Sunday, January 12, 2014

“The Powers Problem”

Jim Holt has a review today of the latest Richard Powers novel:

Back in Princeton, back in the day, I read one of the earlier works by that author, who had a reputation for braininess.   A brainy novel is not necessarily any good, but I had greatly enjoyed The Mind-Body Problem, by the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, and wrote to our local municipal reference librarian thus:

> I just finished reading Richard Powers' "Gold Bug Variations", which you
> would like -- its heroine is a reference librarian!  And its hero is a
> biochemist.  Now, novels that have science front-and-center (and I mean real
> science, not science fictions) are comparatively rare.  "Arrowsmith" comes to
> mind, but... can you give me the names of any other novels that are
> fundamentally about the practice of science?  Thanks.

She replied, delightfully, by return of post:

Here are a few titles that I have unearthed thus far... I will pass this question
on to other staff members next week and see what other suggestions turn up. Hope
one or two of these titles will suit your needs -- a * indicates that we own the

*"Mendel's Dwarf" by Simon Mawer
*"The Calcutta Chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh
*"Darwin's Shooter" by Roger McDonald

Books from a series by novelist/scientist Carl Djerassi (we have only the first
in the series):
   *The Cantor's Dilemma
     The Bourbaki Gambit
     Menachem's Seed

You may also want to have a look at "Darwin's Ghost" by Steve Jones... it is not
a novel, but it has had great reviews. It is a reworking and update of "The
Origins of Species" that is by all accounts infinitely more readable than
Darwin's original.

Oh, and Thanks for the recommendation of "Gold Bug Variations" -- it sounds like
a great
and I shall add it to my "to read" list.


After that, I read a couple more by Powers, then gave up.  Something was just missing.  (The Ghosh thing proved also not worth the effort.)   I never was inspired to write even something as long as thoughtful as the Holt review;  but here are a couple of notes from back then, FWIW:

"Fielding followed Swift and Pope in deflating the pride of scientists." (Jones, The Rhetoric of Science, 76.)
     For some reason, science has fared better in poetry – of all places! -- from the time of Lucretius onwards.

Powers himself brings in Dickens, referring rather slightingly to "a cheery little Dickens book about the criminally destitute" (Wandering Soul 272).  Dickens never wrote a cheery little book about anything, let alone the "criminally destitute" (whatever that is exactly).  He wrote one mostly cheery big book, whose animal spirits skillfully distract the reader from quite taking in the sharpness of the underlying satire; but after Pickwick Papers he really wrote no book that could be called either cheery or little.  His reputation for superficial joviality must be based largely on half-remembered inexpert or sugared stagings (in school auditoria, isn't junior adorable) of "A Christmas Carol", which  even in its written form  is the least of his works.

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