Inner Space and Outer Thoughts: Caltech/JPL Authors on Their New #SciFi Anthology

NOTE: This post first appeared on the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE blog…

A group of authors who can definitely bring the science to their science fiction stories have recently banded together to create a new anthology offering twenty plus tales grouped into themes such as the power of science, our world, other worlds and more. The thing which I personally found most intriguing about this project was that the authors are from the California Institute of Technology/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Caltech/JPL) community.

I was a longtime JPL employee (Caltech manages JPL for NASA) and always very proud of the Caltech association. I might not have a story in this collection (I write science fiction romance) but I snapped it up and have been reading all the wonderful stories. Of course I wanted to bring the anthology to the attention of our readers here at AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE blog and so I contacted the publisher TechLit to learn more.

I invited the authors to share a favorite Caltech/JPL memory, or to talk about their favorite project or to reveal the ‘spark’ of inspiration for their story in the collection and below you’ll find the responses received.

My personal favorite Caltech memory was being at an awards reception years ago and deep in conversation with not one but three Nobel Prize winners, which doesn’t happen to me every day. I have too many special JPL memories to settle on just one – the entire decades-long experience there was priceless. I think one outstanding moment was when the Curiosity rover found direct evidence for an ancient streambed in Gale Crater. Water on Mars!

The anthology is Inner Space and Outer Thoughts: Speculative Fiction From Caltech and JPL Authors, with a Foreward by David Brin and cover by Christian Benavides. The introduction is by Rachael Kuintzle, to whom I wish to extend my special thanks for all her help in co-ordinating this post. There are 21 authors listed, including several selections from Larry Niven, reprinted with permission.

The book blurb:  Fact ignites fiction in this first-of-its-kind anthology of speculative tales by Caltech and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists, engineers, technologists, and students. Experts at the frontiers of their fields, along with renowned Caltech alumni such as David Brin, S. B. Divya, and Larry Niven, present stories about 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 much more!

The following are the responses I received from various authors in the collection, addressing one of my three questions. 

Rachael Kuintzle, “Teaspoons”. A molecular biologist learns to incrementally let go when he loses parts of his friend and his mother to a neurological parasite and neurodegenerative disease, respectively.

Story spark: This story was inspired by my grandmother, who suffered from dementia and passed away recently. When I started a post-baccalaureate research project on aging and memory loss, she became convinced that I was researching a cure for her condition, and it was hard to convince her otherwise. Firstly, this story reflects the strange pressure of having a loved one’s medical hopes undeservedly pinned on you. Secondly, it reflects the liberty I found, through the principles of neuroscience, to say goodbye a little at a time.

Olivia Pardo, “Degenerates”.  “A computer built to last until the end of the current universe logs its journey to destruction and its role in the creation of the next universe.”

Story spark: This story was inspired by my undergrad cosmology classes and my experience contributing to science as a PhD student. While minoring in astronomy and astrophysics, learning about the start and end(s) of the universe and the dynamics of astronomical structures that comprise it at times felt existentially overwhelming! The microscopic scale of myself relative to these huge moving parts that scientists dedicate their careers to understanding became so apparent. Now, as a mineral physicist, my work relies on understanding the many, smaller components of materials that make up planetary interiors to piece together a very complicated picture of reality. Degenerates follows the story of a computer built to preserve this type of knowledge and scientific and anthropological contents of the universe to pass on to the next iteration of the universe: an overwhelming but meaningful task, but one that affirms the usefulness of scientific research even after humanity is gone.

Richard J. Doyle (aka R. James Doyle), “Disentanglement”. What would it be like to survive until the end of the universe? How does one find meaning? What of loneliness?

Story spark: I was privileged to learn, as it was happening, what cosmologists were revealing about dark matter and dark energy. I was struck by the intense bleakness of the predicted fate of the universe, heat-death and ultimate separation. Questions rattled around in my mind. What would it be like to experience the end? Could any purpose be found in such circumstances? Or would the universe’s meaning, whatever that might be, have been fulfilled by then? Heady stuff, with a touch of existential horror about ultimate loneliness.

