Friday, August 17, 2018

How One Scientist Writes Fiction

I am a scientist and I write fiction. (Time will show whether I publish any.) People assume, therefore, I must write science fiction. But this is not the case.

If I did write science fiction, I would probably write about an apocalyptic future in which humans have defiled the Earth so much that it loses its Gaia equilibrium and lurches from disaster to disaster. There is a long history of such literature, from the 1960s The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie to the more recent move Wall-E. Some writers, with scientific backgrounds, have science as part of the plot, especially the rise and rapid spread of new epidemics, such as the movie Contagion.

In these examples, science propels the plot or acts like a causative character. The human characters tend to be shallow and predictable in their responses to science-based catastrophes. The scientific concept is in charge.

But in my fiction, the characters and their struggles are foremost. I like to create characters whom the reader can really love (or sometimes hate) and who interact in complex ways. The characters advance the plot, and whatever does not advance the plot must be excised. In my case, I sometimes stick in didactive passages of science education, which I later remove. Does science play any role in my fiction?

Yes, of course it does. It is always in the background. In my fiction, the characters are (almost) always aware of the world in which they live and know how it works. In my fiction, a forest is not just a forest. The drier forests on the hillsides are different from the moist bottomland forests. My characters know the different kinds of trees. They know about germs, but also about the rich and fragrant microbial life of the soil. In my fiction, soil is not just dirt. My characters learn things from watching plants grow and finding fossils in rocks. In my fiction, nature is not a character but is a force: it is neither malevolent nor safe, but something entirely its own that we need to respect. I wish everybody knew enough science to understand how the world actually works; in my fiction, my characters generally do.

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. But a stage is dead. It has dead props that humans can move around wherever they want. But the world, scientifically understood, is not like this. It is a living planet to whose processes we must all fit our activities.

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