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Scientists in novels: a growing trend?

Seventeen new additions to the Lab Lit List

Jennifer Rohn 8 September 2009

Ever onward: the stack continues to grow

The dramas behind the science touch on the entire spectrum of the human condition

It’s been a long time in coming, but we are happy to present the first major update to the Lab Lit List in many months. Our dedicated team of volunteers has been more than usually overstretched, but we’ve finally managed to research the many ideas that have been steadily trickling into the LabLit Editorial Inbox this year. I would like to thank all of the readers who took the time – often quite passionately – to nominate works of fiction featuring scientists that they thought were missing from our collection.

So what does this boost do for the overall numbers? Today, we’ve added seventeen items: twelve straight fiction novels, four crossovers (our category name for science fiction [SF] featuring particularly realistic scientist characters) and one TV drama. Despite this boost, we still have fewer than a hundred novels on the main list – that’s fewer than a hundred non-SF novels featuring scientists as central characters ever published. Although I’ve been living with this anemic stat for a number of years now, it still manages to surprise and disappoint me. As always, we hope that our website will continue to inspire writers to start penning more novels with scientist characters, and readers to continue to expect to find them in bookshops worldwide and voting with their wallets to encourage the trends.

And I do believe that there is a trend. The long-listing of Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition for the UK’s prestigious Orange Prize this year, as well as the recent publication of lab lit fiction from best-selling authors Giles Foden and Tracy Chavalier, adds glamor to the cause, but in the past two years there has definitely been a modest increase in the number of less celebrated lab lit novels hitting the bookshops overall.

This List update features a wide variety of titles. Some are classics, while others have come out only in the past few months. The scientific topics span viral outbreaks, space exploration and dolphin biology to quantum mechanics, mathematics and the science of Alzheimer’s disease. And of course, the dramas behind the science touch on the entire spectrum of the human condition.

I am often asked whether the Lab Lit List constitutes our vote of quality. The answer is no: we list any book that fits out definition of ‘lab lit’ (see the List itself for a detailed definition) regardless of whether we liked it or not. As anyone who has ever been in a book group can attest, one man’s work of genius is often another’s doorstop. We prefer to let readers decide for themselves.

So do check out the List: by custom, newest additions are added to the bottom. And if you think we’re still missing some titles, please contact us. We’re also interested in publishing retrospective reviews of all of these books, no matter how old, and we have a long way to go. So if you really connected with one of these works and would like to write a review to be published on the site, we’d love to hear from you. These needn’t be long or scholarly – even 300 words would be helpful, and we’re happy to help edit them to best effect. Your review will be linked permanently on the List to help decide others which ones they’d like to read.

And above all, if you've enjoyed any of the books we’ve listed, spread the word!