Welcome to the book tour for Olga Werby’s latest book, Harvest. Today she is taking us deep into her writing world and past, plus gives us an exclusive excerpt from the book. Leave her your thoughts and more questions in the comments section. And then be sure to follow the tour to learn even more!
Describe your book in one sentence or fewer than 25 words.
The first galactic civilization comes back to harvest Earth. Deadly nanobots unleashed in human blood. A shy anthropologist is the world’s only hope.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
I’m a scientist. I’m very interested in the development of life, consciousness, and civilization. Over the past several decades, we’ve learned a lot about human biology not only on the molecular level (DNA) but also the chemistry and physics of biology. We can see the range of possibilities for behavior and emotion programmed into us by our evolutionary development. We’ve also learned about other human species that didn’t survive to the present day but whose echoes we carry in our very genes—Heanderthals, Homo floresiensis, Homo denisovans, and the newly discovered Homo luzonesis. There are many more, of course, but it takes time and luck to find evidence.
Only the Homo sapiens are alive on our world today. And only a small percentage of those developed the capacity or desire to take over the world and impose their culture on the rest of the peoples. Why? Why did some Hominids made it and some didn’t? Why did some civilizations flourished and others fell? We can answer some of these questions with psychology, sociology, paleontology, anthropology, biology, and simple luck.
Luck seems to have played a huge role in human evolution and survival on our planet. Those who were lucky enough to live in fertile environments with species of plants and animals that were easy to domesticate won the life lottery, so to speak. The unlucky ones didn’t make it to the present day or ended up colonized…
We have some ideas about what it takes to survive and thrive on Earth. But what does it take to survive in the galaxy? Can we use the same principles and apply them on a larger scale? “Harvest” is a book that focuses on galaxy-wide civilizations and what it takes to become one.
What kind of research did you have to do for it?
My background is in astrophysics and psychology. Granted, it’s not a very likely combination for a career…a regular career. But it is perfect for a writer of science fiction! “Harvest” is a book about first contact between an old alien civilization and the people of Earth. It’s all about physics and psychology! Here’s a little excerpt from the book in which the main character, a professor of socio-biology, talks about evolution and what’s necessary for a civilization to develop spaceflight:
“So, what are the prerequisites of space travel?” she asked. There were a few shout-outs from up in the gallery—the cheap seats usually occupied by students. “Civilization.” “Faster-than-light travel.” “Aliens.” They were on the right track, even if their sources were limited to science fiction movies. But Vars was an evolutionary socio-historian, and that meant she was trained to look both into the future and the past. She liked to think that her ideas about possible human future scenarios were well informed by historical precedents and intelligent extrapolations of cultural trends—meaning she wasn’t just talking science fiction here. “Let’s start with something simple,” she said. “Time.” Time was never simple, but people always assumed it was. Everyone had experience with time, so everyone felt like they were experts on the subject. “Humans have a relatively long lifespan for a mammal. And we have the longest childhood of all animals.” Well, that was true now. Neanderthal kids had enjoyed a longer childhood, but Vars didn’t want to complicate things further. “Not only are we able to learn a lot before we plunge into adulthood,” Vars continued, “we also have the time to use that knowledge. I’m sure we would all like to live even longer, but nature has ensured that we live long enough to transfer wisdom from one generation to the next, so our species can build on that, expanding our collective grasp of how the universe works. Each generation stands on the shoulders of all those that came before. Without a sufficiently long lifespan to learn and apply that collective mastery, space travel would just not be possible.” Vars tried to peer into the audience to check that they were still with her. “So why not elephants or whales, you might ask. Both species live a long time and spend a significant proportion of that life as children.” Vars didn’t wait for answers. “Unfortunately, neither were lucky enough to evolve hands. Even the elephant’s prehensile trunk can’t compare with the nimbleness of human fingers. And whales have the additional disadvantage of living in an underwater environment. These are significant handicaps to developing space travel. So again, humans got lucky. We evolved to live on land, and we have the right appendages to be able to tinker with objects in our environment. To bend it to our will.” “Language!” someone screamed out of the dark. Vars smiled. Language came up over and over again at each of her lectures. “Yes, language,” she said into the darkened auditorium. “It’s been said that language is the ultimate tool of mankind. Its greatest invention.” There were sounds of agreement from the audience. “But are we the only species on Earth to possess language? Sure, human languages are incredibly sophisticated and versatile, far more so than those of any other species we have encountered to date. But until a few decades ago, we didn’t even believe that there were nonhuman languages here on our planet. Now, of course, we know better. Dolphins, elephants, and even some birds have been observed using rudimentary languages unique to their species.” Vars stopped to listen to the audience. There were murmurings of assent, but also a few mutterings of rejection. The idea of animals inventing languages was very new still, but it was no longer controversial among her colleagues. Of course, politics