Kage Baker didn’t have a formal background in science. Some science fiction writers, do; some do not. What they do have is an interest in ‘What if?” questions; an urgent desire to know the answer to “Why?” and “How?” It’s the same sort of interest that drives scientific research – that urge to find answers to the questions posed by the world in general.
Kage used to worry, though, that her own background in things like history and literature wouldn’t be taken seriously by her audience. And it’s a fact that there is a contingent among science fiction fans who only seem to respect writers whose non-authorial skills run to mathematics, engineering, physics and other “hard” sciences. I’ve never seen this attitude among writers, mind you – only readers. Kage never got an outraged letter from a single fellow-writer complaining about the science – speculative or actual – in any of her stories.
She got a lot of them from fans, though. Letters that complained there was too much “soft plotting” in her stories, for instance – though those could be chalked up to literary taste (or lack of it). There is a loud and long-standing tendency in science fiction readers to object to stories with humour or romance. Kage called them the “No girls allowed club”, and shrugged her shoulders. Sometimes she asked them why they were reading her stuff in the first place, to which query she got a few stiff and earnest responses that her basic ideas were cool if only she could restrain her impulse to write about … well, people.
The general subtext was a pretty clear one of cooties.
She couldn’t restrain that impulse. But even those folks didn’t bother her as much as the ones who complained that the science was wrong. Not the real science (about which Kage was scrupulous in her research). No, it was the invented tech of which these folks complained. They didn’t want antigravity or time travel or immortality.They didn’t like Mendoza’s old-fashioned corn-breeding hobbies. They didn’t want water on Mars. They objected to Arean vulcanism. And they wrote to Kage all the time to complain that these things did not exist.
To which Kage replied, “Are you aware I’m writing science FICTION?” A few of the braver ones actually did respond to that, answering that yes, they knew that, but her ideas were so weird … one assumes they wrote to other authors to complain of extraterrestrials, FTL drives and universal translators. Or maybe not; anything that shows up in the movies tends to be regarded as holy writ.
However, Kage stuck to her guns and insisted on pursuing the idea that the frontiers of science might expand in the near future. And – especially on the Matter of Mars – more and more of her speculations have proven true as the years have gone by … there is water ice on Mars, just as she and many, many other science fiction writers proposed. There are growing hints that the heart of Mars is not yet completely cold. There are signs of recent vulcanism, and occasional floods, and frost erosion, and lots of other astonishing things that were not “true” when all the yearning stories about Mars were written. That doesn’t make Kage or anyone else prophetic: it just means they did a lot of research and then – for reasons that their stories required – guessed right.
It’s science fiction. Sometimes it guesses right.
Now Kage’s (and Mendoza’s) preoccupation with corn is showing some fertile cultivars: joke most definitely intended. The first link below is basically just for pretties: the corn described is flat-out gorgeous, and is most precisely what Kage had in mind when she had Mendoza breed corn like gemstones.
And, by the way, the stuff is real. And edible. And tastes quite good. Kage herself grew it for several years and we joyously ate it. Humans digest it pretty well, and Amazon parrots just adore it.
As for Mendoza’s breeding techniques – Kage herself had some doubts about GMO plants. She didn’t think they were intrinsically dangerous, nor that eating them would transform us into pathetic slaves of some sentient vegetable overlords. There is no rational reason to believe that genetically frost-resistant tomatoes will cause cancer or autism or Communism … but the gene insertion techniques were too catholic for Kage’s sense of caution. She figured they could spread those desirable resistance traits just as easily to weeds as to beans – and in fact that is precisely what is happening now.
And monocultures made her nervous. And so did deliberately sterile food crops whose seed sources were held by giant corporations. So Mendoza bred her corn the old-fashioned way, and ultimately gave it free to the world: no patents, no copyrights, no Monsanto.
The second link here is about a guy who is doing that with several food crops – especially the grains that feed the world. He’s breeding them the old way, he’s stock-piling seeds, and he’s passing them out to anyone who needs them.
These cultivars work. They feed more people, better. And they are no more GMO than Luther Burbank’s. Or Mendoza’s. Kage figured there was more than one way to write the future of agriculture. There was the way where someone got a lot of money and everyone else got nutritional diseases. And then there was a way that would work.
It’s all science fiction, after all. But you know what science fiction really, really hope for in their stories?
That they will turn out to come true.