Often finding inspiration in science and each other’s ideas, Jay Werkheiser and Frank Wu are no strangers to Analog’s pages. Their new story “Communion” explores questions of molecular sentience, and it appears [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: What’s the story behind your collaboration?
JW and FW: When we met at the Analog 90th Anniversary Symposium at CUNY, we quickly realized were both chemistry nerds. Afterward, we batted around science trivia and Frank asked an interesting question—can an individual molecule be sentient? We discussed that, gradually adding complexity to the life form, eventually we needed multiple proteins, and then a membrane to encase them—and an Enceladus-like environment, and a human to interact with. Then Frank said, “You want to write this together?”
AE: What is your writing process?
JW and FW: Not so much a process as playing in a communal sandbox.
A typical exchange:
Frank: Here’s a cool story idea!
Jay: Omg, I love it! Here are some ideas and tangents that might work!
Frank: Yes! That makes me think of other stuff that we can add!
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the exclamation points aren’t. We get excited about these things! We toss around ideas, each inspiring two or three in the other guy, then try to winnow it down to a reasonable plot. We cut way more cool ideas than we keep. As for the actual writing, one of us will write until he runs out of steam, then send it off to the other. He’ll read, revise, and add to the end of it, then send it back and repeat. At the end, we’ll go back and forth a couple of times doing final revisions. At some point, one of us will declare the story finished.
AE: What makes your collaboration successful?
JW and FW: Even though our writing styles are different, we have similar interests and the same nerdy sense of humor, and we’re both passionate about our stories. But probably the biggest reason our collab works is that we both feel free to modify or even remove words written by the other. It’s important to be able to step away from your beautiful words and trust your collaborator when he says, “That doesn’t fit here,” or, “I think we can say that in a more effective way.” Ego kills collaborations, and fortunately for us, neither of us has a big enough ego to get in the way.
AE: You mentioned that you have two very different styles. Is “Communion” more a Frank Wu or a Jay Werkheiser story?
JW and FW: Neither, really. Neither of us could have written the story alone. We each brought different expertise to the table. Stylistically, Frank writes flowery, almost poetic prose, while Jay tends toward stark descriptions and rapid-fire dialogue. You’ll see bits and pieces of each in “Communion”—phrases like “melodious mimosine” were all Frank; the snappy exchanges between Alex’s nodes were Jay. With multiple revisions, we try to blend everything and the result is neither Jay nor Frank, but a new Frankenstyle. Call us Wukheiser.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
JW and FW: Yes! And the story behind that is long and convoluted (shocking, right?). At the Symposium, Frank pointed out that his “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary” could be thought of as a distant prequel to Jay’s “The Writhing Tentacles of History.” Jay had already been loosely linking his colony world stories and realized that Frank’s story about the fall of mankind on Earth and the rise of octopus civilization could perfectly explain why Jay’s colony worlds had not been contacted by Earth, leaving them on their own. Before we knew it, we were fitting our stories together into a coherent future history timeline. We have spreadsheets, so it must be official.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
JW and FW: We set out to write the story for Analog right from the start. We both have science backgrounds and tend to write science-based stories, so Analog is a natural fit. When the plot of a story hinges on the effects of specific amino acids on both human cells and a meticulously designed protein-based alien biochemistry, well, people expect to see that kind of stuff in Analog.
AE: I can tell you guys are eager to talk about the science behind “Communion”. Go for it!
JW and FW: We started with Frank’s “sentient molecule” question. Many chemical reactions don’t go to 100% completion. Hydrogen and nitrogen can form ammonia, but even under ideal conditions very few molecules actually react. The rest are fed back into the reaction chamber for a second chance. It gets worse in organic chemistry, where side reactions can use up reactants to form products you don’t want.
Are individual molecules choosing whether or not to react, or to become a “good” product or a “bad” by-product? It’s really a matter of thermodynamics and kinetics; you can calculate an equation’s equilibrium constant from its Gibbs free energy. But that’s all statistical–psychohistory for molecules, if you will. But . . . What about on the individual scale? Inverting Asimov’s logic: could a single molecule exhibit free will?
What is the smallest unit of sentience? What choices could an H2O molecule make? Rotate this way or that? Assume a different vibrational mode? Where would it store memories? No, we decided, a sentient molecule needed to be larger, more complex, perhaps a protein able to store information as an amino acid sequence.
