The title of Andrea Barrett's latest historical fiction, "Archangel," conveys the essence of this collection: "change" quivers in the center of each story. Since "Ship Fever" appeared in 1996, Ms. Barrett has focused a series of fine novels and short story collections (my favorites are "Voyage of the Narwhal" and "Servants of the Map") on the moment when a paradigm shifts in science.
Her believable characters range from 19th-century naturalists grappling with Darwin's revelations about the evolution of species to 20th-century physicists confronting Einstein's vision of the universe.
In these narratives, worlds expand and contract as tectonic plates shift and fossils emerge from sandy cliffs. Light bends, glaciers cut deep, plants adapt. In human culture, some ideas win, others lose. War and death remain constants, and scientists with religious beliefs suffer.
By Andrea Barrett.
Characters we love from other books reappear, and characters central to some stories play lesser roles in others. The best way to savor this author's work is to read all of it, but "Archangel" is a fine starting point for those new to Barrett Country.
Ms. Barrett's mind seizes on the moments that shape children into adults and several stories in this collection show us characters first as youths, and later as adults. Sam Cornelius, a biologist, narrates "The Particles" (a story chosen for an O. Henry Award). It's 1939, and the ship he's on is sunk by a German torpedo. The ship's sinking parallels his own: he's just been shot down at a genetics conference in Edinburgh for asserting that adaptive traits can be passed on in a single generation.
In an age of Darwin, he seems a throwback to Lamarck, and he's duly mocked despite his evidence. Ms. Barrett wants to clarify something about science, namely that it's mediated by humans in the context of history and culture.
Sam's astronomer father died when he was 4 and his mother, Phoebe Wells, supports them both as a freelance science writer. (The paradigm of women scientists enjoying equality with men hadn't yet been imagined.) Sam grows up and falls in love with Drosophila, those fruit flies so important to geneticists.
"In a clean bottle, a courting male held out a wing to his virgin bride and danced right and then left before embracing her: who wouldn't love that? Let others fuss with peas and four-o'clocks, rabbits and guinea pigs: for Sam, the flies were the key to everything."
Sam survives the shipwreck, but neither his genes (he's childless) nor his theories seem likely to outlive him. Despite this, he's dedicated to science and what he can observe. "It wasn't so much what changed in the environment that altered a living organism; it was the when. A question of timing. When in the course of development does the event arrive that initiates the cascade of changes?" Ms. Barrett subtly shows us that Sam's work would be vindicated in our time -- epigenetics has rehabilitated Lamarckian theories.
The heart of this collection lies at its center. "The Island" is alternately narrated by Henrietta Atkins, a young teacher fresh out of school in 1873, and the Professor, a famous naturalist teaching at a summer school on an island off the coast of Cape Cod.
By the end of the story we know he's Harvard's Louis Agassiz, a brilliant scientist who can't accept evolution. Instead, he teaches his students that every aspect of the natural world reveals the intelligent design of a divine Creator.
Henrietta's reverence turns to dismay when her subversive lab partner urges her to read Darwin for herself. The professor, the opposite of a pagan, nevertheless continues to suckle a creed outworn:
"The shape of his own mind, he learned, was as fixed as the shape of his skull, a kind of instrument for registering patterns. The spiral of a narwhal's horn like the spirals of willow leaves like the spiral of a snail's operculum, all pointing clearly to a single underlying Mind. He [was] sure that the real work left to him lay in articulating clearly, to as many people as possible, the flaws in Darwin's arguments ..."
If Ms. Barrett's example about Lamarck means anything, it means that nothing in science is immutable. As odd as it might seem, one day Darwin may be discredited and Agassiz vindicated. Paradigm shifts and change remain the only constant.
Susan Balee currently believes in evolution and lives in the East End. Her latest literary essay, on Junot Diaz's fiction, is featured in the summer issue of The Hudson Review.