In Asking the Prophet, we use our alien probes to pick the brains of sci-fi and speculative fiction writers. This week, we talked to Jennifer Foehner Wells about aliens, space travel, and exoplanets.

How do you go about constructing space adventures that feel plausible?

I often turn to science. I know a lot of authors tell me they write, write, write, write and don’t worry about things like plausible science as they’re writing. They just stay in the moment and don’t let that interrupt their muse. I, on the other hand, often find that the science informs me and helps me make better choices in the prose. So when I come up against something, I want to refer to whatever is the most current technology or discovery or knowledge in order to try to keep that plausibility going. It typically will take me places I never expected to go. I think I probably spend about as much time researching as I do writing.

That will often lead me to delve into something deeper, into something where someone with a little more knowledge on the subject has written some stuff. I really can’t go too deep because, let’s face it, the average reader does not have a physics degree. If I write a whole bunch of stuff that’s deeply scientific, their eyes are going to glaze over. So what I have to do is create a fine line between getting the people who really hunger for having that kind of science in the story, and also not making it too esoteric for people who don’t really have a deep interest in genetics or whatever it is I’m tackling at that moment. It’s like a firehose of information out there everyday. I just try to pick out what’s most interesting and what will help my stories the most.

What’s a piece of current technology or recent discovery that gets your brain spinning for sci-fi story possibilities?

I watch all the developments with new technology in regards to getting to the international space station, because that’s really the first step towards leaving Earth. What excites me the most is when I read these stories about the exoplanets that are being discovered every day. I really get jazzed about what we can discern about them so far.

Just the other day I read about a hypothetical planet that might circle a red dwarf, which is far smaller than our sun and only has about two-thirds the amount of warmth and light. The solar systems that inhabit these kinds of suns are very compact. If there are planets that are inhabitable in those solar systems, they are closer to that star than Mercury is to our sun. That’s fascinating to me. And then to add to that, the person who was writing this article stated that they theorized that those planets are locked to those stars. That means like our moon, only one side ever faces the sun. What that might mean to life on the planet if it exists, one side of the planet eternally dark in a sheet of ice, the other side constantly bathed in this pale reddish light. What would that mean to the planet life? To any lifeforms that may be there?

Since your books include aliens, do you see contact with alien life being a feasible thing within our lifetime?

That really depends on whether or not faster-than-light travel is actually possible. Right now, it’s not, and that significantly hampers any chance of not only going anywhere or having them come to us, but also communicating. The amount of time it would take for any kind of communication to reach anywhere is just prohibitive for us to see it in our lifetime or even in our great-grandchildren’s lifetime. We’re really in an infancy at understanding physics. There’s so much we don’t know. Things like dark matter, the minuscule elements of quantum mechanics, I mean, we don’t even understand gravity yet. Once we get that into a unified theory I think the universe will open up to us. But until that time, it’s pretty uncertain.

Is that where you think the value of sci-fi and speculative fiction comes into play?

Yes, I do. There have been so many cases where scientists have been inspired by science fiction to try and make some of those things happen. I think some of the things we’re benefitting from today came about because of the original Star Trek series, honestly. Cell phones work a lot like communicators. All these things are part of a social, global consciousness. I don’t know if I’m contributing to it or not, but it’s a wonderful thing. If people like me who are imagining things, and the people that can actually apply their own knowledge to that can come together, that’s the beauty of that. That’s the synergy in what science fiction and science do together.