Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Science and fiction ...

... is the subject of LabLit.com, which I learn of from Dave Lull by way of Petrona, itself simply an excellent blog that I recommend visiting every day (check out the snowdrop group). We of course tend to think of science fiction, not science and fiction. Ian McEwan's Saturday had a scientist -- a neurosurgeon, to be exact -- as its protagonist. I've known a few physicians pretty well and McEwan's character seemed reasonably believable to me. But off the top of my head I can't think of many novelists who have populated their fiction with working scientists (C.P. Snow did, I guess, and Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith is a doctor. Does anyone remember Morton Thompson's Not as a Stranger?)


  1. In China Mieville's excellent "Perdido Street Station"--which I'd argue is fantasy, not science fiction--the protagonist, Isaac, is a working scientist.

  2. A.J. Cronin ("Keys of the Kingdom," "The Citadel") was a doctor before a novelist, wasn't he? And, at all times, a devout Roman Catholic?

  3. I think Cronin was a devout Anglican, but I could be wrong. Maugham also was a doctor -- and maintained his license to practice throughout his life. Chekhov, too, was a physician, as was Rabelais.

  4. Carl Djerassi is a well-known scientist who turned his hand to fiction in the early 1990s. I read his first novel about science, Cantor's Dilemma (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0439963931/qid=1141802465/sr=2-2/ref=sr_2_3_2/202-7443710-7784641) but although I quite enjoyed it, have not read his subsequent science-in-fiction (and plays) output, which is steady.

    A new book has received excellent reviews, won some awards and riding high on UK top-selling lists, Harry Thompson's This Thing of Darkness http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0755302818/ref=br_lf_li_1_2/202-7443710-7784641, a fictional account of Darwin and Fitzroy. The author died very young at about the time the book was published.
    Another contemporary example is The Constant Gardner by John LeCarre: maybe this could be classifed as genre fiction but it is certainly about science.

    There are of course, as Frank says, many "science fiction", "medical thriller" and what I call "mad scientist" books (James Bond etc). A few authors write on the borderline of these genres: Michael Crichton and John Wyndham immediately come to mind. They both write (wrote) novels about themes of the effects of science research on society.

    Another example is "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" by Peter Hoeg -- an excellent and unusual first novel. It was not much about science until the crazy denoument (which spolied the book for me), and again, the denoument might push the book over into "genre" rather than mainstream fiction.

    I read Arrowsmith some time ago, so my memory could be at fault, but what I have taken away with me from that book is a story about an idealist who had wanted to change the world and naively tried various scientific professions, becoming disillusioned with each one and trying another. (commercalisation of science, etc). I don't remember Martin A as being only a doctor -- maybe he ended up (or started out) that way.

    Ian McEwan's books often involve scientific themes: he is an author who works at understanding science and integrating it into his plots. "A Child in Time", for example, had many different themes exploring time, including a character who was a theoretical physicist. "Enduring Love" had a main character who was a science journalist (though this was changed for the film). And so on.

    A.S. Byatt is another author who writes about science in her fiction (eg that 4-novel sequence). She's very big in the UK.
    And there is an author whose books I do not like, Jeannette Winterston, who would regard herself as writing genuinely about science in her fiction. (Gut Symmetries, but I would not recommend it.)

    Enough, enough. I can give more but will spare you.

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  6. Sorry, I know I said I'd spare you but I just (finally) visited this lablit site, and they have a list of fiction featuring scientists at:


    all best

  7. The list that Maxine provides and links to names most of the books I can think of that feature working scientists.

    I would add A Whiff of Death by Isaac Asimov (published as Death Dealers in some countries, I think).

    Not one of his sci-fi efforts, but rather a mystery story involving a chemist named Ralph Neufeld as the protagonist.

    The copy I had was an old paperback edition with a creepy front cover that I remember distinctly. It was a good read: unsophisticated but memorable for some reason.

  8. I can't get my brain away from this question now.

    Have though also of the entire Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O'Brian.

    Stephen Maturin is a surgeon in the Georgian navy, but he is also a physician and an avid naturalist. And a spy.

  9. Yes, Giles G-B, I should have thought of O'Brien. And gosh, yes, I remember reading those Asimov books (in my phase of reading the entire science fiction stock of Newcastle-under-Lyme public library, and them being misfiled becuase they were by Asimov). Sure takes me back.

  10. In my defence, incidentally, that phase was when I was about 15.