The Big Idea: Julie Czerneda
How do a graduate student’s observations of fish in a laboratory wind up fueling not one but two science fiction series? Well, first, it helps to have that graduate student be Julie Czerneda, who would become the Prix Aurora-winning author of In the Company of Others (also a Nebula Award nominee), and whose latest novel, Riders of the Storm, is most recent installment of the “Clan Chronicles,” which encompasses a pair of separate yet interconnected trilogies. From fish to science fiction, here’s Czerneda to explain how you get from the one to the other.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — read by moonlight. Her parents had the silly notion that lights should be turned off by 1 am. Alas, she was never completely satisfied by what she read. Stories seemed to stop short. They failed, in her opinion, to go over the next hill. To dare more …
Thank goodness she discovered science fiction. And the value of a flashlight.
Once upon a somewhat later time, there was a grad student who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — observe fish (fathead minnows) in a damp dark basement at 1 am. The fish had the silly notion it was a spring morning (because of clever tank lighting and temperature) and performed extraordinary, life-threatening feats in the name of sex. Alas, while being very careful to record her data faithfully, the student was never completely satisfied. Ideas seemed to stop short. Her hypotheses, and those in the literature, failed to dare more … .
I remember walking home at some ungodly hour — not that it mattered in January in northern Saskatchewan, it was dark from teatime to coffee break — my parka cracking in the cold, tears freezing my glasses to my face as usual, and thinking what I needed was science fiction.
You see, there are times when it isn’t enough to think outside a box, you need to blow it away. Science fiction is that to me. A potent blend of reasoned questioning and eye-popping wonder. Permission to take risks and make extrapolations. To grasp for ideas that are both incredible and essential, in hopes of better understanding, well, everything. Go over the hill. (I’m very impatient with things like hills.) See what’s there.
Which led to my first attempt to finish a piece of fiction, my first attempt to sell it, and my first sale: A Thousand Words for Stranger. But what really matters, of course, is the Big Idea and that basement of fish.
How powerful is sexual selection? As species evolve, mates choose sex partners based on whatever they see, hear, smell, touch, or taste that convinces them this one (or however many) will do better than all those others. Being a biologist, my use of the term “do better” is all about the success of the generation that results from that partnership. (Aside: I picked well. We have great kids. Although I can’t say I was thinking along those lines at the time.)
I could see in my tanks the cost in energy, risk, and survival male minnows paid to attract females. Or flipped around, the price expected by the females. Many would only breed once in a lifetime, if that. From all evidence, this extreme works for them.
What about us? How far could sexual selection go within a species that understood its own biology? Surely intelligence would curb extraordinary, risky behaviour. (I can hear you snickering, but I’m talking species here, not teens.)
Science fiction lets us create experiments unthinkable or impossible in the real world. I postulated a species where females had a specific way of identifying the ideal mate. A test, so to speak. You pass, you get to pass on your genes to the next generation. I assigned a cost to being attractive. More on that later.
First I leapt over the next hill and made up a wonderful future of aliens and interstellar travel and amazing things in which to play. I see no reason thought experiments can’t be fun.
Thus came the Clan into being: an alien species with extraordinary mental abilities (easier than antlers or rubbing pads) in which females test prospective mates in a contest where only a male as strong or stronger will be chosen, ie. succeed. To make things interesting, the more powerful members of this species have the ability to teleport, ie. move from place to place using another dimension. Handy thing, that. However, being intelligent, you’d expect they’d notice that encouraging more and more power in their females might increase this ability but also will one day seriously limit the number of suitable mates — especially if failure to be chosen means death.
So what would they do?
I set the experiment in motion with Sira, the main character of Thousand. She’s the Clan’s first female who is too powerful for any male to match, and the proof that their population is in serious trouble. Her attempt at a solution leads to all manner of adventure and trouble. I was happy with the story … so were readers. (Thank you!) There were two sequels, comprising the Trade Pact trilogy. By the second, though, I knew something important.
I knew — alas, or otherwise — that it wasn’t enough for me to write an adventure derived from the Big Idea. I had to poke at it. I wanted more. How could the Clan be as I portrayed? What could possibly solve their problem — if anything? Where could they fit in the predominantly human plus varied alien society I’d envisioned? What made it all work!? (Aside: Also, by this time I’d written enough not to be afraid of revealing the Big Ideas in my stories. Little did I realize …)
So was born what DAW and I now call The Clan Chronicles: Stratification, the Trade Pact trilogy, and Reunification.
Stratification is the prequel. Where the Clan came from, how they arrived in human space, why they are as I’ve shown them. It began with Reap the Wild Wind and continues in Riders of the Storm, released this week. Stratification has already proved to be the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. The completely new story and characters were fine — the difficulty lay in having to write match/explain/foretell what was already in print, namely in the Trade Pact books. I have notes, maps, journals. At times I felt as though I was doing grad studies again, this time in my own fictional world. A shame I’m not as easy to work with as minnows. Rift in the Sky will take the Clan to the Trade Pact. My last chance to get it all right. Wish me luck!
The best, however, is the groundwork for the finale to come. I can’t wait. Because when I write Reunification, I will go over the next hill. I already know what’s there. It’s nothing I imagined that dark Saskatchewan night. It’s stranger and far more wonderful and bigger than here or then. I’m not at all surprised.
You see, since I was a girl who read by moonlight, I knew that’s what science fiction was.
Glad I found it before the minnows.