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[GUEST POST] Brian Burt (BLOOD TIDE) on Sea-Fi: When SF Plumbs the Ocean Depths

brianburtBrian Burt became addicted to science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories as a boy while reading to pass the long hours spent driving to and from swim meets around the Midwest. His love of fiction evolved into a desire to tell his own stories, which sometimes got him into trouble. (“I swear, an alien ate my homework!”)

Instead of pursuing a writing career, he got into computer programming because that was, by all accounts, more “sensible.” While on a consulting assignment in Dublin, Ireland, he became sufficiently inspired by the magical scenery and the rich literary tradition to try writing his own short stories. He had more than twenty science fiction and fantasy tales published in small press anthologies, genre magazines, and online publications over the years. Along the way, a short story entitled “The Last Indian War” won the Gold Award (grand prize) in the Writers of the Future Contest, and a dark fantasy story called “Phantom Pain” received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. These encouraging experiences finally gave him the motivation to try his hand at a full-length novel.

That debut novel, Aquarius Rising Book 1: In the Tears of God, won the 2014 EPIC eBook Award for Science Fiction. Aquarius Rising Book 2: Blood Tide has now been released as well from Double Dragon Publishing, and Book 3: The Price of Eden is well underway. This trilogy of novels stems from Brian’s passion for environmental themes, exploring a potential future in the wake of accelerating climate change when a disastrous attempt to reverse global warming goes horribly wrong. The series focuses on human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians who have built thriving reef communities among the drowned human cities along the coasts but are caught in an escalating struggle with human scientists determined to restore the continental wastelands at any cost.

Brian is married to a brilliant woman, a former software engineering colleague, who has long been his first reader and most trusted editor. He works as a cybersecurity engineer to pay the bills and lives in Plainwell, Michigan, with his wife and three sons, a corn snake named Jake, and an aging white German shepherd named Sif (after Sif the Great Grey Wolf from the Dark Souls video game franchise). His sons named the dog; Brian hasn’t seriously played video games since the Pac-Man era.

Brian enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, horseplay, red wine, and local craft brews (so hopefully the virtues balance the vices, more or less). At every opportunity, he uses his boys as an excuse to act like an unruly kid (which is why his wife enjoys rum, school days, and migraine medication). He hopes to keep writing speculative fiction novels with environmental themes, improving as a storyteller, and building a like-minded audience to visit imaginary worlds with him.

Sea-Fi: When SF Plumbs the Ocean Depths

by Brian Burt

When I was nine, my parents took us on a dream vacation to Hawaii. That was the first time my brother and sister and I, three small-town Indiana kids, had ever seen an actual ocean. We were competitive swimmers, cocky about our mastery of all things aquatic, and we attacked the churning breakers on one of Maui’s prime bodysurfing beaches with reckless abandon. Swimming pools are not adequate preparation for throwing yourself in front of towering ocean waves. One of those monsters picked me up, slammed me down onto the sandy bottom hard enough to knock the breath out of my lungs, then tumbled me all the way to the beach where I crawled to safety, choking and sobbing and suitably humbled.

That was my introduction to the immense, indifferent power of the sea. Several days of snorkeling over nearshore coral reefs instilled an awe for its beauty that complemented that healthy dose of fear. The ocean is a force to be reckoned with, and I would not underestimate its might again. I cherished the memories of that trip and never forgot the lesson. So, when I recently began a trilogy exploring the potential effects of climate change, and an attempt to geoengineer a solution that goes horribly wrong, Mother Ocean became a central character.

The Aquarius Rising novels explore the world of Aquarians, human-dolphin hybrids who have built thriving reef communities amid the ruins of drowned coastal human cities. For a landlocked Midwesterner, this was a daunting setting to create… but it also captures the essence of what I absolutely love about speculative fiction. For writers and readers of SF, the only boundaries that exist are the ones we impose on ourselves. If our genre can transport us to distant stars or galaxies, why not to the depths of our own oceans, an exotic alien environment we’ve mapped less thoroughly than the surface of the Moon or Mars? Even someone stranded thousands of miles from the nearest seashore can still use imagination—and the precious resources of the modern internet—to dive far beneath the waves with a race of marine humanoids leading the way.

I had a blast building Aquarius and doing the research to make the experience as believable as possible for readers. A wonderful group of marine biologists and oceanographers patiently answered my questions on online forums; three of them even graciously volunteered to critique early drafts of the first novel. I was able to weave some amazing facts into my imaginary world with the benefit of their insights. For example, how do cetaceans (whales and dolphins) avoid drowning when they sleep? My expert sources explained that they only shut down half of their brain at a time, so that the active half can keep them surfacing and breathing. For an SF writer, curiosity and conjecture ensue: what would Aquarians’ dream states be like? Would they have vivid hallucinatory visions that blur the line between dreaming and reality?

Research and experts are invaluable, but ultimately, science fiction vaults over the limits of current knowledge to take us somewhere new. Aquarius provided countless opportunities to do that. Electronics and hardware would be challenging for marine humanoids, so maybe they’d use DNA instead of circuit boards, “biosculpting” organic solutions to their unique problems. Life itself becomes their core technology. Instead of computer storage, Aquarians use Living Reefs: essentially gigantic floating brains inside tough outer membranes anchored to the seafloor that store their tribal history and knowledge. If these “brain-reefs” achieved a sort of sentience over time, how would they be perceived by the Aquarians? Would they become another member of the undersea community, perhaps the most indispensible member, fundamental to a reef-city’s identity?

The ocean is a vast, magical, mysterious realm that offers endless story possibilities. A forest of giant kelp electrified to repel overgrazing predators can become the flashing, flickering, shadowy refuge of mutated monstrosities. With a few genetic tweaks, wolf-eels morph into dragon-eels; spider-crabs begin weaving sticky nets between the stalks of lightning-kelp; vampire squid become creepily similar to their supernatural namesakes; devilfish transform into hellish creatures. Nature’s imagination is better than mine, but I can certainly follow her lead and revel in the journey.

Some would argue that modern science fiction was born beneath the waves with Jules Verne’s immortal Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. We’ve come a long way as a genre, ventured well beyond our comfort zone to explore the farthest reaches of space and time. But, sometimes, it’s worthwhile to return to our origins. Earth’s oceans offer everything that alien worlds offer, fiction-wise: deadly and exotic environments, mesmerizing scenery, bizarre life forms that can inspire and terrify us. You don’t have to board a spaceship to visit another world. Just take a deep breath, catch the wave of aquatic science fiction, and enjoy the ride!

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