Science Fiction, Writing Fiction, and Understanding the History and Social Impact of Science and Technology

Kathleen Ann Goonan


The literature of science fiction, which I have been publishing, writing, and speaking about since 1990, examines the ways in which science and technology have changed or may change our most deeply held ideas of what it means to be human.  As our possibilities expand, SF invites readers to think about not only the future, but also the past and the present, in a new light.  The literatures of SF mirror our hopes and fears through storytelling, one of our oldest tools.  A chameleon that can assume the form of any literature, SF is a vibrant spectrum of perspectives, bridging the “two cultures” of science and the humanities.  Extrapolating from the known, it introduces new vectors of imagination to our cultural discourse, inspiring entertainment, inventions, and even careers; many scientists and engineers cite SF as their inspiration.  SF manifests not only in narrative fiction, poetry, film, television, digital media, and performance art, but also in commercials, design, and news.  It is a way of thinking rigorously, and, often, lyrically, about how nanotechnologies, the neurosciences, materials research, environmental studies, mathematics, architecture—in short, everything that Georgia Tech’s rich environment offers—may affect us and our environment in the short as well as the long term.  LMC includes science fiction-related classes in which students can rigorously explore these perspectives as well as learn to create new, technologically informed science fictional worlds that have the potential to be commercially viable.

The School of Literature, Media, and Communication, with its wealth of scholars and tech-savvy students, is a vibrant community that erases the illusory divide between science, technology, and the humanities by showing that they are not mutually exclusive aspects of who we are, what we can know, and how we can know it.  When our technological environment, whether it be past, present, or future, is observed from this point of view, all literatures, including the narratives of science and the material manifestations of technological thought are understood as being a part of the same creative continuum of human vision and accomplishment.  LMC’s situation in a great technological university imparts to LMC/STAC students an environment in which they can experience science, technology, and the arts not as “two cultures” but as a single endeavor that manifests in a wealth of languages, all of them human and understandable. This humanizing approach to technology helps students learn that, in our technological society, those in the humanities can and do play vital roles in the international community of creative, visionary artists, engineers and leaders.

Artists, writers, playwrights, poets, and musicians are often the first, as our bards, to interpret and show how technologies change culture, and how cultures birth technologies. 

LMC’s humanistic perspective examines  the history of science and technology through the arts.  Artists, writers, playwrights, poets, and musicians are often the first, as our bards, to interpret and show how technologies change culture, and how cultures birth technologies.   Émile Zola, the Impressionists (with their darker, oft-ignored visions of technological change), Virginia Woolf,  T.S. Eliot,  Kandinsky and other Modern painters, Fritz Lang, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others come to mind immediately as artists who spoke directly about how technology impacts us.  Close scholarly investigation reveals that  culture is inextricably intertwined with technology, and that reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Herriman (Krazy Kat) from a technologically situated perspective not only imparts depth and richness to that study, but gives students the paradigm-changing understanding that the arts , science, and technology are not separate human endeavors,  but are instead the deeply connected continuum of thought and action that is our astounding human inheritance, which we are privileged to understand , join, and influence.

I teach Creative Writing (which I prefer to call Writing Narrative Fiction), the Science Fiction Novel and Short Story, and classes about the history of science and technology that examine how a once-radical method of viewing reality—science—emerged, how it came to inform our present culture, and what it means for individuals, society, and our future.  I endeavor to expose students to the diverse individuals who fueled discovery, technological advances, and cultural movements, as well as those who interpret or extrapolate fictional futures or the present in science fictional ways.  In this way, not only will students better understand the forces that shape the present, but they will also be better able to see themselves as potential innovators and leaders in any environment that they find themselves in, or that they choose to create.

In one such class, I used biography to teach the history of science, technology, and culture.  Students read and discussed biographies of Charles Darwin (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Desmond and Moore), Lise Meitner (The Dawn of the Nuclear Age, Rife) Alfred Loomis (Tuxedo Park, Conant), Richard Feynman (Genius, Gleick), Francis Crick (What Mad Pursuit, Crick), and Eric Kandel (In Search of Memory).  They thereby gained an understanding of how individuals can radically change intellectual paradigms through curiosity, perseverance, and commitment to a particular path.  In “From the Earth to the Moon: The Sixties,” a Senior Capstone class, students created projects based on their deepened understanding of WWII, the Cold War, the refinement of rocket technology, NASA, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Feminism, student mobilization, and so many other aspects of that crowded decade of change that we could only touch fleetingly on some of them.

For admission to the creative writing class, I request that students submit a five-page sample of their narrative fiction in ordered to be considered.  I do not evaluate the samples for any quality other than that of assembling a group of people who show enthusiasm for writing stories or novels.  The result is a mix of SF, fantasy, literary mainstream, and personal narrative; storytelling takes many forms, and none is privileged over others.  The class has included students who had taken master’s courses in fiction writing as well as students who are just beginning, yet they all benefit from and contribute equally to the workshop format.  The work of the class is twofold:  students must write and submit two short stories (or a limited segment of a novel), and must also closely read and critique the work of fellow writers.  The latter aspect of the course is probably the most instructive.  Because each class consists of oral critiques of every story, learning takes place in class, when writers hear how others view the same work in various ways, and learn why.  Eventually, an invisible cohesion, a fellowship, emerges, and some writers continue to workshop after the class ends.  I encourage all students to submit their work to journals, contests, and paying markets.  Thus far, we have had one honorary mention in an important writing contest and another student who won a large monetary first prize in “The Future—Powered by Fiction” Tomorrow Project.

I sold the first of about fifty published stories in 1990.  Queen City Jazz, my first novel of seven, was a New York Times Notable Book.  Crescent City Rhapsody and Light Music were Nebula Award finalists, and In War Times, which combines my father’s memoirs with an alternate history that rests on the very real developments of the cavity magnetron and radar and intertwines them with bebop, won the John W. Campbell Award.  I have given invitational talks at Rochester State University, the University of South Carolina Center for Nanotechnology, the Library of Congress, Idaho State University, the Global Competitiveness Forum, at international literary festivals such as Kosmopolis in Barcelona and Utopiales in Nantes, for DARPA, and elsewhere.  I speak about issues that I explore in my fiction—the implications and impact of nanotech, the future of education, consciousness and memory research, attempts to unravel the basis of the human predilection for war, post-and-trans humanism, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and, frankly, anything that captures my interest so strongly that it leads to the deep research that, eventually, manifests as fiction.

As a professional author, a large part of my excitement at being at Georgia Tech is the opportunity to provide an intellectual and creative environment in which students can experience, through critiquing, revising, and submitting short stories, the broad stages of writing fiction in a critical, yet supportive and practical environment. Whether or not one has the dream of someday publishing fiction—although I doubt that any creative writing student does not have this dream—the process of producing a work of fiction creates ways of thinking that are useful no matter what career one undertakes.  Taking imaginative leaps is a part of the scientific and engineering path.  Through writing and workshopping stories with a beginning, middle, and end, students learn that they have the authority to make those leaps, to devise their own rules and parameters, and that they can hone their ability to write fiction that others take seriously.  Immersion in the art and craft of writing fiction is the perfect realization of “humanistic perspectives on a technological world.”

I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with the extraordinary students at one of the country’s top technical and engineering universities, both as an expert in the field of science fiction, and as an author.

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