Cultivating words

Spring is springing, and my thoughts inevitably turn to gardens. I’m not planning on putting one in this year, instead I have assigned the design and creation of a garden to my daughter as a school project. I’ll give her guidance of course. But most of it is going to be up to her.  I’ll give her the information she needs, but the execution of knowledge is more important than simply knowing something. It’s not possible in this era of information overload for her to know everything starting out. She has to learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting course.

It has gotten me thinking, along with having written a garden onto a spaceship in my latest book, about gardening in general. But that’s not what I came here to talk about today. Rather, it’s a comment one of my alpha readers made while I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings and she was reading along.

I wrote a scene with the main character lamenting his limited potable water supply and how he’d have to wait on a long shower until he reached a station or planet. My alpha reader inserted a comment that it would be very simple to turn his shipboard garden into a giant water filter. I replied that “I know that, and you know that, and he doesn’t know that… Yet.”

It’s hard, as an author, to know all the things, but withhold that from the story until the time is right. In this case, my character has access to the information on how to build what he needs, but it’s never occurred to him to do it that way. It will take an outside influence in the form of another character for him to have that forehead slapping d’uh! Moment.

Because life is like that. To create a believable character, you can’t have them knowing everything. We all have those sudden eureka moments as we figure something out, usually something that should have been blindingly obvious to us in the first place. Now, you don’t want your character to be an idiot about it, either. As I said, it’s hard.

Sometimes we just have to figure things out the hard way. For instance, every writer is different. Some need a secluded room in the house, no interruptions, just a blank desk, a pencil, and a piece of paper. That would drive me nuts, and I know it. So when we moved, a few months back, I set up my big desk and main computer in the common household area. I thought the background noise of kids and the dog playing, easy access to the kitchen while I was cooking, that would help me work.

It turned out I was wrong. I’ve done my best, most prolific days at a table in my bedroom, typing on my laptop, with the door firmly closed between me and my family. I can still hear them, but they aren’t tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to play on my computer, and so forth. This does have some serious drawbacks. It means that I can’t hear the oven timer, and the kids can’t access me instantly which makes them pout.

On the other hand, it’s possible the next book will insist on a different layout. But I don’t think so. I just need to get into the groove. I’ve been cultivating words, researching, thinking about character motivation, trying to decide what’s the overall arc of this book, within the series it is set in… Just like a garden, it’s all about the soil. Build up a great soil, full of rich humus and a bit of sand for drainage…

Which brings me back to the gardens on a ship. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a ripe tomato warm from the sun, or the first strawberry of spring, will wonder about the quality of such raised in space, with no sun, and possibly no soil. Does that gardener know what they are missing? They may know in theory that microbes in the soil contribute far more to successfully gardening than we realize, now (but are starting to learn). They might even have the technology to inoculate their soil with a suite of beneficial microbes, fungus, and invertebrates. But just like in the human body, under the right circumstances those benefits can become opportunistic pathogens, and wreak havoc.

Why yes, I am planning a story where gardening gone awry threatens life itself…

36 thoughts on “Cultivating words

  1. The Revolt of the Garden! The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

    Ahem, sorry. Couldn’t help myself. And one of my favorite books is _Plague Ship_ by Andre Norton. Where they had to toss their onboard garden to find and control a pest. One suspects you’ll be a bit more scientific.

      1. Yeah, when we finally get into living in space, it’ll be a balancing game between the microscopic things we need and the microscopic things that kill us. One suspect there’s a lot of overlap, and that amounts and balances are important.

        We take it all for granted, here, but a space station or colony without breathable atmosphere is a lot less robust than a planet with 4 billion years of evolution to work out the kinks.

      2. Nematodes.

        Also mold. The kind they found growing on the -outside- of the Mir space station.

  2. FWIW, I had a friend who was a big proponent of hydroponic gardening. He grew some mighty fine tomatoes that way. It just occurred to me that might be the only way I could grow tomatoes now. A virus is in this area that overwinters in other plants. One bite from an insect, and goodby tomato plant. That raises the problem of pollination, which in a habitat would be a bigger issue than hydroponics or lighting. Maybe a few minutes with a search engine could turn up how it’s done in a green house, Offhand you have tubers that are essentially clones and don’t need pollination, and grasses that are wind pollinated that should do well.

    Hmm . . . compromise tomatoes, grown in a screened-in area outside and in potting soil. You’d have to hand pollinate them, but no virus – and no horn worms.

    1. Tomatoes are self-pollinators, and the gardening guru for the local area has suggested that if you don’t have visible pollinators around your garden, you should take the base of an electric toothbrush and hold it to the stem of the plant early in the morning, and turn it on. The vibration shakes the pollen where it needs to go.

