Brian Kirk lives in Atlanta with his beautiful wife and rambunctious identical twin boys. He works as a freelance writer in addition to writing fiction, and is currently working on the second book in a planned trilogy. We Are Monsters is his debut release. Connect with him at briankirkblog.com or @Brian_Kirk on Twitter. Don’t worry, he only kills his characters.
by Brian Kirk
Technology is a tricky term. Most people associate the word with man-made inventions, especially as it relates to the field of science fiction. Spacecraft, weaponry, artificial intelligence, time traveling DeLoreans. Technology has become synonymous with pixels and processing speed. With the ability to send pictures of one’s genitalia around the world an instant before better judgment kicks in.
This narrow definition of technology negates a whole field of study and potential source material for science fiction authors. In it’s most basic sense, technology is the use of resources, intelligence included, to achieve a practical means. Within this broader definition, language could be considered a technology, as could photosynthesis. There’s nothing that says technology has to result in some externalized device that augments our biological abilities.
There is a rising trend among scientists and researchers to take a fresh look at the basic laws of nature, and the design of biological creatures, to develop advanced technologies that can benefit us as individuals, and our society as a whole.
This field of study is called Biomimicry, and current examples of it include:
Replicating Shark Skin in Hospitals: Researchers found that sharks do not accumulate algae or bacteria on their bodies, as the coarseness of their skin prevents its growth. Realizing this, a company called Sharklet Technologies is replicating that same design for application in hospitals and other healthcare environments where bacteria is forbidden.
Using Spiders to Stop Bullets: The fibers found in spider silk can be as much as ten times stronger than Kevlar, the material traditionally used in bulletproof vests, despite being far more flexible and lightweight. Scientists are now finding ways to effectively harvest spider silk for mass production, using everything from tomatoes to silkworms to goats as host vehicles to spin the silk fibers. Yes, it’s true; we live in a world where goats spin bulletproof spider fibers from their teats.
One of the primary roles of a science fiction author is to imagine scenarios where science and technology feature in societal development, and/or facilitate extraordinary events. Consider what stories may come by applying the principles of Biomimicry.
Wait, what am I doing, assigning homework? Let me offer some thought starters to kick things off instead. This section could also be called: Things I Learned Listening to the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast, another great outlet for source material.
Have you ever heard of the Turritopsis dohrnii? It is a small species of jellyfish that is biologically immortal. Whenever it becomes sick, injured, or old it can revert itself back to an infant state and start anew, seemingly at will. Right now there are brilliant men and women working in sterilized labs whose sole purpose is to learn what triggers this regression and how to apply the mechanism to humans. Take a close look at your baby picture. That could be you again.
If there ever is a zombie apocalypse it will almost certainly be started by parasites. Like the Toxoplasma parasite, which infects rats and mice and makes them attracted to cat urine, turning them into easy prey. Why, you ask? Toxoplasma likes to live in cat intestines. Why else?
Then there’s the Spinochordodes tellinii, which infects grasshoppers and somehow forces them to drown themselves in water where the parasite likes to breed and reproduce. Next time you’re trying to woo a mate, try popping out of the head of some host you just drove to suicide. There’s nothing sexier.
How about something simple like the placebo effect? Simple may not be the right term, however: how about common? As in the common, irrefutable fact that humans appear capable of healing themselves from just about any illness, no matter how severe, with the sheer power of their minds. Or a sugar pill. Science isn’t quite settled on that point yet.
The trick is to consider the type of technology that could result from one of these quirks of nature and explore the implications should something go wrong. That’s where the story lies. For instance, consider this scenario from my debut novel, We Are Monsters.
Psychedelic chemicals have long been used to alter consciousness. Recently, however, scientists have shown a renewed interest in exploring their medicinal and therapeutic uses as well. The strongest psychedelic compound known to mankind is a molecule called dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Not only is it found in several species of plants, it is manufactured in the human brain, presumably by the pineal gland. In concentrated doses, it produces a five to ten minute hallucinogenic experience whereby people often report having their perceptual filters stripped away allowing them to view the underlying fabric of reality. I wouldn’t know anything about that, though, I swear.
In We Are Monsters, a brilliant psychiatrist is experimenting with a derivative of DMT to see what effect it has on people suffering from schizophrenia. At first, the drug he creates shows great promise in alleviating his patient’s symptoms. It appears to return schizophrenics to their former selves. But (and here’s where the story lies) something goes wrong. Unforeseen side effects begin to emerge, forcing prior traumas to the surface, setting inner demons free. His medicine may help heal the schizophrenic mind, but it also expands it, and the monsters it releases could be more dangerous than the disease.
Biomimicry offers aspiring authors a whole world of potential plotlines for the taking. I hope it leads you to a successful story idea.