Tricia Sullivan asks fellow authors in the genre how they balance hard fact and fantasy

 'I don’t see a conflict between the realistic and the mythic because science fiction is not science'

Tricia Sullivan
Sunday 24 January 2016 15:02
Science fiction writer Tricia Sullivan in Shrewsbury
Science fiction writer Tricia Sullivan in Shrewsbury

Science and science fiction are like fraternal twins; science fiction is the one wearing the silly hat while science mutters: “I don’t know this odd person.” Though it’s easy to see why a scientific background might confer an advantage to genre writers, the converse is another matter.

For example, as an MSc student with the Astrophysics Research Institute I can report that my science-fiction background has been categorically useless in solving equations or interpreting data.

But a sample of one is not enough. So, to celebrate the release of Occupy Me, I asked some of the UK’s newer novelists how they use science in a genre where imagination really is more important than knowledge.

“Science-fiction was always my first love,” says Emma Newman, the Hugo-nominated podcaster and author of Planetfall (Roc Publishing). “It’s all I read in my adolescence and the genre I gravitate to naturally in film and TV too. I was intimidated by writing it though, and had my first books published in other genres. I stumbled across an article about the idea to build a Moon base using 3D printers to print buildings from Moon dust.

"I fell in love with the idea; a distant colony underpinned by 3D printing technology would be the perfect environment in which to explore [a particular] mental illness. I saw a talk given by Rachel Armstrong at the Clarke Awards in 2013 that inspired the interest in synthetic biology and I read her work on potential applications for future architecture.”

Research is key for writers. Newman’s spanned engineering, synthetic biology, and psychiatry to produce a novel about the mystery inside one individual. The work of the Philip K Dick Award nominee Anne Charnock, author of A Calculated Life and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (47 North) incorporates heavily researched 15th-century art together with the near future.

“Science fiction offers me an irresistible opportunity to speculate, to imagine what lies ahead in a detailed, intimate way. But being a grounded, journo-type, I’m more interested in the plausible, political and societal changes that might occur, rather than the race to space.”

Charnock brings a background in environmental science, journalism, and fine art to her subtle and original novels. “I approached art-making myself with an analytical mind – seeing my studio as a laboratory for controlled experiments.” She finds many similarities between art and science; and yet, “There’s divergence, I’ve noticed, in the reception of art and science. I find this a great enigma. Society seems to accept that science should forge ahead, make discoveries, innovate. But there seems to be an element of popular resistance to innovation in the arts, a greater sense of conservatism.”

Stephanie Saulter addresses both scientific and artistic conservatism head-on: “There is a real arrogance to the notion that humanity has already reached some sort of apex. It’s as though, having got to grips with the concept of evolution, we’ve misunderstood it as somehow ending with us; we’ve failed to understand that it is an ongoing process. And because we are social beings, our evolutionary path is as embedded in our languages and cultures and technological capabilities as in our genetic potential.”

Beginning with Gemsigns (Jo Fletcher Books), Saulter’s “®Evolution” trilogy about genetically engineered humans in near-future Britain is as scientifically rigorous as her Massachusetts Institute of Technology education implies. “Every supernormal ability that a character has is already encoded in the DNA of a living creature. Once you know that, for example, many animals perceive different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that we might be able to splice and dice the relevant bits of code and end up with someone like Gaela who can see all the way from ultraviolet to infrared.”

But large-scale social movements are where Saulter’s real interest lies. “There’s no mathematically precise way to model all of the actions and reactions within a social system, but neither are they simply random: there are patterns and triggers and tipping points. It may not be predictable, but it is understandable.”

Saulter’s work resonates strongly with contemporary social issues, some with deep roots for its Jamaican-born author: “The fear, bigotry, civic and economic inequality, even ideas about who is or is not fully human that play out in the ®Evolution draw hugely on the Caribbean history of enslavement, emancipation and institutionalised injustice that we’re all still burdened by …. A lot of what I was doing with the ®Evolution was trying to map my thinking about genetics and science and progress against the fallout of our terrible history.”

Barbadian novelist Karen Lord has a background in physics and a PhD in the sociology of religion. Of science, she says: “I find it easier to handwave hard science by imagining the undiscovered and inexplicable (to the lay person at least) than to handwave how people and societies behave (behaviours that have endured for millennia and are likely to continue into the future).”

Lord’s work includes the multi-award-winning Redemption in Indigo as well as the galactic-scale The Best of All Possible Worlds and The Galaxy Game (Jo Fletcher Books). Even when writing about genocide and its effects, Lord fails to be even slightly depressing.

“Humanity has never sailed forward with ease,” she says. “We lurch through history in a zig-zag, progressing and regressing, sometimes both at the same time. The best cautionary tale isn’t ‘we broke it, game over’. It’s ‘we broke it, and we can either suffer passively or try to fix it’. So, it’s not merely optimism, it’s activism. We can all agree we’ve got problems, now where are the solutions?”

Lord’s Caribbean identity comes to the fore when she adds: “You don’t read grimdark dystopia on an empty stomach. You read it in a comfortable nook with tea and biscuits at your side. If you already know what hunger is, you don’t want the cautionary worst-case scenarios. You want to read about feasts. As long as our region remains vulnerable to real and not hypothetical apocalypse, I’ll keep imagining solutions and progress and even success.”

And me? By day I work on equations. By night I write about an angel who powerlifts. I write about hyperspace scavengers, dinosaurs, and the ghosts that live in petroleum. I don’t see a conflict between the realistic and the mythic because science fiction is not science.

Nor is the genre a single-purpose tool. Science fiction is a Swiss Army knife – and that’s a good thing, because at a time when mind-boggling discoveries are happening fast and thick, when technological development outpaces our ability to predict its effects, and when globalisation challenges our cultural and moral boundaries, then if we didn’t already have science fiction’s interpretive methods we should be obliged to invent them.

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