Reviews of Two Fictionalized Biographies

I had read two other fictionalized biographies before I began blogging about fiction about science. It’s been long enough since I read them that I hesitate to write as detailed review as I have previously. However, my current recollections of these two books are instructive and raise an interesting question about this kind of novel.

I read John Banville’s Kepler because I had just finished his The Infinities and liked it so much I wanted to read more of Banville’s writing. As the title implies, Kepler is a fictionalized biography of the seventeenth century astronomer and mathematician who worked out the planetary obits from the massive body of data collected by Tycho Brahe in the previous decades. Much of the book is concerned with Kepler’s relationship with Brahe as well as his search for a position commensurate with his abilities and achievements. Most serious readers will have learned enough elementary astronomy, either in school or from reading or watching TV, to have no trouble appreciating the importance of Kepler’s work as Banville describes it. What this novel adds is a complete picture of a scientist’s struggle to find a simple explanation for a complex set of observations in spite of the distractions of an unhappy family life and failure to find recognition for his talents and accomplishments.

I knew a good deal about Kepler’s contributions to planetary science before I began Banville’s book, and I had learned along the way that Bahe’s data was the basis of his success. However, I was not familiar the details of his personal life, especially his marriage and family life. While Kepler filled in these blanks to some extent, it didn’t whet my appetite to learn more by searching for a good biography of Kepler. Perhaps, I was satisfied with what I already knew and had no interest a more objective account of the man’s life beyond astronomy.

My reaction to Rebecca Goldstein’s The Properties of Light was completely different. When I finished, I was both enthralled and repelled. This was at least five years ago, and at the time, I was not writing reviews. Therefore I’m going to limit myself to three very personal comments. First, I thought Goldstein did a remarkable job of weaving quantum mechanics and relativity into a compelling story of love and hatred. Second, I was put off by the literary device in which a deceased character narrated some of the story. Regarding both points, I should note that I hope to re-read The Properties of Light to form a more accurate impression; when I do, I will post a longer review.

My third comment is that unlike Kepler, Goldstein’s novel prompted me to read an excellent biography of the real physicist on whom one of her characters is modeled. Goldstein refers in an afterword to this biography, Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm by F. David Peat (Helix, 1996). Looking back, it’s clear that the biography had at least as great an impact on me as the novel. I believe that one measure of a fictionalized biography’s success is whether it stimulates readers’ interest in a regular biography or a nonfiction book about the science. In the case of David Bohm, I enjoyed both Goldstein’s book and the biography of Bohm, and I’m glad I read both!

A “serious reader” might legitimately ask why anyone should bother with fiction when good biographies abound. I think the answer lies in the author’s treatment of the available historical material. Both biographers and fiction writers immerse themselves in the writings of the subject and those of other relevant people at the time. Both attempt to absorb as much of the look and feel of the locale and culture of the subject’s place and time.  The difference comes when they begin to write. Biographers are historians. Their objective is to give the reader an accurate picture of the subject, usually as seen by an unbiased third-person observer. Novelists have a different goal. We can think of them as speculative philosophers who start with the same background materials as the biographer but invite their readers to identify with the subject and imagine themselves inside the subject’s head, perceiving and reacting to the surroundings and culture of the times, reading the writings and encountering the personalities of their contemporaries, and experiencing the subject’s romances, marriage and family

One reason fiction has a place in culture alongside history is that it helps us appreciate someone else’s perspective. You might not be an astronomer yourself or want to find out more about planetary motion. But a fictionalized biography like Kepler will give you a chance to think about the planets the way astronomers did in the context of a person living in the seventeenth century. And Properties of Light will put you inside the head of a physicist living in the mid-twentieth century. This is one reason why it’s so important that fiction about science be classified as literary fiction of general interest. Few people know astronomers and physicists personally, and it is the sense of firsthand acquaintance that fictionalized biographies play in our lives.

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