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Today’s guest is science fiction author Emily Suvada! This Mortal Coil, her debut novel and the first book in a STEM-focused thriller trilogy of the same name, won the Oregon Spirit Book Award and was a finalist for the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Readings Young Adult Book Prize. It was followed by This Cruel Design, and the series was completed with the release of This Vicious Cure earlier this year.

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada Book Cover This Cruel Design by Emily Suvada Book Cover This Vicious Cure by Emily Suvada Book Cover

On Heroes, Horror, and Hope

My background is in theoretical astrophysics, which is just as much fun to say as you might expect. That background, and my love of science, has fueled the stories I write, so when I was asked to contribute a post for this series a month ago, I planned to write an article about women in STEM. A month ago, I was reading about advances in genetics. I was watching my baby wrestle and kiss his friends, and meeting fellow writers for coffee. A month ago, the coronavirus pandemic was in its early days, with only a few US cases, and the danger seemed so very far away.

Today, my family is under stay-at-home orders in Oregon, and the article I’d drafted feels awkward and strange. Everything feels strange, right now. A global pandemic is killing people, dividing nations, and spreading chaos into every facet of our lives. My life feels worryingly close to the dystopian science fiction books I have written—books in which a young hacker races to release the vaccine to a horrifying plague which, in the absence of a cure, has driven humanity into airlocked bunkers. Far too close for comfort.

Through my writing research, I knew what to expect: panic, misinformation, and hoarding. I knew that the poorest and oldest people would be among those most at risk. I knew to brace myself for months of horrendous, error-laden data analysis used to gain pageviews. And yet, despite the parallels, one element of our current predicament has surprised me: the hijacking of hope.

I am, by nature, an optimist. While the virus we’re facing is terrifying, I have a deep faith in the endless ingenuity, generosity, and perseverance of people. I believe that we’ll solve and overcome whatever problems we’re faced with. This comes through in my fiction: while my characters might endure horrors, their guiding light is the hope that there is a better world ahead, and that we can work together to reach it. That light, while present in the coronavirus pandemic, has seemed frustratingly dim.

Some people I’ve spoken to have admitted they’re struggling to picture a hopeful future. Many feel sure we’ll spend over a year in quarantine and devastate our society. They worry their children will lose years of critical socialization periods, and that their family will fall prey to the virus itself. On the other side, I’ve seen people blatantly disregarding social distancing rules, shrugging off the threat of the virus with “if I die, I die, whatever.” That kind of numb, senseless attitude is even more worrying than the fear.

And through it all, I sometimes feel like the only genuinely optimistic voices I hear are the blustering, populist world leaders and their pundits spouting ridiculous claims about the economy being unharmed, or this virus disappearing overnight. Their baseless arguments, and their mishandling of this pandemic, have dramatically worsened the outbreak.

And therein lies the problem.

What happens when the loudest voices of optimism are false? What happens when hope comes in the form of wilful ignorance? From what I see in the news and my social feeds, the answer is that optimism itself becomes suspect. Hope is seen as dangerous or ignorant. For those of us railing against populist governments, it almost feels like optimism is the mark of a traitor.

This isn’t something I ever considered in my writing. Every science fiction rebellion, every character’s arc, every turn of three-act structure in the stories we tell is founded on the unshakeable bedrock of hope. I never predicted that it could be co-opted like this. Hope has been weaponized and turned into partisan echolalia. But while it’s true we need to ensure that we never lose sight of the seriousness, and the danger of the crisis we are faced with, it’s absolutely critical that we don’t turn away from hope.

Like the characters in my books, and in every YA dystopian book in existence, when we’re let down by our leaders we must turn to each other for support. The world we will inherit after this virus won’t be defined by our government—it will be defined by us, the people, and the ways we’re acting now. If our leaders don’t offer science or data, we must seek out trustworthy sources and amplify it ourselves—there are good people doing incredible work. We must ask what other countries have done that’s working, and make those strategies part of the conversation here—there are countries winning this war. We must search for creative strategies to protect one another in communal spaces, and to bridge the growing cracks of inequality that this virus is causing. While we practice social distancing, we must practice social attachment, too.

We’re being told that our only power is in powerlessness, that our only course of action is inaction, but this isn’t true, and we must desperately search for ways we can fight: making masks, shopping for the elderly, supporting small businesses, donating blood, and amplifying bright stars of hope as they blink on throughout our feeds. New drugs, new strategies, new data. For each other, for the future, and for those who are breaking under the strain, we must wrestle optimism back from our governments and make it our own. We must rage against this virus and the pain it’s causing, and lift each other up when we feel the slip of despair. We’re not helpless, and we’re not powerless, no matter what our leaders would have us believe. We are an unstoppable force of creativity, of genius and compassion, and we owe it to the world and to ourselves to fight desperately for hope.

The alternative isn’t something I can bear—not as a lover of science, not as a writer, and most certainly not as a mother. In the immortal words of Jyn Erso: Rebellions are built on hope. We can’t yield our brilliant minds and burning hearts to the crushing drudgery of doom. Now, more than ever, we need stories, fictional and real, that are filled with strength, with community, with love and generosity, and most of all, with hope.

Emily Suvada Photo
Photo Credit: Britt Q Hoover
Emily Suvada is the award-winning author of the Mortal Coil trilogy, a science fiction thriller series for young adults. Emily was born and raised in Australia, where she went on to study mathematics and astrophysics. She previously worked as a data scientist, and still spends hours writing algorithms to perform tasks which would only take minutes to complete on her own. When not writing, she can be found hiking, cycling, and conducting chemistry experiments in her kitchen. She currently lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and son.