Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Like many, my first introduction to Altered Carbon was through the Netflix adaptation.

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels Book 1) by [Richard K. Morgan]

We’re all used to the adaptation being worse than the book, but aside from Eragon and Wanted I can’t think of a worse movie adaptation than Netflix’s adaptation of Altered Carbon.

The Altered Carbon of Richard K. Morgan’s imagination shows an amazing cyberpunk world where some of the secrets of the universe were unlocked by alien ruins on Mars. Where minds are cheaper to transport than bodies and the military trains psychopaths to inhabit premade bodies on remote worlds to brutally suppress insurrections. Where those same psychopaths have to come to grips with what they have done once they reenter the civilian world.

The adaptation did none of this. It combined huge chunks of Takeshi Kovac’s backstory into just a few bullet points. It took a soul tortured by his experiences as a cog in the machine and turned him into a lackluster failed freedom fighter. Now that I’ve read the source material I’m a little insulted by the Netflix version.

The Takeshi Kovacs of the book is a deeply flawed character with a deeply flawed past. He still does a lot of terrible things, but he has something of a conscience and he manages to find some kind of purpose in the process. The Takeshi Kovacs of Netflix however, was a starry-eyed idealist who got burned and as a result, he’s angsty…I guess?

I wish that studios wouldn’t do this. They get handed the rights to an amazing story and they decide to mutilate it. Unfortunately, it seems to be rare for the people adapting the source material to actually understand the source material.

Watching Alien For The First Time

It’s the middle of NaNoWriMo but that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a few (a lot of) breaks. During one particular break, I decided to watch Ripley Scott’s Alien after I noticed it on Prime Video.

Some movies become such a large part of popular culture that even if you haven’t seen them you might as well have. Alien is not one of those.

There are a few scenes we’ve all seen, or at least we’ve seen parodies of them. The face-hugger, the chest-burster, the alien itself. Yet most of the movie has safely stayed out of those references. That meant that most of the movie was unknown to me going in and I’m going to say that it was good. Good in that it’s well made, the effects still hold up in that they are dated by not so much that they ruin your immersion, and that I can appreciate it for what it is.

I can’t quite say that I enjoyed the movie, however. The first half is slow and I struggled to pay attention to it. By the time the plot picks up in the second half the movie is a lot more enjoyable but it was hard to follow because I struggled so much to pay attention in the first half.

That said I’m glad I watched it. It’s one of those classics that I’ve been neglecting and it’s always fun to see these older staples of the genre.

Dune

I tried to manage my expectations. I really did. But I failed. And that’s okay because this movie is fantastic. It met every expectation that I had and surpassed them.

It’s a problem inherent in every movie adaptation. Too many times readers have been disappointed by movie adaptations made by people that don’t seem to understand the source material. We can’t always expect to get the Peter Jackson treatment, as much as we all wish that wasn’t the case. But this time, this time readers were not let down.

This movie is amazing in so many ways. I was worried that all of the lore and politics that the book dwells on so much would seem hamfisted in the movie. I was totally wrong. So wrong. Villeneuve and company distilled all of that worldbuilding into its most essential elements. It all just worked. Everything was made with an obvious appreciation for the source material that is hard to find in movie adaptations.

However, I really want to talk about what made the movie better than the book. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes the movie is better. In some ways. Sometimes.

Here, the movie succeeds in how large the world feels. Science fiction is littered with planets that feel like villages. The book series that is Dune is filled with a few planets that feel like universes. In the first several books the narratives focus exclusively on events that take place on Arrakis. That single planet feels big and there is a lot that happens there. We are told that there is much more out there in the rest of the universe but we mostly have to take the narrator’s word for it. In Dune Messiah we are told that Paul’s armies have rampaged across the known universe, but we are only told that. We aren’t shown that. We only ever focus on the lives and actions of a handful of characters.

That’s okay. It’s characters who are at the heart of any narrative. But it’s also hard to feel like the rest of the universe is really out there. The movie doesn’t have that problem and that is where it really shines.

From the book, we know that the Atreides are one of the great houses and that they are powerful. In the movie, we see that. We see that in the army behind them at the signing ceremony chanting “Atreides” and in all the pomp and ceremony that we see when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis.

