On a rainy Thursday in early November, over four hundred students crowded into the chairs, tables, and windowsills of the Trumbull Dining Hall. All eyes were on a small woman with short gray hair hovering near the piano at the front of the room. Microphone in hand, children’s author Lois Lowry answered questions and waxed philosophical on everything from homeland security to people on the internet who claim she is the Antichrist.
Though Lowry has written numerous best-selling books, including the “Anastasia” series, it was her 1994 Newbery Award-winning dystopian novel The Giver that dominated students’ questions and conversation.
Hundreds of students each semester scramble to fulfill their science requirements with “gut” classes like E&EB 115: Conservation Biology and WGSS 255: Biology of Gender and Sexuality, aka “Porn in the Morn,” but reading and writing science fiction are popular pursuits at Yale. Many Yalies spent their adolescence curled up with fantastical stories about outer space. The appeal has not worn off. “Lois Lowry was just a towering figure for many people in their childhood,” said Rachel Bayefsky ’09, the former editor of Y.U.M. (Yale Undergraduate Magazine), a literary magazine founded last year that sponsored the Lowry master’s tea.
In an attempt to find a broader readership and harness Yalies’ love of science-fiction, the Yale Scientific Magazine held a contest for science-fiction writing this past semester. They will publish the winner in their next issue. But does reading a story about life in a galaxy far, far away relate in any way to the reality of organic compounds, problem sets, and test tubes?
English lecturer John Crowley teaches and writes both sci-fi and realistic fiction, though his most famous work — 1981’s Little, Big — is a work of fantasy. Crowley said he receives more applicants for his course on science fiction and fantasy writing than for any other class he teaches. But few of his students write stories based on mice in a maze or DNA.
“Science fiction is common, but fiction about science is rare,” he said. Early science fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells actually knew quite a bit about science, and well into the 20th century, science fiction was based on things that writers expected to be discovered or invented in the next fifty years.
“They thought, ‘Surely this will all come to be!’ One of the big disappointments about this, of course, is that almost none of the big things that were imagined have taken place,” Crowley said, citing aliens, time travel, and humanoid robots as the biggest letdowns.
This past summer, the scientific journal Nature celebrated the return of their on-again off-again column of science fiction vignettes, “Futures,” by devoting an entire issue to “explor[ing] the symbiosis of science and science fiction,” according to their website. Taking a cue from this highly respected publication and looking to make the Scientific more accessible to the average Yalie, publisher Roshan Sethi ’09 suggested the science fiction contest to the editorial board this past September.
Sethi also serves as publisher of Y.U.M. and was instrumental in organizing the master’s tea with Lowry. Many of Y.U.M.’s founding members are interested in science as well as science fiction, and quite a few of them took Crowley’s course together.
While a sophomore in college who picks up an Isaac Asimov novel probably won’t rush to change majors, Amanda Rubin ’09, the editor-in-chief of Y.U.M., thinks that the same impulses that led her to devour science fiction and fantasy books when she was younger have led her to major in neurobiology. “I remember reading a novel by Madeleine L’Engle. There was a part that talked about mitochondria, and I remember when I was little I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome if that were true!’ — and, lo and behold, they do exist! I think science fiction authors have a great opportunity to open people’s minds to really amazing things that are going on in biology or physics or whatever,” she said. “In that sense, it does serve as sort of a gateway.”
Assistant professor of English Paul Grimstad, who is teaching an ENGL 115 section this semester called “Science (and) Fiction,” agrees that science fiction is often based on actual scientific possibilities: “Science fiction, at its best, asks the question ‘What if…’ and in asking that question, it extrapolates from what is already known about the natural world. Innovations in the sciences — say, for example, in cloning, or genetic engineering — seem to generate all sorts of aesthetic and ethical questions.”
For most Yale students, curiosity about the future is satisfied by turning to Arthur C. Clarke or Lois Lowry rather than heading up Science Hill. But though science hasn’t figured out time travel or hovercars, some of science fiction’s other predictions have come to pass. As Lowry warned a dining hall swarming with future leaders, “Certainly as the world moves forward — if that is indeed the direction it is moving — quite a few things have come to resemble aspects of The Giver.”