Imagining Different Worlds: Science, Ethics, and Faith in Science Fiction

In this recording of the 2020 holiday lecture and discussion, Br. Guy Consolmagno and Dr. Nnedi Okorafor discuss how intersections of science, ethics, and faith in imagined worlds might inform humanity’s present and future.

Imagining Different Worlds

Science, Ethics, and Faith in Science Fiction

Video Transcript:

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman: Hello, I would like to welcome you to today’s event. My name is Jennifer Wiseman. I’m the director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Today’s event: “Imagining Different Worlds: Science, Ethics, and Faith in Science Fiction.”

Science fiction is a portal of imagination where stories that involve forefront science and intriguing science questions come into juxtaposition of questions of human purpose, human values, ethics, morality, spirituality, religion. Science fiction is a wonderful platform and portal for discussing these great issues, dilemmas and opportunities in human life. And so what a perfect topic to discuss for our holiday lecture through the DoSER program. We have two outstanding speakers joining us today: Br. Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, planetary scientist, and speaker extraordinaire. I know you’ll enjoy hearing from him. And Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, Hugo and Nebula award winning author, as well as the winner of many, many other awards and recognitions for her writing and her creativity. We are so looking forward to both of these speakers today.

We invite you to stay connected with our DoSER program, our Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion within the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We’re active at, our website, our other websites, including the new one I just mentioned. We’re active on social media, and we hope you’ll sign up and check out our newsletter with a lot of information and opportunities there.

And with that, I’m going to hand it over to the DoSER Associate Director, Dr. Katharine Hinman. Katy Hinman knows much more about science fiction than I do, and she’s going to host the rest of this program and explain to you how it’s going to go. We hope you’ll hear it all and even participate with Q and A. So Katy, please welcome to the program.

Dr. Katy Hinman: So I want to start out by introducing Br. Guy Consolmagno. Br. Guy has a master’s in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. He took vows as a Jesuit brother in 1991 and was assigned to the Vatican Observatory in 1993, and he was named by Pope Francis to be the director of the Vatican Observatory in 2015. Br. Consolmagno’s research explores the connections between meteorites and asteroids and the origin and evolution of small bodies in the solar system. And in 2000, he was honored by the International Astronomical Union for his contributions to the study of meteorites and asteroids with the naming of asteroid 4597 Consolmagno. He has authored or co-authored several scientific and popular books, including his most recent book with Paul Mueller, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?… And Other Questions from the Astronomers’ Inbox at the Vatican Observatory. He’s also a science fiction fan and has given several talks on the intersections of science, religion, and science fiction. So we are delighted to welcome Br. Guy Consolmagno.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: Thank you all for coming here. And if you want to know more about the Vatican Observatory, just Google us. That’s the easiest way to do it.

What I want to talk about in my 10 minutes is just the connection in my own personal life between science, science fiction, and ethics.

Science fiction made me a scientist. And I don’t think I’m unusual among scientists in saying that. But it was very literally true in this case because I had gone to a Jesuit high school in Detroit. I knew the Jesuits. I went to a Jesuit university for a year, Boston College, but I was not happy there. I didn’t fit in. I was a nerd. Meanwhile, my best friend from high school was at MIT. And so I’d visit him on the weekends, and I discovered that MIT had weekend movies and pinball machines and tunnels that you could explore in the middle of the night. And best of all, it had the world’s largest collection, open-shelf collection, of science fiction. So in order to read science fiction, I tried to dream up some way that somebody who had not been even thinking about being a scientist could transfer into MIT.
For the interview, I told them I was going to be a science journalist, and that was the flavor of the day. So they tried to convince me, “Oh, we need you to come here.” I didn’t say anything about science fiction. And I applied to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, not even knowing what the department was, because planets are places where people have adventures in my science fiction books.

When I got there, I discovered it was that geology department. What could be more boring than geology, staring at rocks? Except that I discovered that there are rocks that fall out of the sky from outer space, from the asteroid belt, as we now know, even from some planets and you could actually hold space in your hands. They’re called meteorites. And I have been passionate about meteorites ever since.

One of the great things that I got to do when I was there was to work on a project, a big computer model, this was 45 years ago, trying to understand the moons of Jupiter. And this work carried through so that in 1979, when the first images of Io, the inner-most of the major moons of Jupiter, came back with these incredible orange splotches, I knew what I was looking at because as a science fiction fan, I’d read a book by Hal Clement called Iceworld. And the ice in Iceworld is sulfur. His characters were aliens who had come to Earth, and they normally breathe sulfur the way that you and I would breathe oxygen, it’s after all just one notch down in the periodic table. And the idea that sulfur could be thought of as a gas immediately gave me the idea for a paper that wound up getting published in Science called you know, Sulfur Volcanoes on Io. Science fiction led me to science as a career and even led me to some published science.

The problem was this: I had originally had thoughts of, you know, doing something useful with my life rather than being a scientist. And by the time I was 30 years old, I was a postdoctoral fellow back at MIT and five years as a postdoc at Harvard and MIT meant I couldn’t get a real job. And worse than that, I’d lie in bed at night wondering, “Why am I doing astronomy when people are starving in the world?” And I didn’t have an answer.

So I quit astronomy thinking I’d never go back to it. And I joined the US Peace Corps. And I said, “I’ll go anywhere you want me to go, do anything you asked me to do.” So they sent me to Africa, they sent me to Kenya. And for two years I was in Kenya doing what they asked me to do, which was teaching astrophysics to graduate students at the University of Nairobi, which I thought, you know, I could’ve done that back in Boston. Why did I need to?

Except every weekend I would go up country where all my fellow Peace Corps volunteers were, and I took this little telescope with me. And we set up the telescope and everybody in the village would come and look through the telescope, and they’d see the craters in the moon and they’d go, “wow.” And they’d see the moons of Jupiter and they’d go, “wow.” And they’d see the rings of Saturn and they go, “wow!” And I’m thinking, this is exactly the way that I react when I look at these things. This is the way people back in Michigan, where I grew up, react. Because this is the way that human beings react.

You know, I had a very clever cat in those days, but my cat number wanted to look through the telescope. And that’s when I remembered that phrase that we do not live by bread alone. As human beings, we also have to feed our imaginations. We have to feed our sense of wonder. We have to feed those questions that ask: “Who are we?”, “What are we doing here?”, and “Why are we doing things more than just feeding ourselves?” And to deny somebody the chance to do that just because they were born in the wrong continent or the wrong time is to deny them their humanity. But to be able to say “this is an adventure that we all share” reminds us that this is an adventure we all share it because we are all sharing in our human nature.

