Go to Homepage   Catherine Asaro: Fictional Fusion

Photo: Catherine Asaro
Catherine Asaro (Photo by Hugh Talman, courtesy of Catherine Nancy Berland Public Relations)

Few writers in the world of science fiction successfully fuse love, romance and excitement with hard science. Yet Catherine Asaro pirouettes between the worlds of theoretical physics and action-oriented romance with the grace of the ballerina. 

For Asaro, these seemingly unlikely combinations flow as naturally as the choreography she learned at London's Royal Academy of Dance. A highly respected Ph.D. in chemical physics as well as a seasoned classical dancer, Asaro believes that creativity derives from the analytical side of human nature as much as from its artistic impulses. Her fans cite her award-winning fiction as proof that, in this case, the doctor really does know best. 

Crescent Blues: In previous interviews you discussed how your childhood imagination led you to daydream about girls flying around the universe in space ships (with a cat). Plus that you read a lot of the old masters like Asimov etc. Was there any particular influence that led you towards a scientific and sci-fi career, or was it just a natural progression?  

Catherine Asaro: Part of my interest in science comes from my father, a nuclear chemist.  He discovered the iridium anomalies that led to the theory that an asteroid or comet hit the Earth 65 million years ago and caused mass extinctions, possibly including the dinosaurs. When Luis Alvarez, Walter Alvarez, Helen Michel and my father, Frank Asaro, published the paper with their hypothesis, it caused a commotion. He's done a lot of other interesting science, too. When I was little, he used to take me up to his lab. It was fun.  

I've always liked solving scientific problems. Gathering data, analyzing it, solving equations, finding answers -- it fascinates me.  It's hard to say whether my interest in science drew me to science fiction or the reverse. I suspect it's a combination of the two. I was a ballet dancer in my youth, which isn't a pursuit often associated with science, but for me the two blended well. When I decided to become a theoretical chemical physicist, the switch felt natural (well, to me; my professors were rather bemused).  

I started writing in college, and it really grabbed me. I love telling stories.  

Crescent Blues: Your work and study experience obviously helps in writing science fiction. How does this knowledge affect what you write?  

Catherine Asaro: I'm always trying to explain things to myself. It can get exasperating. A few times I tried to write fantasy, but whenever I went to work on a magic system, I would think, "Hey! I can think of a scientific explanation for that!" The next thing you know, I had a science fiction story. I do write some magic realism, as that is more in my background. Over dinner once, Kate Elliott and I decided we wanted to write a spoof where we would take science ideas and make them into a magic system. Kate (Alis Rasmussen) writes some of the best fantasy I've read, in her King's Dragon Cycle. It's fun, thinking of a scientific idea, solving the equations, and finding out what they predict will happen. It's like a game. I can't believe I actually get paid to do this.  

Book: Catherine Asaro, The Last HawkCrescent Blues: Some critics complain you over explain the scientific. Do you feel this criticism is justified?  

Catherine Asaro: Well, it's hard to say. My books vary a lot in that respect. It also depends on the reader. For some, the books have too much; for others, they have too little. I vary it from book to book, depending on what feels right for that story. I'm also learning how weave the science into the story-line better.  

The Last Hawk and [the yet-to-be published] The Quantum Rose have almost no science exposition compared to, say, Primary Inversion. Same for The Veiled Web. The ideas are there, but not the exposition. I did them that way because it fit the style of those books. In The Veiled Web, I show the science through Lucia's interaction with Zaki, the artificial intelligence (AI) that is becoming self-aware.  

Book: Catherine Asaro, Veiled WebOf course, if I hold back on the exposition, I get the criticism "she must not know the science." Some readers expect a certain feel with hard science fiction. If you don't have that feel, they assume you don't know what you're talking about even if you have three degrees in the subject and twenty years work experience. Hello? However, it's more important to me that the style of the book match the story.  

I'm also a bit leery about being labeled a hard SF writer, because it might turn off some readers who would like my work. Hard SF tends to be looked down on, so if you have that reputation, readers may make assumptions about the book that don't apply, e.g., that it lacks good prose, characterization, emotional content, and so on. However, a wide range of hard SF exists, much of it very good.  

Crescent Blues: Do you ever consciously or subconsciously base your characters on people you know or the media?  

Catherine Asaro: I never base my characters on the media. I rarely watch movies or TV. I don't try to avoid references to popular culture either, though. [Such references] can be fun.  

Book: Catherine Asaro, Catch The LightningWhen I was writing Catch the Lightning, I researched Edwards Air Force Base, where part of the book takes place there. My husband, a scientist at NASA said, "Did you know that the X-1 rocket you see when you drive into Edwards is the one they used for the opening of that TV show, The Bionic Man? I thought that was a cool factoid, so I put it in the book.  

I do remember a program that had a profound effect on me. I only saw a few scenes and don't remember the name of the program, but this one image stayed with me. The Allied forces in World War II found the survivors of a concentration camp who had been moved and imprisoned in an old building, a barn I think. When the soldiers entered the barn, and the prisoners realized they were free, they began to sing a haunting, grief-filled song. The power of that scene remained with me, and helped inspire a scene in The Radiant Seas.  

As for people, I never make people I know into exact characters in my books. It's a matter of respect for their privacy. Besides, real people rarely fit the plot or characters as needed by the story.  

