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  • Under the Literary Microscope: Science and Society in the Contemporary Noveled. by Sina Farzin, Susan M. Gaines, and Roslynn D. Haynes
  • Jay Labinger
Sina Farzin, Susan M. Gaines, and Roslynn D. Haynes, eds., Under the Literary Microscope: Science and Society in the Contemporary Novel. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021, 260pp. $99.95 hardback.

In a 1990 essay, a leading scholar of literature and science opined:

We shall not find in literature widespread reference to the ordinary doings of the sciences . . . reference to science in fiction . . . is nearly always to the scientist as a magical, isolated individual.… So when we look for the "scientist in literature" we shall not find him or her so much at the level of social description as at that of myth. 1

That may have been an accurate characterization of then-extant work, but it decidedly has notheld up well as a prediction of things to come. A substantial body of fiction engaging directly with those missing elements began to appear at just about that time, as the editors of Under the Literary Microscopeobserve in their introduction:

In the last decade of the [twentieth] century, we also began to see a proliferation of novels with explicit, in-depth depictions and explorations of actual scientific research practices—both contemporary and historical—and of the lives and workworlds of scientist characters.

That "new wave" is in large part the impetus for this book, initiated by members of the "Fiction Meets Science" program at the University of Bremen. Its main focus is on the consequences of interactions between science and society in both directions:how science and its findings are perceived by and influence society, and how scientific work is affected by society. As expressed (around the midpoint of this new trend) by Richard Powers, sixof whose books are cited in this study:

What we can only think of in terms of science fiction is about to become social fact, and none of our institutions are ready for the transformation. Perhaps fiction can provide a way of thinking about the revolution in life that other disciplines are bringing about but are not yet equipped or permitted to evaluate. 2 [End Page 233]

Accordingly, the editors decided their project should not be left to literary scholars alone, but would be best pursued via a collaboration with sociologists. The body of the work, following the introduction, consists of 10 chapters representing contributions from the two fields—some of them joint efforts—organized into three sections. Part 1, "Background and Context," contains three articles: an overview, "Science and Society in Recent Fiction" by Natalie Roxburgh and Jay Clayton (both professors of English); a brief summary of the history of sociology of science by Peter Weingart (sociology) and Luz Maria Hernández Nieto (media studies); and an examination (by the same authors of the second piece) of the extent to which stereotypical portrayals of scientists in fiction have given way to more realistic depictions.

Part 2, titled "Societal Impacts on Scientific Work and Knowledge," concentrates on several different aspects of that topic. In "Scientists at Risk," Roslynn D. Haynes and Raymond Haynes (literary scholar and astronomer, respectively) discuss challenges to the physical, mental, and ethical well-being of scientists—some real (von Humboldt, Wegener), some fictional—as portrayed in recent novels. Carol Colatrella turns the lens of feminist science studies on six books (Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, Byatt's A Whistling Woman, Boyd's Brazzaville Beach, Gaines's Carbon Dreams, Goodman's Intuition, Patchett's State of Wonder) that feature women scientists as protagonists. And in what the editors call the "pivotal" chapter (it is the one most cross-referenced by the other contributors) sociologist Uwe Schimank considers the "economization" of science—the ever-increasing pressure on scientists to generate funding from both public and private sectors, to spin off profit-seeking ventures from academic research programs, etc.—as represented in a dozen or so novels. This section also includes a study of the reception in various media of one of the most visible science-themed novels of the twenty-first century—Atwood's Oryx and Crake—by a team...


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pp. 233-235
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