Ep. 469: Best Modern Sci Fi for the Science Lover – Part 1 Space Exploration

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We’ve always been fans of science fiction, but we really like our science. Today we’ll talk about some books we’ve been reading recently that do a good job of dealing with the science in science fiction.
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Show Notes

The Bobiverse Books by Dennis E. Taylor
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The Expanse series by S.A. Corey
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
The Interdependency series by John Scalzi
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card
The Generations Trilogy by Scott Sigler
The Pavaria by Tom Merritt
The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge


Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 469: Modern Sci Fi for the Science Lover. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain; I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me as always is Dr. Pamela Gay the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Director of CosmoQuest.
Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: Great. So I guess we’re gonna give people some recommendations; some books we like, some ideas of stuff that we’ve been reading. Hopefully, this will set you up to be able to buy some gifts for the science lover in your family, and that’s what we’re gonna do.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. The way I look at it is currently, our world is quite literally if you’re in California on fire.
Fraser Cain: Oh, yes.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And given everything that’s going on, sometimes it’s just nice to completely escape into another reality. My alternate realities of choice tend to be science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy, so we’re gonna take you down those rides and talk about the ones that actually have like fairly reasonable science or are good enough that you should read them anyways.
Fraser Cain: Sounds good. Now, how far back do we want to go? Like you said kind of modern sci fi, but I think we’ll be pretty squishy about that.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, I’d like to try and stay as modern as possible to give some new writers growth, not that some of them that we’re gonna recommend need it.
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: But, I saw this great quote – are we, yes, this is part of the episode now.
Fraser Cain: Yes.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I saw this great tweet the other day; I think it was by Emily Finke, she goes by Seelix just about everywhere, and if I’m quoting the right person, which I hope I am or I’m just a doofus, it was, “We need to stop worrying that if we don’t recommend Tolkien and Heinlein to small space-loving kids that those authors will go unread because that’s not gonna happen”. So it’s time to start saying, “Here are new things written for the modern age that have the same morays that we have. Go read these” because a lot of the other stuff is just kind of like, it’s clearly a different time.
Fraser Cain: Yes. So where do you want to start? What’s a book that you’ve read fairly recently that you liked the science in it?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So this is actually the one that Susie wanted us to do the entire episode on; The Bobiverse: I am Legion (I am Bob) is the first book in the series, and this is one I think that you’ve read as well?
Fraser Cain: Mm-hmm, yep, I read it, based on your recommendation.
Dr. Pamela Gay: What can I say? This is a book that takes this idea that you’ve been talking about since day zero of this podcast of let’s download our brain into a computer and then the computer goes off and like populates the universe with other computers. It’s kinda awesome because this is the way you want to be able to do long-distance travel.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, I mean the gist of the book if you haven’t read it is that a computer programmer dies and is turned into a spaceship and becomes the brains of the operation for a spaceship, and then things happen so he’s a little more unchained than I think anyone was expecting and he sort of takes matters into his own hands as he sets about –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Or his own wires as the case may be.
Fraser Cain: His own wires; his own remotely-operated, high velocity, sub spacecraft and uses that to then kind of colonize and make contact with other species, but at the same time trying to deal with the politics that are happening on earth and trying to be an ally to a civilization that kind of doesn’t want him anymore, but needs him and doesn’t know they need him, and at the same time trying to sort of deal with the wider universe.
I totally agree. I really enjoyed just the ideas of this kind of exponential thinking about what does it mean to have access to the raw equipment, the raw facilities of a solar system to make more copies of yourself? What does it mean kind of philosophically to have more copies of yourself out there in the world, and how do you talk to yourself when you’re talking to another version of you, and so on? So, I really enjoyed it.
I only read the first one though, you’ve gone further?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’ve read all of them. How have you not read all of them?
Fraser Cain: I don’t know. Someone made me put together a telescope.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I put together a telescope.
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s right there.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, yeah. I’ll catch up. I’ve read a bunch that you haven’t read so careful there.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Okay, so what have you read?
