Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Inversus

So what is science fiction?

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Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

The making of a novelette (part 1)

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Note: This post contains some unavoidable spoilers about my novelette “Kawataro.” You’ve been warned!

With all due respect to Faulkner, I think it’s occasionally useful for a writer to be able to sit down and will a story into existence, if not for the money—which is rarely a worthwhile motivation—then at least for the practice. There’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a story from conception to final draft in only a couple of weeks, whether the goal is to satisfy an untapped creative urge or simply to fill a hole in one’s schedule. In the case of “Kawataro,” I had a break of roughly a month in the writing of The Icon Thief, when I was waiting to get some comments from my agent, and I decided to fill the time by writing a couple of short stories. One story, “Ernesto,” has yet to be published, although I hope you’ll have a chance to read it at some point. The other was “Kawataro,” the development of which provides a—hopefully—interesting illustration of how I work.

“Kawataro” began, as many of my stories do, with a trip to the library. Whenever I need an idea for a story, I head for the periodicals section of the Sulzer Regional branch and pick up a large stack of magazines, preferably Discover or Scientific American. (I used to have a big collection of back issues at home, purchased off eBay for the specific purpose of generating story ideas. These were left behind after my move to Chicago, but not before generating ideas for “The Last Resort,” “Warning Sign,” and “The Boneless One.”) My usual method is to browse until I see one or two articles that get my attention, and then to daydream about possible connections or plot ideas. For “Kawataro,” the inciting article was Margalit Fox’s story in Discover about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins of Israel, who, because their population contains a high percentage of genetically deaf individuals, have developed their own unique sign language. (Fox’s book Talking Hands tells more about this fascinating community.)

So how did an article about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins become a novelette about a remote Japanese fishing village? As usual, it was a combination of chance, inclination, and the inexplicable workings of the writing process. After reading the article, I had a vague idea for a story about a scientist trying to solve a mystery involving a community of the deaf, which could only be explained when it became clear that her patients were suffering from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. (This may seem like an oddly specific story structure, but it’s actually a variation on the plot of my first Analog story, “Inversus.”) Looking into conditions resulting in deafness, I found that Pendred syndrome had the characteristics I needed: it caused deafness and hypothyroidism, which I thought might be useful for a medical mystery, though I didn’t yet know what the mystery was. Then I stumbled across this article, which contained the following fateful statement:

Goitre is the most variable syndrome in Pendred syndrome and is caused by impaired thyroxin production because of an organization defect. Goitre prevalence is dependent of the daily iodine intake and is, for example, seldom seen in Japan, where the daily iodine intake is high.

This may not seem like much, but when I read it, my receptivity to potential material was particularly strong. At once, I saw the outlines of my story: a Japanese village, a community of the deaf, and a syndrome that had gone undiagnosed because of the local diet. (I even suspected that a burakumin community might provide a suitably endogamous population for such a syndrome to take hold.) Now I had the scientific backbone of the story, and if I were just trying to write a short vignette, it might have been enough. But I was planning to write a novelette, which requires a real plot, and hopefully some action and suspense along the way. What next? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I hit on a structure for the plot itself, and how the mysterious figure of the kappa, or kawataro, first entered the picture. (For the remaining installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

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