March 16, 2011


by Reif Larse
400 pages, Penguin Press

Review by S.F. Winser

Huzzah for Science!

Curious kids are my reading theme for the past few weeks. (Coming soon: my review of 'The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate' and 'Moon Over Manifest'. Both about curiously curious children.)

T.S. Spivet is a child. A child with a scientist's eye and the drafting skills of a fully-trained diagrammatist. He has been published in journals and is sought-out by scientists to do their illustrating for their articles.

His mother is an entomologist on a quixotic bug-hunt, searching for a species that may not exist. She is barely present in her children's lives, but T.S. still sees her as an inspiration and unknowing colleague. (His mother doesn't know how famous he actually is, caught in her introspective quest.) His dad is a stoic, laconic rancher who simply does not understand his son's mind.

TS also has a sister. A talented actress, a normal teenager in an abnormal household, she's the closest thing to a friend TS has, but she's also so far removed from his experience of the world as to be more a research subject than a sibling.

He also has a brother. A companion. A rough-and-tumble, curious brother who rides and shoots and is the apple of his father's eye.

Or was, until the Accident.

Since Lanyon's death the house has been caught in a little puddle of quiet hurt. Especially TS and his father. But this has just driven them further apart.

And then The Smithsonian calls. TS's work has qualified him for a year-long position as a resident illustrator for the museum. They think he's an adult – why wouldn't they?

So TS runs away. He rides across the country, stowing away in freight cars to get to his new job. His family doesn't need him. Some of them may even prefer him gone.

So he goes.

And that's the story. It's a brilliant little set-up. But that's not the genius of this book. The best bit is that the text is interwoven with TS's near-obsessive cataloguing of objects, occurrences, distances travelled and observances. It's a story told through diagrams and notes as much as by narrative.

And through it all is this wonderful feeling of science. Now most people wouldn't call science a 'feeling'. But that's what comes through here. Curiosity and joy of discovery and the comforts of knowledge and the challenge of the unknown and the feeling of gleeful, wondrous striving that are really wrapped up in the practice of science. TS feels it. The story-within-a-story that he encounters on his journey expands upon it. The people he meets once he completes his journey embody it.

And it's really, really well handled. The book is worth reading for any of these elements.

There's also some nice stuff about reconnecting with loved ones. Especially the way TS reconnects with someone while they aren't even present.

There are two major problems I had with it, though.

The ending is rushed.

And the build-up to the ending is silly. It's trying to convey the fun and sometimes necessary irreverence those in the scientific community have when competing with the business and stuffed-shirt brigade who are often in charge of scientific enquiries. Instead it ends up showing these guys as eccentric weirdos. Kind-hearted weirdos, but after a book so far full of depth of feeling and meaning to turn to borderline farce is just jarring. The silliness was there to cut through the potential for seeing the treatment of science as over-reverential but ended up overdone in the opposite direction. And the 'Business with the wormhole' just didn't work for me at all.

Minor issues also abound. I'm getting a bit sick of 'narrative-within-narrative' as a device. It sucks for the same reason flashbacks and dreams suck. It's often lazy (not in this case, but leave me alone, I'm ranting) but mainly because it's a separate 'ask' of the reader. 'I've gotten you involved in this story, now I'm going to ask you to get involved in this one that is in at least one way, only tangentially related'. The second story here is really good and is the basis for several plot points simply by existing... but it's still an 'ask' the reader doesn't expect.

Also, TS parent's reactions to his running away are really unbelievable for huge chunks of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. (Some aspects of them are explained later, and one of them is SUPPOSED to be unbelievable, but even beyond that...far too unreal.)

But I heartily approve of this idea of science finally getting a proper treatment in novels. The literary community is often seen as anti-science, pro-woo and full of woolly thinking. I love anyone who manages to portray the beauty and art and humanity of science through art and do so so very, very well.

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