Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.37: Science and Fiction—It’s Not Just Science Fiction

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Cady Coleman

The fictional side of science and the scientific side of fiction are part of the discipline of science communication, often called SciComm. In this episode Cady Coleman joins us to talk about how science fiction fits into the field of SciComm, and how the stories we tell can affect the people who read them.

Credits: This episode was recorded before a live audience by Rob Kowal, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Find something you wish were real. Write a story in which it is.

Thing of the week: For All Mankind (TV Series), on Apple TV.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Fiction, or science fiction, can tell space stories, sharing the wonder. We learn better from stories. But we need science in stories that is right. Beware explosive decompression that makes people explode! Although sometimes we can forgive little things. But sharing what it is like to live up there, to live far away, the view of space and what it feels like to have that view, that’s important. Think about the line between what is forgivable and why. From the Star Trek computer to Siri, Alexa, and other voice AI assistants to flip phones! Science fiction can inspire great things. And flip phones. When you’re sharing, make all the ripples in the universe you can. Let people know that maybe they could do that! Sometimes you buy something with the science. That may be part of the magic. Things are changing, and the more we share, the more change we get.

[Season 17, Episode 37]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Science and Fiction – It’s Not Just Science Fiction.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Cady] And… We’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cady] I’m Cady.

[Dan] We’re so excited to have Cady Coleman back with us again. We are still in the Capitol Reef National Park at the UVU field station with our wonderful writing retreat here.


[Dan] And Cady, our former astronaut and current wonderful person who is here with us.

[Dan] We’re going to talk about science communication. Kind of there’s lots of angles to approach this from. What… And you kind of suggested this topic to us. What is important to you about the fictional side of science and the science side of fiction?

[Cady] Well, I know when I’m tired and I’ve been working hard, some people will watch like a documentary about equations that went into figuring out black holes, but… Those are really important and good, and there’s a really good one out, but, pretty typically, I’m going to watch or read fiction, or science fiction… Or something that’s kind of fun, right? The fact that we can use that to tell space stories is just really important to me. I feel really… I was so lucky to have gotten to go. Very privileged. The fact that people then share that world that I got to live in and that I’m part of that exploration… It really means a lot to me.

[Mary Robinette] I think one of the things for me that’s exciting is that people… Like I’ve said multiple times that people are made of narrative. We learn better from a story than we do from someone handing you a bunch of facts. So what happens though is that people will zone out in their science class and they’ll totally pay attention to the science in a story that is often wrong. Like, how many people do you know that believe that if you go into space without a space suit that you will explode?

[Cady] Which is… Like, explosive decompression does not work that way.


[Cady] Well, I’ve really… I don’t know. I love that movies can like bring us in to space. I got to help with the Gravity movie. When I was up there, my little brother met Sandra Bullock’s brother-in-law. He goes, “Hey. Sandy’s making this movie. Do you think your sister would talk to her?” He goes, “Well, she’s been up in space for like four months with five guys. I think she would talk to like any woman.”


[Cady] “And Sandra Bullock… I think the answer is yes.”


[Cady] Right? So we… But I did not help with the technical aspects of that movie. There’s a lot of people… There’s some things in there, there’s jetting with a CO2 cylinder between space stations. There’s things that are really wrong. Right? I was not part of any of the wrong things. Okay?


[Cady] But I was part of sharing what it’s like to live up there, what it’s like to live far away from everybody you care about and be far away. But what that movie did that meant so much to me is that it was… The way it was filmed, I think they showed you the view of space in a way that you’d never seen it before, and it also showed you what it felt like to have that view. That actually meant everything to me. I could forgive the rest. But I think there’s… It’s always interesting to look at where is the line of what is forgivable and why.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s such an important part of it, too. That science fiction has the ability to be very inspirational and very aspirational. People who designed Siri and Alexa and all these voice AI assistants have said in interviews, they did it specifically because they wanted the computer from Star Trek that they could talk to. The first space shuttle was called Enterprise because of Star Trek.

[Mary Robinette] Flip phones.