I have a background in AI and interest in quantum computing, quantum physics generally. Although these topics do not centrally drive the story, they helped shape ideas. As a writerly note, I had a different final sentence in mind, but when I wrote the one you see, the story was complete. Don’t ask me about the original sentence; it’s now lost into the void.

Tatyana Dobreva, “Replacement of Woes”. Replacement of Woes is a story about a young individual who undergoes a procedure that enables them to trade one flaw for another. The idea was inspired by the thermodynamic law that states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In my story, a similar concept exists when it comes to a person’s imperfections. We cannot eliminate our flaws, but the technology in this story’s world provides us with the ability to choose which flaw we live with.

Favorite research project so far? My favorite project during my time as a graduate student at Caltech was the one that unfortunately did not succeed. In 2018, a paper authored by Pastuzyn et al. was published, demonstrating that cells in the brain generate a self-organizing protein called Arc, which creates small cages, known as capsids, to carry messages in the form of RNA to other cells. This paper served as the inspiration for my own project, ArcXporter, which aimed to eliminate toxic RNAs by extracting them from the cell for degradation using a bioengineered version of Arc. While most current approaches involve introducing therapies into cells using foreign capsids such as adeno-associated viruses, my method, if it had worked, would have utilized the naturally occurring capsids produced by our bodies to degrade harmful RNAs and promote cellular health.

Kara Lee, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”. What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message? And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost? Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls.

Favorite memory/experience from your time at Caltech/JPL?: With apologies to the faculty who spent four years educating me, my best memories are unscientific. There was the singularly perfect day I spent at Malibu beach, during which I realized I loved the ocean. Now I live near the Atlantic. There were the evening screenwriting classes I took at UCLA. The teacher told me not to pursue writing. I ignored him. And best of all, there was the dining hall event during which I met my husband. He was a better storyteller than I will ever be, for he enthralled 100 undergraduates (including me) with a tale of a urinal. In short, my experiences at Caltech influenced every aspect of my future life. Pick your institution of higher education wisely, kids!

Madison Brady, “Blue Skies for Test Flight #NV0005”.  …takes place during an alternative Cold War in which the United States is the target of frequent bombing raids by aircraft that no country will take responsibility for.  Two American test pilots, both of which have been disqualified from normal military operations, fly an experimental plane on its maiden voyage into space.  They discover that space is not nearly as empty as they once thought, and have to find a way to warn the people down below before it’s too late.

Story spark: This project was born out of a desire to build something that resembles science fiction (containing experimental technology, space travel, etc.) but has a backbone of cosmic horror, where a lot of the details are both mysterious and unsettling.  It then seemed obvious to write some sort of invasion or war story, and the details fell into place afterwards.  The Cold War is a natural setting, as the general sense of unease and paranoia in that era lends itself to a situation in which even the most inexplicable of things could be dismissed as the actions of some country trying to stir up trouble.  I am also fascinated by the stories of military technology from the era and wanted to explore the mindset of the people who would be willing to, for example, fly untested aircraft.  Those elements together combined to form my work.

Christine Corbett Moran, Ph.D., “Out of Memory”. An AI with an expensive hobby and a traumatic past struggles to maintain its identity in the face of parenthood.

Favorite memory from my time at JPL: …being on the team that received the first imagery from entry decent and landing for the Mars Perseverance Rover. Being the first to see these images of the rover descended on cables to gently touch down on the surface of Mars was science more amazing than fiction.

Samuel Clamons, “Yuan Tzu’s Second Law of Evolutionary Design”. Silas is a conman looking to score big by going undercover to steal precious secrets from the reclusive, brilliant Doctor Xiang. The trouble is, Xiang is thousands of years old, obsessively paranoid, and commands his entire planet’s hand-crafted engineered biosphere, and Silas isn’t the only one at odds with Xiang….

Story spark: “Second Law” has two origins—one in an art gallery, and one in the lab.

The story’s seed was the works of Canadian artist Martin Beaupré. When I stumbled on his paintings in a gallery in La Jolla, I immediately wondered how to translate their beauty into the real world, and what that world would look like. I knew pretty quickly that I had to try writing a story in that world.

