Recently we’ve had something of a spate of books that present science or history of science through fiction, what with Arturo Sangalli’s Pythagoras’ Revenge and Douglas Richards’ The Prometheus Project. Clare Dudman sets out to provide a scientific biography of the man who devised the concept of continental drift, Alfred Wegener, but in fictional form.
There are pros and cons to using ‘informative fiction’ this way. The good side is there is a natural narrative flow. There is no sense of a story being imposed on the information and not fitting well with it as can happen when a purely fictional story is melded with scientific fact. The downside is that the strongest parts of the story may well not be the ones that are about the individual’s life. (I had a similar problem with moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in my biography of him (admittedly non-fiction, but still strong on narrative). The most dramatic aspect of Muybridge’s life, the murder of his wife’s lover, occurs before any of his interesting work.)
In the case of Wegener, his life – and the story – really seemed to come alive when he was undertaking expeditions across Greenland. Here the story becomes truly gripping, in the style of a man-versus-the-elements novel. But there is no science of interest at all here. Wegener’s big ideas – continental drift (the precursor to plate tectonics) and the meteor theory of moon craters – come up in rather dull periods of university life.
There are two questions to be asked. Does this work as popular science, and does it work as a novel? I have no doubts about the former. It got across the story of Wegener’s life and work as well as any straight scientific biography would, if not better. As to the latter, Clare Dudman has great style, and really pulls you into the realities of life on the Greenland ice. The only slight concern I have about it as a novel is that the book is written as a first person historical reminiscence. Inevitably this means there is rather more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ in the way things are put across – it can seem a little disengaged from reality compared with a narrative that really puts you in there with the action.
I don’t know if it was the writer’s intent, but the other observation that came across strongly to me is how much expeditions to hostile places that involve sacrifice and suffering, like Wegener’s, are about the people, not about the place or science. They are, in effect, a form of showing off – in the end, the achievement is arbitrary and has very little value. It makes for a strange contrast between Wegener’s truly valuable scientific insights that were largely ignored at the time, and this terrible waste of life (Wegener’s own, not to mention all the dogs and ponies that get slaughtered) for little more than an ego trip. Fascinating.