Some of my favorite geologists are on teevee! Wayne Ranney and Ron Blakey got tapped to explain how the Grand Canyon came to be for Naked Science on the National Geographic channel. Repeats are airing – check your local listings and set your DVRs to stun! I mean, record!
Month: February 2011
Don't Miss the AW Mardi Gras Extravaganza!
We’ve got another AW deadline fast approaching, and nobody wants to miss a parade, now, do they?
It’s Carnival time or Mardi Gras time in Louisiana . This year the season is long – going from Jan 6 (Twelfth night) to March 8 (Fat Tuesday – day before Ash Wednesday). Since the Accretionary Wedge is suppose to be a carnival of blogs I think it is only fitting the wedge should have a parade of the blogs. I’m willing to be the captain of this parade.
The theme will be “Throw me your ‘favorite geologic picture’ mister” Lets have the floats (submissions) ready on March 4th so it can roll on March 8. Carnival time is all about having a good time and having some fun so lets get some colorful, fun pictures submitted. Laissez les bons temp rouler!! (Let the good times roll!)
Please leave your posts in the comment section or email me at [email protected].
And for those thinking of hosting, Ann’s also compiled a list of previous topics as an aide d’muse. I can’t host until the winter writing season’s over, so all y’all have a chance to scoop my idea. No, I won’t tell you what it is! You’ll just have to host first and wait to see if your topic causes me to wail.
(Bonus: Ann’s also got evidence for us snow-bound folk that spring will happen. Happy sigh.)
Get yer parade gear on and mount up, geos!
Accretionary Wedge #31: Do Whut Nao?
Accretionary Wedge #31 is up at The Geology P.A.G.E., and it’s a delight:
As you can see by the title (Wait, What?) the topic for this month’s Accretionary Wedge (#31) is surprising geological knowledge. And we had a ton of fantastic contributions to the topic.
Beautifully compiled, too! It’s Sunday. Sit back and relax with some prime geology, my darlings. You have earned it.
Tell Me Again that Science and Religion are Compatible
But before you do, consider this (h/t):
The official Vatican position on evolution tilts towards intelligent design. Its point man on the subject, Cardinal Schönborn, says: “Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity’ are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.” Ouch.
These are folks who have a fundamental, willful, and very large blind spot. They deliberately twist science to fit their own dogma. And that is something that’s absolutely incompatible with science.
NOMA my skinny white arse. As Jerry Coyne sez:So yes, the true biological view of evolution as a materialistic, unguided process is indeed at odds with most religions. Organizations that promote evolution, such as the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), prefer to avoid this critical point: all they care about is that evolution get taught in the schools, not whether believers wind up accepting the concept of evolution as it’s understood by scientists. (If all they want is evolution to be taught, that, I suppose is fine. But it’s not fine if they want public understanding of evolution.)
And it’s not fine when millions of people are told by their pope that science ain’t science. That twisted, skewed view of what science is matters. That twisted, skewed view leads people to mistrust and misunderstand science. It leads them to believe science can be bent to their own wishes, no matter what the evidence is.
That’s not science. That’s religion trying to steal science’s respectability after having lost its own. It’s pseudoscience, and it’s right on par with the cons, crooks and crazies who snatch a few words out of a science dictionary to try to make their wackaloon theories about homeopathy or magnetic bracelets sound plausible to people who don’t know any better.
It’s nice that the Catholic church is so cornered by reality that they’ve been forced to swallow a little bit of science in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and retain their power. But it’s giving them indigestion. And anyone who believes that science and religion are perfectly compatible isn’t paying attention to reality.
Cantina Quote o' The Week: Carl Sagan (Yes, Again)
…It is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.
Some people may find that a rather grim, depressing quote, but it’s uplifting to me. No, we haven’t got any guarantees. Yes, there is pain. But only some. And we’re the ones working out our destiny. That means we get to choose the direction we go, and that’s a hopeful thing indeed.
