It’s two months into the fall semester, and NASA’s Artemis moon mission has finally launched. Professor Jon Miller stands at the front of the classroom discussing the history of human space flight. Miller plays a clip of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” He lingers on the rhetorical power of JFK’s words—and the president’s argument for why this scientific advance mattered so much at the time.
“When was the last time you heard a politician throw out numbers and describe science and tech like that?” Miller asks the class. There’s a consensus of not really ever in the classroom’s murmured response.
The Sputnik satellite, Miller explains, which launched for three weeks in 1957 by the Soviet Union, caused panic in the United States. Hearing about it on the radio was terrifying for people in the United States because of the ongoing Cold War. “This event may have more to do with defense, science, and technology in the U.S. than any other event,” Miller says. That’s why it mattered so much for JFK to stake the claim of being first on the Moon.
Professor Lisa Makman steps forward a moment later, and the class shifts into a discussion of the story “Fields of Gold” by writer Liu Cixin. The questions that Miller has just raised underpin the conversation: What do we fear? What is humanity capable of? What do we choose to do? Why?
This class—called “Where is the Science in Science Fiction?”—is co-taught by Miller, an astronomy professor, and Makman, a faculty member in English. By uniting their divisions for this class, Makman and Miller transcend the artificial boundary between science and the humanities, intrepidly guiding their students into a realm rich with possibility and wonder.
Makman and Miller don’t necessarily stay strictly in their divisional lanes. While Makman comes from the humanities division, and Miller from natural sciences, in today’s lecture, Miller places the scientific terminology that appears in the story into a humanities context: “Ether,” for example, is a class of organic compounds. “Aether,” though, is the substance the Greeks thought that bodies moved through. It was named for “Aether,” a primordial Greek god who was also the embodiment of what the Greek gods breathe.
And Makman is fluent in the language of natural science. In her lecture on the story, she unpacks “cosmic velocity”—pulling concepts from the text and explicating them in scientific terms: orbital velocity, escape velocity, equations for defining velocity relative to both Earth and Sun.
The class puzzles over why the characters of “Fields of Gold” have the capacity to harness fusion power, but do not attempt to do so, until a character named Alice is in peril. Clean, plentiful energy would have saved the characters of the story.
“In reality, as of today,” Makman says, bringing the class back during a November class meeting, “we have fusion weapons, but not fusion reactors, and no credible plan to combat climate change.”
Makman and Miller hold up benchmarks of the genre for study, both classic (Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Mary Shelley, for example) and contemporary (Larissa Lai, Vandana Singh, and Liu Cixin, to name just a few), and invite students to experiment with the very real scientific concepts underpinning these stories, jolting this literature from the world of imagination into our reality. As an introduction to the class, Makman and Miller ask their students to consider the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, grande dame of science fiction literature, on the relationship between science fiction and our world:
“Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future.”
But Le Guin knew better than anyone that science fiction is not rote predictive text; it’s a literary art that dances with the uncertainties of human behavior: cultural context, dishonesty, sacrifice, discovery, betrayal. Le Guin also takes a subtle dig at readers who might question the relevance of science fiction:
“This may explain why many people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it’s so depressing.’”
In other words, according to Makman and Miller, science fiction is not “escapist”; if anything, it may be a little too real. Like the natural sciences, like the humanities, science fiction worlds are surprising, complicated, and unpredictable. And you’d know that if you did the reading. (Sick burn, Ursula.)
Perhaps because of the literary genre’s proximity to what has already been proven by empirical research, Makman and Miller also argue that science fiction has the power to imagine the utopic heights of human innovation as well as to reveal the darker side of discovery: avarice, bigotry, and destruction. In the words of Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, and others, the instructors have the groundwork for rigorous humanities discussions that investigate historical context, social issues, and questions of morality.
At the same time, Makman and Miller identify complex scientific questions posed by the literature as opportunities to learn about phenomena like black holes, warp speed, hyperspace, cloning, dark matter, teleportation, multiverses, androids, and more.
The characters of the course syllabus, and the characters of planet Earth, routinely do noble, altruistic things like study infectious diseases in order to prevent future pandemics, speak truth to power, and rally around the vulnerable. Unfortunately, they also do terrible things like threaten to incite nuclear war or destroy the planet’s non-renewable resources. Throughout the course Makman and Miller engage with students in a long conversation about the wicked human problems imagined in the space of science fiction: fascism, eugenics, the atom bomb, climate collapse, as well as bold resistance, solutions, and even glimmers of hope in the face of these pernicious problems.
While reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, students were asked to write about scientific practices and scientific ethics in relation to social institutions (such as the family, the legal system, and others), gender ideology, imperialism, as well as reigning models of human development and education. Following the narrative of Frankenstein, students investigated the dangers of innovation without an ethic of care and responsibility, tracing it through later narratives about “created” sentient beings (robots and clones) in both the “created beings” of our reality and of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Larissa Lai’s “Rachel.”
The class even had a visit from Dr. Todd Hollon, who runs the Machine Learning in Neurosurgery Laboratory at U-M, extending the conversation to the cutting edge of artificial intelligence and machine learning used to identify and treat neurological diseases.
Makman and Miller challenge students to question the plausibility of threats and solutions from the perspective of science, as well as through a humanities lens.
Using both equations and written text, students calculate the speed at which electrical signals move through the human body, determine the half-lives of radioactive materials, school Elon Musk on why he will never launch one of his cars into space faster than the speed of light, and track their energy consumption relative to the rest of the world.
