What Data meant by “emotionless”: The mind and body of feelings

When John and I sat down and watched all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the thing that most consistently strained my suspension of disbelief wasn’t the faster-than-light travel, the plethora of humanoid aliens, or the idea of Wesley being allowed on the bridge.

It was Data the android. Not because he was an intelligent machine, but because he claimed to have no emotion.

He functioned, in all the most important respects, exactly like any creature with emotion. He made efforts to preserve his own life. He showed loyalty toward some people and distrust of others, and seemed to prefer the company of certain people. He was constantly motivated to seek new and interesting experiences. And on top of it all, he said, outright, countless times, that he had a desire to feel emotion.

At the time, I couldn’t find any way to spackle this gaping plothole. Desire is typically considered an emotion– one of the strongest and most important.

In fact, if you’re a conscious being, capable of making your own choices, you have to have the emotion of desire. That’s because all choices are caused by desire. I’ve analyzed hundreds of the choices I’ve made, and every single one was made because I either wanted it, or wanted something I could get by doing it.

I don’t often make absolute statements, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to make a choice for any reason other than desire.  Even if you do something because someone has a gun to your head, you’re still choosing to do it because it’s a means to the end of staying alive, which is something you presumably want. Even if you did something totally pointless that gained you nothing, just to prove you could, it would still be because you wanted to prove it.

So, I thought, if a creature that behaved like Data truly had no emotion, then he would not be a conscious entity. He’d be an automaton, programmed with an assortment of stock responses to an assortment of types of situations that his creator imagined he might face. Complicated, yes– it would take an enormous number of pre-programmed responses and simple algorithms working together, to simulate sapience as well as he does. But not truly conscious. The choices he made would actually be the choices of the person who programmed him. The prosecutor in “The Measure of a Man” would have been right about Data: he would not be a sentient being.

Even when depressed people enter a phase of “emotionlessness,” they still have the basic emotion of desire, on a few of the most fundamental issues. When they are unable to feel most of the emotions in their day-to-day lives, they can get bored and exhausted with this life of doing things they don’t care about. Sometimes the desire to stop the pointless routine becomes so strong they commit suicide. Sometimes they press onward and keep going through the motions anyway, because they want to avoid making other people sad– which is also a desire.

If you were capable of conscious thought, and not controlled by anything, but you were incapable of feeling desire… then you would do nothing. You wouldn’t go to work, because you’d have no desire to make money and keep your home. You wouldn’t respond to requests, encouragement or commands from other people, because you’d have no desire to please them or avoid their retaliation. You wouldn’t eat or drink, because you’d have no desire to stop being hungry or keep being alive. You’d die soon, but you wouldn’t actively kill yourself, because you’d have no desire to die. If you had no desires, you would absolutely not give a crap either way about anything.

But maybe desire isn’t always an emotion.

How do we define “emotion”? Lately I’ve realized that, for my whole life, I’ve been defining it as “any state of mind that can be described using the word ‘feel.'”

I’ve been using the word “desire” for the condition where your chest feels tight and you have to force yourself to breathe and your muscles are cramping with the effort to hold them back from trying to grab what you want… and I’ve also been using it for the condition where, rationally, you realize that the thing you’re reaching for is more likely to contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals than the alternative.

In either case you can say that you “want” the thing, or “feel a desire” for it. But maybe those two cases aren’t just different degrees of the same emotion.

What is emotion? It’s partially a mental condition. Mentally, you realize that you want something– to run away from danger (fear), to fight your enemy (anger), to be close to your loved ones (affection). It’s like a thought, but one that’s not necessarily put into words.

Usually, you don’t give conscious thought to why you want the thing. If you analyze it, you’ll almost always find that you want it because you think it will make you more happy than the alternative– “happy” being perhaps the only emotion that isn’t a form of desire.

Then again, maybe sadness isn’t a form of desire, either. It goes along with a wish for things to be better, but the sadness itself is focused on the feeling that things are bad right now. Most feelings involve motivations, but the mental portion of happiness or sadness could be described instead as an opinion: it’s the opinion that things are bad right now, or the opinion that things are good.

But for any feeling, in addition to the opinion or motivation itself, there are all the physical symptoms that go along with it.

When I try to imagine what fear feels like, my sensory memory supplies a pounding heart, cold limbs, muscles on a hair-trigger, ready to run or jump, and a slight tingly pain on the skin from the rush of adrenaline. Love feels warm, with a relaxed sensation, a swelling of the chest, and a different skin tingle that seeks touch. Anger is tight-chested, with pressure in my head and an ache in my cheeks and eyebrows, and the reflex to clench every muscle.

