Butler, O. (2005a) Afterword. In Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd Ed.) (pp. 30-32). New York: Seven Stories Press.
Butler, O. (2005b) Bloodchild. In Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd Ed.) (pp. 1-29). New York: Seven Stories Press. (Originally published in 1984)
Butler, O. (2005c) Fledgling. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Hoskinson, J. (Director). (17 January 2008). The Colbert Report. New York: Comedy Central.
Datlow, E. (2012) Introduction. In E. Datlow (Ed.) Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex (Kindle version). Retrieved from amazon.com
Levy, D. (2008) Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. New York: Harper Perennial.
Piercy. M. (1991) He, She And It. New York: Fawcett Books, 1991.
Silverberg, R. (2012) Preface. In E. Datlow (Ed.) Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex (Kindle version). Retrieved from amazon.com
Sinisalo, J. (2003) Troll: A Love Story. (H. Loman, Trans.). New York: Grove Press. (Original work published in 2000)
The Web site’s editor is Jennifer L. Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London and a novelist herself. The list is a work in progress, and anyone can contribute a title.
Lab lit is not science fiction, and in my opinion it’s not historical fiction about actual scientists (though some fictionalized biographies do appear on the list). Instead, in the Web site’s words, it “depicts realistic scientists as central characters and portrays fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic — as opposed to speculative or future — world.”
Popular writers like Carl Djerassi and Michael Crichton join Sinclair Lewis (“Arrowsmith”) as well as Richard Powers, whose brainy novels like “The Gold Bug Variations” and “Galatea. 2.2” have won many awards.
“Flight Behavior” is just one of several recent novels featuring scientists working on the big issues of our time. Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” (2011) takes us into the jungles of the Amazon, where a researcher investigating a promising new fertility drug has gone missing.
The work of a field biologist — one in the employ of a powerful pharmaceutical company — is at the center of the story. The issues of exploitation of natural resources and people, of self-experimentation, of ignoring the incidental discovery of a potentially far more socially important but less lucrative drug, of the consequences of messing with nature combine to form the compelling crux of this book.
Ian McEwan’s “Solar” (2010) gives us Michael Beard, a gluttonous, dishonest, womanizing Nobel-winning physicist, who is behind the development of a new form of photosynthesis that might reverse climate change — and make him very rich. The problem is that the invention is not his — though the inventor is no longer around to dispute the claim (and, in a neat twist, Beard was involved with, but not responsible for, his death).
One of my favorites on the Lab Lit List is Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition” (2006), which deals with fraud in a biotech lab. Ms. Goodman did some of her research in a lab at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, and her portrayal of how questionable results can make it onto the record, despite the good intentions of the scientist involved, was eerily accurate.
“It completely nails this world,” Dr. Jerome Groopman, an oncologist and a professor of medicine at Harvard and the director of a laboratory there, said in a 2006 interview with The New York Times. “It understands the psychology, the dynamics, the processes and pressures that exist in the current culture of science.”
“Mendel’s Dwarf” (1998), by Simon Mawer, an earlier example of lab lit, is about a geneticist, Benedict Lambert, who is not only a dwarf but distantly related to Gregor Mendel. The chapters alternate between Mendel’s little-recognized genius during his lifetime and Lambert’s search, using Mendelian principles, to find the gene for achondroplasia, or dwarfism. The book offers a palatable dose of elementary genetics interspersed with a compelling story, in which once again the scientist is something of an evil genius.
In a 2010 essay in the journal Nature, Dr. Rohn wrote that lab lit is a relatively new concept, dating (with a few exceptions) from the early ’90s. What accounts for this growing field? Is it because we are so awed by the big questions about global climate change, biotechnology, reproductive technology, cosmology and genetics that fiction gives us a more intimate way to confront and contemplate them?
Maybe. But let’s not forget fiction’s inherent capacity to captivate. In “Flight Behavior,” Dellarobia Turnbow discovers the butterflies one drizzly afternoon when in an act of rebellion against her dreary life she sets off to pursue a flirtation. Climbing the timbered hill behind the farm, she comes upon an inexplicable sight. Brown clumps on every tree: like an armadillo, she thinks, but “scaly all over and pointed at the lower end, as if it had gone oozy and might drip.”
And then, Ms. Kingsolver writes, the sun comes out from behind a cloud: “The whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame.” A second shift of cloud, the sun now “passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light.” She is rendered speechless. “No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel.”
Dellarobia’s response is one of awe, of wonder, of almost religious reverence, tinged with dread. What she’s seeing is miraculous and beautiful, but it’s also a premonition of doom.
So too are the emotions evoked in perhaps the earliest example of lab lit, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
In 1812, the 14-year-old Mary was taken by her father to a lecture by Sir Humphry Davy. The subject was chemistry and the nature of creation, writes Richard Holmes in “The Age of Wonder,” his brilliant 2008 book about the cross influences between science and art in the Romantic Age.
“ ‘Frankenstein,’ ” he writes, was “the most singular literary response to the Vitalism debate” — the argument over whether the force that creates life is the same as a spirit, or a soul, or simply chemistry. Dr. Frankenstein succeeds in bringing his inanimate creature to life, but, as Mr. Holmes writes, his soul — or spirit — is “irreparably damaged.” Shelley lays out her profound and unsettling questions with both rapturous lyricism and a visceral punch.Continue reading the main story