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A Scientist’s Approach to Science Fiction

  • By Maggie Masetti
  • October 3, 2012
  • Comments Off on A Scientist’s Approach to Science Fiction

Alan SmaleMeet Alan Smale – he’s currently the director of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (we know that’s a mouthful and just call it the HEASARC) which is a part of the Astrophysics Science Division here at NASA Goddard, and he also performs research on black holes. He grew up in Leeds, England, and has a BA in Physics and a doctorate in Astrophysics from Oxford University.

I’ve been friends with Alan for many years and know him not only as a scientist, but as someone who sings bass with well-known vocal band The Chromatics, and co-creator of the educational AstroCappella project, which spreads astronomy through a cappella music. But singer is not the only non-scientist hat Alan wears.

He’s also a published author.

Alan writes alternate and twisted history, fantasy and science fiction, with almost three dozen stories published in magazines including Realms of Fantasy, Abyss & Apex, Paradox, and Scape. His novella of Romans in ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles” in Panverse Two, won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History (short form), and he is currently marketing a novel based in the Clash of Eagles universe through his New York agent. His novella set in near-future Asia, “The Mongolian Book of the Dead,” just appeared in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Alan Smale
Alan appears on a discussion panel at Capclave, with author Connie Willis next to him.
Credit: Alan Smale

Alan Smale
Alan holds his Sideways award for “A Clash of Eagles.”
Credit: Alan Smale

We thought it would be interesting to talk to Alan about how he balances two different careers and whether one actually informs the other. How does a scientist approach writing fiction, especially science fiction?

Blueshift: Where did you get an interest in science and why did you pursue it as a career?

Alan Smale: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science. We had a world atlas at home which had images of the other planets in the solar system in the frontispiece, and I used to stare at those pages when I was very young. I was completely addicted to the Apollo program and the lunar landings, and kept a pile of newspaper cuttings about them. I was also fascinated by dinosaurs – I got my first dinosaur encyclopedia in Dublin, at the tender age of seven – and by living animals as well. I had a lot of books about animals of the world. I was particularly impressed by cheetahs, as I recall.

In my teens, my Dad and I bought a telescope to look at the night sky – the Moon, planets, stars, galaxies, globular clusters. My Dad was an engineer for a TV station, and although I don’t remember clearly, I suspect he may have played a subtle hand in fostering my interests in things scientific from an early age.

So, there was never much doubt that I’d go into science as a career. During the Apollo era I always figured I’d be an astronaut, because by the time I reached the age of 40 living and working in space wouldn’t be a big deal. For a while, it certainly seemed to be the trajectory we were on, and I’m still sad that it didn’t happen. My friends from those early years remember me telling them I was going to work for NASA one day, which is a bit odd for a kid living in a rather working-class part of Yorkshire. I don’t remember saying that, but I do recall my next obsession, which was that I wanted to go to Oxford University, and I certainly kept very quiet about that, because it didn’t look like a very realistic proposition given my grades at school at the time. But I went, and I got my degree in physics, which led to a doctorate in astrophysics, which led to me coming to the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1988 to work on the BBXRT X-ray astronomy Shuttle payload (STS-35, launched in December 1990).

Blueshift: Did you develop a love of writing in parallel to an interest in science? Did you always want to be a professional author/storyteller, or is that more recent?

AS: I started writing stories well before my teen years. Predictably they were either about dinosaurs, wild animals and Tarzan-like characters, or astronauts. I wrote two books in high school, the first an adventure novel about a secret agent working for an oil company (don’t ask), and the other a rather surreal piece about a group of scientists trapped in a monsoon and flood and fighting for survival. I didn’t write seriously between the ages of 18 and 30 because I was too busy studying and establishing my science career. I took it up again once I moved to the US, and began submitting short stories to professional markets soon after. My first professional sale was in 1992, to a young adult fantasy anthology from Harcourt Brace. Even in my wilder moments I’ve never really thought I could make a full time living at it, though.

Blueshift: Has your background in science and astronomy affected the stories you want to tell or genres you want to write in?

