Putting the Science in Fiction

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 18 Oct 2018

Member Reviews

Putting the Science In Fiction is a collection of essays which cover groundbreaking science in modern science fiction. Each chapter is written by a different scientist or engineer, with wildly different topics and levels of success in conveying their message. One might say it's like Tim Ferriss' Tools Of Titans for science fiction writers. Instead of reading straight through, I first visited the topics that spoke most to me. A few of my favorites were Rogue Viruses and Pathogens and The Science of Toxins and Poisoning. Sci-Fi nerds will find plenty to like in this wide-ranging and fascinating collection.
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What an utterly fascinating book!  I love reading 'the truth behind the fiction' and this book was perfect for that.  I did skim a few - very few - chapters that got a little too technical for me, but overall, this book was easily understood and extremely interesting.  HIGHLY recommended for sci-fi writers.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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I have served on various book judging committees over the years. Recently I was part of a group picking the best science fiction for the year. I’m not going to say where or when, but it’s a list where the jury is still out.

But it made me think about what makes good science fiction – and conversely what doesn’t. Which led me to not one but two books in the virtually towering TBR pile, Putting the Science in Fiction and The Science of Science Fiction, both of which have been released this month.

It seemed like a golden opportunity to do a compare and contrast instead of a more traditional review.

I thought that these books would work together well. Putting the Science in Fiction was all about the inputs. It is exactly what I expected it to be. Much fiction, both written and filmed, includes some science in some form. Police dramas and mysteries deal with forensic science. Medical dramas – and not a few mysteries – deal with medical science. Science fiction, of course, is all about taking science out to the nth degree and then playing with it.

But lay people often get things wrong. There are lots of things about science that get shortchanged or simplified in order to make better drama. Anyone who is an expert in whatever has just gotten completely screwed up will cringe and just how far off-base the writer or director has just taken the science in their story.

We all do it for our own fields. And when it happens it throws the knowledgeable reader out of the story – no matter how good the rest of it might be.

Putting the Science in Fiction turns out to be a surprisingly readable collection of essays by science and engineering experts explaining the very, very basics of their fields to those of us whose expertise is somewhere else. It serves as a terrific guide for any writer who wants to follow the dictum of “write what you know” by learning more so they know more so they have more to write about.

On my other hand, The Science of Science Fiction is not what I expected it to be. I was kind of expecting it to be about SF that did well – not necessarily in the science aspect at the time so much as in the way that it captured the imagination – even to the point where the SF created the science it postulated.

There is a famous story about Star Trek: The Original Series and the invention of the cell phone that comes to mind.

But that’s not where this book went. Although that would be a great book and I hope someone writes it.

Instead, The Science of Science Fiction reads more like a history of SF written thematically rather than chronologically. It takes some of the basic tenets and tropes of SF and lays out where they began – sometimes surprisingly long ago – to where they are now.

It’s an interesting approach but it didn’t quite gel for this reader.

By way of comparison, both books talk about the science and the influences of Michael Crichton’s classic work of SF, Jurassic Park.

Putting the Science in Fiction does two things, and it does them really well. First, it conveys that “sensawunder” that SF does when it is at its best. The author of the essay is a microbiologist, who puts the science of the book in context – both the context of what was known at the time it was written (OMG 1990!) and what has been discovered since, and comes to the conclusion that he didn’t do too badly based on what was known at the time. Discoveries since have made his science fictional extrapolation less likely than it originally seemed. It’s hard to fault the author for that.

But what the author of the essay also does is to show how the book not only grabbed his interest and attention but continues to hold it to the present day, even though he knows the science isn’t remotely feasible. The book does a great job of taking just enough of the science in a direction that we want to believe is possible.

After all, who wouldn’t want to see a real live dinosaur? Under very controlled conditions. Much more controlled conditions than occur in the book, of course.

