By Edward St. Aubyn
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
Science novels are tough. I don’t mean science fiction – science fiction is great – I mean novels about science. Novels where scientists are major characters and where their thoughts and feelings about science are major parts of the plot. They just don’t work very well, in my experience.
It’s a shame, really. I understand why people feel called to do this: science is so beautiful and so complicated and so important. It’s majestic – it feels, in its scope, like something that could be meaningfully explored in literature. But, somehow, science in novels never quite comes off.
Edward St. Aubyn is a magnificent novelist, in my opinion. He’s most famous for his Patrick Melrose novels, but has written a number of other things. He’s a phenomenal writer, with beautiful, sharp prose. The Melrose novels are devastating and excellent; the other novel of his that I have read, ‘Lost for Words’ was extremely witty.
‘Double Blind’ is his latest. The back-blurb says it “follows three friends and their circle through a year of extraordinary transformation”, but that isn’t quite right. At the heart of the plot are two friends, Olivia and Lucy. Olivia is a biologist who is finishing her first book. She has just met Francis, who lives on an English estate which he is helping to wild. Lucy, on the other hand, has just left her consulting firm to join up with a new venture fund run by Hunter Sterling, a tech billionaire. Hunter’s fund specializes in science-driven tech, like a company that scans the brains of monks in deep prayer and then uses trans-cranial electrical stimulation to induce those brain states in customers. St. Aubyn follows these four characters, as well as the people around them, when Lucy is diagnosed with brain cancer.
As I said, St. Aubyn is a marvelous writer, and a lot about ‘Double Blind’ really works. The language is perfect; the characterizations are vivid and believable. There are moments of real beauty; the emotional project feels real. But the science, the science is problematic.
It’s not that the project is invalid. On the contrary, I think I see what St. Aubyn was trying to accomplish with his science and I can see why it appealed to him. The particular piece of science that St. Aubyn is interested in here is called ‘epigenetics’, a field of biology that deals with structural changes to DNA which affect phenotype. It is usefully contrasted with something like a genetic mutation, which changes the actual sequence of the DNA; epigenetic changes modify the shape and accessibility of DNA, making it more or less likely that any particular gene will be translated into protein.
The reason this is interesting to St. Aubyn is that epigenetic changes can be acquired during an individual’s lifetime and passed on to their children. For example, people who have undergone starvation can pass epigenetic modifications onto their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, a sort of inheritance of lived experience which was not thought possible fifty years ago. The discovery of this form of genetic transmission threw an enormous wrench into the nature/nurture debate, and it is this aspect of the biology that St. Aubyn is trying to strong-arm into metaphor.
He gets the science right – no easy feat – and it makes sense, as a metaphor. Each of his characters is wrestling with the tension between the innate and the contingent. Each has a specific inheritance (one was adopted out of hideous abuse; one has a brain tumor; one was neglected as a child) and each has since a lived a life, a life which has offered them the chance to grow, to become someone new. Each is trying to figure out how bound they are to the innate, or whether they can, through lived experience, change.
It’s really not a bad metaphorical set-up. The challenge is giving the reader enough scientific education that they can approach your metaphor, and this, this is the problem with science novels. Because the science involved is specific and slightly esoteric, the only way to give the reader the info that they need is by brute force. Usually, this takes the form of sciency characters walking around and thinking elaborately complete science thoughts, thoughts in which they both laboriously explain the requisite science to themselves and then expound on the implications.
“It was amazing that a journal which stood for the highest standards of scientific rigour would publish such an incompetently devious sentence. A more honest version would have been, ‘After decades of research, we’ve found almost nothing, but we’ve devoted our careers to this fruitless field, so please give us more money.’ Of course, some evidence might turn up in the future by but one of the most valuable contributions made by genetic studies was to show that so far there was no purely genetic influence on the formation of all but rare monogenic diseases, like Tay-Sachs, haemophilia and Huntington’s, known to be caused by a mutation in a single gene; and there was the extra copy of chromosome twenty-one that produced Down’s syndrome, but after these simple certainties, ‘polygenic scores’ and ‘multifactorial’ explanations had to be brought in to prop up the plausibility of the genetically determined story.” (p. 21)
As a professionally sciency person myself, I can say with confidence that we don’t do this. We don’t think like this. No one thinks like this: people don’t review basic knowledge for themselves in survey format. This kind of forced exposition is almost always stupid. We can tolerate it in science fiction – it is basically a genre prerequisite – but in realist, literary novels, it spoils the effect.
But it’s not like St. Aubyn has a choice – if he wants a broad readership to know that haemophilia is a monogenic illness, he has to tell them. Yes, it’s narratively unrealistic and it pulls you out of the flow of the story, but better you have what you need to understand the metaphor; you would be lost otherwise.
There isn’t a good solution to this problem, and I don’t blame St. Aubyn. Science in fiction is a little bit of a siren-song: it seems like it’s going to add an important and meaningful layer to a story, but usually the application sort of ruins the effect. And St. Aubyn has done as good a job as I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t work perfectly – the scientific soliloquies are kludgy for sure – but it could have been way worse. And the rest of the novel is engaging and complicated and difficult, just what you hope for from one of his novels. It’s a good book – it would have been entirely worth reading, even without the science.