But what is an emotion, aside from a motivation or opinion and the body’s response to it? Is there anything beside those components?

I try to define what fear feels like, besides the opinion that I’m in danger and the motivation to save myself. Besides that, all I can think of are the physical sensations, ebbing and flowing in response to my thoughts about whatever I’m afraid of.

Every time I analyze a particular part of how an emotion feels, I realize that it’s a sensation of the body, not the mind. The only parts that aren’t physical are the thoughts that the situation is good or bad, and that I need to do something about it.

Maybe that’s what emotion is: the synergy of the mind’s part and the body’s part. Maybe the Tin Man was right: maybe you do need a heart to feel love.

Maybe it’s no accident that we use the word “feel” for both emotions and physical sensations.

I think Data had the “opinion and motivation” part of emotion. Probably he was programmed to have it. He considered some situations bad and some good, and he tried to seek out the good ones. And that couldn’t have been based only on logic, because if you try to base your desires only on logic, you eventually reach a question you can’t answer.

Why do I want to fight that alien monster?
Because if I don’t, it could kill my captain.

Why do I want it not to kill my captain?
Because he is valuable to the Federation.

Why do I care if the Federation loses a valuable captain?
Because anything that weakens the Federation threatens the political stability of the galaxy.

Why do I care about the stability of the galaxy?
Because instability could kill millions, including me and everyone I know.

Why do I care if everyone dies?
Because that would be terrible.

Why do I consider it terrible?
…I don’t know. I just do.

Logic is a way of deducing conclusions from premises. It can’t choose which premises you start out with.

Data seems to have had a few basic motivations, probably programmed into him by Dr. Soong, from which he reasoned all his decisions and conclusions. Basic motivations like “I must protect life.” He couldn’t logically explain why they made sense to him; he felt them in the same way we feel an instinct. But despite this, he still didn’t consider himself to have emotions.

Maybe it was just because he didn’t have an organic body. When something bad happened and he recognized that it was bad, his brain couldn’t respond by pumping his body full of the hormones of fear or anger or sadness.  He couldn’t feel the part of emotion that goes beyond opinion and motivation: the accelerated heartbeat, the tingles, the muscle tightness, the building of tears in the eyes. I think that was what he meant when he called himself emotionless.

Maybe the “emotion chip” he eventually got was a simulator that fed his brain the sensory feedback of an emotional body.

I was thinking about all this because I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I see something terrible in the news and don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it– because it’s too huge to process, or because I’ve been desensitized by reading so much news, or whatever causes those unfeeling moments I have.

But even when that happens, I still have the opinion-and-motivation part of emotion. I believe that what happened is bad. I experience a desire for it not to happen again. I do what I can to help prevent it.

And maybe that’s enough.

Data didn’t have the physical component of feeling. But he was a moral person. If a crewmate died, he didn’t feel a pang in his heart, a tightness in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes. But he still did everything he could to prevent their deaths. His desire to save them wasn’t physical, but it was strong– he prioritized it above other, less important things that he also valued.

So, if you do good things not because you love it, but because you believe you should… if you help others and protect civilization because you believe it’s the right thing to do, even if your heart doesn’t hurt when imagining the alternatives… if you see tragedies on the news and you don’t react by crying or clenching your teeth, but you still donate to charity or call your congressman to fight against those tragedies… then you don’t need to feel ashamed at not feeling the expected emotions. Data was one of the good guys, and you’re at least as good as he was.

The Alien F-Word, and other twists of science-fictional linguistics

(Note: In this post, I mention several alien words from episodes of science fiction programs. The shows in question do not always display these words onscreen in written form. Therefore, I may not have spelled all of them in the way the scriptwriters intended. However, since the aliens who supposedly made up the words did not even use the same alphabet I use, my spellings cannot be said to be “incorrect.” So bear with me.)

The science-fiction show “Farscape” is not one of the most well-known shows out there, but it has one detail that is familiar to a wide circle of sci-fi fans, even those who have not seen any episodes of it.

That is, of course, the curse word “frell.”

In the far corner of the universe where astronaut John Crichton finds himself, this word is used by aliens of all species. “Translator microbes” native to this area make most speech understandable to Crichton, but not certain words. These untranslatables include measures of time, like “arn” and “microt,” and measures of distance, like “metra,” but also swear words, like “frell.”

