Pounce! Blog

Stupid science mistakes of fiction

I’m not here to complain that faster than light travel is impossible, or telepathy, or that you can’t go back in time. All those are fun notions to play with and don’t detract from a good story.

I am here to complain about things that needlessly don’t make sense. Things that couldn’t happen because of simple logic, or economics, or the way people are. And science that’s so egregiously wrong that it’s unforgivable.

Dense asteroid belts

An asteroid belt or field or what have you, doesn’t contain so many asteroids that you have to dodge them. You will in fact have trouble finding them. Don’t tell me it’s a big universe and anything could be out there. If asteroids are so thick that they’re likely to bump into each other all the time, they’ll knock each other into different orbits, break up from the impacts, get more and more diffuse until you have something resembling the real kind of asteroid belt.

And no, that doesn’t mean that a “young” asteroid belt would be super dense before it got spread out. What conceivable event could fill a whole stellar orbit with a neat line of tumbling boulders? If something blew up, the pieces went in all directions. If it formed as a belt originally, it took millions of years and was diffuse to begin with.

Just don’t do it. Don’t. There’s no excuse. Find some other challenge for your characters.

Turning a person into a monster by altering DNA

Altering someone’s DNA doesn’t change their physical form once they’re already grown. DNA tells how to build a body, not how to remodel it. And if you could create special DNA to, say, dissolve bones and flesh and recreate them in a different way, it would take years to finish its work, not minutes.

Retrograde technology

If your plot hinges on high-tech societies not having cell phones, or having computers that are more difficult to use than the ones we have now, or information being expensive, you need a new plot.

Any social species needs to communicate easily, to record and locate information. Non-social species don’t develop technology because nobody is smart enough or has time enough to build complex devices from scratch on their own.

Ridiculously poor security

Nobody can break into any computer, or open any electronic lock, or break any encryption in a minute or less. Nobody would buy equipment with such crappy security.

Now, there are levels of security. Yes, your standard combination padlock isn’t hard to open if you know the trick. It’s good enough to secure a locker in a place where someone would be noticed if they stood there fiddling with the lock for two minutes or attacking it with a bolt cutter. But you wouldn’t use it as the only security for your bank vault.

Just so, the notion that you can have a device to fool any electronic lock by, essentially, trying all the combinations, is ludicrous. What designer of electronic locks wouldn’t deal with this eventuality by activating a silent alarm and ignoring all input for a period of time, or other measures to cause difficulties for someone who’s clearly trying to break in?

If you can think of an obvious way to make whatever stunt the attacker is trying to pull impossible, doesn’t it bother you that the security designers didn’t think of it? Aren’t you infuriated when someone has set up an acrobatic obstacle course of lasers and didn’t bother to put a goddamn infrared motion sensor at the end of the hallway?

Come on!

One thing changes

It’s fifty years in the future and the future is just like today, except that there’s this one new invention. This is lazy and boring, and that’s not how it happens. In reality, everything changes all at once. Every new tool is immediately applied and misapplied by those unruly apes, usually for purposes involving entertainment and sex, but definitely for loads of things the designers never intended. People disagree on whether something is a good idea. Technology is never evenly distributed. Thirty thousand other new things are coming out at the same time, and people combine them. They don’t use Amazon buttons to order things from Amazon: they hack them and use them to control electrical outlets in their smart house.

Humanity goes all in

Someone develops a new thing and everyone adopts it, then it turns out to be a disaster and they are all doomed. Doooooomed!!! Usually, it was an evil plot all along.

Really? Name one thing in the history of everything that people have ever unhesitatingly and uncritically adopted. Haven’t pried into, subverted, made up conspiracy theories about, refused to participate in, developed countermeasures to, developed alternate ways to do the same thing.

Failing to understand human nature is worse than failing to get the details of the science right. Nobody much cares whether antigravity is technically possible. They do care if characters behave unrealistically, including not only the protagonists, but the society. If the people behave so much more simply and consistently than real people do, the story seems shallow, lazy. These aren’t real people and we don’t care about them.

The Lizard Shelter

In honor of my recent visit to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City SD, I give you this giant lizard poem.

The Lizard Shelter

Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
Bring only what you need, round up the beasts.
Can’t find the cat; I hope she’ll be okay.

I’m sure that they’ll be here by end of day.
I feel the rumble, see dust in the east
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.

They’ll stop to make our cornfields their buffet.
Our beans and beets and wheat will be their feast.
Where’s the damn cat? I hope she’ll be okay.

In this strong concrete bunker we will stay
The roof supports a hundred tons at least.
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.

There’s lots of water, games that we can play,
There everything we need till we’re released.
Can’t find the kitty? Well, she’ll be okay.

Forgot something? Too late, we’re locked away.
Should our insurance maybe be increased?
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
Can’t find the cat; she’s probably okay.


“The Cowrie” as stand-alone ebook

The Cowrie - coverI don’t like my stuff to go out of print. So when I noticed that an issue of Stupefying Stories that contained one of my stories was no longer available from Amazon.com, I decided that would be a good opportunity to do the self-publishing experiment that I’ve been considering. I didn’t have anything else that would go with it, so I published it in its own very slim digital volume, at minimum price. It’s available from the following sources:

Time travel cookbook

Dear Tyler (writes Dan The Man Williamson III of Duluth MN),

I recently inherited a time machine, and I’d like to use it to indulge my passion for novel gourmet cookery. I have access to a range of now extinct ingredients, but my problem is that I don’t know which things are edible, how to prepare them, or what they combine well with. Can you help? Is there a cookbook?


