The Fine Line Between Mundane SF and Lab Lit

by syaffolee

(Note: The following is more of an analysis of genre classification rather than a book review. However, there is discussion about story elements that some may consider spoilers even though there is no examination of the plot.)

After seeing The Galaxy Express post on Red Shoes for Lab Blues by D.B. Sieders, I figured I had to read this because the main characters are scientists and the hero is Asian. Mostly because there are so few Asians and/or scientists as main characters in general. However, I had certain trepidations about reading this, too. Because I am both Asian and a scientist and if there was anything off about the technical or cultural details, I would be disinclined to like it.

Overall, I did like Red Shoes for Lab Blues, mostly because it was spot on about the research academic life and the technical details. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab (or read PhD Comics, I suppose) has encountered the personalities and mindsets populating this story. And I got the characterization of Henry (the hero). For instance, there is a scene where he and the heroine Stacey are arguing and he says something that she considers coming totally out from left field. But as a reader, I thought this was really well done because it does not gloss over the inherent social conflicts that many Asian Americans have between living in a Western culture and still being seen as Other.

It is primarily a romance, but I found Henry and Stacey’s relationship sweet rather than steamy. Well, the two characters certainly do more than just kiss, but I found the publisher blurb’s implication that it was erotic misleading. (Aside: If you want to read about scientists doing really steamy sexy stuff, Delphine Dryden’s The Theory of Attraction would fit the description better. However, unlike Red Shoes for Lab Blues which I found did characterization very well, the characters in The Theory of Attraction behaved more like caricatures from The Big Bang Theory.)

So back to the blog post that started all of this. Heather Massey from The Galaxy Express posits that this is mundane science fiction. (Personally I hate the term “mundane sci-fi” because it implies that it’s boring. “Contemporary sci-fi” might be a better term.) One of the commenters on that blog post even said that the word “lab” in the title made her think that this was sci-fi. I’m going to disagree and say that this is not science fiction at all but romance crossed with lab lit. Maybe even part of the subgenre of geek/nerd romance.

However, I must qualify this and say that genre definitions are fluid depending who defines them. Someone could say that Frankenstein was chicklit and never be convinced otherwise because their definition of chicklit was anything written by a woman. So I’m going to explain why this does not fit my definition of science fiction. And what’s my definition of science fiction? It is this: fiction containing speculative science elements integral to the world building, characters and/or plot. Just because a story contains laboratories and scientists and science that you (as an individual and not as the whole scientific field) doesn’t understand does not mean that it is sci-fi.

I did not find any speculative elements in Red Shoes for Lab Blues. I can see why some would think it is sci-fi, though. There is a bit of technical jargon non-scientists would be unfamiliar with and the characters are researchers trying to find a new drug to cure breast cancer. But despite that, nothing is new or imagined. The “compound Z” that the characters are testing is very similar to what real life researchers do. Drug companies have whole libraries of chemical compounds that they send scientists to test. Even the experimental setup for testing this imaginary compound Z is regular procedure that biomedical scientists use all the time. The science behind the fictional drug is sound, but it isn’t innovative. Rather than innovation and speculation, the story is about research and academic culture–working in the lab, teaching undergrads, backstabbing postdocs, getting tenure, publish or perish–hence lab lit.

So what would edge lab lit into mundane sci-fi? Wild speculation, for one. Let’s take the example of the cancer killing drug compound Z. In real life, there are a kazillion compounds that kill cancer cells–not all of them may make it to clinical trials, but the very fact that compounds kill cells is not new. However, what if this compound Z doesn’t kill the cell but alters them in some fundamental way which completely changes our understanding of cancer cells and how cells live and die? What if the compound is one step towards achieving immortality? Now that would be speculation and sci-fi. But only if this was somehow integral to the plot line and not just some character running her mouth at some flights of fancy.

There is definitely a fine line between science fiction and a fictional story simply about science and scientists. For me, science fiction must have a speculative element that is integral to the story, regardless of settings, tropes, and character. While sci-fi and lab lit can be combined, I consider them distinct from one another. And in the particular case of the story I read last night, solidly in the latter and not the former.