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Author: John Scott Tynes

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.


The Most Heartfelt Government Document Ever


This place is not a place of honor.

No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

Nothing valued is here.

This place is a message and part of a system of messages.

Pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

Excerpts from Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Sandia National Laboratories report SAND92-1382 / UC-721, p. F-49

Literally unbelievable. This U.S. government website presents the thinking and conclusions behind a project to determine how best to mark a site containing nuclear waste which would persist and remain dangerous for 12,000 years, and therefore needed to be clearly and persistently marked for future generations regardless of circumstance.

It’s fascinating. They start by discussing the physical characteristics of the site itself — how to make it feel unwelcoming from the first moment you encounter it, how to discourage farming or construction on top of it, how to instill dread and foreboding for thousands of years to come. Their solutions involve using persistent earthworks that will retain their emotional characteristics even if someday they are covered in sand.

They move on to markers and communication systems. They cannot rely on the notion that English will persist. They take into account factors like salvage and scavenging. Metal markers are produced curved, so their immediate utility as construction materials, weapons, etc., will be diminished. Signs are protected by walls to diminish the effects of the environment across 12,000 years.

Ingeniously, they developed a hierarchy of important messages to deliver. Not literally, but conceptually:

Level I: Rudimentary Information: “Something man-made is here”

Level II: Cautionary Information: “Something man-made is here and it is dangerous”

Level III: Basic Information: Tells what, why, when, where, who, and how (in terms of information relay, not how the site was constructed)

Level IV: Complex Information: Highly detailed written records, tables, figures, graphs, maps and diagrams

It’s fascinating and well worth reading.

New Horror Fiction: The Black Thylacine

Gods_Memes_and_Monsters_cover_350My new short story, “The Black Thylacine,” is now available in the anthology Gods, Memes, and Monsters: A 21st Century Bestiary. This book has a great line-up of more than sixty authors contributing short pieces about new and different creatures rooted in our contemporary anxieties, threats, and technologies. Editor Heather J. Wood at Stone Skin Press has put together a really fun and unusual book and it’s definitely worth checking out. I’m pleased to see that my Black Thylacine took pole position in the exquisite cover art by Rachel Kahn!

I’d be remiss in not crediting my daughter Vivian for helping to inspire this story. Although he’s not properly named, the protagonist of my story is the British naturalist David Attenborough. He’s my daughter’s hero and she’s watched dozens of nature programs over and over again for years. His work inspired her passion for the natural world and wildlife biology and while she’s only seven, she knows more about wildlife than I do thanks to him. I’m sorry I put him in such unpleasant jeopardy in my story . . .

Stone Skin also published another of my stories, “Footsteps in Limbo,” in their anthology The New Hero, Volume Two, edited by the estimable Robin D. Laws.

Unto the Next Generation

It’s really, really weird to be old enough that my work has gone on to inspire younger authors. I am officially a greybeard, or at least a salt-and-pepperbeard. But happily, these two are particularly good authors.

Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz is a novel about a bureaucromancer who wields his magical powers of paper-shuffling to manufacture a supernatural drug called Flex to save the life of his daughter. The magic in the book is inspired by Unknown Armies, the roleplaying game by myself and Greg Stolze, and Ferrett contacted me prior to publication to ask for a blurb which I gladly supplied. It’s a terrific book, and Ferrett has grafted our magic system onto his own setting and characters, then up-leveled the whole thing ingeniously. I’m thrilled to see some comprar kamagra en españa of the ideas from our game reforged anew by a talented writer like Ferrett. And I’m doubly pleased that his book is published by my old friend Marc Gascoigne at Angry Robot Books. (I will always be in Marc’s debt for a GenCon long ago when he passed me a samizdat audiotape of the soundtracks from Andrey Tarkovsky’s films.)

“Combustion Hour” is a short story by Yoon Ha Lee, published by Tor.com. Yoon is a brilliant writer — seriously, this story is lovely and intricate and thoughtful, and it’s inspired by my storytelling game Puppetland. Of all the outcomes I might have imagined for that game, inspiring a genuinely beautiful and heartbreaking space opera in miniature about interplanetary shadow puppets was definitely at least four or five items down the probability list. Okay, maybe four or five million down. I read Yoon’s story in incredulous awe that something so fine and so lean and so otherworldly could have been spun from my old dross.

The thing about creating worlds is that things live in them. Some of them are yours and some are their own inbred mutant offspring. And some are implants, invasive species brought by intrepid explorers, who plant a flag and leave a footprint. The only proper response is pleasure and gratitude. And a request: read these works and pass them on to the next next generation, too.

