Some of the greatest nonfiction books about science read like novels. They borrow tropes and narrative tricks from science fiction, fantasy, horror, and more — turning great discoveries into great adventures. Here are twenty-three science books that are better than genre fiction because they're true.
This is just a starter list for you because there are dozens more books I could have included from the dawn of scientific writing up through stuff published last month. I've tried to offer a representative sample, picking from classic works as well as science books that borrow their styles from a few popular genres.
Illustration by Kenn Brown.
1. On the Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin
Genre: Alternate History
This classic tale of evolution, published in 1859, offered the general public an alternate history of human life. Instead of humans erupting fully formed from the Earth via magical forces, Darwin told a story about how we evolved from an ape-like ancestor via what he called natural selection. Though other naturalists had been talking about the idea of evolution for decades, Darwin was the first to tell a compelling story about human origins that captured the public's imagination and changed the way we understood our place in the world forever.
2. Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead
Genre: Science Fiction
Anthropologist Mead lived among the tribal peoples of Samoa for several months, interviewing them and observing their way of life. Then she published this smash-hit book in 1928, which compared the sexually open, carefree lives of Samoan young people with the Puritanical, rigid methods that people used to raise their children in America. It was basically your classic "first contact" science fiction novel, with Mead as the participant observer among Samoan "aliens." The book became a rallying cry among young people in the 1920s and 30s, who used it to argue that a sexually liberated culture could be healthier than their own. Unfortunately, as many subsequent anthropologists noted, Mead's depiction of Samoan culture was actually more science fiction than reality. She had misrepresented what she saw, and probably had been lied to by many of her informants. Still, the book popularized the idea of participant observation in anthropology — a idea that's crucial to the work of SF writer Ursula Le Guin — and it forced Americans to question their everyday lives. Just as great science fiction always should.
3. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction
Originally published as a series of articles in the New Yorker from 1958-1962, Carson's book jump-started the modern environmentalist movement by chronicling the effects of pesticide on the environment. She looked especially at the extinctions of songbirds, and predicted that one day the natural world would go silent after we'd extinguished all the birds in the name of pest-free agriculture. This arresting apocalyptic image, of a world without birdsong, helped concretize for people the dangers of putting toxins into the environment.
4. Encounters with the Archdruid, by John McPhee
In 1971, McPhee chronicled three epic battles that conservationist David Brower fought to preserve natural landscapes from development. One of Brower's adversaries, a developer who turned a delicate region of the South Carolina coast into a resort town, called the pioneering activist a "druid" who wanted to sacrifice people to trees. The epic sweep of this tale, full of battles won and lost, and featuring a semi-mythical figure at its heart, makes this the nature writing equivalent of Lord of the Rings. And that's why it remains powerful to this day.
5. Future Shock, by Alvin (and Heidi) Toffler
Genre: Science Fiction
Published at the dawn of the information age in 1970, this book popularized the field of futurism and predicted many of the gadgets and habits we take for granted nearly a half-century later. It also captured people's imaginations by suggesting that we are already living in a science fictional world, generating a psychological condition known as "future shock," where people become neurotic because they can't handle the rapid pace of social and technological change.
6. Sociobiology, by EO Wilson
Genre: Science Fiction
In 1975, biologist Wilson pissed off the scientific community by writing this epic book about what we could learn from ants about human behavior. Basically, he came down hard on the "nature" side of the nature vs. nurture debate, and suggested that a lot of the things that humans think they do by choice are actually hard-wired behaviors that have been refined through both natural and sexual selection. Wilson has tempered his position over the years, but in this book he shocked both scientists and the public alike by implying that humans are ruled by instinct as much as animals and insects are. In so doing, you could say Wilson engaging in the scientist's equivalent of science fictional world-building. And his world-building was so compelling that people couldn't ignore it.
7. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter
In this trippy, puzzle-packed meditation on the nature of creativity and pattern-making published in 1979, Hofstadter explores everything from mathematics and physics to cellular signaling patterns. Weaving together the lives of the mathematician, artist and musician from the title of his book, sprinkling the narrative with dreamy dialogues between real and mythical figures, Hofstadter electrified his audience and created an instant classic. Like fantasy authors Susanna Clarke and Dan Simmons, Hofstadter wove fantasy, history, and philosophy together to create a gorgeous idyll that's as much about learning how to think as it is anything else.
8. The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
This now-classic book explores what would happen to New York City, and then the world, if humans disappeared tomorrow. Weisman uses this classic apocalyptic scenario to take us deep inside urban infrastructures and the world's ecosystems, revealing the ways we've changed nature by showing what would happen if humans were stopped in our tracks.
9. Eaarth, by Bill McKibben
Nothing like a good environmental apocalypse, and longtime environmental activist McKibben gives us a good one in this book whose premise is that we are about to find ourselves living on an alien planet called Eaarth. He gives us a tour of this hot new world, revealing all the ways it will destroy our way of life. But of course we can always work to bring ourselves back to Earth, if we act now to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
10. Death from the Skies!, by Phil Plait
Astronomer Plait is the creator of the Bad Astronomy blog, and this book is a fantastic set of short stories about how the Earth could be destroyed by menaces from outer space, including gamma ray bursts and meteorite strikes. Each chapter begins with a scenario of delicious destruction, and then Plait explains the frighteningly real science behind all the explosions.
11. Collapse, by Jared Diamond
Nobody tells a story like zoologist Diamond, who uses his omniscient point of view to take us to various human cultures — from ancient Easter Island to contemporary Montana — whose dwindling resources have led to a social and civilizational collapse. He identifies a handful of common causes for these collapses, which will absolutely scare the crap out of you. Then, just when you're ready to give up, he suggests ways that we can prevent our world from dying out. It's a seriously epic ride.
