You. I see you, the one who “doesn’t read science fiction.”
C’mere a sec. *hooks arm around reader’s shoulders* Guess what? I get it, I do. In the eyes of many mainstream readers, the genre still hasn’t expanded beyond the days of pulp novels featuring phallic spaceships stuffed with all white, all male crews blasting off to conquer the universe. But believe me, science fiction isn’t all about rocketships and mad scientists. Just look at this year’s Hugo Awards to get a glimpse of how diverse writers and subjects are expanding and augmenting the genre. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham is breaking figurative bread—and literal stereotypes—with genre legend Ursula K. Le Guin over the “broadening” of fiction.
I call what I write “crossover sci-fi,” or speculative fiction off the warp-drive path. Even though science fiction is based on speculation about our future with science and technology, it’s not just for and about scientists. It’s about relationships and society, meaning all of us. There’s plenty of wonder right here on Earth for average people like you and me to discover. And that’s who I like to put in the driver’s seat: people like you and me.
My novel TreeVolution (Lillicat Publishers, November 2016) is a speculative fiction adventure about trees, evolution, and revolution, in which genetically modified trees begin talking back to humans and fighting for their rights. The initial idea came from a report I heard on All Things Considered, The Sound of Thirsty Trees, about a team of scientists who had found a way to listen in on the circulatory system of trees. Using a mechanical translator, they could hear which ones weren’t getting enough to drink, even when there were no visible signs of distress. That’s what made me start to wonder what else the trees might be trying to tell us.
Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves: we are not alone. There are empires of plant life communicating all around us. Through chemical signaling and mycorrhizal connections, a “Wood Wide Web” of tree roots and fungi, trees are exchanging nutrients and information about climate and pests. Trees being attacked by insects are “warning” their neighbors to put up their defenses. Trees are swapping nutrients between species according to seasonal need.
As you read this, plants out there are responding to caterpillar attack by emitting chemical signals to attract parasitic wasps to take out their caterpillar tormentors. Some plants even call in precision air strikes, emitting specific chemical signals that identify the type of caterpillar and attract the correct species of moth to eliminate them. Vampiric dodder vines are out there in broad daylight sniffing out their favorite victims, choosing poor tomato plants over all other nearby plants to latch onto and suck dry. Plants can even “hear,” after a fashion. They respond to vibrations, releasing pollen at the buzz of a bee, clicking at each other, even mounting their defenses when recordings of eating caterpillars are played.
This stuff is all about society, just not the one we’re used to reading about.
Of course, humans aren’t letting the innate qualities of plants and trees go to waste. Scientists are breeding pest-resistant crops and engineering plants that capture more carbon from the air. Companies like ArborGen specialize in breeding trees that grow taller and straighter, producing more saleable timber per tree. We’re even creating souped-up grass and trees to help clean up our most toxic superfund cleanup sites.
And here’s where the “speculative” part of “speculative fiction” comes in: if trees are already changing their own life cycles in response to climate change, what would keep them from modifying the modifications we humans are making? And if they can hear, and are already clicking at each other, might not they learn to click at us about everything we’re doing to them?
I could keep on geeking out about the science (indeed, I’ve already had to pare quite a bit off this intro), but how do you translate the research into a compelling story? My strategy was to make it relatable by making it personal. I decided that the story should unfold through a character with a non-scientific background, with whom the reader could learn as the crisis unfolds. I decided to inject even more “write what you know” by making Tamia Bennett a younger version of myself, a mixed-race woman eager to prove herself professionally as the “treevolution” begins.
As I wrote Tamia, however, I hit an unexpected snag. I struggled with the question every mixed kid has asked him/herself at some point: is she “black enough?” Yes, a ridiculous question that even our President has faced, and here I was tormenting myself and my character with it. Because the real question behind the “black enough” question is, does she fit the images we most often see of black people, such as the Southern black experience, or the inner city experience, or hip hop culture? I don’t live in any of those cultures, and I wondered if that mattered for Tamia—if I had to make her more “obviously black.” It took the simple yet brilliant words of another writer of color I know to coax me out of my paralysis. “You are African American,” she said. “This is your experience. So you need to write about your part of the African American experience.”
Meaning, no, contrary to an embarrassing early draft, Tamia does not need to have a sassy best friend to read as black, even if that’s what TV always told me. But yes, I know from experience that black hair requires a lot of time and attention, so having a relaxer scene in this story made sense. Who knows, it may be the only science fiction book in the world that shows a character getting her hair straightened.
And here’s the crazy thing: just as people of color often face invisible cultural tasks in workplaces and other environments in which they are the exception, I spent a ridiculous amount of time asking myself what work Tamia should do aside from plot. Did she have to make a political point? Break stereotypes? Educate the dominant culture? It took me a while to calm down and realize that while Tamia is mixed-race, she didn’t have to prove anything about it. She was there for the same reason I’m here: we both have a story to tell, and it doesn’t have to center on race. It can, for example, be about trees that want to take over the world.
Enter, unexpectedly, my second main character, Charlie Meninick. I hadn’t intended to have a second main character, but Charlie evolved as the story did. TreeVolution is a novel about our relationship with natural resources. My upbringing in Anchorage, Alaska was fueled by natural resources, both in terms of family income and state infrastructure. The extraction of oil, hunting and fishing rights, etc. almost always hinged on agreements with Native tribes. Were these negotiations always harmonious? Of course not. In fact, they were often contentious, but they were always present, so I couldn’t imagine excluding an indigenous voice from this novel.
