J.M. Sidorova's debut novel, The Age of Ice, is a fantastic and fantastical tale of isolation that includes a prince who's impervious to cold. Sidorova, a molecular biologist by day, talks about the intersection of writing and working.
Alexander, the protagonist of my debut novel The Age of Ice, generates cold rather than heat. Being “in the heat of passion” means something very different to him than to the rest of us; and his long life, as it unfurls against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and beyond, goes through freezes and thaws — literally. The scientist in me might point out that he shares more in common with the wood frog, a hearty survivor of freeze-thaw cycles, than with humans.
Born of mixed parentage, Alexander has one foot in the human world, and one in the world of ice. He is a double agent. So, in a way, am I.
As a scientist and a writer I stand with one foot in molecular biology and with another in the world of words and images. Some “cross-contamination” is inevitable. I catch myself on smuggling literary metaphors into the lab to explain cellular biology, and smuggling out biological facts to transform my stories. My research field is teeming with would-be metaphors. Scientific fact: cellular mortality is a protective mechanism against cancer. Metaphor: cancer is a cellular rebellion against mortality. The scientist observes that human cells are tenacious yet fallible. The fantasist asks, could the right cells produce an immortal?
Like any double agent, I fear exposure. My scientist colleagues might opine that my thinking is imprecise, idiosyncratic, or fanciful. At the same time I fear my fellow writers dismissing my genre-bending work—is it literary? Fantasy? Science fiction?—as too analytical or aloof. And like any double agent, I have no one but myself to hold responsible. Growing up, I scribbled stories and poems, all the while claiming I’d be a biologist. One thing led to another: college, immigration, graduate school, science and more science, writer’s block and breaking free of it. Twenty years later I am still scribbling stories and still generating research data in the area of DNA repair and replication, my all-time favorite. No, I am not an overachiever. Maybe, I am just unable to commit.
But enough about me.
I do not have a complete scientific explanation for how a biologically confused creature like Alexander came to be. Of course, I can bluster-on about cryopreservation of human cells and embryos and about bacteria living inside the Arctic’s ice sheet. I could propose that the more one contemplates temperature as a physical phenomenon, the stranger it appears. But I was never sitting in the lab late one night, and my experiment went out of control, and human cells got irradiated with rays of cold . . . Sorry, that didn’t happen.
Let us consider instead the most fascinating substance on Earth — water. In our bodies water is like the Incredible Hulk. Most of the time water is immensely helpful--the medium through which all of life’s inner business transpires. However, when provoked, water becomes a hard, stubborn, havoc-wreaking monster: ice. As ice grows, it pushes everything else out of its way. Things get crushed and squeezed, things explode. But you can tame the Hulk by dispersing it into many baby Hulks: ever so tiny bits of ice inside and between the cells. Then, even biological processes can go on, just much more slowly. Instead of utter destruction, sleeping beauty. This process – preventing ice from growing freely -- is the wood frog’s wonderful evolutionary trick. It’s also what laboratories, fertility clinics, and blood banks do routinely to preserve live cells.
At low temperature, everything is immortal. As Alexander’s body oscillates from human to ice, the fantasist in me exclaims, It’s like he carries baby Hulk ice inside every cell of his body! The scientist just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Never mind her, she hurries to say, it’s just another metaphor.