Looking for scientific process in science-fiction
October 23, 2007 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Looking for science-fiction that attempts to accurately depict the process of science.

While reading Passage and Bellwether, by Connie Willis, I was struck by how unusual they were for science-fiction in that they depict working scientists going about their research in a rather realistic fashion.

By this I mean that the science presented is slow, incremental, collaborative, filled with false starts and blind alleys, and constrained by practical concerns such as funding and experimental subjects who don't show up as scheduled.

I've read plenty of science-fiction that makes a good attempt at showing futuristic technology that's compatible with currently known scientific facts. I've read stories which play with the "what-if" possibilities of currently proposed scientific theories. However, I can't think of any other science-fiction that really shows what the actual process of science is like. Usually the process of research takes place off-screen. If we do see the scientist-protagonist at work, it's often as he single-handedly develops a world-changing invention based a radical new theory. In essence, it might as well be magic.

Can anyone suggest other (preferably well-written) science-fiction which gets the scientific process at least approximately correct?
posted by tdismukes to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Well, there's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which probably isn't so much science fiction as scientific fiction. It's also not so much an invention/research story as it is a grounding into scientific values.
posted by chef_boyardee at 7:57 PM on October 23, 2007

If you can find a copy of George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral, it's science fiction that shows the process of engineering. One of my favorite all-time books in any genre.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:07 PM on October 23, 2007

It's been a while since I've read it so I might remember it being more detailed than it really was, but ... Andromeda Strain?
posted by jbickers at 8:07 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I love Connie Willis. I've found a few other novels that I like that seem to fall on the science-y side of science, at least meaning that people try to assess things using hypotheses and methodologies that don't always work out etc. Mostly I think we see the politics of science, the old "they laughed at me at the academy!" sorts of things which aren't quite the same. A lot of them seem to be by Greg Bear. My favorite is Darwin's Radio. Not just a lot of good science but a lot of science policy wonk stuff [esp in the sequel, Darwin's Children] and dealing with being a scientist that is becoming aware of some unpleasant facts about their research and how to mitigate the news that the results will bring in a larger complicated world.

You might be interested in things that fall under the heading "Hard SF" that have a focus on scientific or technical rigor. One of the Hard SF websites has a decent booklist.
posted by jessamyn at 8:09 PM on October 23, 2007

Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy might be interesting to you, "Antarctica" as well. Also, perhaps, Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky", though it isn't so overtly about science and scientists.
posted by advil at 8:42 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

jessamyn writes "My favorite is Darwin's Radio. Not just a lot of good science but a lot of science policy wonk stuff [esp in the sequel, Darwin's Children]"

Erm. Darwin's Radio is why I will never read Greg Bear again. His premise is basically either Intelligent Design or intelligent genes. He also throws in Gould's largely discredited punctuated equilibria. The window dressing may or may not be "realistic" science, but the fundamental premises are so contrary to how evolution really works that it's just embarrassingly bad and to my mind tantamount to anti-science mystic crap. Ugh. I saw that book just tonight in the bookstore, and as always, I just cringed.
posted by orthogonality at 8:57 PM on October 23, 2007

Not to hijack this into a Greg Bear debate, but I would recommend Blood Music. The immunology is fairly solid, the rest less so. But the portrayal of research-gone-bad has great resonance.

Another fiction about science book (as opposed to science fiction) is the classic Arrowsmith. Very readable!

As an aside, I think the jury is still out on punctuated equilibrium, though debate has moved beyond Gould and Eldredge. Certainly I wouldn't call it "discredited".
posted by OlderThanTOS at 9:14 PM on October 23, 2007

I enjoyed Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice. It is all about research.
posted by jacobm at 9:32 PM on October 23, 2007

Greg Benford's Cosm has some of the basic ideas of science and academic life right, near as I can tell. I am not a particle physicist.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:58 PM on October 23, 2007

Gregory Benford's Timescape is about scientists diagnosing an environmental disaster in the then-future (now-past) that is scarily similar to what we now have, including terrorism against New York. They are sending a message to the past (uh, for me, this was all disclosed on the paperback's cover when I read it) that scientists must decode through scientific processes, then recognize what needs to be done.

I second the Mars trilogy -- large parts of it are essentially a scientific feud over how, or how much, to terraform the planet (a thinly-disguised metaphor for current debate over Earth's climate).

Interestingly, while googling, I discovered LabLit.com -- an entire website/community devoted to more or less this precise topic. Well, I guess without being limited to sf.
posted by dhartung at 9:59 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

'The Gods Themselves' by Issac Asimov.

I don't know what real research is like that involves people with vastly different (and even conflicting) personalities, but this book is focused on that struggle. The title comes from Friedrich von Schiller's quote: “Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain."
posted by philomathoholic at 10:30 PM on October 23, 2007

charles sheffield.
posted by dorian at 10:33 PM on October 23, 2007

I really recommend Carl Sagan's classic novel Contact. He describes the way a bunch of scientists discover and translate a message from space. The wonder of seeking the unknown, the methodical analysis, the occasional stroke of luck.. its all there. More importantly, the beauty and power of the scientific method is laid out in all its elegance. Come on, this is the most popular scientist of his generation writing fiction, who could give a more accurate portrayal of the scientific method?
posted by arungoodboy at 10:33 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding the Mars Trilogy -- lots of hard science, and they're just plain fantastic books. A lot of the tech is slightly futuristic, but it's all based on things which either already exist or have been postulated in great detail. Lots of research, in other words, went into his story.
posted by shifafa at 11:51 PM on October 23, 2007

On re-reading your question, I wanted to emphasize that there IS scientific process in the Mars Trilogy. It's not all tech.
posted by shifafa at 11:53 PM on October 23, 2007

