What Fiction Contributes (That Biography Can’t)

In my last post, I described Mitchell Wilson’s novel, Live With Lightning, as a biography of a fictional scientist. I also pointed out some of the differences between what Wilson did in contrast to fictionalized biographies such as Kepler by John Banville, The Properties of Light by Rebecca Goldstein, and Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. Briefly, I argued that both types of fiction make up for their lack of factual grounding by giving a reader a vivid glimpse of scientists’ interior life.

This idea first came to me during a conversation with a former colleague and good friend, who is an insatiable consumer of biographies. Although his favorite figures are American presidents, generals, and politicians of all kinds, as a working scientist and clinician he is sometimes drawn to biographies of important scientists. He also reads memoirs of important historical figures and an occasional scientist. In response to my enthusiasm about Goldstein’s The Properties of Light, a fictionalized biography of the relatively obscure physicist, David Bohm, he said in effect that he wasn’t interested in “conjectures” about what Bohm thought or felt about his work. His interest was in understanding what “really happened.” But, I pointed out, it’s a universally accepted problem with biographies that biographers have both perspectives and biases that can distort and misrepresent their subjects. Their facts about their subjects’ lives may also be seriously in error.

In response, my friend admitted this was an issue, which was why, he said, he tries to read several biographies of the same historical figures by different authors as well as the relevant memoirs when they exist. This led us to a discussion of the problems with memoirs or autobiographies and on into the epistemological quicksands of what is real (and what is “fiction”). It was at this point that I asked my friend to step back from his attachment to finding the truth and ask himself what happens when one reads a novel. Doesn’t fiction try to do something very different from a factual account of the events in a character’s life? And isn’t the whole point to become so engrossed in those events from a very specific character’s perspective that one sees the world as the character might see it and becomes the character in one’s imagination?

Well yes, my friend replied. He admitted that he too derives great pleasure from the experience of reading a well-written novel. But who cares whether the character you identify with is a scientist or an eighteenth century nobleman? In response, I turned to what I now realize is an educational argument. I think it matters that characters in novels are scientists because so many people have extremely limited understanding of how real scientists work, and more important, their motivations and feelings. And these details are either a biographer’s conjectures or completely missing in otherwise factually accurate biographies. Even memoirs suffer in this regard; either writers misremember how they felt or deliberately misrepresent their thoughts and emotions in an effort to create a more attractive image of themselves.

Although my friend graciously conceded that I had a point, he made it clear that he still prefers biographies, perhaps because he is fascinated by the leaders who have shaped military and political history. Even though he’s a voracious reader, he has too many histories, biographies and memoirs on his to-read “pile” to pause for an evening or two and indulge in the joys of fiction.

At his point, we agreed that there’s no disputing taste, poured ourselves another glass of wine, and turned our attention to whether fiction can help nonscientists understand the contribution good science can make to important economic and political debates. On this question, I think we agree that for the educated person who believes that understanding science is an important part of participating in contemporary society, there is a place for both biographies of real scientists and high-quality fiction about science.  What the latter adds is an understanding and empathy for the pursuit of knowledge about the world we all live in. In my blog, I have tried to call attention to how good fiction achieves this result.

In Seaside Pleasures Ann Lingard used a technique often found in fiction.  She has more than one first-person narrator, and there is a little chronological overlap when the narrator changes.  Thus, we get a chance to see what each of the characters is thinking about the events of the story, especially the important ones.  Lingard uses this simply to tell the story in a revealing way.  David Lodge uses the same technique in Thinks…, alternating between the perspectives of two characters with contrasting approaches to the same scientific problem. These story-telling techniques add a dimension to our understanding of how science and scientists operate that ordinary biographies cannot provide.

Based on accounts provided in journals, diaries and memoirs, good biographies can supply the details of how a discovery was made, for example.  However, like any historical reconstruction, the writer’s account may not accurately reflect the thoughts and feelings of the principals involved.  And even a scientist’s own account of what happened can be seriously biased.  Novelists can follow two routes in writing a fictional account.  One is the fictionalized biography, where the writer tries to step into the mind of one or more real scientists and imagine what their inner life was like.  The other route requires a fictional science to be created for fictional scientists to explore.  Writing this kind of fiction requires a special kind of person.  He or she doesn’t need to be a scientist, but it helps.

I certainly think that a skilled writer who is willing to do the necessary “research” can develop enough background in science to inhabit scientists’ minds convincingly.  Allegra Goodman certainly did in preparation for writing IntuitionMuch of this “research,” however, consists of mastering the knowledge that science students acquire over a dozen years at a minimum.  Some of the education can be learned selectively and quickly.  Fundamentals take longer.  A writer also needs to spend time in the laboratory or in the field with investigators to develop a “feel” for what it’s like to work on a problem either alone or with a group of other equally sophisticated and motivated individuals.  (With theoreticians and mathematicians, this means spending a lot of time listening to discussions and arguments – and understanding them!)  It’s a serious intellectual challenge.

On the other hand, the scientist who sets out to write fiction about science also has to be a rather special breed of scientist.  Beyond a certain point in the education of a working scientist, there is very little leisure to read fiction.  There is even less to write it.  The two activities require very different skills and abilities.  Careful logic and a fierce commitment to seeing what’s there rather than what one wants to see are hallmarks of good science.  Sensitivity to emotions and a willingness to take one’s fantasies seriously are essential to creating successful fiction.  Yet there are such people.  The best-known is the late Carl Djerassi. His four novels create realistic, sympathetic portraits of men and women who think and feel in completely believable ways that almost any scientist will recognize as accurate.

Note: I’ve reviewed all four science-in-fiction novels by Carl Djerassi in previous posts. (See the Novels Reviewed link.) See also Jennifer Rohn’s very personal tribute to Djerassi, in which she also discusses the latter’s didactic motivation for writing fiction, as well as her reasons for preferring “lab lit”  for what I’ve been calling fiction about science.

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