This is as Spoiler free as I can make it.
This is a rather different post from me today! Its a gossipy, rambling (ok that’s no different) and a bit of fangirling about how I came to chat science with one of my favourite authors and getting to see the worldbuilding process from a whole new perspective. I still give a little squee in my head every time I say this but :
I was Jay Kristoff’s Botanical Expert for Empire of the Vampire!
I wrote the majority of this post before I got my claws on a ARC. This is because
b) Jay is incredibly good at keeping secrets. All the way through our discussions I had no idea about the overall plot, characters or any major details apart from what was needed for my help. So by writing this before I had read the book I could keep this post as spoiler free as possible as I have no idea what of our discussions made it in or not ( I do now and yes I let out audible squeaks).
What the hell do you know about Botany?
Ok we have to start this with a little bit about me. I have mentioned before I am a scientist. I am in fact not currently a botanist. I am a Post-Doctoral research associate, Computational Biologist/Bioinformatician. I currently work for a university lab which studies aging, so I spend most of my working week running building and running computational models to analyse genetic data of fruit flies, to study how they age. Its a bit of coding, a bit of genetics and a bit of statistics all rolled into one. My career and education has taken many turns and I have studied many aspects of genetics and worked in various areas of biology.
I started my studies of biology by obtaining my BSc (Hons) in Plant Science, this covered many aspects of plant genetics and molecular biology. I then moved to Ohio and received my MSc in Botany, where I investigated the evolution of sex chromosomes within plants. It’s also where I dove into the Computational Biology portion of my career learning to code. For my PhD I moved away plants and Ohio, came back to Scotland and studied the evolution of the vertebrate genome. After completing my PhD I continued with the Bioinformatics and when Jay reached out I was working for a department that works on human genetic diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and mitochondrial disorders, before moving to my current position.
This reads a little humble brag. My career choice took me a very long time to achieve, a lot of hardwork and tears went into it. But we are living in an age where experts are shunned and ignored. I don’t claim to be a botanical expert in any way shape or form. But I have studied it for several years of my life and I know I have knowledge that goes beyond others and I think it is important to share that especially in a time of misinformation.
Why did Jay Kristoff need a Botanist?
For those that haven’t read the Blurb for Empire of the Vampire it reads as follows;
It has been twenty-seven long years since the last sunrise. For nearly three decades, vampires have waged war against humanity; building their eternal empire even as they tear down our own. Now, only a few tiny sparks of light endure in a sea of darkness.
Gabriel de León is a silversaint: a member of a holy brotherhood dedicated to defending realm and church from the creatures of the night. But even the Silver Order couldn’t stem the tide once daylight failed us, and now, only Gabriel remains.
Imprisoned by the very monsters he vowed to destroy, the last silversaint is forced to tell his story. A story of legendary battles and forbidden love, of faith lost and friendships won, of the Wars of the Blood and the Forever King and the quest for humanity’s last remaining hope:
The Holy Grail.
The key to Jay and I’s discussions is that 27 years of darkness. Jay posted on Twitter
Way back in April 2019, at sometime between 6:30 – 7:30 am I was sitting on my train to work ( I had a 2 hour commute each way at that point – yes 2 hours I was that dedicated to science, also eating, paying bills and keeping my home) browsing twitter when this popped up on my timeline. My brain went “hey you know plant stuff” but it also went “NYT best selling author Jay Kristoff is not going to want to know about your plant stuff” so I tweeted that he should reach out to his local uni. This is generally true, despite how we are depicted, scientists are really happy to talk Science. If you do a bit of research and find the right PhD student or Post doc (going straight to the big guy at the top might not get you far as they get 80 million emails a day or it might get you forwarded on to their post docs) we are happy to answer a few questions you just have to ask nicely. Then my tiny bit of self confidence work up and went “you have 3 fucking degrees, two of which are plant related, bloody go for it”
And yes dear reader he did in fact DM me, and after I stopped fangirling, waking up my husband to fan girl at him for a bit, and settled into work the career academic brain kicked in and I thought “oh I could tick off some public engagement hours with this” (fellow academics will understand) and forward him my official email.
I feel bad at this point as the email he sent me got routed to my students folder, and as I didn’t have students at that time of year I didn’t notice it! Jay was gracious enough to prompt me via twitter and we started talking Science. Jay gave me just enough insight to know a “cataclysm” of some sort had happened and that the sun barely rose/ sunshine bare made earth. I took some time pulling together various bits of information.
