SciFi for other values of Sci
November 2, 2017 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend: recent science fiction books (and stories) that are based on sciences and disciplines other than the usual 'hard' ones like physics, chemistry, astronomy, math, biology, computers and engineering. Looking for things like musicology, linguistics, sociology, philosophy, criminology, economics, etc.

I'm mostly looking for non-obvious answers, hopefully books that are not already part of the SF canon.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
The Flame Alphabet is an SF-ish, horror-ish novel by Ben Marcus with linguistics at its core: adults have become fatally allergic to all known forms of written and spoken language. Desperate research continues while under-18s establish their own communities.

There's way more to it - but linguistics is very much a prime concern.
posted by Ted Maul at 7:22 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

David Markson is probably the most obvious answer for philosophy, and Wittgenstein's Mistress is his most famous book (it's more fun to read than the seriousness of its reviews suggest). I'm not sure it's exactly scifi with phi subbing in for sci, but maybe? If I'm on the right track, David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System should also work.

Star Trek TNG (though both a tv show, not a novel and very much a part of the scifi cannon), is actually a pretty interesting example for economics. Sure, some of the differences between us and Star Trek are aliens! faster than light travel! but a lot of them are a result of the Star Trek universe solving some major economic problems and how having those resolved changes society.
posted by snaw at 7:25 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Adam Roberts' The Thing Itself - Kantian philosophy via Carpenter's The Thing.
posted by inire at 7:27 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've probably already encountered the obvious Ted Chiang story "Story of Your Life" (on which the movie "Arrival" is based). It's very much about linguistics.
posted by amtho at 7:38 AM on November 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

The collection in which Story of Your Life appears is filled with alternative science.

Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings (first book in a series that is still being written) is a sort of SF that does revolve around hard sciences, but comes at them from a very different Chinese-ish culture that might pique your interest (it's also damn good writing in general).
posted by adamrice at 8:17 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

China Miéville's The City and the City is kind of soc-fi, urb-fi, and geo-fi.
posted by moonmilk at 8:23 AM on November 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Native Tongue is a maybe not-too-famous example of linguistic science fiction.
posted by Gorgik at 8:29 AM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Malka Older (Infomocracy, Null States) and Genevieve Valentine (Persona, Icon) both do what you might call poli-fi within the speculative-fiction space -- in the hard SF vein, they both create speculative systems based on what we know about real-life systems and apply them to story, but in this case the systems are social and political rather than, say, mechanical or biological.

A short story I enjoyed was Vajra Chandrasekera's "Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes", with its sociological bent. It's... a little meta, perhaps. Unfortunately I have not yet got around to sorting through all of the short fiction I have read in 2017, and I am no good at remembering such things off the top of my head... still, if you are looking for short-fiction zines that publish innovative SF, you could do much worse than Strange Horizons generally speaking.

In general you might wish to look toward alternate histories, 20-minutes-in-the-future type stories, and suchlike. I listed examples that specifically have a front-and-center emphasis on the disciplines they draw from, but there are many and many SF books and stories which employ them without giving them the hard-SF-style spotlight.
posted by inconstant at 8:55 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Economics? Robert Harris: The Fear Factor.
posted by aqsakal at 9:08 AM on November 2, 2017

Mieville's novel Embassytown is the second story that comes to mind in which linguistics is a strong element, the first being the aforementioned "Story of your Life."

Since TNG was mentioned, I can't help but mention one of the most memorable and competent science fiction episodes, also about establishing communication between two species, Darmok (spoilers aplenty). Go ahead and say "Darmok" to a trek fan, and you're likely to hear back a number of memorable odd phrases of the aliens which, though composed of English words with English grammar (thanks to the universal translator), are incomprehensible to the Enterprise crew-- but naturally lives are in the balance.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:27 AM on November 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Here's another weird one, Cyclonopedia by Reza Negaristani.

This one's sort of like The Thing via Deleuzian post-structuralist word salad at the height of the GWB presidency, and it'll drive you round the bend.
posted by Ted Maul at 10:01 AM on November 2, 2017

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996) and its sequel Children of God (1998) are built around linguistics and the Jesuit institution (along with some of the more familiar scientific disciplines). Russell's an anthropologist with the clearest, most precise and elegant modern prose I've read. These are two of my favorite books.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:11 AM on November 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

Hellspark features a linguist as the main character and is an excellent book.
posted by Lexica at 10:22 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer -- I haven't read it myself, but it sounds like it could be up your alley.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:25 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Eric Flint, Mother of Demons. Incredibly good ecology/evolutionary/behavior worldbuilding, complete with deep thought about how those things might shape another species' Bronze Age culture. Also excellent for history. (I know you said no biology, but those aren't exactly the fields in vogue in sci-fi in my experience.)

Samuel Delaney, Babel-17. Excellent linguistics and psychology.
posted by sciatrix at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ursula Le Guin is an anthropologist, and her science fiction draws greatly on that. Four Ways To Forgiveness is a book of four interlocked novellas about how to end colonisation and slavery on two neighbouring planets. Another short story/novella, Solitude, is about a girl who grows up in a low-tech society which her mother, a scientist, is studying, and her dismay when the mother decides to return to "civilisation."
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:01 PM on November 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

MeFite Charles Stross has several good SF series which might hit the mark. "Halting State" and "Rule 34" are the stories of a near-future Scottish policewoman solving crimes that don't yet exist, but may soon. The first book is about a major heist inside an MMO game. (The planned third book will probably not happen, per Stross.)

