supposed to do?

A Good Bad Guy

Donald Westlake, in his crime novels, makes a clear distinction between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. This is true in his Dortmunder stories, and also in a couple of other novels, such as Cops & Robbers. Dortmunder and his friends are thieves. They’re career criminals. But they never hurt anybody, they’re ethical, and they seldom come home with all the loot they’d like. They’re good bad guys. Generally they find themselves pitted against unscrupulous, amoral, sleazy bad bad guys.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The title of this little essay refers, rather, to the necessity of creating a villain who is believable and effective. All too often, authors create bad guys whose entire motivation seems to be to cause problems for the good guys. The villain may freely behave in ways that are inconsistent or contrary to his/her own best interest, because the author has thought no more deeply about the character of the villain than that he (we’ll say it’s a he) is to be a constant source of trouble.

This is not just a weakness found in the work of amateurs. Professionals fall into the same trap.

Writing a believable villain is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many authors (being fundamentally nice people, as I’m sure we all are) have trouble imagining how a truly evil person thinks and acts. Second, a villain who is truly following his own evil agenda may not do the things that the author needs in order to move the story forward.

One extreme form of this failure is, of course, the moment when the villain seems to have won the contest. The hero is at the villain’s mercy. Whereupon, rather than simply dispatching the hero with a quick bullet to the head, the villain pauses to explain, for several pages, his reasons for all the villainy, in the process clearing up any questions the reader may have about the plot. While the villain is expostulating endlessly, the hero manages to wriggle out of the handcuffs or whatever, turn the tables on the villain, and emerge victorious.

This cliche, which is very common indeed, may be why the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the guy who is attacking him in the marketplace is so funny. We understand at once that Jones is refusing to participate in a cliche.

But leaving aside the extremes of villainous ineptitude, we need to look clearly at exactly who our villains are. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Are they attempting to achieve their villainous triumph in sensible ways? Or, if they’re not being sensible, are they failing to be sensible in ways that we can understand as arising out of their basic character?

I was smacked in the face this week with this realization. It hit me that my chief villain was pretty much a cardboard cutout. He wasn’t doing much to advance his own evil agenda. Although very rich, he didn’t even bother to hire half a dozen mercenaries to stomp around and beat people up.

Also, he’s from an entirely different culture than the good guys. Technically, he’s not even human. And yet he acts and talks exactly like a typical evil human nobleman. He has no colorful or even detectable nonhuman characteristics.

Who is this guy? I don’t even know, and my manuscript is already as long as Lord of the Rings. (And getting longer, bit by bit.) Turning him into a believable, three-dimensional bad guy is likely to have all sorts of repercussions in the plot. I don’t know yet what those repercussions may be, though I’m starting to glimpse a few of them. This is one of those weeks when the writing process consists not of drafting scenes but of throwing down thousands of words of detailed notes — asking myself all the tough questions I can think of, proposing reasonable or far-fetched answers to those questions, and then looking at what ramifications those answers would have elsewhere in the story.

I arrived at this point while rewriting Book 3 of the four-volume saga. About a third of the way through the rewrite, I found myself getting bored. So I took a few days off. Sometimes you have to trust your subconscious. I started re-reading Jared Diamond’s wonderful (nonfiction) book Guns, Germs, and Steel. And then the light bulb went on. Why was my supposedly masterful villain bopping around all by himself? Why hadn’t he hired a few mercenaries?

That question led quickly to a dozen more. Fortunately, I’m not on a deadline. My self-imposed goal was to have the rewrite done by September. It’s now looking more like next January, if not the January after that. But the good news is, I’m not bored anymore. The even better news is, every decision I make about my villain will lead to a stronger, more believable story. So it’s bad, but it’s good.

In the Dark

In the 18th century, physicists were trying to understand what happened when things burned. It was theorized that combustible substances such as wood and coal contained something called phlogiston, which was released during burning. This theory seemed to explain some of the results of experiments, but of course it was completely wrong.

In what may turn out to be a similar flight of fancy, physicists today are enamored of the theory of dark matter. Like phlogiston, dark matter itself has never been observed; it’s proposed as a way to explain certain things that have been observed.

The problem that the dark matter theory attempts to address is quite real. The problem is that the outer parts of galaxies are spinning too rapidly. It’s possible to measure the spin of some galaxies — those that are tilted so that we observe them somewhat edge-on. This is possible because the light on one edge of the galaxy (the edge that’s spinning toward us) will be blue-shifted, while the opposite edge is red-shifted because it’s receding from us. This is basic physics. I couldn’t do the math, but I understand the concept.

We can also estimate the mass of a galaxy. This is done by estimating the number of stars in it (based on its brightness) and multiplying that estimate by the average mass of a star. Mass causes gravitational attraction, and gravity causes stuff to orbit the center of mass, in exactly the way that the Earth orbits the sun. The speed of the orbiting body depends on both the diameter of the orbit and the amount of mass around which the object is orbiting. Again, I couldn’t do the math, but this is basic stuff.

