Why so few novels about scientists?

Image: “Scientists” sensu Wikipedia, by Urcomunicacion CC BY 3.0.

Like most scientists, I live a life rich in other scientists.  That’s true because I work among them, but I also live in a university town with a couple of major government research labs.  That means there are often scientists at the movie theatre, scientists at the grocery store, and scientists at the next table when I go out for dinner.  There are nearly always scientists at the bookstore and at the local library, too.  But there’s one place there aren’t scientists (or at least, not very many): in the pages of the books shelved there. I find that peculiar.

I guess I should qualify my observation.  My library and my bookstore have lots of books about science.  That’s true in the non-fiction stacks, and it’s true in the genre fiction stacks too: science fiction has always included scientists, and techno-thrillers do too.  This genre fiction, though, tends to feature scientists because it’s about science.  (I’m not dismissing science fiction by labeling it ‘genre fiction’; I read a lot of it, and some of it is important and of high literary quality.) What is in short supply is novels about scientists that aren’t about science.  What do I mean by that?  I mean “mainstream” or “literary fiction” novels in which the plot doesn’t turn on science, but in which a significant character is identified as a scientist.  Such novels should surely exist: we have novels about spies that aren’t about spying, novels about doctors that aren’t about medicine, novels about farmers that aren’t about farming, novels about artists that aren’t about art, novels about journalists that aren’t about journalism, novels about salesmen that aren’t about sales, novels about actors that aren’t about acting, and novels about plumbers that aren’t about plumbing*.

I’ll admit that there are some novels about scientists.  I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, in which a major supporting character is an entomologist; and if it wasn’t as transcendent as her Poisonwood Bible, it was pretty good. Of course, there’s John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  There’s Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, and Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower.  But examples are thin on the ground.  The “Lablit” e-magazine maintains a list, which is great**, but after 7 years of active compilation, it has only about 200 entries.  200 might seem like a lot, but something on the order of 100,000 English-language novels are published each year. And even to get to 200, the Lablit list had to be pretty liberal. It includes fictionalizations of the lives of scientists (not quite what I was looking for), books I would have counted as science fiction (Lablit maintains a separate list of SF), and books that, um, might not appear on any college syllabus or bestseller list.

About 10% of adults in the USA hold science or engineering degrees, and about 5% of the US labour force works in those fields (figures for other Western countries are probably not far off).  Why don’t these people turn up as characters in novels? And why might I care?

I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I have two (related) ideas.  First, there’s the famous two-cultures divide: just as a lot of scientists know little about the arts (some of my admissions are here and here), a lot of folks in the arts know little about science.  Creative writers are told to “write what you know”, and what they know may not easily support writing a scientist character.  Second, society has stereotypes about scientists – in which to some degree, if we aren’t mad scientists, we’re coldly dispassionate logicians in lab coats. The former have made some famous novels, but they aren’t what I’m after here; and the latter make terrible ones.  Complex characters with both human virtues and human failings, with emotions and irrationality – these are what novelists like to paint.  Perhaps either writers don’t want to write, or audiences won’t easily accept, complexly human scientist characters the way they will farmers or spies or artists***.

What about the second question: why might I care?  I care because I think it matters that society see scientists are part of itself.  It’s easy to be suspicious of science, or uninterested in science, if the people doing it are hardly people at all.  It’s harder if scientists are just folks you see in the grocery store or at church or at the playground with their kids.  Scientists are folks in all those places, in my town and many others, but I don’t think they’re seen that way.  A scientist-deficient novelverse doesn’t help the visibility – the normalization – of scientists in society.  (Yes, I just made up “novelverse”, having thought twice about “novelome”.)

What do you think? Can you explain the pattern?  Do you have a favourite novel-about-a-scientist?  The Replies are yours!

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) May 24, 2016


*^Ah, noticed the lack of a link on that last one, did you?  I tried to find some novels about plumbers that aren’t about plumbing, but I’ll admit it was difficult.  It isn’t quite a novel (despite the title), but I thoroughly recommend this, from the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock.

**^Hat tip to Jeremy Fox on this one; his post at Dynamic Ecology reviewing four books from the Lablit list alerted me to it, and also spurred me to make a post from my longstanding grievance.

***^I’m in over my head making such suggestions, of course.  I know very few novelists and am not a literary scholar. I did look for literature on the topic, and found none, but that could simply mean that I was stymied by unfamiliarity with the field.

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36 thoughts on “Why so few novels about scientists?