[Dan] Science fiction can inspire us to do really great things.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Or flip phones.

[Dan] Also… Or they can inspire flip phones, I guess.

[Cady] Well, NASA wants… NASA is where the space programs run. They want to tell these stories, but at the same time, there’s some logistics involved. For example, in just trying to tell… I mean, we know the early stories are the stories we hear are mostly guys. There’s certainly women that were present. That’s another story, so to speak. But when I was there, in the mid 2000s or so, I think British channel four and National Geographic were both going to do live from the space station. I mean, they were going to do shows on a Friday night… One on Friday night, one on a Sunday night, where you’re really going to hear from the astronauts in real time as part of this documentary. So cool. But it just so happened that intersected with a time when there was six guys living on the space station. I was helping on the ground, and helping public affairs, and helping them find what other kinds of video or ways… What other kinds of things would you like to share about what life is like up there. To me, this was like a national emergency. That on a Friday night, at 8 o’clock, a nine-year-old girl would watch this and think it was so cool and not realize that there’s this subliminal message that says, “Yeah, really cool, but probably not you.” It wasn’t something that NASA could really help, that timing, but we could actually at least make sure the extra bits of video when we go… So we go on spacewalks and show women and people that look different than the six folks that lived… Were actually up there as part of the show. So having the initiative to realize that when you’re going to make something that a lot of people are going to see, do everything you can to basically let it make all the ripples in the universe that it can.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that you said to me early on when I was researching Calculating Stars was that you had been in college for chemistry and had not realized that space was an option for you at all until Sally Ride came to your university to speak. I was… That really struck me. I was like, “Oh, yeah. Right.”

[Cady] Even we don’t often, as astronauts, talk together… Like, together to the same audience. I was with one of the guys that I know and love, he was my backup for my mission. Someone said, “So. When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?” He said, “Well, like most kids, I grew up thinking I would love to do this.” I said, “Mike, that is… That was not my experience.” I mean, I grew up in a family where exploration through my dad in the Sea Lab program, deep-sea diving, exploration was really real. Like, oh, people do this. It’s normal. To think that you might go and live someplace like really far away. But not necessarily obvious that I could be one of those explorers. Until… I remember where I was sitting and she showed up and I… Just realizing that maybe I could do that. Here was someone that kind of candidly looked and felt like me. I think not everyone needs that. But a lot of people do.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to make you tell one more story after we pause…

[Dan] After we pause for a thing of the week. Which, this week is For All Mankind.

[Mary Robinette] For All Mankind. So I love this show unabashedly.

[Cady] Me too!

[Mary Robinette] Even though it means that Calculating Stars will never probably be made into a TV show.


[Mary Robinette] Because it covers much of the same material. But that’s part of why I love it. So, it is an alternate history space program in which the Russians beat us to the moon. So, since America needs to have a first, they’re like, “We’re going to get the first woman into space.” They don’t.

[Laughter] But they work… But because at that point, they put women into the space program much earlier than we did. So there are women in the Apollo program.

[Cady] It’s so cool.

[Mary Robinette] It’s so cool.

[Cady] Well, it highlights some things that you might think are obvious. But let’s say you pick 10 women and they’re all astronauts. Just by the law of averages, there’s going to be some that have black hair, some brown hair, some blonde hair. It turns out that the people with the same hair color and skin color are not actually interchangeable or the same. I mean, whereas, actually I’m just telling you that often, as a woman astronaut, in the 1990s, you’d get confused with the other women that looked a bit like you.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Cady] So, actually, this show really shows… I mean, I’m being funny about it, but they picked a certain number of people and they clearly… Because it’s TV, they clearly each had different personalities, you couldn’t think that they would be sort of like all the same. To me, it’s a really important point that just because when we include women, that we’re not including one type of person. We’re all different, as are all guys. I mean, I flew with the identical twins. I flew with Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly. These are two different people. They may be identical twins.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think that For All Mankind does a great job of showing that. Also, it does a great job of showing that many of the challenges that you face in space are the same regardless of what your face… Then there are challenges that are very different depending on who you are. So. Anyway, I love this show a lot.

