Carl Zimmer is a columnist at the New York Times, where his column “Matter” appears each Thursday. He has written twelve books, and also writes regularly about science for magazines including National Geographic and Wired.
Q. You've based a whole series of books on the horror of these parasitic alien creatures. Why do you think people are so scared of them? It can't be just a fear of death, right? Imagine, Cardiac: A Horror Novel of Heart Disease. I mean, it just doesn't have the same snap as Infected. So what's going on?
A. As humans, we have a universal fear of something getting inside of us, working against us, hurting us or even killing us. We also dread losing control, being manipulated to do things we don’t want to do, losing our free will— the amorphous fear of Big Brother, for example, or the ongoing fascination with regular folk turned into brain-hungry zombie hordes. A parasite that can turn you into a paranoid killer while at the same time eating you from within combines those terrors.
My books resonate because the parasitic “bad guy” isn’t something you can run away from, or lock your doors against. It gets inside you, becomes a part of you, and destroys who you are. Once you’re infected, there is no escape.
Q. There is sometimes nothing quite as boring as a scientific paper. And that's a good thing. Science needs to focus on the details, relentlessly, in order to move towards the truth. So how do you draw from science to create fiction that people want to keep reading?
A. As important as science is to my books, I’m always very aware that the driving force needs to be the story, not the idea. That’s always been the essence of science fiction, using the experiences of characters we can connect with to convey a larger concept. In transmuting that approach into horror fiction, hard science provides realism and validity that makes the scary stuff even scarier: everything seems more frightening because the reader feels that this could really happen. Vampires are scary as hell, but there is a safety in that fear because we know (most of us do, anyway), that they don’t exist. With science-based horror, the reader watches pieces being assembled, knows those pieces are real, and that makes for a different experience.
Q. You are writing science-based horror in an age of — shall we say — pseudoscience horror. Why do you stay away from the paranormal?
A. Paranormal horror is great and, as a reader, I enjoy it. As a writer, however, I naturally gravitate to telling stories that past the “sniff test” of something that could really happen, and could happen right now.
If you have a super-powered Big Bad that can change reality with the wave of an ancient hand, then anything is possible and the rule-set can change at the author’s whim. I can read those stories; I’m just not adept at writing them. I’m more comfortable telling a tale where the world around us is the world around us, not camouflage for a hidden realm where physics don’t apply.
In that way, I think of myself more as a thriller author using horrific elements than a “horror author,” which usually implies use of the supernatural and/or undead that have a scientific explanation. When my stories do drop a fantastic, unexpected element, I want my readers to be able to go back and think, “This is perfectly inline with the rest of the story; I could have seen this coming but I missed it.”
Q. You've mentioned in the past that my nonfiction book Parasite Rex influenced you. Just out of personal curiosity, what happened?
A. Parasite Rex was part of my original research for the first book in this series, Infected, and two facts in it blew me away. The first was that parasites make up two-thirds of the species on this planet, meaning that parasitism is the dominant survival strategy. Parasites win.
The second thing was that parasites can, quite literally, mind-control their hosts and destroy the host’s survival instinct. Talk about true horror: parasites can force hosts to commit suicide, either by leaving their natural environment, or by making them attracted to their predators.
When I started applying what I learned in Parasite Rex to human hosts, it created disturbing, deeply unsettling possibilities — as anyone who has read Infected can tell you.
Q. To complete the circle from nonfiction to fiction and back, do you find your novels can entice people to find out more about science? Are you a gateway drug for knowledge?
A. My first responsibility is to tell a well-structured story that doesn’t “cheat” by making up new rules when it is convenient for the author. “C” is believable and possible because “B” was already done, and “B” seems real because we all learned about “A” in high school. When I do it right, the story feels complete and has a logical — if completely over the top — ending. That’s what makes my readers happy.
I feel my second responsibility, however, is to show just how damn cool science is. Many of my readers Google the seemingly far-out discoveries and technologies they find in my stories, and are shocked to learn these things actually exist. From there, I hope in my heart of hearts that they keep searching and keep learning.