Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Julie E. Czerneda
by Lawrence M. Schoen
To anyone who's read anything by Julie E. Czerneda, her academic background in biology
comes as no surprise. From her work in animal communication she moved to writing and editing
nonfiction, from biology texts to the use of science fiction to develop science literacy. From there
it was a simple transition to penning novels and editing science fiction anthologies. Over the span
of twenty years, she's published eighteen novels (all with DAW Books), written dozens of short
stories and essays, and edited or co-edited seventeen anthologies, including nine that used
science fiction to promote science education. A past nominee for the Campbell award for Best
New Writer, she's won the Golden Duck award for YA fiction twice and won Canada's Prix
Aurora award six times. There are other awards and nominations too numerous to mention, and
the students and readers she's inspired are legion. Perhaps most importantly, she shows no sign
of slowing down.
Schoen: Given your history, something of the perfect intersection of academic non-fiction,
hard science SF, and scientific literacy, I hope you don't mind that I'm going to lean heavily on
biologically-themed questions. What are your thoughts on the trends in modern medicine here in
the first quarter of the 21st century? On the one hand, misuse of antibiotics has led to the
development of super-bugs. On the other, a simple cheek swab can tell me whether I'm a good
candidate or not for a wide range of drugs, complete with specific clinical considerations and
dosage guidelines, all based on my unique genetics. How can we be so stupid and so clever at the
same time, and is science increasing that gap or shrinking it?
Czerneda: We're not stupid. Everyone makes decisions about their bodies--about
medicine--based on what they view as reliable information. We do our best. Parents rely on their
experience to tell if their child is developing an ear infection. A woman heading into menopause
might ask an older female relative or friend for advice. The problem comes in situations where
personal experience or shared knowledge isn't enough. Anecdotes, especially from the internet,
shouldn't be considered reliable sources, but if that's all you've got, you go with them. Better
communication is essential, from those very clever people who research what we'll need in the
future, to the corner pharmacist who provides the medication. I especially applaud the recent
better-done documentaries, such as the BBC's Human Body, that present the underlying science
in a clear, accessible, non-patronizing manner. Our bodies are fascinating and vital, but too many
of us know more about our phone apps. If there's a trend, I hope it's that: providing people who
must make decisions about themselves--and others--with the best information possible.
Schoen: The city where I live used to be called "Pigeontown," because before they went
extinct it was a popular place for vast flocks of passenger pigeons. That could change in the very
near future, as the growing field of de-extinction gets ever closer to wiping out a popular SF
trope. What's your opinion about bringing back extinct animals? Is restoring a species that had
outlived its ecological niche a good idea or more on par with the current predicament of
transporting one to an environment where a niche for it never existed? And if we do go down this
path, what priorities should determine which creatures we bring back? Do we start with
passenger pigeons because they were so tasty we ate them into extinction and millennial
scientists wanting to experience the flavor will drive the technology, or will we simply go with
mammoths because they'd be so cool? Do we pursue apex predators (thylacine, anyone?) or
dedicated herbivores like the moa? And if we do go forward with de-extinction, how does this
affect our obligations to existing species?
Czerneda: Yes. I'm very much in favour of restoring ecosystems and their diversity,
particularly those that have co-existed with us. They didn't "outlive" their niche. The niches are
still there. It wasn't so long ago we eliminated the largest components--to be fair to our
ancestors, before we appreciated we could. Today, with the technology at our fingertips, we've a
moral obligation to redress our mistakes and every reason to benefit from it. For example, we've
the opportunity to restore entire biomes to how they were, say, 13000 years ago. That's a blink in
time. It's called Pleistocene rewilding, and there's serious science and interest behind the
concept, especially in Europe. Megafauna--large herbivores and their predators--roamed the
northern hemisphere. If/when they do again, it's hoped a host of threatened plants, birds, and
invertebrates would also thrive.
Nothing exists in isolation. We're an essential part of the living planet too, and the more kinds
of living things we can keep with us, the stronger and more resilient we'll all be.
