Review of “Mendel’s Dwarf” by Simon Mawer

In an earlier post, I promised to review some of the novels on the Lab Lit List that I’ve enjoyed and think are worth reading but don’t address what I see as a gaping hole in the portrayal of both science and scientists in fiction.  I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf (Harmony Books, 1998) in March of 2012, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  (This is the review I wrote at the time.)

Benedict Lambert, the central character and narrator, is one of those fascinating characters that I would love to have as an academic colleague.  He’s a leading geneticist, an achondroplasic dwarf, and the great-great-great-nephew of Gregor Mendel.  His research is focused on finding the gene for his own condition.

A biography of Mendel is quite effectively woven into the texture of a contemporary love story.  I emerged with a brand new perspective on the Bohemian friar who invented genetics more than a century before the science itself was born.  Mendel is a wonderful foil, because he appears to have a personality about as different from Benedict as you can imagine, but he shares a scientist’s devotion to the patient search for knowledge.  The two story lines touch at many points as Benedict explores his family’s history and, on a trip to participate in an international genetics conference, revisits the Konigkloster in Brno where Mendel grew his pea plants.

While the book is entertaining and absorbing, it breaks several “rules” for what “makes fiction sell.”  I’ve been told repeatedly that no one will read a novel that contains diagrams, tables of numbers or, worst of all, a figure — for example, an image from an ultraviolet reader — the sort of things scientists routinely use in lectures.  Well, Mawer breaks all these rules, and often sprinkles them into pretty elaborate explanations of scientific principles and methods.  (Another no-no.)  He does this extremely well. I don’t think you’ll experience the full impact of the book if you skim or skip them.  Yet the same is true of the passages that will make you cringe when you have to view the world from a dwarf’s perspective.  The scenes that involve Benedict interacting with other people are excellent, especially filtered through his droll and acerbic wit.

Far into the book, I was still finding it difficult to categorize.  It clearly fits the criterion of fiction in which at least one of the main characters is a scientist and science plays a central role in the plot.  It is only as the threads of the story gather for the climax that Mendel’s Dwarf emerges as a story about a moral dilemma created by the advancement of science.

With the knowledge of genetics now available, we are already playing God… and practicing eugenics.  Real eugenics, based on real science, not the phony eugenics of the early Twentieth Century.  And the chilling implications of these advances come alive near the end of the book in a way that could not possibly be experienced in non-fiction.  Benedict must choose whether to follow the Golden Rule or act the way God would (and does).  If that doesn’t motivate you to take the complicated explanations and diagrams seriously, lab lit isn’t for you.

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4 Responses to Review of “Mendel’s Dwarf” by Simon Mawer

  1. Simon Mawer August 8, 2013 at 7:51 AM #

    “Simon Mawer… is not a scientist”. Hmm. Depends what you mean by “scientist”. Will having a degree in Biology from Oxford University do?

    • Kirk August 8, 2013 at 9:13 PM #

      Thanks Simon! I’d looked at a brief biographical sketch after I read “Mendel’s Dwarf” but then forgot your degrees. Please accept my apologies! I certainly wasn’t questioning your credentials in science. I’d like to know your thoughts on a distinction I’ve been wrestling with. In my “…hunt for fiction about science,” I’ve come to realize that I’m looking for something beyond realistic science in fiction. I want to read a good story about the search for scientific knowledge. I’m fascinated by the mental processes that go into scientific research, both for individual scientists and for the scientific community. And beyond the intellectual activities, I want to understand the emotions behind the search, both the motivation to sacrifice personal and economic fulfillment as well as the powerful nonintellectual responses evoked by frustration and competition. I’ve been arguing that fiction can portray both sides of this inner life in a unique way that biography can’t and science education at all levels below postgraduate work usually doesn’t. I’ve been championing Pippa Goldschmidt’s new novel, “The Falling Sky,” and Jennifer Rohn’s “The Honest Look,” as outstanding examples on the Lab Lit List. I also tried to incorporate these elements into my own novel, “Vanessa’s Curve of Mind.”

  2. Kirk July 29, 2013 at 2:04 PM #

    Thanks for your comment, Jerri. I, too, find it exciting when scientists write fiction about their specialty. However, Simon Mawer, the author of “Mendel’s Dwarf,” is not a scientist, and so far as I know, this is his only book that involves a scientist and a scientific research project, yet his knowledge of genetics shows brilliantly in his writing. Indeed, the first novel I read after I began my hunt for fiction about science was “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman. She is a fine writer, who has written many other novels that have little to do with science. She is not a scientist, however. In her case, she did extensive research that included learning about the molecular biology of cancer, talking to everyone from grad students and post-docs to senior investigators, and spending time in a laboratory like the one in her story. The next novel I came across was “The Gold Bug Variations” by Richard Powers, who is also not a scientist but a writer whose prose is rich and complexly layered. His writing also shows that he did extensive reading in molecular biology. Based on the tiny ratio of lab lit novels to all literary novels, I’m supposing that not many working scientists have the inclination or the skills to write compelling fiction of any kind. An example in my field, although mentioning it reveals my age, is B. F. Skinner’s “Walden,” not a great piece of fiction by any measure. I do think that writing a convincing novel about scientific research—what I call fiction about science—would be extremely difficult without the years of education and training that go into becoming a working scientist. I’m not familiar with White Thaw, but the book-cover synopsis suggests that it doesn’t fall in the category of fiction about science as I define it. More on the latter topic in my next commentary.

  3. Jerri Kindig July 29, 2013 at 5:42 AM #

    This looks like a great read, I really enjoyed your post on it. I am really into the fiction works about the sciences, especially when they are written by credible sources. I am coming to the end of White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy by Paul Mark Tag who worked at the Naval Research Lab before becoming an author. for his info and the book. But it makes the books so much better when you know the author has a real handle on what they are writing about.

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