Sunday 23 July 2017

"What if?"

Melaleucas by the lake
The idea bounced into my brain one evening seven years ago, while I was at Smiths Lake working as a sessional tutor on a field trip for Macquarie University’s second year ecology course. An idyllic spot on the New South Wales Central Coast, the lake provides a wealth of species diversity, from aquatic to terrestrial, from microbes to fungi to flora and fauna. Students collected plant samples for identification, delved into the mud of the lake bed to extract diatoms, and went on dawn treks through the bush to spot birds and hear their songs. And in the evenings, after the communal meals, the staff would sit and chat over the bottles of red we’d brought with us from civilisation.

My mind wandered from the conversation, and I looked out into the darkness of the lake.

Host behavioural modification. Some parasites do far more than merely take residence in their hosts to obtain food, lodging and transportation. Some insinuate themselves into the brains of their hosts, hijacking their bodies, their movements. Hijacking their will. I knew of this occurring with Toxoplasmosis gondii-infected rodents, losing their fear of predators – cats – so that they virtually  invite themselves to be consumed, allowing the parasite to relocate into new hosts, to reproduce within the cat and continue their life-cycle. And I knew that an accidental host of Toxoplasmosis is humans, a dead end for the parasite, but whose behaviour, nevertheless, is altered in curious ways.

What if the parasite mutated?

What if humans became the primary host, and the changes in human brain function became so extreme as to start to change society itself?

What if, what if. The mantra of the fiction writer. The mantra on steroids for the speculative fiction writer.

And now, it’s written. ‘The Second Cure’. After multiple drafts (and multiple titles, some of which I will never reveal out of pure embarrassment) I typed the words that uncharacteristic superstition had stopped me writing before: “The end”. It’s beginning to go out into the world as I start to approach agents and publishers. Weirdly, I have been so engrossed and loving the process of the writing that the idea of the novel actually existing independently of me is almost startling. The concept of publication, while obviously my conscious intent throughout, seems almost foreign to the place my mind has been for so long. The words, the story, the characters, the rhythms. They have been my internal life.

Now I am a bleary animal emerging from a cave, blinking in the sunlight. Well, look at that. Out here in the world, people take these manuscripts they write, and turn them into books.

Yesterday, I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, run by Cat Sparks. On one of the panels, John Birmingham spoke of having attended a science fiction writers’ festival early in his career as a novelist. As he found himself surrounded by speculative fiction writers, he realised he’d found his tribe. As I listened to the speakers yesterday, talking about nanotechnology, AI, androids, sex-bots, neural lace, digitising minds and other futures rushing towards us, I felt exactly the same as John had described.

These were my people, endlessly curious, endlessly asking, “What if?” And more importantly, writing "What if".


Thursday 2 October 2014


Yesterday I learned that I have been awarded a Residency Fellowship at Varuna, the Writer's House in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, to work on The Pharmacon of Charlie Zinn. I'll be going in April next year for two weeks, a perfect time as the mountains' chill sets in, and the deciduous trees start to turn. 

Varuna was the home of author Eleanor Dark, and when her son inherited it, he set it up as a writers' retreat and it is now a hub of literary creativity that promotes Australian writing and provides time and space for writers to devote to their work.

The Three Sisters, Katoomba. Image (CC) Adam J.W.C.
To go to Varuna to write has long been a lurking desire of mine, and I am beyond thrilled to have this opportunity. My family are epically supportive of my writing, but to be isolated from day to day life is the perfect muse. 

Varuna is set in one of the most beautiful parts of Australia, so expect lots of photos when I take a break from writing and go for a wander!

Sunday 11 May 2014

Topias [U- & Dys-] and Biological Musings

Lately, I've been thinking about dystopia in science fiction. It seems to be everywhere and increasing, in both novels and film. Assuming this isn't just selection bias on my part, why would this be? Is it because environmentally, our world is more dire than ever before in our history, and that makes it hard not to feel a touch glum? Is it because the ubiquity and relentlessness of our modern media reinforce the sense of everything going to shit?

By contrast, utopia rarely seems to get a look-in. Why? Is it easier to imagine things going pear-shaped than things going well? Is it pure pessimism, or a sign of our times? Perhaps writing utopia is simply boring. Story-telling, whatever the medium, thrives on conflict both internal and external. Without conflict on some level, the narrative drive is lost. Does the inherent lack of a level of conflict in a utopian setting make creating drama so much more difficult? Is it bland?

