Can science fiction be lab lit?

The scientific profession through the lens of fiction

Jon Turney 18 April 2010

Good spin: fiction can showcase the work of scientists

What written science fiction can do better than anything else is give a sense of science as work

Editor's note: Science fiction (SF) and 'lab lit' can significantly overlap, and some works are especially difficult to distinguish – especially ultra-realistic ones set in the near-future, which on this website we usually choose to classify as lab lit. In fact, our opinion differs from the author on two of the five SF works he has chosen to discuss, but we are happy to acknowledge the inherent fuzziness of some crossover works: the lab lit concept is meant to be a helpful construct for discussion, not a hegemony.

Science fiction is a pretty loose category, and the mix of science and fiction highly variable. If you come to it wanting to know about science, though, can it tell you anything interesting? I think it can.

I want to ponder what we can learn about science through fiction by using a few examples which everyone agrees are science fiction, to save me the trouble of defining it. They will be novels rather than films. The latter reach far more people, but mostly feed simple stereotypes of science and scientists which are not particularly interesting to contemplate. Want confirmation? Try PJ O’Rourke:

My entire store of information about scientific activity comes from what I’ve seen in the movies. There, scientists used to be represented as men in white coats busy with incomprehensible jumbles of glass tubing connected to foaming beakers and bubbling test tubes. Now, scientists are represented as men (and women) in white coats busy with incomprehensible jumbles of numbers of computer screens. All I can really tell you about science is that its set designers aren’t as good as they used to be.

Would PJ have fared any better if he had dipped into science fiction in print? Yes: if he read the right things, he might come away with a composite portrait of science, scientists and even on occasion scientific institutions as they are, or might one day be.

What might he learn? He might, I suppose, learn some scientific facts or concepts. They certainly underpin the action in a great deal of interesting science fiction. My own view is that this is, in a way, beside the point. We are, after all, dealing with fiction. So it is not just fine to make stuff up. It is kind of expected. The science facts in a story may be true. Or not. As long as it is a good story, it does not matter. I’m with Adam Roberts, who combines careers as literary academic and notably creative SF novelist, when he says (Roberts, 2005, p 16):

Application of conventional scientific orthodoxy as a criterion of judgment for an aesthetic object is fundamentally foolish even when applied with absolute consistency.

No, what you might look for in SF is not information about real science facts and concepts – though they may well be there – but about science as an activity, and scientists as people.

A word here about past efforts to inquire into this issue. The main attempt is a classic – for which read old (1958) – paper by the American sociologist Walter Hirsch called The Image of the Scientist in Science Fiction. This was a simple enough exercise; Hirsch looked at a sample of 300 stories in American science fiction magazines between 1926 and 1950 and reported that the proportion of scientists as major characters declined steadily over the 25 years he studied. And there were fewer scientific heroes – 44 per cent of heroes were scientists in the earliest years, but only 24 per cent by the post-war period. There was also a decline in villains who were scientists, though not so steep (39 per cent to 30 per cent). Virtually no social scientists appeared, Hirsch was disappointed to note.

There was a strong positive image of scientists in the sense that imaginary future societies tended to feature scientific elites, portrayed favourably, as legitimate and effective.

In terms of setting, the “gentleman scientist” is slowly replaced by the scientist involved in a network of interpersonal and institutional pressures. As Hirsch reckoned, “science fiction tends to give a relatively realistic picture of the setting in which contemporary scientific activity takes place.”

It would be interesting to do Hirsch’s survey again. That hasn’t really happened, as far as know, though SF critic Lucy Snyder had a less extensive look for the magazine Strange Horizons a few years ago. She went through some mid-'90s science fiction stories in Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and compared them with a bunch of 1950s anthologies.

Six months of Analog, for instance, yielded 16 stories out of 36 with scientists as main characters. Of these portrayals, none were negative except insofar as scientists were shown to be fallible human beings. And the scientists, once nearly all medical doctors and physicists, now included more palaeontologists, ecologists, and other biologists. Asimov’s went further in that direction, with physicists outnumbered by both biologists and social scientists, and a few appearances by computer scientists and an oceanographer.

These are short stories, though, so aside from finding that these portrayals reflect disciplinary diversity and show scientists who have problems pretty much like anyone else, there is not much startling to report. So it makes more sense to look at novels, perhaps.

Here are a few notable examples worth discussing, with no pretence of being even a teensy bit systematic. They are just ones which strike me as relevant, and highly worth reading in any case.

