Non-fiction, especially science, is an indispensable window on the world. But non-fiction generally has a short shelf-life. They become outdated quickly. For example, Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History, which explained how DNA technology allows scientists to figure out human history (origins, migrations, etc.) was published in 2002. However well-written Olson’s book was, it has been totally eclipsed by books such as David Reich’s 2018 Who We Are and How We Got Here, in which the author explains his own research in this same area but which is based on massive numbers of entire genomes, ancient and modern, from around the world and using new kinds of analysis. Compared to Reich’s work, Olson’s seems based on a mere handful of observations. And however well-written was John Gunther’s 1958 Inside Russia Today, the only people who read it now are professional and amateur historians who wonder what the old communist state was like. Some of the best popular sociology books were the ones written by Vance Packard, but they contain very little information that is relevant today. Old biology textbooks are outdated since they contain no mention of CRISPR-Cas9 systems which are already revolutionizing biotechnology.
Where, then, can one preserve the knowledge of the past, and especially the sense of adventure that the old scientists had in discovering that knowledge?
A few works of non-fiction are still in print after almost two hundred years, not because of their science but because of the authors’ enthusiasm. The example that first comes to mind is Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. You can read it and relive the excitement of a time in history when the evolutionary history of the Earth, and even the Earth itself, were largely unknown. It reads like a story.
Which brings me to my point. It is fiction that can preserve the knowledge of previous generations and the sense of scientific adventure. Perhaps the best example is Jules Verne, as explained by Rosalind Williams in The Triumph of Human Empire. Most of Verne’s novels introduced as much scientific and geographical knowledge, as it was known in the nineteenth century, as possible. What was the bottom of the sea like? The middle of Africa? It wasn’t always Verne’s science fiction that explored the world; Michael Strogoff is not science fiction but introduced readers to the vast regions of Siberia with which they were likely to be unfamiliar. Even as Verne wrote about these places, the blank spots on the map, the realm of the unknown, was being filled in. If Verne had written non-fiction books (and some parts of Twenty Thousand Leagues almost sound like a textbook being recited by the scholarly servant Conseil), they would have fallen off the edge of the world at most twenty years after they were written. But in Verne’s novels, we readers willingly assume the mantle of limited knowledge, we pretend that we really don’t know what is under the sea, and we relive the adventure. We are even willing to overlook Verne’s errors that were based on a total ignorance of undersea plate tectonics (we know Atlantis is not really there).
Even the best works of non-fiction get replaced by new discoveries, just as Carl Sagan’s still-famous Cosmos has largely been replaced by the one by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Few scientists could match Peter Medawar’s thrill of scientific discovery, but when I looked through his Threat and Glory, based on his writings from the 1960s, I found almost nothing with which I could connect.
As I hiked along a trail in an oak forest near Tulsa, as I have done many times, I felt a billowing of enthusiasm about all of the trees, all of the other organisms, and all of the ecological processes that I could see. How could I convey this enthusiasm to others? I could write (and probably have to self-publish) The Flora of Turkey Mountain, which a few people would look at and which would survive, if at all, in a library vault. I could write a more popular book on the same subject. Or I could make it the setting of one of the scenes of a novel, in which the characters advance the plot by exploring the forest. With luck, the novel in which I did this will remain part of the corpus of American literature long after I am gone, assuming it gets published. In non-fiction, I would describe and explain the forest; in fiction, my characters live in it.
Therefore, I hope that, as an aspiring novelist, I can help preserve the history of scientific discovery and enhance the popular appreciation of science.