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[GUEST POST] Alma Alexander on The Collision of High Science with High Fantasy

Alma Alexander‘s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (www.AlmaAlexander.org), her Facebook page or her blog.”

High Science and High Fantasy Walk Into a Bar…

by Alma Alexander

I have a science degree. Well, I have three, actually. I got my basic undergraduate BSc back in 1984, and then followed that up with what in South Africa at the time was a stepping-stone half-undergraduate and half-postgrad degree known as BSc (Hons.) In my Honours year, there were five of us – three young women, two young men, all eager-beaver young scientists all dewy fresh and enthusiastic. At our post-graduation-ceremony celebration, gathered together at the worst-kept secret at my University (a watering hole called Spanish Gardens…you might have heard about it…I used it as a setting for a novel I wrote back before the Mayans said the world would end…), the five of us were joined by one of our lecturers, himself a young postgrad, probably closer in age to us than he was to the elder echelon of the other academic staff at our department. On this occasion, he prophesied for us – he looked at each of the five of us and told us what our scientific futures would be. This one would go on to earn a PhD and end their lives in the halls of academe…this one would probably go into industry…this one this…this one that…and then he came to me.

He looked at me for a long time, and then said, “You…you are just misguided.”

He had reason enough for that opinion, to be sure. I was a scribbler and dreamer even back then. I was keenly interested in the thing I was studying, to be sure – I went on to take a MSc in Molecular Biology and Microbiology – but I did not have quite the die-hard passion for it in order to climb higher and reach for that PhD (I did begin one. It ran into difficulties. A more deeply rooted, stubborn, dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool scientist might have found a way around all of them. I reached a point where I simply took the Universe at its word, and stopped trying to.) I got a good and decent degree, I learned a lot…and then I kind of categorically fulfilled the “you are misguided” prophecy by segueing sideways into first scientific writing and editing and then sailing full steam ahead into the deeper and far more fascinating waters of fiction, and fantasy.

(It would be years before my mother would stop carefully cutting out job ads which called for my actual education background and expertise and leaving them for me to find in strategic spots around the house…)

The years flew by. I wrote and published a dozen novels, not one of them touching on all the things I had sworn at and sweated over and learned about all living things. About the building blocks of life and how and why they worked. About the biochemistry and physiology of living things. And all this time all that simmered, slowly, quietly, on a back burner somewhere, waiting…until now.

I sat down to write a short story about Were-critters – I had this wildly fun idea about something called the Random Were, a particular type of Were-kind I hadn’t seen anywhere else before, whose particular talent was to Turn into whatever the last warm-blooded thing they laid eyes on before the Turn came upon them at the traditional full moon rising.

The short story stopped being “short”, in any sense, very quickly. And started being a lot more solid, a lot darker, a lot more sophisticated…and I heard once again a still small voice I had not been listening to for years now.

My long-gone youth, glittering with science, was speaking to me once again.

And so I set out to do what was flatly impossible. If Were had a “true” genetic basis, after all, they would probably already exist. That did not stop me, however, from sitting down and working out how it would all work if they did exist.

I was faced with the problem of a question of High Science in a head-on collision with High Fantasy. The crash was spectacular, the debris on the story road was fascinating, and putting everything back together again in a new and never before seen shape…was exhilarating.

And I kept on remembering my friend, my lecturer at University, and the ‘misguided’ label.

Because, it turns out, I wasn’t misguided at all. It just so happened that my science took a little longer to become a really useful tool, and uniquely equipped me to write about a situation, and about characters, which would pulse with life because they were based on the Real ThingTM and because this world, the world I created for them, would (with a bit of poetic licence given that Were do not, in fact, as far as we know, walk among us) be absolutely realistic, be true, and would potentially be able to be understood and accepted in a way that would allow it to simply walk off the page and into a believable reality that my readers would very easily be able to imagine themselves into.

You’ll have to get the books to find out exactly how the genetics of Were-kind work. But let me just say that I had an enormous amount of fun and satisfaction working them out, and it is my hope that anyone who reads these books will quite simply accept that these creatures are as real as you or me – they live – and it took me, and my words, and my science, to give them that life.

So, then. Misguided, and proud of the fact that somehow I still managed to find myself on the right road after all, even without paying all the attention that I should have done to the signposts at the crossroads of my life.

I sign myself off with all of my credentials, for once – this blog post, these books, this world, has been brought to you by Alma Alexander (MSc), Novelist.

I’ll see you inside the Were Chronicles.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Alma Alexander on The Collision of High Science with High Fantasy

  1. Paul Weimer // October 17, 2014 at 4:51 am //

    This collision is something I like in Kay Kenyon’s Entire and the Rose Quartet. it’s ostensibly high science fiction, but in a setting and milieu that makes the novel feel like epic fantasy.

    And then, of course, there’s Dune.

    • Dune’s the first place my mind goes to too when it comes to mixing scifi and fantasy. Though that seems to be more about mashing together the aesthetics and logics of the two genres, rather than using one to ground the other.

      • Gentlemen, “Random” isn’t quite in the same frame… but I will take it as an honor if someone thinks of my work in the same breath as “Dune”, in whatever context… thanks! πŸ™‚

  2. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. Science fiction (space ships, computers, genetically engineered dragons) in a fantasy setting, with the teleportation and telepathy either science fiction or fantasy (I would categorize telepathy and teleportation with time travel and faster-than-light space travel). Dragons are the stuff of fantasy, but McCaffrey has them bioengineered by a scientist.

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