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.'"
Prominent examples of lab lit include Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, Intuition by Allegra Goodman and Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer, and Richard Powers' The Echo Maker and Generosity. Novels set in the past featuring fictionalized explorations of real-life scientists can also be considered lab lit; examples include Kepler by John Banville, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevelier and Enigma by Robert Harris.
History and origins
Fiction that incorporates real science into works of fiction that are not science fiction has also been referred to as "science in fiction." Frankenstein has been seen as an early precursor., but realistic portrayals of science in fiction were relatively rare throughout most of the twentieth century. An example from the 1950s is Isaac Asimov's A Whiff of Death, and examples from the beginning of the current upsurge include Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi and Carbon Dreams by Susan M. Gaines.
The term "lab lit" was coined by Jennifer Rohn in an essay in 2005, along with the launch of the Lablit website. The term began to appear 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 in the 1990s, with five to ten new titles appearing annually in the early two thousands. The reasons for this increase are unclear, but may include factors such as an increased interest in and familiarity with 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)
- Julie Maxwell, 'The Rise of Lab-Lit', Oxford Today 26 (2014) p. 35
- Jennifer Rohn, Editorial: Welcome to LabLit.com. Our lights are now on! 7 March 2005 (accessed Sept. 2, 2014)
- 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
- "Physics World".
- "Ann Lingard's website".
- Rohn, Jennifer (June 2010). "More lab in the library". Nature. 465 (7298): 552. doi:10.1038/465552a.
- Haynes, Roslynn D. (2014-06-10). "Whatever happened to the 'mad, bad' scientist? Overturning the stereotype". Public Understanding of Science. 25 (1): 31–44. doi:10.1177/0963662514535689. ISSN 0963-6625.
- List of Lab lit novels at LabLit.com