The Big Idea: Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest

There’s more to life than humanity, and in the hybrid anthology Life Beyond Us, editors Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest dig into the differences, why they matter, and why they should matter to us.


Imagine that the fate of a whole planetary biosphere rests in your hands. That you’re tasked to talk to aliens that you’re not even sure are sentient and intelligent. That you must solve a ticking-clock scientific mystery to save a space settlement. What do you do? In the future, near and far, we might come to face these decisions. How do we decide then – and who exactly does the decision-making?

Science fiction is the sandbox where we can safely play out different scenarios. Turn left/turn right/steer out of the way completely? We can imagine where the choices might lead. Not predicting, but trying to take in different perspectives. Say a hardy microbe is found in the cleanroom where a mission to search for life on Mars was assembled. It may have hitched a ride on the spacecraft. It might survive on Mars. It might muddle up any scientific life-seeking efforts. Worse, if there is any indigenous life, it might destroy it. But it may not be present on the spacecraft at all. If it is, it might not survive the journey. It might well not survive a moment on Mars. And Mars may very likely be lifeless. And yet…

Do you pull the plug on a multi-million dollar mission with the potential to deliver results to astonish humanity? Or do you let it land and risk contaminating the Red Planet with Earth-based life… but what if it already has been contaminated before?

It’s not a decision to be made lightly. Perhaps the story by Eric Choi this thought experiment is based on and its companion essay might help you reach a decision where you would stand if faced with this dilemma; for in the Life Beyond Us anthology, each short story is followed by a popular science essay diving deeper into the scientific themes from the story. Twenty-seven original SF stories and the same number of essays by writers and scientists from across the world carry us to different possible futures – or even pasts that didn’t come to be in our world – to explore what it means to be human, to search for alien life, and find danger as well as joy.

When exactly did our Big Idea appear?

It might have been while daydreaming during a university class, getting a sudden science-fictional inspiration from a scientific paper and then regretting that one couldn’t spend half the story diving into the exciting real science underlying it, or it wouldn’t be a story anymore. Or it might have been while reading a novel augmented by author’s notes and references (Peter Watts’ Blindsight comes to mind). Was it while teaching astrobiology and mentioning a SF story as an example for the students? It might have been while being invited to write a blog post about a published short story – why not just make them appear together? How wonderful would it be to read a story, and just when we’re full of emotions and questions, dive into the real-world scientific foundation for it, no less exciting? Could it possibly help raise interest in science, or even help fight the tide of anti-science sentiments?

There’s no point in touting the importance of science and technology to the crowd here; that would be preaching to the choir. All of us are enjoying the benefits of life-saving antibiotics and vaccines; tiny computers in our pockets; a world interconnected by internet, trains, planes… Yet, at the same time, we are witnessing a tide of conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine rallies, or fearmongering about the coming of world-devouring super-intelligent AI. Scientific literacy has probably never been more crucial – and that includes familiarity with the process of science and realization that science is not without problems, but they are not what the anti-science movements would suggest.

There are issues with publishing and replicating scientific results; with equality and accessibility in parts of the academia; with ethics of getting samples, for instance for teaching neural networks image or text recognition; but that does not change the fact that science is our best bet to retain a future. However, it’s not sufficient alone. Without policy, without society, it is toothless – and these depend on understanding of what science is and what it does.

Astrobiology is a relatively new science, but speculations about possible life beyond Earth are as old as humankind. It’s not just about searching the universe for possible habitats and signs of life; it’s also about studying the evolution of life on Earth, the changes of our planet and extremes of Earth life… all making it painfully apparent that any “Planet B” is potentially dangerous wishful thinking.

Astrobiology’s central “are we alone?” question has also always been a driving force of science fiction, and stories of Life Beyond Us explore exotic life forms and our attempts to communicate with them (Gregory Benford, Arula Ratnakar, Peter Watts), perils of preserving Earth life (Deji Bryce Olukotun, Eugen Bacon), navigating worldly obstacles to search for other worlds (Mary Robinette Kowal, Valentin Ivanov), making surprising connections (Julie E. Czerneda, Simone Heller, Jana Bianchi), and much more, with scientists following up with accessible and fun essays on planetary protection, non-water-based life, interstellar communication, robotic space exploration… Educators are also welcome to take inspiration from the book in classes and use related online resources at the European Astrobiology Institute’s website.

Stories have the power to make us think and feel at the same time; to elicit curiosity as well as compassion. Science fiction lets us imagine fantastic discoveries and inventions as well as our responses to them; futures in which we’ve made good as well as bad decisions. Just maybe, it’s also going to inspire some of us to dive deeper into science. We’re going to need it in trying to find the good futures.

Life Beyond Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells|Kobo| Waterstones|Laksa Media|short online excerpt|European Astrobiology Institute

Follow the editors, publisher and EAI on Twitter (Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, Susan Forest, Laksa Media, European Astrobiology Institute) and their websites (Julie Nováková, Susan Forest, Laksa Media, European Astrobiology Institute).

2 Comments on “The Big Idea: Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest”

  1. This is a really cool premise and structure, and I would love to read it! (and I don’t know, re: the Mars microbe; I’d probably want to subject it to tests simulating aspects of the Mars atmosphere to see if it did survive before aborting the mission…)

    I’d actually disagree with two items, though:
    1. characterizing the intake of artists’ entire online image collections as using “samples” to train neural networks/AI; this is not a “sample” – it is a corpus of work.
    2. not-unrelatedly, without policy (aka: ethics enforcement), science and technology have venomous fangs rather than being toothless; in the wrong (usually rich and powerful) hands, they are tools for increasing inequity and iniquity. Without society, sure: if there isn’t anyone to harm, they can’t be used for harm. But without strong and well-informed policy, we have a state of robber barons misusing tools to amass further wealth and power, whether that’s by hiking medication prices in a monopoly, or by misdirecting voters through targeted advertising, or by inducing depression so that their users will be better revenue sources via ad click-throughs.

    But otherwise: fascinating!

  2. This is a really cool premise and structure, and I would love to read it! (and I don’t know, re: the Mars microbe; I’d probably want to subject it to tests simulating aspects of the Mars atmosphere to see if it did survive before aborting the mission…)

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