Questions of environmental conservation, animal rights, synthetic biology, and the role of the unconscious mind in decision making tend generally to find their place in works of nonfiction, but a recent spate of ambitious novels have tackled these very issues. Does "a spoonful of human interest to make the medicine of science go down," as Forbes’ Will Wilkinson wonders in his recent review of one of these novels? That depends, of course, on the skill of the author. Here are five fresh works that take inspiration from the worlds of science and conservation. 


"When the Killing’s Done"

By T.C. Boyle

Publisher: Viking

Novelist and short story writer T.C. Boyle is no stranger to tough environmental themes. His eighth novel, "A Friend of the Earth," was published in 2000 and told the story of protagonist Tyrone Tierwater, a former eco-warrior working as caretaker to a collection of endangered animals in a futuristic Southern California ravaged by global warming. His latest book, "When the Killing’s Done," is also set in California, and concerns itself with the rights of animals, the sanctity of the natural world, and the conflicts that inevitably arise between the two when humans get involved. The action plays out in the California Channel Islands, where in the past decade “a rather testy turf war was fought between animal rights activists and the biologists of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy over the elimination of non-native species of plants and animals.” Immense, dramatic, and arguably bleak, "When the Killing’s Done" easily finds its home among Boyle’s remarkable body of work.


"West of Here"

By Jonathan Evison

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Jonathan Evison’s second novel, "West of Here," has received praise far and wide. Algonquin Books Executive Editor Chuck Adams — a man who has worked in the publishing industry for 40 years — called it the best book he had ever worked on, and the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next List chose "West of Here" as its No. 1 pick for February. The novel spans more than 100 years in the fictional town of Port Bonita, Wash., and its surrounding wilderness. Through the perspectives of more than 40 characters including visionary dam builders and feminist Utopians, Evison explores weighty themes such as our relationship to the land, environmental destruction and restoration, and the place of native peoples and spirituality in today’s world. Sounds like a lecture, but his writing style is vivid, down-to-earth, and full of humor and compassion.


"Rock Bottom"

By Erin Brockovich with CJ Lyons

Publisher: Vanguard Press

The story goes that famed legal researcher and activist Erin Brockovich, a fan of "Angels of Mercy" author CJ Lyons, asked the suspense/thriller writer to co-write "Rock Bottom" with her, a proposal that inspired Lyons to let out "a fan girl squeal of delight." The book that resulted from this mutual admiration society focuses on mountaintop removal — the controversial method of coal mining — and tells the story of AJ Palladino, a woman fighting to protect her hometown from toxic threats linked to the mining process. Unsurprisingly, there’s already a second book in the works: "Hot Water," the next installment in the AJ Palladino series, centers on a South Carolina nuclear plant and is slated for October release.



By Paul McEuen

Publisher: The Dial Press

Fun with gene modification, fungi and biological weapons can all be found in Cornell physics professor Paul McEuen’s novel, "Spiral." An army of nanobots gone bad and the lingering effects of a secret nuclear explosion years earlier help add suspense to this nanoscience-minded thriller. The book, McEuen’s fiction debut, follows protagonist Jake Sterling, a Cornell physics professor (write what you know) searching for clues to who murdered 86-year-old fellow professor, mycologist, and lovable old laureate Liam Connor, whose body has been found in a gorge near the Cornell campus. Publishers Weekly calls it “emotionally intense and thought-provoking” and The New York Times says it’s “like something written by Michael Crichton in his prime.”


"The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement"

By David Brooks

Publisher: Random House

What is the unconscious mind, exactly, and is it our friend or Freudian foe? Virginia Woolf is the author who arguably grappled most intensely with this question, and with ways to creatively portray the unconscious mind through the medium of the written word. As Richard E. Cytowic wrote in his piece on Woolf for Seed magazine last year, “she did not feel herself the author of her own thoughts, but a puppet of another consciousness.” Now New York Times columnist David Brooks attempts to make sense of similar questions in his novel "The Social Animal." Brooks creates two characters, Harold and Erica, through whom he explores the powerful, unconscious influence of physical and social context on human behavior. Though "The Social Animal" is a work of fiction, Brooks references the work of a number of important researchers and theorists working in the psychological and brain sciences along the way, and argues that their work establishes “the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connection over individual choice, character over IQ, … and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self,” which is, of course, what Woolf was saying all those many years ago.

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