A Formula for the Science in Science Fiction

The fundamental element of my Eternity Plague series—The Eternity Plague (book 1), Chrysalis (book 2), and Wild Spread (book 3, currently in draft)—is that five naturally-mutated viruses have infected all of humanity and are doing all sorts of strange and not necessarily wonderful things to everyone. My heroine, Dr. Janet Hogan, discovers the viruses and has to try to stop them before they do too many awful things. Good luck with that: so far the viruses are doing more things faster than Janet and her team can respond to them. How will the series end? Sorry, no spoilers here.

But because these books are science fiction, I wanted to ground them in science, and good science at that. But having the viruses cure and prevent all viral diseases and repair the genetic mutations that cause others?

Uh, yeah, that seems like a stretch. But that’s why I write “fiction beyond the known,” right?

Now, I’m not a geneticist like Janet is, nor do I play one on TV or in the movies, so I needed to do a fair amount of research to be able to present things in a credible but futuristic way, since the series is set in the mid- to late 2030s.

A ribosome
A ribosome

For example, early in The Eternity Plague, Janet and her team are deep inside a virtual reality simulation of a gene’s DNA being run through a megamolecule called a ribosome, which “reads” the DNA and creates a protein. I invoke other genetic machinery, including something called messenger RNA to help make the protein, which it does in real life.

Later, I involve “regulatory segments” of chromosomes, which are also real things. And some of the plague viruses are powered by DNA, others by RNA, which is accurate, too.

But still: curing all sorts of disease? And then creating chrysalises around people and transforming them? Really?

Well, OK, maybe that’s still a stretch (let’s hope so, in the case of the chrysalises, anyway!) but a recent article in Science News magazine shows how scientists are discovering the previously-unknown roles of various kinds of RNA molecules. Not only are these roles new and unexpected, but the fact that there are so many different kinds of RNA is a bit of a surprise too.

These “non-coding” RNAs—RNAs that aren’t used to make proteins—do some significant things:

  • Some of the 18,000 different kinds of “lncRNAs” interfere with certain chemotherapy drugs;
  • Some “microRNAs” block other RNAs from being read by ribosomes, which may push cells to become cancerous;
  • Left-over bits of the “transfer RNA” that normally helps bring nucleic acids to ribosomes so they can build proteins, can also help viruses reproduce inside cells.

In each of these cases, and the others the article discusses, scientists are working to understand how these RNAs do what they do so that they can find a way to block the RNAs’ bad effects in the body. Which is what Janet and her team are trying to do, just under a lot more time pressure and outside threats.

All of which is a way of saying that maybe I wasn’t so far out there with what these viruses and their DNAs or RNAs might be able to do in the human body. A little bit of knowledge, a little bit (or a lot) of ignorance, and a dash of imagination are all that’s needed to come up with a premise that might not be that crazy after all.

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