The Big Idea: Nancy Kress
Science fiction is just that, a blend of the science we know, and the stories we wish to tell. The mixture of these two aspects was especially important to authors Nancy Kress and Robert Lanza, who co-authored their new novel, Observer. Read on to see how they wove science into story.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK INSTEAD OF SOMETHING ELSE
You there, sitting in your chair reading this on your computer with your phone beside you in case something interesting turns up on social media—you believe that chair, computer, and phone all exist, right? Are solid and stationary, at least until you chop them up or move them? What if you’re wrong?
Caroline Soames-Watkins also believed that the world around her existed, solidly and for a long time before she was born—until she learned different. Caro, the protagonist of my novel co-written with Dr. Robert Lanza, thought she had the world figured out. Not her personal world, which is in deep trouble due to a beloved sister in financial trouble, a predatory boss, and a vicious on-line attack that loses Caro the job she’d worked so hard for. But Caro thinks that at least she understands how the material world works and how her consciousness operates within it. Then, from desperation, she accepts a job at an off-shore research facility run by a Nobel Laureate great-uncle she has never met.
The ideas behind Observer are Robert Lanza’s. An eminent scientist who led teams that cloned the first endangered species and did ground-breaking stem-cell research, Bob Lanza has also formulated biocentrism, the belief that life and consciousness created the universe, not the other way around. His non-fiction books put a foundation under that startling claim. They start with hard science in “our” world, beginning with the famous two-slit experiments, in which the presence of an observer affects the path taken by a sub-atomic particle, and move step-by-step into cutting-edge science about quantum entanglement, the multiverse, the paradoxes of time, and the nature of consciousness itself. The universe did not spawn consciousness; consciousness created the universe.
When Bob approached me about embodying his ideas in a novel, I was intrigued. Science fiction speculates on the intersections between humanity and everything else, and these ideas suggested very large-scale intersections. And I had always been interested in the behavior of consciousness, my own and everybody else’s (in some circles, this is called gossip). But in addition to being intrigued, I was also skeptical. On the one hand, could science support the idea that consciousness creates the universe? On the other hand, wasn’t this just recycled philosophy 101 according to Irish philosopher George Berkeley, among others? On the third hand (SF allows as many hands as you wish), wasn’t the idea of multiple universes just a currently popular gimmick to allow a stalwart hero to frolic through fantasy settings?
In order: Yes. No. No.
The major obstacle, Bob and I agreed, was going to be how to present and pace the science without interrupting the story more than necessary. Biocentrism is a complex theory and we didn’t want to oversimplify it. It’s important, for instance, that readers grasp the current, on-going experiments in applying quantum-level physics to the macro-world. But neither did we want to turn a novel into a thinly disguised scientific treatise. A novel is, foremost, someone’s story. Caro experiences loss, death, love, and the sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful intricacies of human connections.
Getting all this into a novel took many iterations. I wrote a section; Bob and I discussed it for plot, pacing, and scientific accuracy; we decided where the book should go next; I rewrote. This went on for two years. It was important to both of us to explore the impact of biocentrism not only on Caro, but also on other characters of various temperaments, and on the larger society. Some of those impacts are negative, because science inevitably leads to technology, and technology can be exploited and abused. The day humanity learned to control fire, arson became a possibility.
An additional initial difficulty for me was that Caro is—or was well on her way to becoming before a certain night at a certain party—a neurosurgeon. I am not a neurosurgeon. I am not a doctor of any sort. So before I even began writing, I read four memoirs by neurosurgeons, taking notes and absorbing this (to me) alien world. I discovered what actual doctors think about the dangers and rewards of their profession. I discovered the range of neurosurgery, from the “easy” removal of a meningioma conveniently located outside the brain and away from major cerebral arteries and veins, to the long, risky operations battling multiple traumas or deep-seated glioblastomas. I also discovered that some neurosurgeons write much better prose than others.
Observer is my first collaborative novel. Writing it was exhilarating, frustrating, eye-opening, and when it was finished, my view of the universe had shifted. Eminent physicists like Stephen Hawking, Max Planck, and Neils Bohr, to name just a few of many, have said that consciousness is intricately woven into the very fabric of the universe. As Caro, an ambitious and practical woman, moves through her adventures in friendship, danger, love, and surgery, she experiences first-hand the truth that those physicists already knew.