Nancy Kress: How Science Fiction Helps Us Rehearse for the Future

The author of “Someone to Watch Over Me” explains why sci-fi is more important than fantasy

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Stephen Cass: Hello, I’m Stephen Cass for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Nancy Kress is a celebrated author of science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. First published in 1976, her work often focuses on the implications of genetic engineering and other biomedical technologies. Among other awards, she has won five Nebulas from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations this August, Spectrum will be publishing Coming Soon Enough, an anthology of six original science fiction stories, including one by Kress titled “Someone to Watch Over Me.” But you don’t have to wait to read it: The story is available now as part of Spectrum’s June special issue about the long-term future of technology.

Without giving anything away, “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a dark tale about the unintended consequences of advanced biomedical implant technology. To talk about the story and the broader themes that run throughout her work, Kress joins us now by phone from her home in Seattle. Nancy, welcome to the podcast.

Nancy Kress: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Stephen Cass: So what was the inspiration for “Someone to Watch Over Me”?

Nancy Kress: I often write about children. The next generation of any society is, of course, what carries it forward. But in addition, we are faced right now with so many interesting possibilities, with genetic engineering and in other technologies as well, that the generation being born now is growing up far different than, say, the way I did. Texting, to me, would have seemed unimaginable. To them, it’s just normal ho-hum everyday kind of things. So when I was thinking about this story, I was thinking about cameras—which, of course, are a far next generation of Google Glass—that actually fit in the eye and are not noticeable to anybody else or even possibly to the wearer, except in that they are recording. I naturally turn to the idea of a child wearing one, and I asked myself, “What child? Under what circumstances?” And from there the story grew. I frequently do start with a character.

Stephen Cass: So how closely do you then follow real-world technological developments? You mentioned Google Glass, which is an emerging technology…

Nancy Kress: I’m not trained as a scientist, which I deeply regret. When I was in high school, I didn’t have chemistry because it conflicted with French 4, and now I can’t do chemistry or speak French. It was a great tragedy. However, I try to keep up with the journals that are written for laymen, and when something captures my attention, I’ll try to get the latest books on it. And I also collect microbiologists the way some people collect butterflies.

And I have a list of people that I can ask questions of when something captures my attention. So it’s kind of hit and miss whether some emergent technology comes to my attention. But if it does, and if it also succeeds in capturing that attention, then I try to find out about it in anyplace that’s available to me.

Stephen Cass: A lot of high-tech science fiction is about the drama of invention and its immediate aftermath. Your work often seems to look at how technologies creep into and affect people’s daily life. What’s the appeal of that approach?

Nancy Kress: Well, part of the appeal is that I actually live a daily life. I’m not on the cutting edge of discovery. But there’s also a literary reason for not writing about a piece of technology or a scientific discovery at the moment that it’s made, and that is that it usually hasn’t really affected anybody yet, except for the discoverer or the inventor, who is usually pretty happy about this.

But what you want when you’re writing fiction is for something to go wrong or something to be misused or something—as you said in your introduction—to have unintended consequences, and those sometimes take a while to develop. It’s after technology filters down into the everyday population of normal people that you can actually see what are those unintended consequences, what are those possible misuses, and those are the people you want to write about, because those are the places where it’s going to go wrong. And more importantly, those are the people that are going to be the most affected. Dr. Christiaan Barnard, when he did the first heart transplant, isn’t somebody you’d write a story about. You’d write a story about the person who got the first heart transplant, or who got the 10th or 100th heart transplant, and it had unintended consequences.

Stephen Cass: So what value, if any, do you think science fiction has when it comes to helping us think about real technologies and the real future?

Nancy Kress: Oh, I think it has a lot. Science fiction is the rehearsal, not for the future—because nobody knows what that’s going to be—but for possible futures. If I write about genetic engineering in one way and Elizabeth Bear writes about it in another way and Greg Bear writes about it in another way, we see a lot of possible outcomes from any given scientific advance. They’re all rehearsals for the way it may go, and the more rehearsals there are, the more options that can be considered, the more consequences that can be at least glimpsed, then the better we will be to deal with it when it actually is there.

Stephen Cass: As we talked about earlier, your work often explores implications of genetic engineering, but you’ve also examined other areas, such as 3-D printing. Why do these particular technologies resonate with you?

Nancy Kress: Genetic engineering resonates with me because I have two children, and any parent that has more than one child knows how different they are from the day they’re born. There’s a lot more that is genetically inborn than our culture—which would like to believe that a child is a tabula rasa and can be shaped—is willing to acknowledge. And because of that, if we want to make any real changes in the human race, they’re going to have to be made at the genetic level. This is a technology that is absolutely exploding. Someone said that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st will be the century of biology. This is where the future is going. This is where the future lies. And if we have any hope for the planet, I think it’s going to be in genetic engineering.

Stephen Cass: So how has science fiction as a literary genre changed since you began writing?

Nancy Kress: It’s changed in a couple of different ways, some good and some not so good. One of the more interesting and positive ways is that when I was a child reading science fiction, nearly all the writers were male, and that’s no longer true. About 40 to 45 percent of the members of the Science Fiction [& Fantasy] Writers of America are female, and I think this has led—at least it’s part of what has led—to a shift in science fiction to more rounded characters, more emphasis on relationships. And as a result of that, the tech story is no longer the starship captain or the scientist with his beautiful daughter. It’s much more what you mentioned earlier: ordinary people and how tech affects them. And I think part of that shift is due to the influx of women.

What I’m less happy about is that when I was reading science fiction as a child, science fiction was more important than fantasy. People were interested in the possibilities of science. Now for every science fiction book that’s sold, 10 are sold that are fantasy. And although I like fantasy, some of it I like quite a bit, I don’t think it has quite as much to offer us, and I’m sorry that fantasy is in the ascendency right now and science fiction is in the decline. Not in quality, but in numbers sold.

Stephen Cass: You have a novel coming out in September called Yesterday’s Kin. What’s it about?

Nancy Kress: In Yesterday’s Kin, aliens turn up here and they ask for our help. They say that there is something going to be happening to Earth—I don’t want to give away what it is—and they are here to help us because 25 years later, the same thing will be happening to their planet. They want our help. They want to join forces in solving this issue. Humans, first of all, aren’t even sure that this issue is real. And secondly, they have some doubts about these aliens’ identity. And then they discover who these aliens exactly are quite early in the novella, and that changes everything. Now if that sounds vague, and I know it does, it’s because I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I want people to actually read the book.

Stephen Cass: Well, it sounds fantastic. And thank you so much for talking with us today.

Nancy Kress: Oh, well, thank you for having me, Stephen. I enjoyed it.

Stephen Cass: We’ve been talking with Nancy Kress about her science fiction writing and her original story for Spectrum, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” For “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Stephen Cass.

This interview was recorded 9 June 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Images, left: iStockphoto; right: Nancy Kress

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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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