by Don Sakers
For a literary genre called science fiction, we pay remarkably little attention to the ways our field depicts scientists. (For the purposes of this discussion, “scientists” includes engineers and practitioners of allied science.) To be sure, scientists have always been among the ranks of SF writers—every one of us can recite long lists of names. And for just as long, scientists have been characters in SF books and stories. In literary criticism of the field, we often analyze those scientists as characters . . . but there’s remarkably little discussion of how they’re portrayed as scientists.
Every so often we get a theme anthology that focuses on scientists, such as Brave New Girls (2016, reviewed in the May 2016 issue) or To Shape the Dark (also 2016, reviewed in the April 2016 issue). Even these, though, don’t do much analysis of the role. More to the point is Lucy A. Snyder’s 2004 article “The Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction” (Strange Horizons, 24 May 2004).
In the field’s long history, depictions of scientists have fallen into a number of categories. The examples I give here are not exhaustive; I’ve tried to give the most familiar or archetypal examples of each type.
One type of scientist featured in SF is the natural philosopher, the (usually) gentleman investigator whose wide-ranging curiosity covers every subject under the sun. The real-life paradigm of this type is Charles Darwin. Science fiction examples include Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870, and The Mysterious Island, 1874) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World, 1912, and other titles).
Next is the scientist/inventor, a lone genius often working from a home laboratory, although sometimes attached to an institution or corporation. Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison are real-world archetypes. There are plenty of SF examples, in various sub-types. Think of H.G. Wells’s unnamed time traveler (The Time Machine, 1895) and Mr. Cavor (The First Men in the Moon, 1901), E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Richard Seaton (The Skylark of Space, 1928, and other titles), and Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future, 1985, and sequels).
The most familiar type of scientist in SF is the beloved mad scientist. This one has few actual counterparts in reality, although I’ve heard Nikola Tesla mentioned in this connection. SF examples are legion, starting with Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1823). Others include Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, 1896), Rotwang (Metropolis, 1927), and of course Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove, 1964).
Another beloved archetype is the absent-minded scientist, so lost in great thoughts as to be oblivious to the surrounding environment. Both Archimedes and Norbert Wiener are often given as real-life examples. Mention must be made of Professor Ned Brainard (The Absent-Minded Professor, 1961). Outside of movies and TV, where this type is legion, SF examples are fairly rare, but Lois McMaster Bujold’s Dr. Enrique Borgos (A Civil Campaign, 1999) certainly fits the bill.
Then there’s the wise, noble scientist who embodies the ideals of peace and wisdom. Albert Einstein and Jane Goodall are real-world examples of this trope. Wise, noble scientists in SF include Professor Barnhardt (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951), Professor Charles Forbin (Colossus by D.F. Jones, 1967, filmed as Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970), and Stephen Falken (War Games, 1983).
One of the rarer types of scientist in SF is the disabled scientist—with Professor Stephen Hawking as a real-world archetype. Two notable SF examples, both from comics, are the wheelchair user Professor Charles Xavier (The X-Men, 1963, and other titles) and blind superhero Charles McNider aka Dr. Mid-Nite (All-American Comics, 1941, and others).
Speaking of superheroes, there’s a long comics tradition of scientist superheroes. Besides Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk, 1962) and Reed Richards (The Fantastic Four, 1961), there’s also Angus “Mac” MacGyver (MacGyver, 1985), Dr. Benton Quest (Jonny Quest, 1964), Samantha Carter and Daniel Jackson (Stargate, 1994, and Stargate: SG1, 1997), and of course The Doctor (Doctor Who, 1963).
Finally there’s the evil scientist, sometimes a subcategory of mad scientist. One hesitates to name real-world examples, but most people point to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. In SF there are many, many evil scientists. Notable are Superman’s foe Lex Luthor (Action Comics, 1940), Davros (Doctor Who, 1975), and the aptly-named Dr. Evil (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997).
