“If this is about anything, it’s the boundary between creation and madness, art and science, the natural and the artifactual. Characters are fictional although some are inhabited by amalgamated aspects of real people. The science is factual but I insert plausible speculation in places.”
Chris Impey, from preface to Shadow World.
Real science in a contemporary novel written by an astronomer whose research focuses on observational cosmology – such a book should have popped in searches I did for novels with realistic physics and in the automated book recommendations I routinely get. Nevertheless, I did not hear about professor Impey’s books until I visited his website. There I learned that along with his research, Impley pioneered curriculum development in astrobiology, published astronomy textbooks, explored issues at the crossroads of science and religion, and also published six popular science books and one novel, the Shadow World. As a reader, I was intrigued by the vast expanse Shadow World seemed to offer. As a writer, I was curious to find out how Impey incorporated science in a novel.
Shadow World has an unusual structure for a novel. It is written in seven episodes, all narrated by the main character: a Scot named McEvoy. (“Just that. McEvoy. Nobody calls me Ian but my sis; even my mum calls me McEvoy.”)
The first episode takes place in Arizona desert. McEvoy is nineteen years old, a curious young man with somewhat faulty memory. McEvoy’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge singles him out. He is an adventurer, a seeker who ventured the into the majestic Grand Canyon in a search for hidden meaning. In his quest, McEvoy follows a mentor-trickster, a Navajo guide with a checkered past and questionable trustworthiness.
The second episode takes place in New York City. McEvoy is twenty-five, but he’s still brimming with promise. Even though he clearly has some mental problems, he is bright and gushing. He finds a new mentor. He also finds a partner for both sex and intellectual adventures – a beautiful woman with a French accent, who happens to be doing a PhD in astrophysics at Columbia University.
The third and forth episodes take McEvoy to China and to Patagonia, respectively. Both times he ends up in archeological excavations, but with very different outcomes.
McEvoy is about thirty when he finds himself in the Emerald Island (fifth episode). In Belfast, he reads about a “lecture series at the Armagh Observatory on astrobiology, the study of life in the universe.” Since he has a soft spot for astronomy, he hops on a bus to Armagh and attends the lecture. Intrigued, he joins an invitation-only research symposium. How? “… nobody’s manning the registration desk so I pick up a packet and a blank name badge and invent an academic affiliation for myself.”
I did not expect what followed next.
At coffee, a man wearing a blazer and clubby tie approaches. “I don’t recognize you. Were you at the banquet last night?”
“No, sorry old chap.” I affect my poshest Edinburgh accent. “The beastly flight was late, and I had a splitting headache, so I stayed in and worked on my monograph.”
“I see,” he eyes me carefully. “I’m Liam Kennedy, Director of the Observatory here.”
“Professor Ian McEvoy, very pleased to meet you.” Careful McEvoy, not too plummy.
“And you’re from…” he peers at my badge. “… the University of the Outer Hebrides.”
“Not to be confused with our sister institution, the University of the Inner Hebrides.” I say confidently.
“Mmm. I can’t say I’m familiar with it. Do they have an astronomy department?”
“Absolutely. Brilliant skies.” I lean in conspiratorially. “Of course it’s not much good in the summer.”
He faces me squarely. “You’re not a professor or an astronomer, are you?”
My best hangdog face. “No, but it was fun while it lasted.”
“Look, Mr. McEvoy, if that is your name.” I nod. “There’s nothing secret or private about our meeting. We charge registration to cover the cost of the lunches, the banquet, and the conference bag. But I’m happy to waive registration for a member of the public who’s so keen he’s already sat through one of our technical sessions.”
“Why that’s awfully decent of you.” I’m stuck in my upper crust accent and worry that the wind might change.
“Enjoy the meeting, Mr. McEvoy, and if I can help in any way don’t hesitate to ask.”
Typically, McEvoy makes the most of the invitation…
In the sixth episode, an older McEvoy finds himself in California. He gets to visit the telescope that was used by Edwin Hubble and learns more about physics and about himself. I won’t spill what happens, because the last two episodes are respectively the Ordeal and the Denouement of McEvoy’s extraordinary journey. If you are interested in my impressions from the book, you can read on – there are no spoilers.
I was surprised by the unusual combination of topics the novel covers. Through McEvoy’s eyes, one encounters Hopi, Celtic and Norse myths, Stalin’s gulags, ethnic tensions in China, and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Among the recurring themes are science versus religion, and the subjects of abuse and alcoholism. Literature, visual arts and music are parts of the story, and even more so are the sciences. Here the canvas is diverse and includes among other disciplines archeology, biology and physics. Yes, all of them in a book of about 330 pages.
While reading, I sometimes felt that there was too much good stuff to digest, but the narration is interesting, and the protagonist keeps moving, so I tagged along. A passage when a scientist tells McEvoy that:
“Genetics has entered the industrial age. We’ve found genes that regulate and control Alzheimers and autism and Graves disease and a host of other ailments. If the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st century will be the age of biology.”
made me wonder whether the author used fictional characters to voice his views. A related question is whether the researchers professor Impey portrays in the novel reflect real academics and their hierarchy? Most of the researchers in Shadow World are described as dedicated to their work, encouraging to their students, and generous to McEvoy. The only exception are the women. Here is how Helen Matson, a PI (Principal Investigator) of a multinational archeological dig, is described:
“Over the next few days I get to know the other scientists better. It’s a very interdisciplinary team. In addition to anthropologists and archaeologists, there are geologists, climatologists, archeologists, and even an epidemiologist. These smart researchers know their stuff and some have healthy egos, but they all accept Matson as their leader and also defer to her in more subtle ways. In this crew, there’s only one alpha dog.”
The other female researcher in the team is
“a woman who I’ve not heard a peep from all week. She’s so quiet she’s invisible. As she is now. She slowly chews her vegetables. All I know is the name: Sonja Escobar.”
Chris Impey ends the novel telling the reader who McEvoy really is. I hope that he will write more works of fiction. And maybe, someday, he’ll address the question whether the “alpha dog” and the “invisible” woman represent female researchers in academia.
I’m most intrigued by this. It sounds like an interesting narrative anyway.
The premise is unusual. Also it is the only work of fiction I recall where I’ve seen Einstein’s equation (GR).
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