The Science of Science Fiction also discusses Jurassic Park. (A classic is a classic, after all) But instead of talking about the science of cloning the author goes into a couple of other directions. First he sets Jurassic Park within the context of other “lost world” works of science fiction. That’s a tradition that goes back to Jules Verne and even further. But it feels like the fit of Jurassic Park as part of that lost world tradition doesn’t quite fit.

The other part of this Jurassic Park discussion has to do with the way that scientists are portrayed in SF. Science makes the story possible. Scientists in fiction tend to work toward proving they can do something – in this particular case proving they can clone dinosaurs from preserved DNA. It takes a different kind of scientist, someone dealing in chaos theory, to posit that just because it CAN be done doesn’t mean it SHOULD be done. That’s a discussion I would love to see expanded. And I’d have liked this book more if it had been expanded here.

Reality Ratings: These two books struck me completely differently. Putting the Science in Fiction is both readable and does what it sets out to do – excellent points for a work designed to help writers do a more informed job of including science in their fiction. I therefore give Putting the Science in Fiction a B+.

Howsomever, The Science of Science Fiction doesn’t work nearly as well. It reads much more like a history of SF than it treats with the science of SF. That it breaks that history up into themes rather than treat it chronologically makes it jump around a bit. As SF history, it’s not nearly as readable as Astounding or An Informal History of the Hugos or What Makes This Book So Great?. While I will be tempted to dip back into Putting the Science in Fiction again when I need some explanatory material on a particular science in SF, I won’t be inclined to go back to The Science of Science Fiction. I give The Science of Science Fiction a C+

One final recommendation. Do not read the chapter in Putting the Science in Fiction about plausible methods for kicking off the Zombie Apocalypse at breakfast. Or any other meal!
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Whether you write mysteries, fantasy or science fiction, Putting the Science in Fiction is an exceptional way to avoid factual errors. But it is also just a great way to catch up with current technology trends.

When your spaceship dramatically explodes into a fiery cataclysm, scientists everywhere are screaming (with laughter). Of course, in space no one can hear you scream. However, you should also know that without oxygen, you know like in outer space, fiery explosions can’t occur. To avoid giggling scientists, read this book.

The range of subject matter within Putting the Science in Fiction is impressive. From simple lab protocols to poisons, genetic engineering, mental health issues, disasters, rocket science, biology, computer science and more, this book has something for everyone. Each story is written by an expert in their field. Most are less than ten pages long.

Even for non-writers, some of the misconceptions exposed are fascinating. Walt Disney probably wasted his money freezing his head. Most of the Terminator series is impossible. However, the storm trooper’s pulse (really an intermittent laser) cannon has already been tested successfully by the US Navy. Unfortunately, Luke’s lightsaber is a non-starter as are all of the rebel’s ships. I guess we know who really would have won the (star) war.

Okay, I admit it: I am a total nerd. I absolutely loved this book. I am planning to use it at parties to debunk (okay, maybe ruin) popular movies. However, even as a non-writer, Putting the Science in Fiction gave me at least five great plots for a future bestselling novel. Unfortunately, it won’t be written by me. Perhaps you will write it so I can have the pleasure of seeing my idea in print. 5 stars!

Thanks to the publisher, Writer’s Digest, and NetGalley for an advance copy.
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Making sure that science fiction stories portray more science fact than science fantasy can be one of the most difficult things for any writer to do, especially if they aren't a scientist themselves. This book aims to help with that. In it a variety of experts give a bare bones primer on a variety of scientific topics, so at least writers won't get the obvious stuff wrong.
Librarian: There are dozens of books on writing published each year. Obviously we can't order all of them. If you are planning on ordering a few though, this one is a good one to consider. It's on a topic, that I haven't seen deeply covered before, and written by people who are actually experts in the field. (Plus, with NaNoWriMo just around the corner, the demand for books like this is up.)
Reader: Interesting writing book on a topic that I haven't really studied before. I'm glad I picked it up, it will be a worthy addition to my shelves.
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If you are writing medical dramas, steampunk, techno-thrillers, or any sort of science fiction, then you will want to pick up a copy of Putting the Science in Fiction.