Which is strange, since “frell” appears to be an exact synonym of the F-word in English. It can be used as an interjection (“Oh, frell!”) and as a verb meaning “to copulate with” (“You frelled her?”). It is used in the phrases “Frell you!” (a generic insult), “We’re frelled” (we’re in big trouble), and “Don’t frell it up” (don’t make a mistake). It acts as an otherwise meaningless expression of anger or shock, in phrases like “What the frell are you doing?” and “That’s frelling stupid.”

I cannot think of a single use of “frell” in all of Farscape where our own F-word could not have been substituted. That already strains my suspension of disbelief– just to suggest that any alien language (let alone all of them!) would have a swear word so close in meaning to ours. But even if they did, then by all logic, the translator microbes should have rendered it as its closest– really, identical– English equivalent.

Of course, to keep Farscape an acceptable TV show, they couldn’t. But they could have found ways around it. They could have made the usage of “frell” so different from the usage of any English curse that the microbes could reasonably consider it untranslatable. They could have had different alien species use different untranslatable curses, which would have made perfect sense, since their words are presumably being translated from different languages.

And for that matter, make different species use different units of measurement, too! The translator microbes offered the terms “arn” and “microt” for whatever alien measures of time were closest to an hour and a second, respectively. It’s possible that these were words they simply left untranslated. But for a unit of time close to a day, they gave the translation “solar day,” which suggested that they were trying to convert the aliens’ statements of time into terms Crichton could understand. For an approximately year-length period, they said “cycle,” which suggests a similar idea.

Unless there was an interplanetary time standard, these measures should have been different from species to species. If aliens, like humans, have one measure of time based on their planet’s rotation and another one based on their planet’s travel around their sun, then those words would indicate different amounts of time depending on the planet and star system. Any translation method with the goal of making this comprehensible to Crichton should have converted these measures into Earth days and Earth years. If it couldn’t do that, then it should have just left them untranslated, giving him different words from each alien species he spoke with, leaving him to ask the aliens for clarification on how much time they meant.

Maybe “arn,” “microt,” and whatever words were translated as “cycle” and “solar day” actually were part of an interplanetary system of time, agreed upon by all the species in this area of the universe. But that seems improbable; Crichton met groups of aliens that had gone many years with little or no contact with the surrounding planets, and they still used those words.

This is the sort of thing that always keeps me from getting fully sucked into any work of sci-fi, no matter how much I love it. Being a language geek has its downsides when it comes to appreciating fiction.

The “universal translator” in Star Trek drove me crazy. Okay, I’ll buy the idea of a machine that can learn to translate languages through exposure to them. It would have to be exposed to a lot of words, in context, along with visual or other physical cues, before it could reliably translate a language. And it wouldn’t be able to translate a word it had never heard before, unless there was significant contextual and etymological evidence to suggest a likely meaning for the word.

But a machine that can voice-over the entire first conversation of your first contact with an alien species, right from the first word? Forget it. It’s like the science-fiction and crime-drama trope of “enhancing” a blurry photograph. You can use technology to gather all manner of information, but not from a place where that information isn’t there to begin with.

It’s been suggested that the universal translator actually reads brain activity to figure out languages. But that presupposes that all, or nearly all, intelligent species in the Star Trek universe have brains similar enough that the same brainwave-reading equipment would work on them. It’s bad enough that they all look similar enough to be played by human actors, but near-identical brain structure as well? No way! Not when they’ve canonically got different internal organs everywhere else. It’s as unrealistic as the Vulcan mind-meld working on every species. As far as I remember, Picard’s Enterprise only encountered two species on whom the translator did not immediately work. That is too high a success rate.

And you may recall that one of those species was met in the episode “Darmok and Jalad.” These aliens communicated only through historical and/or literary references, used as metaphors for all the day-to-day situations they encountered. For example, when they were met with a situation of failure, they said, “Shaka, when the walls fell.” To express the idea of realization, they said “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Picard spends most of the episode trying to figure out what they mean by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The thing is, if a species really did communicate this way, their speech would have to have evolved (devolved?) from a more typical language. If you say “Shaka, when the walls fell” to indicate failure, that quotation must have originated in a time when words like “walls” and “fell” actually had individual meanings of their own.

If words no longer have individual meanings, and exist only as parts of metaphorical phrases, then modern people who speak that language have no way of reading the stories from which the metaphors came. So when they use the reference “Shaka, when the walls fell,” they can’t actually have the image of Shaka’s falling walls in their minds. To them, that series of syllables means nothing but “failure.”

