The Lab Lit List

About five months ago, I discovered a website,, that promotes a literary genre called “lab lit.”    I suppose this rather catchy name parallels “chick lit.”   In any case, fiction in this new genre “…depicts realistic scientists as central characters and portrays fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic – as opposed to speculative or future – world.”  One feature of the website I really like is the Lab Lit List, or simply “the List.”  I sure could have used it when I began my search for fiction about science and scientists a decade ago.

The List contains nearly 150 titles of novels with their authors and a one-sentence description of the main characters and plot.  It also includes “crossover novels,” movies, plays and TV shows that have at least one realistically portrayed scientist as a main character and real science as a major element of its plot.  I wasn’t surprised to find the titles of 19 novels I’d read and several others that I’d decided to skip on the basis of a review or after sampling the first few pages.  Based on the short descriptions, I began reading the ones that sounded the most interesting to me.  So far I’ve read 16 new titles and re-read three others on the list.  I wrote brief reviews of them from my own, admittedly biased, perspective.  I plan to post them in my blog eventually.  Each will be accompanied by a commentary on the portrait of science it conveyed to me.  I’ll also include reviews of some titles I read before I began my reviewing project.

When I was planning this blog, it occurred to me that I needed to have an early post with a small number of recommendations, novels I think best exemplify the kind of fiction that has been sorely missing from the mass market.  I’ve picked out five and list them here with brief comments that explain why I think they are outstanding representatives.

Allegra Goodman’s Intuition should be the easier to find.  It received widespread critical acclaim.  Carl Djerassi’s Cantor’s Dilemma was written by a working chemist who made important contributions to the development of the birth control pill (often called The Pill).  Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look is available from Amazon if you can’t find it elsewhere.  It is a wonderful story about a young scientist’s struggle to deal with a finding that doesn’t make sense.  The first three recommendations are stories about cancer research.  Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams main character is a geochemist and her work requires data collected on an oceanographic research vessel.  The Goldbug Variations by Richard Powers is my candidate for a classic.  The book is less accessible than the first four, especially for readers who know little about the compositional technique of the fugue and have no patience with complex, interwoven plots.  However, like any classic, it’s worth the effort.

My next post will have short reviews of four of these, and the post after that will be devoted entirely to a review of The Honest Look.

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One Response to The Lab Lit List

  1. stevecaplan November 21, 2012 at 9:22 AM #

    Hello Kirk,

    I enjoyed your piece on lablit and then subsequently found your site and reviews/commentaries here. Like you, I am far more interested in the realistic portrayal of scientists–particularly in academia. Perhaps because that is where I work, but I do think the academic scientist does live an eventful enough life to provide interest to a wide reading audience. My own two novels (the latter of which is a recent addition to Jenny’s lablit list) do focus on the life academic scientists, with what I believe are wholly realistic plots either related to the research, or to the people doing the research. Both my novels (“Matter Over Mind” and “Welcome Home, Sir”) are available on Amazon with descriptions and even short video trailers:

    Briefly, the first novel deals with a researcher struggling for tenure and working on bipolar disorder–while coming to grips with his traumatic childhood in a family with a bipolar parent. The second novel (“Welcome Home, Sir”) follows a mid-career scientist in a balancing act to keep his career and family together while fighting post-traumatic stress disorder.

    In any case, I am delighted to see another proponent of fiction about science and scientists.


    Steve Caplan

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