Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Science of Fiction, or Why I'm a Bigger Dork Than You Thought

If you've stopped by The New Dork Review of Books once or twice over the last year or so, you've probably read about (laughed at, and then hopefully come to terms with) my weakness for a good thriller. There is nothing better than taking a break from the metaphor and metonymy of literary fiction for the the break-neck pace, disposable characters, hilariously bad dialogue and just general silliness of a good thriller (or "suspense-fiction," if you're not into that whole brevity thing).

And one of my favorite subgenres of thriller is those that are centered upon science. I've always been fascinated with science, which I realize is a bit at odds with my supposed right-brained literary thinking. I even majored in chemistry for a solid three semesters in college, before coming to my senses and switching to English. Not coincidentally, my GPA (as well as my beer consumption) jumped an entire point in a single semester.

But so, to be clear, I'm not talking about what's generally considered to be science fiction — novels by Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick about faraway places in future times. What I like is closer to the contemporary techno-thriller than to Star Wars. For instance, I'm reading a novel now you've no doubt not heard of. It's titled Final Theory, written by an editor for Scientific American magazine named Mark Alpert. Interestingly, Alpert has a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Princeton and a MFA in poetry from Columbia.

Anyway, Final Theory assumes that Einstein was successful in developing his unified field theory — the so-called Theory of Everything that would marry quantum mechanics with general relativity — he spent the latter part of his life work on. But he kept it secret, telling only a few of his apprentices. And now, some really bad guys are trying to get their hands on it, presumably to do very bad things. Awesome, right?! Alpert's also published a sequel to Final Theory titled Omega Theory, which I can't wait to dive into after this one. So far, Final Theory is fantastic, in that unintentionally funny, but strangely entertaining way these thrillers are.

By way of another example, and probably my favorite of these science-based thrillers, The Footprints of God, by Greg Iles. This novel's about a team of scientists who successfully store a digital copy of the human brain on a computer. Things don't turn out quite as they'd planned. (And if you read this Time article about the point (or singularity) at which some scientists theorize that computers will be more powerful than humans, and thus self-perpetuate, it's crazy to think that Iles isn't too far off.)

Finally, believe it or not, I also really enjoyed Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, despite it's totally implausible plot twists and horrendous writing. And I also really dig Richard Powers — who writes a sort of literary version of science-based fiction — though his novels, at least the ones I've read (The Echo Maker and Generosity: An Enhancement) tend to focus more on medical mysteries and science's attempt to understand them. The Echo Maker actually won The National Book Award in 2006.

So, any other science-techno geek thrillers out there? What are your favorites? 


  1. I'll have to check out the ones you mention. I love mysteries (and admit to really liking Angels & Demons too), and I read a lot of literary mysteries, but my taste veers to the more pedestrian side a bit with them too. There's no science involved, but my favorite mystery series (that no one else outside of my family has read) is the Lena Gamble series by Robert Ellis (1. City of Fire & 2. The Lost Witness).

  2. While I'm not a techno-thriller fan I do indulge in what are known as 'airplane' books now and then. I did read The Echo Maker. It was okay, but National Book Award? Really?

  3. Im more of a traditional science fiction person (like Asmiov and Wyndham) but I did enjoy Angels and Demons aswell. Glad you enjoyed those books

  4. I've been writing Sci-fi action for a while and have a blog of it too... I'm working on my 3rd book; and have found it hard to not screw it up and so I'm taking it slow.

    If you're interested... :)
    But please, started at chapter one of book one or you'll be completely lost.

  5. I like Greg Iles a lot...I'm also an occasional thriller fan. I call them popcorn books-lacking in substance but enjoyable nonetheless. BTW, kudos for introducing me to a new word-metonymy...

  6. No need to justify a love for science-techno geek thrillers! There's one book that's kind of genetic-science-techno called Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear. I read it awhile ago and I'm not sure how to describe it without giving away too much, but it was an interesting read and won a few sci fi awards: Nebula and Endeavor (cos sci fi awards have geeky names).

  7. @nomareader - Glad I'm not alone in liking Angels and Demons - it's my favorite Brown, though "favorite" has a different meaning in this context. I have to forget it's Brown to convince myself I like it. ;)

    @CB - Yeah, I was surprised after reading it that it had won, too. Like you said, it's good, but the best book of the year? Nah...

    @Becky - One of these days, I should just try an Asimov or a Philip K Dick. I'm working under the assumption that I wouldn't like them, but I guess I don't know that for sure.

    @Mozette - Thanks for the link - you're a fantastic writer! Yes, writing is indeed hard not to screw up. ;)

    @Heather - What else would you recommend by Iles? I've read blurbs of his novels here and there, and nothing else seemed as interesting to me as The Footprints of God - has he written other novels in a similar vein?

    @Red - Thanks for making me feel better. ;) Darwin's Radio (well, just based on the title) sounds like exactly the kind of book I'd like - thanks for the recommendation. Off to check it out.

  8. Nothing to be embarrassed about--dork is the new cool! And I think we all have our guilty pleasures. I will still pick up a Clive Cussler every once in a while. I love the interplay of marine science and archeology and who doesn't love all those super cool marine vessels.

  9. I've read True Evil, Blood Memory, and Dead Sleep. I liked all of them, but if you are looking for a technothriller I'm not sure any of them would qualify. One is about a forensic odontologist, which is sort of different and interesting, but that's as science-y as any of them get. Of course, of you are just looking for a good thriller regardless of its scientific CV, then Dead Sleep is probably the best of the three I read.

  10. I'm a sucker for a good Michael Crichton book. His later ones were pretty bad, but there was a string of really great science-oriented thrillers. Jurassic Park, Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain. All forgettable, but fun reads.

  11. Greg,
    Thanks for saying what you did... it means a lot to me. I don't get anyone commenting on my stories; and when I do, it's normally one of my vampire ones (and I've been writing those since I was a teen).

    Thanks again... it keeps me writing to know I'm certainly entertaining people.