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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

A Disciplined Imagination: the Fiction of Science Fiction

All speculative fiction rests on science – be it antimatter, ray guns, bio-monsters, or robots with high self-esteem. It’s true of thoughtful, literate writing as well as pulp schlock. But exactly how do SF authors navigate from fact to possibility? How do they get from science to sci-fi?

In this engaging lecture, internationally published author William Illsey Atkinson examines ways in which SF novelists and screenwriters examine cutting-edge science, decide what to ignore or emphasize, and then weave imagination into compelling tales.

Science matters, and so does wondering how it might affect us: both activities are uniquely human. So what happens when smartphones are embedded in our skulls? When neuroscience decodes the power of Indigenous consciousness? When technology defeats death?

Come out and hear a high-energy popularizer discuss these relevant, exciting themes.

Bill Atkinson is an award-winning author of science fiction and nonfiction, a contributor to the Globe and Mail and Physics Today, and a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at York University, Toronto.


I was working in my lab, late one night / When my eyes beheld an eerie sight / My monster from his slab began to rise / And suddenly, to my surprise. . .

Well, no, he didn’t do The Mash. And it wasn’t a lab, it was my Vancouver sun deck. And it wasn’t Hallowe’en, it was Labour Day 1999. Besides, he wasn’t a monster – far from it. But he did crash into my head, totally unexpectedly. That’s literally what it felt like. He . . . arose.

If any of you have ever written fiction, you know the feeling. If any of you leave this room and go write fiction, you will know the feeling. The monsters from the slab begin to rise. Or rather, they aren’t monsters: they’re fully developed human beings; they just aren’t clothed in flesh. They’re called characters. And although you write about them, you don’t really create them. You just observe them, interview them (assuming they will speak to you), and type out what they say and do. They act, you look; they talk, you listen. They live through you the author, not by you. They live on their own terms, independently. They create themselves. You’re just the vehicle.

The character who came into my life 16½ years ago is called Jonathan Joe, nicknamed The Runner. He’s an Indigenous Canadian who has been brutally abused, dismissed, and marginalized by a callous, entitled, ill-informed, self-satisfied white society that has labelled him hallucinatory, schizophrenic, at risk of violence. But The Runner is none of these things. He’s a shining example of a fabulously successful human phenotype that, starting about three million years ago, took over the world. And he has one amazing talent: He has visions that let him detect corpses underwater. The visions he experiences are not delusions, but rather beautifully encoded summaries of reality that his brain automatically generates, to help him deal with life. It is a mode of thought so ancient that, in today’s digital-virtual-instantaneous-technoscientific world, it has nearly vanished.

Seen in this way, outside of white ethnocentrism, The Runner is perfectly normal. It’s in the world he finds himself, our world today, that he’s abnormal. I believe it is one function of SF, science fiction or speculative fiction, to reveal such anomalies – to make its readers re-examine their suppositions and prejudices – to think. In this case: Maybe these people whom we’ve marginalized aren’t the dregs of society. Maybe they’re its former lords and current prophets.

What I’ve tabled here is an inspiration; the unsought appearance of an idea that surfaces from a writer’s deep subconscious to her or his conscious mind. You cannot command an inspiration. As the Abrahamic traditions say, the Spirit bloweth where it listeth: inspiration goes where it wants, never mind anyone’s demands and expectations. And as Toronto’s very own Robertson Davies had it, writers don’t get an idea: an idea gets them. The Runner, like every one of his character-colleagues, visits whom he pleases, when he pleases, for as long as he pleases: full stop. Like all fictional characters, he is an ambassador from another realm.

But – take note, budding novelists – if you cannot insist on such ambassadorial visits, you can maximize their likelihood. Open the door to them. Not compel, not summon, but seduce. You can create a place within yourself into which characters are likely to materialize. You can, in that wonderful phrase, invite the soul. Each author must find the best way to do this, but in my case it involves building in unstructured time, alone time. Time when I can, as the song says, watch the smoke rings rise in the air. Walking is good for this. It gets the blood flowing and, it’s been experimentally proven, is better at relieving anxiety than selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Zoloft.

It’s not easy to get away like this; you must put your foot down. Everyone on Earth thinks that he, she or it has an ironclad claim on you. It is the author’s job to say: I love you, but solitude is necessary to me. I hope you understand; but if you don’t, that’s tough. This defines me.

So where do you get the time? By letting go the unnecessary stuff. You know what it is. Cards, or video games. Surfing the Net for cat videos. Or seeing what a Facebook friend ate for lunch. Banish all of it. And when you’re thinking and walking, turn off your f_____g phone.


Example Two, a generation before The Runner. I’m listening to Stravinski’s score for Dhiaghilev’s ballet L’Oiseau de Feu – ‘The Firebird’ – in 1966. It’s an old Russian folk tale; I’m nineteen. And in the score’s latter half I start to imagine things. A man rips open the cast-molybdenum hull of a spacecraft, in a vacuum, using his bare hands. A malevolent demon is encountered, resisted, hunted down, and slain. A princess trapped in death-sleep awakens to her father’s call. It’s just like The Runner: the characters and situations have manifested themselves unsought. They’ve risen from the slab.

At that point the SF writer’s real work begins. How did these characters and situations arise? What have they done? What will they do now, and why? What will become of them? Answering these questions is the task of the writer, and it is a hard one. It entails the most sustained and trying work that you will ever do, apart from attending K-12 school concerts. It is carpentering up a believable framework that supports those images that, for their own strange reasons, have walked into your head. Fine, you had these dreams: but that’s just the start. Now explain them.

A fantasy author once said to me that “SF is fantasy with bolts.” That is, SF like fantasy is the play of mythic archetypes (saints-demons-heroes-heroines-villains-swordsmen-sorcerers); but only SF supplies a pseudo-scientific justification. Readers of SF, said my interviewee, need a lie they can live with. They delude themselves that all the fantasy they enjoy might actually occur.

This is an interesting statement. It is also untrue. (Full disclosure: This guy was not just a jerk, he was and is a lousy writer.) Admittedly, some SF may merely provide bolts; but there’s a dictum from a famous SF author. Theodore Sturgeon was asked: Isn’t 90% of SF bullshit? Ninety percent of everything is bullshit, Ted shot back, enunciating what is now called Sturgeon’s Law.

So after unsought inspiration handed me characters and situations out of nowhere, I had to ask: Where did The Runner come from? What is his history? And in the second instance: What was the origin of that sleeping princess? Precisely how was she imprisoned, and later released?

Bear in mind that I, the writer/narrator, could not simply wave a wand and say, Never mind how this all happened, just accept it. This might satisfy the readers of fantasy, whose worlds are taken as a given; it would never satisfy a reader of SF. More to the point, it wouldn’t satisfy me. I had to research and relate a logical pathway from initial condition A to concluding condition B, the latter being defined as the situations and characters that first walked into my mind. When I do this well, the reader never sets down the book to say: Waaaaait a minute, that makes no sense. When I do it wrong, she doesn’t just say that: she throws my book against the wall.

Let me put it another way. The scenes that were the start of each of my narratives – the profound archetypes that set me thinking, planning, and writing in the first place – come at the end of each tale. I lead my readers along with logic, and at the end of that logic I smack ‘em with something totally emotional and, were they to examine it, totally illogical – the dream, the vision – which, being the province of the human heart, has the most convincing logic of all. As Pascal observed three centuries ago, La Coeur a ses raisons dont la Raison ne connait point – The heart hath her own reasons, of which Pure Reason knoweth naught.

So I put my Runner into a novelette, River Under Rain, and gave him three voices. There’s the one the whites hear: taciturn, ungrammatical, curt, rude. There’s what he himself hears within the fortress of his mind: eloquent, perceptive, poetic, even posh – and remember that everyone in a given folk society speaks the equivalent of Received English. Third, there is the splendor of The Runner’s visions, when the sky cracks open and a higher reality floods into his head to explain the sordid daily world of bills and landlords, cops and courts, rainfall and rivers.

A footnote here. If I am now accused of enunciating an SF form of The Noble Savage, I say: Guilty as charged. They were here before we were. We slaughtered them with germs, guns, and steel, and do so still via neglect and intra-exile. We should face up to this, and strain every nerve to reverse it. As I hope to show, our own society’s very existence may hinge on this.


Now novelists these days, both SF and mainstream, come under fire for appropriating the stories of other groups and individuals. Yet every novel is an appropriation. Without appropriation, no woman could ever write about a man; George Eliot (a woman’s pseudonym) would never have given us a masterpiece like Middlemarch, vastly more adult than the mushy sentimentality of Dickens. Without appropriation, I would never have dared to enter my father’s mind at the battle of Okinawa; without appropriation, no Saskatchewan writer would ever have given us Life of Pi; without appropriation, The Runner would never have seen light. As his medium, the guy that channels him, I can tell you: That would have been a shame. Zei: He lives.

