Brief book reviews: five novels featuring scientists

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.

20 thoughts on “Brief book reviews: five novels featuring scientists

  1. Jeremy, I’m going to read “Ordinary Thunderstorms” for precisely one of the reasons you criticize it: because the narrative 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.” That’s a kind of book I think is in short supply, and I think that matters. We have (quoting one of my old posts here “novels about spies that aren’t about spying, novels about doctors that aren’t about medicine, novels about farmers that aren’t about farming, novels about artists that aren’t about art, novels about journalists that aren’t about journalism, novels about salesmen that aren’t about sales, novels about actors that aren’t about acting” – but we have few novels about scientists that aren’t about science. (Here’s the post for those who missed it – https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/why-so-few-novels-about-scientists/). I think this works against the important realization that scientists are just people, part of society like anybody else. If science fiction novels and climate-change fiction (“cli-fi”, believe it or not) feature scientists, well, that’s just a necessary concession to the plot. If other novels do, I think that’s important.

  2. Has someone already suggested you read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson? If not, you should. I won’t say it’s perfect, but I really enjoyed it and it’s cast is mostly scientists, and I think he did a fairly good job of portraying them.

  3. I haven’t read it but Solar by ian McKewan sounds interesting. The protagonist, if you can call him that is a washed up climate physicist who can’t maintain significant relationships. Here is a link: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Ian-McEwan-ebook/dp/B003AUTEJK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

    Then the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson frequently feature scientists, engineers and science policy wonks and deal with such subjects as terraforming Mars and climate change. But for me they read like technical manuals and the characters seem one dimensional. There is Canada’s own Robert J. Sawyer, whose novels frequently have scientists as the main protagonists. His latest, Quantum Night, is about psychologists, physicists, particle colliders and psychopaths.

    Part of the problem is that C. P. Snow’s two cultures still exist and IMHO, the gulf between them is wider than ever. At our University Biology and Chemistry are in a completely different building, and Geography, Physics and Math are at the opposite ends of the main campus building from English, Theatre, and History.

    • Yes, Solar came up in that previous thread. It’s on my list though it got mixed reviews. The main character isn’t likable, apparently, which for some readers is a big turn-off.

      Thanks for the Sawyer suggestion, haven’t read anything of his yet.

      • I would second Robert Sawyer as a recommendation. I am a long time sci fi fan, and having read so much of it, I mostly wander around aimlessly desperately trying to find somebody new worth reading (I’m not willing to read garbage). I discovered Sawyer recently and have been tearing through his books. He is heavily decorated (Hugo & Nebula awards and nominations) so I’m kind of shocked it took me this long to find him.

        Nearly all of his books involve scientists of some form or another. Many are paleontologists or geneticists. But there is even a trilogy where a Neandertal quantum physicist from a parallel universe is the star character. Off the top of my head I only remember one of his that doesn’t prominently feature a scientist (it involves a lawyer representing an alien accused in the human criminal system). There’s one where a detective is the main character, but many of the other key players are scientists.

        His books are fairly light and often have a thread of humor or irony, but have well developed characters, strong plots, and like all good science fiction, get out of this world to enable a better look at this world. The role of science, the role of religion, encounters with aliens, and aging/terminal illness are all common themes in his books. And as noted as a bonus for you Jeremy, he is Canadian and places most of his books in Canada.

    • I was thinking of suggesting Solar too. I’ve read the first chapter and the satire/cynicism is pretty heavy.

  4. Did anyone suggest Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut? A physicist is at the centre of it and it’s written with Vonnegut’s usual wry humour and eye for an absurdity. Reading it now – I read a lot of Vonnegut as a teenager but seem to have missed this one, or at least it rings no bells. It’s nice, nice, very very nice (in joke, you’d need to read the book…):

  5. Nice post, Jeremy. Please allow me to plug a recently retired Ecologist, Tom Stohlgren, now full time screenwriter and novelist. He’s one of our own, as it were!

  6. In case no one has suggested it before, can I add Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu? It’s sci-fi, and first in a trilogy, so there are a lot of scientists. The second book has a very interesting idea about the Fermi paradox.

  7. I realize I am a bit late to the party but I have to recommend Julie E. Czerneda’s Species Imperative trilogy: Survival, Migration, Regeneration. It is a Big Idea kind of sci-fi (science fiction where the book is in some way an exploration of some idea of science), but unlike most Big Idea sci-fi, which plays around with physics, here the big idea comes from biology: To what degree would intelligent alien species still be ruled by their base biological drives, and what might that mean for their interaction with humans?

    The main character is a very convincing marine biologist studying the recovery of salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest. Her understanding of migratory patterns turn out to be key to solving a big problem.

    The author is also know for sometimes sneaking in species from earth and using them as an alien species, just to see if the reader is paying attention.

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