12. The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garrett
In this mid-1990s book, which came out just before our current craze for pandemic zombie movies, Garrett scared the crap out of the world with this compulsively-readable tale of "emerging diseases." These are deadly diseases that have the potential to grow into pandemics because of human development in previously uninhabited areas, warfare that places unhealthy people in close proximity, as well as other causes. Like a good apocalyptic novel, this book leaves you feeling like we are all doomed.
13. Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
The classic bestseller that got an entire generation hooked on the awe and wonder of science, this book became a TV series that showcased Sagan's famous "billions and billions of stars" speech. In a sea of books about dreading the future, Cosmos stood out for offering a bright ray of hope that humanity would prevail — by embracing science, and traveling to the stars.
14. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
This tale of the previously unknown African-American woman whose cell line — known only as HeLa — has become the basis of medical experimentation in labs across the country. Her cells have been kept alive in cultures for sixty years after her death, replicating endlessly for lab tests and experiments. Skloot takes us on a journey from Lacks' life to the laboratories where she lives on, exploring the massive impact one woman's cells have had on everything from cancer to radiation research. The tragedy is that Lacks never even knew her cells were being used like this, nor did her family. This book captures the fantastic and disturbing experience of discovering that you are, in fact, part of a massive science experiment.
15. Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku
Like Phil Plait's book about the end of the world, Kaku's classic book is structured around delicious science fictional scenarios like time travel and teleportation. He teases you with your favorite SF tropes, then gets you even more excited by suggesting there are actually ways we could make these impossible scenarios happen in real life. Using physics!
16. Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl
Journalist Hvistendahl weaves a fascinating story of how the populations of countries in Asia and Central Europe became gender-skewed. She argues that women's access to new reproductive technologies has allowed them to pick the genders of their children, and often they choose boys. Hvistendahl pulls from the science fiction writer's toolkit as she explores the possible reasons for, and consequences of, this shift in population. Humanity is shaping its own evolution in an unprecedented way, and this book reveals how weird and future-changing this trend really is.
17. Regenesis, by George Church
Biologist Church conjures up a future world where we use synthetic biology to remold ourselves and the world around us, creating new kinds of building materials and new life forms. Unlike most futurist visionaries, Church explores the development of biology as well as technology — and he grounds it in the reality of scientific research.
Horror and Crime
18. The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum
Science historian Blum takes you back to Jazz Age New York, where poison allowed murderers to commit the perfect crimes. After all, who could if a person had died from poison, or something natural? Actually, scientists could. The book weaves brilliantly between tales of famous murders and the lives of two men who were about to invent forensic science. Using what they knew of toxicology and detection, these men solved cases that nobody believed could ever be solved. Plotted like a terrifying detective thriller, this book will have you enthralled.
19. Blood Work, by Holly Tucker
Tucker's mesmerizing account of the birth of blood transfusions takes us from murder scenes to the bloody halls of sanatoriums during the earliest days of scientific medicine in the seventeenth century. It's a gore-soaked lesson in the history of science that will haunt you for weeks after reading.
20. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova
If you are obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, then psychologist Konnikova's book might just be the best introduction to the idea of "mindfulness" that you'll ever read. And even if you aren't a Holmes fan, this book offers a fascinating account of how to think rationally, overcome bias, and solve problems in real life — using just the power of psychological insight. You don't need to be a fictional detective superhero to make excellent deductions about what's going on around you.
21. 1491, by Charles C. Mann
Mann brings to life what civilization was like in the Americas before Columbus and other Europeans arrived — and in the process, he overturns long-held myths about Indian cities, technologies, languages, and more. Synthesizing decades worth of work from many scientists and historians, Mann takes us into the heavily-populated continents, full of bustling cities, massive empires, and great philosophers and scientists. We discover that Indians pioneered farming techniques, and built cities in forbidding landscapes that Europeans had never mastered. What felled these great civilizations were not the superior weapons of the Europeans, but the plagues they brought with them. Mann's storytelling abilities turn this new understanding of early American history into a brilliant story that has already changed the way most Americans look at their continents' past.
22. The Medea Hypothesis, by Peter Ward
Geologist Ward focuses on the many mass extinctions in Earth's history to explore an idea that goes against many traditional environmentalists' views of the planet. Instead of a benevolent Gaia figure, the Earth is more like Medea — the scorned wife of mythical Greek explorer Jason, who killed the couple's children and rode off into the sky in a chariot drawn by dragons. Perhaps, Ward suggests, the Earth is actually a murderous mother that will naturally drive us extinct unless we do something about it. By rewriting the Earth's history as a bloodbath, Ward is able to suggest that humans must take matters into their own hands and control the climate so that the planet doesn't kill again. It's a fascinating thought experiment, and disturbingly persuasive.
23. The Technology of Orgasm, by Rachel Maines
Think that sex toys are a new thing? Think again. In this quiet little history book, researcher Maines revealed that she'd discovered a not-so-secret history of vibrators — going all the way back to the late nineteenth century, when these orgasm aids for women were among the first electrified devices sold to doctors. By poring over long-ignored documents and women's magazines, Maines uncovered the history of doctors who gave women orgasms as cures for "hysteria," and found that women in the early twentieth century were surreptitiously ordering "massagers" from the pages of women's sewing magazines. You'll never look at your great-grandmother's sewing obsession in the same way again.