Fictional Science: Five Thought-Provoking Literary Works | The Reader’s Shelf

Readers who love both science and fiction but not necessarily science fiction should find much to enjoy in these thought-provoking literary works that dramatize the challenges and rewards of real-life scientific inquiry.

Readers who love both science and fiction but not necessarily science fiction should find much to enjoy in these thought-provoking literary works that dramatize the challenges and rewards of real-life scientific inquiry.

Few literary writers draw more inspiration from science and scientists than Andrea Barrett. The stories in her award-winning collection Ship Fever (Norton. 1996. ISBN 9780393316001) are varied in style, historical period, and geographical setting, yet all reveal a flair for vivid description. This skill is particularly evident in the title novella, a timely and harrowing tale of an idealistic doctor who struggles against immense obstacles to stem an epidemic of typhus among the destitute and despised refugees from the Irish potato famine. As this story attests, Barrett is keenly aware of human limitations. Even when she writes about notable historical figures such as Carl Linnaeus and Gregor Mendel, she is most interested in their failures and blind spots. In all her stories, she observes the world with a scientist’s eye: sharp, penetrating, exact, and unsentimental. READ-ALIKE: A.S. Byatt’s novella “Morpho Eugenia,” in her collection Angels & Insects, is a worthy companion.

A highly respected physicist, Alan Lightman is a rarity in the literary world, equally adept at writing for scientific journals as for general readers. The latter are very much the intended audience for his modern classic Einstein’s Dreams (Vintage. 2004. ISBN 9781400077809). Lightman frames his compact historical novel with a thin narrative that describes Albert Einstein going about his daily routine at the Swiss patent office in Bern while he prepares to publish his work on relativity. Most of the novel, though, consists of brief, fable-like narrations that purport to describe Einstein’s dreams of alternative versions of Bern, where time behaves in remarkable ways. Living up to his name, Lightman writes with a light touch and sheds light on Einstein’s genius for speculation. READ-ALIKE: The stories in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation similarly resemble clever scientific thought experiments designed to spur the imagination.

A different view of Albert Einstein emerges from the pages of Marie Benedict’s The Other Einstein (Sourcebooks. 2017. ISBN 9781492647584), part of the welcome trend of historical novels that fictionalize the lives of women long overshadowed by their famous male partners. Mileva Maric, the title character, first appears as a student at the Zurich Polytechnic, where she is doubly suspect as a Serbian and the only woman in the physics program. She expects to lead a solitary life, only to be wooed by fellow student Albert Einstein. The two outsiders form a bond that eventually leads to great professional success for Albert while he slights Mileva’s contributions to his scientific work and home life. Readers will root for the strong-willed, much put-upon Mileva and deplore the self-absorbed Albert, but ultimately this novel is the story—and the tragedy—of two brilliant individuals who were unable to transcend their society’s view of the proper role for a woman. READ-ALIKE: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures is another historical novel devoted to a woman who fights for recognition against the male-dominated scientific establishment of her day.

Benjamin Labatut’s internationally acclaimed debut When We Cease To Understand the World (New York Review Bks. 2021. ISBN 9781681375663. Translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West) illuminates some of the more obscure and winding paths taken by 20th-century science, through stories that range from the unsettling to the literally hallucinogenic. He begins the collection of vignettes with an almost entirely nonfictional account of the origins of the poison gas used on the battlefields of World War I and in the Nazi death camps. His penultimate, longest, and most phantasmagoric story dramatizes the disputes in physics that led Werner Heisenberg to develop his celebrated uncertainty principle. In between, he finds inspiration in black holes and mathematical theories so abstruse that they drive their formulators to near madness. With these uncanny stories, Labatut not merely fictionalizes science, he creates something resembling tales of unspeakable cosmic horror. READ-ALIKE: Sam Kean explores the dark side of science in his engrossing nonfiction book The Icepick Surgeon.

For every Einstein or Heisenberg, countless scientists toil away, hoping for breakthrough discoveries that may never come. These are the everyday researchers who populate Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (Dial. 2007. ISBN 9780385336109). Cliff Bannaker is getting nowhere with his work as a postdoc, until the experimental cancer treatment he devises seems to show astonishing success in mice. When his lab’s directors rush to publicize his results, his colleague—and former girlfriend—Robin Decker begins to suspect that his data might be tainted and launches an investigation that soon spirals beyond her control. Goodman excels at depicting the day-to-day reality of working scientists’ lives with their conflicts, petty concerns, and unavoidable drudgery. She tells her characters’ stories with considerable suspense but also sympathy. READ-ALIKE: Weike Wang’s smart and snarky Chemistry follows a graduate student driven to distraction in part by the demands of her academic research.

This column was contributed by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, IL.

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