A long while back I linked to a list of novels* featuring realistic scientists as central characters, taking place in realistic settings (as opposed to speculative sci-fi). I picked out a few to read, here are my brief reviews.
My hope is that I’m adding a bit of value by reviewing these from my perspective as a scientist, thereby helping you avoid reading stuff that would only work for a non-scientist. What’s plausible to a non-scientist might well be implausible to a scientist.
Warning: mild spoilers ahead for the last book on the list.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. Oh. My. Goodness. This. Is. Great. A murder mystery set in Oxford at the dawn of science as a self-conscious activity, featuring walk-on parts for Robert Boyle and other “natural philosophers” of the time. The same events are described from the perspectives of several narrators of varying reliability, a device I always enjoy. Clearly involved a ton of background research, but you never feel that it really should’ve been a history book instead. Pears doesn’t use the background research as a substitute for his own imagination, or let it get in the way of the story–a James Michener novel, this ain’t. Many of you have probably read this already (it was a bestseller), but if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Bellwether by Connie Willis. Non-scientists seem to love this, but I didn’t like it. The central character is a sociologist trying to understand how fads develop, spread, and die out. But the way she pursues her research would only be plausible to a non-scientist, I think (especially when she decides to change research approaches and order a herd of sheep…). And she spends the whole book struggling her way towards what’s supposed to be a profound insight, but I figured it out very early on. Which is death for a book like this, much as a too-obvious culprit is death for a murder mystery–it makes the characters look stupid to the reader. The plot also depends on too many implausibilities (A big R&D corporation would suddenly refocus its operations on chasing a measly $1 million science prize? Yeah, riiiight…) Many of the implausible elements are intended as breezy satire on pop culture and corporate management, but they didn’t work for me. The satirical bits were all either too detached from reality or else too obvious. Bottom line: I suspect that too much of it will ring false for a scientist reader.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. Historical fiction/character study: contemporaries Gauss and Humboldt presented as obsessives whose singlemindedness allows them to achieve great things while doing tremendous damage to those around them. But they’re interestingly contrasted in other ways–Humboldt is the ultimate concrete, inductive empiricist, determined to describe the entire Amazon. Gauss is the ultimate abstract, deductive genius, determined to mathematize the entire universe. The book touches lightly on the strengths and limitations of their respective approaches to science. You muddy boots field ecologists who aren’t truly happy unless you’re physically suffering to get one more data point will probably find the portrayal of Humboldt particularly congenial. 🙂 Note that I have no idea what Gauss and Humboldt were actually like, so my enjoyment of the book didn’t depend on the accuracy of the portrayals. If the portrayals are inaccurate and you know this, it’s possible that might bug you. (UPDATE: Commenter jk informs us that the portrayals, and many of the historical details, are not accurate and are not intended to be. Interesting!)
Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. A novel of both character and ideas. The central character is Hope Clearwater, young British botanist turned chimpanzee field research assistant in Africa. The main plot reads as a riff on the career of Jane Goodall. Hope discovers novel evidence of violence among chimp groups but struggles to convince her co-workers and her famous boss. An interleaved subplot follows the growth and collapse of Hope’s marriage to a mathematician. The story is told in flashback, as Hope tries to understand and come to terms with what she’s been through. The characters are well-drawn and believable, especially Hope herself. She’s a strong, intelligent, thoughtful, self-aware, independent woman. She’s surrounded by men (and a few women) who contrast with her in various ways, mostly through their very human flaws. Lurking underneath this character-driven drama is a Big Idea: Boyd takes seriously the notion that chimps aren’t fundamentally different from humans, and follows it to its logical, devastating conclusion. There are a few points at which the plot advances by incredibly unlucky coincidence or via an out-of-character screw-up on Hope’s part. But those are isolated, minor flaws. The portrayal of field work in Africa rings very true (or at least, it did to this Canadian lab ecologist), as does the portrayal of the power dynamics at the chimpanzee research station. If you’re looking for a novel with a strong, relatable woman scientist as the lead character, this is the novel for you.
*The list also includes movies, plays, and tv shows.