Monday musings on Australian literature: Women science fiction writers

This year’s National Science Week finished yesterday, 19 August, but I figured no-one would mind if I wrote a Science-Week-dedicated post a day late. In past years I’ve written Science Week posts on novels about scientists (2015), science-based non-fiction (2015), and science writing (2016). I didn’t write a post last year. So, what to do this one? I’ve decided, given my Australian Women Writers Challenge involvement that I’d share some of Australia’s popular women science fiction writers. This is not, I admit right now, my area of expertise. but I’ll give it a go.

My first challenge is, as you might expect, definition of the genre. Wikipedia lists, in chronological order, over 30 definitions, starting with someone called Hugo Gernsback in 1926. I don’t want to get embroiled in this, and I want, for my purposes here, to take a rather narrow definition. Here are two, in Wikipedia, from well-known science-fiction writers:

  • Isaac Asimov (1990) “‘[H]ard science fiction’ [is] stories that feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution.”
  • Arthur C. Clarke (2000) “Science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen—though you often only wish that it could.”

So, I’m going to focus on women writers who, I believe, write (more or less) within these definitions. I’ll be on thin ground I know, but will welcome debate!

I decided that a good source for me to separate out science fiction from other forms of speculative fiction would be Australia’s Aurealis Awards which offers prizes in specific categories, one being “Science Fiction” (but even there, some of the books overlap into other sub-genres, like dystopian fiction, which I want to leave aside here.) Indeed, the more I looked into “my” topic, the harder I found it to locate relevant authors. It seems, as AWW Challenge Speculative Fiction expert Tsana Dolchiva said in a post for the challenge, “Australia hasn’t been the most fertile ground for science fiction — for whatever reason, the planets didn’t quite align for it the way they did for fantasy.” I wonder why this is? Any ideas? Anyhow, I don’t feel so bad now about the paucity of my knowledge.

Marianne de Pierres, Dark spaceSo, here goes with a few names – all Australian women of course:

  • Cally Black: New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based Black is a new writer in the YA science fiction arena. Her debut novel, In the dark spaces, won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel. It is a sci-fi thriller about a 14-year-old orphan who is taken in by her aunt who happens to be a cook on a space freighter.
  • Amanda Bridgeman: The Western Australian-based Bridgeman has, so far, written the Aurora space opera series, and an apocalyptic novel, The time of stripes. The Aurora series comprises 6 books set in and around a spaceship named “Aurora”. The third in the series, Aurora: Meridian, was nominated for an Aurealis Award.
  • Marianne de Pierres: Tsana writes that you “can’t talk about science fiction in Australia without mentioning Marianne de Pierres” which makes sense to me because even I have heard of her! De Pierres writes across a wide range of speculative fiction genres, including in this more “pure” science fiction area that I’m focusing on here. An example is her space opera series, the Sentients of Orion. Its four books – Dark space, Chaos space, Mirror space and Transformation space – were all shortlisted for Aurealis Awards, with the last one winning Best Science Fiction Novel in 2010. The novels are set on an “arid mining planet” called Araldis. She lives in Brisbane, and writes crime under a different name, Marianne Delacourt.
  • Anna Hackett: Hackett is, her website says, a USA Today bestselling author, but she grew up in Western Australia and describes her childhood as “running around in the sunny weather, chasing my brother and turning my mother’s outdoor furniture into spaceships.” She writes action romance, some of which take us into space, such as her Galactic Gladiators series.
  • Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff, IlluminaeAmie Kaufman: Tsana describes Kaufman as “one of the most notable Australian authors writing science fiction today”. She is, her website says, “a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy for young (and not so young) adults.” She seems to mostly write collaboratively. Her debut novel, These broken stars, was co-authored with US writer Meagan Spooner, as is her latest book published this year, Unearthed. It’s novel is about an alien culture that has advanced technology which may be able to undo environmental damage. She has also collaborated with Australian writer Jay Kristoff, such as on their YA series, the Illuminae Files. The first in the series, Illuminae, is set in 2575 and “two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe.”

