Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Story Notes for "Traces of Us"

My latest story, “Traces of Us,” is now live at GigaNotoSaurus. It’s a story about sentient spaceships and neuroscientists in love. It’s dear to my heart for a number of reasons, and I’m so gratified by the responses it’s been getting from readers. (Writer and critic Charles Payseur has an absolutely beautiful review--with spoilers!--here)

The story is grounded in some very real science. I'd like to talk a little about that scientific grounding, and the inspirations (both scientific and not) behind this story.

(I’d suggest continuing only after finishing “Traces of Us”)


The story seed

The seed for this story came from a feature article I read in The New York Times back in 2015,“A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future.”  It’s a beautifully written story about Kim Suozzi, a young woman who died of brain cancer at the age of 23, but who hoped to have her mind preserved for the future. Alongside a moving and vivid portrayal of Suozzi and her partner, the article also provides a look into the science behind the promise of brain preservation and “mind uploading.” It offers a clear and accessible introduction to “connectomics”—the mapping of all neuronal connections within the brain and what that might mean.

Intellectual credit where it’s due (or, this is where my footnotes go because there’s no room for citations in fiction magazines)

---In my story, Kathy and Daniel argue over the plausibility of 
    replicating the brain in digital form. When Kathy argues
    that we don't actually need to understand everything
    about how our mind works to replicate it, she draws an 
    analogy to the recording of music.  

    “What if it’s like music?” she said, waving a hand vaguely.
     Music was in fact playing softly from speakers in the next room 
     — a melancholy pop song with blues-like tones, something 
     Daniel didn’t recognize. “You don’t need to know how a violin 
     works to replicate its sound. You don’t need to know what wood 
     it’s made of, or how it’s strung, or anything about timbre or 
     musical theory. You just need to record the sound waves. Play 
     them back and there! It’s like the violin is playing right in front
     of you.”

    This elegant analogy was actually drawn from an essay by
     magazine (I am not smart enough to come up with this type of
      analogy on my own. Much thanks to his lucid writing).

---The details of the brain preservation process which Kathy 
     undergoes were drawn from a hypothetical scenario outlined by 
     neuroscience researcher Kenneth Hayworth, as detailed in this 
     article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012. 

---I also spent on a lot of time on the official website for the NIH 
    Blueprint for Neuroscience Research and the Human 
    Connectome Project Fun fact: Washington University in St. 
    Louis (the unnamed institution at which Kathy and Daniel do 
    their graduate work) is in fact a leader of research into the   
    human connectome.

Personal connections/inspirations

There are readers who may guess, from the details of this story, that I have a personal connection to St. Louis. Those readers would be correct. I lived there many years ago when I was attending graduate school in biology (molecular cell biology, not neuroscience) at Washington University in St. Louis. I met my husband, also a graduate of WashU, in that city. In a sense, “Traces of Us” is a love letter to St. Louis and Washington University and the time I spent there.

More thoughts

I mentioned the New York Times article on Kim Suozzi above as the main inspiration for this story. Kim Suozzi was a real person, and the people who loved her are real. My story is fiction, pulling in inspirations and influences from many different places, and with completely fictional characters. Yet I still feel something of a sense of responsibility to Kim Suozzi.

I have been lucky enough to not truly be affected by cancer or serious illness in my life or those of my immediate family. There have been close calls, tangential brushes. . . Like everyone else, I know someone who knows someone who had cancer. But I personally have been lucky to date.

I spent a lot of time on patient forums while researching this story. I tried as best I could to understand and get it right. I remembered that even in times of darkness and stress, people crack jokes and laugh with one another.

We writers may write of far futures and impossible technologies. . . but in the end, our stories are usually rooted in real experiences. If they are not experiences we ourselves have known, they are experiences other real people have had. I try to always remember that. I hope my writing here reflects this.

Finally. . . 

What do I think of the science of “mind uploading,” of digitally replicating the human mind? Like Daniel, I am a skeptic (mainstream science also appears skeptical). But I do not rule anything out.  

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