Everything in the movie is big. All of it is focused on Paul and the other main characters, but everything around them is so much bigger than they are.

Honestly, it’s nearly perfect. Just go watch it. And then watch it again. And again! In my mind, Dune is to SciFi what Lord of the Rings is to Fantasy. They’re not the end all be all, but their shadows loom large. It’s so good to see Dune finally get the treatment it deserves on the big screen.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

shallow focus photography of gray concrete building
Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

photo of people near wooden table
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

Science for Scifi: Breaking Into Orbit

Rockets are expensive. Not only are they limited by the weight of their fuel, but also by their cargo capacity and reusability. While commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been unveiling new systems that promise alternative ways of reaching low orbit or reusing rockets, there are still a lot of limitations that prevent space travel from becoming ubiquitous in the short term.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Space flight does not have to be easier for good scifi, in fact, I would argue that it should be hard. It helps to impose limits on the characters and promote conflict. A thriving space industry could still be expensive and thus impose limits on who goes to space and why.

That said, once your setting is to the point where colonies throughout the solar system are becoming viable I think that it’s time to start exploring other ways of getting to orbit. I think rockets will always have a place, but forms of mass transit will make the entire endeavor a lot easier.

Space Elevators

Orbital elevators are a staple of science fiction. How it works is that a giant tether is built connecting the surface of a planet to a station in orbit. The tether is then held taught, allowing elevators to move up and down its length.

One of the primary challenges with an elevator is making a material strong enough to build the tether in enough quantities to make it work. A lot of authors choose to use some kind of carbon allotrope and this part might require you to invent your own very special flavor of carbon fiber or synthetic diamond. Remember that the tether will need to be much, much thicker than you think it will need to be.

My favorite part about this concept is that it allows a world to have regular trips to orbit and back in an environment that might resemble a modern airport or train station. Elevator pods could have large cargo areas and multiple passenger areas divided into economy, business, and first-class. You could have observation windows and restaurants. All the trappings of comfort or the lack thereof.

An elevator is probably best in a setting where space travel has become common enough for such a project to be profitable. A single planet will likely only have one or two placed in neutral or autonomous regions or controlled by a specific faction. Of course, the resources needed to build one might limit which worlds have a space elevator and which do not. If your setting involves multiple star systems it is likely that only the most developed of them will have one.

It goes without saying that such a large piece of infrastructure will make a very tempting target. If destroyed an elevator could cause immense damage to any settlements built around its base and cripple and the economies of multiple factions in a given system.

Skyhooks

For worlds that are not yet capable of a project as massive as a space elevator but still need regular surface-to-orbit transit, skyhooks may be the perfect solution.

You can think of a skyhook like a satellite that spins as they travel along the edge of the atmosphere. Its hook can latch onto craft flying in the upper atmosphere and accelerate them into orbit, and can also grab craft in orbit and bring them down into the atmosphere.

These are a good in-between stage between rockets and elevators for travel and could probably be set up a lot faster than a full-sized space elevator could. Which would make them perfect for worlds with some orbital traffic but not enough for a full elevator. Or they could be an option for planetary factions that do not want to rely on a space elevator that someone else owns. Or in instances where orbital infrastructure needs to be set up quickly. I’ll talk about a possible scenario for that in the next section.

An Invasion Scenario

Surface combat in the far future is likely to be small-scale and asymmetric. There isn’t much use in landing millions of ground troops when ships in orbit can turn a continent into radioactive glass. But we seem to crave depictions of ground-based combat anyway.

Let’s say a planet is host to an environment that is hospitable to humans or contains some vital piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed in a bombardment and that this necessitates the use of ground forces on a large scale. The first wave of troops could be brought to the surface with a combination of capsules and landers that glide down through the atmosphere much as the space shuttle did. Some of these crafts might be designed to return to orbit with a variety of energy-intensive designs. Since we all know that military objectives beat concerns like cost and efficiency any day.

