In an earlier post, I promised to review some of the novels on the Lab Lit List that I’ve enjoyed and think are worth reading but don’t address what I see as a gaping hole in the portrayal of both science and scientists in fiction. I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf (Harmony Books, 1998) in March of 2012, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (This is the review I wrote at the time.)
Benedict Lambert, the central character and narrator, is one of those fascinating characters that I would love to have as an academic colleague. He’s a leading geneticist, an achondroplasic dwarf, and the great-great-great-nephew of Gregor Mendel. His research is focused on finding the gene for his own condition.
A biography of Mendel is quite effectively woven into the texture of a contemporary love story. I emerged with a brand new perspective on the Bohemian friar who invented genetics more than a century before the science itself was born. Mendel is a wonderful foil, because he appears to have a personality about as different from Benedict as you can imagine, but he shares a scientist’s devotion to the patient search for knowledge. The two story lines touch at many points as Benedict explores his family’s history and, on a trip to participate in an international genetics conference, revisits the Konigkloster in Brno where Mendel grew his pea plants.
While the book is entertaining and absorbing, it breaks several “rules” for what “makes fiction sell.” I’ve been told repeatedly that no one will read a novel that contains diagrams, tables of numbers or, worst of all, a figure — for example, an image from an ultraviolet reader — the sort of things scientists routinely use in lectures. Well, Mawer breaks all these rules, and often sprinkles them into pretty elaborate explanations of scientific principles and methods. (Another no-no.) He does this extremely well. I don’t think you’ll experience the full impact of the book if you skim or skip them. Yet the same is true of the passages that will make you cringe when you have to view the world from a dwarf’s perspective. The scenes that involve Benedict interacting with other people are excellent, especially filtered through his droll and acerbic wit.
Far into the book, I was still finding it difficult to categorize. It clearly fits the LabLit.com criterion of fiction in which at least one of the main characters is a scientist and science plays a central role in the plot. It is only as the threads of the story gather for the climax that Mendel’s Dwarf emerges as a story about a moral dilemma created by the advancement of science.
With the knowledge of genetics now available, we are already playing God… and practicing eugenics. Real eugenics, based on real science, not the phony eugenics of the early Twentieth Century. And the chilling implications of these advances come alive near the end of the book in a way that could not possibly be experienced in non-fiction. Benedict must choose whether to follow the Golden Rule or act the way God would (and does). If that doesn’t motivate you to take the complicated explanations and diagrams seriously, lab lit isn’t for you.