The Ada Lovelace Conversations #1: An interview with Ada Lovelace Day founder Suw Charman-Anderson.
Welcome to the first of our ‘in conversation’ interviews exploring themes of science fiction and STEM.
As part of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’s celebration of Sir Arthur’s centenary birthday in 2017, we’ve partnered with Ada Lovelace Day to curate an ongoing series of interviews talking to some of the best female science fiction authors and STEM professionals in the UK and beyond.
We’re hugely lucky that multiple award-nominated SF author, science journalist and artist Anne Charnock has agreed to lead the way on these interviews, and we’re kicking off the series with a chat with Ada Lovelace Day founder Suw Charman-Anderson herself, starting right after the rather awesome picture of Ada below.
There’s also a whole bunch of links for finding out more, getting involved or just saying hi, at the end of the article.
Thanks for reading!
Tom Hunter, Award Director
At the Ada Lovelace Day 2016 event in London, I met with the organisation’s founder Suw Charman-Anderson. We decided it would be fun to have a conversation about women in STEM and women in science fiction. Do our interests overlap? Have we experienced similar inspirations in our careers? Can we learn from one another? — Anne Charnock
ANNE: Casting my thoughts way back, my drift towards the sciences began when it became clear that my best subject at school was maths. However, after studying environmental science, my career meandered through science journalism, fine art and, most recently, to writing fiction. I’ve tried to pinpoint the works of fiction that made an impression on me, early on, that might account for my shift towards writing dystopian and science fiction novels. The works that spring to mind are George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. These made a lasting impression on me.
Can you recall specific books, fiction or non-fiction, that shaped your worldview and might have nudged you towards your career choices?
SUW: My interests have always straddled the historic and ridiculous divide between the arts and sciences, and the books that have inspired me do as well.
The first of my cherished books was Stranded at Staffna by Helen Solomon. Mrs Solomon was my English teacher and when I was nine she gave me a signed copy of her book:
I hope you enjoy reading this story about Morag MacDonald, Susan, and that you agree with me — that she was a real heroine.
Mrs Solomon was right — I did enjoy it and I did agree with her that Morag was amazing. It’s the first book I remember crying at the end of, not least because it’s based on the true story of Mary MacNiven, who rescued a horse from a shipwreck in 1940.
I was already an enthusiastic reader, but Mrs Solomon was the person who helped me understand that books didn’t just appear out of nowhere, that someone sat down and wrote them. It was around this time, I think, that I wrote my first complete story, about a girl who lost her sight when she was hit on the head, and who entered into a parallel world when she slept. It was a complete rip-off of Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, of course, but I structured it properly and even had character development! It was then that I started to think that I would become a writer when I grew up.
The second book that influenced me hugely was The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey. I took one look at the hulking great big dragon on the front and was immediately hooked. I devoured everything I could find by McCaffrey, and especially loved her female characters — Lessa, Menolly, Moreta, Killashandra, Helva.
I was reading a huge amount of science fiction at that point. I basically graduated straight from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to EE Doc Smith, Harry Harrison, AE van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke and their peers. I worked my way indiscriminately through my Dad’s collection, but nothing spoke to me the way McCaffrey’s work did, possibly because no one else really wrote women with whom I could identify so closely.
McCaffrey really gave me this sense that science was something that I could do, and that being a social outcast wasn’t a barrier to success. Indeed, for many of her protagonists it seemed that being an outcast was a necessary attribute! I was bullied a lot at school, so looking back it’s clear that stories where misfits triumphed really resonated.
The third book that nudged me along the way was a Readers Digest World Atlas, which had a double-page spread of illustrations of rocks and minerals. I loved those illustrations. And I think it’s fair to say that they inspired me to study geology and to dream a second dream, of becoming a scientist.
ANNE: So were you conscious that you had to make a choice — between science and writing?
SUW: Throughout my childhood, through most of my life really, I have trodden an uneasy line between wanting to be a writer and wanting to be a scientist. It’s a shame no one told me I could do both, that I didn’t have to choose, because I’ve ended up being neither.
So, I have very clear memories of science and technology being a part of my childhood. I went to science club at school. My Dad and I always watched, and loved, Tomorrow’s World. My dad got a ZX80 computer when I was nine and taught me to program in Basic, although I sadly didn’t continue along that path. We also always had magazines like the Scientific American and New Scientists around the place, which I’d pick up and browse even if I didn’t always understand what I was reading.