Los Links 2/25
I drove home for lunch through a rare Seattle whiteout. Here you see teh kitteh watching the winter wonderland compile outside, while I called work and explained that between the rapidly-worsening road conditions and my cramps, I wasn’t coming back for the evening. Then we sat and enjoyed the fruits of living in a convergence zone, ably explained by our own Dan McShane:
The Convergence Zone is a local northern Puget Sound weather phenomenon where air moving up from the south through the Puget lowlands encounters air wrapping around the Olympic Mountains from the north. The collision causes uplift and a band of rain, or if cold enough, snow. The CZ is a narrow band of cloudy weather and heavy precipitation well known to western Washington weather junkies.
Due to ongoing cramps, elegant segues from local snowstorms to New Zealand’s hugely destructive earthquake are not in the offing. Boston.com’s The Big Picture has amazing images of the quake’s aftermath. Chris Rowan’s been regularly updating his original post, and has a new one up about seismic lensing:Even taking into account how close the rupture point of Tuesday’s earthquake was to Christchurch, the intensity of the shaking – and the amount of damage that the city suffered as a consequence – seems to be very high for a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The fact that the city is built on soft sediments that amplify shaking is an obvious factor here, but an article in the New Zealand Herald raises the possibility that geological structures in the region may have acted as a ‘seismic lens’, focussing the seismic energy released in the earthquake towards Christchurch.
Poor Christchurch. Seems like nothing was going her way last Tuesday. Evelyn at Georneys made the following observation:With at least 75 people dead and extensive damage throughout the city of Christchurch, the toll of the recent New Zealand earthquake is already a heavy one. A number of factors contributed to make this earthquake so deadly– the magnitude, the closeness of the epicenter to Christchurch, the shallowness of the epicenter, the time of day, and the fact that much damage from the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake had yet to be repaired. The death toll and damage caused by the recent earthquake in first world New Zealand is nothing like what occurs when large earthquakes hit third world countries, such as Haiti in January 2010, but for a first world country the destruction is fairly high.
We’re all vulnerable. Some more than others.
Now for our next choppy segue: on with los links.
Friday fold: Jefferson River Canyon: “Most of the view is taken up by a large overturned syncline, with an axial plane that dips steeply to the west. At the far left are the Mississippian-aged Madison Group limestones, topped with upper Mississippian Big Snowy Group (more limestones), then the Amsden Formation (orange siltstone and sandstone from the Pennsylvanian), the Quadrant Formation (a Pennsylvanian quartz sandstone), the Permian phosphatic Phosphoria Phormation, and and youngest of all, the Morrison Formation, which is Jurassic. In the area of the Jefferson River Canyon, the strata are tightly folded around the Morrison. Finally, at the far right of the view, we see the abrupt appearance of the LaHood Conglomerate, part of the Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup. The contact here is a thrust fault.” (Mountain Beltway)
The GOP comes out of the closet: “But I actually think the GOP is doing us a favor. Instead of posturing and sending mixed message about caring for the people while passing laws that say otherwise, they are coming right out and wearing the fucking t-shirt. If you’re poor, female, care about your health or that of the land, or are in any way uninterested in making rich white dudes more rich, you can go to hell.” (The Spandrel Shop)
Sunday Photo(s): “Earlier this week Dana Hunter published some photos of Juanita Park in winter. I thought it would be fun to contrast those, plus a couple of mine, with what things look like there in Summer.” (Slobber and Spittle)
the evil of either/or : “When I turned off my shower water this morning I heard water running in the bathroom sink. I didn’t remember turning the water on, but it was on. There are only two possible explanations. The spirit of a dead human turned the water on (a ghost!), or the plumbing has come to life and has a will of its own.” (Dangblog)
How regulation came to be: Filling it up with Ethyl: “There was a small potential pitfall with using tetraethyl lead (TEL) to reduce knock — lead has been known since ancient times to be toxic to humans. It did not take long for this drawback to become manifest.” (dsteffen)
Death Valley Days: The First Day – Racing the Wind (and the torrential downpours): “First stop was in Neogene marine sediments at the south end of the Great Valley, which included an introduction to field geology and the idea of formations and environments of deposition (our students are mostly seeing geology in the field for the first time). How do you know a layer is marine? One clue is in the hand of the student above: fossils! Somehow, unsurprisingly, a place called Sharktooth Hill yielded up shark teeth (and a few fragments of seagoing mammals).” (Geotripper)
Ancestor Worship: “Despite the wonderful discoveries made in Africa over the past decade, there is still much we don’t know about the earliest humans. Even pinpointing what characteristics identify the earliest humans has become a challenge. All of the contenders for ‘earliest known human’ have been heavily criticized, and there has been little resolution as to what they actually are. (Laelaps)