Iain M. Banks' Culture series of novels are set in what is often referred to as an anarcho-socialist utopia. Yet that milieu isn't always so utopic. Conflict emerges through threats from within and without, and the Culture itself doesn’t always behave ideally or entirely benignly (I'm thinking of "Contact" and "Special Circumstances" and their tendency to colonialism). It can also be stultifying for some characters, who yearn for escape from its unrelenting ethos of “niceness”. And then the question arises of whether the Culture is truly free: to what extent is it controlled by the Minds, with the sense of liberty being merely a fa├žade?

Dystopia is not only easy to imagine, it is also easy to maintain. Things can readily go from bad to worse to really horrible. But how can a utopia be maintained? It demands stasis, and stasis demands control.

In "The Quest for Utopia", a recent episode of ABC Radio National’s "Future Tense", Nicole Pohl  (editor of the Utopian Studies Journal) refers to Oscar Wilde’s 1981 essay, "The Soul of Man under Socialism":
…[H]e says it is actually the journey towards Utopia which is the most important thing. Once you imagine, you have to go from A to B and then you arrive in B, then you have a totalitarian state, …nothing will change, there can't be any dissent, there can't be any fluctuation, any adaptation to new forms.
A wonderful paradox: utopia gives birth to dystopia. 

Of course, the quest for utopia isn’t just a dream of the progressive left. It is the goal of neo-cons, of fascists, of aspiring dictators and theocrats. It is just that their idea of utopia mightn’t quite gel with everyone else’s. As Fatima Vieira, Associate Professor of English at the University of Porto, President of the Utopian Studies Society (Europe), says in the Future Tense episode,
…[Y]ou can find Utopian ideals in Hitler or in Stalin, and from their own point of view of course it is Utopian because they have their own ideas about changing society. I would say that the Utopian perspectives should be seen not from the point of view of the receiver but from the one who dreams, who has the dream and who wants to change society.
I’ve been musing upon these issues in relation to my work-in-progress, where one character’s utopia is another’s dystopia. It seems to me that there is a parallel between the social flux pushing towards and against utopias and dystopias, and the evolutionary flux affecting varieties of symbiosis in the natural world. Just as with human politics, the interaction between species is never in a static state. Evolutionary and environmental forces ensure the relationship veers to the advantage of one or another in an unceasing dance of power. 

Symbiosis is the interaction between species, a prolonged and close association whereby one or both gains a survival benefit. It is usually categorised into three groups. Parasitology is the most well-known. Here, one species obtains a benefit from another to the detriment of the host. Think leeches, fleas, mites, amoebic interlopers... they are all around us and in us. Some are the stuff of nightmares. (Curiously, for historical reasons, disease-causing bacteria aren't technically categorised as parasites, but that is rubbish. Of course they are!) The diversity is extraordinary, and parasites can even parasitise parasites, as I explored here.

Mutualism is another form of symbiosis. Here, both parties benefit from the association. An example is a bee pollinating a flower. The bee obtains nutrients, the plant obtains help in reproduction. Every species on earth is thought to be in a mutualistic relationship with at least one other species. Such relationships are vital to life on earth and have been a function of evolution since life began.

The third class of symbiosis is commensalism, where only one of the participants benefits, but unlike in parasitism, the other party is unaffected. There is a line of biological thought that this form doesn't actually exist, and that the benefit or loss to one species simply hasn't been identified. 

Symbioses can take place at arm's length, as in brood parasitism (where a cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of another bird species), or it can be deeply intimate, with a microbe making its home inside another species -- endosymbiosis. (The latter is crucial to the evolution of complex organisms like plants and animals, and I investigated an aspect of it in this blog post.)

Now one of the fascinating things about symbioses is that they can change over evolutionary time. A twist in environment, a change in selection pressure, a genetic mutation, and what was once a mutually beneficial association can become exploitative. And vice versa. A parasite might also change the cost to the host. It might even start killing the host (becoming parasitoid) and the species will thrive, providing it is able to reproduce before its victim dies. 

