The best nonfiction books for my sci-fi future worldbuilding

Carole Stivers Author Of The Mother Code
By Carole Stivers

Who am I?

As a science fiction author, reading excellent science nonfiction is like taking my mind on a trip to an unknown land, there to wander, sightsee, and reimagine my own fictional plots. During the past few years of COVID-restricted isolation, these books have replaced travel as a source of mind-expanding inspiration, affording me a refuge from the tempest of current events and leaving my brain churning with visions of future worlds. The choices below reflect a common thread: each is written or edited by an expert in the field, and the authors possess that rare combination of deep knowledge and the ability to communicate it in an engaging way.


I wrote...

The Mother Code

By Carole Stivers,

Book cover of The Mother Code

What is my book about?

In the year 2054, a boy named Kai is born alone in America’s desert Southwest, his only companion his mother—a super-soldier robot. The Mother Code is the story of how Kai and his Mother grow to better understand both themselves and the world that made them. It ends with a decision: Will Kai break his bond with his Mother, or fight to save the only parent he has ever known?

The books I picked & why

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Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

By Carlo Rovelli, Simon Carnell (translator), Erica Segre (translator)

Book cover of Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

Why this book?

I’m a biochemist, not a physicist. But as a science fiction writer, I yearned to grasp the strange language of theoretical physics. In his opening chapters, Carlo Rovelli deftly navigates the intersection of poetry, philosophy, physics, and mathematics to present the most accessible picture I’ve encountered of currently accepted theory, starting with the atom and working through Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein to end with quantum physics. Things get more speculative as he then delves into his own field, loop quantum gravity, portraying a universe that is finite not only at the cosmic level of Einstein’s curved spacetime but also at a minute, granular level, where time does not exist and everything we think we know is relational. Whether or not you agree with him, Rovelli opened whole new vistas for newbies like me! 


The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything

By Michio Kaku,

Book cover of The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything

Why this book?

In the book Reality is Not What It Seems, Carlo Rovelli exhorts us to “Stop dreaming of new fields and strange particles; supplementary dimensions, other symmetries, parallel universes, strings, and whatever else.” Oh, but I wanted to dream, and Michio Kaku always takes me on such a fun ride! I loved Kaku’s The Future of the Mind, which inspired me as I wrote my own science fiction novel. So I turned to him again when I wanted to learn more about string theory, the competing theory to Rovelli’s loop quantum gravity and Kaku’s own area of expertise. It was well worth it. At least now I can plumb the allure of that symmetry, the wonder of those parallel worlds, and the fullness of those eleven dimensions—even if I may never see them proven out in my lifetime.


Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

By Paul Hawken (editor),

Book cover of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

Why this book?

So many have decried the current state of our planet. But in this Anthropocene Age, we’re not in a fight to save the planet—we’re in a fight to maintain the delicate balance of the life on it, including our own. Project Drawdown takes on this uniquely human struggle, offering ammunition and courage. This book is chock full of ideas about what our future can and should look like—in areas such as energy, agriculture and land use, transport, architecture, and equity for women. A great reference for those like me who are looking to realize a future world full of hope.


The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

By Nick Lane,

Book cover of The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

Why this book?

How did the first life form emerge from the chaos of Earth, billions of years ago? How did we come to be? Nick Lane systematically debunks the idea of a primordial soup, instead painting an equally amazing picture of alkaline hydrothermal vents acting like ancient bioreactors deep in the sea, their porous walls forming what might be thought of as the first biological membranes; the evolution of the proton pump, fueling all that happened afterward; and the improbable endosymbiosis between an archaeon and a bacterium that sparked the origins of the mitochondrion and the birth of complex life. Whether or not Lane’s theories prove true in every detail, I came away with a deep appreciation of the wondrous series of coincidences required for our evolution—and wondering too about the probability that such unlikely events might already have occurred elsewhere in our universe.


The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

By Sarah Stewart Johnson,

Book cover of The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

Why this book?

As Perseverance made its way toward Mars, I found myself looking for ways to design some of my own future characters: What sorts of people are consumed by the search for extraterrestrial life? What do they hope to find, and how will they interpret what they find? Traversing the boundaries between nonfiction and autobiography, this lovely book chronicles not only the history of humans’ fascination with the red planet, but also a personal journey for its author. Through her lens, it offers an in-depth comparison of our own precious Earth to the now-dead planet with which we are endlessly obsessed—a place where we hope to find clues not only to the origins of our own life, but to “life as we don’t know it.” 


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