As promised, this post contains four one-paragraph reviews of four of my favorite novels on the Lab Lit List (see lablit.com). I read Intuition and The Gold Bug Variations before I found the List; the other two, after seeing the one-sentence descriptions of them on the List. You can expect longer reviews of Cantor’s Dilemma and Carbon Dreams soon.
Allegra Goodman’s Intuition is widely available; your public library probably has a copy. Almost all the novel’s characters are scientists, either senior investigators or post-doctoral fellows (post-docs). The setting is a research laboratory, and the plot revolves around a post-doc’s discovery and the events that follow. Goodman has done an excellent job of describing what goes into the daily routine of a biomedical laboratory. She breaths life into the process of repeating a finding, ruling out extraneous explanations of it, and reporting it in a scientific journal as well as the impacts the process can have on research funding and individual careers. If you’ve never read a novel about scientists doing realistic investigations, I think Intuition is a good place to start.
Carl Djerassi’s Cantor’s Dilemma is a similar book I’d recommend and runs a close second to Goodman’s. Again, most of the characters are scientists who are shown pursuing realistic scientific work. There are some superficial similarities with Intuition. Both books are set in biomedical laboratories and the plot grows out of a discovery with the potential for curing cancer. What sets Djerrasi’s novel apart is its focus on the contradiction between reporting only solid, repeatable experiments and the drive to be the first to find and report important discoveries. In physics, chemistry or, in this case, medicine-physiology, being the first can mean winning a Nobel Prize, of course.
Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams has a somewhat different perspective. All but one of the major characters is a scientist. The main character is an organic geochemist working for an oceanographic research institution. Gaines also shows us the relatively unfamiliar field research environment aboard an oceanographic research vessel. Gaines’s heroine is doing really fundamental research with implications for the question of how life originated. But because of the unique characteristics of her project, it also happens to be of interest to the petroleum industry. The only reason this book isn’t my first choice is that it contains many passages of scientific material that enormously enrich the story but their lavish and complex detail may put off some readers. However, I think an effort to understand the gist of these descriptions will be handsomely rewarded.
Perhaps the novel about basic scientific research most likely to become part of the canon of great literature in some distant future is Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations. No other book I’ve read on the Lab Lit List depicts the activities and motivations of working scientists in such beautiful prose. Not only is the structure of the novel based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the text is rich in references to the art of counterpoint and full of wide-ranging allusions that resonate far beyond science and the pursuit of knowledge. It is difficult to give an overview of the book in less than 2,000 words! I feel it’s sufficient to say that like many classics, the challenges of this book will leave readers a great deal richer.