Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Learning About Blindness

The topic of blindness has been of interest to me since I was a small child. I credit Little House (Mary Ingalls), a book my mom read to me about Helen Keller (and later her autobiography), and Seeing Fingers (Louis Braille).

When I began Acktorek, I discovered that Carla, one of my key characters, is blind. It isn't a decision I consciously made—these things rarely are—it just simply is. It's not her defining characteristic. I'd define her more by her musicality, imagination, and selflessness. Her blindness is just a characteristic, like Anne Shirley's red hair. Part of what makes Carla Carla.

Once I'd written the first draft, I realized I really needed to learn more about blindness to portray it accurately. (I can't say I do it perfectly, but I do my best.) As a very nearsighted person, I'm not a stranger to visual impairments, but there's a huge difference between looking at a fuzzy world until you put in your contacts and being completely blind since birth.

I first thought of rereading Helen Keller's autobiography, though she was also deaf (and lived a long time ago), but I ended up not doing that. My friend Kendra recommended I read Light a Single Candle by Beverly Butler, the story of a teenage girl losing her sight, based on the author's own experiences. I read it, loved it, and read the sequel as well. I also, through googling different things related to blindness, came across two useful YouTube channels: The Tommy Edison Experience and Molly Burke. Note: I haven't watched all the videos on either channel, so while all the videos I watched were fine, I can't vouch for content.

Watching these videos, I learned how many misconceptions there are about blindness. As a sighted person, it's hard to comprehend life without vision. There are so many things that we interact with visually that it's hard to comprehend how someone can operate without sight. How a blind person can interact with the same things we rely so heavily on visuals to use. But it's actually not that complicated. It's just different.

Like smartphones and other touchscreen devices. They actually have built in features for the visually impaired. Look at your iPhone settings in the "Accessibility" features. The "Voice Over" feature is really cool. It changes the touch screen commands somewhat to accommodate the features and reads out your screen to you. There's also a "Braille" feature, which I'm assuming is for output to a refreshable Braille display, but those are SUPER expensive, so I couldn't try it out. But yes, a blind person can use a smartphone.

Blind people can enjoy movies. Tommy Edison is "the blind film critique." Some movies have descriptive audio but he chooses not to use it, simply to follow the story via the ordinary audio track. And you know, that's not impossible. He talks a lot about how you can hear people's emotions in their voices. Think about it. You really can hear when someone is smiling, or when they're upset.

I checked out some Braille books from the library. One is a picture book (yes, with regular pictures, still trying to understand that one), and the other is a volume of the Bible. I'd intended just to see what a Braille book looked like, but since the picture book has regular printed English as well as Braille text, I've actually been reading the Braille. So now, I can read some Grade 1 Braille. I'm super slow at it, but I know most of the alphabet and I'm starting to recognize punctuation. It's pretty exciting to me. Now, the Bible is a lot harder to read. Largely because it's in Grade 2 Braille. Basically, Grade 1 is just a 1 for 1 conversion. Grade 2 makes use of abbreviations for certain common syllables as well as some vowel omission for space. Grade 3 is essentially shorthand, but an article I found said that Grade 3 isn't standardized, so it isn't used for official publications. Braille books are a lot harder to come by than print books and are more expensive, but I found a website that sells Braille books (including some of my favorites, like Narnia and Ranger's Apprentice) some for as low as $30. Not all that much more than the standard list price for a new hardback book. But of course, the longer books do cost significantly more. And when you live in the days of text to speech and audiobooks for just about everything, you've really got very open access to the literary world, even if you don't have a refreshable Braille display.

The biggest problem with blindness that I've found through my research isn't in the limitations caused by blindness at all. I mean, sure, there are things a blind person can't do, like drive a car, but there are plenty of things I'm incapable of doing even as a sighted person. The bigger problem is in people's attitudes. Molly Burke addresses this in several videos, such as her "questions not to ask a blind person" videos. She'll be out with a friend, and people ask her if the person is her helper. Or they'll be talking to her, discover she's blind, and proceed to direct all further conversation (about her) to whoever she's with. Blind people are still people who live normal lives. Don't assume because someone can't see that they're less of a person. Their lives aren't of less value just because they can't see. They're just different. And different is good. If we were all the same, the world would be an awfully dull place.

There are so many other ways to interact with the world besides sight. My library is using the system's VR system this month, and one of the experiences we have for it is "Notes on Blindness." It uses the journal of a man (I forget his name) on his experiences with blindness as well as sound effects to give you the experience. It was fascinating just how much was identifiable by the sound. It's so easy to tell the difference between high heels and sneakers just from the sound. Yes, if something is silent and not encountering your other senses, it's basically invisible, but you'd be surprised just how much you can learn from your other senses.

