Annalee Newitz And Charlie Jane Anders On The Intersection Between Writing About Science And Writing Science Fiction

Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novels, Autonomous and The City in the Middle of the Night. (Photo: James Whitbrook/io9)

io9 was founded as a website dedicated to both science journalism and science-fiction and cultural criticism. And although that mission has evolved over the years, that intersection between science and science fiction is something that still drives co-founders Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz’ work as authors. At a recent talk in London, England, the duo discussed how their science backgrounds have influenced their fiction.

“It’s really interesting because we’ve lived through — in the last twenty or so years — a massive change in human behaviour,” Anders said of the relationship between people and technology. “When we started working in io9, the iPhone had just been introduced as a gadget. And that decade following was really a sea change in how people talk to each other, and how people organise our social lives, I guess. I feel like we’re still seeing the tail end of that.”

She continued, “Nobody knows what the next giant change is going to be. Whether it’s a biopunk/biohacking thing, or quantum computing, or what... I think that’s why we keep saying it’s a very science-fictional age we’re living in is because we’ve seen this massive transformation due to a piece of technology — the smart phone, the iPad, that kind of stuff.”

That rapid technological advancement in the last decade is something that brought about a particular challenge for Anders’ writing about the future of technology in her work.

“I think it’s really interesting to do thought experiments about if we had robots, if we had...in my first book, there are these iPhones on steroids in some ways, called caddies,” Anders explained. “When I wrote All the Birds in the Sky, I sort of thought, ‘Oh, by the time this gets published we’re going to have these for real. Why did you spend all this time describing a gadget we already have in real life?’ Then it was published and they weren’t real. I was so relieved. Because that’s happened to me a lot!

But I think, you know, the thing science fiction lets us do is do these thought experiments of plunking people down in a world where things are radically different. And it could be a post-apocalyptic world, it could be an alien world. It could just be a drastically different future. But seeing what’s the same and what’s different — it’s always an interesting thought experiment.”

In her second novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, the huge gap in time between our present and the future of the novel presented some interesting existential questions about the world her protagonists live in.

The City in the Middle of the Night takes place in the 34th century. There’s a date revealed later in the book where you find out its the year 3309, or something,” Anders continued, “and [it got me] thinking about how different people were 1200 years ago, versus how we live now. Like, in the 900s versus the present.

There’s a lot of stuff you’d have a hard time explaining to someone from the year 819. Someone from 819 would have a really hard time understanding a lot of stuff about the world we’re living in. There’s certain things they’d be like, ‘of course — we do that, just slightly differently.’ So, when you’re projecting into the future, I think you kind of have to do that in reverse and think about how shockingly different the world 1200 years from now might be.”

For Newitz, the process is similar — they turned to our history before considering our future. “When I’m doing worldbuilding about the future, I do exactly what Charlie Jane is saying — I think about the past,” they said. “When I was doing Autonomous, which is about 150 years in the future, I thought a lot about what kind of stuff we have in common with people 150 years ago.”

Given the talk was in London, Newitz had a touristy anecdote to share about the connections they made between how we view history and how we view science.

“So today, we went to the British Museum, because we’re tourists, and it was delightful. I wanted to go to the Manga exhibit was it was all sold out,” they opined. “So, instead, we went into one of the many antiquities rooms full of shit colonisers stole.

There was an Auroch horn a naturalist had collected something in the 19th century, just sitting in this case. This big, huge horn from an ox. And I was thinking about the fact that about 9,000 years ago, one of the cities that I’d written a lot about for my science writing is this city — called Çatalhöyük. in central Turkey. That’s sometimes thought of has the first city. Some archeologists say it’s not really a city, because of its design.”

“But about 5000 people lived there. Which was really big at the time. It was like, the London of that era, and one of the things those people did was build houses out of mud,” Newitz continued. “They interconnected a lot — they didn’t have writing — but one of the things they would do is take auroch horns and sink them into the walls.