All fiction is appropriation. Call it Atkinson’s Law. The numberless college and university courses that purport to teach writing – as if writing could ever, ever proceed from anything other than the white-hot crucible of a talented soul – endlessly repeat one dictum: Write what you know. Bullshit! Write what you know has given us endless rotten novels about horny middle-aged English professors. Enough already! Floreat mens: Let imagination flourish. That is what SF, in its best forms, does superlatively well. Show us the world of the Martian, the tau-Cetian, the Andromedan, the prehuman, the posthuman; the poor, the oppressed, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Show us our companion species, cats and dogs and chickens. Show us our machines. Give them a voice, a voice that is your voice, and evoke their story. If that is appropriation then let me, let you and you and everyone, be so appropriated. Floreat narrator! The writer leaps into the minds, worlds, hearts, realities of every character. We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But God is in the details, as a French writer said, and at some point authors must descend from the Olympian heights of inspiration to deal with the mechanics, the stagecraft as it were, of making believable their supernal visions. For my own work I elected to employ, or rather adapt, two vastly different technosciences to explain my two distinct inspirations. These may, I flatter myself, be more than specious untruth – that is, bolts. In the case of The Runner, I believe I have advanced a testable clinical hypothesis that may be experimentally verified.

What if, I thought, the two main facts of Indigenous populations – first, their incredibly successful adaptation to a vast range of ancient ecosystems; second, their incredibly unsuccessful adaptation to the sudden onslaught of colonial culture – had some common cause? What if Indigenous consciousness was so different from that of the white invaders that the two culture-groups were mutually unintelligible from the first? Further, what if this difference in outlook, in information-processing, had and still has a technoscientific base?

From my work as a science writer, I knew of the theories of Dr Julian Jaynes, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. I interviewed Dr Jaynes in the fall of 1983 for an article in a science magazine I was then co-editing. It was his contention that consciousness, defined as a cool and analytical self-awareness, was a fairly recent invention. Consciousness, Jaynes said, is a cultural artifact as much as a stone axe or leather boot. Everyone on the planet used to be in what Jaynes called a reactive state, and then – though not all of us at once – they woke up.

All of us here know the reactive state. You find yourself at work with little memory of how you got there; the commute is so routine you do it without thinking. But then you shake yourself and address the day’s work; and unless your work is as mindless as riding the subway, you are conscious rather than reactive.

The ancient brain was bicameral, Jaynes said: that is, its two hemispheres were essentially separate. It was permanently preconscious-reactive; it never totally woke up. As today, the right-brain saw things holistically, while the left-brain dealt in logical, linear analysis such as language processing. Left-brain goes A then B then C then D. Right brain jumps from observational stimuli direct to D, the end-game. In Jaynes’s view, our ancient right-brain sent its holistic analyses not as hunches or gut feelings, as today, but in full-colour surround-sound 3-D hallucinations. When the ancient bards invoked the Muse, they weren’t just spouting metaphors: They were really asking an external entity to brief them. The voices and visions they received from their right-brains, they called . . . the gods.

Jaynes’s cognitive construal was wildly advanced when it appeared forty years ago, and is still controversial. There are Jaynesian societies, convinced that their man nailed something vital; arrayed against them is a larger and more cautious scientific mainstream that thinks Dr Jaynes was a half-bubble off level. Having talked with the man for some time, and exchanged notes with him over the course of a year, I do believe he was on to something; but I admit the jury’s out.

In wondering how my young Runner had come by his unique and amazing abilities, however, I saw that Jaynes had shown me a way. Perhaps, I thought, The Runner still experiences reality in the old way, the Paleolithic way: and when this happens he sees things denied to the purely analytical modern. His heart, his brain, have reasons which Pure Reason knoweth naught.

Then, imagining things as an SF writer must, I took this further. What if that ancient mode of sensory processing were the key to the proven success of precolonial Indigenous communities? More: What if it might now save Western society from itself? What if our Indigenous peoples were not only the past lords of the world, but its future lords as well? Not a social burden, but a resource more priceless than gold?

Think about it. The Western world isn’t getting overwhelmed: it is overwhelmed. It’s out of control. We can’t even understand the effects of all our lovely inventions, let alone manage and control them. Our factories spew out so much stuff employing so few people that fewer and fewer of us can buy what’s made. Our economists love this; they call it Productivity; they forget that infinite productivity is total GDP divided by zero employment: everything made by no one. At the same time, the ecological consequences of this runaway productivity are appalling – deadly effluents, undying nuclear waste, tailings ponds, violated forests, oceans of sewage, raped hillsides, ocean-choking plastic. And all we can think to prescribe is More Of The Same. As Einstein said, thinking you can do what you’ve always done and get a different result is a pretty good definition of insanity.

