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[GUEST POST] Julie E. Czerneda on A Biologist’s Approach to Imaginary Creations

Since 1997, Canadian author/editor Julie Czerneda has poured her love of biology into SF novels published by DAW Books NY. Her debut fantasy A Turn of Light, won the 2014 Prix Aurora Award for Best Novel. There are house toads as well as dragons, and not all is what it seems. Out in Fall 2014: Species Imperative, the 10th anniversary omnibus edition of her acclaimed SF trilogy, and A Play of Shadow, sequel to Turn and next in what is now the Night’s Edge series. Julie’s currently hard at work on This Gulf of Time and Stars, first volume of the concluding trilogy to her Clan Chronicles series (Reunification), between breaks to admire all that snow.

Almost Real – A Biologist’s Approach to Imaginary Creations

by Julie E. Czerneda

I make up aliens. It’s my job. I make up magical creatures too. (I should mention I love my job.)

Be it for my science fiction or my fantasy, I draw from what I know of real organisms. Mostly, that’s because my background is in biology and I’m an ardent old-school naturalist. I adore this stuff. My reasons for starting from real life, however, differ.

In science fiction, tidbits of “real” inspire speculation and give me starting points. Male Springtails leave drops of sperm on sticks for interested females, while snacking on the drops of rivals. Something like a gooey sort of “Tinder,” the dating app. How might that affect a multi-species cocktail party? The possibilities! More seriously, an alien species with external fertilization as its norm, with postulated social/economic/religious consequences, would make a very interesting foil for our reproductive dance.

I need not make up what Springtails do, or spiders, for that matter. What’s “almost real” adds science to underpin the fiction and is fun. Even when not overt, I feel it adds a layer of strength, of credibility, to the final result.

The “real” needn’t be anything unusual. Ever watched a dog very interested in a smell? (Such as of a female in heat? Biology.) Mucous dribbles from the nostrils, and he might lick his nose (or better still, the source of the smell). There’s a reason. Moisture dissolves airborne components of the scent, aiding detection. I wrote the following based on our dog’s nose.

“Where is his Herd?” I asked very quietly. The Ganthor looked unconscious, and from what I could see, didn’t have one of the implanted devices to allow him to vocalize the trade tongue of the Commonwealth and Fringe, comspeak. The glistening streaks of drying mucus coating his snout and nostrils were signs that, awake, he must have continued desperate attempts to pick up the scent of others of his kind, an expenditure of moisture his damaged body could ill afford.

(Hidden in Sight, DAW)

Then there’s the abundance of goodness available from watching documentaries. I’d watched a good number on bats before inventing the Frow.

Mac had seen vids of Frow scampering down the vertical cliffs of their homeworld, long arms outstretched to grab the tiniest holds. The membrane of leathery skin and fine bone from finger to ankle joint made them the closest to a flight-capable sentients encountered by the IU…but not close enough. A Frow who lost a fingerhold fell to se, ne, or sene’s death as easily as the next being. She had noticed the membrane let Frow hide what they were eating from one another, presumably a critical need before they invented social dining or cooperative daycare.

(Species Imperative, DAW)

For my fantasy, I have the opposite motivation. I use the “real” as a curtain, to be pulled aside without warning. When I take the ordinary, the well known, and make it extraordinary? The reader must reconsider everything from that moment. It’s deliberately unsettling, as well as fun. (There’s always that.) The more I convince you that, yes, this is a horse like any other, shedding hair and prone to roll in mud, the more disturbing it is when it eats a rabbit. Some, not all, of my trees have leaves that leap up or run along branches. Then there are my toads. Pointy teeth and chainmail. What you encounter is, truly, almost real. But not.

It’s a personal thing. I use different approaches because I like the start and shiver of “this isn’t what I expect, what else might happen?” of fantasy every bit as much as I like the wonder of “come with the big idea, trust me, wow, look at that!” of science fiction.

Not to mention the joy of using so much that’s real, to make things up.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Julie E. Czerneda on A Biologist’s Approach to Imaginary Creations

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // December 3, 2014 at 12:50 pm //

    I’m curious, since your fiction has moved in a large degree from SF to fantasy, how your approach has, or has not, changed

  2. Hi Paul.
    Not at all, in fact. I still collect biology trivia and stare intently under rocks etc. There’s a fat folder waiting for the next Esen book, where I do most of my biological geekery. As I’m now writing three SF titles in a row (Reunification), I’m both revisiting aliens I’ve created, making up more, and delving into the evolution of several. There’ll be planets to build, with ecosystems. If you can hear the happy humming? That’d be me.
    Thanks for the question.

  3. From tidbits of “real” to “real” as a curtain – what a great way to differentiate the genres. Clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that, especially in terms of style and language, but that really does boil it down to the essentials.

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