Q&A with P.K. Torrens

As much as he loves a good out-of-this-world alien tale, P.K. Torrens’ story in our July/August issue [on sale now] shows that he can also adeptly draw on his this-world background in human medicine for a compelling piece of fiction. He took the time to delve with us into the science behind “Nanoscopic Nemesis” and the history behind his writing career.

Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

PKT: In medicine we haven’t really moved beyond vaccinations and antibiotics as the prime effectors of improved quality of life. Let’s be honest, life was really awful before vaccines and penicillin. Only a few decades ago, hospitals had outdoor diphtheria wards because this disease was common (thankfully, most people now don’t know what diphtheria is— google it to see what you’re missing out on), and not to mention the other stuff that we used to put up with: polio, tetanus, and incurable venereal disease. A caveat is that because of our global economic system, diseases still dominate the lives of the vast amount of Earth’s population.

But, yes, we have made incremental improvements in medicines with lower side effect profiles, increased efficacy, and better surgical techniques.

Nanotechnology is medicine’s futuristic goal: highly-targeted therapy that can eliminate the disease without causing collateral damage. This piece muses about the possible beginnings of medical nanorobotics (call me a pessimist, but the story may also hint at the likely end).

Fundamentally, cancer is evolution exponentially fast-forwarded. We design highly-targeted drugs, for example monoclonal antibodies, that on paper should eliminate cancer cells, but the malignant master-of-natural-selection evolves to evade it. Meaning that most anti-cancer drugs are used in settings where cure can’t be the goal. The question remains: can nanobots have the smarts to anticipate evolutionary leaps?

AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?

PKT: Analog is the home of hard science fiction. Out of all the SF magazines I read, I enjoy Analog for the thrill of how new scientific ideas can be applied in a fictitious setting. Hopefully, this piece will tickle some people’s fancy too.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

PKT: Covid-19 delayed my Board exams, so I decided to use my spare time to do some more writing (after a year-long hiatus for study). I’m currently drafting a Kiwis-in-space story with a first-contact twist.

“When I’m happy, I send my wee baby off into the world, and I wait. When I first started, I was sending pieces out that were still too young. I now try to sit on stories for weeks, and reread them with fresh eyes. If the story is interesting and fresh, they get to move out of home.”

AE: What is your process?

PKT: My stories tend to start with a central idea. Something that I think is cool, keeps me awake at night, or induces daydreams. For example, a cool application of science, or a creative way aliens could communicate/sense/react. Then I build conflict around the idea that further extrapolates the implications.

The aspect I always have to work hardest on is making my characters less cardboardy, and then throwing them in the mix. Over time, I have come to realise that what I need is the ingredients to form the magic potion early on—I need the right character in the right setting for the right story. Trying to get this mix palatable early on, preferably prior to drafting, prevents having to re-write. But not always.

Sometimes I get magic in an early draft. Often, I get a sorry-lookin’ lump that needs more sculpting. Honest critiques from crit partners are essential.

When I’m happy, I send my wee baby off into the world, and I wait. When I first started, I was sending pieces out that were still too young. I now try to sit on stories for weeks, and reread them with fresh eyes. If the story is interesting and fresh, they get to move out of home.

AE: How did you break into writing?

PKT: A couple of years ago, I spent a year in Edinburgh while my wife was on an international medical fellowship. My surgical workload decreased substantially, so I decided to give writing a go. I was very lucky to find some very talented critique partners (or did they find me?) who helped my writing become readable. Absolutewrite.com and the Writing Excuses podcasts are fantastic resources that helped shed light on how to write.

AE: What are you reading right now?

PKT: I’ve just finished the second installment of Sue Burke’s Semiosis duology. This is a fantastic hard SF first-contact/colony series that I enjoyed thoroughly. Highly, highly recommended.

Covid-19 is dying down in NZ (thankfully) so our board exams are back on later this year. This means minimal leisure reading for the foreseeable future (unfortunately).

AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?

PKT: I have a MD and MSc, and am hopefully going to attain a professional qualification in December. My area of expertise is in head and neck cancer surgery. The story in this issue is a testament to the fact that I do sometimes write about medicine, and I do think that having knowledge of real-world anatomy and physiology does allow for believable/hard biology in fiction, but although all that’s exciting, I really do love a good out-of-this-world, weird-ass, alien story.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

PKT: I would love to get to know more people via twitter. My handle is @PK_Torrens.

P.K. Torrens grew up during Former Yugoslavia’s civil war in the ’90s. He now works as a head and neck oncological surgeon in New Zealand and writes when the Time Demon allows. He wishes healing crystals and homeopathy were efficacious so he could retire and write full time.

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