There are two things you need to do to ensure proper use of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in fiction.
- Obtain an advanced degree in nuclear computational physics C++ programming or an equivalent field.
- Obtain a federal or privately funded grant to research the molecular neurological factors and biochemical pathways necessary for the incorporation of STEM into story.
Wait! Don’t leave!
I’m only joking. I’m a microbiologist, not a comedian (if you hadn’t noticed). I’m also a writer so the representation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is important to me. Nothing rings my own readerly bell more than a seamless use of STEM in fiction and I believe it is vital to show STEM topics outside of a nonfiction or textbook scenario.
Remember back in the day when you were in that algebra or physical science class? Do you recall the question that ran through your young, the-world-is-my-oyster brain?
WHEN AM I EVER GOING TO USE THIS STUFF IN REAL LIFE?
The answer is one we didn’t like back then and we probably still don’t like today…
You are going to encounter this STEM stuff all your life.
It’s everywhere. Even in our entertainment.
STEM in fiction further defines the subject through the power of story. That magic of story we Homo sapiens have shared from our first breath. Shared experience. Shared truths. Shared hopes. Shared knowledge.
STEM fiction is a gateway into the world of STEM for young readers. STEM-based fiction and science fiction show possibility. The melding of facts and story through our STEM lens peers forward to what can be. To explore possibilities. To dream. To take what we know and throw it into the pot to create a future built on past discovery.
BUT STEM IN MY FICTION? SERIOUSLY?
Okay, okay! I know! The STEM fields are based on fact. It’s using data and observation to draw conclusions about the world we live in. It’s formulas, white coats, statistical analysis, publications, lines of code, blueprints, lectures, etc. STEM has always been labeled as serious, strict, narrow, and just a tad bit snooty and full of itself. But is that all science and technology and engineering and mathematics are?
These STEM fields are living and breathing and growing and discovering. STEM is disciplined creativity at its finest. STEM skills enable one to ask, “Why?”, then go figure out “How”, and eventually figure out a better way to move forward.
This sounds very similar to classic fictional story structure.
Problem/Solution/Improve = Setup/Confrontation/Resolution.
How can we include STEM topics into fiction without it sounding like a 1950’s textbook pontificating that, maybe someday, we will explore our moon?
- Mix the STEM with the narrative.
We don’t need to know all the details. It’s not a standard operating procedure manual. It’s a story. We don’t really need to know exactly how Ellie’s grandfather, Melvin, was transformed in Jennifer Holm’s THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH. We only need to know it had something to do with his work as a research scientist, a new species of jellyfish, and an unfortunate (or fortunate depending on which side of the fence you sit) experiment.
- Story Logic
The science, technology, engineering solutions, and the mathematics using in the story world must be logical. It must make sense. This doesn’t mean it has to be true to what we know to be true. It means it has to be logical within its context and can’t just be thrown in to solve the story problem deux ex machina-style.
Think about how well the magic system in the Harry Potter series work. Why? Because J. K. Rowling did such solid work behind the scenes to build the magical world, we don’t even question the validity of the system by the time we get through SORCERER’S STONE.
Whatever the genre, STEM works! It can even be completely made up stuff. STEM principles work as long as they fit logically and are ground in the foundation of the story world.
A solid fictional setting is as much of a story’s character as an actual character. A good story environment is created by the author from information gleaned by observation of actual environments. STEM basics!
Think about the setting Kate Milford constructs in GREENGLASS HOUSE. The architectural design of the house, the engineering principles of the lift, the meteorology, and the cartography. All crafted at such a stellar level, you can feel the impact of the setting as you read.
Similar to the setting. Same rules apply. A fictional character is created from observations an author makes over time.The data is analyzed and manipulated to build the precise character needed.
The three-act storytelling structure is ingrained into our western culture psyche. It is almost as old as stories themselves. Our minds expect a story to follow a certain path and adhere to defined beats. Now, that sounds eerily similar to the way we do STEM, doesn’t it? Two of my favorite craft writing books are STORY ENGINEERING & STORY PHYSICS Physics by Larry Brooks. In both books, Mr. Brooks breaks down the nuts and bolts of how to build a story and how to make the story sing to the reader.
The Hero’s Journey narrative pattern, made famous by Joseph Campbell, is built upon psychology. Carl Jung Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology first defined the archetype in literature.
As you can see, the observed data weigh heavily on the STEM inclusion side of the fiction argument. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fit into the world of fiction just as snugly as they fit into the nonfiction world. STEM not only adds depth to fiction, it also acts as a gateway to introduce readers to STEM topics. And that itself is as important as the entertainment value of a story.
STEM in fiction just makes good stories even better.
EXTRA! EXTRA! Breaking News from the STEM Tuesday news desk!
The National Science Teachers Association just released their Best STEM Titles list for 2018. Definitely worth the click to check out these great STEM books!
I hope you are enjoying the STEM Tuesday series on the Mixed-Up Files blog. I am! And as we highlight science in art, don’t forget to also put some art into your science. Science needs creativity as much as creativity needs science.
Until next time…STEM On!
The O.O.L.F. Files
This month’s STEM Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files looks at some cool ways science and technology work their way into our everyday lives. Everything from a blog series where experts weigh in on how to best use science to write sci-fi and fantasy to classic lectures from three heavyweights in their fields to a new annotated version of the classic book that birthed a genre.
Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. I don’t know where to even start with ASU’s CSI. So much crazy-awesome information, so little time! Check out CSI’s new version of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking Frankenstein to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication. Particularly interesting are the discussions about gender and the trials Mary Shelley faced as a woman author in 1818.
The Science in SciFi blog series hosted by Dan Koboldt. A great resource for writers where experts weigh in on topics relevant to science fiction and fantasy. I’ve been fortunate enough to pen three posts for the series. Keep an eye out for Fall of 2018, when Writer’s Digest Books will publish an anthology of Science in SciFi blog posts titled, Putting the Science in Fiction. I was fortunate to have two of my posts selected for the anthology.
How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future by Eileen Gunn (May 2014) from Smithsonian Magazine.
From Science Fiction to Science Fact: How Design Can Influence the Future by Patrick Purdy (June 2013) from UXPA.
Science influenced by science fiction by Bruce Sterling (September 2010) from Wired.
And to wrap up the O.O.L.F. Files this month, a throwback to this 1985 look on science and society. THE IMPACT OF SCIENCE ON SOCIETY by James Burke, Jules Bergman, and Isaac Asimov (1985) PDF link from NASA
Mike Hays, O.O.L.F. Master