So, that’s five, and, until today, I’d only heard of one of them. So many genres, so many authors. I tried to see if I could identify any consistent themes running through these books, but I don’t think there are – not, at least, the way there are in the dystopian sub-genre. It does, though, seem that more writing is happening in the YA area than specifically for adults, which is interesting.

But now, have you read these authors – or, if not, who are your favourite sci-fi authors?

(PS I might explore other speculative fiction genres in future National Science Week posts.)

The Griffyns inspire us in Science Week

Griffyn Ensemble One Sky Many StoriesIt’s been two years since I last wrote about the Griffyn Ensemble. In that post I reported that they were not returning with their usual season in 2017. Wah, I wrote. They did, in fact, perform in 2017 – presenting a special Music Festival – but I didn’t write that up, because I was unwell and barely made the concerts. They’ve returned again this year, this time with a concert designed to coincide with National Science Week. And what a concert it was, because it was much more than “just” a science inspired concert. As you’d expect.

One Sky, Many Stories

Now, when the Griffyns “do” science, more likely than not it will involve astronomy. They have collaborated with composers and scientists in the past to create programs focused on the skies. In 2012 and 2013 they performed Estonian composer Umas Sisask’s Southern Sky composition, which he created in the 1990s after visiting Australia, and in which he incorporated his response to indigenous Australians’ ideas about astronomy. Those Griffyn performances included astronomer and science communicator Fred Watson introducing each movement, describing the constellations and stars referenced by the music. In 2015, they presented director Michael Sollis’ response to Sisask’s work, Northern Lights, which he composed after visiting the Northern Lights on a tour with the aforementioned Fred Watson.

And now, three years later, they’ve produced a new show titled One Sky, Many Stories. To create it, Michael Sollis and past-Griffyn Wyana O’Keeffe went to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory to work with indigenous performer-composer Warren H Williams and other local musicians. Their aim was “to discover and create some more stories and songs about the stars” and the end result was last night’s event which combined “music, film, and astronomy to explore Western and indigenous conceptions of the night sky.” The music combined a selection of reworked movements from Sisask’s “Southern Sky” with new pieces composed by Warren Williams and themselves. Once again, Fred Watson was present to guide us through the program, linking the music to the science and the stories.

There was no printed program so I don’t have a list of the pieces played, but the music was eclectic in style, which is a hallmark of Griffyn concerts. You never know what you are going to get. In this show, ballads, jigs and country-rock style pieces were interspersed with new chamber music. I was impressed by how well soprano Susan Ellis’ classically trained voice blended with Warren Williams’ more country-music-mellow style. In some pieces, the versatile Ellis backed Williams’ words with haunting, mystical sounds, but on one occasion she sang a “Southern Sky” piece in its original Eesti while Williams sang his part in Western Arrernte. (I must say I love that we are more frequently hearing indigenous languages spoken/sung these days.)

Wyana O’Keeffe’s percussion playing – on a range of instruments from vibraphone to hand-struck wooden drum (a cajon?) – drove much of the concert. It was clear she loved being involved in the project. It’s one of the great things about Griffyn Ensemble performances, in fact, the enthusiasm with which they share their music and engage with their audience – and the way they balance serious musicianship with a more relaxed informality.

Culture meets science

But it was about more than music. It was about ideas, and how we think about the stars, ourselves and the universe. And so, interspersed with the music were Fred Watson’s introductions – to the various constellations represented in the music, including Sagittarius, Oktans and Reticulum – and video clips of Tennant Creek residents from all ages and various cultural backgrounds speaking about what sky and stars mean to them. Some of these meanings were philosophical or spiritual, some wishful, and some self-deprecatingly humorous. They were an engaging, but also integral, part of the whole: they encouraged us, the audience, to consider our own responses to the sky and stars and conveyed the diversity of responses different people and cultures have. It was unfortunate, however, that we couldn’t always hear all the words (perhaps due to the room’s acoustics.)

