Transdisciplinary Collaborations: My Experience at the Intersection of Science and the Imagination

Transdisciplinary Collaborations: My Experience at the Intersection of Science and the Imagination

Vandana Singh

Editors’ Note: The Us in Flux project that inspired this special issue brought together speculative fiction authors with experts from a variety of fields, from virtual reality and ecology to architecture, to create compelling visions of the future, and to share insights in public, virtual conversations. This emphasis on the social aspects of creating a story is a common theme in projects from the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University. In this essay, author Vandana Singh, a regular collaborator with CSI, describes how her experiences engaging in these types of collaborative projects has influenced her work and thinking over time.

Writing is a lonely business. The writer’s mind is crowded with people and situations, but the process of writing is a solo one. When I am under the spell of story, pulled into the vortex of creation, the world outside my head is the one that feels less real. Except, of course, when I am engaged in the process of research for the story, especially in my genre of choice, science fiction. Far-off worlds and imaginary beings notwithstanding, research grounds me in this world, this universe. Research for a story is spellbinding in its own way, because the universe we inhabit is infinitely strange, and therefore an endless source of inspiration. In my case I find that inevitably research enlarges the imaginative scope of the story—not merely providing flesh on its bones, but also influencing the behavior of the characters, the details of the setting, and the direction of the story. Seen in that light, research and the creative aspect of the writing engage in a dance of continual give and take, one leading, then the other following, and vice versa.

But, just as in real life, research is much more interesting—and I would add, much more fruitful—when one is not a lone explorer. So when noted science fiction editor and anthologist Kathryn Cramer invited me to engage with Arizona State University’s newly formed Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) as a participant in Project Hieroglyph back in 2013, I leaped at the chance. The model of story development, I was told, was not strictly solo, but involved interacting with researchers relevant to the subject of the story. I would have access to subject-area experts, at ASU and beyond, on any aspect of my story that I wanted to play with. This was a heady proposition, even better than being granted free access to a world-class library. And indeed, it turned out to be exhilarating beyond my expectations. The team at CSI indulged every authorial whim, or so it seemed to me as I connected with climate scientists, biologists, geographers, and urban-sustainability engineers. This emboldened me—a relatively shy person most comfortable living under the proverbial rock—to contact experts beyond ASU as well. Long telephone and email conversations with generous experts who didn’t balk at any of my questions but obligingly provided explanations, shared personal stories and sent me papers to read, led to the same intellectual highs I’d got when working on my Ph.D. decades ago.

Since that unforgettable experience, I’ve participated in three CSI projects, each different, but with the common thread of access to scholars in some form or other. In a couple of the projects, connection with experts happened mostly as I developed the story from the initial vague conception to foundation and scaffolding. When I needed help with specifics, CSI would find me the right person, or a person who would eventually lead me to the right person. In another project, the interaction with experts was more structured: authors shared their story drafts with experts, received expert comments, and then wrote the final draft. One of the projects included, as a kind of icing on the cake, a visit to ASU and direct interaction with scholars, editors, and fellow authors. Each experience, in its own way, worked well; I had complete artistic freedom, but my stories were informed by the rich brew of ideas that emerged from personal conversations with experts. How much more collegial and inspiring than reading tomes or searching for academic papers on the internet entirely on my own!

One of the most valuable aspects of these collaborative conversations with experts was, for me as a scientist writing science fiction, a chance to expand my understanding of fields outside my own. It is all very well to take liberties in the name of imaginative fiction, but it goes against the grain for me to be dismissive of, or careless with, scientific or scholarly knowledge. As a transdisciplinary scholar, I know that one of the greatest dangers of venturing outside your own field is the fact that there are things we don’t know we don’t know. Here lie unintentional errors, blunders, and pitfalls. So, through my conversations with experts, I learned what it was really like to dive into the ocean near the poles, and that you could eat raw whale meat with soy sauce in the far North. I learned that white-painted roofs in urban areas would indeed reduce the urban heat island effect, but that they might affect weather patterns and increase aridity in warm, dry places. Walking up and down my living room, with papers and books strewn on every surface, I thought about methane bubbling up from the seafloor in the warming Arctic, and my conversation with a biologist about methane-eating bacteria. How might that inform my story about climate change? The fact that these bacteria lived in communities allowed them to do what they did. Without much conscious intent, my story started to develop along a broad theme of community and connection on a global scale.  

