A Scientific Romance

Dali, The Persistence of Memory

Last year I wrote about archaeologist-historian-novelist Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, a briefer, darker, and more insightful assessment of our civilization culture than the much more famous book that came out a few months later, Jared Diamond’s Collapse. A Short History of Progress summarizes and analyzes six spectacular civilizational collapses from throughout our history, and reads us the riot act about what we need to do now to avoid another collapse, this time a global one. The book is one of the 15* essential works on my longer, 65-book* Save the World reading list.

Eight years ago, Wright wrote an award-winning (in four countries) novel called A Scientific Romance. Complex, satirical and dystopian, it is at its heart a murder mystery, unraveled piece by piece through its narrator, David Lambert. As tempting as it is, I will not reveal any of the plot’s secrets, or its conclusion, for to do so would spoil it for readers.

Reading the book was an eerie experience for me: The protagonist’s name is David, and his love-interest’s name is Anita (my wife’s name). My discovery of this book was an instance of synchronicity: I was looking for two books in a Toronto bookstore when I discovered instead Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, which I reviewed last week. Ronald Wright’s praise for Flannery’s book, on its back cover, convinced me to buy it. The blurb described Wright first of all as a ‘novelist’, a fact I had forgotten, and I made a mental note to take a look for his novels. But as I climbed the bookstore stairs to look for the books on my list, in my path was a temporary display of ‘notable Canadian fiction’ in paperback, and on the top row of the display was A Scientific Romance.

Some of the book’s passages also spooked me: Just twelve days ago I wrote about The Precautionary Principle, and Treating Polluters as Murderers, and now I read this, a comment by David, the novel’s protagonist:

One thing I never understood about the law: If you dumped arsenic in Granny’s tea,  you’d be put away for murder; if you poisoned a whole country with some cavalier industrial process, the worst you could expect was a paltry fine.

The book contains some prescient observations that also gave me a frisson — you know that strange sense of precognition that has you flipping to the inside cover to see if the book was really written eight long years ago, or searching your memory to recall what a passage reminded you of so strongly, that you can’t quite put your finger on. And then just a few pages later, the protagonist, David, himself experiences a frisson, as the words from his dream appear in a graffiti message, causing him to say “You will know the vertigo induced by that last line, a “Dunne” [a glimpse of the immediate future found in dreams, described in JW Dunne’s An Experiment with Time] foreshadowed in my dream.”

Here are a few delicious teaser paragraphs to give you an idea of the astonishing scope of Wright’s perceptiveness and imagination, and why I couldn’t put the book down:

The rear-view mirror [our knowledge of history and archeology] breaks up the parochial landscape of the present. And our costly reward is to know that no culture is normal or inevitable; that none has a patent on wisdom or a guarantee of immortality; that civilizations, like individuals, are born, flourish and die; that the very qualities that bring them into being — their drive, their inventions, their beliefs, their ruthlessness — become the indulgences that in the end will poison them… Civilization is always a pyramid scheme. Living beyond your means. The rule of the many by the few. The trick is to keep wringing new loans from nature and your fellow man.

What is the critical mass of a world like ours? If the modern age began when the sum of Western knowledge became too large for any individual to command it — with the birth of the specialist — then the postmodern, strictly speaking, begins with the death of specialists.

[Recalling learning in childhood of the automobile death of his parents] For some time I believed that it was I who had died, not they. That the rest of the world had carried on without me; that the story I’d been told was merely the stuff of hellfire. The adult mind employs more sophistication but it tells the same fables to itself. The sensation of having escaped and lived on becomes a solipsism, a trick of evaporating consciousness, or, if you like, an anodyne from a loving God to spare you the blow of your extinction. And it follows that one may never know when one has died, may go on living an echo, like a player performing to the darkness of an empty hall he thinks is a full house. And the ever-running play you write and act is your eternity.

Why is the echo richer than the source, and time remembered always grief? People come and go, and you hardly notice how they feel, what you feel. Then one day when you least expect it remembrance slips like a blade into the heart: What you did and didn’t do, said and didn’t say; and suddenly you fall down into a cold and sunken place with only your regrets for company, there gutted by sorrow and remorse and left to die.

Yet, if a dinosaur can become a hummingbird, all things are possible.

The book contains some brilliant anagrams (see if you can spot them) and keeps you thinking and guessing, not only because of its plot twists and revelations and its jumps back and forth in time, but because its protagonist faces decisions that, in many ways, we all face today, and draws you into thinking: What would I do in that situation? Example: David needs to decide what period in history to try to explore in a supposed ‘time machine’ that he has inherited from a mysterious benefactor. He thinks out loud about all the possibilities, from past and future, keeping in mind the scientific theory that you can never go backwards (a meme undercurrent throughout this remarkable novel, and also its larger ecological message to the reader):

We’ve been living a long time on nature’s savings, and there are signs her bank account is overdrawn. It seems to me that if I go ahead a few decades, or even generations, I run the risk of landing in a mess. So I’ve made up my mind to follow [the machine’s inventor] Tania’s clue, to the middle of the new millennium. Five hundred years — long enough for a new dispensation; and why be hanged for a lamb?

Suppose you were David, and had the chance to travel to another time. Would you choose to defy the laws of physics and nature and go back, to a simpler time or to redress or preempt some past error? Or would you go forward, and if so, just a few years, to see if today’s optimists or pessimists are right, or a longer way, either into the abyss of the uncertain future our children’s children’s children will face, so that you can struggle or luxuriate alongside them, accepting your responsibility for their future, or far beyond that, into Gray’s future, “a time when humans have ceased to matter” or A Short History of Progress future where “nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea”?

I would go far beyond the long tail of our civilization, roll the dice, and pick a time further in the future than our civilization stretches into the past — thirty millennia forward. What would you choose?


* I will be updating these lists soon, to reflect these additions:
15 Essential Readings: #13 is John Gray’s Straw Dogs; #14 is Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a Life Together; #15 is James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency.
Full 65-Book Reading List: add the three books above plus: John Livingston’s Rogue Primate, Bill McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle and Hannover Principles, Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry, Ran Prieur’s The Slow Crash, David Ehrenfeld’s Beginning Again, David Brower’s Healing Time on Earth, Tom Robbins’ In Defiance of Gravity, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Cellular Church, Richard Douthwaite’s Growth Illusion and Short Circuit, and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers.
I have reviewed all these works on this weblog; use the ‘Search Site’ Google tool in the upper right sidebar to locate these reviews.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Scientific Romance

  1. Doug Alder says:

    I read this earlier this year and was just blown away too. Had a hard time putting it down. Well worth reading. It had been sitting on my shelf for about a year, I picked it up at a remaindered table just from reading the reviews on the back. Glad I finally got around to trying it :-)

  2. I’ve added your list to ‘Lists of Bests’, it’s @ http://www.listsofbests.com/list/3643

  3. theresa says:

    That does sound like a very interesting book. I’ll have to look for it, thanks. I have always thought that this was the best and most interesting time to be alive in the history of the human race. In particular I think the scope of change witnessed by people living now who were born between 1910 and 1920 gives them a mentality that might one day prove to have been the most enriched. If I did have to live in another era I think I would like to to be thousands of years in the future with the hope that some of our current problems have been long since forgotten. It would also be interesting to see which of our problems have endured after such a long time, and to think about why that is so.

Comments are closed.