The human brain between evolution and science-fiction 1- Science for science-fiction


I do a lot of research for my writing and because some topics fascinate me. I have a basis in science through formal education. Most of it got a little rusty over time, but it provides a decent foundation that helps me grasp scientific concepts.

A science-fiction writer is not a scientist. They might be, though. But a science-fiction story is still fiction, so the craft makes up its main bulk. Some might argue that in Hard Science, science constitutes the core of the plot. Either way, science is important to science-fiction writers. In fact, scientific progress in the 19th century might be the precursor of the literary genre itself.  Think of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

So reading in science is very beneficial to a science-fiction writer. Not only does it provide the scientific explanation to the plot and the theme, but it also reflects itself and makes the story rich and credible.

How much is enough and how much is too much?

It depends on the story, the characters, the premise and the writing style.

Having too much well-researched scientific facts does not guarantee a good sci-fi book, and vice versa.

I once listened to an audio book that was based on (a) really complicated physical law(s) about time, space and distance. I could clearly see that the author did their homework quite well researching the scientific basis of their idea, although I could not confirm the validity of it. However, the storyline got disrupted in different locations in the novel and it went all over the place. I could not sympathize with the two main characters anymore, as I was confused about their goals or what this whole story wanted to say in the end.

That doesn’t mean that science destroys fiction, on the contrary.

I like the short stories of Kristine Kathryn Rusch that she posts on her blog every Monday. They are mostly science-fiction but not each one of them.

I like her writing style because she respects me as a reader. She takes me by the hand to show me around her futuristic world. She brings the world to me and gives me a chance to understand how it’s built.

Based on reading some of her short stories and one of her space diving novels, the science in her works is woven inside the stories themselves. I also like her characters, how she makes them real, with motives, aspirations, and vulnerabilities that I could understand and sympathize with.

Jules Verne is an example of writers who are heavy on the science side. I remember reading Journey to the Centre of the Earth (You can read it for free here) with my child when she was young and how she complained of the passages where the story stood still to explain scientific stuff.

I read most of Jules Verne works a long time ago, and, while the science there was essential to the premise and the plot and everything else in between, it didn’t take away from the joy of reading.

I might not enjoy them as much today. I used to have a special taste for classics but not anymore.

Why science is needed in science-fiction?

I think this is the question with the million right answers.

I have always been interested in science fiction literature from an academic point of view. I spent some time on that before I started writing dystopias and sci-fi stories, by chance, a muse-type of inspiration.

But since delving into the genre as a writer, I needed to read in science more seriously and to have a plan of some sort. So I went back to my old files on the literature, the history and all that. I also made reading and listening choices in non-fiction, which was random at first, but now I am trying to align it, as much as possible, with what I am writing.

The benefits of reading in science for a science-fiction writer exceed that of simply helping them write a story.

  • It inspires you. Gives you excellent ideas for your next story, certainly, if you’re working on a dystopia, reading about science will inspire you. You can see how things will go wrong if suddenly the corporate you’re working for runs through algorithms and AI data analyses, why some moral boundaries would seem out-of-place if aliens co-exist with humans overnight after a successful contact with them.
  • It enhances your speculative vision and puts it in context. Sometimes, we have those binary visions, optimistic or pessimistic. Science is one of the best tools to give us reasons why we should have that specific vision.
  • Reading science and not reading about it, makes all the difference. Sometimes we only have time for capsule-size information, which is perfectly fine, but if you want to get a closer and more authentic look, you need to go to the source. At the moment, I’m reading on Artificial Intelligence and the next on my list is about Creativity.
  • Science has been isolated in an ivory tower for a long time. Thanks to the Internet and the digital age, it became readily available in different formats, from the peer-reviewed articles to the simplified ones, from documentaries to educational videos, so why not benefit from that?

I remember a time when people used to travel far and wide to look for specific books or take advantage of book fairs to get them. I also remember how hard was it to get hold of a scientific paper and how much you’re allowed to photocopy and how many hours you need to spend in a physical library to do research. Now, all that is available at our fingertips. I am so thankful for that.

What are my resources?

This is the result of my trial and error methods.

I try to diversify what I read. The important is to make sense of what I am looking for, regardless of how much I need to use in my fiction.

1- Books

I prefer books. I often select chapters/parts/pages to read. I sometimes also go ahead and read the whole book. Books give me a full picture and a chance to either skim through some points or go in depth. I use the table of content and the index to navigate them.