These aliens’ culture has apparently changed until they say “Shaka, when the walls fell” when the thought in their mind is just “I’ve failed” or “We are going to fail.”  So why doesn’t the brainwave-reading universal translator render their words as an expression of the thought they’re actually having?  I mean, English speakers say the word “goodbye,” which is actually a shortened version of the phrase “God be with you,” but most of us don’t know that, and when we say that word, we’re not always thinking about God actually accompanying the person we’re saying it to. I’m pretty sure a universal translator aimed at an English speaker would not give a translation of “God be with you” for every instance of “goodbye.”

I try to spackle the plothole by assuming that this species actually had two languages: an informal language for use at home, with individual word meanings and everything, and a formal language for polite company, composed entirely of metaphors. But it’s still weird that they wouldn’t try using the informal language, when their attempts at talking to Picard in the formal language kept falling flat like Shaka’s walls.

Even in my favorite novels, this language thing can ruin pieces of the story. Charles Sheffield is wildly creative when it comes to making up aliens, but his names for them are inexplicable. A member of a species that communicated only through smell was somehow named Atvar H’sial, a sound-based name that she could obviously neither say nor hear. A team exploring an unfamiliar planet found two heretofore unknown species, which communicated through high-pitched shrieking. Upon learning to communicate with them, the language expert reported that they were called the Coromar and the Maricore. I can only assume the linguist was making that part up, because their language did not contain the sounds necessary to form those names, and there was no other species around to name them.

It’s like Spock and his mind-meld in “The Devil in the Dark.” How could that blobby creature tell him telepathically that it was called a Horta? How could it be called a Horta? Did it have a spoken language with human-pronounceable words, and did it, for some reason, just never attempt using that language with the humans? Did it have a sound-based language that wasn’t human-pronounceable, and was “Horta” just as close as Spock could get to saying its word for its species?

Or was “Horta” a translation of some word in its non-sound-based language– a language based on smells or touches or ground vibrations or electromagnetic waves? That wouldn’t make sense either. How could a non-sound-based message translate into a particular series of meaningless syllables? (My pet theory is that it’s not meaningless: perhaps the creature’s name for itself literally means “garden” or “cultivation” in its language, so Spock translated it into the root of the English word “horticulture.” But that doesn’t make much sense either; why would a subterranean rock-being associate itself with gardens?)

It’s not just the aliens who speak unrealistically in science fiction. Star Trek is set about 200 years from now, but the people use pretty much modern English. (Or rather, English that changes depending on the year of filming. In episodes of The Original Series, I catch the occasional phrase that I suspect is 1960’s slang, like when a minor character in “The Enemy Within” reports to Scotty that he has fallen down, using the words “I took a flop.”)

This is, of course, a flaw of nearly all science fiction. It’s fair to assume that people two centuries from now will be speaking something as different from present-day speech as present-day speech is from what people were speaking two centuries before now. (When I was a kid, I thought the changing of language might stop with the current generation, because we’ve gotten so good at writing things down and documenting what the correct spelling, grammar and usage is. But as I grew up, I realized our technology was speeding the changing of speech more than it was slowing it down. Centuries ago, it took newly coined words a long time to spread. Now, a new word or phrase can span the globe in a matter of days, when a few influential people use it on social media.)

Of course, I can give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt and assume that people in this future really are speaking drastically evolved languages, and it’s just being translated for the benefit of the listener (in the same way I can read a novel set in France and understand that the characters really are speaking French, even if their words show up in English on the pages).

But still, when I’m engrossed in a foreign or futuristic story, the spell can be broken for me by something as minor as a character making a bunch of puns. I have to stretch my suspenders of disbelief to imagine that all the puns work in both modern English and their language! But at least I can try and pretend that the puns they actually used were translated into somewhat similar puns in English for my benefit. It’s worse when a major plot point hinges on a character misunderstanding another’s words in a particular way; then I can’t pretend that it was just a similar thing, I have to accept that the words have that same double meaning in both my language and the characters.’

There is no perfect solution to this. Misunderstandings, and puns as well, are part of life. A story without them wouldn’t be realistic. And you pretty much have to write your dialogue in such a way that readers will understand it. Few audiences are willing to learn a new language, or even a drastically altered version of an old language, just so they can read a story.

Authors just have to do their best, and learn from their mistakes. In “Kea’s Flight,” I had the characters speak pretty much present-day English, suggesting that the natural development of language had been stunted by the control of a totalitarian government. Looking back on it now, I feel that wasn’t quite enough reason for the language to remain as unaltered as it did.

