The Sceptical Chymist | Putting the chemistry into sci-fi: Episode 1

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Wouldn’t it be refreshing to find some science-fiction in which the key plot developments revolve around a chemical concept? It doesn’t seem like much to ask, and yet it’s really difficult to find sci-fi that genuinely embraces chemical themes. There does seem to be an appetite for such material, at least among chemists — an ACS symposium in 1992 on chemistry in science fiction was apparently standing room only.

That’s not to say that chemistry doesn’t exist in sci-fi. In some respects, it’s endemic, given that many of the devices commonly found in the genre must be made from high-performance materials. And nanotechnology certainly fires up authors’ imaginations — more grey goo or nanobots, anyone? But as Andrew Sun mentioned in this thoughtful blog a while back, these ideas are never fully expanded, they’re just convenient devices that allow the protagonists to do wonderful things.

I think that the lack of chemical science fiction reflects the fact that the subject is intrinsically quite abstract. Sci-fi ultimately hooks people because of what happens to the characters, whereas chemistry is all about molecules and atoms. How do you build a plot in which the discovery of a new catalyst, for example, somehow permeates and drives all the actions and emotions of the characters? It’s not impossible, but neither is it easy. This seems to be backed up by Nature’s own sci-fi section – the Futures page – where apparently we haven’t had any stories submitted that have strong chemistry themes.

The good news is that chemical science fiction does exist, and indeed some of it has been written by all-time greats of the genre. Admittedly, much of what I’ve found are short stories, rather than full novels or films —again implying that authors have difficulty stretching chemical concepts into lengthy plots — but there are some real nuggets out there that are worth tracking down. I’ll go into more detail in Episodes 2 and 3 of this blog. In the mean time, for a more in-depth and scholarly appraisal of chemistry in science fiction (and in fiction in general), Chemistry World subscribers should read this wonderful article from Phil Ball.

Live long and prosper,


Andy Mitchinson (Senior Editor, Nature)

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