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The Science of Fiction

Novelist Gary Goshgarian '64 explores the literary what-if world of medical science.

"Good science fiction is good literature that just happens to have a scientific underbelly."

By Joan Killough-Miller

Gary Goshgarian's writing career began after a dangerous SCUBA diving trip off the island of Mallorca. While exploring ancient artifacts, Goshgarian's party was attacked underwater by modern-day pirates. "They cut across our bubbles, dragging anchors with chains," he says, "and slashed our inflatable boat with machetes. We had no idea that we had stumbled upon a very hot antiquities operation that was illegally selling artifacts to museums around the word." Recognizing a great plot, Goshgarian shifted the action to the Greek Isles, added a touch of romance and a live volcano, and published Atlantis Fire in 1980.

As a novelist, Goshgarian (who now uses the pen name Gary Braver) is famous for writing biotech thrillers. As a prof-essor, he helps students take a deeper look into his chosen literary genre, known for its heart-pounding action, bloodthirsty creatures, and nightmares of technology gone wild. In person, Goshgarian is articulate about the elements of good fiction. When he speaks of his own books and those he uses to teach his courses at Northeastern University, it is clear that he is talking about literature.

"Good science fiction is good literature that just happens to have a scientific underbelly," he says. "The term 'thriller' sometimes turns people off because they think it's all wham-bam, plot-driven tales with flat, stereotypical characters. I say that I write 'suspense,' which may be a kinder, gentler label. Fortunately, my books have gotten praise for their literary quality, as well as their page-turner, scientific credibility."

According to Goshgarian, there is a distinct difference between pulp fiction and literary fiction: artistry. "The scenes should say more than what they are. They should transcend the literal level. They should be part of a higher allegory or metaphor. But, obviously, execution is everything. You can make it very tasteful using artistic restraint."

Goshgarian isn't a fan of graphic horror movies. "I like the bad stuff more implied, where you still have to use your imagination." To illustrate, he compares Bela Lugosi in the 1931 black-and-white Dracula, which only implies the violence and sexual subtext of the Victorian-era novel by Bram Stoker, to Francis Ford Coppola's 1993 movie Bram Stoker's Dracula.

"There was no flesh in the original Dracula movie," says Goshgarian. "There was absolutely no sexual interlude, yet the sexual seductiveness of Lugosi's Dracula was far more successful, in my mind, than Coppola's version."

Gary Braver, the novelist, practices what Professor Goshgarian preaches. In his 2002 thriller Gray Matter, he writes with restraint about an operation to "harvest" brain matter from a smart-but-poor girl named Lilly Bellingham for transplant into a wealthy child. Rather than spattering blood and brains against operating room walls, Goshgarian creates a tranquil scene, with attendants who gently prep and shave the scalp of the unsuspecting victim. As cloudy pink fluid is withdrawn from her skull, Lilly recedes into a dreamlike state. Her mental powers slowly diminish, until she is unable to remember her own name.

From Physics to Fiction

As a physics major at WPI in the 1960s, Goshgarian and a few friends were drawn to their English professor, the late James Hensel, whom he calls "the teacher of all teachers." Goshgarian named a character in Elixir for Hensel, and another is named for former WPI president Harry P. Storke.

"We were literature geeks in an otherwise science geeky kind of place," Goshgarian says. "In the afternoon, after classes were out, we would meet up in Jim Hensel's office to talk about everything from Charles Dickens to Tolstoy to Albert Einstein." The young Goshgarian put his writing talents to use as an editor of Tech News and the Peddler, and started an offbeat humor magazine called Absolute Zero.

"I was reading science fiction by the pound," he says. By his sophomore year, Goshgarian knew that he would work with words rather than atoms. "I liked words. I could see them and manipulate them. I could not see atoms, didn't quite believe in them." After earning a master's degree and doctorate in English, he joined the English faculty at Northeastern University.