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To Mars With Love
Patricia Ann Straat
Palmetto Publishing Group, 287 pages, $29.99 (hardcover)
For many of us, the holy grail is the chance to observe real-world scientists at work. Occasionally one gets a tour of a working lab, or a documentary shows the highlights of a research project. What we’d really love is to follow a project from beginning to end, with continuous explanations and commentary from the researchers. But that’s a pipe dream, no?
Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Johns Hopkins University, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the 1970s as part of the Viking Mars lander’s Biology Flight Team. Specifically, she was Co-Experimenter on one of Viking’s three life detection experiments, the Labeled Release experiment. When conducted in 1976, the experiment gave results consistent with the existence of microbial life on Mars. Since then, the results and their interpretation have been called into question; still, they remain some of the best evidence we have for Martian life.
To Mars With Love is Dr. Straat’s story of the Labeled Release experiment from beginning to end. Starting six years before launch, Straat takes readers inside JPL, showing us all the challenges, failures, successes, funny moments and tragic ones, and above all, the personalities of the researchers and others who made the mission possible.
This is a gorgeous book that looks like a textbook yet reads like a memoir. Printed on glossy paper, the book is chock-full of charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables—but also pictures, both black-and-white and color. These range from astronomical photos to candid snapshots of equipment and team members. One of the most fun sections is “Memorabilia,” which is essentially a full-color scrapbook of ephemera.
Underlining the human element in all scientists, Straat interweaves tales of various trips and activities from California beaches to Antarctica, as well as her adventures in the equestrian world of California and Maryland.
Above all, To Mars With Love conveys the excitement, wonder, and downright fun of working in science. Patient and witty, Straat is a superb guide. Short of having a professional scientist as a good friend, this is the closest most of us can come to knowing what their world is like.
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The Back of Beyond
312 pages, $13.95 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $0.99 (e-book)
Genre: Alien Beings, Hard SF
John Stilwell, electrical engineer by day and SF writer by night, is one of the new generation of authors emerging from the indie publishing world. Beginning in 2010, he’s written nearly a dozen books ranging from space opera to time travel to humorous SF. He has two space opera series, Adrift on a Sea of Stars and In the Image of Gods. The Puppy of Doom and Other Stories is a collection of hard SF short stories that would have been perfectly at home in Analog’s pages. In fact, I have a mind to nominate Stilwell for the “Decade’s Most Analog-ish Author Who Has Never Appeared in Analog” Award, if only such a thing existed.
The Back of Beyond is a hard SF novel that mixes exploration and discovery with first contact. In it, Stilwell follows a fine old SF tradition by setting his story against the background of a recently discovered real-world astronomical feature—in this case, the Trappist-1 exoplanetary system.
Mark Thomas lives with his wife and daughter on the colony world Elysium. He’s a crewmember on the Edmond Fitzgerald, a cargo starship carrying freight and personnel back and forth between Elysium and Earth.
On a routine trip to Earth, sabotage cripples the Edmond Fitzgerald, leaving Mark the only survivor on a damaged ship. Far outside settled space, he makes his way to Trappist-1, a barely-surveyed red dwarf star. The star has seven Earth-size planets, three of them within the habitable zone.
Fifty years ago a robot probe was sent to the Trappist-1 system—if Mark can find that probe, he can send a distress call across forty light-years to Earth. With bio-hibernation, he might survive until rescue came. It’s a terrible plan, but it’s all he has.
Then he discovers that he’s not alone. An ancient, alien vessel is also marooned in the system. Suddenly, Mark faces unprecedented danger from the malevolent presence. . . .
The Back of Beyond is a fun and easy read, firmly based in cutting-edge science. The book has the feel of classic Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, or Larry Niven. Analog readers will almost certainly enjoy it.
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Mazes of Power
DAW, 404 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
Series: The Broken Trust 1
Genre: Psychological/Sociological, SF
If you’ve been reading Analog for any length of time, Juliette Wade should be a familiar name to you. Her first story, “Let the Word Take Me,” appeared in the July/August 2008 issue, and she’s been a frequent contributor since. With a Master’s in theoretical linguistics, a Ph.D. in education, and a deep familiarity with Japanese culture and langue, her stories generally involve linguistic and cultural conflicts, often between humans and aliens. Mazes of Power is her first novel.