  1. Abigail

    Ooh, a literary challege. I don’t have an answer to why the pattern exists (though I like your musing about the two cultures; see below) but here are some of my favorites.

    Since you recently mentioned Tracy Chevalier’s book about Mary Anning in another context I assume you disqualified it because it is a fictionalization of a scientist’s life? I’d quibble with that disqualification since all of her novels fit the same mold (fictional biography of famous person) and I bet there’s plenty of people who read it just because it’s a Chevalier. Ian McEwan’s Solar fits the bill as well I think. Another very dear favorite is All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), about a young (and then old) malacologist in Brittany during WWII. The snails are totally peripheral to the plot.

    My absolute favorite in the genre, though, is CP Snow’s series of novels (Strangers and Brothers). Though he made the main character a lawyer rather than a scientist, there are practicing scientists running through many of the books, particularly all of the scenes in Cambridge. The difference between the two cultures is an important running thread. In fact, the one about the building of the atomic bomb in Britan (The New Men) has scientists and science central to the plot, but the heart of the book is really the ethics of the bomb rather than its science. The Affair is purportedly about scientific misconduct, but again is mostly about people and all the novels fit everything you say about depicting “human virtues and failings.”

    As for plumbers, I’m in the middle of a series of French detective novels where the main character’s love interest is a plumber. She’s an important character but doesn’t get much stage time. Nothing else comes to mind.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting! You’re right, that’s why I disqualified Remarkable Creatures, but I agree it’s certainly arguable. I am definitely going to look up All The Light We Cannot See.

      Come on, though – you have to provide citation details for the plumber books!

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      1. Abigail

        They are the Adamsberg novels by Fred Vargas (herself an academic archaeologist and specialist of the Black Death); I think most of them have been translated into English.

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        1. Abigail

          I’ve had a good think about this. If a book really does what you want it to do, portrays a profession without it being the focus of the novel, it may be hard to remember. There’s certainly a ton of novels where characters are “professors” and although that is usually not a professor of science, I bet sometimes it is and I just don’t remember. I’ve come up with some more:

          Invisible Beasts (Sharona Muir; a bestiary of invisible animals and the narrator’s sister is a biologist)

          The Exiles Return (Elisabeth Waal; set in Austria at the end of the Allied Occupation, with a main character who is a Jewish scientist returned from America to take up his previous university position)

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  2. laanisto

    I´d recommend books by David Lodge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lodge_%28author%29). Especially his “Campus trilogy” and “Thinks…”. When I was bachelor student, my supervisor suggested to read “Small World” in order to prepare myself for attending scientific conferences. And now I´m suggesting the same to my students… “Thinks…” is probably my favourite novel about scientists doing science.

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      Seconding all of this. The campus trilogy is more about the humanities side of academia, and some of it is of its time (e.g., the battle over literary critical theory so central to Small World is old news now). But it’s great anyway, Small World in particular is one of the best books I’ve ever read. “Thinks…” is great too. I suggest avoiding Deaf Sentence though, I found it boring, not nearly as funny as it should’ve been.

      Lodge’s non-academia novels also are enjoyable, though the early stuff (How Far Can You Go?, et al., about growing up Catholic in Britain in the 60s) is of its time. Author, Author and A Man of Parts are quite interesting, and Therapy is very funny.

      If you want other campus comedies, Jane Smiley’s Moo is pretty good. And I’m sure there are many I’m unaware of.

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Re: campus comedies, Lucky Jim is of course a classic of the genre.

        Thinking about it, scientists tend not to feature in most of the campus comedies I know of. Which perhaps speaks to the point of the original post.

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Yes, agreed – there is definitely a genre of “campus novels” (not just comedies) but the great bulk are set in the humanities – few about scientists or engineers. The reasons are maybe even more obvious than for other lit, though!

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    Hmm…so you want literary novels featuring scientists that aren’t about science? Rather narrow search parameters, no? Heck, I don’t think any of the books I reviewed would qualify, since all are about science–scientists *doing science* are integral to all four. Insofar as the novel isn’t about science, why does it matter if a main character is a scientist? Much as how, in The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda plays a herpetologist, but that’s more or less irrelevant–the important thing for purposes of the movie is that Fonda is rich.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Perhaps my search parameters are narrow- but are they narrower than a search for “novels about salemen but not about sales”, which I think find lots of results?

      Why does it matter? Because I think society doesn’t see scientists as just regular people – the kind you might meet on the street, or the kind you might read (or write) a novel about. That’s why I “disqualified” science fiction, which is usually *about* the science – I don’t want scientists to be of interest only if the science is of interest. Why doesn’t literature treat scientists as people independent of the science they do – when it can do so of plumbers, carpenters, salesmen, artists, lawyers….?

