Science and Science Fiction

Some of you know that I studied science in college — geology, in fact. Certain areas of study in geology are part of major political and religious debates in this country right now: namely, climate change and paleontology. I didn’t study much paleontology, but I studied a lot of climate change, and a lot of the type of geology, stratigraphy, that informs a lot of geological dating. (Man, I hated my stratigraphy class, seeing as how the professor never ordered the textbook so the only way for us to read the text was to hike out to a distant library that had one copy and was only open 9-5, and most of the class involved hiking around outside and digging in the dirt in freezing cold January Connecticut weather.)

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS featured some volcanology; my next novel (details to come) features a lot more. See? That degree is worth something, Dad. (Plus, there’s that whole digression on anthopogenic global warming in Tap & Gown.) Most of the science in For Darkness, however, is about genetic engineering, another highly controversial field of science. I liked playing with that controversy. It felt familiar after all those years in geology.

I love writing science fiction. Even when I was writing fantasy, with Rampant and Ascendant, I was very interested in grounding the fantasy world into plausible scientific scenarios. I did a ton of research on re-emerging species (some which are actually very unicorn-like) and venomous mammals (the platypus and several species of mole) and how venom has been used as a cure (snakebite remedies are almost always made from mammalian immune responses to snake venom, for example). There is a reason the fantasy world exists in a framework of a scientifically-minded heroine and a whole bunch of scientists.

Because of the narrative voice of For Darkness Shows the Stars, I wasn’t able to get into a lot of detail about the scientific underpinnings of that story. Elliot and her people don’t know what happened, exactly because they chose ignorance as a safety precaution. Elliot doesn’t talk about those things, in some cases because she doesn’t know it (I can’t imagine a Luddite’s scientific education is particularly good) but also because she doesn’t find it particularly seemly.

The people who have written me about the details of the science in the story are often scientists or science students themselves, who have recognized in my descriptions what I’m actually talking about. I’ve gotten a lot of “A-ha! That’s dwarf wheat!” kind of emails, which is like a fun little puzzle. My father actually sent me a whole letter, after reading an ARC, with print outs from scientific journals on research being done into “junk DNA” and endogenic retrovirus prevalence in patients with mental disorders and other articles, some of which I had actually already read as part of my research.

In my new book (my fall ’13 release), I am able to go into much more detail about the science in the book because the characters, like Astrid in Rampant, are much more scientifically curious. One of the POV characters (yes, there are several, and I’m dropping hints all over the place, aren’t I?) actually is a scientist, and he is always talking about the science. It’s fun to be more explicit about some of the stuff I’m talking about compared to Elliot’s voice. The new book deals somewhat with illness and how we choose to treat our sick. I got to make up a disease, which was fun, and borrow from a lot of other diseases and how people deal with other diseases that are real.

Probably enough hints for today.

Posted in Oceania, PAP, SF, writing life, YA

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