mrcreek: silky anteater (pic#265189)
[personal profile] mrcreek
I am writing a sequel to Sequence, called Trail. Apparently my primary use for this DW account will be as a medium for writing and posting short original science fiction stories. Who knew?

I didn't have any aspect of Trail in mind when I wrote Sequence, so it's more like fan fiction of my own story than a planned series. I liked the characters, the theme of using genetics to solve a mystery in a suspenseful adventure, and the blending of two stories from different time periods. It's hard for sequels to be as serious as the original, largely because a greater suspension of disbelief is necessary ("You mean those same people who had all those remarkable things happen to them the first time found themselves in another set of unlikely circumstances?"). So I had a little more fun with this one, and it's more about the characters, action, and animals than about the plot and the mystery.

I want to talk a little about the science and creative process behind Sequence. Since I'm about to start spouting spoilers for Sequence (but not for Trail), I'd better bury the next few paragraphs.

Elements of Sequence had been bouncing around in my head for a while. My research focuses on finding non-random patterns in DNA that can be attributed to natural selection and indicate adaptive differences between genes, as opposed to random patterns generated through genetic drift. I have often thought about what sorts of patterns would not be explainable by natural selection or drift, and how we would account for such patterns if we found them. I am both fascinated and annoyed by the tendency of many people to reject evolution for religious reasons, and I wanted to illustrate what intelligent design would actually look like. I have also always marveled at the parallels between music and genetics.

I tried to keep the science in the story as accurate as possible. NCBI, including GenBank and BLAST, is real and works as described. ERVs are real. Although the virus in the story is fictional and doesn't work exactly like any known virus, it is true that viruses can shuttle DNA between species. The North American prehistoric ecosystem is described as accurately as possible. The mammoth could be one of several species; Columbian, Imperial, Jeffersonian, or Woolly. The other two species are probably the American Camel and Harlan's Ground Sloth. Ground sloth remains, including hair, are often found in caves. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that prehistoric Native Americans used arsenic as a hunting poison, although they are thought to have employed various organic toxins. Orpiment has been used to poison arrows elsewhere in the world and it does occur in the United States. Biological toxins are cool, but I couldn't think of one that would be available in winter and that would remain stable for thousands of years.

The settings are partly drawn from my own life and partly imagined. I deliberately left the exact location unspecified (beyond taking place in the United States), in part to avoid unintentional errors (e.g. the ranges of the prehistoric species, what land would be habitable ten millennia years ago, where orpiment and caves occur, etc.), but I imagine the characters in various places I have visited in the American West. I used to work as a tour guide in a cave and go spelunking, so the cave scenes are based on those memories. I have also tried to recreate the experience of grad school accurately (minus being pursued by government agents, of course). Montour College is fictional. The government agencies mentioned are real but probably do not work at as described. Massah is a fictional group.

Writing this story has helped me to appreciate the trade-offs between scientific accuracy and plot. I often groan at the bad science in books and movies, and I have tried to avoid that problem as much as possible here. It can be difficult to do, though. For example, in reality a series of controlled retroviral infections would probably leave a more complex pattern that nonetheless could be statistically inconsistent with evolutionary models; however, I wanted to keep the pattern accessible and intuitive to readers. I also took some liberties with the arsenic and its properties, as described above. If I were less concerned about scientific plausibility, I could easily have made the story more exciting with a time portal, or megafauna surviving in the cave until the present day, or who knows what else. I do enjoy stories that are a little more fantastical like that, and I might write one here some day, but it didn't feel right for this story.

Like any story, this one inevitably reflects personal and cultural biases. I did my best to remain inoffensive in my depiction of a fictional paleo-American culture. Starlight is a Native American because I wanted the story to take place on the continent with which I am most familiar, not because I believe his behavior is more representative of Paleolithic Native Americans than of Paleolithic peoples elsewhere in the world. Starlight is a male because it is easier for males to directly expose their gonads to pathogens, not because I think only males can hunt or create spiritual rituals. Starlight's tribe would have been pioneers, recently arrived on the continent, and still working to develop a culture that fits for that place. There is a great deal of evidence linking prehistoric peoples to megafaunal extinctions all over the world, but whether they were the primary cause, and what the precise mechanism was, remains unknown. I tried to leave this ambiguous in Sequence, although this will be explored more in Trail. The plot touches on "stonepunk" (analogous to steampunk – that is, using Stone Age technology to accomplish feats, like genetic engineering, usually associated with modern technology), which is inherently anachronistic and therefore an unrealistic portrayal of any actual society of the past. For what it's worth, the ratio of female to male characters will be higher in Trail than it was in Sequence.

Hav's dialogue was the most challenging to write and has the most potential to offend. He mostly uses a mix of English language slang from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with some Caribbean and Canadian thrown in. Hav is not supposed to sound like a resident of any particular nation. I tried to do my research, but I am not from any of these places. Please don't be offended if Hav uses a word in a way that is a little different than the way you would use it. Remember, sometimes these terms mean different things to different people. Hav learned English as a second language, after all, and Hav's quirky personality might include a little linguistic creativity anyway.

I do not advocate violence, be it against humans or other species. I am a vegetarian and I strive to be kind to all sentient beings. The hunting scenes would have been hard for me to write even fifteen years ago, but I have come to appreciate how such scenes can contribute to the action and plot of a story. I thought about ways to make the story work without killing the megafauna (e.g. somehow Starlight tames them and exposes himself to the virus that way), but it all seemed rather hokey and disrespectful of the real paleolithic cultures I was trying to evoke, which almost certainly were focused on hunting. Certainly for Starlight, vegetarianism was not an option.

They mystery is solved at the end, although not with conclusive proof and not without raising additional questions. That is, after all, how science normally works. Trail further explores the origins of the song and the nature of the virus. In Trail, Don and Barbara accompany a mysterious stranger through the Canadian wilderness, following traces of the virus DNA that have been found in the soil. "Meanwhile," in the past, Starlight begins a journey of his own, accompanied by both a human and a megafaunal companion.

Anyway, I should have Trail up soon. I'm really enjoying writing it.
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