Teaching Science in SF

In a comment to my Worldcon wrap-up, "fvngvs" asks a question following up on the science in SF panel:

So Chad, now that you've had some time to think about it, can you think of a list of books/stories with a really good treatment of science concepts?

It's a good question, and deserves a full post in response. It also probably deserves better than to be posted on a Saturday morning, when nobody's reading, but oh, well.

Anyway, the question stems from a question posed during the panel, asking for books or stories that do a particularly good job presenting some science concept or another. I couldn't come up with much at the time, for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that I was trying to restrict myself to SF published in the last, say, thirty years.

The other panelists had responded with the usual Asimov and Heinlein stories, and I completely agree that if you want SF that's didactic about science concepts, there's nobody better than Asimov, particularly in his short work. Heinlein spend a good deal of time explaining orbital mechanics and suchlike in some of his work. Throw in Arthur C. Clarke, and you've really got an unbeatable trio.

But it's 2007, and I feel a little weird recommending only books and stories that were first published before I was born. It's not that easy for me to come up with more recent examples, though.

I think there are several reasons for this, starting with the fact that Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke picked all the low-hanging fruit. There are a whole bunch of really cool science concepts that make for interesting stories, but they've been done. It's not enough to come up with the science concept and the plot hook for a story, you also have to do something different with it, so that editors and readers don't say "Didn't Heinlein do that already?"

There's also a change in the science available for storytelling. A remarkable number of the older examples are about things relating to space travel or nuclear power, which no longer seem like a really credible part of the future. They're relatively easy to explain in the course of a story, though, unlike more current Technologies of the FUTURE in the bio/ nano/ quantum vein.

(Additional thought in passing, that doesn't really fit anywhere else: I wonder if some of the how-things-work explanatory stuff that used to be more common in SF hasn't moved into the "technothriller" genre instead. It seems to me that there are some literary similarities between some of the older stories that get cited in this sort of discussion and stuff like Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, which isn't really SF, but may scratch some of the itch that older SF did.)

Finally, on a personal level, I think that part of the problem is that illustrating specific science concepts is something that works better at shorter lengths, an dI just don't read much short fiction. Most of the examples that people came up with at the panel were actually short stories, and I think the form lends itself well to the explanatory thing. It's easier to come up with a plot built around explaining some science concept that fills five pages than one that fills five hundred. When you get science explanations in novel form, they tend to come sort of in passing, as episodes within a larger plot. They may still be there, but they don't stand out as the point of the work, at least not to me.

There are exceptions, of course. Fvngvs cites Greg Egan, who has carved out a niche for himself writing old-school novels built entirely around some point of science or another. I'm not wild about his stuff (I've only read Quarantine and Permutation City, largely because I don't agree with some of his take on the science, but my problems are more with the way he uses the science, rather than the factual presentation, which is pretty good.

(I think he was the author of a short story I remember about an expedition to dive into a black hole, which was way cool.)

Kim Stanley Robinson strikes me as another person working in the old-school vein. Again, I haven't read much of his stuff, but the first Mars book was full of science explanations (of varying quality, but whatever), and the recent global warming trilogy (which I'll get around to one of these days) is supposed to do a pretty good job with the messy science of climate. Even something like The Years of Rice and Salt, which is alternate history, does a good job explaining a bunch of science.

In the "science in passing" vein, the example I gave at the panel was Karl Schroeder, who uses some really cool stuff in the background of novels that are really about other things. I loved the setting of Permanence, in which humanity expanded out to the stars by sort of island-hopping from one brown dwarf to another. He's also got some fun science stuff in the Virga setting (and Vernor Vinge says it might even be plausible...).

In the end, though, when it comes to teaching about science, I think there's more to be said for getting the attitude right than any particular details. The best example, that I'm kicking myself for not thinking of at the panel, is Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series (The Steerswoman's Road, The Lost Steersman, The Language of Power), which follow the adventures of a sort of roving scientist on a lost colony world. What's really great about these books, froma teaching-science perspective, is that the action is driven by the main character taking a systematic and logical approach to figuring out how her world works. That's the essential part of science, right there-- if you've got that, you can get the facts that you need.

