From Exoplanets to Earthly Technology: Exploring Our Fears and Dreams through Science Fiction with Ness Brown and Chris Orwoll

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[00:00:00] Ness Brown: Fiction is catharsis for many people, and sometimes you want the vicarious adventure, and sometimes you want the, I would say, vicarious consequences. Sometimes you do want to walk the line of what you may see as a bad decision being made by our species as a society and want to look at how that plays out and what it would mean for us here on our world.

[00:00:26] Chris Orwoll: That’s one of the wonderful things about science fiction is you can extrapolate on what happens if we travel to Mars, what precautions do we need to take, and what do we bring back?

[00:00:38] Emily Withnall: ¡Bienvienidos! This is Encounter Culture from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. I’m your host and editor of El Palacio magazine, Emily Withnall.

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[00:00:53] Emily: Science fiction writers often say they are not clairvoyant. Seeing into the future is not a skill they claim. Rather they aim to reflect our current preoccupations and anxieties back to us and extrapolate on them. Several years ago, writer Margaret Atwood said, “I’m not a prophet…. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.”

Still, it is remarkable how many preoccupations from various writers’ times have resulted in new knowledge or technologies that didn’t exist before they were written into a novel or script. Mary Shelley wrote about Frankenstein and his monster in 1818, and although the book is heavily influenced by the scientific discoveries of her time, including new technologies and electricity, she wrote about the creation of a new creature from the various parts of humans, seemingly predicting organ transplants more than 100 years before they became possible.

Mary Shelley is just one of the many writers and artists and filmmakers featured in the Sci-Fi and Sci-Fact Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.

For centuries, humans have been preoccupied with what we can learn and create. Much of this preoccupation is tied to what we don’t know and the things that lie beyond our reach or powers of perception. I grew up on E.T. and Star Wars and later Contact. Is there life beyond us out in the universe somewhere? It’s an exciting question no matter where you land. 

In this episode, I am joined in conversation by the director of the Museum of Space History, Chris Orwoll and novelist and astrophysics student Ness Brown, who grew up in Los Alamos. Together we dive into the fascinating details of how science informs science fiction and vice versa.

We also talk about some of the challenges and possibilities we face as humans in a world where technological advances seem to be accelerating. What kinds of new futures can we dream up from here, and what do they say about our current anxieties?

Join us for a fascinating conversation about all of this and more.

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[00:03:37] Emily: Welcome, Chris and Ness. I’m so excited to have you both here today! And before we get started, I just want to say I drove down to Alamogordo on Monday to see the Sci-Fi or Sci-Fact exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. It was awesome, so I’m really excited to talk about that today along with science fiction more generally and outer space and whatever else we touch on. I’d love to get started by doing some intros, so if you could each talk a little bit about what you do in the world, what your role is, and what got you interested in science fiction. 

[00:04:14] Ness: My name is Ness Brown. I’m currently an astrophysics graduate student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. I am finishing up my master’s in astrophysics and about to embark on my PhD, and my current research focus is magnetic fields in galaxy clusters. However, like many scientists, my interest in astrophysics absolutely began in the pages of several riveting books and in response to – kind of – the incredibly stimulating sci-fi classics, namely Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like. And so I owe quite a bit of my scientific curiosity to science fiction.

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[00:05:02] Ness: I was born in Los Alamos and I recently published my debut novella, which is a science fiction horror entitled The Scourge Between Stars. This is all about a generation ship’s attempt to get back to earth from a failed exoplanetary colony on Proxima B, and along the way they discovered that they may not be the only ones on board their ship. 

[00:05:26] Emily: And I do have to ask Ness, I’ve been eyeing the telescope behind you. I imagine that looking at the stars is a little bit more challenging in New York City than it would be in Los Alamos, for example (laughs)

[00:05:38] Ness: (laughs) You are correct.

[00:05:39] Emily: So, was it being in Los Alamos that got you interested in the night sky? 

[00:05:43] Ness: I’ll tell the short version of the story, which is that it was actually, uh, observing the night sky in Costa Rica that radically changed my career path and inspired me to become an astronomer. So, as you might imagine, there is virtually no light pollution in Costa Rica, and so when I went there as a high school student on an ecological trip to try to save leatherback turtles there, that was my first true pristine encounter with the night sky. And anyone who has had the privilege of seeing that, kind of, untarnished view will know what I mean when I say it was visceral, it was life changing, and it set me on my path. 