I came back to America, got a job teaching at a small college, Lafayette College, enjoyed that so much I joined the Jesuits thinking, going to be teaching at a Jesuit school, but instead they forced me to go to Rome and eat that terrible food and look at that boring scenery and, oh yeah, take care of a thousand meteorites.

Well, the last thing I want to bring up and the last point in the minutes I have left is to remind you of something that we astronomy is called the cosmological principle. Ever since Newton noticed that the falling apple followed the same laws as the moon falling around the Earth, we’ve understood that the rules of physics and chemistry are the same on Earth as they are on the moon, as they are in the planets, as they are in the stars and the galaxies. And that principle allows us to use our science to understand the physical universe.

I say, if we have interesting creatures – creatures with intellect and free will, creatures who are aware that they exist and that you exist, and that can make choices about whether to steal your food or offer you food, to do good or to do evil – that also is a cosmological principle that allows science fiction to occur. Science fiction is the medium we can use to make thought experiments, to test ideas of how we live and how we ought to be living with each other. Science fiction is not about some galaxy far away, long ago. Science fiction is actually about the person writing the story at the time the story is written. And you can see the concerns of the 50’s in the books of Cordwainer Smith. You can see the concerns of the 70’s in the books of Marion Zimmer Bradley. You can see how our ideas of who we are change as our science fiction changes.

But science fiction is also a time traveler going forward at one second per second. So it’s also about the time in which it is read. And science fiction read today written in the past is going to be encountered in a way very different from what the author may have intended. And that too allows us to be time travelers going to the past.

I got my love of science fiction among other places from my father. And my father, late in his life, he lived to be a hundred, he was an enormous fan of Connie Willis and especially the books, the time travel books, where her characters time travel back to England in WWII. My dad was in England in WWII, and he loved reading those books with a smile saying to me, or to himself, “You know, I’m a time traveler too.”

Dr. Katy Hinman: Thank you so much, Br. Guy. And now it’s my honor to introduce Dr. Nnedi Okorafor.

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American author of Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism. She writes for both children and adults. Her works include Who Fears Death, the Binti novella trilogy, The Book of Phoenix, the Akata books, and Lagoon. Her most recent book Ikenga is her first novel for middle grade readers. She’s the winner of Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus, and Lodestar awards. Her debut novel Zahrah the Wind Seeker won the prestigious Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. Dr. Okorafor has also written comics for Marvel, including Black Panther: Long Live the King, Wakanda Forever, and the Shuri series, as well as an Africanfuturist comic series from Dark Horse called LaGuardia, which won Eisner and Hugo awards this year. Her work often uses the framework of science fiction, fantasy and futurism to explore social issues from racial and gender inequality to environmental degradation. She holds a master’s degree in journalism and a master’s and PhD in literature. And she lives with her daughter and family and a Twitter famous cat in Illinois.

So we’ve asked Dr. Okorafor to give us an introduction to some of her work as we jump off into his conversation. Welcome, Dr. Nnedi Okorafor.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Thank you so much, and thank you for having me. The title of this this event today is so perfect. Imagining different worlds, science fiction, ethics and faith in science fiction. I mean, these are themes that I’m always, that I’m really concerned with.

And so what I want to do, I first want to define what is, you know, Africanfuturism, which is different from Afrofuturism, and then also, what is Africanjujuism because I think these things are important. They’re very integral to what I do.

First, Africanfuturism. And I’m just going to read this because I wrote this definition because I want it to get everything very clear. So I always read it as opposed to just speak it. Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and point of view, as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West. Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the Earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent, Black people, and is rooted first and foremost in Africa. It’s less concerned with what could have been and more concerned with what can and will be. It acknowledges and grapples with and carries what has been. So that’s Africanfuturism.

Africanjujuism, my definition is much shorter. Africanjujuism is a sub-category of fantasy. Africanfuturism is science fiction. So Africanjujuism is a sub-category of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.

So these are definitions that I came up with after I’d written them for years, because I just felt that it was necessary for me to define what it is that I was doing, so it could be properly understood. And so the way that I came into writing this is very interesting because I feel like it started long before I started writing stories.

I started writing stories, I started writing creatively, when I was 20. And before that I’d never written anything creatively, I’d never thought to. But I did read a lot of books. I just loved anything that had a good story, I would get into.

But what’s also interesting is that for me, I didn’t grow up reading a lot of science fiction. And the reason for that is because I felt like whenever I would pick up a science fiction novel, it just had this feeling of not being accessible to me. And the reason was – it wasn’t that I needed to see reflections of myself in the story, I didn’t – but I needed to feel like there was a possibility that I would exist in those worlds, and I did not feel that way. And so, and like these aren’t things that like, when I was growing up where I thought these things directly. There were just things I intuitively knew.

So because of that, instead of reading a lot of science fiction – like my first exposure to Isaac Asimov was not by his science fiction, it was by his science books. I read a lot of his science books. I loved his science books. But yeah, so instead of reading these science fiction books, I would migrate to stories that had where the main character was not human, you know, because I felt like I had more in common with the creature, the animal, the alien, than the human being. That’s how inaccessible science fiction felt to me growing up. So I didn’t grow up reading a lot of it.

First of all, I’ll talk about how I started writing Africanjujuism first because Africanjujuism came first for me. Both of my parents are Nigerian immigrants. They came to this country in 1969. When they came here, you know, they ended up staying here because of the civil war that broke out, the Biafran Civil War. And so I ended up being born here with my siblings.

Now, once the war was over, my parents reconnected with our relatives. Instead of, you know, doing that thing where, you know, you become American, you just assimilate and you just kind of you move forward and you don’t go back, my parents were very much about going back and moving forward at the same time. So they were taking my siblings and I back, or my siblings and me, back to Nigeria to reconnect with family, get to know relatives, and also get to know our heritage, that we were Igbo, both of my parents were Igbo.

And so during these trips, it was like – and this was before I was writing, so I wasn’t mining information, I wasn’t researching – I was just interested. So during these trips, I would listen, you know, I was always interested in those things that were considered to be taboo and not discussed, those things that colonialism, and this is something I’ve found out later, of course, but those things that colonialism had suppressed, colonialism also Christianity for the Igbo people had suppressed. And so I was really interested in those things, and I wanted to know more, and the way that I would learn wasn’t by asking, because a lot of times when you’d ask those things were considered taboo, and you wouldn’t be able to, and you know, that would be the dead end. They’d be like, “Okay, you don’t ask about that.”

