Elizabeth Fama on Putting the Sci in Sci Fi

Today we again welcome YA Author Elizabeth Fama. Her novels include Plus One and Monstrous Beauty.

Putting the Sci in Sci Fi 

I majored in Biology in college (I was pre-med), and I took lots of math and statistics both in college and graduate school. For a short stint I worked with rats in an epilepsy lab. I've lived my whole life in a fiercely analytical university community where, for instance, my physicist neighbor made a breakthrough in granular convection while musing over his bowl of breakfast muesli. As a result, I always love it when the science in speculative fiction feels real enough that I don't stumble. Of course, by definition it's fiction, so the science you create doesn't have to be totally real, but it shouldn't be obviously wrong.

Make it Messy

I've discovered that I also prefer invented science to be a little messy. Do you remember how grungy Mos Eisley was in Episode IV of Star Wars? (No, not the CGI-ed version, darn it, but the theatrical release.) And the scrap room in the Jawa Sandcrawler? It looks like everything is depreciating before your eyes; everything has a worn patina or is downright filthy; stuff has been used so much it's busted, and some of it is being junked. I just read Jack McDevitt's Starhawk, which takes place just after human beings have figured out how to travel faster than the speed of light. Except they're still not that good at it: your first jump will get you to the right system, but pretty much in a random spot in that system. It might still take days or weeks to get to your intended target, and you won't know exactly how long until you make the jump. There's some sort of "plus or minus" in the process that future humans don't really have the hang of yet. That feels real to me. It feels like the evolution of a technology. 

Inventing Medical Science

In Plus One, I needed to invent a non-invasive neurosurgical procedure. I knew how pinealectomies, or the removal of the pineal glands from the epithalamus of rodent brains, were performed on Siberian hamsters in Brian Prendergast's lab at the University of Chicago. (My daughter worked in Brian's lab for a year and a half.) In a hamster "PinX," researchers make an incomplete circular cut in the skull and fold the bone over. They use fine-tipped forceps to reach into the confluence of the brain sinuses and remove the tiny, pine-cone-shaped gland. The procedure carries a risk of bleeding and damage to adjacent areas of the brain, and of course a risk of mortality. In humans, then, PinX's would be too risky to perform routinely, and certainly it would be impossible to do them in a clandestine manner on newborns. 

A little research on my part showed that the pineal gland takes up fluoride molecules faster than any other organ of the body. I also knew that brachytherapy is a way to deliver radiation to cancer tumors, via directly-implanted short-range radiation sources, or "seeds," at the site of the tumor. In some cases of brachytherapy, you leave the seeds in permanently, and the radioactivity decays over time until it's gone. So I combined those two ideas: what if you attached a tiny seed of radiation to a fluoride molecule and injected it into the blood stream? Perhaps the pineal gland of the infant would take up the molecule, allowing the radiation to destroy the gland before the radiation decays.

This method serves the two criteria that I love in sci-fi: plausibility and messiness. The plausibility: this non-surgical PinX is based on medical knowledge and procedures that we already have, combined in new ways. The messiness: I included a risk of complications. The mildest complication is familiar to anyone with children who have been vaccinated: some infants experience soreness at the injection site. A more serious complication is exhaustion and lethargy from the radiation. (It sounds believable, right?) And the most dangerous complication, at a rate of one in fifty thousand, is a radiation-induced leukemia or lymphoma.


Whenever you're developing a new technology in your sci-fi piece, first make sure it's not overtly wrong. Then, aim to make it feel real, based on technologies we already have. And finally, add a little messiness, because the world--even a futuristic one--will never be shiny and perfect.

Find out more about Plus One and Elizabeth Fama at her website.


Laura Rueckert said...

I love "plausible but messy!" It put into words what I've been trying to get at in my WIP, and immediately inspired me to frther messiness. Thanks!

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