Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ethnobotany, shamanism and extremophiles: Alison Sinclair talks about world-building in science fiction

My guest today writes science fiction "to indulge a passion for knowledge of all kinds and science and medicine in particular," and to "have an excuse to read about everything from oceanography to nanotechnology, from color theory to the history of microscopy." Alison Sinclair is the author of the Darkborn Trilogy as well as the novels Legacies, Blueheart, Cavalcade, and Throne Prince (co-authored with Lynda Williams). Her writing is beautiful and flawless, and her world-building is even more amazing, delving into "ethnobotany, shamanism and extremophiles (bacteria which live in hostile environments)"[1]. As she states in her bio, "I like to be able to ditch all assumptions and conventional wisdom and start entirely from scratch, running my fictional 'thought experiments' (Ursula Le Guin’s words) according to any parameters I please. Science fiction gives my imagination elbow room."

When she's not writing, Alison works at a hospital-based technology assessment unit, doing literature reviews and contributing to meta-analyses and cost-effectiveness analyses. I tried to keep track of all her degrees, but got lost after physics, biochemistry, and medicine...

I'm truly excited to welcome Alison to my blog today!

EEG: I'll start off with a geek question: I was browsing your blog and noticed that you had just posted some code in R, which of course I use all the time, so my jaw dropped in admiration...

AS: I've just (last year) finished a MSc in Epidemiology, and a number of our lecturers used R, so I did a lot of assignments using R (and some SAS, and some STATA). Since then, I've mainly used R for its graphics capabilities, but I have a couple of side projects that are on my list of things to get back to.

EEG: Do you think of yourself as primarily a scientist, a writer, or both?

AS: Still primarily a scientist, though I think the two have converged. "Scientist" was my ambition from childhood, although I was writing almost from the time I could hold a pen.

EEG: How much of your writing is influenced by your work as a scientist?

AS: I'm not sure what came first, the reading and TV viewing (Star Trek and other TV fiction, the Apollo and other space projects) influencing the career choice, or the career choice influencing the writing. Since I was intensely interested in science, when I discovered SF properly, I immediately started writing it. Pastiches of John Wyndham and Ray Bradbury, mainly, with forays into Clarke and Asimov. I had a long spell of trying to write mainstream (because I didn't connect with SF fandom until later), but it felt like a huge chunk of my reality was being left out.

As to how science influenced the writing: all of it. Characterization, problems, narratives, ethical framework. My first six novels were SF (3 published, 3 still unpublished). Legacies was the least influenced by my work as a scientist, because it was a world I'd been living with since childhood, though I started worldbuilding because I was keen on geology, physical geography and natural history. While I was writing Blueheart, I was working as a lab scientist, so along with my perennial interest in natural history and the sea, Blueheart got the molecular biology and bioengineering. While I was writing Cavalcade, I was at medical school, so the interest in medicine - and nanotechnology, and social dislocation - are all through it. Three of my main characters are scientists, and one of them does an autopsy under very strange circumstances. The next novel (unpublished) came out of a lecture in culture and ethics at medical school, talking about the culture clash between patients who came out of a different healing tradition - and I took to wondering what a physician from a different tradition would look like. As a novel, it wasn't a terribly successful experiment, and one of these days, I'll go back to it and see if distance has given me insight into its problems. Then, while working as a journal editor, I took my first course in epidemiology (if my lecturers only knew what I do with the knowledge they impart), which fed into two novels of what I describe as my "medical starship" series. And then I had an idea for a fantasy novel.

EEG: Tell us about the Darkborn Trilogy: how were the characters of Bal, Telmaine, and Ishmael born? (BTW, I love the names!)

AS: In irritation: I was reading a fantasy novel in which the whole light/dark trope was blatantly foregrounded in the characterization and the imagery, so much so that it annoyed me. So the first thing I thought about was the literal division into day and night, and then starting sympathetically with the "dark" characters. Balthasar and Floria and their paper wall came first. I'd been doing a lot of reading around the decades leading up to World War I for another project, and between having cut my teeth on fantasy written either before or between the wars, and feeling more comfortable with a more urban and developed setting, I came up with the Darkborn society. Balthasar seemed the kind of man who'd be married and settled, out of which came Telmaine, who is a contrast to him, temperamentally and socially. Then there was the question as to why she would be so determined to marry beneath her, which led to the nature of her magic. Ishmael was a bit of a surprise, when Telmaine tripped down the stairs and encountered him. He was originally supposed to be a kind of John Buchanesque hero, and never quite lost that, though he developed in his own direction. As part of the society I was building, I wanted names that were fairly elaborate. Balthasar and Ishmael came out of the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, as best I can recall. Telmaine's name was made up. I had a bit of an argument with myself over Ishmael's name, knowing it would have particular associations for US readers, but none of the alternatives would stick. Ishmael was Ishmael.

EEG: Interesting. I confess I had a similar experience, and my very first story (which sat in my head for decades!) finally came on paper after reading a book that triggered that kind of irritation. It made me realize that yes, it's good to read literary masterpieces, but the occasional crappy book can have a positive side, too!

Thanks so much for being here today, Alison. To find out more about Alison's books (and scientific work, too) visit her at


  1. And again. It's a good thing that Christmas break is coming up and I'll have some free time.

  2. I've got a stack of books to read over the Holidays--can't wait.

    Glad you're enjoying these interviews. Feel free to suggest authors you know that are both scientists and writers.


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