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Transcript for Episode 9.34

Writing Excuses 9.34: Science Fiction As Science Education


Key Points: People like stories, so turn science into a narrative. You may be elegantly incorrect, but if a neat idea makes people dig deeper, they learn more. Science fiction, by definition, includes science we can’t quite do yet — hypothetical. Try for engaging, interesting, exciting fiction that is also technically correct. Make great stories, then add technical accuracy. To make difficult topics accessible, start with engaging stories — true but weird is good. Picking a point of view character, look for person in pain and ignorant, so they can have a voyage of discovery. Make sure the character needs the information for something. Use metaphor to give your reader something they understand.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, science fiction as science education.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we’re joined by Dr. Brad Voytek. Say hi, Brad.
[Brad] Hi, Brad.
[Brandon] Brad, tell us what you’re a doctor in.
[Brad] I’m a doctor of neuroscience and a professor of computational neuroscience at UC San Diego.
[Brandon] Sweet. We are also recording live at WesterCon in Salt Lake City.
[Screams and yells]

[Brandon] Now, Brad, you pitched this episode topic to us. It’s something you’re passionate about. This is using science fiction as an educational device. I assume it’s something that you’ve done before.
[Brad] Yes, actually. I… A collaborator of mine, Tim Verstynen, who’s a friend of mine… He’s a professor at Carnegie Mellon. He and I just finished writing a book called Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? By Princeton University press. It’s basically our way of getting people to accidentally learn something about the brain. So we pretend like what would happen if a zombie walked into an ER? What would we as neuroscientists think about what’s wrong with its brain? Why do they walk the way they do, etc.?
[Howard] Do you have copies of that book here?
[Brad] No. It is not published. I mean, it is on Amazon preorder right now, but it’s not out yet.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome. That sounds like an entire book length work like that xkcd what if stuff…
[Brad] Yeah. Kind of, I guess. Yeah.

[Brandon] Awesome. So have you used science fiction in your classroom before?
[Brad] No, because I’m a new professor, so I haven’t taught yet, but…
[Brandon] Yo.
[Mary] But this is actually something that Launchpad does. That’s a NASA-funded workshop that teaches astronomy literature to writers. But one of the theories behind it is that so many people know things wrong about how space works because they picked it up from science fiction. So the idea is if you can train science fiction writers to write it correctly, then you can improve the science literature. It’s basically… We know that people like stories. So how to turn science into a narrative.
[Brandon] This is kind of like… Really big a little while ago was mixing vegetables into foods that people like to eat sneakily. There were a whole round of books about how to do this and get kids to eat healthy stuff by sneaking the vegetables in. We’re kind of talking about the same thing with fiction.

[Howard] Okay, so let me… Brad, let me throw this question at you. What is your favorite science fiction title for laying down scientific principles?
[Brad] I think… I have to go with a classic. Asimov’s Foundation books. The idea that you could statistically understand how humans as a whole work on large galactic scales was transformative for me. I think that’s great. Things don’t really work that way, but that’s going back to your point about Launchpad. There’s negative feedback loops where science fiction writers get it wrong and then the public gets it wrong, but you can also have the positive feedback loops where you get it right and then get it right. But there is something to be said about walking that fine line and getting it elegantly incorrect. Right? Where it sort of implants a neat idea that may not be technically correct, but if you then dig deeper, you can learn a lot more about the way things actually work.
[Howard] I need to steal that phrase for my marketing.
[Brandon] Elegantly incorrect?
[Howard] Elegantly incorrect.

[Brandon] This actually gets into a concept with science fiction which is the fiction part of science fiction is we can’t quite do it yet. So you can be as technically correct as you want to be. At the end of the day, because we haven’t done it yet, it’s still hypothesis. It… Everything about science fiction is. This is a concept that I have thought about as a writer. What is my duty, and not just with science, but with human nature, to represent things in an accurate way that… At what stage do my stories become lessons? At what stage do they become stories? For me, what’s going on here is I feel that if you’re going to do this, if you’re thinking about doing this, what we need is more engaging, interesting, exciting fiction that also has some of these ideas and this technical correctness. Which I would encourage our listeners to look at. What… Study good storytelling fundamentals and principles, come up with great stories, and then adding this in will work.

