Violent video games, AI, cryptology and the Feds – what more could you want?

A new year and a new pile of books to read – for pleasure, for reviewing, for discussion at my Royal Institution Fiction Lab book group. For the latter, we’re taking a look at Pandora’s Sisters by Michael Stephen Fuchs.

Pandora

The book was discovered in a second-hand shop by one of the regular Labliterati, Dom Stiles, a relentless collector of obscure science-related novels. It looks like a standard lab lit thriller, with a hotshot female artificial intelligence specialist protagonist and a sterling back-cover description – which includes the following sentence:

“And soon after, when men in strange hats come looking for her hard drive, shooting first and never really asking any questions, she finds herself on the run – pursued by multiple squads of heavily armed religious zealots, the Feds, and worse.”

Dom had brought it into our December meeting to pass around. People smiled, murmured, groaned. Christine exclaimed, “It’s got a double helix on the cover – it can’t be all bad!”

It had me at “men in strange hats”.

Christmas escapism: searching for CP Snow

The Two Cultures book cover

The formidable CP Snow (Wikimedia)

I haven’t had much time to read since going on holiday, but I’ve got a lab lit classic lined up: The Search by famous chemist CP Snow. Published in 1934, it is one of the oldest examples on our List – as such, I’m a bit embarrassed that I’ve never read it. It looks quite formidable – much like Snow himself – so I might need to fortify myself with more port before diving in.

And speaking of snow (not that there is any in England at the moment), I’ve just reviewed some polar lab lit over on the site: Everland, by Rebecca Hunt. It’s well worth a read.

Happy Christmas and New Year to all our readers!

LabLit chats with Anna Ziegler

We were so pleased that the award-winning playwright Anna Ziegler, whose play ‘Photograph 51’ is currently playing in London’s West End, took time out of her busy schedule to give us an interview.

“[Rosalind Frankin’s] story was so inherently dramatic and I was drawn to the complications and contradictions of her character, to the way that she was her own greatest obstacle.”

To learn more about Ziegler’s motivations and inspirations in penning a story about the human characters behind the discovery of the structure of DNA, do take a look.

Summer reading

It’s that time of year again: the hot weather brings dreams of holidays on faraway shores, and all of the time to read that such excursions bring. As usual, I’ve got Fiction Lab book group fare to prioritize – our novel for July is The Trudeau Vector by Juris Jurjevics. I haven’t started yet, but involves murder in an Arctic research station, which – like a strong iced cocktail – sounds like an essential beach accessory.

I’d love to know what everyone else out there is looking forward to diving into.

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.