The Mad Scientist in The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1843)

Science Fiction LitWhen I was in college, I was fortunate enough to have a Science Fiction Literature class taught by a great teacher using a great textbook: Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. This book is a chronological look at science fiction through the years with stories published from the 1840s to the 1980s.

The book started out with an old Nathaniel Hawthorn short story called The Birthmark, which may be one of the first mad scientist stories. The narrator of the story doesn’t explicitly call Aylmer, the scientist of the story, a “mad scientist,” but the profile fits quite well upon examination.

The first paragraph calls Aylmer a “man of science” and tells us that he left that life behind and “persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife.” But after marrying her, he becomes obsessed with the birthmark on her cheek in the shape of a tiny hand. She is offended when he suggest the possibility of having he birthmark removed from her face, hurting her deeply. She thought it a charm because it was often thought beautiful by other suitors.

Alymer discovers that he does not think it a charm, but rather a flaw in her beautiful face, which becomes a “symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” The man of science is suddenly faced with a dilemma, as he believes he can fix the flaw, but at the cost of putting science above his love for his new wife.

We find, though, that Alymer was delving into fringe science in his earlier days when he takes his wife back to his old laboratory to perform the experiment on her birthmark. As he prepares, he shows his wife his old experiments, which blossom into wonder, but soon fade to ruin before her eyes.

the-birthmark-scope-cover

With one shudder as he glanced upon the birthmark, though, her own desire to be rid of it was cemented in her mind. She could not bear to see him shudder at her again. She now hated the birthmark more than him. At this point, she finds Aylmer’s journals and discovers that all of his experiments have been failures in his own eyes because of the grandiose vision of perfection. For some reason, with this insight into his motives, she fall more in love with him. His experiments have indeed pushed forward the scientific discoveries, but have been failures none the less.

Even though I am basically spoiling the whole story, I suggest anyone interested in “mad science” as a literary device should read this story, which can be found online for free. This is the madness and the great part of this story. The Birthmark is a great look at the mad scientist persona through a love story instead of a monster story. I use the term “love” but Alymer doesn’t love his wife.

He uses the birthmark as an excuse to return to his old ways—his old “mad science” ways. He’s messing with things that only “God” should have power over. Heck, the dude even has his own Igor—a hairy assistant of low stature, though that trope may have come from this work. He assumes that if he can rid her of the birthmark then she will be perfect and lovable again.

The funny thing about flaws, though, is that once the largest goes away, the next largest becomes brightly apparent. That is my own interjection, though, because the story doesn’t get to the point where it would explore that scenario.

Both Alymer and his wife know the most likely outcome of his experiments is her own death. He is willing to go through with it because he is mad—mad meaning that he can’t see his own flaws, his own faults, his own ability to change, and his own megalomania in trying to fix his beautiful wife. She is willing because she can’t live in a world where her husband could shudder when looking at her face.

Alymer is successful at removing the birthmark at the cost of her life. The story ends there and we don’t see his reaction to his wife’s death or the impact that has on his own science career. I wish Hawthorn had continued the story. Does Alymer continue with his secret science or does he again reject that part of himself? At some point, villagers are showing up with pitchforks though.

 

Science and Magic are two sides of the same coin

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After some contemplation about magic systems, I’ve decided on a new philosophy on writing. This is for me only and not a “writing rule”.

  1. In fantasy, I’m going to treat my magic systems like a science.
  2. In science fiction, I’m going to treat my “Pushed” science like magic.

Magic

Magic in fiction can create a sense of wonder and be a tool for the characters. Also, it has the potential to create Deus ex Machina ending, or make the resolution to the conflict be a wave of a magic wand. In order to avoid this issue, writers can spell out the “rules” of the magic. The reader should understand what is possible and what the characters know about the magic. Rules, guidelines, laws are all words associated with science. In a world with magic, that magic would and should be studied by someone at some point, though not necessarily as part of the story you are telling. Often the POV character is learning the rules of the magic as she goes through the story.

