What To Read: Maddie Stone examines science and fiction

This week, we interviewed Maddie Stone, a scientist and journalist who writes The Science of Fiction, a newsletter about how science is shaped by storytelling and vice versa.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

How science shapes our storytelling and how the stories we tell shape science.

Before we get to the fiction part, what's your personal connection to science?

I’ve been passionate about nature and the environment since I was a kid, and those interests are what led me to science. I majored in ecology in college before going to grad school to study tropical rainforests and pursue a PhD in Earth science. My original life plan was to become a scientist and, through research, help find solutions to some of the enormous environmental challenges we face. But in grad school I discovered that the step in the scientific process I enjoyed most wasn’t spending long days in the jungle collecting soil samples, sequencing DNA in the lab, or writing computer code to analyze all of my data – it was communicating why the results mattered and how they added to our understanding of the world.

This led me to reorient toward a career in science communication. I come from a family of journalists, so science journalism felt like the right path forward.

Should science fiction always be rooted in real science?

Science fiction is under no obligation to be rooted in real science. Science fiction is about imagining the world not as it is, and that can and should mean letting go of the physical constraints of our universe if it helps the author tell a good story!

Even when science fiction isn’t very realistic, it can be a space for reflecting on the role of science in society. Star Trek, for instance, bends the laws of physics all over the place and is famous for its meaningless technobabble, but over the decades the shows have produced brilliant commentary on a range of scientific issues, from the ethics of genetic engineering to the rights of artificial beings. Star Trek has also inspired real-world inventions and motivated many young fans to become scientists as adults. Despite its lack of realism, I would argue that Star Trek, along with many other more fantastical science fiction shows and books, has made tangible contributions to science and engineering.

That said, I personally love a good “hard” science fiction story. The Expanse is the prime example on TV right now of a sci-fi show that tries to get the science right as often as it can and by doing so, help us imagine what humanity’s future could actually look like. I’d love to see more science fiction like The Expanse, because it allows me to explore how things that don’t exist today but could exist in the future – like fusion-powered spacecraft – might really work!

What do you enjoy about covering science fiction that you don't get to explore as a science journalist?

I should preface this answer by saying that I was very fortunate to “grow up,” professionally speaking, in an environment where science fiction and science journalism weren’t siloed.

In 2015 I was hired as a staff writer at the technology website Gizmodo, which was being run by Annalee Newitz, who co-founded Gizmodo’s sister site for science fiction, io9. While I was brought on as a science reporter, I was encouraged to cover the intersection of science and sci-fi whenever possible. When I launched Earther, a spinoff site for climate and environmental news, I tried to infuse it with that same spirit by writing and assigning pieces on the environmental themes in movies, video games, and more. We wrote about Avengers, Doctor Who, and Star Wars – not the sort of stuff you expect to see on your typical environmental blog!

It was only after going freelance in 2019 that I realized how lucky I was to be able to combine my passions for science and sci-fi in this way. I love being a science journalist, but I started to miss how science fiction writing allowed me to explore broader social and cultural issues around science. Also, it’s frankly just fun to speculate wildly about the science in your favorite books and movies, especially if you can find experts willing to speculate along with you. It’s a great way to take yourself less seriously, and I am not a serious person.

What do you think people are looking for when they seek out science fiction?

I think people seek out science fiction for lots of different reasons. Some are just looking for an adventure. Others turn to sci-fi looking for inspiration when the world seems bleak, or maybe to wallow in an even bleaker dystopia. Many people consume science fiction because it’s the genre of ideas, and because it helps them think about society and the future in new ways. Of course, you might enjoy sci-fi for some combination of these reasons or all of them.

One of the great things that’s happening in science fiction right now is that the genre is rapidly diversifying, with more writers of color and LGBTQ writers gaining recognition and praise for their work. This infusion of fresh voices and perspectives into the literature is shaking up old tropes and traditional formats and leading to an explosion of really new-feeling stories. Ultimately, as more people see themselves and the issues that matter to them represented in science fiction, I think the genre will become more impactful.

What's a science fiction trope that you wish writers would retire?

There are so many! But if I had to pick one, I think it would be the mad scientist. Not that there can’t be a well-written villain with serious science chops, but the trope is so dang overused that I’d like to challenge new science fiction writers to really think about whether this evil science person is a necessary addition to the story. If so, maybe consider balancing them with a heroic scientist or two? Star Wars, I’m looking at you.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

Annalee Newitz, who I already mentioned, is a brilliant writer. They recently launched a Substack called The Hypothesis that explores science, history, culture, and how they all intersect. It’s the perfect complement to The Science of Fiction.

Subscribe to Maddie’s newsletter, The Science of Fiction, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @themadstone.