Science in Fiction: an interview with Balkees Abderrahman

We spoke to Balkees Abderrahman, a post-doctoral fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center (TX, USA), about her opinions on science fiction, the influence that she believes it has had on real-life science and her two published novels “Love at the Gates” and “Oliver and the Rock.”

Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself, your life before writing and how you got into fiction writing?

Currently, I am on the physician-scientist career track aiming to muster scientific research and clinical practice to benefit these fields, and through that, benefit humankind. I am the Dallas/Ft. Worth Living Legend Fellow of Cancer Research at the Department of Breast Medical Oncology, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (TX, USA), and a Ph.D. trainee under the model “Individuals of Very High Quality” at the Faculty of Biological Sciences, the University of Leeds (West Yorkshire, UK).

I authored literature books “Love at the Gate” and “Oliver and the Rock”, and medical and scientific books (“Hormones and Cancer, Oxford Textbook of Cancer Biology 2019”, “First Targeted Therapy — History of Tamoxifen, Estrogen Receptor and Breast Cancer, Cancer Drug Discovery and Development, Springer Nature 2018”, “Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMs), Estrogen Receptor and Breast Cancer, Cancer Drug Discovery and Development, Springer Nature 2018”, and “Steroid Receptors in Breast Cancer, The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Diseases 2017”).

Before I took an interest in writing fiction, I had always been, and remain, curious and imaginative. I love to wonder about all things in life; simple and complex; why is the sky blue or are we alone in this universe? I think my curiosity and imagination are two elements that had a decent role in me falling in love with the mysteries of science and pursuing medicine, and also in me opting for writing fiction. I travelled to different countries in Europe during medical school, despite the overwhelming nature of studying medicine, because I wanted to be a student of life; to be life-smart not just book-smart! I heavily participated in social activism and leadership initiatives locally and internationally (i.e. United Nations [UN], TED, AIESEC, British-Arab Exchange [BAX], The German-Jordanian Friendship Society, Operation Smile, King Hussein Cancer Foundation and Center [KHCRF & KHCRC], International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations [IFMSA], etc), which became the foundation for me to tackle important social issues, and tell wonderful stories through writing, based on my own experiences or the things that I saw, heard, felt and was moved by.

If curiosity got me through the door to be interested in writing fiction, life experiences outside school and college, in the real world, profoundly changed me and fuelled the dialogues.

The books you have published so far are in quite different genres, an almost Aesopian children’s book and a historical romance set in fictional worlds. What drove you to write each one?

I have always had a strong affinity to the idea of cultural open mindedness, personalism (a philosophy that takes into account the complex layers and ambivalences within each individual, and doesn’t ignore the uniqueness and depth of each individual), and perhaps a hint of cultural relativism (a philosophy that advocates for a person’s beliefs, values, and practices to be understood based on their own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another).

I wanted my fiction novel to depict this philosophy to the adult audience, and my fiction children’s book to depict this to the younger audience. Just like the Republic by Plato, or Utopia by Thomas Moore, or Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I used fiction as a plausible vehicle to deliver this important message. I created a fictional society, with fictional citizens (in the case of my novel) or creatures (in the case of my children’s book), where hypothetical scenarios take place, which dovetail with an on-going and growing conversation surrounding this topic. It depicts how characters evolve across time, in parallel with the readership growing! I felt I had to communicate this message to both audiences. The world is so divided right now, and we need this philosophy now more than ever. We need an agenda for moderates “I’m on the side of love”, now more than ever.

Did you incorporate any of your work as a research scientist into your writing or was it more of a departure from your day job?

That depends on the context. When it comes to writing medical and scientific books, or being a contributor on medical and scientific platforms, molding my medical-scientific background into weaving the piece has been instrumental. I strongly feel that my dual background made me cover any medical news or discoveries both accurately and objectively, while providing a comprehensive narrative that incorporated the science behind the discovery and the advances seen with patients.

When it comes to writing fiction, it’s a conduit to delivering a message of value or a riveting plot. Writing fiction requires imagination, which is one great departure from the routine and norms of life, or the serious and demanding nature of a career in academia. It’s almost like a breather for the author, and gives free-range to write on a given topic, all at once.

