Guest Post: “Plausible Fictions and Strange Realities” by Stephanie Saulter
Readers of this blog will know that I absolutely love the (R)evolution trilogy written by Stephanie Saulter. Not only is it excellently written and tells an emotional, action-packed, intelligent tale, it also hits relatively close to home in my case. As a bioscientist I was not only fascinated by the science fiction, but also by the plausibility of the science Stephanie used in her books. It is great to read a book that uses my area of expertise as a scaffold to build a whole story around. When I talked to Stephanie at LonCon last year, I mentioned that for me, as a scientist, I thought it was incredible that she wrote a fictional story that I could see happening one day. To my surprise, she told me that most people who are not scientists don’t think the story is plausible, while scientists do.
To celebrate the release of the second (R)evolution book, Binary (read my review here), in paperback Stephanie stops by the blog to talk about the science in her books and the contradiction between what the scientists and the non-scientists think about it.
Plausible Fictions and Strange Realities
One of the things I imagine every author of science fiction dreads – especially if the science on which their fiction is based is one in which they are not personally an expert – is that someone who is expert will read it, snort derisively, and declare that it is completely off base, a million miles from reality, never ever happen. That their speculation has been wildly unrealistic, fundamentally implausible, and that the entire work is fatally flawed as a result.
There are a number of strategies to ward off this deadly possibility. They all pretty much begin with do your research: you should try to know at least as much as any reasonably well-read layperson. From that point, paths diverge. One option is to set the story so far into the future you can hand-wave away any objections to the technology; not my choice, personally, but a very popular one. Another is to be deeply descriptive and desperately specific about every last theorem, gizmo and widget, ensuring they are well within the known laws of whatever field you’re playing in; possible if you are the aforementioned expert, dangerous for anyone else, and tedious (in my opinion) for most readers. Or there’s the route I take: be specific enough to be plausible, but not enough to be wrong. Indulge in no more technical detail than that well-read layperson is likely to encounter within the pages of their intelligent, but mass-market, news or lifestyle journal. Speak in informed generalities.
Know that you might still be caught out, whichever route you take; that one way or another the passage of time will date the presumptions on which your work is based. Resign yourself to the possibility that, sooner or later, someone who knows what they’re talking about will declare that you don’t.
It might happen one day. But so far, I’ve had the opposite experience.
Oh, there’ve been comments that the radical genetic engineering that is the base ‘science’ of the ®Evolution books seems a bit farfetched and implausible, a bit over the top in novels which are largely social-realist in their core concerns. To my great relief, none of the people who think this have, so far, been geneticists.
The feedback from the people who do know what they’re talking about – people who actually work in the biosciences – is that my witterings about epigenetic triggers and suppressants, chromosomal modifications and mutations, inter-species splicing and the like, have in general been entirely plausible (and that, in a genre where the dominant science for speculation is still physics, they’re rather pleased to see their own discipline taken out and played with).
So. What are we to make of this?
It speaks, I think, to a general lack of appreciation for actual, ongoing developments in the biosciences. Given how radically those developments have changed the lives of virtually every person on the planet in less than a century – think vaccines and antibiotics, anaesthesia and antiseptics, painkillers, antidepressants, cloning, GM crops, organ replacements, genetic screening, artificial insulin, IVF, antivirals, and on and on and on – this strikes me as a massive cultural oversight. And I have a theory: fiction is partly to blame.
For a very long time now, speculative fiction has been primarily rooted in the ‘hard’ sciences of Newtonian physics, cosmology and more recently quantum mechanics, and the notions of expansion and exploration that they can so easily be made to imply. Extra-terrestrial imaginings abound. Thanks to Hollywood, just about everyone can conjure up a mental picture of what manned, faster-than-light space travel might be like – though we still don’t know whether such a thing could ever be possible.
Thanks to medicine, it is a certainty that no one anywhere in the world will get smallpox ever again. That is a real-life, honest-to-god miracle, accomplished during my lifetime; but there is no glamour attached to it. The fairy dust of fictional extrapolation has somehow passed it by.
The result is an impoverished imaginative space, which finds it easier to accept a space-operatic vision of today’s humans in a far future setting than a biologically altered humanity living in the world we know within the next century. In a way, the hand-waviness wins: a very long time from now we’ll be able to do all sorts of things! Never mind how! But, a fundamentally altered species in twenty, fifty, a hundred years? Within the lifetime of your children and grandchildren, people you might actually live to see and know? For some reason, the collective cultural imagination balks at that.
I’ve got news for you, folks. I, Stephanie Saulter, born and raised in one of the world’s ‘undeveloped’ countries, am immune to polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and probably a bunch of other things I don’t even know about. (There was no anti-vaccine nonsense when I was growing up. People remembered what disfigurement, disability and early death were like.) I’ve recovered completely from an injury that in another age would have at the very least crippled me, and from an illness – several, actually – that in all likelihood would have killed me. I am already altered.
So, I suspect, are you.
We need fictions that engage with that reality, and with the potential it implies. It’s through our stories that we – individually, collectively, culturally – codify our attitudes and our ethics, our aspirations and our taboos. It’s how we work out what we think about the unthinkable.
We’ve done a lot of speculating about what might happen if and when we encounter intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I enjoy those books; I don’t want people to stop writing them. But we’ve spent comparatively little storytime considering the impact that we, the only fully intelligent beings we are certain exist, are having on our own evolution, right here, right now. I don’t want us to stop doing that either, but I do want us to start thinking about it. I want us to start speculating about that reality. It is immediate and pressing, and we need a body of literature that addresses it.
About the author
Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy: the first novel, Gemsigns, is available everywhere and the second, Binary, is out in paperback in the UK and Europe on 2nd April (and in hardback in the US on 5th May). The final book, Regeneration, will be released in the UK in July. Stephanie lives in London, blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus.