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Stranger Than Fiction
by Howard Wolinsky
In teaching the course "Biology in Science Fiction," Joan Slonczewski uses both a fossilized trilobite, extinct around 245 million years ago, and a furry tribble, an imaginary creature from Star Trek, to explain principles of evolution.
Joan L. Slonczewski says the fast pace of scientific discovery makes her life as a biologist exciting, but as a science fiction novelist—it's tough.
"It's almost a kind of a shock wave, where the faster your imagination moves, the faster the world catches up," says Slonczewski, a biology professor and HHMI undergraduate program director at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. "It becomes a real challenge to keep a step ahead."
For example, in the novel she is currently writing—her sixth—a space elevator runs from a college based on a space satellite to the planet below, a world disrupted by global warming. "Space elevators used to be a fantastical science-fiction idea," she says, "yet now people are seriously planning to build them."
According to Slonczewski, her scientific knowledge, especially in her own research field, is her ace in the hole for helping her stay out in front. "Microbiology has undergone an explosion of discovery in the past decade into realms that are as bizarre as anything appearing so far in novels."
In A Door into Ocean, her best-known work (it won the 1987 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year), human protagonists have purple bacteria living in their bodies that contribute to oxygen storage. "This was based on my research experience with purple bacteria that have unusual metabolic properties," she says.
Photo: Marcella Hackbardt