The Elements of Fiction

How fiction helps science intersect with culture.

By Hillary Mohaupt | December 15, 2017

Aethaloessa calidalis by Kadavoor, India. 

Wikimedia Commons/Jee & Rani Nature Photography

Go into any bookstore and you’re sure to find the nonfiction of Mary Roach, a science writer who can spin a story with the kind of gloves-off humor that will likely entice even the science averse to get interested in life on Mars or the science of war. Roach is fascinated by the science in the world around her, and her narrative voice and fearless drive to go where no one else has gone transmit that fascination to her readers.

You can learn a lot about science from reading nonfiction at the intersections of science and society, especially in such publications as Distillations. But while Roach may be one of only a few writers willing to visit a body farm for the sake of a story, she is part of a larger group of writers who tackle science and technology from a literary perspective. Visit another part of the bookstore and you might find the science fiction of Andy Weir. When his novel The Martian was released a few years ago, there was plenty of discussion about the accuracy of the science in both the book and the blockbuster film based on it. Weir’s most recent book, Artemis, is set in a colony on the moon, a concept that builds on generations of people dreaming about living elsewhere in the universe.

Science fiction is one avenue for writers and readers to explore the relationship between what is and what might someday be. But in some cases it takes a different kind of fiction—the kind of fiction you had to read in high-school English class or the kind that gets longlisted for the Pulitzer Prize—to describe the impact of scientific phenomena on people and their communities, to illustrate what is.

In her book Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard writes, “Fiction can deal with all the world’s objects and ideas together, with the breadth of human experience in time and space; it can deal with things the limited disciplines of thought either ignore completely or destroy by methodical caution, our most pressing concerns: personality, family, death, love, time, spirit, goodness, evil, destiny, beauty, will.”

In other words, when it comes to telling stories of science, works of fiction can make clear what’s at stake in that science and help readers understand that we can empathize with those stakes as human beings.

An excellent example is Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer, which unfolds over a single hot, humid season in rural Virginia. The novel follows a reclusive forest ranger and wildlife biologist who feels more at home among the mountain’s animal inhabitants than in the town below, where an entomologist grapples with the aftermath of her husband’s death and a grouchy old man tries to resurrect the chestnut trees his grandfather destroyed. Prodigal Summer is told from alternating points of view, a technique that heightens the narrative tension and dramatic irony, layering human relationships on scientific fact on top of descriptive prose that anchors the book in a specific ecology of place.

Kingsolver holds a BS in biology from DePauw University and received a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. Her scientific expertise infuses every page of her novel and the insights of her fictional characters. These characters help the reader learn to pay attention, to weigh the importance of the world around them in scientific terms: “[Moths] were everywhere once you bothered to notice them: like visible molecules, Lusa thought, entirely filling up space with their looping trajectories.”

There’s a lot at stake for these characters, and it’s this sense of urgency that presents a human side of science, in the novel’s present, in its backstory, and in the real-life history many readers might recognize. The forest ranger character meditates on the influence of human beings on the natural world:

Parakeets’ revenge, was how she liked to think of them. They’d coevolved with an expert seed eater, the Carolina parakeet, which had gone extinct so soon after Europeans settled that little was known about it but this one thing, its favorite food. John James Audubon painted the birds’ portrait with their mouths full, feasting among cockleburs, and he wrote of how the bright flocks would travel up and down the river valleys searching the burrs out, descending noisily wherever they found the bristly stands and devouring them until hardly any were left. That was hard to imagine, a scarcity of cockleburs. Now they went uneaten and would continue so for the rest of time. Now they grabbed the ankles of travelers and spread into fields and farms, roadside ditches, even woodland clearings, trying to teach a lesson that people had forgotten how to know.

Other writers have explored how scientific understanding developed in different historical contexts, which people in our present world don’t often consider. Andrea Barrett’s Archangel is a collection of linked stories that slyly shows the connections between studying the stars, tinkering with machines, and the development of theories of evolution. The scientific findings uncovered in one story might influence those in another, and characters from one story might crop up in another: there is even reference to a character in another Barrett work of fiction, The Voyage of the Narwhal. The stories offer readers a glimmer of recognition and a sense that the studies of various sciences have over time fed off of each other. Barrett, who is trained in biology, gives the histories of innovation, research, and discovery a face that betrays emotions and desires; she balances historical fact with human truth. One story’s protagonist is a science writer in the early twentieth century, a highly trained mathematician striving to support her child after the death of her astronomer husband. She corresponds with her late husband’s student, a respected scholar in his own right:

At least he was polite about her work. Books and articles for the interested ignorant—Astronomy for the Young, Eclipses for Everyone—mingling with what she hoped were sufficient facts with artful descriptions and homely analogies designed to take the place of the mathematics she loved but knew her readers couldn’t understand. The Milky Way is shaped like a biscuit. A nebula is like a cloud on the verge of condensing into rain.

Like Kingsolver and Barrett, Weike Wang brings her training in the sciences to her fiction writing. Wang’s novel Chemistry is about a chemist; Wang herself holds a degree in chemistry from Harvard University. In an interview with NPR she explained how she used her training as a scientist to write the novel:

My first teacher was Amy Hempel. And she sort of taught me a different kind of writing or opened my eyes to a different kind of writing that was more to the point or a little bit more sparse but not sparse, necessarily, in human emotion or story. And I guess I found that really gripping because in science you’re really trying to get your point across in the clearest way. It’s actually not great to be the most long-winded [laughter] science researcher when you’re trying to write grants or anything. And then when I started this novel, I took my style and just made the story a little bit longer but hopefully not trying to put in excess.

The ability to translate science into a good story doesn’t always require advanced training in the hard sciences. It does require imagination, research skills, and a penchant for exploring uncharted territory.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder chronicles various types of research conducted by the fictional Vogel Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in suburban Minnesota. The novel opens in a research lab surrounded by snow, but soon the protagonist is thrust into the humid jungle of Brazil in pursuit of an elusive doctor who’s taking Vogel’s money to study human fertility. The protagonist eventually discovers that the doctor is actually developing a powerful malaria vaccine. My understanding of the science at work in the novel is hazy at best, but Patchett gives it significance that a humanities-trained brain can process. Told through the eyes of a shy researcher at a pivotal and terrifying moment in her life, the novel links scientific research to human lives, human choices, and human foibles.

Another noteworthy science-based work of fiction is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Barbara Kingsolver, in her review of the book, notes that the botanist protagonist “articulates a scientist’s creed.” The character proclaims, “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.” Kingsolver calls the book “a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to uncommonly patient minds.”

This current crop of writers certainly isn’t the first to approach science through the lens of fiction. That history is long, even when the scientific substance of a book’s subject is more subdued. Virginia Woolf was evidently fascinated by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Henry David Thoreau studiously recorded the natural world around him because “we will, he understood, protect only what we love.” Determining what we love, what makes us take a book off a bookstore shelf and commit to it, what’s at stake for us as readers, is a science all its own.