So I would listen. And that’s how I started learning about various Igbo cosmologies and mythologies and cultural things that were fascinating to me. You know, just utterly fascinating. So that was really where it began. I just had this ear for it and I would, you know, my sisters were the same way. So we’d always talk about these things in play, “Oh my gosh, the masquerades,” and “Oh, did you hear about this?” And so we’d talk about these things growing up. And then once I started writing, those things came forth immediately because I felt like in writing literature, I could explore those things that I wasn’t supposed to talk about. I could explore them with a freedom that I did not have prior to writing fiction.

Now, with Africanfuturism, the science fictional aspect of what I was writing, it was interesting because that came later. First, it started with looking at these spiritualities that were, these spiritualities and cosmologies that I was not supposed to know, especially being Nigerian-American, and finding them and being obsessed with them.

And then as I got older, I started like, I started focusing and noticing technology. So it was like, the first, the first major thing where cell phones. Cell phones started appearing, and they were appearing in really interesting ways. And there are two examples that I always give.

First one was whenever we would go to visit, we’d stay first in Lagos and then, which is very modern and big city, and then we would stay in Imo States. And we would stay in my father and my mother’s ancestral villages, where they’d had these huge, beautiful homes, but they wouldn’t have running water or electricity. So you’d need a generator and people would have to bring water from the stream. So when cell phones came along, I noticed the girls who would usually bring the water from the stream, they’d carry it on their heads, which is a very traditional image, that when they would come, when cell phones came along, they would bring the same water, and it’d be sloshing a little bit on their heads, but they’d be holding their cell phones away so that their cell phones wouldn’t get wet.

And then I also noticed they have something called palm wine, which is a wine that is made from palm sap. And men would have to climb these trees using these leather belts kind of things, and they’d lean back, and then they would collect the little bucket of palm sap. And I started noticing these palm tappers going up in the tree and then they’d lean back to talk on their cell phones. So I just started noticing like this, this portable, rechargeable tech that was showing up. And then I started and I started imagining, I’m like, “Okay, so this place that has like these super modern homes that don’t have running water or electricity, like the infrastructure isn’t there, and then there’s the cell phones that are just everything. Like a cell phone is a small computer that makes you able to do just a lot of different things. What would these places be like in the future?” I just started thinking about it. I’m like, “Man, this is fascinating.” And I realized that I wasn’t seeing that in stories.

And that’s what led me to start writing this Africanfuturism, because I wanted to see it. I wanted to explore it. And I knew that, you know, there was just so much story there. There was just so much to unpack and to explore. So yeah, that’s really how I started to write what I write, and it’s been an interesting thing because the Africanjujuism and the Africanfuturism, there’s like, it’s not that they’re – they’re certainly not interchangeable, but like this idea of writing a story that is set in a future that… And also there’s the idea of worldview, and worldview affecting the type of science fiction that you write because they’re traditionally, especially in the West, there’s a belief that science fiction and fantasy are supposed to be separate. In other words, the mystical and the magical cannot be in a science fiction narrative. And that’s one very specific type of worldview because if you look at African worldviews and other worldviews of the world, the idea of the magical and the mystical coexisting with the mundane, it’s just, that’s the way you see the world. So if you take that way of thinking, and then you move that into the future, then you are going to have science fiction that naturally has these elements in it where they’re not conflicting with themselves. So when I think of, you know, Africanjujuism and Africanfuturism and how they play with each other, it’s been really, really interesting.

So, yeah, I’ll stop, but that’s what I do.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Thank you so much, Dr. Okorafor. And Br. Guy, I’d like to invite you to turn your camera back on. And I just like to start a little bit of conversation about this. And one of the things that I noted, actually, you both kind of talked about this, Br. Guy, you specifically talked about science fiction as being this kind of time traveler. And to me, that resonated, Dr. Okorafor, with what you were saying about this kind of mix of technology and tradition that you were seeing the cell phones. And I wonder if you could both talk a little bit more about the ways in which you see this being done well and maybe not so well in the realm of science fiction, this kind of bridging of times and helping us to see our present through the lens of the future, and maybe even our past through the lens of the future.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: Well, I’ll give a little start. I’m sure Nnedi’s got more to say on this. With the example of a book by John Brunner, the Stand on Zanzibar. It was written in the late 60’s, and it was set in 2010. So to read it in 2010 or 2020 is fascinating because he has different words, but what he talks about in many cases is very real. And I hated the book in the early 70’s when I first read it, because it was so depressing. Oh my gosh. The future is going to be horrible. And an awful lot of what he said has come true. It’s fascinating to see how this influx of instant knowledge – they get the internet sort of news constantly in your face is there. Other things, the way he describes it makes it sound very quaint until you realize that he really is describing our modern society in a way that we don’t like to admit is the way we live it. And that to me is the power of science fiction because it allows us to take ideas we don’t want to talk about and push them off to a distant world, a distant planet, a distant time when, in fact, they’re really the very concepts, the very things that we’re worried about now.

Nnedi’s description of the confluence of very modern technology and very old technology. She was talking about the Nigerian situation. I was in Kenya, which was a very different culture, very different country, and yet, and also a very different time because I was there in the 80’s. And yet that was certainly a theme that I saw over and over again. That, you know, at times you didn’t know, “Am I in 1870 or 2010?”

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, that whole idea of like the past and the present. And yeah, I’ve been to Nairobi and felt that way, you know, just kind of taking that in.

And then also you made me think about Dubai as well. Dubai has that past in print, like this idea of the past, present, and future all coexisting at the same time. That’s something I, you know, that’s something that I’ve always found fascinating and it’s something that I kind of believe in, where the past influenced the future and influences the present, all of it. Like all of it’s kind of bouncing off of each other. And so that’s something, you know, that’s, that’s always been at the forefront for me, thematically.

I think when you brought up the time travel, though, the first thing I thought of was Octavia Butler. You know, I’m adapting one of her books for a TV series. So Octavia is very much in the forefront of my brain all the time. And so I’m adapting Wild Seed. So one thing about like, so I thought about Wild Seed and Kindred, those two. You know, of course Kindred is literally time travel in a literal way, but Wild Seed also. And what I love about Wild Seed is that this idea of time and so like, Oh God, how can I describe this?

