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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Athena Andreadis, Ph. D.

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

CHARLES TAN: Hi Athena! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with Science Fiction and Fantasy?

ATHENA ANDREADIS: My pleasure, Charles! I taught myself to read at four; I wanted to figure out what was this mysterious activity that diverted my adoring, adored father’s attention from me… The first book I clearly recall reading was Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (unexpurgated, I found out later). So you can say my acquaintance with SF&F started early – and I’ve been a constant wanderer in this literary domain ever since.

CT: Do you have a preference for one or the other?

AA: I will read anything that is not a hack job; what matters is the quality of the story telling, not the mode. Of course, I have preferences, just as I like dark chocolate and goat cheese: I gravitate to stories that are hybrid and/or hard to categorize; I still have a soft spot for well-written space opera (with C. J. Cherryh and C. S. Friedman at the top of that list) and particular types of alternative history fantasy (for example, Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance Europe, in which Celtic Ireland and Minoan Crete are still going strong); I tend to dislike cyberpunk, though I loved Melissa Scott; and steampunk makes me break out in hives, automata in particular – to say nothing of corsets. At my age and exposure, I can tell from reading the first and last page if its worth my while to read the whole work.

CT: How would you define Science Fiction and how would you define Fantasy? Do terms like Speculative Fiction or The Fantastika help?

AA: There are as many definitions of SF and F as there are readers and writers. However, if you roam enough, you cannot help but note that the boundaries are fluid and their denizens mingling — which may explain the urge by some to maintain these boundaries, like electrified fences. The term “fantasy” is Hellenic-derived and has certain connotations in that language, so for me Fantastika tilts too far towards fantasy (I also find it pretentious). I consider the term Speculative Fiction more inclusive, in agreement with Margaret Atwood (who, contrary to the shrieks of wannabee purists and despite her own condescending tone, is too intelligent not to know that she has written works squarely within this domain).

CT: Related to definitions, do you think genre boundaries are important? Or is it part-and-parcel of our genre, the way that Star Wars and Dune is considered science fiction when there’s a lot of fantasy elements in it?

AA: I think that genre boundaries are neither important nor useful. They may be convenient for publishers, bookstore shelvers and people who want to re-read the same thing over and over. But the most interesting work is always at the liminal areas, between worlds.

You’re probably aware I detest Star Wars, which combines the most pernicious clichés not only of SF and F, but also of triumphalist ersatz mythology and the cruelties of several religions (analyzed in my essay We Must Love One Another or Die). Dune is a bit better, though not by much; it has a tad more imagination. Of course, space opera is invariably more F than SF: it routinely relies on scientifically impossible concepts – stable wormholes, FTL, a plethora of earthlike planets… not that hard SF is much better, mind you; as I said once, hard SF is at best sciency and its relationship to real science is like truthiness to truth. Its claims to verisimilitude are usually achieved by Hemingwayesque tricks.

CT: Did speculative fiction have any impact on your chosen profession?

AA: I cannot recall ever wanting to be anything but a scientist (which by my definition includes disciplines like archaeology and linguistics). I have an incurably romantic view of the vocation – because that’s what it is. People often think of scientists as technicians, but informed intuition is crucial to science; so is the type of rigor and dedication usually associated with monastic orders. I think of scientists as wizards, astrogators who never sleep. You can tell by the metaphors how speculative fiction has saturated my outlook.

CT: Could you tell us more about your 100-Year Starship symposium? How did it start?

AA: The 100-Yr Starship symposium was a conference organized by DARPA. Essentially, it was a preliminary interdisciplinary gathering to discuss the challenges facing a long-generation starship, from propulsion systems to adapting to extraterrestrial homes. I’m known as a very active participant in such topics, so I was one of the invited speakers. I wrote more extensively about the event here: If They Come, It Might Get Built.

CT: In light of your answers to SF and it being “sciency,” do you aspire to one day read an SF title that’s more scientifically accurate (i.e. addresses the concerns presented in your symposium), or is the status quo fine for you (do you think it’s possible to ever attain truth in fiction, or will it always be truthiness?)?

AA: Frankly, it’s surprising how little SF avails itself of contemporary science beyond VR wet dreams; as I discussed in Safe Exoticism, I have yet to encounter a single recent SF story that takes advantage of the plasticity (and potential for error) of alternative splicing or epigenetics, of the left/right brain hemisphere asymmetries, or of the different processing of languages acquired in different developmental windows.

At the same time, given how poor humans are at extrapolating (futurists’ cant notwithstanding), the more specific SF is scientifically, the faster and worse it dates. Deft handwaving serves SF writers best when they aim for authenticity or at least suspense of disbelief. Precisely because of this, I think it’s crucial for SF authors to be at least familiar with scientific principles and outlook – as I wrote in SF Goes McDonald’s. Of course, as with any writing, fiction is/should be the priority, and fiction is a burnish on reality. But sloppy science in SF is as off-putting and insulting as sloppy history in historical fiction.

CT: Do you think it’s essential humanity explores space in the future?

