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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy and paranormal romance writer Leslye Penelope! She is the author of Song of Blood & Stone, which was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, and the rest of the books in the Earthsinger Chronicles, as well as Savage City, described as “a dystopian, enemies-to-lovers, portal, shifter fantasy romance.” Her latest novel, The Monsters We Defy, is a heist story described as “historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance,” and it was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022. In addition to writing, she talks about working as a traditional and self-published author in her weekly podcast, My Imaginary Friends. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss fantasy writing and computer science in “When Fantasy and STEM Collides.”

Cover of The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope Cover of Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

When Fantasy and STEM Collide
By Leslye Penelope

I first fell in love with writing the weird and fantastical as a child. Of course, this isn’t particularly unusual. The stories we tell children to help them understand the world around them are filled with monsters and fairies, witches and wizards. Tales of creatures with magic powers who live in impossible worlds are the first stories most of us hear. However, as we grow up, so many of us leave fantasy behind in favor of more realistic fiction and entertainment. The real world encroaches, leaving the fantastical by the wayside.

While I never left it completely behind, I too moved on for a while from reading and writing fantasy. Life sharpened my other interests, eventually leading me to a career in website development. However, I found my way back to my first love and never looked back.

Recently, I was on a panel as part of an event with two other Black women authors, Veronica G. Henry and Nicole Glover. We discovered that all of us work in IT for our day jobs and also write speculative fiction, specifically fantasy. STEM fields are pretty much the epitome of realism. Science, technology, engineering, and math focus heavily on our world and on logic, rationality, and repeatable, predictable results. Also, STEM and fantasy fiction are both male-dominated, at least historically, so what draws women, particularly Black women, to both?

For me, like many others who find themselves in technology-centric jobs, I was always intrigued by science and tech. As a young child, I dreamed of becoming a chemist. I was always doing experiments and putting strange concoctions of ingredients into the freezer or onto the stovetop to see what would happen at different temperatures. Of course, by the time I got to chemistry in the tenth grade and received a hard-fought B instead of an easy A, it occurred to me that perhaps my future did not lie in chemistry. Physics was much the same, to my everlasting chagrin. I loved the idea of science, but the practical application of it lowered my GPA more than I would care to remember.

However, I ended up finding my way into computer science. By the age of eight or so, I had become the de facto technical support resource in my home for our IBM computer. I learned DOS commands and how to fix the dot matrix printer when it refused to print. When we got our first modem, I navigated the world of BBSs (early online chat boards) with relative ease. In school, I studied programming languages like Basic and C++, along with Fortran, which for some reason was part of the curriculum of my minor in computer science decades after it had fallen out of regular use.

My writing practice grew alongside my interest in computers and programming, with the stories I wrote always containing some element of the speculative. Dystopian settings, ghostly doppelgängers, and magical adventures filled the pages. My early influences included Edgar Allan Poe, along with the likes of Virginia Hamilton and Gloria Naylor.

I rejected the common wisdom to write what you know. What I knew was bland suburbia; who wanted to read about that? I wanted to write what I didn’t know, things I could only imagine—the what if’s and what could be’s.

I also wanted to write myself into a world that often felt unwelcoming. In some ways, being a nerdy Black girl in majority White spaces was like being left-handed or seven feet tall—nothing was quite made with you in mind. But in the world I didn’t know, the one that I could only imagine, anything was possible.

On the programming side, writing code is a way to envision an outcome and make it a reality. You can create an algorithm which will do what you tell it to. Your code will also not do what you don’t tell it to, so I learned to be as thorough as possible, which has also served me well in fiction writing. Authors are the gods of our own imagined worlds. We create lives and control the heartbreak and joy of our characters.

In that way, writing speculative fiction can be empowering. I have the ability to write myself into any story I choose, in any role I desire, and program the outcomes. Also, to a certain degree, since writing fiction is about manipulating emotions and outcomes for the reader, I can influence the way another person feels.

Researchers have found that reading fiction increases empathy, and what better way to change the world than to make a reader feel certain emotions about characters they are unfamiliar with or never would have empathized with before?

Those of us who work in STEM often see a direct cause and effect in our work. Scientists might adjust hundreds of variables in order to observe the effects of their studies. They predict the result they’re trying to achieve and then work to make it happen. There are many spiritual traditions which believe that people have a hand in creating our own reality. Writers certainly do it every day, taking readers on journeys emanating purely from our minds. And with recent hype around artificial intelligence-assisted technologies shaking up the publishing industry, and perhaps moving our world ever closer to the dystopias of the Terminator and the Matrix franchises, the programmers and developers responsible for these innovations are, very tangibly, shifting and shaping our actual reality.

Futures predicted in works of speculative fiction or film inspire and change us. The powers of science and art combine to create something new and maybe a little terrifying. However, I’ve always found simpatico between the two main spheres of my world: the creative and the technical. My official biography states that I’m equally left and right-brained and, for me, that feels only natural. Doesn’t that equal an entire brain, after all? I’m grateful that I get to be fully and completely myself in all aspects of my life, using all of my brain and my heart to do the work I enjoy.

Photo of Leslye Penelope
Photo by Valerie Bey
Leslye Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning author of fantasy and paranormal romance. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She hosts the My Imaginary Friends podcast and lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Visit her online at https://www.lpenelope.com/.