AS: People are regularly surprised that I don’t write a lot of classical ‘hard’ science fiction. It would certainly make sense, given my background, training, and real-world interests. But as it turns out, most of the fiction I’ve written for the past ten years has been alternate history or historical fantasy. I’m not really sure why that is, but I suspect I need mental variety, and writing hard SF would seem too close to my day job. I read a lot of history for pleasure and for research, and almost everything I write at this point is set in the past, rather than the future. My novella about Romans in ancient America, published in the “Panverse Two” anthology, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History last year. I was already extending it to novel length at the time when it won the award, and I recently signed with an agent who is interested in representing it, so right now I’m feeling very happy and optimistic that I’ll be continuing to write in the quasi-historical genre for a while to come.

However, even though I mostly write against a historical background, the stories I tell are solidly grounded in science. My heroes and heroines seem to be pragmatic types, and – if this makes any sense at all – I try to handle even the more fantastical elements of my stories in a down-to-earth scientific way.

And as it happens I’ve just been asked to contribute a short story to a hard science fiction anthology. I’m still trying to figure out if I can do it.

Blueshift: How do you mix two careers – have you chosen to keep one identity that is both a writer and a scientist? How much did you think about separating those things? Or is perhaps not a strange thing to be a scientist who writes science fiction/fantasy? (or its sub-genres)

AS: In terms of time management, it’s frankly a bit of a disaster(!). At Goddard I’m the Director of the HEASARC, which is NASA’s archive for high energy astrophysics and cosmology data, and I also serve as Deputy Chief Scientist for the Physics of the Cosmos Program. Neither of these are small jobs, and I’m also still trying to keep up my program of research into the variability of X-ray binary systems – close pairs of stars, where one of the objects is a black hole or neutron star. And prior to taking these jobs I worked downtown at NASA Headquarters for five years as a Program Executive. It’s pretty difficult to shoehorn writing time into my life on top of that, and it requires a certain determination. But I’m unhappy when I don’t write, so really I have no choice.

I do like to keep my two lives separate. I rarely or never talk about my writing at work (until now!). And when I go to science fiction conventions I don’t also give talks on astronomy or science-fact, though I’ll occasionally sit on a space- or physics-related panel. The Alan Smale who lurks on Facebook and Twitter is the writer, not the scientist. It’s not so strange to be a scientist who also writes fiction – Geoff Landis from the Glenn Research Center is the obvious name who comes to mind, and there are several others who write in the hard SF sub-genre.

Blueshift: When you write (or even read) science fiction are you cognizant of or critical of how science is used?

AS: When I read, I’m certainly very conscious of how science is used. I’m much more tolerant of writers who take liberties and stretch science a little in an entertaining way, than writers who make out-and-out errors on things they could easily check. My particular bugbear is fiction where the phases of the moon or the times of moonrise and moonset are defined for the convenience of the story, and occur arbitrarily. Rest assured that in my alternate history stories the moon always rises and sets at the right time for the calendar date of the scene! And the setting, technology level etc are as accurate as I can make them.

There’s a catchphrase in the field that every writer gets one willing suspension of disbelief per story: the existence of faster-than-light travel, say, or dragons that are actually aerodynamic. I’m certainly willing to allow writers that – or more than one, if the story is good enough. But I’d also say that this extends beyond science. Some writers’ worlds have overly simplistic social systems, for example, which is something else that gets me frustrated and will stop me reading a story. Societies are naturally complex, but the rules of the particular scientific or magical system being written about have to be well presented and straightforward to understand, and internally self-consistent.

And that’s how I try to write, too. One stretch per story, where needed, but something well enough grounded in reality, and used consistently, so that it pulls the reader into the tale rather than pushing them away. And the bigger that stretch is, the more everything else in the story has to be realistic and accurately described, to keep the story credible.

Thanks to Alan for talking with us and we wish him the best with both careers! The question of how scientists react to how science is presented in books and movies is an interesting on for us. We did a podcast about science in the movies – maybe we should do one about books too! Feel free to give us your thoughts on the subject in the comments!

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