In the past few months I’ve read two absolutely amazing science fiction books that I highly recommend: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie1 and The Martian by Andy Weir. Looking back on them, one of the fascinating things to me is how they use science and technology (hereafter S&T)2 to drive the plot.
Aside: this is a spoiler-free post, although it does talk about some overarching themes.
The plot of both books involve a study of the human condition. In The Martian it’s about human perseverance and ingenuity. In the Ancillary series, it’s about what it means to be human and what values that encompasses.
In The Martian, the force of the plot revolves around interacting closely with the limits of S&T. You see the main character solving problems on how to stay alive with the technology available to him vs the laws of the universe as we know them. The author went to great lengths to make the book as realistic as possible, something that makes it very engaging and relatable. If the S&T in the book had been distinctly different than what you and I know it would have been much less real, and thus much less engaging. I would even argue that while clearly hard science fiction, it is so realistic it feels like it could have been a documentary of events in the near future.
In contrast, the Ancillary series has a completely difference tact to S&T as we know it. It unveils a universe with laws that seem very much like our own, but yet has technology that skirts the edges of what seems possible (ie: ancillaries, shields, gate space). The plot requires this almost-magic technology to exist, but doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, the author presents the technology with sensible limitations, and then uses it to drive the human-centric plot. It would have been impossible to tell this story without violating the S&T as we know it.
Thus you have two books who use S&T completely differently to drive their plots — one which adheres strictly to S&T as we know it, and another which intentionally stretches it outside of our norm — all to focus on the human condition. If you enjoy science fiction, I would encourage you to add both to your reading list.
1 Actually, I read all three books in the series: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and the newly-released Ancillary Mercy — all of which are great.
2 Daniel and I had a somewhat heated discussion in which we debated what actually counts as science and technology. Being an actual scientist he argued that science is a process of study, not a thing in and of itself, whereas technology is a tool. Me being the engineer argued that science is synonymous with fundamental laws of nature and technology is our interaction with them. We agreed that we really needed a new noun for discussing what we really wanted to focus on in these books, which was the interaction with the fundamental laws of physics without calling it either science or technology. We decided on “octopus cucumbers” during that discussion. I’ve decided to use S&T instead so you’ll think I’m less crazy than I actually am.