Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Fiction with science that isn't science fiction

The title of this post sounds like a tongue twister, but that's not the intention. I've just read a novel with science at its heart that claims not to be science fiction. It's Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn.

It's kind of a romance, with a dark subplot, taking place in a laboratory setting. There's lots of realistic sounding science, and as far as I can gather (never having been a practising scientist) a strong sense of the atmosphere in a real lab. (If this is the case, I'd hate to work in a lab as they always seem to have a CD on, and I can't concentrate with music playing.)

It was a delight, as is often the case when I read a book of a kind I wouldn't normally pick up. Although to begin with not much happens, it's written well enough that you are sucked into the story and want to know more. Later on, things get positively page turning as the plot thickens.

But what of Lab Lit, the term Dr Rohn gives to this style of book? Does it work as a genre? I didn't find the quite heavy dose of scientific content to the story a problem, even though once or twice I lost track of the different biological labels. (To be fair, Richard Feynman complained of the same problem with biology, so I'm in distinguished company.) Rather it enriched it.

The only problem I had with the scientific content is that it was almost too real. In normal science fiction, I just assume all the science is made up. Here, because it was so close to reality, I wanted to know which bits were real and which were fictional constructs. It would have been really nice to have had a postscript for geeky readers that made it clear which bits were real science.

The other small problem I have is with the division between lab lit and science fiction. As a long time science fiction fan, I know that quality science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) isn't necessarily about spaceships and monsters - it's about how real human beings react in the face of some difference from normal life that comes out of science, and as such I would humbly suggest that lab lit is a sub-genre of science fiction.

Whether or not you agree - I'm sure Jenny Rohn wouldn't! - what is certain is that this is a fascinating, very readable novel. Knowing the author is American, it was interesting to compare it with Elizabeth George's detective novels featuring Inspector Lynley. In those, the American author always manages to get something not quite right about the UK, but Dr Rohn kept it spot on. What can I say? Get a copy!

8 comments:

  1. Where I did my PhD they didn't have a CD on, they had Radio 1 all day. In my more subversive moments when I was cutting up leaves, I would change it to Radio 3.

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  2. It doesn't matter what style, Bob, I just can't do anything more than pure mechanical work (gardening, say) with music on. It would drive me bananas!

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  3. Thank you for this review, BC; now, I want to read JR's book even more. Love the title, especially, already, it's so . . . appropriate; and, speaking of appropriacity, while I tippy-tap, I listen to your voice and manage to put a sentence together without bonkeritis; so, I must add, with all due respect, I can stand anything in the background while writing, working, walking, talking, and chewing food for thoughts. HOWEVER, when I am in the middle of the doing *it*? I cannot bear music nor anything in the background, not even the dog snuffling. Why? Because, as McLuhan said, listening to radio, CDs, et so forthia requires more inolvement than watching TV (which I don't own) and, invariably, when I am having *fun*, I can't concentrate on the act under hand if I am hearing something engaging (unless it's sweet beggings in my ear).

    That said, as the poet-in-residence at Books, Inq., I hereby declare your wonderful "N-N-Night Before Christmas" a group masterpiece. None genuine with this seal of official approval. Thank you all for making this the highlight of one Canuck's festive season. I laughed, tears streamed, I smile through dreams, now (and, it's all your fault).

    Salut!
    --
    http://booksinq.blogspot.com

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  4. Thanks, Judith, you are very kind (and I do wholeheartedly recommend Jenny's book).

    For anyone who missed 'Twas the night before Christmas/and all through the lab' see http://network.nature.com/people/brianclegg/blog/2008/12/10/get-poetical-now for the gory details of a poem of sorts coming together in a (mostly) democratic fashion.

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  5. Just visiting via Nature Network... thanks for the review. I'd been thinking of picking up Jennifer's book (to be polite) and am now thinking of it more (since you've reviewed it favourably).

    Blogger's verification word for this comment is 'astroarb', which seems appropriate for your blog somehow. I think.

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  6. Brian,
    What a terrific review. I want to check this book out. As for the music in the background - can't do it. I have a tendency to dance, or just boogy in my chair when I hear good music. It works when I paint, but not when I write. ;-D

    Frances Drake

    Writing Science Fiction Romance
    Real Love in a Real Future
    http://frances-writes.blogspot.com/

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  7. I wish you'd put your review on Librarything and sign up as an LT author.
    You know I'm as keen on that site as I am on yours so some crossover is what creativity is all about - the linking of two previously unlinked items or thoughts....

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  8. I have toyed with it - I signed up ages ago and then forgot about it. Having a quick look now, I have a message from LT encouraging me to be an LT author, but apparently I have to list 50 books before I can do this. It's a bit of a faff!

    If I get some time, I'll try to get it done.

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