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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
***^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.