Good Examples of Science in Fiction

I continue to read way too much about the ongoing Hugo mess, and will most likely eventually lose my battle not to say anything more about it. In an attempt to redirect that impulse in a productive direction, I wrote a thing for Forbes about some of my favorite treatments of science in SF:

Of course, now that I’m a professional scientist, I end up finding a lot of stories about science to be lacking. Not just in the usual “the laws of physics don’t apply” sense, where science is bent to serve the purpose of the story– I’m generally pretty accepting of that, because sticking too strictly to known science dramatically limits your plot options– but in the way fictional science is done. Fictional portrayals of science lean very heavily on tropes like the Lone (Possibly Mad) Genius and other lazy clichés, and because of that, they often fail to ring true because of that. My reading over the last fifteen or twenty years probably skews a bit more toward the fantasy side of the genre as a result, because I’m less likely to be bothered by the implausible behavior of people working with magic.

But there’s rather too much negativity in SF right now, so I want to offer something a little more positive: a list of fictional stories about science that get things mostly right. Or at least, more right than a lot of what’s out there. This is not by any means a definitive list, just some of my personal favorites (which is why it’s heavy on physics), and I welcome additions to the list in comments. I’m also trying to promote some lesser-known stuff– I am well aware of Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan and other science-heavy authors, but I’m deliberately leaving them off.

I doubt this will contain any surprises for regular readers here, but go check it out, anyway. There's also an image gallery version, courtesy of the Forbes staff.

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It's on the fantasy side, but I'm enjoying Marie Brennan's "Memoirs of Lady Trent" series (First book: A Natural History of Dragons). A bit on the 'lone genius' stage, both because it focuses on her field studies in the equivalent of a 19th century world, where often there are two naturalists on site, and because Mrs. Camherst, the future Lady Trent, has initial trouble gaining her reputation as a serious scholar because of her gender (and her major colleague has similar trouble because of his class and ethnicity -- at the end of the third book, he's finally allowed to join the equivalent of the Royal Society, while she's still barred).

But still it mentions her engaging with an intellectual community (or trying to), shows her being wrong (sometimes because she wanted to avoid being scooped, so didn't wait for future data), and has her readily admit she's from a place and time where it takes all her efforts to stay abreast in one field, let alone trying to do everything. (Which gives space in the books for other experts: everything from some of her traveling companions being engineers or archeologists to a book that opens with her and an ornithologist discussing evolutionary trees to her and her patron hiring a chemist because they needed someone who knew chemistry to analyze and synthesize something.)

It's an alternate world, but it reads like one that lacks magic and the difference (beyond geography and culture) is the fauna, not the laws of physics. (The sort of thing if you tacked on the prolog McCaffrey uses in her Pern books (basically 'lost human colony regressed in tech level') to loosely connect it to Earth, you'd get clear SF.)

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 13 Apr 2015 #permalink

I'd recommend Connie Willis. "Bellwether" and "Passage" are both excellent in this respect. "Doomsday Book" has some very fun jibes at academia's bureaucratization of science at the beginning, but the bulk of the novel deals with other themes- though as a profound exploration of tragedy, I'd say it's her finest work.

Does Greg Benford count as too "science heavy". The description of the poor PhD student's research project in Timescape was so true to life.

Science fiction focuses more on the fiction than science. This undermines the validity and value of all scientific research and discoveries to-date. How are the youth meant science as seriously when it has become a synonym for the super-natural, mystical, and magical. Science is about of fact not fiction.

Thank you for this article, I shall definitely check one of these books out.

The "Lone Genius" trope is a subset of the "Cowboy Myth," typically expressed in the promotional phase "...One man alone, can (whatever)..." Think of how many times you've heard that phrase "one man alone," and you'll start to spot it whenever it comes up. It also plays into the "star system," where films in particular "need" to have leading actors/actresses. Even full-length novels have only finite room for developing characters, so they also tend to focus on a small number of characters representing the elements of conflicts in the plot.

What's needed to overcome the Cowboy Myth, is to find a way to do character development so that it encompasses the kinds of collectivities that do real-world science. That might even be done within the focus on stars or lead characters by way of representing their scientific activities as collective works, and some other aspect of them as fulfilling the need of the story for focus on a single individual.