Right now, I can hear the clothes rattling around in the dryer, there must be something with a button or a zipper because I can hear the clattering. The washer was spinning, and is now filling with water. The air condition is running and I can feel the gentle wind from the ceiling fan on my face. When I went to work on the laundry, I could feel when I walked from the carpet onto the hardwood floors through my socks. I knew when I stepped on the rug, and when I was on the linoleum of the laundry room floor. There's no particular smell I'm identifying right now, but I can often tell what's been cooking by the smell. I can usually identify which family member is coming down the stairs by the sound of their footsteps. I can make my bed simply by the feel of it.

Close your eyes, walk around your house, see what you can find out about your surroundings without sight. You'll be surprised. Your brain is already taking in all that information, storing, processing it, it just more than likely takes back burner to your visual stimulation. But it's there. Enhancing your world in ways you may not even realize. All of our senses are amazing. And something I love about writing Carla is learning to experience the world in a completely different, but just as fantastic way.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Almost Done

This is another one of those "I intended to write a blog post, but I was too busy editing Acktorek to actually do it" weeks. I'm getting really close to the end of this draft, which means I can give it to my family to read. (And maybe finally have time to make my Anna dress.) So have another snippet.

P.S. You can still sign up to help spread the word about the new editions of Time Captives. Find the form here.

     She first noticed him when he sat down beside her in math class. He was tall, blond, but other than that, she kept her eyes on her math. Until he said her name.
     “Emma, isn’t it?”
     Emma turned her head to see the young man full on, glancing at her math teacher out of the corner of her eye. Mr. Willman was focused on Chloe, her math-challenged classmate. Emma would be outside of his notice—for better or for worse—for a while yet.
     This young man was new to Gondora Heights Private Academy. She’d gone to school with most of her classmates since she was in kindergarten. And she’d never seen this particular young man before in her life. His face was lean, but not angular, his complexion was fair, his features were well proportioned and his blue eyes were steady. His blond hair just fell over the top of his forehead. He appeared to be well-built and muscular, but not overly bulky. He was naturally dressed in the Gondora Heights uniform: a maroon polo shirt with the school logo embroidered on the left and khakis. Yet somehow it looked different on him than on the other students.
     He leaned his right elbow on the table and twirled his pencil through his fingers. Seeming to notice her scrutinizing gaze, he flashed her a bright smile.
     Emma barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes. “How do you know my name?”
     He gestured toward the top of her paper with his pencil. “It’s not that difficult to figure out.”
     Emma moved her arm to shield her paper from his view. Not that there was anything on it to hide, but she still didn’t like him snooping. “You shouldn’t be looking at other people’s papers. It’s wrong to cheat, you know.”
     “I wasn’t cheating. I just wanted to say hello.”
     “Well, you’ve done it.” He was too close to her—not that it took much to be uncomfortably within her bubble. If it wasn’t likely to attract attention, she’d scoot her chair away. But Emma wasn’t one to purposely attract attention.
     “My name is Mitchell Banks. I’m new to Gondora Heights; staying with my aunt.”
     “Good.” Perhaps if she kept to monosyllabic answers, he would let her attend her math.
     “I feel like a bit of an outsider here. Everyone already knows one another.”
     Emma took a deep breath to cleanse the annoyance from her voice before answering. “It’s a close-knit school. Most of us have been here since kindergarten.”
     “See, that’s what I mean. Do you think you could introduce me around?”
     Emma turned to look at him then, not bothering to wipe her annoyance and surprise from her expression. “Why me?” She darted a quick glance at Mr. Willman, still occupied with Chloe, and almost sighed.
     He shrugged, almost imperceptibly. “You’re smart, you seem like a nice girl, and I thought I’d like to get to know you.”
     Emma snorted. “That’s where you’re wrong. I don’t have the reputation of being a nice girl.”
     “Really?” He closer and lowered his voice further. “Because I would guess they would be the ones without the ‘nice girl’ reputation.” He jerked his head towards Ella Grayson and Hayley Joyce, sitting behind her.
     “You’re not wrong,” she had to admit.
     “What is your reputation?” he asked.
     Emma stiffened. “We’re in a math class. We’re supposed to be doing math.” She didn’t even mind the harshness of her tone or the reproachfulness of her words.
     “Oh.” Mitchell leaned back in his chair. “I guess that’s the kind of reputation you’ve got.”

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Word on Technobabble

Technobabble. Good thing? Bad thing? Neutral thing? What is it anyway?

I've been thinking a good bit about this lately because I'm writing a sci-fi. And sci-fi tends to have a lot of technobabble.