  3. The struggle to maintain stable ecosystems in space environments and different solutions that people find is a background theme in Bruce Sterling’s Schizmatrix.

  4. I have an example of that sort of Duh! Moment. Once upon a time I was living in Platteville, WI. With Platteville, WI water. I won’t claim you could bend a stream of it with a magnet, but hearing the claim wouldn’t seem like all that much exaggeration. I acquired a little filter-jug setup. Pour (slowly, slowly) the available water through the filter to fill the jug, refrigerate.

    But that filling took time. So I figured I’d get another vessel, and a valve, and by careful adjustment rig it so I could fill the feeder and let it go. Maybe even rig a detector to tell me things are full enough so it’s time to close the valve. I set about getting parts, and I still have the as-yet-unused valve. Did you see the solution? Took me too long.

    Fill jug with the ‘feedwater’ and pour into source vessel – now the cutoff is automatic. The feeder is set at a level above the filter-jug, skip the valve and just siphon, using small-diameter tubing to be the flow-limiter. This worked quite well indeed, but it was a real jolt when the realization hit.

    1. My husband is really good for stuff like that. I will call him in, say ‘look at this’ and explain what I need. And then he’ll point out the blindingly obvious solution I couldn’t see. Which is why he’s great at plotting.

  5. Several decades ago I read a 1970s (IIRC) novel about “world is starving, eco-loonies want to end space program, space saves us” novel. Besides introducing me to 1) rabid environmentalists and 2) suicide bombers, one of the most interesting characters was a guy who knew stuff. Everyone wished that he’d settle down and work in their field, because he was so smart that he’d make important contributions. Nope, he wandered around, visiting seminars, talking to people, asking questions in labs. Everyone liked having him around, and his secret was that he saw things from one field and could apply them to other fields. He wasn’t an expert in any one thing, but he had a huge basic knowledge, and saw where pieces from, oh, a brand new materials science discovery, say, could help a physicist, or physician.

    1. I -am- that guy. That’s how I know you’re talking about fiction, because nobody likes having That Guy around. All companies of more than twenty people hate That Guy and will try to eradicate him. Government and the Ivory Tower is worse.

      The problem with Modern Life, IMHO, is that people don’t want solutions to problems. They hold their problem like a life preserver or a holy relic, because they use it to extort money/favors/time/goodies from the company hierarchy.

      Some Guy comes along and solves the problem, there’s whole departments that will try to KILL him.

      Case in point. Hostess Twinkies. This is a modern miracle, my friends.
      I suggest everybody read this Forbes article, it will uplift and disgust you in equal measure.

      Long story short, Hostess Inc. went belly up in 2012. No more Twinkies, No more Ho-hos. Insolvent. No matter how much product they sold, they couldn’t turn a profit. And they sold a -lot- of product. 150 year old company, done.

      This year, after being bought for almost a song, they are on track to make something like a two billion dollar profit. How did they do it? They fired -everybody-, they retooled from the ground up with modern baking robots, and they completely changed the shipping and delivery system.

      That’s the uplifiting part. Twinkies for the win! Yay!

      The disgusting part of course, is generations of That Guy telling the lower, middle and upper management how to do what was finally done, and getting driven out covered in tar and feathers. You -know- the baking robot company tried as hard as they could to revamp those Hostess factories. They must have been hammering on the factory door for forty years. You -know- supply chain and delivery companies tried to sell them a streamlined delivery product.

      Nope. They went BANKRUPT sooner than listen to That Guy. Now he owns them. Justice is served.

      Look at formerly mighty Hewlett Packard. Now vendors of PC crapware that you buy at Wallmart and rip-off printers where the real cost is the toner. My last printer purchase was a Brother. HP can bite me.

      People who solve problems are a pain in the ass. They bring change. Nobody wants to change, they want to keep doing the same thing, day after day.

      You know who they -really- hate though? The guy who thinks outside the box. Everyone pretends they want to hire that guy, but if you are that guy, don’t believe them. Keep your outside-the-box shit to yourself, if you know what’s good for you.

      That would be a pretty good story. The guy who saves the colony ship, and at the end they kill him. Because he took their problem away with an outside-the-box solution that everyone could see was crazy. So they Shirt-stormed him to death.

      Make it about nematodes. Those things are instruments of the infernal.

      Yes, I’m feeling a bit cranky today. 😡

      1. In my inverebrate zoology class, the professor told us on a scientist who claimed that if somehow you could take everything else away, and see only the nematodes, you would still see, faint but clear, and outline of every topographical feature of the earth, because nematodes are everywhere, and are that plentiful. They will come to space with us, whether we like it or not.

        1. “They will come to space with us, whether we like it or not.”

          I think the have to, don’t they? Major part of soil ecology, if my overstuffed brain remembers right.

