With each new breakthrough, I feel Dad return to me. The joy he would have felt, the unbridled happiness of seeing us deepen our understanding of this ever astonishing universe
The line between science fiction and science fact is rarely concrete. Indeed, the two camps regularly serve to inspire one another. Novelist and screenwriter Nick Sagan has a unique grounding in both of these areas. As the son of the late NASA astronomer Carl Sagan and artist and writer Linda Salzman, it is perhaps no surprise that Sagan chose to pursue a career as a writer of science fiction.
Sagan, whose writing credits include the novels Idlewild
, and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation
and Star Trek: Voyager
, explains why blurring the line between fact and fiction can bring about extraordinary consequences…One could argue that the work of your parents had a pronounced influence on your choice of career. How big a role did your natural inclinations play in this process?
I don't know the answer to this question but the idea that I'm most driven by their influence may be the easier argument to make. Dad instilled a fascination with the big questions that drive science and science fiction. Mom instilled a passion for storytelling. When I was little, they'd throw dinner parties, so I got to meet influential scientists and science fiction writers at an impressionable age. Then, right before I turned seven, Voyager 1 and 2 blasted off to explore the cosmos, carrying the Golden Records, which carried – among many terrestrial sights, sounds and greetings – a message from me for any potential extraterrestrial to encounter: "Hello from the children of planet Earth."
Looking back, it's logical that I'd take the path I have. Had either of my parents tried to push me into the field, I'd likely have rebelled. But they were very supportive.
Very often I found myself frustrated by my schooling: too much emphasis on rote memorisation and not enough on actual learning. Creative writing was a natural escape for me – I read and wrote and played games whenever I could. This helped prepare me for my career in ways I couldn't anticipate at the time.Do you find space science as captivating today as you did during your youth?
More so now than ever before. Honestly, I don't see how someone with even a passing interest in space science wouldn't be captivated by this amazing time in which we're lucky enough to live.
Take exoplanets. When I was 10 years old, happily rolling up random worlds for science fiction role-playing games, the existence of actual planets beyond our solar system were theoretical and unconfirmed; now we understand there to be tens of billions in our galaxy alone. Somewhere around half a billion of those worlds fall into the 'Goldilocks Zone', where a planet is just the right range from its sun for liquid water to potentially exist. It's thrilling to live at a time where the work being done has meaningful implications for the big questions of the human experience. 'Are we the only intelligent life in the cosmos?' is such an exciting question but of course so is, 'How did the universe begin?' Soon, the next generation of space telescopes will peer farther back in time than we ever have before, revealing the earliest stars and galaxies. That will be astounding. And it's astounding to think that our visible universe only accounts for 4 per cent of what's out there.
With each new breakthrough, I feel Dad return to me. The joy he would have felt, the unbridled happiness of seeing us deepen our understanding of this ever astonishing universe.What contemporary developments have you found most exciting?
Dark energy is over 70 per cent of the universe and we only discovered its existence in 1998. This blows my mind. Especially given how my father passed away in 1996. To think what he'd make of recent cosmological discoveries. Or what he'd have to say about what the James Webb space telescope will reveal.
I'm equally thrilled by our explorations into the 'dark matter of the genome'. The Broad Institute's '29 Mammals Project' has pinpointed the vast majority of these mysterious sequences of code, which moves us an important step closer to deciphering crucial information about disease mechanisms, how genetic changes are sparked by illness. Combine that good news with the success MIT scientists have had deploying nanoparticles against ovarian cancer cells in mice. We may soon have a cancer-fighting tool as effective as chemotherapy but without chemo's excruciating side effects.
Are we up to the challenge of using this knowledge safely, responsibly and ethically? That's the subject matter that most captures my imagination. In this coming flood of emerging technologies, can we rise above our history? Can we get our act together and triumph over our genetic propensity toward selfishness and violence?
Perhaps it's a question for neuroscience, which tantalises with advances in brain-computer interfaces and the compelling work at Berkeley that may someday lead to the recording of dreams. There's a distant but increasingly foreseeable day when we'll come to know all there is to know about the brain: perhaps by the end of the century as Ray Kurzweil has predicted. Once there, we'll have the chance to outwit death itself, preserving the totality of our minds safely to computers as if they were saved games.
Worrisome philosophical implications to virtual immortality aside, it's astounding that we've found a potentially workable technological means of accomplishing something so profound. Still, we've a long way to go and given our troubling history, don't we have reason to wonder if we'll ever get there? As Dad said, "There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours rush inevitably into self-destruction. I dream about it…and sometimes they are bad dreams."What role does research play in your personal approach to writing?
Essential. And yet it requires moderation. Goal #1 is to avoid a 'so little research I've gotten something important wrong' scenario. Goal #2 is to avoid a 'so much research I've become mired in creative stagnation' scenario. I aim for the sweet spot in-between too little and too much, a sometimes elusive target.How important do you think it is for science fiction to be grounded in science fact?
It's more important to me that science fiction come in many flavours. Hard science fiction is praiseworthy for its attention to scientific detail but a comprehensive discussion of spacetime geometry isn't necessary to enjoy Doc Brown getting Marty McFly back to the future. This is a genre with many subgenres; it's perfectly fine for differing emphases on scientific accuracy.
That said it's usually not a good idea to strain plausibility to the point that suspension of disbelief becomes impossible for large sections of the audience. I remember the exasperated sound my father made upon watching Han Solo brag that the Millennium Falcon could complete the Kessel Run in "less than 12 parsecs". A parsec is a unit of distance not time, he explained. I said, "Dad, it's just a movie". He nodded and said, "Yes, but they can afford to get the science right".Do you believe that science fiction can inspire practical innovation in reality, or are the two best kept separate?
Modern rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard might never have gone into his field if not for his fascination with the alien invasion of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Likewise, the Martian adventures of John Carter kindled my father's passion for space science back when he was an impressionable eight year old. It's rare to find professionals in science and technology who haven't been meaningfully influenced by some manner of science fiction. I think science fiction often doesn't get its proper due, considering how regularly the genre helps manifest new scientists and engineers by exposing young minds to thought provoking ideas and attractive (or cautionary) articulations of tomorrow. And it goes beyond mere recruiting: look at how many of today's innovations were once the province of science fiction, such as the Star Trek communicator helping to inspire the mobile phone. Imagining what could be is an inherently useful pastime, even when practiced by those without strong scientific backgrounds, as was the case with the great Jules Verne. This is our future. We create it together. Leave no voice out.Do you think that science fiction has a role to play in stimulating the public's interest in science as a subject?
Science fiction plays that role naturally but can only do so much. It's certainly no substitute for robustly funded STEM education programmes.What has been your greatest achievement to date?
Continuing to challenge myself creatively. Not becoming complacent. I've been fortunate enough to win some very inspiring praise thus far; I'll keep refining my craft and work to become the best writer I can.Who or what inspires you?
Courage, ingenuity, passion, compassion, sacrifice and all the great values at the heart of the scientific method. Somewhat paradoxically, the storytelling I most enjoy tends to explore darker themes.What are your plans for the future?
March 13th and 20th at 10pm, I'll be on Science [TV channel] for a show called Alien Encounters
. We explore what it might be like to receive a message from an extraterrestrial civilization. Should be fun. This programme is part of the 'Are We Alone?' multimedia initiative the Science Channel is undertaking with SETI and TED. Beyond the exciting new television gig, I'm working on a couple of writing projects I hope to be able to talk about before terribly long. You can follow all of my activities on Twitter (@nicksagan)
and on my blog