Some scientific books, though, are difficult to follow, either because of the style or the jargon.

2- Encyclopedias

Next in line are encyclopedias, including Wikipedia. Yep, Wikipedia, in my opinion, has served humanity a great deal, in spite of what people might think of the validity of the information published there.

I find encyclopedias to be very useful. I like how the information and facts are directly presented with specific definitions. Some of them provide full-length articles that could have all the information I am looking for. Again, depending on the source, some entries might be too short, or even too ambiguous.

I like encyclopedias with a specific subject matter, like the literary encyclopedias and the Encyclopedia of the brain that I found when I was looking for specific information.

3- Articles and snippets of information

I find online articles such as blog posts, magazine articles or any such form to be useful if I need specific information or to understand a concept in a simple way. I admit that it’s sometimes hard to find original articles, as they might be a refurbishment of Wikipedia’s articles or something, but it’s a quick and easy way to find information.

Some websites organize their content in a way that makes them more of an encyclopedia-like websites where it is easy to navigate.

There are many websites of scientific news and scientific associations with great content. I don’t stick to one. I run a Google search and go from there. Sometimes I find good information well written well presented on one of these sites, so I search inside for more or follow the suggested links. Bookmarks are key here to save time for next visits.

4- Academic theses of master and PhD

I find their style accessible, they tend to explain almost everything they talk about or reference it somehow. This is how I found out about Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles and was directed to their works, which was great.

5- Scholarly articles

Some of them explain the concepts well, others just serve the purpose of one point that might not necessarily answer all my questions.

I don’t usually find precise information there, but they have pointers where to look for information, like in the Bibliography section, for one.

6- Lectures, documentaries and videos

I don’t count on that much, but if I find a scientist that interests me and I see that he/she has an interview or a talk somewhere, I go and watch it. Some documentaries are wonderful too especially if I need to get a concise idea on a broad topic.

7- Podcasts (Radio)

This is one of the things I enjoy most in life and not only for research for my fiction but for everything I am interested in.

8- One more thing

Something else I do to get my scientific mind running at full speed since I understand quickly but I forget quickly!

It is the free online courses or the MOOCs. The main purpose for me is to follow the course materials and benefit from the methodology. So I watch the videos and do the readings or most of them. I don’t necessarily do the assignments. I ‘took’ a few courses and enjoyed most of them. The only thing is to choose a ‘season’ where I have enough free time to work on the course.

Now, I developed a simple (open to modifications and tweaking) system, just recently, to keep some of the notes and the files handy for when I need them for my fiction.

Organizing ideas and information

It’s a daunting process, I admit, and involves a lot of decision-making on what to keep and what to discard.

In general, over the years, I found out, that simplicity wins, so I have three places to keep my notes:

  • A Word document where I use the navigation pane to organize the info as headers.
  • A folder divided into sub folders on an external hard drive to keep the pdf files.
  • On Evernote, if it’s a web page, I clip it there.

Here is what I am still struggling with:

  • I read mostly on my phone and I have no viable way to leave comments or highlight there. I can do that on the Kindle app, but it is not where most of my research-related files are.
  • I sometimes get tired of summarizing or quoting stuff, so I just consume it but I don’t keep track of it.
  • I attended a science fiction book club a couple of times. At first, I thought I would thrive there. For some reason, that didn’t work out for me. Ever since, the idea of a science-fiction book club seems like a good one. I haven’t looked that much into it and so for the time being, I am reading on my own.
  • Most of what I read is non-fiction. Not that I do not enjoy fiction anymore. I only have so much time per month for reading. I choose to spend it on non-fiction, either science-related or not. Other than that, for the time being, I mostly read short fiction.
  • To make up for my lack of reading fiction, in general, I listen to podcasts. I enjoy listening to the dramatic reading of a short story or a whole radio-phonic series. You can tell I am not a TV person.

Now for this particular topic, the human brain between evolution and science fiction, I relied on many resources. One of which is Allen, John S.. The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind, Harvard University Press, 2009.

I read a chapter and a few pages here and there of that book, and I will continue reading it. I do like the book so far. It is well written. I was able to understand most of what I read and, if not, it was easy to just get the definitions of what I didn’t know.

Apart from the many cited studies and the comparison among their findings, which were relevant, the book is enjoyable and has a wealth of information.

This series of articles is just the draft of the notes I took on the human brain, moving on to artificial intelligence. Obviously, I did this for fiction writing purposes, but I am really passionate about the subject and I hope you are too.

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