Emma Johanna Puranen
As Le Guin famously put it, “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive”. Science fiction reflects what its writers see in the world around them—often from current scientific discoveries—and it sparks ideas for scientists. Scientists and SF writers endlessly inspire each other in a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. But little research has been done on how exactly this inspiration happens — on the dialogues and interactions between these two often-overlapping groups. Given SF’s reputation for applied speculation and future thinking, these dialogues are key to any studies of the same. I address this gap through analysing qualitative data on the experiences of scientist and writer participants in an SF anthology project which included significant interdisciplinary encounters.
Around Distant Suns: Nine Stories Inspired by Research from the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science (2021) is my recently-published SF anthology, containing five short stories, two radio play scripts, and two poems. Each contribution was created by a pair of one scientist and one writer, and has a basis in the scientist’s research. The St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science produces research addressing questions about the origin of life, planet formation and atmospheric evolution, planet characterisation, which environments might be suitable for extra-terrestrial life, and more – questions that form some of the core themes of SF. Scientists and writers met virtually at least three times as a team in the process of creating their stories, and filled out detailed questionnaire responses after each meeting. My goal was to investigate how scientists and SF writers work together in creating science fiction stories, with a particular focus on the processes of deciding when to stay realistic, when to be plausible, and when to make things up.
I present results from qualitative analysis of the questionnaires, which asked about communication successes and failures, challenges encountered and solved, and when and how story decisions were made and inspired. These results point to a significant role for SF in science communication efforts – a role which introduces concepts and piques curiosity, but, in keeping with Suvin’s idea of estranging the worldviews of the readers (1979), also leaves room for the fantastic and the unknown.
The genre of science fiction has a unique relationship with empiricism in its worldbuilding. This relationship is highlighted by theorist Darko Suvin’s definition of the genre, that SF relies on “estrangement and cognition” and features an “imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (1979, pp. 7-8). In other words, this means that SF features at least one significant change (estrangement) from reality, which is presented cognitively in a way that distinguishes it from fantasy – SF works must account for their worlds rationally within the text. Carl Freedman revises Suvin’s definition to include not cognition per se, but the “cognition effect”, that is, the attitude of the text towards the estrangements being performed must have a cognitive effect on the reader (2000, p. 18). In the worldbuilding of the text, the estrangements are treated as science (whether or not they are consistent with real-world science), rather than being left to magic and mystery. Put differently, the science need not be accurate, but the effect of it being accurate must be there – the cognition effect leaves room for some very ‘soft’ (scientifically inaccurate or implausible) science fiction.
I argue that this aspect of SF, the cognition effect, leads to a distinctive relationship between science and SF writers that is not found in other genres, as well as to the genre’s reputation for being at the forefront of scientific discovery. Sources of scientific inspiration and the degree of superficiality or robustness of the fictional science is as varied as the genre itself. Many scientists write science fiction – Isaac Asimov and E.E. Smith for example – and many SF authors are avid supporters of science programmes and science communication (Stepney, “Real Science”). Creators of SF literature and film and television often refer to science consultants for accuracy, and workshops like the NASA-funded Launchpad, which aimed to teach writers about science for their books, are not uncommon – the Hugo-award winning author N.K. Jemisin was inspired to write the Broken Earth trilogy at a Launchpad workshop (Khatchadourian, “N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds”). Acknowledgements sections of SF novels are often filled with references to e-mail exchanges and similar with science consultants. Physicist Kip Thorne famously made real scientific advances in determining the optical-wavelength appearance of a black hole for the movie Interstellar (James, von Tunzelmann, and Franklin et al 486). However, unless the writer themself is also the science consultant, science consultants rarely play an equal role in story creation. As physicist Sean Carroll, science consultant on several Marvel movies, describes “You talk to the screenwriter or director or producer—whoever asked for your help—and you chat for a couple hours, and you do your best to give them advice, and then you never hear from them again” (“Being a Hollywood Science Consultant”).
I obtained research ethics approval from the University of St Andrews for the collecting of questionnaire responses from research participants. Five of the nine pairs of participants in the Anthology participated in the research portion.
