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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Alison Sinclair

Here is our complete interview with Alison Sinclair. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 14.


interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: Why did you start writing?

AS: I have no idea. I was already writing by the time I was eight -- a "novel" called Shipwrecked on an Island, so it was a compulsion that developed very early.

CD: What would you say are your influences?

AS: Everything from Batman to Shakesphere. I had a rich, very nineteenth century Arts education given me between the ages of twelve and nearly sixteen (in Edinburgh), a considerable imposition on a young creature who was very much of the twentieth century and a scientist, to boot. But I've been tapping into it ever since.

For some obscure reason, though, our teachers chose to present us first with Shakesphere's subtle and bawdy comedies; aged thirteen, the subtlety eluded me, and the bawdiness was certainly not elucidated (it was a nineteenth century education!). It wasn't until Julius Caesar that Shakesphere "took." Politics, ambition, betrayal, assassination, poetry, rhetoric -- I suspect the influence still shows. I happen to find dialogue as dramatic -- probably even more so -- than "action." I fell madly in love with Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons: politics, ethics, law and conscience. Thereafter, in no particular order, I encountered works such as J.M. Synge's unfinished masterpiece Deirdre of the Sorrows, Musgrave's great realistic pacifist statement Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, a brilliant French film whose title I wish I could remember about the events leading up to the revolution, another film Nineteen nineteen about the last two patients of Sigmund Freud, and the history they lived; James Goldman's witty and modern The Lion in Winter; Jean Anoulh's Antigone, the plays of Hendrik Ibsen and very recently, Michael Frayn's dazzling Copenhagen, in which scientific metaphor and scientific ethics are seamlessly blended into drama. I confess also to a love of the common swashbuckler: Scaramouche, Zorro, Robin Hood (in all his variations), The Princess Bride ("I've something to tell you... I'm not left handed..."), and of course Star Wars. And I can't not mention Star Trek in all its incarnations, full spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous, and J. Michael Straczinski's bold, flawed Babylon 5.

My first year university English lecturer made a distinction between Romantic and romantic, the former being that poetic and novelistic sensibility drawn to "grand passions, sublime scenery, storms, etc"; maturity tends to mitigate large-R romanticism somewhat, but I still think I tend towards that side of the spectrum, loving the Brontes, unable to finish anything by Jane Austen. Lynda Williams I suspect is a social novelist, given her enjoyment of Dickens and the Russians. In no particular order, other literary influences include the Brontes, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, the Great War poets, the post WWI Modernists, feminist SF writers of the seventies and later, and most recently, Lois McMaster Bujold.

Non-literary influences include a considerable amount of science education, sundry courses and interminable reading -- and science history. I am younger than the structure of DNA, but older than the breaking of the genetic code, the first cloning experiments, the landing on the moon, the first human in vitro fertilization, never mind AIDS, prion disorders, personal computers, the internet, the human genome project, extremophiles and Europa's ocean. I have not only witnessed but experienced forty years of the swiftest social and technological change known in human history. I've seen "things bite back" to paraphrase Ernst Geller, unexpected harm come from the best intentions, and the arrow of progress take some very strange detours. Science fascinates me, seduces me, and tempts me to believe that if we can just know enough, we can fix it, whatever it is. The novelist, of course, knows that is not so. If there is a theme to my part of the Okal Rel universe it is "the chief cause of problems is solutions" (Bernard Shaw).

CD: What are you working on next?

AS: I've got a novel in search of a publisher -- having been squeezed out by corporate mergers -- and I'm working on the first book in what I hope will eventually be a series, SF of course, in which I (gleefully) take my epidemiology, pathology, and bioethics lectures in vain.

CD: How do you balance your time between your scientific research and your writing?

AS: I'm not: I've jumped ship. I'm now working as a full-time writer -- broadly speaking -- employed as a medical writer by a CRO (contract research organization, which runs clinical trials), writing study reports and other documents associated with and reporting on the clinical trials they run. I've been doing this for about 6 months, after a year as a medical editor, and the year before that as a first-year pathology resident. Aside from the long hours spent in front of various computer screens, it works quite well. I have evenings and weekends off!

CD: You have a section on medical science fiction on your website. Do you think medicine is an adequately covered topic in the genre? Do you have any speculation as to what medicine will look like in twenty-five years?