So when archeologists excavated, there’s many layers of the city, people lived there for about a thousand years, they’ll be excavating the wall and find the teeth of a badger, an auroch horn in the wall. Sometimes they stuck out of the wall, sometimes they would just plaster them into the wall itself. And millions of people debate — not millions, tens of people are debating — what this might mean.

But as I was looking at that auroch horn from the naturalist in the 19th century, I kept thinking, ‘Wow, it’s basically the same thing. It’s taking this piece of a wild, living thing and putting it into a box.’ A domestic space, that’s controlled and ours and we build it into our environment — but now we call it science.”

It was a comment that elicited a chuckle in the room, but raised an existential question for Newtiz. “I just had this weird, sinking feeling. Are we just fooling ourselves when we say we’ve made all this progress? And we’re all just lying when we say we’re fancy and enlightened? Or are we really just Neolithic and taking things, and trying to possess them in ways we can’t ever really possess them or know them?”

“I think that’s part of what animates my interest in science in a way, is how it’s not something that’s actually brand new or cause a radical break with the past — but how it’s a continuation of a long, human project that maybe at one time, people would have thought as magic,” they continued.

“Or they would have thought of it as some sort of ritual practice they never would have thought of or ever know because we don’t have time machines. And now we have this other name for it, and maybe, in a thousand years, we won’t call it science anymore, we’ll call it some other project we’re doing that continues the work science is doing. So I don’t know where I’m going with this, other than to say this is part of some human impulse we give different names to at different times.

I mean, I’m super pro-science — I’m not saying science sucks, or whatever! I’m saying there’s this unbroken history we’re still in the middle of. Maybe science will be over one day.”

Photo: James Whitbrook/io9

Science and scientists themselves both have major roles to play in both Anders and Newitz’s work, in part because, well, it’s science-fiction, but also because of their backgrounds in academia and journalism. “I always like to have scientists in my book because I love scientists and I’m a recovering academic,” Newitz joked.

“I was in academia and I left to become a writer. So, I think part of me is stuck in academia — I forward academics and scientists purely for personal reasons. But also, I love writing about the weird parts of the scientific process that often don’t make it into science-fiction.”

Those parts don’t often make it into popular sci-fi thanks to culture’s tropey reinterpretation of the field as a simplified way to handwave technology and worlds that don’t exist, according to Newitz. “In the trope, the scientist will come in, look around, and she’s like, ‘All right, get that thing, that thing, put it all together — now we’ve got a floobity-wab.’ Which is delightful. You know the old chestnut about when people would write the old Star Trek scripts, they would just put “tech tech tech” in there? That’s a true story!”

Sometimes, the trope can go the other way, they continued. “I love that trope of a super-competent, The Martian-style scientist. ‘Yes, we’re going to grow potatoes in the Martian megalith!’ But the fact is, as a journalist who covers science, I know five per cent of it is that amazing moment you grow potatoes on Mars and 95 per cent is sitting in meetings, trying to get grants, trying to get into grad school or get your grad students to do stuff — or trying to get a post-doc, or trying to negotiate with some governmental body or other regulatory agency to get your work done.”

“There’s all this red tape,” Newitz explained. “The trope is that a discovery will be made and there’s a direct connection between the discovery and some massive change in the world. And that’s not how it works. There may be some big discovery we never know about because it doesn’t get funded. Or there might be a big discovery that gets tied up in forty years of red tape, because the scientist isn’t friends with the guy who signs the papers at the government agency.”

But for Newitz, the realism behind those sort of roadblocks can lead to creative storytelling. “I love all that crunchy stuff — having scientists who are just like, ‘I have this thing!’ and are just beating their heads against the wall because they can’t get it into the world,” they continued.

“That’s why in Autonomous, the scientist character, Jack, has become a pirate. Because she can’t work in academia. She can’t get the medicine she’s developing to people because the pharmaceutical companies want to control it. So, she’s like, ‘fuck it, I’m pirating medicine.’ Which is obviously going to get her in trouble and angry robots sent after her. But that’s the kind of story I like to tell about science — I like the trope, but, I also like the trope of a mad scientist or outlaw scientist.”