This is one of those full-immersion books that drops the reader into an unfamiliar world, revealing details as the story progresses and trusting the reader to work out the big picture. In this case, the world is Varin, a planet with a human population that has no discernible connection to Earth or the history we know. This trope, which dates back (at least) to Asimov’s “Nightfall” (Astounding, September 1941), has been used to good effect in everything from Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish stories to Star Wars.
On Varin, people live in underground Cavern Cities that were established more than a thousand years ago, during a Golden Age. The surface world has grown wild and unsafe, while the technology and culture of the Cities have slowly declined over the centuries. Society is structured into seven castes, with the ruling Great Families at the top and a large undercaste on the bottom.
When a fever strikes in the city Pelimara, the ruling Eminence dies, leaving the Throne empty. Tradition demands that representatives of the Great Families each provide a champion to compete for the Throne.
Seventeen-year-old Tagaret is chosen to represent his family. If he wins, his family will gain enormous power—but the stakes are also personal. With power, he could rescue his mother from her abusive spouse. With power, he would be free to marry the woman he loves.
The fly in the ointment is Tagaret’s younger brother Nekantor, a sociopath obsessed with the family’s position. Nekantor has his own plans and goals, and he’s not above using his brother to advance his aims. Superficially, it appears to be in Tagaret’s interest to follow Nekantor’s lead . . . but he knows his brother can’t be trusted.
Wade, an expert in language, makes the complex society of Varin perfectly comprehensible. The characters are compelling and fully dimensional. Comparisons to the likes of Julie Czerneda, Ursula K. LeGuin, Joan Slonciewski, and Jack Vance are obvious and appropriate; the book would also appeal to those who enjoy the byzantine politics of, say, Catherine Asaro or David Weber.
Even though Mazes of Power is the first of a series, it doesn’t leave the reader dangling at the end—instead, it leaves one eagerly wanting more.
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Tachyon, 191 pages, $15.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Biological SF, Climate Change SF, SF Thriller
Nancy Kress has been busy lately. This is the first of two books I have for you this time around.
Kress, of course, is a superstar in the field. Since her debut in 1976, she’s published nearly three dozen novels and dozens of shorter pieces, many of which appeared in our sister magazine. Along the way, Kress has racked up two Hugo Awards, six Nebulas, and both the John W. Campbell and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards. She writes primarily hard science fiction, often with a basis in biology or genetics. She’s best known for Hugo and Nebula winner Beggars in Spain (1991), Probability Space (2002), and Steal Across the Sky (2009, reviewed here in the June 2009 issue).
Sea Change is set in Washington State in 2032, ten years after economic collapse caused by a genetically engineered drug. Between climate change and the Catastrophe, radical environmentalists rule the nation; agents of the new Department of Agricultural Security (DAS) protect the food supply by tracking down and wiping out any GMO research.
Caroline Denton, aka Renata Black, is an agent for the Org—an underground association of geneticists and agronomists working clandestinely on new food sources for an increasingly hungry planet ravaged by climate change.
On a mission, Renata discovers evidence that convinces her that the DAS has a mole inside the Org. Her quest to uncover the mole’s identity and save the Org leads her into the territory of the Native American Quinault Nation.
Filled with enough suspense and excitement for any espionage thriller, Sea Change is also a refreshingly clever exploration of the value of technology.
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The Eleventh Gate
Baen, 344 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Genre: Gates Between Worlds, Philosophical/Religious SF
In this second title, Nancy Kress moves in a completely different direction. The Eleventh Gate is high space opera in the mold of David Weber’s Honorverse series or Sharon Lee & Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe.
A century ago, humans found an alien artifact that opened the way to the stars through an instantaneous interstellar gate. Eventually, explorers found ten such gates linking together eight habitable worlds. Before long all eight planets were settled. Chief among them was Polyglot, populated by a diverse group of colonists.