The scientist-journalist divide: what can we learn from each other?: “Scientists can definitely learn a thing or two about communication from science journalists. I don’t want to transform my manuscripts into text that reads like journalism, because the two forms of writing serve very different purposes for very different audiences. But reading good science writing online and practicing my own writing here have immeasurably improved my consideration of word choices, sentence structure, the value of an engaging first paragraph (or lede), and sense of narrative arc. I think these skills are carrying over from blogging into my manuscript and grant writing, my interactions with graduate student writing, and even my teaching. Maybe I’ll start asking my students to read both primary papers and the accompanying feature stories, so that they might absorb some writing skills from their reading assignments. So my unsolicited advice to fellow scientists is: ‘If you want to write better, start by carefully reading good writing.’” (Highly Allochthonous)
GA Rep. Seeks to Criminalize Unauthorized Vaginal Bleeding: “The bill would also more or less suspend the presumption of innocence to women who lose pregnancies. If a woman failed to carry a pregnancy to term, in accordance with her divinely ordained role, the onus would be on her to satisfy the state that she didn’t deliberately kill it.” (Focal Point)
Meet Diania the walking cactus, an early cousin of life’s great winners: “Around 520 million years ago, a walking cactus roamed the Earth. Its body had nine segments, each bearing a pair of armour-plated legs, covered in thorns. It was an animal, but one that looked more like the concoction of a bad fantasy artist. Jianni Liu from Northwest University in Xi’an discovered this bundle of spines and named it Diania cactiformis – the ‘walking cactus from Yunnan’. And she thinks that it sits at the roots of the most successful group of animals on the planet. (Not Exactly Rocket Science) And while you’re there, don’t miss Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions.)
Spencer Hot Springs, Then and Now: “In 1981, two geologists from Northern Exploration Company — one contract geologist and one summer temp — wrote a poem commemorating the company, the mineral exploration we were doing, some of the key players, and the hot springs itself. They used nicknames when they referred to any of the head honchos, signed their names cryptically, and dated their contribution to the cabin wall. Within a few months to a year, the red-paint people had crossed out one of the NEC geologist’s nicknames, ‘Asshole,’ because it was on their list of bad words. I doubt
they knew, or would have cared, that it was an appropriate and self-chosen nickname: he wore a baseball cap and carried a coffee cup with that name, and lived up to his designation admirably. (Looking for Detachment)
The Saga of the Scientific Swindler! (1884-1891): “In the 1880s, a fascinating chain of letters appeared in the magazine Science and in other publications, including the New York Times. The scientific community was being victimized by a clever confidence man, who was working his way into members’ trust and then stealing from them. The exploits span at least 7 years and stretch over much of the United States. Most surprising about it, however, is that the con artist was so successful because he was apparently trained as one of their own.” (Skulls in the Stars)
Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little Snowflakes: “My little boy is far too young to understand this, so my response was a visit to the new Africa exhibit at the zoo. My overly-cautious little one looked on as I stood inches away from a chimpanzee, separated only by a pane of glass. The chimpanzee put his hand up to the glass. I held mine up to meet his. His eyes met mine and we considered one another. In absolute awe (and yes, a little choked up), I looked back at my tiny son as if to say, ‘See. Not so different.'” (Pharyngula)
Prank call Embarrasses Wisconsin’s Walker: “Yep, the call everyone’s been talking about is, in fact, legit.” (The Washington Monthly)
Shock Doctrine, U.S.A.: “Here’s a thought: maybe Madison, Wis., isn’t Cairo after all. Maybe it’s Baghdad — specifically, Baghdad in 2003, when the Bush administration put Iraq under the rule of officials chosen for loyalty and political reliability rather than experience and competence.” (Paul Krugman)
Religious Grab Bag for a Thursday Morning — or: How to believe in the teeth of the evidence and have people think you really know: “The news never disappoints. Every morning when I wake up I tour a number of online newspapers. My internet homepage is aldaily.com, managed by the Chronicle of Higher Education. I start with the Globe and Mail and then work down, through the Guardian, Indpendent, Telegraph, National Post and New York Times. Life is short: I can’t do them all. Every morning, without fail, there is some religious madness or other.” (Choice in Dying)
Expanding ‘Justifiable Homicide’ Efforts: “For all the ridiculous paranoia on the right about creeping ‘sharia law,’ there are now multiple state proposals, published by Republicans, to make it legal to assassinate medical professionals as part of a larger culture war.” (The Washington Monthly)
Tomes 2011: A Distinct Chinese Theme
My reading of late has taken a bit of a detour from geology. I’ll no doubt swerve back that way soon, but when building a region modeled a bit on Southeast Asia, one needs to read up on Southeast Asia. Not that that kept me from sneaking a bit o’ geology in there anyway….