And yet, always present was this urge to write, an itch I’ve mostly scratched via journalism and blogging, with a sprinkling of fiction on the side.
What are your early memories of science or tech?
ANNE: My cousin, Joe, had astronomical posters in his bedroom and was the only person in my large, extended family who had any evident passion for science at a young age. However, I grew up in the hey day of science fiction in children’s tv — Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, The Jetsons, Lost in Space. The first episode of Doctor Who was unforgettably terrifying. And I have a vivid memory of the Apollo 11 mission that landed man on the moon. So I grew up in a world suffused with science fiction and the space race.
As a kid, I did try to design a jet pack, and I attempted to construct a circular skateboard, before skateboards had appeared in the shops. But there was no ‘practical’ person in my family to offer guidance. So that early interest soon dwindled! Whereas my mother encouraged me at a young age with English. She loved reading. So did her mother. And they’d both send me to the local library to choose books for them. My grandmother was partial to cowboy stories, my mother to mysteries and thrillers!
More than anything, I was desperate to have adventures and to travel. The sciences seemed to offer better prospects for that! So I studied science and maths at A level, and environmental sciences at university. I loved the fieldwork, but I also discovered a liking for essay writing — something I’d left behind while studying for my science A levels. The urban planning and tropical development options on my degree course were a big influence on me, and nudged me towards a career in journalism. But, like you, my career has evolved, diverged. I can now bring all my interests together — art, science, travel, journalism — within the realm of fiction! It’s taken a long time to reach this point, but I believe my writing is better for this varied experience.
Inevitably, I encounter major gaps in my science knowledge when I’m writing fiction. Has this happened to you? And do you feel people working in STEM subjects would be interested in linking up with science fiction writers, even on an informal basis, to plug these gaps? Obviously, I read as much as I can on a subject, but sometimes I’m left in a state of befuddlement.
SUW: I do get very frustrated when I see bad science in fiction, whether it’s a book or a movie or a TV show, so I am very critical of the science in my own writing.
I write fiction with science in, rather than “science fiction” per se, and have an intense dislike of getting things wrong. That can be a bit of a curse, because it means that I spend a lot more time researching than I probably should do. I’m currently incubating a story that involves the flu, so I’ve been reading about the influenza virus and epidemiology. This has lead me to some amazing books about the discovery of Ebola and HIV, and how diseases hop from animal to human, which I never would have read otherwise.
The big problem is, though, when do you stop researching and start writing? I’ve been mulling this particular idea over for about two years now, but still feel like I don’t know enough to start even plotting. It would be so useful to have access to some experts so that I could get some clarification on specific questions, and feel perhaps a little bit more confidence in my main premise and some of the key details.
For me, though, being accurate in my science is about more than just not wanting to get it wrong. We learn so much about the world from the stories that we tell each other, and every book with faulty science is misleading its readers. If I read a terrible book about volcano eruptions, well, I have a degree in geology and have enough volcanologist friends to be able to spot the nonsense. But it’s too much to ask someone without that background to make those judgements.
I think that we, as authors, have a duty to make sure that we’re not misinforming people and spreading bad science. It’s not enough in these post-factual days to just tell a good story, we must also tell stories that are true. That doesn’t mean that we can’t write speculative fiction about how science might develop, but we need to take responsibility for portraying real science accurately.
So much science is truly amazing and inspiring, and it deserves the wider audience we can give it through fiction. I remember learning about breathing fluids from The Abyss, and it blew my mind to find out that the scene with the rat submerged in oxygenated perfluorocarbon was not only scientifically accurate, but real. Beanie really did breathe liquid, and survived the experience.
There’s so much amazing science out there now, and it’s so easy to find out about it, that as writers we should never be short of inspiration!
So what’s the best way for us to bring scientists and authors together? And how do we give proper credit to the scientists whose work inspires ours? Should science fiction books come with a bibliography?
ANNE: Well, taking your last question first, I make a point of acknowledging the key resources in my research — whether historical or scientific sources. In my upcoming novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, I acknowledge that the starting point for my research was Dr. Aarathi Prasad’s Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. I adore the research phase of a new writing project. The research never really stops and even in the midst of writing a novel, a new piece of research can cause a Eureka moment, resulting in a subtle shift in the manuscript’s development. I experienced one such moment while drafting A Calculated Life, my first novel. During some online research into the sense of smell and taste, I learned that the olfactory system is linked with the sex drive. That proved very helpful!
I agree that it’s important to get the science right. But I try not to beat myself up about it! I don’t want the science to be foregrounded to the extent that I feel I’m performing the literary equivalent of painting-by-numbers. I’m sure most writers feel the same way. I like your approach of writing stories that have science embedded, rather than writing science fiction per se. You remind me in making this remark of the astronomer-writer, Pippa Goldschmidt. I’ve been reading her short story collection, The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space. That’s how they’re coming across to me: stories with embedded science.
When I drafted my second novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, it struck me that writing historical fiction isn’t so different to writing science fiction. Sleeping Embers is set in the past, present and the future. I was acutely aware that a reader might say, “That’s incorrect. People in Renaissance Florence didn’t eat x, y, z.” Just as a reader might diss a science concept in the fictional strand set in the future.
When I write in a near-future world, I attempt to portray day-to-day life and believable relationships between people. And I try to keep the science in its place — in the background, so that my characters go about their lives taking technological advances as a given; they’re taken for granted.
Personally, I feel there’s a great deal of scope for writers and scientists to get together. I broached this idea at the Ada Lovelace panel discussion at Nine Worlds last year. A scientist in the audience stood up and said, “Are you crazy?! I’d love to collaborate with a writer.” I found that very encouraging. I feel that informal conversations are the way to go here.
I don’t think I’d necessarily want to submit my draft manuscript for checking — I’d feel as though I was handing in homework! But at the concept stage, I’m sure a conversation would have a significant impact on an emerging draft manuscript. Ultimately that input would be credited in the book’s acknowledgements. And it would be fun hopefully for a scientist (or anyone working in STEM subjects) to see the creative process in close-up, at the messy stage!
Perhaps, Suw, we could wind up our lovely conversation with your own thoughts on future collaboration. How we might move forward with the idea?
SUW: I love the idea of getting scientists and writers together to talk about not just scientific concepts, but what being a scientist is like, how the research process really works. I’ve been talking to women in STEM for the ALD podcast, and it’s fascinating to find out how the scientific sausage is really made. Reading about research in the popular science press is no substitute for being able to ask someone what life is like on-board a research ship, for example.
I also think that it’s incredibly useful to read about the lives and work of people in STEM, women especially, as you get a very different, a much grittier view of scientific life that is rarely explored in popular science books. ALD has published two anthologies of essays about women in STEM and some of the stories are just astonishing. They get to the heart of the challenges women have faced in the past and continue to deal with now.
But nothing beats real and specific conversations! I want to create a space for writers and scientists to talk online, and maybe also in person. The question for me is, what kind of space works best for people? We already have an online forum that we could use, which would provide a searchable space for people to ask and answer questions. Or we could use a Facebook group, though that has the disadvantage of not being a good archive and not being particularly searchable. Or we could create a Slack community for realtime conversation. Each tool has its pros and cons, but the question is, which would you prefer to use?
Between Ada Lovelace Day and the Clarke Award, we have a great community of writers and scientists, but it’s up to you, our audience, to let us know what venue would work best for you. Tell us where you want to be, and we’ll get it started!
Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Each year, ALD hosts a flagship science cabaret event in London, whilst around the world independent groups put on their own events.
Suw commissioned and edited the two Ada Lovelace Day anthologies about women in STEM, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys Into the Unknown.
Prior to working full-time on Ada Lovelace Day, Suw was a social technologist and, as one of the UK’s social media pioneers, worked with clients worldwide. A freelance journalist, she has written about social media, technology and publishing for The Guardian, CIO Magazine and Forbes. She also co-founded the Open Rights Group in 2005.
Suw has self-published two novellas, Argleton and Queen of the May, and a short story, The Lacemaker. All three are available to read for free on her website.
Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism. Her articles appeared in the Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune, and Geographical. Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. Her second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, was included in the Guardian’s “Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2015.” Her third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, is one of Publishers Weekly’s most anticipated titles of Spring 2017 and will be published by 47North this coming April.
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