Okay, so Wild Seed is, I’m not even going to call it science fiction or fantasy. I don’t know, it’s speculative fiction, probably the only speculative fiction that looks at the transatlantic slave trade in a way that links up the past, present, and the future all at the same time through two African characters who are immortal. And they live through the whole thing. So they pull, like, it’s almost like they’re tying it all together. They’re connecting it all because, like, in a non-speculative narrative, you can’t have the same character living that long you know, over hundreds of years. And so therefore gathering all of these experiences and memory, like, from literally being there all the way through. Of taking these topics that we’ve dealt with for, you know, where we know it, ad nauseum. We know, we know it well, it’s been discussed into the ground and it just turns it on its head and makes it new where you can now revisit it in a way that’s fresh. That’s what, you know, and I wouldn’t just say science fiction only does it. It’s speculative fiction as a whole tends to do, and I think that Wild Seed and Kindred are two really good examples.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: One thing that comes up when we talk about time is an insight I got from the famous book by John Beatty on, I’d had to look up the title cause I can never remember, African Religions and Philosophy. And he talks about time there for the African context, not as a line, but as two places. There’s the eternal now that we live in and there is a historic past that the elders lived in and have traveled from to our present time.

And number one, it reminds you of that the way we think of time is in some ways a construct, it doesn’t have to be thought of that way. Number two, it makes it really challenging to teach traditional physics to a group of people who have this in the back of their minds.

I was attempting to teach special relativity to a university class, just an introduction. And so I wanted to give the famous twin paradox. You know, you’re in a spaceship, one twin stays home, the other twins travels at near the speed of light, comes home. One’s older than the other. How did that happen? Why is that a paradox or not? So I start by, you know, giving a couple of things on special relativity. No reaction from my class.

So I say, all right, well, let’s pretend it’s the year 2000 and we can travel. And the entire class broke out laughing because the thought of imagining yourself at a different time evoked laughter as a kind of a nervous laughter because it was not the way that they normally think of things. That sense of how we can think of time and start thinking of parallel times turns out to be useful in physics. But I think it’s really useful in terms of our spirituality.

One of the great problems that Father Georges Lemaitre had when he came up with the Big Bang theory was people thought, “Oh, you’re just doing that to reinvent, you know, God creating the universe only 13 billion years ago.” And he says, “No, the creation occurs outside of space and time. How can you even imagine the concept of outside of space and time, if that’s your cosmology, time is linear spaces linear?”

Dr. Katy Hinman: Well, and it occurs to me that, you know, some of this that we’re talking about, the way that science fiction helps us to kind of time travel and understand things, you know, things from the past in our present time and things for the future, in some ways is how a lot of religion and spirituality functions. You know, there is a view, I think in a lot of Western religions, at least of this kind of fixed scripture, fixed doctrine and everything. But in reality, for most people, the lived experience of religion and spirituality is bringing these ideas and these approaches with us in time. Applying them in new situations that are not addressed in, you know, historical scriptures or in the traditions that we carry forward. So I wonder if y’all could talk a little bit about where you see those parallels.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: I mean, well, the first thing that I thought of was about oral storytelling and how it evolves. It evolves over. How it’s different from the written word and how it, as it’s passed along, it evolves to suit the time. Like it evolves a suit the time and the place, but there’s always the kernel of it that stays true, you know, and that’s something, you know, I definitely have played around with that idea. And it does kind of beg the idea of the influence of time on memory, on memory and story and how that, you know, what that does. And that’s something that like, I’ve definitely I’ve played around with. That idea of which is more valuable, the written fixed word or the orally told narratives.

And, like, the answer that I came up, because you think that, you know, because I love writing, I’d be like, “Oh, written word, of course! It’s stable. And you write it, it’s there, and it doesn’t, it lives forever. It lives forever.”

But like, I don’t know. I mean, this idea of the spoken word traveling, the spoken word time travels. And it stays true and it shifts, but it still stays true to itself. And which is truer, something that has been set and does not change over time because it’s been written down or the orally told stories?

So like, and I’ve had like two, yeah, two of my novels are novels that are spoken. You know, so it’s like, I was playing with that idea. And you can’t really speak a whole novel, but you know, it’s like, but you kind of can. So it is kind of playing with that idea. But yeah, that’s definitely the idea of like the influence of time on a story on a narrative versus it being written down is something that I’ve… But I really can’t say that I’ve come up with where I’ve settled on an answer to that. It’s just something that I still play with because I think there’s value in that play.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: There is in Swahili, and, of course, we could go into what different languages do to the way you’re think and the way you tell stories, in Swahili, there is in the verbs “a once upon a time” tense. It’s not past, it’s not present, it’s not future. It’s the tense you use when you’re telling a story. And to me, that’s fascinating.

The importance of understanding story is essential if you’re going to understand scripture because most scripture started as story and was written down. And most scripture is written for a culture where people aren’t going to remember. They’re not going to have the written word to go back and refer to. So you have to have stories with hooks. It’s the same problem that Nnedi has writing her novels. You’ve got to make people turn the page. You could have all the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have them turn on the pages, then why did you write it?

So one of the things, you know, this time of year, I get, especially with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn this month, I’ve gotten more requests and I want about the Star of Bethlehem, and I’m not going to say anything about the Star of Bethlehem – I’m sick of it – except to say here’s a perfect example of a modern Western view, trying to dissect two very vague references in a beautiful story rather than saying “this is a beautiful story that has captured our imagination.”

Dr. Katy Hinman: One of the things that that kind of brings up for me is, you know, we think of story and in some ways, religion and spirituality, as ways of, you know, understanding and interpreting our world. Of course, science is a way of understanding and interpreting our world as well. How do you find these things approached similarly or differently, the way we understand and interpret through science versus the way we understand and interpret through story? Are they just asking completely different questions? Is there some overlap? How do we apply these ways of understanding?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: Well, I’ll take this one first. Give you some time to come up with a good answer.

But I think they’re very similar because science is storytelling. Science is describing what we saw in terms of the cosmology we already have, the assumptions about how the universe ought to be working, and here’s how it’s all playing out.

The structure of a scientific paper is the same as the structure of a good novel. You lay it out. You described the conflict. You come up with the clever idea that got me to write the paper. You end up with the denouement, why this matters, what this means. And then at the end, you take your breath and you go, here’s why I need more money to carry on the research. And those are the five classic things of Aristotle, of how know a story should be told.

But more than that, both science and story have to be true. You can be a mathematician and invent a mathematics that has nothing to do with reality, but if it’s internally self-consistent, it’s beautiful. But story has to be true too. If you’re ready to have human beings, they better be human beings who are recognizably human beings, who will do what human beings really will do, not what you necessarily wanted them to do.

