A while back I asked for suggestions for “lab lit”: novels featuring scientists and scientific themes, that a scientist would enjoy. That last caveat is crucial: many fictional scientists ring true only to non-scientists.
And boy did our commenters come through in spades! I’ve been working my way through some of the suggestions from the post. Here are brief, mostly spoiler-free reviews of five of them: The Southern Reach trilogy, All The Birds In The Sky, and Ordinary Thunderstorms.
The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) by Jeff VanderMeer. The tv show Lost (or a David Lynch movie) meets Lovecraftian ecohorror. In the not-too-distant future, a chunk of coastline in a country not unlike a dystopian US has been taken over by an extremely weird ecosystem. The main character is the field biologist who is a member of the latest in a series of expeditions sent into “Area X” to try to answer the most basic questions about it. Questions which are hard to answer because previous expedition members came back crazy, or with bizarre and conflicting reports, or not at all. Lurking in the background are the mysterious motives and conflicting agendas of the higher-ups in the government.
It was only ok. The intriguing, what-the-hell-is-going-on-and-how-does-it-all-fit-together setup in the first book is rather let down by the very partial explanation/resolution in the subsequent two books. Perhaps intentionally; the underlying message seems to be the futility of trying to understand nature. Which is a pretty annoying message if you’re an ecologist. Or maybe that wasn’t the intended message. Maybe it’s just impossible to start with a bunch of random weirdness, and then explain or resolve it in a satisfying way. (Lost is a data point in favor of this hypothesis, from what I’ve heard.) And the main character is a cipher (again, intentionally so, I think). So if you’re looking for sci-fi/horror featuring scientists and scientific themes, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.
All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Sci fi-fantasy mashup. Traces the lives of two childhood friends, both social outcasts. She has magical powers, he is a genius engineer. They have a falling out and spend years apart, but then cross paths again as adults in San Francisco as the world’s ecology collapses and society gradually descends into chaos. Each tries to heroically save the world, but in opposing ways.
This one’s up for some major awards. I can see why, although by the end I merely liked it rather than loved it. It’s pacey and not too long; you won’t be bored. The narrative builds naturally to a climax using the 3-act structure of a Hollywood movie (and it’s easy to imagine this book working as a Hollywood movie). The opening act has a fun Harry Potter-meets-[STEM equivalent of Harry Potter] vibe to it. I bet people who read more sci fi and fantasy than me will better appreciate and really enjoy Anders’ playing around with the conventions of both genres. The two main characters are well-drawn–likable while remaining believably flawed. But they’re clearly meant as representative types, and the entire book is structured to Send A Message about the importance of coldly rational scientific types and emotional humanistic types learning to appreciate each other. Satirical books aside, I think it’s hard to write a book that Sends A Message while also remaining a good book. I’d have found it a bit easier to lose myself in the story if it wasn’t so obvious that the story’s reason for existing was to Send A Message.
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. Hitchcockian setup: climatologist interviews for a faculty position at Imperial College London, has a brief chance encounter with a stranger in a restaurant. Which leads to the climatologist going on the run to avoid taking the rap for a crime he didn’t commit.
I decided to read this one because I loved Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, another novel with a scientist as the main character. But this one isn’t a patch on Brazzaville Beach, especially not if you’re in the market for lab lit. Ordinary Thunderstorms actually has almost nothing to do with the scientist main character as a scientist–he could just as easily have been a businessman or a musician or whatever. And the handling of a flashback to an incident at the climatologist’s previous faculty position is likely to annoy many of you, because it’s implausible in ways that reinforce some unpleasant stereotypes. That’s not the only implausibility in the book: the book is very up-front about it’s theme, which is the importance of chance and coincidence in our lives. But I think Boyd went rather over the top trying to drive that theme home. If you want to write a Hitchcockian thriller with a coincidence-based plot, I think you should just go ahead and do that, not also try to hit the reader over the head with a Theme. Ordinary Thunderstorms is enjoyable enough as a thriller. But the literary style, excellent in a vacuum, is something of a mismatch for the pulpy material. It’s basically an Elmore Leonard book trying to be literature–which isn’t an improvement over Elmore Leonard.