Featured Fem | Meet Jessica Meats

linkedin profileJessica Meats is a British science fiction author with a degree in mathematics and computer science. She works in the IT industry as a specialist in Microsoft technologies and draws on her knowledge of computers to add a dash of reality to her science fiction adventures. Outside of work and writing, Jessica enjoys reading, making jewellery, and studying martial arts.

Fem: You have a background in mathematics and computer science. What sparked your interest in these areas?

Jessica Meats: I always did well in maths lessons at school. It was something I just accepted about myself from an early age: “good at maths” was part of who I was just like “brown hair” and “hates mushrooms.” It was something encouraged by my family and my teachers, and, like most people, I like doing well in things, so when I was picking my A-Level subjects , it seemed a natural choice. When it came to university degrees though, I was less certain because I couldn’t see many logical progressions from a mathematics degree into an obvious career. We did various strengths tests and career planning exercises at school and one option that came up was computer science, apparently a good fit for someone who is good at maths.

At that point, I wasn’t sure about computer science as a degree because I’d not really studied it beyond an IT GCSE during which we spent half our time playing pinball on the school computers. I ended up choosing a joint honours degree, Mathematics and Computer Science, and one of the reasons was that I was told it would be relatively easy to switch to one or the other of those subjects. It felt like a safe bet because I could try the more practical subject of computer science but fall back on the old, reliable mathematics if it turned out not to be a good.

In the end, I loved my degree. Doing the joint honours meant I did about half as many subjects as the people doing just maths or just CS, which meant I got a lot more choice in my modules. I could look at the list and think, “Computer Graphics and Animation, that sounds fun,” or, “Artificial Intelligence for Games looks really cool.” I’d picked my degree thinking it would be a mature and sensible pathway to a respectable career but once I was at university I picked my modules based on the principle of, “That should be interesting.” My masters project was making a visual interface for a text-based game – I got to play with games for my degree!

What sparked my interest was the simple fact that I prefer to study something I could get good marks in rather than something where I’d have to fight to get a pass (the subjects I studied hardest for at GCSE were the ones I got the lowest marks in). What kept my interest, particularly in the computing side, was that fact that there is the potential to do so much with technology, to change lives and change the world, and the field is always changing. It’s fun to be involved in that.

F: How can we motivate more young women to enter STEM fields or studies?

JM: I think the problem starts really early. From birth, children are forced into rigid gender patterns. Certain things are for girls, certain things are for boys, with very little overlap. Girls can play with dolls, boys can play with construction toys. Girls can play with toy ovens, boys can play with science kits. These things are very heavily marketed to one gender or the other, instilling patterns from a really young age. Children learn what’s normal and expected. There have been studies showing that little kids will play with the “gender appropriate” toys when they think they’re being watched while they’re more willing to play with the “gender inappropriate” toys when they think they’re on their own. Even when parents try to raise children in a gender neutral way, the kids are surrounded by books, TV shows, advertising, toy packaging, the reactions of other parents, even other kids. Kids are ridiculed and bullied for stepping outside of the gender norms and kids are taught from very early on that science is a “boy thing.”

Boys are more likely to be given construction toys than girls, and these toys help develop spatial awareness skills. Then, when the kids are older, they learn that there are more men in engineering jobs than women because men are naturally better at spatial awareness. We’re taught certain skills and behaviours from childhood and then told that those things are natural differences.

I think we need to make more effort as a society as a whole to encourage breaking of gender standards from that really young age. As the kids get older, we need to break stereotypes with representation in media (the computer expert in the TV show doesn’t have to be a geeky, white male, the maths genius doesn’t need to be Asian). There should be representation of all races and genders across all different fields to break down these deeply entrenched stereotypes and show kids that all options are open to them.

Obviously, this isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. In the short term, role models and examples of senior women in STEM fields should be made more visible. Girls need to be able to see the possibility of a future for themselves in these fields, long before they start making choices about degrees and careers.

F: How do you incorporate technology and mathematics into your writing?

JM: My first novel, Child of the Hive, has a large number of characters who are involved in these fields. Three of the main characters start the book going to a maths competition, Sophie calculates prime numbers in her head as a coping mechanism, Rachel is a computer programmer. The only main character who isn’t into either computing or maths is Andrew. The story is an adventure, but the main characters have interest in maths and technology as major parts of their personalities.

I wrote large parts of that book while I was at university and some of the technology I was studying made its way into the book. We studied things like haptic gloves (gloves that let you “feel” virtual objects) and I worked these things into the book because they were interesting and because they could have interesting connotations about how we live.

My other books aren’t quite so extreme in their inclusion of technology, but it’s still in there. There are characters in the books who are good with computers – Richard and Meg in Shadows of Tomorrow and Between Yesterdays, Matt and Navy in Omega Rising and Traitor in the Tower. These characters use computers and technology to help the protagonist in their adventures.

I try to make even the implausible sound possible in my stories. I do this by bringing in science and technology. Between Yesterdays includes the character Abby trying to explain a plot point using quantum physics. The fact that the character she’s talking to isn’t a physicist means that I can stick to simplifications and general principles and so I don’t need to be a physicist myself – but by reading popular science books and spending an alarming amount of time on Wikipedia, I can write something that hopefully won’t make actual physicists cringe.

F: What science fiction works have influenced your own writing?

JM: This is a difficult question because I can’t point to a single book, or even a small handful, and say, “That book is what made me write,” or, “I want to be like that author.” I read widely, both in the genre of science fiction and out of it. There are a large number of science fiction books I can point to that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Pantomime by Laura Lam, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. I can’t easily measure how much or how little any of these books have influenced me, but I think by reading a wide range of books, I’ve been able to absorb a lot about what makes a story work, what makes a book interesting, what makes me want to keep reading. Consciously or not, I’m sure I’ve learned something from every book I’ve read.

Sometimes, you can learn a lot from books you don’t like. If I read a book and find it boring, then as a writer I can think about why I’m not enjoying that book and try and not make the same mistakes in my own works.

The books that influence me most were probably the ones I read when I was really little that got me hooked on the idea that books were fun. My love of writing comes ultimately from my love of reading, so I probably have to give credit to those books like The Owl Who was Afraid of the Dark and The Magic Faraway Tree that introduced me to the idea that between the pages of books were all sorts of fun adventures waiting to be had.

F: Describe your latest project.

JM: I always have several projects on the go at the same time. I am partway through the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy. The working title is Out of Time but I don’t know if it will actually be published until that because there are loads of other things out there with the title Out of Time. This book will finish off the story of parallel worlds and time travel begun in Shadows of Tomorrow and Between Yesterdays.

Similarly, I need to finish the third book in the Codename Omega novella series. In this one, Jenny receives a message threatening her mum’s life and she must find a way to protect her loved ones while the rest of Nuke’s team are also worrying about an alien spaceship that’s heading to Earth. This book gives a bit more background into Nuke’s motivations and also introduces a character who’s up there as one of my favourites – Matt’s mother Claudia. This is a woman who taught Matt how to write his first computer program, who sews cosplay outfits for her son and his boyfriend, and who is not to be underestimated.

I’m also currently seeking representation for an urban fantasy story. This one is a lot darker than my other books, dealing with issues of oppression, abuse, even rape. There’s adventure and action in this book, but it’s much more about the emotional journey and people who’ve been through traumatic experiences helping each other to heal.

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