- "The Impossible Has a Way of Passing Unnoticed":Reading Science in Fiction
Rebecca Goldstein's novel Properties of Light, inspired by (but not really "based on") the life of physicist David Bohm, tells the poignant story of Samuel Mallach, a scientist "of even more than singular promise" (15), who has developed (as Bohm did) a "deterministic model for quantum mechanics" ("Afterword" n.p.). Mallach's theories, "deemed to be impossible by nearly all who were given to thinking about these matters" (16), threaten the status quo. As a result, he has been marginalized (as Bohm was) by the scientific community in which he works. Many years later, a young physicist named Justin Childs finds himself in the same institution as Mallach, now reduced to teaching "Physics for Poets" while his rival, Dietrich Spencer, gets all the glory (including a Nobel Prize). Justin, antagonistic to the "quantum occult" (45) championed by Bohr and his followers, tries to revive and refine Mallach's insights, so long ignored that Mallach himself has forgotten them—and, in the process, he meets and falls in love with Mallach's daughter Dana. The triangle of Mallach, Justin, and Dana, with its complex intellectual and erotic components, swirls the characters into dark and terrible, but simultaneously beautiful, places.
It's an emotionally gripping and intellectually stimulating novel; but even more than that, Properties of Light stands out because it has a special flavor (using the word "flavor" in its ice-cream, not its physics, sense)—a flavor as strange and paradoxical as the sensations of "icy flames" and "frozen fire" that appear in the novel (77, 79). In fact, it is unlike that of any other novel I know. It's not easy to describe. But readers and critics have addressed it in a roundabout way, noting the novel's "stimulated [End Page 201] uncertainty" (Brownrigg) or its "bewitchingly ethereal" quality ("Review") or the way we are "mysteriously moved" by Goldstein's vision (Burstein) or, as Corinne Bancroft puts it (appropriately quoting Proust, one of Goldstein's key intertexts), the way Goldstein "opens the 'abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself.'"1 So the question anchoring my essay is, "What's the source of this strange flavor—and what are its consequences?"
There are, of course, many routes into this question—and mine will require some initial theoretical mapping, including a discussion of what I'm temporarily dubbing "Possible Persons Theory." It's an awkward term, especially since it has the same acronym as PowerPoint; but it at least has the advantage of coming without prior baggage, being one of the extremely rare combinations of three ordinary words that generates absolutely no Google hits (at least, as of early January 2010). What you're in for now is one of those drifts into taxonomy that I picked up, no doubt, from Wayne Booth (James Phelan suffers from the same disease). I hope the lengthy detour will be useful even to people who don't know the novel.
Let me start with a basic query: how can we talk about the rhetorical use of science in literary texts? In framing the question in terms of rhetoric, I'm steering away from several other interconnected lines of inquiry. Thus, I'm not going to be talking about the ways that science and literature influence each other—about the relationship between naturalism and Darwin, for instance, or about the influence of quantum mechanics on postmodernism, or about analogies between postclassical narratology and postclassical physics.2 I won't be dealing, either, with shared premises or epistemological differences of the sort that Allen Thiher studies in Fiction Refracts Science. Nor am I concerned, except tangentially, with the representation of science and scientists as thematic "content" or with narrative commentary on scientific issues—for instance, with the kinds of safety issues raised when we look at the film The China Syndrome as a critique of the nuclear power industry. In general, I won't be pursuing issues of scientific truth here, either; to the extent that issues of truth become relevant, it won't be a matter of scientific accuracy per se, but of...