Based on Dan Koboldt's popular writing blog, Putting the Science in Fiction is a collection of essays written by researchers and medical professionals, some (at least) who are themselves authors of fantasy and science fiction. A wide range of topics are covered - everything from working in a lab to how code is ran in an ER to wildlife biology to cybersecurity to quantum physics and more.

I, at times, found the essays to be a bit dry and overall the book was a slow read. However, presumably a writer using this as a resource for their own story won't be reading it cover to cover as I did, but instead jump to the section that is pertinent to their universe. Also, I spend my day reading and writing about science at work, which I'm sure influenced my feelings (I love science. I also love ice cream, but if that was all I was consuming I wouldn't be quite as excited).

Some of the essays had my eyes crossing as the science was hard to grasp, others were quite fascinating. As I said some were dry while authors were a bit more fun to read. Working daily with scientists, I know some can talk about there work in exciting ways that draw the reader in and others who are only slightly more enjoyable than a root canal. I think having this variety in tone included in this collection will also help the writer get a sense of the variety of personalities in the science world.

If you are struggling for a story idea, Putting the Science in Fiction is a great resource to help with ideas, too. Many of the later essays provided jumping off points for stories. For example, did you know that fleas were used as a bioweapon during WWII? I didn't (which isn't too surprising since there is a lack of stories set in the Pacific theater).

While I'm not a writer of fiction, I read quite a bit of science fiction and medical dramas. Often how the science is handled irks me in these stories. Usually, it is because there isn't enough detail to convince me that it is a feasible possibility or it is evident that the author just threw it in as a plot point without any research as the details are erroneous. So I definitely believe this book is a needed resource for authors.

While there are some pretty detailed essays, the reader should view this collection as a primer. If your novel relies heavily on science, then more research will be required beyond this collection. It also must be kept in mind that these essays are the experiences and understanding of one or two people in the field. For example, the article about working a research laboratory I wondered what type of laboratory the person was accustomed to because of the differences in how she described security and procedures and what I know about security and procedures as the research center I work at.

This book is a natural choice for writers of medical dramas and science fiction, but even writers of historical fiction will find important advice within its pages. Putting the Science in Fiction is definitely a resource every writer should have in their toolbox.
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If I ever doubted that I am not a hard science fiction reader/writer, this book definitely convinced me.

On the science fiction/fantasy spectrum, I definitely lean more toward the fantasy end. As long as the science is "close enough" (even for things I KNOW are wrong), the story is more important to me. I'm okay with some hand waving and "comic book science" as long as the characters and integrity of the plot carry the story. 

Overall, this book definitely served that end. It provided just enough information on the various scientific topics for an author to sound like they know what they're talking about or to spark some creative ideas for incorporating science realism into their books without needing a PhD in a dozen different specialties. The best chapters were the ones where the contributor acknowledged that a good story with fantastical "science" is still a good story, but showed some simple ways to tweak that science to make it even more realistic.

Where the book fell apart for me is the small handful of chapters where the contributors were downright condescending. Those contributors, including the one on pregnancy/delivery and nanotechnology, seemed to forget that no matter how important the science is, the "fiction" part will still what readers are looking for. Otherwise, they'd just go read a textbook. The popularity of entertainment like Jurassic Park, the Bourne series or Marvel movies show that as long as it "looks good on paper," most readers/viewers don't really care that the science is suspect. 