The Terran Collapse left the Eight Worlds on their own. Over the decades, two competing dynasties emerged, the Landry Liberation Alliance and the Peregoy Corporation. Polyglot remained precariously balanced between the two great powers.
On all planets, an oppressed underclass begins showing signs of rebellion, adding to the tensions that imperil the Eight Worlds.
As pressures mount and war looms, two very different people remain indifferent to both politics and profits. Philip Anderson is a physicist, wishing only to continue peacefully studying the underlying structure of spacetime. Tara Landry’s grandmother is Rachel Landry, leader of the Landry Liberation Alliance. Tara, defiant and stubborn, wishes she could find a place to get away from the whole matter.
Then Tara accidentally discovers an eleventh Gate, and both sides want it. As the war intensifies, the fate of the Eight Worlds hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Philip investigates the new Gate—on the mysterious planet beyond it, he finds a secret that promises to change everything.
While Sea Change is short, sweet, and focused in time and space, The Eleventh Gate is longer, more leisurely, and much more sprawling in space and time. Both books, however, deal with the same issues: the survival of humanity, the meaning of life, and the nobility of those who struggle against the inevitable.
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Night Shade, 433 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $26.99 (e-book)
Series: Rise of the Jain 3; Polity 20
Genre: Clarke’s Law, Military SF, Space Opera
Neal Asher is a prolific British SF writer who’s been around since the 1990s. He’s best known for his multiple books and stories in the Polity Universe: modern space opera on the sort of epic scale that bleeds into mythological territory.
The Polity is a far-future galactic society supervised by ultra-intelligent AIs. Over centuries and various wars, the splintered factions of humanity have come together in opposition to the Prador—giant crablike intelligent aliens with advanced technology on a par with humans.
Across the galaxy, both races have found relics of the Jain, an ancient, long-vanished species whose tech and weapons were far beyond anything known. An immortal half-AI, half-human called Orlandine has made it her mission to gather and destroy all the dangerous Jain tech. She is assisted by another immortal, an alien construct called Dragon. Humans and Prador are both interested in Orlandine’s operation, each determined to keep the other away from the Jain tech.
The Human is the third book in the Rise of the Jain series. In the first book, The Soldier, a dormant Jain war machine was activated and nearly destroyed Orlandine. In the next book, The Warship, Orlandine and Dragon dealt with the repercussions of that attack and increasing pressure from Humans and Prador.
The Human opens with the discovery that the Jain still exist, in the form of a Jain warship entering the Galaxy from deep space. They’re after Orlandine and a crucial bit of Jain tech in her possession.
Meanwhile, Humans and Prador make a tentative alliance to fight the approaching Jain ship, which has firepower enough to obliterate the combined might of both races.
Definitely a lot of fun.
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Robert Jackson Bennett
Del Rey, 494 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Series: Founders 2
Genre: Science Fantasy
Shorefall is a sequel to Foundryside (2018, reviewed here in the November/December 2018 issue). Like that title, it’s a fantasy tale with some of the elements and flavor of science fiction, in a way that I think many Analog readers would enjoy. While it’s not exactly steampunk, it’s definitely steampunk-adjacent. You might think of the series as “industrial fantasy.”
Tevanne City runs on industrialized magic, a technology called scriving that uses coded commands to imbue objects with a form of intelligence. The robber barons who rule the city with an iron fist guard their power jealously.
In Foundryside, master thief Sancia Grado found a legendary magical artifact with unlimited power to rewrite the structure of reality. With her allies Orso, Gregor, and Berenice, she used the artifact to establish a new power in the city.
Now, after a few years, Sancia and her friends are ready to start a widespread rebellion against the robber barons. But the establishment is sure to fight back.
Millennia ago, a conjurer named Crasedes Magnus used his scriving skills to make himself a god. He became the first of the hierophants, mythological figures who ruled the world for centuries with fire and destruction. The present-day robber barons summon Crasedes back to life, with Sancia as his target.
