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The hunt for fiction about science

An unabashedly personal account of my search for an elusive genre

Kirk Smith 18 November 2012

Qualifying: Detail from the cover of Intuition

As I reflected on the startling contrast between the fictional characters and the real figures from history of science, I realized just how distorted an image most people have of science

Editor's note: We're pleased to present an essay from Kirk Smith about a subset of the lab lit genre which he calls 'fiction about science'; it is the same as what we have been calling 'hard-core lab lit' here on the site.

Tecause I believe a small number of the novels on the Lab Lit List are unique in their potential for increasing public understanding of science and scientists, I recently started a blog, which I call Fiction About Science. In what follows, I describe what these novels share, and how and why I became interested in promoting them. In addition to expanding on these ideas, my blog includes brief reviews of selected lab lit novels. I’m hoping others with an interest in lab lit will join the discussion.

I am a latecomer to the LabLit website, having stumbled on it last April while looking for something else. Until I found the List, I had already discovered a troubling trend in my eclectic reading. I had found very few characters who were working scientists and even fewer realistic settings where science is pursued. Only two, Allegra Goodman’s Intuition and Richard Powers’ The Goldbug Variations, were stories that described the joys and sorrows of scientific research. At the same time, I was reading biographies of well-known scientists like Einstein, Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Emelie du Châtelet. None of the novels had characters remotely like these real people.

Having now read nearly 40 titles on the List, I’m still looking for more fiction about the search for new knowledge, novels that might help non-scientists understand what makes scientists tick. I call this “fiction about science,” which is clearly a subgenre of lab lit. It is fiction in which scientific research is the heart of the plot.

Two examples from the List will help to clarify my distinction. Claire Cyrus’s research finding forms the core of the story in Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look, whereas a murdered graduate student and the mystery surrounding his death is the centerpiece of Isaac Asimov’s wonderful A Whiff of Death. Almost all of Asimov’s characters are realistic scientists and the story takes place in a university chemistry department. The background and setting are completely realistic, but the question is who’s the murderer, not what will the outcome of a research project be and what are its implications, as it is in Rohn’s novel.

My search for fiction about science began after I took early retirement in 1993. I had been professor of psychology for 22 years and before that, a research scientist at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at the venerable but now deceased Bell Telephone Laboratories. For 30 years, I had investigated human memory and learning. I’d also spent more than half my career teaching cognitive psychology to undergraduate and graduate students. Toward the end, I devoted an increasing number of hours teaching them to understand and use statistics in their work.

Throughout my working years, I read novels whenever I had time. My reading habits have always been eclectic. I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov during one Christmas break and Ursula Leguin’s Wizard of Earthsea during a spring break. I was a fan of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, and read practically every one as they came out, as well as the early James Bond novels. And after discovering Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, I read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on. Only in the last few years have I realized how unusual I was in this regard. If my former colleagues are representative, few working scientists read fiction, and those who do, pick up a novel to escape analytical thinking for an evening.

With retirement came more leisure time to read, and it was then that I noticed for the first time how few of the characters in fiction, both past and present, are research scientists. Not surprising, given how small a part of the general population are actively engaged in scientific research. A more troubling trend was the terrible image many of these characters projected by and large. As I reflected on the startling contrast between the fictional characters and the real figures from history of science, I realized just how distorted an image most people have of science.

By my definition even the Lab Lit List has relatively few novels about science. So far, I’ve only read 39 of the more than 150 novels on the List. This count doesn’t include “crossover” novels that I’ve read like Jurassic Park, nor plays like Copenhagen and Arcadia and movies like Contact that I’ve seen. Using a weak criterion, I’d classify 13 of the 39 as fiction about science. This includes two fictionalized biographies, which are crossovers of a different kind. Also I’ve been very selective in my reading, basing my choices on the descriptions of the stories in reviews. I’ve generally avoided murder mysteries, thrillers and dramas involving events that aren’t part of a research project, including events spawned by the findings.

Perhaps the situation is changing with the growing number of new novels appearing on the Lab Lit List. But out of the sixteen titles I’ve read on the List that were published in the last ten years, only four meet my criterion for stories about what drives people to sacrifice so much in the pursuit of knowledge. I’m not claiming the other books don’t make entertaining reading. I enjoy page-turners. Although my tolerance for improbable heroics is less than most readers, I am rarely able to put down a well-crafted cliffhanger. And I think stories about the implications of science are important. It’s just that they don’t convey the fascination and excitement that underlies everything that happens in the laboratory and the field – the reasons why research itself is addictive.

I also hate to see the work of science dramatically misrepresented. Few scientists are criminals, and the murderers among them are rare indeed, gripping as they may be as fictional characters. Very few are physically capable of chasing someone on foot, scaling walls, knocking down doors and subduing someone in hand-to-hand combat, even to save the world from a science project gone amuck. But they have the strengths and flaws of character as everyone else, and most are intensely competitive. By taking the reader inside the head of a working scientist, fiction has a unique capacity to bring to life how these traits play out in the search for an elusive particle or the cause of forgetting and to show them as adventures as spellbinding as any thriller, murder mystery or political intrigue.