[00:06:25] Emily: Wow!

So Chris, if you can introduce yourself, that would be wonderful. 

[00:06:34] Chris: (laughs) Sounds great. Well, my name is Chris Orwoll. I did not grow up in New Mexico. I actually grew up just outside of Los Angeles in a town called Downey, and that’s actually where they built the Apollo Command Module and the space shuttle, but I wasn’t involved with the program when I was growing up. Both my parents were teachers and so, in my situation, I graduated from high school, ended up at the Naval Academy, did that for four years, and then ended up in the submarine force. And so I drove submarines around for twenty years, did ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, diesel submarines, even the world’s deepest diving submarine.

During that time, I also became a volunteer firefighter and an EMT, and then when I was leaving the Navy–my last posting, I was the commanding officer of the ROTC unit at University of Kansas–I decided to plan some trips for the family and the first place we were going to go was down towards Wichita. And outside of Wichita is a museum called the Kansas Cosmosphere, but on the website there was a posting about the president and CEO resigning, and I said to my wife, “Wow, that sounds fascinating, but I have no qualifications in the museum world.” And she said, “Well, you can’t not have the job anymore than you do right now, so go ahead and send them your resume.” So I did, and the next thing I know, less than six months later, I’m running a space museum. 

So, I did that for about five and a half years. And then the position down here came open and the museum needed a bunch of work and so for somebody like me, that was kind of a dream position to come down and get into, to be able to kind of renovate a museum and reshape it. And so that’s what I’ve been doing since 2012. 

So, additionally, what? Nine kids? Pretty much all of them, including myself, are in some way, shape, or form science fiction fans. We tend to go to the Comic Cons and yeah, my wife and daughters just went to Megacon in Florida and we’re headed to El Paso Comic-Con here in a couple of months.

So yeah, there’s a fandom here, which made it a lot of fun for us to work on the exhibit. (laughs)

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[00:08:23] Emily: What got you started in enjoying science fiction as a kid? 

[00:08:27] Chris: Oh, good grief, a lot of reading. I think probably the author that really got me started in science fiction and fantasy was really probably Ann McCaffrey, both the science fiction side and the fantasy side, although in her situation all of it blends so much and absolutely loved her, have read virtually everything she’s written. The other thing very obviously was movies like Logan’s Run, Star Wars, TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, like Ness said, Star Trek. That’s probably the earliest one, you know, and some of the earliest memories for me are either the Apollo 11 Mission, laying there on the floor, staring at that gigantic wooden TV as a 5-year-old, or watching Star Trek.

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[00:09:17] Emily: I would love to have you talk, Chris, about your inspiration for the exhibition to begin with. 

[00:09:23] Chris: Oh man. Ah, wow. Where do you start? We had done an exhibit on Gene Roddenberry, because he had been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame that we house at the museum. We induct not just astronauts and technicians and astronomers and folks like that, but we also induct dreamers, and that was the reason that Gene Roddenberry was inducted. Well, if you’re doing an exhibit about Gene Roddenberry, there’s a bit of Star Trek in it, and we had original props from the TV series. We had a Tribble from “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode, and we had an Enterprise encased in acrylic from the Halloween “Catspaw” episode, and we had a transporter that we built with three pads on it, and people love taking their pictures in it.

Well, as the exhibit was aging out, we said, “We need to replace this.” And so, that started us thinking, well, what do we replace it with? And that kind of was the genesis of the idea because the thought was, well, how do we keep a little bit of the Star Trek in the back? What story can we tell that’s a bit bigger?

And so we started taking a look at science fiction, how does it affect science fact? And then we kind of came back and said, well, science fact affects science fiction a lot, and that started us down the whole pathway of looking at all these areas where the two, whether it’s, you know, all the different mediums of science fiction, how they have affected what we see in the real world, and how the real world has affected what we see in television, movies, books, pulp magazines, streaming services nowadays, and how they have always affected each other. And that became a very fun topic. And so, you know, we’re able to tell the story of how Star Trek and Star Wars and things like that were such a huge influence to the people who work in NASA today. How writers have influenced the day-to-day objects that we don’t even think about anymore. You know, we don’t think too much about an automatic defibrillator, but where did the idea come from? Or a credit card? Where did the idea come from? Those sort of things that we think, yeah, day to day. 

