It's a harmless-looking, friendly group. Granted, these people aren't average-looking--some of them are dressed as medieval princesses and alien lords. The less outrageous ones sport T-shirts bearing thoughts such as "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too hard to read-- Groucho Marx."
Listen for a few minutes and you realize the conversation is anything but normal. A middle-aged woman wearing a Quantum Leap T-shirt says to her companion, "They just marched at each other and allowed themselves to become cannon fodder." A wispy-looking, bespectacled man asks a man clad in a sweatshirt depicting the planets, "The kidneys--how can I inflict injury by the kidneys?" A stocky, black-bearded gent inquires of a nearby woman, "What happens when you take a spear to the shoulder?"
Answers to questions such as these are of more than passing interest for those assembled here. We're at the 49th World Science Fiction Convention (affectionately known as Chicon V--it's the fifth time Chicago has been the convention's site), at a seminar called "Maim 'em Right: How to Break Bones and Othewrise Damage Your Characters." The lecture is not for sadists but for sci-fi and fantasy writers seeking to add realism to their stories.
A woman named Lisa Freitag--someone who appears more likely to lecture on interior decoration than mayhem--steps to the front of the room. She's a doctor from Okana, Minnesota, who doubles as a consultant to science fiction writers. She ignores the podium and instead sits cross-legged on one of the front tables. "I'm Lisa Freitag, and I'm a real doctor," she proclaims, and launches into her spiel.
"One researcher I knew spent nine months in a library researching pirates. But then he had his character get knocked out on the head for two days, then get up and run around. People, this just doesn't happen!" she shouts.
"On movies and TV we see people injured. A lot of us have bought into believing that's what it's really like. On television, you have two kinds of situations. There's instant death--that's what happens to the bad guys. The good guys, on the other hand--you can do anything to them, and they hardly break a sweat. There's only a couple of ways you do in somebody instantly. Do you want me to go into them?"
"Yeah!" screams the audience.
Someone in the back shouts, "Is that your specialty?"
Freitag softly replies that she's a pediatrician. Then she gets back to the matter at hand.
"The two ways you can do people in are by messing up their brain or hitting their heart and blood vessels," she says. Any other injuries are slower to cause death. "You can have blood leaking out in various proportions, depending on how long [you want it to take] for your character to die. If you need a 15-minute protracted bleeding, the blood goes slow. If you need them to die close to instantly, you can do that. You can--and should--change the location of the wound to determine how fast the injury takes effect.
"Fantasy is a lot easier to talk about than science fiction. Take swords, for example. Start with flesh wounds. Heroes get them a lot. These wounds would cause you or me to fall over. But James Bond gets them and just keeps on shooting. One guy I observed had layers of fat, and...but heroes and villains don't have fat, so we might as well skip that story."
Freitag points to her biceps: "All but your very toughest hero, if this is cut, are not going to be able to move." Nerves? "You can sever a nerve to a single muscle, but it's much more useful to sever a nerve to the whole extremity. Nerves don't heal very well." Bones? "Mostly, a fracture hurts a lot when you move. You're not going to be good for much after that. With a simple break, you or I would be out cold. When a bone becomes infected, especially in the Middle Ages, it becomes real hard to heal because of the infection. You could amputate, of course, but that brings about other problems."
"What about shock?" asks a heavyset woman with a stuffed pterodactyl on her shoulder.
"We're talking heroes here," Freitag responds. "You and I can just look at a foot punctured by a nail and feel woozy. But if a hero is wounded, control his bleeding, make sure blood flows to the head, and keep the patient warm." Of course, there's septic shock, in which blood vessels become so large that the blood pressure gets dangerously low. With septic shock, "you have only a 50-50 chance of surviving even in the most modern facilities. Don't let your characters get this unless you've got some really serious wizards to save them."
The man in the Groucho T-shirt asks, "What about a puncture wound to the back of the thigh? My character rinsed it out with alcohol, then had a fever and red wounds, but was up in about a month and a half."
"That sounds about right, maybe even a bit long of a recuperation," Freitag answers. A friend of Groucho's pats him on the back to congratulate him on his expertise.
A blond woman says, "I saw a movie--"
"Oh yes, movies," Freitag interrupts. "Did you see Robin Hood, the C-section scene where Little John's wife was giving birth? They didn't even clean the knife. In the Middle Ages, the only time you did a C-section was if you wanted a male heir and didn't like your wife much. I'm sorry. What was the question?" Blond doesn't remember.
"What about strangulation?" asks a bald man with thick glasses.
"It takes about three minutes."
Glasses is obviously disappointed by the answer. "So you don't have a quick, easy strangulation?"
Freitag senses his unhappiness with her answer. "Well, maybe if you grab the larynx..."
Quantum Leap wants to know how you ascertain that the body is dead.
"Try checking the pulse" is the answer. "Often you can tell from across the room. [Dead people] turn all sorts of colors that you don't ordinarily see."
Freitag continues her anatomical tour. "The shoulders are enormously well protected. Granted, if I had a dislocated shoulder, I wouldn't be able to use it right away, and neither would you, but we'll give Mel Gibson the benefit of the doubt."
She spots one of the convention's participants, a woman in a shirt decorated with full-color drawings of the digestive system, heart, and lungs. The back shows various other organs. One side shows muscles, the other bones.
Freitag asks her to come up to the front of the room. Now she has a living anatomical chart, who helps the lecturer by pointing out the appropriate organs. "The heart? It shouldn't be damaged unless you want your character to die. The liver? Its blood stinks. You can bleed to death from a liver infection without any blood showing. That's no fun. The kidneys? They're well protected. If intestines get hit, there's a lot of stool and other nasty things that really have to stay inside." When the intestines are pierced those things leak out, poisoning the rest of the body. "That's why if someone is hit by a rapier, it's not a fast death, but slow and painful. The spleen is smaller and harder to hit, and nobody knows what it is anyway. So it's not very useful."
A small, owlish woman wants to know about decapitation. "They say that during the French Revolution, you could see decapitated heads looking around with their eyes still moving."
"Ugh!" is the only answer Freitag musters.
"We only have time for one more question," she says. Black Beard, who has been waving his hand for nearly an hour, is finally recognized. "What about a spear going through the shoulder?"
"You go through some mighty dangerous stuff if you penetrate the shoulder. The arteries and nerves..."
"How painful is it?"
"It would hurt me."
Black Beard gives a smirk and jots down some notes. Then he joins the rest of the exiting crowd.