We have five copies of Rebecca Mascull's new novel, Song of the Sea Maid, to give away to five UK residents with the most interesting and persuasive answers to this question:
"What is the best novel you've ever read about science or scientists and why was it so good?"
Please leave your answers in the comments below, but also send them to firstname.lastname@example.org so that winners can be contacted.
Closing date 7th July. Sorry, but our competitions are open to UK residents only.
'Strangers and Brothers', by C P Snow - not one book, but a whole series of about nine books. I'm not sure about exactly how many, because they were collected into three volumes by Penguin - I must have got the first one out of the library, because I only have the second two. (I wonder where I bought them? The books were written before I was born, but my editions were published in the 1970s. A bookshop in Durham, maybe? Or London? Can't picture it.) Snow (who was much hated by F R Leavis, the very influential literary critic) thought the worlds of science and art shouldn't be separated, as he believed they had come to be, ad he wrote about Lewis Eliot, a young academic, and his journey through both worlds. In particular, Snow wrote interestingly about a young scientist who became involved in the development of the atom bomb, and about the gradual realisation of where the science was going.
Oh, there are many, but my favourite novel about a scientist is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. About biologists researching fertility drugs with a tribe in a remote part of the Amazon rain forest, it's an engrossing tale. The science and scientists, their lives in the jungle, the ethics of the research are all believable and well-drawn. Ann Patchett draws you in brilliantly and I couldn't put it down.
My fave has to be one I read many years ago and has never left me, Arthur C Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, when they set up an elevator to take loads and folk up to the orbit of earth, with geosynchronous orbit and the politics and money men behind it as well as the science and if it could be made! The basics of how you could and the problems with materials and life! but above all the possibility in science! the dreamers and those with their feet on the ground.
My favourite is John Wyndham's Trouble With Lichen, in which a female biochemist finds a chemical in a rare lichen that can hold back the ageing process so that people can live for hundreds of years. I read it when I was twelve and obsessed with the fear of growing old to an extent that hasn't occurred during my fifties! At twelve, I kept fearing my parents were about to die, convinced they would suffer an accident on their drive home from work and virtually holding my breath while I paced the house, waiting for the crunch of their tyres on the gravel. I really wanted to believe in the possibility of a youth-serum that would make this science fiction tale a reality.
Also, the main characters are called Francis Saxover and Diana Brackley, which at the time, seemed to me the most glamorous names I had ever heard.
I loved all John Wyndham's very English and correct characters with their calm, methodical approach to all sorts of earth-shattering, man-eating-plant-type discoveries.
There is a novel by Gillian Bradshaw, called 'Dangerous Notes' - the science is neuroscience but the book also looks at how people perceive and misunderstand science (the protagonist received an experimental form of brain surgery / stem cell therapy: another recipient of the same treatment became a murderer)
(She also wrote another, 'The Wrong Reflection' which is one of the most original science fiction novels I've read in a long time - it does have a fair amount of science in it (one of the main characters is a plant pathologist) but I don't think I'd class at as being primarily about science. (I would strongly recommend it, though!)
I agree with Joanna about john Wyndham - I've always admired the rational, methodical approach of 'Bill' in 'Day of the Triffids', and the strong scientific explanations for the events in the book.
I found Allegra Goodman's 'Intuition' incredibly compelling. It's an exploration, among many other things, of the pressures academia and research funding place on scientists, and the threats to 'purity' in lab work. I came across it via the Wellcome Book prize shortlist (of 2010) which led me to another interesting contender, Abraham Verghase's 'Cutting for Stone'. I'm adding these to the discussion rather than as competition entry, as I've already had the good fortune to have read 'Song of the Seamaid' in proof before doing the interview with Rebecca! Another friend wanted to nominate Karen Joy Fowler's 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' which I thought was a good idea - but unfortunately she was stumped by the log in requirement of the comment section.
And this is from LUCY GASTER, who has emailed, but also couldn't comment:
'I would like to suggest the Amitrav Ghosh trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Mists, and the new one, not yet read). This is because of the fascinating and totally integrated story-line about plant-collecting in India and China and in particular the experimentation with the new plant cases and coping with difficult and dangerous sea voyages, Chinese secrecy and the opium trade.'
I'm happy to see John Wyndham's books get a couple of mentions here, along with recent novels by Ann Patchett and Karen Joy Fowler but my all-time favourite novel about science or a scientist still remains Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to this day. Every time I read it, it feels as fresh and relevant as it did the first time and I admire how it makes you wonder at the science and what man (here, but it could of course be woman!) can achieve but also makes you think about the ethics of what's being done in the name of science, and/or progress.
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