A scientist by day and a sci-fi writer by night. No, this time, I’m not talking about myself. But my guest today and I share a lot in common.
Greg Mendell has a Ph.D. in physics, specializing in relativistic astrophysics. Before retiring, he worked at LIGO Hanford Observatory, where he enviably got to work with colleagues on many amazing gravitational-wave discoveries, including the first detection of these waves from a binary black hole merger!!!
For the most part, he split his time between various data and computing groups at LIGO. But once in a while, he dedicated his free time to writing science fiction, which he still does.
Why sci-fi? I asked.
It is a ticket, he says, to a world aware of science but with an infinite variety of connections to other experiences and interests.
Apart from writing, he also enjoys spending time with his wife and family somewhere in the multiverse.
Despite sharing a profession and research interests, Greg and I met because of our mutual love for science fiction. And I am so glad we did! Now we meet once in a while to discuss physics, history, and storytelling. And I want to share a tidbit of these fun conversations with you all.
So here are five questions for Gregory Allen Mendell.
1. Tell us more about your books.
I have two books on Amazon.
Finding the Elsewhere is a science fiction adventure about first contact and finding love. Think: When Harry Met Sally meets Carl Sagan’s Contact, but different, of course.
I’ve always wondered about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. However, given that the nearest stars are millions of times farther away than Mars, how can humans really get out there? Closer to home, I’m interested in another age-old question: how can two people find each other when everything in the universe is against them? My take on this? In Finding the Elsewhere, sparks literally fly when two graduate students meet at a demo meant to defy Einstein.
Take the Sun with You is a set of science fiction short stories about quantum physics, black holes, clones & AI, fairy-tale ET, imaginary dimensions, parallel worlds, supersmart computers, 3D printers, & drones, oh my!
In these tales, I try to dig my way into the fantastical, starting with weird but real science and then going with my imagination. At the heart of this collection are core fears about the future, with characters running from the past, trapped by the future, coming of age, or finding a voice. As always, I want to explore love & hope in worlds aware of science.
I also have a short story, The Sting of Immortality, in Spring Into SciFi: 2021 Edition, published by the Cloaked Press. What happens when a couple fights over a barbed blue feather that falls from the sky? Worse yet, what if a narcissistic politician gains immortality from a similar feather? Oh, and there’s an alien conflict behind all this, and humans have to answer some pretty big questions before they arrive!
2. Why do you write science fiction?
Short answer: my interest in writing, not surprisingly, came from reading.
Long, long answer:
When I was a kid, Apollo landed on the moon, and my favorite book was The Universe in the Life Nature Library. In particular, two sentences in the chapter about Einstein’s theories had a profound impact on me.
“For a fast-moving object even the flow of time should be affected, making its clocks and atomic processes run slow. That this actually happens is again demonstrated in atomic accelerators.”
Wow, I thought—science could discover an idea that never would have occurred to me, that sounded like magic and could show that it worked!
From then on, I was hooked on physics, and I set out to become an astrophysicist. Having great high school science teachers helped, while other teachers and books broadened my worldview. I always wanted a relationship too. But my path wasn’t straightforward. Whose is?
On to reading. I was around books growing up, but beyond school, I mostly read about science. I did, however, watch a lot of Star Trek and other science fiction on TV. Probably the first fiction book I picked up on my own was Alice in Wonderland. Then my teachers introduced me to science fiction novels, for example, those by Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Next, at university, there was a unit on women in science fiction. We read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Witch World by Andre Norton, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, and Women on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. This was the late 1970s when a better world seemed just over the horizon!
I remained focused on science before going through a rough breakup during my last year at university. This led me to something else I’d always wanted to do: Peace Corps. I became a volunteer teacher in Fiji, in the South Pacific. That was when I started reading more fiction, and not only science fiction. Memorable ones were The World According to Garp, Still Life with Woodpecker, The Magus, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I didn’t really think about it, but I was reading mostly books written by men in the 80s. My favorites by women from that time were The Lathe of Heaven (Le Guin again!) and The Wounded Sky (A Star Trek novel by Diane Duane).
Fiji was also where I met my wife, a volunteer teacher from New Zealand on another island, with scuba diving! She introduced me to other books and, thankfully, more women writers!
By then, I knew I wanted to write a book.
Luckily, after our son grew up, my wife, who’s good at everything, took me to her writing group. Well, I couldn’t let her have all the fun. I loved that a book could connect me to my interest in science and to many other things too. I found writing to be a great creative outlet and a way to explore the hopes and fears I have about the human condition and the future.
Writing science fiction was a natural match for me, and the rest, as they say, is history!
3. Being a physicist, what are your thoughts on soft science fiction?
I love soft science fiction, whether that means stories that involve anthropology and social science (like Le Guin’s) or if that means stories that focus more on relationships than spaceships (also like Le Guin’s).
My parents, who had both been teachers, had a deeply troubled marriage and difficulties with relationships. At first, I thought this was what happened to “old” people, who seemed pretty messed up. The conservative reaction to the politics of the 60s and 70s seemed pretty messed up, too (despite my optimism in the later 70s).
