At SFContario back in November, I had the opportunity to meet Hayden Trenholm and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm, the masterminds behind the Canadian SF publishing house Bundoran Press. I mentioned to them that I’ve been interviewing up and coming authors and asked if they could send a few folks my way.
Alison Sinclair was the first author they sent me, and after a brief perusal of her website and work, I discovered a few things about her that needed more elucidation. One thing I will say: Alison Sinclair probably has more letters after her name than you do.
9DW: Tell me a little about the genesis of the Plague Confederacy.
Alison Sinclair: I’m a Trekkie from far, far back, and therefore had the desire to write a story in the traditional episodic form of the starship visiting different planets. Since I was also interested in writing medical science fiction, the two ideas cross pollinated. The Waiora is a small starship on a diplomatic and humanitarian mission, restoring contact with colonies decimated by plague, and trying to track down the source of the plague for fear it should return.
9DW: How many of your many, many degrees did you draw from in order to write these first two books?
9DW: On that note, how many degrees do you have? On your website you say you’ve never met a science you didn’t like. So, which sciences did you fall in love with?
AS: Four. Chemistry and physics (undergraduate. I got stubborn when told I had to choose between them), biochemistry (structure of RNA), medicine, and epidemiology. Every one seemed a good idea at the time!
9DW: How do politics impact epidemics?
AS: In every aspect. There are innumerable examples of how political policies and decisions enhance or curtail the spread of epidemics, or manage to do both at once. Many diseases have an ideological narrative attached to them; I brought this aspect to the foreground in Contagion: Eyre.
Politics controls access to money, resources, and power. Politics and ideology dictates which diseases–or rather, whose diseases–receive attention, in terms of development and access to treatments. Where money gets spent and on whom, that’s political. See the early history of the AIDS epidemic. At an individual level, wealth and education dictates how well individuals get to look after themselves: whether they can afford safe housing, clean water, healthy food, and preventative healthcare.
Politics is the mechanism by which we organize large projects, such as the physical infrastructure that underlies health, aside from health care itself: housing, sanitation, the food supply, banning and restricting dangerous substances. Social policies and social investment were instrumental in ending the epidemics of typhus, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis in the nineteenth century.
Whether warfare arises as a political instrument or a political failure, the result is the same: warfare destroys infrastructure, puts people under great stress and in poor living conditions, forces them to migrate and mix and mingle, and fosters the spread of disease.
Politics also affects readiness to disclose: governments can suppress information about outbreaks for ideological or economic reasons (epidemics can be extremely expensive in a global economy), which often as not comes back to bite them: e.g., China and the SARS outbreak.
AS: It depends on the writer and the reader. I’ve spent a lifetime reading scientific literature and popular science, I’ve a high tolerance for facts, and I love hearing people talk about their work; I skew high on the nerd scale. However, there are times when I will skip, and I think the key point is whether the information matters to the story and to the characters at the moment at which is presented. The science behind how a planet or spaceship or invention *works* is not nearly as narratively interesting as the science behind why a planet or spaceship or invention *fails*. Make the science a challenge, a problem, to the character rather than part of the background.
9DW: What advice would you give to a writer who isn’t as strong as you in the sciences, and yet who needs to write a scientifically- or technologically-minded character?
AS: At one convention I was on a panel on background research with Julie Czerneda, who is a strong advocate of getting hold of a scientist and asking them questions. The basic questions: Will the proposed background, etc. work. But if you’re writing from the point of view of a scientist, another question to ask is ‘how would you approach this problem?’ Ask them what they think a scientist would do in your fictional situation situation. Ask them to talk about their and other peoples’ thought process, what’s linear, what’s intuitive, what’s spatial. There’s a lot of creativity in science and scientists, playing off the structures of thought that come from the training and socialization.
9DW: In terms of films, which movies would you have both an engaging plot and a high-level of scientific accuracy?
AS: I am hopelessly, hopelessly behind in my film-going, so I can’t answer that one.
9DW: What’s your biggest beef(s) about how female scientists are portrayed in fiction?
AS: When I wrote about women scientists in fiction back in 1999, I commented on how frequently the scientist character quit or was forced out of science by the end of the book. They tended to work in isolation, in opposition, and to be outsiders. It’s a valid narrative, but it shouldn’t be the only one. I prefer my characters now to have colleagues, women as well as men, and to be fully part of the field. Women scientists just aren’t that unusual for being women.
9DW: In which stories can we find scientists of any discipline or gender that you’ve actually enjoyed reading about?
AS: Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy, Antarctica, 3212, Aurora) is one of the writers whose scientific detail I will wallow happily in, and whose scientists I believe.
Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons and sequels are the memoirs of a pioneer woman biologist in a Victorian analogue setting where dragons are quite real, unmagical, and part of the ecology. There’s a sense of unreliability intrinsic in even a supposedly candid memoir of a famous person, and Brennan riffs off the history of women in science and the dangers and moral complexities inherent in voyages of exploration.
Barbara Kingsolver (Prodigal Summer, Flight Behaviour) is one of my perennial favourites. She writes beautifully, and the world is her laboratory.
I recommend Ellen Klages’ two novels, The Green Glass Sea and its sequel White Sands, Red Menace every chance I get. The main characters are two young teenage girls living in Los Alamos while their parents (a married couple and a single father) work on the Manhattan Project.
Bonus question: Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Marie Curie are sitting down to tea, and there’s only one piece of cake left. Only the craftiest of minds may take the cake. Who wins?
Nobody. They’d forget all about it because the conversation would be so absorbing, and the cake and all the silverware would wind up incorporated into a model of a device they’d invent between them.
Find and follow Alison!
Alison’s website: www.alisonsinclair.com
Alison’s Twitter handle: twitter.com/alixsinc
And check out her Facebook fanpage: https://www.facebook.com/Plague-Confederacy-series-1625269497685255/