One of the biggest points of interest for me is a got to dive into some amazingly interesting papers on climate disaster recovery. There is a vast collection of research on the topic that is morbidly fascinating, terrifyingly scary and strangely hopeful all at the same time. From this research and my personal knowledge we were able to discuss many aspects that could potentially shape this fictional world.
We started with how the lack of sunlight would physically effect plant and animal life on the planet, how the planet (basing it around earth) would shift ecologically and what that would mean for various niches, from crop plants, to insect prevalence and oceanic life. We covered as much ground as possible with discussing how lack of light would physically change the niches around earth and shift human populations, population genetics being another area I have studied in conjunction with my MSc and PhD.
We discussed the potential crash of the Carbon Cycle (The exchange of carbon atoms between the atmosphere and earth, which is the backbone to life regulating temperature, food chain, energy etc.) and how that could have various consequences. As we were talking about such a short timescale, evolutionary speaking, we talked about how far these ecological breakdowns could progress.
Our discussions continued over several months, and I was fortunate enough to get to meet Jay as part of his Dark dawn tour back in September 2019
We also discussed how this might be overcome by the population as Jay narrowed down what actually happened 27 years prior to the start of EOTV, and how his Vampire might rise to fill the new ecological niches. This made the part of me that studies evolution sing as that is a delicious, yet highly sped up, example of evolution. This lead us on to how the population of humans would survive. We discussed how the food chain would have to adapt, what potential crops and animals could survive. I really laid on the detail here and poor jay was subjected to mile long emails discussing all the potential of how and what food stocks could be grown in the conditions he had set out for this world. We discussed how these would potentially look, taste, even size and nutritional structure. Ground and soil structure and even UV exposure were all part of the plant life discussion. This lead to the discussion of fungi and their lifecycles, propagation and adaption.
We had long chats about oceanic life and how that would fair. During my PhD I worked within a department that did a lot of research into the marine environment. We discussed again how this would effect the food chain, shift the ecological niches and again how potential ocean farming might continue in the eotv scenario.
You can’t discuss plants without discussing animals. With the cataclysmic elements Jay proposed the human population would struggle to be vegan so livestock had to join the debate. I really enjoyed these discussions. As we moved from problem to problem new avenues and discussions. The discussions of livestock lead us down not only the route of farming but also the socio-economics or it all, what food stuffs could be produced, how they could be produced, the health and well-being of the population. The economical impact the farming of various livestocks would take and what that might mean for the social standing of that individual. The health of the entire population was also questioned, with lack on nutrients, various diseases and conditions would proliferate across the human population. We discussed how the population would clothe itself due to lack of natural fibres such as cotton, and even how an animal based transport system would survive.
That’s really the point of this post. That Biological science impacts every part of our day to day lives and even in fantasy writing it is playing a role in the worlds you build and structure you create. Yes, artistic licence can be taken, as Jay stated in his first email to me,
To me its this factual foundation that is important. The seeds that set up the worldbuilding that give it its biological rules and parameters inform so much more, but it also gives the reader grounding. Even if you claim to know nothing about biology you will recognise those foundations without even realising you have that knowledge. Its what makes Fantasy worlds real and come to life in out minds as we read.
I hope when you read Empire of the Vampire you appreciate the lengths of work Jay went to. Not only in the the plot or the characters but all the discussions he had to get those tiny details about the world grounded in a scientific foundation as for me that'[s what takes a book from a good read to an enveloping joy.
I had so much fun getting to see his process up close. Getting to ask the what ifs and the how abouts? Getting to talk Science and combine it with my love of SFF fiction. It made me even more excited for the Empire of the Vampire. I want to say thank you the Jay. It was such a fun experience. He is a wonderful person to chat to and has been so kind in making sure I could get my hands on an ARC – it arrived on my birthday too which was fortuitous timing. I finally read EOTV in mid June and it was just epic I am still processing it fully. I intend on re-reading it over launch week too. I love that i got to be a teeny weeny part in its creation and that some of my what ifs made it to the page.
I am hoping this little glimpse has made you a little more interested in the Science behind SFF. Since talking to Jay Kristoff I have started to put together a more in depth blog post discussing why getting the details right is so important and the difference it can make. This as got more and more important particularly in 2020 and beyond as not only are we facing climate issue more and more frequently and the denial of climate science is getting more and more vehement but also with the ongoing pandemic, mental health crisis, anti-vax movement, anti-trans movement, restrictions of women’s health matters all surrounded by extreme amounts of misinformation. Its even more important to get those foundational details right. I have spoken to a few lovely authors who have given me pull quotes and I would like to chat to a few more before I publish it, so it is still some time off, but I hope you will keep an eye out for it.