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Women scientists in fiction

bch6als at biovax.leeds.ac.uk bch6als at biovax.leeds.ac.uk
Sun Jun 25 05:04:00 EST 1995

Some months ago I posted a request for novels featuring women scientists.
It spun off a couple of interesting threads about scientists in fiction
and the media, and a Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Murry, and whether she was
a realistic positive example.   Several people in their answers asked for
a copy of the compiled list.  Life, work, and changes of career have
intervened, but here it is, in no particular order ... with comments on
those books I have to date found and read.

The Clewiston Test (Kate Wilhelm).  Anne Clewiston is a medical researcher
developing a cheap, intrinsic pain suppressant.  The product has been
approved for human testing when some of the test chimpanzees show 
psychotic symptoms.  The ambitious research director is determined that
the work should progress, and Anne, who is convalescent after a serious
car accident, is ill equipped to oppose him.  Enforced immobility is
making her question the dynamics of her ostensibly happy marriage, and
her husband, faced with her bleak perspective, comes to suspect that
she may have used the pain suppressant on herself.   The novel dates
from the mid seventies, and some of the presentation of the dynamics
has a seventies feel to it--not so much dated, but with more grit than
"post feminist" accommodations allow.  Still, it's one of my favourites,
because it concentrates upon the woman scientist, her work, her 
relationships and morality;  it introduces a number of elements
and puts them together effectively.

Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd).   Hope Clearwater is an ethologist, 
studying first ancient hedges, and then, after the disaster of her
marriage, retreating to Africa to work as observer on a project
studying chimpanzees.   Her observations directly contradict the invested
beliefs of the senior scientist leading the project.  The woman scientist
as dissenter or whistleblower is a common theme in several of those novels--
I suspect it's a common theme in novels about science and scientists because
it is one of the obvious dramatic conflicts.   There's an interesting 
difference in perspective:  the male whistleblower usually stands to
lose his membership in the "club", while the female whistleblower is
already an outsider.  The question for her seems to be much more "will anyone

Small Changes (Marge Piercy).  Dates from the early seventies, and the
focus is on the relationships.   Nevertheless, Piercy is taking
a hard (and sometimes chilling) look at career and relational dynamics,
which lead to the withdrawal of a bright computer scientist, Miriam
Berg, from her field.  Her humanist perspective has no place in a science
dominated by the military-industrial complex.  A minor character,
Dorine, moves in an opposite direction:  her emergent feminism finds
expression in the study of biology.

The Falling Woman (Pat Murphy).  Elizabeth Butler is an anthropologist
who can see the ghosts of the people who once inhabited the sites she
excavates.  While she is working on a Mayan (I think) dig, she is 
haunted by a  woman who offered her daughter in human sacrifice.  
Years before, Butler abandoned her own daughter, Diane, along with 
her marriage.   Upon the death of her father, Diane comes looking for 

Cantor's Dilemma (Carl Djerassi).  The mentor-student relationship 
between a two male scientists is at the centre of this novel, whose themes
are dependency, ambition and trust.  Jerry Stafford, the student, carries
out an experiment which wins himself and his mentor the novel prize.  But
did he or did he not fudge the results?  Djerassi's portrayal of women
scientists is carefully sociological, touching upon the difference between
male-male and female-female mentorship, and the rights and wrongs of sexual
relationships between male professors and female students.  I do think
that any female character about whom the first thing one learns is
how she lost her virginity has a touch of male fantasy about her ... but
it's interesting and honestly done.  

The Bourkaki Gambit (Djerassi) has a female professor of molecular
biophysics as a main character.   I'm still trying to find a copy in the UK.

The Trouble with Lichen (John Wyndham).   As far as I can remember,
this is the first novel featuring a woman scientist I ever read.  Diana 
Brackley and her boss simultaneously extract an anti-aging compound
from lichen.   While Francis takes the conservative approach, confining
it to his immediate family, the inventive Diana markets it as an
expensive beauty treatment, thereby building a support base amongst 
wealthy and influential women, against the day of inevitable

Recombinations (Perri Klass).  Ann Montgomery is a bright young
twentysomething working in industrial biochemistry, out to get the
most out of life, work and love.  Again, the novel concentrates more
upon her relationships than her work--as she throws over her staid
lover in favour of her lab tech--but Klass is astute on the intricacies
of being a woman working amongst men and therefore not _quite_ all the
way in--as when Ann finds herself in general disfavour for failing to
treat an infuriating male colleague with delicacy, because she is the
only one who does not know that his wife is being investigated for
cancer.  Perri Klass has also written a fine novel about a
woman pediatrician, called Other Women's Children.

