Inspiring Stories – using science fiction to teach astrobiology
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Julie Nováková from the Charles University in the Czech Republic and the European Astrobiology Institute tells us how she edited an anthology of science fiction stories to help astrobiology outreach and education.
When was the last time you felt the unmistakable ‘sense of wonder’? The familiar awe, surprise and joy at – what? A beautiful sight to behold? A story? A discovery? A piece of data? For scientists, data itself or its collection can evoke a powerful sense of wonder (and sometimes frustration, boredom, puzzlement – we probably all know it), but for nearly anyone outside of science, the journey and/or the result has to be communicated to inspire wonder and facilitate understanding, and hopefully further interest.
Science fiction is a genre of literature built on the sense of wonder. In the 19th century, people held their breath devouring the latest Verne or Wells, widened their eyes at the modern-age horror described by Shelley, and imagined the key ‘what if’ at the heart of SF – what if we could really create new life, travel to the Moon, encounter visitors from Mars… Nowadays, SF is also very popular and increasingly familiar to most of us, at least indirectly as ‘common knowledge’. The mix of familiar tropes, wonder-inspiring new ideas and in the ideal (if not the most frequent) case relying on science makes SF a great medium for communicating science. All of the above points are enormous advantages of using SF as means of science outreach and/or education. There are potential pitfalls as well, of course – with this approach, it needs to be outlined clearly what is science and what is speculation within a story, without getting too carried away.
I’ve been writing, editing and translating science fiction for more than a decade, publishing in major magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog or Clarkesworld and having published seven novels in my native Czech. And for a decade now (how the time flies!), I’ve been studying biology. For approximately the same time, I’ve been writing popular science articles, doing workshops at schools, helping out at science-themed summer camps and lecturing at festivals, conventions and elsewhere. Astrobiology, together with astronomy and planetary science, has always been an interest of mine, and I was happy to join the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI) at the time of its founding in mid-2019. Then it was only logical to take the next step and merge my backgrounds…
As my first major project as the leader of the team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ at the EAI, I decided to prepare a freely available book of science fiction stories with interesting astrobiology themes, each accompanied by a popular science essay on the topic and a few tips for using the text in classroom, making the book useful for any individual reader as well as high school or university teachers who like to experiment with unusual approaches. It also enabled us to clearly distinguish between SF and current scientific understanding, while also providing the readers with the option to read just the nonfiction texts, just the stories, or both.
The anthology, titled Strangest of All, was released in May 2020 under the free Creative Commons license in several e-book formats, so that it was accessible to as many people as possible. It contains seven science fiction stories by six renowned authors and a bonus story by myself (whom I cannot possibly call renowned next to the rest of the names). The stories are reprints (meaning previously published), but many of them are impossible to access elsewhere, which would be a shame, because they are all amazing. Together, they showcase the topics of life in a subsurface ocean, life under extremely high pressure, potential for life in the Kuiper Belt, Dyson spheres, the Fermi Paradox, SETI and planetary protection. Each is introduced more in-depth in the nonfiction pieces I personally wrote for the book.
Publishing Strangest of All wasn’t the end of it. It needed to be promoted so that it could reach its audience and actually inspire as many people as possible. The news was shared by Europlanet, Tor.com, Centauri Dreams and elsewhere, including sources in different languages such as Spanish, Portuguese or Czech, thanks to translations of the press release by members of the institute, especially the SF outreach team. Furthermore, I conducted interviews about SF and science with three of the authors so far (Peter Watts, Gregory Benford, G. David Nordley), with three more coming up later (Geoffrey Landis, Tobias S. Buckell, D.A. Xiaolin Spires). We also used several stories from the anthology for tasks and discussions within the Astrobiology Seminar at the Charles University.
Nor is this the end. The team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ has a lot of work ahead. Apart from the ‘usual stuff’ such as convention talks, participating in exhibitions or preparing more interviews with scientists and SF authors, we’re hoping to publish a print anthology of original SF stories – written exclusively for the book in cooperation with EAI scientists – also accompanied by nonfiction pieces, covering more astrobiological topics in an exciting and innovative way. We have a long journey ahead: securing funding, talking to publishers and authors, facilitating effective author-scientist collaboration, editing… but I’m optimistic. Having edited three anthologies so far, one of them in print, I know it can be done, and I hope the result will be as amazing as we imagine now.
Luckily, we’re not alone in our efforts. SF has been used in outreach for over a century to some extent, and for instance organizers of the recent Exoplanet Demographics online conference edited a short SF e-zine for each of the days of the event, with contributions tied to the scientific topics presented that day. That is awesome – and so we move from reading the latest Verne in the age when electricity was still a miracle of modern technology to an era where science and technology surround us everywhere and are more accessible than ever before, but also have to compete for attention with many distractions and agendas. SF can hopefully help bridge the gap between entertainment and science – and show that science itself is often much more exciting than fiction, with fiction nevertheless helping us imagine what science cannot yet.
So switch on your flashlight or your e-reader, nestle in the bed covers, dive into fantastic stories of life in the universe and dream on… perhaps so much that one day, it will be you being the principal investigator of a mission not just inspired by visions of exotic life, but also aiming to elucidate the equally fantastic history of the solar system and life here on Earth.
Nováková, J. (ed.), 2020. Strangest Of All: Anthology Of Astrobiological Science Fiction. 1st ed. European Astrobiology Institute. Accessible at https://www.julienovakova.com/strangest-of-all/ and https://europeanastrobiology.eu/
Other books by author: https://www.julienovakova.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/book-covers-jn_2020.jpg
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