The fact-based novel, much like a "based on a true story" film, is an interesting literary device - a cross between education and entertainment. When done right, meaning when the factual side is accurately portrayed, it can present information and issues (the non-fiction part) in the context of a personal human experience (the fictional part). This is something that non-fiction can sometimes miss, particularly when discussing science- or environmental-based issues.
There are many great examples. Carl Sagan's Contact, comes to mind, a novel combining present-day science in radio astronomy that then takes the reader a step beyond to our first contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial life. And that's the beauty of the fact-based novel, using facts to set the stage to then transport us to a fictional situation or premise that scientists may have actually dreamed of or bandied about over a couple of beers but would not openly propose without the research to actually support it.
Eye of the Whale, by Douglas Carlton Abrams (Atria Books) is just such a work - combining the topical issues of whale communication research, ocean pollution, and industrial/political influence to move the reader from what we know into what could be and, in so doing, takes us on an adventure with a dramatic ending and much to ponder as to our own future.
The story centers on Elizabeth, a young PhD candidate studying humpback whales and their songs in the Caribbean. Her research is in competition with local whalers and their paths cross in the opening act when, during a hunt, she detects a unique and abrupt change in the whales' communication. A baby whale is dying - not from a whaler's lance but from disease and this leads Elizabeth on both, a detective's investigation to find out what is causing whales worldwide to vocalize songs of concern for their offspring, and a crusade to save another humpback whale trapped in the brackish water far inland from San Francisco Bay - a whale that is trying to communicate an important message to its species and perhaps the world.
"Apollo swam northwest toward the summer feeding grounds - his long flippers not far from those of his two companions--
The three whales moved their flukes rhythmically and forcefully--their grace belying the extraordinary thrust of the broad tails propelling them onward--
Apollo could feel his companions by the lift and fall of water and the low sounds of the contact calls that groaned from within their great bodies--"
As Eye of the Whale unfolds, it lays a foundation of facts regarding whale intelligence, the insidious threat from chemical pollution and its impact on animals and man in even the most minute of quantities, and the multitude of players involved in maintaining the status quo for whaling and industrial chemical production. Abrams establishes a host of characters and locations with great detail and from there, the fictional novel takes over, culminating in Elizabeth literally fighting for her life - against those who are concerned as to what secrets she is uncovering - while racing against the clock to save the life of an important messenger whale.
The extent of Abrams research, with copious acknowledgments at the conclusion, is clearly evident and adds greatly to the believability of the story - an important component to any fact-based novel; the reader must be convinced of the factual foundation before any literary license is taken. And while some of the romantic dialog was a bit awkward at times, I found Eye of the Whale to be a riveting story, keeping one's attention to the end where the reader is left to ponder the real implications for the future that the story presents.
For lovers of whales, this book would certainly be an engaging read. However, and perhaps more importantly, if you have even a faint passing interest in environmental issues but resist those non-fiction works that sometimes seem to be factual digests of gloom and doom, then pick up Eye of the Whale. Every good yarn has a foundation of truth and Eye of the Whale accomplishes just that.
Available in hardcover, paperback, or Kindle from Amazon.