Review of “Menachem’s Seed” by Carl Djerassi

Menachem’s Seed is the third novel Carl Djerassi himself lists as “science-in-fiction.”  I think the characters, setting and plot illustrate nicely problems of characterizing novels written about characters who are scientists in realistic settings involved in dilemmas stemming from contemporary scientific research.  You will no doubt recognize this as the definition of lab lit given on the website of the same name.  The question is, would I classify Menachem’s Seed as “fiction about science”?

Consider then the specifics:  The principal characters are scientists.  Melanie Laidlaw was trained and worked as a research chemist until her husband’s death.  She now heads the REPCON Foundation for reproduction and contraception.  Menachem Dvir is Vice President of Ben Gurion University in Israel.  The novel is vague about his scientific credentials.  He apparently had some engineering training in England.  The opening scenes are set in an Austrian village where the annual Kirchberg Conference is held.  The latter is modeled on the Pugwash Conferences where scientists gathered annually to discuss the role of science in international affairs.  None of the subsequent story takes place in a laboratory, nor does any scene involve the conduct of scientific research.  However, the science of human reproduction plays an important role in the plot.  But then so do romance and global politics.

Many people trained as scientists become administrators, usually near the midpoint of their careers.  Those in academic positions are elected Chair of their academic department and move from there up the administrative ladder, serving as deans and eventually presidents of universities.  In industry, they are promoted to project managers and then to director positions.  A small number eventually wind up in executive roles.  Melanie’s position is an unusual one.  She is an administrator of a nonprofit organization with a mission of giving away money to fund scientific research on reproductive biology.  This brings her into contact with research scientists and their work.  She was included in the American delegation to the conference to participate in the working group on population issues.

We have a scientist as one of the two main characters, but the settings are not the haunts of scientists at work. The biology of human reproduction plays a central role in the plot.  Advances in reproductive medicine have raised new ethical issues surrounding both conception and contraception, but the theft of sperm is not one that has received much attention.  Revealing even a few more details would give away the most surprising and interesting dilemma set up by the plot.  My conclusion:  Not the best example of lab lit, and not fiction about science by my criteria, but a thought-provoking book well worth reading.

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