Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Science That Never Was

Today we are so excited to celebrate the release of the delightful new book by Tiffany Trent The Unnaturalists with a guest post from Trent. Here she is talking about the influence of science on her story. And there is a cool invitation at the end of the post.

At my pre-release party this past Thursday, one of my former professors asked me a very fascinating question.

“Besides the story in your head, was there any literary or historical tradition that you felt you were in dialogue with as you wrote?”

To which I answered with a resounding, long-winded, and rather academic yes.

Let me just say that I’ve loved science and the natural world with a great passion since early childhood. Back then, our local science museum was housed in an old schoolhouse, complete with cheesy diorama exhibits and lots of open-topped, salt-encrusted aquaria. And I adored it. By kindergarten, I think I could name every planet and many of the stars, all the dinosaurs, and nearly any bug you could throw at me. I thought David Attenborough was the Voice of God. (Well, I still sometimes do, I suppose).

Growing up, I understood biology as a kind of poetry, the language of life. Next to creative writing, biology was my favorite subject. I entered college originally as a wildlife management major, and it was only when trigonometry utterly defeated me that I gave up that career path and ended up with an English major and Biology minor. I went on to get three Master’s degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Environmental Studies. In my dayjobs, I’ve done everything from basically being a poison frog sex therapist to editing and writing for a wildlife conservation organization in Hong Kong. Though writing is my passion, science usually is the medium in which I operate.

Just prior to starting The Unnaturalists, I had been researching quite a bit about the Victorian naturalists and the squabbles and drama that took place in the mid- to late 1800s regarding science. There were many competing belief systems and philosophies, over which countless well-educated men (since women weren’t allowed) spent countless hours debating. I was fascinated by how they arrived at many of their conclusions and particularly how the race between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace to publish a cogent theory of evolution ended up solidifying the way we do science.

I even had the wonderful opportunity, courtesy of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Work-in-Progress Grant, to actually visit London and see many of the sites that would later form the basis for this and other books I have in the works. I went to Down House, Darwin’s estate in Kent, and felt very much as though I was in some sort of holy shrine to Science. There was an apple tree heavy with ripe apples in the garden, and I very nearly snatched one, wondering what would happen if I ate it.

All of that was in my backbrain as I began writing. I started wondering what would happen if the Victorian naturalists I’d studied were let loose in Fairyland. I was quite certain they’d start collecting, classifying, and preserving every specimen they could find. And I was right. But at what cost? That’s the question Vespa ultimately must answer and the question the book asks, as far as I’m concerned.

But most importantly, it’s a romp, a good old-fashioned romp through an alternate history that could have been. And an epic poem about a science that never was.

By Tiffany Trent

If you're in the Washington, DC area, please come celebrate The Unnaturalists official release party on Friday, August 17, 6:30pm at the Museum of Unnatural History, courtesy of the 826 DC Foundation.  Click here for more information and to RSVP.  Books will be available. As will fantastic cupcakes!