was always way behind science. If humans were to widely acknowledge that dolphins communicated via language, then we might also have to recognize them as having some legal form of “personhood”—and that just wasn’t tenable in the current political climate. The dissent told Vars what proportion of the audience held human-centric views. It was about forty percent or so, judging by the noise. That was about average for this part of the country. In places like Berkeley, California, only one or two people in the audience dared to express such backward opinions loudly enough to be heard on stage. Most dissenters kept quiet, she knew. People were herd mammals, after all, and needed to be surrounded by others with similar views. That was how social echo chambers worked in the age of mass e-media. “Language,” she said, “particularly written language, is essential to passing information from one generation and one community to the next. Written language saved us from having to invent things over and over again—” “Oral traditions!” someone yelled. “Oral traditions are fantastic for capturing and communicating culture,” Vars replied. “But they are lousy for transmitting technical information. There is no oral tradition of calculus.” There was a murmuring of agreement. Good. “And before someone brings up apprenticeship, let me just say that I’m a believer in learning while being embedded in a community of practice. We see such educational approaches in species other than our own. Chimps routinely teach their offspring how to fish for termites with specially made twigs. Birds teach their chicks how to hunt and which foods are good and where they can be located. Cerrado, a species of monkey from South America, use giant hammer rocks to break tough palm nuts over carefully selected anvil boulders. It takes years for the youngsters to learn how to select just the right hammers and anvils and to perfect the technique for bashing open the nuts. So yes, apprenticeship works—but it has its limits. We are the only species on Earth to develop other intentional ways of passing on knowledge. Without written information, we wouldn’t be in the process of colonizing Mars, or mining the asteroids, or having permanent bases on the moon.” Vars gave the audience a few seconds to absorb this. She wasn’t done having fun with them yet. “But before written and oral language traditions, before the apprenticeship form of passing knowledge from generation to generation, there was another way. Nature’s way. Evolution’s way.” She stopped, giving her listeners a moment or two to guess the answer. Some nights, the audience got it almost immediately; other nights, there wasn’t a clue in the house. Tonight, there was only silence. “Evolution couldn’t wait for humans to invent language. Survival depended on passing some information down the chain of generations.” Well? Still nothing? “I’m talking about instincts, of course. Our drive to mate, to reproduce, to protect our children. Our will to survive against all odds. We’ve all experienced, or will experience, these instinctual needs. It’s in our DNA, so to speak. But that’s not the only hard-coded knowledge that we pass along to our offspring. “I will focus on humans here, because that’s what I wrote my book about. Which reminds me: I will be signing copies in the lobby right after the end of the lecture. I’m required to say this by my publisher.” There were a few chuckles. Good. Vars hated dull groups. It was hard to speak without feedback. “Agoraphobia and claustrophobia, fear of dark places and of heights, ophidiophobia and arachnophobia, instinctual disgust of bodily fluids—blood, urine, pus, feces—all of these are innate for us humans. We are born to avoid tight places and grand expanses. We naturally avoid snakes and spiders even if we’ve never seen or heard of them before. But we have also learned to overcome these fears. We had to if we were going to go into space. Our spaceships are extremely cramped, and they float in vast expanses of space. Astronauts are forced to recycle their bodily fluids and to no longer be afraid of extreme heights and absolute darkness. Although I may never overcome my fear of snakes and spiders…” She shivered dramatically and earned a few more laughs. “And perhaps, one day, we will meet other explorers out there. And we might have more innate fears to shed.”
I have posted the first three chapters of “Harvest” on my blog: https://interfaces.com/blog/my-books/harvest/
What was one of your favorite scenes?
Harvest is fully illustrated, so I will give a visual answer:
Will we see these characters again?
I have already written a short prequel to “Harvest”—“Fresh Seed”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07FFDZNYB/
It described how Vars met her father. It also sheds a bit more light on Human Seeds and The Vaults.
Yes, I can see writing more about The Vaults—the underground fortresses where people with carefully selected DNA are entombed as a backup to human race.
Why should we read your book?
I think lots of people read as a form of escapism—they want to be completely enveloped into a magical story full of wonderful people, living exciting lives. The movie that best captures that dynamic is “Romancing the Stone” in which a young Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist who has to go and rescue her sister from evil people in far away lands with a help of a handsome rogue, Michael Douglas. But in addition to escape, I think people also read to experience something new, to learn something outside of their daily lives, to feel something different. I embed real science into all of my stories (sometimes more, sometimes less). I find that the easiest way to learn something new is through fiction, by forming emotional connections to characters and their dilemmas. Those dilemmas don’t have to be written at the first-grade level. Readers get complex ideas; they want to understand the world around them. I do; I’m a reader too. I value books that not only tell a good story but also give me something new and juicy to chew on. I love that! I write for readers who love those kinds of books too.
