Sylvain Neuvel’s debut science fiction novel Sleeping Giants might seem to lean pretty heavily on the “fiction” part of the equation—think the discovery of giant alien robot parts buried deep, hundreds of years ago, in locations across the globe—but he doesn’t skimp on the science either, grounding an otherworldly story of a humans scrambling in the face of a potential intergalactic invasion with real physics and mathematical theory. A trained linguist and R2-D2 enthusiast from Montreal, Neuvel has long been inspired by speculative works that make an effort to anchor themselves in the reality of what we know about how the world works. To celebrate the release of Sleeping Giants, we asked him to share his favorite scientifically sound genre novels.
10. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
Verne apparently studied early submarines and diving gear before writing this book, and the description of the Nautilus alone is worth the read. In terms of which translation to read, I’ve heard that the more modern ones are your best bet. It’s got sea monsters, a Canadian Harpooner (“Ned Land, le roi des harponneurs”), and a really cool electric submarine (Verne is really impressed with electricity).
9. His Master’s Voice, by Stanislav Lem
Earth gets a neutrino “message” from outer space and one mathematician gives his account of the research project that ensues. Don’t let the neutrinos fool you, this book is more concerned with the philosophy of science and our own limitations than with anything having to do with first contact. It’s funny, and deep, and absurd, and great. If you’re familiar with the world of academia, you’ll really enjoy this.
8. The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein
There’s no real science to speak of in this cross between science fiction and fantasy, but I loved watching this steerswoman applying the scientific method to her fantasy world. Think of Clark’s third law, or Leigh Beckett’s “Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned”. There’s a map at the beginning, but this is a quick, easy read, and Kirstein’s writing is absolutely beautiful.
7. Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer
The premise for this parallel universe story is a really good one, but the science is what got me hooked. You could probably use this book to help students pick a field of study. It has a bit of everything: physics, (paleo)anthropology, genetics, quantum computing, etc., etc. Sawyer’s research is impeccable and the science is always solid.
6. Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn
In 1941, German physicist Heisenberg (think uncertainty principle) took a trip to Denmark to meet his friend and colleague Niels Bohr. No one knows what they talked about. Now they’re dead, and, along with Bohr’s wife Margrethe, they talk about that meeting, the war, and quantum physics. Frayn’s writing is brilliant, especially in his use of Margrethe, who keeps the science talk manageable and helps us understand the human variables in this equation. If you like dialogue as much as I do, you’re in for a treat, because this one’s a play.
5. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
Seriously, what’s cooler than DNA and Dinosaurs? There’s all sorts of science and science-y stuff in there, and dinosaurs. Did I mention DINOSAURS? RAWR! You should also check out The Andromeda Strain for some science-filled OMG-we’re-all-gonna-die funness. It’s 1969 and the only thing scarier than deadly bacteria is deadly bacteria FROM OUTER SPACE! I first read it as a teenager, but I like it even better now because it’s so over the top. How over the top? “There are now three minutes to atomic self-destruct.” Yep. It even has a fake bibliography.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
The book was developed at the same time as the movie, so it’s not a novelization, nor is the movie based on the book. HAL is just as creepy in the book, but what I enjoyed most were the descriptions of our solar system, and the physics of space travel. If it’s the homicidal AI you’re after, try Robopocalyse by Daniel H. Wilson. It’s not a goldmine of scientific information, but it’s SO. MUCH. FUN! And Wilson has a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon, so, there.
3. The Martian, by Andy Weir
I have a thing for epistolary novels, so this one had a head start on most space adventures, but how often do you see one where botany and engineering save the day? Science is a good thing for once. No guns! I’ve never had so much fun reading about poop and potatoes!
2. The Flicker Men, by Ted Kosmatka
I think this is the perfect use of science in fiction. Take a well-known physics experiment and add one tiny little twist – a simple question, really. Sick and twisted, but so beautifully simple. About a hundred pages in, I was cursing the author for messing with my mind. This book is evil. Best thing I’ve read in a while.
1. Contact, by Carl Sagan
I really liked the movie, but the science is better in the book, and there’s a lot more of it. If I could turn a work of fiction into reality, this one would be at the top of my list.
Sleeping Giants is available today from Del Rey Books.