Many of the world’s greatest scientists were inspired to go into their fields by reading science fiction books. And it’s easy to see why. A lot of the best science fiction features scientists who solve problems and make breakthroughs. Here are 10 great novels that will inspire you with a new love of science.
Top image: Painting by Adolf Schaller from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
Note: We tried to keep this list to books that actually feature heroic scientists who make progress — not scientists who meddle in things that people were not meant to yadda yadda. We looked for books where a scientist actually makes a discovery or invents something, and this is viewed as a Good Thing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and we’d love to hear your choices!
1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson has been on a mission lately to encourage more positive science fiction in which people solve problems using science, including the upcoming Hieroglyph anthology. And his 1999 novel, which follows a fictionalized set of World War II cryptographers including Alan Turing, and a group of 1990s hackers trying create a secret data network for people who are vulnerable to genocide — it shows how progress is carried forward from one generation to the next.
Image by CoyoteGirl
2. Contact by Carl Sagan
Perhaps the most famous piece of science fiction about heroic scientists, Sagan’s novel follows Ellie Arroway, who has a strong passion for science that leads her to get involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And spoiler alert: she finds some. This isn’t so much the “aliens just show up” kind of story, but the kind where we find them by doing scientific investigation.
3. Bellwether by Connie Willis
Willis often features protagonists who are explorers or discoverers, but this Nebula-nominated book is unusual in that it’s fairly close to “realistic” fiction. It follows a group of researchers in a laboratory who are discovering how to create fads, and wind up being part of several fads themselves. And in the end, studying sheep does indeed lead to a breakthrough that reveals something about human nature.
4. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson’s fiction is often concerned with environmental problems — but he doesn’t just show people struggling with them, but actually finding solutions. In his Science in the Capital series, which starts with 40 Signs of Rain, he shows the politics and science of mitigating climate change. And in this more recent future-set novel, he shows how environmentalists manage to raise Florida out of the ocean and reintroduce wolves to the wild. Robinson’s 2312 is downright superheroic in its treatment of scientists.
5. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
This is one of the all-time great novels about a physicist who discovers a whole new kind of physics, which winds up having a practical application. On one level, The Dispossessed is about a scientist who is caught between two worlds: an anarchist planet and a capitalist planet. But a lot of the most fascinating parts involve the scientist discovering the Simultaneity principle, which in turn leads to the invention of the Ansible, Le Guin’s famous device that allows instantaneous communication across spacetime. There is a lot of heroic physics in this novel, and it’s wonderful.
Art by Christian Pearce.
6. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Here’s a book that comes up in conversation all the time — this novella (which you can read for free online) follows a team of A.I. “trainers” working on developing digital entities (or digients) from infancy. Because you can’t just develop A.I., you have to grow it like a child, or nurture it like an animal. Chiang’s characters aren’t the computer scientists who created the digients in the first place, but theyre still smart people who do tons of problem-solving. And Chiang’s fiction has this great thing where the more you explore the surprising ramifications of his big idea, the deeper into the situation the characters get — so the process of discovery is also the progress of the plot.
7. The Practice Effect by David Brin
In this 1984 novel, scientists succeed in creating a device that manipulates space and time — and they’re able to use it to travel to another planet, which is very similar to Earth. Except on this other planet, the second law of thermodynamics works differently: Objects don’t get worn out, and in fact get stronger the longer they’re used. It’s up to Dennis Nuel to figure out why this aberration is happening.
8. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Yup, it’s a fantasy novel. But it’s a fantasy novel about a naturalist, who studies the science of dragons. It’s the first of a trilogy of novels about the heroic Isabella, Lady Trent, who travels around studying supernatural and mythological beasts. She not only makes great discoveries about dragonkind, but she also uses her scientific acumen to get herself and her group out of a series of nasty scrapes — it’s the best kind of coming-of-age story.
9. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
This isn’t quite as happy and upbeat a novel as some of the others on the list — but it’s definitely about people making discoveries and doing science. A group of Jesuits discover an alien signal, and just like Ellie in Contact, they head out to meet the alien intelligences. There’s a lot of clever problem-solving here — both in the space mission and in the “first contact” stuff, with linguistics turning out to be as important as physics in the end.
10. As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathan Lethem
I wanted to give a shout-out to Richard Powers, whose books about topics like creating artificial intelligence regularly make the list of great “Lab Lit” titles about scientists. But I also wanted to keep this list to 10 titles, and it’s definitely worth including Lethem’s bizarre, funny story of scientists who create an artificial black hole — and one scientist who falls in love with it. Not just because of the basic premise, but because the arc of the book is about figuring out just what the black hole, called “Lack,” is, and why it only swallows up certain objects. There’s a lot of great scientific deduction in this novel.
What’s your favourite novel that’s driven by scientists making great discoveries or creating terrific inventions?
Thanks to Genevieve Valentine, Alasdair Wilkins, Alyc Helms, Annalee Newitz, Mary Robinette Kowal and everybody else who suggested stuff!