Recess From No Recess: Extra Interview Questions with theoretical astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack

by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

ALVARO ZINOS-AMARO: In epigraphs of your book you quote Ann Leckie, N. K. Jemisin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Connie Willis and Alastair Reynolds. With your incredibly busy schedule, do you take time out to read science fiction and fantasy on a regular or semi-regular basis?

KATIE MACK: Yes. All the time. I do have an incredibly busy schedule. I am working a lot. When I need to relax and escape from my life, science fiction is mostly where I go. One of the rules of thumb I have for when I’m consuming fiction or media is that if it involves spaceships, it’s probably sufficiently escapist that it’ll do! So I read a lot of books about spaceships and watch a lot of movies and TV involving spaceships. There are great science fiction stories that don’t involve spaceships—some of my favorites don’t. But that’s the kind of direction I tend to go in my leisure time. I almost never read non-fiction, in fact. It’s almost always fiction, and usually science fiction, because I spend my whole day reading things and thinking hard and it’s nice to relax into some kind of cool fantasy thing.

Part of my job is coming up with Questions. What’s a good question to ask, and how can we answer it?

Katie Mack

AZA: Besides the aforementioned authors, are there other fiction writers, science fiction or not, who have impressed or excited you recently?

KM: There’s so many, gosh! I quoted Ann Leckie in the book because the Ancillary Justice series was amazing. N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy was astounding in every way. I’ve really been into Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, and Network Effect, the most recent novel, is fantastic. Becky Chambers is hugely fun; I’ve read all of her stuff. Ted Chiang’s new short story collection, Exhalation, was fabulous. I loved that. The previous one, Stories of Your Life and Others, was incredible, of course, as well.

I could go on. There are so many amazing new, and new-to-me, writers out there. In the last few years there have been some absolutely fantastic stories, and such original ideas too. I’ve really been excited by what I’ve been reading.

AZA: Say that one of your professional colleagues who hasn’t read science fiction expressed an interest in the genre and asked you to recommend a novel or short story. What would you pick, and why?

KM: I did actually do that last year for Christmas. I sent a colleague who reads purely fantasy and is a physicist Ancillary Justice. I said, “Look, you need to read this and get into science fiction. This is how you do it.”

A novel that I send people to regularly is Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; that book blew my mind and I need all of my friends to read it so that I can talk to them about it. I can’t say anything about it because it would be a spoiler. It was just such an original take on that whole generation ship idea. Such exquisite and well-thought-out worldbuilding. I really appreciate that. I always send people to Aurora. Ancillary Justice, like I said, because it’s such a fantastic book and series. I also send people to the Murderbot series, and The Fifth Season—it’s so good, so original.

Another writer I often refer my physics colleagues to is Greg Egan. Somebody once described him as “harder-than-diamond scifi.” It’s so intensely hardcore theoretical physics and mathematics. If you’re like me, you appreciate that. I wouldn’t send non-physicists toward him usually because it can be very confusing. One of the things I love about Greg Egan’s books is that even as a professional theoretical physicist I can’t always tell where he switches from straight up science to the science fiction aspect. He gets so deep into it.

AZA: How do you keep your curiosity intact as an adult, in the face of life’s responsibilities and vicissitudes?

KM: Part of my job is coming up with questions. What’s a good question to ask, and how can we answer it? What do we need to know, and how can we find out? Attending conferences (these days it’s online), talking to colleagues, trying to figure out interesting new ways to approach these problems, I have to maintain curiosity.

But also writing for the public and doing Twitter, where I’m talking about physics and astronomy a lot, that helps too because I feel like I have to stay on top of all the big space news. People have questions about that, and then other people get excited about new discoveries, and I have some insight about them, and then I get excited about it. There’s a kind of feedback there. Doing public engagement definitely helps.

For the full interview, check out “Like School but with No Recess” in our July/August issue, on sale now [].

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