Anyhow, I loved one person’s story that he had always believed he heard the stars twinkling until he was told it was the crickets! Other people talked about stars representing people who passed away, and another how separated lovers use stars to feel together across space. Some talked about how the sky informs them about bush tucker and the seasons. And some struggled, like I would, to find the words to explain exactly how they felt. One lad got quite mixed up with his stars and galaxies and constellations and how they all fitted togehter and decided that they were all just “one big dimensional plane.” I felt his pain!

But, check out this YouTube teaser. It will tell you more than my words ever could.

It was a different line-up from the usual Griffyn Ensemble, as you’ll see in the list at the end of the post, but the combination resulted in an engaging, sometimes toe-tapping, concert that entertained while also giving us plenty to think about. I liked the idea suggested by Fred Watson near the end that maybe not everything’s measurable, that the point may be less about what happens to the universe and more about the universe happening to us.

The concert ended with us, the audience members, being invited to pin our own written wishes-upon-a-star onto Comet Bryn Leon (named for Michael and Kiri Sollis’ brand new baby boy) on the wall. I do hope they share those wishes on their website sometime in the future – perhaps when they are no longer waking up through the night sharing the stars with Bryn!

Meanwhile, a big thanks to Michael Sollis and the Griffyns for their ongoing commitment – and contribution – to the Canberra music scene. They are to be treasured.

Griffyn Ensemble (and Friends): Michael Sollis (director and mandolin), Susan Ellis (soprano), past member Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion), Alex Castle (flute, filling in for Kiri Sollis who had just had a baby), with special guests Warren H. Williams (keyboard, guitar and voice), Rachel Pelser (electric guitar), and Fred Watson (astronomer).

Monday musings on Australian literature: Science writing

If you’ve read my last post on the Griffyn Ensemble, you’ll know it is National Science Week here in Australia (13-21 August). Last year I wrote two Monday Musings for the week, one on novels featuring scientists, and the other on non-fiction science books. This year I thought I would write a little about science writing in general. Remember, though, this is not my area of expertise, so it will be a serendipitous post of bits and pieces.

Stephen Sarre, the scientist who inspired the Griffyn Ensemble’s concert, said about it

What I like about what Michael [Sollis] is doing is that he’s mixing science with art. He’s converting a scientific finding into a performance. It’s so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful.

Scientists in other words are keen to get their work known – and it is important. Not only does public interest, belief and support help them obtain funding, but we are of course the beneficiaries of their work. It’s useful for us to know, understand and be able to engage intelligently in what they are doing. Climate change, cancer cures, new light but strong building materials, and so on, all impact our lives.

Test Tubes

Test Tubes (Courtesy OCAL via

So, who is out there communicating science to us? Science journalists, for a start, but here in Australia we have a non-profit group called Australian Science Communicators (ASC). It was established in 1994 and its members include “scientists, teachers, journalists, writers, entertainers, students and other communicators who engage Australians (and people overseas) with science, technology and innovation”. A wide church in other words.

In this group, somewhere, are, yes, bloggers, and ASC’s website lists Australian science blogs. There are over 50 of them covering various interests such as “general science”, “climate science”, and “ecology”. I haven’t heard of ONE of them so I dipped in:

  • Espresso Science, written by Jenny Martin, a Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at Melbourne’s 102.7 FM Triple R community radio. She hopes her “shots of science” will be as addictive as coffee. Her most recent post (10th August) is about memory, not about our usual concern with maintaining memory but about the way we make up memory or remember “what never happened”!
  • Paperbark Writer (love this name), described as Australian nature meeting science and art, and written by Paula Peters. She has a PhD in ecology and has worked in environmental agencies. On her about page she gives a passionate explanation for why she does what she does. The latest post (13th August) on her blog is about a program she did for Gympie National Gallery. Gympie is where I turned 5 – the first birthday I really remember.
  • Science Book a Day, “put together by George Aranda” who runs a science book club in Melbourne. Describing himself as a “science communicator” he says his aim is “to engage people in science via books”. Science, he argues, “isn’t about being told by scientists that ‘this is science’ but for people to build an understanding and engagement with science in their own way”. There are “10 great” posts, such as “10 great books about agriculture” and “10 great books on women in science”. And, of course, there are posts about individual books, the latest being (14 August) for the science fiction book, Peter Watts’ Blindsight.