How important do you believe it is to ground science fiction in reality and truth?

Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov perhaps best described this issue: “Our imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth.” Nonetheless, grounding science fiction in reality and truth can be powerful and instrumental in certain contexts. For example, Galileo Galilei was warned by the church not to talk about the science concerning heliocentrism (an astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun that is at the center of the Solar System). At the same time, Nicholas Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published in 1543, and containing the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, was banned by the Church. Galileo opted for writing on heliocentrism as purely hypothetical to avoid banning his publication or banishing this science. By grounding science fiction in truth, his book slipped under the radar of the Church and was allowed to be published in 1620.

As a well-established member of the scientific community yourself, do you see the inclusion of science in fiction as an important service to potentially inform and inspire people to take more of an interest in science?  Could it be a way of breaking through to those who are otherwise misinformed on scientific matters? Could it provide a vehicle for social change?

Most certainly! History corroborates that science fiction is one powerful vector to achieve all that you have mentioned. Here are a few examples that symbolize that:

Social alienation. Science fiction that depicts robots, artificial intelligence, and their possible conflicts with societal structures and humane interpersonal relations, has highlighted concerns and sparked debates over the social alienation seen in modern society.

Social responsibility and ethics. Science fiction that depicts artificial humans, human clones and their possible conflicts with social ethics raised fruitful dialogues and helped set ethical boundaries, as a result. For example, Frankenstein, published in 1823, tells the story of a young scientist who creates a hideous, sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. This sparked constructive dialogues over the prospect of manipulating the human body. We experienced the results of this just recently with genome editing by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who created the world’s first “CRISPR babies” amidst worldwide outrage or jaw drop, and a global call to set ethical and regulatory agendas concerning genome editing.

Here are a few more examples of how science fiction inspired real science:

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne inspired Simon Lake to invent Argonaut; the first submarine. Verne has such a great imagination and describes the fictional technologies used in such detail, it’s like he is the mastermind waiting for the actual inventors to turn this fiction into reality. Clipper of the Clouds or Robur the Conqueror, again by Verne, inspired Igor Sikorsky to invent the helicopter. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley inspired the technology to create the defibrillator. Dial F Frankenstein by Arthur Clarke was inspired by Frankenstein, which, in turn, inspired Tim Berners Lee to create the World Wide Web! The Sentinel by Arthur Clarke is a short story that inspired the 2001 film A Space Oddysey, and the creation of the tablet and NASA using tablets for aviation; so pilots don’t have to carry bags with 50 pounds of documents. Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbum inspired the concept of virtual reality. Cyborg by Martin Caidin inspired the invention of bionic limbs. The collected stories of Arthur C. Clarke published in Nature from “Travel by Wire!” in 1937 to “Improving the Neighbourhood” in 1999 is another shining example.

When you read yourself, do you look for books that include researched science, or are you looking for an alternative to the typical subject matter of your day-to-day job?

I personally feel it’s always good to mix and match, depending on one’s interest, mood at the time, need, and aim. Overall, aiming to read high-quality writing is critical to being well-informed and cultured. Books that are thoroughly researched or substantiated, or those well-written or well-plotted by established or credible or innovative writers, is the place to start.

Here is one thing I have learned and would advise others to follow suit: to avoid becoming intellectually tunnel-visioned or biased over time, by reading the topics or the ideologies you like or agree with, or the authors you prefer, or the arguments you support, each year, pick and read at least two books by authors or on arguments that you disagree with, or would normally never pick-up and read. This will be one of the best mental exercises to stretch your mind, strengthen your debate on certain issues by knowing what’s being debated on the other side, challenge your perspectives or ideals every once in a while and keep them in line or even change your take on issues into something better or more progressive.

Read to “challenge” yourself to think, and analyze outside your comfort zone. Read to “challenge” your inherent and unconscious biases, which you have accumulated over time, while growing up in your household or the society, and eliminate them.

Finally, let these witty words, by American author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, motivate you when it comes to science fiction or fictional genres: “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”