Science Fiction in Reality: Editing An Anthology

Is there life beyond Earth? What would it mean for us to discover microbial fossils on Mars, life teeming under the icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus, or even traces of an advanced civilization in our galactic neighborhood? A new anthology I’m editing, Life Beyond Us, asks these questions – and offers possible answers both through stories by brilliant science fiction (SF) authors and essays by scientists. While this concept is new, science outreach through SF has a good track record already… 

When I was a kid, I used to gaze at the stars at night and wonder what kind of stories, if any, were happening out there. I read up on upcoming exoplanet-searching missions (that for the most part never happened, but other ones did) just as I devoured SF classics by Lem, Clarke and others. Later on, when I got into actual science and contemporary science fiction and started doing science outreach, I kept thinking of the sense of wonder that both SF and science had in common and how they complemented each other. Given how many people SF has already inspired, could it get science across the bridge to others and achieve something new while at it?

So, when I could create a science outreach project at the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI), Life Beyond Us was born: a volume of 22 SF stories by award-winning SF authors and 22 essays by EAI scientists diving into the science of each story. I’d tried this concept in a shorter ebook anthology of reprint SF stories accompanied by my own short essays, Strangest of All, and its reception had cemented the decision to go through with Life Beyond Us. Thus came the collaboration of EAI and Laksa Media, a small Canadian publisher focusing on great speculative fiction anthologies that can change the world for the better, be it The Sum of Us, which helped programs provided by Canadian Mental Health Association, or right now Life Beyond Us.

We launched a kickstarter for the anthology on Yuri’s Night, celebrating the 60th anniversary of humankind in space, and have been caught in the circle of social media ever since, for better or worse. It gave us a chance to shine a spotlight on the contributors through interviews and excerpts in campaign updates; be it already famous authors such as Mary Robinette Kowal or Stephen Baxter, or rising stars.

Culture has a lot to offer to science outreach – and science gives back plenty, feeding the genre ever-hungry for exciting new ideas. Multiple projects are showing that (pop) culture is a great medium for communicating science: Jet Propulsion Theatre. Comics such as When the Earth Quakes. E-zines with flash fiction and poems inspired by scientific abstracts at last year’s Exoplanet Demographics. Famous SF authors have used SF in outreach and education – Gregory Benford, David Brin, Julie E. Czerneda… Narrative and emotion, after all, help trigger our long-term memory and make connections between different pieces of information.

One of our contributing authors, Arula Ratnakar, believes that the greatest scientific challenge of our time is for scientific as well as artistic disciplines to blend boundaries, and the future is in interdisciplinary education and careers. For Eric Choi, the greatest challenge is the lack of scientific literacy, especially among the political leadership. Science fiction should inspire people to demand better, and also to take a deeper interest in science themselves. Peter Watts argues that it’s time to change human nature unless we just want to go from one disaster to another, ill-prepared, ill-equipped. Practically all the contributing authors have mentioned that SF allows us to see the world with different eyes, through new perspectives, perform experiments that would be impossible or unethical in reality, and see it as an unparalleled venue of exploration.

SF has the unique power to create worlds where “something is different” and let us examine the ethics and consequences of discoveries, ask questions, yearn for more knowledge and think critically – all essential qualities in today’s world, where change comes even faster and the sandbox of SF allows us to try out different scenarios to cope with it. So, come with us on a journey to explore the scorching depths of Earth’s interior, probes en route to Mars, methane seas on Titan, strange exoplanets or life completely outside of planetary boundaries in both speculative and scientific visions to fill you with awe and curiosity. Life beyond ours is the true final frontier… let’s explore it together.

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The kickstarter for Life Beyond Us ends in the wee small hours of 12th May. Backers can choose from rewards ranging from the ebook, paperback and hardcover (including illustrated and signed editions) to virtual tours of labs or the Very Large Telescope; author AMAs; story critiques; astrobiology talks for a classroom or club and more.

By Julie Novakova.