Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Superpowers, ice ships, and spies: the alternate worlds of Ian Tregillis

"My parents, a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot-card reader, settled in the Minnesota Territory after fleeing the wrath of a Flemish prince. There they conspired to mark me with a Cornish surname and Macedonian blood."

Thus begins the life of Ian Tregillis, scientist, novelist, Clarion graduate, and, may I add, wonderful friend of mine. Ian's short fiction has appeared in the DAW anthology,, and Apex magazine, and his alternate history novels, the Milkweed Trilogy, are published by Tor. Bitter Seeds, the first in the trilogy, came out last April, and the paperback edition, as well as The Coldest War (book II in the trilogy), will be released next summer with brand new cover art. (Check it out -- it's awesome!)
Between chats over writing, Raymond Chandler, gamma rays and Klein bottles, I asked Ian a few questions on how science and literature mingle in his life.

EEG: One of the best kept secrets of being a scientist is how much creativity and imagination goes into research. Do you think that being a writer makes you a better scientist and, vice versa, that being a scientist makes you a better writer?

IT: I am utterly convinced that the writing and science parts of my life have had a very positive influence on one another.

When I began to write fiction, I quickly learned that I lacked the skill to say things as clearly and succinctly as possible.  In fact, I think the first "breakthrough" I had as a beginning writer was when I learned to recognize excess verbiage and how to eliminate it.  (A skill I'm still trying to master, as you might infer from my answers to your questions...)  Along with that came the ability to see better ways to rephrase things.  After a while, it became second-nature. I'll bet most writers do it without even thinking about it-- I know I'm constantly looking at fragments of writing (blog posts, cereal boxes, billboards, mattress labels, you name it) and automatically try to improve them.

And that tendency has been a huge boon to my scientific work.  Writing is a crucial part of the life of a professional scientist (as you know, Bob...)  First and foremost, of course, we write to publish our research results in journals and conference proceedings. But we also write grant proposals, and work packages, and milestone documentation... the list goes on and on.  Not to mention simply writing messages to our colleagues and collaborators about the day-to-day details of our work.  The bottom line is that communication is absolutely essential to good science.  Knowing how to write clearly means knowing how to communicate clearly!

Which means my efforts at writing fiction have vastly improved my scientific efforts, by making me a better communicator.  So much so that I sort of wish I'd started writing earlier; my thesis isn't terrible, but it does have the occasional passage that makes me cringe.

And the feedback goes the other way, too.  My science background (particularly at the hands of my thesis advisor) taught me how to ask questions... and to not stop asking them.  And that's a very valuable skill when you're building a world, or developing a magic system, or reverse-engineering a murder mystery!  It seems like a strange thing to say (because it is!) but sometimes it's really helpful to apply a certain rigor to the creative process.

When I was writing Bitter Seeds, I wanted to play with certain ideas about superpowers.  My original concept was that each superpower would manifest as a specific violation of one (and only one) law of physics.  Well, I tossed that conceit out the window pretty quickly!  (Too constraining.  Also, given the choice between writing a "rigorous" fantasy, and having fun, I'd rather just have fun.)  But I'm glad I started there, because it led me to start asking difficult questions.

For instance, there is a character who can walk through walls. And I thought it would be fun (and halfway logical) if he couldn't breathe while he was insubstantial-- after all, if his body didn't interact with normal matter, his lungs couldn't interact with oxygen.  So that's a part of the story.  But the same logic also dictates that he should sink straight through the floor if he doesn't become immune to gravity when he becomes insubstantial!  So I had to think about that. (And in that case the explanation turned into an entire short story, which was published separately.)  But once you start peeking behind the curtain, there's no end to the questions.  Because, gosh, if his lungs can't interact with oxygen molecules, then his eardrums can't interact with sound waves, so he would also be deaf while insubstantial...

There comes a point where, as the author, you just have to skate fast...

But it's important to know where the thin ice is. Asking the right questions (once I figure out what they are) helps me to delineate those boundaries.  And science is all about asking questions.