Three’s enough to give you a flavour. You can click on the link above if you’d like to explore what looks like a pretty vibrant community. Some of the blogs are by “professional” scientists and some by enthusiasts, some aren’t recently active, but many are.

William Lawrence Bragg

(William) Lawrence Bragg, 1915, Public domain, courtesy Nobel foundation, via Wikimedia Commons

I also discovered in my research that there is a National Science Prize, named the Bragg UNSW Press Prize in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates, physicists William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg. The prize is for short pieces, up to 7000 words, of “non-fiction written for a non-specialist audience by a single author” and published in the previous year. Entries can include extracts from longer published works, including books but not from academic theses or conference papers. The winners are included in the university’s annual Best science writing anthology. The 2015 edition is my next reading group book so you’ll be hearing more on this one.

Previous winners of the prize include science journalist Christine Keneally, who won the 2015 Stella Prize with her book The invisible history of the human race; award-winning free-lance journalist Jo Chandler; and astronomer Fred Watson, about whom I have written before due to his involvement in Griffyn Ensemble concerts.

This isn’t the only science writing prize. There is also the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism which is sponsored by the Australian government and is “awarded to an Australian journalist or journalist team whose work is assessed as having most effectively communicated scientific or technological issues to the public”. It is part of a larger swag of science awards in different areas of science, and the list of winners and finalists names individuals or groups rather than specific journalistic works. For example, in 2014, the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Science Journalism was Sonya Pemberton of Genepool Productions, a television/documentarty production company. Their program Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines apparently broke SBS records in 2013.

If you are interested in Australian science writing, Wikipedia has a category for Australian science writers. It’s not very extensive – Jo Chandler, for example, isn’t there, though she’s clearly a respected journalist – but is worth checking out.

In her introduction to Best Australian science writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady (whose The end I’ve reviewed here) wrote:

What a fabulous job it is to write about science. We get to gatecrash laboratories, hospitals, field sites, boardrooms, workshops, expeditions and zoos; peering over shoulders, pointing at complex bits of science and asking, ‘so, what does that do?’

She is active in the field of science writing and last year convened a panel which explored what she called “the knotty question of the intersection between science communication and science journalism”. Are they inclusive, or breeds apart? You can listen to the whole discussion at the link I’ve provided. As in other fields, social media is shaking up the field of science writing it seems. Nogrady’s view is that science communication (in its wider meaning) will continue but that the now-all-too-familiar challenge will be to sift the gold from the dross. I loved discovering another whole area of writing where passion is so evident.

I’ll conclude by returning to the University of New South Wales, home of the Bragg Prize and the annual science writing anthology. They say:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

Have you read much science writing? If so, what have you read, and what has made it worthwhile (or not) for you?

The Griffyns do it!

By “do it” I mean, yes, “it”, that is “sex”, but I don’t mean they literally did it. They can be cheeky at times, but not that cheeky. No, the sex we’re talking about here is strictly reptilian. Let me explain …

The Griffyn Ensemble’s second concert for 2016 was designed to align with National Science Week (as they’ve done before, as in their 2014 Do you believe concert? ). Titled Sex and Dragons, this one came about, said artistic director Michael Sollis to The Canberra Times

 … when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons … At first I didn’t think it would really work as a program but then I thought that evolution is very like telling a story and that a sequence of base genes is like the notes in a musical scale.

Water Dragon

Water Dragon (not the Bearded Dragon, but closely related!)

And so was born a concert which explored the sex determination of the Australian (Central) Bearded Dragon. Now, if a musical concert inspired by and, in fact, teaching about sex determination in reptiles sounds like an impossibility to you, you don’t know the Griffyns. This was one of their multimedia concerts: it combined a musical program (of course) with video footage of reptiles and interviews with scientists from the University of Canberra (UC) about their “cutting edge research into the genomes of reptiles”. This includes exploring how high temperatures cause sex reversal in the embryos of the bearded dragon. What does all this mean – for the dragon, for us, for the world in fact?

