In a recent post, we came up with a great list of popular science books that appeal to scientists. Now let’s do the same thing for fiction. What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? I’ll accept novels about academia too.
I’ll kick things off with four very different but equally-excellent selections:
Thinks… Light comedy/romance: poet meets computational psychologist. Beach reading for smart people. Includes interesting musing on the nature of consciousness and the relationship between scientific and artistic ways of looking at people. Gets lots of humor from the main characters describing the same events differently in their journals. By David Lodge, a retired British prof who’s written several campus novels, most of them humanities-focused. He’s one of my favorite authors. His sort-of-trilogy of campus novels Changing Places (US vs. British academia in the 1960s), Small World (satire on literary theory and academia more broadly) and Nice Work (comedy/romance about town-gown relations) is particularly good. Though to fully appreciate Small World you need to know something about the schools of thought Lodge is satirizing.
UPDATE ON THINKS… WITH MILD SPOILER: Note that one of the main characters in Thinks… is a senior male prof who sleeps around, including with a grad student (not his own). He’s portrayed positively, and never coerces anyone. But if you would find that character off-putting or unbelievable, Thinks… might not be your thing.
An Instance of the Fingerpost. 17th century murder mystery set in Britain, with big walk-on parts for several real scientific luminaries like Robert Boyle. Told from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, a device I always enjoy. My brief review is here. tl;dr: OMG this is soooooo good.
Brazzaville Beach. The main character is a young British botanist turned chimpanzee research field assistant, who has to find the strength to get through the collapse of her marriage to a mathematician and strange events at the field station. My brief review is here. tl;dr: The characters and their science all ring very true (not always a given when you’re a scientist reading a novel about scientists). And there’s a Big Idea about animal behavior lurking under the surface that gets taken to its logical, devastating conclusion.
Angels and Insects. Specifically, the novella “Morpho Eugenia” (the book includes two novellas). By A. S. Byatt. Drama. Young Victorian naturalist marries into the family of his rich upper-class patron. Much comparison of British upper-class family dynamics to the ant colonies the naturalist studies. Became a very good movie that sticks close to the novella (warning: the movie is rated R for a reason; the sex is integral, but it’s there).
And here are some selections I added to my Goodreads “want to read” list. But I worry about relying on the reviews of non-scientists. Hopefully y’all can tell me if they’re the sort of thing a scientist would like:
The Darwin Conspiracy. Fictionalized account of Darwin’s development of the ideas in the Origin of Species, purportedly explaining why he took so long to publish.
Galatea 2.2. A neural network trained on the Great Books becomes self-aware. An academic romance, humanities-vs.-sciences, meta-fiction mashup. Apparently.
As She Climbed Across the Table. Scientific satire-cum-romantic comedy. Particle physicist Alice Coombs dumps her boyfriend for…[wait for it]…a black hole she created in the lab.
Euphoria. Historical fiction, inspired by the young Margaret Mead.
UPDATE: Intuition. I’ll just quote Brian’s review in the comments: “A serious literary author takes on lab and science culture (carefully researched). Takes place in a biomedical lab in Cambridge, MA. Characters range from PhDs, postdocs, and PIs. Carefully plotted and a real page turner. Captures the daily lab experience with a sharp lens and no small dose of wry humor.”
I also found this list of “lab lit” suggestions. But I really want to hear yours!
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I can now report that Euphoria is terrific and As She Climbed Across The Table is…odd. Reviews coming soon.
Agreed. I binge-read Euphoria on a flight to UNH last fall. Made me totally fascinated with Margaret Mead.
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