And if you’re following a scientific experiment, you may have had a great theory in the back of your mind when you set the experiment up, but you’d better report what actually happened and not throw away all the data points that don’t agree with your pre-assumed assumptions.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I completely agree with everything you just said. Because yeah, I was going to say exactly that. That science and storytelling are, I was going to just literally say, they’re the same. They’re the same, they are. And when I think about the way that I understand something, like the way that when I think about like, because I love microbiology and I love, you know, studying eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells and all that. I love all the details of that, the mitochondria, all the parts.

The way that I learned them is through narrative, like the best way. And narrative, it’s like the way that I not just learn, but understand. The way that I understand is through narrative.

And the same thing with mathematics, as well. Like I did that with, like, that was part of the foundation of my novella trilogy Binti, this idea of all things being mathematics. And like the in that I’ve found with understanding that was through narrative, the narrative of mathematics. Like, and it’s often a very beautiful, beautiful narrative.

And then also, yes, the idea that stories have to be, whether they’re science or fiction, they have to be true. And I can say that as a writer, there’s nothing that I’m writing where it is not true when I’m writing it. It has to be true for it to work, for me to be able to write the story, to write in such a way where the reader will want to turn the page, I have to believe what I’m writing. And I could write about an alien and a lizard creature who fall in love and then decide to rule the oceans. I have to believe that the alien and the lizard creature truly fall in love and they have these emotions. Everything about that. Like I have to believe it. It has to be true.

So yeah, whether it’s science or whether it’s fictional that element of truth is very necessary for it to be.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: I have a good friend who, maybe you’ve met her, Jo Walton, who’s written some wonderful science fiction, fantasy books. And at a convention, we were talking about another fantasy writer who I won’t mention, nobody here, and who is frustrating because he’s almost good. But there’s just something lacking in his stories that make me love them as much as I ought to. And she said exactly what you said, “The trouble is you get the feeling he doesn’t actually believe the stuff that he’s writing while writing it.”

And the same thing is true in science, of course. You actually have to believe that this theory, number one, is really going to work, and, number two, that it matters, that it’s worth spending my time. And if, at the end, you discover that it isn’t true, that makes it even better story. So you’re not afraid to say that.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Well, I will say I am ready to read the alien and the lizard ruling the ocean story. But also, it brought up for me – I know, Dr. Okorafor, that, at least back in the day, you were really interested in entomology, and, of course, Br. Guy, you study astronomy. These seem to be like very opposite ends of the, at least, size scale. But I’m interested in how your scientific interests – Have they, do you feel like your scientific interests have shaped your worldview and your understanding and how you approach the world?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: For me, it’s a fight not to have that happen because, especially in the culture we’re in, it’s very easy to lapse into a sloppy materialism, a 19th century materialism, which doesn’t even work in terms of the science itself. And that’s why I think, you know, having at the very least a love of science fiction and fantasy, but perhaps even deeper spirituality allows you to keep the science in its perspective so that you can trust it more in its perspective, knowing that you’re not asking it to do work that it’s not designed to do.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I think that like I’ve always been, from day one, I’ve always been really interested in, yes, entomology. I love bug. I find them absolutely fascinating. And you know, for so long, I thought that that was what I was going to study. I was sure of it. Everyone was sure of it.

And I also love microbiology as well. So like just the microscopic world, the small world has always been something. Because it’s weird. I’ve been trying to understand where that inclination comes from because it’s, you know, and I was saying this recently on Twitter that infinity goes both ways, you know?

So, like, I think that like going in – going in smaller, smaller, smaller – it just fascinates me. I mean, you look at a drop of pond water under a microscope. I can just do that for hours. Just looking at what lives there and what’s moving around and all of the action that’s happening in a small drop of pond water.

It’s just even that, like, philosophically that idea that so much life is happening in this small thing, in this small place that just, I’ve always been obsessed with that. And it definitely, you know, it definitely influences what I write. I mean, it’s like, gosh, the creatures.

And when you go, you just take the entomology to like the fantastical level. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been so much, I have so much fun with that. And then blending it with a lot of, you know, the Igbo and the, you know, various African cosmologies and folklores and mythologies and culture, and just blending those together. And then seeing what I can create and watching it come to life. Oh, it’s so fun.

So I can definitely say that that aspect has influenced what I write, but also just writing just science fiction as a whole. Just this idea of being interested in the, you know, in the sciences, but also in technology as well. That’s definitely influenced the stories that I tell. It’s not that I sit down and think when I started, right, I didn’t sit down and think, “Okay, I want to write science fiction.” I never thought that. You know, it wasn’t like it wasn’t on purpose. It just happened. It’s like my interests kind of, you know. I mean you can’t do anything that’s creative without, you know, what’s already bubbling within you spilling into the stories that you’re telling.

So yeah. Those things, even though I didn’t become an entomologist, I definitely use like my knowledge of insects. Like, I’m like a walking encyclopedia of this stuff and it definitely comes in handy in the work that I do.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: I love the way that you have plants that grow spaceship bodies or microprocessors. That just makes me laugh with joy. It’s so beautifully done.

You said something earlier that I just wanted to get back to you though, because you triggered a memory I haven’t had since I was a little kid learning my numbers. And I remembered the different numbers because for me, every numeral had a different personality. You know, so the five is a smiley face and the eight is very ponderous and the seven is very sly. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this way, but it’s a shame that we lose it when we grow up.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Not me. I still have like, like certain numbers and letters have tastes. They’d have personalities. They have sounds, you know. Like yeah, I had that. Like, that was how I learned, you know, that was how I learned. And like, yeah, especially with numbers, because like, I don’t know I had, you know, I had… Growing up, you know, I was borderline dyslexic.

And so the letters and numbers would often swim and rotate. And so like that played into how I learned. So like, I would learn, you know, there would be a narrative to everything. If there’s any sign that I would become a writer, it was little, little things like that, where there was a narrative to everything in the way that I learned, especially when it came to math.

And also reading, because reading for me was hard. I was a slow learner when it came to reading, but I remember how the letters at one point, and I remember the moment that reading made sense, the letters at one point didn’t make sense. They were jibberish, and then it clicked.

And I was in the library, and I was reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So I remember the exact book, and it just clicked. And suddenly the letters swam and moved, and they made sense. And I could read. It was like that.