While reading W.E.B. DuBois’s story “The Comet,” in which the title object passes over Manhattan, and leaves a Black man and a white woman who believe they are the only human survivors, Miller teaches students about Kepler’s Third Law, a theorem that explains how planets orbit the Sun. Students learn how to calculate and compare the orbital period and radius orbit of planets.
After learning how to calculate the average distance of Halley’s Comet from the Sun, the class considers the points of closest and farthest approach from the Sun and how the distance compares to Earth’s orbit. While the Earth’s orbit would likely transform into a white dwarf (a star that has exhausted all of its nuclear fuel) instead of a black hole, as in DuBois’s story, students explore the tension between “The Comet” and what might really happen, in order to apply Kepler’s Third Law.
Beyond the exploration of stars and black holes, DuBois’s 1920 social critique also introduces the class to the cosmic wonder of Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that exceeds the bounds of science fiction literature and encompasses film, music, visual art, and theory, seeking to unite the Black diaspora through reclamation and liberation. Think: The Black Panther films, the music of Sun Ra, the visual art of Ellen Gallagher, the fiction of Octavia Butler.
“The first few days of class I felt like I wasn’t thinking hard enough, mostly because I interpreted exactly what was written,” says McKenzie Hilscher, a junior in the class who is majoring in sociology, law, justice, and social change. But Hilscher’s nervousness about the complexity of the material soon shifted into playful curiosity. “Lisa and Jon created an environment where it was safe to talk about ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas,” Hilscher says.
Miller credits the students for the class’s success. “The class would not work without a lot of buy-in from the students,” he says. “On a broad array of issues, they have to drop their guard and confront what they think about sensitive issues, and why, and then also consider very different viewpoints. It also works because every academic year a huge array of majors are present—and contributing—in the classroom; it may be the only time that many students get that experience.”
During the final week of the semester, a group of scientists in California made a discovery that many did not think possible in this lifetime. At the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists achieved “ignition”—that is, they derived more energy out of a nuclear fusion reaction than they put into it, unlocking a clean energy source that has been described as limitless.
This is the kind of scientific discovery that has the potential to change the world we live in, and influence the future of our changing climate and global energy distribution. It’s also something that science fiction foretold; think of the DeLorean in Back to the Future or Arthur C. Clarke’s The Hammer of God, with its asteroid-deflecting fusion thermal rockets. Or “Fields of Gold,” the Liu Cixin story the class read early in the semester.
“This is a big deal!” Miller gushed on the course’s online forum. “I am sorry that we don’t get to discuss it in class. But I hope this comes as very welcome news.”
In his post, Miller shared an article from The Guardian, which breaks down the science of the discovery in terms the students recognized from their semester-long discussions, terms that until that moment had been couched in the aspirational language of possibility, of fiction.
“Nuclear fusion involves smashing together light elements such as hydrogen to form heavier elements, releasing a huge burst of energy in the process. The approach, which gives rise to the heat and light of the Sun and other stars, has been hailed as having huge potential as a sustainable, low-carbon energy source. … Researchers have managed to release 2.5 MJ [megajoules] of energy after using just 2.1 MJ to heat the fuel with lasers.”
In other words: The stuff of science fiction is closer to our reality than we might think. Lasers, the creation of a star, a clean, limitless path forward to a more equitable future—it’s all possible.
Makman and Miller’s students had been equipped to ask brave questions and make meaningful discoveries, imagining a better world using multiple liberal arts disciplines. And in classrooms like theirs, which incubate a place for dreaming without limits, the future is now.
Often, this is a future that feels like magic—but, as English science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Jordyn Imhoff contributed to this story.
Makman and Miller ask students to consider their place in the universe, and to catalog and calculate the footprint of their consumption of our planet’s precious resources.
The short story “The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee provides an opportunity for Makman and Miller’s students to catalog their energy consumption for a week, including what items they use, for how long, and how much power each item requires.
In the story, places that have succumbed to climate change can seek reparations from their government. But not all places are treated equally. As the Marshall Islands nearly vanish, the protagonist, Haley, must build a floating structure to create more of the land required in order to qualify for reparations.
After reading the story, students track their consumption for a second week, this time attempting to cut their energy use in half, as most of the world gets by using significantly less than half of the energy the typical American uses.
Abhipol Vibhatasilpin, a third-year computer engineering major in the class, says, “I do have a bad habit of leaving my bathroom lights on, so I fixed that during my second run, but it didn’t bring the total down by much. The other thing was air conditioning, so I decided to go two weeks without it and that eventually brought my total energy expense down by about 48 percent.”
Author Nevala-Lee visited the class and addressed questions raised in the story about energy disparity and access with the following aphorism: “Utopia is where privileged people get to experience what others that are less fortunate have had to feel all along.”
Hilscher says her energy consumption was on track…until she attended the football game at the Big House against Michigan State University. “How do I calculate this?” she laughs. “For the first time ever, I was responsible for manipulating my consumption—not my parents’, not my roommate’s.”
“At first,” Vibhatasilpin says, “I thought that the lifestyle change required to halve my energy expenditure was rather drastic and unrealistic to sustain in the long run, especially during the winter in Michigan,” he says. Fortunately, the energy tracking took place during the mild early fall.
“But in retrospect,” Vibhatasilpin continues, “I forgot to consider the fact that a significant portion of the population in my home country, Thailand, and many other places in Asia do not have access to air conditioning, so maybe the change is not so drastic after all?”