      I don’t *think* we’re all boring. I mean, maybe *I* am, but not all of us 🙂

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  4. Kaitlin Stack Whitney

    There is a challenge of ‘getting it right- – regardless of topic. I made a radio show a few years ago for WORT Madison WI about the ‘lab lit’ trend – and specifically about Flight Behavior. Dr. Karen Oberhauser was kind enough to chat with me about what Kingsolver does – and does NOT – get right about butterflies — and that she oddly didn’t directly interview more than 1 monarch scientist, despite listing people she read in the acknowledgments. You can listen to the show here: http://www.wortfm.org/lab-lit-science-in-novels-kingsolvers-flight-behavior/

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Kaitlin! That’s an interesting point, about how much an author can be expected to “get right” and how much it matters. This is related to the “write what you know” advice, of course, but I didn’t really address it here, so I’m glad you do. I assume the same would be true when a novel touches on law or business or art history! And some authors are known for meticulous research, others less so. Interesting!

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  5. codeboy

    I suspect the issue has something to do with the lack of a broad shared understanding of what scientists do. If the protagonist is a doctor, lawyer, mechanic, accountant, etc., even those who aren’t in those professions have some sort of sense for what they do and what kind of people they might consequently be. Stereotyping provides some character information.

    On the other hand, most people don’t run into scientists in the course of conducting life and consequently it’s possibly a less useful occupation from an author’s point of view.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think you are right – “write what you know” but that isn’t (for many authors) either science or scientists. BUT: “most people don’t run into scientists in the course of conducting life” – are you sure? Or instead, are “most people unaware that they are running into scientists in the course of conducting life”?

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  6. Jeremy Fox

    A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia. Paired with another novella in the book Angels and Insects. Lead character is a young Victorian naturalist who marries into a wealthy family. Much analogizing between Victorian family and social dynamics, and the ant colonies the naturalist studies. Not quite the sort of thing you’re looking for, but highly recommended in any case.

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  7. atmurre

    It is definitely not a good book (I couldn’t actually finish it) but there is a old school romance novel set at a biological field station in Florida. Apparently it’s written by an ex-grad student who had worked at one and fictionalized it.

    With respect to the topic, I think that there are generally few books about workers doing their work (as opposed to work being in the background of the story), and that the type of work is skewed towards other-jobs-the-writer-had and cool-jobs (also some stereotype-jobs). Like how everyone is an architect in rom-coms (http://www.avclub.com/article/everyones-an-architect-11-jobs-common-only-in-roma-201073).

    Also I would agree most people don’t run into scientists in their life. I’m in a town of ~250,000 with a big university and the state government. There’s probably only about 11,000 scientists in town (half the staff/faculty of the university plus some state and federal employees as a back of the envelope estimate). If most of those aren’t religious and a fairly sizeable group doesn’t have kids (guessing those are the two major areas where you’re likely to meet people as an adult), that’s pretty low odds of meeting a scientist. Let alone a scientist that a) admits they’re a scientist (I am only semi-comfortable admitting that and I’m not sure that people know post-doc can = scientist); b) you know well enough to talk about their job.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting: 11,000/250,000 is not that far off my 5-10% estimates in the post. It’s about 4%. If 4% of the people in your town are “kind of person X” (extra-tall, Samoan, scientist, whatever), aren’t the odds in fact quite good that you run into them fairly often? Yes, there is positive assortment, of course, but that much? Data… need data!

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      1. atmurre

        Well I think my estimate is high (I just divided faculty and staff by two to account for other vs. science but many of those staff would be folks like librarians, admin, who aren’t scientists) so I think 4% is optimistic. Also, we’re a large university in a state capital with federal offices which I think is pretty unusual and puts us at the high end of the distribution for total number of scientists.

        Interestingly (or not) my gut now says that it would be easier to meet scientists at smaller schools in smaller towns. A quick check – at my last university, there were ~10,000 people in town and 720 faculty for 7% (the comparable number for current city is 2,220 faculty/250,000, 0.9%). So maybe writers need to move to small towns?

        Also, I’m trying to think of other people that make up 5-10% of the population to see if I run into them ever. I barely socialize with people outside the university so I am probably a horrible example – no church, no children, not a regular at a bar/restaurant. I rent and don’t know my neighbours at all. I live far from my family and friends from before university. Most of my friends in town are married to/dating other academics. My positive assortment is high.

