Elizabeth Fama on Putting the Sci in Sci Fi

Today we again welcome YA Author Elizabeth Fama. Her novels include Plus One and Monstrous Beauty.

Putting the Sci in Sci Fi 

I majored in Biology in college (I was pre-med), and I took lots of math and statistics both in college and graduate school. For a short stint I worked with rats in an epilepsy lab. I've lived my whole life in a fiercely analytical university community where, for instance, my physicist neighbor made a breakthrough in granular convection while musing over his bowl of breakfast muesli. As a result, I always love it when the science in speculative fiction feels real enough that I don't stumble. Of course, by definition it's fiction, so the science you create doesn't have to be totally real, but it shouldn't be obviously wrong.

Make it Messy

I've discovered that I also prefer invented science to be a little messy. Do you remember how grungy Mos Eisley was in Episode IV of Star Wars? (No, not the CGI-ed version, darn it, but the theatrical release.) And the scrap room in the Jawa Sandcrawler? It looks like everything is depreciating before your eyes; everything has a worn patina or is downright filthy; stuff has been used so much it's busted, and some of it is being junked. I just read Jack McDevitt's Starhawk, which takes place just after human beings have figured out how to travel faster than the speed of light. Except they're still not that good at it: your first jump will get you to the right system, but pretty much in a random spot in that system. It might still take days or weeks to get to your intended target, and you won't know exactly how long until you make the jump. There's some sort of "plus or minus" in the process that future humans don't really have the hang of yet. That feels real to me. It feels like the evolution of a technology. 

Inventing Medical Science

In Plus One, I needed to invent a non-invasive neurosurgical procedure. I knew how pinealectomies, or the removal of the pineal glands from the epithalamus of rodent brains, were performed on Siberian hamsters in Brian Prendergast's lab at the University of Chicago. (My daughter worked in Brian's lab for a year and a half.) In a hamster "PinX," researchers make an incomplete circular cut in the skull and fold the bone over. They use fine-tipped forceps to reach into the confluence of the brain sinuses and remove the tiny, pine-cone-shaped gland. The procedure carries a risk of bleeding and damage to adjacent areas of the brain, and of course a risk of mortality. In humans, then, PinX's would be too risky to perform routinely, and certainly it would be impossible to do them in a clandestine manner on newborns. 

A little research on my part showed that the pineal gland takes up fluoride molecules faster than any other organ of the body. I also knew that brachytherapy is a way to deliver radiation to cancer tumors, via directly-implanted short-range radiation sources, or "seeds," at the site of the tumor. In some cases of brachytherapy, you leave the seeds in permanently, and the radioactivity decays over time until it's gone. So I combined those two ideas: what if you attached a tiny seed of radiation to a fluoride molecule and injected it into the blood stream? Perhaps the pineal gland of the infant would take up the molecule, allowing the radiation to destroy the gland before the radiation decays.

This method serves the two criteria that I love in sci-fi: plausibility and messiness. The plausibility: this non-surgical PinX is based on medical knowledge and procedures that we already have, combined in new ways. The messiness: I included a risk of complications. The mildest complication is familiar to anyone with children who have been vaccinated: some infants experience soreness at the injection site. A more serious complication is exhaustion and lethargy from the radiation. (It sounds believable, right?) And the most dangerous complication, at a rate of one in fifty thousand, is a radiation-induced leukemia or lymphoma.


Whenever you're developing a new technology in your sci-fi piece, first make sure it's not overtly wrong. Then, aim to make it feel real, based on technologies we already have. And finally, add a little messiness, because the world--even a futuristic one--will never be shiny and perfect.

Find out more about Plus One and Elizabeth Fama at her website.

Elizabeth Fama on Science Fiction as Metaphor

Today we welcome YA Author Elizabeth Fama. Her novels include Plus One and Monstrous Beauty.

Science Fiction as Metaphor

To me, the fun of writing science fiction or fantasy is in exploring deeper themes using an invented setting, and everything is in service of those themes. But I'm learning that this isn't true of all sci-fi/fantasy writers, who sometimes just love the aesthetic and the romp, and I'm finding that many readers also prefer to see the story in a purely literal sense. This sort of reader will search for internal consistency, plausibility, and detailed world-building. But in the end, as the author, you're the one who must feel comfortable with the balance you've chosen.

My alternate-history thriller, Plus One, imagines the world took a different course during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. In order to relieve the burden on medical staff and limit the spread of the disease, our government took a series of steps that gradually split the population in two: a Day group and Night group, with mandated curfews. For me, the world I invented seemed just as plausible as women not having the vote, and black and white children not being allowed to go to the same schools--heck, as plausible as gay people not being allowed to marry, and 20,000 Romani people being deported from France. We've lived this kind of insanity in multiple ways on our planet. Add in the fact that Woodrow Wilson was a president who was happy to sacrifice civil liberties, and I felt I'd found my metaphorical world.

