Scientist Fiction

by Jacob Falkovich1 min read7th Jan 20183 comments


Fiction (Topic)
Personal Blog

Rabbit fiction is always about rabbits, but science fiction isn’t always about science. The best science fiction, however, usually is. Science fiction transports the reader to strange and novel worlds; figuring out how those worlds work is often as important to the story as resolving the plot. And the best approach we have to figuring out how a world works is, in fact, science.

Harry Potter is a pure fantasy book, but Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is very much science fiction. The protagonist of the latter desperately applies the scientific method to understanding Hogwarts, rather than calmly accepting that reality is broken and stuffing his face full of ginger newts.

It’s an interesting exercise to categorize science fiction based on the science at the heart of each story. This can be anything from microeconomics, to theoretical computer science, to political philosophy. The two books I want to discuss today: Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem goes with the classic combination of math and astrophysics, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a rare example of ecology fiction.

Both books aren’t leaving the reader to do the science all by themselves, they each are centered around scientist main characters. Three-Body Problem focuses on two Chinese physicists: astrophysicist Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, a nanotechnology researcher. The main character of Annihilation is “the biologist”, because, well:

There were four of us: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a psychologist. I was the biologist. All of us were women this time, chosen as part of the complex set of variables that governed sending the expeditions.
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. 
     – Annihilation, page 4.

However, the two books have radically different takes on a core question of what makes a scientist? One of the books’ answers I found deeply unsatisfying, while the other created a memorable character that may have altered my own life more than any work of fiction ever has.

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Thanks for writing this. The second half was really lovely; as for the first half, I also found Three Body to be frustrating to read and also felt like its scientist characters don't embody what I think of as the actual virtues of scientists. I found the way they updated their beliefs to be very bizarre; lots of jumping to conclusions, not questioning assumptions, and taking pithy aphorisms really seriously.

Also, wow, I just finished Annihilation and it's so good, and so much better than Three Body.

As a writer with jet writers writing company I'd say there is also a vast gulf between what we called science fiction in my youth and many stories described that way today.

For example, is Honor Harrington-style space opera sci-fi? Or just addictively fun drama situated in outer space? Does adding a few gee-wiz notions about warfare in space make it sci-fi?

At the risk of overgeneralizing, sci-fi in my youth worked off an interesting hard science notion and explored the ramifications of that "what-if."

What if people lived on a planet with dramatically different environment conditions, due its proximity to some other celestial body, a much longer or shorter year or day, dramatically different atmosphere or whatever? How would our bodies have developed in response had we evolved there? How would we Earthlings adapt if we attempted to colonize that planet?

I consumed these books and short stories like candy. But I have to say, most were populated with stick figure characters. The clever hard science notion was the point of the story.