If the planet already has extensive orbital infrastructure, which it probably does if its world attacking, these initial forces would work to establish beachheads and try to capture any space elevators that might be present. The attack on a space elevator could very well commence on both ends since it would be hard to use if the people at the other end of the tether were waiting to shoot you as soon as the door opens.

But perhaps the space elevator was destroyed or the planet really doesn’t have the infrastructure. Once landing sites are secured, ships in orbit could deploy prefabbed skyhooks to provide the infrastructure of occupation. From that point on if the locals continued to resist the war would probably resemble something like the conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Massed tanks and infantry make for awesome illustrations but are nothing a few “rods from God” couldn’t fix. In the long term, the construction of a new space elevator could be seen as the ultimate mark of ownership of the planet. A massive, sprawling symbol that the invaders are there to stay.

Further Reading (And Watching)

I realize that this post is less technical than previous Science for SciFi entries. I chose to do this because I am not a physicist nor am I an aerospace engineer. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few interesting concepts in science fiction and point you all towards some resources that can be an inspiration for your next story of a planetary invasion. If you liked this content consider supporting it by signing up for my newsletter or exploring my page of recommended products on Amazon.

For a start, Atomic Rockets is a great site for anyone who wants to dig into the physics of science fiction and learn how science has been incorporated into many great science fiction classics. For a fun and straightforward explanation of skyhooks, you can look to Kurtzgesagt on Youtube. The same channel also has a great explanation of space elevators.

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds versus Zima Blue from Love, Death & Robots

I’ve been on a bit of an Alastair Reynolds kick lately, mainly centered on the author’s revelation space books. As usual, whenever I get invested in a new series, I seek out more in search of more doses of dopamine, which led me to purchase a collection of short stories that Reynolds has written over the years. This endless search for dopamine brought me back to one of my favorite Netflix originals; Love, Death & Robots.

Love, Death & Robots is a Netflix original series consisting of short episodes that bring science fiction short stories to life. Alistair Reynolds had two stories featured in the first season, one of them being Zima Blue.

The story is about a cyborg artist in the far future named Zima. It is told from the perspective of a journalist who has finally been granted an interview with the reclusive artist on the eve of the unveiling of his final work. Zima, we are told, began his work in painting portraits of the cosmos before graduating to increasingly abstract works featuring his trademark blue color, works so large that a single mural could encapsulate a planet. But the story is not so much about Zima’s art as it is Zima’s search for his truth, and in the written version, it is also about how Zima inspires the journalist to search for her own truth.

Both versions of the story are good. Netflix’s version portrays Zima’s story in a much clearer fashion than Reynolds did. However, I can’t help but feel that the story’s message is lost in the retelling. The story is not just about Zima’s search for truth; it is also about his interviewing coming to grapple with what the truth is. Zima, for example, asserts that the falsehoods created by our imperfect memories are what allow truth to come about. Truth in art anyway.

Both versions of the story are great, and I recommend both. Both make the audience ask questions, but I recommend reading the original for a complete formulation of that question.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]
Book One of the Inhibitor Trilogy

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks. It’s helped to make tedious tasks more enjoyable, and it has helped me cross A LOT of books off of my to-be-read list. A few of these books have been Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Trilogy. These books have me obsessed.

For those who don’t know, Alastair Reynolds is a prolific science fiction author who studied astrophysics with the European Space Agency. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and his experience shines through in his writing.

He has an incredibly engaging style that he peppers with just the right amount of scientific jargon to make his settings convincing. He also does an amazing job of bringing seemingly disparate story threads together at the end in ways so obvious in retrospect.

I could go on and on about why I like these books. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that Reynolds does very well. Conflict. Or should I call it fluff? You know those fight scenes that drag on too long or the infiltrations that seem a little too contrived? I know I can’t be the only one, which is why I was so happy when Reynolds chose to fade to black for those scenes that another author might instead drag along for a chapter or two.

That’s not to say that these books don’t have fight scenes or are free of violence, but Reynolds seems to know exactly how much of the fight we need to be shown, and much of the violence in the series takes place between starships. Starships so far apart that a commander will not know if their attack was successful for several hours. In a book like this, conflict is best shown through the thoughts and worries of the commanders rather than the minutia that many authors get stuck in.

Fantastic books. 5/5. Go read.

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

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Science for SciFi: Peer Review

When a research project reaches completion, the investigators often write up their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Once the investigators decide what journal is most appropriate for their research, they submit their paper, if the editor of the journal decides that the research has merit and is a good fit for the journal, they begin the peer review process.

For many scientists, the peer review process can be stressful and drawn out, sometimes for all parties involved. But the peer review process, despite its faults, is vital to ensuring that honest, quality research gets published.

It’s also likely to be a major source of stress for the scientists in your novel.

There are A LOT of memes about Reviewer 2 out there. Source

Article Anatomy

Each publisher and journal will have its own formatting guidelines. These are the essential bits. Sometimes results and discussion will be a single section and not separate.

Abstract – in science we pack the conclusions into the headline. Abstracts vary in length but are normally about a paragraph. An abstract’s job is to convince someone to read the entire article and to help put what follows into context. Writing an abstract is hard, in just a few sentences you need to explain why the research matters, how it was done, and what conclusions were made.

Introduction – this is (for me) the most fun part of the article to write. The introduction explains the basic principles of an article. An introduction should explain the motivations behind the research and what gap the research aims to fill.

Experimental/Materials and Methods – every journal puts this section in a different place within the article. For someone interested in learning the impact of the research this section is fairly boring, for someone who wants to judge how reliable the data is or replicate certain techniques, this section is essential. Experimental contains a list of what tools and materials were used, who manufactured them, and how they were prepared.

Results- this section explains the collected data in excruciating detail. The data is often supplemented by a variety of graphs and other diagrams.

Discussion – here is where the authors get to explain what the data means. This section is filled with explanation and interpretation.

Conclusion – these are short. Almost as short as the abstract. A conclusion should be short and sweet.

References – any claim that is not common knowledge for the audience or data gained from the research needs to be cited. This might include established experimental techniques, general background information, mathematical formulas, computer code, and so on.

How To Read An Article

How you read an article will depend on what you are trying to get from it. If you are trying to discern the salient points you will probably read the abstract to decide if you care about it. Then maybe the introduction, then the discussion and conclusion.

If you want to explain how the authors reached those conclusions you will spend a lot of time reading the experimental and results sections. You will want to know what they did, understand why, and try and see where the project’s weak points are. This can take a good deal of time and may require multiple readings of a single article.

If you want to know the current state of the field, then a single research article just won’t do. You might find many other sources from the reference list at the end of the article, but you’ll quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. If you are new to a field, you will want to find a review article. A review article is meant to summarize the current state of a given field or subfield and will highlight that field’s important developments. These articles may have hundreds of references.

The Review Process

Once the authors submit a paper, the first thing the editor does is decide whether the article is suitable for their publication. Basically, does it fit the focus of the publication and does it have a large enough impact? Some journals are “high-impact” and some are not. But that is a discussion for another day.

If the paper makes it past this stage the article is sent to a set of reviewers. These reviewers are chosen because they are experts in the field. They are the authors’ “peers” and are likely to have the knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of the research.

These experts comment on the experiments, the data, and may suggest changes that need to be made before the paper is ready for publication. This is where many of the Reviewer 2 memes originate. Authors may often feel that a reviewer’s comments are unreasonable, or that they are trying to manipulate the authors for their own benefit. The good news here is that authors can respond to reviewer comments, and if they can convince the editor that the comments have been addressed then the article can be published.

The key thing to remember is that just because an article has gone through peer review does not mean that it is free of mistakes. A research article is the result of the best possible measurements and analyses that were possible at the time. Peer review means that a small group of experts has decided that the research has merit and that it is free of major flaws.

This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes, that there is not a larger picture, or that better analysis or measurements won’t be done in the future. A single research paper tells just one small part of a larger journey of discovery.

Emotional Costs

The impact of one single paper is likely to be minuscule, but to the authors, it might well be everything. PI’s (principal investigators) are often established, professors. The other authors, however, are likely students. These students spend years working on a project that might result in just a handful of papers. For these students, the process can be very draining. No matter how “small” the project may be in the grand scheme of things, it has, by the time of publication, been a major part of their life.

