Saturday, 25 July 2015

Fiction Books That Shaped my Views of Science

As well as a science-fiend, I'm a bibliophile. When I move house, almost all of the boxes are packed with those papers bricks I so adore. They are stacked on every shelf, mantelpiece and bedside table. These days I mainly read factual books, but I do still find time for fiction.

I think the fiction we read can be a massive influence on our interest in science, and our appreciation of the ethics and nuances of different technologies and their effect on both the human and natural world. After all, much fiction is written in reaction to technological advances and people's reactions to them; the perceived threats and benefits.

So I've selected my top 10 picks, in no particular order. Where possible I've selected the cover of the edition I first read. I've tried to find as many non-sci-fi books as I can (difficult, considering). There are many more I could list, particularly the classics - such as the many H.G Wells titles. However, this selection sticks out as having influenced my attitudes to science and technology in the first 25 years of my life.

How do they compare with yours?

Oryx and Crake (2003)

by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is one of my favourite authors, and this was the first of her books I read, having randomly picked it up in a charity shop, chosen purely for the name (two rare species of animal). Published in 2003, it is the first on an ongoing series, set in the same dystopian future.
The most influential thing about this book for me was the application of genetic engineering: her 'ultimate humans'. I won't say more in case I spoil it, but I recommend this to everyone.

Cats Cradle (1963)

by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's 1963 novel stands out as my favourite, probably because I have a thing for cataclysms caused by human technology, especially unintentional mishaps. This book deals with (among many things) the creation of a substance that could destroy all life on earth if a single mistake is made in handling or application. It's hard to say much without giving the end away, but essentially what struck me was the question of what would happen if all aquatic/marine ecosystems on earth were suddenly wiped out? I pondered over this for many months afterwards.

The Day of the Triffids (1959)

by John Wydham

This is one of my all time favourite books. Wyndham has such a wonderful writing style, and the topic is, of course, genetic engineering (and survival horror!). The re-imagining of this story in 2002 in the form of 28 Days Later (which is, in most ways, identical in storyline apart from the infected people rather than tripod plants) re-ignited my love for it. Everyone should read this.

Brave New World (1931)

by Aldous Huxley

It is one of the all time greats of sci-fi literature. While there are a many things I found influential about it, the most lingering scenes revolve around the people who live outside of the future dystopia. The revulsion at natural birth and the way people live without technology encouraged me to think differently about our perception of what is "natural", cleanliness, humans as animals, and the treatment of those without access to the technology that people in rich societies consider "good".
Much food for thought.

Jurassic Park (1990)

by Michael Crichton

Well it wouldn't be much of a list if this wasn't in it. As well as the obvious science here of genetic re-engineering of extinct species, the book is more multi-layered than the film. I spent a lot of time thinking about dinosaur behaviour, and how they'd react if placed in a modern context. Like many palaeontologists/biologists, it also sent me into an intense spiral of dino-fanaticism... *sigh*

The Hitchhiker Trilogy (1979-1992)

by Douglas Adams

(Note: these are not the editions I originally read, but I've forgotten what they looked like)
Adams' books got me thinking differently: about physics, about the possible and impossible, about the absurdity of the universe and the kind of mind-benders and illogical yet entirely logical arguments his written world is made of. Races that live time backwards, interstellar wars that end when it turns out one race is so large it can't even see the other race without a microscope, instant evolution, multi-dimensional mice... the list goes on. 
Of course they are also totally hilarious - teaching me that science is also fun.

The Earth Children series (1980-2011)

by Jean M. Auel

This is not the edition I read. Mine was pale yellow/green with shiny green lettering, I've never seen another edition of it.
I spent many hours in my youth pretending to be Ayla (the main character in these books): stalking through the woods, gathering grass seeds and grinding them between stones, learning the names of plants and their medicinal properties, and generally being a weird, wild, little girl (I read this book when I was 8, which was far too young.)
Auel's attention to archaeological detail is massively impressive, incorporating many significant finds into the narrative, including ideas about the origin of animal domestication, and Neanderthal vs human culture. You can forgive her the embellishments for the sake of good story telling. I still surprise myself with my knowledge of palaeolithic human culture, and almost all of it comes from reading the first in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the many sequels that followed it.
Real door-stoppers, but you just can't put them down.

Sphere (1987)

by Michael Crichton

Another Crichton novel, this one also adapted into a movie, but one that misses everything that's amazing about the book. My mind was blown by the conversations between the scientists about extra-terrestrial life, particularly the idea that something might exist in more (or less) dimensions than we experience. It was the first time I'd really given ideas like this proper thought. A great book.

The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

by H. G. Wells

This book grew out of a movement against vivisection at the turn of the century. It is a masterpiece, dealing with ideas about what it is to be human, the conscious life of animals and their rights as living things. Like all of Wells' books, it retains a vitality and relevance despite it's antiquity, and does well to make you reflect on what drives people to alter 'nature'. Of course you can never go wrong with an H. G Wells novel.

I, Robot (1950)

by Isaac Asimov

Finally, Asimov's small collection of short stories on artificial intelligence (AI). I'd never been that interested in artificial intelligence, but these tales of pitfall, benefit and interaction between people and AI are considered among the best. The drawbacks of logic taken to the extreme interested me greatly, and are of course the focus of the namesake film. These stories go way beyond that though, and ought to be read by anyone contemplating AI and our role as creators.

1 comment:

  1. That is a *good* list! I heartily approve of almost (isn't that the joy of individual perception and a good literary dingdong?!) all of them. Some classics there, and ones that I too found steering me in my formative years.

    If you're a fan of a good man-made dystopian disaster yarn, have you read "The Death of Grass" by John Christopher? It's 60 years old this year but it's still thrillingly, chillingly plausible.

    Put down that lugworm and pick up a copy!

    (Really enjoying your blog, by the way. Thanks for the Twitter follow... :) )