English fellow and novelist Julie Maxwell charts the story of a small but growing genre of fiction called lab-lit.

Lab lit

By Julie Maxwell 

We’re all familiar with the concept of science fiction, but what about science in fiction? Instead of futuristic speculation, current scientific knowledge and research developments have been featuring in novels that depict the world as we know it now.

Dr Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL who has also published two novels about scientists, coined the term ‘lab-lit’ in 2001. It defines “a small but growing genre of fiction in which central scientific characters, activities and themes are portrayed in a realistic manner.” Although it may include imagined scientific advances, the emphasis is on plausibility rather than sensationalism.

Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar is an outstanding example of the genre. The main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Everyday life is also seen through a scientifically trained eye. Has the guilty pleasure of eating a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (“the actinic sting of these thirty grams”) ever been so precisely evoked?

‘Lab-lit’ consciously echoes ‘chick-lit’, that light-hearted genre of female fiction which developed in the 1990s around works such as Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (St Anne’s, 1976). It’s a convenient rather than straightforward comparison. The presence of science in fiction might be more accurately compared to the best historical fiction. It contains an element of instruction as well as entertainment. Lab-lit is also, unlike chick-lit, a tiny sub-category of fiction. Fewer than a hundred lab-lit novels have ever been written, and only since the 1990s have they appeared in sustained (if very modest) numbers annually.

The small beginnings of lab-lit coincide with the complaint made 20 years ago by Oxford Emeritus Professor of English Literature John Carey: poets had been practically “science-blind” since John Donne, while his own students “seemed unaware... that the blood circulated round their bodies.”

Julie Maxwell

Julie Maxwell

It was not, of course, that novels written before 1990 demonstrated no scientific expertise. Some of the best science fiction writers, for example, were trained scientists. HG Wells, the author of The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1897–8), studied biology and wrote a textbook. But science fiction was excluded from Carey’s anthology The Faber Book of Science. He wanted real science. Rohn draws an equally firm line between science fiction and lab-lit. Nonetheless, the new genre is clearly indebted to the older one.

As McEwan pointed out in a talk to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), literature is not, like science, self-correcting. It “does not improve; it simply changes.” Throughout the centuries of English literature, the genres have continuously overlapped. So it is no surprise to find that lab-lit novels often borrow the stock-in-trade of science fiction and translate them, as it were, into the terms of the contemporary realist novel.

In Jim Crace’s 1999 novel Being Deadfor example, the story of two entomologists who are unexpectedly murdered, there is no time travel but there is a narrative that goes backwards in time instead of forward. The appropriation of science fiction motifs in the realist novels of Crace, McEwan and others parallels the way that scientists themselves have sometimes been inspired by the genre to make discoveries in real life. Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Queen’s, 1973), the scientist credited with creating the world wide web, has acknowledged a science fiction tale by Arthur C Clarke, “Dial F for Frankenstein”, as an influence.

Sometimes, however, the long-distance relationship between science fiction and cutting-edge scientific research is deliciously coincidental. In 1925 Mikhail Bulgakov published The Fatal Eggs, the story of a hapless Professor of Zoology who blunders on an important discovery. Who could have predicted that the discovery of penicillin three years later by Alexander Fleming would be every bit as marvellously accidental?

Given that the history of literary genres is integral to the story of English literature, one wonders whether it might be worth re-classifying earlier works of literature in the light of our new awareness of lab-lit. In 1951, novelist Muriel Spark championed the nineteenth-century novelist Mary Shelley at a time when even Frankenstein (1818, revised 1831) was dismissed as children’s literature. Spark argued that the novel was actually science fiction; Shelley was not only writing in a genre that the mid-twentieth century considered a male preserve, but she had got there before Wells, Huxley and Orwell. Equally, one might argue that Frankenstein was the ancestress of lab-lit. For unlike Shelley’s final novel, The Last Man (1826), which is set toward the end of the twenty- first century, Frankenstein does not have a futuristic setting. Instead, Shelley pondered the contemporary scientific theory of galvanism (that is, the animation of dead flesh by electrical currents), which then seemed plausible. She took fiction into the ‘lab’ of her own day, a world of gentlemen amateurs who transported their chemical instruments on holiday to Orkney.

Furthermore, although it is the disastrous galvanistic experiment for which Frankenstein is famous, Shelley’s larger interest is one she holds in common with her Romantic contemporaries – the emergent science of the mind. As a pioneer of lab-lit, her avant-garde achievement is overdue a fresh appreciation.

Dr Julie Maxwell (Christ Church, 1995) has recently published a science-in-fiction novel, These Are Our Children. Image by CIAT under Creative Commons license.