Carnegie Mellon University
October 18, 2021

Senior Crafts Fresh Sci-Fi Tales About Computer Science

By Kirsten Heuring

Stacy W. Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9303

Augustus “Gus” Saalfeld wants to give computers a better reputation in science fiction.

The Carnegie Mellon University senior majoring in creative writing and information systems, earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to research and create compelling fiction that is accessible and philosophical. Under the guidance of his advisor, Sharon Dilworth, associate professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Saalfeld has created multiple works to celebrate computer science.

"The SURF program is unique,” said Saalfeld. “It gives me the rare opportunity to bring my technical knowledge as an information systems major to my writing, allowing me to engage with both in new ways." 

Saalfeld analyzed the “Cosmicomics” of Italo Calvino, a literary writer who specialized in accessible science fiction, and implemented some of the same themes and techniques in his own work. He chose the work of Calvino because it has a distinct framing.

“What sets theCosmicomics apart from science fiction is that science fiction tends to be in the future; it tends to be dystopian; it tends to be about people,” Saalfeld said.

Unlike traditional science fiction, the “Cosmicomics” are more focused on the past than the future, and they are more interested in universal effects than dystopian societies. The “Cosmicomics” also tend to prioritize scientific ideas and concepts instead of human reactions, but they paint these ideas through human emotions and experiences.

The “Cosmicomics” are more focused on the physical sciences. Saalfeld said that the “Cosmicomics” use science like a new creation myth, and most science fiction is not focused on the actual science. However, he appreciates how the stories highlight character and emotion through the lens of science fiction.

“I realized that a lot of what talks about computer science in fiction isn't actually about computer science,” said Saalfeld. “It's just using computer science as like an image to talk about something else.”

Saalfeld has tried to use real computer science to make commentary on issues he sees with technology and society. Like the “Cosmicomics,” he tends to focus more on the past, and he avoids dystopian tropes. However, much of his work is strongly character driven.

One Saalfeld story focuses on the character of a boy emperor separated from the rest of his society, and his only connection to the outside world is a projector that shows him the world. Through this story, Saalfeld wants to demonstrate that though people create and affect technology, the technology in turn affects humans.

Dilworth encouraged Saalfeld throughout the summer. She also shares Saalfeld’s love for Calvino’s work.

“Gus is a creative spirit with real ambition and a huge imagination,” Dilworth said. “He takes writing seriously and doesn’t just produce work for a grade but allows the writing exercise to explore the issues and concerns he’s grappling with as well.” 

Saalfeld has appreciated the guidance he has been offered and said that Dilworth helped in refining his work.

“I think I have a hard time seeing outside of myself sometimes,” Saalfeld said. “To really just get a fresh pair of eyes is one of those valuable things you could have.”

Saalfeld said he appreciated the ability to write uninterrupted during the summer. He might have had to scrap some of his ideas, but he has been given time to develop his own voice.

“What I love about [the SURF] program, and why I’m so glad Gus is participating is that it gives the writer the time to really explore the area they want to write in — in Gus’ case working with traditional literary narratives with AI-driven content,” Dilworth said.