Friday, June 22, 2007

The Alien Next Door: An Interview with Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian science fiction writer, reviewer and ecologist. Her first novel, the science fiction-romance Collision with Paradise, was published by Liquid Silver Books in 2005. Her latest novel, Darwin's Paradox, is a science fiction thriller with biological elements:
When an intelligent virus and an intelligent machine community conspire to threaten the world with destruction and chaos, the only person who can save humanity is the woman who caused the cataclysm in the first place. Compelled by the virus awoken inside her, Julie Crane returns to the city from which she fled--accused of atrocity--in an attempt to redeem herself and fulfill her final destiny as Darwin's Paradox, the key to the evolution of an entire civilization.
On her blog, The Alien Next Door, Munteanu regularly writes about ecology and science fiction (and, in the spirit of disclosure, gave my other blog a nice plug). She recently posted one of her short stories, "Julia's Gift," which is based on "endosymbiosis, autopoiesis and other wonderful biological words."

Nina kindly agreed to let me interview her about her writing, science fiction and science.
According to the biography on your website you started reading science fiction as a girl, and you specifically mention Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg and John Wyndham. Were there any stories or novels in particular that inspired your early love of science fiction?

John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids lingered with me for a long time. But I think it was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that really started my love affair with science fiction and sparked a dream to write in this genre. It was actually classic writer, Thomas Hardy (e.g., Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles) who’s intricate and sensual writing inspired me to write. I was also deeply affected by Bradbury’s collection of short stories in Martian Chronicles. I also remember a short story by Isaac Asimov—can’t remember the title-- about a boy who decides to go outside in a world no longer interested in the outdoors.

What are some of your favorite recent science fiction novels (other than your own, of course)?

I love most of Kay Kenyon’s stuff (Maximum Ice, Braided World) and Greg Bear (Queen of Angels, Slant) and fellow Canadian SF writer, Robert J. Sawyer (Neanderthal Parallax and his newest, Rollback). They all write what I would call idea-based but socially-affecting, strong character-based SF with fantastic world building and grounded to today’s world. I also read fantasy, but not epic fantasy, mostly the grittier darker stuff that’s like alternate history (e.g., Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy, Philip Pullmans’ His Dark Materials).

You have written science articles for Beyond Centauri, a science and science fiction magazine for kids. Do you think that science fiction is a good way to introduce kids (and adults) to science?

Yes, I do. I think it’s a terrific way to get them to assimilate and explore the bigger questions that drive scientists today. It helps them see what issues interest the world in science and can offer some incredibly imaginative solutions to problems, and technological possibilities for the future. Science fiction writers, some of whom are scientists themselves, have often demonstrated incredible prescience in their writings. Recognized as futurists, creative problem solvers and thinkers who ponder outside the box, SF writers have been consulted often in think tank groups. But to go back to the kids, what better place to introduce them to some of the more complicated issues facing science and society than in an entertaining book about aliens, robots and gizmos?

When you are wearing your scientist hat, you are a limnologist, which (according to Wikipedia) is the study of fresh water systems, such as lakes and rivers, and involves a combination of biology, chemistry and geology. Did your youthful love of science fiction influence you to study science?

It might have subconsciously, but my decision to study science actually came from a compelling need to help make this planet a better place. I was quite an outspoken and active environmentalist in school (did the sit-ins and marches and letters to the Prime Minister, etc. [grins with slight embarrassment]); I initially thought of becoming an environmental lawyer. I really wanted to make a difference, to educate people about the environment and provide workable solutions. I taught for a while at college and university. Well, ironically, and to no surprise, my SF writing often centers on some environmental theme. So, I guess I’m still educating people about the environment in my fiction writing.

How has your science background influenced your fiction? Has your work as a scientist inspired any of your stories?

Oh, yes! Being a practicing scientist is a wonderful way to get ideas. As a limnologist, I work for an environmental consulting firm, where most of what we do is study environmental problems and provide recommendations for solutions. It’s an area close to my heart and there isn’t a book or short story that I’ve written that doesn’t reflect that interest. As for actual plot or thematic ideas, those usually spring to mind from moments of lucid dreaming, thoughtful ponderings of a mixture of social and environmental conflicts, which come from a diversity of sources. I’ve even gotten some very cool ideas from dreams. My latest book (the one I’m currently writing) is an example of that.

Your first novel, Collision with Paradise, is a science fiction romance. Of course sex is one aspect of biology, but, aside from that, did you include other aspects of biological science in your novel? Dare I ask if it could be considered "hard" science fiction romance?

[LOL] It actually is! Hard science fiction romance is pretty rare and a weird combination, I think. By tradition, hard SF has been the purview of male authors and (soft) SF romance the bailiwick of female authors. What I write combines the two, something I haven’t seen done a great deal. I found, however, that it was highly appreciated by a growing readership, both men and woman. So, obviously, I was filling in a niche.