I think I did a better job with “Furnace,” my short story in the anthology “This is How You Die.” In it, I described a future so distant that our descendants have evolved not just linguistically but physically, and their concept of wordplay has been shaped by the heightened abilities of their minds and bodies. They are explicitly stated to be speaking a future language, not English, and their puns are left somewhat to the reader’s imagination:

In the Pnn-kiai language, the sentence she had just spoken was an aural palindrome: recorded and played backward, it would sound the same. Skeeiao had always been a lover of wordplay.

I’m not saying that was a perfect solution either. There are very few works of fiction that have handled this sort of thing in a way that truly impresses me. The “Ender’s Game” series tried to have young characters using an occasional future slang word, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. “1984” came up with the innovative idea of Newspeak, but, for the sake of readability, had to relegate it to the status of a work in progress, a language-in-the-making that nobody actually spoke yet.

For an example of future speech that’s different enough to be believable, but familiar enough to understand, I have to recommend the movie “Demolition Man”: a futuristic vision that’s a comedy on the surface, but has much deeper and more well-thought-out worldbuilding than most viewers realize.

One last reminder: today SpringCon begins!! Head on over!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Just another reminder: this is the month of SpringCon!! Save the date!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Scream Dream

Another reposted old blog post, from December 02, 2006. Apparently I had a lot of weird dreams back then. This one happened around the time I was writing the story “The End,” which is now in my story collection If the World Ended, Would I Notice?

*****

Superman fans, please do not take offense. I have never read a single Superman comic, and my knowledge of him is pretty much the stuff that everybody knows. My subconscious mind, though, seems to want to analyze his psyche, as evidenced in my dream last night. And it did a pretty bizarre job.

So, I had this dream where there was a character named “Screamer” in the Superman comic. She was supposed to be Superman’s girlfriend (in the dream Lois Lane didn’t seem to exist) and she was a superhero whose power was her ability to scream– but I got the impression that her screaming didn’t actually do anything to the bad guys, it just boosted Superman’s power so that he could kick their butts.

And no one ever saw Screamer. Superman talked about her a lot, but he was apparently the only person who ever interacted with her. When he needed her help, he would go someplace where no one could see him, and then people would hear a scream, and he’d come back and say that Screamer had done her job.

In the dream, it seemed that there was a common idea among Superman fans that Screamer wasn’t a separate person of her own, she was in Superman’s head. The idea was that Superman did the screaming himself, and just told everybody it came from his unseen girlfriend. But it wasn’t like she was an imaginary friend, and it wasn’t like she was an alien consciousness trapped inside his head with him… it wasn’t even a split personality thing, either. It was that Superman was in love with a part of his own mind… apparently the part of him that liked to scream, I guess.

And since the rest of the world would find that very odd, Superman personified this part of his mind as a girlfriend that nobody saw.

I do NOT know where this dream came from… except that I’m writing a short story in which a young lady experiences a sort of identity crisis, wondering who or what she truly is… and the Superman character is mentioned a couple of times in passing. And it’s also the time of the month when my brain produces the craziest dreams.

Maybe I should name that part of my mind “Dreamer.” And, like, lock him up somewhere.

Another reminder: 15 more days for the amazing Abby and Norma poster!

Attention, fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma: the exclusive poster sale is halfway over! Become a backer at app.net before they’re all gone!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Review of “The Uncovering,” a fantasy novel by Jes Young

“The Uncovering,” by Jes Young, isn’t a book I would have decided to read on my own. The fantasy genre isn’t first on my list of interests (though I have deeply enjoyed some fantasy novels), and this one was labeled as “romance” as well, which I had come to associate with a writing style that interested me even less.

I encountered the book because I was on the Enchanted Book Tours mailing list, and despite its deviations from my usual fare, something about the synopsis must have caught my eye… I decided to give it a try and post a review.

The story is centered around a young woman named Tabitha who finds out that she is really an elvish princess, destined to take her place as queen in a magical realm and marry an elvish man called Alex. But while her family prepares to put her on the throne, other forces are plotting to kill or capture her.

An enchantment, placed for the purpose of ensuring a happy marriage, causes Tabitha and her betrothed to feel irresistibly attracted to each other, which leads to some quite intense sexual scenes. But the story isn’t just built as an afterthought around the sexy parts, as many romance novels are. It’s a complete story, with fight scenes, snappy dialogue and lots of cleverly worded lines that stuck in my head long after reading them. Like this one, reminiscing on her sister Rivers’ long disappearance years ago:

Rivers left abruptly and without warning, which is, I guess, the crucial part of running away. If you plan it and tell everyone you’re going to do it, that’s just called moving.

