Frontiers

Where Science and Fiction Intersect

English graduate student Jason Zuzga’s summer course tackles aliens, monsters, and what it means to be human.
July 2014

In The Botanic Garden, 18th-century poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin juxtaposed lyrical, erotic poetry about plant reproduction against dry, technical prose based on Linnaeus’ classification system, all to teach the populace a thing or two about botany. When English doctoral candidate Jason Zuzga discovered this interaction—of the playful and the serious, of fiction and science—he was enthralled.

“I’ve always been equally interested in biology and language,” says Zuzga. As a child on the shy side, he says, he “would crawl around in the grass and look at all the life there or curl up in a corner with a book and enter that world.” 

This summer, Zuzga is sharing this fascination with undergraduates in his Science and Fiction class. Zuzga asks his students to consider language across the different “minds”—Frankenstein’s monster, for example, or the quasi-intelligent computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL—that populate science fiction. Using classic and contemporary texts and the occasional film, the class grapples with the central question of what it means to be human and how the choice of words, or even music in a movie, offers clues. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, few words are devoted to the moment the creature comes to life, Zuzga notes. It does not even have a name. But if it is alive, does it have a soul? Does it have rights? Can it be held accountable for its actions?  

“I’m interested in how language informs the way we organize and understand the world and move through it, and how it structures thought and imagination,” says Zuzga. As a genre, he says, science fiction reveals different ways of dreaming about the human condition itself. Does HAL expose the “dark logic of the computer that lurks within the human itself?” Zuzga argues there is no absolute interpretation, and notes that the final exam for the class will ask students to prove opposite conclusions.

Language’s messiness is central to his dissertation, Visions in the New Frontier: Post-War Documentary Orientations from Jacques Cousteau to Biomolecular Animation. In it, Zuzga analyzes nature documentaries and the use of animation to introduce spectators to an alien world. He posits that what viewers see is highly subjective: animals are given human attributes and evocative musical scores elicit emotions.

Heat Wake, his first collection of poems (due out in 2016 by Saturnalia Books), also plays with nuances. “Each word is a chord of possible meanings,” he says. In the poem “A Letter,” he writes: “Distill a tincture of your tears./Make a pheromone from your/secret snore. Jam the pen/Into it. Do all these things ….”

Whether writing poetry, researching animation, or teaching science fiction, Zuzga is hooked on language’s ambiguity. “It’s always the translation,” he says. “The way I love DNA because it is prone to mutations, I like language that has room for the play of the mind of many readers.”