So I’ve always learned like that. So when you were describing that, I was just like, oh yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s fascinating.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Well, we’re going to start taking some questions from the audience. And reminder to folks who are joining us on Zoom: you can use the Q and A button at the bottom of your Zoom window to ask questions. And I think, you know, something that kind of struck me as you were both talking about this, and especially Br. Guy, as you kind of said, “well, you know, you grow out of that” or, you know, “we don’t talk about that anymore,” is this idea for some that like science fiction, and just kind of story in general, maybe even fiction in general, but I think kind of specifically science fiction and fantasy are often kind of seen as lesser forms of story and things like that, or you know, and somebody in the question and answer to talked about how, you know, science fiction is kind of stereotypically limited to the “nerds,” right? And it’s not seen as more largely relevant.

So how do we bridge that gap and make science and science fiction accessible to a wider demographic? You know, as authors, as science communicators, how can we kind of get past that idea that this is, you know, either something that’s childish or something that’s only for nerds?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: Well, I go back to something that Nnedi said at the very beginning of how she felt alienated from the science fiction that she encountered as a kid, the science fiction of the 80’s, because it clearly wasn’t written for her.

And I can relate to that in that most of literature, I felt wasn’t written for me except science fiction, because here I was, you know, the middle-class white male that all of these stories were written for. And finally stories that involve nerds like me, people I could relate to.

Now the fascinating thing is that I love her books, even though they’re for about people in places and cultures completely different from mine. Maybe it’s cause she’s a better writer than those people from the 80’s. I have a feeling that’s part of it.

But we have to recognize that every story, if it grabs you and makes you turn the pages, is, on the one hand selling you a philosophy, whether it intends to or not, whether the writer even knows that it’s happening, but also it is a gateway to then make you feel brave enough to explore beyond, one hopes, the little science fiction ghetto that you started with.

In some ways I know a lot of old time science fiction fans like me who liked it back when we were the only ones reading this stuff. And, you know, it was a shame that all of these Star Wars came along and ruined it for the rest of us.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I mean, I’m a product of academia when it comes to writing. I started writing in a creative writing workshop in my sophomore year. And for, you know, as you said, I have a BA, two masters’ and a PhD. So that’s a lot of school. And all through that, I was told by professors that I really respected that, you know, not to write science fiction and fantasy, that it was less than, so that exact thing. And because I write what I write, no matter what anyone tells me, I just, you know, there was no stopping what I was writing. There was like no stopping, and they wanted to stop it. There was no stopping.

But like, I still, even though these professors would tell me that, I still learn so much about writing from them. So I learned from, I learned about, you know, I was writing this kind of speculative fiction, but I also learned about writing from literary fiction as well. So I was taking from all these tools. I viewed all these different types of storytelling as tools. So for me, I did not incorporate this kind of snobbish attitude towards a type of literature. I learned instead the exact opposite where I could learn from all kinds of writing.

So I could read something that’s very, very literary and learn about character development. And I could read something that’s very commercial and learn about plot and take all that. And I use all of those tools for what I’m writing, you know, and I have no snobbery. And like I could read comics and take from that. I could read graphic novels. And it’s probably why I do so many things now, but, like, I think that that’s an important lesson to, you know, if we’re talking about students to teach students that all of these types of storytelling, there are various types of storytelling. There are various genres, and they all have value and they all tell stories in different ways. They have their own kind of method. Sometimes there’s crossover, and it’s okay for things to blend. It doesn’t have to be this rigid. You got to learn how to enjoy stories, no matter what kind of stories they are. And I think that there’s a way to kind of deal with this snobbery against science fiction and fantasy. And I think that that has changed a lot. Like, I’m seeing students who get to learn that, I’m like, “Man, I wish I had that class when I was an undergrad!” I’m like, “Oh my God!” So I’m seeing a lot of different types of speculative fiction courses. I’ve taught some of them myself. And as I was teaching, I was thinking, “I wish I got to read this when I was coming up.”

But like, you know, there are certain authors that are good to introduce to people who aren’t open to this type of writing, you know, like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Octavia Butler is a great gateway to science fiction. You read one book by her, your mind is opened enough – because her books are very accessible – your mind is open enough to let in the others. The, you know, the less accessible. Kim Stanley Robinson is another one I love. I love his work. It’s very dense. But like it’s also accessible in a way, like, he writes in a way that lets you in.

So like using accessible writers of science fiction and fantasy as the gateway to open them up. Because once you’re addicted to that stuff, you’re not, you know, your brain is stretched. It’s stretched. It’s not going to snap back to what it was before. And so like, I think the idea is to kind of develop this love of all kinds of storytelling, like open it up. So it’s not like you just read this or you just read that. You just open to so much and then you can, I don’t know. I just think you’re better off when you can take in a lot of different types of narratives.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: And just to add to that, I think some of the sneakiest and most important mind stretching ideas can be snuck into space opera. You know, the things that Lois McMaster Bujold does. Just sort of tossing them off in the background. And you don’t realize that it’s been done to you until you’re finished with the book.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Exactly. Totally agree.

Dr. Katy Hinman: So we had a question that I think is maybe a little related to this. It’s probably directed a little more towards you, Dr. Okorafor, thinking about writing and the ways that writing stretches you. This person asks, “As a writer, I often marvel when a character does something unexpected and goes off plot, or when a moment comes that I wasn’t anticipating. I often see these moments as putting me in the shoes of God, face-palming when we humans go off his plane. How have you experienced that in one of your stories? Can you share a moment or experience like that?”

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Oh yeah, I experience it a lot because I am the type of writer who – I don’t outline. So I like I’m, what’s called a “pantser.” So just fly by the seat of my… I’ll just sit down and just start writing. I don’t know where it’s going. It will come.

And over the years I’ve learned to be confident in my process. Whereas I don’t fret about, “I don’t know where this is going.” I also don’t right in a linear way. I’m a very non-linear writer. I often write books from inside out or backwards and rarely linearly, like, where it’s beginning, middle, end.

So I’m used to that phenomena, but there have been times where a character has completely shocked me as I’m writing it. And it doesn’t feel like, I didn’t feel like God. I felt like a pawn, or I felt like something was speaking through me, and I wanted to control that thing, and I couldn’t, and it was disturbing. You know, it was fascinating.
And the one that I always remember most was with my character in Who Fears Death. Because I’m the type of writer who hears, I hear my characters speak. They speak to me. And a lot of times they’re very pushy. Sometimes they’re mean. Binti was nice. Onyesonwu from Who Fears Death was very aggressive and same for Phoenix and Book of Phoenix. But in Who Fears Death, there is something that happens, and I don’t want to give it away because it’s really important, but there’s something that happens where I was sure it was going to, that she was going to leave this room. I was sure she was going to leave, and I’m like, “Okay, this is disturbing, but okay. She’s going to leave the room. And so, yeah.” So I’m writing, and I’m like, “She’s not leaving the room. She’s not leaving the room. Oh my God, what is she doing?!” You know, it was like that, it literally was, it was disturbing, and I did not expect it. I didn’t expect it. And then I saw the whole story shift as well.

