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Nog and the Promise of Potential: A Teacher’s Reflection

I’ve been (slowly) re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for the last few months or so and I just got to that episode in season 3 where Nog, son of Rom and nephew to that scoundrel Quark, declares to Commander Sisko that he wants to apply to Starfleet Academy. It was a subplot I had sort-of half forgotten about but then came raging back all at once – Nog’s struggles, his long journey, and his eventual triumph. I just love that subplot. In fact, it might be my favorite Star Trek subplot of all time.

Not the face of sober, dedicated student.

Now that I’m watching it as an adult, this storyline has some extra resonance for me. Besides being an author, my day job is as a college professor – a teacher – and Nog and his quest represent a very important lesson we teachers need to remember. To look at Nog from a distance, the kid is obviously a fuck-up and a lost cause. He gets bad grades in school, he is always goofing off, he gets arrested by Odo on a semi-regular basis, and his uncle Quark is a known criminal and low-life who associates with known criminals and low-lifes. To top it all off, he’s a Ferengi! No culture is more opposed to what the Federation represents – they are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and cowardly. There’s just no way in hell a kid like that has any business wearing a Starfleet uniform.

Sisko knows this. Hell, Nog knows this! Nog knows nobody expects him to amount to anything. His father is a permanent, laughable loser and his culture would never accept him going to Starfleet even assuming he could get in! But you know what this kid does? As soon as he comes of age, he scrounges together what money he has, walks into Sisko’s office (Sisko – the most powerful person on the station by far), shakes his hand, looks him in the eye…

…and offers him a bribe.

Because of course he does! That’s how Ferengi society works! This, to Nog, is what being a man is all about. This is responsible, adult behavior. And Sisko – bless him – realizes this. Everything tells him to show this kid the door – it’s probably a trick, a trap, some kind of prank – but…he hesitates. Sisko does something that makes me love him forever: he gives this kid a chance. He decides to trust him. He gives him a day alone with a cargo bay full of valuable stuff and lets Nog prove himself.

And you know what? Nog earns his trust. He proves he’s the hardest working kid on the station. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants this.

What I take away from all of this – the person I identify with – is Sisko. As a teacher, one is often faced with students who are…well…less than impressive at first glance. They show up late. They sleep in class. They don’t seem to be taking their education seriously. But the thing that I need to remind myself of is that I just don’t know what this kid is actually capable of. I can’t judge them based on superficial characteristics. Yeah, maybe they aren’t much good in my literature classes, but this person could very well become an excellent doctor or nurse or scientist. Hell, they might even have within them to become a wonderful writer or artist. As a teacher, it is part of my job to give them that chance – to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves, no matter what they look like or even how they act. Will I be let down? Sure, sure – happens all the time. But if a kid who’s been goofing off all semester comes up to me and asks if I can help them clean up their resume or give them advice on how to bring up their grades or ask me to recommend books for them to read to improve themselves, I remind myself of Sisko, sitting in Ops, looking at that sack full of latinum from an eager young Ferengi…

And I say yes.

And, like Sisko, I am often pleasantly surprised.

Speaking is Believing (article on The Astounding Analog Companion)

Read my article on the short story in this magazine! It’s free (the article, not the story).

As I’ve mentioned, my short story “Applied Linguistics” is currently for sale as part of the January/February issue of Analog Science Fact and Fiction magazine. As a companion to my story, I wrote a little blog post for the Astounding Analog Companion all about how language influences and even defines our sense of self and purpose. I’m fairly proud of it, and it’s always nice to get the opportunity to wax philosophical about what I’m trying to achieve or explore in any one of my stories. I thank Analog a lot for the opportunity!

Anyway, if you’re interested, go ahead and check it out. I now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.

 

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Actually, just one more thing!

I’m going to be appearing at Boskone this February 15th-17th in my home town, Boston! Me and hundreds of other professional writers, editors, agents, and so on will be converging for what promises to be a great convention! I’ll be posting my full schedule for the event closer to the date, but I’d love to see you there!

Join me at Boskone (February 15-17, 2019) in Boston, MA for New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s going to be a fun weekend filled with discussions of books, art, games, film, music, and more. For more information, visit the Boskone website: http://www.boskone.org/

No Spoilers Are In This Post

Let me start off by posting a few memes I’ve come across in the past 48 hours:

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And..