The best example on magic as science and magic as say “religion” is the Lord of the Rings. Gandolf has an endlessly unknown and powerful magic that he uses as needed to get out of the situations they are in. His is a religious character and often acts as a savior character. No one could tell you how his magic works. The One ring on the other hand (`snicker`) does work like a science. It was constructed. It always works in the same way. It has rules: can only be destroyed in one place, corrupts, turns the wearer invisible. It is a constant.

The_one_ring

Within this framework, you can still have surprises. Someone can figure out new ways to use magic, but they still have to follow the rules. Foreshadowing goes hand in hand with this. You are building up to something awesome, but if you don’t put the pieces in first, the resolutions is going to feel cheap.

So, in my fantasy writing, my goal is to treat the magic scientifically. I’m going to invent rule,s and the characters must use the magic within the set of rules.

Science fiction

Sciences fiction works a little differently, and this whole point depends on how much science knowledge you have and how much of that you want to build into the story. Personally, I don’t have science education past high school chemistry. So, in my science fiction stories, I don’t dwell on or explain the science in the story. I’m only talking about the parts of the story that are different from our current reality. Faster than light (FTL) travel is a good example. Me trying to explain the science of FTL is going to sound amateurish no matter how much research I put into it.

Unless the story is about the scientific effects of FTL, what I choose to do is present FTL as a thing that exists and no one in the story universe questions how. It just works. Kind of like magic. It just works. No one ages differently. Reality isn’t bent. There are no consequences. No side effects. (Unless those are a part of the story you want to tell). Likely, I will never write a story where the effects of FTL are central to the story because I don’t want to try to get the science right.

hyperspace

You could argue that if I don’t delve into the science than the story isn’t really science fiction. That type of story is only a part of the science fiction umbrella. Some call it Hard SF, or at least the more a story focuses on the science, the harder the SF. That one thing that is different has many consequences on how we as humans would think, speak, behave, interact, and react to the world. These human experiences do not depend on an explanation of the science. Those human experiences are what I like to explore in my science fiction. How it works is just magic.

My winning poem from 1999 at Weber State University

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These days, I don’t write much poetry, but back in college, I was rather enamored with the idea of being a poet. I actually won Weber State University’s poetry contest in 1999. I have a great story about how this poem came about, but first the poem:

 

Fluids gone sour…Ripe for the Thirsty

And as Anne said, she drank—a lot—because
that’s what writes do. I cannot write like
  Hemmingway.
Do I have to look the part—drink the part?
My paper is wet. Smells funny. Some odd
  White-out replacement
smeared ink into design, squinted into place
through likeness to great ones and I am
  small.
I walk with a small notebook because dead
people did it, and they are worthy of
  being replicated
as if I cannot be me and a writer. Damn Emerson
for his way. I have conformity enough.

 

Yeah, that poem beat out some great poets of my time at school, including Abel Keogh and Emily Peterson Whitby, who were and still are talented writers.

This poem was lifted from my writing journal almost verbatim. I still have the journal somewhere around here, but I’m not going digging for it. I was in a journal writing class and as a part of the class we were required to journal meticulously. We studied writers who journaled, including the hows. The Anne in the poem was Anne Lamott from Bird by Bird, which I had just finished. I was feeling conflicted. Did I have to become someone else to be successful as a writer? My beliefs made some of that conformity difficult and I wasn’t really interested in the “hard living” method of generating art. I guess I was rebelling from the notion that I had to be a certain way or live a certain way.

That discovered poem I lifted from my journal/poetic rambling won the poetry contest that year.

Report from Life the Universe and Everything Symposium 2016

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I just got back from the Life the Universe and Everything Symposium held in Provo Utah. They brought in some fantastic authors and artist who presented great content at the various panels over the three day conference. I think the highlight for me was Shannon Hales’ keynote address about gender inequality, especially on how we unknowingly under-represent girls and artificially limit what we allow boys to experience. All her points also apply to race, even more so. It was thought provoking for sure.

I have always been drawn to the female protagonist in stories, and one of my favorite when I was a kid was Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I also loved The Blue Sword and Outlaws of Sherwood. To the credit of my parents and older brother, I didn’t know that it wasn’t cool for boys to read women authors or read stories about girls. I’m grateful that I read so many. Two of my favorite books are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. Still, I was the boy who played with his G.I. Joes and He-man figures, though I would act out long-drawn out stories with my Joes, including the female Joes. I professed to hating girl (though I really didn’t) for most of my childhood.

