KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 8: August 2017
Nonfiction: 1,208 words [R]

Crossover Sci-Fi: On Breaking Down Genre Walls
and Writing for Everyone [an excerpt]

by Tara Campbell

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 [2016’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 was 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.

[...Read more about character development in the full version of Campbell’s 2300-word essay...]

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 by 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 expand our worlds.

—Excerpted from the author’s essay in Punchnels (12 October 2016); appears here with her permission

Tara Campbell
Issue 8, August 2017

is a Washington, DC-based writer, assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and volunteer with children’s literacy organization 826DC. Prior publication credits include Grasslimb Journal, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Establishment, Barrelhouse, Masters Review, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, among others. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was released in November 2016, and her collection, Circe’s Bicycle, will be published in fall 2017.

Author’s website:

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Universe, Multiverse, Miniverse by Tara Campbell, in the series “Why Flash Fiction?” at SmokeLong Quarterly (2 June 2016)

Everyone Likes Puppies, Right?, flash fiction of 602 words by Tara Campbell in Punchnel’s (4 June 2013)

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