Historical precedent

The background given for the Day/Night divide in the book is based in historical fact: during the Spanish flu pandemic, medical staff couldn't keep up with the sick and dying, doctors and nurses often fell from exhaustion, and there was evidence that restricting the movements of citizens helped control the spread of the disease. For instance, in St. Louis the City Health Commissioner, Max Starkloff, persuaded the mayor, Henry Kiel, to implement a regime Starkloff called "social distancing." Mayor Kiel closed schools, banned public gatherings, allowed no standing passengers on public transportation, and shut down or limited all businesses "except those supplying sustenance, medical attention, or the conduct of the war." As a result, St. Louis had the lowest big-city death rate at 3 per 1,000 people, whereas Pittsburgh and San Francisco had up to 12 deaths per 1,000. In Plus One I dramatized this regime by having the government divide medical staffs into two groups and beef up their numbers with young-adult apprentices. (Yay! that makes it YA!). The policy was gradually extended to all industries supporting hospitals, and culminated with curfews for the entire population when it became clear that reduced crowding slowed the spread of the disease. In other words, imagine that Starkloff and Kiel had authority over the whole country, rather than just one city.

In character for President Wilson 

Once I read up a bit on Woodrow Wilson's affection for regulation (he invented the Federal Trade Commission and Daylight Savings Time among other programs), his complete disregard for civil liberties leading up to our involvement in WWI (and after), and his not-very-well-hidden racism and segregationism, I knew I had found my man. "The Committee on Public Information" in Plus One is a real thing Wilson created, supposedly to help Americans understand the war effort--but really to enact censorship privileges against the press. This, combined with how tenaciously he held onto the presidency even when he was too ill to do the job, made it seem that the Day/Night divide could have become good and entrenched by the time he left office in 1921.

How much implausibility is okay?

In terms of strict plausibility, however, if you delve deeply you'll uncover technical questions about the Day/Night divide. I saw them as I wrote--the practical ways in which the Day/Night system would be complicated by reality. For instance, do people near the arctic circle spend months at a time in their homes? (In the northernmost inhabited area of Norway the sun is visible for 24 hours from roughly mid-April to mid-August. How would Night people shop for groceries or go to school? And vice versa for Day people in the winter.) How is transcontinental travel possible? While writing the book I mulled over these issues (among others) and came to my own conclusions that didn't make it into the book because 1. they're not pertinent to Sol's journey, and 2. for me, this whole world is a parable (see: title of post).


As writers of science fiction and fantasy, we each have to come to our bliss point about world building. If the deeper layers of meaning are more important to you than the perfection of the set-up, you may be comfortable--as I was--not addressing the minor glitches that you see in the system. If creating an adventure in a gorgeously-imagined setting is your primary interest, you may want more detailed world-building. My goal in Plus One was simply to make this alternate view of our world feel reasonable enough historically (and also scientifically, but that's another post) to have the reader accept it as a metaphor for social injustice and inequality based on arbitrary constructs--which is what all limits on freedom and equality really are.

Find out more about Plus One and Elizabeth Fama at her website.

Knowing when to let go

Anyone who has ever attempted to write a novel knows it is HARD WORK, but before you hit the Mid-Section Slump or the endless Redrafts of Doom, there is this beautiful, sparkly moment at the start of the process where you’re truly, madly, obsessively in love with the story. Life, which is normally painted in beige, is suddenly a vivid, glittering rainbow! It’s a great place to be.

But like all romances, when the honeymoon period is over and you start to see your book for the plot-hole riddled thing it really is, you’re faced with a difficult decision: struggle on or let it go?

How do you know when a book is the right one for you?

I’ve been noodling around on a new novel for the past…oh, three or four months…now, and at the start of the process I was happy with the idea. It had a strong hook, an interesting world and the potential for lots of steamy romance. On paper, it ticked all the boxes.

Then I started writing it.

And with every day that passed, I realized something. I wasn’t in love with the story and no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t muster those feelings. 

I guess book relationships are similar to human relationships. No matter how perfect someone appears on their Match.com profile, if there's no spark, then no matter how much effort you put into the relationship you’ll never fall in love. All too often the people we fall in love with are the ones who don’t tick all the boxes; they’re either too short, or hate Buffy, or think Christopher Eccleston is the best Doctor (I mean, seriously, come on!). And yet they’re the ones who make our knees wobble and tummies fizz.

However, while I was working on said unloved project, I started thinking about another idea. At first I dismissed it, because on paper everything was wrong about it. But it wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t stop thinking about this new story; I became obsessed. My world became a glittery rainbow. I was enthusiastic and kept gushing about it to all my friends. I was in love.

So what was I to do now? Carry on writing my current project or admit it was time to let it go?

After much discussion with my critique partners, I finally made the difficult decision to stop writing the book. It’s not in my nature to give up on a project—I’ve written three novels under contract now, and they haven’t all been easy going. But I knew this was the right decision. And so, with trepid heart I contacted my agent and told her that my current book just wasn’t working for me. A few days later, we met up for lunch at the LBF and I explained my issues with the book and pitched my new idea to her. And boy, did I talk! I had an answer for every question; I knew exactly who the characters were, what their action and emotional arcs would be, what the world was like—heck, I even had an ending! By the end of the meeting she was as enthusiastic about the idea as I was and gave me her blessing to go ahead to write the partial.  

