education research

Putting the Sci in Sci-Fi curriculum

By Premee Mohamed
Jan 11, 2020 · 3,921 words · 15 minutes

Curriculumsnap

Post art by Premee Mohamed.  

From the author: My curriculum for the 'Putting the Sci Into Sci-Fi' session I taught in December! How to generate ideas, how to vet research, how to turn research into a narrative, some common pitfalls, and how I did it for an upcoming story.


On December 10, I gave what we (rather euphemistically) called a 'session' on 'Putting the Sci in Sci-Fi' at my local library! I didn't know how many people were going to show up, or what they might be looking for (that is, primarily writers or primarily readers), so I kept it pretty vague until I had done the introductions. 

So, I'm presenting my basic curriculum here, plus bonus links! (Unfortunately, I can't embed the slides, it looks like; but they were pretty minimal anyway)

INTRODUCTION

- Who am I?

I'm Premee Mohamed, I was born and raised in Edmonton, I'm a Capital City Press Featured Writer for 2019/2020, started in November, done in January. I am a novelist (my debut novel, Beneath the Rising, is coming out from Solaris Books in March 2020, although I've written around 18 novels) and short story author (almost 30 sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories published in the last 3 years, nominated for the Pushcart award, two more stories coming out shortly).

- Why am I leading this class tonight?

Do I have any literary credentials? No I do not. But, the novel and a lot of those stories are sci-fi; and I am also a scientist! My first degree was molecular genetics, my second was environmental science (specifically soil). I've worked in research and consulting as well as industry so I've been doing some sort of science professionally for about 15 years. I've done fieldwork, labwork, desktop research, and a ton of lit reviews. Some of that goes into my work, some not. But a really useful part of formal science education is how to look up, evaluate, and organize primary sources, and that's useful for fiction as well.

- What will we cover?

Basically, how to look up interesting science, how to vet it a little bit, and how to turn it into a sci-fi fiction narrative. Last, we'll spend a couple minutes talking about the process I used for a story that's coming out shortly in a sci-fi anthology, and how that worked.

INTRO 2:

(Demanding the class tell me their intentions towards me and the material)

IDEA GENERATION

What are some ways I like to prime the creative pump for sci-fi specifically?

Basically what we are looking at is existing research that we can extrapolate and put a spin on to add that 'speculative' element that makes a great story. Where are these ideas currently? Where could they lead? What led into their own creation?

- Twitter: Fantastic, absolutely worth more than rubies and pearls. I follow the accounts of scientists, grad students, specific labs, research institutes and facilities, journals, and pop-sci magazines such as New Scientist (which I subscribe to), National Geographic (ditto), Quanta, Popular Science, and Discover.

- Recent Twitter follows have included Berkeley Neuroscience, Science for the People Magazine, the Rokas Lab, Astronomy Facts, Journal of Ecology, the National Air and Space Museum, and Bluecollar Biochemist. They regularly tweet links to interesting papers, their own research in simplified language, news articles, photos, scientific imaging, and so on.

- If you do a search for a hashtag like '#scicomm' you'll find lots of good accounts! #WomenInSTEM is also fantastic, as is #AcademicTwitter. That last one is also great if you would like to see, but don't have, 'real-life' lab experience, in terms of getting a feel for how labs are organized, how people are hired, how experiments are designed, how physical equipment is set up and used, and so on. It can help make for a more real-feeling and human tone in a sci-fi story.

- Podcasts: I have only recently gotten into podcasts because of some minor brain problems which are now on their way to being resolved, but the Nature podcast, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), In Defense of Plants, Quirks & Quarks, Science (I know, it's the name of the magazine), and Ologies. Obviously there are podcasts out there for everyone but I like these roundup-style ones where they briefly mention research that's really new. 

- The Nature podcast is my favourite by miles, because they find interesting new research, interview the scientists who did the research, and then find a scientist in the same field who was not involved in the experiment or study and they talk to them about whether they think the work is valid, important, ethical, done correctly, and where it might go from there. It is so valuable to get those two perspectives, I love it. 

- There are also a lot of sci-fi podcasts out there to give you an idea of what people are writing about and what editors are interested in, I am going to plump for Escape Pod, which is a member of the Escape Artists group, and which I slush for (short stories of < 6000 words). Personally I don't find them useful for idea generation, but fiction podcasts give an excellent overview of sci-fi trends and sub-genres, such as cli-fi, solarpunk, hopepunk, and so on, that can help guide my own research.

- Other neat sources to prime the pump: SO MANY.

- Like I said, those pop-sci magazines are great. They present things in fun, easy-to-read language, and almost always have links to the primary sources.