Your latest novel is titled "Darwin's Paradox". Where does it fall in the spectrum between science fiction and romance?

It’s definitely science fiction. Although it has romance in it, the romance aspect isn’t the main thing driving the story (like in romances). Even “Collision with Paradise” isn’t a romance in that sense. Its main theme centers on healing and self-forgiveness (though love was a major aspect of that). I’d describe “Darwin’s Paradox” as social science fiction that explores the aspects of being human through our relationships with things other than human. Several hard science concepts are explored and used in the book like chaos theory, spontaneous organization, autopoiesis, co-evolution and quantum mechanics. But these don’t drive the story as much as provide vehicles for exploring the human heart.

Darwin's Paradox You explain on your blog that "Darwin's Paradox" refers to the puzzle of coral reefs that thrive as rich ecosystems in nutrient-poor water. How do you use that concept in your novel?

I don’t [LOL]. It just happens to describe the “real” Darwin’s paradox that scientists today have been trying to answer for decades. The title of my book doesn’t refer to this paradox, but to a fictional Darwin’s Paradox, whose paradox is something entirely different…You’ll have to read the book to find out [wide grin].

According to the description of "Darwin's Paradox" it involves a conspiracy between an "intelligent virus" and an "intelligent machine community". How did you get an organism as simple as a virus to communicate with artificial intelligences?

Well, you haven't been to parties with adolescents then, as Dr. Lynn Margulis would say. [LOL] Ah…at the root of this premise lie some fantastical reflections in the area of autopoiesis, spontaneous order, and chaos theory. Without giving some of the book’s plot away (there’s a major plot item that explains why this virus can do what it does) I proposed that a kind of spontaneous order arose within this particular viral community through its association with artificial intelligence (embedded within a human’s brain or in the case of the protagonist through non-local phenomena). As a result, the virus, acting as an autopoietic entity (self-organized), could tap into the higher cognitive intelligence of the machine world like a parasite and eventually communicate. I like what Dr. Margulis says about bacterial intelligence: that consciousness is awareness of the world around you and we’ve proven that bacteria are conscious; they orient themselves, work together to make structures. It’s still wild, unproven edgy kind of stuff. But it’s fun to contemplate the possibility.

How do you see the evolution of humanity? Do you think that the future of humanity (and AI) involves human-computer hybrids?

I think it’s inevitable that we will “join” in some way with machine AI. We’re already using many forms of AI to enhance our health, memory, physical abilities, appearance, etc. Think of neural implants, cell phones and plug-in phones, wearable AI, smart shoes and clothes, RDI, embedded IDs. What may seem outlandish, imposing or intrusive today will be seamless and normal tomorrow.

Is there any recent research in the biological sciences that you find particularly interesting or exciting?

I find the whole area of neurobiology incredibly fascinating. How the brain works, along with the other systems of the body, like a community in a symbiotic sort of relationship. Investigations into consciousness. As an ecologist, who studies larger systems like ecosystems, I find the whole Lovelock/Margulis argument for the Gaia Hypothesis (now Theory) wonderful to follow. The study of autopoietic systems, synchrony and fractals within chaos theory is something I’ve been studying with utter fascination. It even touches upon my work as an ecologist: how every living and non-living thing is connected—as if within a huge, multi-level, breathing and changing network—interacting and affecting everything around it like a self-organized system. I think that the defined fields of science will begin to blur as we find more and more that every system is related, linked and influences other levels of organization, from the smallest molecule through to a cell and up to ecosystems and biomes of a planet. I think that “intelligence” will find new and exciting definitions as a result of the evolution of both our biological and our artificial systems.

Are you working on a new novel?

Yes…always [slanted grin]. I never stop writing. I’m currently shopping a trilogy to a publisher while I finish the book I’m currently writing. And I’m so excited by it! Briefly, it’s a historical SF (alternate history/world) that begins in Medieval Prussia with a girl who is about to realize, of course, that she is no ordinary girl…but a being of light. One who can alter history. The story has been so fun to research and write, I sometimes feel guilty that I’m having so much fun.


Darwin's Paradox is scheduled to be released by Dragon Moon Press in November. Nina plans to make a pdf version available on her blog before then, so keep an eye out for it. If you prefer to read physical books, you can pre-order Darwin's Paradox from (or

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Rodrigo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peggy said...

Note: Believe it or not there are online translation tools these days. Even when it's in Portuguese, I'm able to figure out when comments are spam. You are welcome come back Roderigo and leave an actual comment on the post, in English or otherwise.

sfgirl said...

Thanks for the interview, Peggy! I enjoyed it.