So, what do you know about the ZW sex-determination system? No, not XY, but ZW. I knew nothing, but now I understand, at least, how much more complicated reproduction and sex determination is than I had realised. Throughout the program, interspersed with music, several UC scientists explained their passion for dragons and for the research they are undertaking, research which expands our understanding of how sex is determined. As they described their research, they also provided insight into the scientific research process – how you often find what you expect to find, but also about how “the more you look the more you see”. The exciting thing about this research is not just that the sex chromosome can be overwritten by temperature but that this happens in the wild. Scientists have been able to create sex-reversal in amphibians in the laboratory but in the dragons this happens naturally in the wild, which means that what they are doing has real relevance in nature. I can understand why that is exciting!

But, it wasn’t all science. There was music, and Michael Sollis, in addition to doing the interviews and filming the videos, devised a musical program that offered an often humorous or whimsical – but also serious – commentary on the science.

The program started with most of the ensemble performing Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5”, a “counting song” which conveyed the codification aspect of the scientists’ work, particularly in relation to mapping genomes. This more formal “scientific” song was followed by one reflecting on the human implications of sex-determination and sex-reversal, The Kinks’ hit “Lola”! It was sung by Susan Ellis with a thoughtful expressiveness that balanced humour with something more sensitive and poignant.

As the scientists “took” us into their dragon laboratory, and with footage showing what “characters” these dragons can be, clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe played Ross Edwards’ “Binyang” accompanied by Wyana O’Keeffe on clapping stick, providing an evocative Australian desert setting for our bearded dragons. I do enjoy Ross Edwards, and Matthew and Wyana did him proud.

The central – and longest – piece of the concert was another Australian composition, “Snark-hunting” by Marth Wesley-Smith, using percussion, flutes, double bass, and keyboard. Again, it combined seriousness with, in referencing an imaginary animal, a touch of humour. Arranged by Sollis, it was wrapped around more scientist interviews and delightful dragon footage.

Which is the rooster/which is the hen? (Leslie/Monaco)

And so the scientific narrative and musical journey continued. We learnt about sex-reversed animals and how their insides don’t match their outsides, how at high temperatures all dragon embryos become female and, most fascinating, that the sex-reversed female dragons are the most bold. Bolder than the shy “natural” females and bolder too than the males! But, sex-reversed females, who are also more fertile, don’t have the female chromosome so cannot produce female offspring. We also heard how the Y-chromosome is losing its genes and that in certain spiny rat species the sex-determining gene has already moved! There was also talk of a “loving” gene, and the fact that the female relatives of gay men, we’re talking humans now, have significantly more children than other women. In other words, this research into sex-genes, and how they work, has a long way to go.

Somewhere here, a whimsical little music box played “when you wish upon a star”. What a cheeky little insert that was.

Back to the music, the snark piece was followed by Sollis’ clever “Bearded dragon” which represents, musically, the secret genome code the scientists are developing. The number sequence is embedded accurately in the work Sollis said and could be decoded if you had the skills!

The next three pieces of the program were an eclectic mix, starting with the amusingly appropriate jug band piece, “Masculine women, feminine men”, led with classy aplomb by Susan Ellis. (Quite a different look to the YouTube version I found below!). This was followed by two quieter, more reflective pieces, by American composer David Lang – “lend/lease”, featuring Kiri Sollis on her favourite piccolo and Wyana O’Keeffe on percussion, and the soulful “you will return” from “death speaks” with Susan Ellis.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Bowie)

What does all this mean, the BBC apparently asked our scientists? Well, for a start, it simply increases our understanding of chromosomes, reproduction and sex-determination. Each piece of evidence changes our knowledge. A scientist’s job, in fact, is to be ready to change their views on the basis of new evidence.

And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out. Dragons have experienced climate change before, and are still here, but this human-induced change is faster. Will they survive this one? Then again, their evolutionary response is comparatively rapid, so … The questions are many as you can see.