Anders leveraged similar trope expectations and their inherent prejudices in her first novel, a tale of a community of scientists and a community of witches.

“In All the Birds in the Sky, one of the two main characters is a mad scientist and it’s about him and his community of scientists — a lot of whom are women — and the witch and her community of witches, which was very consciously playing with the tropes of those two different things and trying to subvert and subtweet them.” But according to Anders, sometimes having someone as smart as a scientist among your book’s cast can create roadblocks of a different kind.

Photo: James

“In The City of the Middle of the Night, I had a scientist character, and I took her out, mostly because it just slowed the book down too much,” Anders revealed. “There were things I wanted the characters to discover the hard way rather than have someone figure out for them.

There’s a cheap scene where we watch a recording of a scientist who’s long dead explain a bunch of stuff to us, so we get the information, but don’t have to spend time with that character because she’s been dead for hundreds of years. I felt, in this story, since it’s about people who are lost and confused and figuring stuff out as they go, having a scientist there didn’t work. It got in the way.

I wanted people who had been living on this planet for a very long time who took things for granted about the world they were living in, and they figured stuff out through trial and error.”

But despite that, Anders still tried to ensure as much of the science in The City in the Middle of the Night was as accurate as it could be. “It’s a book where I tried very hard to get the science as right as I possibly could. I talked to a lot of scientists as I was working on it.

But in the end — you know, it’s almost like a fairy tale in a weird way. Even though it’s a science fiction novel, it has a very fairy tale feeling. It’s got a weird, magical realist feel rather than a hard science feel. And because I wanted to focus on the characters and their journey. And it was... it got a little bit magical, even though its science-fiction.”

That loosening of genre and tone, and playing with the toolset of tropes in general, was freeing for Anders — because fandoms and readers, in general, have become much more literate in the existence of tropes as a concept. “One of the things that’s changed in the last ten years is that now we’re hyper-aware of tropes,” she said.

“It’s hard to even remember a world before TV Tropes and Wikipedia that make it absurdly easy to watch television, see a movie, or read a book and go, ‘OK, they’re doing this trope. Are they aware, or unawares? Did they lampshade it? Or just do it without any kind of wink at the audience?’” While that literacy can be useful for a writer to leverage, Anders noted that it can also be a hindrance to the story you’re trying to write.

“You can drive yourself nuts, go around the bend being like, ‘I have to avoid all tropes,’” she continued. “It can get ridiculous, because to some extent, tropes are what stories are made of. You’re going to do tropes no matter what you do. If [your story has] scientists, you’re going to have scientist tropes you’re bumping up against. You can do them in a new way, and be like, ‘OK, I know this has been done before in these different stories, but I’m going to do it with intent’ — and think about what that trope means.

The thing that drives me nuts, is more...when you’re watching a spy movie, and you know, like, at exactly 57 minutes in, there’s going to be a suitcase handcuffed to somebody’s wrist, and —there’s certain things that happen in every single movie of certain genre. Or every novel. It has to have X, Y and Z. At that point, it is sort of the tail wagging the dog a bit.

But part of what I liked about doing All the Birds in the Sky was using mad scientist tropes and witch tropes in a very intentional way, and using them to tell a personal story. For my own ends. I think that’s the difference, mainly. I think tropes are tools. They’re storytelling tools, like anything else. If you wield them carefully, they can be really powerful.”

“I think there’s nothing more pleasurable than encountering a trope and watching how the author has transformed or mutated it,” Newitz added. “And you’re like, ‘I kind of know what they’re doing, but I kind of don’t know what they’re doing...’ it’s so delightful. But it is true, you can’t get away from tropes. Unless you write Finnegan’s Wake — and now, that’s a trope. So, forget it!”

Anders finished her thoughts on tropes with a reminder of one of their other benefits in a more progressive society: a modern reader’s awareness of the negative prejudices behind certain tropes can make creatives strive to be more mindful of the cultures they write about.

