Summary

With books like Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett showed that she can write perceptively about science. With her National Book Award winner, Ship Fever, she showed that she has mastered the short form. With these short stories, focusing on science, shes set to prove herself on both counts. In "The Ether of Space," "The Island," and "The Particles," committed young scientists of both genders run up against the enormity of work by Einstein, Darwin, and Mendel, while "The Investigators" introduces 12-year-old Constantine Boyd, who delights in inventions like the aeroplane. Later, in the title story, we meet Constantine as a soldier in 1919 Russia as he discovers the possibilities-and limitations-of X-ray technology.


Winner of the National Book Award for her collection of stories Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett has become one of our most admired and beloved writers. In this magnificent new book, she unfolds five pivotal moments in the lives of her characters and in the history of knowledge.

During the summer of 1908, twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd is witness to an explosion of home-spun investigation-from experiments with cave-dwelling fish without eyes to scientifically bred crops to motorized bicycles and the flight of an early aeroplane. In 1920, a popular science writer and young widow tries, immediately after the bloodbath of the First World War, to explain the new theory of relativity to an audience (herself included) desperate to believe in an "ether of space" housing spirits of the dead. Half a century earlier, in 1873, a famous biologist struggles to maintain his sense of the hierarchies of nature as Darwin's new theory of evolution threatens to make him ridiculous in the eyes of a precocious student. The twentieth-century realms of science and war collide in the last two stories, as developments in genetics and X-ray technology that had once held so much promise fail to protect humans-among them, a young American soldier, Constantine Boyd, sent to Archangel, Russia, in 1919-from the failures of governments and from the brutality of war.

In these brilliant fictions rich with fact, Barrett explores the thrill and sense of loss that come with scientific progress and the personal passions and impersonal politics that shape all human knowledge.