In the early 1970s Goshgarian's department head challenged him to create a new elective to boost enrollment. He saw his chance to teach quality science fiction as a reputable literary form. Some 30 years later, his courses are popular and well-respected, although parents occasionally balk, "My child is taking what?" In addition to science fiction, Goshgarian teaches a detective fiction class and has developed courses in horror fiction and modern bestsellers. He also offers a graduate-level creative writing seminar.

Required reading for Goshgarian's classes ranges from Edgar Allen Poe to Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark and Dean Koontz. A centerpiece of the science fiction curriculum is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Discussions are supplemented with movies and guest speakers, which have included best-selling authors Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, Robert B. Parker and Michael Palmer.

Goshgarian wants his writing students to learn "the ability to look at another person's writing the way a carpenter looks at a house--to study the architecture of it, the freshness of the language, the narrative thrust that keeps the story going. And to see that the bones have flesh on them, that you have characters who are interesting and aren't cardboard cut-outs.

"My goal is to make them better readers, too. That's the secret of good writing. We do a lot of close reading. That's what Jim Hensel taught me, way back at Worcester Tech."

A Braver World

Goshgarian's medical thrillers show what can go wrong when characters say yes to scientific advances that dangle temptations such as eternal life (Elixir), genius offspring (Gray Matter), and a miracle cure for Alzheimer's disease (the upcoming Flashback). "All these stories are essentially science without foresight, without asking, 'If this did come about, what would be the social or political or moral or human consequences?'" Goshgarian points out that he is not opposed to progress. "My books aren't anti-medicine," he explains. "They raise a flag against violating some natural principle, or violating an ethic of good scientific management. Tampering with human biology is different from the practice of medical science."

It's a message that readers want to hear. Goshgarian expects the print run of Gray Matter in paperback to top half a million copies.

Behind the sci-fi fantasy is a world of meticulous research. Elixir opens in a remote jungle, made vivid with details from Goshgarian's own trek into the rain forest. How does an English professor in Boston find out how to make a shrunken head? "I've been to New Guinea. I asked," he replies dryly, then laughs.

Closer to his Arlington home, the author spends hours with doctors in the Longwood hospital area near Northeastern, gathering material for his medical thrillers. When the teenage characters in Gray Matter begin to suspect that their parents have had them "enhanced" through stereotaxic brain surgery, Goshgarian puts their scars in just the right place.

Goshgarian sets most of his novels in the Boston area, with familiar towns and landmarks. Gray Matter contains a brief but flattering reference to WPI as one of the A-list schools that a superior student would want to attend (see excerpt previous page).

The ideas for Goshgarian's novels can come from anywhere: the spark might come from a news item, or a conversation with his wife. "I like big concept things, big 'what ifs,'" he says.

Gray Matter looks at society's overwhelming desire to be smarter, and taps into the guilt-ridden anxieties of affluent parents who seek quick fixes for the children they don't have time to raise.

Rough Beast harks back to a college summer job in a Raytheon laboratory that was tucked away in the woods of Maynard, Mass. "I was part of a team of scientists trying to make exotic weapons that might shorten the Vietnam War," he says. "Rough Beast is the fictional story of a normal middle-class family whose house sits on the site of a 30-year-old secret military project to sterilize the Viet Cong. The stuff leeches into the family's drinking water, affecting the 12-year-old son."

Facing these dilemmas are very real people, with understandable motives. The mother in Gray Matter, for example, is tortured by the possibility that she may have caused her son's learning disabilities with the recreational drugs she used in college. "I work backwards," says Goshgarian. "I think up awful possibilities, and then line things up in the story that would lead to that conclusion."

Is there always a cost to the characters who succumb to these irresistible temptations? "Yes," says the novelist, "otherwise you wouldn't have a story." He points back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which he calls the launchpad for three-quarters of all science fiction. "It's all cautionary. It's all 'don't tamper.' Hundreds of thousands of stories, over the years, are still doing that kind of warning."

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:36 EDT
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