Impossible Colours

How many colours do you see?
How many colours do you see?

What would ultra-violet and infra-red light look like if we could see it? Will the technology exist, someday, to allow us to see colours outside our normal range of perception? Not as heat signals on a screen, but to somehow translate these other wavelengths into something our brains can see as “just another colour?” Maybe, maybe not. But it is fun to think about.

There seems to be a lot in the news lately about colour. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because I’m interested in it. As an artist as well as a writer, colour is always on my mind. I am in constant search for the “perfect” colour combination to suit a particular idea, or emotion, or imagined scene. I fuss over descriptions of colour in my writing, trying to balance brevity of language with richness of image. I sometimes find myself in a battle against purple prose as I try in vain to define the indefinable.

To me, colour has always seemed a very individual experience. How do we know that one person sees colour in the same way as another? Even our ability to see colour varies, from the hyper-sensitive to the colour-blind and, one assumes, everything in between. Other animals view colours differently from humans, some on upper and lower ends of the colour spectrum beyond human capabilities. How would they describe these invisible colours to us? How do you describe the green to someone who has never seen it? How would you describe a colour that is not visible to us now, but which may be in the future?

One of the many things I love about science/speculative fiction is that it allows us to push the boundaries of what is real into what could be. The only limitations on what you write is your own imagination, your own skill as a wordsmith. This is at once intimidating and liberating. Colour can be a great inspiration, and a great starting point for a number of writing exercises. Try the following:

1) Your character has an ocular implant that allows her to see ultra-violet light. Describe what she sees looking at sunshine reflected on the surface of a lake.

2) Describe the summer sky without using the word “blue”

3) Many animals can see infra-red light. Describe what a snake sees as she is hunting a mouse.

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