Unlike science fiction, lab lit is generally set in some semblance of the real world, rather than a speculative or future one, and it deals with established scientific knowledge or plausible hypotheses. In other words, lab lit novels are mainstream or literary stories about the practice of science as a profession. They may or may not center exclusively on the science or the workplaces of scientists, but all tend to feature scientists as central characters. According to an article in the New York Times,
- "Lab lit is not science fiction, and in my opinion it’s not historical fiction about actual scientists (though some fictionalized biographies do appear on the list). Instead, in the Web site’s words, it “depicts realistic scientists as central characters and portrays fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic — as opposed to speculative or future — world.'"
Examples of lab lit include Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, Intuition by Allegra Goodman and Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer. Novels set in the past featuring fictionalized explorations of real-life scientists can also be considered lab lit, such as Enigma by Robert Harris or Kepler by John Banville.
History and origins
Fiction that incorporates real science into works of fiction that are not science fiction has earlier been referred to as "science in fiction." The term "lab lit" was coined by Jennifer Rohn in an essay in 2005, along with the launch of the Lablit website.
Frankenstein has been seen as an early precursor. Lab-lit was relatively rare throughout most of the twentieth century, but began receiving attention in the cultural pages of science magazines during the first decade of the 21st century and has been championed by such scientist novelists such as Carl Djerassi, Ann Lingard and Jennifer Rohn. An upturn in the publication of lab lit novels occurred around 1990, with five to ten new titles appearing annually in more recent years. This is also reflected in a course at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University devoted to lab lit, and The New York Times' The Learning Network. The reasons for this increase are unclear, but may include factors such as an increased interest in science on the part of the general public, publishers, and established authors.
- Cookson, Clive (2009-05-23). "The real lab rats". Financial Times. Retrieved 2009-05-27.
- Rohn, Jennifer (January 2006). "Experimental Fiction". Nature 439 (19): 269. doi:10.1038/439269a.
- Bouton, Katherine (December 3, 2012). "In Lab Lit, Fiction Meets Science of the Real World". New York Times: D2.
- "The Lab Lit List - Novels, films, plays and TV programs in the Lab Lit fiction genre". Retrieved Sep 2, 2014.
- Djerassi, Carl. "Science in Fiction ist nicht Science Fiction: Ist sie Autobiographie?" Fiction in Science – Science in Fiction, Ed. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler. Wien: Verlag Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1998
- Gaines, Susan, “Sex, Love, and Science," Nature, 413 (2001)
- Jennifer Rohn, Editorial: Welcome to LabLit.com. Our lights are now on! 7 March 2005 (accessed Sept. 2, 2014)
- Julie Maxwell, 'The Rise of Lab-Lit', Oxford Today 26 (2014) p. 35
- Mawer Simon. “Science in Literature.” Nature, 434 (2005): 297-299
- "The power of fiction; Why do so many scientists secretly despise the novel, when a novelist's imaginative strengths can help us understand 21st-century science?" New Scientist, August 25, 2007
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- Rohn, Jennifer (June 2010). "More lab in the library". Nature 465 (7298): 552. doi:10.1038/465552a.
- "Upper Level History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science course outline".
- "NYT Learning Network".
- List of Lab lit novels at LabLit.com