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Now, I’ve talked about this before, but I feel the need to reiterate. You might think I’m a bad geek for saying this, or insist that I don’t really love Star Wars (which would be utterly false), but let me say this right now:

GET OVER YOURSELVES, YOU RAVING NUTBALLS!

Look, I get it – you don’t want somebody spoiling Star Wars for you. Fine. That’s fair. Spoiling somebody else’s fun is a jerk move. That, however, doesn’t mean you get to tromp around the internet lighting fire to anybody who wants to discuss a movie they just saw and didn’t appropriately warn you beforehand. You’re acting like spoiled children. It’s embarrassing.

I don’t want the movie spoiled for me, either. If some jerk comes along and deliberately spoils the movie in the comments of this post, for example, that makes them a consummate ass and no friend of mine. But accidental spoilers are a different thing entirely. So is having a conversation about an experience other people haven’t had. Even beyond all that, there is the simple fact that it is just a goddamned movie and you should act like a fucking grown-up.

It’s times like this that make me feel like I’m not a geek after all. I mean, hell, I play (and sometimes write) role-playing games, I have a Warhammer 40,000 hobby, I write science fiction and fantasy, I’ve LARPed, gone to movie premieres in costume, I love Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and the rest of it…but I’m not a fanatic. I’m just not. I am not freaking out right now. I’m excited to see The Force Awakens (I see it tomorrow), but I’m not bouncing off the walls, eight-year-old-on-Christmas-Eve excited.

Irrational, blind enthusiasm for things is always, has always been, something that freaks me out. People who paint their chests at football games are basically an alien species. The people who scour every second of movie trailers to reveal the smallest hints at prospective plot points are as bizarre to me as Donald Trump supporters (well, maybe not Trump…how about Cruz supporters? Yeah, that’s still pretty freaking gonzo nuts). I do not get it. I recognize that it’s a central part of our species – fanaticism is as old as ideas themselves – but I am not comfortable with it. I cannot turn off my rational brain and allow the emotional one to take the reins. Not over something like a movie, anyway.

So go forth, enjoy the movie, discuss it with friends. But don’t go burning bridges with Uncle Hank because he accidentally let something slip. Don’t cuss out some teenage cousin because they “ruined” something so insignificant as a Star Wars movie. Yes, I said insignificant. Because it is. I might love it, you might love it, but ultimately it’s just a movie about things that never happened in a place that doesn’t exist. It probably doesn’t even rise to the level of art (and if it did, spoiling it would be impossible, anyway – you can’t spoil” The Great Gatsby or VanGogh’s Starry Night). It should never rise to the level where we would jeopardize our friendships and emotional well-being over it. That’s childish.

I remember once I had a book spoiled for me (accidentally) by a friend. I snapped at her about it. She snapped back. It was then that I realized she was right. It was childish and selfish of me; I had no right to act that way.

Neither do you.


Publicity Notes

  • The Iron Ring is coming off a hell of a run after being selected as Book Bub’s “Fantasy pick of the day” about a week ago. It peaked at #2 overall on Amazon for Fantasy e-books! It is still on sale for 0.99, but probably not for much longer. Act now!
  • My short story, “Adaptation and Predation” has been published by Escape Pod science fiction podcasts. It’s the first time an audio recording of one of my stories has been done, which is pretty damned cool. The story is set in The Union of Stars, so if that world of mine had piqued your interest at all, go and check it out now – it’s free!

 

The Union of Stars: The Aigyth Paradox

And so we come to discuss the Dryth.

army-futuristic-spaceships-1280x1024-wallpaper_www-wallmay-com_30The Solons, and all that they have done and will do, no doubt dominate the minds of every being in the Union. Beings of almost mythical power and unlimited wealth, each independent and unique, each equally as likely to be savior or destroyer.

But today is not the time to discuss the Solons. No doubt you have heard ballads enough of their exploits. No, today we discuss the Aigythi, the Dedicated – the armies of the Solons. Who among us has not borne witness to an Aigyth on patrol? Who has not been confronted by one, armor-clad, face obscured by that eyeless helm, and not quavered at their invisible gaze? But what are they? How can they have come to sacrifice so much of themselves to the service of their Solon?

The answer, like most good answers, is a complicated one. It asks that we look at the very roots of Dryth culture and mythology as well as the technical and practical limitations of the Solons themselves (blasphemy, I know, I know – and yet, if I am to educate, I must occasionally blaspheme). Though the Aigythi are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an offshoot of a much older tradition.