The concert ended with the ensemble performing David Bowie’s “Changes” interspersed with a little more counting, nicely bringing together science and emotion to conclude what was a satisfyingly coherent and tightly performed show. “Time may change me,” wrote David Bowie, “but I can’t trace time”! True, but we sure can enjoy beautifully performed, entertaining, provocative concerts like this with the time we have.

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Founding members Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute).

Monday musings on Australian literature: Science-based non-fiction

National Science Week, which inspired last week’s post, finished yesterday, but I decided to extend it a day by writing a post on Australian non-fiction on science subjects. I’ll focus of course on works created for general readers, not academic works. Unlike last week’s list, I haven’t read all the books I list here. Given the surge in general science publishing in the last decade or so, I bet you all have favourites – including of course non-Australian books. I look forward to hearing about them.

Science is a rather broad church, and I’m interpreting it broadly, so this is an eclectic list. As last week, the books are listed in order of publication

Margaret Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ trousers: God, physics and the gender wars (1995) is a book I read with my reading group, though my memory tells me I didn’t finish it! My excuse, as I recollect, is that it was a busy time. Wertheim is an Australian science writer who has lived for some time now, I believe, in the USA. In this book she argues that physics has, traditionally/historically been associated with God. Stephen Hawking and Einstein, she says, both invoke God in their writing. She develops this argument further to suggest that “the priestly culture of physics” has worked as a barrier to women entering the field. This book is now 20 years old. If she was right then, is she still now? I’m not sure about the religion aspect, but gender imbalance is still an issue in many sciences (though not, interestingly, in medicine!)

Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: The history and future impact of climate change (2005) is a book I should have read, particularly as I have it in my TBR pile. It won a New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize for Critical Writing. Flannery is probably Australia’s best known and most prolific scientist-writer. Trained as a palaeontologist, he now uses his science to support his role these days as an environmentalist and climate change activist. For a list of his writing, which includes his quarterly essay on extinction that I have reviewed, check out his Wikipedia page.

Mohammed Khadra’s Making the Cut: A Surgeon’s Stories Of Life On The Edge (2009) is the memoir of a urologist. I read it just before I started blogging. Like many science-based books for a general market, this book is not so much about the science of medicine as about ethics and politics. It provides a fascinating insight into the tough life of medical students. I loved Khadra’s discussion of how he arrived at his choice of speciality. Khadra believes that surgeons must understand humankind and that one of best ways to teach this is through poetry! Every chapter in the book starts with a poem, just as his surgical tutorials, when he was Professor of Surgery, ended with poetry.

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverBianca Nogrady’s The end: The human experience of death (2013) (my review) looks at death from every conceivable angle – medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. One of the most intriguing discussions – from a medical and ethical review – in the book concerns defining death. It’s not as easy as it might first appear! Nogrady is an Australian science journalist, and in this book she treads a fine line between expert opinion and anecdote, not letting either run away with the book to the detriment of the other. The anecdotes breathe life into the book, while the experts bring us back to earth!

Fred Watson’s Star-craving mad (2013) was described by the Sun Herald reviewer as “a lighthearted romp through the cosmos … [which] tackles the big questions about our place in the universe without ever being pompous, condescending, boring or baffling”. I haven’t read this book, but I included it because I have heard Watson, live, most recently at this weekend’s Griffyn Solo concert focussing on Urmas Sisask’s astronomy-inspired music. Watson is an astronomer who is well recognised as a communicator, winning, in 2006, the Australian Government’s Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science.

Christine Kenneally’s The invisible history of the human race (2014) was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. Kenneally, a science journalist, draws on scientific research into genetics and DNA to explore who we are, where we’ve come from and where we might be going. Little questions like that. I haven’t read it, but some bloggers I respect (Resident Judge and Adventures in Biography) have, and loved it for its lucid presentation of complex ideas. I really should read it.

If you’re Australian, did you take part in any Science Week activities, like perhaps the Stargazing World Record event? And, if you’re not (or even if you are), do you have any non-fiction books about scientific matters that you’d like to recommend?

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.

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!