Q&A with Julie Novakova

Don’t miss Julie Novakova’s prescient new tale “All the Smells in the World,” on sale now in our current issue. She joins us on the blog to discuss this story, themes of science and music in her work, research rabbit holes, and upcoming projects!


What is the story behind “All the Smells in the World”?

I like imagining near-future tech as well as far futures of humankind, and I have some direct—if not long-lived—experience from the world of tech startups (and it’s an environment just calling for a somewhat satirical approach). I’ve also been interested in human olfaction for quite some time, and thus the story “All The Smells in The World” was born. The sense of smell has a powerful effect on our lives, even if we’re rarely aware of it on a conscious level. If we could add it to VR, it would make the experience much richer. But you know what’s the problem with writing near-future SF? Scarcely a month after I finished writing the first draft, a Japanese tech company announced that they’re working on a device to incorporate smells into VR. . . .


What is your history with Analog?

The first story I’ve published here is a near-future novelette “To See The Elephant” (May/June 2017), where an animal psychologist using cutting edge neuroimaging needs to save one of the few remaining African elephants in the wild. I do love the field of ethology (study of animal behavior), and I’m concerned about wildlife poaching and loss of biodiversity, so the story was somewhat personal to me in this respect. I also have one upcoming story in Analog: “Dreaming Up The Future,” a very short piece revolving around AI and the scientific process. In addition, I published a nonfiction piece on Venus in the magazine.


How much or little do current events impact your writing?

It’s especially new scientific publications, or sometimes tech news, that inspire my science fiction, but social and political events are often reflected in it too, of course – or a combination of all of that. When I was about fourteen, I started writing a novel revolving around climate change. I never finished it, but environmental concerns appear in my stories increasingly. At this moment, I’m working on a story that partly deals with the loss of insect numbers and diversity (also related to climate change and the politics of environmental protection). To anyone interested in this pressing topic, I can recommend the paper Hallman et al. 2017 or a very accessible piece in the NY Times.


Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

Most certainly—science and music are probably the most prominent. I have often come across new story ideas during university lectures. After all, the elephant Mgeni’s condition in “To See The Elephant” was inspired by a real study on a particular zebra finch that I learned about in the “Evolution of Phenotype” class, and so on. I’ve also always been interested in space so that figures in my work as well. Evolutionary biology, ethology, psychology and psychiatry, planetary science and astronomy—these are the fields I use most of all.

As to music, it’s not as easy to explain. I have loved music all my life, but I’m not particularly talented at it. I lack good pitch and sense of rhythm, and I can’t sing or play any instrument. But I do love it and it shows in my stories—“The Symphony of Ice and Dust”, “Étude for An Extraordinary Mind”, “Frankenstein Sonata” and others.


What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on two novels in English in parallel: one is a corporate spy SF thriller set in the Saturn system, the other an historical fantasy set in the early twentieth century after Prague has been mysteriously erased from the map. Though it’s fantasy, it’s got science in it—the world is very much like ours in the 1910s, and scientists such as Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, or Jakob von Uexküll figure in it, trying to understand what could have destroyed the city.

Beside that, I have a few short pieces and translations in the works, and I’ve co-edited an anthology of European SF in Filipino translation with His Excellency Jaroslav Olša, Jr., the Czech ambassador in the Philippines (and cofounder of the Czech SF magazine Ikarie, now XB-1). It should be published very soon!


What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?

For me, it felt weirdest to research how tarot cards are used and what kinds of divinations people have come up with for my fantasy novelette “The Wagner Trouble” (GigaNotoSaurus, April 2017). I feel comfortable scouring ScienceDirect and Google Scholar for papers on various scientific topics, but it was strange for me to search for this stuff, which I consider great fantasy elements, but useless as anything else but entertainment in the real world.

In terms of science, it was probably scouring databases for information on the speed and charge of pulsar wind, properties of pulsar magnetic fields and so on. However, that was only partly for a story I’d started; in part, it was for a paper on the detectability of pulsar planets by spectroscopy. I’m not a professional planetary scientist, but I found that no one had answered this question before, so I set out to attempt to (perhaps foolishly, but why not try?) – it’s just theoretical work, depending on relatively simple calculations and no advanced modeling or even observational time. But I got stuck on calculating the possible strength of auroral effects on pulsar planets more than a year ago… That reminds me I really need to finish the work and upload it to arxiv, but since I have a new baby at home, it’s difficult to get any work done that requires more than ten minutes’ concentration (not speaking of a grant for my actual university work and the novels I need to work on).


If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

Either Doctor Who or Star Trek. As much as I enjoy for instance any Peter Watts story, I would rarely like to live in it! But jumping across time and space, even universes, in a big blue box? Sign me up! If the TARDIS could travel to different SFnal universes, that would solve all the problems of this question. But exploring new worlds in a quite utopian future? I’d love to join Picard’s Enterprise and work alongside Commander Data.


What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

There are plenty—more versatile 3D printers for a range of materials, universal basic income, space colonization . . . (So basically a Star Trek-like utopia.) In my lifetime, I would love to walk on the Moon at least once. After all, we’ll need astrobiologists on the Moon too, trying to find meteorites from various eras of Earth’s history and possibly bearing fossils. It’s also not out of the question to find material ejected from other planets that eventually crashed on the Moon. The impact velocities would be much higher, but I wouldn’t give up on learning more about the history of Mars or even Venus through Moon exploration. Many old SF stories put life on Venus, and though it’s a greenhouse hell at this time (the surface, at least), it may have had liquid water for perhaps two billion years or so. If it did, and if it had life, ancient meteorites might still bear traces of it—but trying to find them would be worse than searching for a tiny needle in a really big haystack. It’s more of a science fiction so far . . . but I’d like to see it come true.


Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

Write! (I wanted to say “sit on your butt and write,” but speech-to-text has gotten pretty okay, so . . . walk and dictate, or anything else that works for you as long as you get the story written?) Try to write on a daily basis and finish stuff, not start twenty different stories and complete none. Find some honest beta-readers. Don’t self-reject. And read a lot (and as diverse stuff as possible), of course. Observe the world. Take care of yourself (most successful writers keep a rather healthy lifestyle, very much unlike the image of the haunted prolific alcoholic). It’s pretty basic, I know. But that’s what generally works. If I delved into something more specific, there would be plenty exceptions and exceptions from exceptions (e.g. always rely on well-written characters—I’ve seen very good stories with no characters at all). And if you’re from outside the Anglo-American world and English is not your first language, here’s just one of many examples that it’s not too much of an obstacle. Just keep on writing and submitting.


What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?

Besides writing, translation and science plus scientific outreach, I had part time jobs such as a receptionist (e.g. in Mozart’s museum in Prague), or a social media manager in one Prague-based start-up. Out of these, science affects my writing most prominently. But as you saw, music or tech permeate my stories as well.


How can our readers follow you and your writing?

The best way is to follow me on Twitter (@Julianne_SF), Facebook (@JulieNovakovaAuthor), and my website (www.julienovakova.com). I also attend some conventions, and I’ll be at the Worldcon in Dublin.


Julie Novakova (*1991) is an award-winning Czech author of science fiction and detective stories. She published seven novels, one anthology, one collection, and over thirty stories in Czech. Her work in English appeared in Analog, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s and other magazines and anthologies. Some of her works have been translated into Chinese, Romanian, German, Filipino, Estonian and Portuguese. She’s a biologist by study (though she’d like to be a synthesist, since she loves generating new hypotheses across fields), and she is also active in science outreach and education, nonfiction writing and translation (translated stories e.g. in Strange Horizons, Tor.com and F&SF). More at www.julienovakova.com.

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