[Howard] Are there… Brad, are there sources that you would point us at, things that our listeners should be reading on a regular basis that are just science stuff?
[Brad] Oh, wow.
[Howard] Because our listeners are writers for the most part, and they… We want them… We want all of our listeners to be excellent writers. What can we do to…
[Mary] Like in your field, instead of just science?
[Howard] Okay, in your field?
[Brad] Well, so in terms of let’s say science fiction, right? I think a really good modern science fiction writer who gets the science right enough, elegantly incorrect, would be Richard K. Morgan with Takeshi Kovacs novels. The whole idea of mind uploading, and then what are the consequences of that. I think he does that very, very well. In a intriguing way. In terms of the actual science side of things, it’s so hard… There are so many fantastic science bloggers out there right now, and public science writers.
[Brandon] I’m going to point at Asimov again. If you haven’t read… Now, he’s dated. Let’s be very clear on that, but his ability to write engaging nonfiction is sometimes passed over by people who love his fiction. His nonfiction’s fantastic. Some of my favorite nonfiction science pieces were written by Asimov. He wrote something like 300 books of nonfiction material. He was very prolific.
[Howard] I love the way the World Wide Web lets us read a thing and then click and drill down and just… And keep clicking and end up in weird places. My favorite starting point for years has been NASA’s astronomy picture of the day. Because it starts with a cool picture of space or whatever, then there’s a write up underneath and the guys who are writing it up have hyperlinked words throughout there. Every so often, I’ll see a word and I’m like, “What’s a wolf rayette? What’s a…” Click! Boom! I’m smarter.

[Brad] I was going to say, thinking back, in terms of science writers, there… I have to do a plug for Oliver Sacks. He’s actually… He’s a neurologist, so he’s a medical doctor. He wrote several fantastic books. He still writing, actually. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. We sort of took his style, which is… His books, each chapter represents a case study of somebody with a very peculiar… Peculiar specific rare kind of brain damage. So The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat, the title of the book, comes from one of his patients who had the inability to recognize faces. Reading those books is really what turned me on in a lot of ways to studying the brain, because you read these things and you say, “I don’t even understand how this is possible.” This is real stuff, too. I’m trying to think of very specific cases. There’s a very… Cotard’s delusion… I don’t want to get this incorrect, but… I believe Cotard’s delusion is you believe that your loved ones have been replaced by imposters. Nobody knows why that happens exactly. We still don’t have a solid understanding, but the idea is that the communication between your facial processing, visual processing parts of your brain, and the emotional tagging parts of the brain is disrupted, so you recognize people still, your vision is intact, you can still see them, but you no longer… Your brain isn’t assigning the right emotional content to them. So when I see my wife… I love my wife a great deal. When I see her, I feel that love for her. That gets combined into one percept of my wife. That mixture of the emotion plus the vision. When that gets disconnected, suddenly you’re, “This person looks like my wife, but she doesn’t feel like my wife.” It’s amazing. He’s a fantastic writer.
[Howard] Gosh.
[Mary] Is that related at all to… I think this is in the same book, the thing where you do not recognize part of your own body as belonging to yourself?
[Brad] Oh, that actually… You know what, that might actually be the Cotard’s delusion. I’m getting the names wrong because I’m not a medical doctor.
[Howard] What’s the one where I’m standing on the scale and I can’t see my feet?
[Brad] Cheesecake?
[Mary] Cheesecake.
[Howard] Okay.

[Brandon] Let’s stop…
[Howard] We got a book of the week?
[Brandon] For our book of the week. On that wonderful note. Dr. Brad, you’re going to tell us about The City & the City.
[Brad] Okay. So, China Mieville, I think is another fantastic modern sci-fi fantasy writer, and also a great literary scholar. He does great work. The City & the City is phenomenal to me because it’s about two cities that exist in the exact same physical location, but they… Citizens in each one have to ignore one another outright or else this sort of pseudo-mystical force comes in and sort of kicks them out of reality or something like that. That’s because of this ongoing long war between them. The only reason that the war is at this cease-fire, so to speak, is because they’ve agreed to just not attend to each other anymore. I’ve actually written about this. I presented this at a literary conference about the neuroscience of unseeing. What… Can you unsee something that you have seen? What would that entail?
[Howard] Can you? How?
[Brad] Once you have seen it, you cannot unsee it.
[Mary] That book, it really is fascinating what it does to the brain of the reader. Trying to map all of these things that are happening…
[Howard], start a 30-day free trial membership and pick up a copy of The City & the City by China Mieville, and I don’t know who the narrator is because I don’t have my stuff.

