The Problem of Explaining Science in Fiction

In my review of Carbon Dreams I went out of my way to warn readers that they might find some passages of the novel tough sledding.  Too much (dry? dull?) science, not enough action.  It’s a criticism I’ve heard from readers many times as I’ve written and rewritten Vanessa’s Curve of Mind.  I’m still learning how to deal with it in my own writing, but I find the comments frustrating because I’ve read so much fiction in the past that I thought suffered from not enough science.  It was actually fantasy masquerading as science and was a disservice to readers who poorly understand real science.

Let me say now that there was not too much science in Carbon Dreams for my taste.  I’m not a geochemist, atmospheric scientist or oceanographer, so I can’t evaluate the accuracy of the content.  And I won’t claim I “mastered” the scientific passages.  The evidence that all of us fail to recognize our own incompetence is too well documented for me to say with confidence that I understood Tina’s research.  What I can say is that with my relatively limited background in the sciences, I was able to get enough out of the substantive passages to appreciate the drama of her research and experience the flavor of her life as a real scientist.

My main concern was that too many readers would start Carbon Dreams, but when the real science showed up, their eyes would glaze over, so that later on they’d see Tina as a woman whose obsession with an arcane problem keeps her from having a satisfying personal life.  When readers skim or skip the scientific meat of the story, Tina becomes just another example of  the scientist as stereotypical social misfit.

At the same, there’s a danger that in making the science accessible, writers will dumb it down or worse distort it so readers come away with either a false sense of understanding or with misinformation.  I find it distressing to read a novel containing elegant, flowing scientific descriptions and explanations that I know are misleading, crucially incomplete or just plain wrong.  I worry that readers of a Jurassic Park might conclude that research in molecular biology should be curtailed because of the risk that a contemporary researcher might loose dinosaurs on civilization.  I just wish that every writer of techno-thrillers would do what Amy Rogers has in Petroplague: add technical notes at the end explaining the real science (with good citations) and clear admissions of what is made-up fantasy material.

The question is what a novelist must do to explain a scientific finding or theory well enough to paint a realistic picture of the challenge facing a scientist in search of new knowledge about the world. How much information and elucidation is necessary to make the drama of a controversy among scientists come alive?  In short, how much must a reader know to get “inside the head” of a character and appreciate what is at stake in the unfolding story?  Given the sheer length and intensity of the training and education required to become a working scientist, it is a daunting task.  One of the best analytical essays I’ve seen addressing this problem is the four-part series by Jennifer Cryer, “Transforming science into story.”  It is definitive and much more comprehensive than mine can be in a short blog post.

The fiction writer does have a couple of advantages over the textbook writer, however.  First, the scope of the background knowledge needed is limited.  The writer doesn’t have to cover the whole field of molecular biology, for example.  Second, a skilled writer can introduce repetition, variation and vivid imagery to bring to life a key idea needed for the story.  A marvelous example of the latter can be found in the second act of Michael Frayn’s play, “Copenhagen,” where Heisenberg explains his uncertainty principle in an image of Bohr wandering the streets of the city at night while Heisenberg as a photon is “dispatched into the darkness” to find him.

There is a second question that lies at the very heart of fiction about science.  By definition fiction is something made up by an author; it’s not true, and therefore can’t be realistic.  So how can a novel be about “realistic” science?  Obviously, it’s a matter of degree.  At one extreme, Carl Djerassi wrote in an afterword to Cantor’s Dilemma, that “…with one exception all the science [the novel] describes is real [my emphasis].”  The exception is that two characters in the story “…work on a totally fictitious theory of tumerigenesis.”  In my experience as both a reader and a writer, Djerassi has gone about as far as it’s possible to go toward the realistic end of the spectrum.  The question is how far in the opposite direction a writer can go without distorting or extrapolating existing science to the point that it misleads or misinforms readers.  I plan to review a title soon that pushes the latter limit.

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