For many in academia, publishing is everything. Publishing is how graduate students build a resume. And it’s how many professors achieve tenure. Research activity is frequently measured in publications and grants.

Scenarios

There are a lot of ways to write a scientist’s motivations. But based on what we have just talked about above I will provide a few examples. The examples in this list are for creative purposes only. These are WRITING PROMPTS, not recommendations or endorsements.

  • After years of “publish or perish” the character sees their self-worth only in terms of publications. They frequently overwork themselves and lose sleep in order to make progress.
  • Eager to increase their number of publications, the character divides their research into smaller and smaller chunks to get more papers out. This practice is sometimes called “salami slicing.” It’s frowned upon, but they hope that most observers will only see the publication count and not look much deeper.
  • Desperate to publish in a high-profile journal, the character begins to falsify or omit data. After getting away with it multiple times they think they are safe. Then, several years later, they are found out and their career crumbles around them.
  • The rat race of academia is too much. Fed up with the constant publish or perish mentality, the character decides to take a post at a teaching-focused institution. They publish a paper every few years, but what they really care about are the lives of the students they help shape.

Further Reading

I don’t have any book recomendations about the peer review process. However, peer review and publishing play big roles in the lives of scientists. So here are a couple books where you can learn about the history of science and the people who do it.

Science for SciFi: Poisons

This might seem like a bit of a repeat. After all, we just learned about a few natural weapons, right? Sort of. I talked a bit about how snake venom works, but I think it’s worth our time to learn a bit about toxicology. How do poisons work? How are they administered? Can toxicity be quantified? We’ll get to those answers in a minute. But before we start, let’s get two disclaimers out of the way. First, I am not a doctor and nothing you read here should be considered medical advice. Second, some fields distinguish between toxins and poisons. For the sake of simplicity, I will be using them interchangeably.

How do poisons work? Like we saw with snake venom, poisons work by interfering with the natural processes that happen constantly in your body to keep you alive. If you think about it we are really just a leather sack filled with water and chemical reactions. If anything interferes with those systems then we’re in for a bad time.

Measuring Toxicity

Death is in the dosage. Molecules that we need to sustain life can be toxic if we have too much, and molecules known to cause death might not hurt us at all if we have too little. Determining the amount and duration of exposure that results in toxicity can be tricky, but it’s an important consideration.

Two important considerations are acute versus chronic toxicity. Does the poison kill you immediately (acute), or over time with repeated exposure (chronic)? One measure of toxicity is LD50, often denoted in terms of milligrams per kilogram, which is defined as the median dose that kills 50% of the test population. Chronic exposure is something that workers in many industries need to worry about, but the assassins in your crime novel will be more concerned with acute exposure.

But measuring toxicity can be difficult. After all, it’s hard to find willing human subjects. The easiest way to test potential toxins is to see what they do to cells in a petri dish (in vitro). These experiments can reveal a lot, like the mechanism of toxicity (eg. does it block cell receptors or bind to DNA?) but cells in isolation are a poor model for living systems. Sure, maybe a chemical is toxic to liver cells, but if it never leaves the lungs after being inhaled then its effect may be limited. Large multicellular organisms are more than just individual cells, they are complex systems comprised of many cells with many functions. Toxins may then target a specific organ or grouping or organs depending on how the body processes them.

The best way to test toxicity is to use live animal models, but for obvious reasons, not everyone has the time, resources, or inclination to perform those tests.

How Bad Are Heavy Metals?

Mercury and lead are often thought of as extremely toxic, and for good reason, there are a great deal of environmental and health risks that arise from heavy metal pollution. However, just because something contains a heavy metal does not automatically make it dangerous.

The properties of metallic compounds vary greatly depending on their structure, makeup, and reactivity. For example, heavy metal chlorides may be toxic, but heavy metal oxides may be considerably less so.

Water solubility is a big factor here. If a compound cannot dissolve in water it’s going to have a hard time reaching target systems in the human body where it can do the most damage. But factors such as pH and any reactions the metals might undergo once inside the body can also play a role.

