Barlow’s (Between the Eagle or the Dragon, 2013, etc.) debut novel provides a farcical look at the pursuit of junk science in the hallowed halls of the academy.
Sandra Hidecock, a distinguished
legal professor at Harvard, plunges to her death from a campus window. Her
demise is ruled a suicide and followed by a celebration of the central theme of
her work: the tyranny constituted by the immutable laws of nature, the chief
barrier to the achievement of human autonomy. Harvard scientist Duronimus
Karlof generally considers her work to be faddish nonsense based on a puerile
misunderstanding of even the most basic science. But Hidecock left him a letter
imploring him to consider her research, a solicitation he finds surprisingly
moving. As a result, Karlof decides to put together a team of underachieving
academics—he calls them “gloominaries”—to pursue an ambitious project inspired
by Hidecock, the contravention of the laws of nature. After the consideration
of utterly outrageous possibilities, the “Harvard Six” decide to create a
machine—the “Ooala Reactor”—which can slow an object down even after it becomes
stationary, achieving a condition they call “sub-stationary.” Of course, this
is scientifically meaningless, but apparently that’s an unimportant concern.
When one of the scientists expresses anxiety over the coherence of the project,
Amelia, the group’s legal adviser and a devotee of Hidecock, responds: “You
mustn’t worry about that. If people understood modern physics, nobody would
ever fund it. Our greatest advantage will be that nobody understands what we’re
doing—not even us.” They manage to raise over a billion dollars in funding
commitments and attract the enthusiastic attention of academic and governmental
organizations alike. A gifted satirist, Barlow impressively lampoons higher
education’s obsession with novelty at the expense of rigor and common sense.
The dialogue is memorably funny, and the author avoids the most common trap of
satire, which is to adopt a sententiously knowing tone. The story intelligently
raises provocative questions about the historically stormy relationship between
science and public opinion, and it wryly exposes the vanity and ideological
blindness of even the most heralded intellectuals. This is a rare
book—hilarious, thoughtful, and culturally relevant all at once.
A cheekily ironic takedown of academic
adventures in absurdity.