The relationship between the species is one of constant tension. It is an arms race, with each trying to obtain the most from the other without being abandoned. Exploit too much, and the other will find a way to fight back or resist. Give too much without getting a fair return will lead to a loss of fitness. The pressure to cheat on a symbiotic partner can be overwhelming, but it can come at great cost. Some years ago I wrote a literature review on the theories devised in biology to characterise this stand-off and its potential destabilisation, including market-based ideas, sanctions, and game theory. I've put it up on my other blog, "My Growing Passion", if you're interested in reading it. 

Just like politics, with its polar extremes of utopia and dystopia, symbiosis is about power. It is about the distribution of resources, about sharing or stealing, about autonomy and dominance. 

And as with politics, the power dynamics of the interaction between species evolve.

There is no stasis.

What do you think? As always, your thoughts are encouraged. Please comment below. 

Thursday 8 May 2014

World building: where historical and speculative fiction meet

Over at her blog, Pamela Freeman, an author of fantasy, children's and now historical fiction, muses on world building in a recent post.

Her current work is set in WWI, and some of her beta readers, she discovered, knew little of that era. She realised you can't take historical knowledge for granted, so the same issues of "how much of the world to show" occur as do when creating a world beyond our own in far time or space.

As I wrote on her blog, it makes me think of how one wastes the knowledge of the older members of our families. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk about it, and we can’t do anything about that. My grandfather, who came back from Gallipoli with serious “shell shock” as they called it then, never spoke of his experiences to my knowledge, and I suspect he had good reason for his reticence.

Other times, they just don’t think to talk about it.

My parents were too young to actively fight in WWII, but both have amazing tales to tell of the era. My dad, on duty as a naval spotter, the day the Japanese submarines came into Sydney Harbour. My mother, working for the National Emergency Services, getting the call to dash down two levels below Wynyard Station where she’d transcribe secret service messages–she was a whiz at shorthand. Stories I’d never heard until recent times, as they slowly succumb to dementia and their past returns at the expense of their present.

This is the history of real people, the history that will be lost as they die or forget or fail to tell the stories. It is one of the reasons that historical fiction, well-researched, is simply crucial to our understanding of ourselves. History books might capture the big event and the Significant Dates, but it takes fiction to truly understand the personal, the emotional and the intimate.

Our failure to seek out those stories not only diminishes our relationships, it diminishes our history.

Monday 21 April 2014

Politics in science fiction: an inevitability?

Last night I read an article by Keith Brooke (who writes as Nick Gifford) at SF Signal.

He writes:
"...[F]iction doesn’t come much more political than science fiction. Every time an SF writer sits down to write about a near future, or even a far future, she or he is making political choices: in that future, there either is or isn’t climate change or resource depletion; humankind has survived by making certain choices, or survival hasn’t been an issue because these problems were not genuine. We can’t get away from confronting these questions, though, whatever our beliefs; even if we sidestep these issues, we’re making a political statement by doing so."
This is, I suppose, somewhat related to the old "the personal is political" truism of 1970's feminism, in that even avoiding reference to political reality is making a statement about it, but Brooke is right in emphasising that anything set in the future is automatically making a statement about what the world will be like in five, fifty, five hundred years into the future. I am reminded of Ian McEwan's magnificent The Child in Time from 1987. Quite incidentally to the drama, McEwan's world is one in which climate change is a reality. (He deals with the subject more overtly, although arguably less successfully in his 2010 novel, Solar.)

It's a subject dear to my current preoccupations because my work-in-progress is overtly political, so it is nice to see this recognition of the inevitability of political meaning in SF. Brooke cautions, rightly, against polemic. It is a different beast entirely, and one I am at pains to try to avoid.

The answer to that comes, inevitably, from character. Always character.

Welcome to the blog!

In October 2006, I started my first blog, My Growing Passion, which was about science, Australian flora and fauna, and gardening. It marked a dramatic change in my life, when I decided to focus on science rather than the creative writing which had long been my bread and butter. I knew that I would never leave writing, but needed to feed my inner geek. So after a TAFE course in horticulture, I took on a degree in science and worked in a range of fascinating research jobs in biology. Unsurprisingly, the urge to create has never left me, so now I am back to writing, this time combining my interests in science fiction.

This blog and site are where I intend to track the process. In the blog, I'll also be linking to other writing sites, when I bump into something of interest. I'm hoping you'll join in conversations here about the craft of writing, about books and about the writing life.

So join me in a glass of virtual champagne, and toast the birth of my site!