When the rate of spin of the outer parts of nearby spiral galaxies is calculated, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not nearly enough mass to explain the speed of rotation. This means one of two things: Either there’s a bunch of mass that we don’t see, or we don’t understand how gravity works at galactic distances. The idea that the law of gravity needs to be revised is not popular, though some theorists are working on it. The general consensus is that these galaxies are embedded in a halo of dark matter — stuff we can’t see, but that adds significantly to the mass of the galaxy.

One idea, which seems not to be panning out, is that galaxies are studded with “brown dwarfs.” A brown dwarf is a a lot bigger than Jupiter, but a lot smaller than the sun. It’s small enough that nuclear fusion has failed to ignite; thus it doesn’t put out much in the way of visible light. It’s brown, and it’s a dwarf star. But while there are certainly brown dwarfs floating around, a survey of our own galactic neighborhood suggests that there aren’t nearly enough of them to account for the rapid spin of spiral galaxies like our own.

A more popular notion is that the dark matter is a cloud of non-baryonic particles. Protons, neutrons, and electronics are baryonic; they’re the stuff we’re made of. We can’t see this non-baryonic matter, so the theory goes, because it neither absorbs nor emits light. However, it has mass, so it generates a gravitational field. (Don’t ask me whether “generates a gravitational field” is how physicists would talk about it. I don’t know.)

I have no problem with the idea that the universe is filled with particles that we know nothing about. But I have yet to read an explanation of how this massive dark matter is supposed to be behaving.

I also have a problem with how confident some authorities are that such a mysterious thing exists. In poking around on the Web, I quickly found a site (detailing the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) that asserts, baldly, this: “The WMAP science team has … completed a census of the universe and finds that dark matter (matter not made up of atoms) is 24.0%.” Well, imagine that. They can’t see it; they don’t know what its properties might be; but they’ve done a census. Shee-it.

The idea that they’re treating as gospel is this: The clouds of dark matter are supposed to produce gravitational fields within which the baryonic matter (clouds of hydrogen, to start with) congregates, condenses into stars, and so forth. But if this cloud is imagined as consisting of zillions of tiny particles (perhaps not much larger than a proton), it doesn’t seem, to my muddled way of thinking, to be behaving in a sensible way. Some of these particles will be moving rather rapidly; some will be moving more slowly. That seems indisputable. Those that are moving too rapidly will have enough velocity to escape from the cloud. They’ll be gone. So there’s a maximum velocity that the dark matter particles (they’re called WIMPS — weakly interacting massive particles) can have, and some will be dawdling along more slowly than that.

Baryonic matter forms clumps under the influence of gravity. We call these clumps stars. So why hasn’t the dark matter formed clumps? Any variation in density of a dark matter cloud, no matter how slight, will gradually attract more and more of the slower-moving WIMPS. After a few billion years you won’t have a diffuse cloud anymore; you’ll have clots of the stuff. These clots will be drifting around within our galaxy. They will be invisible, but they will cause gravitational perturbations, because some of them will be rather massive.

No such perturbations are observed.

Not only that, but a massive object like a star will naturally acquire its own halo of dark matter. Slower-moving WIMPS that drift in close to our own sun won’t have enough velocity to escape. And we know for certain that this hasn’t happened. If there was any such halo around the sun, Newton’s law of gravitation would never have been discovered, because the planets in our own solar system would be orbiting more quickly than they are.

Thus the theory requires that dark matter (a) remain in a stable galaxy-sized cloud rather than drifting off into the cosmos but also (b) not form clumps. We haven’t the least idea what the characteristics of WIMPS might be, so we can’t actually rule that out, but it does seem rather implausible, doesn’t it?

When rain falls on a large flat paved area, you’ll soon see shallow pools of water. The pavement is never perfectly flat. I find myself wondering why physicists think the universe itself (spacetime) is perfectly flat except where there’s mass. One way of looking at gravitation (this is Einstein stuff) is that a massive object distorts spacetime. The sun, for instance, creates the three-dimensional equivalent of a large and very deep dimple in the fabric of spacetime. That’s what gravity is.

But why should we assume that mass is the only thing that can warp spacetime in this way? The supposed galactic halo might not be a cloud of massive particles at all; it might simply be a slightly lower place in spacetime, a sort of shallow 3D puddle of slightly enhanced gravity. The cloud of primordial hydrogen would naturally coagulate in such places, and that would create galaxies. It’s known that there are slight anisotropies (uneven places) in the hot, dense plasma that erupted in the Big Bang. Why shouldn’t some gravitational anisotropies still be hanging around?

Of course there’s no physics theory that would explain such a gravitational puddle — but there’s no theory that explains what dark matter is, either. We can be fairly sure it’s not phlogiston, but beyond that, who knows?

