Friday, June 27, 2008

Science Fiction as a Way to Teach Technical Writing

Huzzah! Apparently this blogging thing can be quite a racket if you know what you're doing. I just won a free t-shirt. Darlene, The Science Cheerleader, sent me the following comment:

Hey Bart!Thanks for the terrific posts. Would you kindly summarize one or two "science facts" folks can learn from a great science fiction book? You are, officially, the winner of the Science Cheerleader T-Shirt.

She was responding to my posting below, which suggested that science fiction was an excellent introduction and teaching mechanism for aspiring English majors to find a career in technical writing.

Once upon a time, I created (but didn’t give) a presentation entitled “Everything I Needed to Know About Technical Writing I Learned from Reading Science Fiction.” My basic argument is that:

The SF writer:

  • Describes an unfamiliar world
  • Creates challenges related to or brought about by real or imagined aspects of science
  • Provides solutions to those challenges based on knowledge learned in the environment

The technical communicator:

  • Seeks to help the user understand an unfamiliar technology and solve certain problems based on the communicator’s description of that technology

I used typical SF milieus--”Enormous Big Thing” stories, time travel stories, and SF detective stories–as means of teaching technical communicators mental approaches for dealing with completely new topics or technologies. I summed up with:

You might not ever encounter “enormous big things,” time travel, or crimes in space, BUT…

--You can face large mysteries

--You can face documents or processes that need to be placed in chronological order…or some other order that makes sense to the user at the time

--You may experience “crimes” related to human-technology interactions. So…

Read some science fiction today!

I suppose SF has taught me the most about the consequences and the potential impacts of natural phenomena and technology. Consider the following examples.

From Robert A. Heinlein's "Space Jockey":

The Commerce Commission has set the charges for the present three-stage lift from here to the Moon at thirty dollars a pound. Would direct service be cheaper?--a ship designed to blast off from Earth, make an airless landing on the Moon, return and make an atmosphere landing, would be so cluttered up with heavy special equipment used only once in the trip that it could not show a profit at a thousand dollars a pound! Imagine combining a ferry boat, a subway train, and an express elevator--

"Mass ratio...under power, the ship lost the weight of fuel burned. The thrust remained constant; the mass it pushed shrank. Getting back to proper position, course, and speed became a complicated problem in the calculus of ballistics."


Or these, from Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise:

He had seen that two-century-old film at least fifty times, and there were sections that we had examined frame by frame, until he knew every detail by heart. It was, after all, the most expensive movie footage ever shot, at least in peacetime. It had cost the State of Washington several million dollars a minute...

Vast, slow undulations, meters in amplitude, were sweeping along the entire width of the span, so that the roadway suspended between the piers twisted back and forth like an angry snake. The wind blowing down the canyon was sounding a note far too low for any human ears to detect, as it hit the natural frequency of the beautiful, doomed structure...

There stood the slim (too slim!) and graceful bridge, spanning the canyon. It bore no traffic, but a single car had been abandoned midway by its driver....

Suddenly, the supporting cables snapped, flailing upward like murderous steel whips. Twisting and turning, the roadway pitched into the river, fragments of the structure flying in all directions...In reality, it had lasted perhaps five seconds. At the end of that time, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge had earned an inexpungable place in the history of engineering.


Once again he was back at the Tacoma Narrows Birdge, but this time in a world of fantasy. There was a ship that had to sail beneath it, on a perfectly regular schedule. Unfortunately, the mast was a meter too tall...

No problem. Just before it was due to arrive, a few heavy trucks would be sent racing across the bridge at intervals carefully calculated to match its resonant frequency. A gentle wave would sweep along the roadway from pier to pier, the crest timed to coincide with the arrival of the ship. And so the masthead would glide beneath, with whole centimeters to spare...

And from Frank Herbert's Dune:

[W]e must start on standy-by water facilities at once. No man is going to hold a club over my head!

"It's a rule of ecology," Kynes said, "that the young Master appears to understand quite well. The struggle between life elements is the struggle for the free energy of the system."

"Each bush, each weed you see out there in the erg," she said, "how do you suppose it lives when we leave it? Each is planted most tenderly in its own little pit. The pits are filled with smooth ovals of chromoplastic. Light turns them white...But when Old Father Sun departs, the chromoplastic reverts to transparency in the dark. It cools with extreme rapidity. The surface condenses moisture out of the air. That moisture trickles down to keep our plants alive."

And lastly, from Larry Niven's Ringworld:

He took the holo print and looked into it.

At first it made no sense at all, but he kept looking, waiting for it to resolve. There was a small, intensely white disk that might have been a sun, G0 or K9 or K8, with a shallow chord sliced off along a straight black edge. But the blazing object could not have been a sun. Partially behind it, against a space-black background, was a strip of sky blue. The blue strip was perfectly straight, sharp-edged, solid, and artificial, and wider than the lighted disc.

"Looks like a star with a hoop around it," said Louis. "What is it?"


Sometime during these past hours, Louis had found a way to visualize the scale of the Ringworld.

It involved a Mercator projection of the planet Earth--a common, rectangular, classroom wall map--but with the equator drawn to one-to-one scale...But one could draw forty such maps, edge to edge, across the width of the Ringworld.


In suchwise, gifted science fiction writers convey a "sense of wonder," either about the nature of the universe, alien artifacts, or humanity's own future creations. Through simple but elegant gifts of prose, writers like Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven entertain, but also teach.

No comments: