On the Importance of Getting the Science Right in Your Novel
When the World of Fact Helps Fiction Do Its Job
As a novelist with a science background, I can attest to the importance of verisimilitude in fiction. Made-up stories reveal human complexity in ways that the truth alone often fails to capture, but in order to do so, they need real-world grounding. Therefore, fiction is faced with the particularly difficult task of making a reader believe in situations that in fact don’t exist. How do fiction writers accomplish this?
Science—specifically physics, chemistry, and biology—can make the wholly imagined world of a fictional narrative feel real and believable. This holds true for any novel, and is particularly relevant to the science-based novel—not to be confused with science fiction or sci-fi. The science-based novel, whose narrative backbone tends to be strongly shaped by science and the language of science, has been making its mark in literature for centuries, from the classic novels Frankenstein and Middlemarch in the 19th century, Arrowsmith and Mendel’s Dwarf in the 20th century, and The Path of Minor Planets in 2001 and Chemistry in 2017, culminating last year with the psychological thriller Give Me Your Hand. What is it about science that has compelled so many novelists, past and present, to weave their stories around it?
First and foremost, science provides a clear and pragmatic framework with which to view the murkier and less-than-perfect world of humans, giving resonance and beauty to a fictional story while also being a metaphor for its larger theme. Science also asks questions about the world, as do characters in a novel. Moreover, the questions that characters ask in a science-based novel, because they are usually scientists themselves, are very often tied to their inquiry and state of desire, making their actions and emotional trajectories all the more poignant and relatable.
In The Path of Minor Planets, a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, a group of astronomers reunite every six years to commemorate the passing of a comet they first witnessed in their youth. The periodic return of the comet marks the progression of their lives through time, while its reliable movement and consistent appearance in Earth’s sky shines a light on the less constant and more fallible nature of the humans that study it: “Another call of “Time!” Kathy looked up and saw not a meteor, but the comet up there in Centaurus. She admired comets, creatures that didn’t race violently through the sky but quietly and coldly burned above without burning out, returning; they were things to count on.”
In the novel Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer, a scientist by the name of Dr. Lambert studies the gene responsible for achondroplasia—the most common form of dwarfism in humans. Lambert is a dwarf himself. He is the victim of a rare genetic mutation and, in his own words a product of chance, but Lambert also reminds the reader that, in a sense, whether we do or don’t carry a devastating mutation in our genes, we are all a product of chance: “It is all a matter of probability and chance. Try it. Go on, take a coin out of your pocket or your purse. Toss it, call heads or tails, and there you are. Cursed or not?”
Similarly, in the novel Chemistry, by Weike Wang, an unnamed young scientist studies the rigorous and exacting field of organic chemistry while being adrift in her own life. Unlike Lambert from Mendel’s Dwarf, her inquiry is self-directed, and science offers the answers she so desperately seeks while reflecting her uncertainty and indecision about her life and the path she should take: “Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.”
Another work of fiction that is not strictly science-based but that combines science (or scientific plausibility) and self-inquiry to similar effect, is Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. In this novel, human clones who have been brought into existence for the sole purpose of donating their organs before the age of thirty, explore the question of their origins, their humanness and capacity to feel, and with it the possibility of being granted a few more years of life before their donation: “They were allowed to go on living there together, up at the White Mansion, three years straight, didn’t have to go on with their training or anything. Three years just to themselves, because they could prove they were properly in love.”
At the heart of these four novels, of all novels, are the issues of destiny, identity, and mortality. Does fiction need science to explore these themes and shed light on who we are? Of course not. But can science and the questions that science asks about the world be used in fiction to better portray the human condition? Absolutely yes.