Lit + Film bookshelf

Published on November 24th, 2015 | by Russ Dobler


Geek Gift Ideas: The Most Sciencey Science Fiction

Looking for a last minute holiday gift for the literature-lover on your list? What if that person is also a hardcore science geek who will settle for nothing less than the best-researched stuff? The pulp has you covered!  At this year’s New York Comic Con, five different authors with new books participated in the “Science in Fiction” panel, revealing just how much work goes into their world-building.

“I wanted the science to put constraints on the characters’ lives,” said Ian MacDonald, author of the astronaut colonization drama Luna: New Moon. Luna focuses on how business is conducted on a future Moon base, but interpersonal issues take perhaps the most interesting twists in this alien environment. With rapidly declining bone density thanks to the Moon’s low gravity, for instance, would a lover leave his partner to recoup on Earth, or stay and be doomed to never return to a home that would crush him if gone for too long? Probably not what Shakespeare had in mind when he coined the term “star-crossed,” but a fascinating dilemma nonetheless.

MacDonald set his “can’t go home again” limit at two years in space, although there isn’t really enough research to determine just how long it would take. MacDonald acknowledged that, while saying eventually you need to build upon what’s actually known, and if you’ve set the stage well enough, the audience will still buy it. Kind of like moving fast over thin ice or camouflaging a foreign coin in your loose change. “It has to be sciencey enough to be passable,” MacDonald said.

“It’s sort of like tricking children into getting into your van,” said Barry Lyga to uncomfortable yet raucous laughter. “You’re seducing the reader.” Lyga’s novel After the Red Rain is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which no one remembers much about the apocalypse, except that it had something to do with a blood-like substance falling from the sky. Lyga took advantage of the fact that hemoglobin – the molecule that carries oxygen in your blood – has structural similarity to chlorophyll in telling his story, saying that a “base level of verisimilitude” is really all you need.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s fiction,” Lyga said.

“At some point, I have to back off and say, ‘Computer science exists,’” said Jordan Stratford of the limits of background explanation in his Wollstonecraft Detective Agency “tween girl STEM” book series. The two volumes follow young female characters based on Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame, and Ada Lovelace, the 19th century mathematician considered by some to be the world’s first computer programmer.  The pair use math, science and critical thinking to solve crimes, and the books’ extensive backmatter can help to flesh out how they’re doing so, without cramping the stories’ styles.

“I’d love to write something that would just be fun,” A.G. Riddle recalled thinking before penning his new book, Departure.

Russ4DeRiddle didn’t know when to say when while preparing for his first novel, which took him two and a half years.  “I over-researched it,” Riddle said. He’s streamlined the process for Departure, a plane-crash survival tale that mysteriously sends its characters through time. It only took Riddle a month of reading up on relativity to find a device he felt adequately set up the premise.

Mindy McGinnis just now learned the lesson. “I researched for a year and a half before I wrote a word of this book,” McGinnis said of her latest, A Madness So Discreet.

The period piece finds the main character pregnant and sent to a mental institution, a tactic husbands could tragically use on their wives for very flimsy reasons in the 1890s. All that research had to do with lobotomies and trephination, the practice of opening a hole in someone’s skull to either let the brain “air out” or to release evil spirits that may be residing in the head. In the end, those ideas only appeared in two paragraphs of the book! “You can really overstep,” McGinnis admitted.

Whatever an author’s background or preparation style, though, a well-told tale is universal. “A really good writer can write about anything,” McGinnis said.

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About the Author

Better known as "Dog" to friends and weirdos, Russ specializes in the intersection between science and culture. He helps promote critical thinking with the New York City Skeptics, blogs at The Thoughtful Conduit and drinks beer wherever he can find a nice tap selection.

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