Aug. 4, 2021

Science fiction writing workshop led by Faculty of Science brings dreams to life for young writers

Partnership with Calgary Public Library results in anthology Getting to Proxima b
Milky Way galaxy

A group of Calgary students are about to become published authors before they even graduate!

Among the changes and challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to young people and education, science and creativity prevailed. In a unique science fiction writing workshop led by the Faculty of Science in partnership with the Calgary Public Library, middle- and high-school students learned about space physics from a leading researcher, and had coaching from a professional writer. The result was Getting to Proxima b, an anthology that will be carried by the Calgary Public Library.

Technical knowledge and creative coaching lead to exciting results

Building off the success of a science fiction writing workshop for teens that was part of the 2019 ‘Science Takeover’ – a full day, hands-on learning event offered by the Faculty of Science at the Calgary Public Library – co-instructors Heather Clitheroe (BA’01) and Eric Donovan, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, decided to resume the successful partnership with the Library and offer the workshop for young writers again in 2020.

Heather Clitheroe

Author Heather Clitheroe co-instructed a science fiction writing workshop for teens at the Calgary Public Library.

Clitheroe is UCalgary alumna and current International Coordinator in the Faculty of Science. She is also an accomplished and published author, specializing in science fiction. Donovan is well-known for his research on space physics and the aurora borealis.

With the pandemic’s impact on Library programming, this workshop was offered entirely online, with about twenty-five students joining up for weeklong evening sessions. Working in partnership with youth librarians at the Library, Clitheroe and Donovan covered the science of Proxima b and space exploration, writing techniques and tips, and hosted a Q&A evening with award-winning editor Lynn Thomas from Uncanny Magazine. The sessions were so well attended that they offered additional group writing nights throughout September and October at the students’ request.

Ultimately, five young writers decided to put forward work for the anthology, Getting to Proxima b.

“Proxima b is a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun,” Clitheroe explains. “It’s in the habitable zone – basically what we think is an orbit that would give you a planetary surface that could support life…whatever that life looks like.”

We have such a range of stories… dramatic and suspenseful adventures, introspective meditations, a screen play, and even a space opera novella!”

Proxima b is also a planet that the young sci-fi writers could see in their lifetime. As Donovan explains “scientists and engineers are exploring scenarios for an interstellar mission that would flyby Proxima b and return images to Earth by 2060 or even earlier. Imagine that, if I live to 100, I could see images of an extra-solar planet.” 

Cover of 'Getting to Proxima b'

The cover of 'Getting to Proxima b'


Says Clitheroe, “Proxima b is more in reach now than it has ever been, and as our capabilities increase, it gets a little closer all the time. We posed this to our writers as their theme: what would we find if a spacecraft or probe reached Proxima b?

For our young writers, the opportunity to have their work published and put into the Library’s catalogue was really exciting…and for us, too. We want to showcase their incredible work…and as a writer myself, I know the thrill of seeing your name in print.”

Inspiring a new generation of writers

While ‘Zoom fatigue’ from the myriad of online classes, workplaces, meetings, and events necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic became part of everyday language in 2020, the young writers were captivated by the subject matter and learning opportunities.

“It is always such a privilege to watch what happens when young people discover something new. Bringing science into our communities helps us all connect, whether in good times or challenging ones. We are delighted for these new science fiction writers, and are looking forward to reading their stories,” says Dr. Bernhard Mayer, PhD, interim dean of the Faculty of Science.

“I think the workshop really connected with our young writers in a couple of ways – it was a way to explore their writing and talk with a space physicist, but it was also a relief for all of us to do creative work together as a refuge from everything that was happening with the pandemic,” says Clitheroe.

“In all of these stories, there is an optimism that comes through – a looking ahead to imagine what humanity might find, and how we could get there. These are stories that were written under some of the most challenging circumstances, as we navigated the pandemic as a community. I think it really speaks to the power of young writers to inspire us, and their unique vision of ‘what if.’

Clitheroe has been leading other writing workshops through 2021, and will be teaching Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy courses through UCalgary Continuing Education in the fall.