So like I think that in order to write like that, there’s a trust you have to have in yourself to step back and let it happen because like, there’s something, there was definitely something in me that did not want her to do that, and I wanted to stop her. If I didn’t have that trust in my process, I would have stopped her and made her do something else. And it wouldn’t have been the story that it was. So, yeah, that’s something that… I experience that often, but now these days, it’s not as disturbing. That first time though, it was like, whoa.

Dr. Katy Hinman: This question is somewhat related to that because it gets to this question of how stories develop and specifically, this question is looking at versus the oral tradition versus written stories. It was directed towards Br. Guy, but I’d be interested in both of you weighing in. So Br. Guy, do you think the Bible would have benefited by staying an oral tradition versus writing it down and freezing the details in time? Because as Dr. Okorafor kind of pointed out, oral tradition allows stories to adjust to current circumstances.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: Oh, I think we have got the best of both worlds. If you have the written book, which is then broken open by a good homilist, a good sermon giver, someone who can then take it and turn it into an oral tradition and bring it into the moment when it’s being read or the moment when it’s being taught.

So, you know, the Guy who wrote the book on the topic, Walter Ong, happened to be a Jesuit. And I think he was thinking of that when he was describing the difference between oral tradition and written tradition. The difference also is that in a written tradition, it’s much slower and you have time for thoughts to develop before you put them down, rather than being carried away with, “I’ve got to come up with something that rhymes with the last line or that fits the meter of the poem that I’m telling,” which can be, you know, great in its own sense. But it’s not that one is better than the other; it’s that there are different.

Like, to go back to Swahili, Swahili’s this fascinating language and for the, you know, it’s a trade language. Very few people in Africa speak it as their first language. But one of the oddities is there are no comparatives. If something is good, it’s good. If something is bad, it’s bad. And when the language doesn’t allow you to say, “this is better than that,” you treat the world in a different light. To which, when I was explaining this to a friend of mine, she said, “Oh, well, that’s certainly better than English.” I’m going, “You’ve just missed the point.” It’s different. It’s not necessarily better.

Dr. Katy Hinman: So one of the questions that several people have asked in kind of different ways is, you know, what are the… I’m trying to find a good, one of the – sorry I’m scrolling through. Can you talk about, you know, science fiction has kind of reflected the times and perspectives of when it was written. Can you maybe reflect on some topics in contemporary science fiction that feel likely to take on new meaning or new shades in the future? As we’ve seen these past stories take on new meaning in our present, do you see some kind of current science fiction that you kind of anticipate might have that same role in the future?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: I’ll say something very radical that could get me into lots of trouble, but I’ll be general about it. An awful lot of science fiction right now, reflecting what’s going on in our culture, is about sexuality and sexual politics. And I’ve been around long enough to have seen how the received wisdom on these topics has changed in the last 50 years. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see it change again in directions I can’t possibly predict in the next 50 years. And so I can’t even predict what stuff is going to look dated or embarrassing 50 years from now. But that’s not to say that it’s bad that it’s being written because this is how we figure out what truth is.

This is how we figure out, “No, I’m sorry. People don’t act that way. My characters won’t let me do that, even though it would be the, you know, the expedient thing to do.”

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: I don’t know. It’s a difficult question to answer. I mean, and mainly for me it’s because like, I’m not, you know, I don’t study science fiction. I write it. So it’s like, you know, so I don’t know. I know the topics that I’m interested in. I’m interested in travel to Mars. And I’m curious to see how that, like, you know, with recent developments and discoveries, I think that narrative is starting to shift.

Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t really say, I mean yeah, I’m going to just leave it. I’m going to leave that. I mean, because there’s so much in my… My head is so full of, like, the topics that I’m working on right now. And so it’s like, I can’t even… I’ll just, I’ll just leave that out.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: To just even, to use the Mars example, there is a really fascinating movement of recognizing how much of the language we use about exploring space is rooted in colonialism. And never occurred to me before because I just took it all for granted. That’s the way we talked about. When we start talking about it in a new way, which I don’t think we’ve done yet and I don’t think we’ve developed yet, it may change the questions that we want to ask scientifically. It may change the science we do. If we do it right, it ought to.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: I’m definitely hoping that there is a shift away from the colonialists narrative and viewing Mars as just another, you know, another thing, another planet to use and just repeating our same mistakes. Because that’s like what – I’m just looking at the narrative and I’m like, gosh, this all sounds very familiar. And like just this idea of terraforming and like, I’m just like, okay, we’re just, we’re just going to do that again? Really? Haven’t we learned yet?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: When there are so many exciting new mistakes we could be making.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yes, exactly. Make some new mistakes. That’s a good way to go.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Well, so this kind of brings up another question. Like, what are some examples that you think where science fiction has helped us to kind of anticipate some of these ethical questions, to engage with scientific and technological advancement in ways that we may not have thought of without speculative writers kind of setting us up for it?

Br. Guy Consolmagno: The one that immediately comes to mind, it’s an example I think I’ve used before, would be the Quaddies in Lois McMaster Bujold. Seeing people who are physically – their bodies have physically been radically changed to adapt to a new environment. And you can look at it in horror, which I think was kind of part of her original novel, where she introduces them, or accept them, that these are human beings, and it doesn’t matter how many legs and how many feet you have, which is, you know, where she arrives in her later books.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Oh, I think we’re saying the cat now.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah. Okay. Sit down. Oh boy. That’s his butt. Okay. I’ve completely lost my train of thought. I’ve completely lost my train of thought.

Dr. Katy Hinman: That’s okay. That’s okay. One of the things that a couple of people have brought up is this, you know, hearing messages that science and religion are incompatible, that science fiction and religion are incompatible, that there has to be this kind of conflict between these different types of stories and types of understandings. So how would y’all respond to, you know, naysayers and skeptics regarding the compatibility of science and religion or science fiction and religion?

