A new anthology explores Sci-Fi through the minds of Caltech, JPL alumni, students

Hypothesis: When given a choice to labor over research in a lab or write science fiction, Caltech alumni and students would choose: both.

“Inner Space and Outer Thoughts: Speculative Fiction from Caltech and JPL Authors” is a first-of-its-kind anthology written by Caltech and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists, engineers and students.

“It turns out that real scientists write incredibly interesting and unique science fiction,” said Rachael Kuintzle, editor and writer. “These stories were like nothing I had ever read before.”

More than 300 people are expected at an author reading and Q&A from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. All are welcome. Caltech alumni and award-winning authors S. B. Divya, David Brin and Larry Niven and first-time authors and experts in bioengineering, astronomy and geophysics will talk about the science behind their stories.

Author David Brin, center, is flanked by Yinzi Xin, to his left, president of Caltech’s TechLit club, and Rachael Kuintzle, club founder, and members of the creative writing group. It produced Caltech’s first-ever anthology of speculative fiction, “Inner Space and Outer Thoughts.” A book talk is set for 7 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Rachael Kuintzle)

Kuintzle, a PhD candidate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, said the idea to tap scientific minds to write scifi and fantasy started at a meeting for TechLit, Caltech’s creative writing club she helped start in 2017. All royalties from the book will benefit the club.

“It was amazingly fun to read the story submissions when they first came in,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect when we first put out the call for submission. I mean, a magic system based on dark photons, written by an expert particle physicist?”

That story is “A Thousand, Thousand Pages” by Allic Sivaramakrishnan, a post-doctoral research associate in theoretical physics at Caltech. He said the story is a look at “anything that has kept you up at night, gotten you out of bed in the morning, and made you take each day in a headlong sprint.”

Kuintzle herself wrote two stories, including “The Bittersweet Magic of Neuroplasticity,” an examination of what love is on a cellular and molecular level.

Award-winning author David Brin said the book is proof of a lesson that goes beyond the scientific method.

“Be many,” he writes in the book’s foreword. “Never settle for zero-sum. None of us has to be just-one-thing. Let your creative energies flow in many ways.”

Brin joined 21 other current and former Caltech and JPL folks in writing for the collection.

“Many years ago, as an undergrad at Caltech, I soon realized how broadly talented and even artistic many scientists and techies can be,” he said. “Even so, the breadth and depth of storytelling talent shown in this anthology surprised me.”

The STEM stories delve into alien astrobiologists, AI parenthood, a quest to preserve our histories beyond the heat death of the universe, a heist to steal engineering secrets from an ancient monk-scientist, the recovery of a long-lost phase of the human life cycle, the demise of Earth’s first intelligent species billions of years before the rise of humanity, and more, Kuintzle said.

Science fiction and fantasy author S.B. Divya used her Caltech background to craft “Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story.” She also combined lyrical prose with scientific terminology, using Latin scientific names for their poetic rhythm.

“People often claim that ‘hard’ science fiction cannot have literary value because the prose is too plain,” Divya said. “I’m hoping that my novels and short stories, including the one in this anthology, add to the body of work that shows this isn’t true.”

For Kuintzle, the three-year process from concept to publication was a lot like science fiction itself. From writing, and editing, to typesetting and wrangling legalities, the project inspired a lot of learning. The result? More author readings and an audiobook. The author scientists of TechLit continue to write and alumni have become mentors. And as with the best of speculative fiction, Kuintzle said, who knows what the future holds?

“Inner Space and Outer Thoughts” is available at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Once Upon a Time in Montrose, The Last Bookstore in L.A. and on Amazon.

For more information, follow @TechLitClub on Twitter.

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