When I first began writing, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested I’d need to read up on old Chinese farming practices, and moreover, would love doing it. That was, of course, before I came across Robert Marks’s wonderful book.
Anyone who’s interested in how people fed themselves and their nations before the industrial age, how humans have shaped the environment, how climate factors in to things like population and war, and who’s ever had a desire to see history from the perspective of ordinary farming folk – this is your book. Environmental change is tracked by, of all things, tiger attacks. And you’ll find out that the Pearl River Delta is very far from being a completely natural feature.
Robert Marks knows his stuff. And he’ll teach it to you in a style that, while academic and detailed, doesn’t bludgeon with facts and figures, but weaves a tale of people, tigers, weather, and civilization. I found it one of the more fascinating things I’ve read for research purposes. And it’s given me a new perspective on China’s history. The past is far more than the doings of emperors. This book brings that point nicely home.
The Pattern of the Chinese Past
Well, of course, if I was reading Tigers, I needed to pick this one up again. I read it many years ago, and it’s a very good, easily readable survey of Chinese history. It doesn’t focus as much on environment as on social and economic factors. A nice crash course, if you will, outside of the usual dismaying tendency for so many histories to focus on war, dynasties, more war, regime change, salacious bits, and yet more war.
It’s a good companion volume to Tigers, reinforcing some of the former’s points and expanding the view from the Lingnan region to the whole of China. And it covers a fair number of revolutions: in farming, water transport, money and credit, urbanization, and science and technology. It’s a good reminder that modern folk and ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t the only clever bastards on the planet.
These two books are a good way to get a feel for where China comes from. It’s a nation with a very long, very civilized past, and if we want to understand it today (as well we should), it’s a damned good idea to see where it came from. Besides, with the push for organic farming, it’s also a good idea to see how that worked in the past. It wasn’t, contrary to popular crunchy belief, all sweetness and environmental harmony: understanding that can prevent us from mistaking organic for completely eco-friendly.
Sounds like a spy novel, dunnit? Well, there’s a spy or two in it, but the Man himself isn’t a spy. He was a biologist, nudist, socialist, ladies’ man, and Morris dancer named Joseph Needham, and he’s very nearly single-handedly responsible for ensuring China got proper credit for all of those ancient scientific breakthroughs the West liked to filch and then take credit for. You should really get to know him.
No better introduction than Simon Winchester’s book, which follows Needham’s adventures in China with all the flair and dash of the man himself. This is one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads I’ve encountered in a long while. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me, in the immortal words of one of my former creative writing classmates. I came away with new respect for China, for Needham (whom I’d never heard of before) and for Cambridge and England, who together decided it was quite all right for a man to go fall in love with China and spend the rest of his life writing Science and Civilisation in China, volumes upon volumes of it, even though the book rather stole Western thunder at a time when everyone was freaking out over commies everywhere, including the ones running China, and took a scientist and scholar seriously even though he was a pinko commie lib who liked to run around with no clothes on and with women who weren’t his wife.
And it’s one hell of an intellectual adventure. So, if you want to know more about China but don’t want to spend pages and pages on farming, make this one your first choice.
A Crack in the Edge of the World
I really had no intention of reading this one. Ever. Sick of the San Francisco Earthquake, thanks ever so much. But pickings in the geology section were slim, this was on sale for five bucks, and it’s Simon Winchester, so I folded.
I’m so very glad I did, even though it’s had a rather earth-shaking impact on my dreams.
