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Experimental Heart (SF) - Jennifer Rohn ****

I've just read a novel with science at its heart that claims not to be science fiction. It's Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn.

It's kind of a romance, with a dark subplot, taking place in a laboratory setting. There's lots of realistic sounding science, and as far as I can gather (never having been a practising scientist) a strong sense of the atmosphere in a real lab. (If this is the case, I'd hate to work in a lab as they always seem to have a CD on, and I can't concentrate with music playing.)

It was a delight, as is often the case when I read a book of a kind I wouldn't normally pick up. Although to begin with not much happens, it's written well enough that you are sucked into the story and want to know more. Later on, things get positively page turning as the plot thickens.

But what of Lab Lit, the term Dr Rohn gives to this style of book? Does it work as a genre? I didn't find the quite heavy dose of scientific content to the story a problem, even though once or twice I lost track of the different biological labels. (To be fair, Richard Feynman complained of the same problem with biology, so I'm in distinguished company.) Rather it enriched it.

The only problem I had with the scientific content is that it was almost too real. In normal science fiction, I just assume all the science is made up. Here, because it was so close to reality, I wanted to know which bits were real and which were fictional constructs. It would have been really nice to have had a postscript for geeky readers that made it clear which bits were real science.

The other small problem I have is with the division between lab lit and science fiction. As a long time science fiction fan, I know that quality science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) isn't necessarily about spaceships and monsters - it's about how real human beings react in the face of some difference from normal life that comes out of science, and as such I would humbly suggest that lab lit is a sub-genre of science fiction - as such there's no lab lit category on this website.

Whether or not you agree - I'm sure Jenny Rohn wouldn't! - what is certain is that this is a fascinating, very readable novel. Knowing the author is American, it was interesting to compare it with Elizabeth George's detective novels featuring Inspector Lynley. In those, the American author always manages to get something not quite right about the UK, but Dr Rohn kept it spot on. What can I say? Get a copy!

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Review by Brian Clegg

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