Science meets fiction

Nanci Nott speaks with sci-fi authors, Traci Harding and Rebecca Laffar-Smith, about the space between science and fiction.

With Quantum Words Perth fast approaching, now is the perfect time to think about that surreal space where science and stories intersect. No, I’m not talking about the library. I’m talking about science fiction.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read sci-fi without drawing parallels with reality, or at least musing on the inevitable ‘what ifs’ driven forth from within a given story. But how accurate is sci-fi, really? And can we actually learn from it?

Here’s a fun chunk of science – reading activates multiple areas of your brain, improves your ability to recall information, and enhances empathy. Reading literary fiction has even been shown to increase emotional intelligence. Yay!

Science fiction is sometimes looked down upon for being genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction), yet sci-fi and fantasy are uniquely positioned to explore some of the most fascinating, relevant, and complex issues our society has to face… or has yet to face.

Sci-fi writers are renowned for dreaming up dystopian futures based (at least loosely) around scientific potentialities, or the dangers of technological advancement, but prolific Australian author, Traci Harding, thinks differently.

“I like to write beautiful futures,” Traci said, during this panel at Oz Comic-Con, “because I mean, that’s where my readers like to be.”

Traci Harding has written over twenty (rather weighty) tomes in the last two decades. All of them seamlessly blend science, history, time-travel, esoteric knowledge, and unforgettable characters in an addictive recipe for adventure. Her research encompasses everything from Plato, to particles, to psychic phenomena.

Twenty two years ago, when I began reading Traci Harding’s books, I was intrigued by many of the concepts woven throughout. I wanted to learn more. Alas, I was only twelve, and it was the net-less nineties. As you can imagine, I was left with a lot of unfulfilled curiosity. But at least the curiosity was there, and it served me well, later in life.

Fast forward to the present, my own teenagers are now reading Traci’s books. Except they have the entire internet (including Traci Harding’s own YouTube channel) at their disposal to help them delve deeper into the fascinating topics they encounter along the way. To my twelve-year-old mind, handheld computers and online research existed only within the realms of science fiction. Yet, my children have grown up with the ability to instantly learn more about any topic, at the drop of a hat, or the touch of a key.

We are living in the future, and it’s not all dystopian.

For a sci-fi/fantasy writer who ignores the usual dystopia tropes, Traci seems to have an uncanny knack for getting things ‘right’ in her books. For this reason, Traci is often asked if she is psychic. Traci says no, crediting extensive research and common sense for her accuracy.

For example, Traci started exploring quantum theory and human consciousness through her fiction long before the talons of popular mainstream culture took hold of the subject matter. She draws inspiration from a wide variety of of sources, including science, by researching what has already been established, and taking it to the next level.

“When I’m actually looking for what’s coming, I’ll usually look for those scientists that have been booted out of university because whatever they’re researching does not go down with the status quo. And then you know they’re really onto something.”

Traci Harding, Oz Comic-Con, 2019.

When I asked Traci how science inspires her writing, she replied with, “Well, many of my earlier books were inspired by Theosophical Text, which is considered esoteric, yet when I started reading quantum theory I realised that these scientists were saying exactly the same thing only they were using different terms. Everything is occult until it is proven, whereupon it becomes science. So I guess the answer is a goodly part of my writing is based on the sciences of the old world and the new.”

It seems that the further modern science progresses, the more persistently esoteric concepts crop up within its boundaries. How much of today’s esoteric knowledge will be considered scientific fact in years to come? Or are we (magically?) the only generation exempt from being blinded by our own cultural bias? Only time – and fiction – will tell.

I attended Swancon 2017, along with Xanthe Turner, Rebecca Laffar-Smith, and Traci Harding, whose panels we were there to attend. It was a bit of a dream-come-true day, to be honest. Sci-fi panels are a great way to learn more about the science behind the stories, but I discovered other things, too. For example, I learned that Traci Harding is every bit the amazing, gregarious, intelligent woman I’d always imagined her to be. I learned that Rebecca Laffar-Smith, who is a sci-fi author in her own right, has always been influenced by Traci Harding, whose books played a crucial role in Rebecca’s own decision to pursue a career in writing.

And so the cycle of inspiration, learning, and creation continues…

I asked Rebecca Laffar-Smith how much of her writing is inspired by science itself. This is what she had to say:

“I'm driven to explore ultimate possibility which is one of the reasons I love science fiction so much. It gives us the space to ask, 'what if'? And then to look at how it might be possible based on what we understand of the universe scientifically. That's what drives my writing, particularly my science fiction. I get fascinated by a question, "How could we travel long distances in space?" and I start researching, and delve into ion engines, existing space exploration, etc. I run into the inevitable problems that come from the limitations of our existing technology and ask, "What would we need to make this possible?" That's where science again comes in. But in science fiction we can reach beyond what we currently have to create the future of what we could want. For example, we take the concept of 3D printing and think, "What if we could 'print' anything we wanted by manipulating the structure on an atomic elemental level (which is where the Fabricator Drive in Starship Elixir from my Children of Nar series comes from). Science, and science fiction, give us room to explore the potential of humanity and the universe.”

Science education is not simply a matter of memorising facts. True science education stems (pardon the pun) from ardent curiosity, and a deeply-imbedded desire to learn. Knowledge we acquire though a well-written narrative will always make more of an impact on our minds (and in our lives) than a graph, list, or dry excerpt.

In fact, a well-written narrative might compel us to spend hours poring over graphs, lists, and excerpts. We learn best when we are curious, and stories pique our curiosity in ways nothing else can. When the stories we read pose questions about the nature of consciousness, reality, and the future of our world, it is only natural to want to learn more.

I love this quote (confusingly attributed to both Plutarch and Socrates); “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

Nowhere will you find brighter kindling of scientific flames, than between the pages of books. Especially science fiction.

By Nanci Nott 

Notes and links

Traci Harding is a Science/Fantasy novelist, published through HarperCollins/Voyager Australia and Bolinda Audio. Her work blends fantasy, fact, esoteric theory, time travel and quantum physics, into adventurous romps through history, alternative dimensions, universes and states of consciousness. You can buy autographed copies of her books, and/or book a private mentor session, here. You can also find Traci on YouTube, Facebook, and Patreon.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith is an internationally published, award-winning author, who spins tales inspired by magic and the vastness of potential. She’s committed to telling transformative stories that help her readers escape reality and experience possibility. She’d like to invite you to come with her to explore everything the Universe has to offer and beyond! You can learn more about Rebecca and her books here. You can also find Rebecca on Facebook.

Quantum Words Perth is Western Australia’s first writers’ festival dedicated specifically to writing about science, creativity and the spaces in which they intersect. Join us at the State Theatre Centre from 8 to 10 November, when we bring together outstanding thinkers, scientists and creators from across Australia and overseas to engage in conversations about the ways in which we come to understand ourselves, our world, and the expansive universe we live within. 


Image: (left to right) Rebecca Laffar-Smith, Traci Harding, Xanthe Turner, Nanci Nott

 

By Nanci Nott 

Nanci Nott is a mother, educator, and author, who believes intrinsically motivated learning is the birthright of every human. Nanci loves persuading people to pursue their personal passions, and she adores alliteration.