Or this moment when she confronts her caretaker and asks him to “break the enchantment”:

“Spells are broken,” he said wearily. “Enchantments are laid and then, like a blanket, they are lifted. In any case we hardly make a habit of shouting about either in front of the staff.”
I didn’t think it was the time for a lesson in vocabulary or manners. Emily Post herself could have appeared to present me with a copy of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and I wouldn’t have cared even one bit.

There is a lot of description of characters’ appearances, from the color and style of their hair to the scarves and shoes they’re wearing, and at times (as a somewhat fashion-unconscious nerd) I found it tiresome. But such visual descriptions did reliably paint a clear picture in my mind, and some scenes felt to me like small but memorable bits of a blockbuster fantasy movie:

After a moment of hesitation I picked up the ornate wooden box and carefully worked open the silver clasp. Inside lay a circlet, a delicate ring of braided platinum vines and flowers and diamonds flashed and sparkled. I touched it tentatively, just with the tip of my finger, and the flowers and vines burst to life, transforming into living roses and ivy and vibrant blue forget-me-nots. Clustered around the diamonds, the living flowers were more beautiful than the platinum imitation could ever hope to be. The flowers disappeared, becoming metal again, when I took my hand away.

This doesn’t go down on my list of all-time favorite fantasy novels, because the plot doesn’t contain quite enough complexity and originality to make a strong impression on me. I had hoped that the main character would do more exciting and ingenious things on her own, instead of just watching events unfold, and a few times barely managing, by not-all-that-creative means, to fight off people who want to attack her. I also hoped I’d get to see her spend some time in her destined fairyland, which, sadly, she doesn’t get to visit before the book ends.

But then, this is only the first book in a series, and Tabitha does pretty well for a beginner who was thrown into the whole mess after a lifetime of thinking she would never have to handle crap like this. And if we don’t get to see the inside of the elf realm she’s destined to rule, that’s all the more reason to read the next book in the series. I’m in no position to condemn that, in any case, since my novel “Kea’s Flight” got criticism in one review for not ending with the ship landing on a planet. The planet is planned for the sequel, folks; I will get to it eventually. And, I’m sure, so will Jes Young.

I count it as a victory that the book managed to rack up more pros than cons for me, despite the annoying perfectionism I can sometimes have. My language obsession messed with the enjoyment in some parts, as it usually does when I’m trying to enjoy fiction. Sometimes I found sentences that contained errors or unclarity, like the second sentence in the paragraph about the crown. (Should the comma be a semicolon, or should “platinum vines and” be replaced with “platinum vines on which”?)

Other times I took issue with the way made-up terms were used, even though a fiction author has every right to use made-up terms however she wishes. (In this book, light elves are called “We of the Light” and dark elves are called “They of the Dark”– even when they’re the object of the sentence. On reading sentences like “You won’t need to hide from They of the Dark,” my pedantry kept screaming out, “From THEM of the Dark! THEM!” I’m glad I don’t know any actual elves, because they would certainly not appreciate my attempts to police their use of their own elvish terminology.)

I really liked many of the descriptions of romance– not just the sex scenes, but the handful of random realistic details about life and love that happened to catch my eye. I may not be one to talk, because my love life has consisted of pretty much just John, but I feel the author paints a believable picture of being torn between an old love and a new one, still having feelings for both.

For a romance novel, this is a surprisingly clever and entertaining book. The dialogue and internal monologues are witty and very alive, and I never had to make any effort to keep turning pages. It may not be a powerful and epic work of literature, but it’s a fun read and I’m pretty sure the sequels will be even better, with the potential I see in this author.

Speaking of destiny, when I started reading this book I had no idea that it had starlings in it! Pleasant surprise there. They’re not normal starlings, they’re magical ones with red eyes and apparent psychic powers, but they’re in the book:

“Well, one of them may have indicated that he wanted me to go outside.”
“He said that?”
“He didn’t say anything, because he was a bird. But he tapped on the window when I asked if he wanted me to come out.”
“That wasn’t a bird, it was a harbinger.”
“A harbinger of what?” I asked. “You better not say doom.”
“Not doom,” George laughed, “change. The starlings means change is coming to you; one part of your life is over and another part is about to begin.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “they’re certainly right about that.”

“The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Here’s an interview with Jes Young! Thanks for joining me on my blog, Jes!

Erika: I’m very entertained by your style of narrative. What fantasy and romance authors have inspired you?
 