What I love most about the book is that the earthquake only occupies a small part of it. We’re treated to a boundary-to-boundary tour of the North American Plate, its history through geologic time, and, just to shake things up a little, a detour by the New Madrid earthquakes. There’s a good look at the San Andreas Fault, and the remarkable monitoring going on in Parkfield. Then there’s a heaping helping of California history, complete with sturm, drang, und Chinatown. I don’t think any other book not specifically dedicated to it has ever given me a more intimate look at the Chinese immigrant experience in America, and it belongs here because Chinatown shattered and burned with all the rest in the great quake of 1906.
And the descriptions of the event itself do it geological justice. There’s stuff in there that will give you a new appreciation for good, earthquake-resistant construction, not to mention the importance of building with an eye to being able to put fires out after the rocking and rolling’s done. You get a visceral feel for what it’s like to be in the midst of an earth-shattering event. And, when all’s said and done, you’ll take a trip up to Alaska, where you’ll discover the San Andreas has a presence still.
Layfolk like myself will appreciate the clear and concise Appendix that takes some of the confusion out of things like magnitude and intensity.
Those worried about having nightmares of being trapped in falling buildings should probably relax. This book fascinated my brain enough to make it dream about earthquakes for several nights, but instead of a lot of chaos and destruction, it was mostly dreams about earthquake monitoring, which were far more interesting.
Those of us who know and love Chris Rowan will probably think of him frequently while reading this book, because there’s a distinct feel of Friday Focal Mechanisms about some parts of it.
So, yes, it turns out I wasn’t completely and totally tired of the San Francisco Earthquake after all. When it’s in the hands of a geologist and historian who knows how to step outside the main event and see it as one piece in a continent-spanning whole, it’s quite interesting indeed.
Here’s what you do if you want a book that will give you a short, sharp intro to cave geology combined with a whirlwind world tour of the world’s most spectacular caves, illustrated with photographs that will cause you to consider joining the local spelunking club forthwith: you go out and procure yourself a copy of this book.
It’s absolutely wonderful.
There’s your basic limestone caves, some richly decorated in calcite and some not; there’s caves formed by sulfuric acid, formed in salt, formed in lava, decorated by ice, and decorated by dangling strings of buggy mucus that are far more beautiful than they sound. There are caves with lakes, and caves with canyons, and caves with skylights. The common theme is that they are magnificent.
It’s a whole new world down there. And this is a wonderful window in to it. If you only ever buy one book on caves in your life, it should very probably be this one.
Oh, and in keeping with our Chinese theme, it does indeed contain a cave from China.
I think that will do for now. Additionally, I haven’t finished any other books just yet. That’s as good a reason as any to stop here, then, innit?
Via Callan Bentley and many others, Christchurch moments after the earthquake struck:
That’s the dust of a city shaking apart. Incredible. If anyone finds out who took this, let me know so I can include proper credit.
Here’s another striking image, from friends of @monaeltahawy via a myriad of Twitter folk:
All of this has put me very much in mind of the quote often attributed to Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
Our own Chris Rowan was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor for an article on the quake. And don’t forget to check out his post, which he’s keeping updated.
At least 75 dead so far, hundreds missing. A man took a walk through the ruins, and said more than perhaps anyone can about the aftermath.
Disasters are just that – disastrous. But the survivors will ensure something whole and beautiful rises from the rubble. In time.
World Coming Down
I’d meant to get the next Oregon Geology post up, but instead have spent the past several days watching in bemusement, sometimes in horror, as the world changes.
In Wisconsin, the Cons in control have rather overplayed their hand. I’m proud of the Dems there who left the state to deny a quorum, and incredibly proud of the tens of thousands of citizens who continue to protest. It’s not just about the unions, either – if you read that noxious budget, you’ll find plenty of gems like Walker & the Cons’ plans to sell off the state one piece at a time to corporations. Keep this in mind as you watch Cons in other states rush to follow suit. If you were one of those who fell for the “where are the jobs?” schtick, I hope you feel a proper fool just now. The Cons are never about the jobs. They’re about theocracy and oligarchy, and they’re about breaking the backs of the common folk.
