6c Scientific Expedition Narratives in Contemporary Historical Fiction

Research team: Anna Auguscik and Anton Kirchhofer

This project examines the re-telling of scientific expeditions in contemporary historical fiction. Combining a metaphorical journey of scientific discovery with the actual travel of explorers and scientists across various parts of the globe, expeditions epitomize the history of the European quest for knowledge of the entire world. They lend themselves to various models for conceptualizing the relationship between different global regions, as well as the relationship between different types of knowledge. While descriptions of travels had always provided knowledge about other parts of the world, expeditions involving explicitly scientific goals date back to the second half of the 18th century (Iliffe 2003). The expedition by James Cook and the HMS Endeavour (1768-1771) is an early example. It involved a scientific goal (to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun), a scientific crew (two naturalists and an astronomer, as well as the navigator, cartographer, and Captain Cook), and was partly funded by a scientific institution (the Royal Society). In recounting the story of this expedition, a historical novel like Graeme Lay’s The Secret Life of James Cook (2013) can not only show how expeditions reflect the geo-political contexts of a time (cf. Williams 1998) and how scientific goals interact with political, military, or economic interests; it can also uncover the ways in which the expedition’s scientific insights relied on dialogue and collaboration between the researchers and the locally recruited indigenous members of the expedition.

In the first phase of work, we conduct a survey of the actual scientific expeditions described in historical fiction published since the 1990s. In the second phase, we undertake a detailed analysis of fictional rewritings of selected scientific expeditions, such as Beryl Bainbridge’s Three Birthday Boys (1991), Richard Flanagan’s Wanting (2008), or Lily King’s Euphoria (2014), guided by the following set of questions: What does a history of scientific expeditions look like seen through the lens of contemporary novels? How do the novels position themselves in relation to the non-fiction narratives and which do they ignore (historical accounts, memoirs, log books, scientific papers, popular science)? How do such fictionalized representations of historical expeditions reflect back on the global dimensions of the history of science? And what picture of the history of science is drawn in these fictional accounts (teleological progress or discovery by chance; hegemonic power or dialogic, interactive circulation of knowledge)? By retelling the story of an expedition with certain research interests, goals, and outcomes in a certain way at a certain time, fiction produces a re-reading of history that may imagine—or reveal—a secret, untold history. Just as important, however, is what it can tell us about the perspectives on science and geopolitics of the time in which it is written.