Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Chemistry vs. Biology in Science Fiction

Weixiang (Andrew) Sun, a materials science graduate student at South China University of Technology and Nature Network blogger, bemoans the lack of chemistry-based science fiction while dissing biology-based SF.
As a chemist I should be well frustrated at the oversight of science fiction toward chemistry. There are plenty of particle physics, astronomy, AI and molecular biology in science fiction but seldom is there…Wait…molecular biology? isn't it in fact biochemistry? But still too 'bio' one, filled with gene cloning technology, sometimes even something about neuroscience. Bioscience fiction is the dullest because the discoveries about gene have too explicitly implied too much for sci-fi writers to suppose literally anything. Gene only encode the sequence of amino acids in one or more peptides. How does the sequence determine the subsequent folding, packing and functioning is mysterious. But the sci-fi works just keep telling us that we only need the primary structure of something to have the desired functions, regardless of its secondary, tertiary and quaternary structures. That is, biology is omnipotent; chemistry is nothing.
I agree with him that too many times genetics is used as a lazy plot device: all you have to do is insert a gene or cause a mutation and voila, a character has special powers or an extra limb. However, while we may not necessarily understand how the sequence of amino acids in a protein determines its final three dimensional shape, I'd argue that we don't need to. That's what distinguishes biology from chemistry, at least in part - biology can look at the effect on a whole organism, or at least a cell, without understanding all of the chemical steps involved. not surprisingly, I don't think that makes bioscience fiction dull, just different.

The disciplines of chemical biology, biochemistry and molecular biology are in that fuzzy area where chemistry and biology meet. Andrew is right that often any sort of science having to do with natural products or the human body is assumed to lie on the biology side of the border (even though we are all made of chemicals). For better or worse the public associates chemistry with practical science and biology with larger philosophical questions. As Andrew points out:
But chemical imaginations are always some temporary fulfillment of the minor technical gaps in the stories (like the above mentioned omnipotent windscreen). The readers just don’t mind any absurdity. I suppose that the status of chemistry in science fictions is just reflecting its status in the present public. Chemistry is indeed regarded as something just useful to fill the minor gaps in our everyday life, thinking about all those plastics, detergents, and insecticides. Science fictions are just putting people today in a different age. The environment may be different, but the thoughts are the same.

Honestly, I can't think of any chemistry-based science fiction off the top of my head. If anyone has any to suggest, they should go over and leave Andrew a comment.



  1. Michael Swanwick did a marvelous series of very short stories on SciFi.com called "Periodic Table of Science Fiction". There's a standard periodic table posted and you click an element to read the story. They're marvelous. I may just go tell Andrew about it as you suggest!

  2. In fact, I have access to foreign Sci-Fi works only through translated versions on a Chinese monthly Sci-Fi magazine, which mainly chooses short stories. So I was only talking about the situation in Chinese Sci-Fi. I'm not forcing sci-fi to based on chemistry because the nature of this science is so practical that one can hardly derive any imagination into a whole story. And I should be proud that chemistry is there to fill up some gaps in a story which otherwise may be problematic.

    @ meika: nano, like gene, is a omnipotent word in sci-fi. By nano you can mean super-hard, super-light, super-anything, without describing how the nano building blocks construct these functions. As a writer he may not bother writing in such a theoretical style but he can describe some failure of nanomaterials which leads to serious change in story development, and the failure is due to something wrong with its detailed structure. In a word, let chemistry be more critical in a story, so that the readers can be reminded of what the real chemistry looks like.

  3. meika: you're right, all that nanotech is chemistry. But they are often used in the same way as genetics: a plot device not based on any real science.

    I like your poetic description of organic molecules.

  4. jason: That should definitely count. What is flubber if not a chemical.

    dawno: That is really cool. I love it.

  5. andrew: thanks for stopping by! I am not at all familiar with Chinese science fiction. I guess it does not get translated into English very often.

    I don't think that chemistry has to be just practical, though. A really creative writer with a chemistry bent could make it the center of the story.

    I did a little Googling, and it turns out that the American Chemical Society held a symposium on chemistry in science fiction back in the early 1990s. I'd be curious to know what books & movies they talked about (Companion book on Amazon.com).


I've turned on comment moderation on posts older than 30 days. Your (non-spammy) comment should appear when I've had a chance to review it.

Note: Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.