Books of The Times
Weaving Science Into Fiction
‘Archangel,’ by Andrea Barrett
By JANET MASLIN
“The Ether of Space,” the second of five interlaced stories in Andrea Barrett’s elegantly contemplative new collection, takes place in 1920. Like the other four tales, and like Ms. Barrett’s National Book Award winner, “Ship Fever,” it is immersed in a scientific world of the past and set at a juncture where science and history collide. At that time, Einstein’s theory of relativity was supplanting earlier ways of envisioning the universe, yet some of Ms. Barrett’s characters are frightened by the lack of humanism in such progress. They cannot easily part ways with the past.
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
By Andrea Barrett
238 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
This story’s main character, Phoebe Wells Cornelius, is a successful popularizer of scientific theory. Among her writings are “books and articles for the interested ignorant — ‘Astronomy for the Young,’ ‘Eclipses for Everyone’ ” — and she has unusual ambition for a woman of her day. But those women face particular hardships, because so many of their sons and lovers and husbands have been lost in World War I. Phoebe’s own spouse and fellow forward-thinking scientist, Michael, died 10 years earlier after contracting measles.
Now Phoebe is a single mother living in a postwar culture where superstition reigns. The world has just lived through a time of terrible magic tricks. In the words of Oliver Lodge, a real scientist and showman whom Ms. Barrett writes into “The Ether of Space,” it has witnessed the way “a conclave of German politicians could, and did, operate on innumerable families in England and slaughter their most promising members without the direct action of a finger.”
Lodge still believes in ether as the medium in which life exists. He is, according to a reporter, a typical Victorian “of the tradition of Darwin and Huxley, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson, who still appreciates the poet’s wonderment in these days at the marvels of science.” But science can only progress if it values evidence over wonderment, even when it comes to theories as counterintuitive as Einstein’s relativity. And the families of the dead much prefer an ether-filled universe in which the lost souls of the dead remain close at hand. Phoebe can’t imagine what Michael would have made “of the ease by which, once the war began to swallow the young, those left behind succumbed” to scientific-sounding charlatans, with their “resuscitated parlor tricks.”
“The Ether of Space” finds Phoebe attending a Lodge lecture, to which she cannot listen passively. She cannot make sense of Lodge’s ideas without sacrificing her own. Also populating this beautifully provocative story is a young scientist named Owen, Michael’s protégé, who will play a further role in this story collection. Another sign of the times can be seen in the condescendingly male tone of Owen’s correspondence with Phoebe.
She disappointed many acquaintances and relatives when she, as a scientist of promise who had succeeded more than many women of her day, chose to marry young and have a son named Sam. When Lodge comes to speak, Sam is old enough to accompany his mother to the lecture. And she is astounded by what her son writes afterward. Sam loves and misses his father. He doesn’t understand Einstein’s thinking, but he knows it is important. He does understand Lodge as a polar opposite to progress, but the lecture has made him realize that man must reconcile the physical and spiritual worlds as best he can. Phoebe reads this letter in her parents house, to a musical sound delicately invoked by Ms. Barrett. Phoebe’s father is heard playing his viola, “dismantling troubles Phoebe knew nothing about.”
The best of the five stories in “Archangel” recall the power and mystery of Ms. Barrett’s “Ship Fever,” another collection of exceptional delicacy and grace. Together, these five stories form a cycle, one that begins in 1908 with “The Investigators,” centering on the viewpoint of a 12-year-old boy, Constantine Boyd, who will reappear as Private Boyd in Northern Russia in the title story, which ends the book. Only 11 years separate “The Investigators” from “Archangel,” which is set in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, but this book’s universe is very full. It also travels back to 1873 for “The Island,” set off New England and featuring the same gutsy Miss Atkins who is Constantine’s gutsy teacher and also a scientist; she is one of the adventurous characters to whom “The Investigators” refers. But in “The Island,” she is shy Henrietta Atkins, hoping to learn about Darwin’s theories by making a hands-on study of marine biology. She falls into the hands of an obstructionist professor who has his own, Darwin-proof theories about how species advance themselves without benefit of evolution.
This is a book full of strong women, Henrietta the toughest among them. By the end of “The Island” she is herself a figurative island, resisting the teachings around her and determined to have faith in her own ideas. “It’s a waste of time for me now,” Henrietta says, as she packs to return to her schoolteacher’s job near Oswego, N.Y. “And I don’t have time to waste. If I’m not learning things I can use, I ought to be back in Hammondsport preparing for classes. I have to redo everything. All my lesson plans, everything I mean to teach: all of it’s wrong.” “The Island” turns out to be about a different kind of lesson learning than the sort Henrietta signed up on for.
Altogether, “The Island” is a testament to cutting-edge scientific thought in the face of strong resistance. And Ms. Barrett has the backbone to stage such challenges credibly and compellingly. Her stories work as both fiction and as philosophy of science. And she need do no grandstanding to advance her belief in unstoppable progress. But this book does offer a powerfully human sense of the struggle it takes for new ideas to dislodge old ones.