Fraser Cain: But can you finish? Like how does the rest of the series go?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Spoilers.
Fraser Cain: Well, don’t spoil.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So bottom line, it has some really cool ideas in it; this idea of basically being a factory ship that you can reproduce, redo, reprogram, recreate, and upgrade your own body. Who doesn’t want to be able to upgrade their own body occasionally? Really cool ideas in it. Totally worth the download and the read.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Okay, well then the one that I’m gonna recommend is Seveneves, which is by Neil Stephenson.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Not so much the space exploration.
Female: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Fraser Cain: That is awesome. Thank you, Google, for jumping in on this conversation. So, I think you’re wrong, but that’s okay. I might be the only one. So the concept of Seveneves is that astronomers discover or everyone discovers that the moon falls apart and just cracks up into pieces and forms this ring around the earth. Astronomers calculate that the debris from it is going to impact the earth and essentially make the planet uninhabitable within a very short period of time. What they do is it’s this race to essentially save as much of humanity as possible by going out into orbit to avoid as the atmosphere gets super heated and everybody dies.
The book is broken up into two halves; the first half being leading up to and sort of the culmination of the event and then the second part is sort of thousands of years later; what has human society become? You’ve read it as well, right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful series. Well, it’s like multiple books in one book.
Fraser Cain: It’s two books, yeah. A lot of people like half of it and don’t like the other half.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It gets into interesting biological ideas what is epigenetics, which is something that’s only really starting to get talked about in science fiction, and the idea that we can change ourselves purposefully from generation to generation simply by learning to turn on and off things that are already within us. That’s just a cool metaphor while also being super cool science.
Fraser Cain: So I mean I think with the spaceflight side, are you talking about like you weren’t a big fan of the pre-event spaceflight or the post-even spaceflight?
Dr. Pamela Gay: This is a multipart series that we’re doing on books, and I was just trying to focus today on books where we get out and explore space.
Fraser Cain: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So here we have some of the Kim Stanley Robinson’s ones for instance such as Aurora where it’s the consequences of a generation ship and how is it that as you pass from one generation to the next, how do you deal with the fact that you’re trapped on this spaceship with so many things that can go right and so many things more that can go completely wrong? As always, Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a guy in case you didn’t know this, he does so much of the psychology right as well as getting the science right, and the way he has the personal interactions of the characters who are just struggling and then they’re like, “Okay, we’re coming home now” and all of the technologies that they have to figure out and how much the world they’re coming back to has changed.
And it gets into the idea that you and so many others’ love of accelerating things using giant lasers and then, trying to get a hold of earth to decelerate using giant lasers.
Fraser Cain: Right. I haven’t read that one. I’ve read all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s, so the other Kim Stanley Robinson’s; I mean these aren’t space travel but these are really realistic stories about the colonization, terra forming of Mars. There’s sort of the three-part series; the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I never remember the order of blue and green.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, right. But, you know, sort of about the first colonists that make their way to Mars and attempt to sort of make the place habitable, moving to actually starting to terra form the planet in sort of the far future when it is a much more habitable world. The level of detail, you can just see – Elon Musk read those books like five times and it was just like, ‘Yes, this is what we’re doing’, and a lot of his ideas are set on that.
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Fraser Cain: So I think we have to give props to The Martian, which is still got to be one of the most sort of accurate and realistic representations of what it’s gonna be like to explore space, to get out there on other worlds and sort of what are the intricacies. I mean the level of math, the computer programs that Andy Weir created to simulate this transportation from world to world is just crazy.
Now, I haven’t read Artemis yet. They were gonna send me a copy of the book and that’s his new book.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I haven’t yet either. It’s on my list.