Response by poster: Dhartung , thanks for that LabLit.com link. That looks pretty interesting.
posted by tdismukes at 12:00 AM on October 24, 2007

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but Philip K. Dick's short story "Autofac" depicts the process of debugging very realistically without ever using the term "debugging." The Autofac is a big automated factory that was supposed to take care of all of the local humans' needs but has broken down and now harms them. A group of people try a series of experiments on it, and each experiment exposes potential hooks into the Autofac and provides incremental insight into how it works.
posted by ignignokt at 12:51 AM on October 24, 2007

Maybe LeGuin's The Dispossessed?
posted by MsMolly at 3:03 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's been a long time since I read this, but if memory serves, Isaac Asimov's book Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain was essentially a rewrite of Fantastic Voyage (itself a novelization) that was intended to make the scientific process that led to the development of a miniaturization procedure seem plausible.
posted by Prospero at 4:01 AM on October 24, 2007

Andromeda Strain. Even the movie is 80% a story of hypothesis and experimentation.
posted by genghis at 4:26 AM on October 24, 2007

A lot Greg Egan's books are like this, though they may be almost too crunchy for you unless you're super keen. Schild's Ladder is the ultimate - it's basically 300 pages of people discussing mathematical physics and conducting experiments.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 4:51 AM on October 24, 2007

I thought Margaret Atwoods "Oryx and Crake" captured a certain aspect of the emotional core of scientists...
posted by geos at 5:30 AM on October 24, 2007

Erm. Darwin's Radio is why I will never read Greg Bear again.

Not to pile-on, but I felt the same way after reading that book. It wasn't just the science; I thought it was poorly written in general.

Thirding Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, though I thought Red Mars was the best of the three. There's plenty of science process in those books.
posted by D.C. at 5:40 AM on October 24, 2007

The ever amusing (and "pretty okay guy") Matthew Baldwin at Defective Yeti talked about Red Mars lately. He also recommends it.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 5:52 AM on October 24, 2007

This question immediately made me think of John Wyndham's Trouble with Lichen. I'd also throw Libidan and The Calcutta Chromosone into the mix, the latter of which definitely meets your 'well-written' criteria.
posted by MrMustard at 5:56 AM on October 24, 2007

Maybe not what you're looking for, but in I Am Legend, the protagonist does quite a bit of scientific work trying to figure out what caused the "outbreak" of vampirism. I thought it was neat.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:45 AM on October 24, 2007

I was going to suggest benford's timescape, but now shall just *second* it. Mars Race also seemed realistic.

Blood music, Darwin's children, and prob any other Bear novels reccomended here, are good reading if you want to know the process of an episode of 24.
posted by shownomercy at 7:10 AM on October 24, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations. I have read Darwins Radio. I enjoyed it, but had some serious problems with the plausibility of the science. I'll have to check out some of the others.
posted by tdismukes at 7:34 AM on October 24, 2007

Life by Gwyneth Jones.
posted by penguinliz at 8:15 AM on October 24, 2007

To be clear, I didn't think Darwin's radio was good science, but there is a great deal of scientific process in it. You might also like, farther afield, The Gold Bug Variations. Realistic science talk and scientists but also a strong story at its core (and a sharp librarian!) Not really scifi though.
posted by jessamyn at 8:16 AM on October 24, 2007

James Tiptree Jr. captures the feeling of experimental psychology and a certain compartment of the life sciences better than anyone else, in my opinion, and her work as a whole comprises one of the most effective and harrowing-- if not excoriating-- criticisms of those disciplines, if you have a taste for that sort of thing (abandon all hope, etc.). She is just a monster of force.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a pretty good collection of her most impressive stuff.
posted by jamjam at 8:46 AM on October 24, 2007

'Contact', one of my favorite movies.
posted by codybaldwin at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2007

Seconding His Master's Voice.
posted by dfan at 10:02 AM on October 24, 2007

As a quondam scientist and an inveterate reader of SF, I'd like to counter all the Kim Stanley Robinson recommendations with my experience, which was that I found the entire Mars trilogy completely insipid. I was actually happy when Blue Mars was over so I could return it to my bookshelf and stop looking at it. I then slogged through Green Mars looking for the great SF novel I had been promised; I never felt like I found it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:59 AM on October 25, 2007

Dunno if this is scientific enough for you, but Orson Scott Card's Speaker For the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game, is full of interesting scientific processes.

Basically humans establish a settlement on a newfound planet with an alien species that are nicknamed "Piggies". The story revolves around a series of "Xenologers" (alien biologists) that are studying the new life forms. They have to follow a very strict and thorough method to prevent from spreading any human technology or ideas into the "piggies" they meet with. It's a fascinating depiction of humanity's encounter with a new species, as well as a beautiful story for many other reasons. As they discover more about the pigges, their biology and history, there's a lot of interesting ideas presented.

If you read Ender's Game (you probably did) it's not a lot like that. Reappearing characters and motifs, but a completely new direction and goal with this book. It's a really good read, and there's a lot of scientific process presented that gives you a lot to chew on.
posted by sprocket87 at 5:51 AM on October 26, 2007

Coming in late.

KSR's Mars books are fun. Sort of dry fun, but fun.

But in the name of all that is holy, do not read them for the science. There are terrible, laughable science goofs that are important plot points.

Case 1: People on a zeppelin with electric motors are caught in a windstorm. So they allow the wind to spin some of the props, thereby generating electricity that they use to spin other props. By so doing, they make excellent time back to base in their airgoing perpetual-motion machine.

Case 2: They try to warm the planet by dropping windmills that heat the air. Forgetting that when you heat air, it rises, and cool air sinks, and you get...wind... as the air moves around. Thereby converting wind into other wind with 100% efficiency.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:54 PM on October 30, 2007

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