Rebecca Alexander is the author of The Secrets of Life and Death. She has worked in psychology and education, and has an MA in Creative Writing. She lives with her husband on the coast of England. Her new book, The Secrets of Blood and Bone, just came out this month.
It might seem counterintuitive, but in writing science fiction or fantasy, writers need to make plots as plausible as they can. The more unlikely they are, the more we have to work to make them believable. The very best fantasy and science fiction leaves us uneasily aware that maybe that story is possible, or maybe that myth or legend might have a basis in fact. They predict a possible future or explore a possible past by creating new stories that connect to our emotions. Interpreting (and maybe shifting) scientific possibilities is where a lot of science fiction or fantasy writing starts. I started writing the Secrets series with that idea in mind.
Science has, in the last few decades, opened up a wider range of possibilities than was thought feasible even a few decades ago: how the human genome works and how easy it is to manipulate; how epigenetics works, switching genes on and off in response to triggers from the environment; and how we can exploit other species, like create goats with spider web proteins in their milk or phosphorescent kittens from jellyfish genes. As I was writing, I started to look at myths about mixing people and animals, in legends of transgenic creatures like centaurs and winged horses, but also stories of werewolves that pass on animal characteristics like an infection. Reinventing some of those ancient beliefs is at the heart of my latest book, The Secrets of Blood and Bone.
Conversely, one of the huge scientific mysteries we still don’t understand is death. We can hardly even define death—the heart stopping cannot be death if a defibrillator restores the beat. Even brain inactivity is no guarantee of non-recoverable death, as drugs or temperature can affect brain activity. This seemed to me to cross over with supernatural myths and beliefs about death and un-death in historical legends. Vampires, zombies and revenants have filled myths and fiction for thousands of years, and are mentioned in Norse, Egyptian and Chinese early histories. All tell of reanimated corpses with a taste for human blood or flesh that terrorise the living. Trying to find a new ‘scientific’ explanation for extending a life beyond natural death was a challenge.
I started thinking about this through the science of multi-organ failure, a cascade of dysfunction in body systems that often precedes death. I used to work in a hospice, and became fascinated by the subtle change that happens in people who are dying. Some ‘turn their face to the wall’, as if they know that the cascade has started and it’s time to stop fighting. It’s like an avalanche; it starts with a tiny deterioration in a body already so sick the organs are barely functioning. The imbalance escalates and the other systems topple like dominoes. But even then, death is not inevitable. Some people seem to be able to be suspended at that point by intensive therapies and support, and even climb back. I wondered, when writing The Secrets of Life and Death, what would happen if you could catch someone at that point and save them? They would always be as close to death as we could get, but they wouldn’t actually die. We would just need to know the magic ingredient that would stop the avalanche—because anything we don’t understand looks like magic to us.
Dr. John Dee, a character in The Secrets of Blood and Bone, was a mathematician, a magician and a natural scientist in the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In his investigations, he travelled all over Europe researching magic and death. He was witnessed raising the dead and travelled to countries where vampire legends were common (and persist even now). At the very dawn of science, anything was possible, and his research into magic and sorcery was as rigorous as his research into alchemy and mathematics. I drew on his beliefs about death to suggest that maybe—maybe—it was possible to prevent someone’s death. But, then what? How does someone poised forever on the edge of death, reliant on archaic knowledge to survive, cope with that? I wrote the last book in the trilogy, The Secrets of Time and Fate, to follow my characters into the area of what to do with life extended beyond the natural lifespan.