Unfortunately for them, they’ve chosen this moment in time to step on ordinary people. It might have gone more smoothly for them if, at this very moment, the entire Middle East hadn’t flared up, with citizens pouring into the streets to topple dictator after dictator, no matter the personal cost. After Egypt, ordinary folk aren’t quite as willing to abide quietly under the heels of their masters. I hate to tell the Cons this, but as complacent and submissive, as easily distracted by shiny things, as Americans can be, I don’t think this is a good time to be trampling all over women, workers, science, and – well, everybody except for their corporate masters and religious right ringleaders. Libyans are still out there demanding regime change after getting slaughtered. Something tells me Americans might be a little more willing to risk a bit of inconvenience to prevent the GOP from decimating the country, considering nothing they do to us could be quite as bad. We’d be fools just to meekly accept their shit.
What I’m saying is: have your sleeping bags ready and sign-making materials to hand, my fellow Americans, because the time is coming soon when we, like our mates in Wisconsin, may find it necessary to camp out at capitols in order to make our wishes clear. Surely we can manage that much.
What’s happening in Libya is horrific. The government there has turned its weapons of war on its own people. I’m hoping the UN and the US government will get off their asses and put a stop to it, because there are people getting blown to bits out there. I clicked on a link to a photo today and saw the results of a despot desperate to stay in power: bodies cut in half. Do not click this link if you can’t stand the sight of blood, because the people in this photo were butchered. I almost wish I hadn’t seen it. But you know what? I needed to. It gave me perspective on many things. It showed me the violence our country hasn’t even attempted to stop, and it told me just how fantastically brave these people are, that they’d risk this to demonstrate for their freedom. It showed me how much freedom is worth. And it showed me that we’ve got a ways to go before it gets this bad here, but more importantly, that we need to ensure it never does.
Those folks in the Middle East going out right now to put an end to too many years of autocrats and dictators, those folks who are finding the power of peaceful protest, who are taking their destinies in their hands not with terrorism, but with courage, are so incredible. I don’t know what future they’ll build, but at least they’ve got the strength to build it for themselves. I hope all of them succeed. I’m in awe of them.
So there’s the political world, all shaken up and in places toppling over, sometimes inspiring and sometimes horrific. But that’s not the only news that’s crossed my Twitter feed and left me reeling. There’s also Christchurch, New Zealand, which got hit nearly dead-on with an earthquake. Buildings are down, people dead, and it’s a reminder that we are not as much in control of the world as we might like to believe. Two earthquakes there in less than twelve months – and likely aftershocks to come. I know they’re strong folk and that they’ll manage to rebuild, but I feel for them. It’s not easy, living at a plate boundary. Days like this are tragic.
Really does seem like the world’s coming down. I just hope a better one rises up.
Dana's Dojo: Calling Your Characters Liars
Today in the Dojo: How showing your characters up as big fat liars can be a good thing.
Anyone who claims to be good at lying is obviously bad at lying. Thus – as a writer myself – I cannot comment on whether or not writers are exceptionally good liars, because whatever I said would actually mean its complete opposite.
(Originally Written: Mexico, October 15th, 2005)
Yes, I am this devoted to you guys: I’m writing by moonlight in Mexico, listening to the sprinklers, surf and conversations between friends, writing a column that will be posted during NaNo madness in November.
I would be a liar if I told you I’m not pausing the words here and there to join in with said conversation.
On the drive down here, I started exploring topics I have yet to cover. (Take it from me: taking notes on a bumpy highway by intermittent moonlight is no simple task.) As we passed through Ajo, the memory of one of my favorite Connie Willis novels struck me. Connie remains The Master at calling her characters liars. And I figured it was high time I introduced you guys to this very shifty tool of the writers’ trade, if you haven’t already discovered it for yourselves.
Yes, I know. We spend so much time trying to make our characters believable. We fight to sustain the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. Why the hell would we jeopardize that by calling our own carefully realized story people bald-faced liars?
Because it’s a perfect technique to make the characters all the more believable, my darlings. Believe it or not.
Think about it. How often do people lie to us in the course of a day? How often do we lie to ourselves? How often do we see our friends believing something we know to be untrue (“The Space Aliens will come down and bring universal peace and harmony if I just buy these special communicators!”)? Okay, that’s a bit over-the-top, but think of the more subtle situations, like our friends believing they’re boring conversationalists when they’re actually the most interesting people at the party. Lies and self-deception are a part of life, and therefore will end up a part of your writing: you will at some point call your characters liars because all humans lie The question before us is, what kind of liars are they? And how should we call them on it?
