Two Novels About Implausible Physicists

I have a confession. Until I started reviewing novels, I rarely read any of them more than once. However, over the last three years since I began posting reviews on this blog, I have read almost every book I’ve reviewed here at least twice and some, three times. The original purpose of my reviews was to solidify what I’d learned from each book about writing fiction. However, almost from the first review I posted, I tried to give my readers a fair and balanced impression of each book that went beyond the craft of fiction. And I’ve made every effort to warn my readers about my bias toward realistic science and scientists while emphasizing my enjoyment of the books as reading experiences.

I say this as a preface to this week’s post, because a have some strong negative reactions to what the two authors have written, but in both cases I had a lot of fun reading their stories. In spite of the serious tone of my reviews, I really do believe that reading fiction should be fun and doesn’t always have to have a serious purpose.

I read the two novels about fictional physicists I’m reviewing almost three years ago. I think they have one attribute in common. Both are intended to be funny, and both have main characters that are unrealistic in their interests and preoccupations. The novels are Gravity’s Chain (2010) by Alan Goodwin and As She Climbed Across the Table (1998) by Jonathan Lethem. Both are on the Lab Lit List, and that is the reason I picked them up.


Cover of Gravity's ChainI was very excited when I read the one-line description of Gravity’s Chain on the Lab Lit List, and indeed the beginning was quite promising.  Jack Mitchell is a brilliant young physicist and mathematician from New Zealand, who has developed a new theory of everything that unifies relativity and quantum theory.  This is a pretty amazing achievement for anyone.  But in the opening chapters, we learn that the personal cost of working out the mathematics of superforce spirals has been disastrous for Jack’s marriage.  From the early scenes of conflict with his wife Caroline until he leaves New Zealand for England alone, the writing is gripping.  But then the story takes a turn into implausibility.

A large corporation named Taikon smells enormous profits from superforce spirals and buys Jack out body and soul.  They hire him to put together a laser show for the general public that explains his theory and the history of science leading up to it.  He complies and the result is wildly successful, turning Jack into a rock star.  Taikon assigns him to a minder named Bebe and sends him on an international tour.  He behaves exactly like we’ve come to expect of spectacularly popular rock stars – wild parties, sex, booze and drugs.

At this point in the story, I asked myself, where is the science here?  Those early scenes of a scientist in the throes of wrestling a coherent theory from a tiny palette of precisely articulated concepts at the cost of disastrous relationships with the people around him, especially those closest to him, had the ring of a story about a real scientist.  But when Taikon came on stage, the effect of those early pages evaporated.  The novel became the story of a rock star’s rise and fall from celebrity.  Given the marginal plausibility of Jack’s theoretical achievement and the notion that somehow a corporate flunky like Bebe would have an inside track to the Nobel selection committee, I’m prepared to argue that Gravity’s Chain isn’t even Lab Lit Lite.  There are celebrity physicists like Brian Greene and Stephen Hawkings to be sure, but there are no parallels between either of them and Jack Mitchell.  Goodwin’s novel is a fantasy on celebrity and its perils.

I’m not saying the book isn’t fun to read.  But so are the James Bond novels.  By making the central character a scientist, Goodwin has done the same disservice to science and those who pursue it as many other novels have.  Few working scientists or even Nobel Laureates in the sciences would find themselves in Jack Mitchell’s shoes because of their scientific accomplishments.  Scientists are pretty cool people, but they don’t get to be rock stars and corporations don’t treat them as potential corporate icons.


Cover of As She Climbed Across the TableSome novels defy categorization or even comprehensible short summaries. Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table is one of those books that has the reader constantly asking questions about what is going on.  Is this a romance between Alice, a physicist whose fascination with the world of subatomic particles keeps her in her lab most of the time, and Philip, an anthropologist who studies contemporary American culture?  That’s how it begins. Or, when Alice’s Nobel Laureate colleague Soft creates a rift in the space-time continuum, have we entered a world of science-fiction?  Certainly, “Lack” as this hole in the fabric of the world comes to be called, is a stretch of contemporary physics.

Then when rivalries develop between Alice and Soft and an Italian physicist shows up expecting to share time with Lack, as though it were a new international hadron collider, followed by a deconstructionist literary scholar, who is given time with Lack, I found myself asking, am I really reading an “academic” novel–a story set on a university campus and focused on the internecine warfare within and among academic departments?

Bizarre incidents follow one another at a dizzying pace.  Are the two blind men, who are bound to each other in a symbiotic interpersonal relationship, a clue that Lethem is just pulling our collective leg?  Maybe it’s all just Theater of the Absurd?  And as I came to end of the book, biting my nails and silently telling Philip over and over, “Don’t, you fool.  Don’t!”–I tumbled with him to a denouement worthy of the best existential fiction of the Twentieth Century.  Or, did I hear Lethem backstage laughing uncontrollably at my gullibility?

I’m not sure As She Climbed Across the Table, deserves a place on the Lab Lit List, nor the designation “drama.”  Maybe Lab Lit Lite.  Trying to place it in a literary genre is vexing, to say the least.  It does have scientists, who at the outset, are realistically portrayed.  The trouble is that it quickly veers off into increasingly absurdist scenes, becoming good entertainment but not serious, or even humorous, fiction about science.

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