Category Archives: The Writing Life

Healing in Science Fiction

wanted healing

It’s important to do your homework when writing, especially about science.

In the recent past, I’ve read a number of stories and novels in the Sci-Fi genre that utilize some version of a healing agent. Sometimes this is a salve or injection or maybe a bath like in Wanted. The authors of these stories try to give some indication of science behind the concoction. The explanation will usually toss around some terms including antibiotics.

Antibiotics don’t work anymore.

One hundred years ago, before antibiotics, people might get a bacterial infection from scraping their knee or slicing their finger. The infection would “fester” meaning the bacterial colonies would spread and eventually the person could go into septic shock. We called this blood poisoning when I was a kid, but basically it’s where the bacteria has taken such control of a body that it can’t fight back and will eventually die.

Penicillin changed all that.

All the sudden folks that underwent surgeries, recovered rather than going sepsis. We could do more intricate, outpatient procedures (as opposed to chopping off an infected limb and cauterizing the wound).

You get the point. Antibiotics were awesome.

But they were never a fix-all. They don’t affect viruses, fungi, algae, or cancer. Just bacteria. And some estimate that there are millions of types of bacteria. So antibiotics don’t have an affect on all of them. In fact, within a year of introducing penicillin into the medical world, scientists discovered strands of bacteria that had already become resistant to penicillin, meaning it no longer worked to ward of infection from those strands.

That’s why they developed amoxicillin and cephalexin and erythromycin and Biaxin and Floxin and Levaquin and so many more. But just as quickly as the antibiotics are introduced, bacteria finds a way to morph, change some how and become resistant. No new antibiotic has been developed since the 1980s. And the “last resort” known as Colistin is kept under lock and key, barely used just in case the bacteria develop resistance through exposure. And sure enough, it’s all ready happening.

So you see, Antibiotics don’t work anymore. At least not in the future. In fact, Dr. Fukuda of the World Health Organization stated that “the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.”

Now doesn’t that sound more like science fiction than a concoction using antibiotics as a cure-all?

So what is science doing about it?

healingNow for the science nonfiction. Scientists are developing all sorts of new technology to help prevent the apocalypse. Nanoparticles as treatments and delivery mechanisms of other treatments, viruses for the same purpose, enzymes that fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria now called “Superbugs” and the development of other antimicrobial agents like small molecules that mimic the human immune system—specifically antimicrobial peptides.

Bottom line, do your homework. Don’t just spout off something that a reader might perceive to diminish your credibility.

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

 

Science Fact and Science Fiction (Part 2)

Yesterday, we talked about what sort of people become scientists and how they think. If you missed Part 1 of Science Fact and Science Fiction, be sure to go read that first.

And now, back to the list of 4 things writers get wrong about science and scientists.

3. As Always, You Need to Follow the Money…

Many senior scientists don’t get much lab time. In fact, most of the professors I studied under or worked with in college spent most of their time raising funds to keep the lights on and the experiments rolling. Lab space, lab equipment, experimental materials, and graduate student salaries don’t come cheap. So, whenever you read or write about a scientific study, it behooves you to think about where the money comes from. Figure out the funding and you’ll often have a good idea of the sorts of biases and politics you’re going to have to deal with. Additionally, each of the four major types of scientists — academic, corporate, government, and amateur/startup — have their own quirks, habits, and means of incentive.

Academic scientists are driven by the stricture of “publish or perish.” Their goal is to secure funding from governments, special interest groups, or businesses to allow them to study what interests them. They are often pure scientists (remember from yesterday: those who value knowledge for its own sake). However, the modern system is set up such that academic scientists are under a great deal of pressure to perform “ground breaking” work and publish those results with regularity.

The problem is that getting a break-through every couple months is unlikely. A scientific investigation, if done properly, may take years or even a life time to bear fruit. There are many researchers whose discoveries weren’t recognized as important until well after they had died. However, that isn’t an excuse in a publish or perish culture. You still need to make regular “progress” or you can lose you funding and your job. This pressure has led some to distort or even outright fabricate data in order to keep the money flowing. Pro tip: Want to be despised by a bunch of scientists? Falsify data. Not only is it dishonest and often illegal, even minor transgressions will destroy your reputation and career if discovered.

Corporate scientists, on the other hand, don’t have as much trouble with the issue of funding. However, they also don’t really get to choose what they study. Their job is to invent, improve a product, or make a discovery that can then be commercialized to make a boatload of money. Preferably, they’ll do this quickly and cheaply. Ultimately, they get their funding from the company’s consumer base.

Naturally, applied scientists (remember: those who find value in using knowledge) tend to migrate to the private sector. This is the sort of work that I do, and I really enjoy it. I can take the time and energy that I’d otherwise have to focus on finding funding and do the work. Plus, I genuinely enjoy what I do, so it’s a win-win.

