Putting the “Science” in Science-Fiction – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Putting the “Science” in Science-Fiction

Professor of Biology Meghan Brown imagined the fictional species at the heart of bestselling-author Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, which they will discuss in an interview next week.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander, which will be published April 6, a mysterious envelope sends “Jane Smith” on a dangerous, complex quest revolving around a taxidermied hummingbird and a taxidermied salamander. The titular animals are fictional, but their scientific plausibility is the product of the research and creativity of HWS Professor of Biology Meghan Brown.

During VanderMeer’s tenure at HWS as the 2016-17 Trias Writer-in-Residence, he and Brown forged a working friendship based on a shared fascination with science and the role fiction can play in connecting humans to the natural world. As VanderMeer developed the novel, Brown was enlisted to create ecological profiles for the species — including names, physical and behavioral traits, diets, migrations, defense mechanisms and reproduction— that “would have biological realism which enabled them to be believable in the novel,” she explains. Her text appears throughout the novel to bring the species’ ecologies to the reader.

On Saturday, April 10, Brown and VanderMeer will discuss their work together in an interview with author and award-winning New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer. The free, virtual event, hosted by the Boston area bookstore Brookline Booksmith, will begin at 4 p.m. EST.

Copies of Hummingbird Salamander purchased at the time of registration will be signed by VanderMeer and Brown, and include special access to extra materials.

Register here.

Brown says the Hummingbird Salamander collaboration was not only “delightful, but also instructive,” as it allowed her “to be a feminist and an environmentalist and an ecologist” simultaneously as she designed the species and engaged in a creative process to bring ecological tenets to a broad audience.

The “challenges organisms face and how they cope with them became a creative outlet, but also an outlet to tell the same story that I write in my scientific publications, just to a different audience,” she explains. “Being able to use these mythical creatures to help explain ideas of climate change and environmental contaminants and think about language that would help someone understand how those threats interact with an amphibian and a bird…that was really rewarding and really enjoyable.”

Brown studies and teaches about the critical role humans play in shaping our Earth home. Her non-fiction publications address questions such as: How does climate change impact organisms in European mountain lakes? Did Cuba’s Revolution shape its modern ecology? What role do non-native species play in the conservation of vulnerable environments? She is a Fulbright fellow, a National Science Foundation grantee, and a recently featured scientist in National Geographic.

VanderMeer is the author of more than 20 books, including Dead Astronauts, Borne, and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. A three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, VanderMeer speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change as well as urban rewilding. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, on the edge of a ravine, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and their cat, Neo.

The Trias Residency for Writers is supported by The Peter Trias Endowed Fund for Poetry and Creative Writing. The residency was created through a generous bequest from Peter J. Trias ’70, and is designed to give distinguished writers time to write while they mentor Hobart and William Smith students and contribute to the artistic community on campus and in the City of Geneva.