My regular readers will know all about Fiction Lab, the world’s first book group devoted to discussing lab lit fiction. We’ve been meeting once a month for just over a decade at London’s Royal Institution to talk about novels with scientists as central characters. We try to get authors to join in whenever we can – and next month it’s my turn.
This is not my first rodeo; I also submitted myself to the grilling for my previous two novels. It’s quite nerve-wracking. For the past ten years I’ve witnessed more forensic and eloquent book trashings than I care to recall. The LabLiterati are a discerning bunch and very difficult to please. It’s not enough that any science is dealt with plausibly and realistically – the story, characters, writing style, pace and tone also have to be up to snuff, and the bar is high. We warm up by going around the circle giving the book a score from one to ten; some regulars routinely give zeros or indeed negative numbers, and the average score is seldom over five.
When the author takes part, we let the group meet in privacy for half an hour to allow candid discussion before ushering in the author for the Q&A. Members are usually on their best behavior at this stage, but it’s difficult to disguise disgruntlement completely. Hence my nerves on the eve of my own grilling.
My third novel Cat Zero has been well received thus far, especially by non-scientists (who will of course comprise the majority of any literary audience). Using an iterative process of running drafts by non-experts, I was very careful to try to strike a balance between detail and understanding. I agonized over every single passage that contained technical details, trialling it on dozens of guinea pigs, gauging whether it was earning its keep or going too far. I included only enough science to get the point across and offer a flavor of what research is really like. That said, there is a lot of science in the book, probably more than I’ve ever included before.
I’ve been very interested in the quibbles I have heard about from a few scientist readers; many seem to assume that the science is “too difficult” for non-scientist readers, who inevitably “won’t like it” or are bound to “struggle”. The novel, they suggest, might best be enjoyed by researchers or science students. This viewpoint is in contrast to what most of the non-scientist readers have actually been telling me, or saying in reviews.
I find this disparity of great interest. Why is it that scientists assume that non-scientists won’t enjoy or be able to cope with technical details? I am sure they are not merely being patronizing. It’s possible that it’s difficult to put themselves into the shoes of someone who knows nothing about a subject, experiencing it for the first time through the careful clues and word choices that I have labored hard to lay down (instead of putting it into their own context, which might include an undergraduate degree and PhD’s worth of baggage).
I have discovered over my many years of writing lab lit fiction that readers are surprisingly happy with a bit of technical detail and jargon, provided it’s clearly sign-posted as being part of the atmosphere and not strictly necessary for full comprehension of the plot. This experience is reinforced by the Fiction Lab group, the majority of whom are not scientists; their most frequent complaint is that the lab lit fiction we read is too watered down in the technical details, because the authors didn’t credit their readers with enough smarts to cope.
Because jargon, while it may be bad in traditional science communication (such as newspaper pieces about science, or a researcher up on the podium talking to school kids about her work), is paradoxically not automatically a bad thing in fiction. The example I always use is Star Trek: the characters may be chattering away about “quantum fluxes in the alpha segment of the warp core generator” but we, as the audience, don’t need to know what that really means. And we know we don’t need to know. All we need to know is that it’s a problem that needs to be overcome – and meanwhile, we’re left with the feeling that an authentic technical exchange has occurred, adding verisimilitude to the scene. Hospital dramas do similar things with medical jargon, as when we know we don’t need to know what it means when the consultant barks to the nurse to order an urgent amylase or creatinine test. It’s the same for lab-based fiction: one researcher might remark to another that she’s “cloned a PCR fragment”, but provided it’s embedded in an otherwise understandable exchange and the detail is signposted as being furniture instead of crucial, your average non-scientific reader will let it flow overhead as a touch of reality they don’t need to come to grips with.
What do you think about this issue? I’m sure it’s going to come up during the grilling, and I’d be delighted if you’d read my novel and join the Fiction Lab debate on Monday, 8 October at 7 PM at the Royal Institution in London. It’s free and all are welcome. The most cost effective way tor read the novel is on Amazon Kindle, but if you want a paperback, head over to Blackwells online, where it’s under a tenner with free UK delivery.
Hope to see you there!