INTERVIEW: Seanan McGuire, author of “Laughter at the Academy”

Seanan McGuire is the author of Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, and An Artificial Night. Writing under the open pseudonym Mira Grant, she is the author the Newsflesh trilogy— which includes Feed, Deadline, and Blackout—which she describes as “science fiction zombie political thrillers” that focus on blogging, medical technology, and the ethics of fear. A story set in that milieu appeared in John Joseph Adams’s anthology The Living Dead 2. Her other short work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Book View Café, The Edge of Propinquity, Apex Magazine, and in the anthologies Zombiesque and Tales from the Ur-Bar.

 Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Laughter at the Academy: A Field Study in the Genesis of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder (SCGPD) is about one brave researcher’s efforts to push the boundaries of human psychology forward through field testing, subliminal conditioning, and the use of real-world risk/reward Skinner Box scenarios. It’s also about why, when you encounter someone doing something like this, you should leave them alone if at all possible.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I love mad science. I love mad scientists. They’re two of my favorite flavors. But they always seem to focus on the hard science madmen, and I wanted to explore the options offered by…other…sciences. Plus I wanted an excuse to shout “IGNITE THE BIOSPHERE!” as often as possible.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Not really. Which is probably worrisome, now that I come to think about it. I spent a lot of the writing process giggling madly.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I find that a lot of people who study history, psychology, human behavior, or any of the other “soft sciences” have a tendency to regard themselves as less intellectual than people who study, say, giant death lasers on the moon. I majored in folklore and mythology, and it took me a long time to stop thinking I was dumb when compared to my friend, the physicist. So this story is personal to me in the sense that it posits the soft sciences getting ready to kick your ass.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Disturbingly, NONE AT ALL.

What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do writers–or you yourself–write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

Mad scientist fiction is interesting because it has two diametrically opposed appeals. To some, it reaffirms the belief that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know ™, and that those of us who dig into them will inevitably meet a messy and unpleasant end. To others, it reaffirms the belief that before our monstrous creations suck the marrow from our bones, we’ll get to see them stop the crap out of all the people who made fun of us in high school. I think many writers spent our school years designing those very monsters. Fiction lets us unleash them without that pesky federal prosecution.

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction (or perhaps in fact!), and what makes them your favorites?

Seth Brundle from The Fly, for proving that hubris is eternal and science can be gorgeous; Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, one of the few good examples of the mad mathematician in media; Jordan, Mitch, and Chris Knight from Real Genius–if those three existed, they’d rule the world by now–and Abby Sciuto from NCIS, our dearest mad forensic scientist.

But really, my favorite mad scientists come from a pair of comic strips called Narbonic, written and drawn by Shaenon Garrity, and Skin Horse, by Shaenon Garrity and Jeffrey Wells. The staff of Narbonic Labs is like family. Scary, upsetting, mutagenic family…