Jes: A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about elves. I imagined it as your basic good versus evil, light versus dark, princess in disguise fantasy story with a beautiful heroine, a handsome prince, some unresolved daddy issues, and a quest for revenge. It sounded simple. I sat down and, drawing on everything I learned about writing fantasy fiction by watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I wrote the first draft of The Uncovering. And that’s when I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance. I was in way over my head.
 
As is so often the case, I found the solution to my problem in a book, in many books actually but I feel most indebted to Karen Marie Moning and Kresley Cole. They both do, seemingly effortlessly, what I want to do with my writing. That is create fun, engaging, sexy, moving stories about people you really like and care about.

Erika: As I was reading the story, I found many of the scenes easy to imagine in a movie. I’m sure most of us authors fantasize from time to time about our work being made into a film. If “The Uncovering” were a movie, what actors would you imagine playing the characters?
 
Jes: Would you believe that I have a Pinterest.com board dedicated to this very thing? http://www.pinterest.com/jesyoungwrites/characters/
 

Erika: I once heard someone complain about some elf-related movie because the elves didn’t have pointed ears.  He said pointed ears are the defining feature of an elf, and if the ears are round you can’t call it an elf at all. I can’t say I agree with him, but I’m still surprised when I see elves that don’t have distinguishing features of some kind.  What factors affected your decision to make your elves look physically pretty much identical to humans (instead of having them look “traditionally” elvish and hide their appearance through some enchantment when in the human world)?
 
Jes: I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Tolkien made that whole pointy ears thing up, and that before that the shape of elf’s ear was not an issue. He was a storyteller, and a great one, so that’s absolutely his right. Making stuff up, creating your world and the rules of it and what everyone looks like is a big part of what makes telling this kind of story fun. In my own work, I decided that what set the Elvish apart from the humans was their beauty, their, strength, and their eyes which change colors based on their emotional state. I liked the idea that they could almost blend in – but then not quite. I suppose it was a way of making them my own.
 
In the second book there’s a character, a water witch named Jenny Greenteeth, who’s green and she uses magic to blend in.
 
Erika: This may sound weird, but I love it that you included starlings in the book! I’m a bird-lover, and I have a pet starling that was raised from an abandoned baby. Sure, starlings are an invasive species and a pest in the USA– probably because they’re too smart for their own good– but they just have a charm I can’t resist. What reasons did you have for making starlings the “harbingers of change” in Tabitha’s life?
 

Jes: The starlings are in the book because someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of a starling murmuration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY

I watched the birds flying around together, looping and swirling in a way that seemed random and yet perfectly choreographed, and I thought it was beautiful and a little spooky.
 
When I sat down to write, that image was in my head. With no particular plan for them in my mind, I added them into the story – as atmosphere mostly. The more I wrote about them though, the more important they became until finally they’d taken on a life of their own. In the second book, they’re a major character.

Once more, “The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Abby and Norma Promotional Post!

Is your favorite thing about “Abby and Norma” the vicious deconstruction of neurotypical social norms? Or Abby’s obsessive exploration of legal loopholes and gray areas? Do you love the puns, but feel sad when Abby bashes down her mom’s wistful hopes for grandchildren? Love the mom-bashing, but get annoyed when she debates religion with Chrissy? Love the religious debates, but hate Abby’s badly-drawn doodles? Or do you read “Abby and Norma” solely for Ron and his palindromes?

Well, “Abby and Norma” Mini-Books are the answer for you! They’re short printed collections ranging from 50 to 80 pages, and separated by topic.

Each costs only $5 or less, is printed on 8.5 x 11″ paper with a grayscale interior and a full-color cover, and contains two bonuses (boni?) at the end:

(1). a pencil drawing of one of the characters in a realistic style, with an acrostic,

and

(2). an Abby and Norma Blooper– a screencap of a moment during the copying-and-pasting process when some unintended humor or weirdness existed for a few seconds.

(Like this one, where I had just taken a panel where Abby had two speech bubbles, and flipped the second one to become Norma’s bubble in the next panel, but I had not yet changed the text in them. I’ll leave it to the slash shippers to try and come up with an explanation for how Norma “uses” Abby’s left leg. o_O)

———-

Collect all eleven (if you’re into that) :

The Abby and Norma Antheology
Wherein we make fun of religion.

The Abby and Norma Anthologician
Wherein we mess with logic, reason and everyone’s head.

The Abby and Norma Compilegation
Wherein we deconstruct laws, rules and government.

The Abby and Norma Compundium
Wherein we play with SO MANY WORDS.

The Abby and Norma Cultlection
Wherein we laugh at popular culture, both mainstream and geeky.

