Why so little fiction about science?

Since I retired about fifteen years ago, I’ve been reading a lot more fiction than my work as a scientist and teacher permitted.  I’ve read everything from weighty philosophical novels like Milos Kurnera’s  The Unbearable Lightness of Being to popular romance novels like Margaret Mallory’s Knight of Pleasure.  It was fun and some were great books, but after a few years I noticed that there were rarely any scientists in the stories, and never once did I find a story about a scientist working in a laboratory or doing field work.   So using web tools like NoveList I started actively looking for novels with scientists as main characters and plots that involved science.

I found a few but none of the fictional scientists were like the people I’ve met in the best biographies of scientists.  Passionate men and women like Albert Einstein in Einstein in Love, Marie Curie in Grand Obsession, Emelie du Châtelet in Passionate Minds or Rosalind Franklin in The Dark Lady of DNA.  There are other excellent biographies of all four of these scientists; the ones I’ve listed include very personal details that show the degree to which their personalities were intertwined with their scientific pursuits.

Instead of stories about people like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, I was finding scientists like anthropologist Oliver Gideon in Aaron Elkins’s The Dark Place.  The trouble – for me – was that Oliver is a forensic anthropologist.  He doesn’t work with the bones of prehistoric people, trying to understand where we as a species came from and how we got to be what we are today.  He’s a detective, trying to solve the mystery and, as it turns out, the murder of a hiker in Olympic National Park.  His techniques and the science behind them are fascinating, and I recommend the book to anyone who likes brainy mystery novels.  But forensic anthropology isn’t where the really cool – okay, the really brainy – action is.  The really, really dark mysteries are in very old bones — bones 500,000 years old and older.

But what really annoys me are all the novels about deviant scientists, the money-grubbing and power-hungry scientists, the murderers and terrorists.  And the mad – I mean, crazy – scientists, the Dr. Frankensteins.  They’re a dime a dozen.  But come on:  Deviant scientists are about as rare as deviant people in the general population.  Suppose you’re a taxi driver, and every time you run across a cabby in a novel, he’s either crazy or a murderer or a terrorist.  How would you feel about “cab lit”?

So I decided that when I launched my website, http://kirksmith-novelist.com/, I would also start a blog about why I think that in a lifetime of reading fiction, I’ve so rarely found a scientist who seemed like the ones I’ve known and the ones who inspired me.  I plan to answer the question I posed in the title by reviewing some of the novels I’ve read that disappointed me on this one decisive criterion.  I’ll also review some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that presented scientists in a completely believable way and at the same time made them seem like cool people you’d like to hang out with, maybe even someone you’d like to be your lover!

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2 Responses to Why so little fiction about science?

  1. Jack Mynatt August 15, 2012 at 7:08 AM #

    Given all the recent buzz about Paul Ryan and how much he was influenced by Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged,” I think it’s worth pointing out that John Galt, like many of Rand’s other heroes, is a scientist, or at least a scientist/engineer.

    Paul Krugman once said “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    In my own case I did indeed read Atlas Shrugged at 14, but assumed it was science fiction, which I was addicted to at the time . So I put Any Rand in the same category as other right wing sci-fi whackos like Robert Heinlein and paid no further attention to her. Even at 14 it was clear to me that her view about science and technology – the lone genius model – was nonsense. I didn’t know any real scientists at the time, but I did know several real engineers, and that wasn’t how it worked. Nobody designs a bridge or an airplane from scratch, by themselves. Science and engineering are above all else communal exercises.

    Rand’s version of what a scientist is and does is even more cartoonish than the evil genius model. Where did Gault get the background science he used to design his magical electric generator? I don’t think he rediscovered Ohm’s Law, or Maxwell’s equations, or quantum electrodynamics on his own.

    • Kirk August 21, 2012 at 1:10 PM #

      You’ve put your finger on one reason scientists should be interested in how they are portrayed in fiction, Jack. Reading a novel about science can leave a lasting impression on a 14-year-old’s mind, as well as the mind and values of thoughtful adults who don’t know very much about science. Whether good or evil, a fictional character who is a stereotype doesn’t increase the reader’s perspective on the world. However, I didn’t start this blog so I’d have a soapbox to promote an educational program. I think people read fiction to enjoy the experience of others, often experiences they will never have themselves. For many, the special appeal is being “inside someone else’s head” without the usual protective filter that, for example, an autobiography provides. I’d like to see more fiction that portrays the joys and sorrows of the search of scientific knowledge from the inside.

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