He also has "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood," which set among the sentient robots who go on living in the model of humanity after humanity has died out. These books are steeped in economics, from the vast schemes needed to fund interstellar colonization down to the energy economics of individual cellular-analogs in the bodies of the machine people. One more book should be coming in that line.

His "Merchant Princes" books feature an economics reporter who discovers that her family line has a gene that allows it to beam itself between parallel universes, and that her estranged family is, on the one hand, a massive feudal power in one universe, and big-time drug and money traffickers in her own. As the series goes on, at least one more world comes into the equation, with its own strange economy. I'd call these books fantasy more than SF, but I'd do it without the usual derogatory spin I apply to fantasy.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:10 PM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I loved Jo Walton's Thessaly books (The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity), which are recent and very much about philosophy. (The goddess Athena, with time travel and robots, sets up Plato’s Republic as a real-life experiment, and all sorts of intended & unintended effects follow.) They’re delightful page-turners in addition to being smart as hell.

Older and more canonical: I’d suggest some New Wave SF writers, many of whom made a very conscious turn away from spaceship-type SF. Tom Disch, JG Ballard, & Joanna Russ, for instance, are all interested in psychology & sociology.

Lastly, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta & the other Canopus in Argos books. These are a tough read but may check some of your boxes.
posted by miles per flower at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great answers, everybody.
posted by signal at 1:17 PM on November 2, 2017

Ursula Le Guin is an anthropologist, and her science fiction draws greatly on that. Four Ways To Forgiveness is a book of four interlocked novellas about how to end colonisation and slavery on two neighbouring planets. Another short story/novella, Solitude, is about a girl who grows up in a low-tech society which her mother, a scientist, is studying, and her dismay when the mother decides to return to "civilisation."

Le Guin's The Dispossessed is about a mathematician, but his first love is anarchy as a political system (or the absence of one, as it were).

The Telling is very much about anthropology - its protagonist is an anthropologist.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:46 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Lear's Daughters by Marjorie Kellogg, which confusingly has various other names and has been published in at least two versions, is a sci-fi novel mostly about linguistics, anthropology, and meteorology.
posted by huimangm at 4:54 PM on November 2, 2017

The title of the book by Robert Harris is The Fear Index, and it seemed more a book about AI than about economics. Interesting book.
posted by kestralwing at 5:02 PM on November 2, 2017

Musicology immediately makes me think of Yoon Ha Lee; his short story collection Conservation of Shadows has at least one music-relevant story in the slipstream genre, and I bet some of his short stories available online (for free, see author website) also explore this theme since he has a side interest in classical composition.

Seconding Embassytown by China Mieville for great linguistics SF.

Fantasy rather than sci-fi, but the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone (starting with Three Parts Dead) is reportedly about economics, and reportedly well-written. It's next up on my to-read list.
posted by serelliya at 6:19 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Musicology also made me think of Orfeo by Richard Powers (who also wrote the Gold Bug Variations which might be more canon) and I also really enjoyed Cat Zero which is sort of an epidemiological mystery (thought not your usual "aaauugh there is a virus" sort of thing) and possibly not even scifi.
posted by jessamyn at 7:13 PM on November 2, 2017

I would describe Max Gladstone's Craft sequence as about religion and law. Specifically, a world set in the aftermath of a literal shooting war between magic-as-religion and magic-as-law, which the lawyers won. Sometimes also with a twist of, indigenous gods vs. colonialist corporate lawyers, and sometimes with a twist of, resurrecting a dead god through forensic accounting. Highly recommend.

Ted Chiang also has a few short stories about not-sci fi, in "Stories of your Life and Others." I think one involves a world where angelic visitation is a well-accepted phenomenon, but they're basically natural disasters.

Unsong, published openly on the internet, is about a world where the technology is based on discovering the names of God, kabbalah-style. It's very clever, though it does know it.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:09 PM on November 2, 2017

A Rose For Ecclesiastes, zelazny, 1964 hugo short fiction, linguistics.

full text and audio on escape pod, but i cannot attest to the quality of the reading.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:23 PM on November 2, 2017

For economics: The Unincorporated Man. I'm not saying this in a "oh I totally recommend it and it's super wonderful!" sort of way though I did read it all the way through, it just fits what you're asking.
posted by foxfirefey at 10:44 PM on November 2, 2017

Sourdough by Robin Sloan is sci-fi for cooking, an alternate-reality look at bread baking, cheesemaking, farmers markets, weird manufactured-nutritional products like Soylent, kitchen robots, obscure ethnic restaurants, and Chez Panisse.
posted by Umami Dearest at 11:30 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ornithology: The Ugly Chickens by Howard Waldrop
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:29 AM on November 3, 2017

Linguistics: Fluency by Jennifer Wells
posted by krieghund at 7:47 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Barbara Kingsolver's books have a lot of botany in them.

The Goldfinch has a lot about art history and art/antiques restoration, which is quite scientific, it turns out.
posted by lunasol at 9:44 AM on November 3, 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land is based on sociology and family/religious/community structures. It comes across as pretty dated since it was written to contrast with those structures as of the US in 1961, but if you're OK with that it's a very interesting read.
posted by miyabo at 6:15 PM on November 3, 2017

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