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: That’s a difficult question. Gosh, Guy, I think you’re going to have to take that one.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: I think part of the key is that word conflict, because one of the downsides of using story is that an easy way to push a story forward is to have conflict because conflict makes for easy stories. And so when you want to talk about science and you want to talk about religion, it’s real easy to tell that story, but it’s not true because the world is so much more complicated than that.

And there is no one religion. There is no one kind of Catholicism. There is no one kind of Catholicism that Guy Consolmagno believes in because I’ve got 68 years of changing my mind and growing, and I hope to continue for another 30 or 40.

And it means that it’s an example of shoddy storytelling. It’s the cheap way out. It’s making the characters do what you want them to do rather than having the characters tell you, “No, I’m sorry. Not going to do that. That’s not who I am.”

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I’m conflicted. I’m conflicted with it, and I’m fine with the conflict, you know. I think that it’s – I don’t think there’s an –

I wish this cat would just… hi, say hi. Meow. Okay.

But yeah, I mean, it’s not really… the answer to that is not something that I worry about, you know. I think that it’s a part of the human condition, and that’s what it is, you know. Yeah.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: And conflict isn’t bad. I mean, I get this question a lot from students, you know, “What do you do if your science says one thing in your religion says another?” which, that’s never happened cause they don’t talk about the same things. But what does happen all the time is that this bit of science disagrees with that bit of science. And that’s when you get excited because you’re about to learn something new that you didn’t even know you didn’t know before. So conflict in the right sense that the creative tension can drive a good story forward.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Have you felt that science fiction in these stories have helped you cope with anxiety or uncertainty about the future or made them worse or not had any effect?

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: I think it’s a bit of both because, like, I was reading the, I think it’s called The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s new one, new novel. And wow. It dealt with climate change and it dealt with, I think it was the beginning of the book, and they were in India and there was a huge, massive heat wave. And he went into detail about what will happen if there’s a blackout and there’s a massive heat wave and how even getting in water, you can’t cool down. People are dying all over. It was just – it caused me such anxiety that I couldn’t sleep that night. And I started looking up solar generators, because I’m like, “Oh, you got to have a way to have power.”

I was like, I was seriously shaken by this, you know, but it also put these ideas. You know, and it was serving its purpose. I mean, that’s really what he meant to do. So there’s that. It was like, it was forcing me to look at the realities of climate change and what it means, like on a literal level. What is just down the line. So there’s that.

And then also there have been times where, you know, I’ve read something that’s made me look, you know, look into the dark. And it was, there was a cathartic kind of feel to it as well. It’s like you’re facing those difficult things that you really don’t want to talk about.

That doesn’t happen as often, because I’m just thinking of like all the… and once again to bring up Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, can’t read that right now. Can’t read that right now because it feels too real, but I think that that’s the function of all of this, of certain types of narratives. They are meant to make you feel anxious. They’re meant to make you really think and meant to put you there in those situations, and that’s their function, without you actually being in the situation. So I think that’s a good thing.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: There’s a particular book that I read at the time they made me the director of the observatory. I didn’t expect to be the director of the observatory. It’s not the thing I wanted at all. And to deal with bureaucracy and to deal with, you know, very important people in a language I don’t speak very well. And the book was The Goblin Emperor, which is a fantasy novel that’s sort of the opposite of grim dark. It’s grim, but it’s not dark. There’s hope at the end. And I could relate to the character who was suddenly thrust into being the emperor of this little kingdom, which is the last thing in the world he wanted. And if there is also a sense of hope, then you recognize that the things you are most afraid of, the fear is what was more debilitating than the thing itself.

Dr. Katy Hinman: So along those lines, I’ve really appreciated Dr. Okorafor, in particular, how your novels, they are very realistic, I think, about the challenges and the difficulties, but also have that thread of opportunity and optimism and hope. So I guess that’s my final question for you guys today is “What gives you hope today?”

Br. Guy Consolmagno: I think that people are more aware of the things that can go wrong and the things that are going wrong. And for 20-25 years there has been this lethargy. We’ve been sort of wrapped in cotton. Didn’t want to… The thing that I recognized going to Africa was before then I had been living a life wrapped in cotton, and suddenly I’m living in a country where it’s all ripped away, where death is there every moment, where the safety nets don’t exist.

And yet, in the struggles and in the pain, there is also great joy and a fantastic culture. And recognizing that I didn’t need the cotton was incredibly liberating. And I think what’s happening in our country now is a lot of, you know, blinders being ripped away from people’s eyes of bad things that have been going on. And I have hope that maybe we can accomplish something.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: I’m an irrational optimist. So like, no matter what, I always feel that there’s, I always believe that there is hope always. So there’s that. And I just, even with everything that’s happening I think that there’s still, you know, there’s still possibilities, and there’s so much available in terms of knowledge and information. It’s all there, you know, even if you have to sift through misinformation, it’s all there. And I’ve just had this belief in humanity, even with the issues of climate change and how that window is narrowing every year, it’s narrowing and narrowing and narrowing.

You know, there are solutions, you know, there are solutions. And I just, I don’t know. I just feel that I always remain hopeful in humanity. So it’s not that I necessarily need to see something concrete. I just, I don’t know. I just remain hopeful. I just, I feel like all the ingredients are there. All we have to do is use them properly. And so like the fact that those ingredients are there continues to give me hope.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Thank you both so much. This has been such a wonderful conversation, and I wish we had so much more time to get to all the wonderful questions that people asked. But I so appreciate your time and your energy and just the avenues that you’ve opened up in this conversation. Thank you so much for being with us this evening.

Br. Guy Consolmagno: It’s been a privilege to be part of it.

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor: Thanks for having us. This was great.

Dr. Katy Hinman: Thank you to our audience, to everyone who joined us on Zoom and on Facebook. Just want to remind you that we hope you will stay connected with DoSER, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. You can visit our website at, our new resource hub at, or drop us an email. And if you’d like to support the work of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, you can make a donation at Thank you once again for joining us for our 2020 holiday lecture and have a wonderful evening.

Science fiction imagines futuristic or alternate worlds, often exploring themes of science and technology, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life. The topics explored in science fiction are often at the interface of science and society issues. Origins of life (biological or artificial); the meaning and purpose of human (and nonhuman) existence; the relationships between nature, technology and society; the ethical practice and application of science; and ideas about human nature are common themes within the genre. These themes are also central concerns of many religious and spiritual traditions.

On 9 December 2020, DoSER hosted its annual holiday lecture and discussion, which focused on how intersections of science, ethics, and faith in imagined worlds might inform humanity’s present and future.

To read an article about the event, click here.


Br. Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, award-winning science fiction and fantasy author

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