Lorraine Alden is a former economics professor who spent years teaching in West Africa as a Peace Corps worker. Here she discusses her research background, and argues that more economists should write science fiction. Check out her latest story,”Ceres 7,” in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Lorraine Alden: “Ceres 7” is about an all-female crew that’s sent out to populate a distant planet. In SF stories, space colonists are often depicted as swashbuckling adventurers or misfits, but if I were staffing a crew for a long voyage, I’d want people who are emotionally stable and self-sacrificing. So that’s how I populated the story.
The protagonist suffers a bit from imposter syndrome, in that she was picked at the last minute for the mission and her fellow crew members are all exceptional.
I could relate to her because I used to feel out of place, too, when I first started out in academia. It was as if there were asterisks next to my achievements that only I could see. Over time, though, I grew more confident.
I wrote “Ceres 7” during the pandemic, so it’s both sad and hopeful, reflecting my mood at the time.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
LA: Some of my biggest heroes, like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, George R.R. Martin, and Orson Scott Card, had work published in Analog or its precursors. It was a thrill to get my story accepted there.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
LA: I’m putting the finishing touches on a science-fiction thriller set in the near future, when everyone’s youth has been restored by an anti-aging drug. I’m also writing short stories and humor pieces.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
LA: I like to base stories on thought experiments in ethics. In “Ceres 7,” the characters confront something akin to Garrett Hardin’s lifeboat problem, in which there aren’t enough seats to rescue all the swimmers in the water. My novel has a couple of trolley problems, in that sacrificing a few innocents could save the lives of many, many people.
I also like writing about virtuous people, though it can be tricky to pull off. While readers are fine with characters who are smarter or more beautiful than they are, they’re slow to warm to anyone who gives off the slightest whiff of being morally superior. Maybe it’s because such characters are so often exposed as hypocrites in films and literature.
I acquired a thick skin from my years in academia, where criticism can be brutal. This, I think, is my big writing superpower.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
LA: While working on my novel, I researched things like how to disable security systems, poison people without being detected, avoid scent-tracking dogs, and plant bugs. At the time, I half expected the FBI to come knocking at my door, but instead a bunch of “How to Self-Publish Your Book” ads started popping up on my browser screen.
Once, though, when I was looking up how much carbon monoxide it would take to kill a person, the top-ranked result was a gentle appeal for me to call a suicide prevention hotline. This unexpected kindness from the Google search engine brought tears to my eyes.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
LA: Teleportation. I’d love to be able to pop into France right now for some cassoulet and fresh, crusty bread.
AE: What are you reading right now?
LA: I just finished The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. Both were excellent.
Next up is George Saunders’ latest collection of stories.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
LA: After college, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. Hanging around other volunteers for hours each evening, with no TV shows or movies to compete with, helped me hone my storytelling skills.
Later, I taught university-level economics for over twenty years, and loved it. Teaching, though, requires a bit of over-explaining and repetition, so I had to unlearn some bad habits before I could produce a decent story.
AE: How does your background as an economist impact your fiction?
LA: In my novel, countries must limit their population growth in order to license an anti-aging drug. Kurt Vonnegut introduced a similar problem in his short story, “2 B R 0 2 B,” and he solved it by having people commit suicide in order to allow babies to be born. I instead dusted off Kenneth Boulding’s idea of having marketable birth licenses, and designed a futuristic society around it. This kind of world building is catnip for economists.
I wish more of us would write science fiction. The economics literature is filled with startling ideas, and many would make for great stories. Take Gordon Tullock’s (thought-experimental) idea of mounting a spike at the center of every steering wheel in order to make drivers more cautious. Or Thomas Schelling’s argument that two strangers told only to meet in New York City on a certain day might well find each other, even if they had no way of communicating. Or Bastiat’s (satirical) nineteenth-century proposal that people should be forced to block out the sun in order to protect the livelihood of candlemakers.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
LA: Ask your editors and beta readers to give you tough criticism, and learn to take advantage of it. I acquired a thick skin from my years in academia, where criticism can be brutal. This, I think, is my big writing superpower.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
LA: Please visit www.lorrainealden.com for links to some of my most recent stories.