01/15/2014 03:56 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Is It Science Fiction?

When I tell someone I'm a writer, the first question they always ask is, "What sort of books do you write?"

"Science fiction," I say. Then I pause.

When I hear "sci-fi," I think Space. Time travel. Spock. Serenity. The TARDIS. I think of my favorite young adult sci-fi: Across the Universe by Beth Revis, These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Control by Lydia Kang. You know the stuff: super-advanced technology and crashing spaceships and the universe unfolding around you. I love spaceships and mysterious terraformed planets and troublesome rips in the fabric of space-time--can't get enough of it! My Netflix queue is plenty evidence.

But these examples are all set in the Far Distant Future. Technology that's so powerful it's a kind of magic. Societies set in foreign galaxies we haven't even discovered yet. But there's another depth to sci-fi that's much closer to home--the Very Near Future. Technology that's just barely out of reach. Societies on our own planet that begin to foretell the imagined dystopias of the Far Distant Future.

Consider the headlines. We can clone human stem cells. Human embryos have been successfully planted inside an artificial womb. As Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos admitted when he revealed Amazon Prime Air, the online merchant's in-development delivery drone, "I know this looks like science fiction; it's not."

I devour these news stories. It's thrilling to imagine that the tech that fascinated me as a kid--communicating through holograms, tourist resorts on the moon, even those uber-cool computer displays Tony Stark is always throwing into the air in the Iron Man movies--will be realized in my lifetime. This is the science fiction that interests me the most, because it's rapidly becoming part of our everyday reality.

But as impressive and tantalizing as these advances are, we must always be aware of the shadows they cast: the moral implications, the effects they have on the climate, on our own health, on our society's future. Because all those sci-fi flicks about the messed-up galaxy we're living in 500 years down the road? Those could be cautionary tales, as some have been already. The dystopian societies that are currently dominating bookshelves and movie theaters all had humble beginnings, moments where technology developed with the best intentions went wrong (Skynet, anyone?) or where power was slowly, almost imperceptibly gathered into the wrong hands. This is the kind of science that provides the fulcrum of my own stories. Corpus, the powerful, shadowy corporation behind the events in both Origin and Vitro, could certainly exist today, working in the background, perhaps seemingly well-intentioned, but working for the good of the few rather than the good of all.

In hindsight, it becomes clear that some past "advances" ended up backfiring on us. In the early 1900s, people thought it would be a great idea to drink radium as a cure for mental illness or to sprinkle it in their hair to make themselves glow when they went out at night. Thankfully, we nipped that one in the bud before we wiped ourselves out, but not before many deaths had already tragically occurred. Many types of vaccines have come under recent scrutiny with claims of debilitating side effects. Add to this list the technology that has exacerbated global warming (carbon emitting transportation, coal-burning power plants, deforestation), polluted the oceans (did you know that one of the greatest threats to oceans is plastic?), or potentially caused cancer (more and more evidence is stacking up against GMO's). Not every scientific advancement is without harmful repercussions, and we cannot always predict or anticipate the long-term consequences of developing technologies. Considered from this angle, today's science is ripe with fiction potential as we imagine what could happen. This is my usual process: learn about some fascinating new discovery--then ask the question, "What if..."

This is no revolutionary approach. Science fiction has been imagining and even predicting the future for decades. In Men Like Gods, written in 1933, H. G. Wells imagined an "answerphone," in which people leave voice messages that the recipients can listen to when they choose. Arthur C. Clarke proposed earth-orbiting satellites in 1945, 20 years before the first actual one was launched. Jules Verne imagined a host of technological advances in his books, from Paris in the Twentieth Century to From the Earth to the Moon: submarines, shuttles to the moon, and even televised news. In fact, engineers responsible for airplanes, submarines, and space shuttles all identify Verne's texts as their inspiration. One of my personal favorites, Robert Heinlein, wrote detailed description of water beds in Stranger in a Strange Land which caused the water bed's actual inventor, Charles Hall, to have his patent for it denied years later, because Heinlein owned the intellectual property. Perhaps the most eerily accurate Sci-Fi predictions can be found in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, written in 1969 about futuristic 2010--and an America rife with school violence, terrorism, satellite TV, electric cars... all under the popular administration of a President Obomi. Is your hair standing on end yet?

It's Sci-fi of this nature that haunts me long after I've read it, because I can see it running parallel to current reality. Stories like this were hugely influential to me as I began writing and developing my own ideas about the future and the explosive combination of new technology with good

Vitro, my sophomore novel, is set in the present day and inspired by science that's just barely fiction. Much of the science in it was derived from an article about researchers using biotechnology implanted in the human brain to combat afflictions like blindness and paralysis. This gave me chills as I read it, imagining the countless lives that could be changed with this technology. I have several elderly relatives who live with dementia, and the possibility of one day reversing this affliction fills me with hope. But at the same time, my imagination cannot help but wonder what this technology could do in the wrong hands. This is why I love to write not about science three hundred years in the future, but science that's just a knife's edge away, science that could be changing your life within the next decade.

The most fascinating, terrifying science fiction is, I believe, the science that could be happening right now in the shadows, in between the lines, in the lonely, wild places of the world like the Amazon rainforest or the South Pacific isles. The kind of science that's closer than you think, that could appear as easily in a newspaper headline as in a work of fiction. That's why, when asked what kind of books I write, I usually end up finishing with, "Well, it's mostly fiction."