Completed 6/2/2020, Reviewed 6/2/2020
This was a real slog of a book. It was a very long slice of life book about a tortured but brilliant scientist and her college friends over a period of about twenty years or so. It wasn’t classic science fiction; it was general fiction with a little science thrown in. Her devotion to science was the reason why her life and relationships were so bad. However, like a good Brit, she had a stiff upper lip, living in a lot of denial and repression, not dealing with the issues in her life until it all comes to a head at the end. I didn’t like it, but it did win a Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the Otherwise Award.
The story begins in college, where Anna, a microbiology student, meets a group of people who become lifelong friends. Near the end of one of the years, she has a sexual affair with one of them, an American foreign exchange student named Spence. Anna goes on to graduate school and while working on her doctorate, finds an anomaly with the interaction of the X and Y chromosomes that could mean a new step in the evolution of human sexuality. Anna meets up with Spence again and eventually they get married. No one wants to fund her research but she becomes obsessed with it, working on it in between other projects. Her obsession with it ends up interfering with everything in her life.
What I didn’t like most about the book was that I never became interested in any of the characters, not Anna, Spence, or a major secondary character Ramone. Anna was too emotionless. I never felt that she had a passion for her research, just a cold obsession. And you never get the impression that she was capable of love. Spence was also uninteresting, although at least he was in love with Anna. Ramone was a colorful character, a woman-hating woman with weird sexual fetishes. She’s obsessed with Anna but Spence gets to Anna first. Despite her quirks, I was never interested with where her character development went.
The prose is lyrical, but boring and hard to read. I didn’t like how the perspective often switched between third person narration and first person thoughts. You’re reading about Anna’s actions in third person, then suddenly you’re in her head as she thinking about something in first person. Then it reverts back to describing actions in third person. Rather than feeling like the book flowed, this style was jarring and difficult to follow.
The author has a note at the end of the book that this kind of science, sexual genetics, has always intrigued her. There just wasn’t enough of it though. It’s not that I’m interested in X and Y chromosomal behavior, but it’s clear that you could have thrown just about any scientific breakthrough in there and the outcome would have been the same. It doesn’t really affect anything until the very end, and even there it seems more like an afterthought than a conclusion.
One thing I did like about the book was that it brings to light the plight of the woman scientist in a world dominated by men. There’s a lot of sexual politics that frustrates Anna and she doesn’t handle it well, nor does she know how to play the game with her male colleagues and superiors. Yet her discovery is something that should win a Nobel Prize since it revolutionizes the whole way of thinking about sexual expression and genetics. The book unfortunately never gets that far into the future. You wish it would just to see some positive feedback on her lifetime of frustrated work. In the last half of the book, I was thinking, please, just give her a little redemption of some sort.
I give the book two stars out of five. It’s an ambitious work, but lacking in many areas. It doesn’t really feel like science fiction, or even meta. As I said before, it’s just general fiction with a little science thrown in. It felt like a boring, fictionalized biography of someone with only one interesting quality: her research. Oh yeah, I never figured out the significance of the cover. It has two Asian women in traditional garb. There’s a passing reference to Asian woodcuts (I can’t remember from which country) but it is so fleeting as not to be memorable.