“The thing about being hyper-aware of tropes that’s partly really good is that there are a lot of tropes that are really hurtful to people, that deal with real life trauma, or oppression or marginalization, that people used to feel free to just go, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this and have, like, blah blah blah,’” she explained.

“Now, thanks to social media and TV Tropes, if you use a trope that’s about a culture you’re not part of a trauma you haven’t experienced personally, you’re going to hear about it. People are becoming more aware of [the idea of] ‘if I do this stereotype-y character, I’ll get in hot water.’ And that’s a really good thing. There needs to be more fear among creators about certain tropes.”

“They need to live in fear,” she joked. “Buy a house in fear. Send change of address cards!”

Newitz and Anders’ background in science journalism and academia before they became writers of science fiction aided them in another vital aspect of writing sci-fi in the first place: research. “I do live in fear scientists will tell me I’ve got things wrong,” Newitz said.

“Especially when I was working on Autonomous, and writing about artificial intelligence. I’ve written about computer security for a really long time, and I have so many friends who work on network security — If any one of them reads this book and smacks their forehead, sighs, and says, ‘this is not a realistic way computers would work,’ I’m just going to be sad,” they continued. “I was afraid it would happen and be sad if it did.”

Annalee Newitz speaks onstage at Engadget Expand NY 2013 at Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre. (Photo: Craig Barritt / Stringer, Getty Images)

For Newitz, that means a lot of their work before writing involves talking to scientists from all sorts of fields. “I’ve talked to roboticists, computer scientists, synthetic biologists — which was fun, because it’s rare people call up a neuroscientist and say, ‘Can I have a drug that can do this and instantly get people addicted to work?’ Some scientists secretly want to be doing devious things,” Newitz joked. “So, it’s pretty delightful for them.”

“For Future From Another Timeline, I also talked to a lot of people,” they continued. “There’s a very large list of acknowledgements in the back — partly because I was writing a lot about history, and I’m a giant history nerd. So I was doing everything from trying to figure out what the train schedules were like in 1893 Chicago, to what kind of languages people would have been speaking in the year 15 BCE in Jordan that, in my book, had never been Hellenised. Goddamn Greeks!

I actually find that part really fun. I like doing research and asking scientists incredibly weird questions. Then the hard part is synthesising it and make it not, like, ‘let me info dump to you...’ There’s a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor I just needed to know for myself.”

For Newitz, that accuracy wasn’t just vital as a writer of fiction, but because of her work as a journalist as well. “It’s quite important for me to get things right when I’m doing journalism,” they explained, before adding that one of the pleasures of creative writing is a little more freedom to be loose in that regard.

“But the nice thing about fiction is that if I get it a little bit wrong, I won’t be in trouble. It’s much more pleasurable to do the writing if I can say, ‘It’s an alternate timeline’ or, ‘I got it wrong, but it’s fiction.’ It’s kind of a relief. There’s no fact checkers in fiction!”

Talking to scientists for research is also part of Anders’ own toolkit when writing her novels — but it was a skill she had to develop before learning to really embrace it. “I used to have a real hang-up about bugging scientists and I used to think they were either going to be really annoyed if I called them up or emailed them and say, ‘I’ve got a bunch of questions this thing you wrote about,’” she added.

“I thought they’d be like, ‘What the hell, you’re wasting my time with your bullshit stories!’ But actually, what I’ve found is scientists love to talk about their work. They love to talk to writers and laypeople about their work — they don’t get to talk about their work to random laypeople as much as they like.

Also, if you write a book about something they spent their life studying and you fuck it up, they’re going to spend the next several years explaining, ‘No, it’s not like that book. The Core is not a documentary. It’s one of the best movies ever made, but it’s not a documentary.’”

As part of her research for City in the Middle of the Night, Anders struck up a working relationship with a geoscientist to help her research into tidally-locked planets. “I found scientists actually love to talk to science fiction writers and you can just write to them or call them up — mostly email them, actually — and they will talk to you,” Anders said.