Timescape by Gregory Benford (1980)

Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California so it is not surprising that his scientist characters are mainly physicists. The story involves a team in a (then) near future world – in 1998 – who are facing ecological and social collapse and are trying a desperate experiment to send a message back into the past using faster than light particles, tachyons. Intertwined with this is the long effort of the physicist who picks up the signal in his apparatus in 1962 to make sense of it.

As this summary suggests, there are lots of scientists here. My favourite is not the main protagonist, who is the young, driven 1962 experimenter, but the 1998 transmitter, a Cambridge man called Renfrew. Here he is at home – in the laboratory:

Renfrew seldom noticed the austere walls and blocky angles of his lab; to him it was a comfortable gathering of familiar elements working together. He could not fathom the now-fashionable abhorrence of things mechanical; he suspected it was one side of a coin, the other being awe. But either was nonsense. One might as well feel the same emotions about a skyscraper, for example, yet the building was no greater than a man – men made it, not the other way round. The universe of artefacts was a human one. As Renfrew moved through the lanes of bulky electronics, he sometimes seemed to himself a fish swimming in the warm waters of his own ocean, carrying the elaborate scheme of the experiment as a multi-layered diagram in his mind, checking it against the never-perfect reality before him. He loved this thinking, correcting, and searching for the unseen flaw that could destroy the whole effect he wanted.

This is a fine portrait of an experimenter enfolded by his experiment, struggling to control a small piece of the world and get it to behave as he hoped it would. Benford has produced a lot of fiction since, and is still coming up with interesting scientists. Look in the 2007 Best Science Fiction anthology and you will find a short story, Bowshock, which is quite similar in atmosphere to Timescape – a young astronomer, struggling with his love life and with his data, worried about tenure, in California now rather than 1962. Again, there is a very detailed depiction of scientific life and work.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

A little earlier than Timescape, The Dispossessed collected most of the science fiction awards going. A classic, it has too many thought-provoking elements to summarise here. The bare bones: two worlds; an anarchist community of former émigrés on a moon (Annares) orbiting a less, politically progressive planet, Urras. The central character, Shevek, is the first of the colonists to make the trip back to Urras.

Why? Many reasons, but the main one is that he is a theoretical physicist. He needs to journey to Urras to meet his peers as he wrestles with a new theory of time. One of the many contradictions Le Guin explores between the ostensible and actual workings of the two societies, and in how ideals play out in practice, is that Shevek, a more deeply committed anarchist than any, is in some senses freer to pursue his thinking/work on Urras, where the powers that be want to exploit it for new technologies they think will give them more power. On Annares, radical but also provincial and confined, no-one truly understands what he is striving to achieve.

Other ins and outs of the story are fascinating – if you don’t know it I urge you to read it. If you do, you will see Shevek, earlier on, learning to appreciate the pleasure of thinking and the delights of something he feels slightly ashamed of at first amid the communal customs of Annares: a room of one’s own. Le Guin, without going into details, provides a vivid impression of his obsessive thinking, worrying away at a fundamental problem.

So now we have two kinds of physicists, experimental and theoretical. Who else?

Mars and Science in the Capitol trilogies – Kim Stanley Robinson

I would point next to the large body of scientists in the work of Kim Stanley Robinson (not a scientist himself, but he is married to one). Summarising gets even harder because I have in mind not one novel, but two massive trilogies. The more recent is a near-future sequence, concerned with the science of climate change (Editor’s note: considers this work to be ‘lab lit’ more than science fiction). The story is full of scientists in a very near-future USA where things really aren’t going too well (Washington is flooded, for instance) trying to save the world – helped by a few rational politicians. Most of the action in the first volume, Forty Signs of Rain, in particular, takes place inside the National Science Foundation: outside of CP. Snow this is the only an actual novel I can think of about science policy. And it works.

However, Robinson’s earlier Mars trilogy is a greater achievement, which will outlive the climate epic. These three novels chart the striving of a Mars colony as the planet is terraformed to make it habitable, and its many conflicts, both internal and with a politically unstable Earth. It is a magnificent piece of world creation, in the literary sense, while describing, in effect, the creation of a world, in the biogeophysical sense, and a new society.

Again, it is all rich, complex, and immensely readable, though you should set aside perhaps half a year to tackle the whole thing. But all I want to do here is seize on one of the many scientists who help remake the planet. The most important of these is Sax Russell, originally a physicist (again) who is in the thick of the terraforming effort, and of almost everything else that goes on in this saga. He is a compellingly drawn character who struggles on many fronts, not least to reconcile his commitment to approaching problems according to what he understands is the proper way for a scientist to analyse them, with his need to work with other people who may not see them the same way.