Next are the government scientists, who can be further split into two major groups. First are the administrations with government mandated missions, such as NASA or the handful of government research labs. The reason they exist is because the government thinks that either a) no one would invest in that kind of work and it’s essential to public wellbeing, or b) they don’t want that sort of work in the hands of private entities. In fact, there’s a line in the United States Constitution (Section 8) that mandates that the Federal Government is to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” And they do. Government grants and contracts are responsible for many of the major discoveries and technological advances we take for granted.

The second group of government scientists are those who are employed to act as regulators and advisers. Their job is to double check the rest of us to ensure that our work complies to local, state, and federal laws, as well as ensure that new products won’t cause harm to the public. They are also often expert witnesses for various branches of the government. However, it is still a government job, fraught with all the same sort of bureaucracy, problems, and politics that are characteristic of any government endeavor.

The last group is the amateurs and startups. Though they are often the most underrated group, they are also often the pioneers with the unique vision needed to change the world. These folks aren’t limited by corporate goals or academic systems. They are the sorts of people who passionately follow their interests and therefore can be either pure or applied scientists. Amateurs often don’t end up making a lot of progress, largely because of lack of formal training or funding. Most startup companies fail because they can’t compete in the market or their “big idea” isn’t so ground breaking after all. However, sometimes these people invent or discover things that change the world. After all, the Jet Propulsion Laboratories owes their origins to four “amateurs” who were students at Caltech. Even today, many successful technology companies are founded on the basis of a great idea and a lot of effort put in by people working in a basement.

4. Science is Imperfect – That’s the Point!

Everyone tends to look to science for answers when really they should be looking for questions. Fundamentally, the point of science is both understanding and predictive power. Observations of the past should be used to predict the future. If they fail to do so, they aren’t necessarily useless. Rather the model is simply incomplete. As hypotheses are repeatedly tested and challenged, they gain weight and become theories. As theories age and stand up to the efforts of hundreds and thousands of observations and experiments, they become taken as “fact.”

Though scientists have earned a reputation for arrogance, what they really need is a profound sense of humility. Scientists are human. Our understanding can be wrong or incomplete. We must NEVER reject a new piece of evidence because it clashes with our world view. Hypotheses that were once viewed as ridiculous are now widely accepted as fact. Need an example? If you had stood up fifty years ago and asserted that black holes are real, you would’ve been laughed out of the room. Black holes were the stuff of science fiction. However, we now know that not only do black holes exist, but they are fairly common (if hard to see). In fact, our very own Milky Way galaxy, like most others, actively orbits around a single supermassive black hole at the galactic center! (Want to know more? Look up Sagittarious A*.)

In conclusion, the really important question is this: What kind of story are you telling? How important is scientific reality to your audience? Can you get away with hand waving and mutterings of “sufficiently advanced technology,” or do you need to research every single tiny detail? I can’t tell you for sure. It depends on your audience and your own tastes. Getting science “right” in fiction is less about factual accuracy than it is about being consistent. Writers don’t really need to be experts, however. We can find plenty of authorities who are happy to share their knowledge.

Fortunately for us, Science Fiction is speculative. The most important thing about getting science right is to ensure that you are internally consistent and your characters behave like scientists would. I’ll say this again because it is essential. What you can’t afford to do is get the human element wrong. Though science is a body of knowledge and a set of skills, it is also a point of view. If we write the characters with truth and consistency, we can sell the rest.

Science Fact and Science Fiction (Part 1)

Many of the people with whom I’ve shared both aspects of my life are surprised by the dichotomy. I aspire to being a best-selling writer, and yet work as a professional scientist. I take writing courses and attend cons, and yet got my degree in engineering. Friends on both sides of my life have told me that it’s weird that I can do both. After all, everyone knows that scientists are analytical, left brained, and writers are creative, right brained. You simply can’t do both. Well no, clearly you can. But I can see where they are coming from given how often scientists are miss represented in fiction.

Sometimes it’s as simple as factual inaccuracies. Those I can forgive. After all, who is to say that the fictional world works with exactly the same rules we contend with? However, I have a much harder time when it is clear to me that the author didn’t bother to take the time to understand how scientists think and view the world. For me, a character not feeling “real” places huge amounts of strain on my suspension of disbelief. So, in the interest of better writing all around, let me share with you four of the things that I’ve noticed “right brainers” often get wrong.

1. Science is BOTH a Body of Knowledge and a Way of Thinking…

The extent of scientific knowledge that humanity has managed to accumulate is mind boggling. Though people tend to think of science as one big thing, it’s not. Botany, chemistry, anatomy, rocket science, robotics, medicine, programming, all the flavors of engineering, and dozens of other specialties — it’s all science. I’ve seen plenty of fictional scientists who seem to know everything. That’s bogus. Sure, a scientific education is designed to instill a baseline of knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. However, at some point (usually in college if not sooner) scientists tend to hone in on a very narrow slice of the spectrum and specialize. It’s not uncommon for a pure scientist to devote their entire lives to researching weight loss, looking for exoplanets, or working on ways to improve human-computer interactions. Though those may seem to be broad topics, and they are, they are each only one “book” in the library of scientific inquiry.