          I also vaguely recall, now that I think of it, some soil nematode that causes behavioral changes to mammals and/or insects. They make the afflicted animal stupid so it dies and the nematodes get more food, something like that. I’m remembering some old SF story that dealt with it. Probably why I said “nematodes” above.

          Darn brain. ~:) Stuffed full of half remembered crap like that.

      2. You start upsetting all the little fiefdoms in an established business or business unit and the fiefdoms fight back. Same story from the lil mom and pop to the USG (A chunk of the resistance to Trump from govt is ideological, but I’d estimate more from fiefdoms).

        1. This is the thing they’re calling the Deep State. Misidentification. You are 100% right. Its fiefdoms. Half a million chair polishers, each protecting their little patch of turf.

          That’s why the only way to beat them is tax cuts. You can’t dig them out. You need to -starve- them out.

      3. I bought Twinkies recently; paid 30 AUD for two boxes full of happy childhood memories. I never understood why people thought they taste icky. It’s a cake with sweet filling. Tastes different enough from a Cadbury’s cake roll too that they aren’t interchangeable.

        1. $15 for a box of Twinkies? That’s some expensive cake right there.

          I always liked Vachon Loon Moons. All the plastic of a Twinkie, but chocolate cake with less filling inside. Contrary to popular belief, it -is- possible to have not enough cake and too much filling.

          My inner child is having a tantrum right now. ~:D

            1. Everything is suuuper expensive in Canada too. CDN = $0.75 USA. Plus tax, of course. And shipping. And a few other things.

              But do we -make- anything here? Nooo, we import. Genius, right?

              Thanks, liberals!

      4. What killed Hostess was the union. The new owners told the union to take a flying leap. Voila! profit.

        Before demeaning all of HP, i would suggest you ascertain their different divisions, which were run as and now are completely separate businesses. The company making the crapware.. well… they might as well change its name back to Compaq, because that’s where it came from. HP’s workstations are very well designed and built, much better than their competitor’s machines and better integrated than buildign one using components- because in the workstation market, they can have a little more freedom to engineer things.

      1. Use them as a plot device, a la Dave, yesterday?

        “Well, but we needed something that wouldn’t breach the hull to play with!”
        “Tomatoes? You had to throw ALL the tomatoes at each other?”
        “But we didn’t breach the hull! And he started it!”
        (Okay, so was really apples, not tomatoes. And plate glass windows, not hull. Close enough for fiction.)

        1. I played hostess to three boys today, making it a total of four boys aged eleven to twelve in the house. I think that story material galore could come of that… and breaching the hull with a super fast repair so the parents won’t notice is right up there in the realm of believable!

          1. There was a throwaway line in a Larry Niven story (can’t recall which one) about children needing gravity while they are growing up to allow bones to develop properly and so children were raised in those stations that had spin gravity, with the parents working elsewhere and visiting when they could.

            I can imagine a story set in one of those stations where the majority of the inhabitants were children with enough adults to maintain the equipment and teach. If we assume a culture in which children were taught maintenance skills early then such a station could make do with a fairly small number of adults.

            Now, if there were to be a serious accident on such a station, one could write a good techno-thriller with a cast primarily of children.

            1. I’ll actually venture off the books and into Vidya to give another thought for those. Bethesda/Black Isle/Obsidian had some very intriguing histories with their vaults and settlements. Killer plants was one, child settlements another. Over the top of course but definitely interesting from just a story nugget pov.

            2. The James S.A. Corey series called The Expanse definitely deals with the concept of children raised in microgravity having strong physical differences. The Belters (asteroid belt and small moons) are pretty much the bottom tier of the system since they are unable to go to the planets (no gravity technology, only spin or thrust gravity), but they can have children without the severe restrictions on the planetary types. (Earth is extremely crowded and Mars is still at least a century away from being able to escape the domes.)

              I would assume (though it has never been explicitly stated) that Belter children get maintenance skills like any other survival skills. A throwaway anecdote told by a Belter to an Earth native is about how a guy let the filter maintenance slip and when he was spaced, nobody official said a word, because you don’t do that. (The Earth guy didn’t get it…)

            3. He threw that in several times in his Known Space setting. He implied that zero gee pregnancy was just as bad. The station was therefore called Confinement Asteroid (truth in advertising).

  6. One advantage of muddling into the outline with no idea how to end is that you don’t have to suspend your knowledge of how it will end to keep the main character trying false ends and failing.

    I’ve read some truly ghastly stories where all the guesses are right. And there have been some truly wild guesses.

  7. When I read the passage of a garden on a spaceship, my thoughts went to one of my favorite movies, Silent Running. But you’re taking your story in a different direction than that and it sounds intriguing.

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