Fraser Cain: I did get a chance to spend a lot of time talking with him just about the details that he put into the moon base and the ideas that he had for it, so that was pretty great. But I think for anybody who is really into science fiction, everyone I’ve given The Martian to has just read it cover to cover or who’s listened to the audio book has just snapped it up in a heartbeat.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So then, we have the books where essentially various aliens somehow have a way of beaming into human heads or otherwise through archaeological ruins or something else influencing man to basically explore in ways they hadn’t planned. I think the first of this series was probably Contact, which is too old to count for what we’re talking about today, in terms of new books. But I think the most famous of the new ones in this series is The Expanse Series, which is yes, it’s a TV show. I know it’s a TV show. You’re welcome to love the TV show. It was a book first. Go read the books. He’s still writing new ones; the universe is still expanding.
Fraser Cain: It’s two writers; James S. A. Corey is two people.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I did not realize that.
Fraser Cain: You didn’t know that? Yeah, when you talk to James S. A. Corey you are actually talking to two people, which has happened to me and is hilarious because you never know which one it is and you just get an I this and you know, but they act as one.
Dr. Pamela Gay: That’s awesome.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, I think it’s a great idea to do that. I mean you don’t get the credit for being the writer of this really wildly successful sci fi series and television show. I haven’t read the books but my dad’s read the books, my wife’s read the books, so clearly, I’m in this bubble. They’re on the Kindle, they’re ready to go, but –
Dr. Pamela Gay: I actually like the books a lot more than the TV show, and I like the TV show.
Fraser Cain: Really?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Hmm.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, I’m so nervous to give anything away because I know how many of you out there love the TV show, but it gets to the point where they even get to go beyond our own solar system. So go read the books, keep reading the books, read all the books, and there’s just new intriguing idea after intriguing idea that will suck you in and keep you hoping that eventually we find our own potentially deadly but yet awesome and technologically advanced thing that allows us to get out further than we’ve gone before.
Fraser Cain: Is it one of those situations like have you read Game of Thrones and watched the show? Have you done both of those?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: I don’t need to read any more Game of Thrones books, right? I’m done. It’s okay. The TV show is plenty for me and it’s great and it does the job. If you’ve read some Game of Thrones they stretch out a little long.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: There are a lot of side plots that go on.
Dr. Pamela Gay: These books aren’t like that.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, that’s what I understand.
Dr. Pamela Gay: These books are concise and clean and fast-paced and suck you in, and read the books. You won’t regret it.
Fraser Cain: All right. I solemnly swear that I will read the books shortly.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, with Game of Thrones I think it takes longer to read the first book than to watch the first season?
Fraser Cain: Yes.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Not true with these books.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and the science in them with the kinds of places, the way the people live and the gravity forces involved, and so on; all that is very realistic. The one gotcha is this space drive, right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: But they handle it well.
Fraser Cain: We made a magic space drive, now what? Right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: That’s all.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m okay with occasionally making magical space drives.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, everyone gets that – was it Phil had that rule? Someone had that rule.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I think so.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, I think it’s Phil has this rule that you get kind of one magic space drive or the equivalent of the magic space drive and then, you go from there.
I like Old Man’s War.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I was gonna suggest that next.
Fraser Cain: Did you hear that Netflix has picked it up for a TV series?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I did, and have you actually read his new book, The Collapsing Empire, which is a different universe?
Fraser Cain: No. Let’s talk about Old Man’s War first and then we’ll go into –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Okay. So, Old Man’s War the basic premise is that our soldiers are the old people of earth who have moved beyond their day-to-day lives and have been promised that they can be young if only they join the military. They don’t know what’s gonna happen, they simply know they will be made young again. After they’ve served in the military for a certain number of years then they’ll be released to live in their young bodies for however long. It’s one heck of a war; they’re fighting other civilizations, they’re trying to create new colony worlds.
The technology is on point; they use bioengineering as well. It’s got all the little checkboxes and also takes into account things like you have to break the universe somehow if you’re going to go faster than the speed of light, and their interesting way of breaking it is every time they make the jump from one point to another the universe splits.
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, every time you see someone it’s actually a completely different person than the one you saw in that universe before.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, it’s very similar to like the Rick and Morty sort of multiple universes idea. So they have this thing called the skip drive where when they jump they are moved to the new position of a different version of the universe and then, the universe moves on from there. So they’ve literally disappeared from the old universe; discarded, and now are in the new universe. I think that idea is the largest symbolism for what we do with old people; just this idea of it being discarded and not required anymore and just moving on to the next place damn the consequences.
