Putting the Science in Fiction

Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager), the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (Writers Digest, 2018), and the creator of the sci-fi adventure serial The Triangle (Serial Box, 2019). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. 

Jonathan Lowe) There’s something for everyone here, with much to learn for all levels of science and scifi fans or “geeks.” …An unfortunately derogatory word, as if sports are all that matter in the universe. Wondering about the genesis idea for the book, and audience. Writers? Did you think of John Brockman plus fiction?

Dan Koboldt) It started several years ago, when I began writing about the popular myths of human genetics. There were—and are—many common misconceptions about how genes and inheritance work, a subject that happens to fall under my expertise as a genetics researcher. At around the same time, I was getting more serious about my own fiction writing. I joined the online writing community. As I met people who were real-world experts in relevant fields, I invited them to come talk about their pet peeves when it came to speculative fiction. The Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series comprised more than a hundred articles by the time we developed it into a book with Writers Digest. The blog series and the books have always been aimed at writers, though I hear from plenty of people who are simply fans of SF/F and enjoy reading them, too.

JL) Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others, have made careers in communicating science to the lay public. Most also relate science fiction to space opera, or rather the wild west—with crowded and loud blaster battles everywhere out there in airless space. Do you see a way to unshackle the genre from popular perception, and is your collection partly an attempt at this?

DK) We are not, by any means, insisting that all science fiction needs to be technically plausible. Fiction must entertain before it does anything else. I’m a scientist who understands the vacuum of space perfectly well, but I still love the scream of passing TIE fighters and the fiery explosion of a Borg ship. My contributors and I want to see the genre grow and continue its push into mainstream entertainment. Our goal with the book is to help writers avoid the mistakes they don’t know they’re making. 

JL) PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION mentions many books and novels and concepts, and this is a great idea since most listeners may know what’s hiding in the dark web…dark matter and dark energy out there…waiting to be discovered. What subjects did you most want to include?

DK) I’ve had to pleasure to write some nonfiction articles for Baen.com, the website of Baen Books. The editor (Tony Daniel) and publisher (Toni Weisskopf) always encourage me to reference SF/F books, movies, and other media because it helps readers engage with the material. I encourage my blog and book contributors to do the same. Because of my background in genetics, I’m naturally intrigued by the life sciences. However, because of the target audience, I knew we had to address other subjects, like physics and space travel. I’m glad we covered such a wide range of topics, because there’s a little something for everyone.

JL) Climatology and waste disposal were interesting choices. 

DK) I think Han Solo would agree.

JL) Are there movies or series you wish would be produced? The Forever War is one favorite of mine, although parts of it came true in Avatar, a personal fav. And most fans don’t know that a book by AE van Vogt called “Voyage of the Space Beagle” influenced Alien, as a hard science classic championed by Harlan Ellison.

DK) You make a great point here, because Hollywood seems more interested in reboots of 20-year-old movies than adapting the countless incredible SF/F works that have emerged in the past decade. I’d love to see Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series on the big screen. On the fantasy side, I think N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series could be the next Game of Thrones. The success of that Martin’s HBO series will hopefully help convince Hollywood that there’s a strong commercial market for television and movies based on genre fiction. 

JL) Narrator Kevin T. Collins does a great job, as do others in the production. Do you listen to audiobooks on the road or elsewhere? 

DK) I’ll be honest, I was thrilled to land both Kevin T. Collins and Emily Beresford as narrators for this book. They’re both so talented. Audio technologies have I have a 45-minute commute, so I listen to audiobooks, serialized fiction from Serial Box, and a lot of podcasts. It’s wonderful how far technologies have come to make audiobooks so easy. A lot of my friends wouldn’t have time to read if it weren’t for audio. 

JL) We don’t yet know what we don’t know, so it’s hard to make predictions. But what are your predictions for the future of genetics and AI?

DK) There are some interesting commonalities, because I think both will continue to become integral parts of our lives. Technology development has revolutionized the field of genetics over the last decade. Sequencing a complete human genome, a task that once required ten years and about a billion dollars, can now be done in five days for about $1,000. Genetic testing has improved considerably, and I think that eventually genome sequencing in hospitals will be somewhat routine. There’s a lot that your genome can tell you about your ancestry, disease risk, and even things like response to certain drugs. That information is too valuable to ignore. Regarding AI, it is somewhat outside of my field, but as a consumer I can appreciate how much that field has evolved in recent years. The things I can accomplish with a smartphone and voice commands continue to amaze me, but the real fertile grounds for AI concern big data. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft collect astonishing amounts of data, and they have the technical wherewithal to develop some incredibly sophisticated intelligence processing for it. I just hope we learn from the lesson of science fiction visionaries, and don’t create Skynet or The Matrix.


Scientists involved in science fiction writing project.

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