Science (Fiction) in Fantasy: Five novels that mix Sorcery and STEM

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.


For International Women’s Day, here are some badass women of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) who defy the odds in order to pursue their passions and develop their intellects. Whether in fictional worlds or our own, the sciences are no magical haven of rationality: they’re beset with the same sexism, racism, and other social issues that afflict all other professions. These books challenge discrimination in STEM while maintaining ideals of curiosity, rational inquiry, and determination that all scientists need.

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge – Faith Sunderly starts out just wanting her father to love her, but he loves only paleontology and natural philosophy, and she ends up falling for it as well. The whole book is an exercise in the scientific method as Faith tries to isolate variables, repeat experiments, and apply skepticism to a credulous world. Specifically, she’s looking for a tree that may be straight out of Eden, or may be further proof of the dangerous Mr. Darwin’s new theories. By the end, she learns to be very skeptical indeed of her supposed limitations as a young woman, and discovers a very rational courage to pursue her own dreams of scientific inquiry.

A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan – Isabella the Lady Trent’s most prized possession of childhood is a well-preserved dragon specimen, and when she’s not reading treatises on biology she’s brushing up on her sketching. She was never suited to high society, so it’s fortunate that she finds a way on to a scientific expedition to serve science instead of crumpets. She makes many important discoveries and produces many revolutionary papers, all because of her keen eye and her steady hand. A fierce environmentalist as well as a naturalist, Lady Trent begins some of the first conservation efforts to protect dragons from industrial exploitation. Science and scientific ethics? Lady Trent, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

Tess of the Road – Rachel Hartman – Like Lady Trent, Tess is searching for serpents, specifically the massive world serpents described only in legend. But the world is full of legends made real, including her half-dragon sister Seraphina, and Tess believes she can prove the scholarly community wrong. Tess’s story teaches us the importance of a truly open and curious mind: while other scholars scoff and degrade the legends of the quigutl as the imaginings of an inferior race, Tess takes her quigutl friends seriously, and discovers something far greater than she could have imagined. There is also a good deal of technology to be seen as Tess explores with the help of new communication devices and other mechanical marvels.

His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman – Although most characters call physics “experimental theology,” a science by any other name still smells as sweet. Lyra begins her journey in The Golden Compass as an indifferent student, but is soon swept away by the daring thinkers around her and her own curiosity. Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist from our world, plays a large part in Lyra’s development (mentorship!). Each finds their own way through evolutionary marvels to the basis of consciousness itself. The newest installment, The Book of Dust: The Belle Sauvage, features a young man also interested in experimental theology who ends up fighting against the science-stifling Magesterium and beginning down his own path as a scholar.

Unicorn Tracks – Julia Ember – The only book here that doesn’t even obliquely involve herpetology, Unicorn Tracks is about two girls, one a local tracker and the other a foreign naturalist, who just want to know more about unicorns. This common bond bridges cultural and racial divides and ends up defying colonial exploitation. Although sometimes stereotyped as boring, this book is another reminder that science brings people together and creates opportunities for adventure and meaningful change.


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