[Cady] It’s fun. It makes you think.

[Dan] All three of us were kind of geeking out about it.

[Mary Robinette] The science is mostly really good. Like it’s mostly… Every now and then there’s something like, “Uh, you’re really stretching that.”

[Dan] That doesn’t work. Some forgivable mistakes. I just… I also want to point out the show runner and the head writer is Ronald Moore, famous for Deep Space Nine and Battle Star Galactica, which are two of my favorites.

[Cady] Really?

[Dan] He’s very, very good. He’s one of the best science fiction writers that we have in TV. So…

[Cady] So many of us when we’re training for the space station, if we… When we… If we launch from Russia, we would be over there for like six weeks at a time, and end up, we’ve got like a little gym in the basement of one of the little buildings that we stay in. So you’re in the gym with people and watching Battle Star Galactica was like a thing.


[Mary Robinette] That’s amazing.

[Cady] In fact, I had to wait to watch the last season. Scott’s like, “Don’t watch it until you get here, appear to the space station.”


[Dan] Well, that’s my new favorite detail about the space station.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So that’s For All Mankind again, highly recommended.

[Mary Robinette] But one of the things that I want to talk about with that is that we said that sometimes the science isn’t… It’s like, “Uh…” But when it’s not good, it’s because they’re buying something for narrative purposes. That, to me, is different than the shows where it’s lazy science, where they could have gotten it right and it wouldn’t have… Getting it right would have been better. So the show Away which…

[Cady] I loved because they had a woman commander.

[Mary Robinette] Yup.

[Cady] On the show, which… Because it just kind of plants that little seed that like…

[Mary Robinette] Yup.

[Cady] We can all do the same.

[Mary Robinette] I feel like the emotional beats of it were really good. Weirdly, they have marionettes in space and got it very right, how they would work. But then they also have… It’s so confusing to me, like their puppetry consultant was on the money…


[Mary Robinette] But their science consultant for space was just like high or something, or they just…

[Cady] Well, having consulted for things…

[Mary Robinette] Right.

[Cady] Sometimes, they… I mean, they accept input. You don’t often get…

[Mary Robinette] I understand that.

[Dan] They don’t necessarily listen to their consultants.

[Mary Robinette] They did not necessarily. I think there was a lot of, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to be amazing.” Because it’s like Sandra Bullock… Not Sandra Bullock…

[Cady] Hilary Swank.

[Mary Robinette] Hilary Swank has to fix a solar panel that’s broken on the… And the tool that she takes out with her on her spacewalk to fix this is a pickax!


[Cady] I mean, her mother did not teach her that. Okay?

[Mary Robinette] No. Definitely not.

[Dan] This idea of buying something is… With your science. This is something I did in Zero G. For the big spacecraft that the boy is in. There’s a huge inner column basically that he zooms around in. There’s no scientifically plausible reason that I came up with first of all for why there would be all this wasted empty space in a ship and second of all why it would be full of oxygen when all the passengers are in stasis pods. But what I needed was a very cool space where he could fly around in zero gravity. Because that’s what gets all the kids in this middle grade novel excited and they love it and then I can give them the vegetables on the side. Right? So that’s what gets them hooked and that’s what got them excited because I fudged a little bit of the science.

[Cady] Well, yeah. It is part of the magic. I mean, I loved being part of the experiments. I would have stayed another six months in a minute. Up on that space station. Because it’s very clear in a visceral way how important the work that you’re doing is, because there are experiments that just can’t be done on Earth, but actually have a lot of Earth implications. Everything from our health to how do we grow food on Mars, well, how do we grow food down here in places where it’s hard to grow them. So I felt really imperative to be doing these things. At the same time, this idea… I was never that coordinated a person down here, and going off and being able to just have like the touch of a finger and fly down the module and be graceful. My middle name is Grace, and no one uses it. Okay?