The Horrible Mr. Punch from Puppetland

Mr. Punch, sculpted by artist Samuel Araya. Sam is creating several sculptural puppets whom he then photographs and uses in his mixed-media compositions for my new edition of Puppetland.



My Other Other Project: Café Nordo

Besides my day job, family, and creative work, the other big part of my life is being chairman of the board for Café Nordo, a nonprofit theatre company in Seattle that combines storytelling and food in an innovative and very artistic way.

I was a fan of Nordo before I ever got involved with them, but I’ve now spent more than a year leading the board during a very intense and productive period of expansion. We ran a capital fundraising campaign that brought in almost $300,000, enough for us to finally get a permanent home for the company: Nordo’s Culinarium in Pioneer Square.

On April 15th we open our first show in our new home. Don Nordo del Midwest is inspired by Don Quixote but is about an idealistic, itinerant chef traveling through the midwest. There are fights, laughs, assorted revolutions, and nine courses of amazing food.

Seattle’s City Arts magazine just published a great feature about our company and our new home. Please give it a read.

And then buy some tickets!

After Puppetland

I have very little time for writing of any sort other than email. For some months now, what time I have has been devoted to the new edition of my 1995 experimental storytelling game Puppetland, which I successfully Kickstarted last fall with Shane Ivey of Arc Dream Publishing.

The new edition of Puppetland is a big project. I have done a lot of work on the core rulebook, as well as new work driven by stretch goals from the Kickstarter: new locations, characters, scenarios, and more, including a new essay and a storybook. All of which is thrilling, and time-consuming.

There is a farther shore. Beyond Puppetland is my other passion project, a novel called Magonia’s Shadow. I wrote the first draft in the fall of 2013 and it still has a long way to go. But I think about it often and it is the lighthouse I am navigating towards.

Magonia’s Shadow is a science-fantasy YA novel that I have been thinking about and making notes towards for many years. Longtime readers of my website may recall the series of “Dispatches from Magonia” that I wrote in the late 1990s. That was where this project began, in those experiments, and in a book I read at the time about the creator of LA’s amazing Museum of Jurassic Technology.

A lot of water has passed under this bridge. But it is the one I will walk across when Puppetland is done, the one I think about week after week, the one that I hope will define the next stage of my creative life.

And it starts like this:

The Sky Gods trumpeted an hour after dawn. A vast reverberating bass note sounded across the land and the two great figures on the horizon, who stood above everything, even Ascension Mountain, throbbed with life. The note started down deep and welled up, the bodies of the Sky Gods trembling, and then the glory poured from their mouths and began to fill the sky with life. The sun warmed the glory and it expanded, cottony tendrils lifting free of their million pods and turning the falling motion of the glory into a drift, catching zephyrs and following them wherever they went. The glory spread far and wide, absorbed into warm moist loam and unthinkingly consumed by a million creatures and soaking into the rich sweet bodies of water that broke up the undulating landscape in between the sensuous curves of the hills and the stark rocky protrusions of the peaks. The Sky Gods sounded and the glory spread and it was time to wake up, time to get clothes on, time to help Daddy on his last day of life.

Marla was already awake, had been awake, since before the sun. Had maybe not slept. She was not sure. Sleep was a thief of consciousness so quiet you did not know what he stole. She had gone to bed weeping and slept fitfully and now here it was, the call of the Sky Gods, and she had to get up and play her part.

Her mother was already up, feeding Daddy a bowl of strong broth. Daddy was tied to a chair, arms bound, so he could not break off his horns in his sleep.

What I Did in High School


Work on my AD&D campaign, of course. I remember drawing this entire walled city in Advanced Math.



Trench Warfare: Comedy Gold

I’ve been working for Microsoft since March of 2008. A lot of water has passed under that bridge, but an oddball highlight was the time I convinced them to finance a comedy radio serial about trench warfare.

It was all to promote an Xbox LIVE Arcade game called Toy Soldiers. To do the job, I hired the very talented folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, old friends of mine who have produced a number of audio dramas and some excellent short films. We worked on the script together and they produced the serial in three parts. It’s quite silly, and I think it’s still a lot of fun.

My Dad spent his career as a radio announcer so I grew up around a radio station, immersed in the technology and the history of radio. I wrote and produced a number of short radio dramas as a kid using the station’s recording studios, so this project was a natural one for me. We had a great time making it. Did it meaningfully impact the sales of the game? Well, maybe not, but if you aren’t having fun then you’re doing it wrong.

“With some imagination, we could turn war into something everyone could enjoy!”