The best books by scientists who write science fiction

John Gribbin Author Of Don't Look Back
By John Gribbin

Who am I?

John Gribbin has a Ph.D. in Astrophysics and is best known as an author of science books. But he has a not-so-secret passion for science fiction. He is the award-winning author of more than a hundred popular books about science, ranging from quantum mysteries to cosmology, and from evolution to earthquakes. He has also produced a double-handful of science fiction books. He specialises in writing factual books about the kind of science that sounds like fiction (including time travel), and fictional books based on scientific fact (including climate change). His recent book Six Impossible Things was short-listed for the prestigious Royal Society prize, but he is equally proud of Not Fade Away, his biography of Buddy Holly.


I wrote...

Don't Look Back

By John Gribbin,

Book cover of Don't Look Back

What is my book about?

John Gribbin, widely regarded as one of the best science writers of the 20th century, has also, unsurprisingly, been writing science fiction for many years. While his novels are well-known, his short stories are perhaps less so. He has also written under pseudonyms. Here, for the first time, is the definitive collection of John's short stories. Many were originally published in Analog and other magazines. Some were the seeds of subsequent novels. This collection contains 23 short stories, three of which John wrote with his son Ben. It also includes an essay in which John addresses the paradoxes of time travel in SF, and another in which John argues that the Moon is, in fact, a Babel Fish! These stories, written at a time when issues such as climate change were taken less seriously (especially by politicians) now seem very relevant again. What underpins all of them, of course, is a grounding in solid science.

The books I picked & why

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Rendezvous with Rama

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Book cover of Rendezvous with Rama

Why this book?

Any list like this has to start with Arthur Clarke, the man who among other things invented the concept of geostationary satellites for global telecommunication. Rama is one of his later works, and it resonates today because the book predates the recent passage of the mysterious object Oumuamua through the Solar System. Rama was an uninhabited artificial world, a kind of celestial Mary Celeste, which passed by the Sun and went on its way through space but not before being boarded by astronauts from Earth who probed its mysteries. Was Oumuamua life imitating fiction? We will never know because unlike Rama, no people got to travel to Oumuamua.


Dragon's Egg

By Robert L. Forward,

Book cover of Dragon's Egg

Why this book?

The idea of intelligent life existing on the surface of a neutron star as massive as our Sun, the size of a mountain, and with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of Earth seems like sheer fantasy but Forward presents impeccable science to make it all seem entirely plausible.


Contact

By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Contact

Why this book?

The basic story of Contact may be familiar from the excellent movie starring Jodie Foster, but few people who enjoyed the movie realised that the science in it is based on fact. The idea of tunnels through space linking one part of the Universe to another comes out of the general theory of relativity, and Einstein himself wrote scientific papers on the subject. The science is simple (if you are a relativist), and true, but unfortunately the technology needed to open a “wormhole” large enough to travel through is not so simple!


Cosm

By Gregory Benford,

Book cover of Cosm

Why this book?

At the other extreme from Contact, Greg Benford’s COSM involves very small wormholes. Or at least, a wormhole that starts out small. In his variation on the theme, an experiment on Earth accidentally opens a wormhole which in effect creates a new universe, which the experimenters can study and eventually communicate with through the wormhole. Again, real science, but technology a little (this time only a little!) beyond our present capabilities. And it raises the intriguing question of whether our Universe might have been made in this way by a race of superior beings (gods?) in another universe.


The Coming of the Quantum Cats: A Novel of Alternate Universes

By Frederik Pohl,

Book cover of The Coming of the Quantum Cats: A Novel of Alternate Universes

Why this book?

This might seem a bit off-message because Pohl dropped out of college before finishing his science degree. But he did work as a weather forecaster in the US Navy. And I can’t resist including this book, because it deals with the area of science closest to my heart – many worlds, or parallel universes. The existence of these other worlds next door to our own is the best scientific explanation of the mysteries of quantum physics, such as the famous puzzle of Schrödinger’s Cat, and Pohl wraps it all up in entertaining fashion with a story of what happens when those worlds interact. The fact that Pohl includes a version of myself (actually, several versions of me) in the story has no bearing on my choosing it. I repaid the compliment by including him as a character in my story “Untanglement”, included in my anthology Don’t Look Back' ;-).


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