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Research: Combining Sciences to Create Fantasy

Hello Friends!

Today is the 1st day of NaNoWriMo, my current wordcount is 395.

I have some great news! Thursday, October 24th at 6:51 pm, I finally got to THE END of my NaNoWriMo project for last year!  Heck yes I looked at the clock, it was an important moment.  The bad news is, I had a week to finish prepping for my NaNo project for this year.  So I thought I'd talk about some of the research I've been doing, since I was spending time doing it anyway, and then you guys get a little flavor of what my story will be like this year.

Most of my characters in this story are a humanoid race called The Neif.  They are about eight inches tall, made of sugar, and their bodies are the consistency of taffy.  Now, normally I would like to make my own taffy to get a literally hands-on experience, but unfortunately, time does not permit.  Maybe after the madness that is November.

Here is a really simple taffy recipe.

The Neif don't wear clothes.  I mean, this is a fantasy story for people older than six.  But you can see some other homemade taffy sculptures here.  

I picture the Neif looking a little more like this:
But they don't have color except for the iridescent taffy-like shininess inherent in their skin.  And their eyes look like opals!

Enough of the pretty part.  I'm here to talk about science!  Now, obviously if the Neif are made from regular table sugar (sucrose), we need to talk some chemistry.  Sucrose is a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose.  
The amazing thing about chemistry is how much it has to do with physics.  A molecule is composed of more than one bonded atom, and the chemical bonds will only form in certain ways.  These different formations are called isomers.  And that is where physics comes in.  There are only a few ways a molecule can form isomers, and these are limited by the charge of each atom in the molecule, and the type of bonds they form together (very simplified definition).  Particle physics has everything to do with this.

So what does this have to do with my Neif?  I'll get there, I promise.  But I have one more scientific concept to introduce first, and we're hopping across the aisle for this one:  prions.
If you have heard of prions before, it is probably in the context of a prion disease, like mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.  The way prion diseases are thought to work is by an abnormal protein in the brain causing normal proteins to "re-fold," or change conformation, merely by coming into contact with them. Pretty cool!

Can you see the connection?  Not yet?  I'll help you out.  
One of my Neif craftsmen has discovered a new substance.  When it comes into contact with any portion of a Neif's exposed body, it causes the taffy-like structure of their bodies to become fully crystalline (taffy already has microscopic crystals in it), and they die as their body quickly experiences a chain reaction, spreading from the point of exposure.  The process ends with them as a crystallized statue surrounded by a puddle of water.  The sugar molecules in their bodies have changed into a different isomer, one that can only exist in rock-solid crystalline formation.  

If you are a scientist, like me, or if you like everything to be just so, you might be screaming at your screen right now.  No, that is not how isomerization works in saccharide molecules.  For that matter, the saccharide molecules in taffy are the exact same isomers as those in crystallized sugar, the only difference is how the sugar molecules are bonded with water, and how much water and air is present.  If you were (or are) a chemist and you were to look at all the different isomers for both glucose and fructose when bound in sucrose, the crystalline structure I describe above is not indicative, to my limited remembrances of chemistry.  

I admit, I wish it was neater and cleaner and that I didn't have to fudge a bit of the science to make it all fit together.  But this isn't a science fiction, it is a fantasy, and I think that's one of the things that can make fantasy so wonderful and accessible.  If we already believe part of something fantastical, swallowing the whole pill isn't as hard.   Minimizing the willing suspension of disbelief can make a story more immersive, because we recognize familiar aspects.  However, it can also be polarizing.  Some people will love it because it has more elements of the familiar, while others will hate it because the facts are not as straight as real-life.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments below.


  1. In fantasy and science fiction, there is almost always a point where the author does some hand-waving and says, "This works because...I said so." Te exception is truly hard science fiction that adheres zealously to the rules. Which has its apeeal, but also its serious limitations.

    The fact that you've considered the science behind your crystallization mechanic, and that the general mechanism is grounded in real science, just means your hand-waving is that much farther down the well of reality. I think that's a good thing. You're not proposing a preposterous initial condition, you're merely twisting a bit of science to suit your storytelling needs.

    Well, besides the fact that your main characters are animated bits of taffy. But I digress. :)


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