The Dryth homeworld, Odryss, is an inhospitable place. Its arid, radiation soaked surface was slow to give rise to complex life. When we Thraad were inventing mathematics and taming beasts in our First Age, life on Odryss existed only beneath the surface, in the deep caverns of the subterranean oceans. The Dryth, it is thought, are descendants of hardy creatures that journeyed from the warm, dark embrace of the deep oceans to brave the harshness of the deserts. The Dryth evolved slowly, but also steadily. No cataclysms or great plagues hampered their process, no extinction level events diverted their evolutionary path. When we Thraad has risen and fallen twice already, the Dryth grew unimpeded.

For aeons, the Dryth were small in number, as their habitat could not sustain a large population. They were a nomadic species divided into small tribes and constantly warring for sparse resources. By necessity the species was hardy, innovative, and independent. Their oral tradition is rife with tales of individual heroism and courage – clever warriors and powerful shamans, doing battle with the gods and nature for the protection of their people. The Dryth cultural obsession with independence and self-reliance stems from these deep-seeded moments, from a time when their ascendance was very much not guaranteed.

This, then, explains the rise of the Solons well enough: individualistic god-heroes, leaders and self-reliant pioneers, dragging their people along in their wakes. But what of the Aigythi? How does a culture that values independence and individualism so highly support such vast armies of people who are, in essence, enslaved to their Solon’s will?

There is a peculiar paradox among the Dryth. For as much as they style themselves as free and self-sustaining people, their admiration for the Solons – the ideal representations of their cultural desires – leads them to mimicry and imitation. This, ironically, leads them to conformity. In their haste to be “as unique as” their Solon masters, they wind up being but pale representations of them. The culture of the Dryth Houses is dominated by this paradox.

The Aigythi are the prime example of this paradox. Individual Dryth, free to make their own decisions, who willingly give up their minds and bodies to serve the Solon. When the Aigythi puts on the helm, his or her mind is open for the Solon to read. The Solon may draw upon the experiences and knowledge of any Aigythi as if it were their own. The Solon may command and even control any Aigyth body as though it were but another appendage. Naturally, of course, the Solon’s mind is not infinite and cannot control all Aigythi at once, but that is of little import. A talented Solon can lead an army of Aigythi with a level of cooperation and synergy other non-collective species cannot dream of, all while retaining a level of initiative and innovation among its members any collective species would envy. The perfect army led by the perfect warlord.

Now, it does happen that Aigythi retire from service, leave the guidance of their master, or even occasionally betray their Solon. Such, though, are rare. A hundred Aigythi might sacrifice their lives to prevent their Solon injury, even when that Solon would never think twice to abandon them should his strategic aims dictate him to do so. It makes one wonder: at what point does loyalty become madness? At what point does the self become consumed by the group or by the master? The Aigythi armies are, I believe, the most potent example of this paradox, and therefore ought to be studied with care.

But enough blaspheming for one day. Come, let us eat.

A Short Bit on Short Stories

ShortstoryI never intended to write much short fiction in my writer-ly life. I, like a lot of writers out there, set my sights on the big prize – the novel. The thing is, though, that in the time you write one decent novel, you could have written at least a half-dozen short stories. As I journeyed down my long road to professional publication, it occurred to me that writing short fiction was a good way to get your toe into the market, so to speak. It was a good way to hone your craft, get publication credits, and make connections in the industry without having to wait years and years between novel drafts and agent responses and so on.

Short stories, though, aren’t really anything like novels. Well, not really, anyway. Some of the basic writing craft is identical – a good description or a good character in a short story and a novel are more or less the same. The trouble with short stories is, though, that they’re, well, short. What’s more, the shorter they are, but better odds you have of getting them published (as they represent less investment and less risk on the part of the publisher and, furthermore, everybody these days has short attention spans for such things). If you tend to write stories in the upper end of the story world (7500 words), publication opportunities dwindle. God forbid if you’re most comfortable writing short stories in the novelette range (7500 to 14000 words or so), because then you’re looking at a rather short list of markets, especially if you write science fiction and fantasy, as I do.

The difference between a short story and a novel is analogous to the difference between a joke and an anecdote. An anecdote has many ups and downs, several good laughs, several turns of phrase, and so on. A joke has, essentially, one moving part. Maybe two. You don’t edit it from the inside out, you just rewrite the whole damned thing – it’s like building a bicycle frame: there’s not much to it, but every last part of it is important. That’s pretty damned hard, when you come right down to it. I can plot out epic adventures across a couple hundred pages of a novel, but a twenty page short story can stump me like nothing else.

