Finding the cure

In His Genes by Robin Stratton

Steve Caplan 9 June 2013

Work/life balance: detail from the cover

Can non-scientist authors, as great as they may be, accurately capture the lifestyle and intensity of the average scientist?

Editor's note added 14 July 2013: Recently our staff reviewed this novel and concluded that, due to certain plot elements (which we won't reveal as they constitute spoilers), it is science fiction and not lab lit. Regardless, the lab scientists and scenes are realistic depictions, so we've moved the novel to the SF "crossover" section of the LabLit List.

When I first picked up In His Genes (Big Table Publishing, 2013), I did so with more than a little suspicion. After all, author Robin Stratton seemed to have no notion that she had written a novel that falls under the burgeoning new lab lit field. Moreover, I knew that she was not a scientist. And what do non-scientists know about biomedical research? Can such non-scientist authors, as great as they may be, accurately capture the lifestyle and intensity of the average scientist – in a realistic manner?

From my experience as a scientist and as a reader, it’s possible, but rare. Sinclair Lewis managed to pull it off with his realistic depiction of the eponymous protagonist in Arrowsmith. Jodi Picoult had mixed success, I believe, in her two novels about obsessed field researchers (both of which I reviewed previously for – Lone Wolf and Songs of the Humpback Whale). Allegra Goodman’s Intuition was very well received, but as a long-time admirer of her fiction, I did not think it was on par with most of her other non-lab lit creations. So despite the wide experience of Ms. Stratton, I had minimal expectations as I began to read In His Genes.

For these reasons, I found myself fascinated to read about the rare genetic syndrome called Voight’s Disease – named after the South African physician and researcher who first identified it. Emil Voight desperately searched for other afflicted individuals worldwide, and eventually created the International Coalition for Unidentified Diseases (ICUD). This disease shows up in female carriers only when they have just given birth; they undergo severe headache, fever, muscle weakness and blindness before succumbing to the disease with 7-10 days. Only male children are born with the disease, and while they survive for about a decade, they have increasingly severe symptoms as they grow older, and the mortality rate is 100%.

Shocked at not having heard of this disease – despite its rarity – I found myself looking for information on Voight’s Disease on Wikipedia. Only to find that I’d been had. In other words, the author had created a disease so realistic and plausible that she had fooled a biomedical researcher. Now, she had my full attention.

This novel, told from the perspective of Cassie, the heroine and lab technician of prominent researcher Dr. Jack Miller, features a compelling story and a series of realistic characters. The laboratory science, discussions, research and diseases smack of authenticity that many scientist-authors would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The story begins with Jack’s young son suffering from another flare-up of Voight’s Disease – the same disease to which he had lost his wife ten years earlier. The story is reminiscent of Lorenzo’s Oil, the George Miller film from 1992, in which the non-scientist parents of a boy with adrenoleukodystrophy struggle to find a cure to save their child. In this case, however, the story goes well beyond the search for a cure.

Not wanting to be a spoiler – because I highly recommend this novel to scientists and non-scientists alike – I will only allude to romantic entanglements, stiff scientific competition, ethics, and potential scientific fraud playing important roles in the development of the story.

In summary – if you are a fan of lab lit, you will enjoy In His Genes. And if you are not a fan of Lab Lit – after reading this novel, you will be.