Sciency Fiction

I’ve been thinking about science in fiction recently. Prompted by Jennifer Rohn’s recent piece in Nature, I checked out her excellent LabLit site. Cath Ennis has also been blogging here about books, but most enticingly I have a stack of novels ready for my holiday next month. Time, then, for a personal selection of some science-themed fiction I’ve enjoyed in the last ten or so years… Although I was a science fiction nut as a boy, and still enjoy the odd foray into epic space operas – Iain M. Banks, principally – most of what I read these days comes of the general fiction shelves. And I’ll be honest, often I read fiction to escape from the day job, so I’m not really a massive consumer of LabLit. In fact, interpreting the genre (overly) literally, I can think of only two books I’ve read that actually feature a laboratory – Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf and Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.

These two novels demonstrate nicely though that even when science and scientific ideas are important in a book, it is their qualities as works of fiction that are most important to me. Chief among these are character and style (possibly one of the reasons I didn’t get on with Ian McEwan’s Saturday was my intense dislike of the charmless Henry Perowne – although neither Michel nor Bruno in Atomised are exactly sympathetic and I loved that…) I’m less fussed about plot. Indeed some of my favourite books, by the likes of David Mitchell, Haruki Murukami, or Geoff Dyer, either leave large chunks of plot unresolved, or (in the case of Dyer especially) simply have little of much consequence happen in them.

I perhaps don’t tend to go for classic LabLit then, but I do like a book with a scientific sensibility, ‘sciency fiction’, if you will. Specifically, as an ecologist I like to read good authors writing about the natural world. Sometimes this is overtly scientific – Hope Clearwater, protagonist in William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, is a professional ecologist, and distilled through Boyd’s literary eye, her descriptions of field work in Dorset and Africa are especially vivid.

More often though, the science is more subtle. I loved Being Dead by Jim Crace, for example: the story of an elderly couple, murdered amid remote sand dunes, and slowly decomposing, it sounds horribly morbid but the tiny ecological details make it strangely beautiful. Given that I’m writing as Mola mola, I should probably mention Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flannagan too, although the focus is less on fish biology than on the grotesque deprivations of life in the penal colonies of Tasmania. There’s a nice fishy theme in Luis Fernando Verissimo’s wonderful The Club of Angels too, specifically the joys of eating the deadly fugu – more gastronomy than science, but a diversion well worth taking!

I’m a sucker for geekiness, and I like authors who assume of their readers a certain facility with numbers. Many writers think nothing of inserting, untranslated, phrases in Latin or Greek, German or Spanish. Why not then credit readers with knowledge of calculus or t-tests? So, while some may think it indulgent, I was rather charmed by the pages of pi reproduced in Douglas Coupland’s JPod, and the mathematical ‘calcae’ (appendices) at the end of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

Neal Stephenson is an interesting case, the only author above who remains confined to the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves in my local bookshop – a barrier sufficient to deter many potential readers. I maintain however that his sprawling Baroque Cycle is as effective an evocation of time and place (17th and early 18th Century Europe and beyond) as any I’ve read, encompassing wars and disease as well as the foundations of modern economics and natural scientific enquiry – in short, it is a work of historical fiction, albeit one with a scientific bent. I’m not claiming his works are worthy of the major literary prizes (indeed I’ve often felt that some of his tomes might benefit from losing a hundred pages here and there), but it has become something of a mission for me to convince those friends and family who loved, for instance, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall that they would find something to enjoy in Stephenson’s epic. That my missionary zeal has yet to catch on only makes me more determined!