Then, of course, there’s the interesting fact that people just don’t read a whole lot of short fiction, on average. Even in the science fiction world, which has a very healthy short fiction market, sales are low and competition for publications is very, very high. You won’t make a living at this. These days its tough to even make a name for yourself.

So why do it? Well, because short fiction gives you an opportunity to experiment in ways a novel doesn’t. You don’t have to worry about sustaining a new voice through hundreds of pages – just a few dozen. You learn a lot about what you’re capable of as a writer. While I still don’t consider short fiction my first love, I have come to appreciate how much it has done for me, both in my career and in my personal development. Yeah, I’m not exactly sitting on top of the writing world (yet…), but a lot of where I am has come from deciding to buckle down and really take a serious swing at writing the short story. I’ll keep doing it, too, as they let me grow, and growth is essential for any healthy artist (if that’s what I’m calling myself these days, which seems pretentious for a guy writing about robots and wizards).

Now, I think I might have to take a crack at the short-short. That, I fear, brings me down a road that strays so close to poetry I’m might burn myself. Still, if Daily Science Fiction wants it…

Writers of the Future Winner = ME!

Victory is mine!

Victory is mine!

The Writers of the Future Contest has been running now for 30 years. It seeks to publish the best in new science fiction and fantasy writers each year and only those who haven’t yet become full professionals (as defined by the contest) may enter. It is designed to find the new voices in the speculative fiction world and give them a platform off of which to build their career. Its judges include folks like Dave Wolverton, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and other luminaries in the field. Each year, only twelve people win.

This year, I’m one of them.

This is the tenth or eleventh time I’ve entered the contest (each year you can enter four times, once for each quarter; I’ve been entering about twice a year now for five-ish years, maybe more). I’ve racked up one Honorable Mention, two Semi-finalist finishes, one finalist, and now this: Second place in the First Quarter of 2014/Volume 31. This is a huge, huge deal. My story will be published in the anthology next year, they will fly me out to LA for a week long writing workshop with the pros, there will be a party and an awards ceremony and I’ll get to wear a tuxedo and so on. Oh, yeah, and I win some prize money, too.

It still doesn’t quite seem real to me. I keep expecting them to call me back and explain that it was some giant mistake and that, actually, they meant to call the other guy named Auston. I haven’t gotten that call, though. This is the real deal. It’s like winning the American Idol of science fiction writers, except nobody is going to make me sing some crappy song written by a bunch of monkeys with typewriters. Well, at least I don’t think so.

Anyway, come next April, I’ll let you all know.

The Sword and Laser Anthology is Out!

S&;L%20ANTHOLOGY%20coverart%20(1)So, I was just puttering around the various outlets that have work of mine about to be released and lookee here! The Sword and Laser Anthology has just hit Lulu! Extra bonus: it can be purchased in both electronic and good, old fashioned paper! Getting your name in print is one thing, folks, but finding that print upon an actual physical page has just that much more of a visceral kick.

Anywho, check out the anthology. It’s got an introduction from none other than Patrick Rothfuss (which, if you haven’t read the Kingkiller Chronicles yet, you’re missing out) and a vast array of stories from relatively new and fledgling authors just like me. There are twenty stories altogether – ten fantasy stories and ten science fiction stories. It’s lots of fun and I recommend it highly! Yeah, you won’t like every single story (tastes vary, of course) but there’s a huge variety in this book. Thanks ever so much to Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt for putting it together!

Oh, and this is just by the way: my story in here, “Partly Petrified”, is a Tyvian Reldamar/Alandar adventure. So, if you’re at all curious about my fantasy world or my main protagonist, have a look.

The Risk of Success

I’ve been very navel-gazey lately; I apologize. It just so happens that, unlike my usual life, I’ve been experiencing a lot of things pertinent to the theme of this blog, which is my writing career and the speculative fiction world at large. Here is the latest:

I have, for the second time, been nominated a finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

This comes on the heels of a bunch of other bits of good writing news – I’ve got a couple stories out, more coming, the Really Big Deal I Can’t Discuss Yet, and so on. I don’t have any reason to expect to win the contest this time around, but then again, part of me feels like I just might. Things just keep turning up roses for me lately, so why shouldn’t the trend continue? I mean, besides the complete lack of compelling evidence that any such thing as a ‘trend’ exists when we are discussing mostly isolated incidents that are as much decided by idiosyncratic taste and luck as my actual skill. Right.

successAnyway, for the first time in my writing career, I’ve permitted myself to actually ponder the implications of actually becoming what I’ve always intended to become – a professional author. Yeah, sure, I’ve spent long hours daydreaming about movies being made out of my books or what it would be like to have hundreds (or even thousands) of fans clamoring to read my next book, but that stuff is just idle fantasy. I am now thinking about the realistic kind of success – the kind that actually happens to a fair number of people, not the miracles that are JK Rowling or Stephen King (note: no disrespect to them intended, but I’m sure they’d be the first to admit that the dump-trucks full of money their books made was as much due to serendipity as talent).

