This website was down, or in various states of deshabille, for a week or two following my host’s server move. But I think I have everything back in order. If anything appears to be broken or missing, let me know!
Delighted to announce that I will be the Science Guest of Honor for FenCon XVII, September 19-21, 2020! Come on down to Dallas/Fort Worth, we’re gonna get science in your fiction and fiction in your science! I’ll be there with Adam-Troy Castro, Maurice Broaddus, and lots more awesome folks.
My panel schedule for Archon 43 look super exciting this year – I hope you’ll come join me!
Science Fiction vs. Fantasy
5 Oct 2019, Saturday 12:00 – 13:00, Madison C & D (DoubleTree – Collinsville)
Usually lumped into one, but which one is actually more popular? Is it cyclical?
Joey Froehlich (M), Mrs. E Susan Baugh, The Tom Meserole, Rich Horton, Benjamin C. Kinney
Searching for Markets and Writing to Them
5 Oct 2019, Saturday 13:00 – 14:00, Marquette A (Gateway Center)
An explanation of how writers find markets, build up a pro career, get paid to write (even if it is just a bit).
Kasey Mackenzie (M), Benjamin C. Kinney, Elizabeth Donald, Thomas Carpenter, Brock J. Hanke
The Same ol’ Trope and Dance
5 Oct 2019, Saturday 17:00 – 18:00, Marquette A (Gateway Center)
Editors want the newest freshest story…right?
Meg Elison (M), Angie Fox, Ms Joy Ward, Benjamin C. Kinney, Daniel Abraham
When to Finish Your Story
6 Oct 2019, Sunday 12:00 – 13:00, Marquette A (Gateway Center)
How to stop before you ruin your story.
Kasey Mackenzie (M), Mr Mark Tiedemann, Benjamin C. Kinney, Ty Franck, Rich Horton
Myths and Legends
6 Oct 2019, Sunday 13:00 – 14:00, Marquette A (Gateway Center)
Why are we still drawn to stories and characters hundreds or thousands of years old?
Mr Thomas Stratman (M), Sela Carsen, Benjamin C. Kinney
Three weeks from today begins the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Dublin, and I’ll be on programming!
Here’s where you can find me:
Escape Artists podcast – Live Recording
16 Aug 2019, Friday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)
Come learn more about free weekly podcast fiction! Join the Escape Artists for an audio fiction show presented by all four EA podcasts — Escape Pod, PseudoPod, PodCastle and Cast of Wonders. There’ll be a Q&A session, swag giveaways, all the latest news, and live readings.
Talk: Neuroscience for writers and readers: the evolved brain
16 Aug 2019, Friday 15:30 – 16:20, Odeon 4 (Point Square Dublin)
The human brain and mind have been topics of fiction since time immemorial, but our stories don’t always keep up with the science. The classic science fictional frameworks of the last fifty years have produced a lot of great stories, but a better understanding of the brain can lead us to new stories and new ideas. How can we, as writers and readers, make sense of the most complex structure in the world?
This will be an updated version of the talk given at the 2017 Nebula Conference and 2018 Readercon.
Panel: What writers need to know: the brain and body
16 Aug 2019, Friday 18:00 – 18:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)
This is the first of a two-part series of panels designed to help authors on science topics. Join our panel of experts who share the ins and outs about the brain and body. Let’s dive into what’s possible, impossible, and probable at some point in the future. How do you write about medical issues without a medical background? How much do you need to know and how much can you fake, and can a writer ensure that they are getting their body and brain science right?
Kaffeeklatsch: Benjamin C. Kinney
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD)
Did my Friday talk inspire any neuroscience questions? Here’s your chance to pin me down with caffeine and pick my brain!
Panel: Intelligent Others in SF
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 15:30 – 16:20, Stratocaster BC (Point Square Dublin)
The outsiders. Inhuman intelligences. What are they and what do they signify? Let’s explore the concept of aliens, mutants, cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and other cases in which sentience is different to our own. How difficult is it to write from the perspective of a non-human sentience? Will we inevitably insert some humanity into our inhuman creations and what does that make them?
Over the weekend, Escape Pod received one of the highest honors possible for a science fiction entity: someone named a species after us.
The newest member of the Escape Pod team, Zelomorpha effugia, is a Costa Rican parasitoid wasp. The taxonomic methods used to identify it (and the other newly-described species in this publication1) are new and perhaps controversial. But I, for one, welcome our scientific controversy overlords.