I had hair down to my shoulders and identified with the counterculture, but took my core values from evidence-based reasoning. I avoided anything that might mess up my brain. So, I wanted to be Spock, never high on anything but science, but in a relationship. :)
More to the point, I wanted to know “how things worked,” including how people and society worked. To fulfill my electives, I took a lot of psychology and sociology courses at university. I wanted to understand why many people, myself included, felt messed up, continued to live in a society that felt messed up, and couldn’t seem to agree on how to fix things.
Okay, so things never change.
My favorite science fiction deals with these things too, even if there are no simple solutions.
Of course, I’m more aware than ever of the need to understand more about diversity and current issues. Some things actually do change.
I’m reading from more perspectives than ever before. Some of my new favorite writers are ones I should have known about before, like Octavia Butler. Others, like Becky Chambers, have a new take on what I’ve always loved. I could drop more names, but I’ll just say the soft science fiction themes in books will always be compelling to me.
4. What is your favorite sci-fi book?
A high school English teacher suggested I read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Later, I pointed out to her that there was sex in the book. I had this thrill of feeling grown up when she said she thought I could handle it.
The hero is a physicist with a relationship. Perfect, right? More importantly, I love how this book explores some big questions about science and society gracefully (as per the above, with no easy answers) while paying attention to the characters’ wants. It is still my all-time favorite novel!
5. Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Science books and teachers definitely inspired me, along with my desire to understand how things work.
My research into Einstein’s theories and my deeper dives into understanding black holes, neutron stars, and the big bang give me plenty to think about. There are also mysteries about how all of this works with quantum theory and things like wormholes, time machines, and various types of parallel worlds. I feel like I’m on the springboard, ready to jump into any of these mainstays of hard science fiction.
I also am drawn to things I don’t understand but feel I should.
For example, I was very confused when I heard about quantum computing. This was especially embarrassing since I’ve taught quantum mechanics at university. Of course, this meant I felt compelled to put quantum computing into a couple of stories—but in a fantastical, not a factual, way! Then I read up on this until I felt satisfied that I had a basic understanding.
That’s the fun part for me—putting weird science into my stories pushes me to understand it. I also fixed the stories a bit too, not removing the fantastical but making things sound, I hope, more aware of how things might actually work.
On the soft science side of things, I think we’re all trying to find our place in society, in our families, with our friends, and in our relationships. I’ve experienced hard, painful times like everyone. I’ve also been incredibly lucky. So, I’m inspired to explore the ‘why’ of all this too.
To my delight, you used your background in physics (the same as mine!) to come up with genius technology in your book Finding the Elsewhere. Please tell us more about the process of using your knowledge of physics in your science-fiction stories. Does it come naturally?
The first draft of Finding the Elsewhere was written during twenty-four weekends spread over a year. I wanted to explore the two questions: how can humans connect with life elsewhere in the universe, and how can two people find each other when everything is against them?
On the science side, I started with a startling fact: all the matter in all the stars in the observable universe converted into chemical rocket fuel was not enough to get humans to the nearest star in a human lifetime. Even fusion rockets would take decades.
However, I remembered a paper I’d heard about in graduate school: faster-than-light communication is possible using quantum entanglement (what Einstein called spooky actions at a distance) if one can get round a few pesky theorems that forbid this. And isn’t getting around pesky theorems and making the magical seem possible one of the things science fiction is all about?
Okay, I also love character-driven stories. So, what about character arcs? Well, finding someone is the one high-stakes adventure most of us experience.
Therefore, Finding the Elsewhere became a quantum entanglement meets personal entanglement story. I knew I wanted to bring different cultures and aliens into the story too.
But at its heart, it’s about two graduate students who learn how to defy Einstein and the odds—a romantic comedy-drama set in a hard science fiction universe.
As for the technology using gravitinos, virtual bodies, and nano-cloth, I went for things that seemed magical but, I hope, sounded plausible.
The alien bio-technology, of course, is completely made up. I assumed the first contact might be with advanced tech users (like teenagers using the latest app on a smartphone) who didn’t understand it any more than we could.
I didn’t really want to focus on the technology at all but more on the cross-cultural experiences with individuals with different agendas (not a mono-culture) and the biases and misunderstandings that are bound to occur, in a humorous, adventurous way.
It’s all been done before, but I hope my take on this feels unique and fun. It only took me eight more years after that first draft to finish it!
I’m also working on two sequels. More science will be explored, like teleportation and time travel based on real physics. But I’m really excited to reveal more about the main characters, the aliens, and the future of humanity!
Yay for sequels!!
Thank you, Greg, for this lovely and truly insightful interview! It was a pleasure and an honor to share parts of our discussions here in the blog.
So that’s it for today, folks!
Take the Sun with You was just released last month. I’m looking forward to reading it (you folks know me, I love short stories!) But I did read Finding the Elsewhere. For those who love romantic comedies and great science, this one is for you!
If you have any other questions for Greg Mendell, leave a comment!
See you next post!
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.