But somebody thought of that long ago actually, and then somebody thought, I can make that a reality. So it was our ability to bring that, you know, into the real story of space history and science. 

[00:11:23] Emily: I would love for you to give a few examples of some of the ways that science fiction has affected science for people who have not seen the exhibition yet, just as a little, like, teaser, right? Yeah. 

[00:11:35] Chris: (laughs) Sounds good.

What we call fi to fact, so science fiction to science fact. Some of the greatest examples that you may think about and that people, eh, normally may come to mind is if you go back to Jules Verne, you know, and some of the things that he thought about, whether it was the submarine and essentially nuclear power and things like that, you know, that he was imagining – flight, et cetera, or Leonardo da Vinci.

But like, some of the ones that we have in the exhibit that we have some fun with, Edward Bellamy, back in 1888, wrote a book called Looking Backward that was supposed to be written from the perspective of being in the year 2000 and looking back at the year 1887. And the year 2000 is this more utopian society and one of the things that they utilize in it is credit cards.

Credit cards are the point where you have this card and you swipe it and they give you a receipt, and they keep a receipt and all these sort of things that we look at nowadays and go, “Hey, that’s reality. That’s what we live with every single day. That is us.” But it was actually written about that concept back in 1888.

Another fun one is Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451, where he writes about walking around, you know, we’ve got headphones on here and we don’t think anything about it now with either what we had for a while – iPods – or our phones now, or a transistor radio back in the day. Well, that didn’t exist at that point in time. And he writes about walking around in a cloud of sound and music and talk, and well, what do we do nowadays? What are we recording right now? A podcast that somebody’s gonna be watching, you know, on their phone, walking around in a cloud of sound and music and talk. But Ray Bradbury writes about that in the early 1950s before we even had the transistor radio, which didn’t come out with the, uh, with the TR-1 until a little bit later.

But, I think, one of the most fun ones that we have in the exhibit is there was a book back in 1911 written called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle by Victor Appleton, and it was part of the “Tom Swift” series of boys books. Back then, they used to write these serial novels, and they were either, you know, boys books, girls books, et cetera.

In any case, though, Tom Swift, this young character is trekking across the continent of Africa, and while he and the compatriots that he’s with, he decides that he needs to invent and design an electric rifle that they utilize for self protection, et cetera. And so he does. Well, a NASA engineer in the 1970s, who was a fan of the Tom Swift books said, “You know, I think I can make that.”

And so he actually invented an electric gun. We know it nowadays as the taser and it’s utilized by law enforcement all over the world, has saved thousands and thousands and thousands of lives because it gave law enforcement a non-lethal way to deal with violent situations. 

But where did the word taser come from?

It actually stands for Thomas A.–that was his middle initial–Thomas A. Swift and his Electric Rifle. It’s an acronym that comes from the book. So, you know, so many of these modern day conveniences that we take for granted did actually come out of the imaginations of science fiction writers. And then more importantly, the engineers, the technicians, the scientists, the dreamers in the real world that said, “That’s possible.” And the next thing you know, we’ve got whatever the next great convenience is.

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[00:14:37] Emily: And Ness, I’m curious, because you are a scientist and a writer, what are the ways in which your interest in astrophysics and other sciences inform your writing? 

[00:14:55] Ness: Well, I think one thing that my studies and my profession have really, over and over, driven home, for me, is that truth is stranger than fiction, and every day, especially with new technologies and new facilities such as the James Webb Space Telescope among many, many other, kind of, avant garde technologies, we get new and mind-boggling discoveries, at this point I would say, every day, and I think my professional background in that I have the scientific literacy to take a look at a lot of these newsreels as they’re coming in.

What I found, and I think something that is the joy of being both a scientist and a writer, is that there’s always something stranger than I would have thought entering the news cycle, and that is a beautiful feedback loop of inspiration when it comes to then sitting down with a pen and paper and then being able to take these things I’d never thought of before and then extrapolate and imagine from there.

So, I would say that being a scientist and being a writer, for me, they continually feed into one another. And one example is certainly exoplanetary research which is, in part, tackled somewhat in The Scourge Between Stars just in that we have a failed exoplanetary colony from which we are fleeing back to earth.

And writing about that experience for my characters, even a bit obliquely in the story, was very interesting because it was an opportunity for me to take real data that we currently have, mesh that with expectations that arise from that data, and then, kind of sprinkled on top, are artistic liberties that I took just to kind of bring, you know, the spice and flavor that I think keeps all of us coming back to these speculative tales.

