Sunday, June 10, 2007

Worldbuilding in the grocery aisles

Hybrids aren't just cars that run on more than one fuel source.

There are hybrid animals, and hybrid plants which occur either naturally or with the assistance of mankind, also hybrids in Greek and Roman mythology. Some hybrids are sterile, and some are not. Some hybrids are called after a combination of the father's name and the mother's (father's name first).

The mythological creatures do not appear to follow this convention... and in fact, now I understand the convention, my mind boggles over the Manticore (man-lion-scorpion).

The etymology is delightful. According to wikipedia, hybrid comes from the ancient Greek for "son of outrageous conduct."

I could have called my Tigron world's black sabre-toothed tigers ... pangers, or tigthers, but I think that would have complicated matters.

This week, I'm more interested in plant hybrids. For world-building in a hurry --not that I recommend taking a short cut, but sometimes one has to-- a few hours in the grocery aisles can be quite inspiring.

There are some astonishing hybrids available, as well as exotic fruits and vegetables that might or might not have been hybridized. I look at the Ugly Fruit, and I wonder whether it evolved to be visually appealing to anything (assuming that its fruit is "designed" to be dispersed with the assistance of creatures that eat the fleshy parts and eject the pits).

There's something spiny and orange that looks like a cross between a sea urchin and a sea slug, and I'm fascinated by those waxy green globes that come inside a pale green papery looking flower. If you were to change their colors, rename them, and describe them carefully as if you'd never seen them before, you'd hardly need to dream up your own fruits and vegetables for your alien romance's world. And, then there are the roots. You have to be careful what you do with your root vegetables, in my opinion.

How did we ever start to eat root veg? Did we observe a primate and copy them? Did our earliest ancestors' curious gaze fall upon something intriguingly orange, or pleasantly white, pushing up through loose soil? I suppose we do have an instinct (as children) to pull things out of the ground and bite them as an experiment. I'm told that I ate a worm once when I was a toddler! Would your aliens have similar instincts?

Your human heroine has to eat in outer space, so not all her food can be unrecognizable (or she'd have to have major allergy testing) or her gut would not be adapted to handle it. We're accustomed to stories about our domestic pets eating human delicacies which are not natural for them... which their guts are not adapted to handle. I've been thinking about what natural carnivores can and cannot eat, because I want my tigers to play a larger role in my next story.

In fact, having spent several hours reading the ingredients on dry pet food for research purposes, I do have to wonder under what circumstances a dog in the wild would eat corn on the cob. Or rice!

There are some schools of alternative healing thought that claim some of our painful ailments (such as arthritis) are a consequence of us eating fruits or vegetables that we are not adapted for, or to which some of us are allergic. My mother cured very painful arthritic swelling in her hands by giving up all produce in the tomato families. Other people have a problem with potatoes. (Some have a problem but don't know it.)

In Insufficient Mating Material, the hero and heroine are marooned on an island on an alien world, and they have to test food and deal with the possibility that the heroine might not have a tolerance for some of the fruits and vegetables growing there.

Why do I think roots are a problem? Carrots are easy, and you can eat them raw if you want to. Parsnips look like big carrots only white... but you really do have to cook them. Watch out for onions and shallots, because they look like tulip bulbs. There are different roots that look alike. Take ginger root and Jerusalem artichoke. They are both about the shape and size of a small, pudgy hand, with gnarly, stub-tipped fingers, root filaments like fleshy hairs, and are beige-gray.

On our world, some plants do not want to be eaten, especially by the roots (!) so they evolve to be poisonous. What happens in your alien world?

For those interested in research, or obsessed with plausible alien anatomy --and possibly inspired by the fact that a carrot fresh from the ground does not necessarily look "carrot shaped"-- M.I.T. (an eminently respectable place of scholarship) sells --or used to sell-- a to-scale, and anatomically correct poster called "Penises of the Animal Kingdom".

I thought the plural was Penes, but I suppose a few people wouldn't get the point.

And having Googled that, because none of the three of my dictionaries within easy reach gives any guidance on what a proper person should call multiple schlongs, I'm off to pursue other lines of romantic alien research.

Best wishes,

Insufficient Mating Material
"racy, wildly entertaining futuristic romance" ~Writers Write

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