For another project, I found myself obsessed with the idea of life beyond Earth that was not like life-as-we-know-it. How would we even recognize such a lifeform? Speaking with experts, I learned that this was an active field of study that went to the heart of the age-old question: what is life? and I was introduced to mind-blowing concepts like top-down causal information flow and shadow biospheres. During conversations with renowned planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, I discovered a common fascination with tidally locked planets orbiting close to their red dwarf stars. Since my story about life-as-we-don’t-know-it had to be set on such a planet, I learned from my kindly expert what it might feel like to stand on a cliff at the terminator zone of such a planet, the thin region dividing the boiling sun-side of the planet from the frozen far-side. I would be looking at vast, molten seas of lava, from which enormous fountains of liquid rock would rise. The temperature difference would cause winds to flow across the terminator zone, carrying tiny motes of lava that solidified as they cooled, bombarding the cliff face with a rain of particles. I wandered through the rituals of the day oblivious to the fact that I was on Planet Earth; my head was a few light-years away on my fictional planet, Shikasta b, trying to figure out if there were hints of life in the tortured geology of that world.

These conversations didn’t just make the stories more scientifically grounded. They also made them more human. Of my many marvelous conversations, I’m reminded of two that helped me foreground stories of human resilience in my fiction. One of these was with Bernadette Tsosie, a hydrologist who is also a member of the Navajo Nation. Because this project involved a trip to ASU and the mesa country of Arizona, I wanted to honor the place and its people by setting part of the story in Navajo country. But it didn’t seem obvious how a story about the lack of winter (the theme of the anthology) could belong in Navajo country. Bernadette was the perfect consultant, being a scientist as well as Dine’, and over the course of a long phone call, she generously shared with me her memories of sheep herding with her family—the long trek into the highlands, her childhood observation of the change in vegetation with altitude, her grandparents’ loving praise when she was careful with the water. She also explained to me the crucial importance of snow on the high mesa. Her descriptions were so vivid and her explanations so lucid that I could almost sense the falling of snow on the rocky heights, and the slow trickle of meltwater that would feed the streams below through all of summer. This water security was threatened by a warming climate, because rain (instead of snow) results in flash floods. But when snow melts, I learned, liquid water is released slowly, sinking through porous sedimentary rock over months, feeding streambeds below in a sustained manner through the arid heat of summer. So I learned that even in warm regions like Arizona, winter—real winter—is crucially important. And that family and kinship get people through hard times. Thus my fictional Dine’ hydrologist came to life.

Similarly, I had the fantastic opportunity to speak with Laura Tohe, then the Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. I sent for her book, and spoke to her on the phone, a long, freewheeling conversation in which she told me what it meant to grow up on the reservation, to know and love the land, to witness tragedy and find resilience, and to make meaning through poetry. Reading her work, I was struck in particular by, “When the Moon Died,” a poem whose vivid imagery haunted me for days, until I realized that the poem was telling me something about the story I was writing. Thus my story acquired a new character, alongside the Dine’ hydrologist: the lost love of one of the protagonists, a journalist in India—and a new setting: the moon.