- Opinion pieces and news pieces — surprisingly good for near-future things like privacy, surveillance, high-tech crime, virtual currencies, internet communities, and so on. Like I read a story this year about how people are spoofing GPS signals specifically to steal shipping crates full of sand and gravel. Sand thieves! High-tech cyber sand thieves! 

- Museums! When I was in the UK this year, I went to multiple natural history museums, the Science Museum in London, and the Air & Space museum in Manchester. All the photos in this presentation are from that trip. It's amazing how just kind of soaking in an atmosphere of science and nerdery makes the sparks fly in my brain.

- Science centers (like our own Telus World of Science; also good for eavesdropping on little kids to see what questions they ask about the exhibits)

- Comic-cons or other writing conventions (like PureSpec here)

- Research days, hackathons, observatory and/or discovery days at postsecondary institutions. They let anybody attend (I went to a great hackathon a few years ago about emergency response in Edmonton specifically that I could have gotten a thousand story ideas from), sometimes you can use technology or watch live demos, and the presentations are often really interesting. The U of A puts on so many public events and you can talk to scientists and techs.

- Even work conferences (I've gotten ideas for future remote sensing technology by talking to the guys at the last Alberta Sand and Gravel Association AGM about how they use drones to calculate material volumes at sand and gravel pits)

- Local experts (I have friends who actively seek out people to consult, more on that in a sec) (I also got to talk to an astronaut at the last conference I was at, which was great!)

- Books (books are tricky because they're often 'behind' by a couple of years and while sci-fi is not STRICTLY set in the future, necessarily, e.g. you can have sci-fi aspects in historical works and so on, it OFTEN is, so you have to be ahead of the curve in case something in a book turned out to be proven wrong six months after it was published).

- What else can people think of in terms of just idea generation?

'VETTING' THE QUALITY OF YOUR IDEAS AND RESEARCH

This would really be a whole nother class (maybe a grad-level class) but:

- Find multiple sources about the same piece of research if you saw it in a tweet or magazine or etc, not just one

- Find and read the original paper if you can; Google Scholar can often help, or if you can't read the whole paper for free online you can often read just the abstract (surprisingly helpful) and the references, and find similar papers that you can read for free. The library also has access to a lot of databases and journals, ask a librarian to help you search! 

- Find two or three of the papers cited in the original research (see above). Is the original and some or all the references from peer-reviewed journals? How long has the journal been running? 

- If you can't find the paper, at least see if you can find who did the research and find the webpage for their lab. Does the lab seem legitimate? Is it associated with a postsecondary institution or another research facility? Is it clear who's providing the funding? (Good research comes out of private industry, absolutely, but I keep an eagle eye out for bias and spin.)   

- If it's speculative (e.g. from a news article), that's fine! Keep an eye on who is doing the speculating. Another scientist, great. (Nature podcast: excellent for this, because they get a scientist in the same field, who did not work on the paper, to comment). If it's a businessperson figuring they can monetize or weaponize it, less great.

TURNING IDEAS INTO FICTION

How do I usually do it?

- Figure out the 'premise' of the thing I'm researching: the 'what if' question. Often for sci-fi, this ends up being a technology, system, trend, or corruption of one of those things. (Examples: hacking a smart lock or doorbell system; climate change in near-desert environments; kids growing up assuming every flat shiny surface is a touchscreen; LIDAR measurements of moisture in rangeland environments). 

- PREMISE IS NOT ENOUGH I LEARNED THAT IN SLUSH. A premise is not a plot. A story without a plot is a vignette, scene, setting, or background that could fit into a larger piece of writing, but cannot stand alone as a story (at least, based on current narrative understanding). 

- Showing vs. telling in sci-fi, info-dumping because you don't know what the reader knows; 'As you know, Bob' (Jeannette Ng essay) or the issue with 1930s-1960s sci-fi 'Golden Age' in which a premise or technology is discussed with cardboard characters, no emotional involvement or character arc, and no plot. 

- Basically, once premise is figured out, see how it affects the:

- Characters - is this something that the characters can do, or affects or constrains their choices, or are they researching it, or is it something they live with, or etc. How do the characters interact with the premise? Does it change them, do they change it? Do they subvert it? Are they conscious of it, or is it part of the background of their lives? Has having it or using it shaped their backgrounds, personalities, or relationships? (Example: implanted computer chips or bodily modifications that let people track you or see through your eyes) 

- Setting - is it part of the world, how does it affect the world/what does it change compared to Real World, how did it come about, does it change where/how people live, does it do so inequitably (pretty much inevitable for most tech), does it correct inequities, is humanity more 'advanced' because of it, is it terrible, what are the implications of it, what are the implications of those implications, etc. Climate change is a huge one for this. (Example: Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh: climate refugees and the knock-on effects on food security, cultural practices, human health, and wildlife movement).