Insulting those readers or the writers who did the hand waving doesn't really make me give a crap about your science. And telling me that just because my delivery went a certain way doesn't mean I should write it that way in a book because it isn't the norm makes me think you forgot that this is f-i-c-t-i-o-n. Speculative or otherwise, fiction is limited only by the author's (and reader's) imagination.
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Aspiring writers and science-fiction fans will enjoy Dan Koboldt's Putting the Science in Fiction. Koboldt has compiled dozens of short primers on a variety of topics found in science-fiction. Each chapter is written by an expert in his or her field; they're concise, well-written, and accessible introductions to each topic. Looking for basic facts on how gravity, earthquakes, or genome sequencing work? You'll find that here. Interested in more speculative fiction, like futuristic weaponry or zombie microbiology? Yep, this book has that, too. It's an interesting, fun read and should be required reading for any science-fiction writer.
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I have been following Dan Koboldt's blog for some time and learning a lot. So I was excited to see this book and hopeful at the same time. I'm pleased to report that I learned even more from the book! No matter if you write with a lot of sci-fi in your work or even just a little, there's bound to be something in here you'll find yourself using. Much of it is written in a conversational style, very easy to read. (Although I confess to reading the genetics section twice in order to understand parts of it)
If you write sci-fi of any stripe, you need this book!
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Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres is a collection of brief essays from experts in various fields that originally appeared as part of editor Dan Koboldt’s blog, which he describes in this way: “Each week, we discuss elements of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in a relevant topic area. We debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.”

Anyone who has started yelling at a book or the TV due to some glaring scientific error (we know who we are) will recognize the problem Koboldt’s blog, and now this book, is trying to solve and more power to him. The book runs through a gamut of topics (nearly 40), with broad topics and a few representative but not complete specific examples listed below: 
1)	Research and medicine (lab technique, medical misconceptions, toxins and poisons)
2)	Genome (heredity, genetic engineering, viruses and pathogens)
3)	Mental health and neuroscience (memory, schizophrenia)
4)	Biology (wolves, insects, polar animals)
5)	Technology (cyborgs, AI, the internet)
6)	Planetary information (earthquakes, climate change, habitable atmospheres)
7)	Space (astronomy, relativity, space flight, FTL)

As is often the case with collections, the articles vary in effectiveness and also obviously will be dependent on one’s own areas of expertise or, if not expertise, familiarity. All of them are written with a welcome level of clarity, many are full of useful information, and some I’d call just to basic to be of much use. The best ones not only tell us what we should know but also debunk common myths, while others amongst the most effective ones enliven the information with a wry sense of humor, bringing the authors’ personal experiences (and personality) into the mix. A few of my favorites were the medical misconceptions by Karyne Norton, the chapter on poisons by Megan Cartwright Chaudhuri (which came with an excellent list of additional resources), a particular lucid chapter explaining plague by  Lee A. Everett, and two particularly strong chapters on dementia by Anne M. Lipton (probably my most highlighted chapters), and an interesting chapter on gender in the animal kingdom. Some of those that were not particular full of new information to me either offered up a tidbit or two of something fresh or it was just nice to have all the familiar information in a concise, all-in-one-place format, as with one chapter that listed various types of tech jobs.

The basic information is here as jumping off points, some delve into much more detail, and many offer up other resources to dig into the topics more deeply.  If it wasn’t quite as much new information as I’d have hoped, I’d still call it a useful, well-written resource. And for those with less familiarity with some of the topics, that would be only more true.  Recommended.
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As someone who aspires to writing decent genre fiction, one of the most terrifying things is always the amount of things you can get wrong. Obviously, this is true in non-genre fiction, but it's genre fiction that seems to attract the people who are going to pick apart your words and point out all the things that are wrong. And for sure, if something's wrong, you want to know so you can fix it. But wouldn't it be even better to get it right in the first place? And that's what this book is for.

Divided into a number of chapters, experts in various scientific disciplines talk about the things that frustrate them in media representations of science - inaccuracies, misunderstandings, wilful misrepresentations. They explain why those popular representations are incorrect, with understanding that there are sometimes reasons for the inaccuracies (such as CSI's instance that any and all tests can be done in a thirty second montage, rather than taking many hours, which simply would not make good TV). And then, with knowledge and humour, they explain the realities of the situation.