Predicting Toxicity

By now it should be clear that toxicity is hard to predict. It’s not just a matter of what a molecule contains, but what reactions that molecule undergoes inside the body which determines how dangerous it is and what kinds of damage it inflicts.

This is a problem for researchers because not all of the chemicals found within a lab will have been fully studied in terms of toxicity. Because of this, it’s easier to assume everything is dangerous and behave accordingly. That said, there are a few things that can be done to predict a molecule’s hazardous effects.

After a few years in the field, most chemists can intuit the reactivity of molecules based on their structure.

  1. Reactions that occur once released into the environment.
  2. Reactions that occur within biological systems.

For these reasons, predicting toxicity is not as straightforward as one might think, although knowledge of structure and reactivity can give us some clues. There have even been attempts to take known reactivity data, feed it into computers, and generate toxicity predictions. These efforts are unfortunately hampered by a general lack of data in many cases and the number of environmental and chemical variables that need to be considered. Even so, progress in this area is being made.

Famous Toxins

Arsenic – a poison that was favored by Agatha Christie, rat catchers, and stylists alike. Arsenic and arsenic-containing compounds have found many uses over the years as rat poisons, pigments, medicines, and more. Because of these many uses arsenic was once easy to come by and could be bought at many pharmacies. The really dangerous form of arsenic is arsenic oxides. Once inside the body, it disrupts the production of ATP, the molecule that our bodies use for fuel. Arsenic (III) oxides are similar in structure to the phosphates that our bodies use to make ATP and so our bodies try to use them instead. Without a regular supply of energy, cell death soon follows.

Capsaicin – do you really need to know why peppers feel hot on our tongues? Do you care? Maybe peppers won’t drop you dead, but the mechanism is fascinating and very useful to science fiction authors. Capsaicin targets neurons, specifically the vanilloid receptor. In practice, they cause the same sensation as heat. So they hurt, but they could hurt more if controlled by a mad scientist. This is actually my favorite toxin here, because in real life it is relatively harmless, but could be used by a writer in a lot of interesting ways. An alien plant for example, could have a much nastier variety of capsaicin for explorers to stumble upon.

Cyanide-cyanide is a classic. No spy would be caught dead without their cyanide capsule. Like arsenic, cyanide disrupts the production of ATP. In this case, however, it functions as an inhibitor that prevents the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase from doing its part in the ATP cycle. It should be noted, that in this case when we say cyanide we actually mean hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Cyano groups (CN) are common in many areas of chemistry, and hydrogen cyanide has many industrial uses.

Sarin – famous as a chemical warfare agent and a neurotoxin. Sarin acts quickly and can strike you dead in under ten minutes. Sarin is not too different from some of the snake venom we looked at a while back. Like our example there, Sarin works by inhibiting signals sent by nerve cells, but the mechanism is different. The key to sarin’s effectiveness is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Sarin permanently binds to receptors and prevents muscle cells from correctly interpreting the acetylcholine signal. The victim’s muscles are then unable to process acetylcholine, hindering their movement, and the victim dies from asphyxiation soon after. Sarin is an organophosphorus chemical that evaporates quickly and is incredibly deadly.

Narrative Uses

Agatha Christie was famous for using accurate portrayals of real poisons in her mystery novels, so much so that an entire book was written about it. By doing this she was able to give her readers the chance to deduce the murderer and the means of murder before she revealed it. The clues were all there for anyone who wanted to puzzle it out.

Whatsmore, knowing what a poison is and what its other uses help to build more plausibility into your story. A worker at a chemical plant might have ample access to hydrogen cyanide, just like a pharmacist in Victorian England would have no trouble sourcing arsenic on the down-low. And of course, for you writers of science fiction, knowing about the mechanisms and effects of real-world poisons allow you to ground your fictional toxins in real science.

Sources

A Is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. Kathryn Harkup.

Measurement and Estimation of Electrophilic Reactivity for Predictive Toxicology. Johannes A. H. Schwobel et al. Chemical Reviews. American Chemical Society. 2011.

Toxicity of Metal Compounds: Knowledge and Myths. Ksenia S. Egorova and Valentine P. Ananikov. Organometallics. American Chemical Society. 2017.