Scientist participants are all scientists affiliated with the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science. While the Centre is interdisciplinary and includes researchers in the fields of Modern Languages, Philosophy, and International Relations, among others, all the researchers who participated in this project are in natural sciences fields, including Physics & Astronomy, and Earth & Environmental Sciences. Scientist participants include faculty and postgraduate students. Writer participants are all postgraduate students, pursuing either Masters’ or PhD degrees in English or creative writing at the University of St Andrews.
I paired scientists and creative writers based on an interest form in which they indicated subject area preferences and what they hoped to gain from the project experience. Each team met at least three times over the two-month writing period, and after each meeting each individual filled in a questionnaire in which they detailed what was discussed.
The Questionnaire asked:
- What was discussed at this meeting?
- What story ideas were generated?
- What story decisions were made?
- Describe any communication difficulties.
- Describe any communication successes.
- Describe the current status/progress of the story.
Teams were instructed to write a story inspired by the scientist’s work, and that the scientist should be involved in the story creation beyond the initial story idea, but other than that the details were left to each team.
Five teams participated in the research portion. They are pseudonymised in the following manner: 1S and 1W refer to the scientist and writer from the same team, 2S and 2W are from the same team, etc.
As the results are in the form of questionnaire answers, they are mostly qualitative. All teams succeeded in creating a narrative – two teams wrote scripts for radio plays/audio dramas, and three opted for short stories. Below, I list elements that recurred in at least two of the five teams, with the numbers of the teams each element applied to following in parentheses. Notably, a team not being listed does not mean this element was not present in their meetings and creative process, but only that it was not recorded on the questionnaires:
Discussion of shared interest in SF: At the first meeting and as a way to form an initial connection, the team discussed SF they are fans of, and what they like in an SF story (in 3 out of 5: teams 1, 4, 5).
Q&A at first meeting: The first meeting was largely a question-and-answer session with the writer asking and the scientist answering, (in 3 out 5: teams 1, 2, 3) while the other two teams report a more balanced Q&A, with scientists asking questions as well.
Hesitance of the Scientist: Despite the instruction that the scientist remain involved throughout the process, the majority of scientists expressed hesitation to contribute plot ideas authoritatively due to lack of experience, preferring to leave those to the writer, (3 out 5: teams 1, 2, 4).
Scientist provides justifications: The writers wanted a certain setting for the story or event to take place, and the scientist provided a scientific justification for that setting or event, (in 3 out 5 cases: teams 1, 3, 5).
Scientist provides technical terminology: Scientists from every team provided accurate technical terminology from their subfield for the writer to use.
Research work undertaken during writing process: Either the writer or the scientist, or both, consulted scientific sources for the story creation process, sometimes as ‘homework’ between meetings, (teams: 1, 3, 5).
Focus on fieldwork: Writer expressed strong interest in hearing about and incorporating scientist’s fieldwork experiences, (in 2 out 5 cases, teams: 1, 3).
Focus on sense of ambiguity/mystery: The team discussed the big mysteries of science and chose to incorporate a sense of mystery or the unknown into the story, (teams: 3, 4, 5).
At the beginning of the process, contributors often expressed a lack of surety “stumbling around in the dark not sure where to begin”, to quote 1W, or being “swept up by a wave”, as 3W put it. These statements came from groups 1, 2, and 3, who began with scientist-focused Q&A at the first meeting, with groups 4 and 5, who had balanced Q&As at the first meeting, writing about how they had to “find each other, at first, to figure out how much each of us knows about the other person’s field” (4S). Discussion of shared experiences with SF often provided a natural point of commonality and jumping-off point for these initial conversations. Many contributors wrote that they were concerned they were not communicating their ideas well, yet every contributor stated they felt their teammate had communicated well. Therefore, despite much concern about communication troubles, no major miscommunications were actually recorded.
