Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Science and Science Fiction: Thoughts from A Genetics Researcher On Release Day

Today we're welcoming Dan Koboldt, author and genetics researcher, to talk about the relationship between science and science fiction! Today is his release day for THE ROGUE RETRIEVAL, so check it out and help me congratulate Dan on a great release. 

I became a scientist long before I started writing fiction. In many ways, this worked to my benefit: I had 50+ publications in scientific journals before I got my first fiction credit. When I started writing science fiction, my research background certainly came in handy. I've stumbled across dozens of story seeds in my day-to-day work. In fact, my first published short story was a science fiction piece ("Going Viral") about two virologists who discover a universal cure for cancer.

When it comes to the writing itself, however, my science training proved far less useful. Academic research publications generally follow a certain form – introduction, methods, results, and discussion – that hampers creativity. In other words, we can't write for dramatic effect.  Such restrictions are necessary evils because all manuscripts are peer-reviewed to ensure that every statement is scientifically justified.

Fiction obviously carries no requirements for scientific validity. Even so, as a reader with scientific training, I have a very difficult time enjoying books and movies with bad science in them. This is not to say that I want equations – no one wants equations – but I need some plausibility in a book to establish my baseline. Besides, books with geeky real-life science can be very good.

The Martian by Andy Weir offers a wonderful example of this. The voice is my favorite thing about that book, but I was impressed at the thought given to the science. Admittedly, even my eyes glazed over a little when I read half a page of calculations on how the main character planned to reclaim water by burning hydrogen or whatever, but still. When you read that book, you can tell that Andy Weir did his homework.

Research is an invaluable tool for the speculative fiction author, but it can also be a huge time sink. Particularly when you're researching a topic that you know little about. That's part of why I started the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy series on my blog. Each week, we discuss scientific/technical elements of sci-fi, or historical/cultural elements of fantasy, with help from an expert in the field.
It started with an article I wrote on common genetics myths in fiction. I pointed out the flaws, for example, in the belief that eye color and hair color are simple inherited traits. Do they have a genetic basis? Sure. But can you rely on them for paternity testing? Absolutely not. Information like this seemed useful to other writers of speculative fiction, so I went out and found other experts to share their own tips. Over the past year, the contributors have put together more than 60 articles on biology, physics, chemistry, military history, wilderness survival, and other topics.

I've learned just as much as anyone else from this series. My expertise lies primarily in genetics, so the topics under other disciplines – neurology, atmospheric science, and medicine, for example – are still useful. The historical and cultural articles are simply invaluable, because I didn't study humanities.

When it comes to research, the first thing that many authors do is turn to Google. This is a suitable first step, but also a potentially hazardous one. Not everything written on the internet is accurate. Even when it is, there are nuances that people without the right training can miss. The best way to get information about something you're writing is to talk to a living, breathing expert.

Even so, I like to get the little details right whenever possible. For The Rogue Retrieval, I asked for expert opinions on everything from realistic horse travel to military equipment that reflects moonlight. And I enjoyed those discussions. Most people who have expertise in something love to talk about it. Ask questions, pitch ideas, and get feedback. Your book will be that much better for it.

About the Book:

Sleight of hand… in another land.

Stage magician Quinn Bradley has one dream: to headline his own show on the Vegas Strip. And with talent scouts in the audience wowed by his latest performance, he knows he’s about to make the big-time. What he doesn’t expect is an offer to go on a quest to a place where magic is all too real.

That's how he finds himself in Alissia, a world connected to ours by a secret portal owned by a powerful corporation. He’s after an employee who has gone rogue, and that’s the least of his problems. Alissia has true magicians…and the penalty for impersonating one is death. In a world where even a twelve-year-old could beat Quinn in a swordfight, it's only a matter of time until the tricks up his sleeves run out. 

About the Author

Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher who has co-authored more than sixty publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other journals. Every fall, he disappears into Missouri's dense hardwood forests to pursue whitetail deer bow and arrow. He lives with his wife and three children in St. Louis, where the deer take their revenge by eating all of the plants in his backyard.

Dan also writes fantasy and science fiction. His debut novel The Rogue Retrieval, about a Vegas magician who infiltrates a medieval world, will be published by Harper Voyager on January 19th, 2016.

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