No. We need something radically, wildly different. And maybe, just maybe, it’s that ancient Indigenous world-view that instantly apprehends the whole, not just the warring and conflicting parts. The Runner sees this, and applies it, and ends up one of the richest people on the planet. The stone rejected by the builders becomes the keystone of the arch.

Then there’s the idea of immortality.

Scientists such as Dr Ben Bova have written engagingly about the steady march of technoscience in extending human lifespan. Stephen Jay Gould, remarking on the biomedical progress of the last century alone, adduces a single fact: In 1904 Gustav Mahler could produce a work called Kindertotenlieder – ‘Songs Concerning the Death of Children’ – and nobody batted an eye. Back then, even in the world’s richest nations, rare was the family that had not lost a child. Today antibiotics, hygiene, smoking reduction, better nutrition, exercise, and universal vaccination have all but eliminated many of the scourges that historically afflicted us. A concerted global campaign has already wiped out our ancient enemy smallpox, and will follow up with polio and malaria as soon as aid workers face down the anti-vaxxer ignorance which, a pestilence in itself, still infests the world. But then as Schiller said, ‘Against stupidity even God may strive in vain.’

At the moment even the healthiest individual cannot, however, expect to live much beyond 100 years. Every cell in his or her body should in theory be as immortal as a bacterium, able to replicate itself forever. In practice, however, human cells (which are more complex than bacteria) lose their potential immortality bit by bit. Their telomeres, the molecular skeins on which their nuclear DNA is wound, have a little bit shaved off them at each cell division; after 50 divisions the telomere collapses, the DNA becomes an unreadable tangle, and the cell dies. In terms of evolution, this has been effective: keep one generation around ceaselessly, and no new generation can deploy its useful energy, ideas, and verve: and there goes the species. Every gerontocracy, like every individual, is doomed to die. Which in species terms is a good thing.

And then bloody R&D gets in the way. What if some new technology hardens the telomere? Dr Bova has hinted at this; it may be possible. And then what happens to society? Will people so buttressed replicate the man in the cautionary myth from classical Greece, who asked the gods for immortality without also specifying eternal youth, and shrank till he became a cricket? Do we imagine a society of crickets, tiny enough to squash but constantly chirping?

Over the years, too, the odds of accidental death steadily accumulate. I grew up watching Loony Tunes, and know that somewhere out there is an anvil with my name on it. No action is without risk – even inaction clogs the arteries.

Okay, then: Say we extend the toughening of the telomere to the entire human genome. And beyond that: Fit every human cell, in all its parts, with an adamantine brace that shrugs off every shock that could hurt it. Lock the whole human body in an invulnerable armor: not an exoskeleton, but an innate, internal, intrinsic property. Make every cell immortal and indestructible. Let it continue its biochemical dance to survive and thrive; but let it no longer be subject to the changes of death.

There is an Indigenous African myth that at the Creation, the gods gave humanity a choice. We would have immortality; that (said the gods) was only fair, as the gods are immortal too. But humanity’s immortality would be of only one kind. Either people would be deathless like the baobab tree, whose individuals live forever; or they could achieve immortality through their offspring – so that individuals died, but the species lived on. And humanity chose the latter.

But if the first choice had been made: What might have happened? What would a society look like whose every individual was deathless? I examine this in my novel Sun’s Strong Immortality. River Under Rain, The Runner’s story, had its bolts in historical anthropology and the biochemistry of cerebral neurotransmitters; Sun’s Strong Immortality found its bolts – its technoscientific rationale – in particle physics, which I posit might be used to brace every human cell, and therefore every human.


People ask me why I write nonfiction, and I say: To explore what happened. People ask me why I write SF, and I say: To explore what might happen. I devise my plots and characters in some detail before I start to write, but when at last I write my characters always surprise me. They say and do not what I tell them, but what they want. It is they who write the book; I merely take dictation. My Muses, my characters, rise up and speak.

So when I wrote about a future human society that had banished death, I was in for surprises. Just for fun, as a kind of golfer’s pre-game handicap, I set myself the task of using every space-opera cliché I could think of – an absent and inscrutable prince, a lovely young warrior-princess, a posh and menacing villain, an ingenuous starship, lords and ladies wise and fatuous, ray guns, faster-than-light travel: everything in fact but bug-eyed monsters (who pop up in the sequel).

