Monthly Archives: August 2011

Creating A Better Narrative: Sacrificing the Science?

Image by Framestore CFC, used in “Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets” (BBC, 2004)
(thanks to Max Champion for identifying the source of this image)

Second in a series of posts from guest writer Joi Weaver 
in preparation for NaNoWriMo.

The common wisdom in creating stories about real science is: don’t. You either lose your audience or deal with scientists who ridicule your story as unrealistic or dumbed-down. For example, see every movie about Mars for the past 50 years. Is there anything in there that is both dramatically compelling and acceptably scientifically accurate?

Is this divide necessary, or have we just not told the right stories in the right way yet? Imagine if realistic science fiction about space colonization started outselling vampire romances? It’s completely possible, but only if we start creating narratives that can capture the imagination and flood the market. We don’t have to sacrifice the science, but the narrative must be compelling. When the general public is more interesting in supernatural romances and pirate stories, we don’t have the luxury of being science snobs.

I believe the problem is simply that we haven’t yet told enough of the right stories in the right way. The movie Apollo 13 demonstrated that people do care about science-heavy stories, as long as the drama is compelling. (Lest you doubt that Apollo 13 is science-based, think of the time spent in the movie explaining to the audience about the equipment inside the command module and re-entry angles.) This isn’t limited to historical accounts, either. Give an average sci-fi fan a copy of Red Mars and see what happens.

But for now, let me take as an example the book Roving Mars by Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator for the MER mission. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. After you’ve read it, give it to someone who thinks the human presence in space ended with the shuttle program.

Squyres brilliantly dramatizes the science in Roving Mars. Enough detail is given about the construction and function of the major components of the Mars Exploration Rovers to enable the reader to feel anxiety when a part breaks or refuses to function as intended, or a deadline creeps closer during testing. The difficulties in getting funding and approval from NASA play out more like office dramas than anything on NASA TV: and who hasn’t had trouble getting their boss to understand their pet project?

The majority of the book discusses the time prior to the launch of the rovers: the first third is simply getting approval for the mission! A sense of frustration as the mission meets delays, obstacles, and budget issues is palpable, but it never slows the narrative. There’s plenty of science to be found in Roving Mars: basic descriptions of the equipment on board, explanations of the conditions the spacecraft have to endure, and information about technological problems that occurred during testing. It’s far from “dumbed-down.”

What Squyres does brilliantly in this story is use science to create a narrative to which readers can relate. His description of PANCAM isn’t there to show how cool the tech is, it’s there so the audience will understand why it’s an important piece of equipment and what the stakes would be if it were lost. The same goes for the solar panels, the Mossbauer, and most of the payload.

As good as Roving Mars is, however, it’s not enough. Space geeks often fall prey to the temptation of looking for a “silver bullet,” a cultural artifact strong enough to improve the public’s view of space exploration with a single blow. The silver bullet doesn’t exist. Changing public perception is more like Chinese Water Torture: one little drop at a time. We don’t need a better Roving Mars, we need hundreds more like it.

How do we get those hundreds of stories? When we start creating them. See part 3 of this series next month for more ideas on how to do that.


Feng Zhu School of Design: Inspiration for Concept Artists

Concept designs depicting Lockheed Martin’s Orion and SpaceX’s ‘Red Dragon’. 
(If artists responsible for rendering these images would please contact us we would love to feature posts dedicated to your work: )

A fantastic resource from which even professionals can glean tips is the YouTube channel to which concept designer Feng Zhu generously posts many tutorials:

Just please no depictions of guns, monsters, or shiny Battlestar Gallactica vehicles…
Check out our “Guide to Mars Positive Art

The Importance of the Narrative: Tell Them a Story

(First in a series of contributions from our guest author Joi Weaver)

I’m sure we’ve all had the same experience. Caught up in the excitement of a new Mars mission, or a new photo from the surface, or even a new bit of tech that could help in the colonization of the Red Planet, you look up to find the person you’ve been talking to staring at you with glazed eyes. Your heart sinks as you realize, they just don’t get it.

How do we help people see what is exciting about space exploration in general, and Mars exploration in particular? I believe it boils down to one simple thing: it’s all about the narrative.

The early space missions had a story that anyone could grasp: we were sending men to the moon! It was dangerous! It was exciting! It was putting our country in the forefront of science! This narrative kept public attention and support for the space program high through the Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo missions.

But it fell short, ultimately resulting in an early cancellation of Apollo and hamstringing all future NASA spaceflight. Why? No-one ever developed a new narrative. “We’ve beaten the Russians to the moon,” most people thought, “isn’t that the end of the story?”

Of course it’s not the end. But you wouldn’t know that to talk to the average person-on-the-streets. Many people believe the shuttle was capable of lunar landings and had no idea the whole shuttle program was coming to an end until a few months ago. NASA, for all its media presence, failed to provide a new narrative. In the post-Challenger era, NASA decided to stress the safety of spaceflight, despite the fact that it is the riskiest human endeavor possible. NASA TV became little more than clean-cut men and women floating in a sterile environment, smiling as they talked in acronyms that meant nothing to the public: it was very safe, but it was terrible story-telling.

What does this mean for Mars?

Mars is still a blank slate in the public mind. Some of the more well-informed people may know about the rovers, but that’s about it. This is an opportunity. We can still set the narrative for Mars, and more importantly, learn from NASA’s mistake: the story can’t just be about getting there, or we may never go back after the first trip.

A narrative is almost never set by a single person; rather, it’s a hundred little stories that slowly take root in the heart and mind of the people, gradually changing the way we see the world. No-one can say that the MER program happened because Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles. But would it have happened, or happened in the same way, if he hadn’t written it? Where would the space program be without Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, and a hundred others who fanned our desire to explore?

It’s time to start creating the narrative for Mars, to show the Red Planet as we know it: a place of danger, beauty, and adventure. A place that could, eventually, become home.

In May, I began a work of fiction, a blog purportedly written by the first private colonists on Mars. Though the characters I’ve developed may write about the weather conditions, the  environment, and the technical difficulties of living on the planet, they also write about what it is like to make Mars home, how it feels to live on the new frontier, and what this colony means for humanity. These characters are creating a narrative for Mars that goes far beyond the race to land on the surface. They are finding a way for people to think of Mars as “home.”

The frontier is open. Let’s start telling the stories.