AS: Medicine has been a fertile field for SF -- a fertile field for literature in general. It involves life and death, vulnerability and heroism, and fundamental moral and ethical issues. Science Fiction and Medicine was the subject of a recent issue of the academic journal Literature and Medicine, and the last time I put "science fiction" into the search engine at New York University's wonderful Literature and Medicine database (http://endeavor.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/lit-med-db/topview.html) I came up with nearly 300 entries. At its most inclusive, it might encompass all works of biological speculation; at its narrowest, it would encompass novels and stories centering on the practice and dilemmas of medicine. Somewhere in between are the many novels where the central character winds up in need of a doctor's services -- SF protagonists tend to high risk pursuits.

As to the future of medicine, you get me started on that at your peril! Medicine could go in so many different ways, because of the contradictory forces within and around it. Technological innovations and one set of social forces are driving in one direction -- towards an increasingly heroic, interventionist, find-and-fix practice -- while anxiety about costs and quality of life and another set of social forces are driving in another -- towards preventative medicine and an acceptance of aging and mortality. Right now, I'd say the technological forces are prevailing, though a combination of optimism, fear of infirmity and death, and market forces -- even in Canada. There are so many emergent technologies being explored, and that in itself is a problem. We don't have the tools for the decisions we're going to have to make about which of those new technologies are valuable. The tools are still under construction: bioethics is one, biostatistics is another, computers will help -- and hinder.

Then there's the human genome project, and the rise of molecular medicine, and the cluster of opportunities and problems it presents -- particularly around prediction of disease risk. And the debate about what kind of experimentation is acceptable -- on animals, on healthy people, on people with disease, on fetal tissue -- and who decides.

And the debate about the medicalization of experience -- which is the subject of this week's British Medical Journal. In the 1970s (as late as that, I think) people campaigned to get homosexuality dropped from the DSM (diagnostic criteria of mental disorder). From Victorian times through the '60s and later, women struggled with the medical profession's equation of female = sick. Conversely, though the '90s, people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia campaigned that their conditions be recognized as disease. There's tension between people's (and society's) wish to use medical authority to legitimize conditions and needs, and their fear of the power of it to define them. And there's tension between the desire to grant medicine authority and the desire to take it away. Even as medicine becomes more complex, more technological, more demanding of specialist knowledge, it is having to open up -- because of the uncertainties, because of social changes that have made people intolerant of paternalistic medicine -- it is having to open up and involve patients as decision makers, the public as policy-setters.

Great material for a novelist!

CD: Could you tell us your impressions of the differences between Canadian SF and British SF?

AS: Not really... I'm poor at paying attention to where people come from and have on occasion been surprised to discover that I live on the same country or even in the same city as a writer I've been reading. I suspect that there's been a convergence of English language SF over the last decades, because of the predominance of a number of well-established markets, and an international readership -- or at least a trans-Atlantic readership.

CD: What was your process of writing your first novel Legacies? How has that process changed now that you have written a few books?

AS: Legacies was about 7 years in the writing -- and the rewriting -- leaving aside a very early version best classed as juvenalia. As my first editor, Deborah Beale, said, I didn't know how to plot, and after she accepted the novel, she put me through a guided rewrite (40 pp of editorial notes!) which was essentially a master-class in novel construction. For which I will always be grateful. Blueheart, after a rocky start, was easier to write, probably because I could borrow a well-tried structure -- underlying Blueheart is a mystery cum political novel. Cavalcade didn't have a form to borrow, so I struggled with its structure again. In my fourth (currently unpublished) novel, Opal, I went back to the quest structure -- which as Deborah pointed out underlies Legacies -- only this time I used it much more consciously. I like to think that I'm becoming more conscious and more deliberate in my decision making, that I write myself into fewer corners than I used to, and that I'm better at recognizing what a scene or story needs. But I'm still untidy in my work habits. I usually start with a beginning and a feel about the end, and do multiple rewrites and overhauls of sections along the way as better ideas come to me. Other people outline; I figure out the story in the first draft. A 150 000 word outline. Accompanied by screeds of notes, memos on my Palm, and plot diagrams that start out neat and end up with scrawl packed in up, down and sideways as I start to hang motivation, interconnection and other intricacies off what was intended to be a simple framework of events.

CD: Would it be fair to say that Legacies is about personal and collective responsibility?

AS: I am a daughter of the 20th century, for all I pretend I write about the future. I belong to the generation who, as Rita Mae Brown put it so memorably (in Six of One), "...had Hiroshima for a birthmark and Auschwitz for a christening gift." To me, Legacies is about living with the sins of the fathers -- whether your parents are the sinners, or the sinned against.

CD: Legacies has an interesting alien race. How did you go about creating them?

AS: I'm not sure where the kinder'el'ein started -- though I suspect it was with the empathy. One of those stock SF ideas that I plugged into an early draft, and then as the novel matured, I started to work out the mechanism of the empathies and the implications of being empathic. The other shaping force for the kinder'el'ein was the Burdanians: they were in the novel as a foil to the Burdanians. Hence their size, their longevity, even their three sexes, and again, having put those ideas in almost as motifs or tokens, I had to work them out until they were satisfying as "realities." It happens a fair amount in my writing that I put something in as a motif or a symbol, and then find myself working out implications from that.

CD: What kind of research did you do for your second novel Blueheart, especially with regard to marine environments?

AS: The seed of Blueheart was planted when I worked at the Pat Bay Insitute of Ocean Science outside Victoria as a summer student. Certainly that's where I got my obsession with seawater samples from -- which turns out to be key to the plot. I washed hundreds of sampling bottles prior to the research ship going out on its sampling cruises! Later on I took a course, in 1990, through the Open University in the UK, on Oceanography, which covered the geology of the ocean basins, ocean circulation, ocean chemistry, ocean ecology and marine life, and the law of the sea. And then I proceeded to do my utmost to warp physical laws to suit my story (I don't know how many times I redrew the currents in my oceans to make sure people could get where I needed them to be). And I read -- mainly two kinds of books. Books with large coloured pictures, to get the pictures in my mind. And science books and articles. I managed to stop short of deciding on the amino acid sequence of Rache's hemoglobin, but not by much! One can know too much.

CD: What are your thoughts today on the debate between terraforming and adaptation?

AS: That when it is done, it must be done responsibly, and with understanding. Last year, I visited New Zealand, which has the distinction of having the last place on the planet "terraformed" by the arrival of human settlers. Prior to human settlement NZ had a unique ecology, having split off from Antarctica prior to the Cretaceous extinction. The only mammals native to NZ are bats, and they are thought to have been blown in. Many of the species are of ancient extraction and highly specialized. Being slow breeders and dependent on a particular environment, most were outbred and preyed upon to extinction by imports from Europe and the Americas. This happened almost within living memory and certainly within what is becoming our living memory -- the time of the photographic record. There is much more awareness in NZ than anywhere else of the consequences of parochialism (wanting to make a place "like home"), carelessness (a cat, released on one of the islands, killed the last members of one of the flightless wren species), and ignorance in handling of the environment.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're anywhere near the understanding we need to have to terraform any kind of system, whether planetary or human; we don't have the insight, or the tools to appreciate the consequences of intervention in complex systems. Being cynical and pessimistic, I'd say it's still going to be a case of poke it until it breaks. Along the way a lot of good science and applied science is going to be done for excellent reasons, and a lot of shoddy, overambitious science and applied science is going to be done for the same excellent reasons.

CD: How did you decide which types of people, psychologically speaking, would be the ones who wanted to leave Earth in Cavalcade?

AS: It was more motivation than psychological type. Roughly, I'd divide them into runners and searchers. The runners were leaving behind something (personal troubles, political troubles, the law), and the seekers were looking for something (territory, knowledge, utopia). After it was written I realised it was a novel about immigration, about which Scots, and I, know a fair amount. Assuming it is a "voluntary" immigration, and not forcible displacement, then immigrants are either leaving difficulties behind, or looking to possibilities ahead.

CD: The story in Cavalcade has a smaller scope than the previous two novels. Was this a deliberate decision?

AS: It worked out that way. I had originally thought that they would meet members of the rest of the fleet, but the humans hogged the story! And I did have a rather tighter word limit than with my previous novels, Cavalcade being written at a time when there had been a substantial increase in the cost of paper and production.

CD: What's your impression of most UFO encounter accounts?

AS: Skepticism, I'm afraid. I write fiction!

CD: Tell us about Throne Price.