A couple things I am learning to accept:

 

#1: I am (Probably) Never Going to Be Able to Quit My Day Job

Writing and writers – even reasonably successful ones – do not make tons of money. I mean they can make reasonable money, sure, but not “I wrote a book and now I can retire” money. I’ve got two kids, a mortgage, a car payment and the rest of it; unless I can guarantee myself an annual salary from writing equal to or greater than what I make as a college professor, I’m going to be grading papers for a looong time. Now, granted, this is within the realm of possibility (it isn’t as though they’re paying me an absurd quantity to teach in the first place), but teaching, unlike writing, is a stable and long-term career. My writing is going to have to learn to coexist with it unless it really starts showering me with funds.

 

#2: There Will Be Setbacks as Well as Victories

You don’t just get yourself one book deal and then relax on easy street for the rest of your career. There are going to be significant challenges along the way. Turns in the road, bridges burned, betrayal, and mayhem (well, hopefully not those last two). You’re going to have to learn how to deal with it. This isn’t a race with a finish line – it’s a race to get into another race. You better like running.

 

#3: Don’t Be Afraid of Success

So, say you sell a novel (or several). You are then faced with an actual deadline by which you need to finish the book. Me, I like deadlines – allows me to manage my time better. Still, the prospect of having a drop-dead date for a book is a little intimidating. Without a book deal (or even real interest), your novel can be fiddled with, edited, and reworked as long as you want. Spend fifteen years on the thing if you want – who’s to care? To have that writing model (just me and my computer) removed from the equation is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Despite your trepidations, you’ve got to jump in, anyway. Regret what you have done and not what you haven’t and all that jazz.

 

Anyway, I hope more good news will be coming the way of this blog soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing commentary on whatever in the spec-fic world catches my fancy as well as keep posting information about my fantasy world, Alandar. That last part, of course, is just for funsies. Honest. There’s no other reason to do that…

…obviously.

The Solo Paradigm

Tell me you don't miss him. I dare you.

Tell me you don’t miss him. I dare you.

There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest of it, come what may, because Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are your friends.

It happens again, at least for me, in Willow. There is Mad Martigan, still partially in drag, still loopy from the brownie’s true-love dust, getting screamed at by Willow (again), being charged by Nokmar soldiers…

…and then he gets a sword. Magic happens.

It happens with Indiana Jones running through the South American jungles in Raiders, it happens with Tyrion when he walks out of the Eyrie with a smile on his face, it happens with Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, with Mal Reynolds and Buffy, with Kirk and McCoy – that single, almost unquantifiable thing that happens when you discover that you really do love these people. You could read stories about them forever, or so you think.

Yet, it isn’t really true.

How we fall in love and out of love with characters (or how we never manage to) is the sort of bottled lightning that probably every author seeks to capture. You try to make your characters relatable, flawed, but also idealized and perfect (somehow). You give them senses of humor, you have them complain about stuff just like a regular person, and then, once you’ve tied the audience to them as tightly as a ship to its anchor, you heave those characters overboard and watch the people squirm. When you watch Han let Lando borrow the Falcon to fly in the Battle of Endor, your heart is in your throat. You can scarcely look as the flames burn up around the cockpit as the ship is trying to make it out of the Death Star and then, for that brief fleeting moment that you think Lando is gone, your breathing stops. You’re frozen, almost as in grief for a real person, but before you can figure it out the ship shoots out into space, the music rises, and you’re there cheering.

Then, wierdly, you can find yourself down the road a bit and looking over the latest atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and find you no longer care. They lost you. You couldn’t care less if (Captain) Jack Sparrow is tossed over the side with cannonballs around his ankles ten minutes into the movie. Whatever. He’s just some fictional character now; you don’t know him from Adam.

