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What is Lab Lit (the genre)?

Boffins are so last century - let's see some real scientists for a change

Jennifer Rohn 7 March 2005

As science becomes more mainstream, writers who have access to this previously opaque world (or scientists who like to write) are starting to get more sophisticated...

Before we attempt a definition of ‘lab lit’ fiction, we can start with what it isn't:

The scientist – wild-haired, bespectacled and white-coated – squints at a beaker of lurid purple fluid. There is a half-mad glint to his eye; he has not left his solitary lab for many years, so his skin has grown pale. He turns to his assistant, a timid blonde woman who would be very beautiful if she removed her own thick spectacles, shook out her prim bun and allowed her burnished hair to tumble over her shoulders. (But she never does – at least not until the last page.)

Lightning flashes through the window, glancing off the dank stone walls and the metal clasps of the pens lined up in the scientist's breast pocket.

"It's nearly ready," he murmurs, sniffing at the colored steam curling out of the beaker. Right on cue, thunder crashes outside, making the assistant's shoulders flinch.

"Whatever are you concocting?" she says, voice trembling. "I don't understand."

"Well, Miss Sacramoto," the great man condescends, and begins to explain his plan in simple terms, a nefarious plan to transform hundreds of adult gophers into mutants and then release them onto the White House lawn...

The passage above does not qualify as lab lit in a number of ways, notably in the scientific stereotypes and inaccuracies. Let’s start with the scientist himself: physically, he has lumbered straight out of a Gary Larson cartoon, and mentally, he is crazed, reclusive and up to no good. If this were a Hollywood screenplay, he'd probably have a British accent. His masculine prowess serves as the ultimate foil for the dim or timid female whose role in the plot is merely to provide an excuse to explain the science in laymen's terms.

Other approved variations of the stereotypical scientist, as seen especially in films, include the affable geek who has problems getting laid (such as the protagonists of the Eighties movie classic Weird Science) and the clever ice princess (with beauty also typically disguised by spectacles and constrained hair) who just needs to get laid – preferably by the swashbuckling, non-scientific hero – to allow her cold, analytical nature to thaw into warm humanity (as seen in the recent film I, Robot). This is not to say that there are no scientists like this today – many stereotypes crystallize around a kernel of truth – but I would argue that they are rare. Conversely, I would also argue that geeks, the aloof and the obsessive can be found in every walk of life.

The lab in the passage quoted above also shows an inaccurate stereotype: it is gloomy, medieval and solitary, whereas modern labs are bright spaces typically bustling with bantering colleagues and loud music. The experiment is also stereotypical: steaming colored beakers are a rare breed, and the average professional scientist usually makes nothing more than modest incremental advances on what is already known without the slightest intention of harming mankind. (On the contrary: most are almost naïvely earnest in their desire to improve the human condition.)

Most crucially, the science is bad: although a gopher’s offspring could in theory be genetically manipulated to bring down the current Republican regime, fully grown gophers cannot be instantly "transformed" into mutants of a different aspect (in the same way that Peter Parker could never have been turned into Spider Man by a modest dose of arachnid-delivered radioactivity). The excerpt above is purposefully over-the-top by modern standards, but elements of these stereotypes are evident in most current portrayals of science and scientists across all media and in their reinforcement by popular cultural beliefs. And they are so pervasive that when faced with the reality, many people refuse to believe it – a fact that otherwise good-intentioned producers of popular science programs know all too well.

It’s now time to attempt a solid definition of what lab lit is: a small but growing genre of fiction in which central scientific characters, activities and themes are portrayed in a realistic manner, in a realistic (as opposed to futuristic or speculative) world. Lab lit, furthermore, encompasses all stories in which scientist characters are shown carrying out their scientific endeavors in a way that is integral to the plot. (I am always happy to see realistic minor scientist characters in literature of other genres, but I would not classify these books as 'lab lit' unless science was mostly the point of the novel. The boundaries are not always cut and dry, however.)

Lab lit is not synonymous with science fiction, although of course there can some overlap. Science fiction is removed from reality by definition and will have an element of fantasy – it will be set in the future, say, or in an alternative universe. No matter how realistically crafted these fantasy scientists and their world are, or how closely they parallel actual science culture, it will not be a scene that you and I could easily encounter were we to walk into a research institute, field station or any other place where scientists are doing what they do. Science fiction has and will continue to give us true-to-life portrayals of scientists in many cases, but the genre itself is a different beast.

Carl Djerassi, the author of several novels with realistic scientist characters, prefers the term science-in-fiction, but I have found this label too easily confused with science fiction. Also, Djerassi’s own definition of science-in-fiction makes it clear that the genre he has in mind is intended primarily to educate the layperson, and so is crafted with a rather heavy agenda.

Where lab lit differs somewhat from Djerassi’s science-in-fiction (more fuzzy boundaries) is that the story, though largely realistic, is intended primarily to entertain – just as would a story set in another normal profession, whether it be a hospital, a police station or an office. The emphasis here is that science is normal – whereas in the past, stories containing science were almost always fantastic: killer robots, mad professors, mutant viruses from Mars. Don’t get me wrong: such stories can be great fun. But they are not accurate reflection of real science nor of real scientists. And now, as science becomes more and more professionalized and mainstream, writers who have access to this previously opaque world (or scientists who like to write) are starting to get more sophisticated.