This delights me beyond words. Ever since I was a child reading Far Side cartoons, the idea of having a species named after something I’ve done was a dream beyond imagining.
NeuroThursday is wafting by this week for a piece on smell, taste, and emotion! The full text is posted here, below the Twitter link. You can also find a ThreadReader version at the very bottom.
Inhale deeply, and enjoy the aroma of #NeuroThursday, because this week I want to talk about smell, taste, and emotion – inspired by @tinaconnolly's Nebula- and Hugo-finalist novelette, "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections." pic.twitter.com/AEUWZb8MOu
— Benjamin C. Kinney (@BenCKinney) June 20, 2019
Inhale deeply, and enjoy the aroma of #NeuroThursday, because this week I want to talk about smell, taste, and emotion – inspired by Tina Connolly‘s Nebula- and Hugo-finalist novelette, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections.”
If you haven’t read it, it’s a wonderful story about memory, food, cruelty, and empathy. But you don’t need to read it for this thread. I’m here to talk about neuroscience, not pastry-magic. https://www.tor.com/2018/07/11/the-last-banquet-of-temporal-confections-tina-connolly/
Tastes and smells are notoriously emotional. Smells can evoke a flood of memories, with all their associations. Freshly-cut grass, your partner’s favorite flowers, the spices of your favorite meal, or the ammoniac strike of a campground toilet. Why so strong?
The first step is to realize that by “taste and smell,” we’re really just talking about smell. Most of the experience you get when enjoying food – the stuff we think of as “taste” – comes from the nose, not the tongue.
(Try eating with your nose clamped shut. Or don’t. It’s terrible.)
So now we’re talking just about smell. This sense works via 10-20 million olfactory neurons (labeled in image as “receptor cell”). They’re embedded in “olfactory epithelium” at the roof of your nose. (Epithelium = body’s surface layers, whether skin or a hollow space.)
Each of those neurons has one type of “olfactory receptor,” which does the scent detection itself. One receptor type, but many copies of it.
A scent enters your nose, dissolves into the mucus in there (appetizing!), and thus reaches olfactory receptors. When a receptor matches the scent, the two molecules will bond. Ions flow into the neuron, and a signal is produced.
Olfactory receptors are incredibly diverse. 900+ genes (the largest gene family in the body), and each receptor is broadly tuned so it can detect more than one scent. Like the visual receptors in the eye, which I discussed on a NeuroThursday past.
Color vision – all vision – comes from cells in the back of your eye (your retina) that detect light. These cells are called "rods" and "cones," because they're shaped like… yeah, exactly. pic.twitter.com/Gj1qOzNxT5
— Benjamin C. Kinney (@BenCKinney) February 16, 2018
In the eye, your “red” cones respond strongest to red light, but respond medium-strongly to wavelengths close for red. Same idea in the nose: each receptor can respond medium-well to scents with similar molecular shapes.
This is why scents *mean* things. If two molecules are related (with common features), they’ll bond to the same receptors (though not at equal strength). Same receptors = similar info to your brain = similar smell!
As with the eyes, broad tuning – a neuron has one target, but responds weakly to near-misses– is the way to perceive structure in the world.
This is super-fundamental, preserved across evolution. Olfactory neurons have basically the same cellular and molecular properties across all animals.
So now that we understand the biology of smell, we’re ready to ask why they’re so emotionally powerful.
Most of those emotional associations are learned: with exposure, we’ve learned that swimming-pool-chlorine tastes like summer. This can, in turn, bring up a specific summer-pool memory.
(There are exceptions to this “learned” thing – particularly in the realm of disgust, which starts as a hardwired thing. But even there, learning & association add layers.)
But smell memories can be more emotionally vivid than others. Is there something special about smell and emotion?
We have ideas, but no solid answers. “Emotional memory strength” isn’t exactly something modern science can study effectively. But the anatomy does point toward a possible explanation.
Those little olfactory neurons are rooted in your Olfactory Bulb, which does some initial processing of olfactory information, and receives guidance from top-down stuff like attention.
The olfactory bulb is part of your brain, and it connects straight to the limbic system: a network of areas in the brain involved in emotion and the formation of memories.
Some well-known parts of the limbic system could deserve their own NeuroThursday, since there are a lot of misunderstandings about them. If you know what the “hippocampus” is, I’d say 30% odds you know something false.
But the point here is that the olfactory bulb has direct access to parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory. One possible #NeuroThursday takeaway is that, yes, there’s an anatomical basis for smell memories to be uniquely evocative.