So now, that’s what I’m working on and I’ve never been happier. I don’t know what will come of the new idea; it may result in nothing. But at least, for now, I have love.  

Photography, Copyright and Freedom of Panorama

My husband and I share a home office and most afternoons we listen to the culture program on German radio. Usually I blend it out and concentrate on my writing, but yesterday something caught my ear. The announcer warned that a picture posted online (to Facebook, for example) could end up costing you even if you took with your own camera.

By now most of us are Internet savvy to know that posting someone else's copyrighted photo constitutes misuse. But photos that we snapped ourselves with our camera phone? Those are fair game, right? Not always. In fact, it depends on what (and who) we photograph.

Copyright law also varies by country, but in general, we are not allowed to take photos of copyrighted works such as murals, statues, artwork or even buildings and post them online. If you take a photo on a public street, you are potentially capturing hundreds of copyrighted images (and private people, who have their own protections when it comes to publishing photographs).

Is this photo of me under the Kuwaiti water towers protected under Freedom of Panorama?  I think so!

That's why a Freedom of Panorama exception was created. This means, in most cases, you cannot be held liable for a photo taken in or from a publicly accessible places. In the US, the current law is more narrow and only applies to buildings. That means you can take (and post) a photo of the Empire State Building from the street (but not an adjacent private building), but probably not the Gandhi statue in Union Square.

Since tourists take and post millions of such photos, in practice it is unlikely that you will be prosecuted for such offenses. But it is within the realm of possibility.

All this got me thinking about novels and the futuristic technology within. If there can be such complicated laws surrounding the use of digital photography, what laws might governments have to come up with to regulate teleportation or hovercrafts or lightsabers?  These laws might never come up in the course of the narrative, but it's no doubt a useful worldbuilding exercise to ponder the legal ramifications.

NOTE: I'm not a copyright expert, so take this post with a grain of salt and feel free to do your own research.

Perfecting your opening line

I recently had the good fortune to attend a talk by one of my fave authors – the awesomely talented Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) – at the Oxford Literary Festival. During the talk she mentioned how, for two years, she’d struggled to write her book Picture Me Gone. All she had was a lot of blank pages and the character’s name: Mila. It seemed hopeless. Until one day, when she was out for a walk, a little yappy dog bounded over to her. It’s name tag read…you guessed it, Mila. And like a glittery bolt of word lightning, the first line of her novel zapped into her mind:

The first Mila was a dog. Picture Me Gone, Meg Rosoff

The rest, as they say, was history. Which got me thinking about the importance of first lines. What should a good first line do?

Grab the reader’s attention

The key thing a first line should do is grab the reader’s attention - we’re talking full on pom-pom shaking, tassel-twirling action. Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of flicking to page one of a book and scanning the first few lines to see if it’s worth buying –an opinion can be formed that quickly – so it’s vital your first line instantly hooks the reader. So, what makes an attention grabbing first line? I think it falls into 3 key categories:

1. The dramatic statement

One way to start your novel is with a dramatic statement, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is getting uber amounts of love, here on the League!

I’m pretty much fucked. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Why is he fucked? What’s going on? Who is fucked? Instantly, we want to know more. This is a great way to hook a reader, but do make sure the dramatic statement is relevant to your character and plot! Ideally, it should sum up the main crisis in the book in one succinct line, as in the example above. The crux of the story is the character, Mark, is screwed because he’s been stranded alone on Mars.

Another great example is:

It was a pleasure to burn. – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Gives you shivers, right? Who or what is burning? Why is it a pleasure? It grabs you and pulls you in, demanding you carry on reading.


My mother thinks I’m dead. -  Legend, Marie Lu

Why does Day’s mother think he is dead? Why hasn’t he told her that he is alive? How did he supposedly die?! SO MANY QUESTIONS.

2. The character introduction

If your main character is the hook of your novel, then your first line should set them up and immediately tell the reader why they’re such a special snowflake. Marissa Meyer does this masterfully in her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder:   

The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. – Cinder, Marissa Meyer

In one short line, we know what’s unique about this version of Cinderella – she has an artificial metal foot. We also know she’s good with mechanics, which plays a key role in the narrative. Masterful!

3. The world set-up

If world-building is your strength and you’ve created a setting that could be a ‘character’ in its own right, then consider using your first line to set the scene. This example combines both a dramatic statement and sets up the world:

They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod “the Death Shop.” – Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi   

Like, wow, right? Instantly we know she’s living in a Pod (Why? How did this happen? What sort of society is this?) and that the environment outside this safe world is deadly.

Or, here’s an example from my own work:

An air-raid siren wails in the distance, alerting Black City citizens to lock their doors and turn out the lights. – Black City, Elizabeth Richards

In this example, (I hope) you get a sense Black City is a war-torn place, where its citizens live in constant fear. Fear of what though? All is explained in the subsequent sentences:

An air-raid siren wails in the distance, alerting Black City citizens to lock their doors and turn out the lights. They don’t want to be out in the dark alone. They might meet something dangerous. Something like me. – Black City, Elizabeth Richards

Are you hooked yet? J

What are your favorite first lines from novels? We'd love to hear your views!