The metaphorical richness of science in fiction

(and the dangers of taking it literally)

Philip Ball 18 June 2018

Monstrous misunderstanding: detail from Shelley's Frankenstein

When you put a bit of science into a fictional book, readers immediately have a tendency to forget what fiction is

Editor's note: Recently we celebrated ten years of Fiction Lab, the world's first book group dedicated to lab lit novels. This essay is adapted from a speech given on the night by Philip Ball, one of the panelists, and is the first in a small series from the same event.

When he was once asked why he came to the Royal Institution in London so often to hear Humphry Davy lecture, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it was “to improve my stock of metaphors.” To both Coleridge and Davy, science was a romantic quest of an almost poetic nature, in which investigating the wonders of the natural and physical world could offer us insights into ourselves. It’s often said, and sometimes lamented, that as science became increasingly professionalized and institutionalized after Davy’s time, we lost sight of this notion – and perhaps also lost that sense of science’s ability to supply metaphors for the imagination.

Someone else who may have gone to see Davy speak, and who certainly knew about his work, was Mary Shelley. Her husband Percy was another romantic poet with a passion for science, particularly for chemistry, Davy’s main field of work (using electrolysis he discovered magnesium, calcium, barium and strontium). And of course Mary created probably the most famous work of science in fiction – some might say, of science fiction – two hundred years ago.

But look what we did to Frankenstein! We’ve decided that it’s a cautionary tale about science gone bad, a warning of what might happen when scientists fall prey to hubris. Victor Frankenstein then becomes the archetype of the bad, mad scientist, pursuing a kind of forbidden knowledge in isolation.

This reading tells us a lot about our attitudes to science, but it doesn’t tell us much about Frankenstein. The richness of the text comes from its layers of metaphor: in large part, it’s about procreation, childbirth – and its horrors, dangers and responsibilities (see my 2011 book Unnatural). It’s a modern creation myth.

I think we’re rather resistant to metaphorical readings of science in fiction. In my experience, including my experience of writing science in fiction, when you put a bit of science into a fictional book, then immediately readers have a tendency to forget what fiction is – let’s say crudely, a narrative in which particularities are a vehicle for exploring generalities about who we are. Instead, the reader starts to worry: Do I understand this science? Is it accurate? Immediately we’re back at our school desks, fretting about how tricky science is and whether we will get the right answers.

(While preparing this piece, I came across an Amazon review of my 2008 novel The Sun and Moon Corrupted, which said “There are a number of fictitious scientific papers, which make things slow going for the layman” – and realized with a mixture of amusement and horror that this reader had apparently felt those “papers” needed to be read carefully and understood, rather than being treated as Sebald-style images.)

Let me give an example of this literalism with the “science.” Many people seem to have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 book Never Let Me Go as a portrayal of a dystopian future in which people are reared for harvesting their body parts. But that reading doesn’t quite make sense. You might say: but that’s exactly what the narrative says! Yes it does – but what’s odd is that this isn’t happening in some Blade Runner-style techno-landscape, but in what seems to be a rather drab version of the 1970s or 80s. And this world isn't a draconian police state like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but a society rather like ours in which the citizens seem quite benign and ordinary – as if you could simply slot this horrific scenario into contemporary England while nothing else changes and no one blinks an eye.

I’m not going to impose a particular interpretation on Never Let Me Go, except just to say: could that cognitive dissonance perhaps be because the novel’s scenario is meant to work at a metaphorical level – that the deep work it is doing is about something else? (To my mind, Theo Tait got it right in his review in the Telegraph: “Gradually, it dawns on the reader that Never Let Me Go is a parable about mortality.”)

It’s the same with some other early classics of science in fiction, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or H. G. Wells’ novels The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man. All play with Mary Shelley’s vision of a lone, rogue scientist gone bad, as well as, like her, playing with sciences at the interface of chemistry and biology. But are we to read them, as we now so often read Frankenstein, as warnings of why it’s a bad idea to develop potions or treatments that release our id, or turn animals into people, or make us invisible? I’d hope that the emptiness of those literal interpretations is a bit more apparent here, and that it’s pretty clear why the science serves as a metaphor for examining, in the age of Freud, our suppressed bestial impulses or the temptation and corruption that can follow from an ability to commit acts without being seen to be responsible for them.

It’s interesting, to me anyway, that in these 19th century works of science in fiction, chemistry is prominent – because that’s not the case today. In Davy’s time chemistry was the paradigm of the romantic science, and seemed the most fertile source of metaphors. Today its stock has fallen: it’s often seen as holding little in the way of big ideas that could serve as vehicles for the imagination. It’s often seen as a messy, prosaic science, as well as morally tainted by its potential to pollute and despoil, and by the judgemental way we now deploy the word “synthetic”.

But I want to suggest that some modern writers have been able to use chemistry as a rich font of metaphor – and that in some ways chemistry best exemplifies our mixed relationship to science and its role in society. (For more details, see my article “Chemistry and power in recent American fiction”, Hyle 12, 45-66 [2006]).

White Noise was Don DeLillo’s eighth novel, published in 1984, and is often seen as his breakthrough book. But it divided critics and reviewers. Some saw it as a liberal critique of the artificiality of American life. For others, it was almost a celebration of that same post-modern perspective, in which high art is mixed with consumer culture.

DeLillo’s narrator, Jack Gladney, teaches at the local college, where he is chairman of the department of Hitler studies. His life, like everyone else’s, is filled with trade names for synthetic chemicals, materials and drugs: Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex - meaningless, superficial, invented labels that stave off ignorance about what all this stuff really is. The story revolves around another of them, some toxic substance called Nyodene D that gets released in a mysterious chemical accident.

But this is no simple environmental morality story. It’s really a comment on the way life has become religiously dependent on artifice, both for better and worse. Events like the chemical spill appear to be almost acts of nature, or of God. It is, among other things, a meditation on the tragicomedy of our simultaneous dependency on and ignorance of the products of the chemical industry. If that sounds a bit grim, let me add that it’s also extremely funny.

In his 1998 novel Gain, Richard Powers presents a rather more sombre analysis of this same dilemma. This is a fiction of almost unprecedented chemical sophistication – it has balanced chemical equations in it! It tells two stories, shifting sequentially between them every few pages. One is concerned with the genesis of the fictional chemicals company Clare, which begins as a candle- and soap-making business run by Irish immigrants in Boston in the nineteenth century and grows to share the stage with Lever, Colgate and Procter and Gamble. The other story is the tale of Laura Bodey, a real-estate agent living in a town that owes its existence to the presence of Clare’s factories and headquarters. Laura discovers she has ovarian cancer, which may or may not have been induced by the chemical works.

But chemistry isn’t the villain here, not least because Laura knows that chemistry can also be the savoir. As she lies in the terminal stages of her illness, this is what she thinks:

It makes no difference whether this business gave her cancer. They have given her everything else. Taken her life and molded it in every way imaginable, plus six degrees beyond imagining. Changed her life so greatly that not even cancer can change it more than halfway back.

Again, there’s an inexorable, mythical dimension to the way this science unfolds: as Powers writes near the end of the book: “Plastic happens; that is all we need to know on earth.”

In these two books the role of science and technology in society is treated with much more subtlety than in the interpretation we typically impose on Frankenstein today. Here science isn’t so much something that can intervene in and change our lives, as it is a central shaping force, for better and worse. It’s a part of culture – and as such, it tells us about ourselves, and reflects our dreams and fears.

That’s what I’d like to see more of in fiction.