Brief “lab lit” book reviews: As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathan Lethem and Euphoria by Lily King

Here are my spoiler-free reviews of two books that came up in our epic “lab lit” post and comment thread: As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathan Lethem and Euphoria by Lily King. As usual, I’m a scientist reviewing fiction about scientists. Which hopefully makes my reviews a useful complement to reviews by non-scientists. Scientists and non-scientists often react differently to fiction about scientists.

tl;dr: Euphoria is great, As She Climbed Across The Table is…odd. And I have some thoughts on the difficulty of dramatizing scientific research that pushes far into the unknown.

I knew going in that As She Climbed Across The Table would be odd. It’s intended to be odd. But it wasn’t odd in a way that clicked with me (your mileage may vary, obviously…) It’s the story of particle physicist Alice Coombs and her spurned boyfriend, anthropologist Philip Engstrand. Philip is the narrator. Alice and her colleagues make a wormhole in her lab. Put certain objects in it and they vanish, but the wormhole seems to absorb or reject objects at random. The lab’s research involves chucking things into the wormhole to try to determine the rhyme or reason for its choices. Alice gradually becomes obsessed with the wormhole and comes to think of it as a person. With whom she falls in love (!) Philip resorts to increasingly desperate measures to try to win her back. There’s also a subplot about some random guys who wander into Philip’s life and have weird, vaguely Samuel Beckett-esque conversations (I told you this book was odd…). I guess it’s supposed to be a satire on science vs. humanities? But if so, it wasn’t sufficiently grounded in any recognizable reality to work for me (it’s the same problem I had with Bellwether; contrast, say, the recognizably-grounded–and brilliant–academic satire Small World). Or maybe it’s supposed to be a whimsical riff on physics and human relationships? If so, the suggested analogies were too superficial to grab me. The play Copenhagen is much stronger in that respect, though of course totally different from this novel in other ways. And Alice is a blank, and her research program doesn’t make any sense as science. Not even as “groping your way towards understanding something completely new”. One thing I’ve concluded from various novels and movies is that it’s really hard to plausibly dramatize scientists groping their way towards understanding something totally new and bizarre. I don’t think the Southern Reach trilogy managed it either (though I know some of you disagree with me completely on that…) The movie Arrival pulled it off. But it’s hard. Part of the problem is that scientists these days are never confronted with something totally new, about which they’re completely clueless. They always have some sort of working hypothesis and some research strategy. That’s true even for people working beyond the boundaries of what’s known, like SETI researchers and fundamental physicists. If you want real-world inspiration for what it’s like to try to learn about something that nobody has the first clue about, you should probably look back to science as it existed hundreds of years ago (although even alchemists had some comprehensible research strategies, didn’t they?). Or else look to fringey types whose “research” arguably doesn’t qualify as science. Or else maybe just stay a bit vague about what exactly the scientists are doing; that’s more or less how the movie Primer works. For a different view of As She Climbed Across The Table, see the Guardian review.

Here’s a novel that pulls off scientists groping their way towards understanding (or what seems to them like understanding): Euphoria. Euphoria won a bunch of awards, and I can totally see why. Historical fiction, set in 1933 in Papua New Guinea and inspired by real events in the life of Margaret Mead. I have no idea how closely the events in the book track real events (save that at the end they definitely don’t…), and I don’t care. Euphoria is fabulous on its own terms, whatever its inspiration was. It’s a love triangle drama about three anthropologists: American Nell Stone, her Aussie husband Fen, and Brit Andrew Bankson. Told partly from Andrew’s point of view and partly from Nell’s. It’s a character-driven study in contrasts; each of the three has their own preferred approach to the then-just-developing field of anthropology. Nell and Fen are both ambitious. Nell has already made a splash with a controversial and unconventional book, which her husband envies and resents. Andrew is flailing, personally and professionally, until he meets them by chance and is drawn into their orbit. It’s both intellectually and emotionally gripping to watch the three of them struggle towards, argue about, and stake rival claims to, Big Ideas that might revolutionize their nascent field, while dealing with the hazards posed by both fieldwork and their own complicated feelings towards each other. At the end, the book packs a serious punch, even though key events occur offstage. Euphoria is great on what it’s like for scientists to work in a context so new to them it’s unclear what questions they should ask or how they should go about answering them. Lily King clearly did a ton of research for this, and she puts it to proper use: to flesh out a believable world, and to put the characters in interesting situations without having to resort to implausible plot devices. And she’s a fine writer. She’s great at description and has a deft way of conveying important background information in brief hints. NY Times review (with some spoilers) here.

4 thoughts on “Brief “lab lit” book reviews: As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathan Lethem and Euphoria by Lily King

  1. I like these posts and recommendations. I searched the sight and was surprised that I hadn’t suggested “Version Control” which largely takes place in a physics lab and does a pretty good job of capturing lab and academic culture. The book is about time travel, but not of the Back to the Future variety. The conversations about time travel and its paradoxes are interesting. The book has two sections. The first section doesn’t make much progress (it is not a page turner) but is essential to the second part. The writing is very pedestrian, which makes the first section even less of a page-turner. The second section is nowhere near brilliant, but I found it satisfying.

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