Sunday, March 13, 2016

My rejected Nature (Futures) submission

Something different today - Nature magazine has a science fiction feature, and a while back I tried my hand with a submission. It didn't fly, so I'm putting it here instead.

I'll guarantee it exactly meets the quality you would expect from a first-ever attempt at science fiction writing. It starts after the jump.

Another Mediocre Day
Brian Schmidt

“But there aren’t any amphibians at the bottom of the Pacific.”

Nadal’s protest didn’t stop the show producer. “Oh, it’s not the very bottom, it’s thirteen meters down. And Dr. Schiff will tell you that she knows your research will help us explain her dolphins.”

Schiff got him. She learned that he’d never flown suborbital, and getting a free ride enticed him, despite all its emissions. Schiff also promised drop-in shots of his newts and garter snakes. He determined he would fight for a proper balance in the documentary, knowing they would soon realize that herps are far more interesting than dolphins.

So there he floated, twelve meters below the Australian Pacific surface, uncomfortable still with the bubble-helmet scuba design. He tried to stay in camera range with both Schiff and the drill rig.

Action. “The Mediocrity Principle works as much with your dolphins as with my newts and snakes.”

Schiff floated closer, grey curls filling her helmet. “Here, a dolphin invented the use of marine sponges to dig out fish eighty years ago and passed on the technique to her descendants, and they’re spreading over Shark Bay.”

“But eighty years ago is today in evolutionary terms. So why now?”

“That’s why you’re here.” She turned as the camera tracked a dolphin, one without a sponge, probing ineffectually at the sand. “Dolphins have had large brains for millions of years, they can use tools, and the tool use is helping them survive. What are the odds that sponge use would first happen just recently?”

“The Mediocrity Principle says ‘not likely.’ We’re more likely to be witnessing a normal time for dolphins rather than something unique.”

“So, the dolphins must keep inventing and reinventing this tool use. Nadal, you found a similar cycle with the newts and snakes. What can you show me about them?”

“This.” Please still be alive, he thought, and pulled out a small, see-through case. Inside, a lizard-looking thing, brown on top and vibrant orange on bottom, swam disorientedly in its freshwater case. Amphibians weren’t found on the ocean floor - until today.

“This little guy from California contains enough poison to kill a person, but the tiny garter snakes there can eat it without a problem. Back home in British Columbia, our garter snakes would be poisoned instantly, except the same species of newts in BC aren’t poisonous. The original researchers who discovered this, they created a fantastic dataset of garter snakes winning evolutionary arms races with newts throughout western North America. Their conclusion about it was wrong though. They decided we lived in a special time where the race hadn’t started in BC, the race had been won by snakes in California, and it was in process elsewhere.”

Schiff took the encased newt. “You figured out that this wasn’t the first time it happened. The arms race is a cycle.”

“Newts evolve poison, snakes evolve even faster to resist it. Newts like this one max out at a certain level that the snakes evolve to overcome, but the story isn’t over. From this stage, newts lose their now-useless poison, snakes then lose their now-useless poison resistance, and the cycle restarts.”

He drifted closer to the drill and the exposed core segment they’d set up, then turned to Schiff. “And you figured something similar resets the clock for dolphins and sponges.”

“The cores proved it, halfway. These markers,” she pointed in turn, “show cycles over time of increasing sponge DNA in sediment, stable levels, gradual decrease, then nothing, and then it starts again.”

“So you found your cycle, but not the cause.”

“It took all these years of observing the dolphins, and the sponges, for me to figure out what’s happening.”

Nadal listened to Schiff recording a voiceover for the planned montage: dolphins using sponges; dolphins pulling many sponges from the coral reefs; a dolphin pulling up an isolated sponge; dolphins searching for sponges and not finding them. “Using sponges to help them fish is their technology, but they collapsed the resource. Fishing with sponges works well, but they eventually use them all and wipe them out. The knowledge for using sponges is lost, the sponges come back, and then some smart dolphin reinvents their version of the wheel.”

Nadal still marveled at the story. “It’s like the newts and snakes – not a one-time race but an ecological cycle. We’re seeing just an ordinary, mediocre time.”

“It's fascinating, even if it’s also sad that dolphins’ tool use will never build up to something more sophisticated. It will just go away again.”

That ended the day’s shot, with more work to happen later. The crew removed the drill, noticing only afterwards that a hand-wrench had been left below. They conscientiously planned to retrieve it but they never in fact went back, or even do any more work on the documentary itself. The brewing, global environmental-economic crisis killed their funding that very day.

Instead, back below on the ocean floor, a marine worm crawled past the hand-wrench and into the borehole. Further down, it found a crack in the compressed, muddy sand that let it keep going. Meters further in the silt, after passing through eons of deposition, it wriggled around yet another wrench – or rather, a long-fossilized cast of a wrench.

Going further, the worm started its own cycle.


Hanifin, C.T., Brodie, E.D., Brodie, E.D. (2008). Phenotypic Mismatches Reveal Escape from Arms-Race Coevolution. PLoS Biology, 6(3), e60. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060060

Janet Mann, Brooke L. Sargeant, Jana J. Watson-Capps, Quincy A. Gibson, Michael R. Heithaus, Richard C. Connor, Eric Patterson (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868


David B. Benson said...

That was fun.

Fernando Leanme said...

Not bad. I think it must have been too brainy for the magazine editors, or maybe it lacked enough violence for today's culture? Try having one of the characters murder the other with a machete, toss it in the water, and have a buried machete sitting 10 feet deeper they locate the next day while taking cores.

