Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Post: The Science Behind Ashes by Ilsa Bick

Today, we have a special treat for you guys! As part of the Shadows tour with Egmont and to celebrate the release of her second book, Shadows, Ilsa Bick stopped by give us a science lecture. But not the boring, college kind. Read as she talks about the freaking awesome science behind her books Ashes and Shadows.

The Science Behind the Ashes Trilogy

I’d read a ton of dystopian and post-apocalyptic YA lit going into this, and two things with which I always had trouble: the science (or lack thereof) and the process (that is, you never get to see how things go bad; they just are). In some of these books, people were ridiculously well behaved and altruistic, which—if you’ve paid any attention to history—is the anomaly not the norm. Now, I’m not knocking those books; there are some fine ones. Just saying.

So my idea going into the ASHES trilogy was that I wanted to create something that would bring down civilization in a big hurry, wasn’t a virus or some deadly plague, would let me actually create a setting where you could see/watch the disaster unfolding afterward, and was just credible enough to allow me to play around a bit with just how nasty people, in the aftermath of a disaster, can really be. Having cut my teeth on science fiction as a kid—I mean, it really was the YA lit of my day, which might tell you how ancient I am—the sf I most enjoyed was not . . . hard (really, if I wanted that much physics, give me the textbook) but at least believable. In fact, I once did a college paper on the science in sf. Great way to read a ton of books and get credit, too.

Basically, believability and verisimilitude were big for me. I probably gravitate to this naturally because, you know, I’m a doctor. I studied science. I know a fair bit of physics and astronomy because I am an ├╝ber-geek and the fun of being a writer is learning new stuff. Since I’m also a shrink . . . the brain is my thing. Human behavior under stress was what I studied and did.

So a lot of the science in the trilogy, I just know because I know, and there wasn’t a ton of research involved, unless you count . . . wait a second . . . yeah, four years of college, four years of medical school, and then five years of a residency. So that’s, what, thirteen years of research? I’m not being cute; I’m just saying. It’s all that background that allowed me to think of the idea in the first place, and then know where to look to see if it was even feasible.

For example, sure, a massive sunspot cycle could decimate all the Earth’s electronics, and I knew that the EMPs from a-bombs are a big problem. Whether you could actually build and then deploy dedicated e-bombs was the research, and it didn’t take me all that long, although I am certain that I’m on Homeland Security’s radar. I have friends who’ve worked in defense systems, too, and having been in the military, I know that people there and in government are worried about this kind of attack. (Congress even held hearings.) The huge irony is that the military has tried to harden its equipment but if the scenario I paint is possible . . . no one’s going to be pumping and refining oil to turn into fuel, so all those military toys aren’t really going anywhere fast and you can kiss manufacturing good-bye.

The really dicey part of the equation—what might happen to people in the event of a massive wave of EMPs—well, that’s the fiction. No one knows because you really can’t do these kinds of experiments (although there is evidence that weird things happen to animals in terms of cumulative exposure to EMPs). But I do know the brain pretty well, including what happens to the traumatized brain, what age groups are most at risk, and all that. I know that the teenage brain is just this seething stew of chemicals and functions that being reset, re-equilibrated, just as I know that the aging brain is much more like a wizened little raisin: not set in stone but in need of a good juice now and again. So morphing my adolescents—whom most adults view as aliens anyway—wasn’t that big a stretch or figuring out what might protect some of my teenage characters. The task was to make all the science work without calling too much attention to it, and leaving just enough ambiguity so you’d have a story and not a textbook.

About Ilsa J. Bick:

Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, as well as a film scholar, former Air Force major, and now a full-time author. Her critically acclaimed first YA novel, Draw the Dark, won the 2011 Westchester Fiction Award and was named a Bank Street College 2011 Best Book. Ilsa currently lives with her family and several furry creatures in rural Wisconsin, near a Hebrew cemetery. One thing she loves about the neighbors: they're very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.

You can follow Ilsa on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog to keep up with her.

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