So that’s my long-winded way of saying science and art, especially as we just heard from Chris, they’re inextricably linked and we can only see more evidence of that as we, kind of, go back through time and narrative. 

[00:17:07] Emily: What is an exoplanet? 

[00:17:08] Ness: So for any planet that is orbiting around our star, the Sun, we simply say the word “planet,” and any planet that is orbiting around a different star that is not our sun is an “exoplanet.” The long, I guess, original form of the term is “extrasolar planet” or beyond-solar, beyond-the-sun planet, and it simply refers to a planet that’s not in our system. 

[00:17:32] Emily: Okay, great. Thank you. (laughs) Also, you said the word “speculative,” which I’m very grateful for because one of my questions is: 

Is there a difference between speculative fiction and science fiction? And I’m interested in that question partly because I know that there’s so much dystopian science fiction and I’m curious about using science fiction or speculative fiction to imagine better worlds or better outcomes for humanity. (laughs)

[00:18:02] Ness: Yeah, to my understanding, speculative fiction is often used as the umbrella term under which science fiction can be slotted alongside things like fantasy, perhaps even horror. Any sort of fiction that lifts the veil a little bit and tries to peek beyond, I think you can safely put under this term. And so I think whether your imaginings are utopian or dystopian, all of it kind of nicely fits under this term, which is very exciting because I think that fiction is catharsis for many people. And sometimes you want the vicarious adventure, and sometimes you want the, I would say vicarious, consequences. Sometimes you do want to explore. You want to walk the line of what you may see as a bad decision being made by our species, as a society, and want to look at how that plays out and what it would mean for us here on our world. And speculative fiction, in my opinion, is very powerful because it encompasses all of these different wonderings. 

[00:19:09] Chris: Yeah, one of the great science fiction writers of all time, Harlan Ellison, he called himself a speculative fiction writer rather than a science fiction writer because he thought that the science fiction term “sci fi” pigeonholed him a bit too much.

Science fiction generally tends to be speculative fiction that is more grounded in some sort of scientific principle or scientific background or idea or concept or crazy speculative thought process of what could be, if, you know, they’re speculating on what is the possible or is the probable as opposed to what is happening right now.

[music + promo for New Mexico Museum of Space History & CulturePass]

[00:19:49] Emily: Did you know? The New Mexico CulturePass is now available to purchase online. CulturePass gives you access to each of the 15 state museums and historic sites we feature on Encounter Culture. Reserve your CulturePass today at

I grew up in the eighties and nineties and loved movies like E.T. and Contact that made me wonder about our place in the universe. My curiosity is not unique. Ancient pictographs in New Mexico documented the cosmos as early as the 11th century.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo explores humankind’s quest for understanding the cosmos. Visit the “Daisy Track” exhibit for a taste of local space heroes, dress up like an astronaut, and stop by the New Horizons Dome Theater and Planetarium to watch large format films and daily live star shows. And step outside to see the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park. Go to to plan your visit.

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[00:21:09] Emily: This might be a huge question, but what is it about science fiction that’s so compelling? 

[00:21:14] Chris: Ness, you’re the writer, do you wanna take this one on first? (laughs)

[00:21:19] Ness: (laughs) I’ll do my best. I think in the first place, this question is probably deeply subjective, but I’ll speak for myself and say that I find science fiction to be so compelling because it functions as a kind of thought experiment where we take what we see and what we know about the world around us, and we imagine it at its extreme, so to speak.

So, for me, what that means is, we may look at the problems or the promise that we see in the world around us and engage in a thought experiment where we take those problems and promises and we explore what they look like and how our species may or may not tackle them over the next decades, centuries, in some cases, millennia.

What that allows us to do is, one, confront our deepest fears about our society and the directions it may be heading, but also really engage with what I think is the biggest success of our species, which is our capacity for imagination and for adventure. And I think in science fiction, we are able to really get the measure of ourselves as a species. And I think that’s why many of us continually come back to it. 

As we have to grapple with all new challenges in the world around us, science fiction can be deeply self-reflective and, at least, that’s why it appeals to me. 

[00:22:47] Emily: So you described your book The Scourge Between Stars as a sci-fi horror. Is there like a fear that’s kind of at the center of that that you are engaging with? 