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    2. Amy Parachnowitsch

      I can confirm that the book is terrible! But it is great fun to read when you are a grad student on a field course at Archibold Field Station in Florida. The group of us took turns reading it to each other in the evenings.

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  8. baskin2013

    I definitely agree with the tenor of your posts. Occasionally some character might be a scientist but their work life is almost always wholly offstage. I remember reading an Updike novel where the protagonist was a photosynthesis researcher and the word sedoheptulose fairly leapt off the page (that is one of the intermediates in the Calvin cycle, and btw words like that is another reason why writers might do well to look into the laboratory) but I could not finish the novel. The same is true in movies–scientists appear a lot but always at work, and typically “mad” or at least bent on mayhem of one kind or another. A wonderful exception is the first ~third of Ang Lee’s Hulk — shot in molecular biology labs and the verisimilitude makes me LOVE that movie whatever its faults. Likewise — used bookstores. They will have wonderful sections on art, literature, etc etc but rarely decent science sections. The two cultures thing is strong.

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  9. Stefanie Rog

    Every scientist should read The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight, on a scientist that tries to develop a protein rich mushroom to solve the worlds food problem – which then goes terribly wrong. And Mermaids in paradise by Lidia Millet, on a marine biologist who makes an amazing discovery and tries to keep the paparrazi away. Both entertaining, but the last one is a bit more translatable to the real world 😉

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  10. Amy Parachnowitsch

    Neil Gaiman has scientists as regular characters, at least in the few kids “novels” we’ve read. I really loved “Fortunately the milk” where the mother is off to a conference to give a lecture on lizards.

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    1. The Clificene Is Now (@The_Clificene)

      Dear Stephen,

      I just read with some interest your online blog scientist sees squirrel about the lack of novels about scientists……

      I was as surprised by the stats you quote, as you are. The gap between Arts and Sciences seems deeper than I had anticipated. It is a real shame.

      I am a career physicist living in Boulder, CO, similar sounding to your situation. I have always been a semi pro opera singer, and have even performed with people from the met! (much to my own surprise).

      Even more surprising to me was my recent venture into fiction writing. In fact, my trilogy explores the life of a scientist as he and his friends and family struggle with life inthe face of climate change. Paramount is his struggle, as a scientist, to understand how his views differ so much from thise of “society”. He has depressive episodes, shows anger, shows a very human behavior overall. It is to some extent biographical.

      The bottom line is that I think my books actually do fit into your desired genre!

      This article gives some of my background:
      http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/may/14/scientist-pens-trilogy-to-combat-climate-change-do/

      Thanks for an intriguing article.

      Best wishes
      Philip Judge

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  11. Sam

    While not a book, I’ve always appreciated that on South Park, Randy Marsh is a USGS geologist. And it’s entirely irrelevant to the plot of most episodes; he’s just a goofball that happens to be a geologist.

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  12. The Clificene Is Now (@The_Clificene)

    A marine scientist Charlene D’Avanzo in Maine has just published a mystery detective yarn starrring a marine scientist titled HOT BLOOD COLD SEA re ”A Novel Idea: Using Sea Kayaking as the Setting for a Mystery Novel”

    http://www.torreyhouse.com or see amazon for title

    http://www.CANOEkayak.com

    ”Billed as a thrilling contribution to the new wave of cli-fi hitting the shelves, ‘Cold Blood, Hot Sea’ pits climate change scientists against big …”

    AND

    ”Scientist Philip Judge in Colorad pens a trilogy to combat climate-change doubters” headline to google for see story

    The Denver Post-2016.5.15.

    … so incensed about climate-change doubters in recent years that he invented a whole new genre of fiction on the subject, called cli-fi-sci.

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  13. Pingback: Novels about Scientists???? | nolewordpressw

  14. Drew Kerkhoff

    Andrea Barrett writes beautifully, and many of her stories and novels feature scientists, including her short story collection Ship Fever, her novel Voyage of the Narwhal, and the book Archangel, which is somewhere between a collection of stories and a novella. All are excellent. Some science gets done, and scientific ideas are certainly part of the life of the mind for her characters, but they are not “about science” per se.

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  15. heroicallylost

    Christopher Moore’s book Fluke is a comic novel involving wildlife biologists, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Cordelia’s Honor” and “Falling Free” both involve scientist main characters (they are science fiction, but the science is not the point, especially in Cordelia’s Honor.) Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is a murder mystery about a psychologist.

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