It’s probably fair to say there are elements of nerdy stereotype in Sax’s personality – science-obsessed and introverted almost to the point of autism – but it also seems to work. Above all, he is preoccupied with explaining things. In all the many things he does over the course of the book, one abiding impression is of inexhaustible intellectual curiosity. He sees something new, wants to explain it. And there is delight in this.

Now those were all physicists, even though Russell does lots of other things. Can I offer you a life scientist?

Life by Gwyneth Jones

Yes, a more recent one, the protagonist of Gwyneth Jones’ 2004 novel. (Editor’s note: Again, on balance has classified this novel as ‘lab lit’ instead of as SF) Her scientist, Anna, lives in a rough and ready near-future, and we follow her through her undergraduate years through a tangle of relationships – some with scientific mentors, some with all kinds of others – to a kind of fame, or at least notoriety. Her work is on genetics, sex and gender, and the book is deeply concerned how all three affect a life in science – and therefore with power in the lab, and outside.

Jones has recently written an account of how her scientist was created, with lengthy illustrations, for a critical collection on SF – which is also posted on her website. As she sees it:

The important thing to remember is that Anna isn't interested in sexual politics, or politics of any kind. She's not anti-feminist, she'd say she just wants to be treated like a human being. She's ambitious, secretly and wildly ambitious. When she's an undergraduate she dreams of finding a missing link – some mechanism to bridge the gaps in evolutionary theory, giving a better model of life itself. But that's a daydream, in real life she's an idealist, she wants to do good. She decides on a career in plant biology, improving food crops (sustainably of course). Feed the world. But she gets derailed, by bad luck involving a male student who probably resents her talent. She ends up in human fertility studies and then she spots something going on, a tiny change in a sample of male sex chromosomes, which she sees at once might have a very weird explanation. . .if it's not an experimental artefact. She checks it out, and is convinced she's on the track of something, and I'm not sure how, but in the end this will happen fast, become visible and unstoppable fast, within a generation.

Anna’s first public hint at all this is that most nerve-wracking effort, the first conference paper:

She spent the lunch break lurking in the crowd, unmolested. In the middle of the afternoon she presented herself in good time. Professor Reeves of Computer Science, who was running the symposium, greeted her distractedly.

"Who are you?" His grey curly hair fizzed with anxiety.

"I'm Anna Senoz, from Parentis."

"Good, good. Now look, er, Anna, we're running late, it's going to be very unfair on the last group, so could you make it short. Get through your stuff in fifteen minutes, instead of twenty. Can you do that for me, love?"

"Of course."

"Good girl! Now where the hell's Eswin? Anyone here seen Terry Vick?"

She scanned her pages and made instant cuts. It was better this way: hustled, badgered, no time to think. It would be no worse than talking to a nearly empty hall, the way she'd imagined. There was no one here remotely interested in "Transferred Y." This was a rehearsal, harmless as practicing in front of the mirror. Her heart beat wildly, she felt like a half-fledged bird crouched on the rim of the nest: "Ca, mon ame, il faut partir..." Who said that? Rene Descartes, as he lay dying. My soul, we must go. But she was not dying, she was being born. She was about to join the edifice, the organism, thousands of years, to which she had given her life and heart. To speak and be heard. She checked the OHP, made sure her acetates were in order – and saw KM Nirmal, sitting erect in the middle of the front row. She hardly recognized him. Her supervisor was wearing a very smart suit. She'd never seen him except in a lab coat or a shabby sports jacket. He hadn't said a word about attending the symposium. Her head started to spin. To speak in front of Nirmal was completely different.

She began.

The result? Well, again you have to read it. But you might guess it does not turn out well.

So, after those few examples, what can you learn about science from science fiction? Not, as I’ve said, facts – though there might be some. Not ideas about what science is going to do next – though you might pick up a few hints. But you can get both of those better elsewhere. What written science fiction, when it does it well, can do better than anything else is give a sense of science as work. It is not that common, it tends to obsess about a few disciplines, and – in contrast to a lot of life in the lab – it is usually successful work. But it gives a real idea about scientific labour, and the qualities of mind you might need to be good at it. In fact, when science fiction does the lab, it can sometimes do it better than lab lit.

Other articles by Jon Turney