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.

Riders of the Storm: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Riders of the Storm here. Visit Czerneda’s newsgroup here.

15 Comments on “The Big Idea: Julie Czerneda”

  1. Oh YAY, a Julie Czerneda Big Idea! *cheers*

    I love Ms. Czerneda’s work, am inspired by it to do my own, and had the pleasure of telling her so at the NASFiC in 1995. I recently read book 1 of this very series and am very much looking forward to acquiring book 2.

    Thank you very much for this installment, and thanks to Ms. Czerneda as well!

  2. Hmm. From the description one has to wonder if Ms. Czerneda has ever personally experienced sexual attraction. Because her whole premise seems to be predicated on the idea that optimizing species reproductive strategies is what motivates individuals in their sex seeking behavior. And I’ve yet to meet any individuals for whom that is actually true, when the rubber meets the…er…road.

  3. Proof to authors out there that the Big Idea works: I’m on my way at my soonest opportunity to buy a big pile o’ these books from my favorite local bookseller.

    Thanks a million for giving your colleagues this bully pulpit, John, and giving your readers a great chance to discover writers whose work they may never otherwise have seen.

  4. @#4 Ulrika O’Brien

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you’re saying here, but really?

    I find my wife beautiful, funny, intelligent etc, all of which makes her sexually attractive to me. And all of those characteristics are what I would love to have our children have. I imagine that’s the same for most people who have any sort of sexual attraction, be it fleeting or otherwise.

    Certain characteristics (some universal, some individual) are what makes a person attractive and I would guess that almost all of those are ones that people would love for their children to have.

    Whether or not you’re actively thinking about how these characteristics will impact your prospective children, I think (and her premise is) that they play a role in this attraction as a result of our innate biological drive.

  5. Thank you all, and to John for letting me babble biology here.

    Oh, sexual attraction and I are very good friends ;-)

    Sexual attraction is made up of a huge number of factors, of course. However, as a biologist, it’s helpful to focus on one thing at a time. Allows experimentation, for starters. For example, my focus on the minnows measured a physical trait: growing a mucous-producing pad for nest building, and a behavioural one, staying beside a potential nest instead of running from danger. The females are choosey about males and their nests, and many males don’t get eggs laid in theirs despite their best efforts. Thus a constraint I created for the Clan for my experiment was that they had only one way to choose a mate (not someone to love, the only someone they could ever have sex with and produce offspring…). The contrast with human behaviour is part of what drives the story along, believe me.

    As you can likely tell, the alien who looks like us, but is anything but similar under the skin, is another of my fascinations. Another is friendship.

    I hope this helps. Thanks for your comments!


  6. Julie, #9

    We know that people bone for babies because?

    The fact we know a behavior can produce a certain result does not mean we engage in that behavior because it can produce a certain result, it just means that we know that a certain behavior can produce a certain result.

    We have sex because sex is fun, the pregnancy is an unexpected consequence. Sex involves sensation, bonding, and the release of hormones and pheromones. We have a series of emotional responses to sex, possessiveness, love, and protectiveness among others. The partner becomes ours, as we become our partners. We gain someone who belongs to us, as we become one who belongs to another. At the core sex is about nerve stimulation that results in a series of physical reactions that leads to the expulsion of a mix of chemicals and sperm that might lead to a pregnancy.

    For animals such as insects sex is all a reaction to chemical signals. For more intelligent animals an emotional component becomes part of the deal. With us, we learn things about what sex can lead to, and we assume that because we know something is so, that must be why we do the thing we do.

    You want to present a different view of sexual behavior, try this scenario:

    The Hope have only girls, by all appearance. At birth all their children appear female. It’s when puberty starts — around the age of nine in human reckoning — that gender differences start to occur. But those gender differences, the child’s development as male or female, depends on its first sexual experience with its father. If the first penetration is vaginal the Hope child will develop as female. If the first penetration is anal, the Hope child will develop as male. It’s the tissue the father’s semen soaks into that determines gender development.

    And it has to be the father. Only the father produces the right combination of pheromones that produces the trust and relaxation necessary for successful penetration. It’s only when the child becomes sexually mature that he or she can engage in sex with anyone outside the family.

    The Hope land on Earth. The Hope look as human as human can be. They have many of the same values humans do, they make friendships with humans, they can engage in rikshithra with humans. And then a Hope father gets a signal from his kid and proceeds to ‘do’ the child right there in the middle of the 4th grader’s class; as is normal Hope practice (emotional support, it makes the experience easier for the child, and speeds up subsequent gender development). How do you think the humans are going to react?

    Or …

    Prudes have sex when they’re fast asleep. It’s a deep, dark secret, one that makes them physically ill when they learn about it. Only the mentally ill can deal with the subject, so it’s the mentally ill that go into the Prude version of gynecology. And when a Prude patient is undergoing gynecological examination the patient has to be sedated while the gynecologist makes his examination.

    The Prudes come to Earth and at first things go fine. Then the Prudes learn about pornography, and public sex. And they realize what the human manner of dress is all about. Even the manner of dress our young engage in.

    Think of the blood shed as the Prudes go ape shit.

    Now consider this question. What would our attitude towards virginity be if all children got their very own unicorn when puberty began?

    What we know aint necessarily so. Why we do things aint necessarily the reason. The way we insist things should be don’t always match the way things are.

  7. Oddly enough, though of course I know the song, it had nothing to do with my title choice. Once the first one, _Reap the Wild Wind_, was in print, the rest of the trilogy (for design reasons and because I’m somewhat pattern-fixated) had to start with an interesting “r” word and finish with something to do with moving air.
    Sometime around the midst of writing chapter 12, I began humming to myself. And smacked my own forehead. Too late by then even if I wanted to change it. Not that I had to. Mine’s a bit different, as John notes, and titles aren’t things you copyright.
    It’s more the reaction of readers. I just knew what would happen, and it already has at my events. Fans humming. (The ones of an age to know Morrison’s song. Our kids, who are in their mid-20s, didn’t.) Fans humming and smiling sneaky smiles when I catch them humming. At last I’ve given them a built-in theme.
    I try not to notice.
    _Rift in the Sky_ should be hum-free. Right?

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