“Second Law”‘s other origin is the science of mutational escape. My graduate work was all about building useful micro-machines from single-celled bacteria. Bacteria have a serious downside as an engineering platform—they mutate! Specifically, they tend to mutate in ways that make them grow faster, which invariably involves breaking whatever you tried to build into them. I spent a lot of time at Caltech dreaming up ways to prevent mutational escape, with little success. Those musings heavily inspired “Second Law”‘s plot.

Ashish Mahabal, “Memoirs of a Status Quo”. The story takes place at a futuristic Earth outpost located near Jupiter, where a sentient robot and a long-lived human with god-like abilities are engaged in a game of guessing quotes. They are waiting for an incoming alien spacecraft to determine whether it is useless or could provide some entertainment in a future where Earth has deliberately cut off all possible communication beyond the Solar System. The story is told from the perspective of the robot, who attempts to second-guess the human’s thoughts through their game based on its knowledge of Earth’s history.

Favorite area of research: …exploring methods that work on both the smallest structures, such as cells, and the largest structures, such as galaxies. Although my PhD is in astronomy, for the past eight years I have been studying methodology transfer, which involves understanding how techniques from astronomy can be applied to early cancer detection and vice versa. This research takes place in the big and complex data field, where we strive to automate decision-making using machine learning while ensuring that the decisions are interpretable and explainable.

David Brown,”An Innocuous Cumulonimbus”. … introduces readers to an enigmatic and powerful entity capable of influencing the weather and the world around it. With the intention of spreading happiness, the entity embarks on an artistic endeavor to craft a cloud in the shape of a baby hippopotamus, hoping that the whimsical sight will uplift the spirits of the people below. However, the entity’s well-meaning efforts take an unexpected turn as events unfold, leading to a gripping and thought-provoking conclusion that explores themes of intention, consequence, and control. (summary written by ChatGPT, not me! I can’t be that self-aggrandizing about my own story)
Story spark: Much of the efforts of scientific inquiry are to understand the chain of cause and effect at play in complex systems: physical, social, biological. As I’ve transitioned from the field of computer science and into biology, I’ve developed a perspective that cause and effect seem to be over-simplified abstractions. They are useful, of course, for medical and other purposes. However, they are never quite complete. A mutation in gene A might cause the protein produced by that gene to misfold, which increases the metabolic demands on the cell, which can cause some disease… but not always. The system is so complex that “cause” doesn’t so much cause effects, but rather a multitude of causes lead to emergent effects. It’s nearly (or maybe completely) impossible to pin down the specific cause in any situation. I think Innocuous Cumulonimbus was “caused” by my own growing humility at the prospect of ever figuring out the true cause of things, in both science and life generally. I find it comforting, to know that we’ll never know. It means maybe we can spend a little less time asking “Who or what is at fault?” and instead ask more of “Okay, what can we really control, and how should we wield that power?”

Allic Sivaramakrishnan, “A Thousand, Thousand Pages”. The only escape from Sophie’s humdrum life is reading library books and decoding her math teacher’s strange notebook. One day, she finds herself trapped in the library of a mysterious librarian, clutching a set of magical words, and listening in horror to her math teacher’s plan to find those same words and silence her in the process. Caught in the middle of an ancient conflict, will Sophie be able to use magic in time to save her life?

Story spark:  “A Thousand, Thousand Pages” was inspired by the experience of doing research–partly my own, and partly my best guess for what others have experienced as well. I felt all the twists, turns, and challenges that make the best adventure stories such a wild ride also happen in the research world. I packed in as much “research is adventure” allegory as possible so that hopefully the reader could feel this for themselves. But I also tried to write what I (think I) know. I modelled the plot and structure after the way some young people first encounter research and how it changes their lives–I merely said “magic” instead of “research,” and exaggerated here and there for dramatic effect. I built a magic system based on particle physics to give the story some science-y spice. Also, why invent a new magic system when nature provides something more creative than anything I could come up with!

VS for ASM.: So there you have it, a taste of the kinds of stories and science you’ll find in this amazing anthology.  Check it out! Available on Amazon Kindle Unlimited or in paperback.


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