The Abby and Norma Festivitreasury
Wherein we survive the holidays, from Halloween to Christmas.

The Abby and Norma Momnibus
Wherein Abby’s mom fails to convince her to pass on the family genes.

The Abby and Norma Palindromicon
Wherein we play with palindromes; semordnilap htiw yalp ew nierehw.

The Abby and Norma Psychosortment
Wherein we explore psychology. Also there’s a doodle gallery!

The Abby and Norma Scianthology
Wherein we play with science! For Science!

The Abby and Norma Sociellany
Wherein Abby makes fun of social customs… how dare she!

Just a reminder: one more month until SpringCon!! Save the date!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Creepy midnight memory

This is another repeat post from my old blog, this time from July 2012. It was weird enough that I thought it was worth sharing. (To me, weird = valuable. Your mileage may vary.)

*****

I’ve been having strange experiences with dreaming lately.

In the spring, when I was a few seasons into watching the Tenth-Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, I had a dream about being his companion. Up until then, I had had a totally asexual appreciation of the show. But somehow that dream triggered something akin to my teenage obsession with Mr Spock– I realized with a sort of blinding flash that David Tennant was sexy (something every other geek girl had noticed long ago) and spent the next few months with a very intense crush on him, much to my husband’s irritation.

Then, recently and perhaps unrelatedly, I had a much stranger and more morbid midnight epiphany.

I woke up to the sound of a thunderstorm, with something in my mind that felt like a memory. As far as I could tell, it had nothing to do with the dream I’d been having, which was sexy and Doctor-Who-related. It was vague, but it felt like a memory from real life, not a piece of a dream.

It seemed to be a memory of a time in my childhood or teens, when I was living at my parents’ house. It was composed of images of me going through boxes that belonged to my parents, and finding a box that had been sent to them or given to them by some acquaintance. I don’t specifically remember a name on the box, or any papers inside it– there’s just a feeling associated with it, a feeling that it came from someone who lived somewhere else, maybe one of our European relatives.

And inside the box were some bones and dried tissues that appeared to be human remains.

I don’t remember what part of the body they appeared to be, or how many pieces there were. I don’t remember what I did with them. But there was another strong feeling associated with the memory– a feeling that I did the wrong thing, that I hid them or buried them or threw them away, without talking to my parents about it. I don’t clearly remember why, but there was a feeling of fear, maybe fear that my parents would get in trouble for having them around. I vaguely remember wrapping them up in several layers of paper and tape, or some other sort of covering, before putting them wherever I put them.

Despite how vague this whole thing was, it stuck with me very strongly for at least a few days after it happened. I was thinking about it at work, for most of the next day.

I still don’t know what it was. It could very easily have been a memory of a dream after all– maybe a scary dream I had as a child, so long ago that the memory of it is no more vague than my memories of reality at that time. It felt real, but I know that under certain circumstances the brain can sometimes get confused between dreams and reality.

If it was real, I suppose there are quite a few possible explanations. It wouldn’t be the only time there were human remains in my parents’ house. They’re doctors; they had a real human skull on a shelf in the living room for much of my childhood. I’m not sure why someone else would send them parts of a dead person, but given their professions and widely varied interests, it could have been anything from a medical sample to an archaeological specimen.

Anyway, I find it a very interesting example of how the brain can work so very differently in the middle of the night. When waking up from a dream, people can get so many inspirations, realizations, and new perspectives on the world, even ones unrelated to the dream itself. It must be something about the state of the brain as it shifts from dreaming to waking– maybe it’s overactive at that moment, in prime condition for dredging things up from the subconscious.

I don’t know if my what I dredged up was a false memory, or a repressed memory of a long-ago dream or reality. But another interesting thing: putting together this blog post has changed the quality of what I remember. As I put it into words, it began to feel less vivid as a real memory, and more as if it could have been a dream.

This is actually something I’ve noticed before: putting my memories into words reduces their clarity as memories. It’s as if my brain realizes that describing a memory in words is a way of compressing it to save space in my brain– not lossless compression, but like resizing a family photo to a lower resolution. Actually, more like replacing the family photo with a text file saying “Christmas party, 2009. Left to right: Grandma Ruth, Aunt Carol, Mom, me.”

My brain realizes that once I’ve summarized a memory in words, I don’t need the visual, sensory and emotional detail of the memory anymore, and so it fades. I’ve hears that the people most likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder are the people who think about their traumatic experiences in pictures instead of words. I’m a strange type of person– someone who does much of her thinking in pictures and abstract concepts, but frequently puts them into words later.