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Month: September 2015

Grandmother Fish: A child’s first book of evolution

This lovely new picture book for children is a scientifically accurate and utterly charming explanation of natural selection. Specifically, it explains to a very young child how all life on Earth is related.

The author is Jonathan Tweet, a veteran tabletop game designer with a passion for science and education. The artist is Karen Lewis, a brilliant illustrator and animator. Together they have crafted a lovely and inspiring book that gets kids off the couch and acting out the adaptations which distinguish each major leap in the tree of life that leads to you and I.

Jonathan and Karen have been dear friends of mine for many, many years. They raised the funds to do this project through Kickstarter and have just received the printed books. Jenny and I have our copy and the final result is breathtaking. Karen’s art is luminescent and the text is delightful.

Our daughter Vivian immediately read through the book, acting out the action words just as Jonathan intended. Of course she is seven and a half years old and well beyond picture books, but she still loved it. And then she read the pages at the back, intended for grown-ups or older children, which present information about evolution and adaptations in simple language usable for answering a child’s question.

It’s a lovely book, a worthy book, and a heartwarmingly sweet book about science, family, and the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.

You can learn more and order your own copy here!

Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions

Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions coverI have a short story in this new fiction anthology from Arc Dream Publishing edited by Shane Ivey and Adam Scott Glancy. This project began as a stretch goal for a Kickstarter we ran a while back to fund Dennis Detwiller’s short-story collection Delta Green: Tales from Failed Anatomies. We set out to raise just $3,000 to publish the book and ended up raising more than $30,000, which went to fund a whole new anthology of original stories from eighteen authors. This new book, Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions, is now available as an ebook from Amazon, RPGNow, and Apple iBooks.

My short story is called “The Lucky Ones” and it has had quite a journey. I wrote the first draft in 2012 intending to include it as a capstone to my collection Delta Green: Strange Authorities. It features Jill Sanders, the main character of the first story in that collection, “The Corn King,” and I intended it to wrap things up for her and for the collection. But the story proved difficult. I couldn’t crack it for some reason, and in the end I put it on the shelf and published the book without it.

When the Kickstarter for Dennis’s collection came along and the publisher  invited me to contribute a story, I decided to take it up again. I threw out my old draft entirely (originally entitled “Sinecure”), started over from scratch, and this time everything clicked. The result is a story I’m particularly pleased with. It’s inspired by a true-crime story about Fairfield Pond in Connecticut, where I situated the family home of Reginald Fairfield in the world of Delta Green.

But it’s also inspired by my own life. The story is about a woman who has retired from Delta Green and left that entire world behind, but cannot escape her past. When I left Pagan Publishing in 2002, the company I’d founded when I was nineteen years old, I also left Delta Green and roleplaying game design behind. In the years since then I’ve remained a co-owner of the Delta Green IP and reviewed the projects that Arc Dream has published, but I haven’t had the time or the passion to contribute new work until this story. As Michael Corleone complained, Delta Green keeps pulling me back in.

It pulls Jill Sanders back in too, and an old acquaintance or two, with typically grim results. I really love how this story turned out and I’m grateful to plant one last flag on that sad and alien landscape. I hope you enjoy it, too.

 

Zombie Ant Fungus: Latest Research

In 1995 I read a book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler. It introduced me to the amazing Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, about which you can read more here, but also to the world of fungi that turn their hosts into zombies who live only to create more zombies.

There are a surprisingly large number of examples of such fungi. But the general pathology is the same: an insect consumes fungal spores and gradually alters its behavior to make it a better distributor for the next generation of spores, such as by climbing up a tall plant and clinging to the underside of a leaf so that spores fall onto the ground below. Then the insect dies, the fungus keeps growing until it bursts out and generates spores, and the cycle continues.

Ants infected by this fungus sprout horns. The fungus grows until it actually ruptures the carapace, then keeps growing until horns form and those horns in turn release the spores.

It’s a fascinating scenario. I’ve read more about this and related fungi over the years, and used it as the basis for my campaign setting Horns in the Hill for Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk. It’s also the foundation of my young-adult novel Magonia’s Shadow, which I’m currently working on.

So in late 2013 when an actual scientific research project to study a zombie ant fungus showed up on Experiment.com — a sort of Kickstarter for academic science  — I was an enthusiastic backer. Dr. Charissa de Bekker proposed to study the genetics of how the fungus manipulated behavior in carpenter ants.

After a great deal of time and effort, Dr. Bekker and her colleagues have published their findings. You can read their entire paper for free online as well as a shorter summary article written more for non-scientists.

My interest in this work is, of course, from a creative perspective as a writer and game designer. As soon as the paper went online, I combed through it for fascinating and even creepy tidbits about this fungus and its lifecycle.

Here are my favorite bits:

  1. Dr. Bekker found that the fungus manipulates the ant’s internal body clock. All infected ants in the experiment manifested their climbing and biting behaviors at the same time of day, and died at the same time of day, basically acting in unison.
  2. The fungus produces alkaloids that mimic neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Similar alkaloids are produced by the ergot fungus which famously infested rye crops in the middle ages and caused mass hallucinations in humans among other symptoms. Therefore it is conceivable that the fungus induces hallucinations in the ants as well.
  3. The fungus changes its secretions over the course of its infection of the host. When it’s time to send the ant climbing up to its final resting place, the fungus secretes different proteins to trigger the desired behaviors. The specific biting behavior, in which the ant bits into the leaf and holds its jaws shut until death, is nothing like typical ant behaviors. Dr. Bekker found specific enzymes created by the fungus that can manipulate neural pathways known to impact both locomotion and mandible operation. In short, the fungus has evolved an incredibly specific vector of attack on the ant to result in this unusual behavior.
  4. Infected ants stop following the chemical trails laid down by fellow ants and which typically guide their journeys in the forest. Instead they stay closer to their colony, awaiting their fate. They become antisocial.
  5. The fungus generates enterotoxins that kills cells and atrophies muscles. The ant gradually weakens, slows, and dies helplessly, unable to move. After death, the fungus keeps growing out of the corpse in the form of horns emerging from the head.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to support this scientific research. And the results are nothing short of amazing — this fungus is a seriously advanced piece of genetic technology.

I expect to incorporate some of these concepts in my novel Magonia’s Shadow. Speaking of which, here is a relevant excerpt. The book is about a community whose culture and belief system have been shaped by a long-term fungal infestation:

      Marla saw them first. She went to check on her father when he slept late one morning and saw the first little growths emerging from underneath the fresh moss. She carefully removed the poultices and there they were: the red, moist buds and sprouting tendrils crowning through.

      She started, stepping back quickly in horror. Of course she had seen the horns before on older people in the community when their time was coming. But to see them starting to appear on her own father, unmistakable and raw, was shocking.

      There was no turning back.

 

My Xbox Kinect Ballet Videogame Proposal

In 2012 I wrote this proposal for an Xbox Kinect videogame intended for grade-school girls. The project went nowhere but has always remained a personal favorite. If anyone wants to use these ideas, go for it!

I did a lot of work with Kinect at the time. I worked with some very talented dev teams to prototype gameplay and interface concepts for young, pre-literate children. It was a fascinating exploration with some very promising technology. One of the concepts I worked on became Kinect Sesame Street TV. Partnering with the people at Sesame Workshop was a career highlight for me.

This concept, known as Petersburg, was something I would never have thought of before I became a father. I’ve seen a lot of ballet since then and watched my daughter become fascinated with both the dancing and the storytelling of ballet. I saw an opportunity to do a sort of ballet adventure game based on movement, performance, and storytelling. I still think it would be amazing.