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A book of eight stories tied together around the theme of science and scientist's lives; all of the science is real. We get a letter by Mendel passed down through generations, a heartbreaking vignette of Linnaeus at the end of his life looking back on his students who have predeceased him, the question as to whether swallows migrate or sleep under the ice all winter; we get, in the title novella, an utterly wrenching look at the death and death and death from the typhus that came with Irish immigrants to Grosse Isle in Canada in 1847 (more than five thousand deaths at Grosse Isle alone, besides the ones who never made it there and the ones who died in other places after the efforts at quarantine were abandoned). I'm not sure it's a successful story qua story, but as a look at a time and place and a terrible thing and the way that the various governments and powerful interests involved were looking at and making politics around that terrible thing it is very well done.

So there's some really good stuff in here. Unfortunately, about half of it is a kind of fiction I simply cannot find as interesting, namely fiction in which middle-aged people have ennui about wasting their lives and have affairs or don't and whatever they do it ruins everything and I cannot bring myself to care. Science is the device here too, scientific work as escape from family and quotidian life and ruiner of relationships and cause of real wonder and once (only once) cause of a genuine escape that actually works and holds up and makes happy and whole. But I do not wish to take oceanography as a metaphor for alienation. That is simply not a thing to do to oceanography. And the thing is, when I say half the book is like this I do not mean four stories out of eight, I mean about half of each story. Including 'Ship Fever', which is very nearly an example of the weight of the real atrocity sufficiently outweighing the characters enough to offend me, although not quite because I get the impression that the characters are so very much not the point of that one, and because she feels and respects and communicates the weight of the real atrocity so.

It's all really well written. It's all structured well, crafted well, wrought and shaped and subtle and fine. And it is the most amazing mixture of things I find compelling and things I find so incredibly boring that my brain turns off at the mere thought of them. Usually most books have one or the other to a much greater proportion if they are going to have one that strongly.

It may be-- I think-- that she is better at science and setting and structure than characters. I cannot remember any of the names of her people except Linnaeus (and oh, read that one, it will hurt you and it's lovely). This is usually a sign. I have been known to care about midlife crises for the sake of the person going through them.

Still, I do not find that an unforgivable weakness. One way in which this book reminds me of science fiction, besides the obvious fact that both are interested in science, is that it could in some ways be one of those Golden Age collections where each story is an animating idea, a concept and a world, and the people necessary to make it go but not for other reasons. Except with much better prose, and there are a couple of good character moments here, Linnaeus as I said, the young woman writing to him from England about swallows, whom he snubs, her friend who knows what it is at that time to be a woman and be educated. So. Worthwhile, if you like the lives of scientists, if your tolerance for a certain kind of fiction is marginally higher than mine, if you like to see fiction that is trying, and mostly achieving, high ambitions.


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March 2017

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