As I mentioned above, a work of fiction with a character who just happens to be a scientist, and whose scientific activities are largely peripheral to the story, would not qualify as lab lit using our working definition – all the more so when the scientists are unconvincing or grossly stereotyical. Three fairly recent examples are Whatever Love Means, by David Baddiel; Atomized, by Michel Houellebecq; and Wake Up, by Tim Pears.

Whatever Love Means is a tragicomedic love story set in London; the protagonist’s best friend is a classic Weird Science-style boffin who we’re meant to believe is a cutting-edge AIDS biochemist (though the factual errors are appalling – animated virus particles under an electron microscope, anyone?). It’s also not lab lit because the scientist could’ve been a sales clerk and the story would not have suffered unduly.

In Atomized, the molecular biologist Michel plays a foil to his passionate, emotional, sex-mad half-brother Bruno. Michel, we are shown, is cold and celibate, lacking the ability to understand even basic human emotions. Two stereotypes in one, then – scientist as asexual geek and scientist as borderline autistic. The science does not feel central to this bleak, intellectual plot, and it certainly never seems real: especially at the end, when (as far as I can gather) Michel’s weary atoms eponymously dissipate into a supernatural puff of smoke. Serves him right, too, Houellebecq implies, for having tried to manipulate genes that man was never meant to manipulate. And so the third stereotype emerges: scientist as arrogant meddler who "goes too far" but gets his come-uppance at the end.

And I had high hopes for Wake Up, which was billed as a cutting-edge thriller about the perils of GM food seen from the eyes of an agricultural businessman who has decided to dabble in biotech. We are promised interesting scientific and ethical dilemmas about the politics and perils of GMO and of testing drugs on humans but in the end are delivered commonplace nonscientific observations of startling banality: e.g., new babies often cry during the night, which leads to parental exhaustion. (Really?) The science is conspicuous largely because of its absence, but stereotypes abound – as when the protagonist, feeling smug about his sexual exploits, refers to his scientific collaborators as "those sterile nerds in the Oxford labs". But don’t worry: his come-uppance, too, is imminent.

So what, then, are good examples of lab lit? is compiling a growing list, but three excellent ones are Paper, by John McCabe, Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer; and Carbon Dreams, by Susan Gaines. Paper, penned by a working scientist (click here for our recent interview), is a black comedy/thriller about a disgruntled postdoctoral biochemist. In Paper, the science and the labs are grittily realistic, and its denizens are immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever worked in a lab. (Oh, and the protagonist, like most real lab folk, actually gets laid.)

Mendel’s Dwarf is the story of an achondroplasiac geneticist studying the molecular underpinnings of his own disease. Written by a non-scientist, this darkly humorous book is fabulously detailed, with dense footnotes, dense genetics and dense historical notes about Gregor Mendel. There is even an image of a restriction enzyme-treated DNA electrophoresis gel to help illustrate the climactic moment of truth, when the protagonist must decide whether to inseminate his lover patient with an achondroplasic embryo or a normal one – in other words, to determine whether his own offspring will be dwarfed, like him, or "normal". I wouldn’t usually advocate so much detail in a book aimed primarily at laypeople, but somehow it’s so over-the-top that it’s part of the humor, an apt illustration of the character’s obsessional nature.

And Carbon Dreams (written by a former scientist) is an all-too-realistic tale of a young geologist grappling with chauvinism at work and a not terribly understanding old-fashioned boyfriend at home.

Lab lit stories are not necessarily set in laboratories – the genre can embrace botanists scrambling along the hillsides, physicists colliding particles, mathematicians cranking out equations, or paleontologists digging up ancient human remains. And they are not necessarily books – there is no reason why they cannot be films (Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman; The Creator, starring Peter O’Toole), plays (Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn) or TV series (though these are even scarcer).

For those who think that lab lit could never be entertaining because science bored them at school, consider the following. Would you be tempted by the exploits of a religious art scholar? That’s exactly what the wildly successful The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) is. How about dreary nine-to-five life? (The Office), hairdressing (BBC’s excellent series Cutting It) or career politicians (The West Wing; Yes, Minister)? Or even ladies of leisure (Pride and Prejudice)? The point is that a great story can be written about anything – provided they have good characters and a good plot. Nevertheless, examples of lab lit are quite rare, with forensics being the conspicuous exception (note the success of novelists like Patricia Cornwall and programs like CSI). There’s no mystery here: crime thrillers, in any guise, are an established genre that will always appeal. Reasons for the rarity of lab lit as a genre are probably multifactorial. Although it’s clear that perfectly good lab lit has been pulled off by imaginative laypeople who are not afraid to consult the experts, the truth is that if more scientists were willing and able to write, one would undoubtedly see more examples. Science is also intrinsically difficult to explain, which is likely to be a real barrier. There may also be significant resistance from publishers and producers, as the formula is by no means tried-and-true. But the most fundamental reason may simply be because science has a bad reputation in society, and its practitioners are seen as boring, sterile, frightening and arrogant. The net result? Books won’t sell and the films and programs won’t get watched – so they never get created in the first place. The ironic thing, however, is that this image is unlikely to change without more realistic portrayals by the entertainment (and mainstream) media.

How do we overcome this chicken-and-egg conundrum? Suggestions welcomed.