book babble: putting the science into science fiction

One of the most difficult things, I think, about science fiction as a genre is balancing the science and the fiction. It’s a difficult balance to maintain; traditionalists still define sf as “speculative fiction grounded in physics, chemistry, and, to a lesser extent, biology”. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2013, Ursula K Le Guin even said that she didn’t think the term Science Fiction was a very descriptive phrase for  a wide variety of very different fiction. Le Guin said:

desconstruction

This interviewer isn’t the best interviewer, but I feel like he’s saying some important things about what people understand as science fiction. As a writer, I’m always obsessing over what genre the texts I read theoretically fit in, and I think many people believe science fiction is a lot more monolithic than it is. The science and the boundaries that science fiction explores aren’t just biology and chemistry; science fiction also poses difficult questions in the social science, but its aim is also to give us a new light in which we can think about who we are, and what we do in society. This week’s books that I’m reviewing are a great example of this. I recently finished Nexus by Ramez Naam. I am also almost finished with The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

Nexus and The Three Body Problem were two very science heavy science fiction novels.

I honestly am not even done with TTBP despite reading it since Christmas because the book is incredibly exhausting in a good way? It’s scientific in a way a book hasn’t been scientific in ages: I am constantly questioning whether or not the science is real. I know, this may be because my physics knowledge all stems from my freshman roommate (an honors math and physics major) but it’s also because the world building is so solid.

The blurb of the book sells it as a book that is:

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision

As someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with Chinese fiction other than my interactions with movies like Red Cliff, I do wonder how much some of the things I find alienating about the book are just narrative conventions I am not familiar with. The lack of three dimensional characters, for example, just made it a more difficult book for me to read. I’m honestly a character girl through and through, and so not having any concrete characters on which I could focus on, or even root for, really confused me.

Main pro: everything about the book felt fresh and new to me, even though First Contact stories are far from fresh and new.

Main con: ALL THE SCIENCE.

 Nexus, on the other hand, gave me the three dimensional characters that I lacked. Amazon explains it as:

In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it.

When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.

From the halls of academe to the halls of power; from the headquarters of an elite agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath Shanghai; from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok; from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand – Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.

A book I wanted to recommend to every friend I have who studies chemistry or biology, Naam is clearly very involved in the scientific establishment of this book. I felt like the elements of his worldbuilding, right down to his science, was wonderful. The biggest problem I had with the book was the casting of the female character. The main female character was given a dark and angsty backstory centered around the abuse she suffered and the rapes she endured. Although the book doesn’t do anything weird with this caveat, I was really annoyed that the book gave me a Strong Female Character, only to quickly explain to me that she was a “damaged” woman who stopped herself from having any emotional depth because it “hurt too much.” I dream of the day when I can have a female character who we can just leave the fuck alone.

In the end though, Nexus was a perfectly good science fiction thriller. I really like thrillers in which the events spiral in such a way that you, the reader, would not have done anything differently from what the protagonist does. The main character of this book is constantly faced with moral conundrums, and he almost always chooses the exact same compromise I would have chosen in the same situation. His decisions have far reaching consequences, and I really like how quickly

I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.

Main pro: not Euro-centric, really cool fight scenes, awesome psudo-science

Main con: almost all the female characters felt like set pieces in the main protag’s developement, and although I was happy a wide variety of women were included, the amount of “women dying or sacrificing themselves for one white boy” was a little disarming.

 

In conclusion, both these book used science to pose fascinating questions, and ultimately this lead to a far more international and more universal book than many other science fiction authors. I really liked both these books.

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