First, congratulations on obtaining a time machine. They’re worlds of fun and very useful. I don’t know of any time travel cookbooks offhand, and of course we’re talking such a wide range of ingredients that you’d need a whole shelf of books, at least. I’m not a chrononaut myself, but one does pick up some things by eavesdropping at science fiction conventions. So there’s lore, but nobody has codified it. This might be a good project for you to undertake, given your interest in the subject.

The field of intertemporal gourmet cooking is so vast it’s hard to know where to start. There are so many ingredients available in different times and places, and such a tiny percentage have been tried, that it’s a daunting project. I do think it’s time to make a start, though. Anything you come out with will probably be eagerly snapped up by other time-traveling gourmands. So, again, not an expert, but here’s what I’ve heard.

If you’re talking historical times, the ground is already pretty well covered, since you just have to find a book of the traditional cuisine of the region you’re visiting. These abound, so you’ll probably want to concentrate on prehistory.

There are some recipes already being passed around in the time-traveling community, so if you get the word out, people will probably send you some (feel free to comment here, folks!). Also, you might let folks know that you want ingredients to try out. There’s not much of an established market yet for this stuff, which of course is part of what makes it exciting. You’re not going to kill a whole woolly mammoth just for yourself, but if someone’s planning to bring one down you could sign up to buy parts (which is mostly how they finance those expeditions) — but you have to hear about it first. I’ve found people are usually glad to bring things back if you can tell them exactly what you want, preferably with a picture, and they don’t have to go out of their way for it, and it’s not too heavy (if it’s more than 10 kg or so, you might offer to help pay for the electricity to transport it). Keep a list of the times and places you’re interested in, so that when you find out someone’s planned coordinates, you’ll know what to ask them to bring back. Oh, and be prepared to return the favor!

One problem: unless you find a specialist in a particular milieu, it’s hard to get enough information about the local ingredients to assemble a whole meal from what’s available locally, that goes well together. And, many recipes have been refined through centuries of experiment; even if you know the local ingredients well, it takes a genius chef to take a bunch of new flavors and make them work together as anything but a novelty dish.

That’s why, if you have a prehistoric ingredient, it’s much easier to find a pleasing combination of it with modern ingredients. Many existing chicken, duck or pheasant recipes adapt nicely to some of the smaller dinosaurs, for instance. I haven’t had it myself, but I hear Thescelosaurus a l’orange is a treat.

So, I suggest you focus on recipes that mix conventional foodstuffs with just one or two prehistoric ingredients. If you’ve actually done any time traveling you’ve probably heard of some of the better known ones, e.g.:

  • Eoraptor eggs: Some people like the yolk, some find it kind of rank. In either case, the white makes a wonderful stiff meringue.
    Get them as fresh as you can — older than three days, forget it, might as well use chicken eggs.
  • Leptocycas leaves: Flavorful but tough — steam until wilty, serve with pork or eohippus (if you can find some that’s not too gamy).
  • Palaeostachya cones: Boil 30 minutes, discard the outside and eat the soft center, like an artichoke. Slightly sweet. With lemon butter.
  • And the cuts of meat, megatherium flank steaks and so on, which mostly work well in recipes that involve their modern relatives.

Extinct spices are also a good area for culinary exploration. Sap from some old varieties of maple tree (I forget which but someone will know) makes a very nice sugar with tangy-resinous undertones (that might not sound particularly appetizing but you just have to try it). Dried ground Pachytheca has a sharp flavor that goes well with garlic and red meat (perhaps those Megatherium steaks).

I guess the nicest part of working on a book like that is having an excuse to try out all the recipes. Otherwise it’s hard to justify the expense of getting some of the ingredients.

Good luck, and don’t forget to always leave a note telling when and where you’ve gone to! Safety first!


My MarsCon schedule

Friday, March 6:
3:00-3:50 pm. The Curmudgeon Panel. VII White Pelican
5:00-5:50 pm. Marketing Your eBook. Room 419 (Krushenko’s)

Saturday, March 7:
12:00-12:50 p.m. When Robots do Everything, What Will People do? III Eagle’s Nest (Re(a)d Mars)
9:00-9:50 pm. Hero Support: Sidekicks and Minions. III Eagle’s Nest (Re(a)d Mars)

Honeywell gas valve six flashes

A couple of people have written in to ask what to do if the Honeywell gas valve on their home hot water heater starts giving a six-blink signal. Apparently my post on the four-blinks situation has fooled them into thinking I’m some sort of authority on the subject, and they failed to notice my disclaimer that any answers given will be made up on the spot and are unlikely to be of any practical use.
However, since multiple people have asked: from what I’ve been able to find, the meaning of the six-flash signal varies depending on your exact model. Consult the manual that came with your water heater. Generally, unlike the four-flash signal, the six-flash seems likely to indicate an actual problem, such as a failing sensor or a flood of water on the floor. So you might want to get that looked at.
Meanwhile, signals of any number of flashes can be stopped by immersing the circuit board of the gas valve for a few minutes in concentrated sulfuric acid. This is the solution to many of life’s problems, and is a good backup for those 25% or so of situations that can’t be dealt with by high explosives.

The 45 rules for being an asshole, annotated

There’s a list going around of the 45 pieces of advice men wish Dad had told them. While there were a few good pieces of advice on it, many are stupid, some are bewildering, and the piece as a whole seems to deserve serious mockery. Here, then, is my copy with marginalia.

If you have further improvements to suggest, please feel free to comment. Unless you specify otherwise, I might steal your idea and update the graphic. Click to open in its own window.