- Plot - does it relate to decision points as above, basically. But in the sense that it causes choices to be made because of previous choices rather than because of character personality or motive. The premise itself forces the choices. (Example: discovery of an alien species on Mars forces the characters to decide whether they want to abandon their terraforming project and flee, or fight an unknown foe, and if so, how). 

- The goal for a sci-fi story is that, if you take out the sci-fi part of it, the story does not work. The speculative element can be subtle, but it has to be part of the story in a way that is integral. A story where the only element is that someone drops their coffee cybercup on the way out the door isn't a sci-fi story even if a cybercup doesn't exist, if the cybercup could be replaced with a real coffee cup and the story remained unchanged.

HOW I'VE DONE IT PRETTY RECENTLY

- My example is with a story I submitted for an anthology called 'Rosalind's Siblings,' which is about women in science. I completely randomly stumbled across something called 'unihemispherical sleep' in Mary Roach's book 'Grunt,' which is something that the army once wanted to work on because it would 'help' with sleep deprivation in soldiers. And I thought: Oh! That sounds really useful. What if you could induce that in humans successfully, what would that look like? But it was literally just a single, throw-away reference about amphetamines. There was no other information. So, I went to Google Scholar and looked up a bunch of papers written about it, luckily most of them available in .pdf form for free. From those papers, I pulled a lot of fascinating information:

- All the existing research is in non-human species, and it seems to all have the same vigilance/crowd protection function

- It seems it cannot be induced in research animals

- It definitely has never been observed in humans

- How to measure it, and what assumptions scientists were making with subjects that they could not communicate with verbally

- What 'normal' brainwaves looked like, and what sleeping, REM, and unihemispheric brainwaves look like in test subjects

Premise: What if you could induce unihemispherical sleep in soldiers?

Characters: Two scientists trying to do so, and how their test subject (Subject 43) reacts to the efforts.

Plot: It becomes clear as they try to induce it, under increasing pressure for time and funding, that they may be doing real damage to Subject 43. The plot then becomes the choices that both the researchers and the test subject make as the story progresses, as part of the story is told from their POV, and part from his. The question becomes: what is the cost of forcing humans to be asleep and awake at the same time? Is there a biological reason we couldn't evolve it? Is there a sociological or anthropological reason it's not desirable as a trait we would be able to keep? Is it reasonable to want to pay this cost? What would the benefits be? What does that say about humanity's desire to wage war using, primarily, very young people who signed up under economic duress? What does it say about the desire of some researchers to succeed at their experiments 'no matter what'? Does it say more about the 'system,' the military, or certain personalities?

So basically:

- Find the real research

- Extrapolate it to what people might use it for later on

- And who might be interested in it, and why, and what populations it might affect

- And turn that into a series of choices that get harder and harder until the 'main problem' created by the premise is resolved

EXERCISE

- Everybody pick from a pre-selected list of science headlines/premises

- How could it be fictionalized

- Who wants to share

(Below is the list of the printouts, consisting of a link and an excerpt, that I handed out to people. My students came up with some incredible plots and premises in twenty minutes, and for at least two of them I hope that they become stories or novels. I did not want to print out the full story because I knew it would be distracting.)

1. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24432590-300-we-constantly-eat-microplastics-what-does-that-mean-for-our-health/ 

They also agree that, in theory, there are three potential hazards: physical, chemical and microbiological. The first comes from the particles getting lodged in organs and tissues and causing damage and inflammation. The second is from toxic chemicals leaching out into the body. These could be the remnants of chemicals that are used to make plastics, additives in the plastics such as flame retardants, and pollutants soaked up by plastics from the environment. The third comes from the pathogenic microbes that appear to grow enthusiastically on the surface of plastic particles.

All of which sounds troubling. But the key words are “in theory”. As yet there is almost no evidence of actual health effects, let alone long-term risks.

Consider the microplastics we swallow, which is probably the way most get into our bodies. Microplastics have been detected in drinking water and food; bottled water contains up to 106 particles per litre, and beer, sea salt, seafood, honey, sugar and teabags have also been found to be contaminated. Shellfish, which feed by filtering seawater and which we eat whole, including their digestive systems, are a rich source. A portion of mussels typically contains 800 microplastic particles.

2. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2226093-recordings-reveal-that-plants-make-ultrasonic-squeals-when-stressed/?utm_source=NSNEW&utm_campaign=b8e76d4fb6-NSNEW_051219&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e65fab71ff-b8e76d4fb6-378465695 

Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team says insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away. A moth may decide against laying eggs on a plant that sounds water-stressed, the researchers suggest. Plants could even hear that other plants are short of water and react accordingly, they speculate.

3. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/how-humans-could-go-interstellar-without-warp-drive?utm_source=dsctwitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=dsctwitter 

It is not widely known, but the US government spent real money, tested hardware and employed some of the best minds in late 1950s and early 60s to develop an idea called nuclear pulse propulsion.

