Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, January 5, 2015

Scientist and writer Dan Koboldt talks about genetics in fiction, his book The Rogue retrieval, and Clarke's third law

Writers: if you don't know about Dan Koboldt's awesome blog Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy then go check it out. The blog has some amazing articles teasing facts from fiction in fantasy and sci-fi. Even though fiction is fiction, a writer's duty is to create "suspension of disbelief" to fully pull the reader into the story. How do you achieve that? By doing a ton of research and making sure you have your facts right in order to create a solid foundation for your poetic license.

And Dan certainly know fact from fiction since he is the head the human genetics analysis group of the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of another blog, MassGenomics, where he discusses next-generation sequencing and medical genomics in the post-genome era. Being Dan both a scientist and a writer, I knew I had to drag him over to CHIMERAS to tell us about his work, both in fiction and non fiction.

Welcome, Dan!

EEG: Tell us about your research work at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis.

DK: I've worked as a genetics researcher for just over ten years. My group uses next-generation DNA sequencing technologies to study the genetic basis of inherited diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, age-related macular degeneration, and Alzheimer's. Remember the Human Genome Project? It took about ten years and cost a billion dollars. Now, we can sequence an entire genome for a few thousand dollars, and turn it around in about a week.

EEG: I know, I started working on genetic sequencing in 2004 too. USC back then had one of the first Illumina machines. It's amazing how far this technology has come in just a decade! 

When did you start writing science fiction and why?

DK: I started writing fiction in 2008 when I took a creative writing course that focused on short fiction. This probably wasn't the best form for me, since I grew up reading epic fantasy (Tolkien, Jordan) and that's what I wanted to write. But I got together with some of my classmates and we formed a small writing group, which really helped me improve my craft. The next year, I found NaNoWriMo and wrote my first novel. It went into the drawer, as did my next novel. I landed an agent with my third.

EEG: It all sounds very familiar. :-)  How does science, and genetics in particular, inspire your fiction writing?

DK: When I switched from fantasy to science fiction for my third novel, I really enjoyed the change. It gave me a chance to use some of the science and technology concepts that I work with for my day job. My agented novel doesn't rely heavily on the genetics, but my current work-in-progress draws significantly on genetic engineering and biotechnology.

EEG: Tell us about your book THE ROGUE RETRIEVAL. What was the idea (or ideas) that inspired it?

DK: In my book THE ROGUE RETRIEVAL, a powerful corporation has discovered -- and kept secret -- a portal to a pristine medieval world. They've spent fifteen years and millions of dollars studying it when the head of the research team goes rogue. He disappears through the portal with a backpack full of disruptive technologies. The company assembles a team of mercenaries and cultural experts to go get him. But they're worried about reports of "magic" in the other world, and so they recruit Quinn Bradley, an up-and-coming stage magician out of Las Vegas. His talents for illusion, backed by the considerable resources the company can provide, make for some pretty convincing magic. They need all the help they can get, because the guy who's gone rogue is crazy smart. He's had time to plan. And he knows the other world better than anyone.

The inspiration for this book came to me when I read about a lawsuit in which Teller (the silent half of Penn & Teller) sued a Dutch performer for copying one of his illusions. Performers like them often leverage advanced technologies in their illusions. It got me thinking about Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I wanted to write a book about it, but I also love world building. So I came up with the portal idea. I had so much fun writing it because I could leverage the science and technology I know about from my day job, and bring it to a fantasy setting.

EEG: That sounds very intriguing. Best of luck with the submissions! What inspired you to start the #ScienceInSF blog series?

DK: As I mentioned, I work in genetic research, and the misconceptions about things like genes and inheritance that we see in books or other media are just astonishing. It occurred to me that this might hold true for other areas of science, technology, and medicine. I figured that if I could find professionals to give us the scoop on their areas of expertise, it would be incredibly useful to authors, especially those of us writing science fiction and fantasy. We've done over 20 articles so far and they're getting a lot of attention, so I think that there's a real appetite for this sort of thing.

EEG: There sure is! I've written many articles on genetics on this blog and the best satisfaction has been receiving emails from writers who do care about the science in their books and appreciated my input. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Dan!

To find out more about Dan Koboldt's forthcoming book  THE ROGUE RETRIEVAL, visit his blog, his Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy page, or follow him on Twitter. To find out more about his scientific work, visit his genetics blog MassGenomics.


  1. Sounds like a great blend of science fiction and fantasy. I like portal stories. Stargate was one of my favorite.

  2. Great interview you two. I hope your book does well. :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

  3. thanks so much Alex and Anna, happy new year! :-)


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