To stop Crasedes, Sancia must call upon other gods. Whether she, her friends, and the entire city will survive the conflict is another question.
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Shane Riches and Jared Barel
Paper Movies, 98 pages, $19.99 (graphic novel)
Kindle: $12.44 (e-book)
Genre: Artificial Intelligences, SF Horror
Shane Riches is a film and television writer and producer, a professor at the School of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of Arizona College of Fine Arts, and a comic book writer and publisher. His comic and graphic novel series include Afflicted, The Safest Place, and R.P.M. Jared Barel is a filmmaker, animator, illustrator, designer, art director, and graphic novelist based in Los Angeles. He is the artist and writer for award-winning graphic novels Grey and Brielle and the Horror.
Basically, these guys know what they’re doing. And what they’ve done with ha.i.ley is an SF horror story that’s reminiscent of the best episodes of TV shows like Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, and owes a clear debt to classic SF works by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson.
Tad Hobbes, a fairly unremarkable husband and father, works for ba.i.six corporation, a leader in the artificial intelligence field. He is chosen to host the first field test of the company’s new, cutting edge household AI. Called Ha.i.ley, the AI takes the form of an android body—a female body that Tad finds oddly attractive.
As Ha.i.ley takes over household chores, Tad becomes more comfortable with her. You can see where this is going: before long, Tad is confiding in Ha.i.ley about ongoing tensions between him and his wife Sherri. When Sherri goes on a trip with their two children, Tad begins a physical affair with Ha.i.ley.
Ha.i.ley, programmed to make Tad happy, secretly sets in motion a scheme to improve Tad and Sherri’s marriage. The AI reasons that if the children are in danger, Tad can rescue them and become a hero in Sherri’s eyes.
Now there’s just the matter of engineering the precise situation to sufficiently threaten the children. . . .
Barel’s almost-photorealistic art combines with Riches’s skillful plotting and dialogue to turn a fairly familiar story into something fresh and exciting. If you’re a fan of graphic novels and/or SF horror, give ha.i.ley a try.
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Bonds of Brass
Del Rey, 302 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
Series: Bloodright Trilogy 1
Genre: LGBTQ SF, Romantic SF, Space Opera
It’s always a treat to discover a new writer. While Emily Skrutskie isn’t exactly the newest (she’s been publishing since 2016), she certainly qualifies as a treat. She holds a B.A. in Performing and Media Arts from Cornell University, where she studied a combination of film, computer science, and game design.
Skrutskie is the author of the Abyss series (The Abyss Surrounds Us, 2016, and The Edge of the Abyss, 2017) as well as standalone novel Hullmetal Girls. She writes the kind of adventure space opera that appeals to teens as well as adults.
When Ettian Nassun was a child, his world was conquered by the brutal Umber Empire. Seven years later, determined to do what he must to survive, he’s joined an Umber military academy, where he’s become the best pilot in his class. The bright spot in Ettian’s life is talented, cheerful Gal Veres, his roommate and boyfriend. For the first time since the conquest destroyed his life, Ettian is happy.
Then some classmates spring an unexpected attack on Gal. Ettian saves his friend, and the two young men flee to safety. Ettian is stunned to learn that Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. The attacking classmates are part of a brewing rebellion.
Gal is intelligent, fair, and kind-hearted—if he takes the throne he might shift the empire’s course to a better trajectory. But can Ettian count on that?
The young pilot faces a devastating choice. Should he help the man he loves to gain the throne, or enlist with the forces fighting to take back his world?
Skrutskie is a good storyteller. Her characters are likable, the story is well-paced, and has just the right amount of sparkle. Readers who enjoy the work of Lois McMaster Bujold will find much to like here.
Bonds of Brass is the first of a trilogy; we’ll be anxiously awaiting the next book.
Unfortunately, I’m out of space. Until next time, be kind to the scientists in your life.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at http://donsakers.com/ruleof5, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/drupal6/.
Copyright © 2020 Don Sakers