I recently read Ian McEwan’s book Solar, which motivated me to ponder putting together a thread on scientists in fiction. The classics in this genre, e.g. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Strangelove, represent scientists as evil geniuses unrestrained by ethics. Contemporary books in the genre provide more complex images of scientists.
The scientists in fiction genre has a fairly large number of books, with a rapidly increasing number of contemporary books. Two good lists that I’ve found are
Examples of science and scientists in fiction of particular relevance to climate science include:
Each of these three books provided a powerful image of scientists. These images are highly unflattering that have heavily influenced the public’s view of climate scientists and arguably the public debate on climate change. State of Fear addresses issues surrounding the politicization of scientific research. Solar captures the selfish pursuit of academic fame and priority. The timing of the publication of Pachauri’s romance novel which details sexual encounter after sexual encounter and appears to be semi-autobiographical, left the world wondering what Dr. Pachauri was actually doing, when he should have been paying attention to Himalayan Glaciers.
Carl Djerassi’s novels
My introduction to the potential power of the genre of “science in fiction” comes from Carl Djerassi, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Stanford University and is best known for his contribution to the development of the first oral contraception pill. Djerassi wrote a tetralogy of four novels that address ethical issues in the academic environment; these books are widely used in medical ethics courses at universities.
Djerassi describes his objectives in this essay, from which I’ve pulled the following excerpts:
Scientists operate within a tribal culture, the rules, mores and idiosyncrasies of which are generally acquired through intellectual osmosis in a mentor–disciple relationship. Scientific ‘street smarts’ are absorbed by observing the mentor’s self-interested con- cerns with publication practices and priori- ties, the order of the authors, the choice of journal, the striving for academic tenure, grantsmanship and even the Nobel prize. On their own, disciples discover the ‘glass ceiling’ for women in a male-dominated enterprise, the inherent collegiality of scientific research, and also the Schadenfreude generated by brutal competition. Most of these issues are related to the desire for personal recognition and even financial rewards, and each is coloured by ethical nuances.
An effective medium for illuminating such topics is the rarely used literary genre of ‘science-in-fiction’ (not to be confused with science fiction), in which all aspects of scientific behaviour and scientific facts are described accurately and plausibly. By dis- guising them in the cloak of fiction, science- in-fiction allows the illustration and dicussion of ethical dilemmas that are frequently not raised for reasons of discretion, embarrassment, or fear of retribution.
The four books in the tetralogy are
- Cantor’s Dilemma
- The Bourbaki Gambit
- Menachem’s Seed
Djerassi describes the issues discussed in the 4 books:
Several factors have always influenced the conduct of scientific research: the quality of the mentor-disciple relationship; trust in the reliability of scientific results; and like it or not, the drive for scientific priority. A more recent aspect of the scientific scene is society’s recognition that women should play a much greater role in hitherto male-dominated disciplines. Topics such as these should be presented to a general public, but writing about them in specialized journals will not bridge the gulf between the two cultures. My bridge is a special literary genre, science-in-fiction, wherein I illuminate in a projected tetralogy of novels the tribal culture of scientists, rather than dwelling on the science they do. The reception of the first volume, Cantor’s Dilemma, which addresses these issues, convinced me that science-in-fiction is an effective way of smuggling serious topics of scientific behavior into the consciousness of the scientifically illiterate.
The second novel, The Bourbaki Gambit, published in late 1994, deals with three other important subjects: the passionate desire of scientists for recognition by their peers; science’s inherent collegiality; and the graying of Western science (hence five out of the six main characters are above the age of 60!). In the process, a fictitious account is presented of the discovery of the PCR methodology – an invention that won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and also formed the unacknowledged basis for the Jurassic Park fantasy as well as the chief bone of contention in the O.J. Simpson trial. In other words, a fiction format is used to explain PCR to a lay public while weaving a story around scientists and their tribal behavior.
The third volume, Menachem’s Seed (focusing on recent advance in male reproductive biology and on the involvement of scientists with international policy issues), has just been published, while the final volume, NO (dealing with the “biotech” industry and the treatment of male impotence) appeared in 1998.
When I read Djerassi’s books, I was so excited by this concept that I pondered writing a novel in this genre, addressing gender in science issues (my impulse to write has been subsumed by the blogosphere). This is a really interesting topic, and there is actually a substantial body of literature on women scientists in fiction.
Women Scientists in Fiction
Allison Sinclair has a superb article entitled Stealing the Fire: Women Scientists in Fiction. An excerpt from her article:
Working scientists are a relative rarity in mainstream novels and working women scientists even more so. The more usual place for a fictional scientist is in genre fiction: science fiction, detective fiction, horror and thrillers, but as a working woman scientist, I was curious to see how women scientists were portrayed in novels featuring a recognizably contemporary setting. Certain themes, I noticed, tended to recur:
- The drama of science, centering on the possession and integrity of the discovery.
- Relationships, and their influence on a woman’s life and work.
- The problem of genius: What is genius, and can it be tolerated in a woman?
- The withdrawal from science, as portrayed by no fewer than six of these novels.
Her article then describes individual books with each of these themes.
Another website that describes women scientists in fiction is here, which includes summaries of notable books in the genre. One book description particularly caught my eye:
Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd). Hope Clearwater is an ethologist, studiying first ancient hedges, and then, after the disaster of hermarriage, retreating to Africa to work as observer on a project studying chimpanzees. Her observations directly contradict the invested beliefs of the senior scientist leading the project. The woman scientist as dissenter or whistleblower is a common theme in several of those novels. I suspect it’s a common theme in novels about science and scientists because it is one of the obvious dramatic conflicts. There’s an interesting difference in perspective: the male whistleblower usually stands to lose his membership in the “club,” while the female whistleblower is already an outsider. The question for her seems to be much more “will anyone listen?”
Oh my, the female scientist as whistleblower, I need to chew on this idea a bit.
We need more novels about real scientists, and climate science certainly provides some rich fodder for such novels. I look forward to hearing about any books in this genre that you have read. Has anyone actually read Pachauri’s book?