Book: Catherine Asaro, The Radiant SeasOf course, the people you've known will inform your characters in a more general sense. I probably like to write romantic heroes because I've been well treated in that respect and have a romantic husband. I also tend to give my characters certain traits I value, such as loyalty and integrity. Except for the villains, of course, who are nefarious scuzzballs.  

Also, a nifty tradition exists in science fiction called Tuckerization. When you Tuckerize a person, you use their name (rather than their personality) for a character who plays a cameo in the book. I've done that a few times. I always ask the person ahead of time if it is all right with them, since it is meant to honor a friend or colleague.  

Crescent Blues: You have created a very intriguing universe with the Skolian Empire and the Traders. Did you plan and document the various factions and worlds, or is it mainly an "in your head" creation as you write?  

Catherine Asaro: I started making up the universe when I was a child. As I matured, so did the characters and complexity of the universe. When I started to write down the stories, in graduate school, I filled in details and fleshed out the plots. I have a lot of notes now on details, such as who was born when, but the basic framework for all the novels is in my head.  

Crescent Blues: The idea of the Traders (a genetic experiment gone wrong) as villains works well. Where did you get the idea for a race who feel less pain but also has no empathy?  

Catherine Asaro: When I was a kid, everyone in my stories was a good guy. Thorny situations created the story tension rather than thorny people. (Of course, this is science fiction. I guess you could, literally, have thorny people. [Grins.]) After awhile, I decided to put in human antagonists as well. When I wrote Primary Inversion, I wanted to create villains specific to the Skolia universe. So I asked myself, "What is the flip side of the Rhon?" The Rhon are empaths; it defines their identity. So the Traders came into being -- anti-empaths. They are fictional, of course. Bigger than life. However, their traits are extrapolations of case studies I read during my training as a sexual harassment counselor. The lack of empathy that sexual abusers show toward the people they hurt can be truly chilling.  

Crescent Blues: Your first novel, Primary Inversion, came out in 1995. When did you start writing it?  

Catherine Asaro: I wrote a short story in the mid-1980s called "Lucifer's Legacy," but I had trouble, because the story I wanted to tell was too long for that form. In 1991, when we were living in Germany, I extended it into a novel. It was still short, about two-thirds the length of the final book. After Tor Books bought it, I changed the name to Primary Inversion and expanded it into its final form.  

Crescent Blues: Primary Inversion was published after an impressive series of scientific papers. Did writing and publishing the papers help you write the novel, or did the different styles make it more difficult?  

Catherine Asaro: The two don't really affect each other, in the way that playing the piano doesn't affect the way you derive an equation. Now that I'm writing so much, I don't do much science, because I don't have time. It reached the point where I had to make a decision, full time writer or full time scientist? I had no doubts on that score.  

The two do come together sometimes. A paper I had published in The American Journal of Physics covers the physics I use for the inversion drive in Primary Inversion. The paper was about a math trick I came up with for circumventing the speed of light. I gave it to my students as a test problem when I was a physics professor. (Don't you hate it when teachers do that? [Grins.]) It's a trick because I know of no physical analog to the math. The basic idea is that you add an imaginary component to your speed, making it complex. The paper did get me invited to participate in Marc Millis's Breakthrough Physics Propulsion program at NASA, which explores new theories of physics that might make interstellar travel feasible.  

Crescent Blues: Catch the Lightning and The Last Hawk both feature a main character who is stranded on an alien planet attempting to get back to his own world/time. Is this part of your earlier writing philosophy where you tried to make the situation the villain of the piece or just a natural phenomenon of a universe at war?  

Catherine Asaro: I wrote the first drafts of The Last Hawk and Catch the Lightning (Part I) before I wrote Primary Inversion. Although it wasn't a deliberate choice on my part to make the situation the villain, that form has always intrigued me. The theme of total immersion into a new culture, when you have no choice but to deal with that culture on its own terms, is a powerful vehicle. Science fiction lets us drive that vehicle to anywhere our imagination can go. It offers a way to explore how we relate to those in our own world whose lives, cultures, and outlooks differ from our own.  

Crescent Blues: One really fascinating aspect of The Last Hawk was the use of Quis dice and how the game of Quis had come to take the place of war and political maneuvering in the Coban society. How did you come up with and develop this idea?  

Catherine Asaro: I was in grad school when I wrote the first draft. I think the Calanya might have come from the structure of academics in the sciences, where you have a leader who defines the group, directs the research, and pays the people (or is the primary grant recipient). A group can have many members: advanced scientists, post-doctoral fellows, students. The Calanya on Coba works in an analogous manner, with its Manager and different Level Calani, except they all do Quis instead of science. I played around with computer games/gaming in grad college, and I suspect my interest in making up a strategy game like Quis has roots in that, too.  

Also, the men in the Calanya needed something to do. As a plot device, putting men in male harems is fun for about a chapter. After that you start running out of things to do with it. (Well, except the obvious... [Grins.]). So along came Quis.  

Crescent Blues: As well as writing scientific papers and fiction novels you've also reviewed books and written articles on science and science fiction. What are your feelings about the current state of science fiction and are there any changes that you'd like to see?

 Catherine Asaro - Continued