Back in 2018, Yuval Noah Harari appeared on Episode 325 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast from Wired.
In that interview, the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, said something surprising. He said that:
Today, science fiction is the most important artistic genre. It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.
He also said that if we want to raise awareness of current technological challenges and issues, a good science fiction movie will have more impact than one hundred articles on Science, Nature or the New York Times.
Almost a decade after I first started wearing a lab coat and hiding my dreams of becoming a novelist, it feels incredible to hear someone as awesome as Harari saying something that astounding out loud.
Stories, not facts, are the cornerstone of human existence
I’ve been aware of the crisis ravaging science journalism and communication ever since I started my Master’s in Science Journalism back in 2010.
At the end of my first month I realized, with a sinking heart, that the way most people were doing science communication wasn’t work at all.
In the words of Richard Grant:
Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family. That’s not communication. (…) It’s tribalism.
For the past decade, I’ve been both a scientist and a communicator. And, unfortunately, Grant’s words hit too close to home.
Grant’s words remind me that facts were never enough to change people’s hearts and minds in the first place. And they make me question the sanity of those who continue to attempt to convince people using only dry facts.
When a community is ravaged by distrust, facts uttered by experts only increase the distance between us.
They enforce an “us against them” mentality, and science keeps losing ground as myth, fake news and ideological bubbles keep conquering all the slots in our feeds.
I don’t know if stories could change that. But I know that facts without stories to support them are meaningless.
And I also know that stories create bridges between people. They bring us together, while facts drive us apart. And being united will be more important than ever in the decades to come.
Science fiction stories to read in 2020
For many decades, movies and books set in space have shaped our appetite for news about physics and astronomy. But as a biologist, I can assure you we don’t need to look to the stars to dream about the future of humanity, the future is already happening right here in our good old Earth.
It takes at least 10-20 years for a new technology, therapy or drug to reach the market. So, those of us who keep up to date with the latest developments literally know of the countless exciting possibilities that lie a little farther ahead.
And let me tell you something. From my perspective, what lies ahead is as exciting, dangerous and full of uncertainty as the quiet wilderness of space.
As Harari said, biotechnology and environmental sciences will shape our future in the coming decades. And yet, so little of the current progress and challenges these areas are facing is reaching the wide public.
Instead, relevant data gets itself buried under scientific jargon in scientific papers or hidden in dubious science sections of online newspapers.
To be honest, I don’t think science journalism will work until we start linking facts to stories. And that is why I decided to read more biopunk and cli-fi (climate fiction) novels in 2020, as a way to prepare myself to write them in the future.
If you came to this article looking for recommendations, or if I just convinced to give these subgenres a try, here is a list of books with fascinating premises that I’ve added to my 2020 TBR (with no particular order):
by Octavia E. Butler
I read Kindred early in 2019 and became immediately captivated by Butler’s strong voice and immense courage to write about difficult themes. It was only later I discovered how prolific Butler had been.
After closing my paperback edition of Kindred with a troubled heart, I knew I’d be adding more of her books to my TBR.
Two of those books belong to Butler’s Earthseed duology – Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents.
These books are set in a very realistic near-future where climate change and water shortage have plunged society into chaos.
If you need more convincing on why you should be reading this book, go and check this amazing review on the Monster Librarian’s blog.
Xenogenesis Trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood)
by Octavia E. Butler
Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago are the three books of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy.
These books are the echo of Butler’s own ancestry and experience on being one of the few Black female science fiction authors when the genre was dominated by white male authors.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Lilith Iyapo, who one day wakes up to discover that the Earth she knew has been destroyed by nuclear holocaust. Lilith finds herself 250 years into the future and in the hands of the Oankali, a nomadic alien species, who promise to return her to Earth.
But their promises come with a heavy price.
If you need an awesome review to convince you to read these books, who can start by reading this one (but tread carefully, spoilers lie ahead).
The Broken Earth Trilogy
by N. K. Jemisin
It was MJ from the Book Nerd Reviews who first told me about this series. I hesitated at first, but, let’s be honest, I find it extremely hard to resist good dystopian books.
The Broken Earth trilogy starts with The Fifth Season, continues with The Obelisk Gate and finishes with The Stone Sky.
The trilogy is set in a massive continent called Stillness, wrecked by periodic disasters called Seasons. The books blend science and technology, and they won Jemisin a Hugo award two years in a row.
If you need someone else to convince you to read these books, go and check this review.
by Scott Westerfeld
Subgenre: steampunk, biopunk
I read Westerfeld’s Uglies series many years ago. I know many people consider them childish and superficial, but these books came into my life when I was struggling with negative self-image and anxiety. Somehow, they’ve helped me to deal with it all in a healthy way.
That is why Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath ended up in my TBR.
These books tell a steampunk version of the First World War. And they’ve made it into this list because Westerfeld recreated a version of WWI fought by steampunk machines and genetically engineered monsters.
Plus, I’m curious to discover what’s the hidden theme of these books. Knowing Westerfeld as I do, I know there must be at least one amazing theme in Leviathan waiting to blow me away.
by Peter Watts
The Rifter trilogy consists of four books (I’m not crazy, bear with me, please!! It will make sense in a second): Starfish, Maelstrom and Behemoth (parts I and II: β-Max and Seppuku).
Watts created an interesting dystopian world where emotionally damaged people are bio-engineered to endure inhumane work conditions: the dark deepness of the ocean floor.
The author used his training in Marine Biology to create a believable crazy future and he uses his imagination to tell the story of Lenie Clarke.
Lenie, a child abuse survivor, is an emotionally disconnected and introvert girl, who somehow transforms into “a sort of secular goddess of destruction” by the end of the series (I’m quoting Alyx Dellamonica here!).
If that didn’t convince you to pick this series, go and read this awesome review!
by Barbara Kingsolver
“Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy, Kingsolver dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.” – Goodreads
This book is about global warming and it’s not at the same time. In its core, it tells the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer’s wife who gave up her life when she became pregnant at 17.
Flight Behaviour tells us the story of how Dellarobia reinvents herself in the middle of a global crisis as she attempts to solve the mystery of the monarch butterflies.
I’ve heard so many great things about Kingsolver’s work, that’s why this book made it into my TBR.
Gold Fame Citrus
by Claire Vaye Watkins
“This is a California blasted by drought, the sun that nurtured the citrus turned sinister thanks in part to Californians’ pursuit of luxury at the climate’s expense.” – Sam Kitchener, The Independent
In a world decimated by drought, Watkins creates a powerful portrait of a post-apocalyptic future intertwined with the tragic failings of the human nature.
In the words of Jonathan Lee (Financial Times), this story focus on “left-behind people and left-behind places — those who exist at the periphery of destructive events.”
Watkins first became known by her award-winning short story collection – Battleborn. Naturally, both her collection and this book ended up in my TBR!
The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
“What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?” – Goodreads
The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi’s debut novel. And it has won him countless awards since it’s publication.
It tells the story of Anderson Lake, an American in Bangkok secretly searching for foodstuffs resistant to bio-engineered blight. It’s in the chaotic streets of Thailand’s biggest city that Anderson finds and falls in love with Emiko, a bio-engineered artificial human.
Bacigalupi’s puts a lot of interesting questions on our plate. The fear of the devastating consequences of bio-engineered crops going out of control. And the fear of a broken society forced to fight for something we all take for granted today: food.
Have you read any of these books? Would you add another one to this list?
I’ve included works by female and male authors, many of them with a strong background in sciences. I hope this article convinced you to explore biopunk and cli-fi in 2020!