[Cady] But, I mean, there is this magic that I… And it’s so different than down here. I think it’s part of what makes everybody feel like there’s a future out there that we’re still moving towards. There’s still possibilities that we’ve never experienced yet. It’s because something happens that is so different, and that is the flying. So, I’m all for your modification.

[Mary Robinette] There was a… As we’re talking about this, the what are you buying and the inspiration reminds me of a thing that happened at the Nebula conference. We managed to time the Nebula conference with the penultimate shuttle launch. So there are all of these science fiction writers… Like, it was the biggest turnout we ever had, because everybody’s like, “We’re going to see a shuttle.” It’s this incredibly emotional experience. There are a lot of people who are in Florida to see this. We’re, as so often happens…

[Cady] I cry at almost every launch, I have to say.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Cady] You think you’re ready and then it’s such a big deal to see people leaving the planet.

[Mary Robinette] Do you cry on your own launches?

[Cady] No.

[Mary Robinette] Okay.


[Mary Robinette] It seems like it would be…

[Cady] Busy.

[Mary Robinette] Busy. Yeah. But one of the things that happened was that our hotel was being shared by another conference of aerospace engineers. I remember sitting at the registration table and one of them walks up and goes, “Is this like… Is this like the Nebula conference? Like the Nebula awards?” I’m like, “Yeah. Actually, this is the Nebula awards.” He’s like, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know. I can’t change my flight. I’m flying out today. I… I… Is there anyone here that I might know?” I’m like, “Well, that’s Joe Haldeman.” I thought he was going to swallow his tongue.


[Mary Robinette] He was so excited. He had gone into space because he’d been reading all of this science fiction. There was this moment also where… When we were… Someone at the ceremony itself, at the big banquet, and someone had brought their dad who had designed part of… A controller on the space shuttle, and was recognized from the podium. So he stands up, and the entire room gives him a standing ovation. He’s like… Because he was equally excited to be there because it’s a room full of science fiction. That again is why he went into it. So I love the back-and-forth, the way we get inspired by science, and it’s like, “But what else can it do?” The science-fiction people… The science people are like, “Wait. Wait. Do you think maybe we could… Can I have my flip phone?”


[Dan] I can talk to a computer.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. But no flying cars.

[Cady] I wanted to make a little joke like, “Oh, I know exactly who that person is,” but it could be so many people at NASA. I’m saying NASA, but I mean the whole space program, the contractors, everybody. There’s a huge love of science fiction. Actually, one interesting thing, Elon Musk came to talk one time. Actually, I think he was at MIT, but he came to talk, and one of the people lined up to ask a question said, “What kind of science fiction do you read?” Unfortunately for all of you, I don’t remember what Elon Musk said. Okay? But he looks back at this kid and he goes, “So what do you like to read?” Then they went and they chatted back and forth and back and forth. It was the nicest, most human kind of thing. It’s science-fiction that actually brought these people from very different worlds together.

[Mary Robinette] Yup.

[Dan] So, that is going to be our writing prompt today, is I want you all to take… Find something that you wish were real, some cool technology. Something that you wish you could have or do. Then write a story in which it is real and illustrate how cool it is to everybody else. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to do a little bonus here, because there’s a story that I didn’t manage to trigger Cady to tell that I want her to tell. So this is a stinger for sticking around. Cady, will you tell about your kid… Your son seeing the poster… The cutout of the astronaut with the helmet down?

[Cady] Oh. Well, because for me… I don’t… It meant a lot, but also just kind of… It’s like these possibilities where you just think, “Oh. Maybe things will change. Maybe things are changing.” The thing is that we were at like an event at the Space Center Houston where… It was a whole big NASA family kind of thing. They had a big flat cut out of a person in a spacesuit. He was like four. He says, “Mommy, is that you?” I said, “No, sweetie, that’s not me.” He goes, “Well, then, whose mommy is it?”


[Cady] So, things change. More change from more sharing. Thank you for writing.

[Transcriptionist note: Speaking of talking to a computer, these transcripts are brought to you courtesy of Dragon Naturally Speaking…]