AS: Throne Price has a very long creative history behind it. Lynda and I were in a calculus class in first year undergrad, and at the beginning of second year, I caught her writing something with quotation marks in it. We wound up exchanging writing -- she had the Gelacks in embryo, and I had the Burdanians in embryo -- but her world proved the more playable. We spent years spinning a huge, shaggy space opera; we've used every communications innovation of the past 20 years to pass back and forth chapters, scenes and bits of scenes. For much of the later period, Lynda was wrestling with the beginning of the part she was most interested in telling -- how the recontact between Gelion and Rire goes awry, thanks to Gelack schemes and Reetion nosiness. Around the time Legacies was accepted, and I moved back to Canada, we got serious about the idea of putting the saga into novel form. We started with what seemed the most straightforward part of it, which was Throne Price. Well, as we originally outlined the novel, it covered Throne Price and the next two, but as the words accumulated we faced the fact that it was not all going to fit.

So like George Lucas, we have started at Episode IV, with the story of a young man finding himself embroiled against his will in history not of his making -- at least, Erien demands to be embroiled, but the part he finds himself playing is by no means the part he wants. The background is shaped by the twin problems of space exploration and expansion -- faster than light travel is physically and psychologically punishing -- and in fragile habitats, human conflict must be contained or resolved, for survival's sake. The Sevolites and the several cultures of Gelion represent one set of solutions; the computer-governed society of Rire another. Their solutions are incompatible, and in each others' eyes, immoral. How does one wage war when one does not understand the enemy's rules?

CD: How was the process of collaboration compared to writing solo?

AS: We have contrasting interests, which help create creative tension and diversity in the books. My impulses are more those of a Romantic novelist and a dramatist. Lynda seems to me to be more of a social novelist. I can't finish Dickens. She can't finish Wuthering Heights. Lynda is interested in the ideas of evolutionary biology. I am skeptical about evolutionary biology, finding it fits way too well with cultural biases (thereby revealing my personal biases), though I'm also interested in neuroscience, genetic determinants of individual behaviour, and human self-definition in the genetic age. Lynda writes about gender roles, power and abuse. I'm not much interested in foregrounding gender roles; too much like real life! I'm interested in exploring what Stoppard called the collision of the reality boxes we all live in. We're both interested in cultures in collision, societies in transition, and how human effort applied to systems as complex as cultures produces unanticipated and unwelcome results, ie, "The chief cause of problems is solutions."

The actual mechanics of writing has been worked out over the years, starting from us writing dialogue one handwritten line at a time, and ending in us now writing chapters, scenes and parts of scenes and then dropping them into a shared private directory on a computer system for the other party to comment/complete/edit/appreciate. The first draft of Throne Price was written with each of us taking the point of view of one of the principals, but by the time we'd finished, we'd each been over it several times, doing edits, revisions, etc. When we were younger we used to have hours-long phone conversations; an hour is still pretty good. We use the phone to hash out major differences of opinion -- the confrontation between Ameron and Erien near the end of Throne Price was a bone of contention for a while -- we went through numerous drafts as we tried to reconcile our ideas as to what should happen.

Collaboration -- there's less individual control. But there's more scope. Lynda writes characters and conflicts I couldn't, or would do differently. It expands the character zoo. There's the constant spark of another mind striking off mine -- fewer days spent guiltily avoiding the computer because of a congealed lump of a scene that is going nowhere. I punt it to Lynda, who'll take it and run with it and then punt it back when she wears it out/has to go back to work/faces a family uprising. And vice versa (minus family uprising).

CD: How did you end up with Edge Publishing?

AS: I was living in Calgary when Edge was just getting started -- this around about 1996 and 1997. I heard a presentation by Lynn Jennyc, then editor at Edge, about what they wanted from authors and what they hoped to do with the books. I spoke to her about the books -- told her that they were collaborations between two authors who lived nowhere near each other (I think at that point we were the nearest we'd been since 1987), and that we did have a series in the works. Neither fact caused her to blanch. I'm not sure how long after that we sent the novel in, but it was accepted in 1998 (with rewrites). The process requires patience, and longevity, but one of the reasons we had the patience was because of the classy work Edge did on Marie Jakober's The Black Chalice. And I'd been there before -- Legacies was accepted in 1992, while Orion was in its startup phase, and published in 1995.

My web page is http://www.sff.net/people/asinclair.

The Okal Rel Universe web-page (Throne Price and subsequent books) is at http://www.okalrel.org.


Last modified: April 29, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by Alison Sinclair


Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #14 | Interviews