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Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels about scientists

August 17, 2015

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.

Jordan Fall Girl

Fall girl cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

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. The arkAnnabel 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!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2015 11:57 pm

    LOL #bragging This doesn’t often happen to me when I come across your reading suggestions, because I more often end up adding more and more to my TBR and wishlist – but I’ve read every one of those!

    • August 29, 2015 10:19 am

      Haha, Lisa — that’s a relief sometimes isn’t it! I was surprised to find I’d read that many too about scientists!

  2. August 18, 2015 6:06 am

    One very good book about science and scientists that needs mentioning is Dorothy Johnston’s Maralinga My Love. Digging, too, has a scientist – an archaeologist.

  3. August 18, 2015 7:24 am

    Wot a super list ! I wish I could contribute to it, Sue; but unless you can accept Merlin as a scientist ( ! ), I may not mention T.H. White or Mary Renault. [grin]

    • August 18, 2015 8:17 am

      You can define scientist any way you like M-R, we’re a broad church here!

      • August 18, 2015 5:04 pm

        OK, what did YOU think of “The Crystal Cave” quadrilogy ?

        • August 18, 2015 5:42 pm

          What Crystal Cave quadrilogy, she asks ignorantly? I’ve never heard of these, I’m afraid.

        • August 19, 2015 7:55 am

          My brain broke: I meant Mary Stewart ! “The Crystal Cave”, “The Hollow Hills”, “The Last Enchantment” and “The Wicked Day”. Apparently there’s a fifth, but I haven’t read it. These are books for dreamers.

        • August 19, 2015 9:19 am

          Your poor brain! I never read Mary Stewart. When my friends read her I was reading Nevil Shute, a South African writer Joy Packer, and of course my Jane. My friends loved Stewart though I recollect.

        • August 19, 2015 10:09 am

          It breaks so frequently that I’m almost inured to it …

        • August 19, 2015 10:16 am

          I haven’t noticed! 🙂

  4. August 18, 2015 5:07 pm

    Strew the you’ve set us what Sherlock would have called a three pipe problem. I’m stumped of o can think of any beyond the world of science fiction.

    • August 18, 2015 5:45 pm

      Haha Karen … keep thinking. Surely you’ll find one? Hmm, a non-Australian one just occurred to me … Jim Crace’s Being dead. The two dead people were zoologists, as I recollect?

  5. sharkell permalink
    August 18, 2015 7:13 pm

    Ann Patchett – State of Wonder is about a female scientist living and undertaking research in the Amazon rainforest. We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler about scientific research into chimpanzees.

    • August 18, 2015 10:11 pm

      Thanks Sharkell. I haven’t read either of those. I’d like to read the Fowler.

  6. August 20, 2015 12:59 pm

    I’ve scanned my shelves. Lots of SF including all those polite English ones with Oxbridge scientist heroes, a shelf of history and philosophy of science, no Aussies there. Fermat’s Last Theorem in the TBR, and at last a contender, Nikki Gemmell’s Shiver about a young woman living in the scientific community on Antarctica.

    • August 21, 2015 7:55 am

      Haha Bill, love it! Ah yes, Shiver. I’d forgotten it. I’ve given that book as a gift but haven’t read it myself. Should I assume you have? And if so, what did you think of it?

      • August 21, 2015 11:24 am

        I read Shiver years ago, only peripherally about scientists probably, but like Gemmell’s work.
        Another contender popped into my head while swimming yesterday, the movie The Dish. And now another, Young Einstein (great music! Can’t remember the plot)

        • August 21, 2015 5:59 pm

          Well, yes, Bill, movies too … there are quite a lot of them I think. I do love The Dish. It captures the era so beautifully. And yes, of course, the scientists.

  7. August 20, 2015 1:23 pm

    I wanted to thank Sara for the mention. It was strange, coming across a reference to my Maralinga novel, because I’ve recently sent off a heap of research notes to an author writing another non-fiction book on the subject of the British atomic bomb tests in Australia. The British, and most of the Australian scientists at the time, (and in my novel), were apologists for the tests, which makes me think about the interplay between science and politics, surely a relevant topic today!

    No one has yet mentioned crime novels which centre on scientists and research labs. ‘Death of an Expert Witness’ by PD James is pretty good, I think.

    • August 21, 2015 7:56 am

      Thanks Dorothy. Yes good point re science and politics. Science is frequently controversial – politically and ethically – isn’t it … either at the time of its work and/or after. Now we have climate change, stem cell research, nuclear energy, and so on. Great grists, can you have grists?, for the novelist’s mill.

      And yes, while I didn’t want to get caught up in genres frequented by scientist characters, like science fiction, I should have mentioned crime novels and all those forensic scientists of various disciplines, so thanks for that.

  8. August 21, 2015 1:37 pm

    I am currently rereading Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Trilogy”, which is set in the 17th Century, when Natural Philosophy was wildly popular – an English scientific renaissance of sorts. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz are peripheral characters. The trilogy is pretty typical of Stephenson’s books and expresses his interest in the History of Science, Financial Systems, Cyphers and Computers etc.

    His most recent novel “Seveneves” is set on a Space Station after Earth has been destroyed by a natural disaster (the moon exploding). He is great at explaining complex technology in simple terms. You always learn something from his novels

    • August 21, 2015 6:01 pm

      Thanks Anne. I haven’t read Stephenson, but I hear lots of good things about him. Thanks … making cyphers and computers understandable sounds like a good skill to have!

  9. August 21, 2015 5:53 pm

    Sorry to be so late to the party but my favourite literary scientist is Dr Stephen Maturin, from Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. They are the only books I reread (re reread and reread…). Not an Australian author, but in one of the 20 books our heroes do stop in at Sydney and Stephen nearly dies from the venomous spur of a platypus.

    Australian literary scientists that come to mind include the eponymous Lieutenant in Kate Grenville’s prequel to the Secret River, who is based on the real life William Dawes. I’ve not read Mr Darwin’s Shooter but I presume Mr Darwin gets a mention and apparently he knew a thing or two about science. Can’t think of any Australian female scientist characters, but US novel The Signature of All Things features one. And wasn’t there a fictionalised account of female fossil hunters from the nineteenth century?

    But my favourite fictional Australian scientist is the one in the children’s story book The Bunyip of Berkely’s Creek, who tells the bunyip that bunyips don’t exist. Best picture book ever!

    • August 21, 2015 6:07 pm

      Great suggestions Michelle. I was trying to think of a novel about botanists in Australia. I’m sure there must be one, but yes The lieutenant is a good example of an novel about a colonial scientist. Dang it, I should have remembered that. I haven’t read Mr Darwin’s shooter either but surely he does get a mention!

      Yes, there was a fictional account of the 19th century fossil hunter – Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable creatures. I would have mentioned that if my post hadn’t been Australian-focused. It’s not a remarkable book, literature wise, but I did enjoy the story and the issue about women scientists being so ignored.

      And yes, The bunyip of Berkely’s Creek. Good one.

  10. September 3, 2015 1:55 am

    Nice list! I am currently at a loss to add anything to it that is not science fiction.

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