Rabbit fiction is always about rabbits, but science fiction isn’t always about science. The best science fiction, however, usually is. Science fiction transports the reader to strange and novel worlds; figuring out how those worlds work is often as important to the story as resolving the plot. And the best approach we have to figuring out how a world works is, in fact, science.
Harry Potter is a pure fantasy book, but Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is very much science fiction. The protagonist of the latter desperately applies the scientific method to understanding Hogwarts, rather than calmly accepting that reality is broken and stuffing his face full of ginger newts.
It’s an interesting exercise to categorize science fiction based on the science at the heart of each story. This can be anything from microeconomics, to theoretical computer science, to political philosophy. The two books I want to discuss today: Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem goes with the classic combination of math and astrophysics, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a rare example of ecology fiction.
Both books aren’t leaving the reader to do the science all by themselves, they each are centered around scientist main characters. Three-Body Problem focuses on two Chinese physicists: astrophysicist Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, a nanotechnology researcher. The main character of Annihilation is “the biologist”, because, well:
There were four of us: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a psychologist. I was the biologist. All of us were women this time, chosen as part of the complex set of variables that governed sending the expeditions.
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two.
– Annihilation, page 4.
However, the two books have radically different takes on a core question of what makes a scientist? One of the books’ answers I found deeply unsatisfying, while the other created a memorable character that may have altered my own life more than any work of fiction ever has.