In which I question an assumption: do fiction readers really dislike scientific detail?

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!

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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10 Responses to In which I question an assumption: do fiction readers really dislike scientific detail?

  1. rpg says:

    Great question. I don’t know, but I’m of the same leaning… when it comes to fiction, then the jargon is simply something there for flavour—you don’t *have* to know what it means (and often it’ll be rubbish anyway, not that that actually matters [but that’s an argument for another day]).

    ” trialling it on dozens of guinea pigs, ”

    —Did you get ERB approval for that?

  2. I write lab lit fiction and am curious about this. Anecdotally and from reviews it appears they like it and as you say, they are pleased to learn a little something. I wonder if it scares them from purchasing a title.

  3. Grant Jacobs says:

    “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.”

    I can’t help thinking there are two different things in here.

    One the ‘science’ element being an integral part of the plot, the other as interesting sideline / non-essential background. There’s a mix of both in it, I think.

    Plenty of thrillers have science content, including from some selling in serious numbers, so it’s clearly fine to include it. How you include it matters, though, I think.

    My thought (at moment, I’m not saying I’ll stick to it – ha!) is that you have to spell out the take-home point so that whatever readers do with the build-up to it doesn’t matter too much. Many readers are less likely to be interested in precisely how you got to that outcome. For example in Cat Zero one outcome might be _that_ the feline virus could potentially infect humans, but many readers are less likely be interested in the specific technical details of _why_ that is. You can (should) put that in, but as non-essential background written in a way that people can skim over if they’re that way inclined. Either way, the outcome element has to be spelt out fairly clearly.

  4. @Catherine – thanks for your comment. Always nice to meet a fellow lab lit author! (Tell me which of your books is your favorite/most science-y/geeky, and I’ll take it for a spin!) I guess they might be a little put off, but back-cover blurbs for lab lit books can easily stress the human drama and draw people in, I think.

  5. @Grant – I agree up to a point. I’m uneasy with the phrase “spell out”…one hopes it could be signposted with a bit more nuance. In the case of Cat Zero, I was definitely stretching the readers a bit, but in the end, they could probably skim and still get the gist.

    How are your own novelistic attempts going, by the way? 😉

  6. Philip Ball says:

    Good question Jenny. My limited experience has been somewhat different to yours: some readers seem to feel that, if they see “science”, they’re going to be tested on it. So they get hung up on whether they understand it or not. One reader of The Sun and Moon Corrupted said that it got a bit slow going on the page full of maths, and he wondered if it was worth the effort because it was said that the theory was wrong anyway. To my mind this felt a little bit like a reader cautioning that the potions in Harry Potter were quite hard to make, and they didn’t seem to work anyway.

    Carl Djerassi used to say that he would use his fiction to “smuggle in” a bit of science to people who might normally reject it. That is one way to approach sci-lit (sorry, I should say lablit), but in fiction I’d have zero interest in trying to teach anyone science, beyond perhaps having to explain an aspect of the plot in the same way that I had to explain (and I’m not sure I managed it very seamlessly) some aspects of the history of the Hungarian uprising of ’56. I guess if I want to communicate some science, I’ll do that in non-fiction.

    A related question, of course, is: should the science all be “proper”, and consistent with what we currently know? Or can you take a few liberties, e.g. with a bit of extrapolation? HG Wells did the latter to no ill effect – but then again, he wasn’t interested in teaching the reader any science, but rather in mining the themes and anxieties that scientific advances were generating. Personally I see no problem in taking liberties with the science, so long as they are not so absurd as to undermine the plausibility of the plot or scenario. Anyone who turns to fiction expecting to find an accurate account of science is rather confused in the first place. (That said, I don’t believe I took any such liberties in my novel!)

  7. rpg says:

    By Jove, I think Philip has it. It’s fiction. It’s not meant to be teaching people science—just as PD James isn’t teaching police procedures or Casualty (sorry, Holby City) isn’t teaching you how to insert a central line. It’s *flavour*, it’s background, it’s the canvas upon which you’re painting… but it’s not the *point*.

  8. I think taking liberties is what fiction is all about, but a number of the regulars at Fiction Lab tend to get cross at the slightest irregularity – in the science, but also in other spheres – history, politics. But this happens in all genres – I remember the kerfuffle over the impossible boat itinerary in “Sleepless in Seattle”, which was also reminiscent of a problem hard-core space fans had with “Gravity”.

    That said, I do strive to keep things accurate, if only for the quiet life. Someone got a bit sniffy about me seeming to have taken a few liberties with a London train route in Cat Zero – if that was their only complaint, I’m happy!

    Personally I have no issue with people learning stuff about science in passing when they read fiction. But that is in no way my driver.

  9. Grant Jacobs says:

    “I’m uneasy with the phrase “spell out”…one hopes it could be signposted with a bit more nuance.”

    I didn’t mean it in the sense of “tell” (as in show, not tell). I prefer a bit of nuance myself—that suits our styles, I guess—but I think that reflects the style or genre of the book. A B-grade thriller it might put things more straight-forwardly to keep the action rolling forward.

    I have a somewhat over-worked example that might help, but I have to pack my things to roll down the road a bit tomorrow first!

    For what it worth views are coloured a bit by something I saw in a science communication paper in PNAS a while back, which suggested that adults who aren’t “geeks” mostly got their science from entertainment.

    It’s not quite the right comparison, but I was reminded of that paper only a few days after reading it when reading an article on ArsTechnica about modern-day instances of the plague. Several readers said that already knew about the different types of plague, etc. from reading Connie Willis’ novel. They’re a fairly geeky audience, but even they didn’t get it from reading some popular science non-fiction piece, but instead from reading a novel (admittedly one that’s fairly heavy on detail).

    “How are your own novelistic attempts going, by the way? 😉”

    Sssssh! I’m still flying under the radar 🙂

    (Very slowly. I’m finding it hard to give it the time I’d like to. There aren’t many places I stay at that prove suitable for sitting down for hours at end and working. So far the best place has been a guest house at Kuching that caters to longer-stay visitors who set up a writing desk and comfortable chair in my room. Besides, I spent too much time researching background, and distracting myself with shorter pieces! I really need to discipline myself a bit more…)

  10. rpg says:

    I do hope you’re not suggesting that people start writing novels for the purpose of science communication.

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