We know the obvious ways: “Joe knew Brenda was lying. She couldn’t have been abducted by aliens unless Harrah’s Casino had opened a spaceship franchise.” That’s straight telling, and it’s quick and easy. If we trust Joe, we’ll believe what he said about Brenda without the author showing us how he knew. What I want to aim us at, however, is a more subtle approach.
Before we do that, we should take a moment to identify sundry species of lies and the liars who tell them:
Villains, Crooks and Petty Con Artists: Yeah, we’re starting with the obvious. These people lie for fun and profit, and know they’re lying. They make their living at it. This category includes your classic wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing and other sundry unsavories.
The Clueless Crowd: They don’t know the truth. They might not want the truth. They might not be able to handle the truth. They certainly can’t recognize it. These are the folks suckered in by get-rich-quick schemes, the latest fads, campaign promises, cults, the villain, and on and on.
The Self-Delusive: Close kin to the Clueless. They talk themselves into believing things that aren’t true about themselves and others: they’re fine, they’re flawed, too fat/thin, smart/stupid, funny/humorless, knowledgeable/uninformed… the list continues into infinity. Take your pick. This also covers the type of liar who thinks that lies are more fun than truth, who create a whole alternate self to seem more interesting, and end up believing their own schtick.
The Sparing Liar: White Lies R Us. We all use them at times. And you’re a liar if you say you don’t…. (ba-dum-dum). However, there are some people who use them all the time, in excess, and without ever being able to tell people what they’re really thinking because they don’t want to hurt them. You can decide on degree here and create either a Situational Sparing Liar (most of us) or a Chronic or Habitual Sparing Liar.
The Noble Liar: Lying for a Good Cause. The lies can be big or small, told by leaders or followers, as long as the lie is told in service to what that person considers to be a good cause. And sometimes they’re right: the truth would have been a bad thing to tell and would have caused more harm than good. Separated from white lies by the scope and purpose of the lie: it’s not a little pep-me-up lie, the consequences of the truth outing are bigger, and not told to save feelings, but lives or institutions.
The types of lies follow the list of types of liars pretty closely. Besides, I probably don’t need to define what a falsehood is. The truth is relative in fiction, anyway: the truth is anything that’s true in your story, and anything that goes against that truth might very well be a lie. I trust you guys to figure it out.
So once you’ve identified the lie and its liar(s), you have to decide how to reveal it. Remember: we’re being subtle here. Maybe we want only the Reader to know, in which case we can’t have the characters reveal it directly – a problem in fiction limited to revealing what the characters know. Maybe a few characters are In the Know, but we want the readers to work it out for themselves. Maybe we want to hoodwink the reader and characters both, but have to lay a foundation so that when we reveal the lies they’ll scream “I should have seen that coming!” instead of “Hey, that came out of nowhere! No fair!”
There are many useful techniques for doing all of the above, probably far more than I’m aware of. I’ll reveal to you as many as I can.
What I Say, What I Do. This technique is the easiest: you simply contrast what the character says against what they actually do. Say there’s just been a scene where the character is telling a friend about their deep love for animals and how they’ve been a member of PETA for years. The we see this character kick a starving stray off the porch and give the miserable creature no further thought. We know then that this character isn’t as compassionate toward animals as he/she would like others to believe. If this action was taken in front of another character who knows about the earlier statements, that character is clued in as well.
This technique can be inverted however you like: the character doesn’t have to say sweet things and do nasty. It could be the opposite: “I hate animals!” and then the stealthy feeding of the stray. Or, “I love adventure!” but the character’s a file clerk who never leaves the house.
Listen Very Carefully to What I’m Saying. Much more subtle and fun. As Nikki has pointed out in the sadly deceased Death Thread, a person’s word choice says more about them than their surface meaning. Bob may tell you, “I firmly believe women are equals to men.” But if you then hear him describe women in terms that subordinate them or perpetuate myths, like “I enjoy girls in the boardroom, they’re more intuitive than men,” you realize that maybe Bob isn’t the believer in Women’s Lib that he thinks he is. Even if he says something more subtle, like “I firmly believe the ladies are equal to men,” you can give the reader a hint that he’s a womanizer.
