The Ada Lovelace Day and Arthur C. Clarke Award Collaboration: Interview with Anne Charnock on Bringing Science and Fiction Together

In this interview, Anne Charnock tells us about the innovative collaboration she is working on with Ada Lovelace Day and The Arthur C. Clarke Award where scientists and fiction writers are brought together to discuss their work.  Anne is the author of science fiction novels that have been finalists for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and also highlighted in The Guardian’s “Best SFF Books of 2015.” Her latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, is described as science fiction “at its most contemplative asking intriguing questions about human reproduction, gender identity and interpersonal relationships.”

Laurie: Could you tell us a bit about the collaboration project between the Ada Lovelace Day and the Arthur C. Clarke Award? How did it come about and what are the goals of the project?

Anne: As you probably know, Laurie, the annual Arthur C. Clarke Award is a prestigious award for the best science fiction novel published each year in the UK, as decided by a panel of judges. The award’s director, Tom Hunter, is keen to achieve a level playing field when it comes to recognizing women writers of science fiction alongside the men writing in this field. This is a complex issue, and the award’s organisers are being as transparent as possible – publishing a full list of the novels submitted by publishers each year (that is, those books that are judged eligible). For one thing, this highlights who is publishing women writers, and if publishers are submitting equal numbers of male and female writers for the award.

Tom had the great idea to collaborate with the Ada Lovelace Day, which has been hugely successful in celebrating women working in so-called STEM subjects – working in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He approached me to help with this link-up because I’ve worked in journalism as well as being a science fiction author. I took on the role of “interviewer in residence” for the collaboration!

I’ve started a series of “Ada Lovelace Conversations”, which the Arthur C. Clarke Award hosts on the online essay platform, Medium. It’s great fun for me, and I hope it’s fun for everyone else involved. The aim is to create a series of conversations that is both inspiring and instructive, through in-depth discussion about the writing process, the science content of our fiction and so on.

So far, the Clarke Award has posted three “Ada Lovelace Day Conversations” with ALD founder, Suw Charman-Anderson, and authors E. J. Swift and Irenosen Okojie.

Laurie: I always ask all my interviewees: how has the online world contributed to your work on this project? Clearly, posting these Ada Lovelace Conversations online will be an important part of your project. Is there anything else that’s working well for you?

Anne: Indeed, yes. By way of background… Last summer I moderated an Ada Lovelace Day panel at Nine Worlds, which is a science fiction convention held in London. The panel brought together women scientists, editors and authors to talk about the science content of fiction. During question time, I asked the audience: would women scientists be willing to help authors when they hit a research problem during their fiction projects? Would they be willing to have informal chats with authors? One audience member shouted out, “Are you kidding? Of course we’d love to collaborate with authors!”

So, subsequently, Suw Charman-Anderson and I puzzled over how to make this happen. Should this happen in the real world or online? Suw is a social media consultant and suggested that the first step could be a private Facebook group, which is now up and running! It’s called The Plotters’ Club.

In this group, women writers of science fiction (loosely defined!) and women working in STEM introduce themselves, explain their specialisms, and start talking. We post links to relevant online articles and essays. For example, I’ve posted the “Ada Lovelace Conversations.” Writers can also post specific shout-outs for assistance. I hope this will prove to be a two-way street, that the scientist members will gain an insight into the creative process, which might assist their own writing.

Laurie: As a previous-career scholar of the history of nineteenth-century science (amongst other things), I’ve always been a bit troubled by the ‘two cultures’ problem, meaning the divide between the sciences and humanities that C.P. Snow theorized in the 50s and 60s. Does this project engage with this idea? Is it a conscious effort to break down the divide between the sciences and the humanities?

Anne: I agree that it’s a false division and several members of the Facebook group are both scientists and fiction writers. Some women have commented that our education system pushed them into making a premature choice. And why should we make a choice at all? In my own working life, I’ve been a science journalist, a fine artist and a fiction writer.

Laurie: Are there any specific creative pieces coming from the project that you’re especially anticipating?

Anne: I’m hoping that in months or years to come we’ll see books being published with acknowledgements to this informal women’s network and to specific women in STEM who have helped fill in the gaps in an author’s research.

Laurie: How can people who aren’t part of the project get involved (eg, readings, websites, other events, online discussions)?

Anne: If you write fiction with a element of science in your stories, or if you work in STEM, you’re welcome to join our Facebook group, The Plotters’ Club. Click here and request to join. We’d love to have you along!

And we’re open to ideas!

Thanks for your support, Laurie!