the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

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An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

7 Responses

  1. […] yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As […]

    • Very interested to read this! Kirk Smith gave me a favorable review for my novel, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, on his website. He discovered me at http://www.lablit.com and I appreciate his interest in my work.
      It does seem like there is a hunger for compelling fiction by people who understand that science is done by real human beings- with all the possible pitfalls (and joys) that entails. A recent article in the NY Times suggested that the same kind of subjective bias analysis that is being employed in the field of literary criticism would do well to be more widely used in laboratory science. The holy grail of objectivity in experimental design may be more elusive than we know! Which is all to say that more women in the field of science will advance knowledge in ways we might not have predicted…..It’s about much more than equality in the workplace!

  2. Thank you for mentioning my talk last month as well as including my list of recommended novels about science. As “Pops” said, I offered free copies of Pippa Goldschmidt’s novel “The Falling Sky” to the first two people who agreed to write a review that I could post on my blog as guest reviews. I’m pretty sure one of those was “Pops”! In any case, here is the link to his beautifully crafted review: fictionaboutscience.com/guest-post-hank-kastner-reviews-the-falling-sky. As for his comment that all three of my highly recommended novels were written by women and have women as their protagonists, I don’t think there’s necessarily a trend. (It does reflect the cultural shift that has drawn more women into the sciences. But I’ve discovered that most scientists don’t read fiction let alone want to write it, and that includes most of the women I know who are scientists.) There are male scientists who have written novels. For example, I also recommended “Cantor’s Dilemma” by Carl Djerassi and “Meeting at a Far Meridian” by Mitchell Wilson; both have male protagonists. On the other hand, the protagonist of my own first novel, “Vanessa’s Curve of Mind,” is a woman.

    • Hi, Kirk! Nice to have you! Yep, that’s my dad. Thanks for your talk, your thoughts, and your posting of his review.

      What you say makes perfect sense to me, that scientists are rarely writers of fiction – women or men. And it also makes sense to me that if women are more & better represented in the sciences (& the science-related fiction), that’s part of a (positive) general trend. No arguments here. I’m interested in Vanessa’s Curve of Mind, and glad I got to hear about it!

  3. […] review bears on some recent discussions: scientific fiction and scientific nonfiction. Thanks to Kirk Smith at his blog, Fiction About Science, for both […]

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