Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fictional chemistries

That Mars habitat?
A version of this post appeared at Culture of Chemistry

"The basement corridor is dim, I can hear pumps chugging, hoods noisily venting, and the solid-state physicist down the hall swearing. 'Welcome to Mars!' says the cheery sign outside my colleague’s door. Perhaps it is the pile of grading on my desk or the endless round of meetings on my calendar that is fuelling my escapist fantasy, but every time I pass Selby’s office, I imagine the door is a portal and if I were to walk through, I’d  find myself in a habitat on Mars, its pumps working hard to compress the thin atmosphere." — from "Strangers to Fiction" in Nature Chemistry8, 636-637 (2016).

I've been a sci-fi fan for going on five decades, devouring Heinlein (while spitting out the sexism like watermelon seeds), laughing my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, imagining myself in labs on Mars, mining comets, and exploring strange new worlds.  There are moments when I wish I could write good fiction, but it's not my genre.

The onset of summer, and memories of biking to the tiny library when I was in elementary school, along with making a list of chemistry related fiction for the Nature Chemistry piece, prompted me to think about what the most memorable SF stories I've read were.

Perhaps topping the list is The Cold Equations (Tom Godwin) about a young woman who stows away on a space shuttle and in the end must die.  It gets me thinking about unrecognized consequences, and while I read myself into the story the first time I encountered it, now I see students and sons in the doomed stowaway.  (And I agree with Cory Doctorow, the writer forces this solution, I keep thinking of alternate solutions.)

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall is another one that I can remember the details of long after I read it.  My puzzle solving self enjoys the way the scientists and historians put the pieces together to figure out what is to come.  I thought of this story, too, when I visited James Turrell's Backside of the Moon on Naoshima in Japan.

Flower's for Algernon (Daniel Keys) left a deep impression. What does it mean to be human?  How do we treat those we encounter?

The Worlds series by Joe Haldeman.  Perhaps because this one has a female protagonist?  Maybe because it is both dark and hopeful?  I can almost hear Marianne O'Hara of New New York play her saxophone.

You can read the Nature Chemistry essay here.  My list of fictional chemistry is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment