It is 1908. A rural community. Mechanical by necessity, imaginative by nature. Almost a commune of explorers, testing the ability of humans to soar above the ground other than by balloon.
Andrea Barrett’s collection of short stories bearing the title of one of the stories- Archangel- revive historical fiction often with a scientific twist. “The Investigators” reminds us that there was a significant age of invention around the turn of the 20th Century. Like the computer, the telephone compressed communication. Both great achievements, but not equal to the wonder of flight. In our time, the equivalent was space flight and the landing on the moon. These were moments of awe and wonderment. They inspired a future generation; a back story of “The Investigators”. To live in such a time!
“The Ether of Space” and “The Island” are about breaking free of the binders of orthodoxy. The first involves the challenge of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the latter Darwin’s theory of evolution. The principal explorers in both stories are women. Each accept the challenge of considering a new theory during times when they were not accepted. I kept thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s satisfying book “The Signature of All Things” (reviewed May 17, 2014) as I was reading “The Island”.
“The Particles” is about the cut-throat politics of scientific research. More than funding, it is name recognition and the legacy from being the first; or at least the remembered, if not the first. The brilliant, but frail and passive, succumb to the aggressive and the conniving of those who are psychologically flawed.
The title story departs from science and explores a historical event at the end of World War I. The Americans and British have tried to mount a military offensive against the Bolsheviks. It is a story told by a nurse who is trying to balance military duty with the physical and psychological damage that war causes soldiers; particularly those who are required to fight and die for a losing cause they have no belief in.
Ms. Barrett is an award-winning author. “The Servants of the Map” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and “Ship Fever” received a National Book Award. Both are short story collections. While a capable writer, it is the themes she explores and not her prose or the characters that distinguishes her writing. I particularly like “The Investigators” as it was narrated by a young boy whose imagination is sparked. “Archangel” was interesting because I never knew about the event.