Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels about scientists
It’s National Science Week (15-23 August) here down under and, while science is not my area of expertise, my mind is always opened by the breadth of events and discussions that take place. I don’t, I admit, get to many events, but I do enjoy the increased focus on science on my favourite radio station, ABC Radio National. For example, a program this weekend on the art of (scientific) taxonomy fascinated my librarian-archivist mind!
And then it occurred to me that I could do my own little “program” here – a post on novels featuring scientists. I’m going to mostly avoid the obvious – science fiction, where scientists often abound – and suss out more general fiction. It’s not easy and this is necessarily a selection of course. I’d love to hear of any novels you love about scientists. As always, although my focus here is, by definition, Australian, you can spread your thoughts as widely as you like!
I’m listing the books in the order they were published. I have read them all, but many before I started blogging.
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of wonders (2001) is set in a village in England in the 17th century during the time of the plague. Its main character, a widow and housemaid, learns how to use herbs for medical purposes, after previous owners of the herb garden had been murdered for practising witchcraft. Science, it’s clear, has not always been respected! Another Brooks’ novel, The people of the book, 2008, has as its main character a museum paper conservator, a job which relies heavily on scientific knowledge and principles.
Sue Woolfe’s The secret cure (2003) is set in a hospital science lab. The main character is a cleaning lady, secretly, searching for a cure for her autistic daughter. She, during the course of the book, has to deal with researchers and other scientific professionals, who don’t always show science and scientists in the most positive light as they grapple for fame and recognition. The novel is partly narrated by another worker in the hospital – a repair and maintenance man who, himself, seems to suffer from a form of autism. The novel explores, broadly, what being human means, and is one of the first novels I read about autism/Asperger Syndrome.
Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living (2006) was inspired by Victoria’s Better Farming Train, which, between the Great Depression and the Second World War, traveled through small country towns to provide practical advice of all sorts to farming people. The train’s staff, in the novel, included a nurse and seamstress, a chicken expert, and the scientist Robert Pettigrew, a soil expert with indefatigable faith in value of superphosphates. It was a time when science was seen as the answer to all challenges, but … well, if you haven’t read this, I recommend it to you. It’s a little treasure.
Eva Horning’s Dog boy (2009) (my review) is about a young boy who, after the disappearance of his parents, is taken in by a pack of dogs. It’s a feral child story, and the first part focuses on his experience as a “dog”. He is eventually reintroduced to the human world and becomes a subject of interest for husband-and-wife scientists, psychiatrist Dimitry and paediatrician Natalya, who start to wonder whether, for all that humans “know”, the boy may have been better off with his dog family.
Toni Jordan’s Fall girl (2010) (my review) is a comic novel about Ella Canfield, an evolutionary biologist who seeks funding to prove that the extinct Tasmanian Tiger still exists – except that Dr Canfield is not who she appears. She is in fact a con-artist, trying to snare Daniel Metcalfe, or at least his money! Things don’t though, go as she expected, and various tables, as you might expect, are turned as Jordan spoofs scientific research and grant seeking, among other targets.
Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (2013) (my review) is a romantic comedy about genetics professor Don Tilman and his search for a wife. Genetics plays a role when he puts his “wife project” on hold to help bartender-turned-student Rosie with her “father project”.
Annabel Smith’s The ark (2014) (my review) is a dystopian novel in the relatively new genre of cli-fi. “The Ark” is a seed bank aimed at preserving seeds for the future. Built into a remote mountain-side, it is populated by people selected for their skills, which include of course scientists and technologists. Most of the novel takes place between 2041 an 2043 in a post peak oil crisis world, and explores explores the tensions that develop as power undermines trust in a small community where co-operation is critical to survival. In this case, while science could be seen to be both the cause of and solution to the situation the world has found itself in, for this group science turns out to be the least of their problems, because once again, as in Dog boy, humans find themselves facing some uncomfortable truths about, yes, humans.
Have you noticed that several of these “scientists” are not quite what you’d expect? We have a cleaning lady seeking a cure for her daughter, a housemaid becoming a herbalist during the plague, a con artist pretending to be a scientist to lure a wealthy donor … I will avoid, however, drawing simplistic conclusions from this, and simply ask if you would like to recommend any novels featuring scientists!