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Science in science fiction

June 17, 2013

Recently I found out about a website called, first because Joan Slonczewski–my friend who writes science fiction–told me that it lists titles showing how science is done in fiction, and then because it was mentioned in a session on science writing at a conference I went to for writing program administrators. Joan’s fiction is so heavily based in the science she does that we thought it should be included on the fiction list, so I asked her to answer some questions about how her work in the lab influences her science fiction (although she’s already written articles on such topics as “Science in Science Fiction” and “Genomics and Humanity”).

When I thought about lab work in Joan’s fiction, the first scene that came to my mind is from Daughter of Elysium, in which Blackbear comes from his native Bronze Sky with his goddess (wife) Raincloud and their two children, Hawktalon and Sunflower, to work in the lab at Science Park on Shora. One of the questions he is trying to answer is “why is there such a tight link between fertility and aging?” Here is an early laboratory scene from that novel:
“Blackbear was back at the lab reviewing the results of his mutants. He had tried several permutations of the control sequence for Eyeless. One of them predicted germ cells that actually went through meiosis.
He showed Onyx first before telling Tulle. “I chose this part of the DNA sequence because it binds control proteins during egg production in a normal embryo. I mutated the Elysian sequence to look more like the normal sequence. This one mutant had no ill effects in the simulator, and it induced production of ovogen in tissue culture.”
Onyx scanned the culture readings, the numbers floating above the holostage. Meanwhile Blackbear glanced over at Sunflower, who played with a light pen and a chunk of nanoplast in the corner.”
Blackbear’s work in the lab helps readers understand more about longevity, which directly affects the plot of Daughter of Elysium.

Almost all of Slonczewski’s science fiction novels describe lab work that relates to the plot. In A Door Into Ocean, the Sharers have discovered things about DNA and healing that the characters from other planets can hardly even imagine, especially since Sharer “labs” look nothing like the clinical places we picture from our own world. In The Children Star, an orbiting lab provides clues to what is going on with the wheel-shaped cells on the planet. In Brain Plague, the language of the sentient microbes can only be deciphered in a lab. In her latest novel, The Highest Frontier, the main character’s study of biology in the lab with her professor helps drive the plot.

Slonczewski works with college students in a biology lab at her own college, so it is little wonder that the world of the lab makes its way into her fiction. I asked if she ever took her own kids to the lab when they were little, like Blackbear takes his toddler, Sunny, and the older child, Hawktalon. She said not often (her husband Michael often stayed home with their two sons when they were small), but that there were one or two occasions. Once her older son, Daniel, when he was around two, managed to taste some hydrochloric acid while in her lab, she said, and she “had to take him to the water fountain.” Then “he went around curling his tongue the rest of the day,” she said. When Daniel was in fourth grade, she hired him to do a few things in her lab, such as pollinate plants by using dead bees on a toothpick; he made “beesticks” for use in the lab. Joan said that Matthew, her second child, “mostly just pounded on the keyboard” of the computer when she took him to the lab with her.

What is in her novels is almost always inspired by something she saw in the lab, Joan explains. She first thought of purple people and whitetrance while in graduate school, when she saw a purple membrane made by bacteria that absorb green light and found that when their pigment absorbs the light, it bleaches white. She imagined people that had similar bacteria that was symbiotic in their skin and altered it for fiction, so that oxygen caused the effect (rather than light).

Joan says that what happens in the lab—trying to solve a problem and coming up with unexpected solutions or frustrations—is always the dynamic in her novels, where the characters are always trying to solve a problem.

In the microbiology lab at Kenyon, Joan and her students work with e coli, testing their own throat bacteria. Her work with viruses and bacteria has led her to thinking about engineering viruses to put genetic treatment into cells, like using herpes and intestinal bacteria to help develop the immune system, and using the HIV virus as a therapy agent in The Highest Frontier.

Starting out by talking about a control that works differently (“reverse control”) in The Highest Frontier, Joan, at one point in our conversation, ended up by saying “the whole thing is about biology research, one way or another.”

Brain Plague,” Joan declares, “is more fun if you know how epidemiology works” because the way the microbes operate in that novel mimics real epidemiology, especially in that the ones that end up being most successful are the ones who learn to coexist and become symbiotic or mutualistic.

For The Children Star, Joan was looking for a kind of life-form rarely seen on earth, so she invented a planet where all of life is ring-shaped and things evolved that way. As in the movie Avatar, with all its different creatures who have a head connector and six legs (except the Navi, who “arguably have fused arms”), Joan was interested in exploring a particularly successful life-form that gives rise to many forms that share the same fundamental body plan.

Sometimes the scientific understanding at the time Joan was writing a novel gave rise to a work of fiction based on an understanding that may be shown to be false (like Samuel R. Delaney’s exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language affects thought, in his novel Babel-17.) When thinking about longevity and writing Daughter of Elysium, Joan was interested in what would happen if people could be engineered to live for thousands of years because of research at the molecular level. At the time, she says, scientists were interested in organisms that had low fertility and high longevity, but today’s scientists are not at all sure that’s the key.

As Joan’s research on the evolution of microbes continues to inform her fiction, we can expect to read more about her interest in invasive species in the follow-up novel to The Highest Frontier, in which humans themselves are an invasive species. Until that novel is written, you can follow her current interests by checking out her blog, Ultraphyte.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    June 17, 2013 7:57 am

    This is REALLY interesting – ta!

  2. June 17, 2013 11:59 am

    Lovely! I’m linking it here there & the other place.

  3. June 17, 2013 10:47 pm

    Interesting! On thing I pay attention to about science in fiction is the results — I think fiction sometimes gives a false sense that science always works or finds a conclusion, when in reality experiments fail or are unexpected a lot.

    • June 20, 2013 11:35 am

      Joan talked about that, both in our interview and on some panels with other scientists at Wiscon.

  4. June 18, 2013 11:18 am

    Very interesting! I like science but don’t know much so a lot of it went over my head, but it’s a fascinating method of storytelling that I’ve not read about before. And I love how she gets her ideas, just that one idea becoming a whole story, and it’s based on what’s happening now.

    • June 20, 2013 11:36 am

      A lot of it goes over my head, too, but when science fiction is well-written you don’t have to get all the science. When I read the manuscript of The Highest Frontier, I asked why the space elevator is shaped like anthrax, and I remember Joan’s expression, because the ladder-shape was so visible to her (and I had no idea what anthrax looked like).

  5. Jenny permalink
    June 19, 2013 5:09 pm

    This was fascinating but bees on toothpicks sound like the worst hors d’oeuvre ever.

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