LabLit.com will be ten years old on 7 March 2015!

I am finding it difficult to believe that we’ve been bringing you the culture of science in fiction and fact for nearly an entire decade. But it’s true! Yesterday we published our 849th article: I never dreamed when I started this site that it would have had such great support, great contributions and great readers – to say nothing of mentions in the likes of The New York Times and US National Public Radio, or endorsements by Richard Powers and Neal Stephenson. Science in fiction has come a long way in ten years, too, with many more novels featuring scientists as central characters published than ever before. Long may that upward trend continue.

Despite my day job as a scientist, which seems to get ever more hectic, I’d love to find the time to put together an anniversary issue to be proud of. But I need your help. We are hereby making a special appeal for submissions for the big day – do consider sending in pieces for consideration!

Flash fiction extraordinaire

We are absolutely loving Glow by Joses Ho, our latest fiction on the site and our first offering from Ho. Not only is this story beautiful and touching, but it weighs in under 350 words, and is also only one sentence long!

Respect.

New Year, new fiction

We welcome 2015 with the first of a two-part mystery story by regular contributor Julia Richards, beautifully illustrated by Elicia Preston. There’s nothing we like more than a body in the laboratory to spice things up!

You may have noticed there’s been a lot of great fiction on the site recently – do check it out. We are keen to feature even more stories this year, so get in touch if you’d like to submit some science-related fiction. We run flash fiction, short stories and the occasional serialized novel; as a reminder, the stories must not have been published or appeared online before.

One for the List: Decoded by Mai Jia

We’re between upgrades to the LabLit List, but a steady stream of nominations keeps flowing into the editorial inbox. Thanks as always to the readers who’ve made suggestions – we are working through these and should have anything appropriate added in due course.

I’ve just finished one of these, Decoded by Mai Jia (translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn). It’s an interesting, enjoyable and strange tale, a rather metaphysical account of a codebreaker in post-World War II. More than any other book I’ve read, fiction or non-, it’s put me squarely into the heart and soul of a mathematician’s outlook. No mean feat for a topic that I struggle with and don’t much care for in the real world. It has a odd narrative structure, but is beautifully written with an undercurrent of humor. It is also the first Chinese addition to the LabLit List – hopefully the first of many!

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: Is it lab lit?

When I was in junior high school back in Ohio, Flowers for Algernon was one of the set texts for English class. I have a very strong memory of being very saddened by the novel, and in my head I still get it mixed up with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, probably because they had similar protagonists and I had to read it at around the same time.

But I never thought about the science in the novel, as it would be many more years before I started being obsessed by its presence – or lack thereof – in fiction. But our deputy editor borrowed it from a work colleague recently and thought it might just qualify as lab lit. Today, he’s published a brief review on the site. Of course it is considered a classic of the science fiction genre, but the conceit of enhancing intelligence (the precise mechanism of which is glossed over a bit in the novel) is the only extraordinary aspect to the tale. And meanwhile, readers do get a glimpse of the scientific life of several characters plying their trade.

If you’ve read the book, we’d love to hear what you think about this issue. Could it be lab lit?

Science cheerleading: not always a good thing

I have encountered some people who believe that fiction about science should be an ambassador for the profession. These sorts feel very uncomfortable when they read stories that feature the less savory side of the scientific life – be they tales of fraud, or misdoings, or even just stories that paint the profession as non-aspirational, or even depressing.

But I don’t agree with this point of view. Science is a human endeavor, practiced by human beings. As such, things are not always rosy. The joys of discovery are real, but so too are the failures and the questionable behavior that pepper all activities of life. It is the duty of writers to reveal the sort of world that they wish to reveal – not to peddle fantasy in the name of PR. There is, in short, a place in lab lit fiction for the good, the bad and the ugly.

It wasn’t on purpose, but I realized today that the last three stories we’ve published have dealt with science’s dark underside: today’s “Copy No. 8″ by Evelyn Gutierrez (a fine debut); “Graviton scattering” by Zu North, and “Sales” by João Ramalho-Santos. All three of these authors are also practicing scientists – so while they are not autobiographical per se, they are definitely inspired by the rich and colorful world around them.

