Most fans of science will tell you that Carl Sagan was one of the most remarkable scientists of the 20th century. His greatness lied not in his discoveries or breakthroughs but is his creativity and his ability to communicate science to others. He wrote several books, among them a science fiction novel. Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, is by no means a masterpiece. However, it is a perfectly enjoyable piece of fiction. I have read it numerous times. There are several notable things about the work. It addresses the issues the faced by women in the scientific fields though the eyes of a strong female protagonist based on the model of a real female astronomer. It essentially predicted the TiVo more than a decade before such technology existed. It dealt with the conflicts between science and religion. But I think the most important thing about the novel was that it taught people about real science while being entertaining (and even enthralling) and provoking the imagination of the reader. It was read by people with no particular interest in science. People who just needed a paperback to enjoy on a long flight. Later it was turned into a Hollywood film viewed by millions of people.
I think we need to see more of this. I think we need more science fiction authored by actual scientists. Of course it is not easy to find a person that is both a skilled scientist and capable of writing a passable novel, one that can find its way onto the best seller list. There is, however, at least one scientist that comes to mind. After all Richard Dawkins is both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Literature. He was already authored several books, some of which have already become best sellers. He has a wonderful writing style that is already well developed. Of course it does take more than just a good writing style to pull of a novel. Writing good non-fiction does not mean that one can also write good fiction. The skills of character development, plot structure, and so forth simply do not exist in the field of non-fiction science writing.
One possible solution is for the scientist to team up with an established fiction author. One of the science fiction novels that I enjoyed reading when I was younger was a collaboration between Apollo XI astronaut Buzz Aldrin and fiction author John Barnes.
Basically this entire post is an excuse for me to say that I have been fantasizing about Dawkins collaborating to write a science fiction novel with Cory Doctorow. Doctorow is my favourite contemporary science fiction author. Here is why I think this pair would work well together. For one thing they both live in the UK. Both have activist backgrounds. Dawkins became involved with activism while teaching at Berkeley. Doctorow grew up with activist parents. Doctorow is an atheist and is scientifically literate. Doctorow is also used to working on collaborative novels. He has a novel written with Charlie Stross coming out in the next couple of months. Also Doctorow has mastered the art of writing a kind of novel that has fallen out of favour lately. The polemic novel. His novels have great characters, gripping action, and always have a social message or at least a social question. While none of his novels have addressed religion as a main theme, he has not shied away from the subject either.
The novel is, I think, an under utilized tool in communicating science and reason. Novels present ideas in an easily approachable and entertaining way. Best selling novels also have a habit of becoming widely view Hollywood films. I think Richard Dawkins and Cory Doctorow could just be the people for the job of writing the next best selling science novel, and I think that could make a significant impact (especially if targeted as a young adult novel). Now I just have to think of a way to convince them to do it.