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

Who am I?

I was an avid reader of science fiction as a teenager and developed a love of science and how elegantly and yet how alive and ever-changing it is as we learn more. It explains the world. I couldn’t settle on any one field: physics, biology, neuroscience, astronomy, geology? So I began a writing career where I could draw on my faithful reading of Science News and popular science books. Scientific inaccuracies in fiction still irritate me (don’t get me started), and to the best of my ability Ι ground stories in what we know with some confidence, though science will always be a moving target. My recent book, Mixed Harvest, embeds fiction in archaeology and anthropology.

I wrote...

Mixed Harvest: Stories from the Human Past

By Rob Swigart,

Book cover of Mixed Harvest: Stories from the Human Past

What is my book about?

These short stories, grounded in prehistory, archaeology, and anthropology, dramatize a possible history of our species’ wandering journey from African hunter-gatherer to global farmer. They cover 60,000 years, ending with the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia.

Today we enjoy the benefits of the civilization they bequeathed us; we also confront the unintended consequences of their decisions. We went from hunting and gathering, painting on cave walls, and swapping lies around a fire, to writing our own histories, plowing fields, herding animals, and fighting contagions and our neighbors. Agriculture gave us organized religion, Mozart, international travel, gourmet food, higher education, as well as pollution, inequality, climate change, and war. Hence, the harvest is mixed.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Mushroom at the End of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What a rare mushroom can teach us about sustaining life on a fragile planet

Matsutake is the most valuable mushroom in the world-and a weed that grows in human-disturbed forests across the Northern Hemisphere. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's account of these sought-after fungi offers insights into areas far beyond just mushrooms and addresses a crucial question: What manages to live in the ruins we have made? The Mushroom at the End of the World explores the unexpected corners of matsutake commerce, where we encounter Japanese gourmets, capitalist traders, Hmong jungle fighters, Finnish nature guides, and more. These companions lead us into…

Book cover of The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn

Why did I love 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.

By Louisa Gilder,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Age of Entanglement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Age of Entanglement, Louisa Gilder brings to life one of the pivotal debates in twentieth century physics. In 1935, Albert Einstein famously showed that, according to the quantum theory, separated particles could act as if intimately connected–a phenomenon which he derisively described as “spooky action at a distance.” In that same year, Erwin Schrödinger christened this correlation “entanglement.” Yet its existence was mostly ignored until 1964, when the Irish physicist John Bell demonstrated just how strange this entanglement really was. Drawing on the papers, letters, and memoirs of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists, Gilder both humanizes and dramatizes…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Merlin Sheldrake,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Entangled Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A “brilliant [and] entrancing” (The Guardian) journey into the hidden lives of fungi—the great connectors of the living world—and their astonishing and intimate roles in human life, with the power to heal our bodies, expand our minds, and help us address our most urgent environmental problems.

“Grand and dizzying in how thoroughly it recalibrates our understanding of the natural world.”—Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—Time, BBC Science Focus, The Daily Mail, Geographical, The Times, The Telegraph, New Statesman, London Evening Standard, Science Friday

When we think…


By Isaac Asimov,

Book cover of Foundation

Why did I love 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.

By Isaac Asimov,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Foundation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel in Isaac Asimov’s classic science-fiction masterpiece, the Foundation series

THE EPIC SAGA THAT INSPIRED THE APPLE TV+ SERIES FOUNDATION, NOW STREAMING • Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save humankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings…

Book cover of The Origins of the World's Mythologies

Why did I love 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.

By E.J. Michael Witzel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Origins of the World's Mythologies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this comprehensive book Michael Witzel persuasively demonstrates the prehistoric origins of most of the mythologies of Eurasia and the Americas ('Laurasia'). By comparing these myths with others indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia, and Australia ('Gondwana Land') Witzel is able to access some of the earliest myths told by humans. The Laurasian mythologies share a common story line that dates the world's creation to a mythic time and recounts the fortunes
of generations of deities across four or five ages and human beings' creation and fall, culminating in the end of the universe and, occasionally, hope for a new world.…

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