Putting the Science in Fiction. A Q&A with Genetics Researcher & Author, Dan Koboldt
New book features experts in multiple scientific disciplines helping you become a better science fiction writer.
Featuring interviews with authors, academics and creators; and a collection of news items from the fields of technology, science, medicine and more, The Adjacent Possible project — both this Medium publication and the email newsletter — serves dual purposes:
- Entertain and educate fans of hard(ish) science fiction.
- Provide inspiration, ideas and source material for aspiring writers
Today’s Q&A participant is Dan Koboldt, a research scientist in the field of human genetics and genomics, and co-author of over 70 publications in Nature, JAMA, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other journals.
This week saw the publication of Putting the Science in Fiction which collects articles from Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy, Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction. Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.
Dan’s book is an ideal resource for The Adjacent Possible, and absolutely essential for writers at any experience level. I strongly recommend checking it out, it’s very accessible and is a fun read. So I was excited to have the opportunity to connect with Dan, and ask him some questions…
The Adjacent Possible: First, when did you start writing fiction? Had you already kicked off your scientific professional career? And how does your career inform the type of fiction writing you do?
Dan Koboldt: I’ve been reading SFF since I was a kid, and always fancied the idea of writing it myself. However, I didn’t really try until about ten years ago, when I took a night class on fiction writing. By that point I’d worked as a scientist for five years and had several publications on my CV. So I came in thinking I’d be pretty good at it. Man, was I wrong. It took me seven years to break in.
The AP: Obviously most aspiring science fiction authors don’t have a technical background in genetics, aerospace engineering, or advanced robotics. What can a writer do to if their story involves advanced technology/science to keep the reader from hurling the book across the room?
DK: The obvious answer is to do your homework, but not all research is created equal. Finding the right resource is a crucial first step. I encourage writers to start with primary sources whenever possible. That means reading peer-reviewed papers in journals like Science and Nature, or talking to experts who work in the field. The latter is especially important because you can have a discussion, rather than simply reading.
In the age of social media and e-mail, experts are easier to find than ever before. Ideally, you’d like to have some kind of personal connection — maybe the expert is a friend of a friend, or someone you follow on social media. Otherwise, you’re essentially a stranger asking a busy person for a favor. An expert who also writes fiction would be my first choice, because writers are usually inclined to help one another.
[D]on’t be surprised if your expert turns out not to have the right domain knowledge to help you. Scientists, engineers, and other trained professionals tend to specialize.
When you’ve secured an expert who’s willing to give advice, you should provide some brief contextual information — not the entire story, but the portion that involves the technical element — and ask some specific questions. Be respectful of their time. Yes/no questions take very little time to answer. Open-ended questions require more effort. Finally, don’t be surprised if your expert turns out not to have the right domain knowledge to help you. Scientists, engineers, and other trained professionals tend to specialize. If necessary, ask for a referral (or introduction) to someone better suited to answer your questions.
The AP: The Blade Runner films are amongst my favorites. They feature flying cars, clones, and colonies on other planets. Yet they explain almost nothing in detail regarding these elements. How does an author decide how much detail and specifics to include in a story? How much hand-waving is the right amount?
DK: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Star Wars is another franchise where there are many speculative elements that aren’t explained. The original trilogy might be classified as science fantasy, because there was a magic system (the Force) that had no scientific basis. It was complete hand waving, literally. Two decades later, the prequel trilogy tried to add some scientific-sounding “midichlorians” that are found at higher concentrations in the blood of Jedi knights. Everyone hated it. The lesson here? Not everything in a story needs a technical explanation.
When you do research like the kind I mentioned above, you usually get far more information than you actually need. It’s the writer’s duty to distill down to the vital pieces that the story needs. Still, I encourage authors to get the details right whenever possible, so that when you do need hand wavium — for things like faster-than-light travel or cryogenics — your readers may be willing to let one slide.
The AP: Are some areas of science and technology easier to screw up than others? Is it more difficult to properly integrate something like synthetic biology than, say, advanced A.I.?
DK: I don’t think so, no. All scientific and technical subjects have nuances that are easily missed by non-experts. A good rule of thumb is this: the more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to screw it up. That’s due to a human phenomenon in which we tend to believe ourselves to be more capable at something than we truly are. It’s a good reason to get eyes on your work. Beta readers and critique partners can really save you.
The AP: Ok, how about a tip for readers? How can a laymen reader improve his scientific BS-detector? What should be a clue that the author has done a good job, or a bad job, integrating correct science in their Sci Fi?
DK: Why would you want to? When I’m a reader and have to call BS, it really throws me out of the story. So I try to allow authors some creative license with their work. I’m usually willing to suspend disbelief if the story is good. The author’s promise to the reader isn’t total factual accuracy; it’s story consistency. In other words, if you tell me that magic can’t be used to fly, or that no ship can travel faster than warp nine, it had better not happen in the story.
A big thank you to Dan Koboldt for providing some really great insights. If you’re interested in more information on Putting the Science in Fiction, visit Dan’s site. If you’d like to receive a twice-monthly email filled with news stories from the bleeding edge, please consider signing up for the Adjacent Possible newsletter.