As someone who's always enjoyed learning, this book is great just as a source of knowledge, whether or not you intend to incorporate the information into your writing. I genuinely felt like I learned a huge amount reading this book, on a wide variety of topics. The book covers not just traditional scientific disciplines, but also nanotechnology, CGI, cryotechnology - it's all here. There are also some sections covering mental health and common misconceptions about mental illnesses. Really, there's just so much to learn and so much inspiration to take away from this book.

And there's an overarching message to this book, which is that research is key. Whether you need to understand the details of a current scientific idea or you need to know what an imagined future world would be like if you took away all the power, there'll be an expert out there who'll be able to help. And the more thorough your research, the more solid the basis for your writing, and the more life you can bring to your world.

This book is a brilliant resource, both for writers and for those with a more general interest in science. The authors are hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subjects, and there's so much in here to teach you and provide inspiration for writing and further learning. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a starting point for some research and an idea about what misunderstandings they might have acquired from popular culture, and also anyone who just wants to learn some about some awesome science!
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A brilliant indispensable encyclopedic work that should be at the elbow of every fiction writer that deals in any way with science. Putting the Science into Fiction quite literally leaves no aspect untouched. And science you see in fiction is referenced here. Is it true or not? This work will inspire writers to include real science and make writing any references to science easy.
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As an aspiring author myself, I’m always interested in titles that might help me develop my craft. I predominantly write crime fiction, but my reading tastes are a little more eclectic – encompassing horror, some science fiction, dystopia and the burgeoning new genre that is Cli-Fi - so I can well envisage writing something along those lines someday.  Readers have always sought a certain realism, even in horror and fantasy they expect some consistency in the world the author creates, and this is especially so since the dawn of the internet age, when facts are so easily checkable. Obviously, the online world is the writer’s friend, enabling as it does swifter and more efficient research, but it can also be a foe, swamping them with facts of dubious veracity and luring with distraction. 

Putting the Science in Fiction aims to act as an easily accessible resource for writers of any genre whose plots might touch on scientific matters. It is important to note here that “science” is broadly interpreted so as to include all the disciplines from physics through medicine and biological science to engineering.  The text addresses cutting edge scientific debates and phenomena, topical debates, as well as the science that routinely reoccurs in fiction. So, we have everything from the human genome and genetic manipulation, through zombies, to the science behind Star Wars weapons.

While this book is listed as by Dan Koboldt, in actual fact he is the editor. Each chapter is in actual fact written by an expert in their field. So, we have a chapter on the human genome by Koboldt (who is a geneticist), one on portaying mental health accurately by Kathleen S. Allen, a psychiatric nurse, and another on cyborgs and cybernetics by Benjamin Kinney, a neuroscientist. Other topics I might list are writing convincing death scenes by Bianca Nogrady, a science reporter, and realistic space flight, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, a pilot and aviation engineer.

As noted, some of the chapters deal with more speculative topics, the chapter on zombies for example tried to answer scientifically how a zombie could theoretically come to pass, while the chapter on Star Wars weapons and space flight is clearly aimed at helping science fiction writers base their fiction in theoretical hard science. Other chapters, such that on the science behind Jurassic Park, aim to answer the question as to the realism of scenarios portrayed in film and firmly embedded in the public’s psyche.

This is a really good book with essays penned by an eclectic range of authors on a broad range of subjects. Each has suggestions at the end for resources the reader might want to look at if they want to research the topic in more depth, but on their own they stand as informative summaries, the authors successfully straddling the divide between sufficient detail and brevity. I found this book very helpful and think that as a resource I will be referring to it for a long time to come.
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This was a great book. I have a degree in biology and genetics, and an interest in science in general so it always irritates me when Sci-fi writers really make big errors. The persistence of the whirling field of meteorites is a case in point – thanks George Lucas for perpetuating that one!  Obviously we can’t all be experts on all fields of science (another bugbear is the use of a character who is a scientist and apparently that means ALL fields of science in films and books) and you certainly don’t have to be a scientist to write Sci-fi if you do you research. This book looks at various fields and gives you the basics behind them so you can avoid your own meteor fields. Highly recommend.
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