The best books that blend science with fiction yet are not entirely either

Rob Swigart Author Of Mixed Harvest: Stories from the Human Past
By Rob Swigart

The Books I Picked & Why

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Why this book?

This is the epic adventure of the delicious matsutake mushroom, which thrives in the ruins of the clear-cut Oregon ponderosa pine forests. Because it’s prized in Japan and China, it’s a precious trophy for those who hunt it. This delightful, elegant book takes us through its life cycle and complex ecosystem underground, the Hmong villagers and other refugees in America who hunt it, the middlemen who pay them, the shippers, buyers, biologists, foresters, economists, and, yes, the anthropologists who study them. It’s an entertaining, surprisingly enriching read about a global phenomenon that takes place “in Capitalist Ruins.” As an aside, I was particularly taken with her discussion of the pine wilt nematode, a small but important factor in the matsutake’s complex life story. Go figure.


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The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn

By Louisa Gilder

The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn

Why this book?

A friend gave me a copy of this extraordinary history of quantum entanglement, a key concept in physics. The story runs from the origins of the early 20th century to the 21st when researchers experimentally proved that the mysterious “influence” of one particle on a distant companion accurately described reality. Drawing from letters, essays, and recollections, Gilder recreates or invents conversations. We eavesdrop on physicists like Einstein and Bohr on casual walks or over coffee. The technique is so compelling the reader forgets these conversations never happened. Physicists both famous and little-known come alive when they argue and share ideas. Quantum physics is a difficult subject, but the importance of entanglement in today’s understanding of the universe and our technology makes the journey not just enjoyable, but invaluable.


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Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

By Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Why this book?

Sheldrake is a mycologists, and mycologists are having their day. We are discovering plants of course, with talking trees and whispering grasses, but surely the mycelial underground so important in Tsing’s account of the matsutake is opening vast realms of a little-regarded kingdom of life. We know plants and animals. We know single-celled bacteria, algae, protozoa, slime-molds. We have certainly become more acquainted with viruses that we might have liked, but we are just getting to know the complex intelligence of the fungus. Neither plant nor animal, it has its own ways of thinking, solving problems, and communicating. Sheldrake’s passion comes through. He has a relationship with his subjects and doesn’t shy away from telling us about them. Hence this book is a blend of science and the personal “fiction” of those relationships. Entangled Life is popular science at its best.


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Foundation

By Isaac Asimov

Foundation

Why this book?

I write fiction and so include Isaac Asimov’s series of seven books. Their importance in the science fiction tradition cannot be overstated. They birthed a number of major themes (robots, galactic empire, the future); their influence is undeniable (Star Wars, I Robot, the recent Apple TV series). Is there anyone who does not know the 3 Laws of Robotics? I’ve read them several times and am now on the last one he wrote, Forward the Foundation). Some argue the writing is poor (it’s true the first volumes are clumsy), but Asimov was 21 when he wrote the first in 1941 and perhaps could be forgiven. To be fair, he did improve, but what these books have are ideas. A lot of very smart ideas. I just read a quote on page 2 of Franz de Waal’s "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" that sums it up nicely: “The science fiction author Isaac Asimov reportedly once said, ‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka,” but “That’s funny.” Heartfelt and true.


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The Origins of the World's Mythologies

By E. J. Michael Witzel

The Origins of the World's Mythologies

Why this book?

A controversial, scholarly attempt at synthesizing and organizing the foundations of world mythologies may seem a strange selection. It’s certainly an enormous task, and Witzel could be wrong, but this sweeping book tantalizes and enriches any open mind with an interest in mankind’s story on Earth: two great separate migrations out of Africa carried differing concepts of the world’s origins. The first made its way around India to Australia. In this story, the world had no origin, it always existed in Dreamtime. Mankind emerged into time and joined all creatures and their landscapes. The second migration into Europe and Asia brought the foundations of Western traditions. The story is more familiar: an all-powerful deity created the world out of chaos or primordial waters, fashioned and breathed life into human beings, and thrust them into a world of constant struggle and conflict. If for some reason that doesn't sound familiar, reread Genesis.


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