[00:22:59] Ness: Absolutely. I think one imminent cataclysm that is on the minds of many people today is the climate crisis, and what that can look like, what that will look like, for many of us around the world. Many of us are worried about what this climate crisis represents in terms of consequences of human action and inaction here on earth. 

And so at the core of The Scourge Between Stars, we see how human negligence and bad stewardship of the earth has caused us to take to the stars and, as we grapple with the difficulty of existing beyond earth, we start to experience some of the many dangers, not only of interstellar travel, but also simply attempting to make a home out of one that was not originally ours. At the center of my novella, it always comes back to the issue of human hubris – how that took us to the stars and how that, in the novella, makes it extremely difficult for us to make it back to our ancestral home. And so, I would say that the horror element in this book comes from what it is that human mistakes here on earth and how the consequences could pursue us into the cosmos. 

[00:24:18] Emily: I see, interesting. So, I will share that Ness shared with me a short story that has not been yet published called “The Nanny,” which I read. And I will not spoil the ending, but I have to say that it was surprisingly chilling. (both laugh) But it was very interesting because it was written from the perspective of these robots. It was very compelling, I was gripped. 

[00:24:45] Chris: You know, in science fiction, horror, and the technological science fiction, you mentioned “The Nanny,” you know, it makes me think a little bit about The Orville TV series where they spent a bunch of time getting into the Kaylons, who were artificial beings that were created and what happened to them, and how it came back to bite the people, the species that had created them. So yeah, she’s exactly right, you know, about the consequences for humankind and you think about all the precautions.

This is always the science fiction and science fact affecting each other, which was part of the reason for our exhibit. But, as we travel to other planets, as we bring pieces of an asteroid, or we bring pieces of Mars back here to Earth, what are we bringing back with them? What precautions do we need to take?

And so, that’s one of the wonderful things about science fiction is that you can extrapolate on, you know, maybe, what’s happening in real life, and say, well, how about if that happens on an exoplanet, you know, while we’re colonizing? Or what happens if we travel to Mars and what do we bring back, you know, so, is it not just The Martian where we explore the planet, but is it some horror film from the 1950s? So, yeah. (laughs) I love that.

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[00:26:07] Emily: One of the things that’s the scariest to me is, like, this idea of machines taking over and even becoming sentient in a way that maybe was not intended. And I’m not a huge Doctor Who fan, but my kids are, and I remember watching this one episode with them where they go to some other planet and the machines can sense your emotions. And if you have a negative emotion, they murder you on the spot, and I just could not handle that. But it does make me wonder about where we’re going with AI, and I’m curious about how you both feel about AI. 

[00:26:46] Chris: (laughs) That is one of the interesting things about, you know, the modern world. And I’m not sure if the episode that you’re talking about is the one where the, uh, the robots keep saying, “This is a kindness,” as they are taking somebody out because they’re either sick or they’ve done something wrong or thought about it. Yeah. 

But AI these days and the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence is one of those things that some people say, “Best thing in the world,” other people say, “Oh, good grief, this could be the end of the world,” because a lot of science fiction has been written about the idea of AI getting out of control and literally taking over–heck, the Terminator movies–where that can happen, in addition to a large number of other science fiction novels.

So, you have the normal human being, like myself, who’s a reader, not a writer. I can imagine things, but not the way that Ness does, you know, and can’t write it down, but have read enough that I may sit there and go, “Is it really a good idea to give artificial intelligence this much control over what our lives might be,” because eventually, AI does get to that point where you can sit there and say, “Does it evolve to the point where it’s smarter than us?” Or that it actually can react and do things quicker than us–it may not be smarter, but it can work quicker than we can–and does that then come back to bite us as a species because we created something that maybe sits there and does a war games scenario where all of a sudden you’re facing the end of the world because the computer thinks it’s playing a game.

So, yeah, it is one of those things that is ripe for science fiction now, but it is something that in the real world, we have to tackle as well. And that’s why government’s really having a hard time right now, taking a look at how much control do you put over it, how many limitations do you do, et cetera.

So, I think it’s a fascinating subject and we could talk about that for a few hours just on itself. 