“And they’re happy to. They will hook you up with papers and stuff. For City, I worked a lot with this one geoscientist that Annalee actually introduced me to, who works on tidally-locked planets — she helped me to come up with stuff like the Sea of Murder, which is this terrible ocean people have to cross, and a bunch of other stuff, she helped me figure out how it could actually work in real life.”

Charlie Jane Anders speak onstage at Syfy hosts The Great Debate during Comic-Con International 2017. (Photo: Mike Coppola / Staff, Getty Images)

But as science is an ever-evolving field of research, a writer won’t always ultimately have accurate plans that come to fruition, Anders explained. “I don’t think the tidally-locked planet stuff in [The City in the Middle of the Night] actually ended up being completely scientifically accurate. We still don’t know a lot about them. Towards the end of my working on it, I talked to some scientists who were like, ‘No. It would be drastically different.’ And at that point, it’s too late to change it.

But I did read a lot of papers while I was working on it, and there’s a major plot development about two-thirds of the way through the book that is based on a bunch of papers I was reading about tidally locked planets. It was a thrill to read a scientific paper and be like, ‘Wow, this means that I can do this, and this is going to happen...’ It was exciting. I think I tweeted about it at the time: I just read a paper that’s changing my novel!”

“One other thing about research that’s really basic is just that...the thing that’s fun about basing fiction on real stuff, like how linguistics works or how computers work is that it gives you really great limitations,” Newitz added. “I think one of the pleasures of writing fantastical fiction is finding the limitations you’re going to work within, because, if anything can happen, it just becomes kind of boring.”

As an example, Newitz leveraged an io9... favourite, CBS’ adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome — a show that Anders recapped for the site in character as the titular dome.

“We had this show in the states called Under the Dome, which was based on a Stephen King novel,” Newitz explained to the audience. “And it was literally, like, anything can happen. The dome will be this alien that can, like, make fire appear, it can make people be resurrected — literally, anything can happen. It’s like a holodeck episode. It’s really boring!”

Researching actual science for their novels meant that realistic limitations could give way to interesting creative angles on science-fiction for Newitz. “When you the research and use the limitations of existing science, it gives you a way of saying, ‘All right, this is kind of where the story has to go — it’s not going to overstep those limits,’” They added.

“We’re not going to invent a language that’s universally understandable. That would be fun, but...that’s a universal translator sort of thing. I think that’s the other part that’s fun about research — getting a quick, cheap limitation.”

As much as Newitz enjoys the research process, as a writer they also have to know a limitation of their own: when there’s been too much research.

“Yeah, it’s a super big problem,” Newitz said in response to a question from the audience about knowing when to stop. “As a former academic, I understand [the impulse of] ‘But I need to read one more thing...how could I possibly write if I haven’t read twelve more papers?’” For Newitz at least, they mitigate that impulse by researching in fits and starts.

“I tend to go piecemeal, so, there’ll be a couple big research pieces,” they explained. “When I started doing The Future of Another Timeline, I was like, ‘OK, I want to have very scientifically accurate time travel.’ So, I talked to two physicists because I was foolish, and they were both like — ‘Time travel is a literary device, it is not science.’ But one of them, Sean Carroll — who has actually written some fantastic books on physics — kind of threw me a bone and said, ‘Yeah, use wormholes. That’s fine. Whatever!’ So I started with that.

As I was going along, I would kind of say, ‘Oh, now my characters are in this place...’ I’ll research this until I’m able to write this scene. I would have this story in my head—I know my characters are going to go to the Chicago World’s Fair, so I will research that when I get there. That’s how I do it.”

“It is true, if you’re one of those people who likes to power through [writing a draft], that research can pull you out of the kind of groove you’re in,” Newitz concluded. “That’s just how my brain works. Cory Doctorow always says he’ll just leave blanks in the text: write through, and then just have a ‘TK’ [Editors note: in journalism, “TK” is shorthand for “to come,” signifying material to be added at a later date]. And that’s a totally legit way to do it. Maybe you’ll have to change some stuff, but you’re going to have to rewrite it anyway!”


All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders, are available now, as is Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Newitz’s sophomore novel, The Future of Another Timeline, hits shelves September 24.

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