Russell Seitz said...


Entropic man said...

Nice one. Subtle.☺

Hank Roberts said...

Definitely keep writing.

Thoughts: the second wrench was a bit more of a wrench than I could suspend disbelief to handle.

And I niggled halfway through thinking, hey, not "decrease, then nothing" -- that's not how these cycles work; evolution conserves anything that was ever useful, the information stays around at low levels and so the next time those conditions come 'round there's no need to wait for another favorable mutation -- rather the trait's fitness suddenly improves and those beasts that had the old information suddenly have more grandchildren. But you knew that.

Um, was that a left-hand wrench or a right-hand wrench?

Brian said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'm normally pretty thick-skinned regarding my blog posts and am not disturbed if people disagree, but I was a little nervous putting this one up.

Relevant to Hank's comment - I think this story is truly "hard sci fi" regarding the dolphins and newts, but the second wrench is not at all meant to be realistic, it's more of something to drive the theme of "we're screwing up" home. Maybe Nature didn't like the switch from arguments to be considered realistic to something that's "artistic", at least to the extent I can do art.

I submitted the story to a forum for amateur sci-fi writers and got some good feedback, but I think they mostly missed the hard sci aspect.

Well, it was fun to write. Don't know if I'll do anything else like that.

barry said...

I think it's a good 'skeleton' that would be better as a longer piece. More background on the characters discoveries, maybe dialogue or narrative along the way comparing/contrasting humans and animals, concluding that humans are remarkable in that they have centuries of progress with sub-cycles, but ultimately progressing. The character's need to answer that question needs some weight above mere curiosity, maybe comes from some vital problem/issue needing solving (not necessarily related to the final point). Then the quiet reveal at the end. It needs to be more of a twist, somehow, which requires more investment in the story beforehand.

In its favour, the story got me thinking about how to improve/embellish. If the idea was crap to begin with there would have been no musing on it.

Russell Seitz said...

Cue Dominionists arguing that the Blind Wrenchmaker was right handed, explaining the chiraity of the wrench, DNA , and screwball arguments from entelechy.

Kevin O'Neill said...

I would have used another paragraph earlier to introduce the drill rig and the borehole.

Rather than the wrench left behind, noticed, but unable to retrieve it due to funding - especially cuts that very day - I would have let them lose it and decide it wasn't worth the cost/time to retrieve an inexpensive item.

The 2nd wrench:
"...a marine worm crawled past the hand-wrench and into the borehole. Further down, it found a crack in the compressed, muddy sand that let it keep going. Meters further in the silt, after passing through eons of deposition, it wriggled around yet another wrench – or rather, a long-fossilized cast of a wrench. "

Perhaps might have been dealt with along these lines:
"... a marine worm crawled past the hand-wrench and into the borehole; repeating a journey that several of its ancestors had undertaken in eons past as the fossilized casts of wrenches would attest if anyone knew precisely where to look for them.

Oblivious to this repetition of history, the worm continued deeper into the seabed continuing its own cycle."

coby said...

Nice concept! And appropriate length... if it didn't finish there your audience would then get stuck on how we have not yet discovered any of our predecessor cycles yet.

And here I was waiting for the dolphins to find the wrench, learn how to use it and either dismantle or save civilization! :-)

Hank Roberts said...

Possibly relevant:

Howard said...

Planet of the Monkey Wrench
I thought your story was put together OK, but the unoriginal premise produced an unintentional hackneyed tone.

Russell Seitz said...

It's wrenches all the way down.

Entropic man said...

Science fiction can be fun.I put this drabble on WUWT once.

“Mr. Watts, Mr. Courtney, tallbloke; thank you for your efforts.” gushed the new World President.

“You discredited climate science. Industry prospered; CO2 levels soared. For 20 years global temperatures remained constant.”

“Your wisdom was applauded by all. Oil companies competed to fund you. Right-thinking conservative politicians heaped honours on you.”

“What a shock when temperatures began to rapidly rise and the greenhouse effect ran away!”

“What chagrin to find you were part of a conspiracy that went even higher than you imagined, revealed when your new masters landed.”

“We had to wait until the climate was right.”, said the Mekon.

Canman said...

The previous interglacials were pretty long. I wonder if there could have been a previous metal age that died out?

Entropic man said...


I doubt that there was a previous metal age.

When the Industrial Revolution began, we were mining pristine iron ore deposits 1.8 billion years old.If there had been a previous metal age those deposits would already have been mined and depleted.

Russell Seitz said...

I for one thank our new alien masters for devouring Melkon , and promising not to tell us what to eat, or who to vote for after they enfranchise our I-phones.

David Sanger said...

Clever but I think that evidence of a prior civilization would be easier to find than evidence of a dolphins using sponges cycle.

Brian said...

Entropic man's right - mining activity would preserve really well, so we would've found it. The ancient use of meteorite metal wouldn't be as easy to spot, but that's not exactly a large source, and it couldn't be extensive either or we would've found the tools. Just to repeat myself, the fossil wrench in my story isn't meant to be serious.

More broadly, I think a lot of progress in the last few thousand years has been held back by attempts to keep knowledge secret, particularly for chemistry. A lot of knowledge was lost, or opportunities to innovate were lost because few people had the base knowledge to innovate from. Those civilizations needed some good patent laws.

Hank Roberts said...

xref to my note under the Buckley Rule thread:

I recommend a serious look/signup at

Project Hieroglyph