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”).Continue reading “Dialogues Between Science and Fiction in the Creation of an Anthology”