To my imaginary (!) readers: During the past two weeks I have been putting the finishing touches on and completing the final editing of a review that has just begun to appear on the Lab Lit website. It should be of interest to anyone who follows my blog and especially to serious readers who are interested in the image of scientists in fiction. (I promise that the comments on significant themes in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mar Trilogy will eventually appear.)
From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of Scientists in Western Literature by Roslynn D. Haynes is a monumental work of literary scholarship and history. Although it is written for an academic audience, the book is quite readable. It is thorough and detailed. Her bibliography lists almost 500 (!) works of fiction and poetry that contain at least one character who is a scientist. The publication dates span more than five centuries ending with titles published in the 1970s. Radio plays and movies are also included.
I have been working on a review of this very important work of literary history and criticism for the last year and a half. Surprisingly, I first came across a reference to it almost by accident. What is now appearing on lablit.com is a three-part review, each part longer than my usual blog posts. It began life as a short review for this blog not long after I finished reading the book the first time. It was to be a brief overview mentioning several well-know titles as examples and a few significant points Haynes makes about how the image of science and scientists in fiction reflects the attitudes of the general public toward science. Like my work on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, it kept growing as I re-read Haynes’s work looking for the best examples.
I think the book is pivotally important to readers interested in how serious nonscientist readers perceive science seen through the lens of fiction as well as poetry, plays and movies. If you have found my search for fiction about science interesting, you will want to read a definitive study of the subject. Haynes also changed my view of the science-fiction genre. When I began my search for novels about realistic scientists doing realistic science, science-fiction seemed a poor place to look based on most of the novels I had read. That bias was due in part to the fact that I hadn’t read some of the early classics of the genre, especially H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle. (Oh yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes also entertained his fans with the adventures of a biologist named George Edward Challenger.)
What I didn’t know was that almost all the early science-fiction novels had scientists as protagonists, and many of the latter were heroic figures. If anything, a few were just plain unbelievable: brilliant men of science (and yes, they were all men) with extraordinary leadership skills, courageous to a fault and almost saintly in their commitment to the right and the good. It was only later that science fiction became, in Haynes’s engaging words, “…space cowboys slaying galactic Indians,” And rarely was there a scientist on either side of the conflict; when there was he was almost never realistic. (Sadly, genre sci-fi also became the exclusive domain of men, with women adding romantic, or prurient, color.
A couple of personal comments: First, it was in Haynes’s book that I found a reference to Shevek in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which prompted me to re-read this classic and write a comment about it for this blog. Second, Haynes also mentioned a seventeenth century novel, which may well lay claim to being the very first science fiction novel. The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666) was not only written by a woman but also has a woman protagonist. She is not a scientist, however; they are all animal people, e.g., Bird-men, Fish-men, Bear-men, etc. You can read more about the story in the current installment of my review, and more about the history of lab lit in future installments.