Is it because I live in the States that I didn’t hear about Experimental Heart when it came out? It was Jennifer Rohn’s first novel, and I read it before her second, The Honest Look, which I reviewed earlier. Once I began reading, I was absolutely ravished. This was exactly what I’d been looking for during the last 15 years. But then around page 200 I began to have a feeling it wasn’t going to work out the way I’d hoped. For a few pages, I thought I was wrong, but then for about 50 pages, it turned into a thriller. Don’t get me wrong. The writing continued to be excellent, and my heart raced as thriller-type events careened across my mind’s eye under the author’s skilled direction. Yet those 50 pages diminished my enjoyment of a genuinely satisfying story about scientific research and the people doing it.
In spite of this seemingly negative assessment, Experimental Heart ranks very high on my list of recommended novels about science. Why? Isn’t that inconsistent? The answer lies in the fact that the book adds up to exactly the rich mixture of intensely precise technical detail and powerful human emotions that constitute the lives of working scientists. Their days and nights are filled with the same emotional highs and lows as everyone else – love and sex, boredom and exhaustion, competition and jealousy, insult and humor, anger and fear – all played out in the small communities of laboratories and academic departments as well as on the global stage of publications and conferences. And Rohn has succeeded brilliantly in capturing that life through the eyes and in the mind of a participant.
Carl Djerassi once described scientists as tribal. The comparison is apt, but with the twist that these small bands of people live, not so much in the physical world as in a larger human or cultural world. Each specialty has its own language, related to that spoken in neighboring tribes but often mutually unintelligible (like Spanish and Italian). Each has its own physical culture of tools and techniques. Each has its own rituals and ceremonies. Each can be seen as a collection of families (subspecialties), with children (students), teenagers (post-docs), adults and elders. And like families, each has its own sublanguage, crafts and traditions. The best novels about science, of which Rohn’s is a shining example, describe in lively, elegant prose the scientific subculture, including its tribes and families, with the accuracy of an anthropologist.
So why would I give the impression that something goes wrong in this great novel? For most working scientists, research is grinding labor and frustration punctuated by moments of exhilaration and satisfaction, carried on while they struggle to keep up with the demands and, with luck, the enjoyments of living that others in the larger society have. The majority of people don’t rifle through strangers’ desks, steal keys and break into other people’s apartments. Only a tiny minority of scientists ever do. And the fact is, the majority of scientists don’t need to because their lives are exciting and fulfilling enough that they have no desire to.
Thrillers and romances are popular genres, and I applaud writers with the background and skills to bring realistic science and scientists to life for devotees of these genres. But isn’t there also a place for novels about science describing that excitement and achievement without resorting to the distractions of the common thriller?