I do hope you will enjoy reading them.

Summer reading

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog, mostly because I’ve been more-than-usually busy in the lab. I’ve recently returned from a holiday, during which I’d hoped to catch up on my summer reading. Unfortunately, I was so busy that I didn’t manage to read a single book on my list, which has recently got longer thanks to our update of the Lab Lit List. Do check it out if you haven’t already. And let us know what you’ve been enjoying reading on your time off!

Snakes, studies on pain, and stopping to think

Hi folks – just a quick note to alert you to a few new pieces of content on LabLit.com.

First, we’ve had an interesting essay from Wilson Wall about how he thinks scientists need to stop collecting too much data and instead think more. I have some sympathy with this argument; it does sometimes seem there are times in the lab when I have done so many experiments in a row that I have not properly synthesized what it all means and how it fits into discoveries that I and others have made in the past. Sometimes I make breakthroughs only when I stop to read an old paper on something or another, and an idea clicks into place. So it’s great to see the arguments out there in black and white.

Second, we’ve published a really super article describing the science of pain. The piece, by Samiha Shaikh, was the overall winner of this year’s British Society of Cell Biology annual writing prize, which I judged. I like it because I learned something new, but was entertained at the same time. It’s great to see young scientists making an attempt to describe very complex research results to the general public.

And finally, we’re really excited to present ‘Into the pit‘, the first of a two-part story by Matthew Perryman, a Creative Writing MA from Oxford. It’s just wriggling and seething with snake biologists, and I was really shocked to discover that Matthew is not actually a snake scientist himself, so well are the biologist characters drawn. I particularly like the realistic banter – and I can’t wait to find out how it ends.

On the horizon, there have been a number of great new lab lit novels published, and a few older discoveries as well, so a major List update is in the pipeline!

It’s time for the LabLiterati to reclaim outer space!

We’ve just published a great short review of the film Gravity by Eva Amsen, who raises a really interesting point: why on earth (no pun intended) is this film classified as science fiction? As she points out, the movie is set in the present day using tech that exists right now – it just happens to take place in orbit around our planet.

It’s a weird sort of associative problem, I think: a large number of science fiction tales are set in space or on other planets, so we are conditioned to think of space as being in the realm of science fiction. But scientists in space are a current reality, and realistic stories about them are just normal stories, and no more speculative than any other mainstream novel about our world.

Eva points out that the few pieces of artistic license that the film does take – such as putting all the spacecraft in the same orbit to make things a bit easier for the protagonist – is no more “science fiction” than the very common leaps of faith in transport that we see all the time in Hollywood films, such as car chases through known cities that involve impossible elements like getting from point A to point B in one minute when in real life it would involve an implausible detour.

I remember seeing Sleepless in Seattle when I lived in Seattle, and smiling at the outraged mutterings around me about the final chase scene, whose impossibility is summed up nicely here:

Sam and Jonah go by motorboat from their houseboat that is moored on the eastern side of Lake Union to Alki Beach in West Seattle. Annie follows in her rental car, watching them from her vehicle “the entire way.” This is impossible. To get from their houseboat by boat to Alki Beach (near where I live) involves going over the lake, through the Ballard locks, and across Elliot Bay (Puget Sound). The only road into West Seattle and to Alki Beach from the city does not follow their water route, and it is further south and goes over the West Seattle bridge – some miles from the lake and too far away for her to be able to see them on the water. The boat ride to the beach would also take over an hour with the wait to go through the locks, though they appear to reach it much sooner.

But this didn’t cause Sleepless in Seattle to be classified as science fiction.

So I say, it’s time to reclaim space for the genre of lab lit. We’d love to see more books and films like Gravity seeing the light of day.

You have your marching orders, all you writers out there.

What’s the last PhD straw?

We’re delighted today to publish a humorous story, Serendipity, from one of our regulars, Nik Papageorgiou. This story is of particular interest because he tells us it’s based on something that really happened to him. I guess all scientists have had moments like this, but perhaps not at such a crucial moment. Let us know if you’ve been there yourself…