What is the magic formula, then? How can you whip yourself up a batch of loveable characters and keep them that way? The fact is that the answer isn’t an easily quantifiable one. If it were, movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra or Cutthroat Island, which try so very hard, wouldn’t fail so miserably. If once you made it you kept it by default, I wouldn’t find myself reading A Dance with Dragons and deciding I don’t really care what happens to Tyrion anymore. There’s a kind of storytelling alchemy at work here, a theoretical paradigm we are all trying to achieve, and there seems to be no sure way to pull it off. Like the perfect game or the hole in one, it only happens once a career if you’re lucky.

But we all keep trying, don’t we? We want that moment where the audience cares for our characters as much as we do, but, like any loving parent, it is sometimes so very hard to see the flaws in those you love with all your heart.

The Trouble With Mermaids

Question: Why would they bother with the bikini tops?

Last night I had a conversation with my friends Bobby and Claire regarding mermaids. Claire remarked, “You know what I don’t get? Why do they have belly buttons?”

“It’s an umbilical cord thing.” Bobby offered.

I shook my head and, from there, we launched into a discussion of whether they would be warm or cold-blooded. The above exchange, by the by, is why my friends are awesome. It also is the tip of the iceberg concerning why mermaids are really, really implausible. Even if we were on a different planet with a different environment and followed a different evolutionary path, mermaids, as depicted, wouldn’t make any sense.

First off, let’s start where Bobby and Claire began: the belly button. A navel indicates the attachment point for the umbilical cord. This, furthermore, indicates that mermaid would bear live young, like mammals. Plausible, I suppose, but it puts mermaids in a really peculiar evolutionary category. Fish lay eggs; fish are also cold-blooded (ectothermic). Mammals bear live young; mammals are warm-blooded (endothermic). Mermaids, ostensibly, are some kind of hybrid. So, are they ectothermic creatures who bear live young? If so, why? These things tend to happen for a reason, if indirectly–a species happens upon a particular adaptation that serves them well and, therefore, survives (that’s how evolution works, essentially). Now, ectothermic creatures are comparatively simplistic organisms–they lack (and don’t need) the various complicated systems we endotherms use to regulate our own internal temperature. One of the reasons we mammals bear live young is that it takes a longer period of time for an endothermic embryo to develop to the point where it will survive on its own–you can’t typically leave something like that in an egg and have it work out (the exception, of course, being the ever-bizarre platypus). Cold blood creatures, to my knowledge, exclusively lay eggs. It’s easier and they have no reason to do otherwise. Mermaids would fall into the same category, so then they wouldn’t have belly buttons. They also wouldn’t have breasts, which would instantly make mermaids less interesting to men worldwide.  

Now, if they’re warm blooded, that would change how they look. Endotherms need to maintain their body temperature, and the ocean, you may have noticed, can get pretty damned cold. Endotherms that live in the ocean (seals, whales, dolphins, manatees, etc.) combat this problem with thick layers of blubber or fur. Mermaids, really, should be pretty beefy, chunky folks. The Little Mermaid would have had more in common with Shallow Hal than it would have with Cinderella.

While we’re on the subject of bodies, let’s talk about the arms, shall we? The mermaid arm is built like a human arm (and, yes, I realize that mermaids are really just another incidence of anthropomorphism used for metaphorical or thematic purposes, but that’s not my topic here). The human arm is built so as to assist us in lifting, climbing, striking, and, to a lesser extent, grasping. With the exception of grasping, none of those things are really that essential in a watery environment. Mermen certainly wouldn’t have any cause to develop the muscular torsos so often seen in illustrations, anyway. They’d be better off with tentacles, which are better at grasping than hands, and grasping well is what you’d want. I suppose those arms are handy for pulling yourself along on shore, but mermaids don’t seem to do that often, except to tempt sailors to their doom or some such, and that seems a pretty niche purpose for so complicated an appendage. Stranger stuff has happened in nature, but it raises doubts, right?

I don’t really need to go much further, do I? I mean, why do they wear clothes (or, if they need to, why wouldn’t they wear much more)? Why do they have eyelashes? Why would they wear their hair long? Are they really amphibious and, if so, why? Shouldn’t their eyes be better adapted to see in the dark? Man…the problems go on and on.

If you wanted intelligent creatures of the deep, I humbly submit these guys, whom I cooked up a while ago and have thought about at length since. There’s your merpeople–squids, not hominids. Creepy and slimy and maybe beautiful, with not a seashell bikini top to be found.