Teaching Stuff: It’s About the Mystery …

Richard J. Chwedykby Richard J. Chwedyk

“I didn’t go to an arts college to look at another equation!”

So protested one of my students when I scrawled an equation on the blackboard while we spoke about the concept of negative mass (we were playing around with another student’s story, and trying to come up with a plausible FTL drive).

Her frustration underscores a common anxiety many beginning sf writers struggle with. “I’m afraid I don’t know enough science,” they’ll tell me.

I know the feeling. Although I scored well in science and math aptitudes, I never pursued anything in what are now called the STEM fields. And here I am, writing about spaceships, bioengineering, artificial life forms and alternate universes. How dare I?

How dare they? They’ve enrolled in an arts college. Many of them are majors in Creative Writing. What kind of a background is that for becoming a science fiction writer?

The interesting thing I’ve discovered is: When I’ve queried those same anxious students about space exploration, robotics, CRISPR genome editing, dark energy and dozens of other current topics, they’re exceptionally familiar with them. So familiar, in fact, they take for granted how much they really know.

To some degree, we can thank online media information resources. Granted, though there’s a lot of bad information out there on the internet, it should not overshadow the simple fact that so much good information is available to anyone who can get online. Even for folks who still prefer paper journals and libraries, the abundance of information is awe inspiring.

Often, many of us are appalled by statistics recounting how many Americans believe cave men rode on dinosaurs and that the universe is a little over six thousand years old. Disheartening as that is, it’s not a problem I face in my classroom, to my relief.

Even so, I have my students do some exercises where they utilize stories about recent scientific/technological developments as a basis for fiction. We call it “NOT a Science Project.” I’m always amazed at how well some of them do their homework, and how often a simple exercise becomes the basis for a final project.

Recently, I’ve been impressed enough with their abilities to reconsider changing my emphasis: from what we know to what we don’t know.

Encouraging for me to see I’m not alone in this. Recently, physicist Daniel Whiteside’s and cartoonist Jorge Cham’s We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe was featured on the public radio Here and Now program.

I’ve read a number of editorials and commentaries recently in the general press, the science press and sf-related sites, about how “the future is here” – that sf addressing our future is finding it difficult to come up with new and relevant topics . Not that these complaints haven’t followed our “genre” for as long as it’s existed, but the signal seems louder thanks to our ubiquitous media.

Our confidence in our current knowledge is hard-earned and well-deserved – we have extraordinary scientists utilizing incredible technology to pursue important research, and accomplishing this within a culture that, when it is not antagonistic to pure research, does its best to disregard it.

What may help bring us back to Earth, if you’ll excuse the expression, is some serious contemplation of all that we yet don’t know – enough that, very possibly, can fundamentally change our ideas of where we’re going in the future and what we’ll do when we get there.

Not only does consideration of all we don’t know provide a necessary dose of humility, it provides a multiplicity of directions we science fiction writers can explore (and ways to explore them) as we follow Theodore Sturgeon’s proverbial advice to “Ask the next question.”

In a recent interview, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, saying, “Science isn’t always about the things we know; it’s more often about what we don’t know. It’s about the mystery.”

What I’m working toward now is finding more ways to incorporate the mystery of science into my fall classes, and all my future classes.


Richard Chwedyk is a Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, poet and teacher. His work has appeared in Nebula Awards Showcase 2004Year’s Best SF 7Year’s Best SF 8Fantasy and Science FictionAmazing StoriesSpace and Time80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin and other publications. A collection of his “saur” stories is making the rounds. He lives in Chicago with his wife, poet Pamela Miller, and occasionally blogs at Critinomicon.