AA: Space is inherently hostile to humans. People argue that humans have managed to overrun Earth and hence we can do the same beyond Earth, given advanced enough technology. However, we evolved here and even now, despite our technology, we are helpless before major planetary upheavals. The concept of going beyond our planet has a powerful hold on our imagination, for a good reason: we have a deep-rooted urge to explore, which is both a blessing and a curse. The challenges of crewed space expeditions are mind-boggling. Even so, I think it is indeed essential that we take to space at some point. Not for fortune or glory, but because we yearn for the next horizon. At the same time, we need to be deeply aware that we can never “conquer” space. The self-serving inanities of the Strong Anthropic Principle aside, triumphalism will avail us naught in a universe that is supremely indifferent to us and our aspirations.

CT: One thing not mentioned in your paper is the concept of a “universal translator.” Do you think it’s possible to invent/program one, or is that another of the handwaving of SF that we’re used to?

AA: I dedicated an entire chapter of my book, The Biology of Star Trek, to this issue. Language is equal parts biology and culture; if we ever meet other sentient lifeforms, they will unquestionably be very different from us. Among other things, their method of communication will be totally distinct (one of the best treatments of this is Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”). Even if that were not the case, the travails of translation alone highlight how complex and nuanced language is. So no, I don’t think we will ever be able to short-circuit this problem – or any other associated with biology, for that matter.

CT: What books would you recommend, whether fiction or nonfiction, to aspiring authors?

AA: All of them! Bottom line: you can’t write well if you haven’t read well (living well is an additional bonus, though that is partly beyond our control). Exception: “how to” guides, a certain way to produce pablum. Ditto for most writing workshops, incidentally.

CT: What books are you currently reading, whether for pleasure, or related to your research?

AA: Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist which discusses very important concepts but falls on its face trying to push a thesis too far – plus he gets several scientific facts wrong; Sonia Arrison’s 100 Plus, a discussion of longevity that can be summarized as “in the future, being rich will be even more awesome” – let alone that there’s at least one gaping hole in its midst, where discussion of brain function maintenance should have been. I just finished Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife which I found not quite stellar despite the lionization (or is it tigerization?) of its young author: John Vaillant’s non-fiction equivalent The Tiger was far more captivating; and Kaoru Mori’s The Bride’s Story Part 1, bewitchingly illustrated and a welcome nod to Black Sea matriarchal vestiges, but way too idyllic.

CT: What projects are you working on now?

AA: In one of my research projects, I’m stalking an fascinating little gene. It’s nested inside another and only exists in humans and their three closest ape relatives. However, humans have an exclusive variant of this gene, which appears to confer susceptibility to dementia. So I’m trying to figure out what its protein does; this work may shed light on why we humans are so uniquely vulnerable to neurodegeneration.

In my fiction I’m continuing to write linked stories within my large universe, glimpsed in two short stories, “Dry Rivers” and “Planetfall” – plus I’m trying to gain enough time (ha!) and quiet of mind to finish and edit the novel that heralds the start of this universe: Shard Songs, whose kernel is the deciphering of Linear A (the unknown Minoan language and script) from hearing snatches of a song captured on a clay pot.

In my non-fiction I just updated my book proposal, Distant Campfires, which explores the biological and cultural repercussions of long-term space travel. This happened because one aftermath of the Starship symposium is a one-time grant to study these issues; if the organization I filed with gets the grant, I’ll have a bit of protected time to write the book.

CT: Any parting words?

AA: Perhaps this is a fitting summation: Mid-Journey. If you open the mp3 link on the page, you will hear me reciting the poem in the original Hellenic.

4 Comments on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Athena Andreadis, Ph. D.

  1. Nice interview Charles. As always Athena provides much food for thought. Athena, I’m wondering if you’d mind expanding on the statement regarding the science in sf often uses “Hemingwayesque tricks.” Give us some examples.

  2. Bottom line: you can’t write well if you haven’t read well 

    Too, too true. Great Interview.


    I do, too, like the strange mix of still-existing cultures in Jacqueline Carey’s alternate universe, too. It’s certainly more diverse and chaotic, that way, than the real Europe was, even if that was hardly a monoculture…

  3. Great interview! Thoughtful questions, thoughtfully answered. I found myself thinking over what Athena said about not making the science in science fiction too specific lest it date itself quickly–that seems like wise advice. *So* many interesting concepts are worth developing in stories.  The issue of communication with aliens is fascinating.

  4. Thank you for the lovely words and interesting thoughts, everyone!

    Sue, the Leaden Age SF is full of examples of this prose (so is a fair amount of the “new space opera” which is often neither new nor space opera, to say nothing of the grimdark epic fantasy that purports to deconstruct Tolkien et al.); I wrote about this phenomenon in To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club where I discuss both verisimilitude and style.

    Paul, you must be thinking of fantasy treatments of Europe.  Eurocentrism aside, if you think the real Europe was less diverse and chaotic than Carey’s treatment you need to read some good history books.  I’d start with Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

    Francesca, I agree.  The issue of communication with aliens (let alone other humans!) is endlessly complex and fascinating.

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