From its earliest beginnings, science fiction has been about the driven scientist in that endless pursuit of knowledge. The example of Dr. Frankenstein springs to mind. The stock protagonist was even co-opted by the film industry and became one of the earliest silver screen stereotypes, the mad scientist. Stereotypes and recurring character types are based on grains of truth, and many of us are directly acquainted with researchers who have become blind to everything but their work. Jonathen Lethem must be quite familiar with them as well, for they figure prominently in his new novel, As She Climbed Across the Table. But the narrator is someone like us, intrigued by the type but not one of them himself.
Philip, an archeology professor who specializes in the interdisciplinary approach, has a personal on-going inter-departmental assignment with Physics professor, Alice Coombs. Alice’s department head, Dr. Soft, has just made an exciting discovery that threatens Phillip and Alice’s relationship by adding a third party, her new research project. Added to this are a pair of blind physicists in an unusual pairing, their therapist who pays them to see her, and the typical academic rivalries and politics. There’s also Lack, the discovery, which proves to be much more than just a physical theory.
As She Climbed Across the Table is quite different from Lethem’s first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, a wild mixture of detective noir, post-cyberpunk, and hip 90’s wit. The wit remains, but the genre shifts to a weird combination of theoretical science and modern relationships. Only one other author in recent memory has had success with this type of novel, and that’s Rudy Rucker, whose late 70’s/early 80’s novels such as The Sex Sphere, White Light, and Master of Time and Space broke the ground for gonzo physics.
This is not a novel for all tastes, for it is not rigorous enough in its science, nor sweet enough in its romance, nor cynical enough in its satire. For those readers who like new combinations and authors willing to try rocky ground, however, there’s not much else out there like this strange novel. So do not miss it for the all-too-likely short period that it will be in bookstores.
[Finished 1997; originally published on SF Site]