Science history in fiction: guest post by author William Dietrich

William Dietrich is a NY Times bestselling author and Pulitzer-winning journalist. He has written fifteen books, including historical thrillers that have sold into thirty-one languages, and prize-winning Northwest environmental texts. ScienceThrillers is delighted to share this exclusive guest post by the writer, in which he discusses the use of science–especially historical science and technology–in his series of Ethan Gage adventure novels.


Guest post by William Dietrich
Author of The Barbed Crown

Barbed crown Ethan Gage is a scientific adventurer who has never met a scientist.

That’s because the word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1834 by Rev. William Whevell, and Gage is a thriller swashbuckler from Napoleonic days, more than three decades earlier.

He works with “savants” aplenty, however. He is a wayward protégé of Benjamin Franklin, and describes himself as an “electrician,” an exotic title in 1798 when the book series opens. A regular theme of these six historical thrillers is the use of science from Ethan’s research and inventor allies to thwart the villains.

The books don’t just recount the political and military history of the Napoleonic era, they also give a glimpse of the dawn of the scientific and industrial revolutions that created our modern world. From real-life submarines to early experiments with street lighting, the shock of the new combines with the mystery of the ancient to give the tales depth.

Napoleon’s Pyramids, first in the series, involves not only secrets of the Great Pyramid, but the birth of Egyptology that followed Bonaparte’s invasion. The raffish hero is thrown in with chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, mathematician Gaspard Monge, geologist Deodat Dolomieu, zoologist Etienne Saint-Hilaire, balloonist Nicholas-Jacques Conte, and geographer Edme Jomard, to name just some.

Many of these savants accompanied Napoleon’s conquest, and all play a role in Ethan’s puzzle-cracking and derring-do.

Franklin’s primitive batteries decide a duel in The Rosetta Key, Midwest archeology is central to The Dakota Cipher, Robert Fulton’s revolutionary 1799 submarine Nautilus plays a key role in The Barbary Pirates, and Ethan’s comrades in arms in that book are pioneering geologist William “Strata” Smith and early evolutionary speculator Georges Cuvier.

In The Emerald Storm, real-life British aeronaut George Cayley plays a critical role with his glider, while Ethan experiments with balloonist Jean-Charles Thilorier in The Barbed Crown. That derring-do includes Fulton’s early Parisian steamboat, which predated the Hudson River version, and William Congreve’s military rockets.

I first became intrigued by the history of science as a science journalist at The Seattle Times. Giving real-life savants an adventure role has been great fun. Some of my novels with more modern settings use regular science thriller themes such as bioterrorism (Ice Reich) or particle physics (Blood of the Reich) as the threat. The Napoleonic ones combine early research with ancient artifacts, from the Book of Thoth to the Mirror of Archimedes. 

The challenge is to be accurate and plausible while taking some biographical liberties. George Cuvier didn’t really maneuver a submarine in a pirate harbor, but he does make interesting speculative company for my hero.

I also try to police the books for out-of-place anachronisms, keeping them true to their times. But a confession? I’ve let “scientist” creep into the tales here and there to help orient my 21st Century readers. “Savant” can only go so far.

DietrichWilliam Dietrich

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