[Brandon] Let’s talk a little bit about writing this nonfiction in a way that is accessible. When you gave… And our listeners weren’t able to hear this, but when you got up during the opening ceremonies and talked about what you do, you mentioned, “Oh, and people’s eyes glaze over right after about the third or fourth word.” But when you’re approaching science fiction as science education, when you’re writing your story, when you’re writing nonfiction as science education in an engaging and interesting way, how do you make difficult topics accessible to a lay audience?
[Brad] Well, I mean, we just stole a couple of plays out of your playbook, right? You make engaging stories. So one example we gave is if it’s historically true and weird, that’s the best combination. So one of the chapters we talk about the history of endocrinology. So endocrinology is the study of how hormones affect behavior. The history of endocrinology started… The father of modern endocrinology started because this guy was… I’m totally blanking on his name right now, off the top of my head, but he was getting older, and he felt like he was losing his vitality. This was in the mid-18, late 1800s. So what he decided to do was, he noted that certain animals are vigorous. So he took a mixture of blood and semen from dogs and injected that mixture into himself to try and regain his vitality. This is true. When you can suddenly talk about everything that we know about modern endocrinology is thought to stem from this guy wanted his vigor back, so he injected himself with dogs semen…
[Brad] That makes for an interesting, compelling story.
[Howard] I will now read the whole book.
[Mary] Right. Yes.
[Brad] I think the way we… We actually have a pause in the book. We say something like, “Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on your life choices and realize that everything that led you to where you are right now, you have probably not injected yourself with dog semen.”
[Brad] “Take a moment to reflect and be happy about that decision in your life.” [Garbled]

[Dan] When we talk about stories and point of view, whose point of view are we going to put a fiction theme from, we often talk about the old Orson Scott Card thing, of you pick the character in the most pain, the person who has the most to lose or the most to gain. That’s really what you’re talking about with that guy, with Oliver Sacks’ books, he’s really telling a story about a person dealing with this science, and that pulls you right in. That process of… That narrative, you become very familiar with the principles behind it.
[Howard] I think there’s another angle on that. I mean, there’s the character in the most pain. When there is a scientific principle that is critical to my story, that I need to explain, it is the character that is most affected by that and the most ignorant of it. I mean, there’s a mixture of pain and ignorance. So I take the reader on a voyage of discovery. Because characters who already know how it works are not going to maid-and-butler their way through…
[Mary] Yeah, but I think there’s one more layer to that which is that if it is the character that is in pain or ignorant, they need this information for something. It gives the reader a reason to have a stake in understanding it. It makes an important, as opposed to just “look at how my plasma gun works.” Which… There’s nothing wrong with look at how my plasma gun works, but unless it is… Unless there is a stake in understanding it…
[Howard] It’s broken, and I need it to kill somebody or I’m going to die.
[Mary] Right.

[Brandon] Exactly. I like this idea of… Humans latch onto stories. It’s what we do. It’s what we look for. And putting that in. Any other tips? Someone’s approaching doing this themselves, how would you suggest that they get their technical knowledge? A lot of our listeners are experts in some area. How can they make use of that? Put it into their stories or into a nonfiction piece in a way that will be really engaging?
[Mary] Well, one of the things is using metaphor. So that you can help the listener compare it to something that they are already familiar with. Listener? Hi, guys. To the reader, what they’re already…
[Howard] POV error.
[Mary] Which is… It sounds like some of what you guys are doing with having the zombie come in. Because there’s not actual zombies, but you’re using them as a metaphor for other conditions.
[Brad] Metaphor is incredibly powerful. Obviously, right. If you can find a way to use a metaphor that gets the technical idea… So I was a physics major as an undergraduate initially, before I changed majors. I remember I felt like every single class started by the professor saying, “Everything that you’ve just learned in that last class last semester was right to an approximation, but not really. Here, let me teach you.” All right, so metaphors are great for explaining up to a point. You have to let the person kind of do some of their own exploration along the way and make that connection. Empathy types of connections are really good. I mean, that’s why we bring in character histories, right? Because it’s not just… You can have the metaphor side of things, but also your engaging a person’s empathy for somebody else’s situation, right? That brings the reader or listener into the story a little bit as well. It engages them. It makes them a part of it.

[Brandon] Excellent. Well, this has been great. I think I’m going to point at Howard for our writing prompt.
[Howard] Before I do the writing prompt, I want to plug your zombie book, and I don’t know how to plug it. Tell us… What’s the title so people can go find it on Amazon, because I totally want to read this.
[Brad] The title is Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? Obviously, it’s homage. It’s on Amazon for preorder right now, I believe.
[Howard] So, as of this recording. By the time the episode airs… When does it ship, do you know?
[Brad] I think it ships September 1st.
[Howard] So they may still have to wait. Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? I’m so in.

[Howard] Now, I was supposed to be spending that time coming up with a writing prompt. Okay. So here’s your writing prompt. Sheep desperately needs a delaying tactic because if it gets shorn, bad things are going to happen. We’re going to assume sentient sheep. Go.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.