Brandon Sanderson was great in all of his panels I attended. He is definitely in his element at these cons. Great guy. I attended koffeeklatches, which are sit down sessions with authors in a small group, with both Dan Wells and Howard Taylor (both of Writing Excuses podcast fame). Both were great. Dan Wells is a board game enthusiast, and the only big time author I approached. I told him that his podcast was a big motivator in starting my own podcast and gave him a Meeple Nation business card.

The Writing Excuses Podcast Panel at LTUE
The Writing Excuses Podcast Panel at LTUE

Speaking of Writing Excuses. I attended the live recordings of the podcast, which was awesome. They did a great job and anyone who listens are in for 6 good episodes whenever they come out. I wish I had a chance to listen to Mary Robinette Kowal in more panels. She is amazing.

I paid for a pitch session with an agent, and the experience was kind of weird and sort of helpful. I chose to be a part of a group session with 4 other hopeful writers. Our agent was running late and gave us our ten minutes, but was quickly scanning our paper content for errors. She did give us a bit of good advice and gave me two nice comments on my phrasing in my opening page. Still, she didn’t comment on the overall pitch and worth of the story. It didn’t feel like she had any intention of actually considering our stuff. I guess it was worth the $20 bucks for the experience.

I have more to write, but I’ll save it for another post.

I’m attending LTUE in February!

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This year I’m make a concerted effort to begin my writing career. I plan to get my writing published with a plan to keep publishing. In order to do that, I’m going to attend the Life the Universe and Everything Symposium (ltue.net). In addition to panels on writing and the business of writing, I’ll be able to mingle with agents and other professional writers for 3 days. Another feature of LTUE is that several writing agencies will be holding pitch sessions, and I plan to pitch my YA novel, my MG novel, and my epic fantasy novel.

I followed all of the agents on Twitter and will be following any tweets for the foreseeable future. I’m also going to make a greater effort to tweet more. Follow me at @RyanPDecaria to keep up with my micro musings. Also, I’m going to post regularly on my blog, so check back here often. Time to make it happen.

 

UPDATE: I’m all registered for the conference and have sent in my request for a pitch session.

Let 2016 begin!

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2015 was another mundane year for me. My new purchases were a water heater and a furnace, and a slew of medical bills for my family. My highlights are starting this website and continuing my podcast, Meeple Nation, past the year mark. I invest a ton of time into my family, but I also tend to waste time doing things that aren’t going to get me where I want to go. So, for 2016, I’m going to do things a little differently. This year, I’m going to invest in myself.
My entry into my work's crazy hat contest for the Holiday Party.
My entry into my work’s crazy hat contest for the Holiday Party.
This year I’m going to get my writing published in some form one way or the other.
  • Start a comic book. I even have the first 6 scripts written. I need to find an artist to partner with, or I need to find some capital to invest in the art.
  • Enter a screenplay into the Nicohls fellowship contest. I have a draft of the script. I need to make it the best I can in the next few months. The early deadline is March 2.
  • Enter the Writers of the Future Contest every quarter until I win it. That is 4 short stories a year. The next deadline is March 31. I already have a draft of the story I will submit.
  • Attend as many writing conferences as I can fit into my schedule. This first will be Life the Universe and Everything Symposium in February.
  • Send out 5 queries and/or submissions every week.
  • Write every day, including updating this website regularly.
  • Make it happen!
So far, I’m off to a great start. I entered a short story into the 1st quarter of the Writer’s of the Future contest on Dec 31. The story is about a pop starlet who wakes up from cryosleep 300 years after the fall of civilization to find the last boy on earth and his unstable mother. I like how it turned out.
So this year, I’m going to do more, do it better, and enjoy the process. New Year–New rules.
My new life rules for 2016:
  • Invest in myself.
  • Write as much as I can.
  • Put my writing out into the world.
  • Enjoy the process

My Project Backlog

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I have a large backlog of stories, projects and ideas that I am going to complete soon. These are mostly recent projects that I’ve been working on the last two years, projects I believe are worth publishing and worth other people’s time and money to read. I am seeking representation and publication. I am going to take one project and self publish it, though, to get it out there and try that avenue. So, to get it out there, and as a promise to whoever reads my blog, these are the works you’re going to see soon.

