When I’m asked by the writers I meet what kind of fiction I write, I almost always have to clarify that my fiction about science is not “science-fiction” and has very little in common with the science is found in the typical science-fiction novel. The time has therefore come for me to discuss why fiction about science (or lab lit) is not science fiction or even a subgenre of science fiction. Genre definitions are important to me because they influence the people who read books, and I feel very strongly that nonscientists need to know what science really is, why scientists pursue it and what it’s like to be an active scientific investigator. Good fiction can bring real scientists to life and help us understand them as people.
Categorizing short stories and books is interesting to scholars and literary critics. It’s also useful to libraries and the publishing industry. It can help readers look for new material, so reviewers often apply a label to guide their readers. But like any taxonomy, names sometimes distort or mislead. Some readers may search only the sci-fi or mystery shelves of a bookstore or library, while others won’t touch “genre” novels. This means that promoters need “crossover” categories. But where would Gregory Benford’s Cosm land? Most likely on the science fiction shelves, because most of this author’s novels are what science fiction readers expect. Yet the entire story is set in the present and the focus is on cosmology, the main characters are an experimental physicist and a cosmologist, and the only extraordinary event is a fatal accident, which when it comes down to it, doesn’t play a huge role in the story. Yet the settings are realistic research environments and the characters aren’t superheroes. The book belongs on the shelves with serious literary fiction, period.
One problem for writers is that when their work is a new mixture of the elements from several categories or when they produce something that defies category definitions, they have trouble publishing it. Of course, the novel itself was once just such a literary form. And all the genres we use today were originally just novels or literary fiction. Defining a new genre like lab lit, science-in-fiction or fiction about science, is useful in helping readers understand and appreciate the differences and the possibilities. If they like a book, a label can help them find their way to other similar ones. So my purpose in this post is to distinguish fiction about science (or lab lit or fiction-in-science) from science fiction and another new subgenre, “speculative fiction.”
Because science fiction is a well-established genre, let’s start by pointing out the important ways it differs from fiction about science. The crucial distinction hinges on whether or not the focus is on science as an activity. Many science fiction novels are about wars or (space) exploration. Science and technology are important mostly in creating the settings. The latter may be a major reason why people read them, but the story is never about how new knowledge comes into being. It already exists, and the story hinges on what people do with it. Another crucial difference is that science fiction is always about the future, whereas fiction about science is often set in the present — even in the past, as in the case of fictionalized biographies. Finally, in science fiction, the major characters can be almost anything – soldiers, explorers, adventurers, colonists; the list is endless – whereas in fiction about science, the main characters are always scientists and the story revolves around them.
In recent years the term “speculative fiction” has come to mean fiction about the near future based on extensions of our present scientific knowledge, most notably genetics, environmental and climate science. The speculative aspect arises from the extrapolation from contemporary science to implications for political and social developments. Speculative fiction has more in common with traditional science fiction than with fiction about science although it is a tad more likely to have characters who are scientists whose behavior is based current knowledge in his or her field of expertise. Usually, nonscientists also play a much larger role in the story.
So where should we expect to find fiction about science in the bookstore if not under science fiction? I say it should be displayed salong with fiction of general interest because in fiction about science the central characters have to be scientists working as scientists, not solving crimes, not fighting terrorists, not saving the world from disasters, not chasing power, money or celebrity except in pursuit of their research. It should attract thoughtful readers of literary fiction. The publishing industry needs to recognize that the mention of “science” doesn’t mean a work of fiction is automatically science fiction or what is called a “techno-thriller,” like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.
As an aside, my own view is that independent bookstores are the logical part of the industry to lead this rethinking. Both readers and writers need to push their local store owners to set aside space in their stores to highlight the books on the lab lit list and publicize author readings and other events that spotlight new books and books already on their shelves as serious fiction about science and scientists.