Space Chickens and Electrocution: SFF Authors Talk the Highs and Lows of Research

This afternoon at NYCC, authors Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings), Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (This is How You Lose the Time War), Kat Leyh (Thirsty Mermaids), and Rebecca Roanhorse (Black Sun), along with moderator SB Divya (Runtime) discussed the weirdest and most dangerous things they’ve researched in the pursuit of fiction. As Roanhorse put it, “I imagine that every science fiction and fantasy author has Googled how to get rid of a body, or how fast does a body deteriorate, or, you know, what do I do with my neighbor…”

The panel had to dig a little deeper, and what did they find? The question of space chickens. Some weird details about clowns. And a shared experience of near-electrocution. Watch the panel above, and check out some highlights below!

Gladstone brought up the clowns while discussing how he’s read “a whole bunch of eclectic nonsense” that may or may not ever wind up in a book: “Clowns copyright and defend their particular distinctive makeup styles by painting them on eggs which are then stored in a particular cabinet at the clown international,” he explained. “So, what am I going to do with that? I don’t know. But something, sooner or later, possibly. Or not! Who knows?”

Roanhorse ran into research trouble with her Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn: “I did a lot of in-universe research for Star Wars, and one of the things the story group tagged me on was ‘There’s no chickens in Star Wars’ and I was like, ‘But we need space chickens.’” She had to come up with a different name for them. “You can retcon chickens into Star Wars,” Divya said. “Otherwise how is something going to taste like chicken?”

Liu unexpectedly brought most of the panel together over the experience of having shocked the heck out of themselves. Gladstone vividly remembers seeing his bones through his skin, though admitted that memory may be influenced by Looney Tunes. But for Liu, it was research: he wanted to be able to describe with accuracy the feeling of being shocked by an early capacitor called a Leyden jar. “It’s much later I realized this was a terrible idea. Very, very dangerous, and it really did hurt. But I’m still alive, so that was good.”

“Given what I know of the things that end up in your writing, the idea of you ‘method writing’ any of that is actually extremely upsetting,” El-Mohtar said to Liu. She also spoke for all of us: “I’m so glad you’re all still alive!”

The answer to the panel title question, according to Leyh, whose book features some sozzled mermaids, is yes. Mermaids can get drunk. But that’s less a question of research than narrative necessity: “I decided they could,” she said.

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