How to Research A Sci-Fi Novel (if You Know Nothing About Robots) By Georgia Clark
I did a ridiculous amount of research for my second novel, Parched. So much so that when compiling it all for this guest blog post, I found myself wondering 1. I am crazy and 2. If knowing it was going to take as much time as it did, if I’d do it all again. (Answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’).
My jumping off point for Parched was this: a girl in love with a robot. What did I know about robots? Well, I’d seen Bladerunner a few dozen times…?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that a robot is a non-sentient being. Unless I wanted to get readers to care about a girl falling for something with the emotional intelligence of a toaster, what I wanted was AI. Artificial Intelligence. I wanted to create something that could feel. Essentially, a cyborg. So I began researching that.
I subscribed to Popular Science magazine. I read articles online. And I listened to podcasts. A lot of podcasts, specifically, Robots and Singularity 1 on 1. These were super helpful: I love being told information, as opposed to reading it. I watched movies and TV shows: AI, Bladerunner (again), I, Robot, Battlestar Gallatica, Caprica. I read books by Isaac Asimov, the inventor of the Three Laws of Robotics. One film that was particularly inspiring was a documentary called Transcendent Man, which is about the famous future theorist Ray Kurzweil. It introduced me to the idea of neuroscience and intelligence augmentation; how we could use nanotechnology (microscopic robots) to enhance our brains and bodies. (I tried to read Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near, but it was just too weird for me.)
I wanted to create a cyborg that could feasibly have emotions. When talking with one scientist, he bemoaned the fact that often in literature and films, robots just ‘come to life’, and start feeling things, even though they are not programmed to and technically never could. I wanted Parched to be as technically realistic as possible. So I had to understand what emotions are and how we experience them. More research! This time into the nervous system. I learnt about what dopamine does to our brains, how adrenaline makes us feel and why. I was becoming a regular girl scientist, (which is funny, considering I never studied it at school.)
I was interested in the possible psychology of an AI. I read about autism and sociopaths, two instances where individuals don’t have the same level of empathy as most humans. I watched films like Adam (great film), about a man with Asperger’s Syndrome as inspiration for creating a humanoid cyborg wh was still developing emotions and social skills.
Parched is also centred around a form of computer warfare, so I ended up reading a lot about that: cyber war, malware, cyber terrorism. I read all about Stuxnet, the computer worm that was written to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons. I interviewed the director of a security agency called Ciaops, a very nice man called Robert, to better understand computer hacking. I interviewed a lot of people actually: I’m a former journalist, so I’m comfortable talking with strangers, and like I mentioned before, I learn best from having things explained to me.
I was interested in learning more about activism. I was a student activist at unit, so I could draw on those more lo-fi, grungier experiences, but I was curious about how activists could affect large-scale change. I talked to y good friend James Slezak, the co-founder of Purpose, an online activist organization, to find out how campaigns are created and run, why issues were chosen, what success looked like. I read about radical left wing groups of the past like the Weatherman, whose name helped inspire Kudzu.
To create Malspeak, I collaborated with two friends, John and Nat, who speak seven languages between them! We ate cupcakes and made up a dialect.
On top of this, I was reading sci-fi themed YA (Cinder, Starters, Hunger Games etc), attending conferences, connecting with other authors and talking about my ideas with people. I even presented a talk in AI right here in Brooklyn!
That’s it! So, to sum up, here are my top four pieces of advice when it comes to research.
- Do it. Some writers (like me) love research, and see it as a chance to learn/procrastinate. Some writers see it as being back at school. But research is essential. Not only does it add uniqueness and authenticity to your work, it’ll jumpstart your imagination in ways you haven’t planned.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out. It might seem intimidating to reach out to folks in the fields you’re interested in, but here’s a little secret: people love talking about what they know! You just have to be polite, make it easy, and don’t outstay your welcome. I usually send a short email introducing myself, the project (in brief), and ask if they would mind chatting with me on the phone or answering some short questions over email. Most people say yes! Over the three or four years I was writing Parched, I spoke to about a dozen people, from neuroscientists to cyborg theorists to professors in robotic law. Some of those conversations lasted an hour or more. Fun!
- Know when to quit. If, like me, you like researching, it can tempting not to start writing. Give yourself a deadline. Know when to stop and when to get your butt in that chair, and start writing your opus.
- You own the research; it doesn’t own you. At the end of the day, your responsibility is to your readers, not the experts you interview. There was a hot minute in my drafting when I was trying to honor all the nerdy specifics I was learning about, at the expense of the action and drive. I realized that was a mistake. Once you’ve finished researching, put it away. Let your fabulous brain take over. If you misrepresent a few things, who cares! Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
In sixteen-year-old Tessendra Rockwood’s world, natural resources are at an all-time low. Most remaining supplies are funneled in Eden, known as the “powerful city of shining abundance.” Inside Eden’s white walls and the city’s clear, protective dome, residents lounge in swimming pools and feast of fresh fruit and vegetables, while citizens of the surrounding Badlands eat gelatinous gray porridge and drink reddish iron water. Tess was born as an Edenite, but after the death of her scientist mother she decides to combat this inequality by joining a rebel group called Kudzu. Together they uncover a shocking government plot to carry out genocide in the Badlands using artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, Tess has some complicated ties to the project that test her loyalty.
Robots, renewable resources, and romance get tangled together in this thrilling futuristic adventure.
About Georgia Clark:
Georgia Clark is a young adult author currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Her second novel, Parched, will be out through Holiday House in 2014.
Georgia was born in Sydney, Australia. Her BA in Communications (Media Arts & Production) saw her becoming active in the student movement and blow way too much money on making short films and music videos.
After graduating she became a professional hipster for a while as Editor of The Brag, an excellent weekly music street press magazine. This also involved being in a band, the seminal electropop trio, Dead Dead Girls. She went on to become an Online Producer for a soapie called Home & Away, and Online Writer for Fremantle Media Australia.
In 2008 her first novel, She’s With The Band was published by Australia’s largest independent publisher, Allen & Unwin. She’s With The Band was released in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2011. It attracted five-star reviews.
In 2007, Georgia won a national pitching competition at SPAA, the Screen Producer Association’s annual conference, for Starts At Sunset, a one-hour drama/comedy about vampires who play in a band. Head over here to see more screenwriting work, (including awesome specs
for Gossip Girl and Party Down).
Georgia has worked as a freelance journalist and copywriter for ten years. She is published in Cosmo, CLEO, Daily Life, Sunday Life, Girlfriend and more. She has attended writers’ residencies in Martha’s Vineyard and Portugal, and has also received grants for her work.
Georgia moved to from Sydney to New York in 2009 just for fun. Here, she performs improv, creates the award-winning SHO Sync app for Showtime and enjoys meeting new and interesting cheese platters. She writes from the New York Writers Room, which involves macaroons and many, many cups of tea. She loves beach days, group dinners, and her beautiful girlfriend.
Despite the fact Georgia writes and loves thinking about artificial intelligence, science and the future, she doesn’t own a smart phone and never learnt to drive. Nope, never.
Many thanks to Georgia Clark for doing this guest post for our blog and to Mundie Girls Tours for asking us to!