The Ada Lovelace Conversations #2 — Science fiction writers Anne Charnock and E.J. Swift compare notes on how science plays a part in their story telling and how they structure their work around their themes.
Anne Charnock— Since we last met, E.J., you’ve started a major new writing project. Personally, I love that point in the process where the writing is underway and yet I’m still carrying out research. Are you delving into a particular field of science with this new novel? And are you finding the research fun, or is it a headache getting the science right?
E.J. Swift — At the moment I’m in the early stages of a novel set around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which is involving research into coral science and conservation, in particular the impacts of climate change on coral reefs now and in the future. I don’t have a scientific background, so this element was always going to be a challenge for me. So far I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching videos and documentaries. David Attenborough’s three-part series on the reef is a beautiful piece of filmmaking I’d recommend to anyone, showcasing the incredible biodiversity of the region — and what we stand to lose if carbon emissions remain unchecked.
There’s obviously a huge amount of information on and offline, and the GBR has had a lot of media coverage lately with the impacts of the heightened El Nino weather and mass bleachings. But there comes a point where you’ve got as far as you can on your own, and my next stage will be to see if I can get in touch with coral experts and speak to them about their work directly. I’ve always loved learning about nature and I enjoy the research process, but it can be quite overwhelming trying to filter the mass of information out there, and of course when it’s something so current you feel a responsibility to get it right.
Anne, I loved the future strand of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind which explores the concept of artificial wombs and how this impacts on parenthood, a theme you’re returning to with Dreams Before the Start of Time. What drew you to fertility science and have you had to do additional research for the new novel? And as someone with a background in science journalism, do you have any advice or tips for approaching a new subject?
Anne — You’ve taken exactly the right approach with the Great Barrier Reef: Do the groundwork in terms of research, work up some fictional scenarios and then find a specialist who is willing to talk to you. And don’t be afraid to ask basic questions! As a science journalist, I was privileged to meet people who were well-respected in their fields of science and engineering. They were invariably keen to have a conversation with me, or to be more accurate with the newspaper or magazine I represented. However, approaching them as a fiction writer, I can’t assume they’ll spare the time!
My interest in genetic engineering grew out of my first novel, A Calculated Life, in which my protagonist, Jayna, is genetically engineered to be super intelligent. For my next two novels, I wanted to consider some of the intermediate steps — to suggest how wealthier people might embrace new opportunities for genetic modifications and new reproductive technologies. Having experienced childbirth twice (not counting my own birth!), I can see the attractions of gestating a child in an artificial womb. No doubt about that! But how would this affect family relationships and society at large?
I don’t have any background in the biological sciences. But in 2012, I listened to a talk by Dr Aarathi Prasad at the Hay Festival about her non-fiction book, Like a Virgin, How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. Subsequently, I read Aarathi’s excellent book and, as well as trying to understand the science, I imagined a slew of fictional scenarios. Aarathi kindly agreed to meet me, and we had a chat about my ideas for storylines.
I also kept a lookout for any relevant news features and documentaries. But at some point you have to start writing a story about imagined characters and their motivations. The research is partly relegated. It’s there in your mind, but the main focus has to be the storytelling.
In Dreams Before the Start of Time, out on 18 April 2017, I follow two young women who face difficult choices about starting a family. And I follow them as they experience ‘the shock of the new,’ as their children and grandchildren embrace new ways of making babies. I’ve written the novel as a series of vignettes, allowing seemingly peripheral characters to take centre-stage for a few pages, but always returning to the central characters and their immediate family circles.
So, E.J., we’ve both written fiction in which climate change is part of our world-building. Tell me how you became interested in this subject and the part it plays in your trilogy The Osiris Project.
E.J. — Climate change was something I’d had a growing interest and awareness of for a few years, and then I read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and that was really a game-changer for me. The geo-political scenarios it hypothesizes were at once utterly horrifying but also, from a fiction writer’s point of view, fascinating.
I’ve always been drawn to isolated landscapes — the bleak but beautiful. When it came to writing The Osiris Project, I had the world map in mind very early on — a world radically altered by climate change, with borders redrawn and civilization shifted towards the poles. And that underpinned so much of the trilogy, in terms of character, society, political agendas, particularly in the second novel, Cataveiro.
Anne, how important was climate change as you were developing the world of A Calculated Life? Because as a reader, it feels like a noticeable but very subtle element, which I loved — for example, the vineyards, olive and citrus groves surrounding Greater Manchester.
Anne — In any dystopia there are winners and losers — in terms of wealth and freedom — and it’s the same with climate change. I felt it would be interesting to locate my dystopian world in a region benefiting overall from climate change. In my imagined future world, Manchester and the north west of England become the new Tuscany of Europe. I’ve been tuned into climate issues for many years because I studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit. I remember ice-cores being delivered to the department for historical climate analysis. And in 2006, I helped launch the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in the community where I live. It’s now an exemplar for grassroots action thanks to the community’s enthusiasm. So far we’ve cut our carbon emissions by 25% through behaviour change and we’ve set up a Community Energy Company to generate power from solar energy. Our primary school now has free electricity!