Lightsource (Bari Wood).  A thriller I'd like to see filmed.  As a young
girl, Emily Brand refused to take part in a classroom master/slave game
which was a disguised social experiment.  In adult life, as a nuclear
physicist, she still refuses to play dominance games.  She develops
plans for a viable fusion reactor, thereby threatening the monolithic
power corporation which virtually rules American business.  She proves
immune to coercion or bribery, so she is framed for murder and hunted
across the country by lawmen and assassins.  Throughout, she defends
herself with strategy and guile; a thinking woman's heroine.

White Eye (Blanche D'Alpuget).  A thriller, set in Australia and
Indonesia.  A woman molecular biologist working at an isolated
research establishment is found murdered.  Everyone assumes the murder
resulted from her sexual misdemeanours, including her cousin, Diana, an
ornithologist and wildlife activist investigating the illegal import
of chimps for research purposes.  An oddly concluded thriller, since
even by the end the heroine still does not fully apprehend
nefarious plot she brushed up against, and inconvenienced, but did not

Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton) features a female biotanist.

Postmortem.  Body of Evidence.   All That Remains.  Cruel and Unusual.
The Body Farm.   (Patricia D. Cornwell)   A series of thrillers about
a female forensic pathologist, unstinting in scientific and technical
detail, and about the warped, violent world the heroine inhabits,
and the toll it takes on her and the people around her.   Postmortem
kept me compulsively checking for locked windows for weeks afterwards.

Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (author?)  Coming of age in
Los Alamos during the development of the nuclear bomb.  Including 
fictionalized portrait of Lise Meitner.

The "Dirk Pitt" novels of Clive Cussler.

The Dandelion Murders  (Rebecca Rothenberg)

Snakes and Ladders (Penelope Farmer).   Does not contain a female
scientist as such, but the viewpoint is that of a conscious
observer of science and scientists:  Anna (forgotten her surname) is
a journalist, mother of an epileptic son, and wife to a scientist (her
second husband) involved in an international epilepsy project.   She acts
as assistant to the project, while at the same time taking notes
on her husband, the charismatic project-leader, the politics of disease
and research, and the superstitions and attitudes surrounding the disease.

Appendix I:  Women scientists in future settings.
I'd cast a narrowish net initially, asking for portrayals of contemporary
women scientists, since I was particularly interested in how fiction
reflected the realities. (I also thought that if I included SF, the
list would rapidly get out of control).   However, since a Wrinkle in Time 
was mentioned, I started thinking about science fiction, and portrayals
of women scientists therein, and so far the list hasn't grown nearly
as much as I expected.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L'Engle).   For me this one never quite
"took", probably because I was introduced to it at school and had
developed an early suspicion of Worthy Books.

The Rains of Eridan (H.M. Hoover).  Theodora Leslie is a xenobiologist
on a field trip on Eridan when she witnesses the murder of the 
expedition's leaders and becomes protector to their orphaned daughter
Karen.  Something about this alien environment causes irrational
terror in humans, which expresses itself in violence and mutiny.  A
YA novel, in which the science is thoughtfully integrated into the
story, and which features an attractive mentor-student relationship
between woman and girl.

The Rose (Charles R. Harness).  One of the idiosynchratic classics of SF,
in which the women really do get all the best parts.  Psychiatrist/dancer/
composer--and mutant--Anna van Tyl is matched against scientist Martha
Jaques in a battle for the body and soul of Martha's husband Ruy and the
future of the human race.  Both Anna and Ruy are mutating into a higher
form of humanity, but Martha is very close to solving the sciomnia equations,
the definition of everything, which will exclude art, uncertainty and change.

The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin).  Female scientists in the persons of
Takver, the hero's partner, a fish geneticist, and Gvarab, an elderly
pioneer in the hero's field.

Nemesis (Isaac Asimov).

Time for the Stars (Robert Heinlein)

Lovelock (Orson Scott Card).

Any further suggestions/comments will be very welcome.

Thanks to Rosemarie Szostak, Sarah Pallas, Lynda Callicotte, Donna Munoz 
O'Regan, Ellen M. Klammer, Steve Carr, Roberta King, and the person 
who wrote under the aegis of "Hallick-lab".  My apologies if I missed anyone
out:  some of the posted messages evaporated before I had noted them down.
T(1/2) at this site seems to be quite short!

Alison Sinclair.

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