Now here’s where it gets interesting. In among this futuristic, formulaic stuff I found I was really writing about my present day and age, not some later time. The society I had concocted in such detail is our own, where an insatiable, aging elite (like me) arrogates all wealth to itself and abandons its sons and daughters to the streets. Of my three-thousand-year-old oligarchy, indeed of today’s boomers, one may say what Burke said of the House of Lords: None die and none resign. Tracing out what disasters, teachable moments, and painful resolutions such elder-avarice might create, showed me today’s world. Let us be careful, my fellow citizens, lest like old Kronos we devour our young.

I’m not alone here. Addressing the present via other times and worlds is a staple of SF. Just as Swift satirized Augustan Britain in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Sun’s Strong Immortality describes our disenfranchised children. River Under Rain examines what treasures a deep and humble exploration of our Indigenous cultures might reveal.


Now I’m going to do what I do as an academic: Leave off lecturing, and involve you my readers in some workshopping. I’ll suggest two options on how we can proceed.

Karl Marx said that sufficient quantitative change is qualitative change. In other words, too much of anything ceases to be that thing, and becomes another. A light rain nourishes your garden; a hurricane washes it away. The sprinkle is a benefit; the storm is a disaster. So the theme of our group brainstorm might be: At what point does ICT – information and telecommunications technology – cease to be a mere set of phone links, and profoundly and irreversibly change how people think and cultures work?

Some say this has already happened. A world of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, and their universal enabler the internet have bent people’s minds, especially those of the young. People are forgetting how to read; they communicate through pictures and speech like some prehistoric tribe, and let computers fill in the blanks. According to the doom-sayers, the destruction of written text is well underway and will soon create universal illiteracy. Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of the global village will be real; but it will be a village of people with two-second attention spans and the inability to entertain, or even to imagine, abstract ideas. And there’s nothing we can do.

I think this is wrong. My colleagues in my PhD program are twenty- and thirty-somethings, and while they’re goofy and flaky and glued to their phones, they’re also brilliant debaters and devourers of print as well as of images. Their minds crackle with insight. They speak in polysyllables even when their examples come from pop TV rather than scholarly texts.

So in honour of them, let’s imagine a world where technology is no longer external to the human eye-brain-body system: where it is instead co-somatic; when the average citizen is a cybernetically enhanced organism. Imagine it is the year 2500, and every smartphone has the power of a bank of supercomputers today. Say further that the word ‘smartphone’ with its implicit connotation of something outside of us, no longer applies. The hardware and software of ICT now lie within. Biobatteries based on human mitochondria convert blood-borne glucose into ionic energy that powers CPUs smaller than cell nuclei. RAM and ROM are encoded as nucleotide sequences, like genes. This whole apparatus takes up a thousand cubic microns – a millionth of a cubic millimeter – a tiny fraction of a grain of sand. It can be suspended in saline solution and injected into a human’s prefrontal cortex above the eye, under local anesthetic. Reprogramming, including application downloads, is done either by subsequent injections or else by having the individual simply gaze at a sequence of optical patterns.

So much for the possible technoscience; now for the possible results. Five centuries in the future, everyone has instant access to the World Wide Web, at any time, without recourse to any external machine. Merely imagine the proper code, and there it all is – the world’s history and current state; and all art – paintings in colour, sculpture in 3-D, dance in real time. Every book in every library. Using illegal (but wildly popular) apps we can even afflict an enemy with hallucinations and headaches. My workshop questions for you, then, readers and colleagues:

  1. Will human society as we know it vanish in favour of something like a hive mind?

  2. Will we become so interlinked that all human ideas are framed in common?

  3. Will there be any more individual thoughts, or merely a consensus to which we are all compelled?

  4. In other words, will consciousness as we now know it, vanish?

  5. How will physical mating and courtship happen in this brave new world?

  6. Will voting still exist? Will any kind of choice? Will democracy persist or disappear?

  7. What happens to this whole system when something ugly, greedy, or insane – Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Government, Vlad the Impaler – acquires control?

  8. Might human resistance spring up to such technoscientific enslavement? If so, how?

  9. By what degrees and means might both enslavement and rebellion emerge?

  10. As authors, how might we link imagined futures to specific characters and plots?

  11. And finally: If a dystopia like this seems likely: How might we avoid starting it now?

These are my questions to you. Thinking about them, debating them among yourselves, will make them your questions as well.

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