All scientists provided accurate technical terminology and scientific facts that were incorporated into the stories. Occasionally some science points were insisted upon, such as locational accuracy when mentioning a real star system, or locations on Earth most suitable for astronomical observation. However, many scientists reported feeling the pressure to communicate their science accurately, and as a result were careful to differentiate their own views from the prevailing views in their field, and to emphasise the unknowns of science. For instance, 2S did not want to include extra-terrestrials in their story, as they felt it would constitute heavy speculation for their subfield; 3S “discussed the insufficiency of claiming an authoritative interpretation on the basis of the current state of knowledge”, and 5S emphasised the need to admire the great mysteries of science, not just answer them. This meshed with a common desire to use the stories to inspire readers into beginning their own investigations into science, rather than simply laying out facts. Team 2 wanted to “try and inspire an interest in non-science based readers […] rather not get bogged in the details of the science”, and Team 3 similarly had a goal of “enabling [the reader] to explore and arrive at conclusions.” The stories were seen as a chance to inspire, rather than to teach.
Writers sought out the emotional weight in the scientist’s work. 1W “enjoyed getting to hear about [1S]’s experiences in the field…it helped build the emotional truth of field research for me” and consequently decided to make the environment key to the plot of their story. There was a lot of interest from writers in hearing about fieldwork experiences, likely because it is easier to tap into story themes and emotional weight when writing about characters in the field rather than sitting behind computers. 5W added a “seed of loneliness in the story, because one of the reasons we look at exoplanets is to see if we are alone”, explicitly addressing the big questions of exoplanet science. Such themes often prompted scientists to bring up new scientific concepts they felt were relevant – 5S brought up the death of stars and the cycle of matter in response to the loneliness idea, which was then incorporated in the story in a collaborative process. As writers sought emotional weight, scientists were prompted to engage with their own relationships to their work, often leading to discussions of the unknowns and mysteries of science that veered away from purely practical goals of solving these mysteries. These exchanges provided examples of the back-and-forths that happen in relationships between SF authors and scientists – rather than a single instance of inspiration from science to the author, it is instead a discussion that each contributor adds to multiple times.
All contributors expressed that they enjoyed the collaboration – scientists enjoyed sharing their work, and writers enjoyed sharing what is typically a lonely process. As 5W put it “I really enjoy collaborating in writing; it’s a medium that’s often unnecessarily gatekept”.
This sort of interdisciplinary collaboration was new to many of the participants. A number of them were familiar with interdisciplinary conversations, but less so with a collaboration that produced a piece of writing. Challenges included scientist hesitance to contribute to plot, and occasional one-way flows of information from scientist to writer. Perhaps surprisingly, only one writer expressed insecurity about whether they would understand the scientist’s technical explanations, therefore it isn’t listed as a common element in results. Teams largely moved from feeling somewhat overwhelmed in communicating with each other, especially regarding the unknowns, to growing more comfortable and incorporating scientific uncertainties into the final stories. It was commonly concluded that the role of the science in the stories was to provide jumping-off points, or inspiration, to readers. Writers were eager to include some amount of real scientific jargon, and there were certain science elements scientists insisted upon, but ultimately some room was left for the fantastic and the unknown. This is in keeping with Suvin’s idea of estranging the worldviews of the readers, and Freedman’s of inducing the cognition effect. Scientist participants benefited not only through enjoyment of the process but also through the production of a story that can get people interested in their work. Participants carved out this role—not very strictly constrained by accuracy—for SF in science communication efforts.
Conclusions should be seen in the context of the uniqueness of this collaboration, and not generalised beyond these circumstances. The Around Distant Suns anthology project was a planned and structured collaboration taking place in an interdisciplinary university environment with an explicit research component, a rare set of conditions for the writing of science fiction. However, common takeaways regarding the similar role of the unknown in science and in SF, and the inspirational value of SF in introducing science concepts to larger, non-technical audiences, will be valuable to those interested in the intertwining of the two fields. By providing opportunities for ‘science consultants’ to remain involved throughout the entirety of science fiction projects, and a chance for scientists and writers to work collaboratively, this anthology project resulted in a set of ‘hard’ SF stories (tending towards scientific accuracy) that made sure to leave room for imagination.
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