In March 2005, our lights first came on: a space for exploring the culture of science and scientists in the real world and as portrayed in fiction. At the new magazine’s core was a fledgling list of “lab lit” fiction – novels, plays and films containing scientists as central characters, doing their jobs in a realistic world. Stories, in other words, about science as a profession.
Fifteen years later, I am looking back in amazement at how far we have come. We are just a few dozen shy of a thousand articles, submitted by scientists, writers, artists and every shade in between from all ages and corners of the globe. The list of fiction has nearly quadrupled in size to several hundred examples. The word I coined, “lab lit”, is now in common parlance, with a Wikipedia page, articles about it in the international press and, recently out, a wonderful anthology dedicated to the genre.
Edited by Dixie State University academic Olga Pilkington and her late husband Ace Pilkington, and published by Lexington Books, Lab Lit: Exploring Literary and Cultural Representations of Science is packed full of literary criticism and analysis about this ever-engaging and multi-faceted form of storytelling. I was very pleased to have been asked to contribute a reflective essay and a case study: “Latent”, an original story inspired in setting by one the institutes where I’ve done research, and in topic by the real-life XMRV affair – in which a disease without a cause is highjacked by wishful thinking and vested interests. In it, I expose a less attractive side of the research ecosystem, which most scientists will be familiar with but which may not be so well known to everyone else. And this is one of the powers of the genre: shedding light on science and how it ticks – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Of course lab lit fiction existed long before the website was launched, and was on many people’s radars (under other names such as “hard science fiction” or “science in fiction”), but I do believe we played an important part in enhancing awareness of how science has been neglected by mainstream writers, and by inspiring writers to use scientists and science themes in their fiction. Certainly some writers who debuted with fiction in our pages have gone on to be published authors. In parallel, over the past fifteen years, the number of lab lit novels published keeps increasing year on year. Fiction Lab, the lab lit book club that I’ve run at the Royal institution since 2008 (itself coming up on its 12th birthday in June), no longer has to struggle to find books to discuss each month. And that’s a wonderful thing.
The website is becoming increasingly difficult for me to tend, which is why the frequency of updates is not as brisk as in previous years. This is because being a member of faculty with a number of teaching and university administrative responsibilities alongside running my own research team in London, as well as being a mother with a small son and a long daily commute, makes it sometimes difficult to tend to my other labor of love. So if there’s anyone out there interested in volunteering to help out, please do get in touch. But LabLit.com is still in brisk good health, so I’m looking forward to many more decades of science culture here on the site.
To all the people out there who read and enjoy LabLit.com, submit and publish articles, and nominate fiction for the list: a big thank you from all of us at LabLit.com!