(You also get some of the same thing in Steven Gould's YA books (Jumper, Wildside, Helm, Reflex), and as I said at the panel, I think some of the same thing comes through in L.E. Modesitt's umpteen Recluce books ("fantasy for Republicans," I've heard them called). I think of the genre as "competence fiction," because it's ultimately about people who are good at what they do getting ahead in the world by being good at what they do, and applying their talents in a systematic way. It's weirdly compelling, and also shows up outside the genre, in stuff like Donald Westlakes Parker books, under the Richard Stark pseudonym.)

So there's a long and rambling set of thoughts on why it's hard for me to come up with examples of science concepts being taught well in SF. Feel free to bury me with excellent examples that I should've been able to come up with.

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Kim Stanley Robinson is definitely very strong in this area. There are some beautiful scenes in Green Mars (2nd book) about a march across the plains of a semi-terraformed Mars at 270K with re-breathers. If you haven't read the rest of the Mars books, I would highly recommend it.

Stephen Baxter's stuff is also very good at explaining science, and making it integral to the story he's telling. The whole Xeelee sequence is full of far-out cosmology and high-energy physics stuff.

By Daniel Harper (not verified) on 15 Sep 2007 #permalink

I like Greg Egan's short stories better than his novels. I can't think of many that explain science well, but here's one.

No quibble about any of the names mentioned. Greg Egan does amazing Mathematical Physics research with Prof. John Baez and others. There is a big overlap, almost by definition, between these writers and the authors of "Hard Science Fiction."

Note that some great Hard SF authors were not professional scientists. "Hal Clement" was, in his day job, a high school chemistry teacher. Bob Heinlein was a Navy man, engineer (he considered wife Virginia the better engineer), politician, and other things. Bob Forward was an engineer, albeit titled "Senior Scientists" at Hughes Research labs in Malibu. Greg Bear is an amazing example, who started in SF as an illustrator/artist but rose to be a definitve hard SF author, especially in Biology. Joe Haldeman and John Varley and John Scalzi and Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow overlap Hard SF regarding Competence aspects of Space, Bio, Computers. Niven was at Caltech for a while, but left early. Pournelle has a Doctorate, as does Ben Bova, but late in busy lives. Charles Sheffield was a scientist/engineer who wrote many novels specifically for youngsters to learn Science while having fun. Kim Stanley Robinson is mostly self-taught, AFAIK. The Bob Zubrin novel and screenplay also about Mars was coauthored by me, but Zubrin, PhD paid me extra to remove my name from the title page which, as a professional author, was agreebale to me.

Geoffrey Landis, PhD, won Hugo and Nebula for, among other things, being a genuine scientists and engineer and professor who gets his science VERY right in fiction, except when he is playing with Fantasy or Poetry or other genres. His work is thus recommended for youngsters (as is that of his wife, the award-winning Mary Turzillo, PhD, whose novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl was serialized in Analog in July-Nov 2004, and is one of the best of all New Heinleins.

My Experimental Physicist wife, Christine M. Carmichael, PhD, has had fewer Hard SF stories published that we like, but more will eventually tunnel through editorial desks into magazines and books. She and I have experimented with SF in our science teaching, with good results.

Excellent thread. Must have been a fine panel.

Professor Philip V. Fellman emailed me to add the following.

David Zindell's 1988 book "Neverness" for its depiction and explanation of fractal structure. How about your friend Tim Powers' most recent book "Three Days to Never"? Larry Niven's book "Destiny's Road" genetics, biochemistry and a bit of fractals. Several of the Bruce Sterling books should qualify, mainly for their treatment of biochemistry and biotechnology, I'm thinking both his book "Holy Fire" and (take your pick of course) "Crystal Express" for short stories. Does it have to be astronomy and astrophysics, or does this other stuff count? The astrophysical stuff probably gets boring once you get beyond planetary mechanics, which, as you point out, is rather old.

A whole post on a single comment? My head will swell!

And a new reading list, too. Cool.