Schoen: Which brings us to a question you've spoken quite eloquently on before: bioethics. Is
it hubris to do a thing just because we can? As someone who has had such a huge impact
promoting scientific literacy in schools, and using science fiction to educate from the earliest
grades on, what kinds of thought experiments should we be engaged in as we continue to rework
the planet's biodome?
Czerneda: It's certainly risky. There's also the valid argument that discovery itself often
involves risk. ::pause to wave at the astronauts on the International Space Station:: I'd like to
make a distinction between research and application here. Research at its purest is the endeavour
of satisfying our curiosity about the world around us. Curiosity is what makes us wonder from
childhood to the grave and I consider it one of our finest attributes. Best of all, curiosity can drive
us to ask, "How could we do better?"
All well and good, but before applying what's been learned--what we now can do--to society
at large? The question must be asked, "What are the consequences?" Can society afford/survive
them? Can the world? We don't always know, and moving ahead in those cases is hubris and
dangerous. At the same time, change is inevitable. We're living through waves of it. We need to
do our own research, every time, starting with, "What if this were different? What could be the
consequence? For good and for ill." And, ultimately, we each must decide if the good is worth
Schoen: You're on record as stating that people who stop reading imaginative fiction at a
young age are in effect blunting their ability to ask questions as adults and losing the mental
flexibility to seek out answers. Is this an educator's and scientist's view on our field's pursuit of
the celebrated "sense o' wonder" or are you talking about something else? And if it's so
important, how do we promote it, not just in terms of encouraging young readers but also authors
who will write with that kind of inspiring awe as a goal? Big SF awards like the Hugo and
Nebula speak to topics like popularity and quality of writing. Not to put you on the spot, but how
would you feel about the creation of a Czerneda award to galvanize more authors to model or
inspire critical thinking and inquiry?
Czerneda: It's a lovely spot to be put upon, thank you. Goodness. There are awards
concerning science writing and societal impact--perhaps not for science fiction and inquiry. I'm
proud to say my SF anthology Polaris: A Celebration of Polar Science won the Canadian
Science Writers' Association award in 2007, which was a great compliment to the authors.
It is my view, as an educator and promoter of scientific literacy, that we don't talk enough
about science as a normal human activity, like art or sport, equally full of passion, diversity,
struggle, and meaning. We do love stories. They're a natural way to convey information--often
deep and complex--and we feel inspired to think about what stories tell us, to discuss and think
critically. If only we told science stories the same way. Does science fiction have a role here?
Absolutely. The exploration of concepts and consequences in SF is all about opening that
discussion, inviting inquiry. That's why I feel it should be written for all ages, relevant to each.
More, I'd love an award for science fiction stories that portray scientists as more than
convenient providers of infodump, or as the bad guys, or witless pawns of corporations. Real
science is such a complex mix of humanity, daring, mistakes and fixes, and, yes, cooperation.
The authors who get that right will not only serve SF readers well, but every reader.
Schoen: You've been quite successful writing compelling science fiction, using science not
just in the world building, but to drive plot and also shape characters. In recent years you've
turned your hand to fantasy novels. Does the influence of science change when you have access
to magic? Do you find your characters behaving more empirically than in other fantasy novels? Is
your magic more orderly, following "natural laws" just waiting to be discovered and utilized?
Czerneda: ::dons floppy author hat:: Thank you. I confess, it took me two years to shed the
influence of science, so I could write the fantasy I wanted. I dreaded having my story sound like,
"Oh look, SF Julie is writing about dragons now. How do they work?"