So I think that is just a really great idea. If you’ve seen some Rick and Morties there’s some situations where they literally just kind of go, ‘Well, that’s it for this universe.’
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yep.
Fraser Cain: ‘Let’s go somewhere else and try again because this one’s all ruined.’
Dr. Pamela Gay: Sometimes that’s what you just need to do. Now, in Old Man’s War it’s not quite that useful a splitting of the universes because it’s pretty much transparent to everyone that the universe is a new universe; you’re still seeing the same people, you’re still seeing the same consequences. But it’s this intellectual knowledge that’s just weird.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and just like they don’t really know how this thing works.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, yeah.
Fraser Cain: Which is just great, like we don’t know it works but let’s go to war because we have to.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: So let’s just make this deal with the devil to do that.
Now you’re saying that he’s got a new universe that he’s working on?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes, so this is The Interdependency is the name of the universe, the name of the series and The Collapsing Empire is book one. It’s fairly new; came out in March of this year. In this particular series it goes to that idea of gates and tunnels and subspace that you’re travelling through, and so people are slipping from one place to another through gates that have particular endpoints, particular beginning points. Once you accidentally fall out of subspace; they call it something different, you’re kind of stuck and one of the problems that they’re running into is they’re finding that the gates are moving and how do you deal with this and how does this affect commerce, and thus the word “collapsing” falls into it.
Fraser Cain: Right.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So it has this whole interneccesi – that’s not a word. It has all of these different planets that rely on each other where this is the one that one kind of fruit comes from, this is the one that has this one other thing that it comes from, and it’s very much like the EU food restrictions where champagne has to come from Champagnia. In this case, the unions, the restrictions, all are saying this can only come from this one place without special licensing agreements. So, everything falls apart if you don’t have the ability to get goods between these different worlds, not all of which can fully support humans on their own.
It really speaks to a lot of our modern humans couldn’t exist where they are on certain places in the earth without all of the transport that we have now, so what happens if all these transportation mechanisms go away?
Fraser Cain: So I’ve got a book that’s a little older, which is back in the ‘70s, and that’s by Joe Halderman and that’s The Forever War, but I really like the way the space travel happens in this. So a lot of parallels with Old Man’s War; person signs up as a part of the military and joins this elite fighting force. But the thing that’s kind of strange about it is that the way the space travel works is highly relativistic. So Halderman put in sort of did all these calculations for what happened if you travelled at the speeds that would be required to be able to move from place to place.
What that means is that literally home; you disconnect from where you came from by hundreds, thousands of years, and it totally distorts and kind of messes with just your idea of what does it mean to be defending a world that has no even idea that you exist anymore, and yet you’re out there out on the front lines and every time you move from front to front, from battlefield to battlefield time distorts heavily for the people back at home.
So I highly recommend it, and they’ve done a couple more books as well but I really enjoyed this idea of like what are the implications of relativistic space travel for a society that sends people out doing this.
Dr. Pamela Gay: You see this getting used in again, a somewhat older book, Orson Scott Card’s, and I know there’s issues with Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Series. You see this travelling fast enough puts you in a different aging pattern so that you’re essentially skipping down the generations by travelling from world to world. It deals with the consequences of that, the redemption of that, which then harkens back to the old Jack Campbell books where you have your war hero who died who turned out to have just been actually in stasis and what are the consequences to bringing back your dead hero on a civilization?
It turns out that civilizations don’t deal so well with having to deal with the realities of their war heroes.
Fraser Cain: Did you have some more? I have a couple of recommendations that have come in from the viewers in the chat that I just wanted to throw in as well. I can neither confirm nor deny.
