2b. Emergence of the multi-dimensional scientist character

Researchers: Anton Kirchhofer, Natalie Roxburgh

This project examines how scientists are represented as “realistic,” multidimensional characters in contemporary fiction. Realistic characters cause the reader to engage emotionally with a fictional human, in this case one who comes in contact with the world of knowledge step by step, experiencing all the and experiences all the attendant epistemological problems.

The representation of scientists as characters is perhaps the most widespread form of incorporating science into fiction. Dating back to the 19th century, cultural stereotypes of scientists—as awkward, unworldly, megalomaniac, predominantly male, etc.—have been based on the idea that science is an all-consuming, inhuman enterprise practiced by individuals with mono-dimensional interests and personalities (cf. Haynes 1994). Literary characters have been drawn from these stereotypes, which has not made for realistic novels about science. Such stereotypical figures are poorly suited to the role of “problematic individual,” a type of multi-dimensional character that Georg Lukács defined as a constitutive structural element of the novel in his classic Theory of the Novel (1916; 1971). In the past couple of decades, novelists have created characters better suited to this intrinsic component of the novel. In this project we examine the fictional strategies used to represent these scientist characters, rendering them less socially opaque and more “human” to readers.

Recent novels feature scientist characters with all the complexities and flaws of real humans. Mendel’s Dwarf (provides an excellent example of this, as the scientist protagonist, Ben, is an achondroplastic dwarf). Perceived by others as an “abnormal” human, Ben seeks genetic answers for his own condition, even if it means engaging in research that may be used in an ethically questionable way. In Solar, protagonist Michael Beard’s moral failures beg the question of whether or not it is ethical to take credit for a junior colleague’s work: Is it more important that the right person get the credit, or that new scientific discoveries get promulgated at any cost? Both of these novels use multidimensional characters to ask questions about the relationship between the structures of scientific practice and human progress. Can science ever fulfill its promise of knowledge and truth, or are objectivity and neutrality doomed by the all-too-human qualities (embodied in these characters) of its practitioners and consumers?

The realistic representation of scientist characters also relies on internal focalization through a narrator, sometimes first-person, sometimes third-person. Focalization means that the information the reader gets is limited to a given character’s point of view, which then implies that one cannot separate character and narration in the modern novel. McEwan’s Enduring Love, Saturday, and Solar all feature realistic scientists who are the focal points of the narratives—characters that are fraught with human qualities and are able to drive the novels’ plots because of the way that they limit the reader’s perspective. Lodge’s Thinks… provides another example of problematic characterization with a protagonist and partial narrator who is a cognitive scientist.

Critical approaches have not yet considered what it means for scientists to be featured as multidimensional characters in these novels. Joe Rose in Enduring Love, for example, is discussed as a “figure whose professional role is to mediate between scientific specialization and the public” (Amigoni 2008: 160); Henry Perowne in Saturday is a “type” embodying the particular historical moment in Martin Ryle’s analysis, allowing the focalizing over-rational consciousness to make a political statement (2010: 26); and the cognitive scientist protagonist in Thinks… “functions as the main locus for […] evolutionary psychological speculations” (Oikkonen 2010: 600). The de-emphasis on character per se causes these critics to see the scientist merely as a representative of something larger. In this project, we will shift the emphasis by using close textual analysis to illuminate the character of the scientist as an individual, limited human, one that helps readers understand many of the epistemological concerns involved in the production and implementation of scientific knowledge.

In Enduring Love, for example, we see that Joe Rose is not merely a rationalist “type,” but a complicated failed academic researcher whose earlier experience of doing science informs his interpretation of key events. He believes that another character is deeply infatuated with him, and he uses a scientific diagnosis to understand the other’s behavior. Because this multidimensional character is also the point of narrative focalization, the reader identifies with Rose’s predicament and is led to ask questions about the nature of scientific knowledge. Similarly, Ralph in Thinks… consistently engages in discussion about his research with Helen Reed, a novelist. Through these discussions—sometimes through the perspective of Ralph and sometimes through that of Helen—the reader comes to understand the limits of Ralph’s theories and learns to think about consciousness and narrative form from the perspectives of both cognitive science and literature. It is only by identifying with these multidimensional, problematic characters that the reader comes to ask critical questions about scientific knowledge, which is, we hypothesize, a common trait of this seemingly newer breed of science novel.

Our initial corpus comprises a dozen contemporary novels that feature “realistic,” “problematic,” multidimensional scientist characters and have received a modus of critical attention in either the literary or scientific communities. In this way, we broaden the critical sweep beyond high profile literary authors like McEwan and Lodge to include recent works by emerging authors whose particular forms of literary innovation may derive from a scientific rather than a humanistic literacy and thus elude mainstream literary critics whose traditional concepts of quality and significance are based on the latter. Based on our findings, we consider what the emergence of such characters may mean for the contemporary evolution of the novel and for the forms of literacy required to create and interpret it.