Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hybrid vigour?

Just reading Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (to be reviewed in Physics World), which is a re-working of the lives of Turing and Godel, labelled as a novel. It set me thinking about all the books which fall somewhere in or near popular science which are hybrids, mixing up fiction and non-fiction. They're so varied it's hard to say what else they have in common - from Gamow's Mr Tomkins to Russell Stannard's children's books to Carl Djerassi's "scientifiction" (ugh) in Menachem's Seed or The Bourbaki Gambit.

But the ones worth looking out for, I reckon, mostly turn out to be proper novels, closely based on historical materials :

Alan Lightman - Einstein's dreams (OK, not a novel)
Clare Dudman - Wegener's Jigsaw (see my review from 2003 here)
John Banville - Dr Copernicus, and Kepler
Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness (about Fitzroy and the Beagle)
Russell McCormach - Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

any more...?

10 Comments:

Blogger Alice said...

So it's a history-fiction mix you like more than science-fiction?

I think there are (some) difference between these. Of the top of my head ...

The genre of historical fiction is certainly larger, with a rather different background than Gamow et al. But then science-historical fiction might be something else again. Interesting historical fiction seems to be more socially acceptable as a way of learning about history in children's literature contexts.

The relationship between the non-fiction element (i.e. science or history) and wider society is different. I think the social role of the experts involved is a key topic.

Plus there are issues about how familar the non-fiction world described is. Science-fiction tends to be rather fantastic as fiction goes, where as historical fiction is more "realistic" (realistic in a literature sense, not phil of sci).

I interviewed Stannard a few weeks back. He said he was woried that the historical fiction bit at the end of the Uncle Albert series might put off child readers. But when he tested the books that it was one of the most popular bits. Stannard had assumed the science content was more interesting than the history, but his readers seemed to like the insight into scientific lives.

Another interesting interview - I was talking to the researcher doing a PhD on the Horrible Histories. She argues that they suggest the possibility of writing your own (or Deary's own) history, rebelling against writings of experts. We decided this was a key difference from the Horrible Science books, where you are more likely to rebel against ways of learning science than the science itself.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Jon Turney said...

I guess I'm thinking of novels which, with a few tweaks, might have turned into non-fiction books. Science fiction - even what you might call didactic science fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson's current climate change trilogy (vol 3 awaited) is more clearly fiction, it seems to me. Yes, I know all history if narrated...

2:30 AM  
Blogger PD Smith said...

Great blog, Jon! Although not a novel, Brecht's Life of Galileo (1938-55) is a fine example of a literary exploration of the history of science, one that the author also saw as contributing to the cold war debate about the proper uses of science. Similarly, Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen (1998) dissects a moment from recent scientific history. He even gave his sources at the end of the printed text! In fiction, there’s Nicholas Mosley's Hopeful Monsters (1990) and Marcel Beyer's disturbing novel The Karnau Tapes (1995), both of which try to understand - in very different ways - the role science has played in the twentieth century.

Strictly speaking, Goethe's Elective Affinities (1809) is not a historical novel. Instead, it subtly engages with contemporary (as well as ancient) chemical ideas. Literature doesn't have to be historical in order to explore science. But that's another story…

By the way one of my all time favourite popularizations of science is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (1975). It stretches the category of 'pop-science' a bit, but all the best books do…

3:11 AM  
Blogger Jon Turney said...

By the way, you can read more about Clare Dudman in her essay in the excellent LabLit site, which I shall link to as soon as In have time to go back into the template.

As for the Periodic Table, Peter, we shall be coming back to that one...

5:13 AM  
Blogger Alice said...

Re: Peter's comment

I was going to suggest Life of Galileo, but thought if you were discounting Lightman for not being a novel... the production of the National (till end of Oct) is great by the way.

5:21 AM  
Blogger JBF said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:20 AM  
Blogger JBF said...

JBF said...
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is one of the best science books ever in that it brought a new understanding of science into the popular imagination, and had enormous impact in the real world. I suppose Galileo's treatise qualifies under the same criteria. I would also vote for Wilson's The Diversity of Life. Do I reveal an Earth Science bias? And how come no one has mentioned Stephen Hawking?

7:21 AM  
Blogger Martin Sherwood said...

An interesting attempt by a mainstream scifi author to "novelise" a scientist's life was James Blish's "Dr Mirabilis". The New York Times in an obituary in 1975, included the following: "Anatole Broyard, reviewing Dr. Mirabilis in The New York Times, remarked that the book, a study of Roger Bacon, the 13th century scientist and philosopher, was based on a massive study of the man, his age, his thought, his books (more than 22 tomes) and the lives and works of his contemporaries Albertus Magnus, the scholastic, and Thomas Aquinas, the philospoher. Mr. Broyard added: "A highly regarded science-fiction writer, the author is a passionate medievalist as well, and this book is obviously a labor of love. If love is not blind, it is at least partial, and Mr. Blish elevates Bacon at the expense of Albertus and Aquinas."


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6:47 AM  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks very much for the mention (and for the very kind review when the book came out). Excellent blog, by the way - I'm adding it to my bloglines.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Jon Turney said...

I forgot to mention that review of Wegener - I'll put a link in to the original post...

3:09 AM  

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