Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Non-Fiction to Inspire Great SF (Mary Roach Edition)

Caution: Today's post is NSFW if anyone's reading over your shoulder, or if you watch the video.

Today I want to talk about some books. They are by Mary Roach, and they are brilliant.

Roach is an investigative journalist with comic leanings and a tendency to enjoy her research far too much. She's asked astronauts about urination problems and has researched Victorian contraception devices. She describes e-mail exchanges with researchers where they've simply stopped responding to her. Her books are told in a factual, accessible, witty style, but not one that's for the overly squeamish.

I did say she got too into things sometimes.

Anyway, I'm not singing her praises for nothing. Yes, they're good books, but they're also good launching points for story ideas, if you have the right mindset.


Roach's first book, Stiff, is all about cadavers. When a crash test dummy just won't cut it, automotive tests use cadavers. When morticians and plastic surgeons need hands-on training, they use cadavers. There are chapters on organ donation, forensic research, crucifixion, and burial options.

This is useful reading for anyone writing about vampires, zombies, or murders. Also, there's a section on head transplants.


Spook tackles, you guessed it, scientific inquiries into the paranormal. People have attempted to determine the weights of souls, the best ways to fabricate ethereal phenomena, and the accuracy of clairvoyance. There are researchers looking into ways to make the brain think there's a ghost or a holy visitation.

This is useful reading for anyone writing about ghosts, angels, psychics, and visions.


Book three, Bonk, covers the myths, debunking, experiments, and actual knowledge about human sexuality. Kinsey features prominently. So do research dildos, Victorian gynecologists, animal orgasm, and the various ways to create an artificial erection. This is the first book of hers I read, and is probably my favourite for that reason only.

This is the one least skewed towards speculative fiction writers, but great reading for anyone interested in human sexuality (and then some).

For a taste of the book, there's a video below.


Packing for Mars is Roach's latest book, released not that long ago. It is, of course, the most recent one I've read. It explains why we haven't reached Mars yet, why NASA's budgets are so high, why space food has such a bad rap, and how a space shuttle toilet functions. Every human step along the path to Mars is chronicled, along with those of some monkeys, dogs, and chimps, and it's rather eye-opening. Some of the things they worried about in the early days of NASA….

This is highly recommended reading for anyone writing space-based science fiction, especially those whose worlds don't have anti-gravity. I'm serious—every page or two, there's a new idea for a story.

Now, naturally, these books shouldn't be the end of your research, just the launching point. When you read these books, make notes, then do more research. Look up the people she cites. Try to find the studies, the articles, and the books. Then stop reading and write some awesome fiction!

If you want a taste of Mary Roach's style, she's guest-posted on BoingBoing, and I'd be remiss if I didn't include her TED talk. It's NSFW, though. Obviously, if you read the title of it.

2 comments:

Hannah said...

I read Packing for Mars this summer and adored it. I agree - it's about another good idea every page. I think it's one I'm going to go back to again and again. I'll have to read her other stuff!

AmandaRose said...

Have you read "Diamond Age or, a Young Ladie's Illustrated Primer" by Neal Stephenson? I think you would enjoy it! Check out my review of it on my blog amandarosetew.blogspot.com