I started by stripping my office of anything SF, including my biology specimen collection and
reference books. When I caught myself being empirical or feeling the urge to explain how
something worked, I would delete the day's writing. All of it. My magic is messy and strange and
not of here. Trust me, that leap took trusting the artist in me, the emotion, over the head. There's
rigour, don't get me wrong, but it concerns the underpinnings of the "normal" parts of my world-building. Lamps. Trains. What floats down a river. Yet every chance I found, I'd throw in a
quirk. It was a challenge both frustrating and joyous, but at the end, I believe I'm a better writer
for it. (Mind you, not a problem leaping back into SF. Like pulling on my favourite garden
Schoen: As a biologist, one of your areas of focus was animal communication. It's a field of
study that attracts researchers from a wide range of disciplines (including my own,
psycholinguistics). It's an obvious treasure trove of SF ideas for many authors who lack even a
fraction of your expertise, almost to the extent that it seems hard-wired in our need to talk to
other species. I wonder if you'll take a moment to go a bit beyond some of the overused tropes in
this domain, to step back into your work as a biologist and share what you think is the most
critical issue currently being considered and where you believe we should be looking. Do you
feel it is actually preparing us for some future close encounter with sapience from another world,
or are the principles that govern animal communication in your opinion too distinct from those
that govern language?
Czerneda: I'm delighted--and not surprised--that we're finding communication almost
everywhere we look. It's having the tools: biochemistry, huge strides in imaging, and a welcome
expansion in "let's check that again!" Plants communicate. Microorganisms. I suspect it'll
become part of a new normal to consider who is "talking" to whom and what about in any
examination of the natural world.
There are consequences to this. We're learning that time matters, both in the sense of when,
but also over unusual lengths such as days or years. Distance. Life cycle stage matters. Where, as
a behaviourist, I'd never use words like grief or friendship when talking about what I observed
animals do, now these are being quantified. Of course we aren't the only ones. Eyeballs and cell
membranes were around before us too.
Which means it's more likely, in my mind, that we will find common ground for
communication with another sapience. We'll know to consider body language, chemical
signalling, hearing and vision that may differ significantly from ours. Where once it was syntax,
it'll now be an observation/exchange of biological information--possibly genomes, for what are
we if not all the goo?
Schoen: It's been twenty years since you sold your first novel. Writers tend to grow if they
stay in the business, and many flinch when they look back at their early works. Are there
particular types of mistakes that you're too experienced to make nowadays but which plagued
your younger self? Anything you'd care to pay forward to the new writers reading this
Czerneda: No flinching. Honest. Not about what I wrote. I started from a happy rush of
curiosity and story that hasn't ended yet. There are decisions I could have made differently. After
all, it took ten years from deciding to "send something out" to finding my home with DAW
Books. It's possible I could have accelerated that by sending to DAW immediately. There's one
bit of advice: Aim for the top first. DAW published my favourite authors. I should (hearing my
editor now) have trusted we'd have similar taste.
Another bit of advice is one I've said before, too. Write what you want. Write how you want.
Pleasing yourself is the true gratification at the end of each day, and you need that. Oh, and talk
about why you write--not so much what--to those who care about you. Tell them what makes a
good day of writing happen. Enlist, don't exclude, and you'll be surprised.
Schoen: Your most recent book finishes off your Reunification trilogy and also concludes the
Clan Chronicles. Over the span of twenty years you've looked at migration, immortality, space
exploration, and even the consequences of breeding for a desired albeit costly trait. You're
constantly in motion, always working on a project. Which brings us to the last question. What's
next? I have to believe you have another book in the works even now. Will you drop a hint or
two? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is there a particular biological theme or question you're
playing with? How are you pushing yourself to not only tell another amazing story but to keep
yourself challenged in the process?
Czerneda: So many things! After this interview, I'm back to polishing Tales from Plexis, an
anthology of original stories set in my Clan Chronicles written by those who love the series, out
in December 2018. I'm in the midst of writing two new SF stories, both featuring my favourite
character, Esen. They feature all the weird biology I can lay my hands on, plus an exploration of
mutualism. (That would be a hint, readers.) "The Only Thing to Fear," an e-novella, comes out
next September, followed in October by the novel, Search Image.
But wait. There's more! I've three more Night's Edge fantasy novels contracted, but before I
return to Marrowdell I'm writing a new fantasy, The Gossamer Mage. For that one, magic--as
people use it--has very strict rules, and for it I'm researching the history of ink. And canals.
Fun's ahead. Twenty years? I can hardly wait to start the next.