For the longest time, we called the alien “the hero protein,” even as he changed as our ideas did. Instead of copying segments of a single protein strand, why not use multiple proteins for communication and complex social interactions? And if he’s doing that, he’ll want to keep everything together with a membrane. Yeah, we accidentally evolved a cell.
It’s important to be able to step away from your beautiful words and trust your collaborator when he says, “That doesn’t fit here,” or, “I think we can say that in a more effective way.” Ego kills collaborations, and fortunately for us, neither of us has a big enough ego to get in the way.
AE: How plausible is the idea of an intelligent cell?
JW and FW: Microbiologists have been debating that question for decades. Can bacteria think?
Place bacteria in liquid medium, with meat extract at one end and poison at the other. The bacteria will gather at the meat side. How?
Bacteria like E. coli move randomly, zigzagging, but every time they stop and pivot, they take a sample of the environment to see if they’re moving up or down a concentration gradient of nutrient or poison. The bacteria remember.
They also exhibit complex social behaviors. A single isolated bacterium is biochemically different from a cell of its kind found in a group, even if they’re genetically identical. Bacteria in groups like biofilms communicate by trading proteins and rings of DNA called plasmids; it’s called “quorum sensing”. Like humans, they can even succumb to peer pressure, the groups often turning virulent.
Is all that behavior intelligence? We’re not sure, but some people say so, and that’s good enough to nucleate a story!
AE: From a reader’s point of view, the interesting question is how did you weave all the science into the story?
JW and FW: We already had a main character, a “Sentinel” who watches over his colony. We needed to create some strengths and weaknesses for him—obstacles to overcome on his journey.
He uses proteins for all his life processes. Proteins are chains of amino acids, as words are strings of letters. With very few exceptions, life on Earth uses 20 specific amino acids. By why those 20? There are plenty more! Why does Spanish use letters that English doesn’t?
We needed some compatibility, in the form of amino acids used by both humans and the Sentinel. But what if some were used by one but not the other? Or were food to the Sentinel but poison to humans?
(Note: Some of the amino acids in “Communion” are shown below.)
As we mentioned, the Sentinel uses proteins for all sorts of things, including communication. In the story, there’s another bacterium (“The Other Survivor”), and they write their names as complex strings of alanines, decorated with sugars.
(Note: The molecular “names” of these two characters are shown below.)
We thought it’d be fun, as long as we were so focused on proteins . . . what if the Sentinel used only proteins, and not nucleic acids? That idea gave us another bit of uniqueness to the character, and another science wrinkle / plot device.
Life on Earth uses nucleic acids to store information for encoding protein sequences. This is “The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology,” as described by James Watson (one of the scientists who discovered that DNA was a double helix). DNA can be copied into more DNA (replicated) or transcribed into RNA, and the RNA translated into proteins. Genetic information only flows from nucleic acid to protein, and stops there.
Then minds were blown with the discovery that some viruses (like HIV) can reverse-transcribe RNA into DNA. And others (like coronavirus) can copy their RNA into more RNA, using enzymes called RNA-dependent RNA polymerases. The Central Dogma was updated.
In our story, we added a new arrow to the Central Dogma. If an organism doesn’t have nucleic acids, and only stores information as proteins, it has to have a new ability: it can make copies of a protein, protein to protein, without going through those pesky nucleic acid stages. (We call this a “science spoiler,” rather than a plot spoiler, as it’s revealed on the first page of the story!)
(Note: Central Dogma diagram shown below.)
AE: Now that “Communion” is published, what other projects are you currently working on?
JW and FW: We just finished another novella, this one twice as long as “Communion.” Set in the same universe, a few hundred years later. We just sent it off to Trevor, so if he likes it, you’ll see us again in the pages of Analog. We’re currently working on the background for our next story, something a little shorter than the massive beasts we’ve been writing. After that, well, we have several more ideas ranging from short stories to novels, about half of which also occupy the same shared universe as “Communion.” Individually, Jay is working on a new novel and Frank is working on some non-writing projects, like a giant giant laser tank.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JW and FW: Jay posts writing updates on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Jay.Werkheiser/. He has a blog that he swears he’s going to update but never does, and he’s been planning on creating a formal author page “any day now” for the past several years. Frank can be found on twitter @thefrankwu and at his website, frankwu.com.