Taking a ‘what if’ approach to science fiction writing
What connects the stories in Julie Nováková’s story collection The Ship Whisperer is a specific take on the “what if” central question of the genre of science fiction, she says. For example: “What if we changed what it means to be a human?”
The Ship Whisperer collates much of her short science fiction published in English and takes the reader on a journey from near-future Earth to far-future distant reaches of the Galaxy. The stories range from a fun light-hearted tale playing with our sense of smell to darker, serious pieces revolving around a murder mystery, first contact with an alien civilization, or searching for one’s lost past.
In the first, near-future stories, we get to meet people experiencing all sensory input through smells, such as perceiving the face of a loved one as the smell of an herb; equipped with implants allowing them to indirectly experience what animals experience and thus help them; faced with the prospect of “talking to the dead” through an AI construct of their personality. In the far-future stories, we get to see explorers perceiving the world through music, near-immortals seeking the source of their gift, people growing closer to starship AIs than fellow humans.
“All of them challenge the status quo of humanity,” Nováková said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival. “Though I suspect I’m still being rather meek and the future holds far less easily imaginable surprises in store for us.”
Hailing from the Czech Republic, Nováková is an evolutionary biologist by study, active in science outreach, and an acclaimed author, editor and translator of speculative fiction. Aside from her own writing she has edited or co-edited five science fiction anthologies to date. Her most recent initiative is the upcoming anthology Life Beyond Us, which is a collection of astrobiology-themed original SF stories by authors of SF and accompanying essays by scientists.
“Life Beyond Us is meant to be both an entertaining, exciting read and a means for boosting science understanding and interest in science. In 27 original SF stories, authors such as Gregory Benford, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peter Watts and many others envision life as we don’t know it, future space missions, vastly different civilizations and more. Each story is followed up by a short essay addressing the same topic from the point of view of current science – what do we know? What are the most pressing open questions, and what experiments might help us answer them?,” She said.
Previously, Nováková had edited an anthology Strangest of All with a similar concept as part of her outreach work at the European Astrobiology Institute, and since it was very well-received the editors decided to produce a more ambitious book. “We teamed up with my co-editors Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest from the publishing house Laksa Media Group, and in spring 2021 we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the project – which is not cheap, given that there are 27 stories (two of them in translation – one from German, one from Chinese) and the same number of essays. It’s going to be a huge book – and hopefully we’ll get to see it by the end of this year.”
A scientist, academic, writer, editor and translator, Nováková engages in a wide variety of projects. “I’m slightly strange in how wide my interests are. In my PhD work, I’m investigating the evolutionary roots of altruism – put simply, unconditional helping, which we can see in humans as well as various animal species. I’m more specifically interested in what factors, such as indirect reciprocity, contributed to its evolution in humans. But I have always held a deep interest in astronomy and planetary science, started attending conferences in these fields and reporting from them, and my focus shifted somewhat to a field I’ve always been fascinated by – astrobiology.
“At the European Astrobiology Institute, I lead the project team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool for Astrobiology Outreach and Education’, where we explore exactly how science fiction can contribute to science itself and STEM education. Science and SF have always had an interdependent relationship. Scientific thought fuelled SF, while science fiction brought some scientific ideas to the wide public, indirectly helped secure support and funding and could have influenced policy making, but also carried on some misconceptions about scientific concepts or how science works.”
People in STEM often cite science fiction as one of their earliest sources of inspiration, she said, arguing the link should be actively encouraged in eduction. “It frequently portrays scientists and engineers in positive light, rekindles the sense of awe within us, makes us ask questions. Apart from this inspiration, there is room for more intentional use of SF in education. More thoughtful and/or rigorous SF can be used at nearly all educational levels, depending on the specific materials (from e.g. ‘physics fairytales’ in preschool to more complex stories), to illustrate scientific concepts, connect knowledge from different fields, introduce questions to discuss.”
After each story and essay in Strangest of All, Nováková included brief prompts for educators on how the story could be used. For instance, in G. David Nordley’s ‘War, Ice, Egg, Universe’ we are introduced to a warring alien civilization on a Europa-like world, and they eventually meet a human explorer. “The ‘simpler’ questions we can ask are, among others: Could Europa have some environment resembling where life could have arisen on Earth? What are the main differences between Europa and Enceladus [the class could be divided into two groups, each defend one of the moons as a target for a new life-seeking robotic mission]? But there is also the ethical dimension, less straightforward to answer: Do you think the human explorer acted ethically when she helped Loudpincers [the main character] and his people win the war? What gives us the right to interfere in affairs of an alien civilization we’ve just discovered? Shouldn’t we follow some rule like Star Trek’s Prime Directive? On the other hand, is it right to turn a blind eye to war and suffering we can stop? But how could the explorer be sure that Loudpincers was telling her the truth?”
Nováková also argues that science fiction can serve as “an amazing sandbox” not just to imagine future science and technology, but also to explore its impact on our society and the ethical dimensions.
“There are many things we can more or less reliably measure and test; the ethics is often far trickier to establish, and we can draw numerous science-fictional examples to help us navigate these murky waters.”
She has held a deep-rooted passion for both science and science fiction since her early days, even harbouring a long-held ambition to one day conduct research on the Moon.
“I have always been interested in nature and the universe, and though I mostly read adventures and detective stories initially, I discovered science fiction when I was about thirteen, and loved the genre ever since. I don’t hold a physics degree, merely an interest in physics, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins is a microbiologist and the first biologist in space as far as I know; but what I would really love is to stand on the Moon someday, helping get underway or document a search for fossils there. The Moon must contain a number of meteorites of Earth origin from different periods of our planet’s history, and finding them could fill some gaps especially from Earth’s relatively early history. The Moon must also contain meteorites from Mars, and in much, much lower numbers could contain material from other planets. It would be exciting to find Venusian meteorites to help us ascertain its history better! But Venus is deeper in the Sun’s gravitational well and is as large and heavy as Earth (plus today it has an extremely dense atmosphere, making the chances of any impact ejecta being thrown into interplanetary space practically nil), which makes the impact of Venusian-origin meteorites on the Moon far more unlikely than in the case of Mars. But – do send paleontologists, geologists, evolutionary biologists to the Moon!”
In terms of her own writing, Nováková said she is currently finishing a science fantasy novel set in early 20th century, where we’ll get to briefly meet (as side characters) Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Jakob von Uexküll and other scientists, but also a golem inspired by Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s Ganymede, and possibly a passage to other worlds…
With regards to encouraging aspiring writers, her main advice would be to “Read widely and keep writing! I often find reading nonfiction as well as fiction from many different fields and genres keeps the inspiration trickling. Also, don’t get discouraged after some rejections – just keep writing more and improving. Don’t fear criticism, but also don’t be afraid to defend something you find key to your work.”