EEG: Sure is! Can you think of any particular instance when you were sitting at your desk doing science and you came across a concept that (bang!) spurred a great idea for a story?

IT: For some reason, my day job doesn't often inspire writing ideas for me.  Part of that might be because I'm not particularly drawn to writing hard SF, which demands a fair bit of rigor.  By the time I arrive at home after work, I'm often more interested in exercising the other brain hemisphere without so much constraint!  Also, I think that if I were to start writing hard SF, it would feel like taking work home with me.  Or that my day job was insinuating itself into the personal, joyful side of my life.  I strive to keep my work and writing lives separate.

I don't have anything against reading hard SF.  I just don't feel interested in writing it.  That might make me unusual-- there are certainly plenty of hard-SF writers who come from science backgrounds, either as moonlighting scientists or "reformed" researchers...

Having said all that, though, the occasional story fragment will flutter through my head when I'm reading up on something.  It's more common when I'm revisiting work I did in graduate school, where my research was in astrophysics.  My current research hasn't (yet) been a good spark for the creative instinct.

EEG: Tell us about your books: your prose is poetic and evocative, your characters memorable. I'm always fascinated to hear the "one idea" (or image) that spurred the book/series...

IT: The Milkweed trilogy had quite a few influences.   I'm like many writers in that I tend to take in lots of little bits and pieces of ideas -- words, concepts, trivia, minutia, news articles, random snippets of conversation, dreams, anything.  I imagine that they all go into something akin to a cement mixer in the back of my mind.  They tumble around and around, and every so often through random collisions a pair of unrelated ideas will get juxtaposed.  If that happens long enough, the slow accretion process will eventually give rise to a full-fledged story idea. That's the point where I have a concept weird enough to hold my interest, but with enough nooks and crannies that I can get a solid grip on it.  (I'm sure that analogy won't make sense to anybody but me.)

But anyway... the original seed idea that kicked off the cement mixer for Milkweed was an article about an obscure piece of World War II history called Operation Habakkuk.  It's a strange and marvelous story: during the Battle of the Atlantic, when German wolfpacks were inflicting heavy losses on Allied shipping convoys, the Allies seriously considered building aircraft carriers out of ice.  (A special form of ice, but still.)  The project never made it past the small-prototype stage, but I just couldn't shake the image of vast bergships plying the ocean.  And then I got to wondering what might have happened if the project *had* succeeded.

Well, I figured, Germany would send a spy to North America, to sabotage the frozen shipyards.  Who better for the job than a pyrokinetic?  And the story grew from there.  It grew from what I thought was a single short story, to what I thought was just a single book, to a trilogy with multiple short stories dangling off the sides.

And yet the ice ship never made it into the trilogy

EEG: Really? Not even in the next books? What about in future stories?

IT: It's funny, in a way, because that ship was the impetus that pushed me to chart out this complicated story.  But the more I figured out the world, and got a handle on the characters and their struggles, the less room there was for a plotline involving icy Canadian shipyards.  By the time I knew what the general plot of the trilogy would be, it was clear there just wasn't going to be room for the ice ship without making it a major digression.  "Murder your darlings," as we writers reluctantly tell ourselves...

Bitter Seeds is an alternate history.  But in my head, there's an alternate history of that alternate history, one where the ice ship does play a role.

EEG: Okay. I still think you should write a story with the ice ship, though. You know I'm not a particular fan of that murdering darlings thing!

Thanks so much, Ian, for taking the time to answer my questions. I can't wait to read the next installment in the Milkweed trilogy! To find out more about Ian's books, visit him at

Photo: Abstractions. Canon 40D, focal length 85mm, F-stop 5.6, shutter speed 1/8, ISO 100. 


  1. Excellent interview. The Ice Ship would be a neat addition somehow. I recall reading about the idea in Churchill's autobiography.

  2. Hi Steve, thanks! We have to prod Ian into writing an Ice Ship story! :)


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