Long Ago & Far Away

Tonight I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. It’s another of those books on physics and cosmology for the layperson — no math, just occasional diagrams. The book’s mandate or organizing principle is to attempt to unravel what time actually is. This is a fairly profound mystery, and Carroll seems well qualified to tackle it.

And yet, in his discussion we find odd lacunae. (Sorry; my erudition is showing. That’s Latin for “gaps.”) In Chapter 3 he discusses the Big Bang and the subsequent history of the universe. The current theory is not only that the universe started in a hot, dense form and has been expanding ever since, but that the expansion is speeding up. This is the opposite of what one would expect: Gravitational attraction, however tenuous it may be at vast distances, should be slowing the expansion.

Nobody really knows why the expansion is speeding up. The explanation, such as it is, rests on the concept of “dark energy,” a mysterious force that pushes galaxies gently away from one another.

On page 58, Carroll says this: “We don’t know much about dark energy, but we do know two very crucial things: It’s nearly constant throughout space (the same amount of energy from place to place), and also nearly constant in density through time (the same amount of energy per cubic centimeter at different times).”

Implicit in that rather remarkable sentence is the notion that we (meaning scientists) can know what is going on at places that are very distant (millions of light-years away) and very remote in time (billions of years ago). And how, you might well ask, can we be certain of such things?

The short answer is because distant galaxies are speeding away from us at higher than expected velocities. Ah, but how do we measure the speed of galaxies? The operative theory is this: When an object is traveling away from you, the light it emits is red-shifted. That is, the wavelengths get longer. This is the Doppler Effect, and it’s too well known to be worth explaining here. The red shift will tell us how fast a galaxy is receding from us, but it won’t tell us how far away the galaxy is. The distance is calibrated by observing Type I supernovae in the distant galaxies. The theory is that a supernova of this type always produces about the same amount of light. And that’s a great deal of light — an individual supernova can be seen across untold millions of light-years. By measuring the amount of light we’re seeing from a supernova, we can figure out how far away it must be. We then correlate that distance with the observed red shift of the galaxy where it’s located, and presto, we know that distant galaxies are speeding up.

But you’ll notice that this idea rests on two pillars of theory: first, that nothing other than the velocity relative to an Earth observer of that distant galaxy could cause a red-shift of its light; and second, that Type I supernovae were just as bright two billion years ago as they are today.

Both of these pillars rest, in turn, on the idea that the universe in distant places and at distant times was fundamentally the same, with respect to its physical laws, as it is in our neighborhood today. By that measure, what Carroll has said is a tautology. He’s saying, in essence, “We know that physical laws in distant places and at distant times have always been the same as they are here and now — and therefore, we can deduce that dark energy in distant places and at distant times has always been the same.”

What if the speed of light were increasing gradually over the course of billions of years? That would cause a red shift: Light that has been traveling for a long, long time would have started its journey at a slower speed. As the speed of light increases, the wavelengths will get longer. Just to be clear, this is only my pet theory, and there’s probably something horribly wrong with it that any grad student in the physics department could explain. I’m not that smart! The point I’m making is that the theory rests on an assumption, namely, that the speed of light has always been the same as it is today. And we can’t demonstrate that, because we’re only here today. We weren’t there two billion years ago.

I’m not a physicist. I don’t even try to tackle the books with the math. It’s entirely possible that Carroll is skipping some very solid experimental evidence in this book because he judges (correctly) that his readers won’t be equipped to understand it. But here again, as in other similar books I’ve read, I sometimes have the feeling that too much is being taken for granted. Is that a characteristic of the books, or is it a characteristic of contemporary physics itself? I don’t know.

Much of modern physics is based on mathematical models of phenomena. The observations that are made tend to be really quite tenuous. A quick trip down the aisle in your local library will present you with a handful of books that will tell you all about black holes, including the fact that there is a massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. What is less often emphasized in these books is the fact that no human being has ever seen a black hole! Everything we know about them, or think we know, is based on mathematical models.

It is known that the mathematical models sometimes fail. On page 60, Carroll mentions one of the more spectacular failures. The theory being that perhaps the energy of virtual particles (quite possibly a real phenomenon, though not directly observable) is the source of dark energy, physicists have calculated the amount of “vacuum energy” that would arise from the froth of virtual particles. Unfortunately, the calculations show that this vacuum energy should be about 10 to the 105th power joules per cubic centimeter, when what is actually observed is a vacuum energy of about 10 to the minus 15 joules per cubic centimeter. (Don’t ask me what joules are; I don’t know. I know what a cubic centimeter is.) This is a discrepancy of 10 to the 120th power.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the math, or more likely with the theory that the math attempts to explain. But the math that tells us how black holes must behave? Oh, yeah, we’ve got that one nailed down — right, Mr. Hawking?