However, “science” is also a lens through which scientists and engineers are trained to view the world. That training gives its students the discipline and tools needed for problem solving and discovery. It also instills certain core beliefs. Fundamental to any of the sciences is the idea that the world works by following a set of rules. We may not understand those rules right now, but we can and should discover them through methodical observation and experimentation. Second is the belief in the need for ideas to be challenged and reviewed by peers. A single experiment or study doesn’t mean a thing until it is reproduced and verified independently. This goes hand in hand with the idea of intellectual integrity, which is sacred within the scientific community. Finally, the training of a scientist is designed to instill a certain degree of precision and attention to detail. Many scientific discoveries throughout history were made because something unexpected happened and the researchers were observant enough to notice the trend.

As writers, we need to ensure we cover science in all its aspects — both as a body of knowledge and a point of view. The first requires that we research our character’s specialties thoroughly enough that we don’t make major mistakes and break the illusion. I’ve found it helpful to consult with experts as necessary. Luckily, there are many scientists and engineers who are also fans of fiction, so it’s easy enough to find volunteers. Secondly, we must take care to ensure that we capture how a scientist is trained to think and view the world. We also need to know our character’s specialties, and whether they view themselves as a pure scientist (the sort who loves knowledge and discovery for its own sake) or an applied scientist (those who find value in doing something with their knowledge). Finally, we need to decide if we want them to be a generalist or a master of a single specialty. I’ve seen every combination work well, but it’s a significant decision that must be considered carefully.

2. Stereotypical Scientists are Rarer than You’d Think…

The sorts of walking stereotypes you see on shows like The Big Bang Theory do exist. Trust me, I’ve personally met more than a few. However, most scientists would blend in seamlessly with a crowd. Sure, there are some scientists who are uncoordinated and poorly dressed, but there are also scientists who are body builders, fashionistas, and martial artists. Some are socially inept and massively introverted. On the other hand, I had an engineering professor in college who performed standup comedy on the side. Furthermore, we don’t all stick with science as a life-long profession. Some of the people with whom I graduated have gone on to be actors and professional chefs. And while there is some truth to the stereotype that scientists are all either white guys or Asian, there has been a HUGE push recently to attract women and other races into scientific education and careers.

Admittedly, we still have a long way to go, but I always get frustrated when “futuristic” science fiction is filled with a group of monogender, monochromatic, hapless, and hopeless nerds. Science is, should be, and must be a diverse community. We need the varied points of view granted by many different backgrounds in order to truly explore the universe. Uniformity of demographic or thought quickly leads to stagnation.

As writers, we need to be pioneers of what’s possible while also honoring what is. We inspire our readers to follow their dreams and passions, especially when they don’t believe that it’s possible for someone like them to do something amazing. I am a scientist because of fiction. I know that I’m not the only one. We writers owe it to our readers to ensure that we represent all sorts of characters in our works, not just relying on tropes, stereotypes, and plot devices.

Be sure to return tomorrow for the Part 2 of Science Fact and Science Fiction!

Two to Three Novels per Year…Yeah, Right.

empty handedI didn’t think I had anything to write about for Misconceptions, but then i realized that I had a common misconception staring me in the face. I’d planned on putting three books out in 2016. I’ll be lucky to get one. I think that’s due, in part, to a common misconception by writers and readers; for some insane reason, we believe that life will go as planned. Even though it’s proven to us again and again, that life will NOT go as planned, we still seem to believe that it will.

Take my story for instance. I already had Moon Shadows written, the first in a series of six, and so I was sure it would go out in 2016. Nope. Taking a closer look, I realized this is a series that needs a publisher. It has great potential as a YA novel, but changes need to be made and it needs the marketing and backing that a pubolisher, even a small one, can give it. So nope, not coming in 2016.

I was partway done with two other novels, but medical issues within my family and extended family took time as well as money. I needed to get a consistent income which meant getting a regular job. Now, most authors work and write so what’s the big deal? Most aren”t the mother of five, active in their church and community, and spending 3-6 hours a week with dr. appointments. Is that an excuse? Yes! I should manage my time better, get less discouraged, and I should make writing more of a priority. I watch TV to escape the stress, I worry about things I can’t change then can’t focus on my stories, and my priorities occasionally get completely screwed up.

I’ve gone off on a tangent a little bit here, but I think the point is valid. Life happens. Excuses happen. Recognize it, deal with it, and keep writing. Let your readers know that you’re still working. Change timelines. It’s okay. And if you can only get a book out every other year for a while, or even longer, that’s okay. After a couple of those, you may be able to get four out in one year. Will missing self-imposed deadlines affect your career and your fan base? Maybe, but not detrimentally. Don’t believe the hype that you HAVE to have X number of books out per year. Believe in your fans, believe in your art, and believe in yourself.