The science inside the story

My winning science fiction story for Writers of the Future vol. 34, “A Bitter Thing,” was inspired by hard science. In the story, an intergalactic traveller falls for Ami the moment he sees her. It seems to be love at first sight, but can she really trust her understanding of his alien emotions?

The story revolves around the intergalactic traveller, Teese. His alien emotional system was inspired by two disparate pieces of real, Earthly biology. The first is the biology of cephalopod skin, and the second is known as mirror-touch synesthesia.

First, cephalopod skin. Squid, octopuses and cuttlefish are cephalopods, a word I love because it literally means “head-foot”, which is a wonderfully succinct description of an octopus: it’s all head and tentacles. More to the point, they all share to varying degrees the ability to change the color and texture of their skin. For colour, little sacs of pigment called “chromatophores” can expand, showing their color, or contract to imperceptible black dots — like a TV whose colour pixels can change between “on” and “invisible”. In giant cuttlefish, in particular, this effectively gives them nHDTV-capable skin, which they use to produce amazing, complex, strobing displays of colour. The significance of these displays, if any, is still mostly lost on us; but we do have a rough idea that in some species of octopus, the displays could communicate emotions like anger, aggression, alarm.

Next, mirror-touch synaesthesia. Science has found that people have so-called mirror neurons in our brains, which fire in response to seeing something happen to someone else. For example, if we see someone being hit in the face, a corresponding neuron goes off [rewrite this bit]. Mirror-touch synaesthetes, however, have a particularly acute response. Seeing someone slapped in the face provokes a ghost of pain in the mirror-touch synaesthete’s own face. Seeing another’s rage or grief stirs the corresponding emotion. I first read about this condition in Erika Hayasaki’s excellent 2015 article, which I can’t do better than to quote:

“Salinas is peculiarly attuned to the sensations of others. If he sees someone slapped across the cheek, Salinas feels a hint of the slap against his own cheek. A pinch on a stranger’s right arm might become a tickle on his own…. Mirror-touch synesthetes struggle with the constant intrusion of others’ feelings. At a symposium on mirror-touch synesthesia last year in London, a woman named Fiona Torrance, of Liverpool, described how she had once seen one man punch another. She promptly passed out. “I felt the punch,” she explained. … When a psychotic patient goes into a rage, Salinas feels himself getting worked up. … Salinas experiences other people’s sensations of injury and intense emotions, but only to a muted, partial degree. If he saw someone being stabbed in the arm, he says, he would not feel the sharpness of the blade but rather “an echo of pain” on his own arm… But in high school’s morass of angst-ridden teenagers, Salinas was forced to learn how to regulate his own emotional responses.”

These two bits of real Earth science, from the fields of marine biology and neurology, came together to give me my intergalactic traveller, Teese. His cephalopod-like skin shows his emotions instantly and unequivocally. And when he sees an emotion written on another’s skin, he responds like a human mirror-touch synaesthete, feeling the same emotion within himself:

Teese’s people feel emotions the moment they see them. If I’d been one of Teese’s people, I would’ve been flooded with shame the moment I saw the red blotches on his skin, and a paler echo would have bloomed on my own skin. It’s beyond empathy: it’s instant and direct and irresistible. If I’d been a hexie, I would have said: “Why are we ashamed?” while my skin and emotions thrummed in synchrony with his.

Unlike a human mirror-touch synaesthete, though, Teese also reflects the emotions he’s feeling on his cephalopod-like skin. It didn’t come up directly in this story, but you can imagine the feedback loops…

In writing this blog post, I came across Octavia Butler’s “hyper-empathy” or “sharing”, an ability/affliction of the protagonist of her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. I haven’t read these yet, but according to Wikipedia the protagonist literally feels the emotions and physical senstions of those around her. To me, this seems to anticipate mirror-touch synaesthesia. It’s always cool when science fiction anticipates science!

Image credit: Nick Hobgood. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Detail of original image, which is of Euprymna berryi

8 thoughts on “The science inside the story”

  1. Just finished reading this story last night. Congratulations on your win!
    I love this story for so many reasons. You were able to tie both realism and sci-fi into a solid honest work that reads very well. The tone was incredible and the pacing was inspiring. Thank you for writing it. I look forward to following you going forward and buying your future works.

  2. One of three best stories of this anthology (all three of which happened to be submitted in the third quarter). I wonder if mirror-touch synesthesia could make one a better writer.

    [STORY SPOILER]

    Your story also raises questions about the nature of love. Ami feels so sure, at the end of the story, that Teese never really loved *her*. But why does she think she loves *him*? She must be attracted to him physically, or there would be no sex. That her orgasm and his are of a different nature doesn’t really change the fact that each side reached orgasm through the other. In fact, they even reached orgasm *together* each time, which I read isn’t that common.

    Of course, she cares for Teese as a person. But then, so does he for her, or he wouldn’t want to take her out, visit museums with her, or anything not involving staring into her eyes (or *at* her eyes, to make the difference that so matters to her).

    Humans are attracted to each other through appearance first, and Teese doesn’t appear so different in that regard. Nor does Ami. On that first night of their meeting, Teese was attracted to Ami’s eyes; Ami was attracted to Teese’s otherness. Neither was more or less superficial than the other.

    1. I don’t think reaching orgasm, together or not, is either a cause or an effect of love. In my mind, curiosity got Ami into bed with Teese, and pleasure brought her back. Teese would’ve been watching her eyes and doing more of what had the greatest effect on her eyes. As for loving Ami, Teese certainly cares that Ami is happy with the relationship, happy enough to want to keep him around and keep going to bed with him; but is that the same thing as caring *for* her?

      I don’t think mirror-touch synaesthesia would make me a better writer… but I do wish my brain was better at simulating what others will say or do, both in writing and in life.

      1. You say that “Teese certainly cares that Ami is happy with the relationship, happy enough to want to keep him around and keep going to bed with him; but is that the same thing as caring *for* her?”

        Maybe not. But is love ever entirely selfless? Outside of the familial circle, where blood might speak, our love for other people is based on how they treat us, on how they make *us* feel.

        Does Ami care for Teese himself, or for what he brings her — for what he makes *her* feel? Doesn’t the very fact that she didn’t understand him mean that she didn’t actually care for *him* (for who he really is)?

        You say that you wish your brain were “better at simulating what others will say or do, both in writing and in life.” Mh, so you’re considering a career in politics?

        1. But, *can* we do more than love our internal representations of someone? We can never know someone completely. We have an internal mental model of the beloved person, and in a sense, we’re loving the person we think is represented by that mental model.

          Far from politics, I was thinking it would be nice to put my foot in my mouth less often. Being only human, I don’t always know what someone else is thinking or feeling let alone know the “right” thing to say. Would politics be easier or harder among the hexies, I wonder?

  3. I see. So the difference is that Ami believed, at least, that she cared for Teese as a person, whereas Teese held no such illusion: he was aware of caring mostly for Ami’s eyes, rather than for Ami herself.

    Regarding empathy, tact, and delicacy, maybe you could follow my example. I’ve long stopped putting my foot in my mouth. Rather, it’s been stuck in there for most of my life. Ah, but I still manage to push it further down my throat from time to time.

    About politics . . . I don’t know. The official aim of politics is good government, not the accumulation of personal power through emotional manipulation (most manipulation is emotional, even when it uses reason as a weapon). Maybe the hexies are free to focus more on the official aim.

    One of the best short stories I’ve read this year, “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn, explores the relations between two peoples, one made of telepaths and the other . . . not. The advantages of telepathy are obvious, but more interesting are the potential drawbacks.

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