However, I’d like to finish by pivoting from fact to opinion. (Can your olfactory neurons detect the rank smell of punditry?)
Smell can be highly emotional. But so can vision and hearing. The sight of a loved one, the sound of a familiar song. Even a gentle touch, at the right time, can produce a mighty emotional response.
I’m not 100% convinced that there’s anything uniquely emotional about smell, compared to our other senses. Maybe its emotional-intensity only stands out because we don’t think about smell as often: we needed to be reminded of its intensity.
Powerful memories and delicious scents may make a challenging research project, but they’re a deep (and hopefully delicious) part of our lives, whether or not we pay attention to them.
Fourth Street fantasy is this coming weekend, with a fantastic lineup of programming!
In a wonderful little convention packed with smart people & deep ideas, I’ll be on one panel. Since it’s a one-track con, you won’t miss it if you’re attending, but I still want to highlight it here for delight & for the record:
7:00 PM – When Gods Step In
Robyn Bennis, Pamela Dean, Benjamin C. Kinney, Scott Lynch (M), Jenn Lyons
In fantasy, it’s no surprise to see gods taking an active hand in the story—except sometimes, that fundamentally changes all the rules. With stories that can feature beings of unprecedented power, how do we manage stakes and agency? How can gods act as divine intervention without becoming narratively unsatisfying deus ex machina, how can characters do anything that matters if free will is negotiable or fate isn’t, and how do you depict their faith or understandings of magic in a nuanced way when gods are provably real? When we reference gods in our determinations of how the rules of fantasy worlds work, that affects what it means to challenge of any understanding of what has “always” been “true,” and it shades how we read stories about exercising freedom under systems we can’t comprehend or influence. This panel will discuss how we navigate the awesome potential for power and problems of gods literally and figuratively stepping into our stories.
I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be appearing at Readercon in Quincy MA on July 11-14! Here’s where you can find me:
Friday 6:00 PM
Concierge Lounge – Kaffeeklatsch
If you want to pick my brain about neuroscience stuff, here’s your chance to trap me with caffeine!
xFriday 8:00 PM
Sylvanus Thayer – Reading
Who needs dinner? Come hear me read something awesome! I’m thinking “A Breath of Salt,” the Writers of the Future finalist story I withdrew from the contest. An epic fantasy with religious sorcery pirates, faith journeys in a world of real-but-transcendent pantheistic gods, and a CW for suicidal ideation.
Saturday 7:00 PM
Salon B – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Models
Ruthanna Emrys, Benjamin C. Kinney, John P. Murphy (mod), John O’Neil
Computer science and neuroscience may each be getting closer to the mysteries of cognition, but they do so from very different directions. How do they inform each other, and how do they get in each other’s way? Are their differences reconcilable? For that matter, is it even meaningful to think of them as being about the same thing? What do their cutting edges imply for our own deep dreams of fantastika?
Sunday 2:00 PM
Salon 4 – From Seed to Story: How to Escape the Slush Pile
Martin Cahill, Scott Edelman, James Patrick Kelly (mod), Benjamin C. Kinney, Kenneth Schneyer
As Ann Leckie explained in a 2013 blog post, even great writers will have stories rejected if they write 7,000 words around an underdeveloped idea. So what kind of research should go into a short story? How much plot and exposition are called for? What questions should the writer be asking and answering before they even start writing? Panelists will explore various methods by which a story seed can be nurtured into something publishable.
I’m delighted to announce that my short story “The Promise of Iron” will be appearing in Kaleidotrope in 2021! This started as the first story I ever brought all the way from drafting to revision, and as a baby!writer, its early near-successes (including as finalist for the 2014 James White Award) gave me the confidence I needed to keep submitting.
In a world where steampunk technology has dragged the Napoleonic Wars into a forty-year quagmire, the battlefront has finally made its way to Budapest. With automata walking the streets, the Jewish orphan Eszter might finally get her chance to become an engineer – if she’s willing to lose the last scraps of home, family, and identity she still possesses.
It may not be Thursday, but I found a good excuse to go all neuroscience on the experience described in the medical literature as “Sense of Impending Doom.”
I dread to inform you all of this, but "impending doom" is a very common symptom. Not just from living in 2019, either: from pretty much anything that will kill you.
— Benjamin C. Kinney (@BenCKinney) May 22, 2019
Or on the web via Threadreader App!