But these experiences also led me to think about the ethical dilemmas of writing about people from marginalized communities. To write a story from—as best as one can imagine—the perspectives of people who are marginalized relative to myself is, of course, a risky endeavor. I had experienced what cultural appropriation felt like in speculative fiction written by Westerners about India, and I didn’t want to commit the same offence when writing about people from marginalized communities not my own. I was assured by multiple writers and activists who worked with or were from such communities (and by my own convictions) that we, who are privileged in some way or another, cannot limit our stories and our imaginations to our own peoples and experiences. As the ultimate exercise in standing in the shoes of another, speculative fiction in particular allows us to expand, however imperfectly, our empathic and intellectual reach. But this comes with a serious responsibility—to research diligently, to consult, and offer compensation for their time, to multiple readers from these communities, to do one’s best and own any errors of interpretation or inadvertent bias and to promise to do better. Writing the Other, as Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, among many others thereafter, have explained, is full of pitfalls, but there are ways to do it. To avoid erasure, one must be radically inclusive, while at the same time avoiding misrepresentation and appropriation. My conversations with Bernadette and Laura, as well as with Dalit scholars and Adivasi activists in India, has led me beyond good practice to a personal commitment that my writing should become a way for my readers to discover the works of brilliant, but less well-known writers from the communities I’m writing about, because there is really no substitute for the insider perspective. But more than anything, the experience of writing about people from marginalized communities through conversations with real people from these communities has changed my life. It has allowed me to make sense of my own experience as an accidental immigrant from India, to dig into understanding racism via the Black Lives Matter movement, and to become more sensitized to the experiences of Dalits and Adivasi peoples in India.

Thus the experience of collaborating with researchers and scholars in multiple fields while gestating a story has taken me well beyond the story. That first CSI project, for example, gave rise to a novella about climate breakdown, “Entanglement,” which is set in five places around the world, including the Arctic. The Arctic had impressed itself so vividly in my imagination through the experience of writing the story, that a year later, I found myself on the Alaskan North Shore to research and write a case study on Arctic climate change for undergraduate education, a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Since then, in my academic life, I’ve been working on a transdisciplinary, justice-centered approach to conceptualizing the climate crisis; part of this involves looking at other parts of the cryosphere—the Himalayas, especially—as particularly vulnerable to the frightening changes underway on our planet.

The same project that resulted in “Entanglement” involved a trip to Washington, D.C. that CSI organized for the authors. There we spent a whirlwind two days on panel discussions organized by the National Academy of Sciences and Future Tense (a partnership of Slate magazine, ASU, and New America), the highlights of which included a visit to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This experience was a revelation—that there were people other than writers and readers of speculative fiction who were thinking about the future. That these people were part of government, think tanks, and corporations, and that speculative fiction presented to them an ocean of ideas, some of which may well inform our uncertain future. So I began to learn about the relatively new field of futures studies, and had the revelation that the colonization of the future by the powers-that-be (well-intentioned and otherwise) was already underway. This led to my deep and abiding interest in the democratization of the future, which is part of my academic work as well as a theme in my fiction. Because science fiction treats the future both literally and metaphorically, our futures are co-present with our pasts and presents. This convolution of the time axis is a particular delight and strength of science fiction, and I feel that it is of critical importance to futures studies.

All three of my story projects with CSI have been reprinted in “Year’s Best” volumes. Each experience has been like working on a mini Ph.D. thesis, but more fun—intellectually intoxicating, filled with life-changing conversations, gestated through a communitarian sharing of place and perspective, enriched by the wild mix of disciplines that is so natural to speculative fiction. We live in such an individualized, siloed, compartmentalized world, now even more so, thanks to the pandemic. A long time ago, telling stories used to be a much more communitarian act, when storytellers spoke their words aloud and watched them fall on listening ears – the murmurs of the crowds became part of the story, and each gathering that punctuated the wanderings of the itinerant storyteller, each conversation or encounter, helped fabricate the next tale and the next telling. So it is all the more wonderful that while we don’t have community storytelling any more, for the most part, such a thing as the CSI model exists—giving authors the privilege of a group of caring and knowledgeable people invested in the successful gestation and birthing of a good story.

Vandana Singh is an author of speculative fiction, a professor of physics, and an interdisciplinary researcher on the climate crisis. Her first collection of fiction, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, was published by Zubaan Books in 2014, and her second, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, was published by Small Beer Press and Zubaan in 2018. Her previous stories with the Center for Science and the Imagination are “Entanglement,” published in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (William Morrow, 2014); “Shikasta,” published in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (Center for Science and the Imagination, 2017); and “Widdam,” published in A Year Without a Winter (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019).

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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