[00:28:38] Ness: I have a dual perspective as both a scientist and a creator. Right now, many creators are feeling very wary of AI in that, right now, it’s being used in effect as a kind of widespread plagiarism machine and because, right now, the way that AI learns, it must be trained on existing material. And it’s kind of unclear what protections that existing material may have or what attribution, you know, the owners of that material should get when AI produces something new. And so, in the creative space, it has been very difficult to, as Chris was mentioning, figure out and firmly define to what extent AI should be involved in creative processes, at least. But as a scientist, there are many, many, many, many artificial intelligence methods that we are now incorporating into study of many objects throughout the cosmos. 

So in astronomy, you will definitely see various neural networks and other kinds of AI techniques being used to assist us as we conduct our research, and in that way it is a boon and it’s a benefit. And I think that, you know, AI is definitely reflective of the challenges of any new technology, which is, we truly have to seek out and identify the places where it helps us or where it may hinder us as a society.

Now, I do wanna quickly mention that I think I probably share the widespread kind of low level anxiety that many people feel about AI and its potential, right now. It may be a bit reductive and unfair to say, but I would call AI more of a copycat than an entity on its own. But, you know, that may not be true for very long given these rapid advances. And I think many humans can sometimes feel a bit leery of a fully developed, or a sentient, AI because if some other entity has the ability to, I would say, become the master of our society, I think our main concerns are, “Will it act as we do?”

I think in some ways, humans can be cruel masters, we can be exploitative, we can be judgmental in binary ways, and I think sometimes we worry about those powers being used against us. And then, as Chris said, I think that is such fertile ground for story. Even as we struggle with AI in its development, I think we are still very attracted to the narratives that it can, kind of, spin for us.

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[00:31:27] Emily: So this might feel like a left turn but, because this is a podcast based in New Mexico, I’m curious whether or not you have any personal ideas about Roswell and the Roswell incident. I’m curious to know what you both think about why it’s become so big and why it’s become this alien tourist destination. Like, what do you think is in that story that brings people in droves now and it’s become the alien town in New Mexico? 

[00:32:01] Ness: That is a good question. (both laugh) What I will say is that I enjoyed my trip to the museum in Roswell specifically built around the incident. I enjoyed teaching the incident to students that I’ve had in the past when I was an astrobiology instructor.

I will say of the controversy that I think conspiracy is natural for humans, particularly when we sense that there are answers, there are possibilities that lie outside the realm of what is normal, what we consider natural. We were just talking about speculative fiction. I think the reason it’s so popular and enduring is because humans naturally speculate, and the Roswell incident certainly provided a ton of fertile ground for many different ideas and opinions to arise from that incident.

I would imagine that now it draws in people of all kinds and many, many who are interested in kind of rehashing the sequence of events because it is tantalizing to be presented with the possibility that something utterly beyond, you know, your ken, utterly beyond your experience, is real or has happened, and that you could possibly relive it or be exposed, kind of, to that. I mentioned the veil earlier, but like, you know, the grand lifting of the veil just for a moment. So, in answer to, you know, why do I think it’s such a popular destination and a popular story? I would say that. 

[00:33:46] Chris: And in our situation, we get asked about it all the time here at the museum. We’re just across the mountain from Roswell, so it’s not that far away from us, and so we have a lot of people who come here to Alamogordo, to the museum, et cetera, that may have either been to the museum over in Roswell recently, the UFO Museum, or are here and gonna be headed over to it. And so we sometimes get asked the question, you know, “Well, what do you think about it? What is your opinion of the landing or the incident in Roswell?” We tend to very much concentrate here at the museum on the story of what really probably caused it. And so that has to do with the whole Air Force testing programs and the balloon testing programs and the high altitude programs and the capsules and the crash dummies, and we have some in our collections, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

So that’s where we end up talking about it but, to address, really, what you were asking with the fascination with people with it is it’s because of the unknown. And just exactly what Ness was saying, you know, just the idea of why science fiction and speculative fiction are appealing to so many people is always the what if.

And so one of the big what ifs for all of us is, “Is there life out there?” You know, and “Does it exist? Has it visited here?” And so the vast majority of humans do ask that question at least once in their life, you know? And so the Roswell incident, because of so much of the publication of it, tends to be a magnet for people to sit there and say, “Well, let’s go and learn something more about that.”

And so Roswell has played into this perfectly, you know? Where else can you go and visit a UFO McDonald’s, which is just a hoot. So in any case, I think that’s the “why” folks go there and it just becomes more and more popular as the entertainment medium becomes more and more pervasive in our lives.

It used to be that it was just books, then it was books and radio, then it was books, radios, and movies. Now it’s television. Now it’s streaming. Now it’s constant, you know, on our phones and everything else. And so that entertainment industry that is constantly producing material has produced a bunch of material related to life on other planets, you know, Resident Alien, one of the fun new TV shows. And so that place, Roswell, tends to be a central location to the story. And besides which, also, there’s all the hearings and releases of information and stuff nowadays about UFOs, and when people ask me about UFOs, I always just say, “Well, it’s an unidentified flying object. Could be just about anything. Could be a plane, could be a flare, could be a missile test, could be, you know, an alien, whatever. It’s a UFO. Don’t sweat about it too much.”

But, that being said, we do have a little fun with it here in the museum as well. Like if you come off the elevators on our fifth floor and you look at the graphics that are on our elevator doors, if you look back on it, there’s little aliens staring out of the grating that’s down at the bottom of the door. So yeah, we have a little fun with it, but we tend to deal with the more scientific side. 

And just as a note for anybody who’s listening, if they go to Roswell and they go to visit the UFO Museum, don’t forget to go to the Roswell Museum and Art Center where they have Dr. Goddard’s original lab – the person who was the father of modern rocketry. He did his research here in New Mexico and his entire laboratory is over at the other museum of significance in that town. So (laughs), take in both. 

[00:37:00] Emily: That’s great. And actually, Chris, you touched on something I wanted to ask you both. What do you both think about whether there is life out there in the universe? 

[00:37:09] Chris: I, I have no idea. Statistically there should be, but it hasn’t been proven yet, so I’m kind of one of those people who says, “Until I get it proven, I don’t believe it.” But, if you look at the number (laughs) of stars and planets and everything else out there, God only knows, you know. Could be. 

[00:37:26] Ness: I do love this question because, I kind of mentioned earlier, I spent six years as an astrobiology instructor, and astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere in the universe. And so, this question was essentially the thesis of the course that I taught, and I think my students by the end of the semester were maybe a bit let down to, kind of, find all of the difficulties that are associated with actively getting to the bottom of this question. As Chris already mentioned, if you simply play it as a numbers game, the answer should be an easy, straightforward yes.

If extraterrestrial life is at all like our life here, which is made out of some of the most abundant elements that the universe has to offer, it only makes sense that, absolutely, there should be no reason why we would be alone. But the more we explore and consequently fail to turn up any indication of anybody else around, then that starts to complicate the question and makes us, kind of, believe that there’s a little bit more than just simple math to the problem. And that’s something that I really enjoyed tackling in my novella, kind of pushing back against the idea that certain things are inevitable. We will make it to the next star system. We will find extraterrestrial life.

Actually, the more you learn about these processes and about these different subfields, the more you realize that these questions are about as difficult as they are foundational to the measure of which it would, kind of, impact your life. That is the difficulty in actually attaining and, kind of, understanding these things.

So, I would say that, out of what we know so far, there is enormous reason to be optimistic that the answer will be “yes.” But, as anyone who truly dives into where our technology level is at today versus where we need it to be to find those answers, the more that optimism is, kind of, tempered by the understanding that these are very slow going questions, and we shouldn’t expect the answer immediately. 

[00:39:35] Emily: Right, yeah. So, one last, maybe fun, question is if you had the opportunity to go colonize Mars, would you do it? 

[00:39:45] Chris: I’ll go ahead and tackle this one first. If it was just me and I didn’t have a family, you know, a wife and kids, I’d probably go in a heartbeat given the opportunity. But I think because of my family situation, unless we were going all together, I would say “no.” But if we could all go together, then I’d probably say “yeah.” But I highly doubt they’re gonna send, you know, 11 people to Mars just so a family can stay together. This is not gonna be a, you know, Robinson family trip, so yeah. (laughs) But the idea of space exploration and colonization, would love it!

[00:40:19] Ness: For my part, uh, no. (all laugh) I know too much about conditions on the surface of Mars to ever want to subject myself to the sad feelings of that tiny little world. But if you, maybe, ask me again in a century when we probably have ways to combat the lesser gravity, the sandstorms, et cetera, et cetera, maybe my answer would change.

[00:40:45] Emily: Okay. Okay. I’m impressed. I would say no now and in a hundred years. (all laugh) Absolutely not! Well, thank you for entertaining that question.

