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Essay

Inside the science book group

Confessions of a Fiction Lab regular

Richard Marshall 4 August 2015

www.lablit.com/article/874

Engrossed: a regular brushes up

In every case, science in lab lit has not merely served as a cypher or convenient plot device; science has been a character

The genre of ‘lab lit’ sits in the sweet spot of the Two Cultures debate. Nonetheless, the most avid reader could go their whole life without encountering well-written fiction in which a realistic scientist engages in plausible science.

What better way, then, to bring those two cultures together than a book club dedicated to reading the best of 'science-in-fiction'. For just over seven years, presided over by LabLit.com’s editor, Jenny Rohn, Fiction Lab has been meeting monthly at London’s historic Royal Institution with exactly that brief.

Over these many meetings, we've covered historic reimaginings of the lives of great scientists, speculative science bordering on sci-fi (yet rooted in real physics), witnessed the great explorers and discoverers, encountered science as romantic hero and political pawn, lived the experiences of geneticists, marine biologists and lowly lab assistants, and dreamed with atavistic giants under the shadow of the Enlightenment. In every case, science in lab lit has not merely served as a cypher or convenient plot device; science has been a character, a central theme, a principle player.

The RI is, arguably, the spiritual home of public engagement with science and so the ideal place to meet, yet I first learnt of Lab Lit when Jenny presented the concept at a Cafe Sci gathering in London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. I'd already been in a conventional book group for around ten years, and thought the genre would be a welcome addition to it. But I soon discovered that the principle of bringing together artists and scientists (or members of the public with an interest in both) at the ICA is one thing; persuading my long-standing book club, comprising mostly writers and actors, to read a lab lit novel turned out to be a whole different proposition.

It's a testament then, to lab lit as a genre, and to LabLit.com's promotion of that genre, that several novels we have since read in Fiction Lab have also been chosen on merit alone by my "normal" book club (my wife to Fiction Lab's mistress, as they like to say). Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler are just two recent examples of lab lit's crossover into mainstream consciousness.

One of the joys of Fiction Lab for me has been discovering that my two cultures of book club, my literary wife and mistress, have far more in common than any of us initially supposed. Fiction Lab is like any book club. Very few books satisfy every member and the most enjoyable discussions generally arise over the least favoured books. (In fact, sometimes the best part of the evening is when we take turns rating the book on a scale from 1 to 10, and certain cantankerous regulars argue, with great humour and aplomb, why the novel deserves a negative number.) Yet we have never had a dull meeting, never failed to explore a gamut of opinions and almost never have we all agreed on anything. And so it should be.

Like all good fiction, lab lit is to be read and judged for its literary merit. We don't read to learn about science itself, so much as to explore the soul of a scientist, the culture of a lab, the machinations of a corporation and the motivation of heroes and antiheroes. We've read of love, betrayal, sacrifice, folly, bravery, greed, brilliance, naiveté, determination, altruism and sheer delight. If it is to work properly, lab lit has to be "Lit" as much as it is "Lab", and we've delved into both ends of that spectrum.

Being in London has also allowed us to take advantage of the proximity of various authors who have bravely agreed to come along, join the discussion and field questions about the science and inspiration behind their work. From this, we have learned an enormous amount about how difficult it is to craft a story balanced between the sometimes conflicting urges to discuss complex ideas and still to entertain the reader.

One of the joys of Fiction Lab has been the members themselves. We're a mixture of scientists, science lovers and science newbies, occasional readers and bibliophiles, artists and businesspeople, old and young. There are no qualifications or entry requirements. What we have in common is a love of good books, an interest in real science and a desire to read and discuss the best in both. We don't always find it, but we always have fun talking about it. Thanks to Jenny we've enjoyed seven years of literary highs and lows, great discoveries and old favourites, enthralling hits and, the occasional, regrettable miss.

It's all been a blast.

Join us next time if you like.

Related information

Fiction Lab is free, requires no booking and meets generally on the second Monday of each month at the Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS. Each month’s book choice is posted about a month in advance in their Events Calender.

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