Science, technology, and popular literature: (Re)visionary symbioses

Science, technology, and popular literature: (Re)visionary symbioses

Goldbort, Robert C

As an experimental biologist-turned-English professor, I have more than a passing interest in popular fiction about science. I mean fiction like Robin Cook’s 1989 Mutation or Michael Crichton’s 1990 Jurassic Park, to which I’ll return a bit later. Such fiction refuses embodiments of what Nobel biologist Peter Medawar called, in his 1979 Advice to a Young Scientist, professional “snobismus.” It refuses an always-lurking myopia in education that privileges a particular professional outlook on reality.

Anyone who has spent a period of years in a university probably has encountered some version or target of a snobismus like “I’m a scientist, and you’re not,” or, “I possess literary culture, and you don’t.” Scientific fiction refuses, too, “either-or” thinking: Was C. P. Snow really both a physicist and a novelist? And, conversely, could a literary artist–say, an Aldous Huxley or an Ursula K. Le Guin–write scientific-minded fiction?

Artifactual Feuds

Are scientific reality and “Other-culture” reality (humanities, religion, fill in the blank) totally separate? Witness John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge physics professor-turned Anglican priest, who tells his story in a little 1986 book significantly titled One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. Witness, too, that scientists are sometimes essayists, storytellers, and/or poets–a few salient examples being C. P. Snow, Isaac Asimov, Jacob Bronowski, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, Loren Eiseley, Gregory Benford, Michael Crichton, and Robin Cook. Three decades ago, both Bronowski and Eiseley argued cogently that the scientific and the literary act of creation are just different manifestations of one and the same human imagination.

Eiseley wrote, “It is because these two types of creation–the artistic and the scientific–have sprung from the same being and have their points of contact even in division that I have the temerity to assert that, in a sense, the ‘two cultures’ are an illusion, that they are a product of unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding.”

As something more than the sum of my selves, then, I am particularly interested in those “creative chances,” in Snow’s words, that result from the “clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures–of two galaxies….” Among those creative chances are, I believe, literary fictions about science and scientists. While such fiction goes back in modern times to Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in our time scientists themselves are serious contributors. The scientific and “techo-” fiction of Cook and Crichton are both reflections of and philosophical commentaries on fundamental realities in the American scientific enterprise. As such, their works also are powerful instances of the cooperation of the language and vision of science and of literary art. Two examples must suffice here–examples that involve, specifically, issues of gender and of corporate science.

Gender Equity

In a recent issue of the journal Science, Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., editorializes that science and technology have helped do away with the idea that women belong at home childrearing while their husbands do the breadwinning and that “many formal barriers to women’s participation in science have fallen.” While, as Koshland notes, matters are far from where they should be, women now appear more frequently in scientific fiction as the scientist-protagonists.

For instance, in Cook’s 1989 Mutation, a modern version of Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, it is the psychiatrist-wife of the monster’s creator (geneticist Victor Frank) who becomes a spokesperson for scientific ethics: “What Victor did in creating you was born out of unthinking arrogance. He didn’t stop to consider the possible outcome; he was so obsessed with the means and his singular goal. Science runs amok when it shakes loose from the bonds of morality and consequence.” Thus Marsha Frank, the new woman-scientist, speaks out on the lack in science of the “missing qualities of compassion, empathy, even love” (issues Bronowski had raised decades earlier).

Similarly, in Carl Sagan’s Contact it is astrophysicist Eleanor Arroway who gets the honor and privilege of being sent, on behalf of American science, to make direct contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. And in Crichton’s Jurassic Park, paleobiologist Ellie Sattler observes the ill-fated dinosaur cloning experiment side by side with colleague Alan Grant. These fictional scenarios involving women scientists may represent no more than small nods in recognition of a change in progress. However; I would argue that popular fiction is an important affirming voice and agent of a steadily (if slowly) narrowing gender gap in science and technology.

Jurassic Park, among other fictional scenarios of science in a corporate setting, offers a case study of the new scientific ethos. In his preface to the novel, Crichton rues industry’s “contaminating ties” to the hitherto “pure” university science: “There are very few molecular biologists and very few research institutions without commercial affiliations. The old days are gone. Genetic research continues, at a more furious pace than ever. But it is done in secret, and in haste, and for profit.” Recall that in Jurassic Park it is not the scientists themselves who call the shots, but John Hammond, whose private foundation provides the requisite capital. When chaos ensues, Hammond, doggedly obstinate to the end, places blame not on the mix of revolutionary science and corporate greed, but on the narrow vision of his scientists. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around.

“Set cloning aside, and don’t try it,” Lewis Thomas once advised. Would that corporate science exercised such noble restraint. Crichton’s and Cook’s novels–along with other contemporary novels by non-scientists like Kate Wilhelm, Harold King, Frank Herbert, and Nancy Kress–reflect the as yet unsettled and sometimes unsettling alliance between the Baconian ideal of science for the people and the exploiters of science for profit.

So I am suggesting that contrary to the insistent claim of most scientists and literary critics alike, popular fiction about science is much more than mere amusement. Fictional scenarios provide another context for our society, in the midst of all its scientific and technological glory, to have second thoughts about itself. As a culture desperately seeking unity and order–seeking a sense of intellectual and aesthetic organicism–we can ill afford any professionally biased posturing against the creative unities natural to the interplay between scientific and literary experience Now that, with an Asimovian grandeur and breadth of effect, the sciences and technologies pervade our culture, right down to our electric toothbrushes and the DNA fingerprints in our hair, the symbiotic (re)visions set forth in popular scientific fictions can only be of service to us as we script our own future.

Robert C. Goldbort began his academic training in biology (BS ’71/MS ’75) and migrated to English (MA ’81/PhD ’89). Responses may be sent to him at the English Department, Root A-212, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN 47809; or send electronic mail to ejgold at

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1994

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