“Harvest” in particular is written for people who are interested in human origins and the births of civilizations. I wanted to answer the question of “why”—why did some peoples succeed and some didn’t? Why did some civilizations flourished for many centuries while others burned out in but a short flash in history? What is that makes the difference? Is it simply comes down to luck?
“Harvest” starts with a discovery on a very old alien artifact buried in ice on one of the moons of Saturn. Scientists and the military have to quickly make an assessment: what do these aliens want? Are they dangerous? If so, how could humans protect themselves? But how can we tell when something wants us harm? Some of the biggest cultural mistakes on Earth came about from simple failure to communicate, to understand the alien other. When the other side is overwhelming in power and knowledge, making a diplomatic mistake can end human civilization. It’s a fun premise and a good story—good reasons to read the book!
What do you hope people will get out of your book?
It’s not always the best and the brighters that survive into the future. Luck plays a huge role in how successful we are as individuals and also as a species.
Tell us about your other published works.
I’ve written nine full novels to date: https://interfaces.com/blog/my-books/
They are either science fiction or magical realism, depending on the readers’ perception. I like to include real science and novel scientific ideas in all my books, even those leaning more towards magical realism genre. So here are few words about my other books:
“Suddenly, Paris”: What if the world is not made out of atoms? Would it change your high school experience? Would change how you love? This story focuses on a high school student, Julie Vorov, who suddenly learns something about herself and that turns her world upside down. This book was placed on the Long List for The James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2016. You can read the first few chapters here: https://interfaces.com/blog/suddenly-paris/
“Coding Peter” is a sequel to “Suddenly, Paris.” It tells the story of Julie’s younger brother Peter. Peter has some very difficult choices to make. Would he be pressed to make the right ones? Read the first few chapters here: https://interfaces.com/blog/coding-peter/
“The FATOFF Conspiracy” is a social satire on the cultural obsession with fat and what happens when the government intervenes… You can be rich and thin, or you can apply for government assistance for fat-reduction procedures… This is a pretty dark, but funny story. You can read the first few chapters here: https://interfaces.com/blog/the-fatoff-conspiracy/
“Twin Time” is a story of identical twins, where one is autistic and the other’s not. It is also a time loop story. I wanted to explore the psychology and family dynamic of a family with a sick child. I wanted to give autism a voice. You can read the results here (the first few chapters): https://interfaces.com/blog/twin-time/ Like many of my books, including “Harvest,” “Twin Time” is fully illustrated. “Twin Time” got an honorable mention in San Francisco Book Festival.
“Becoming Animals” is another story of overcoming a life-long illness…by escaping it! The science in this book while extraordinary is not really very far in the future. If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to be a rat or a bird, this is your opportunity: https://interfaces.com/blog/becoming-animals/ “Becoming Animals” won multiple awards to date.
“Lizard Girl & Ghost” is one of my strangest creations. It is a story of an avatar in a digital world left adrift when its owner becomes ill. It’s fantastical and strange and ultimately very emotional story of life and death in cyber space: https://interfaces.com/blog/my-books/the-apple/
On what are you currently working?
I’m currently finishing up “God of Small Affairs.” In some ways, this is the opposite story from “Harvest.” While “Harvest” focused on real science and extrapolated it as far as possible, “God of Small Affairs” is about mythology, about gods who walk the earth and help shape the human race into what it has become. It is a more intimate story. It focuses on a small town in Wisconsin and it’s aging population that is in the process of becoming irrelevant due the pressures of progress. During a murder investigation, a god tries to find the best path into the future for this community. “God of Small Affairs” is a human drama with a mythical twist. You can check out the first few chapters here: https://interfaces.com/blog/my-books/god-of-small-affairs/
What book and/or author changed your life?
There are many answers to this. Some authors arrived in my life at just the right moment to save me. There was a time when all I read were apocalyptic novels about the end of the world; they made me feel better about my own reality back then. Then there were authors who generously shared their ideas and expertise on writing. Steven King, Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson were all my writing teachers. If you are interested in checking out their advice, please visit: https://interfaces.com/blog/2016/07/treasure-trove-of-creative-writing-online-classes/
What is one skill you wish you had?
I wish I was good at telling people to buy my books. But as you can see, I’m very bad at it.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
What is something readers may be surprised to learn about you?
English is not my first language. Does it give me a pass on spelling?
