Backstory, Science (Fiction) and Genetic Advancements

It’s always a tricky thing to artfully weave in backstory and it is doubly tricky when the information crosses into the land of science. I’ve read some science fiction where the author seems to be swept up in describing in great detail the complete history of the people, technological advancement or natural phenomenon that she invented. This kind of indulgence is often referred to as an “information dump” or, if the explanation is spouted in dialogue, that character can transform into Exposition Man. Neither of these options is a good choice, so what’s a science fiction writer to do?
I’m a fan of the less is more philosophy: supply a few key details artfully woven into the story and let the reader fill in the rest. After all, you don’t want to tell the reader everything, you want them to be curious about the world you’ve created so they will keep reading.
book cover

book cover

Cori McCarthy has mastered this artful approach of keeping the reader curious in her debut novel, The Color of Rain, due out May 14. Here’s an example:
To set the scene, protagonist Rain tells Ben she is surprised he knows about Alice in Wonderland. Ben’s reply and the brief conversation that follows provides great insight into his life.
“It’s an Earth story. And, if you haven’t heard, we are all human.” He twists his hand in his hair; now I know how it gets so wild. “Before the Mecs emigrated to the Edge, we were all the same. Before the genetic advancements, we were all exactly the same.  And we still are, for the most part.”
“Genetic advancements?”
“I’m as human as you.”
“That’s a weird thing to say. I didn’t mean that you’re not human.”
“It’s not like you’re green-skinned or anything. Apart from your eyes, you look just like an Earth Cityite.” I glance over his shoulders and the strong muscles of his neck. “Of course, you’re a good deal healthier.” I lean forward, my excitement getting the best of me. “I’ve heard that Mecs are geniuses. Evolved.”
I interviewed Cori about her inspiration for the character of Ben and how she chose to share his background with the reader.

Is this your first venture into science fiction?

Yes! I’ve written fantasy, historical fiction and contemporary previously, but this is the first time that I jumped into the star-swept Void of sci-fi.
Who are some of your favorite sci fi authors/influences? (feel free to include television/movie influences too)
My favorite sci-fi author is Stephen Donaldson. His GAP series is fantastic–although very, very dark and definitely not for teens. I also spent my entire childhood watching and rewatching Star Wars, as well as getting into Star Trek TNG. I hadn’t thought about writing sci-fi until I read FEED. I loved the way M.T. Anderson used the gritty, technological settings of sci-fi to tell a harsh story. At the time, I was thinking about crafting a teen character who gets caught up in a prostitution ring, and when I started to imagine her story in space, the darkness of the emotional journey felt a little more balanced as set before majestic stars and the unknowable places between planets.
Tell us about the evolution of Ben as a character – is the vision you had of him initially what ended up in the final draft?
Not at all! When I first created Ben, he was the same character inside, but on the outside, he had been crippled in a childhood accident and had little to no immune system because of genetic advancement drawbacks. My agent pointed out that being sick all the time kept him from being attractive to the reader, and so I changed Ben’s drawback to be a lack of eyesight. I also gave him muscles, which, let’s face it, helped a lot!
You’ve dropped the words “genetic advancements” into this scene, is there a reason you chose that description instead of making up your own specifics?
As much as I love sci-fi, I don’t enjoy the created-to-be-complicated language that sometimes comes with it. I feel like the most effective ways to engage the reader are with familiar descriptions. As an example, in the last Star Trek movie, the substance used to destroy worlds is simply referred to as “dark matter.” There are a lot of ways that they could have dressed up that language to sound daunting, but they kept it simple–and thus simply terrifying.
Thanks for mentioning Star Trek

Thanks for mentioning Star Trek

Genetics are really in the news these days. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether human gene sequences can be patented. In the future do you think that’s one of the things that will divide us – those who have genetic advancements and those who don’t?
Wow. Great question, and yes, I do believe that genetic advancements will continue no matter if they’re legal or not. I also believe that these advancements will not be offered to the masses, but will most likely inspire their own societies. In the world that Rain comes from, this exact fate has occurred a few centuries before the story starts. Those with the benefits of genetic engineering leave earth to start their own society on a distant planet, and those who remain struggle to exist and produce while sickness and poverty spread exponentially. I hope this never happens to planet Earth, but in two thousand years…who knows?
Thanks, Cori, for letting me take this interview in a science direction.

At this point, I think I should mention that The Color of Rain falls decidedly into the upper YA category and deals with complex subject matter. In the spirit of full-disclosure, I should also mention Cori was my roommate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a fellow Bat Poet (VCFA’11). Take a look at the book trailer below.

2 comments for “Backstory, Science (Fiction) and Genetic Advancements

  1. May 10, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Great interview!!! Loved this: “As much as I love sci-fi, I don’t enjoy the created-to-be-complicated language that sometimes comes with it.” I love sci-fi, but I can understand how the lingo can turn off reluctant readers. I think teens will love Cori’s book.

  2. May 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Great interview! And I agree L. Marie. I love that comment. When authors are so intent on showing how clever they are or how hard they’ve worked to create a world for the reader, it can be offputting. As a reader, I’d rather learn about the world as I go along. And language a real person speaks is just fine.

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