I just saw this evening that Lynn Margulis, the maverick evolutionary biologist, died this week. The Times obit mentions her most significant work--her thesis, once radical and now accepted, that the cells of organisms evolved out of the symbiosis of bacteria and other microorganisms--as well as her National Medal of Science from President Clinton and her marriage to Carl Sagan. But I wanted to note another side to her career, which was not mentioned in the obituary but was the reason she belatedly came to my attention: her fiction.
Four years ago she published a collection of short stories about science called Luminous Fish, and I ended up writing a short review for a science periodical of her book along with Jim Lynch's novel, The Highest Tide, as two versions of small-sf "science fiction" (in other words, fiction about how science is actually done, not speculative fiction). I don't think I had much hope for her stories at first, written by a scientist and with the cheesy subtitle, "Tales of Science and Love." But they were quite good, or at least one story, as I remember it, was very good (I don't seem to have my copy of the book around anymore).
The review, I'm pretty sure, was never published (the editor didn't like my long sentences; he wasn't the first), so I'll just paste in the whole thing here. But to summarize myself (maybe my sentences were too long!), while I liked Lynch's book, it told a pretty typical fictional tale of science, of a romantic solo investigator making observations in nature. Margulis's story, though, was something I have rarely seen, a personal story of Big Science, of a life given up to the bureaucracy and vast project management that many of our major discoveries now require. I hope that story at least, called "Gases (Raoul)," will be remembered as well as her groundbreaking work as a Big Scientist.
Here's that review:
How do you write fiction about science--not the speculations of science fiction, but the empiricism of science as actually practiced? It seems like there has always been more fiction written about salesmen, socialites, or spies than scientists, although I do have some favorites: Primo Levi's chemist's tales in The Periodic Table, Richard Powers's poignant novel of artifice and intelligence, Galatea 2.2, and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, a sci fi classic where institutional science meets the fantastic.
Two recent fiction debuts have the practice of science at their hearts, but very different kinds. Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide, recently out in paperback and already a Northwest word-of-mouth favorite, is a tale of small science, of the lone, self-trained naturalist whose patient observations, made for no purpose but curiosity, see larger patterns before the professionals do. Miles O'Malley, a thirteen-year-old who looks like he's nine, comes of age one summer on the tidal flats of south Puget Sound, where his notice of a series of anomalous natural events--a beached giant squid, a new kind of crab--makes everyone else take notice of him, and the changing Sound, for the first time.
The Highest Tide is charming and well-made, local and romantic, accessible like the wader's nature of the tide pool. By comparison, Lynn Margulis's mostly fictional collection, Luminous Fish, appears like an odd, old creature from the deep. Margulis is a prominent scientist--her title is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences and her honors and citations are many--and the scientists in her stories are worldly and weary representatives of Big Science, spending more time now on committees and in airports than at the lab bench or in the field. While she follows the lapsed and neglected affections left behind by her work-driven characters, the most moving moment of her book, in the long, central story, "Gases (Raoul)," comes not when the title character's young lover leaves him but just after, when he imagines the careful, unpleasant, and thankless tasks ahead if he accepts the leadership of his research institute. Her book, by turns awkward and stylish, is an animal rarer and more strange than Lynch's, and to me more interesting because of it.