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you very much for this opportunity to connect with your readers. I hope my answers work well for your audience. Please let me know if there is something I can do to help this interview be a success.
All the best,
Almost a century after Keres Triplets asteroid impact and subsequent nuclear exchange almost ended all human life on Earth, a strange artifact is discovered on one of the moons of Saturn. Who should be sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to initiate the first contact with an alien culture? Dr. Varsaad Volhard, an evolutionary-socio-historian, is chosen to help the world understand the alien civilization that left an artifact some thirty thousand years ago, before humans even learned to farm, at the time when other human species still walked the earth. While Vars prepares for the mission, her father, Dr. Matteo Volhard, discovers nanobots among the microplastics he studies. The bots are everywhere and seem to have been created to bond with human cyber implants. Why? Matteo is made to keep his discovery a secret…as well as his and his daughter’s true origins. Both were donated to a Human DNA Vault as babies. Matteo was raised as a Seed before leaving with his young daughter to study ecology around the world. Who knows what? Who is in control? How does one communicate with non-human intelligence? People seem to die in gruesome ways as their cyberhumatics go haywire on Earth and on Luna and Mars colonies. Is Earth under attack or is it all just a cosmic misunderstanding? Vars needs to use all she knows to solve the mystery of the ancient civilization on Mimas, as her dad battles the alien nanobots at home.
Read an excerpt:
“Sentient life’s colonization of the Earth is fractal. Even within a single ecosystem, there are many species that possess intelligence and self-awareness. But only one species becomes dominant.” Professor Volhard took a theatrical pause here. Everyone in the audience knew where she was going with this, but it never hurt to add drama to a presentation. “Obviously I am talking about humans. We are not the only intelligent, self-aware species on our planet–but we got lucky. We were blessed with favorable initial conditions, and our dominance was almost guaranteed. Lack of luck tends to permanently retard progress. Dinosaurs’ loss is our win.” There were a few chuckles from the audience, but no big laughs. Varsaad Volhard sighed inwardly and moved on. She never knew how the lay audience would react, but this was all part of doing the book-selling lecture circuit. Vars was tall and skinny with short, unruly, dark red hair and glasses to match. She looked a bit like a stick insect in her black pants and black sweater. For the tour, she was trying to dress more interestingly than normal–per instructions from her publisher–and so had added the bright orange scarf that her publisher sent in the mail. The instructions that came with the scarf told her to wear matching orange shoes, but Vars didn’t own any orange shoes, so matching black was as good as it got. She hadn’t failed to notice that the cover of her book–Luck & Lock on Life & Love: The Human History of Conquest of Resources on Earth, Luna, and Beyond–had the same color orange titles as the scarf. Her agent or someone in the office was obviously trying. Vars made a mental note to figure out who that was and thank them.
Available on Amazon
About Olga Werby
Olga Werby, Ed.D., has a Doctorate from U.C. Berkeley with a focus on designing online learning experiences. She has a Master’s degree from U.C. Berkeley in Education of Math, Science, and Technology. She has been creating computer-based projects since 1981 with organizations such as NASA (where she worked on the Pioneer Venus project), Addison-Wesley, and the Princeton Review. Olga has a B.A. degree in Mathematics and Astrophysics from Columbia University. She became an accidental science fiction indie writer about a decade ago, with her first book, “Suddenly Paris,” which was based on then fairly novel idea of virtual universes. Her next story, “The FATOFF Conspiracy,” was a horror story about fat, government bureaucracy, and body image. She writes about characters that rarely get represented in science fiction stories — homeless kids, refugees, handicapped, autistic individuals — the social underdogs of our world. Her stories are based in real science, which is admittedly stretched to the very limit of possible. She has published almost a dozen fiction books to date and has won many awards for her writings. Her short fiction has been featured in several issues of “Alien Dimensions Magazine,” “600 second saga,” “Graveyard Girls,” “Kyanite Press’ Fables and Fairy Tales,” “The Carmen Online Theater Group’s Chronicles of Terror,” with many more stories freely available on her blog, Interfaces.com.
Selected Book Links on Amazon:
“Becoming Animals”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078P6BB6K/
“Suddenly, Paris”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014OM5158/
“The FATOFF Conspiracy”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014S0W4WO/
“Twin Time”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01LZM578L/
“Lizard Girl & Ghost: The Chronicles of DaDA Immortals”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07FBR7Q1T/
“Coding Peter”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01LFP45WC/
“Fresh Seed”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07FFDZNYB/
Olga Werby will be awarding 2 books to a randomly drawn commenter (LIZARD GIRL AND GHOST and SUDDENLY, PARIS) via rafflecopter during the tour.a Rafflecopter giveaway