Now that I’ve written three standalone novels, E.J., I’d love to know how you approached writing a trilogy. When did you realize your subject was too big for a standalone novel? And was it instantly clear to you how to break the narrative into three books?
E.J. — I actually wrote Osiris as a standalone novel in the first instance, but when it came to submitting to agents I had a feeling I’d be asked about plans for sequels, and I left the story deliberately open-ended. The only thing I knew about the second book was that the location would move to outside Osiris, with an almost entirely new cast — I didn’t want to end up writing three variations of the same book, but rather to expand the canvas and the narrative points-of-view with each instalment. But then I had so much fun with Cataveiro, the challenge in the third book was pulling everything back together, when my mind wanted to be off exploring an entirely different story! I think if I ever did another trilogy (and it’s definitely not on the cards anytime soon) I’d approach it quite differently. I love those trilogies where you might have hundreds, even thousands of years between books. And hopefully I’d be more organized too…
By contrast, you’ve done almost the opposite with your second novel in terms of structure? Can you tell me a bit about the approach you chose, and why?
Anne — I spent several years mulling over this novel — Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind — before I settled on the structure. One of my main themes is the nature of success including, more specifically, how women’s achievements have tended to be overlooked. I decided to write three inter-weaving storylines set several hundreds of years apart. A trilogy of sorts! I hoped this fractured structure would create a sense of immediacy. It proved both a challenge and immense fun to write. The settings are Renaissance Florence, present-day China and a future London in which The Academy of Restitution is attempting to lift women out of undeserved obscurity.
I’ve moved into new writing territories — from futuristic dystopian writing in my first novel to contemporary and historical fiction — with Sleeping Embers. How do you feel about entering new territory — switching to standalone novels following the success of your trilogy? Do you feel it’s a risk?
E.J. — I’m really looking forward to the era of standalones, I like the containment of the single novel. Of course you can’t guarantee readers who liked one book will automatically be interested in the next, but that goes for series too. I think perhaps the greater risk is moving around genres — a project I was recently working on has a contemporary setting, and it’s quite different in tone to The Osiris Project books, though it also contains speculative elements. One writer I really admire for this versatility is Genevieve Valentine, whose novels aren’t constrained to any one genre — she’s gone from steampunk circus to 1920s prohibition to future eco-thriller, and seems to be able to turn her hand to any subject material.
I should say I’m a big fan of multilayered and intersecting narratives (writers like David Mitchell, to cite an obvious example).
All three of your novels have explored future projections — would you say you’re naturally drawn to the speculative in writing (and in art!), or is this just coincidence?
Anne — I think I’m naturally drawn to speculative writing because it offers a huge canvas. Having said that, I prefer to create plausible scenarios.
Sometimes I test my ideas in a short story — for example, to try out a different style of writing or to find the voice of a character. Your short story “The Spiders of Stockholm” was long-listed for 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. What an achievement! Can you describe the attraction of short form for you?
E.J. — Thanks, Anne! That was the loveliest surprise — I’d completely forgotten my editor had even submitted the story. “The Spiders of Stockholm” was part of the Irregularity anthology from Jurassic London, who are a joy to write for because they always put together such thought-provoking briefs (in this case, the tension between order and chaos in the Age of Enlightenment).
I don’t feel that I’m a natural short story writer, so I like having some ideas to springboard from. But one thing I love about the form is the opportunity to hone your language at the editing stage, whereas with a novel it feels like there’s always something that escapes you. Having said that, some of my favourite novels are short story collections in disguise, like Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, or Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and I’d love to write something in that vein one day.
Anne — One of my favourite examples of fragmented-narrative writing is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and I’ll definitely read Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. Thanks for the recommendation. I do feel that short form and split narratives suit me as a fiction writer. It’s possibly a throw-back to my days of rattling off short pieces of journalistic writing. Having said that, short fiction requires a great deal more honing that journalism deadlines ever allowed.
It’s been great to catch up, E.J., and the best of luck with your coral reef research!
E. J. Swift is the author of the Osiris Project trilogy (Osiris, Cataveiro and Tamaruq), a speculative fiction series set in a world radically altered by climate change. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award (“The Spiders of Stockholm”) and the BSFA award for short fiction (“Saga’s Children”), and has appeared in a variety of publications from Solaris, Salt Publishing, NewCon Press and Jurassic London. Swift also contributed to Strata — an interactive digital project by Penguin Random House.
Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism (The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune). Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. This year sees the publication of The Enclave, set within the world of A Calculated Life (NewCon Press). In addition, her third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time is published by 47North, and her short story “A Good Citizen” is included in the anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories).