An Interview with Scott Fotheringham
By Derek Newman-Stille
This was a great interview to follow up with our interview of Julie Czerneda since Scott Fotheringham also has a background in biology and has experienced both the worlds of science and Canadian fiction authorship. I have been pondering the relationship between speculative fiction writing and science for some time, and have enjoyed this opportunity to talk with authors whose fiction broaches the speculative.
Spec Can: You were a molecular biologist before becoming an SF author. What was the transition like? How do you straddle the worlds between academia and fiction authorship?
Scott Fotheringham: It seems like such a long time ago that I was a research scientist. I’ve done a lot of things since then that had little to do with science. I have learned to cook at restaurants and for large groups, I worked as an organic gardener, I spent five years working in the mental health field in Halifax, and now I do PR for arts and technology companies.
The transition was clunky at the beginning because I went straight from a career path in academia to working as a short-order cook in a vegetarian restaurant. Because so much of how I self-identify is through my work, it wasn’t always easy. I’m glad I left research science, but I do miss aspects of it. It’s so interesting and stimulating.
I don’t really straddle those two worlds. It was more of having both feet in academia years ago and now having one foot in fiction writing and the other devoted to everything else.
Spec Can: What inspired you to change careers from being a scientist to being an author of fiction?
Scott Fotheringham: I left science for reasons that are still not completely clear to me. I think it’s a tricky business to look backward and analyze how we made decisions in our lives. All I know is that I wasn’t happy spending most of my time in a lab and that I didn’t see what I was doing as socially relevant. It was interesting, to be sure. That, and I wanted to live closer to the ground, possibly near a lot of trees.
Spec Can: In what ways can biology inform Science Fiction?
Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic. I went looking in the literature for references to bacteria and fungi that ate plastic and found them. From there it was a matter of perfecting the process, setting it loose, and watching what happened.
I loved reading Frankenstein because of how contemporary it feels. Shelley could have written that today about a genetically engineered organism. All the details and philosophical passages in that book are relevant to questions we have today about the worth of genetic engineering.
Spec Can: As a scientist yourself, you do an excellent job of bringing critical attention to some issues in scientific discourse. What were some questions about science that you hoped to raise for readers when you wrote The Rest is Silence?
Scott Fotheringham: The research scientists I admired most were those who were doing it because they loved to discover the mysteries of life. That was one reason to do science. It is quite a thrill to discover something about the world that nobody else has ever seen.
Then, there are scientists who are trying to solve a problem. Cure or find treatments for disease, develop a cheaper water pump for developing nations, or breed a drought-resistant crop.
However, much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.
The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.
Spec Can: In The Rest is Silence you bring a lot of attention to society’s need for easy categories and particularly binaries like male/female that limit our
understanding of the world. Why are limited categories so damaging and how can SF help us to resist applying outmoded and limited categories?
Scott Fotheringham: Lao Tzu says, “In naming is the origin of all particular things.” Once we’ve named something, we can feel that we understand it and can ignore it. Often, for example, I can see a bird, identify it, and not pay any more attention to it. Imagine the world of wonder if we don’t do that, if we follow that nuthatch and see how it forages, where it lives, how it flies.
The same can be said for something like gender. It’s too easy to divide the world into male and female and ignore the wealth of experience that comes from seeing that gender is fluid and expansive. Realizing that allows me to explore who I am more deeply. A wonderful example is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Here’s a book that lets you think about a world in which the gender binary doesn’t exist. What does that say about love?
Spec Can: Obsession plays a large role in the Rest is Silence. How did ideas about obsession inspire you and shape your novel?
Scott Fotheringham: I have a somewhat obsessive personality. In small ways and in large ones. Unfortunately, one of my obsessions is with getting this life thing right. Like Benny, I strive to improve, I strive to make things better. Of course, this is fallacious thinking as the world is perfect as it is and doesn’t need me to fix it. But that’s a hard lesson to incorporate. I hope to accept that by the time I’m eighty.
Spec Can: The Rest is Silence tackles the issue of social versus technological means of dealing with pollution. Which do you think is going to have a more significant impact?
Scott Fotheringham: Can I say both? Only once we agree that the pollution problem needs to be addressed and that the natural world is our primary concern – more than economic growth, more than standard of living, more than our comfort – will we see a change. Then, we can safely apply both social and technological means because our intention will be clear. Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.
Spec Can: What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?
Scott Fotheringham: I don’t know. Partly it comes from caring about underdogs.
Spec Can: What inspired you to write about a world without plastic?
Scott Fotheringham: I thought it would be fun to imagine such a world, and it was.
Spec Can: In what ways can SF and fiction writing in general change social perceptions and ideas? How can SF help readers to think outside the box and question things?
Scott Fotheringham: Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.
Spec Can: Are there any other thoughts or ideas that you would be interested in sharing with readers?
Scott Fotheringham: I’m thinking about the tar sands a lot these days. They are a good example of how our goals are primarily economic and comfort-related. If our children and grandchildren look at pictures of the tar sands fifty years from now are they going to thank us for digging up all that bitumen? Will their quality of life be better because we are destroying a large part of Alberta?
I want to thank Scott Fotheringham for this great discussion and for raising a lot of questions in our minds about science and the current devastating effects that economic ideas are having on the environment. You can explore his website at http://scottfotheringham.blogspot.ca/ to find out more about him and his current projects.