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[00:41:04] Emily: So Chris, Ness mentioned both fear and imagination as being at the heart of a lot of science fiction. What would you say is at the core of the exhibition? 

[00:41:15] Chris: The interesting thing with the exhibition is that we deal with a whole bunch of different things that people could be afraid of, you know? And it could be, like you said, a dystopian future or dystopian worlds and things like that.

You know, heck, we’ve got a bit on like Stranger Things and we’ve got Joyce’s suit from “The Upside Down” from season one. Science fiction horror, kind of, tends a little bit more maybe into like Starship Troopers and fighting the bugs, you know, the bug colonies and war and horror, and there’s a bit of a government out of control that’s another fear, you know, that the people have got. So yeah, I think we deal with it in the exhibit. 

We talk about it quite a bit in the series of backlit panels that tell about, kind of, all the different kinds of science fiction and the way things got going and have been written about, and how they have affected people.

[00:42:02] Ness: If I had a little more sleep, I would be able to eloquently state my belief that science and art are often held apart, but they cannot, I think , fully and fruitfully take place without each other. And that’s what I love so much about the concept of this exhibition and that is definitely at the heart of what I do professionally, creatively, and scientifically, 

[00:42:26] Chris: And just a counterpoint to that one, we would not have an exhibit like we do without the people, essentially the artists and the writers and the dreamers, that have created this science fiction that sometimes becomes science fact, and have utilized science fact in their science fiction like you are doing, you know, with your concepts, with colonization of exoplanet. So, once again, it just reinforces the entire exhibit. I love that interpretation and discussion. 

[00:42:52] Emily: Is there any last thing that you would wanna say? 

[00:42:55] Chris: Yeah, I think the key thing, just to say, is obviously the museum, located here just on the slopes of the mountains here in Alamogordo, is a great place to come and learn about space history. Now, it’s a great place to also come and learn about science fiction, science fact, and we’re actually constantly changing stuff. 

In fact, we’re actually opening up a new satellite gallery. So, that’s what I’ve been researching for the last month and a half or so has been satellites like crazy, and crowded skies, and orbital debris, and how we look at planets and our own planet, et cetera, with different sensors and things.

So yeah, just come on to the museum and have fun, kind of, learning about all those things in a, hopefully, entertaining manner. 

[00:43:33] Emily: And Ness, where can people find you and find your book? 

[00:43:35] Ness: Ah, well I have my personal website,, where I list any events that I may be doing and upcoming news about books out and books on the way. And I can also be contacted there as well for any readers that would like to have a discussion much like ours here about the beautiful realms of speculative fiction. 

[00:44:01] Emily: Nice. Well, I hope you’ll let us know if you’re ever back visiting New Mexico. 

[00:44:05] Ness: Oh, I should come home just to go to these exhibitions. My appetite has been whetted by our discussion today. 

[00:44:13] Emily: (laughs) Nice!

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[00:44:17] Emily: So, I’m a writer as well as an editor. And I often return to the same kinds of themes or questions that I grapple with in my writing. So I’m curious, Ness, if you have a central fear or anxiety that you revisit in your work? And, if so, what is that? 

[00:44:34] Ness: I would say, one of the things that press on me creatively is certainly the treatment of our home world and the potential climate consequences that are coming upon our society in the current and near future. And a lot of my work revolves around the idea of not forgetting our duty to our home planet even as we seek out all new worlds and, sort of, adventure forth through the cosmos.

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[00:45:08] Emily: Whether you want to dive into older books to marvel at the technological predictions they made, or whether you want to grab Ness Brown’s sci fi horror novel, The Scourge Between Stars, you can find links to the plethora of topics and mediums we discussed in the show notes. And be sure to check out the Sci-Fi and Sci-Fact Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, where it will be on view for the foreseeable future.

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[00:45:50] Emily: Encounter Culture is a production of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

Our producer is Andrea Klunder at The Creative Impostor Studios.

Season six is produced and edited by Andrea Klunder and Alex Riegler with additional editing by Monica Braine.

Our recording engineer is Kabby at Kabby Sound Studios in Santa Fe.

Technical direction and post-production audio by Edwin R. Ruiz.

Our executive producer is Daniel Zillmann.

Thank you to New Mexico artist “El Brujo” D’Santi Nava for our theme music.

For a full transcript and show notes, visit or click the link in the episode description in your listening app.

I’m your host, Emily Withnall.

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