It’s a story about protein folding and optogenetics and cognitive augmentations. And it’s also about capitalism, and family, and the enduring need for human connection.
This particular issue of The Future Fire happens to mark the tenth anniversary of the digital publication. That’s quite an achievement, and I am thrilled to be part of it. I haven’t finished reading all the other stories in this issue yet, but so far what I’ve read has been amazing—dark and lovely and sad and moving, original in form and content. I am so honored to be sharing space with this group of authors and artists. Speaking of artists--Miguel Santos’ illustrations for my own piece are wonderful, and showed me something about my story that I didn’t even realize.
STORY NOTES BELOW
Protein Folding Games
The science in the story is all grounded in real, ongoing research. Online computer games that harness humans’ visual intuition to solve the three-dimensional structures of proteins? Yup, it’s real and the game is called Foldit. Volunteer gamers playing Foldit have helped scientists solve the structure of a viral protein and redesign the structure of an enzyme, leading to publications in the prestigious journals Nature Structural and Molecular Biology and Nature Biotechnology. Some general press coverage of Foldit and the people behind it can be found here and here.
Optogenetics is hot. It was named "Method of the Year" by Nature in 2010 , and since then it’s just gotten hotter. In brief, optogenetics uses light to control the behavior of cells which have been genetically modified with light-sensitive proteins. This technique is being used to give us unprecedented control of neurons and insight into brain circuits in animal models. An accessible overview is given here, written by one of the pioneers of the field.
Other Science Notes
My description of the electrode arrays at the heart of the “neuromods” in this story owes some inspiration to this article. I also had fun browsing articles at io9 like this.
How does a story come together? Some of my stories start out as images; some start out with a character’s voice. This one started off as an idea.
It was more a vague collection of ideas, really. A sense of being fed up with our hyper-driven, hyper-speed, productivity-obsessed modern lifestyle. I think I read one too many of those “10 Things the Most Productive People Do Before Breakfast” click-bait listicles. This sense of frustration combined with some stories I’d been reading in neuroscience. The idea of the sisters was borrowed from a “realist” story that I’d once toyed with and which died in my head before it ever made it to paper. But I still didn’t have an entry point into the story; I didn’t have the voice.
And then I read this lovely story, “98 Ianthe,” by Robert N. Lee.
Plotwise, Lee’s story has nothing at all to do with mine. But Lee’s story uses a second-person narrative voice to devastating effect. And after I read it, I knew that my story, too, needed to be told in the second-person. It needed the sense of immediacy and immersion that is only possible with the second-person voice. And it also needed a kind of distance, an authorial objectivity, that is possible with the second-person voice but not with a first-person narrator.
Once I knew the voice, I could write the story. It wasn’t quick (I am a slow writer), and there were surprises along the way, but the first draft was fairly clean. And those surprises that popped up during the writing? Such surprises are one of the best things about writing.