Novels

  1. I’m currently polishing a young adult novel about a modern-day science fair girl who discovers her estranged father is very much a mad scientist, the CEO of a laboratory of mad scientist. Instead of some Daddy-daughter time, she is force to attend the local high school, and she quickly discovers the parents have been experimenting on their children. She finds her life threatened, but uses her science and wit to escape all but her father’s malicious plans.I am going to try to publish this novel through traditional means.
  2. BethyMy second novel is a Middle Grade fiction that I co-developed with my blind daughter (8-years-old at the time). Her favorite stories were the Capital Mysteries and Cinderella, so we mashed the two together. Cindy is a blind girl whose father marries the President of the United States. She moves into the White House and struggles to find her place. Soon her father dies and her stepmother becomes very wicked toward Cindy, forcing her to do chores, hoping to get Cindy to find a new home. Cindy accidentally overhears things she should not, and her life is now in danger. With the help of a young Secret Service agent, Cindy becomes a spy in the White House, hoping to stay ahead of her step mother’s plans to get rid of her.I’m planning to self publish this story. I think it has an audience that will enjoy this very much. I think the actions and behaviors of my protagonist reflect a blind girl her age. I am modeling how being blind affects her after my own daughter.
  3. I am in the rewriting stage of my high fantasy novel, currently at 56,000 words. I need to expand several scenes and finish the side plots of a few characters so I expect it will end up around 90,000 words when I’m finished. This world has a unique magic system and I love the characters. It needs a lot of work, but will be my project after I get the 1 and 2 out the door.

Comic Books

I love comic books, and I grew up reading whatever books I could get my hands on. I have several projects in mind, and have writing scripts. I need to find an artist to collaborate with on these projects. I don’t have the funds to invest in the artwork, so the collaboration would be on spec. If you are interested, please email me at ryan@madsciencefiction.com and provide some samples.

  1. I have the first 6 scripts written for a comic book about aging a group of rugged Vietnam vets who escourt a winged princess back to her world through a portal deep in the Vietnam jungle to regain her thrown.
  2. I have a script for a one shot about a British princess who, after insisting on joining the military, becomes trapped behind enemy lines.
  3. I have another script for another one shot about a women who, after losing her leg in Afghanistan, goes to a water park with her friends, exposing her scars to the world. They find the park swarming with secret service agents protecting the President’s daughter, who is in attendance. The woman quickly discovers a plot by the agent’s to kidnap the daughter and jumps into action to save her.

Screenplays

I am also polishing a full-length screenplay, which I hope to enter into a contest soon. This story is my ode to the movie Real Genius, which is one of my favorite movies.

Short Stories

I also have a few dozen short stories that I am planning to finish or turn into something larger.

  1. I want to enter a story about a girl who wakes up in a bio dome 300 years after her death to find that she is part of a project to save humanity. The only other people alive are a young boy and his sanity-challenged mother. To keep the project going, she must get stay alive long enough to get pregnant.
  2. I am going to put up a few of my older short stories on this website for free. Look for them soon.

Let the MAD SCIENCES begin!

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Hello. I’m Ryan and I write fiction. I’ve been writing fiction most of my life, though I don’t have any publications to show for it yet, largely because I’ve been working a day job and raising a family. My day job is technical writing, which is sort of like writing fiction, but instead of writing interesting things like characters and plot, I write about resin and bushings and software. My family includes a wife and three children. One of my children is blind, which has brought many challenges, but has also brought our family many opportunities.

Still, I have been writing and not publishing. In the past, I would write something and then when it was almost finished, I would move on to the next thing. This was likely because of fear of rejection or whatevers. Well no more! I’ve decided to follow in the footsteps of the great Dr. Frankenstein and take the silent death of all the characters in my fiction and create for them the life they deserve, published and out into the wide world.

ItsAlive

Basically, I’m going to mad science the shit out of my writing!