Dr. Pamela Gay: One other set of books to bring forward is the Alive Series, well; it’s the Generations Trilogy by Scott Sigler. It’s Alive, Alight, and Alone, and it takes a completely different look at the generation ship, and if I say anything else I will give the book away. But if you’re looking for YA that will also scare the bejeezus out of you while being YA, Scott Sigler’s Generations Trilogy. And they really are books that should be taught side-by-side with Lord of the Flies. So, when I say they get scary think Lord of the Flies on a generation spaceship.
Fraser Cain: Oh, that’s great. Speaking of generation spaceship, and I haven’t read it yet, but I like Tom Merritt who does [inaudible], Daily Tech news show, does Sword and Laser, and has done a bunch of books, and he’s got a new generation ship book out called Pavaria. That has just come out and hopefully I’ll get a chance to read that soon enough, but just to give some props to some writers out there.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So you said we had some recommendations from the audience?
Fraser Cain: Yeah, so just a couple of recommendations that we got from some people, but go ahead and keep putting them in there. The Dark Force Trilogy, so I guess I can mention that, that’s the three-body problem. This is one that everyone has been nagging me to read because they know I love the Fermi Paradox so much and the book is the – a lot of people liked it as sort of one of the best explanations for the Fermi Paradox of why we haven’t found any aliens. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a good book and very weird. It’s a very weird book. It’s based in China and it’s a Chinese book; like it’s written in Chinese and it’s been translated into English.
The gist of the book is that people have been receiving these communications from an alien civilization and have been sort of incorporating that into video games and sort of preparing ourselves for meeting them. You get these really interesting insights into how this alien civilization operates and how they deal with a fairly unique environmental problem that they have to face, and how that’s sort of baked into their culture.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s a hard read.
Fraser Cain: It is a hard read for sure.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Do not do it while distracted. I read the books while distracted and need to reread them because I know I’ve read them and that’s all I can tell you right now.
Fraser Cain: [Inaudible] recommends Robert J. Sawyer’s Factoring Humanity. I’ve read a few Robert J. Sawyer books.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, I’ve never been disappointed by his books.
Fraser Cain: Nope, and he’s Canadian so you know, there you go. Who else have we got? Vernor Vinge’s books, A Fire upon the Deep, Deepest in the Sky. So I really enjoyed A Fire upon the Deep sort of as a bad AI trying to take over a galaxy, and the people are ready to try and stop it, and this sort of very important – man, what’s the term for the like – McGuffin. This McGuffin falls on this alien world and this primitive civilization gets their hands on it and –
Dr. Pamela Gay: McGuffin?
Fraser Cain: Yeah, it’s sort of this gadget that just doesn’t need to matter; it has no purpose except to serve as a story point. So anyway, good book; very weird.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Weird books are good.
Fraser Cain: Let’s see if I can get some more recommendations from people.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, bottom line, read. We’re gonna be doing more parts in this series to hit on things like great books that discuss 3D printing, making, and the tech side of science fiction, and then also looking at biofiction and how biology and climate and all of that get addressed as well. We want to encourage you to find your science everywhere and read because it’s how we can escape and think beyond ourselves.
Fraser Cain: Especially, like if you don’t have time to read with your eyeballs now read with your earballs, right? So you’ve got audio books that you can listen to and read while you’re walking around or while you’re doing housework.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh yeah, and it’s so easy nowadays to find good books; www.audible.com actually will sync with your Kindle so you can go back and forth from reading with your eyeballs to reading with your earballs, I like that phrase.
Fraser Cain: All right, well then, we’ll pick this up next week.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Sounds great, Fraser.
Male: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at www.astronomycast.com. You can email us as info@astronomycast.com, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 PM Pacific, 4:30 PM Eastern, or 20:30 GMT. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at www.cosmoquest.org or on our YouTube page. To subscribe to the show point your pod-catching software at www.astronomycast.com/podcast.xml or subscribe directly from iTunes. If you would like to listen to the full, unedited episode, including the live viewers’ questions and answers you can subscribe to www.astronomycast.com/feed/fullra. Our music is provided by Travis Surel and the show is edited by Chad Weber.
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[End of Audio]
Duration: 32 minutes

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