Charles Choi is joining us today to talk about his novelette, “By the Will of the Gods”. Here’s the author’s description:
In “By the Will of the Gods,” an orphan adopted by a temple devoted to foretelling the future has to solve the mystery behind his mentor’s death. All this takes place in Nightingale, an underground city with a digital sky, located within a planet hosting gateways to other worlds.
What’s Charles’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit in “By the Will of the Gods” is the pet dinosaur used to follow criminals around the city of Nightingale. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?
In the overarching setting of the novelette, countless worlds across the galaxy are home to branches of the human family tree, with each lineage diverging from the others its own unique way. On one, everyone might be born with an identical twin; on another, everyone might be born immortal. (Nightingale’s planetary system happens to experience dramatically more cosmic impacts than the others.)
The dinosaur in question is a feathered reptile, something akin to Archaeopteryx. The creature is never called a dinosaur because no one in Nightingale’s planetary system knows about Earth, much less its fossil record. Instead, the dinosaur came from the world Bestiary, where the Age of Dinosaurs never ended, and people live alongside tyrannosaurs and brontosaurs and the like. (The people of Nightingale call the dinosaur a “pinnarept,” a word I derived from “pinna,” Latin for wing or feather, and “rept” for reptile.)
When I was writing the story, I wanted a way for the main character, Hap, to follow a group of criminals around from a distance. The criminals are savvy enough to foil electronic surveillance techniques, so I figured an animal might do. I didn’t want to just use a bloodhound, and since I had invented Bestiary, why not a dinosaur?
So Hap tagged a criminal’s motorcycle with a scent so the pinnarept follow the motorcycle. Hap could then follow a tracking device around the pinnarept’s ankle. It looked simple in my outline for the story.
However, when it came time to actually writing the novelette, two questions emerged. First, what scents might an animal detect that a human wouldn’t? Second, did dinosaurs even have a good sense of smell?
During the course of research to answer those questions, I was initially discouraged to find out the human sense of smell was much better than often thought. Still not as good as a dog’s, but not bad. I also discovered that birds — which are of course dinosaurs, and the closest relatives of this pinnarept — usually do not have a great sense of smell.
Luckily, further research helped solve my problems. Via Twitter, I found neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall, who revealed that insect pheromones were scents that some animals can smell that humans perhaps cannot detect.
Googling around further also led me to discover that while modern birds generally do not have a good sense of smell, early birds might have. So I don’t think it’s too big a leap to imagine that an early bird could detect insect pheromones, especially one specialized to live off insects.
This bit is basically just a colorful scene in the story that helps highlight just how strange the worlds of the setting can get. Still, I’m glad the facts girding it hold up relatively well! I’m looking forward to writing many more stories in this setting.
“By the Will of the Gods” Excerpt and Buy Link
Charles Quixote Choi is a science journalist in New York who has freelanced since 2001 for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science, Inside Science, Space.com, Wired.com, New Scientist, The Scientist, American Scientist, National Geographic News, The San Diego Union Tribune and Newsday, among others. You can read more about his journalism here.
He also writes science fiction. His first sale, the novelette “By the Will of the Gods,” will appear in Analog.
In his spare time, he has had the good fortune of adventuring to every continent. He also holds the rank of yondan in the Toyama-ryu battodo style of Japanese swordsmanship and is a senior instructor at Byakkokan Dojo in New York. He is a member of NASW and AAJA, and a NetGalley professional reader.
Born in Hong Kong and having dwelt most of his life in Queens, he currently lives with his wife and their three cats in the Bronx.