Known as Project Orion, the work was classified because the principle was that your engine shoots a series of “nuclear pulse units”—atomic bombs of roughly Hiroshima/Nagasaki power—out the back. Each unit explodes and the shockwave delivers concussive force to an immense, steel pusher plate, which is connected to the most immense shock absorber system that you could imagine.

The researchers calculated that the ship could reach five percent the speed of light (0.05 c), resulting in roughly a 90-year travel time to Alpha Centauri. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbade nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which forbade nuclear explosive devices in space, effectively ended Orion.

In his epic TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan noted such an engine would be an excellent way to dispose of humanity’s nuclear bombs, but that it would have to be activated far from Earth. But back when Orion was being funded, amazingly, the plan was to use the nuclear pulse engine even for launching the vessel, in one massive piece, from the surface of Earth. Suffice it to say it does not seem likely that we’ll every build a nuclear pulse ship, but it’s something that we already have the technology to build.

4. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/what-to-expect-if-earth-ever-falls-into-a-black-hole?utm_source=dsctwitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=dsctwitter 

What would happen, hypothetically, if a black hole appeared out of nowhere next to Earth? The same gravitational effects that produced spaghettification would start to take effect here. The edge of the Earth closest to the black hole would feel a much stronger force than the far side. As such, the doom of the entire planet would be at hand. We would be pulled apart.

Equally, we might not even notice if a truly supermassive black hole swallowed us below its event horizon as everything would appear as it once was, at least for a small period of time. In this case, it could be some time before disaster struck. But don’t lose too much sleep, we’d have to be unfortunate to “hit” a black hole in the first place – and we might live on holographically after the crunch anyway.

5. https://www.quantamagazine.org/can-new-species-evolve-from-cancers-maybe-heres-how-20190819/ 

Even among microscopic parasites, myxosporeans are enigmatic. They were first discovered nearly two centuries ago, and more than 2,000 species are recognized today. Their complex life cycles make study particularly difficult: It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists realized the ones found in fish were the same species as those found in worms, and not completely different classes of parasite. And while most parasites are content merely to snuggle into their animal host’s tissues, myxosporeans often take up residence inside a host’s own cells.

6. https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-microbiomes-affect-fear-20191204/ 

Until recently, studies of the gut-brain relationship have mostly shown only correlations between the state of the microbiome and operations in the brain. But new findings are digging deeper, building on research that demonstrates the microbiome’s involvement in responses to stress. Focusing on fear, and specifically on how fear fades over time, researchers have now tracked how behavior differs in mice with diminished microbiomes. They identified differences in cell wiring, brain activity and gene expression, and they pinpointed a brief window after birth when restoring the microbiome could still prevent the adult behavioral deficits. They even tracked four particular compounds that may help to account for these changes. While it may be too early to predict what therapies could arise once we understand this relationship between the microbiome and the brain, these concrete differences substantiate the theory that the two systems are deeply entwined.

CONCLUSION

- Where to find me (@premeesaurus on Twitter, my Curious Fictions page and www.premeemohamed.com otherwise)

- Reading list is up at EPL for books I thought did the 'sci into sci-fi' really well

- HAVE FUN!

And that was it! My next one is happening February 6, and I learned so much from doing the first one I thought I'd conclude this post with my learnings (basically, so I don't forget them).

Learnings for next time:

1. REHEARSE. I had run through it mentally a couple of times, but I was so rushed at work that I hadn't really worked on the 'curriculum' and was completely unaware that I would run through all my slides, speaking at (what I felt was) a reasonable rate of speed, in twenty minutes. It was a two-hour session. Not that anyone wanted to look at slides for two hours, but yikes. I did not have enough material.

2. Put my stuff on a flash drive (which I have dozens of but could not find the day before, because of course not) instead of my Google Drive, because I'm sure people did not need to see every single one of my files while I was looking for the slideshow.

3. Write up a reading list right afterwards! I promised I'd put one up, but I didn't, and now I've forgotten like 90% of the references I made during the class. 

4. Schedule in room for one-on-one time! When we did the exercise I circulated around and sat down with people to be like 'How's it going?' and everyone commented afterwards that it was valuable to chat without feeling like they were being 'called on' in class. We're all grownups here, after all. Plus, there were two very quiet attendees who opened up completely when I sat down and asked them about their stories.

5, unofficially, is that going to dinner beforehand and having two pints definitely helped a lot, um, and I hope nobody from the library reads this. I DID NOT SHOW UP DRUNK, I HAD A LARGE HEAVY MEAL WITH MY BEERS, AND THEY WERE CONSUMED OVER A PERIOD OF ALMOST TWO HOURS.


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