Also remember the power of the character protesting too much. Cops know that if someone’s putting up too much information, something’s wrong. Readers know it, too. If a fellow character asks Bob his opinion on Women’s Lib and gets a dissertation on women’s equality to men, the reader knows that this guy could easily be blowing smoke, unless of course he’s a fanatic. They’ll be paying closer attention to his actions to see if they match his speech. Just be careful not to overdo the dialogue if you go this route.
What’s the Buzz? A further takeoff on the Dialogue Method of Calling People Liars. What are the characters saying about the character in question? That can reveal them in a whole new light. This technique can be as obvious as, “Bob is a lying wretch. He talks about women’s rights, but I know for a fact he keeps his wife barefoot and pregnant.” But we were aiming for subtlety, so let’s have the secretary respond to a colleague’s statement about dearest Bob’s enlightened views: “I’m so happy I work for a man who supports women in the workplace! Excuse me, I have to go pick up his dry cleaning. I wish he’d pay me for all the extra things he has me do for him.”
You can also use the Mysterious Monosyllable method here: the secretary just responds with, “Uh-huh” or “Great. Yeah.” Never forget the power of the properly placed mysterious monosyllable.
Public vs. Private Face. You can have much fun with this. The person who’s the coolest head in the corporate crisis melts down into a puddle of indecision when it comes time to decide what to pop in the microwave. The flashily dressed nightclub Romeo goes home to a hovel and can’t even get his dog to pay attention to him.
Think of the masks we wear. Think of who’s revealed when, safely alone, we take them off. And private life can extend into dreams, fantasies and other manifestations of the subconscious.
Snoop Through the Stuff. The things we choose to represent us, the things we are drawn to, what we wear and what we eat says a lot about us. So show the reader what your character treasures, what they covet, and what they linger over that tells us they’re lying. The woman who claims she never wants to be married window-shops for wedding dresses. The man who portrays himself as macho sets his table with perfectly matched china. The person who hates her mother wi
ll not throw away those hideous knickknacks she keeps getting from Mom.
It also helps to show whether this stuff’s in plain sight or hidden. That tells us the degree of the importance of the lie to that character. Mr. Macho may go to great lengths to never let slip to his football buddies the existence of that Wedgwood dinnerware set, and that says a lot about how he views what “macho” is and what it means to him.
Where Do I Belong? Any organization your character belongs to from political groups to the local gym can be revealing. Whom do they associate with? Whom do they support? Why? If the organizations a character belongs to or supports clash with other info, we know we’ve got a liar on our hands.
Remember that organizations don’t have to be formal. They can be little hobby groups or just a particular circle of friends. The important thing to show is that the ideals or interests these folks hold in common do not match the ideals or interests the character has proclaimed to be their own. And if they’re trying to conceal that association from others, they’re aware of their lie.
The Author’s Tone. This could be the most overlooked and deviously subtle technique of all. If you take a particular tone – bitter, sarcastic, admiring, etc. – that contrasts with all the other clues, the reader will pick up on that. The words you choose to surround your character with may be the most telling clues of all.
You can take that tone immediately or introduce it more gradually, and support it with a few other anomalies here and there to make sure the reader doesn’t decide that you’re the lying bastard here.
In all of the above, the temptation to comment will be overwhelming at times. We know what we want the reader to believe, and we want to make sure they “get it”. Resist the urge to follow up a wonderful, subtle sentence like, “I hate people who obsess over material things, Bob thought as he polished his Rolex” with “He was just as obsessed with material goods as anyone else.” Leave it at the Rolex. Let the reader figure it out.
All of this seems like stuff you’d mostly use in third person POV, but many of the above techniques will work equally well in the first person. But how do you tell the reader something about the character that the character doesn’t know himself if it’s first person? It can be done. I leave it to you to read Chapter One of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog to find out how. I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling you the trick. I’ll just say this: when I “got it” before the narrator did, I laughed out loud from the thrill.
That’s what you want to give your reader: the delight of knowing something others don’t, and the satisfaction of catching people in a lie.