At the same time, however, I’m fully aware of the risks of writing a culture other than my own. I faced a choice: do I keep an indigenous voice in the discussion, at the risk of getting it wrong and doing harm (and facing censure), or do I take the safer road and write around it—effectively removing a Native/indigenous voice from a discussion to which it very much belongs?
At first I thought about writing from the perspective of a tribal council, mirroring the negotiations I’d grown up hearing about on the nightly news. But as I got deeper into the project, trying to write from one Native viewpoint became as problematic as trying to write a monolithic African American experience. Once again, I realized that my task was not to write THE African American experience or THE Native American experience. It was, rather, to be informed and responsible when about writing about the experience of a particular African American person or Native American person—just like I would about any other human being.
That was how I settled on writing Charlie, a Native American individual, rather than a spokesperson. To figure out his particular background, I started with where he would have grown up. TreeVolution had to be set in an area with large, isolated swaths of forest, where secret research might be performed without detection. To heighten tension, I wanted it to be in the Lower 48, to increase the speed with which the trees’ genetic mutation could threaten large population centers. I also wanted to touch upon natural resource jurisdictional issues, which meant I was looking for lands with overlapping state, tribal and federal interests.
After some research, I settled on Washington State and the Yakama Nation, Washington’s largest reservation in size and population. The Yakama Nation overlaps to a large extent with Yakima County (yes, different spelling, a situation that also appears in the novel). The city of Yakima, the county seat, sits right on the edge of tribal land. This juxtaposition of land and culture was a setting familiar to the one in which I grew up, in terms of the need for continual negotiation over State, tribal and federal interests.
Now that I had a location in mind, I did the same thing any author does: even more research. I knew I couldn’t simply graft the Inuit cultures of Alaska onto another Pacific Northwest tribe. It turned out that I would be working more with Plains Indian traditions in the eastern part of Washington State. Raven was no longer the trickster, for example, Coyote was. And I was kind of bummed that my childhood badassery at the earpull wouldn’t find its way into TreeVolution.
I researched Yakama history, language and customs, and was inspired by the variety of their industries and their ability to blend tradition and modern life into a successful whole. I planned a research trip to the Nation to coincide with their Treaty Days celebration. This is the Nation’s largest public celebration of the year, with a powwow and salmon bake and other events open to the public. I was surprised by two things: 1) most of the people I encountered in the Nation were white, and 2) many of them had lost track that it was Treaty Days and assumed I was in Yakima County for the wineries. Only when I went to specific places like the Yakama Cultural Center and the powwow did I see more of the Yakama people and traditions I’d been anticipating.
Other small things threw me for a loop, such as the preponderance of Mexican restaurants and Western Expansion-themed murals of the main town of Toppenish. The idea of different cultures and histories overlaying the same space is something that made its way in to the book. One detail I didn’t insert, but which encouraged me not to shy away from writing Charlie, was the particularly stark cultural divide I encountered when I visited Fort Simcoe. Originally built as a U.S. Army fort in the late 1850s, it became a Government-run Indian boarding school in 1859. By now, most people have heard about the “kill the Indian, save the man” method used in Native American boarding schools at the time. This method, now widely recognized to have been one of cultural indoctrination and abuse, was not mentioned in plaques at the Fort. Most of the signage on site discussed Army history and which officers lived in which buildings. The one sign that touched upon the boarding school described it as a gift, an educational opportunity provided by the U.S. Government to the Yakama people. I didn’t want to similarly paper over a Native American perspective in my book.
I knew no amount of research I did would mean I’d get everything “right,” especially when it came to language and spiritual customs. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable presuming to speak for a real Nation I’m not part of, but I also worried about the cultural appropriation aspect of using someone else’s traditions to create my own tribe. I decided in the end that it would be more responsible to reframe Charlie’s tribe as a fictional Nation similar to Yakama, while acknowledging the Yakama origins and listing additional (primarily Native-authored) resources in the back of the book. That, for me, was preferable to completely excluding an indigenous voice from a novel about our relationship with natural resources.
Like any dynamic character, Charlie has his strengths and weaknesses. In fact, at one point I found myself balancing virtues and vices between white characters and characters of color like an old-time drugstore chemist, sweating lest I tip the scales too far in either direction. In the end I was fortunate that a friend and brilliant writer who is also First Nations was kind enough to read my manuscript and provide tips toward a realistic and responsible portrayal of an indigenous perspective.
After reflecting on all the research, handwringing and virtue-balancing that went into constructing my characters in TreeVolution, I realize I could have made things a lot easier on myself by only focusing on the science, by sticking with Tamia, or reverting to the white norm entirely. But that wouldn’t have been the whole story. Science, and therefore science fiction, cannot exist in a vacuum. How we utilize and write about technological advances affects all of us: white, black or Native American; scientist or layperson alike. Using science to explore societies near and far—even the community of plants and trees—helps us expand the limits of any genre or social label, and thereby and expand our worlds.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She is the grateful recipient of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, and the 31st Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist.
Previous publication credits include Punchnel’s, Barrelhouse, The Establishment, Luna Station Quarterly, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her first novel, TreeVolution, will be released by Lillicat Publishers in November 2016.