Science in Fiction

category_icons03It’s not done well. In fact, it’s done infrequently and frequently badly. Science in fiction. I’m not talking about non-fiction books dealing with science or science fiction, which has to have, at least, a modicum of science as a given, but science in your common or garden novel.

Science has a lot to offer: we are talking subjects as diverse as environmental destruction,
quantum physics, particle physics, nanotechnology, neurosurgery, psychopathy and molecular gastronomy – all at your disposal as a writer. We are talking of characters who
Gravity-2013-full-leaked-movie-1could be Brian Cox, Robert Winston, Craig Venter or Bill Gates. Maybe even, dare I say it, a female scientist. So you could have scientists as characters, science as a theme, science as the subject of the novel – and this is at a time when science in movies is big business (Another Earth, After Earth, Gravity, Contagion).

My theory is that most novelists come from an arts background and so they don’t know about science. It’s not in their DNA. If they want to put it in, they read about it, they don’t fully get it, they feel a bit nervous and so what happens is whomp, a big semi-digested chunk in the novel. Think Michael Crichton telling you about the techy or medical bits (essentially how a satellite phone works in Congo), or Ian McEwan’s turgid explanation of de Clerembault’s syndrome in Enduring Love (although, to be fair, his examination of climate change in Solar was a lot better).

theory of mind by sanjida o'connellAs someone who always – from the age of 5 – wanted to be a zoologist and a novelist, I started out by doing a zoology degree followed by a PhD on the psychology of chimpanzees. This inspired my first novel, Theory of Mind, about a girl studying for a PhD on chimpanzees who meets a disturbing little boy who cannot feel pain but is pretty good at inflicting it. My first three novels all feature scientists and have scientific themes – empathy in Theory of Mind, free will versus genetic destiny in Angel Bird, God and evolution in The Naked Name of Love – and I hope that this enriches the stories rather than diminishes them.

Funnily enough, I think the writers that write best about science in fiction today are women. I say funny although it is actually tragic. Men still outnumber women in careers in science: female involvement in science begins to dwindle after school, starts to peter out after a first degree at university and then, frankly, women are practically shoved out of their career if they have children and don’t want to outsource all the childcare or don’t have a stay-at-home partner. And from my own experience, novel-writing scientists are not encouraged. My school did not wish me to combine arts and sciences at A level and my university raised its eyebrows when I insisted on taking philosophy alongside zoology. Goodness knows what would have happened if I’d tried to study Creative Writing.

maddaddam.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxAuthors whom I believe successfully weave science in their novels are Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Andrea Barrett, Aimee Bender (in her mind-melding book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and Ann Patchett in State of Wonder. Margaret Atwood is, of course, a legend. Raised by parents who were zoologists, she has always interwoven science, particularly biology, into her novels – think of Cat’s Eye, about a child whose father is an entomologist – and her ‘science-fiction’ novels like The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. Most recently, she’s brought out a trilogy on a dystopian future where genetic engineering is rife, peopled by gene-spliced life forms.

The pigoon organs could be customized, using cells from individual human donors, and the organs were frozen until needed. It was much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts or keeping a for-harvest child stashed in some illegal baby orchard…Still, as time went on and the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by, some people had their doubts.’

I love the historical science captured by Andrea Barrett’s polished prose in Ship Fever and Voyage of the Narwhal and Barbara Kingsolver’s unflinching examination of global warming in Flight Behaviour and God, pesticides and coyotes in The Prodigal Summer.

state-of-wonderAnn Patchett’s State of Wonder is simply a tour de force. A gentle scientist, Marina Singh, is sent to Brazil to discover how and why her college, Anders Eckman has died. Anders had been attempting to find out if hard-nosed scientist, Dr Annick Swenson, is anywhere near the cure for malaria she has told her investors she is close to developing in utmost secrecy deep in the Brazilian Rio Negro. What Maria finds is far more startling than she could ever have imagined.

‘What had made the jungle so uncomfortable all this time was the absence of people. All the jungle had offered thus far were plants and insects, climbing vines and unseen animals, and that was bad enough, but now Marina realized that people were truly the worst-case scenario. It was like being alone on a dark city street and suddenly turning a corner to find a group of young men staring menacingly from a doorway.’

State of Wonder is The Heart of Darkness for our generation.

Even in science fiction, some of the most notably good examples of work that manages to be literary too is also by women – Margaret Atwood as mentioned, but also Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing and Mary Russell.

51y66G4dZNL._SL500_AA300_-e1363387309581For the sake of fairness, I’d also like to mention a book written by a man, which does incorporate science well – Matt Haig’s The Humans – a quirky, funny and poignant meditation on what it means to be human told from the point of view of an alien impersonating a mathematician.

This post was originally a guest blog, kindly hosted by Women Writers.


5 thoughts on “Science in Fiction

  1. I find this topic very interesting, especially being an aspiring author of hard science fiction (1st novel in progress!) I would love to get some more specific examples from you of poorly written science in novels, as well as some well done ones. I myself am a computer science geek who also happens to love to write. However, my novel has a large focus on biologic and atmospheric science so I’ve done tons of research on each topic. Prior to your post, I would have said that very little hard science fiction has been written by women (the mentioned M. Atwood and M. Russell are personal favorite authors as well as Octavia Butler). My tendency has been to worry that the science I’m writing is too much for most readers….that they will lose interest quickly. Since I’m not writing non-fiction, seems like there is necessity in “dumbing down” some of the science, and I wonder if that is what happened with the authors you mentioned as using poor science. Perhaps their editors helped them dumb it down for the general (non-scientific) public? Thoughts?

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your interesting comment. I mentioned my favourite examples of badly incorporated science – in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Michel Crichton’s Congo. I don’t think you need to dumb down per se – I spent years working as a freelance science journalist, which is about putting complex science ideas across in an accessible way. So for me, that’s the key, making sure the ideas are understandable and, most importantly for fiction, woven into the novel in a meaningful way. What really makes the science bits stand out in a bad way is when they are not integrated properly and you get a whole undigested chunk.

      For me, the things to think about are – does this idea or theme need to be in the novel because it’s part of the plot? If so, there should be a way to make it work. It helps if at least one of your characters is a scientist, works with scientists or is fascinated by a branch of science so there is a reason for the science; for instance, in a detective novel, there’s an excuse for forensic science. It also depends on the genre, for example, a thriller that is about the environment, or a literary novel can deal with science more easily than, say, a psychological thriller. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty is an example of the latter and the main character is a scientist, so there is some science in there – but it’s minimal, partly because of the genre and partly because the protagonist’s career doesn’t matter to the plot (other than to demonstrate what kind of position she has in society).

      Do let me know how you get on with your novel. Best wishes, Sanjida

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