Debut novelist Schreiber uses the conceit of a naive protagonist and time travel to teach the history of Western physics in this “edu-novel.”
Fizz lives in an “Ecommunity” in Iceland in 2110, a back-to-earth society that has negotiated a complete dissociation from mainstream science and technology. On her 18th birthday, she has the opportunity to experience “the Outside,” and her renegade father just happens to have invented a time machine that can help to answer her burning questions about the natural world, such as: How do the stars move across the sky? What is sound? What causes tides? Over the course of her three-week journey, she meets Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking and many others who explain their theories, leading her, with each visit, to believe that all her questions have been answered, only to realize, upon reflection, that there are a few loose ends that she needs to ask someone else about. She progresses from a mechanical, clockwork universe through the technology of the Industrial Revolution to quantum physics and chaos theory. Schreiber explains the science clearly (readers with a basic knowledge of physics should be able to follow it easily enough); however, as with most didactic novels, the story devolves into a series of lectures. The most successful chapters involve Galileo; Fizz convinces him to take her on as a lab assistant, and as a result, she learns by experiment. Other chapters consist of Fizz showing up at a university, lab or (with Einstein) patent office and asking, “So, [physicist du jour], what are you thinking about these days?” Underlying Fizz’s quest is her nagging worry—Are science and technology forces for good or for evil? Is knowledge worth the price of war, pollution, loss of privacy and information overload? Ultimately, she must decide whether to return to her close but close-minded community or brave the dangerous freedom of the Outside. Or could there be an alternative?
For those who learn best through narrative and a certain amount of historical context, Schreiber’s tale will be an excellent introduction to the basics of Western physics.