Putting the chemistry into sci-fi: Episode 2


In my previous blog, I wrote about the lack of strong chemistry themes in science fiction. Here I’ll suggest a few resources and book titles for those who want some chemical spice in their sci-fi – maybe this will be useful for summer holiday reading.

Last time I mentioned a well-attended ACS symposium on ‘Chemistry and Science Fiction’ that was held in 1992. Well, that meeting spawned a book of the same name written by Jack H. Stocker (who sadly died recently – you can read his obituary here). The book collects together papers from the symposium, offers several suggestions for further reading, and seems to be the essential guide to the area. Well worth tracking down for sci-fi aficionados.

Some online reading lists are also available, again as a result of the 1992 meeting. The first one (found here) was compiled by David A. Katz, who describes himself on his website as a chemist and educator. I quite like the sound of Asimov’s The Last Question, which asks whether entropy can be reversed; and also Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper, in which the periodic table becomes a Rosetta Stone to decipher the writings of an ancient Martian civilization.

Also on Katz’s site is this reading list, compiled by the author Connie Willis. This categorizes books into several different subject areas, including chemistry, and is a good primer for anyone looking for some genuine science in their sci-fi. Both Katz and Willis believe that sci-fi can be a powerful educational tool — when coupled with relevant science articles, students can consider and discuss the plausibility of the science in the fiction. Quite a nice idea, I think.

Finally, a couple of other suggestions for books that I’ve come across that don’t make it onto the above lists. The Periodic Table of Science Fiction by Michael Swanwick is a collection of short stories, each based on a different element of the periodic table. This was originally published online, but is now available in print. And if you like your sci-fi with a tint of fantasy, try Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines. This includes a story called Uranium Earpieces, in which a race of robots are forced to incorporate uranium into the alloys of their bodies, to prevent them from forming large gatherings — if too many of them come together, they reach critical mass and explode…

Chemistry in TV and films will be discussed in Episode 3 of this blog, the final entry of this trilogy.


Andrew Mitchinson (Senior Editor, Nature)

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