Merriam-Webster defines "technobabble" this way: technical jargon. And then goes on to say: Technobabble was formed by combining techno- (meaning "technical or technological") with babble ("continuous meaningless vocal sounds"), and unsurprisingly suggests language which sounds highly technical and is incomprehensible to the listener. Basically, it's technical/sciencey sounding words that in actuality usually mean absolutely nothing.

Should you use technobabble in a sci-fi? I'd say that depends. Are you writing hard science or speculative sci-fi?

People who like hard science fiction (plausible, technical-based sci-fi) aren't going to want flux capacitors or sonic screwdrivers. They're going to want the stuff that could actually happen. But you know what? If you're writing speculative science fiction, who cares if the hard science people think it's stupid? They aren't your audience. You don't need to pander to them.

Let's think about it. Does any Incredible Hulk fan care that in real life an accidental overdose of gamma radiation would have actually killed Bruce Banner, or at the very least, given him cancer?

Does any Doctor Who fan care that "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" means absolutely nothing?

Does any Back to the Future fan care that the flux capacitor has no science whatsoever attached to it?

If anyone does legitimately complain about the science or lack thereof in any of these, my response would be to say that they're watching the wrong movie/show.

Fake Science Rules

That said, the science of your technobabble should make sense. Which sounds like an oxymoron. But what I mean is this: it should have rules and you should follow them 100% of the time.

For instance, we may not know how the flux capacitor works, but we do know some very important things. It requires 1.21 gigawatts of power to work, and you have to be traveling at 88 mph. It may not make a lick of sense in actual science, but that's how time travel works and they stick to it. 

Sonic screwdrivers do all these magical things with sound waves, and it's not super clear how that works. I think you think the number of the setting you're using and then point and push the button. It does pretty much everything you could ever need it to do. But it can't do anything about deadlock seals, and it "doesn't do wood." And they stick with that. Now, in "The Day of the Doctor" they do try to get it to develop a setting for wood, but you don't know if it worked because before they try it, Clara opens the door—which was unlocked the entire time.

There's lightsabers. No one knows all the science of how to make a real lightsaber. (If you do, I want one, and so will billions of other people.) But we do know that you need a kyber crystal to power it, and it was a problem with the flux aperture that caused Tru's lightsaber to short out, causing the death of Darra Thel-Tanis. Still not over that one.

The best time travel I've read was Margaret Peterson Haddix's The Missing series. She developed an intricate system of time travel rules and idiosyncrasies, like tracers that show what would have happened without any time travel interference, and time hollows. No, none of it could ever happen, but sticking with her system of rules made it very believable.

Establish rules and stick with them. That's how you make it make sense.

Make it Sound Real

Sprinkle in real science and real science terms as much as possible. Like how Madeleine L'Engle talked about mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Yes, she invented farandolae, but she made it sound good by using real science and jumping off from there.

Or like Margaret Peterson Haddix using "telomeres" for de-aging in Turnabout. No, lengthening telomeres wouldn't actually de-age you, but the only people who get mad about that are the people who shouldn't be reading that kind of science fiction anyway. (And yes there are reviewers complaining about that. So what, she wrote it when the discovery of telomeres was recent and we know for sure that couldn't happen in real life? It's sci-fi.)

I'm sure there's barely any real science at all on The Flash, but they throw in real things like DNA analysis and satellite monitoring and stuff like that that it makes it sound legit. Plus they use dark matter a lot, and people don't really know a whole lot about dark matter. Did you know particle accelerators are real? I just kinda doubt one exploding would give people super powers. But you know what? I don't care. Any more than I care about the gamma rays.

Own It

I consider this one of the most important parts of sci-fi technobabble. Imagine the Doctor saying, "Maybe we should, um...reverse the polarity of...the neutron flow?" Would anyone buy it? Maybe a three-year-old. But when he says it like he means it, you don't question.

If you don't believe it, your readers/viewers won't either. If you say it like you mean it, they're more likely to suspend disbelief.

Make it About the Characters

Technobabble/fake science is a plot device. People want good characters and good stories. We go to speculative sci-fi because we want imaginative stories about people we can care about, not because we want infodumps on imaginary science. Don't overload us. Because honestly, the reason people suspend disbelief on all the way-out-the-window science on Doctor Who is because they love the Doctor. They suspend disbelief on radioactive spider bites because they love Peter Parker. People suspend disbelief on flux capacitors because they love Marty and Doc. It's all about the story. The characters. Creating something that stretches the imagination, and still gives us something relatable. (Like The Incredibles. World's most relatable family.)

So go ahead and use technobabble in your speculative sci-fi. Don't use it for deus ex machina, because people will get mad about that, but you're writing to please the people who love the Avengers and Marty McFly. And those people will buy just about any fake science if they love the story and characters enough.

I know, because I'm one of them.

Speaking of, Endgame was amazing! I love it so much.