Think of a great literary novel that has science or a scientist as background. I'm not talking science fiction, but rather a contemporary novel where, say, the protagonist is in search of love, and rather than his being a boarding school student as in Catcher in the Rye or an architect as in The Fountainhead or even an obsessive record collector as in High Fidelity, he or she is into science.
This has me stumped because I want to compare my upcoming novel, Love at Absolute Zero, to someone else's great, romantic, even humorous novel. Mine's about a 32-year-old physicist who in receiving tenure becomes obsessed in finding a wife. He carves three days out of his busy research schedule to find his soul mate.
To find the right person, he uses the Scientific Method. It doesn't work. He goes through hell. This is amid his studying the state of matter near absolute zero.
I enjoyed myself tremendously in researching and writing the book. I felt like Zeus making my physicist jump and crawl and push through more than he might think he can handle.
Now after five years, I have finished polishing the book. It's done. I want to compare it to another book or two to draw the right readers. My novel won't satisfy those expecting science fiction. The science is of the moment with a state of matter called the Bose-Einstein Condensate. Surely I haven't created my own genre.
Maybe I'm looking at it from the wrong angle. Instead of love and science, perhaps I should play up the humor and call it a comic novel. Last night, I zipped over to Goodreads for its readers' lists of the best of everything--Best Novels of All Time, Best Romances, Best Kick-Butt Heroines--but there was no list for Best Comic Novels. It's a category, so I created a list for it there. (Go to it and add your own. Make it a popular list.) Still, it doesn't help me unless I compare my book to Don Quixote. My protagonist Gunnar Gunderson is quixotic.
With that impasse, I landed on Kindleboards.com and asked people for suggestions. Someone told me of British author C.P. Snow (1905-1980), the "granddaddy of the literary novel with science." I researched him. Snow was trained from a young age as a scientist, becoming a physicist before novels fascinated him, and he started writing novels. He's best known for his series called Strangers and Brothers.
What fascinated me, however, in his Wikipedia bio is that he found we have a breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society -- the sciences and the humanities. He said it was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. To quote him:
"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'
"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question - such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' - not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had."
That was 1959. I've found the same state of affairs in my college English class. The class began with our reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories that are often based around people trying to find balance between the cultures of America and India. My students dove deeply into the stories, even the men. I received some incredible essays.
Now we're reading The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. It's a well-written and at times even funny book about how the universe works, best we know. It gets into the laws of nature, such as the second law of thermodynamics. Fully half my students are intimidated. I had them write about their relationship to science, and many of them feel stupid when it comes to science. It's my job to make the subject understandable.
And perhaps that's what I've done unconsciously in my novel--to make quantum physics okay as a story element--that it isn't hard to understand. Gunnar's problems are so human that the science should go down easily as with a spoonful of sugar.
If nothing else, by the time the semester is over, my English students should have the tools to read my novel--insight into fiction and an understanding of the physics of our world.
By the way, late last night, I tried Goodreads' lists again and I stumbled across one for Best Lab Lit. It says, "This is a list of novels that realistically portray science in fiction." Now that's what I'm after. Michael Crichton is on the list.
Now I have to consider how people can get my book. I'm going to release Love at Absolute Zero onto the Kindle on May 16th. I'm in the middle of looking for a new agent because the one I had--I really liked him and he liked me and Love at Absolute Zero--was stumped at how to sell my book. He seemed to know that the meeting of literature and science was a tough sell, and he honestly didn't know what to do. He originally signed me with the first incarnation of this book three years ago. It had a different title. He came close to getting it published, but those who liked it said their marketing departments did not know how to sell it. One editor was helpful in suggesting tighter pacing, which is how I came to rewrite the book.
I'm quixotic, trying to meld the two cultures. We'll see if I get as far as C.P Snow did.
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